Thursday, September 30, 2010

No Prize for You

Dear Mr. Koh Jee Leong,

Thank you for your submission to the Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) 2010.

After careful review and consideration by the judges, we regret to inform you that your submission (Equal to the Earth) has not been shortlisted for the prize.

We would like to thank you for your support and wish you all the best in your writing career.

Jade Yong
National Book Development Council of Singapore

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"The Quick and the Dead" and "Let Me Be Like Glass"

Two women whom I always enjoy hearing at NYC readings have recently published chapbooks. Elizabeth Harrington's The Quick and the Dead (Grayson Books) is a suite of poems about an intestine transplant that saved her life. Let Me Be Like Glass (Exot Books), by Adriana Scopino, takes the poet's very young children as its primary preoccupation. The subjects of both books are liable to receive mawkish treatment. What fascinates me is not how both poets avoid this pitfall, but how they skirt round its edge, and maintain a hair-raising balance.

They do so principally through their economy of words. Most of the poems are shortish. The longer poems, significantly, are less successful than the short ones. Within the chosen limits, the words feel essential. These poets are not loquacious. They speak because they have to, at least that is the impression the poems give. But they sound different in their few words, Harrington authoritative, wry and sexy, Scopino, hesitant, marveling and prayerful. The care with which they choose their words is reinforced by occasional indentation of verse lines. The words are, literally, placed on the page.

The careful selection of words is matched by the careful selection of details. In order to come to terms with accepting a dead boy's organ donation, Harrington tells herself to think of it as a relay team. The comparison might have come off as self-serving, but is justified when the patient-poet receives the baton in the "chilly hands" she raises after waking from the operation. Ever attentive to what her children do, Scopino in "Blue Car" watches her son Miles connect wooden trains in circles, "some complete/ and closed, some/ left broken,/ open." The precise observation will give body to the poem's final idea about memory, but not before looking into a blue car that contains "matchbox cars, Asha's hair tie,/ half of a waffle, a cake of vanilla soap,/ a used Dora bandage, blocks,/ a necklace made of dry seeds,/ and rocks."

When both poets attempt heightened language, those poems feel false in their ICU and nursery surroundings. Scopino's "Songs at the End of Summer" asserts uncharacteristically that "the gold's always mixed/ in with the soil,/ with the shit." Shit here is a mere idea, like the gold and soil. Harrington is the more experienced of the two, and so is less likely to break her tone. In "The View," however, a woman draws her window blinds and, finding the room insufficiently dark, solves her problem by "turning her vision inward/ and interposing herself/ between the earth and the sun." The poem cannot bear the large abstract operations here. 

But these are poets of the everyday. And it is the everyday that they lift up into glorious light. Here is Elizabeth Harrington making her own way in "Choices":

Just now, a lone bird sang out.
I lifted the metal lid to the garbage can and looked up.

This is how I do it.

And in the poem titled after her son, reticent Adriana Scopino wisely gave Miles the last word on reticence:

When he was four he began a sentence,
I have a thousand things in my heart,
but I'm only going to tell you three...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Finding as Opposed to Making It Up

DUMBO held a three-day arts festival over the last weekend. GH and I caught the last day of it, on Sunday. In two open studios, sponsored by Triangle Arts, the artists painted the human figure with thick strokes but thin vision. In another studio, above the winning Galapagos Art Space, pop culture was given the tired old spin. There was a painting of a billboard advertising a beach vacation. In an open coffin lined with red satin, two silent boom boxes. The art we saw looked like the fag end of once-vital artistic styles.

The photographic shows were more interesting. The winners of a competition whose name I cannot remember showed a real eye for an interesting subject, and the technique for rendering it. One black rectangle was slashed by a white arm stretched out from the right edge of the photo. Another photo showed a black boy, on the cusp of adolescence, looking pensive in his baseball cap, one hand holding the controls of a video game in his room. My favorite juxtaposes young men playing baseball and tombstones in a graveyard. What would have come across as heavy-handed in a painting is lightened in a photograph by the grace of discovery, for the photographer did not make it up so much as found the divided place. 

There were more photographs, images of Brooklyn taken for another competition, in the powerHouse Arena bookshop. And art books. And beautiful tableware, made of clay or glass. GH liked the bowls that come in different sizes, made of two different kinds of clay. I followed him into a furniture shop to look at Danish design, and into a craft shop to look at woven cloths. Even when we sat down for lunch, he went to the store shelves to browse the design books there. His eye is hungrier for beautiful things than my ear is for the same. 

