Minneapolis Convention Center | April 10, 2015
(Liz Ahl, Richard Blanco, CM Burroughs, Rita Dove, Ann Hudson) Your sister asks you to write a poem for her wedding. Your president asks you to write a poem for his inauguration. How might your work in response to requests of such seemingly different weight or scope be somewhat similar with respect to audience, performance, and aesthetic? Why have certain poems endured beyond the occasions for which they were written? This panel, featuring an editor, an inaugural poet, and a former poet laureate, examines the occasional poem from a variety of perspectives.
Published Date: May 27, 2015
Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event was recorded at the 2015 AWP Conference in Minneapolis. The recording features C.M. Burroughs, Rita Dove, Richard Blanco, and Liz Ahl. You will now hear Ann Hudson provide introductions.
Thank you all for coming to “Four Weddings and an Inauguration,” a panel on occasional poetry. My name is Ann Hudson.
Last year I was asked by a friend to write a poem she could deliver to her husband on his birthday. Equally pleased, horrified, and stumped by the request, I did what I always do in these cases—I phoned a friend. “So Liz,” I said. “What do you do when someone asks you to write a poem for a birthday?” This panel is her response.
Many of you have been asked before to write poems for weddings. It’s a beautiful time to be called forward to deliver a poem. It’s a time for a poet to bring words to mark the occasion on behalf of all those gathered. It’s a moment of public shared voice, a moment when the poet can offer something to the community in real time. Think of Frederick in Leo Lionni’s classic children’s book, the mouse who sat and watched as the seasons changed and his family stored food for the winter. And when the supplies had all run out, he stepped forward and shared the poem he’d been writing all that time, and it nourished them. It feels like a rare and important time for a poet to operate in a public sphere. Poets are asked to give voice in public moments of celebrating, of honoring, or grieving, because we want to give language to these shared experiences, to speak aloud the words that will mark this occasion. We put words to the ritual. We invoke the incantation. We put our voices towards shaping the terrifying shapelessness of feeling, even good feeling. We can focus that joy, so we can bring our collective attention to the wedding couple. We can pierce that grief and share memories of the dead. We can invoke hope and spirit in the gauzy political parade of an inauguration.
The “whens” and “whys” of occasional poetry seem easier to parse than what occasional poetry actually is. We know there is an immediacy to a poem written for a particular occasion. It has something inherently time-stamped about it, as it addresses a gathered audience and grapples with a singular moment in time. What’s more, the occasional poem has something of the theatrical about. In the words of Charlotte, E.B. White’s spider, “After all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born. We live a little while. We die.” And the same might be said of the occasional poem. It comes. It lives a little. It remarks or reflects on that moment, and then it dies. Yes, there are transcripts. We could reread the poem delivered for the inauguration, and it still has life on the page. But the poem as it was created for the moment in which it was delivered, and upon which it reflects, is never exactly the same once the moment has slipped past.
According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, and I quote:
“All literary works are occasioned in some sense. Occasional verse differs in having not a private but a public or social occasion. From Pindar’s odes to Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,’ poets have found public occasions for writing. For example, the memorial pieces in honor of Edward King, the odes expected of a poet laureate, tributes to a poem placed at the beginning of his volume, epithalamia, funeral elegies, or sonnets or odes memorializing some state occasion or historic event.”
Perhaps we do well to parse the differences between the occasional poems that arise organically from the poet, such as pieces written in response to 9/11. We might call these the offered occasional poem. And occasional poems written on commission, which may or may not have a whiff of patronage about them—the solicited occasional poem. We might also consider the curated occasional poem; that is, a poem selected for an occasion that wasn’t written specifically for it.
How, then, might we think about “The Gift Outright,” Robert Frost’s inaugural poem for John F. Kennedy, which he was asked to, and intended to, read for the occasion? The night before the inauguration, Frost, in a burst of inspiration, wrote a new poem, “Dedication,” but when he stood at the podium to read it, he had difficulty reading the copy he typed out on the hotel typewriter, and reverted to “The Gift Outright” after all, having memorized it.
And how might we consider elegies versus eulogies? Even the Princeton Encyclopedia shrugs its shoulders at this point, stating rather exasperatedly that, quote: “In short, although occasional verse is often taken to be ephemeral or trivial or public, it is difficult to devise theoretical terms to distinguish rigorously between Lycidas…”—(aside) Milton’s poem in honor of his classmate who died in a shipwreck—“…Dickinson’s imaginary occasions of her own death, Lowell’s ‘On the Union Dead,’ and various Asian examples.” (Audience chuckles)
On the other hand, to be dismissive is to violate the most serious conceptions of much of the world’s lyric poetry. Even narrative and drama may arise from occasion. The Encyclopedia, it turns out, is no help at all. Happily we gather this marvelous panel to answer these and other questions on occasional poetry. In the interest of allowing the most time for robust discussion, we are addressing the thorny problem of lengthy introductions by way of our handout. And speaking on handouts, I hope you all got a copy. We have on here some discussion prompts, and we hope that you will take a few minutes and turn to the stranger next to you, introduce yourself, become great AWP pals, and discuss any of these prompts which interest or intrigue you. They are as follows:
President-elect Clinton calls. She wants a poem for the inauguration. You have three weeks. What do you do? How do you do it?
Your daughter’s seventh grade English teacher asks you to write a poem for the middle school graduation. It will be printed in the program and must be approved by the principal before it can be used. What if the principal has a reservation about it?
