I’m excited that my poem “Runaway” has gone up at Baltimore Review! As an ex-Baltimorean, it means something to have a poem – which is an excavation of my own parents’ motives for choosing one another – in a high-quality hometown journal. I don’t want to give too much away, but [spoiler alert] it’s the opener in my forthcoming book unburial. So if you want to know what the book will be about, let’s just say this poem sets the tone. If you like it, you may want to read the rest of the poems, too. (Hint hint.)
I don’t know what it was like to publish a book of poems in the past, though I do know that these days self-promotion is the reigning business model. And this seems true – to a greater or lesser degree – whether your publisher is big or small. Poets – perhaps all writers – are expected to do their fair share of promotion (in addition to, well, creating the work in the first place.)
A lot of people I talk to on social media think this is unfair, or at least that the publisher should bear the brunt of it. And at first glance I’d agree. What poet wouldn’t want to have all their precious time to themselves to write more poetry, instead of writing emails to bookshops and elbowing for space among social media followers and friends? This last takes arguably as much time as the writing itself, so it’s like piling a part-time job on top of a part-time job. I, for one, also have a full-time job. There just isn’t enough time in the day to do it all!
But, as Rilke said, for the sake of a single poem… You might spend your life searching for the perfect publisher who will take care of everything – and then stiff you in some other way. Or roll with it. I’ve begun creating bite-size images with lines from my poems to share on social media. It’s actually a lot of fun! Anyway, I’ll be sharing these on the blog as well. I hope they pique your interest so that when the book comes out you’ll want to read it. It’s really good – I promise!
I’ve waited a few weeks before going public, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. But, as they say, this is happening. My first book of poems, unburial, will be released by Kelsay Books/Aldrich Press in 2020! To say this is a dream come true is an understatement, as anyone who has ever put together – and shopped around – a first manuscript can tell you.
You can read some of the published material from the book here,here and here. Others are forthcoming from Palette Poetry and Baltimore Review – quite appropriately, as some of the poems in the book take place in – you guessed it – Baltimore.
I’ll be posting updates as more information becomes available: cover art, release date, book party, etc…stappiamo lo champagne!!
There is a new poem of mine up at Verse-Virtualcalled “New Year’s Eve”. It’s the first poem I wrote in 2019, and I wrote in on New Year’s morning. I figured if I could crank out a poem with a slight hangover, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad year after all.
The poem was suggested to me while watching my daughter and her friend playing among the smoking ruins of neighborhood fireworks. Where we live, people set off their own outside their homes, in the streets, cheap and awful-smelling contraptions that create a haze and sting the eyes. But the girls’ curiosity was as if an alien spacecraft had just crash-landed in the backyard. That interested me more than the bright lights.
New Year’s Eve
Tonight we watched the lanterns rise
up through the black and flinty air
as neon blossoms lit the skies.
We squinted in the smoky glare
of cheap contraptions struck & burned
like matchsticks in the littered street.
A pinwheel sputtered, lifted, turned
about, a pyrotechnic feat
of ancient alchemy – it flew
a foot or two, then comically
crashed in a plot of grass, where two
children approached it cautiously
as if it were a UFO
portending unknown auguries
or sizzling in the afterglow
of unavoidable demise.
The poem has nothing at all to do with the story by the same name, published in the New Yorker. In fact, I’ve never read the story, which even has its own Wikipedia page for some reason. It’s just an appreciation of my furry friend, as if anything more were needed or required of a poem.
One of the main reasons I write poetry is to fix a moment, event, or feeling in time so it doesn’t disappear forever. I write against forgetting, against forgetfulness, against oblivion. This is the driving force behind my writing. I hope that something may endure after time has ravaged all the rest. Shakespeare had this in mind when he wrote his Sonnet 55. “Not marble, nor the guilded monuments / of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” It’s always been one of my favorites.
It‘s not that I love cats. I love my cat,
the way she pierces me with her clear eyes
and bites when she‘s excited, how her belly
fat feels in my hands & her domestic size
so perfectly selected for my palm
my fingers engineered to navigate her
haunches that lift and shiver, sway and roam
free as the trip-hop cadence of her purr.
I love the way she disappears for hours
materializing when we sprinkle food
into her dish. I love her haughty, proud
imperious demeanor as she glowers
slighted by some lack in our attention –
real or perceived – requiring intervention.
