Sunday, February 28, 2010

Good poets: modern, PH on the Hudson

Yesterday was the second of two Saturday afternoon sessions on modern poetry, taught by Michael Heller and spnsored by Poet's House on the Hudson (formerly known as Poet's House).

Of yesterday's poets--Zukofsky and the Objectivists and on, the poems that were the strongest and hit the room's emotional gut were by Lorine Neideker, Toomer, Hughes, Brooks and, sigh, one poem by Bly.

My take on things, certainly. And certainly I admired the brilliance of the Objectivists (MAJOR NOTE: Nothing to do with Ayn Rand). I know individual poets, but as a school, they're new to me. Oh, how I hate to admit that, but I really haven't read Zukofsky, who spearheaded the movement. Oppen, yes, I've read him. Reznikoff, yes. William Carlos Williams, and how. Zukofsky, no but will descend to the third floor as soon as I publish this, find his work to check out.

I look forward to hearing these same--and other--poets discussed in a looser framework. Michael Heller has a lot of information to share and I appreciate his doing so with great enthusiasm and intellect. One quibble is a comment that the Black poets all reflect strains of jazz, and so on, in their work. It's not that such an insight isn't relevant to Toomer, Hughes, Brooks & co., but that such insights are accepted wisdom. A new approach is on the way, I'm sure.

I'm at the library. Almost out of time. Gotta go.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Poem: A Clairvoyant Cartography

The deal of it is
to grow from furiously planted
seed-embryo to human
with sprouted bud toes and worm-
babbling fingers, fish wriggle to
life temporal, reach hazy
for cooing flesh triumphant milky,
spread with delight at the toy,
not lose discarnate intentions
in the cerebral luge.

The deal of it is
100 billion neurons nipping maybe 268 mph,
you might feel jumpy,
ken your system wasn’t designated
nervous for nothing.

The deal of it is
Aristotle wrote it was heart
and not brain cranking think power,
a clairvoyant cartography of mind and body.

life’s a grieving contessa’s veil
shadowed alluring and a gamble
if you’re preset for conventional
beauties. The house always wins,
and tears of joy are a betrayal
when nature guides lemmings,
a confusion because toddling off
a cliff could be the adventure
your neurons ache to spark.

...published in Flaneur Foundry, 2009

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Write it out, girl: just the fax; incest

Mid-1999, I was working for the great Condé Nast empire. At that point I may have still have freelance. My time there was short as it usually is for me. The thing is, that as I stood at the fax machine, punching in numbers to send some document to H.R.--I was not in the great Time Square building where shoulders could brush against Anna Wintour's, but a pale office suite on Madison Avenue--it hit me.

My body registered the strangest and most unexpected muscle memory of incest. Me being as verbal as I am, I received a telegraph from my corpus reading something like: There's a reason you were so remarkably unhappy a teen.

Except it was probably more like the neon extravaganzas up and down Broadway, flashing images. In my case they were not of the latest Hollywood stars.

Taking the long view, which I am able to do spot on (I am supremely logical too often), I wasn't surprised. My weird ups and downs and other various of my emotional states paralleled those I'd read were the case for women who'd been ill-used by family. It made sense--huh, well I saw that coming--and at the same time I was stunned. Flattened.

I decided to trust my body with what it was telling me--and no more. I wasn't going to point a finger or pretend to know specifics. My body hadn't specified, although my memories begged for a rolling list of credits. Equally and more importantly, I wasn't going to let this bit of information fall back into my body for another slug of years. 1999? Jesus, Lord have mercy. I was 50.

I have experience parenting myself and parented this: Best thing it to tell three friends--and soon. I'm still pretty proud I chose to do that. I had--and have--really trustworthy pals who can hear the worst and not faint. I phoned three of them and described exactly what I felt at the fax machine and why I was telling them.

They heard me.

Of course I couldn't resist the fax/facts connection. Even as the first buzz of memory came to me, I thought of Jack Webb, Dragnet, Just the facts, ma'am.

The unpacking of this revelation is the work of a lifetime, conscious or not. In other words, I was unpacking before I could see what was in the suitcase, and once I had access its contents, my unpacking was more useful.

