9 July 2014

'news of an awareness' // Adrienne Rich's National Book Award acceptance speech // 2006

It's a great pleasure to receive his medal from the fine poet Mark Doty. I am tremendously honored by the legacy of writers who have received this award, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Studs Terkel, Toni Morrison, writers who broke ground, worked against the grain, made other kinds of writing possible. I thank those who have helped me persevere. My publishers of 40 years, the venerable employee owned by WW Norton, my editor, Jill Bialosky, my literary agent, the great Frances Goldin, and my everywhere-enabling representative Steven Barclay. Above all my sons David, Pablo, and Jacob Conrad, and Michelle Cliff, my companion of 30 years.

In his 1821 essay “The Defense of Poetry,” Shelley claimed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Piously over-quoted, mostly out of context, this has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in an earlier political essay, Shelley had written that poets and philosophers are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft. And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him, there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the struggle between revolution and oppression. His west wind was the trumpet of a prophecy driving dead thoughts like withered leaves to quicken a new birth. He did not say poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world.

I am both a poet and one of the everybodies of my country. I live in poetry and daily experience with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire. I hope never to idealize poetry. It has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed, necessity, for both Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for Audre Lorde and Aime Cesaire, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. Poetry like silk, or coffee, or oil, or human flesh has had its trade routes, and there are colonized poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced. Poetry has sometimes been charged with aestheticizing, being complicit in the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape, and genocide. The accusation famously invoked in Adorno is “After the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible,” which Adorno later retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice rejected. But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be little poetry left in the world. If to aestheticize is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as opportunities for the artist rather than structures of power, to be described and dismantled, much hangs on that word “merely.” Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. But we can also define the aesthetic not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance which totalizing systems want to quell, art reaching into us for what is still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.

In North America, poetry has been written off on other counts. It is not a mass-market product. It doesn't get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles. The actual consumption figures for poetry can't be quantified at the checkout counter. It’s too difficult for the average mind. It’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby's. It is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free market critique of poetry. There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas. Poetry is either inadequate, even immoral in the face of human suffering, or it's unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet, in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together and more. Because when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open again, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum. There is no alternative. Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images? Is it literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism -- a stunted language? Or is the great muscle of metaphor drawing strength from resemblance in difference. Poetry has the capacity in its own ways and by its own means to remind us of something we are forbidden to see, a forgotten future, a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom. That word now held in house arrest by the rhetoric of the free market. This ongoing future written-off over and over is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented through collective action, through many kinds of art. And there's always that in poetry, which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our classrooms, our late-night arguments. There's always (I'm quoting the poet-translator Americo Ferrari) an unspeakable where perhaps the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides.

Thank you all very much.

8 July 2014

Stanya Kahn also writes fiction

When Nanette comes over and suggests I put both my hands in both her holes, well duh. Absolutely. What could be more appropriate.

It’s a mystery, a miracle. There’s grease and one and then two, three and four. And then your knuckles just pop right in. It’s nuts. I have no hands. I’ve got a French lady instead. Edward Ladyhands. And the inside of her is so hot and I’m so high, I’m a ball in a socket wired into a natural power source called Nanette. I’m disappearing, I’m pure static electricity, just a mass of subatomic particles. I’m William Hurt in altered states, a throbbing blob in the hallway. I can feel my two hands touching each other across the thin membrane that separates her holes and it’s the people side by side, all of us all together.

Stanya Kahn, Let The Good Times Roll

LA is hot as hell in the summer. Hot as blazes they say, hot as the devil’s a-hole. Dry and vibrating, the air as stinking yellow and brown as the dusty hills. We have AC in the bedroom, but sometimes I can’t sleep at all. I lie awake clicking and ticking and not slowing down. And usually it’s a mistake to watch reality shows before bed. Because then each time I move my leg or roll over, the rest of the team has to decide if that was a good move or should I be voted off. I shift back trying to hold my place in the line-up. I’m doing all the competitions at once: American idol, So You Think You Can Dance, So You Wanna Be a Hilton, Fear Factor/Couples Extreme. I like the show where you try to get fired. One girl took her shoes and socks off in a swanky clothing boutique and sat on the floor chatting on her cell phone, telling her friends how boring and stupid her new job was. The other staff huddled around the cash register whispering about the awful new girl but they still waited til 2:30 to fire her, that’s how dumb they were. The girl won $25,000.