Aunt Matilda is getting married. Fourth time’s a charm. She’d love you to compose a poem for the ceremony.
Your local library is having a ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate its new space. What will you read for the occasion?
A terrible storm tears through your town. We wrote this before the tornadoes in Illinois yesterday. Many homes and buildings are destroyed and several people lose their lives. At the one-year anniversary of the storm, there is a dedication ceremony of a memorial downtown, and you are asked to write a poem for the occasion. What do you think of and why?
You’ve been asked to participate in the 9/11 memorial and to select a poem or curate a group of poems, not one you’ve written. What do you select and why? Does it matter that these weren’t written for the occasion?
You ask your dear friend who is a skilled poet to write a poem for your wedding. It is presented to you in advance, and you are disappointed. What do you do?
Your dean/chair/boss is retiring after 100 years on the job. (Audience laughter) You’re asked to write a poem for the retirement dinner.
I will give you a few minutes to talk to the person next to you and discuss what you would do if you were put on the spot thusly.
Thank you all so much for participating. It was gonna be a long, awkward silence if you didn’t have someone to talk to, so thank you. Thank you so much for participating.
Now that you’ve had a chance to consider some of the issues surrounding occasional poetry, we’d like to hear from our panelists. We’ll begin with C.M. Burroughs, editor of Court Green, whose upcoming issue includes a section devoted to occasional poetry. We will continue with Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate of the United States, then Richard Blanco, who wrote and read “One Today” for President Obama’s second inauguration ceremony and conclude with Liz Ahl, who, in addition to being the friend I can ask about these things, has written numerous poems for birthdays and weddings and who put this whole panel together. Thanks so much, Liz, for answering my question.
Please help us welcome C.M. Burroughs.
Thank you. Good morning, everyone. So this is the latest issue of Court Green. It’s in the 1200 block of our beautiful bookfair, if you’re interested after.
So, my usual reason for standing in front of audiences like you is to read my poems. In fact, I and my colleague and co-editor of Court Green, Tony Trigilio, we’re both poets, which makes it particularly devilish that we made the dossier for this final issue of Court Green on the occasion of—I say devilish because none of us is naturally compelled to write the occasional poem. We drag toward it if we go at all. Just last week, I was asked to write a poem on the occasion of my all-women’s alma mater, Sweet Briar College, that is closing down. And amid all the uproar of one of the seven sisters closing, I said, “No,” much for the same reason I believe you all would. The pressure one feels to capture the sentimentality and nostalgia of others is immeasurable. We’d just as soon not take on the task. But back to the devil. In the spring of 2014, Tony and I considered how to approach our next issue of Court Green. We wanted to construct a challenge to instigate curiosity. We wanted in this twelfth issue and final year of Court Green, for the journal to play against yet another edge. The form of the occasional poem may not strike you as particularly dangerous or provocative, but it is exactly that urge for such an effect, and the difficulty of defining it, the danger that we sought, and the hundreds of submissions that came in over the next several weeks, we searched for poems that give innovation to the form, that give what we don’t imagine possible when we set out for an occasion or its poem. To offer you something of what I call an edge, here is a poem from our dossier. Jan Beatty’s “On the Occasion of Not Committing Suicide,” which begins with an epigraph by Luis J. Rodriguez.
(Reads epigraph and “On the Occasion of Not Committing Suicide”)
This poem presents us with a speaker that wants away from her provocation. Looks for reasons not to. What deviates from what you may think of as a conventional occasion poem is that this poem is written for the first person pronouns, ‘I’ and ‘We’. It gazes inward and toward the most intimate features of the “I” and “other.” How refreshing to this simplicity of “Because fuck it. Just wait.” This poem and its tone rid sentimentality, do away with nostalgia; it exists nearly all of it in the present moment. By conventional, I mean to say that this particular poem is not what one has in mind when asking his or her friend, brother, daughter, or mother to write a poem for my wedding, birthday, quinceañera, inauguration, coming-out party. But how refreshing that we can nod to the vast tonal occupations of the occasional poem. In editing this issue, I understand what writers attempt to veer from and what editors fear is too much sugar or too many a tear. Kevin Gonzáles’s “On Marriage” is another surprising poem of the dossier.
(Reads “On Marriage”)
“On Marriage” attracts because its occasion vacillates. It shifts between the speaker as grateful parent and partner, which is a role held shuddering in his periphery and of the more immediate occasion, that of the speaker driving toward his vice, his deviance. And the latter prevails, the tension reverbs, and its jerking structure wracks my body as reader in the space between. I’ve chosen poems to read wherein the speakers delve into the most fraught parts of themselves. But what I want you to keep in mind is that Tony and I curated this issue in order to create a conversation between poems. Between the lyric and narrative poem. Between the expected and unexpected address of occasions. I’m going to offer two more poems from Court Green’s dossier. Patrick Kindig’s “On the Occasion of Watching Geography Club.” It’s a 2013 film.
(Reads “On the Occasion of Watching Geography Club”)
And Michael Broder’s “Delivering the News.”
(Reads “Delivering the News”)
These poems, intimately toned as they are, address common experiences of regret, the attempt to fulfill what one must, the first anchoring in sexuality, and the second in the casualties. Oh, how they ripple of war. We’ve given the dossier its unique section, but it exists most loudly flanked by new poetry by the past and present editors. Poetry that exists outside of the theme and a selection of poems by Nathan Breitling, and in memory of him, a poet and graduate of Columbia College’s MFA program, who passed on too soon. Publishing this final issue is its own occasion, and I’m glad to have been able to honor what this Court Green holds, and what its binding has held these past years with you. Thank you.