Why tell you this? I am sitting here, reading a novel (Robert Harris' The Ghost, in preparation for the new Polanski movie) (isn't that funny: Polanski, the rascal misuer of young women; sidebar: he should stand trial, though I can never forget what it was like in L.A. during the Sharon Tate murders and trial--Polanski has led a life).

Where was I? Oh, here in this great chair my friend David gave to me (from his living room), with a host of ideas coming to me for possible blog posts, and me pushing them away, preferring not to write. So I have come up with an ultimate tale in the spirit of: Tell it! Say it!

Write, girl. Whether it's about an old difficult memory or a book I'm reading, write, share, there's no reason to keep secrets. Don't wait for some great idea. You already have it. Don't wait.

Note: That's Anna Wintour, up there. I considered using an image of the famous $35 million cafeteria with titanium fixtures, but, hey.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Trying to be positive is trying: keep at it, kid

Here at Silver Lining, Inc., we were considering the fact that each of our 3,000 loving arms had hands and each hand requires a squirt of lotion several times a day; and then we wondered how we could afford enough lotion--we are not cheap when it comes to softness, and carefully read lotion labels {Sidebar: Do you really want a lotion containing drying alcohol, even if they tell you it stabilizes the formula? Answer: Keep shopping)--for lotionary purposes our many hands all of which, like their attendant arms, are loving.

Discouraging, the economics are.

But then we believed in our ability to wrap those 3,000 loving arms around each and every one of you (currently there are 11 followers to my blog, here, on blogspot and another 100 or so from Facebook), so there's arms a plenty. Please note that I'm a good hugger, the kind who emits positive energy that's good to be near, and who'll warmly rub your back. Also, being half Swedish, I have innate talents when it comes to massage. And to massage, come many.

So there. So that's an example of me, I'm sorry, "us," {it's so unprofessional to jump from singular to plural and back, though at least I've pretty much remained the first person and in the first person} turning that lump 'o coal to a diamond, just like Superman did, though I'm not wearing tights or a cape. But there is an S for something-or-other on my heart.

Better believe it. And keep turning coals into Lancaster or Newcastle or lovely warm fires to keep you happy in these brisk months.

Your loving and cheerful blogger: S-S-Sarah

Monday, February 15, 2010

Trying to be positive: Sarah, what are you thinking?

So, in reference to my previous post, my quest to become more positive . . .

I just read Nick Hornby's latest novel, Juliet, Naked. It's a quick, charming read. There's a reclusive former, less-than-Leonard Cohen American rock star, Tucker Crowe, who walked out on success twenty years ago. There's the online cult that's formed to unpack and obsess on his every word. There's an unmarried English couple in their late thirties, Duncan and Annie, who live in Goole, a seaside version of Slough (Slough is where Ricky Gervais' The Office took place).

Duncan's head is up his ass. Annie is sensible. Tucker is irresponsible but the best Tucker Crowe he can be (in the spirit of just being who you are). In Hornby fashion, his six-year-old son is his best friend and companion. (Read About a Boy.) And when he visits England, he and Annie meet up.

What struck me, for purposes of this post, was a comment of Annie's, which I'm editing so I don't give away too much. She mentally runs through some events of the past week and tries to figure where she should land--in self-recrimination or somewhere else.

Or would someone with a sunnier disposition come to the conclusion that the last few weeks contained something like seventeen separate miracles?

Clearly Annie's last few weeks have not involved childhood abuse or earthquakes or assault to her person. She is not a survivor of anything but herself. I have a feeling that my scant knowledge of philosophy past Kant is impeding my moving ahead on this, this being my attempt to analyze my less than cheery view of myself. Did I ever read anything else by Sartre than that trilogy? Which was fiction? Because all this (this) could pound down like a cut of red meat to being a trivial existential dialog between Sarah and Sarah.

Hey, Plato, did you ever play with that one? Socrates: Drink and die. Socrates: Okay.

