Sunday, March 20, 2011

SCATTER WHEELING: SWANS OF THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE

                                           The Wild Swans at Coole as Yeats saw them, too.

I woke up this morning to a clouded over moon and news of a new war, this after a week of earthquake and following fifty nuclear energy workers as they strive to save the world. The vegetables are already contaminated, and the people will get sick from this, even if Ann Coulter continues to insist that radiation is good for us. It is the first day of Spring, and it is cold and gray out. It's a hard day to wake to. I read that it was mostly children who were harmed by the bombs over Libya, and Ghadafi simply replies, "Prepare for a long war." I slept so heavily last night. Today, I want to sleep some more. I feel the earth is tired, the people of the world are tired. I feel we all need to sleep. But we don't sleep. We will keep acting, keep trying, keep searching for the words that will balance out the silence of the dead and dying.

I feel all of this invites me to move through the countless layers of grief that tragedy stirs. To somehow address the personal and political past and reconcile it through the present. I wonder if this isn't the meaning I can find, the path to feeling equal to world events.

The world is like a poem: doing things that at first appear incomprehensible. But the longer I spend with a poem, the more space opens up in me to accommodate the complexity. I can accept the many-sidedness, even if it still doesn't make a "rational" sense. I remember the first time I read Yeats' "Wild Swans at Coole." None of it made sense, kind of how the world doesn't make sense to me today.

I pick up the poem today as way of encouraging myself. What was once incomprehensible is now soothing for me, still deeply engaging. I feel my mind expand as I read through, expanding to hold a more complex world than the one I'd much prefer to wake up to. Here's the poem:

The Wild Swans at Coole



THE TREES are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones        
Are nine and fifty swans.
  
The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount 
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
  
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight, 
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
  
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold, 
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
  
But now they drift on the still water 
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

When we are faced with something complex, we will almost always shut down our hearts and imaginations and revert to a kind of thinking that insists that things must make simple sense. I can't relate it to Okkam's Razor because the simplest solution may always be the "correct" one but "simple" is sometimes determined on emotional terms, terms we are ill-equipped to access. The razor is sometimes tears and loss. But we will more often call it action and set about further cutting up the world. I remember when first faced with this poem, I wanted to rip it out of the book with my own Okkam's Razor.

There was an intensity, or perhaps a peacefulness, to the language that my 17 year old brain wasn't prepared for. I got lost immediately, sitting in Mrs. Dennis's class where I was usually a bit of a superstar for being able to write well. The truth is that having a poem placed in front of me inspired the same anxiety of walking into math class and seeing the systems of algebraic equations. A feeling of being defeated before I'd even begun. New information, in whatever form, made me retreat.

Over time, though, I've grown into the poem. It has appeared in my life many times, at one point in the context of my growing fascination and connection with swans. I simply wanted to read every poem in the world (in translation) about swans. This one resurfaces.

I can see now that Yeats merely paints a picture in the first stanza: there are 59 swans drifting on the lake.

In the second stanza, he says he'd counted them 19 years earlier, and the birds had all taken flight before he'd finished.

In the third stanza he reflects on how they make him sad now because so much has changed in 19 years, when he "trod with lighter tread," meaning he'd felt lighter in the world, because of youth and because, I suppose, because of how life weighs us down over time.

The fourth stanza shows that he sees that the swans have been unaffected by all that time (poets seldom make allowances for the shorter lifespans of animals: Keats' credits the Nightengale he hears while eating oatmeal one morning with being the same one that's been singing since the dawn of Time). "Their hearts have not grown old," unlike the poet feels his own has; the birds are all still "Passion and conquest."

What happens in the final stanza is, still for me, a rough encounter. As is often in poems, the ending flies in many directions, like the swans leaving the water. Yeats imagines they will move away, "mysterious and beautiful" to delight other "men's eyes." Perhaps he laments them as he laments his waning sex-life, the affection of women. Perhaps he also laments the idea that he will "wake" in a world without them when he dies. The poem's ending is open-ended, as wild as the flight of 59 swans (four more swans than the years of his life at the time he published the poem), "scatter wheeling in broken rings/ upon their clamorous wings." The poem does not seek to resolve incomprehensibility so much as reflect it back to us, the way things really always are.