We shared a cup of peppery chocolate from Jacque Torres, and sat by the East River. Several wedding couples came by, directed by their photographers. One party looked like the Russian mafia. The day was overcast and cool, but rain did not interrupt the day's festivities. We went home, after buying dinner from Whole Foods. GH wanted to watch the first episode of the new season of The Amazing Race. I was quickly absorbed by the competition to get from Boston to the pit-stop in Eastnor Castle outside London.  The Buff Team, comprising of a hunk and a tinklebell, did not win. The nicer couple did. 

*

Oliver de la Paz has a new book of poems. Requiem for the Orchard, a collection of poems about the poet's childhood in small-town Oregon and his new fatherhood, has a novelistic luxuriance of description. It does not have, however, the novel's interest of plot. When a poem circles round a dominant image, as in the mesmerizing "Self-Portrait beside a Dead Chestnut Horse," the words hang together. When an image fails to dominate with singular power, the poems lose their way. 

I was sorry that the terrific long poem "Requiem for the Orchard" is broken up and scattered in the book. I remember reading it as a single piece. The poem gains its power through sheer accumulation of detail, through the insistent ubi sunt. Broken up, the poem reads like more of the same instead of more.

The train of "Requiems" also clashes with the train of "Self-Portrait" poems and the train of "Eschatology" poems.  The preference these days is for a book of poems to possess a kind of track, narrative or otherwise. Done well, such a structure can make a book more than the sum of its poems. But this collection seems to have too many lines up running, and this commuter was somewhat bewildered, as a first-timer traveler might be at New York Penn Station. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Perfect Sense and Food Pantries

Alyssa and Hila invited me to read for the Perfect Sense reading last Wednesday. I read four poems from Equal to the Earth, then read three sections from "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait." I didn't read the new poems very well. They did not cohere in the air. The Frida Kahlo piece sounded better at Son of a Pony two weeks ago.

Lynn Melnick and Brett Fletcher Lauer read after me. They read poorly, and so it was hard to grasp what they were saying. Melnick's poems sounded too much like the run-of-the-mill loose-limbed, image-happy American lyric. Lauer's poems aimed for profundity, but went on for too long to little purpose. Miranda Field, who was born and raised in London, gave a fine reading. WTC put it well, the poet trusted her words and so gave them their heft and lift. They were poems about motherhood, with sharp images and deft turns of phrase. The poems did not give a big pay-off at their conclusion, as EN agreed, but the journey was interesting.

*

Did not read at Son of a Pony last Friday because I was with students doing community service. They cooked a dinner for the guests from Main Chance, a homeless drop-in center near Grand Central. This morning, they divided into groups to serve in different soup kitchens and food pantries around the city. At the Holy Cross Church food pantry, near Times Square, my Cantonese came into use. I had to explain to a woman why her registration card was not ready yet, and to stop two other women from taking more than three items of clothing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pictures of a Life

A full weekend, not just action but emotion. Bob's book launch on Friday. John Stahle's memorial service on Saturday. Matthew Hittinger and Philip Clark put together a fine roster of eulogists at the LGBT center in the afternoon. John's freshman advisor at Fordham University, with whom John remained friends for 42 years, was eloquent about John's appetite for culture and gossip. OV described John's excitement over the birth of Ganymede, the gay men's art and literary journal he edited before his death. Philip read his essay on John's eye for art.

EN spoke of his last evening with John. In his description of their first meeting, he mentioned that John did not look like his photograph. John did not put his own photograph on any of his websites or Facebook page. He might have thought that he did not look attractive. He might also have thought that the gay men he courted--artists and audience--want a pretty face. The stage at the memorial service was fronted by two beautiful black-and-white photo-portraits published in Ganymede, one the silhouette of a muscle man, the other the face of a youth, looking like a martyr, surrounded by a tangle of branches. Two potent images gay men live by, but there was no picture of John.

That night, after dinner at a noodles bar in Lower East Side, GH and I watched Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek. Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the film was beautifully shot. The story however was heart-wrenching, and GH could not shake off the mood after the movie. As Ruth, Keira Knightley was mesmerizing whenever she appeared. Carey Mulligan (Kathy) was as solid as Knightley was intense. Andrew Garfield was outstanding as Tommy, the confused young man who was always the odd boy out.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bob Hart's book launch

It was a wonderful evening that, as Nemo put it, focused on the right thing, the work itself. Bob's book Lightly in the Good of Day collects poems written over the course of a decade. They are about family and friends--real and imaginary--nature, art and the trying conditions of existence. The turnout at Cornelia Street Cafe was strong. There was only standing room when the open-mic began. Valerie Mendelson, the painter of the landscape that appears on the book cover, came with her husband, JF.