Well, okay I'm second-guessing myself. Certainly if Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote, Bright-Sided: The Perversity of Positive Thinking, were to know I existed she'd laugh at me. Of course her Nickel and Dimed, about the American worker being used and screwed, served to utterly discourage a huge number of job seekers. I met them. Being right doesn't necessarily strike the right tone so you actually help people.

But I'm only trying to help myself realize enough about my life so I don't continually repeat negative or even sadly neutral gestures. Ah, yes, I'm ever in quest of the good life.

I think it's a good quest. I'll continue.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trying to be positive: a new goal and theme here

About twenty years ago, a friend in Seattle gave me a tape: How to Be Positive. One side was subliminal (they say). The other featured a man with a kind voice filling me with good thoughts about myself (or anyone who listened). New Age hooey?

I told a woman who'd known me since high school. Her response? That's your biggest problem, Sarah, your negativity. My Seattle friend, Lucile, smiled.

Home in my apartment I lay on my fabulous couch, so comfy and roomy it had been and would be the scene of pleasure. I listened. I believe the nice man's voice told me I was being showered with good energy. Within minutes I was crying. He'd hit a nerve.

It could be said that I made my first bid to fight can't-do, negative, disabling, "alcoholic thinking" (via my father) (a most under-your-skin variant of useless thought) at any number of junctures in my twenties and thirties. I read spiritual works, from Baba Ram Das' Be Here Now to Parmahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi to Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men to books by both the St. Teresas (the Little Flower in Lisieux and the Interior Castle in Ávila).

A movement therapist had worked with me on relearning walking so I didn't simply use the outer sole--so I connected with the ground. My shoes wore down more evenly. I continued the work here in New York with Alexander Technique, although my aberration was more subtle.

I had become part of a community--Quakers--that worked toward a greater good--as many religions do. I'm no longer a Quaker but there is nothing to throw off in what I learned. I simply a wanderer.

And on.

But this tape was something wholly new and affirmative, which dandled a nerve running to my core holdouts against "positive" "accentuation thereof."

That was, say 1990. This is, for sure, 2010. Lo! Twenty years later and still I'm on the front lines. See, I'm a very smart chick and reasonably talented, but continue to see myself as a misfit. My theory, all psychological insight aside (just like that) (wipe those Freudian childhood connections from the table) is this ongoing struggle I have with alchemy--transforming the easy conclusion that life sucks to the greater truth--a truth I believe but not in a useful way--that it's joy.

So for the next bit of time I am going to wage that battle here, on my blog. Why? Write what you know and I know this obsession of mine with my obsession. I saw it in my father most with his alcoholic negativity, in my oldest sister, second most, maybe because she was the front line, and, well, I'll stop there.

And by the way, the title of my poetry collection, The Future Is Happy, is not predictive but insistent. The gifts are here. Look at Elie Wiesel or Nelson Mandela. If those two can arm wrestle with the devils and evil after what they've been through, so can simple American me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Open Letter: Finally getting my thoughts together (for Team Poetry at the very least)

This is an open letter to a woman I have only seen (at a poetry reading) but not met; Facebooked (but not met). She sent me an e-mail lovely and self-revelatory and all I could think of was how different we were. I struggled with the differences and responded with some quick tart comments.

And that was that.

That was in late November. I'm not going to explore why it took so long to get my thoughts together. I suppose I should celebrate the fact that I'm not spending another ten years in shame and hostility as I consider a fate (uh, romanticized word) different from mine, (fate: as if I were a Greek maiden who risked Hera's rancor by sleeping with Zeus, or daughter of a tragic hero destined for an eye-catching end). I'm neither; I'm an American woman, for good and bad and bad and good.

My friend wrote--I can't find the e-mails--she was a bit of a loner and suspected I was the same.

And I was off and running on the endless track in my wee brain.

First off, friend, I wanted to say, I am not a loner, I'm a joiner. My ten years in Seattle were joining upon joining. My joining in New York was hampered, true. I attended the world's most unfriendly grad. school which set a pace. For years, New York City was me bouncing against brick walls and I tried to be part of various literary communities. The closest I came was to have my photo in a PEN newsletter with the wrong name identifying me. Last year I volunteered to be part of a jury for a PEN prison writing competition and was told they "were going in a different direction (with PEN members)" which was a lie. PEN members weren't chosen as jurors, something I have strong experience with (jurying), blah blah. More of the same.