Good morning. This is not my time of day. I warn you right now. And so Ann is correct when she says that every poem is in some way occasioned. It exists in its bubble of time, and the pressures that surround it. The poem is written fully, I think, cognizant of the moment. A moment which can be as intimate as a glance, or gasp, or sigh, or something more large, something larger and more public, and when I was first asked if I would participate in this panel, I thought, “Well, I don’t write occasional poems.” And then I thought about it, and I realized every poem I had ever written practically had been occasioned in some way, starting with the very first one that I remember that I was proud of, which was at age ten, and we were all asked to do something for Easter, in fourth grade, and I wrote a poem about a rabbit with a droopy ear. Already an outsider at that time. (Audience laughter) But it was a visceral response to this kind of (inaudible) Easter sensations. And it’s carried on since then.
I thought what I’d do today, because I’ve done several poems which were kind of occasional in the sense that the occasion called me to it before someone else called me and said, “Would you do it for the occasion?” And one of those, for instance, when I was Poet Laureate, I went down to Washington, DC, just to check out the poetry office and see what this office meant. No one seemed to know. And I walked to the poetry office and looked across the street, and you look down on the US Capitol, and at that time—this was 1993—at that time, the top of the Capitol building, the statue up there, Lady Freedom, had been brought down for cleaning, and so she was sitting down there large and out of place, and dirty, and homeless. And just standing there, realizing that I was now going to somehow assume a public face for something that I considered a very private experience made me...I looked and I thought, “There’s got to be a way to restore poetry to this public occasion.” And it was really just the idea of becoming a Poet Laureate, whatever that was, that made me start to write a poem called “Lady Freedom Among Us,” which then, about five months later, in October, I was asked if I would say a few words at the re-installment of Lady Freedom on top of the dome, and I could say, kinda say, “Oh, sure. I’ll be happy to write a poem,” which was already written.
What I mean by all of that is that I’ve found through the years the one thing that helps when you’re asked to write an occasional poem, and you do feel that you want to write that occasional poem, is to really seriously think about the person who is in the audience, out there, and what you would...what that...that moment, that ephemeral moment that Ann talked about, would be like. How can you help create it? And it takes some of the pressure off of “Oh, my gosh. I’ve got to write something that’s memorable.” I think to remember that it is ephemeral is really helpful, because in a sense the soul rises to the occasion, by stepping out of itself in order to communicate with an exterior presence. It’s like Emily Dickinson said: “This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me.” And to remember that at times has been really helpful to me.
I wanted to talk also, however, about another kind of occasional poem. That is the occasion where one is asked to collaborate with someone else, and I highly recommend this for anyone. I mean I do think the cross-genre experience is really important, because it stretches you and makes you realize the capabilities of the word, how far it can be stretched to reach into other disciplines. And I’d like to talk about, out of personal experience, a few of these collaborations. I have been a musician pretty much all my life. I played the cello, the viola da gamba, and then I started taking voice lessons when I couldn’t carry my cello around because I needed music with me. But what that has helped me do on occasion is to write poems with musicians, and I’m not talking about handing a poem to someone and saying, you know, “Here,” you know, “Make this,” and they set it to music, though I’ve had the pleasure of having that done as well—but actually sitting down with the musician, or with the composer, and doing it together out of scratch, and the wonderful thing about that is that you learn certain things about how the human voice carries in a room. To remember that when someone is listening to you, if they don’t have the text before you, certain words are going to get lost—certain vowels will not carry. “S”s will just hiss all over the place. You know, these kinds of things which are certainly like writing prompts—they are like little things that hem you in. It’s like telling you to do a haiku, right? So, to sit down with a composer is really a great experience in that regard.
When I was asked in 1999, of course it was the millennium and we all thought we were going to die, and so let’s go out with a bang, and one of the things that President Clinton had commissioned was the idea of doing a millennium firework display in front of the Lincoln Memorial right at midnight, and to do this, they had gathered together a team of all sorts of people. Steven Spielberg did a movie, a movie, a kind of slideshow behind us, and a movie as well, called The Unfinished Journey. America: The Unfinished Journey. John Williams composed the music. Ken Burns was sitting in this room with us, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I was the poet. And I’m like, “Holy, holy.” And they had this kind of jam. Well, we were supposed to have a think tank session, were gonna throw things out, and I was like, “I don’t work this way. I really don’t work this way.” But what I did was I took notes and I was very quiet and I listened to them throw out images and ideas, so I could get a sense of what they were going to do, because I thought, “Okay. Music carries. There’s no problem with that. Visuals are...they know how to address a big audience. How do you make a big moment intimate?” And it was...and I had one section of this, and there were other poets involved in this as well, but I had one section of this to do, and I thought, “Okay, you’re going to stand out up there, and everyone’s going to be cold as heck, because it’s, you know, December, so it must be short, and it has to carry. It has to be simple but it has to also be crisp.” And that took some of the pressure off the notion that I had to get up there and do this thing as well. And to realize that it would disappear. I think to have that, well, we all hope that we have this lack of ego, I think, when we approach the page. If we don’t do that, if we don’t have that lack of ego, the poem is pompous and it’s overheard. It’s not really anything that opens us into ourselves, and I think that an occasional poem, if it really is successful, if it really works, it occasions in each of the audience, even the ones standing out there, you know, just a sense of intimacy in the middle of the open space. A feeling of being part of the tribe, but also an individual who is buoyed by the tribe. So, that was one of the things that helped me in that regard.