For the feature, the readers, Jane Ormerod, Adriana Scorpino, R. Nemo Hill, and Thomas Fucaloro, chose poems from the book that matched perfectly their very different reading styles. Jane read "In That Petal Flesh," Adriana read "Going Inside--Especially To Feel," Nemo read "Man, Can They," "Inside Your Expensive Watch"and "After Such Fall", and Thomas read "Take This Rose." The No Chance Ensemble, consisting of vocalists Bruce and Joanne Weber, and Nelson Alexander on guitar, put to music "Such Children" and "Bears and the Native Have Borne It Too Long." The result was to bring out the different voices in Bob's poetry, ecstatic, tentative, joyous, satirical, romantic, dry, and affirmative.

Bob himself read four poems including "Suddenly Lacking" and "The Flight Plan." He left the audience wanting more, and when Kathi Georges the host called for an encore he obliged with one of the finest poems of the collection, "Watery Within the Graveled World."On stage he was the picture of "gray elegance," as he describes himself in one poem. The atmosphere was warmly celebratory throughout the reading. A stranger sitting in would have gone away with a deep impression of how much Bob is loved.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Elizabeth Harrington's "The Quick and the Dead"

Betsy's new book, winner of the 2010 Grayson Books Chapbook Competition, is about how she was saved by an intestine donation from a 13-year-old boy from Minnesota. After hearing her read from the book at Cornelia Street Cafe last Friday, the audience responded with full-hearted applause. A number gave her a standing ovation. EN put it well, the reading was full of life and full of poetry.


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

His Name Is Love

My poem "I Am My Names" appears in Zócalo Public Square, with an expressive black-and-white photo by Paolo Aquino. The poetry editor Colette Labouff asked me to submit after getting my name from Jonathan Farmer. With this pub, and the later appearance of "A Lover's Recourse" in At Length, only one out of the seven sequences in my next book remains unpublished. I guess a book should give something unavailable elsewhere, besides bringing together in an organized whole an entire conception.

*

Watched Puccini's Turandot last Saturday night. The seats in Lincoln Center Plaza were almost all gone an hour before the screening. Found a place in the third row, where the view was not bad at all. Simple story stretched out to operatic length. Princess Turandot requires her suitors to answer her three riddles or be beheaded. The young prince Calàf answers the riddles but gives her a chance by asking her to find out his name. She tortures his slave girl Liù to get his name, but the latter refuses to answer. Touched by the slave's love for her master, Turandot yields to Calàf's kiss and so experiences passion for the first time. Asked for his name the next morning, she replies it is Love, an answer that is both wrong and right, both defeat and victory.

Maria Guleghina as Turandot was a compelling singer, but did not have the looks that would make anyone believe that Calàf fell in love on catching a glimpse of her. Marcello Giordani was not young enough to be the prince. Marina Poplavskaya was too proud to be a slave girl. That was a lot of disbelief to suspend. The music, however, was glorious, Calàf's night aria, the Chinese folk song that heralded Turandot's appearances, the final chorus.

Of the five operas I watched during the Met's Summer in HD Festival, the one I enjoyed most was Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. I must sue to know Mr. Strauss better.

*

Had a great time with GH on Fire Island last Sunday and Monday. He slept over at my place, and we took the LIRR from Woodside Station. The beach was a little too windy on the first day, but the weather was perfect on the next. Cherry Grove was thick with lesbians over the Labor Day weekend. Next time, we are going to stay at the Pines.



Photo by GH

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Two more weeks to Bob Hart's book launch

It is nearly here, the conclusion (of a sort) to the process of editing and publishing Bob's book Lightly in the Good of Day. The book will be launched on September 17 Friday, 6 PM, at Cornelia Street Cafe, during the Son of the Pony open-mic.

Kathi Georges and I have agreed on a format for the reading. Jane Ormerod, Adriana Scorpino, R. Nemo Hill and Thomas Fucaloro will read first, as the last four readers of the open-mic. Then Bruce Weber and his band The No Chance Ensemble will open Bob Hart's feature with their rendition of two of his poems. Bob will be the final reader, as he must be of his own work. It should be a good reading.


Friday, September 03, 2010

Giacomo Puccini's "La bohème"

Last night, GH and I watched the bohemians live it up in their garret, in the opera loosely based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. I thought the plot was a little wonky in the middle, and then learned from Wikipedia that Puccini decided not to put to music a missing scene by the librettists.

Rodolfo the poet fell in love with Mimi the seamstress, but she died in the end of sickness. Rodolfo's comrade Marcello, a painter, was in love with Musetta, a singer, but she wanted independence and wealth, both of which Marcello could not give her. She turned out to possess a heart of gold when she helped the dying Mimi return to Rodolfo's garret, and bought the dying woman the hand muffs she had always wanted. The plot was even more sentimental than what one would expect of opera. It lacked the philosophical sweetness of Der Rosenkavalier and the psychological complexity of Les contes d'Hoffman.

