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At the Dodge Poetry Festival this past fall, I had a fantasy about Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. In the fantasy, she was not only magically transported to Newark, New Jersey from the 17th century Mexican convent where she self-taught herself the art of poetry but she also spoke English. She could understand every word Jane Hirshfield and Patricia Smith and Natasha Tretheway read on the main stage before hundreds of poetry lovers. After the reading, I’d take her to the food tent for fruit salad and sandwiches and introduce her to everyone and then we’d rush off, Sor Juana in her habit and I in my jeans, to the next event and she’d say there are so many women poets here, how did it happen? And I’d say slowly, Juana querida, so very slowly.
Conjuring up Juana was so pleasing I kept doing it until I started to worry she was beginning to border on an imaginary friend.
The fantasy did leave me curious to know whether other poets had imagined encounters like this so I asked them. Here’s what they said:
I’ve had the fantasy more than once of running into ol’ Ez’ waiting on the Metro and dope-slapping him.
I have a fantasy of meeting Jose Garcia Villa. We’d sit down in a Greenwich Village café, Jose and I, in the middle of a 1950’s summer afternoon when New York City eased its pace a bit, and we’d have the rustic place relatively to ourselves. He’d instruct me on “inverse rhyme,” a form he created, then gossip about how e.e. cummings is secretly in love with him. Bemused, sipping cappuccinos, Here we are, we’d say, two Filipino poets, adrift from the Motherland, literary survivors.
I fantasize about meeting James Joyce for dinner we drink several bottles of white wine and I become voluble and witty while he sits silently behind his dark glasses his gaze fixed as always inside his own fine head and then with minimal effort and monumental grace he rises to perform and yes I say yes the perfume of his soul as red as bougainvillea which has no scent but whose words are profuse and fall all around our feet.
For me, it’s a toss-up between sitting in the saffron soil of Santiniketan, sipping masala chai with Rabindranath Tagore or kiki-ing with Essex Hemphill at ball in Harlem, after my having bagged the prize for Executive Realness.
I’d meet Ralph Dickey. By all accounts he was an amazing piano player so I’d ask to hear him play–in a church or a hall with great natural acoustics. Then I’d ask if I could give him a hug.
So, I would meet Sylvia Plath. I would just tell her I love her, and that she is perfect, and is there anything I can do. I’d go back in time to do that. Her place. London. And I would tell her thank you.
I follow Gerard de Nerval to a nondescript glass office building downtown, which he enters. I wait but he never emerges, instead a dark smoke trickles out & wraps around me, until the day is so dark I can only see what rhymes.
I’d like to go black bass fishing with Rumi. Afterwards, a picnic of egg salad sandwiches, kettle chips and cold, cold mint tea.
Since fantasy implies a scent of indiscretion, I imagine myself with Frank O’Hara at a party, whiskey-silly and huddled by an open window—an impossibly warm New York night—sharing the breeze and some gossip: who we loved, who we hated, and who we’d be taking home, either way.
I would like to entertain Sappho at my place in Manhattan on W. 23rd Street. I would like to show her the refrigerator and freezer compartment, serve her some “Ciao Bella, blood orange” sorbet, flush the toilet, run hot and cold water from the tap, display the luxury of all my glass windows… and then lay down one of my poems beside one of hers and—over a glass of fine Spanish sherry––hand her a note that someone who can write ancient Greek would scribble for me…. “How about this? Do you recognize me, now?”
I’d meet Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin. There is a physical intimacy I feel when translating Celia: I’m pulling her into me—my language, my time—and she’s pulling me deep into her longing, her subversive ache that reaches out, again to me, in language. It’s a charged, complicated dance with a ghost. If I could have her here, right now, in my house, finally quiet (quieter than her house with five children could have ever been), would that mean I had won some terrible battle played out on the page? I don’t care. We’d hold hands, we’d hold each other close.
Oliver de la Paz:
Charles Olson and Theodore Roethke are in a “Rock & Bowl” Bowling alley where they have bumpers in the gutters. Roethke, squeezes ketchup all over a basket of french fries while Olson, having consumed an entire pitcher of beer, is muttering to himself “Large and without mercy” over and over again. Olson bowls as straight as possible, while Roethke insists on using the bumpers, and sends his 16lb ball caroming from left to right all the way down the alley.
I’m the guy bringing the baskets of fries and pitchers of beer. Roethke quietly tells me that “the beer on Olson’s breath/could make a grown man dizzy.” Meanwhile, after polishing his heavy neon ball, Olson practices his bowling form, lines his feet up to the arrows on the floor, and says “the Heart, by way the BREATH, to the STRIKE.” Then the bowling alley darkens, the black lights turn on and everything neon glows while The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” begins to play.