Stanya Kahn, Hell

3 July 2014

96 Sacraments // Paul Thek // 1975

1. To wake up. Praise the Lord
2. To breathe. Praise the Lord.
3. To touch the earth. Praise the Lord
4. To pee. Praise the Lord
To make a fire. Praise the Lord
5. To wash. To comb your hair. Praise the Lord.
6. To prepare breakfast. Praise the Lord.
To squeeze a lemon. Praise the Lord
7. To eat breakfast. Praise the Lord
8. To do the dishes. Praise the Lord.
9.  To clean up. Praise the Lord
10. To write a letter. Praise the Lord.
13. To mail a letter. Praise the Lord.
11. To go out. Praise the Lord
12. To see the sun. Praise the Lord
14. To do the shopping Praise the Lord
15. To talk with some people.
16. To buy the paper.
17. To come home.
18. To go to work.
19. To work.
20. To have lunch. Sing Praises!
21. To work in the afternoon. Praise the Lord. Sing Praises.
22, To notice the light changing.
23. To see a cat. Praise the Lord. Sing Praises.
24. To see a dog. Praise the Lord.
25. To stop for a rest. Praise the Lord.
26. To go home for dinner. sing Praises
27. To talk with neighbour.
28. To talk with a neighbours child.
29. To kiss someone.
30. To eat dinner. Sing praises!
31. To eat dinner with friends.
32. To eat dinner with friends children.
33. To eat dinner alone.
34. To have dinner with someone.
35. To think of love. Praise the Lord.
36. To think of hope. Praise the Lord.
37. To think. Praise the Lord.
38. To dream. Sing praises.
39. To plan. Praise the Lord.
40. To write a poem. Praise the Lord.
41. To read a poem. Praise the Lord.
42. To forget bad things. Praise the Lord.
43. To sing. Praise the Lord.
44. To sing with someone. Praise the Lord.
45. To hold hands. Praise the Lord.
46. To hold anything. Praise the Lord.
47. To hug. Praise the Lord.
48. To get on a boat. Praise the Lord.
49. To go somewhere.  Praise the Lord.
50. To eat a snack. Praise the Lord.
51. Not to eat a snack. Praise the Lord.
52. To give away some money. Praise the Lord.
53. To replace some technological
54. education with some spiritual
55. education
56. To see an island.
57. To go swimming.
58. To see somebody worse off.
59. To see somebody better off.
60. To go swimming nude.
61. To make love in the day time.
62. To make love in the nite time.
63. To make love with someone you know.
64. To make love with someone you don't.
65. To eat a peach.
66. To comb your hair.


67. To find a way to grow feathers.
68. To satisfy all hunger in the world.
69. To avoid dominations and dominating.
70. To never stray.
71. To be innocent of corruption.
72. To not think (at least now and then).
73. To worship in another's church, in another way.
74. To fly away into the air, high as a chicken, come back.
75. To grow.
76. To practice.
78. To be just.
79. To be stronger than you were.
80. To understand a bit more.
81. To like the ups & downs.
82. To feel okay in spite of it all.
83. To feel good knowing all the worst.
84. To avoid being forced into defiance.
85. To avoid emotional escalation.
86. To forget the way.
87. To make the way.


Admonitions To A Special Person // Anne Sexton // 1974

Watch out for power,
for its avalanche can bury you,

snow, snow, snow, smothering your mountain.

Watch out for hate, 

it can open its mouth and you'll fling yourself out

to eat off your leg, an instant leper.

Watch out for friends, 

because when you betray them,

as you will,

they will bury their heads in the toilet

and flush themselves away.

Watch out for intellect,

because it knows so much it knows nothing

and leaves you hanging upside down, 

mouthing knowledge as your heart

falls out of your mouth.

Watch out for games, the actor's part,

the speech planned, known, given, 

for they will give you away

and you will stand like a naked little boy,

pissing on your own child-bed.

Watch out for love

(unless it is true, 

and every part of you says yes including the toes),

it will wrap you up like a mummy, 

and your scream won't be heard

and none of your running will end.

Love? Be it man. Be it woman.

It must be a wave you want to glide in on, 

give your body to it, give your laugh to it, 

give, when the gravelly sand takes you, 

your tears to the land. To love another is something

like prayer and can't be planned, you just fall

into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.

Special person, 

if I were you I'd pay no attention

to admonitions from me, 

made somewhat out of your words

and somewhat out of mine.

A collaboration.

I do not believe a word I have said, 

except some, except I think of you like a young tree

with pasted-on leaves and know you'll root

and the real green thing will come.

Let go. Let go.

Oh special person, 

possible leaves,

this typewriter likes you on the way to them, 

but wants to break crystal glasses

in celebration, 

for you, 

when the dark crust is thrown off

and you float all around

like a happened balloon.