Friday, May 26, 2006


Port Townsend, Washington - Poets Against War, Sam Hamill, Sake, Shore Birds

I'm just back from several days staying with Sam Hamill and his wonderful wife Gray Foster for a national Poets Against War board meeting. They were both lovely and generous. My first time meeting Gray, a painter and the director of the local Habitat for Humanity program. Port Townsend, WA - rain, occasional sun, Olympic mountains peeking through the mist, ferries, slugs, Puget Sound, shore birds, more rain.

One night we stayed up late celebrating the news of a second printing for Sam's book Almost Paradise: Selected Poems from Shambhala. Sake. Many, many cigarettes. Sam asks if I like Cow Jazz. Not understanding, I give a look like Lay it on me. Gray smiles her wry smile: Country music, she says. I do! And Sam's got Waylon Jennings on the stereo, he's singing along, telling how one time he drove 1,500 miles from San Francisco to Phoenix just to see Waylon. Sam says Waylon does much more interesting things with language - sly rhymes and double entendres - than Billy Collins does.

The conversation turns to the Black Mountain poets: Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley. I admit to not knowing Duncan's poem, "My Mother Would be a Falconress," so Sam goes out to his enormous library behind his writing studio (6,000 volumes destined for Ohio State University), comes back and reads to us this extraordinary poem. And I agree with him: it should be in every anthology of 20th century American poetry. Shocking, stunning, heart-wrenching poem. (Follow the link above to the Academy of American Poets' site to read the poem and hear audio of Duncan reading it in 1969.)

The conversation shifts - ambition for the writing comes up. Sam, who was responsible for Copper Canyon publishing June Jordan's Collected Poems (which just won a Lambda Literary Award), even though it came out after he left the press, talks about admiring Jordan's ambition, the willingness to fall flat and get back up and succeed brilliantly, sometimes in the same poem.

I say I think it's harder for women to be ambitious in their poetry than men and this elicits a howl of protest from Sam, who has misunderstood me, thinking I mean it's harder for women to publish. In fact, says Sam, it's too eay - we're all writing for our little niches, a disastrous turn for American poetry. It takes a long time, and a good deal more sake, for me to convince him that I mean it is an internal struggle for women to be ambitious in their writing; that I, for one, am constantly battling the powerful injunctions of childhood to behave, be a good girl, not put myself on display, not make a spectacle of myself. The constant tut-tutting of the British ladies in my head (two elderly such gals played a big role in raising me) mean that it is hard, hard, hard to make a fool of myself, to have big goals for a poem; the small successful poem is much easier.

So we toast the second printing. I tell Gray and Sam again how wonderful it is to be here. And it is. I think. I learn. I stretch. I say goodnight, head to my comfy room behind Gray's painting studio, curl up, sleep the satisfied night away.

Tomorrow: Report on Day 2: Fort Worden State Park, the Poets Against War board meeting

What a great telling of a wonderful evening. Thanks for sharing the Duncan -- I hadn't read that piece either.
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