Sunday Jun 23

Kallet-Poetry Marilyn Kallet is the author of 15 books, including Packing Light: New and Selected Poems, and a translation of Surrealist Benjamin Péret's The Big Game (2011), both from Black Widow Press. She directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Tennessee and teaches for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Auvillar, France.

Marilyn Kallet Interview, with JP Reese

What six people would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and why? What food and wine would you serve, and in what country would it take place?
I teach poetry in Southwest France, in Auvillar, each May—you can't get a bad meal or a bad bottle of wine. So I would host my dinner party at tables set out on the lawn in back of Maison Vieilhescazes, in the gilded sunlight of that enchanted place. I would serve champagne as an aperitif, and then local red and white wines—the Tariquet white being one of my favorites. I might also have on hand some 2008 Sancerre and some 2005 and 2009 Bordeaux. To start, we'd have local pâtés and cheese crackers, vegetarian pâtés for those who prefer. Then a chicken tergine, made in beautiful ceramic pots, in red wine sauce with apricots, and new asparagus, then a green salad, a platter of fabulous local cheeses, and local ice cream for dessert (the chocolate is to die for). There are red bing cherries on the tree in that yard, and we would eat from a basket of these.

This is both a fantasy and a reality, since we do eat this way in Auvillar—though in actuality we would stick with the local wines for more than a few people.

Who would I invite? My friend fiction writer Barbara Bogue should be there, since she loves Auvillar. Then we'll invite some people who have passed on, and some who are still kicking: Lucille Clifton, John Coltrane, Anaïs Nin, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret, XJ Kennedy, Lucy Anderton. Lucille was a great poet, teacher, and friend, and she would need a date. She'd like Coltrane. He appeared to me one night in Auvillar, by the side of my bed. The next day I went up the hill and there was an exhibit of Coltrane portraits! Nin should have a chance to dress up again; Eluard can be a voyeur—and I need to thank him for letting me translate his love poems. Péret, too, needs to be thanked. XJ Kennedy was my first poetry teacher, and he's still alive and still encouraging me. Lucy Anderton is a contemporary Surrealist poet who lives in Auvillar, and she makes a better chicken tergine than I do! She puts in extra love—I'm sure she'd cook for the assorted crew!

I will be hosting some similar dinners this May. Want to come? I can't promise the ghosts will be there—though there usually are some...

It sounds like heaven, Marilyn. Who wouldn't want to go? I'll be there in spirit if not in body. As I read through your poems, I noticed your work often has a natural, conversational tone and voice. With your poem “Spleen,” although the emotion it captures is a universal one, I get the feeling it’s based in reality somewhat more than some of your other poems. Am I right, and if so, are you willing to share its genesis?
It took me a few minutes to remember which gaffe I had made—that triggered this poem. When I mentioned this confusion to my husband, he suggested I keep a "Foot in Mouth" diary!

Originally, this poem was called "Apology." (Several of my poems have started out being called "Apology!") When the regret intensified, I changed the title to "Spleen." Much classier, don't you think? Just me and Baudelaire, having our moods!

The poem was prompted by one or the other of these scenarios: More than a year ago, I was having lunch with my research assistant in an Indian restaurant, and said something inappropriate and insulting. Now what was it? Did I say, "Your girlfriend is an idiot?" or did I just think it? After lunch, I was seized with remorse for being so rude, and when I apologized, my RA seemed to have no idea what I was talking about.

But more likely, lyrical self-loathing was triggered by another event: I sent an email to a famous feminist poet, reminding her that she had promised to blurb the work of a French woman poet whose work I had translated. I asked if she was ready to take a look at the manuscript. The Famous One curtly responded that she was too busy, and I felt that somehow I had blown the agreement. Perhaps I had said the wrong thing? I felt at that moment like I was ready to bury myself, if not my words; hence I was "eating dirt." I was very upset about possibly of having injured the French poet's career. Indeed, the French poet was at first furious with me! The storm passed, and I realized that the famous poet was just being honest, which is honorable—though her dismissal was very disappointing to the younger French woman whose work could have used that boost.

By contrast, there are poets who are generous in promoting others, no matter how busy they themselves are. Marilyn Hacker, one of the great poets and translators of our time, a humble, kind person, never says no to helping other poets in their work. And there's Yusef Komunyakaa, who must be insanely busy, and yet he always comes through with book blurbs, or whatever is needed.

And as to the conversational tone—I have always been a fan of William Carlos Williams's work (I did my dissertation on "Asphodel"), and I try to find ways in the poems of making musical the diction of idiomatic American speech. The effort is balanced by my love of French poetry; Surrealist strains also enter the poems (Paul Eluard was the other half of my dissertation.) Lately Benjamin Péret's voice has entered my work—he mouths off a lot, objects when my love poems become sappy, plays Mercutio to my Romeo and Juliet. Since I lived with him in my head for a couple of years—I translated his book The Big Game (Le grand jeu)—It's not surprising that he shows up now and then. One has to be very careful about who one translates!