I think I’m a sucker for punishment because I do tend to agree to collaborations that are really, really ridiculous for poets to try to do, but it’s an idea of “let’s see what happens.” Another occasion was in…was it…1989 I believe. I had been in-residence at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, and there was a tradition that every class and most of the people in there are humanities scholars. They let a poet in occasionally, or an artist, and every class gave a class gift at the end. Well, our class decided that they wanted a collaboration between the poet and the artist. The artist was Ewa Kuryluk, a wonderful installation kind of three-dimensional artist, and we thought about it, and we agreed, and then what happened was this: We walked around the Humanity Center, which is a kind of a glass-enclosed building, which was beautiful to be in because of all the light, but was extremely dangerous for birds, because they would crash into...so they had all the shadow bird, you know, decals on the windows, that the architect had wanted to be clear, but that’s not going to work in a practical world, and we walked and we said, “We have to do something with this kind of disjunction.” And in the end what happened—and I won’t go into a description of it, because it’s very difficult to talk about the visual—but Ewa had a scroll of muslin, like an old ancient scroll with lots of images on it, and she had another plexiglass case, a horizontal case, which had a literal scroll that the poem was going to be in. This meant that only about twenty-four inches of the poem could be seen at any time; it was two pages’ worth. There was more, but it was hidden. You could scroll it out if you wanted to...but it...and the whole idea of breaking up the narrative that way, that I had no...I could not predict who was gonna read what, was extremely interesting to me, and so I learned a lot about narrative; I learned a lot about ‘This is a public space, this is an occasioned poem, but it is an extremely intimate occasioned poem because only one person at a time could stand before it and do it.” And what happened was that I also was given a huge, I think it’s like twenty-five feet of muslin, and some absolutely non-erasable pens, and she said, “And now you put your poem on it.” And so of course I had lots of duress before that, but that meant that I had to be...if I had a block I had to incorporate the block into the story, so beads and beads of red and all this stuff got into the whole mix, so that was another kind of collaboration, but it did also say to me, “Okay, someone walks into a room while you are giving your poem. Can it stand up to that moment? Can they still get into it, an occasional poem?” These kinds of things I think, if you give it more as a writing prompt and not as an absolute life-and-death experience, they can really help occasional poems.
And finally I think I’ll talk about another one, which I have some handouts, which you can pick up at the end, just if you want to see an image, an image of something I was trying to find, an image of some of these works. But one of my most, think really one of my favorite, collaborations happened with an interior architect, interior design architect, who had been commissioned to design the lobby of the courthouse, a federal courthouse, in Sacramento, and he contacted me. He said, “I have an idea, but I don’t know how to put it in. I want to have twelve marble chairs representing the jurors in the courtroom, in the lobby in a circle.” And he said, “People can sit on them and all of that, but I thought maybe we could put some words on these chairs,” and the thought of that, I thought, there they are in a circle. No beginning. No end. The spectator is ambushed. This is an occasion you stumble into. What I thought was, “Why not have some interrupted thoughts of the jurors on the backs of those chairs?” Things that don’t make, kind of, real narrative sense, but it’s what they’re thinking at the moment. And the challenge of it was and the delight of it was actually the fact that I never knew when the spectator would notice that there was poetry on the back of the chairs and would start to read, so it had to read in a circle, so there was no beginning and there was no end. What happens there was that the words reverberate in that silence of the spectator noticing it in the middle of the lobby. So those are also occasional moments.
I would go on—we could talk on and on—but I mean, one of my favorite things now and with this is a poem that I was asked to write for Big Bird. You know, Sesame Street. You can’t say no to Sesame Street. And what happened was—and I’m gonna find it in a minute. When I was Poet Laureate, Sesame Street contacted me and said, “Would you appear and talk about poetry to kids?” And I said, “Sure!” That sounds like—my daughter loved it. I would get kudos from my daughter at that time, and this is...it was really wonderful to be able to think of what a child would like to hear, and also the fact that there was a huge yellow bird sitting next to you, and so that was really a wonderful moment, and now of course I can’t find the poem because I don’t do this, but I’ll find it and I’ll read it to you later. I don’t want to take up any more time from anyone else here. We have all sorts of things to do, but that’s my take on the occasional poem. Don’t let it get ya down!
(Audience laughter and applause)
Okay? Thank you.
Is it morning still? I share with the other three the same thing. I’m only on four espressos, so I need about eight more. Anyway, it’s a pleasure being here. Obviously this is a subject-matter discussion that’s very fresh in my mind and in my heart, and something that I’m sort of still processing and dealing with.