I digress. Friend, you've been married, twice as I understand it, have grown children. I am a spinster. No kids. Health issues affecting every adult decade. Allergy issues that had me identifying with The Sleeping Detective so much I couldn't watch. Economic hardship as a way of life.

But that's it. All the above is a way of life. My tendency to see myself as a victim is a tendency and a poor insight into the fates' weavings. It's true that my combination of extreme wit, verbal skill, brains and imperfect body, plus my age (as in my being old enough to have lived through unrestrained open hatred of smart women) has stood in my way but my greatest obstacle to, uh, happiness, a.k.a. self-acceptance has been me.

We were getting to know each other because we share a subversive perspective. The differences--marriage (to a man or woman, I'm open) are not indictments. It may be we are each of us creatures of light and individuality and my only "problem" has been my struggle with my lights and my extreme (yeah, I can be pretty extreme) Sarah-ness.

Emerson wrote, Each man is a unique. This woman is a uniquer unique.

Friend, because there's no point in my going into enough detail to identify you or further blueprint my schema of correspondences and lights Trojan War-long and then some, I'm holding off on specifics.

But let me say this. I remember when I read Lee Ann Roripaugh's second book, wondering how she had the guts to reveal so much. By the time I met Lee Ann, I'd forgotten (me being me), and assured her I found nothing her mother might object to in her work. A week or so later I remembered being blown away by Roripaugh's openness. Other writers, poets, bloggers lead the way in honesty.

In brief: A good writer should be so simple that (s)he has no faults, only sins. [Yeats' journal]
Perhaps: Sarah Sarai was sent to earth to help Team Poetry save the righteous.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I'm a dip, but so what: random cranks

I'm such a dip for not writing more often.

See, what I love about having a blog is that it forces me to write, to write more and with less perfectionism. It works against my tendency, cultivated in childhood's secrecy, to internalize everything. Blogs are clotheslines between the tenements. Hang your unders in public and damn the hatches. Something like that.

Also, I have this "thing" against complaining when, in fact, complaining is the root cause of art. Or one of the roots, along with ecstasy--which is what I want to veer towards, but even the Persian poet Hafez, who knows the divine and ecstasy, wrote cautionary poems, poems warning fellow poets to keep their egos under control.

My last post was a poem from my book. I'd included two "photos"--I found both in Google images as I usually do. I didn't feel either epitomized or complemented the poem, but my "rule" (the rules of the Order of St. Sarah Sarai) is to locate artwork quickly and be done with it. Again, the anti-perfectionist, and also the rule of a person who is a writer and not a photo editor.

I left the Ellis Island photo up but deleted the drawing of a slave ship. It never felt right to have it accompany the poem and that unease was met with comments too far afield. I was reminded of Susan Sontag's treatise Against Interpretation. Or Aristotle telling us, in different words, that a thing is equal to itself. I just couldn't stomach anyone interpreting a sketch of a slaver as looking like anything other than what it is--an implement of torture, genocide and means to the worst form of slavery that world has known (U.S. slavery).

So I took down the photo. I remember years ago when I was editor-in-chief of a small monthly devoted to ethnic arts and issues. A politicized African American group wanted me to print some anti-Jewish statements in an op-ed and I wouldn't. I was criticized but I just didn't see the point.

So that's that. Onward.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Poem: How to Love Your Country



First I suggest you engage in a stripe of
healing like peoples we no longer are
whose transubstantiated hands recognize
energies local-and-guarding-the-heart and
reach in raw to jimmy it open and wounded
but still a heart to salute in its numinous

oneness. Next I recommend admitting
of a buzzing confusion like hallucation’s
chimerical scrim glinting that word diverse
as if fancies of Mother-Father-AllCreative
were even more plentiful than Eskimos’
happy valleys of snow or of snow is the
perdural stew of snowflake christenings

where shapes are recorded in the Book of
Ice Eternal in Great America’s hush-hush
archives. Finally I advise nothing but to
stalk and cherish moments you almost see
the amaranthine beauty of life’s binding
truth: You belong to nothing. You belong.

from: The Future Is Happy (by Sarah Sarai), available at Open Books (Seattle); Unmoveable Books (Brooklyn); who knows where else; and Amazon --

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Polonius on acid: my first blurb

I wrote about blurbs in a previous post.* Now at last I can offer one I've written. It's my first and for a book I admire, Eros & (Fill in the Blank) by Charles Freeland (BlazeVOX). So okay, Freeland's publication isn't about me.

