March 2015: "The Antihero"
Don Share: This is the Poetry Magazine Podcast for March 2015. I'm Don Share editor of Poetry magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I'm Lindsay Garbutt, assistant editor for the magazine. On the podcast, we listened to a few poems in the current issue. This month we're going to hear from Rosebud Ben-Oni.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: We were going to devastate Greek shipping errors at every port of call.
Don Share: Aram Saroyan.
Aram Saroyan: The clock in literature holds the ancient room.
Lindsay Garbutt: We'll also hear Kate Farrell read from an unfinished poem by the late Kenneth Cook.
Kate Farrell: Oh, you're not going to like me because I talk about changing so much and don't stay on the subject.
Don Share: Christina Pugh, Poetry Magazine's consulting editor is joining us again this month to read a poem of her choice from the issue. Christina, you chose upon by Miller Overman called 'On Trans'. And these days when we hear trans, we generally think transgender. Do you think that plays into this poem?
Christina Pugh: It does, absolutely as you'll hear. It's about transgender. It's also about the prefix ‘trans’, in some fascinating ways. So I'll read it,
The process of through is ongoing.
The earth doesn’t seem to move, but sometimes we fall
down against it and seem to briefly alight on its turning.
We were just going. I was just leaving,
which is to say, coming
elsewhere. Transient. I was going as I came, the words
move through my limbs, lungs, mouth, as I appear to sit
peacefully at your hearth transubstantiating some wine.
It was a rough red, it was one of those nights we were not
forced by circumstances to drink wine out of mugs.
Circumstances being, in those cases, no one had been
transfixed at the kitchen sink long enough to wash dishes.
I brought armfuls of wood from the splitting stump.
Many of them, because it was cold, went right on top
of their recent ancestors. It was an ice night.
They transpired visibly, resin to spark,
bark to smoke, wood to ash. I was
transgendering and drinking the rough red at roughly
the same rate and everyone who looked, saw.
The translucence of flames beat against the air
against our skins. This can be done with
or without clothes on. This can be done with
or without wine or whiskey but never without water:
evaporation is also ongoing. Most visibly in this case
in the form of wisps of steam rising from the just washed hair
of a form at the fire whose beauty was in the earth’s
turning, that night and many nights, transcendent.
I felt heat changing me. The word for this is
transdesire, but in extreme cases we call it transdire
or when this heat becomes your maker we say
transire, or when it happens in front of a hearth:
Don Share: Well, it's a poem of transformation of many kinds, including the kinds of vocabulary we use, not just in poetry but as elements of every aspect of our way of communicating. People talk a lot nowadays about trans people and this really fleshes that out so that it's not just shorthand for something, that the poem helps us retain the sense of complexity, that recognizes that people change in are changeable. The language changes, and it's also changeable. And so that's very lovely. It has a point to make, but not withstanding the title, “On Trans”, it's not a treatise as such because, as the first line says the process of through is on going.
Christina Pugh: Yeah, and I love the way it takes it's place in our current moment in which people who are transgender are getting a bit more visibility and that makes the poem possible in some ways, but in other ways it's also about sort of the age old power of metaphor and transformation. You know, metaphor etymologically carrying over or transporting something. And it seems as if the poem is taking a huge pleasure, in that, as it's happening almost physically with the fire, with the smoke and the ash, and all of those transformations that are happening. So I love the way that it is so very much in the present moment but also looks backward in terms of, you know, the power of metaphor throughout history of poetry. I think.
Don Share: And the pleasure that the poet takes, I think makes the poem a pleasure to read.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah. The word “trans-dire” really stood out to me, especially because in reading it, I also thought of “trans-dire”. Like as in the French word to say, or to tell. And so through this telling, is also the process. You know that it's not just a physical one, but as spoken verbal one as well.
Christina Pugh: Exactly.
Don Share: Rosebud Ben-Oni is the author of a book of poems called Solecism. This is her first appearance in the magazine and the poem we're going to hear her read now is called, 'Somewhere Thuban is Fading.’
Lindsay Garbutt: Thuban is a fairly faint star in the night sky of the northern hemisphere. It was used as the pole star in ancient times, before it drifted away from the Earth’s axis and was replaced by another, brighter star.
Don Share: Rosebud told us that the poem got it's start in a dream about her, and her friend, the poet Carolina Ebeid.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: We were enrolling at the Barbizon Modeling School because she had a 50% off coupon. We were just sort of wondering around this mall and my dream, trying to find this school and we could never find it. And there was something very suspect.