I’d like to start with sort of, kind of an interesting irony that I found, was—my very first poetry assignment in graduate school, (inaudible), we read some Ginsburg, some Frost, whose that other guy…Whitman. And our take-home assignment was: Write a poem about America. And I went home and scratched my head and was like, “This isn’t (inaudible) America (inaudible) Ginsburg? This is not my America. A little Cuban kid from Miami. But anyway, I find it interesting because that was exactly the same assignment I got twenty years later when Obama called and said, “Write a poem about America.” And of course I thought—this is just between us—but for about five seconds, I was a little cocky, because I thought, “I’ve done that poem.” You know, I’ve been writing about America. You know, really throughout my whole body of work is questioning my cultural identity and place in America, so I thought, “Don’t worry Obama, I...you got...you’ve reached the right number.” So that lasted five seconds, of course, till you face the daunting task of realizing it is like that poem, but then it is an investigating what that journey would look like and just jumping into it. I had to write—I don’t know if it’s common knowledge—I had to write three poems in three weeks. Not just one, but three. So I had to enter, you know, just entering the mystery with that. So I wanted to share some of what that process went through, and I actually detailed a lot of this only because I felt for the poor next inaugural poet—maybe a little handbook of what would happen. A book called For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey. I almost had to write it, because I just... I knew this experience just had to be sort of exorcised out of me, but the creative journey, the spiritual journey, the emotional journey and all the rest and a lot of sort of fun anecdotes, too.
Anyway, a few things I learned was, or relearned, or really, things that are already in regular poems that really are heightened in the occasional poem for me, was this idea, when I came to think of it, that the occasional poem in that particular instance was my first spoken-word poem. It was my first poem, or whatever, that would be heard before it had been read, in my life. And you really had to think about that. You had seven minutes to capture the imagination of forty million people through the ear, and if you didn’t do it through the ear, if you didn’t do it through its performance, the poem was going to go nowhere and literally sort of die right there in the moment. So I really started rehearsing the poem, really started thinking about the poem in the sense of this triangulation that there’s another thing going on. There is the poet; there is the audience right in front of me; there is the audience that wasn’t right in front of me that would read this poem; and the audience of my peers. This sort of triangulation of how do you solve those three things, and how can you satisfy those three things. I rehearsed the poem like I never rehearsed a poem in my life, you can imagine. I rehearsed outside. I built a makeshift podium in my deck and my house in Maine, with a photo of Obama. (Audience laughter) And this is Maine in January, overlooking a bluff, and a snowman that my nephews had built that was falling apart already, and I read to the snowman. I needed to get the sense that this poem wasn’t just something, it was something that was embodied, it was something that, in getting back to that idea of where poetry comes from, right?
We say oral tradition a lot, and we kind of love that; it’s a buzzword. But this was oral tradition right in front of your eyes. This was something about creating a virtual campfire, something that was going to be a story shared, and that, since then it’s taught me to approach every single poem in that way and that every single poem has to, sort of, in some way, pay attention to that oral tradition, because at the end of the day you’re going to get up someplace and read the poem, and you have to create that space, and in some way editing for sound, editing for almost like a musician, like almost going through it like you’re writing notes. How do I reflect this, bolding lines that I wanted to really emphasize, letting it, it’s just like music, right? It starts becoming part of your physiology. Your body starts remembering how to read the poem, and it starts informing you how to revise the poem. And again we say that all the time, and we say that to students: “Oh, read the poem out loud.” It’s not “Read it aloud once”; it’s “Read it aloud twenty times.” Twenty times, until it becomes a part of your body.
The other piece was, which I think was the most important thing for me, which I think sort of touches on what I think everybody here is saying, here on the panel, that in some ways it’s very different than a regular poem, and in other ways it’s very much the same. There are processes that are the same. One, when I search to write a...when I’m in a regular poem, it’s this idea of the emotional center, the poem’s reason for being. With the occasional poem, I think you still have to search that. You have to search, “What about that occasion can I really, really emotionally bond to?” At the end of the day, it’s this irony, and of course with all artists, it’s about the subject matter, but it’s also about transcending the subject matter at the same time. And with the inaugural poem in particular, I had to go through sort of a lot of that emotional search—you know, “Well, what is this?” You know, and at some point I started the poem with the pilgrims landing and by page twelve we were still at the Civil War, and I was like, “What’s going on?” And I was like, “Okay, Richard, who cares about all this crap? Seriously! If I don’t care about it, why?” And I think that’s important to realize. You have to care about something in that assignment. And you have to search deeply, emotionally, just like anything else. Just like an assignment in a workshop: Write a poem about America. Write a poem about an object. You have to find some kind of passion, something that you can connect, and there’s an interesting triangulation there. In an occasional poem, the audience is alive like nothing else. So you have to realize, “What is it that your audience cares about, that I can care about, too?”
In the inaugural poem, to follow that same example, I had to ask some heart-wrenching questions, and one was, “Richard, are you American?” and just at one point I felt, “Well, I’m not quite Peter Brady or Marcia Brady,” so there was that sense of that I didn’t have the emotional authority to write that poem. The other one is, “Do I love America? Can I be honest enough in a poem to say, I can write a poem, can I connect with America in that way?” Questions I had never really been forced to ask, I had explored in my writing, but this was...you know...if I couldn’t answer yes to those questions, might as well call the White House and say, you know, you need to find somebody else for that, this poem. And of course I wasn’t gonna do that, but you know, it really felt that strongly, and for me, luckily, as the mysteries of creativity happen, when you’re putting yourself up there, it was actually Sandy Hook. The tragedy of Sandy Hook happened right when I got this assignment, and suddenly I felt this emotional door open, this connection, feeling that yes, this is my family, this is my nation village. And like every great dysfunctional family, I don’t love everything about America, but in some ways, like those families would come together in moments of great tragedy and great triumph, and suddenly I felt I could write; I gave myself that emotional permission, that authority, that I could pull this off because I cared, because I honestly found something I care about, and more than that, in searching for that, at first when I wrote the inaugural poem, I thought it was sort of a distant poem, that had nothing to do with me in some ways, but as I looked back at the poem, and I’ve been living with it for two years now, it’s one of the most deeply personal poems that I have ever written, in the sense that it circles around the same obsession that all my other poems circle around: What is home? How do we know what that feels like? Everything that that big word calls into place, including cultural identity, national loyalties. How do we go...how do we know home? How do we find home? And the inaugural poem in some ways is just that. It’s a contemplation of how do we all sit around the table and say we’re family and we’re home. So in some ways I realize that yeah, it comes from the same sort of...from that same sort of emotional center, and you’ve got to look for that with the occasional poem, in that way. It has to connect beyond the subject matter while still honoring the subject matter and the audience. Where is that common denominator?
