“All that a man knows, and needs to know, is found in Berkeley.”
-W.B. Yeats, mispronounced by Jack Spicer
Some things are worth waiting for. I submitted “Reading James Joyce at the Berkeley Marina” to Berkeley Poetry Review in January 2013, and it was accepted in August that year. However, due to the Editor-in-Chief’s struggle with a major illness, my contributor’s copy just found its way through my mail slot here in England this morning.
The issue must be something of a small victory for the editor, which he writes about in his preface. It is for me too. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I applied to a creative writing workshop with some of my poems. I still recall standing outside the classroom door, reading and rereading the list of accepted students, my name not on it. Little did I know how fitting an introduction to the writing life this would be.
This issue is a tome, featuring poets from Ashbery to Hass, filled with terriffic historical documents, letters, concrete poems, and sketches. It is a kind of tribute to Berkeley’s intellectual and artistic history in its way. Needless to say I am eager to get stuck in to it.
You can order this issue, or subscribe, at the Berkeley Poetry Review website. Here also is a photo of my poem.
“All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.”
Love and loss have been very present with me lately. Such thoughts were recently punctuated by the heavy thud of a parcel dropping through our mail slot — my contributor’s copy of The Book of Love and Loss.
The anthology weighs in at nearly 400 poems, and reads like the roll-call at a meeting of the Highgate Poets. It also features English laureates Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy, Welsh laureate Gillian Clarke, children’s laureate Michael Rosen, and Frieda Hughes — daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I was also pleased to see Carrie Etter’s Birthmother Catechism series represented here as well, having recently heard her read these poems at the Swindon Festival of Poetry.
Following on from the dedication, the work seems to be its own labour of love, and tribute of sorts, to the recently-departed UA Fanthorpe. It also aims to give solace to any who grieve, and seek comfort in the music of language. For this reason, it is an honour to have my poem “The Silence Teacher” among its pages.
Belgrave Press, Bath (Hardbound, 384pp, £12.99)
Geosi Gyasi is an avid reader and blogger based in Ghana who has interviewed a wide range of authors over several years.
He discovered my work through a poem recently published in Rattle, and asked some interesting questions in our interview — about how formal study has influenced my poems, about how I see technology shaping poetry, and the best thing that has ever happened to me as a poet.
I also talk about why the human element is so important to me in world of word-play, and give a sneak peek at what readers might expect from my forthcoming collection The Knowledge.
You can read the full interview here at Geosi Reads.
I first encountered Seamus Heaney in person during my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. I had originally been admitted to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science double-major program, having won two of the university’s most prestigious scholarships, been introduced to the Chancellor, assigned a high-ranking advisor from the Engineering faculty, and generally been welcomed to campus as a potential next Bill Gates. This was during the height of the dot-com era, when venture capitalists wooed by the poetic visions of high-tech courtiers flung open (seemingly) bottomless coffers.
Imagine the look on my guidance counselor’s face when I told her that I wanted to transfer into the English department. My grades were good; what was wrong? I told her that I simply wanted to pursue something more — how could I say it? — human. She suggested that I consider a career in the exciting new field of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research.
After signing a legal contract wherein I promised that I would not, under any circumstance, try to beg my way back into the Engineering department, I found myself sitting auditorium-style with three hundred other students, eagerly attending a lecture by Robert Hass. Within minutes, I felt all three hundred students disappear, and I seemed to be sitting fireside with my favorite poetry-loving uncle. Professor Hass mentioned that Seamus Heaney was returning to Berkeley to discuss his new translation of Beowulf, and to read some poems. He encouraged us all to attend.
“Meditation at Lagunitas” is a classic Robert Hass poem. The reading experience is similar to that of some of his other best poems: what seems causal and at times abstract ends up fusing into something transcendent. Hass is an expert at successfully and convincingly dropping in bold, general statements, as in the oft-quoted opening of this poem: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” His success from this point on depends on his ability to simultaneously veer wildly away from this central idea into specific detail and lyric refrain — and yet contain and encompass all his seemingly unrelated musings within this expansive theme.
Hass alternates between philosophical statements and strong, carefully-chosen images, upping the ante each time. The first pairing is: “The idea, for example, that each particular erases / the luminous clarity of a general idea” with the image “[t]hat the clown- / faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk / of that black birch is, by his presence, / some tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light.” Here abstraction and specificity fuse in the first moment of elaborating on the theme of loss. The second example only escalates and develops this theme with “…the other notion that, / because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds, / a word is elegy to what it signifies.” Again, drawing on the detail of nature (ostensibly details gathered from Lagunitas), Hass develops the theme of loss outward into the ineffable — into the marvelous idea of naming (an archetype, as in Adam from Genesis) turned on its head to be a kind of elegy, or consolation for loss.
This was probably our easiest intercontinental flight yet, thanks in part to the inadvertently educational in-flight entertainment system. We caught the tube all the way up to Golders Green (no apostrophe there, for historical reasons — this excuse covers a multitude of sins in England) — to spend some quality time with Val’s delightful musician friends, their lovable elderly golden retriever, and two cats. We took Gilly (the dog) for a brief walk in the park after a nearly-fatal nap, ordered in some Chinese food, and began setting the world to rights.
Today we are resting (I’ve been reading Robert Hass and an essay by Richard Jackson on imitation that will fold nicely into my upcoming talk), adjusting to the new time, and getting ready to head down to Portsmouth tomorrow to visit Val’s oldest school friend. The following day we’ll catch a ferry to the Isle of Wight, then back to Golders Green on Wednesday. I hope to bring back some photos of the lovely South coast, and to get some more reading done on the train there and back.
I have set up a Flickr map (thanks, Nathan) and plan to add pictures as we go.