Lindsay Garbutt: Suspect because Ben-Oni remembered the Barbizon coupons in the magazines of her youth, and how they said, "Train to be a model."
Rosebud Ben-Oni: And then there's, (Or just look like one). And I think there was something very suspect that you would spend your money just to look like something but not be it.
Don Share: Here's the poem.
Somewhere Thuban is Fading
for Carolina Ebeid.
We enrolled at barbizon
Knowing full well
We’d never look like
What was promised
Cue carol of the bells
Cue a demo on the casio
And the security of two-way
Escalators setting the speed
Those early mornings
In our mall school
The store’s silver grills
Some mannequins left
We’d taunt them
With our imagined summers
In london paris rome
We weren’t please and thank you
Walking with books on our heads
No we were going to devastate
Greek shipping heirs
At every port of call
Yet when our bus broke down
And we trudged the shoulder
Dodging cigarette butt and horn
We shook off those mornings
The blinding surface
The quality of electric
Without being alive
We knew that there
In only hot pants
The ideal form
Most would take a bullet for
While at 16
We were already trash-talking
Our prayers never went beyond
The second floor
From the last word
That distant somewhere
Where a boat loses course
The north star forsaking
Its name to another
Lindsay Garbutt: I liked the mall, school, and the idea that as adolescents, so much time is spent in areas like malls, and you're sort of figuring out yourself or who you want to be. And the idea that as she says, you would spend your money just to look like something but not be it. I think that's a very adolescent moment. I guess I wonder how that comes into play with the ending with the North Star for forsaking its name to another.
Don Share: Well, to backup a little bit. I mean the Barbizon thing, played upon the dreams of young women. And you know, you could stay there. I mean that would be a way to go to New York. Sylvia Plath did, and other writers did as well. And so that was a way to gain access to your dreams. For me, that could be a sort of prosaic thing, or a cliché, or rags to riches plot, with a bad ending. And so the idea that for this poet and in this poem, you go from, you know, being 16 and trash talking and your prayers never going beyond the second floor, to really busting loose and that explosion of the North Star light years away from the last word, as the poem says. To me is a really nice kind of revelation or it's like a young poet saying, "The whole universe is out there, and I'm headed that way."
Christina Pugh: But do you also think that in order to become a poet, she has to get away from the Barbizon? I think it's also something of a critique of what was promised them.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: Some mannequins left / half clothed./ We taunt them / with our imagined summers / in London, Paris, Rome.
Christina Pugh: She kind of deflates them, talking about the ideal form, plastic, most would take a bullet for. It seems very critical in some ways have these ideals of feminine beauty, perhaps, that the Barbizon was promising and trying to inculcate. And there's that moment in which the speaker says -
Rosebud Ben-Oni: We were going to devastate / Greek shipping heirs / at every port of call. //Yet when our bus broke down / and we trudged the shoulder / of highway / single file
Christina Pugh: I wonder if she's also being critical of the way in which Barbizon or something like Barbizon, manufacturers these kinds of dreams.
Don Share: I think so and sure enough, something will bring you back to Earth. So I liked the idea that the poet proposes in this poem that the sort of conventional road to success will cause you to fall back to earth, and that the only way really to get past that is to reach for the stars in some way. I mean to really just have a big vision. And I liked that the poem sort of leaves off before it describes that vision too much. You have to sort of imagine what might happen to somebody who's looking at, and for that, what the poem calls, that distant somewhere, where a boat loses course. It's got a confidence too that was earned through this crazy kind of a dream. You know, what is the distance between your mall upbringing and everything that's out there? Let's move on to our next poem. This one is from Aram Saroyan, who’s poems were first published in the magazine in 1964. His latest book is the detective novel called Still Night in LA, and it will be published this fall by Three Rooms Press.
Lindsay Garbutt: We have three of his poems in the March issue. This one's called, “The Clock in Literature.”
Aram Saroyan: It may have happened because I was teaching at USC and I was reading a lot of classic novels.
Don Share: Here's “The Clock in Literature”.
“Would you mind
If I headed up early?”
Says the husband
To his young wife.
“Follow when you like.”
Later that evening
The beautiful face
And exquisite limbs
Will rise from the table
Of the Southern inn
Having been spied
By the antihero
Across the room
Reading an indifferent book.
Oh, quick —
Let a storm kill the light!
But you might as well say it
To a wall.
We can’t change
Silver setting, or
Even by one day
The bright full moon.
The clock in literature
Holds that moon.
“I know I can’t say
A single thing to stop you,”
Says the old man at table
To the suddenly risen girl.
“But sleep on it, will you?”
Not now —
The clock in literature
Holds the ancient rune.