The other thing that was interesting in writing occasional poems—and I’ll share some that I’ve written since then. I’ve been asked to do some weird ones as well (laughs)—that I love. But one of the things was this idea of tension in a poem. When we come to an occasional poem, I think we automatically—and they’re usually poems of celebration and joy, and you know, wedding. And so how do you avoid an occasional poem that becomes a hallmark poem? That’s a very big challenge, more so than when you’re writing your sort of regular poems, where you already have built-in conflict with a loved one, your mother-in-law, or et cetera. You already got tension in there built in; you come to the page ready with that tension. With an occasional poem, most have to find that tension, and it can be very subtle, but it sort of has to be there, and again we’re referring to the inaugural poem; on the one hand it can appear to be very Pollyanna, this idea “One Today”—we’re all one today. But if you really read the poem, it’s really saying, “Well, we’re not really yet there.” You know it ends on this idea, waiting for us to name that hope, waiting for us to map that hope. So it’s this sort of very subtle tension that I knew had to work in there, but it’s also, I think, again, all these lessons sort of overlap into when we write our regular poems, and I think what’s great about the exercise of the inaugural poem, in some ways, is that it makes us re-examine our personal poems and relearn these elements of craft or add dimension to them in ways that maybe we were never forced to think about.
So, you know, I think all those things were really things I’m still loving, and enjoying those discoveries, and keeping, and I have taken them forward in writing my own personal poems—always this sense that every poem in some ways is, again, an occasional poem but also in the sense that it should be larger than yourself, and at the same time, again this great irony of art, the universals and the particulars, sort of applies in the same way as an occasional poem. And in some ways, everything we write is to sit around that campfire and share it, and have an occasion for it. The other thing that taught me was a sense of boundary. Boundary and scale and these kinds of things. I think Rita mentioned about how can something be intimate and yet (inhales loudly)—you know, this grand stroke. And you do need that grand stroke every once and a while. And for that I did actually turn in the sense to nature, in the poem, and to Whitman, and to the very few in our Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry that do have that oracular voice; they reach for a little bit something beyond. But that idea of how the poem started...how I solved it was, the poem started...had these grand Whitman-esque strokes of “One sun rose on us,” you know, nature, the transcendent power of nature. Something that everybody can connect to and can’t deny. Moon, sun, Earth, wind, you know, those primordial pieces, experiences, of nature that we have, and then withdrawing back into the very finite details, to give a clear, crisp picture of things, but also even in choosing those details in a regular poem, I might have been detailing them much more specifically and personally to my own sort of realm of experience. In the inaugural poem, what we had to do was sort of select images that were at once specific and at once open enough to sort of let other people see themselves in the mirror of the poem, but yet, intimately. So, when the poem says, “On our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives,” they are very specific choices. I didn’t say, “On our way to wait tables,” or “clean tables at the diner on 51st Street,” so it’s about echoing an image that’s specific enough that lets it be grand as well. But breathing between these two spaces and then infusing my own personal moments in there, I think to me, was the hardest and most ground…sort of “ah-ha” moments, those little references when I refer to…to “ring up groceries as my mother did / for twenty years, so I can write this poem today.” Suddenly it’s not an occasion poem, it’s not like I’m writing a poem for you; no, I am part of this poem. I am a person in this poem. I have as much a stake emotionally as you who are listening to me. And what this moment’s all about.
So those are really important things that I think you take with you, and I encourage you: Those assignments—do them. Do every single one of them. Nothing but writing, and I think you’ll all agree, writing an occasional poem will turn everything that you think about poetry on its head, reconfirm it, and add to it in ways that no other assignment can. It should be a required assignment at every MFA program. It, seriously, it just makes you look at poetry in a whole other different way and yet arrive at some very common-ground conclusions. Beyond my discoveries in the writing process and the emotional process, there were other things that happen as a result of the occasional poem that were important, and one was that I had subscribed to the idea that nobody reads poetry, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and I granted the inauguration does this at a scale like nothing else in America, but I realized that writing an occasional poem is in some ways a great service that you’re doing for poetry. And not just occasional poems. (To panel) You were saying, collaborations. Anything that puts poetry in the public space, in the public realm, because, you know, we crashed three Gmail accounts from people writing from all over the world. People hugging you in the street and crying. Little kids drawing pictures of the inaugural poem, writing their own inaugural poems. All sorts of wonderful things that you realize when you threw that poem out there, you’re doing something…you were saying something about the ego. Forget the ego—you are also doing something that’s of great service for the art of poetry by just having people connect with that poem, and in many cases it’s the first time that they ever connected with a contemporary voice, and the results are amazing, and that’s what keeps me thrilled about doing occasional poems, and I’ll just share a couple of anecdotes that come up. About time, right? I don’t know why Cubans talk so much, right?