The things we "wake one day/ to find they have flown away" are the very things of incomprehensibility. A love, a loved one, a world we expect to be the same on Tuesday as it was on Monday. The way that poems end are so often the way that life really is, open-ended, complex, "mysterious and beautiful" and too often terrifying because of this.

This morning, I am overwhelmed with the world. I can only open myself wider to take it all in the way Yeats stood by the shore nineteen years before this poem and tried to count the swans as they flew. He can count them in the today of the poem because they "drift on the still water." He has also known the "bell-beat of their wings." Today is a "bell-beat of their wings" kind of day. A day I won't get a good count.

Yeats penned this poem during World War I, the war that took a generation of poets from the world, a generation of men. He saw it all and too often must have woken as I wake today: astonished, bereft, nearly dismantled by human events I don't even have to touch to be able to experience. Are the swans his friends who are fighting? Are they the general sense of "making sense" that we, no matter what, insist on finding in the world and news of world? Are they everything that changes and that will change? "Mysterious and beautiful." One day: gone.

Yeats would say that he knew he'd heard a great poem when he felt like "taking the sword down from the wall."  I am tired of swords and of things being cut open by nature or by weapons. I am content to spend the day with poems. They bring my swans back to me. Always.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Epicenter, a poem for Japan

Hiromitsu Shinkawa
EPICENTER, for Japan

Japanese sailors rescue Hiromitsu Shinkawa Sunday, two days after the 60-year-old was washed to sea on the roof of his Minamisoma home by a tsunami caused by a powerful earthquake. Thousands are feared dead.
                                Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2011


When the home is shaken, then taken
by the sea,

when all they can compare it to
are two atomic bombs,

there is no such thing as waiting as
when in this: the water wants.

There is no such thing as meaning as
when in this: the earth does break open.

Sometimes it helps to lift one’s head in prayer
and look around the world for what is missing,

to count the waves and all the waves have taken
and see how everything can be taken.

The shoulder of the globe is always soft to cry on.
The distance love will travel, salt to salt.

I look to the man on his roof floating on the ocean
and know he is a story unto himself,

having made it safely out of the doomed city, then
having returned for something he wanted, had to have.

What could it have been that made him be
the one who floats with the last of his home

in one hand, a red makeshift flag in the other?
What letter was it he returned for? What photograph?

What favorite piece of cloth, perhaps, or perhaps that’s
too perfect in the stories we want to tell about others’

survival of the disaster. He floated for two whole
days, had agreed with the sea that this is how

he’d die, surrendered his world to the wind
as he could not do on shore, gone from home,

unable to let it entirely go, and to the waves.
For the others, the other story we cannot know

even more deeply, so only hold onto them as one holds
onto strangers in a tragedy: closely—their open mouths,

their voices loud in our dreams, the screams and names
we want to say before the sea swallows them when it is

shaken, the earth

broken open, the heart of the world broken open,
gaping whole and in wonder at how it all—

the roar of it, the falling, the love, the families, the stories from
before the water through the window, the smiles, the touches,

the reaching hand we imagine emerging from the crushed
and drowning city reaching out of us to touch everything

that is never too far away.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Full Dreaming of Asheville Wordfest

The Full Dreaming of Asheville Wordfest, a press release for a paper that might not exist yet.

by Laura Hope-Gill on Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 3:48pm
ASHEVILLE WORDFEST 2011
May 2-8, 2011
All poetry events are free.
Films $10.00 donation.


It’s time for Asheville Wordfest, Asheville’s poetry festival. Between Tuesday May 2 and Sunday May 8, Asheville residences and guests can enjoy poetry events and readings around the city. Asheville Wordfest is the product of a conversation among poets Laura Hope-Gill, Glenis Redmond, Jeff Davis and James Nave in 2007. In 2008, Wordfest launched at UNCA. Director Hope-Gill expected “maybe forty people, but by the end of the weekend, more than ten times that many had come to the events.”

