Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dana Gioia on Writing a Poem

Be present.  “Be present” is my January 2014 mantra.  Providentially, Dana Gioia, public intellectual reinforced poetry’s role in being present, the quality of poetry with which I fell in love.

"...a poem calls you to be present," remarked poet, critic, professor and formere NEA Chair, Dana Gioia, to Professor Lucy Wilson's poetry class at Loyola Marymount University, Tuesday, January 28th.   Gioia, immediately following his keynote address to faculty for LMU’s Mission Day, brought poetry to life for LMU’s poetry students.  The performative recitation of poetry is an art, and one that Dana Gioia has mastered.  If you want someone to love your poetry, give them a quality story, insight and performance, invite them into your poem with the chant, song and dance, the origins of poetry’s musicality.

Poetry’s invitation at the collegiate level first came to me through Professor James Brasfield, poet, translator and professor currently at Pennsylvania State University, State College.  Brasfield enacts a similar call to students of poetry, and I'm proud to be included on that roster.  James Brasfield reads poems with conviction, alerting his listener to the revelations unfolding.  I comprehended the sacredness in the music of the poem when, mid-reading, Professor Brasfield paused.  An extended caw outside our classroom window increased.  Only after the bird took flight, leaving silence in its wake, did Brasfield continue.

The transcendence of true beauty, as Gioia described in his keynote address, arrests us.  True beauty, that which transcends, derives from Truth.  And it is a transcendent experience to take audience when Dana Gioia recites poetry by heart.  In this performative act, he invokes poetry’s primal place in human history.  Rhymes helped our ancestors, and helps us, too, remember epic tales, famous stories and, in our case, nursery rhymes.  Our recording keeping originates in the oral tradition long before the written word.  Gioia calls all artists to give the gift of beauty through art—that is to enact, in his case, the full realization of the art’s potential.  While privy to poetry recitations by Dana Gioia, don’t take notes.  Watch Professor Gioia as he invites you into the music, imagery and metaphors of a poem—a universe held in the palm of our hands, resonating from our ears through to our hearts, our whole selves, our souls.

A student pointed to John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" as her favorite poem.  His seamless response: 

"But we by a love so much refined,
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat."

Gioia’s audience feels his passion for poetry.  A passion fortified by intellect and steadfast, ceaseless study, brow sweat and craftsmanship.  Gioia presents a poem with his whole self.  He is a poet who enacts his call to artists to strive toward true beauty.  When performing poetry recitations, Gioia provides that moment of arrest akin to beholding the Sistine Chapel for the very first time.

For him, Gioia confided to the LMU students, writing a poem is like creating a room.  Drawing upon the music of poetry, the poet invites the reader into the room.  Once there, the reader finds the room half furnished.  A skilled poet helps the reader to hone in on the universe at hand (my metaphor not Gioia's) and the reader fills in the details.  That is the reader participates in the poem furnishing the other half of the room using clues the poet has labored to sharpen.  Professor Gioia discussed details that he took out of poems to help the reader focus.  In the case of his beloved poem, “Planting a Sequoia,” Gioia chose to eliminate detail that the action of planting the sequoia happened on Christmas Eve.  Gioia compared poetry's musical origins (song, choral dance, and chanting) to today's pop songs, Dancing with the Stars, and hip-hop, respectively.  We enjoyed the music in his ballad, “Summer Storms”.  “…To my surprise, you took my arm—/ A gesture you didn’t explain—”.  Though largely ignored by contemporary American poets, the ballad form, Gioia pointed out, is widely enjoyed in pop, folk, and country music.  Upon reading his poem, a double-triolet, “The Country Wife,” Gioia imparted that forms relying on repetition such as the villanelle and triolet lend themselves well to emotions that obsess over or that we can't seem to get away from with ease.   The country wife “makes her way through the dark trees/ down to the lake to be alone./ The night reflected on the lake,/ The fire of stars changed into water.”  