Eh. Tell it to Charles. I'm reprinting my observation that Charles Freeland is "Polonius on acid." It took a few quick passes here and there to write this one paragraph, a few passes then a day of rewriting to create an short equivalent of the 127-page paragraph; to serve as a copywriter, a marketer, a snake oil salesman -- hey -- poetry can be definfed as snake oil, a shiny panacea for the soul. Maybe the next blurb will be easier to write but for now, writing this was for me writing a condensed review THAT WOULD BE ON THE BACK COVER OF A BOOK. Ya know?

So here goes. {For fair balance, as the FDA would say in its specifications on pharmaceutical advertising, I include the other two blurbs.}

Charles Freeland dances under moonlight. The landscape for his delightfully curious insights is visual, symbolic, a work of art and an advanced warning dusted with allusion, playfulness and literary confidence. A poem in prose, an epistolary project, Eros unspools advice wise, subversive and funny; very funny. Sentences tumble, one after the other. Truth rides shotgun to contradiction. I suspect James Joyce has placed an advanced order for this book-length paragraph of lilting depth and joy, as well as Charles Bernstein, Charles Simic, Lee Ann Brown, Frank O'Hara and assorted scholastics and philosophers. Freeland is Polonius on acid. Unlike Polonius, the author is advantaged by having read the tragedy's fifth act while simultaneously knowing pleasures of sensation and the “fact of the human body. Its shape like the modest ginger root.” As only passionate careful writers can do, Freeland offers his readers – you and you and you – his brimming heart on his well-tailored sleeve. On our “advanced planet” Psyche is in danger, Eros cautions – though worth much regard. How bright Freeland's moon. -- Sarah Sarai, author of The Future Is Happy

Freeland's virtuosic proem embarks on an existential madrigal studded with fulgurate reflections, a literary eclair where moments of sharp simplicity will not brace us for constant intimate impact. There are no respites in this single exhalation, both irremediable and brassy in its delivery. Conspicuous blanks are as purloined as the thought-objects that populate this wordscape. -- Kane X. Faucher, author of Jonkil Dies (A Mesophysical Eulogy) and The Vicious Circulation of Dr. Catastrophe

Charles Freeland’s poetic voice is that rarity of philosophical posits intertwined with a language of emotional accord. Eros & (Fill in the Blank) contains poetry of invention, reinvention, musical decency drawing the reader into Freeland’s specialized poetic language. It involves the reader in the aspectual protocol of following the poet’s patterned thought, of allowing for spatial interpretation to engage and familiarize one with the presence of greatness in a work of art. -- Felino A. Soriano, author of 15 collections of poetry, including Various Angles of the Interpretation Paradigm

My post,
Blurb and Be Blurbed, or, as ye blurb . . .

Don't ask, don't use cannon fodder

Who should fight? That's what the armed services are about these days, aggressive action rather than guarding. Former President Bush picked a chump in the bar room and took a swing. Now the country is out in the alley, cheering on his pumped up military descendants.

But the fact is, even with the shock of 9/11, Iraq is not Germany in WW II, nor is Afghanistan. Both countries are symbols of the terror we face, not necessarily the staging grounds. And of course this statement includes an assumption the terror is not within, that connections between the Bush family and the bin Laden family is meaningless, that more important financial interests which are global don't slaver after warfare.