Wordfest is a local festival created to bring the Asheville community together while also connecting it with global voices. Each year, Wordfest explores a theme, using poetry as a form of citizen journalism and not just as a Fine Art. This year’s theme is Resilience as Wordfest fixes the wide lens of poetry on the many ways that poetry acts as an agent of absorbing and moving with change when life changes.

The 2011 festival begins on Tuesday May 3 with a screening of local film-maker Paul Bonesteel’s ten-year project The Day Sandburg Died. Sandburg’s poetry celebrates the resilience of the American people. “He was very much a singer of the American song, a song of work and collaboration,” says Hope-Gill. “Sandburg’s full voice lives on in Bonesteel’s film.” In keeping with Wordfest’s goal of connecting the regional to the global, the presence of Sandburg’s Flat Rock home, Connemara, plays a powerful role in the film, while the poet’s work in the Civil Rights movement, and his highly-regarded biography of Abraham Lincoln resonates with the whole of American, and world, history.  Screenings are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday and 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Fine Arts Theater at Biltmore Avenue.

Further exercising the local-national focus of Wordfest, on Wednesday May 4 at 6 p.m. Biltmore Farms hosts a Wordfest Reception at the Hilton Hotel in Biltmore Park followed by performances by Keith Flynn and the Holy Men and Quincy Troupe. Quincy Troupe penned his memoir of his close friendship with Miles Davis in Miles and Me and has published collections and anthologies (including an anthology of third world writing) that have won him international acclaim. Troupe and Flynn became friends when Troupe first came to Wordfest 2009 to read.  Hope-Gill says of Troupe, “He is the first poet I ever heard who used poetry to reach out as much as to reach in.”  After Quincy came here in 2008, with his wife Margaret Porter Troupe, he published a number of other Wordfest poets in the literary journal he edits. “That’s what Wordfest is about: bringing voices from outside, getting our local poets’ voices even deeper into the world,” says Hope-Gill.
Asheville-area poets Landon Godfrey, Holly Iglesias, Luke Hankins, Rose McLarney, Mendy Knott and Britt Kaufman all have new collections published. They will read at Asheville Wordfest.

Hope-Gill themed Wordfest 2011 “Resilience” upon seeing a trailer for the not-yet-released documentary Poetry of Resilience by Katja Esson at the AWP writers conference in 2009. The film will show at Fine Arts Theater on Thursday May 5 at 7 p.m.  The documentary features poets who have survived the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Iranian Revolution, Rwandan genocide and exile from their homelands. Each poet has found healing and renewal in poetry.  “I wanted to shape a festival that explores this nexus of creativity and survival.” Film director Katja Esson will be present to introduce and discuss the film.

Readings by local and Asheville-based poets Britt Kauffman, Luke Hankins, Mendy Knott and Rose McLarney take place at 4 p.m. on Friday (Grateful Steps at 159 S. Lexington). The William Matthews Poetry Prize winners will read Saturday at the YMI Drugstore at Eagle and Market Streets at 4 p.m. Local (Landon Godfrey and Holly Iglesias), national and international poets (see schedule), take place at 7 p.m. at the YMI Cultural Center.

The visiting poets each speak from a place of Resilience, as well as hope.

Kwame Dawes, born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, has published fifteen collections of poem hailed by Elizabeth Alexander as “majestic.” Also a playwright, author and producer, he penned the quintessential study of Bob Marley’s words in Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius. Dawes is Distinguished Poet in Residence, Louis Frye Scudder Professor of Liberal Arts and founder and executive director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative. He is the director of the University of South Carolina Arts Institute and the programming director of the Calabash International Literary Festival, which takes place in Jamaica in May of each year.