But some of the things that have happened—a couple one is the “Boston Strong” poem, which is a poem that was commissioned to read after the marathon bombings, and again, what was my emotional relationship? I’m not a Bostonian. I wasn’t there. And so, I had to find something I cared about, and it was little Martin, the little boy. And I tried to focus my emotion around that little boy that was a victim of the bombings. I got to read that poem at the opening of the benefit concert, and you could hear a pin drop. Not because it’s my poem, but because everyone knew and expected and wanted a poem. They knew somehow that was the right thing. It was almost like a prayer to open the entire concert. And I mean, I was petrified. Here was Aerosmith. James Taylor. I was opening for them. That was more terrifying than the inauguration, to be honest with you.
One of the most weird ones was: A fragrance foundation called me up to write a poem, and it’s this big fancy...it’s been around since 1946, but it was a poem about fragrance, or about scent. I was like, “What the hell do I do with this?” The organizer who took me out to lunch was crying, and she was like, ‘I want you to write this poem,’ and I was like, “Okay, sure.” The catholic guilt had set in. But the beautiful thing about this poem, again, I took it (inaudible) a creative challenge. As we all know, what is the hardest thing to write about? Scent. Right? And it became a completely autobiographical poem in the sense of, I’m not gonna attempt to think about what other people’s scents are so particular to their lives, but just evoking that space, and reading this poem at Lincoln Center, with Taylor Swift and, was it Justin or Jason Bieber? I forget. (Audience laughter) But again, nobody was clawing for the door. They enjoyed it. This was the first time, probably, that many people had that moment. There was another poem for the tech awards in Silicone Valley that was very similar, and as far as collaborations, you made me think about that and how that also puts things out in the public space. A couple of composers and things that will expand the territory of poetry, as you say. These collaborations can do great things and add dimension, and there was— Oh, one neat project is a constellation project, and what they’re doing—and it’s more up in the Hudson River Valley—they’re creating from this historic building, they’re projecting a constellation, like an artificial constellation in the middle of the valley and writing a poem for that.
So all those great things I just wanted to share with you to not run away from them—to actually invite occasional poems, to actually create them, like some of the assignments. Literally, it’s great learning for yourself; you’re doing great service for poetry, and I think we need that. I think it helps reclaim the public space that poetry has always had historically in our lives, and I think we need that in some ways more than ever.
At my midsize state university in northern New England, our student union building, the Hub, is built around a large, open lobby space with a big fireplace and a hearth. Through the long winter, there’s always a fire burning, lots of big chairs nearby where you can sit and warm up and read and talk with friends. A few years ago, the Hub started holding a ceremony called First Fire, which marks each season’s first lighting of the fireplace. The event consists of brief remarks, lighting of the fire, and a speedy dishing out of doughnuts and muffins and coffee and hot cider in that year’s souvenir First Fire mug. The whole thing happens in the morning in a fifteen-minute window between classes. There are times when my colleagues at school or in the small town surrounding it get the sense that some occasion they’re working on requires the recitation of a poem. I probably should not admit how much I love the sense that as my meteorologist colleague, Lourdes, is called on to help figure out whether the provost should call a snow day, or my historian colleague, Becky, is called to appear at the public library on public radio to discuss regional historical figures and matters, I, too, though not as frequently, am called on. When the First Fire tradition was begun, I got the call asking if I’d be willing to share a poem suited to the occasion. In truth, this was probably just a brief email. In memory, my secret phone—think wall-mounted bat phone behind “Break in case of emergency” glass—rings for the first time in a long time: “Is there a poet in the house?” “Yes, there is.” That first year, when the request came rather last minute, I read a poem by another writer, but starting the following year, I agreed to write one specially. I’m gonna read it now, and I need your help, so...it’s gonna sound really great if you help me out, and it’s gonna be really awkward for all of us if you don’t. So, when I point at you, just say, “First Fire,” all together. That’s also the title of the poem. Here we go.
(Reads “First Fire” with audience participation)
Well done! I would reward you with muffins and cider if I had them. Just a few thoughts. I’ve read and shared other occasional poems at my school, over email and out loud. In my very small pond, way up in the sticks, I am the one full-time poet fish. I think I was invited to bring poetry to the First Fire event, because I’m trusted to be able to write a poem, and/or qualified to pick an appropriate one and read it decently. Write one or choose one; maybe it doesn’t matter too much which. I may have committed out loud, in front of everybody, to writing and reciting a new First Fire poem every year until I die at my desk. This will be an interesting challenge, though, I think. I knew it would feel a little awkward to read this poem to you, with you, although you did such a great job, given that you weren’t part of the occasion’s audience, given that this is not that occasion. Is there a temporary space/time visa I might grant you, to permit such travel? Is there any chance of longevity of my poem, or do certain of its details, a hurricane, a building, an “us,” a “here,” trap it, fossilize it, evaporate it like ephemera? I want to say something here about the lifespan of this poem, of any solicited occasion-bent poem. An occasion. An occasion in time, and the poem stranded there in time with the occasion. A shell of a thing, once the occasion has passed. That’s how I feel about many of the occasional poems I’ve written.