If you have a passion for poetry, Gioia's essay, "Can Poetry Matter?", is a must read.  During the private readings and conversations in Professor Wilson’s course, Dana Gioia brought me into the present moment through poetry, at once reminding me of the moments I first fell in love with poetry in Professor James Brasfield’s intro to poetry.  A poem calls us to the sacramental present.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"Munch" by Yonathan Berg

After falafel at Jaffa Gate, Yonathan and I had more time to refine our English translation of his poem, "Munch," as follows.


Roses of ice in the ash
dark water growing in the evening
there is a field of moon trees
one human animal is trapped.
The crystal of the spirit abandons the child
from all he witnessed.
The shadow of the hill
corroded by violent night storms,
a grieving mother, Earth,
in the empty room arises
the face of the screamer.
From a wooden gate, the flowers are vanishing
into the dark water
the heart of everything is dead
A curse is a scarf upon the possibilities of cerulean
These are exhales from broken teeth.
These are pure elegies in a demolished land.

By Yonathan Berg
Translated w/ Jennifer Styperk

Monday, August 20, 2012

Yonathan Berg, poet

       As a part of our H=ART artist residency program in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, we met with Israeli and Palestinian arts.  Yonathan Berg, Israeli poet, living in Tel Aviv, met with us in East Jerusalem at the Gloria Hotel on Monday, July 30th, 2012.  Yonathan shared his poetry with us, and in order to do so, shared his experiences growing up in an ideological settlement, serving in the Israeli army, traveling post-military service, and his current life as a poet and columnist.  Most of all, he re-reinvigorated for me the ways in which the poet can and must deal with even the most intense topics.

Berg says, "As a poet, my toolbox is enough to deal with and approach everything.  I can face 5,000 years of philosophy, art, culture, religion, humanity, history."  Furthermore, Berg implores poets to have the courage to deal with intense topics.  This is the very advice I take to heart as I blog stories from my artist residency trip.  

Schooled in a strict, orthodox institution, Berg prays, sings and attends synagogue, though he cites poetry as the most exciting and correct replacement to the orthodox practice he left behind in his childhood.  He implores all of modern man to be sure they sing, literally sing, and often.

When thinking of his childhood, he remembers green grass, playing outside and joy.  Looking back on enlistment into the army at 18, he notes that service men and suicide bombers are the same, each in that gap between youth and having a family of one's own.  He goes on to say each are equally confused and influenced by a strand of fundamentalism.  This understanding he exercises in his own poetry, for example, he features an Israeli boy playing on a settlement noticing a Palestinian boy in the distance.  "...the look of my neighbor from Ramallah..." is the same look of other children playing.  "Earth becoming mud" from the storms of turmoil brings the reader to "how the present works." "...Step into rage as a living room....houses are set up as a punch."  From small boys playing to homes being demolished, Berg shows in his own poetry the ways in which this art form uniquely holds contradictions and juxtapositions, and reveals forgotten similarities in just one short line.

"I lost dear friends," Berg says of his time in the IDF.  "My best friend died in Hebron."  Twelve from his unit died that day and, Yonathan, a senior soldier, had to go to the morgue to identify his best friend and other mates from his unit.  Of his best friend, Yonathan feels that "I [Yonathan] am a living memory."  I saw his face while I traveled after my service, whether in India, Malaysia, or at beaches in Columbia.  Berg struggled with the fact that "I'm [Berg] here and he is not."  As his friend's living memory, he believes his poetry serves as a living memory, a candle, remembering and honoring.

He advises current Israelis to discuss openly the effects of PTSD suffered by all the servicemen and how this widespread condition affects Israeli culture.  When asked about the current politics of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Berg says, "We need to give Palestine a state.  Take out the settlements.  Solve this through conversation."

My lecture followed Yonathan's and I was pleased stayed.  After lunch, he and I translated two of his poems into English and two of my poems into Hebrew, marking a very meaningful collaboration for me and a highlight of my H=ART residency.