Paul Guest of Tennessee was paralyzed in a bicycle accident at the age of twelve. His collections have gained acclaim for their “puckish cheek and utter sincerity” as he shares his journey. His debut collection of poems, The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World, explores the body and disability, familial history, and the author's childhood in the South, which was "oppressive as wool and cartoon tonnage" in one poem, and, in another, "home ... a wordless idea." The book was selected by poet and MacArthur Fellow Campbell McGrath as winner of the 2002 New Issues Poetry Prize. His second collection, Notes for My Body Double, Winner of the 2006 Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry, explore the loss of love, the pleasures of language, and the fascinations of pop culture. His third collection, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge (Ecco Press 2008) toys with biography and truth—and our expectations of them.

Brian Turner is a soldier-poet whose debut book of poems, Here, Bullet, won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the New York Times “Editor's Choice” selection, the 2006 Pen Center USA "Best in the West" award, and the 2007 Poets Prize, among others. Turner served seven years in the US Army, to include one year as an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 with the 10th Mountain Division.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, of Wendat, Huron, Metis, Tsalagi, Creek, French-Canadian and Scotch-Irish descent, has served as a panelist for United Nations‘ Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Forum and has published more than a dozen collections and anthologies drawing light to contemporary indigenous voices. Hedge Coke is a board member of the Mountain Multicultural Literary Society, the non-profit Hope-Gill is forming to house Wordfest and other multicultural events.

Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, and activist, is widely considered to be one of the most influential and provocative Native American figures in the contemporary American literary landscape, and is an internationally recognized public speaker addressing environmental issues. Hogan has received a prestigious Lannan Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim, and has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from both the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and Wordcraft Circle. She has also received the Mountains and Plains Lifetime Achievement award and has been inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. A Professor Emerita from the University of Colorado, she is now the Writer in Residence for The Chickasaw Nation and lives in Oklahoma.

The line-up of poets, says Hope-Gill, “aims to inspire all of us to apply our creativity to our own healing and to the healing of the world we live in. Creative imagination is medicine. It staves off despair and also offers a vision of what comes next. Without it, we stop dreaming.”

To bring the city's youth into this dreaming fold, Wordfest will feature young poets at all the readings and include a highlights reading from the WORDslam, a poetry slam that will take place during the months leading up to Wordfest in Buncombe County schools.

Wordfest’s new partnership with the YMI Multicultural Center enables Wordfest to take place in the nation’s first non-university, non-church-related community center for African Americans. For Hope-Gill, this means the festival takes place in one of the most powerful symbolic architectures in America. She says, “I have realized it isn’t enough to just have a multicultural poetry festival if it’s taking place in a part of the city with a history of hostility toward minorities.  There are deep scars, scars we all need to heal. Wordfest is about welcoming everybody. The YMI only has a history of safety and welcome to everybody. It is a true multicultural center, and I’m honored to be working with Ronald King and Dan Johnson on a number of new projects.”

For Hope-Gill, Resilience, poetry and multiculturalism are all closely related. “Multiculturalism is about so much more than surface demographics. It is a way of thinking from multiple perspectives at once and being able to hold a space for complexity. In poems, complexity thrives without threat to the integrity of each of the many ideas present. Poetry has always been a system for accommodating multiple systems of thought. That’s its gift. And for today’s world, where a dominant way of thinking no longer holds, it offers itself as a guide."

“In order to be resilient, we have to be able to accommodate the full complexity of life. This is what Wordfest 2011 is about.”

Wordfest 2011 features a family event that aims to share the role nature and imagination play in developing resilience in children and adults alike, IMAGINATURE. This event features with local children’s authors Cindy Bowen, Lisa Alcorn, Hal Mahan and puppeteer Hobey Ford on Saturday morning. (Check website for location.) Late night events include a reading by The Rooftop Poets atop the Battery Park Hotel on Friday at 10 p.m. and The Mountain Xpress Poetry Bash on Saturday night. 
Visit the website at www.ashevillewordfest.com (.org will still reach the site, for people who are used to using that url) for more information. Asheville Wordfest is made possible by a grant from the NC Arts Council and local support.

www.ashevillewordfest.org
Info: laurahopegill@aol.com or through the website