I’ve always wondered what it might be like to be interviewed.
When did you first start writing poetry?
Longer ago than I thought, actually. My sister recently mailed me some papers she found in her personal archives, and in them were poems I had written at college. I studied visual arts, and somehow had no memory of taking a poetry class in my first year. Once I read the poems, it all came flooding back to me.
Can you elaborate on that?
I was able to visualise the apartment I lived in at the time, in Richmond. And my bedroom, and then all the details of the poems themselves. It was a typical writing exercise: it was called “Twenty Snapshots”. It was evident from the writing that I hated the artifice of it. I think that experience shut the door between poetry and myself for a few years.
When did you return to it?
I hated college, and dropped out after my second year. I had burned all my bridges, had no friends and was supremely unhappy in Richmond. In hindsight, I was probably having a belated teenage rebellion. I moved to New York City in early 1995 – just caught a Greyhound and stayed in a cheap hotel on the Bowery until I found a job and a place to live. My first job was at the Strand. I walked in because I knew Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine had both worked there. They were my heroes then.
That experience, though horrible in many ways, exposed me to books and literature in ways college libraries hadn’t. And other people for whom books were a way of life, an obsession. I got caught up in that stuff. We drank a lot, and lived a pretty sordid lifestyle. I wrote about that time in [untitled chapbook].
Anyway, long story short I quit the Strand in a tizzy and ended up eventually at the Gotham Book Mart. Again, it was a Patti Smith thing. She had published her first book of poems with them. I probably knew that from some book I’d read about punk. Well, Gotham was a totally different atmosphere than the Strand, much more intimate and serious about books and people who loved them. And it was in midtown, on 47th, crushed in on every side by the diamond merchants. They had a great poetry alcove, and important poets each had a whole shelf for themselves: Stevens, Pound, Williams. Their photos lined the walls. It was a bookshop with a long history, and these poets were like extended family. At some point I came across Hart Crane and that was it.I was intoxicated by his poetry in a way I’ve never been by anyone else’s. I wanted to do what he had done.
Crane can be a difficult poet.
He can! I was drawn to that initially. He was like pure music. Even when he was drunk and didn’t make sense, he still sounded wonderful. He had a kind of logic even in madness. His letters were great too. For me he was like the Velvet Underground, one of those artists whose effect is transformative on a rather small group of people. Others kind of just look at them sideways, or in horror (laughs).
Did you begin writing at that point?
Yes, right away. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to get his hands dirty. I don’t care if I’m out of my depth. I wanted to see if I could make this wonderful word-music, too. My first poems were imitations, as they had to be. But they weren’t so bad, in my opinion. Or maybe they were!
And did you publish them?
Yeah, I was lucky that at the Gotham there were tons of editors and writers coming in and out. New York is great like that. I took advantage, striking up conversations with people. People would tell me to send my work, and they would sometimes accept it. It’s very different from the submissions process today. At least for me. I got four poems in Pivot right away. I thought, This is easy.
What is different about submitting today?
I no longer have an advantageous perch in a well-trod New York bookshop, for one. Now I live abroad, in an out of the way place (as far as American literature goes). I’ve also never stuck with it year in year out, so I lost whatever foothold I had had. I keep starting over from scratch. And the internet has changed the game.
It seems there is so much more happening now. Social media has become the preeminent way to promote yourself and your work. Of course, the rewards are greater for those nimble enough to navigate the internet effectively. You can become a superstar practically overnight. I distrust such success, however. I don’t crave it. I want to get past the filters on the merits of the work alone. I’m my own worst enemy in that sense. I think that comes from my father. He would always do things the hard way.
Who are your favorite poets?
I don’t really have favorite poets. I like certain poems I read, certain voices, but I don’t go out and buy the collected works anymore. I read a lot which isn’t poetry, too, so I’m not obsessive like I once was.
What are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading Homo Deus, which deals with the future of Homo Sapiens, a poetry chapbook and a novel. I get bored reading only one thing. I’m restless.
Let’s talk about your work. What is your process when writing a poem?
I don’t really have a process – or I don’t think I do anyway. Writing usually begins with a line or phrase that pops into my head when I’m doing something else. Sometimes I’m diligent enough to write it down in a notebook, and at times a poem follows. I’ll usually get something down in a rush, just trying to catch the words before they disappear, then I’ll type it up and the real work begins. But I like to see the poem on the page, study the shape it makes, then attack it from there. Then I put it aside when something else starts happening, and so on. It’s a nonstop process.