And even assuming America is blameless as a warmonger, it is not blameless, try: it is shameless, as an employer. What's the lifetime maximum for a soldier who loses a limb in combat? $100,000. And other stateside atrocities of neglect of soldiers with bruised bodies and psyches. I have become an Abolitionist in the sense that Abolitionists before and during the Civil War were not about changing the law by using the system. They just wanted to change the law; they knew the system's absolute corruption needed to be blasted through.

But the case being made by Pentagon presidential advisers is that the military needs more soldiers, more cannon fodder. I refer to the military qua institution, not qua various individuals within the structure who are inevitably humane and concerned. I can only refer to what I hear on radio reports or read in the news--alas, the commonsensical and compassionate don't get the microphone.

We already know women in the service are perforce at risk. Instead of being moved forward to the seeming equality of fatigues, women are often enough 'made use of.'

And now because of "thinning ranks" the military is willing to open to gays. No more Don't Ask, Don't Tell providing a "safe" cover. The military is willing to pretend it is suddenly without prejudice--just like that!--imagine!--and allow lesbian and gay women and men to also have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to lose a limb, come back to America, be ill-treated, untreated, abandoned.

Could there be any more transparent ploy?

My suggestion is Don't Enlist, Don't Fight. Don't Ask, Don't Sign the Dotted Line. If any institution in this country needs to open itself to gays, it's Hollywood, not the military.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Flat out for days: dizzy prophecy; creating poetic vision

Life and art wrestled with my life the past few weeks. My e-mail was hacked or spammed--I'm not sure what happened. My word processing programming collapsed in a sullen heap. And then my body spun out of control.

That part was almost fun. I was out late (unusually) with friends. Couldn't sleep. The next day dragged myself to the Met (which sounds loutish--dragged to the Met--but there you have it). I lasted half an hour when I realized something was wrong. I had to sit down. I was on my way out, in the Medieval section and found a bench facing a triptych.

On the triptych was John the Baptist--the Evangelist--preaching to me. I'd already been dipping into Isaiah, which has got to be among the most contemporary of classics (except the classics are contemporary, which is why they last). I'm not a habitual Bible reader though it's always rewarding and for different reasons than Virgil, Neruda, Dickinson, Hafez and others I've kept nearby the past year. I thought about differences between prophets who describe the evil of the times with a clear promise of something new in the future, and those more rare prophets who prepare us to change.

I'm not being very specific here. If you have some familiarity with the Bible, especially with symbolic rather than strictly predictive interpretations of text, you may have some sense of what I'm talking about. Isaiah told us we were living in wild and wrong times. He was right. We are.

St. John said in unequivocal terms the way out of those times was about to--or had--come. What hit me about these two in terms of poetry was the difference in approaches and foundational philosophies. What kind of a poet do I want to be. An Isaiah who, exquisitely describes the Whore (greed) or a St. John who announces the way out (love and humility).

The battle for me, as a poet, isn't between choosing an anti-greed or pro-love background to my writing, but in having the strength of vision to select the broadest perspective possible for my wor and my lovely soul. The soul she is a gentle force.

Our great poets have the greatest vision. I don't want to say one vision is greater than the other, prophetic vision of the Hebrew Bible--the Tanakh vs. Gospels (kindness, humility). That would be limiting and also downright stupid. As a poet who believes it is her job to lead us to a better world, to help create spirit, I work to rid myself enough of my stupid petty attitudes to approximate the Utopian beliefs of any strong philosophy or metaphysical belief ssyten. It's not the specifics, but the vision and intent.

So I staggered out of the museum--the guards were eyeing me, worried I was going to fall into a Picasso like some poor woman did the week before--managed to buy groceries, and by the time I got home collapsed, flat on my back in bed, where I stayed for the greater part of three (yes) days. I get some sort of flu every year but I never had one like this. If I so much as rolled onto my side I was dizzy. For the most part, dizzy or not, I was grateful. My rent is paid. My apartment is warm and safe. I have clean sheets, a phone, the Internet, neighbors, friends; and I'd (prophetically) taken out my comfort blanket--an R.E.I. sleeping bag I've had since I lived in Seattle.

While vision has to be more than appreciation of creature comforts. I am grateful to have to a basic level as a foundation as I struggle to safe the world.