My next book of poems, The Love That Moves Me, contains many poems that hold dialogue with (supposedly dead) French poets. Verlaine, the aging, misunderstood queen, gets a lot of air time. And there's a sexy one called, "What Would Baudelaire Do?" ("He'd gulp stars / and forgetting...")

Speaking of famous poets, we all have our personal favorites, but there’s usually one poet whose work really resonates with students. You’ve been the Director of the Creative Writing Program at UT Knoxville for some time. Which poet’s work is the most fun/satisfying/interesting for you to teach and why? Which poems do you use?
Much depends on what level of class I'm teaching. For the undergraduate poetry workshop, I usually teach Lucille Clifton's Blessing the Boats, Arthur Smith's The Late World, William Carlos Williams's Selected Poems, and Marie Howe's What the Living Do. I like to teach whole books rather than individual poems, and all of these books, are in their own way, "perfect." They teach conciseness and oral tradition power, conciseness and literary sound effects, conciseness and rhythmical innovation, and the use of the oratorical long line in American poetry (Whitman's legacy.)

In advanced poetry, I teach Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular, Brenda Hillman's Loose Sugar, something by Robert Hass, and another book of long-lined poems, maybe one by C.K. Williams.

For fun in these classes, I always have a "bad poetry" day where we bring our worst poetry and make collages out of it; I read from XJ Kennedy's Pegasus Descending and The Stuffed Owl, an anthology of bad verse. My undergraduate teacher, XJ Kennedy, always held a bad poem day, and as a teacher I am his disciple! He carried the books of bad poetry in a wooden basket marked "Cucumbers." I seem to remember him wearing a costume, too, maybe something from Ubu Roi.

Sometimes, mid-semester, I bring in white-out pens and ask the students to work on one of their own poems, whiting out some (or all) of the connective tissue. For those with visual imaginations, this exercise often proves to be a game-changer.

In Dreamworks, an undergraduate course on writing from dreams that I have been teaching since 1985, I use Robert Bly's News of the Universe, Michael McClure's Ghost Tantras, tribal poetry, Brenda Hillman, and sometimes Joy Harjo's work, most recently, How We Became Human. I do a lot of theater and performance work with my poetry classes, and McClure's poems, composed mostly of loud sounds ("beast energy") are great ice-breakers.

In the graduate courses, I teach Robert Hass's essays and poems, and have a preference for Sun Under Wood and even more for Human Wishes, in which the prose poems are dynamite; Brenda Hillman, Komunyakaa, and one other, sometimes Ann Carson, sometimes a younger poet.

I do emphasize the importance of performance, of the oral quality of poetry. Sometimes my students can "get" a poem and feel less intimidated by it if they work on a group performance of the poem. This is the often the case with the alchemical poems in Hillman's "Loose Sugar," where the students can physically show me what they think the poems mean—inevitably some students will start off on the floor of the classroom, to show me the alchemical "ash" in the poem, the raw material that often develops into something else over time—into insight and beautiful shapes.

In Dreamworks we often do short enactments of selected student dreams—especially ones where the students seem to need "rescue." The skits are short, but they build teamwork and let the dreamer take some control—the dreamer is the "director." There's always a lot of laughter involved, and that's a good thing!

For my own reading, I go back to Rilke and Baudelaire for the music, mastery of craft, and spirituality; I go back to the love poems of Neruda and of André Breton, for their daring and exuberance; I read everything that Brenda Hillman writes—she's the only experimental poet who really sustains me the way these other poets do. Perhaps I adore her work so much in part because she was my teacher at Squaw Valley, and she proved to be funny, down-to-earth, and politically engaged in a consistent way, more so than most of the poets I know.  If you look at her website, you'll see that anti-war activity ("Code Pink") takes equal space with poetry.

Hass and Komunyakaa are the two smartest poets I know. Hass's essays on rhythm in Twentieth Century Pleasures changed my way of thinking about non-traditional verse; I can hear more about what's going on the best free verse after studying Hass's "On Listening and Making." Komunyakaa knows where he puts every syllable; his lyrics are sonorous and tight. The student work always improves after reading his work.

This Fall I added Terrance Haye's Lighthead to the reading lists; he came to UT to read, and was probably the best reader we've ever had. He was cheerful and friendly, and confiding in the audience; he treated every question respectfully. In the middle of his reading the phone rang in the front of the auditorium, and he answered it! He was just amazing. His forms keep shifting, so his book was both difficult and fun to read.