“I wonder if I might
Have a word with you,”
Says the antihero
To the lissome
Christina Pugh: This poem does a great job of articulating the wish to make the story different or to just, you know, reach into the book somehow or into the television screen and say, "No, don't do it."
Don Share: I like that there's a kind of ride nervous tension in the poem, and it's surprising too. I mean, I just think it's like reading a great script. Where you're following things along and then there's a surprise and then you're following along and then there's another surprise, and it reminds you that if anything, The Clock in Literature, in the sort of enormously large scheme of things is a chronicle of one kind of surprise after another. Even if it's being unable to talk to somebody, or somebody suddenly gets up from a table.
Lindsay Garbutt: For me it collects cliched tropes of what happens and puts them all in one poem. So kind of, like Christian Marclay's, The Clock film, at this one time all of this is happening in all these different movies. So around the beginning of the day everyone's getting up for work and that's what you see. Or at 5:00 PM everyone's staring at the clock waiting for the day to end. And so in this late night scene, where so and so has already gone to bed and the woman is still there, it's always someone trying to pick this woman up.
Don Share: Right.
Aram Saroyan: "I know I can't say / a single thing to stop you", / says the old man at table, / to the suddenly risen girl.
Lindsay Garbutt: So in some ways it's funny, in some ways it's kind of cringe worthy to hear these lines over and over again in this way.
Aram Saroyan: I wonder if I might have a word with you?
Lindsay Garbutt: And I agree. I think it's definitely cinematic. Especially the second stanza where he says later that evening, the beautiful face and exquisite limbs. You can kind of see the gaze of the camera, like picking each of those things.
Don Share: Well it’s been staged. Also I just love it were you know, they're in the southern inn, and the anti-hero naturally is in the room reading and indifferent book. I love that. For some reason I think of breathless or something where this shallow itchiness of the young anti-hero, it means it's actually quite empty. But it's made to seem very deep and attractive. But You keep saying what this, there's nothing to this character. Antihero sounds so important especially sort of in our modern way of looking at things. And I just love the idea. It's the book that's indifferent. Its like the indifference consists not only of the anti-heroes emptiness, if that's what it is, but also that it's an indifferent book. That'll make an antihero out of your quick, reading off indifferent books.
Christina Pugh: I think the the poem would be so different without the clock and literature element that becomes a kind of refrain in it.
Aram Saroyan: We can't change / a single silver setting or / even by one day, / reduce / the bright full moon. // The clock in literature / holds to that moon.
Christina Pugh: I just can't help but think that it's at those moments, the poem turns from something kind of amusing or cliché, and all those things to something inexorable and sad. The way that these clocks seemed to wind themselves down in ways that we can't control, as readers. And it seems to also reflect back on elements of our own lives as well.
Don Share: Well, if the clock in literature is doing anything, it's ticking. And it means that we're aging. You know, the clock is running out on us and the anti-hero is trying, as of course, he must, being an antihero. He's trying to resist, but all that, he has is time working against him in the end.
Aram Saroyan: Not now, / not ever. // The clock in literature / holds the ancient room.
Don Share: Kate Farrell is the author of six books. In the late 1970s, she lived with Kenneth Koch for several years. When they broke up, she remained his assistant and they wrote two books together about reading and writing poetry.
Lindsay Garbutt: As they were breaking up, Koch was in Italy and Kate Ferris was back in New York. In one of his letters, Koch included a poem he'd written to her at The Ramp, “Ovvero Alla Rampa”
Don Share: The poem was never finished, never published, but a few years ago, Kate rediscovered it in her files and now in the March issue, we're finally publishing it, along with Kate's introduction.
Lindsay Garbutt: Kate Farrell joins us now from Brooklyn, where she lives. Kate, before we talk about the poem, can you read just the first stanza to give us a taste of it?
Kate Farrell: Sure.
At the Ramp, ovvero Alla Rampa
Reading my own work to get some new inspiration
I found someone who resembled me who had gone away.
He had just gone a moment ago, in fact,
Since what I was reading was something I had just written.
Yes, now that this exists in time, I thought,
It is no longer the truth I am always looking for,
Since it has all those familiar characteristics —
Eyes, mouth and ears — of something that has individual existence,
Not something totally penetrated and found and lost,
So I’ll have to go on writing though I’m aware that it’s hopeless.
Don Share: Now we're referring to this as an unfinished poem, but that is quintessential Kenneth Koch. Just the first lines make you want to read the poem, which is part of the process of thinking about what he's doing that is just so wonderful. How would you characterize this poem, this kind of poem, and Kenneth Koch's thinking in poetry this way?