When do you submit a poem to a magazine?
Sometimes after years of working on it, other times immediately. I’m still not sure what the best strategy is, so I just try everything. Rejection is pretty much guaranteed either way. I’ve learned not to worry about it, because it’s like a kiln in which your poems are fired. It’s good for them.
Do you give readings?
I think I did only once, for a magazine called Greetings. I was invited to read my three poems from that issue at a bar in New York. I haven’t done one since. I’ve never had an opportunity, really. I was invited by Rattle to read in Los Angeles recently, but I couldn’t make it. I’d have loved to go, but I live in Italy!
Tell us what took you away from the United States.
Oh, god, that could go on forever. Basically I was growing tired of the itinerant New York lifestyle. I was in a different apartment pretty much every year, breaking up and moving in and out, and I couldn’t handle another roommate situation. And living alone was too expensive on a bookseller’s salary. So I was generally fed up. I had also gotten screwed by my ex-girlfriend, and had bad credit as a result. I put my stuff in storage and took the first plane to Rome.
Did you plan to stay?
I had no idea. I just wanted to get away. I ended up taking a sabbatical year in Rome, writing a novel-in-verse, and meeting my wife. Everything changed that year. There was no going back at that point.
Tell me about the novel-in-verse.
It was begun on the eve of my departure, when I was still living in Brooklyn. Everything was falling apart, and I just began with this line, “Each night the poems traveled from his pen…” which was true enough about me at the time. It turned out to be a Byronic satire. The main character is a version of myself, but put through a number of filters. It goes on for eighty pages or so. It’s quite funny in its bleakness. It’s a bit like long-form Edward Gorey.
Is it true you met Gorey once?
How did that happen?
I was working at the Gotham and the owner, Andreas Brown – Andy – who had been the one behind the Amphigorey books in the 1970s – he was a friend of Edward’s. At Gotham that was how they stayed alive at that point, by selling Gorey books and prints and paraphernalia. All signed. They had the market cornered on all things Gorey. One day Andy – who didn’t drive – told me I had to take him up to Provincetown (where Gorey’s house was) with a carload full of books. It was quite a trip.
What was he like?
Andy, or Gorey? (laughs)
He was like you’d imagine, I suppose. Let me say that I was not a fan at the time. I considered his brand of art whimsical. (I’ve since revised my opinions.) So I wasn’t going up there to meet the myth. He had that beard, and that crazy old mansion with too many books and cats – it smelled awful – but he was pretty normal. I remember the tv was always on. Sitcoms. I recall canned laughter coming from upstairs. The funny thing is that [untitled poem] – the novel-in-verse – ended up taking a great deal from that encounter with Gorey. I barely spoke to him, but I observed him pretty closely that weekend.
Has the novel been published?
No, no, I’ve still never had a book published. That’s like the Holy Grail for me, a book person, to have my own book. I’ve sent it out but it always comes back with a rejection note. Too bad, because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. But I can see how it’s maybe not for everyone.
What do you mean, ‘not for everyone’?
I mean that it’s a quirky book, which goes to great lengths of absurdity just to see how far a joke can be pushed. When I was writing, I would just follow the stanzas – which are strictly rhymed and metered – wherever they went. All those years of working in bookstores, of non-stop reading, came out in that poem. It overflows. It’s not a quiet reading experience, or an orderly one. I’ve been told it’s very much like I am, by people who’ve known me. I take that as a compliment! From a marketing perspective – which is responsible for which books get picked up and which don’t – it’s probably a nightmare. Which is precisely what I like about it.
What do you think of contemporary poetry?
I don’t. I read it, and I write it, but I try not to think about it.
What’s the point? I’m not a critic or a publisher. I just write what I write. Whenever I find I’m competing with fantasms, I have to step back. I don’t care about what other people write. If it’s good, I’m happy to read it, but I’m not into all the back-scratching happening on social media. All the networking. Which is probably why I’m under-published. Of course it may just be that my work is not that great. Who knows?
What are you working on now?
Everything at once. I’m still submitting those manuscripts, trying to place them. I write pretty much every day, no matter how much other work I have to do. I’ll find some time, even ten minutes, to revise a poem or jot down a line or two.