I don't have the program with me, and I cannot remember the names of the singers. Rodolfo was quite wonderful, what one imagines of an Italian tenor: ample face and figure; powerful and tender voice. Mimi looked a little simple-minded, if not slightly crazed, in her first scenes. I like Musetta's singing better. The production, by Franco Zeffirelli, was beautiful.

The night was humid, though it cooled slightly as a breeze wafted in and out of the plaza. Plane lights streaked the night like a steady comet. GH and I finished a bottle of Gruner Veltliner. I loved putting my arm round his shoulder and drawing him close to me.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Three Women in One

KM joined me last night for Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes D'Hoffman, and both of us enjoyed the tales of Hoffman very much. The poet compared Stella, the singer he was unhappily in love with, to three past loves: an innocent, an artist and a prostitute, and told the tavern guests the stories of these loves.

The innocent turned out to be a mechanical doll named Olympia. Putting on a pair of magic glasses, sold to him by the villain Coppelius, Hoffman fell in love with her. He was horrified to learn the truth when the glasses broke. Kathleen Kim who sang as Olympia was virtuosic in her aria. It took some art to sing all technique, completely artlessly. Alan Held, who sang as Coppelius, also sang as the other three villains.

In the second story, Hoffman was in love with the singer Antonia who, unknown to herself, had too weak a heart to sing. But the evil Dr. Miracle persuaded her that her dead singer-mother would have her sing. She fell for the trick, and sang to her death. As Antonia, Anna Netrebko had a voice that was astonishingly both lush and pure.

The Venetian courtesan Giulietta (Ekaterina Gubanova) in the third story was bribed by the devilish Dapertutto into seducing Hoffman and stealing his reflection. The poet fell in love with the whore and gave her his reflection. He was rescued by his Muse (lovely Kate Lindsey) who, disguised as his friend Nicklausse, had tried throughout to turn the poet's mind away from love to art. Hoffman, lamenting that one love had shattered, another had died, and the last was damned, had only his creative genius for consolation in the end. Joseph Calleja, in his voice, body and gestures, embodied in this production the spirit of the poet.

Obviously KM and I, both struggling in art and love, saw ourselves in Hoffman. The women represented different temptations for the artist. Olympia was the fascination of pure technique. Antonia was the love of fame. Hedonism was Giulietta's distraction. But they were also a gay man's various love objects. First, we fall in love with the Chelsea boy clone, then with the narcissistic culture queen, and finally, our time running out, our age telling, with the bathhouse troll. It's sad, but there it is.

*

I read last Thursday at the Inspired Word Reading, curated by Mike Geffner. SK, who was staying with me, joined me at One and One Bar and Restaurant. GH heard me read for the first time. WTC also came and she read for the open-mic. Sold five books, three to SK. Good crowd. They were attentive throughout my free flying lesson. Cathryn Lynne was the wonderful official photographer.


Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Landscape with Cannibals

Eric's poem for me has been published by Q Review, a queer journal based around Columbia College in Chicago. Congrats, Eric!

*

"Planetary system" is a good description of the set, and the world, of the Met's screening of John Adams's Doctor Atomic last night. Designed by Julian Crouch, the Los Alamos lab on stage was a peculiarly isolated and isolating landscape. In the background, cloths were draped over structures to appear like sharp mountains, over which the bomb, a hideous wired sphere, hung. Everyone constrained to his own compartment, the scientists and staff of the lab stood in the upright grid of a huge box. The marital bed was a scene of disunion. The Native Americans who stood in the top row of the grid in Act II was a constant reminder of a lost world.

It was brave to try to fit scientific and bureaucratic language into the operatic idiom. Much of the libretto came from declassified government documents and communications. The singing at these times sounded ugly and unnatural to my ears. Perhaps it could be done better, if a better writer had done it. Act I ended with Donne's sonnet "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," sang with tremendous emotion by Gerald Finley, who was the original J. Robert Oppenheimer in the opera's premiere. Sasha Cooke, as Kitty Oppenheimer, sang beautifully the aria "Easter Eve, 1945," based on Muriel Rukeyser's poem of the same name. She also brought off the feat of singing naturally while rolling on the bed.

The Act II scene iii chorus borrows from the Bhagavad Gita its vision of Vishnu (translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood):

At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.
When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.

The first line was especially memorable in its forceful sound. In contrast with that fearsome nightmare, the Oppenheimers' Tewa Indian housemaid Pasqualita sang a lullaby based on a traditional Tewa song:

In the north the cloud-flower blossoms
And now the lightning flashes
And now the thunder clashes
And now the rain comes down! A-a-aha, a-a-aha, my little one.

The conclusion of the opera was terrifically suspenseful, as the staff debated whether to go ahead with the testing in bad weather conditions. When the bomb fell, in a clearing dawn, the moment was agonizingly desirable.