At the end of each class, we give a public performance, and I ask my theater friends to come and give pointers at the practice sessions. Performing one's own work takes practice, but it's well worth it to be able to project and look an audience in the eye! It's much more fun to give a reading when one interacts with the audience, and much more enjoyable for the audience when the poet in front of them embodies the "play" of words.

Watching some of your videos, I am struck by your incredible facility to engage your audience through the ability to physically manifest your words and through the way you incorporate music and singing into your performances. Memorizing one's own work is not easy, yet you make it appear almost effortless. Your humor also shines through in your performances. As you mentioned, you engage your students in "performing" dreams and ideas in the classroom. When did you begin to create performance art with your poetry and was anyone your mentor in this holistic approach to presenting your poems?

I've always enjoyed reading poetry aloud, and offering readings, ever since I was a graduate student at Rutgers. And in my ignorance, I thought I was pretty good at it! When I arrived at UT, in the early 1980's, I found that some of my very best student poets were Slam performers. I attended the Slams to support them, and gradually I began to compete. Many of these performance poets were theater people, and they set the bar very high for presentation of poetry. In the South, Slam poets have a reputation for knowing their work by heart (it's called "being off-page.") So I, too, began to memorize the work, to keep up with my students.

About fifteen years ago, at UT, I was lucky enough to have an actress/director in my poetry class. I watched Kali Meister perform her work in a dynamic and engaging manner, and wondered how she went about it. Back then I was asked to be in a show at the Black Box Theater in Knoxville, with two other performers who were Slam champions. One was a Def Jam poetry performer for MTV; the other, an Israeli performance poet.

In order to keep up with the other two performers, I asked Kali to tutor me in performance skills. We met once a week for a couple of months in a studio space in an Arts building. The first thing Kali taught me was how to breathe, and to stop waving my arms (turns out, I was always performing what looked like "Evita"!) She taught me how to project, how to make purposeful movements, and when and where to be bold in a poem, to "own it." She showed me what not to do—for example, I wanted to bark in a poem that had a lover howling. "No," she said. "You may not bark!" She saved me from making a fool of myself, and gave me the tools to create a strong performance. So I was ready for the Black Box show, did a half hour show "off page." And I never turned back! I've performed on stage in Chattanooga and Kansas City, in bookstores in Oakland and San Francisco, in art galleries in Krakow and museums in Warsaw, and in many other terrific venues!

Kali and I will be creating a show of love and blues poems for Valentine's Day, with Arthur Smith, a wonderful poet in the English Department. The event will take place at a local organic restaurant, The Grill at Highlands Row, which has offered to serve free beignets and coffee, homemade biscuits and preserves at the event. There are advantages to being a poet! I need to get busy practicing for that show!

Practice is the key. I try to rehearse poems until I have them by heart and can decide how to perform them. As my friend Daniel Roop would say, "Practice the poem until you could say it even if someone was throwing tomatoes at you!" Often Kali and I rehearse together—she has an intuitive sense of what works in performance. Poetry practice is time-consuming, but well worth it. Often one performance leads to more invitations—especially in academia, where people are not used to being entertained by a poetry reading, and so they are pleasantly surprised. Too often, even well-known poets are not able to read their own work in an engaging manner. Some poets mutter, drone or chant; they read from the book—and even those who love poetry feel baffled and tried, after awhile. So my work can be a relief!

Poetry sprang from the oral tradition, and its music is still crucial—so why not try to embody and perform the poem as best as one can, by going back to its origins, in dance, theater and song? It's not easy, but it's exciting to be onstage when one can look the audience in the eyes, and speak directly to them. One is more vulnerable without the podium or the pages, but letting go of the objects that stand between a poet and the audience is liberating, too.

Two of the poems we’re featuring include characters from Dante's
Inferno, “Inferno Girl,” and “When.” I love the playful way you treat them and how you bring the characters into modernity, placing Francesca seeking a cheating Paolo at “...The Inferno Grill...” and Beatrice patting Dante dry. Such irreverence! Obviously, you do not suffer from Bloom’s “anxiety of influence." Why the Inferno, and are these poems part of a larger whole?
Many years ago, in a boring faculty meeting, I started hearing the voices of Dante and Beatrice. They were bickering with each other, and if I'm not mistaken, there was mention of Nascar. Yes, they were in East Tennessee! So I started to reread the Inferno, which was always my favorite—the liveliest, in the Ciardi translation. They have continued to talk, to allow me to listen in. I'm merely taking dictation--they're doing all the work!

These days there's a better translation of the whole Divine Comedy, by Robert and Jean Hollander--but the Inferno is still the most vivid. I've written poems in which I try to jump in and rescue at least one women who got trapped there—Francesca. She was a sucker for Paolo's "let's read Lancelot" schtick. Even the narrator-Dante envied her a little, for the adultery and the whirling around in the arms of her lover. He swooned a bit himself before he left her there. I find myself identifying with the characters, as you can see in "Inferno Girl."