Thanks for talking to us.
[…] Titles have been deleted to protect the names of circulating manuscripts.
It’s September, which would not be complete without a re-reading of Auden’s great poem, “September 1, 1939“. That was the date of the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of WWII. I’ve never understood why this poem didn’t make the cut in the Collected Poems (apparently Auden, in retrospect, didn’t think much of it – or perhaps he was concerned with false sentiment and “German usage,” as he put it); however, it’s available in the Vintage Selected Poems. And, of course, online. If you’re not familiar with it, read it – then go read Joseph Brodsky’s fine essay on it (it’s in one of his major essay collections). The poem begins:
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
Poet Samuel Menashe died on August 22, 2011. He was a friend of mine in my New York days, and I’ll always remember him fondly. He was a very old school kind of person. He lived alone in a walk-up apartment on Thompson St., in Greenwich Village. He’d wander into New York bookshops and start reciting his poetry to complete strangers, which was how he sold his books. He had a gentle voice, a wild shock of white hair and a congenial presence. He’d sit for hours talking about the war, William Blake and the Hebrew Bible. His poems were “concise” (his term), mostly condensed into few lines of concentrated musicality. Below is a poem I wrote about him. I was told my a mutual aquaintance that he read it and enjoyed it. Goodbye, Samuel.
Samuel Menashe Reads at the Harvard Club
You’re reading your poems at the Harvard Club in New York City. The hall, rimmed with oak, sputters a dying light suffused with thick brown shadows, like intellectual antelope gazing at their reflections on the wall. You can’t believe you’re here. Poems leapfrog from your throat (already you’re older than most of the old men in attendance here) poems so short that if you miss a word you miss the point. I listen, neither graduate of Harvard nor university-bred, but a young man seeking encouragement from an elder such as you. Invited here,
I hold your book open and read along but the light is bad. My clothes are shot. No tie is knotted in the hollow of my neck. My shoes, the worn-out patent leather ones from the J. Crew catalog, are more like husks that hug my feet. In private, you told me to give up poetry and dedicate myself to writing narrative instead. “No one reads poetry,” you said.
Certainly you spoke from experience. They used to snicker when you’d ramble in off 47th St. to the Gotham Book Mart. “Here comes the poet Samu-el,” they’d joke. “C’mon,” I’d say, “He’s really not so bad.” You’d stop and talk about the war, recite Blake and the Hebrew Bible (KJV) and then your own compacted prosody which stopped the tourists in their tracks. “A pot poured out fulfils its spout,” your voice intoned. Then you’d explain, to the stupefied clientele, what the poem really meant based on its lingustic roots (“the pot fills up the spout, fulfilling it etc.”) You’d sign their books before they’d even bought: “To Jo, from Canada. Best, Samuel.”
That said, your poems are now canonized in the Library of America. You snagged the “Neglected Masters Award” the kind of name you always called yourself alluding to the New Yorker and “Talk of the Town” the only place they’d publish you back then. You felt yourself a curiosity in your hometown, an underdog, the last of your generation, a congregant of Homer’s, the Greek café long since shut down.
What more could anybody do for you? Your wish-list is complete, you have become a famous poet with a style, to boot. Menashesque. I can almost hear it said in college classrooms, by professors younger than I am, too obliviously young to have attended the Nutcracker with you at Lincoln Center. Wedged between Masters and Michelangelo, your volume rests on my bookshelf. I flip through it, recalling your evening reading at the Harvard Club ten years ago. Like Emerson, you blurred the distance between poetry and faith, the kind one has in literature, not God.
Every so often I mention that I write poetry. I used to write a lot of poetry, though lately it’s kind of tapered off due to our recent move, our ten month-old daughter and a hundred other things that eat away at the imaginative mental loitering time so conducive to writing poetry.
This is a poem I wrote a few years ago and posted at my wife’s blog at the time. Probably nobody ever read it but her. I’m posting it again because I like it; it has the scent of Cavafy, Pessoa and the “crepuscolari” poets so dear to me. Enjoy.
I crave the stillness of rooms full of smoke, after the party, when all the guests have gone. That’s when the poem is born.
Late at night, sitting at a desk in the city, or outside of one, the poet remembers those rooms full of smoke. He lives in them,
a world of his own making. He conjures the odor of ash, the yellowed lampshade, the stain of lipstick on a shard of glass.