Roses of ice in the ash
dark water growing in the evening
there is a field of moon trees
one human animal is trapped
the crystal of his spirit
departed after all that he witnessed as a child
the shadow of the hill
destroyed by storm winds in the night
A grieving mother, Earth,
in the empty room
the face screaming
flowers are vanishing into the dark water
the heart of things is dead
A curse is a scarf on the possibilities of the cerulean sky
These are escapes of breath from broken teeth.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dheisheh Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank

Rafi, our tour guide, greets us at the bus stop outside of Dheisheh.  Smiling, Rafi says, "My Mom always tells the story of getting torn from our homes, taken to a camp for what they understood, what they trusted, would be a few days.  Never to be allowed to return again."  Rafi, his Mom and now his family are one of more than 750,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes following the early Zionist Militia and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.  Dheisheh is one of the fifty-nine Palestinian Refugee Camps.

Stepping off of the city street and into the refugee camp, we smelt the single location for the camps refuse.  Prior to the country of Japan funding plastic sewage pipes, all of the camps refuse flowed in central, open ditches in the center of the streets.

In 39 degree Celsius weather, we walked up and down the narrow footpaths weaving between original 1948 slab constructions and the generations of men who have added on in order to house the third, fourth and soon fifth generations living under occupation and interned to refugee camps.  Walking below clothes hanging out to dry on the line, we hear from a window a small boy saying, "Hallo.  Hallo.  Hallo."

As we round the bend, inches away from doors and makeshift stoops, the little boy's mother comes to her front door.  "What is your name?" she asks me.  "Jennifer," I reply.  She smiles politely and shyly asks again, "What is your name?" and my reply still puzzles her.  We laugh together and I ask, "What is your name?"

She welcomes us and wishes us health and happiness in Arabic, and wants Rafi to tell us that her 21 year old son is imprisoned with 17 life sentences for protesting the occupation.  A school girl passes our group.  After Rafi greets her and ascertains that she is learning English in school, I ask her, "How are you?" and she responds, "Fine.  Thank you."  I tell her, "great job," and she squints, looking puzzled in return.  Rafi went on to explain that their under-sourced schools had been forced to follow Jordanian curriculum from 1967 until only a few years ago.  Outraged he says, "Imagine.  Not teaching English until the 5th grade.  How much more difficult it is to learn."

While examining political art, cartoons, drawings and graffiti on the walls of the camp's cinder block homes, Rafi points to a brightly colored drawing of butterflies, flowers, sunshine and green grass.  "We encourage the children.  To hope for a better tomorrow.  Not to go the way of violence."

In the cartoon (pictured to the left), a famous writer is told, "I like your article on democracy.  What are you writing next?"

To which the older writer, huddled over his desks responds, "my will."

In another cartoon, an elderly, pacifist says, "I will cut my mustache if one piece of land is given back to Palestinians."

In the next frame, the man's mustache reaches below and outside of the cartoon frame.

11,000 refugees inhabit less than one square kilometer of land.  With two under sourced schools, one for each gender, and one doctor serving the community, the physician often sees over 700 patients a day.

Original UN cinder block constructions are 9x9 and originally intended to serve 4 to 6 people.  Today descendants have up to 40-80 men, women and children populating each.  While some choose to add-on, there is no guarantee it won't be torn down or built unsafely.  Pictured to the right is the original outhouse, the only bathroom facilities provided, serving up to 400 people daily at one time.   

After exiting, we again walk underneath a large, looming political poster featuring two young men who died fighting for "the cause," meaning the right to return to land.  It is only upon exiting do I notice the rainbow colors painted on the fence posts.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Palestinian Territories & my H=ART residency

Olive Tree
Beit Sahor

Many thanks to everyone for inquiring after my artist residency and trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  Below is an outline of our tours, meetings and program over the course of July 23-August 5th.