I've known the whirling, the dizzy-making sensation of love. I've been in hell and I've been in Purgatory (the doctor's waiting room), and heaven looks a lot like hell in the experience of a Reform Jewish girl. It's more fun to write about the lower depths than about patience, charity, and grace.

I've known Dante in different incarnations, and he's still a charmer. He's the bad boy in the English Department, the one with good hair and flashing eyes. He's Jim Morrison guided by a divine star rather than by a record label. By writing love poems, I assume the Dante role in my own humble way--the role of poet and seeker, pilgrim-admirer--and it's not easy, no day at the beach.

That said, a few years ago, I had a residency at VCCA-France in Auvillar, private time before my poetry students arrived. I took with me three different translations of the Inferno, and studied the cantos, syllable by syllable, line by line. Then something extraordinary happened. Beatrice started to speak to me in a kind and gentle voice, with no irony. And, for a moment, she reconciled for me my own earthly loves with the idea of a divine love. The poem that ensued, "The Love That Moves Me," will be the title poem of my next book. Black Widow Press plans to publish this volume in Fall, 2012. No doubt I'll wind up in hell again countless times before this journey is over, and I will try to make little maps, these poems.

Inferno Girl
“This silence is so thick not even God can bite it,” Francesca says.
“I’m already in Hell (Canto V).  What else can go wrong?”
One night on the adultery Tilt-a-Whirl she noticed
Paolo gone.  How long had he been AWOL?
She called out to him, scratched poems but pages fanned
ash on the Inferno Grill dance floor.
She pecked at blank wall, cooed, sighed.
Nada.  One denizen advised,
“Once you give up, success begins.”  The damned
were always spouting things like that.
But she stopped bitching.  Did Paolo care?
He’d taken up with a closer pigeon.
Who could be closer than the girl
he’d  been fucking for eternity?
The new girl in the poetry workshop,
at the Café Shock and Betray.
Paolo’s story is smoke, cigars and mirrors.
He’ll come back when he needs cash, Francesca says.
The moment she gave up hope she grew
dazzling to other men, once fierce
like Paolo, now Chia pets, grizzly, overgrown.
No day spas at Inferno.
Francesca warbles continual surrender.  Old men
latch onto her like blackbirds on a scarecrow.
Not until she’s emptied herself of his name
will Paolo return with burnt offerings and lattes.
His name is her nemesis, her Attila,
her Malfoi, her silky, adorable shade.
I am eating dirt today, large gravel-filled bricks of dirt.
Hard to swallow, even if pre-chewed.
Someone’s squatting over me.  No,
It’s the gritty shadow of my blunder looming
Like a TV soap opera.  And I’ll need that soap.
So I’d better keep my mouth open-- too late
To keep it closed.
When the low heavy sky weighs down like a cover, you’re in Auvillar
Without your spouse.  Dante’s on his way.
Ladies of a certain age compete for clothesline.
Show off gleaming copper pots.
Tea and flan, wet wash.  Dante’s
not your concern.
Beatrice tends him,
pats dry.
Push past your fears, Francesca!
Seize the line while Madame snores.
Twist your fingers through Dante’s damp curls.
He’ll know what hit him.
Then run run run under grey skies.
You have feet, orthotics.
Sadness that rivals rain.
Blue clothespins
Can’t clasp your tidy life
If you’re in the wind
With him.
July Notebook
hi eternity are you still in love
with my productions?
how’s ben péret?
fuck eternity he says
words only
the retired racehorses
Ben and Fella are easier
than some
writers    clear
about what they want
apples   carrots
the poets want fame
the straight male poets
want fame
and young women
the young women
want what they want
is no place for whining
ben says   tell your words
to put their cards
on the table
and on the desk
and the forest paths
the bobwhites
or whatever they are
Robert Hass would know
he’s not here
eternity is in love with him
and so are
the cards
shut up and deal
ben says
he’s dead so I
listen to him
an egg dances out
of the kitchen
Je n’ai aimé que toi -- Miossec
I loved no one but you, no,
and if the “only” before “you”
got stuck in my throat
like a Roy Orbison tune
or a wishbone,
whose fault was that?
I wrapped myself in our song
like a transparent raincoat.
What could I embrace
but the lyrics?
And if I wore only song
and you came down in torrents
on another side of town,
of time,
if you were young, not too young—
I loved no one but you.
Well, almost no one.
Forgive me,
I was practicing.
Forgive the time
before you were born,
the Sixties, when
everyone loved everyone,
and by “loved” I mean shtupped,
and by everyone I mean Curly, Mo,
and Larry.
Once you came on the scene
I focused.  I loved
no one but you,
no one—though you were
an enfant terrible,
and I viewed you through
plate glass.
Now you’re graying
at the temple.
Yes, the body is a temple.
let us pray.