27 June 2012

Poem: As once the winged energy of delight by Rilke

Was moving some papers this morning and ran across a copy I'd made of this poem by the glorious Rainer Maria Rilke. As happens whenever I encounter Rilke's work, I read this poem over and over again, and it has been haunting me all day.

As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.

Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.

To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions… For the god
wants to know himself in you.

from Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell (Modern Library 1995)

26 June 2012

Navigating "Autogeography"

So, you know those stories you read about where someone gets a phone call telling them they've won something, and the person doesn't believe it, or thinks it must be a practical joke? Yeah, well....now it's happened to me.
Cover of the draft manuscript

I was VERY humbled and honored to find out yesterday that my manuscript, Autogeography, was chosen for this year's Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. I still don't quite believe it, and expected to wake up today discovering that it all had been a hallucination. (It also didn't help that it was my birthday!)

But now there's a press release and everything, so I guess it must be true!:)

I want to thank the judges, Parneshia Jones and Janice Harrington, for selecting my work, and everyone who helped me to pull what started life as a wild hairy mess of pages together into something like a coherent text - or as close to coherent as I can get, anyway. This is, in fact Autogeography 2.5as I've said to a few people, I put the manuscript together, sent it out for folks to critique, then about six months later decided to rework the whole thing, as I was no longer happy with it. After some cutting, reshuffling, and various other forms of revision short of tossing it in the air and letting the pages organize themselves on the floor, I had something I felt a little better about. The odd thing is, however, I was looking at it AGAIN over the weekend, thinking, "Hmm....This one, I don't know...Maybe I should....."

"A poem is never finished, only abandoned." - Paul Valery (In my case, that goes for books as well!)

The press release is below, and after that, one of the poems mentioned by Janice Harrington.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Cave Canem and Northwestern University Press are pleased to announce that Reginald M. Harris has been awarded the 2012 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize for his manuscript Autogeography, selected by judges Janice Harrington and Parneshia Jones, and slated for release in summer 2013. This second-book award for African American poets, offered every other year, celebrates and publishes works of lasting cultural value and literary excellence. In addition to publication by Northwestern University Press, the recipient receives $1,000. About AutogeographyJanice Harrington writes:

Auto meaning self or same, and Geography meaning earth writing. In Autogeography, Harris explores the geographies that have written his identity as an African American and as a gay male. His stylistically diverse collection is personal, contemporary, marked by the rhythms of African American music, inventive, and filled with a disarming wit. In ‘The Poet Behind the Wheel,’ Harris writes of the poet: ‘Do NOT let him drive you: / Buckle up and hours later / Who knows where you’ll arrive’—advice readers will be happy to ignore as Autogeography travels through a landscape of personal lyrics, descriptive portraits, and historical witness.  This is poetry that wants to speak to readers and not above them.  He walks the streets you walk, sees the people you see, feels—especially in ‘The Lost Boys: A Requiem’— the same heart-breaking despair over the plight of African American males (drugs, violence, AIDS, urban ruin) that you feel. Harris is driving and readers are lucky to be in the passenger seat.”
Alison Meyers, Executive Director, Cave Canem Foundation

The Poet Behind the Wheel

is dangerous. Juggling pad, pen,
steering column, each traffic light
brings forth a line, every Yield a different
turn of phrase. The speedometer

counts out syllables, not speed
and directions come apart under his fingers.
Maps lose their meaning         Right?      Second
Left?               Gas station? –
only words, playing cards to be reshuffled later.

Do not get caught behind him
he drives slowly, leads followers astray
Do not honk your horn
it reminds him of Purcell, Armstrong, the Walls of Jericho.

Do NOT let him drive you:
Buckle up and hours later
who knows where you’ll arrive.

(Reginald Harris, from Autogeography, Northwestern University Press, 2013)

01 June 2012

Poem: Alabanza by Martín Espada

Martín Espada was at Poets House last night, and read the title work from his non-fiction collection The Lover of a Subversive Is Also a Subversive: Essays and Commentaries (University of Michigan Press, 2010). The subtitle of the essay is "Colonialism and the Poetry of Rebellion in Puerto Rico," and focuses on writers Clemente Soto Vélez, Juan Antonio Corretjer, Francisco Matos Paoli, and others. It was terrific to hear him deliver it, bringing the poems embedded in the text to life (Espada began by saying that the way he writes essays is to begin with poetry then wrap his comments around them "like bacon and liver.")

In the Q & A afterward, he talked about how we live in an "Age of Hyper-Euphemism," and "the divorce of language and meaning," and how it was the job of the poet to "take back the language....restoring the blood to words." Something to ponder over the weekend....

Martín Espada, with poet John Murillo, at Poets House, 5/31/2012
Here's one of my favorite Espada poems (IMHO one of the best poetic 'responses' to 911), and the title of his "New and Selected Poems 1982-2002), a good place to start for those who want to read more work by this important poet.

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100   

for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Alabanza. Praise the cook with the shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana, 
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher 
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.

After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the booming ice storm of glass from the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan to Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.

from Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982-2002 (W. W. Norton & Company)