What, on the other hand, might give a poem a chance to wriggle out of the skin of a particular moment in time and space? When I declined a request from someone at my university to compose a poem this year for a particular occasion, I was relieved. I was beginning to feel like a sham—like a hack—like I didn’t have a refusal in me. Like a sellout, on such a small scale. The word sellout, with its connotation of profit, is actually not apt. My realnesses as a poet felt at stake, and in flux, as did, to use the word many of my brilliant panelists have used, my ego, and yet we made a real noise together in the Hub that day. The students loudly and cheerfully shouted “First Fire” as I asked them to, and we made a glorious ruckus at the end. When all those undergraduates, packed to the rafters, were chanting in unison, it reminded me a little of them chanting in unison in the hockey arena or at the football field. What’s more interesting, the similarities between these two chantings or the differences? What do chanting, or hockey games, or my poems offered at my school, at my public university, to my public university, mean or do when my faculty colleagues, so many of them are criminally exploited adjunct labor? When my chanting undergraduates are crushed beneath unconscionable student loan debt, when the very enterprise of public university is under attack? No one has requested that poem. There could be fire in that poem.
My dad used to suggest, frequently, that I write poems about things he was noticing—things about beautiful sunsets or wind in pines. “You should write a poem about this,” he would say. Was it that he imagined that poetry might make the sunset’s beauty or memorability more complete? Might a poet’s transformative filter certify a moment as a special occasion? Or was his not quite rhetorical request just another way of saying, “Wow!”? For a time, I rolled my eyes in response, as what I heard him saying was: “What you have chosen to write poems about is weird. Here’s a normal thing to write about.” I have a file folder inside my Dropbox poetry folder, called “Occasional Poems.” The poems in that folder never get dragged into the Poems Sent Out or the Published folders. Not yet, at any rate. But I do know I’ll be adding at least one more poem to that folder each year for the foreseeable future. I have a job. I got the call. I will get paid in mug and muffin. For fifteen minutes between classes every October, I’ll be a Poet, with a capital “P,” reading at an annual ceremony held as the season turns toward darkness, a ceremony that involves gathering, eating, drinking, incantation, and fire. A poet could do worse.
We have time for a few questions, and then I’m just gonna hold us a minute at the end so we can hear the Big Bird poem, which I think would be the best way to end the panel. If you have any questions for our panelists, I’d love to take them. Thank you.
(Audience member speaks inaudibly)
So to repeat the question, sort of like we’re talking about the not wanting to be too sentimental or Pollyanna-ish or Hallmark-ish when writing a celebratory or commemorative poem. How do you deal with the opposite—not wanting to fall into a really dark, awful, hole? I think he used the word “hole” when writing about a tragedy or a disaster. And just, panelists, speak right into the microphone so the podcast can hear you.
There is the poem that I read, where the soldier was coming to tell the woman her son had died, right? And there’s something about that poem that, yes, it’s tragic, but there’s such a gentle address of the occasion and of the emotions of that occasion, that it doesn’t fall into a sentimentality, but yet, a registering of the tragedy, and what it takes to admit a tragedy and/or see one as well. So that light touch on this situation was what impressed me about that.
I’d say also, it’s no…in some ways it’s no different than writing a personal poem or a regular poem, in that poems and poets always try to seek the complexities of emotions within any given moment, however small or however big, and so moving, of course, we know the tragedy or we know that feeling, but how do we take that to the idea of, perhaps, the idea of the resiliency of the human spirit, the idea...all these things that other poems include, right? I mean, when we write an elegy, there’s always this going beyond that, and we do it in our regular poems; we know the given already, but the poem tries to take us to some other place that’s not the usual suspect emotionally, and I think like most poems, that’s the power of it all in many senses—makes us think about somewhere we haven’t thought of already that in some sense is usually the polar opposite in some ways.
(To audience member) Yes.
(Audience member speaks inaudibly)
How have we decided—why have we decided to say no to certain requests for occasional poems?
I was asked to write one by someone at my university this year, and that person I like, about an occasion I can sort of get behind. It’s been a rough year at our university, and I think...I mean there have been some layoffs, you know, all the searches are off, it’s not telling a story many of you aren’t living yourselves, and I just, I knew, I felt I couldn’t muster the poem that they wanted and then knew they wouldn’t be wanting the poem that I might end up writing, and I just thought, “You know what? I like these people. It’s been a horrible year for all of us. I am not…it’s not gonna be a good match.” And so I said no.
I’ve been asked a lot, and I’ve said no to many poems, of many occasions. I think the thing is that if you cannot—as Liz has said, if you cannot enter into that occasion with a pure heart and an open heart, then there’s no point in doing it. There’s also the sense that if you feel that you’re only window dressing, that you’re going to be...there’s a way of saying, “Oh gosh, we have a poet up there, and this makes it, this makes us big and good,” then no, that’s a deal breaker for me.
Same here. We’re sort of going around the same idea. Again, if I feel I can’t connect emotionally to something, then I just feel like I can’t be honest about the poem. Then, yeah, there’s only been one time when someone asked for me to write a birthday poem about a guy I didn’t know. And I knew that emotionally I would need to know this guy’s family, I would need to know him, or someone, or if he was a public figure I could connect with and have something honest to say. And another occasional poem, well, it wasn’t an occasion, but was only just really funny; I got asked to do a prostate cancer commercial, which was pretty much a no. (Laughs) So things like that, and I think a pharmaceutical company asked to come and do workshops on poetry, and I was like, “I don’t know...”
We have, unfortunately, run up to the end of our time. I want to make sure the next panel has enough time to get in here. And I want to make sure that we end properly, with Big Bird.
Well, I’ll read this. It’s short! Because if you’re dealing with children, it must be short, the poem, and it does have some rhymes in it. It’s called “Perfect Bird.”
(Reads “Perfect Bird")
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