Day 1

Tour of the ICB (International Center of Bethlehem)
Church of the Nativity
Sheperd's Field

Dheisheh Refugee Camp Tour and Visit

Day 2

Via Dolorosa
Western Wall
Dome of the Rock
ICAHD Tour (Israeli Coalition Against Home Demolition)

Day 3

B'Tselem meeting
Yad Vashem; Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem

Day 4

House of the Patriarchs
CPT (Christian Peacemaking Team) Meeting and Tour

Day 5
Dead Sea

Day 6
East Jerusalem

Arts Program; intros
lectures by Gassaf Gavron and Francisco Avila

Day 7
East Jerusalem

Arts Program
Lecture by Yonathan Berg & myself

Day 8

Arts Program
Dar al-Kalima
Lecture: "Palestinian Art: Art of Resistance or Aesthetics" by Faten Nastas Mitwasi, Chairperson of the Visual Arts Department & presentation by Alynn Guerra

Day 9

Arts Program
Dar al-Kalima
Lecture: "Palestinian Film" by Rama Mari
Painted on the Wall at Checkpoint 300

Day 10

The Olive Tree Campaign Tour

Day 11

Milk Grotto
Casa Nova

Open Studio Time

Day 12
Tel Aviv

Morning Mass, Grotto, Church of Nativity
Grand Beach Hotel Rooftop Pool and Mediterranean

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dana Gioia Reflects on our Times

A pivotal benediction in my year has been discovering a great poet of our time: Dana Gioia.  Until I am able to write my own comprehensive, critical response to the businessman poet, public intellect and former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, I'll share with you a meaningful, intelligent examination of Gioia's NEA accomplishments and his latest collection of poetry, Pity the Beautiful, published in The Catholic World Reporter.

"In Pity the Beautiful, the depth and variety of the poems makes rich fare. His own finely crafted works—musical to the ear, pleasing to the eye, and written in several interesting voices—include tales of married love, of what seemed to be love but wasn’t, of love lost or remembered; a long ghost tale told by a monk; satirical jabs at soulless modernity; songs from his libretto for the opera Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast; a profound parody of the Beatitudes; and tender personal poems remembering his father and his son. An additional delight is the inclusion of several of Gioia’s masterful translations from Italian poets Mario Luzi and Bartolo Cattafi."  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wislawa Szymborska

Today, a beloved poet of mine, Wislawa Symborska has passed. It is most fitting to recite her poem, "A Few Words on the Soul," at this time. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Szymborska published her poem on the elusive topic of the human soul in her collection titled, Monologue of a Dog. The jacket art of this book, a reprint of a Joseph Cornell work, is appropriate as we aim to classify that which is tangible and intangible, of the flesh and of the spirit, in science and beyond science.

Symborska begins "A Few Words on the Soul" by characterizing the human condition to be at times and at times unaware of the soul. Though, in truth, Szymborska takes that a step further and says, "We have a soul at times./ No one's got it nonstop,/ for keeps." In my mind the human body does not entirely possess this spirit, this spiritual side, that we feel. Is Wislawa saying that the soul comes and goes even as we are walking around on the earth in bodies?

Absolutely. "Day after day,/ year after year/ may pass without it." She discusses the mundane tasks during which the soul finds other engagements. The soul "steps out" when we are moving, carrying suitcases, wearing shoes that hurt, and when beaurocratic forms need filling. There are many chefs that would disagree when Wislawa references food preparation as another time with the soul retreats. Though I couldn't agree more with the soul taking off during mundane, rote conversations. Where does the soul go? What are these other engagements? Are they as lofty as our human ideals?

"It [the soul] prefers silence./...Joy and sorrow/ aren't two different feelings for it./ It attends us/ only when the two are joined." My soul is here, joined with my intellect and artistic inclinations and passions to honor Wislawa Symborska, a great poet of our time, and a poet native to my ancestral land, Poland.

"[The soul] won't say where it comes from/
or when it's taking off again,/
though it's clearly expecting such questions."

And, in the words of my paternal grandfather, Thomas Styperk: "well, Ace, she knows what it's all about now." To Wislawa's soul, I raise a voice in prayer and poetry.