Kate Farrell: I agree with you. It's very finished. The last lines, which maybe we'll get to, maybe he would have changed something there a little bit, but I think it's very, very close to being finished. And of course I love it that he starts at his writing desk, that he starts out by thinking about writing this poem, and immediately moves into big issues. I think it's just delightful.
Don Share: Yeah. And that first stanza poses a problem. How do you go on writing even if you're aware that it's hopeless? And what does it mean that it's hopeless? The next stanza you have Frederick at the piano, or Federico as Jean calls him. And he's playing. he's very, very good, very strong and effective. And the poem starts solving its own problem, by the poet's looking around and then what's especially interesting to me is that even in a poem that isn't a finished published poem, he succeeds as he almost always did, maybe always did, in turning one of life's problems into a lovely thing, all there on the page.
Lindsay Garbutt: I really liked how he sets up the future conversations by starting in this first stanza a sort of conversation with himself. Of like, himself as two different people. The one who had just written this poem, and the person who he is now. Really articulating how strange it is to read your own work and not feel connected to it exactly the way that you imagine you might.
Kate Farrell: Yes. One of the themes of this poem really is that theme of, well, he says in a line, for an instant, "I think I have three souls. One for love, one for poetry, and one for acting out my insane self." And then he goes on to say they're very rarely together. And I will vouch for that. But that's a big theme. It goes I think, especially toward the end of his life and in his interviews. Who was that self that wrote? You know that another thing he often quoted to everyone was Valerie's remark. "A poem is written by someone, not the poet, to someone not the reader." And so I think he thinks really of the poet writing from a different kind of consciousness, a very high consciousness and if it's not from there, he's not satisfied with it.
Christina Pugh: It also seems that there are some really large philosophical questions I'm going on in the poem. It, as you said, a lot having to do with writing and the writing self and other questions and concerns about the passage of time. How to inhabit a moment and so on and so forth. Do you think that the poem is also positioning itself philosophically too?
Kate Farrell: Yes. He gets so close to saying that poetry and love, out last time. He gets very close. I'm surprised how close he gets to saying that.
Don Share: Well, we've been talking about the poem turning into a longish and amusing and bemused, meditation and time and love and loss and poetry, so maybe you can skip to the end and read the last stanza for us.
Now, this person — I had better sum up — this one who is always different
Is also, since he is I myself, always the same.
He went last night to the restaurant and he wrote the poem
In which there was someone who was not quite completely himself.
He is writing this poem, and thinking, Oh, you’re not going to like me
Because I talk about changing so much and don’t stay on the subject
Of how much I love you and how I care so much more about this
Than about everything in the restaurant magnified to infinity, and the whole sky
And all the music, and he knows that the awareness of this feeling
Will pass, but the feeling — well, I don’t think that ever will, unless I die.
Don Share: Now, I can't even imagine what it would be like to receive a letter and poem like this. And I don't want to pry, but you know, the intimacy of his poetry is so remarkable, that I actually feel that even knowing that this was addressed to you Kate, I think readers feel that it is also addressed to them. Can you describe what it was like to kind of be in touch in that way with somebody? It's not something most of us experience.
Kate Farrell: Well, the problem was, that I was initiating the breakup at just that time. And you see, the poem arrives and it was a sad thing that that breakup derailed the poem, because it couldn't exist after that. It was a present tense poem, which was sort of catapulted into the past tense. It couldn't be finished. Our breakup was very civilized, and it was very miserable for both of us. And so this poem was an artifact for a long time of that event. It's only when I began to look at it again that I begin to be able to be objective about it as a poem. Now I agree with you so much, that it really belongs to his readers. And I'm so happy it's going back to them. But it took a long time to understand how really wonderful it is. And I'll tell you, it stands up. The more you read it, the more you see in it.
Don Share: In your introduction, Kate, you called this a Koch-ean time capsule, and we just can't thank you enough for opening up, exposing it to the air and sunlight again. It's so delightful to have this piece, and it's delightful to talk to you.
Kate Farrell: Thank you so much.
Don Share: And thank you too Christina Pugh, our wonderful consulting editor for helping us talk about this month's issue. And you can read Kenneth Koch's poem and Kate Ferris' introduction to it, as well as everything else you heard in this program, in the March 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine or online at PoetryMagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I'm Lindsay Garbutt.
Don Share: And I'm Don Share. Thanks for listening.
Listen to new poems by Miller Oberman, Rosebud Ben-Oni, and Aram Saroyan; plus Kate Farrell talks with the editors about an unfinished Kenneth Koch poem.