Speech for the release of Cities of rain
I like to think that dangerous sequences of thought sometimes hide themselves in the thicket of writers’ apparently offhanded rambling. Hence, please allow me this rambling—but scripted—proemium to this joyous—or ominous—event, the release of my first real book.
I started writing the earliest poems in Cities of rain around 2005. Poems about desire, about weather, about memory and music. Mostly weather. And not even really about memory; more like forgetfulness. Back then I was also young and innocent enough to write about death. It was a poem about death, a villanelle and my only real formalist poem, that until a few weeks ago accounted for my only publication outside the hive of Honeybee Press and of the tiny, handset broadside the younger poets of Burlington produced on and off, or let’s say produced spasmodically, between 2009 and 2011. The only place you can find the latter periodical today is thumbtacked to the walls of a few bohemian dives around the city, walls whose water-stained comrades in other cities may or may not bear other copies—at one time our little group did a bit of rambling, like I’m doing now. Anyway I was talking about formalism, and death. That brings us to the poem I’m going to read first. It seems appropriate to begin with death, just as my life as a politically aware young citizen began with the “End of History” in 1991, when I was 5 or 6. I remember the dim guestroom of our house then, a room that always seemed to be underground, but wasn’t, and in the air of that room—my mother’s or father’s figure was somewhere in the shadowy periphery, with the head out of view—in that death-still air there registered for my young, panting lungs the palpable sense of a joyous or ominous change in the world. So this first poem I’ll read, “Word/Stone,” came out in Measure, as far as I can tell one of the least reactionary formalist journals, but before I (as the Burlington poetry slam audiences of my adolescence used to chant) “read the fucking poem,” I should say that although the poem’s a villanelle I’ve always written free verse (though then again the first poem I wrote when I was 8, a melancholy doggerel about the Central Vermont sunsets viewed from a ramshackle rented Cape, was in strict anapestic trimeters, with alternating masculine and feminine endings), and, despite cutting my baby teeth on the Central Vermont sunsets and my adult teeth on the slams, it wasn’t until 2010 that I really started writing free verse. By that I mean that it’s not really free verse unless it’s smashing itself against the bars of this world and of literature, trying to escape. I now fervently hope I am a free-verse poet. I’m also an Apollonian formalist, a classicist, a Luddite. When I was in college accumulating debt and bitterness toward liberals and closet positivists, I engaged in a dance of death with the digital world that at that time was irrupting like a luminous cancer into the center of the real. Before ever having seen a letterpress, I’d written half of a verse novel about one. I abandoned that novel late in 2010, when it became obvious that almost all of it had come true.
I met Ben Aleshire in 2009 (we’d met before, as had both of us with the teenage Nick Spengler, independently, in a triple stroke of destiny), but in 2009 we ran into each other in the Radio Bean, which is the bohemian cafe bar here in Burlington, and Ben told me he was starting a magazine. Had I heard of Combat Paper and the Green Door Studio, he wanted to know. The Iraq vets who shred their uniforms, make them into paper, and print anti-war propaganda on them with a hand-crank Vandercook II? I used to live with some of those guys, I said. That’s right; we can use their press, said Ben. Then he said he had to go to work. It was almost midnight. Ben had already begun his career as a third-shift reader of poetry at local group homes. As he made his lonely bike journeys to one or another of those places on the outskirts of Burlington, places whose youthful inhabitants he would never see but whose sleeping young inhabitants, or inmates, surrounded his sleepless nights with their sweating dreams of bravery and disaster; as Ben sat there reading poems by lamplight I would walk home through the North End composing poems like “Night Walk” (p. 31) by streetlight, or else Ariel Wengroff (p. 29) or Estefania Puerta (p. 30) or Brendan Dempsey or Annie Doran would show up at the Bean, and we’d talk poetry or politics until the night began to rot and fall apart over the North End like a gourd as vast and dire as the heavens.
At the end of 2010, wracked with fear and despair, I decided to become a schoolteacher. Then the year 2011 was upon us, a year I immediately felt was to be the first real date of my life, a date worthy of inclusion in poems. I knew this in early January, before anything had happened. Interminable months later, I found myself walking down North Street and taking seriously for the first time the news I’d heard days before,that Wall Street had been “occupied” by anarchists and by the neo-Situationists around Adbusters magazine, a magazine I’ve read with fear, disgust and reverence since I was 15 or 16 years old. Of course the North Americans had arrived late; by then it was fall and the slavering zombie called the End of History had been buried for the umpteenth time in the green graveyards of the Arab Spring. Anyway the year 2011 burned itself into about half of these poems, which were written in that year, and also, believe it or not, into poems written long before the Spring, the Fall and then the Maple Spring. 2011 has burned its ghostly image into those poems too, by a trick of the light that allows dates or poems to refract through the thick, fluid medium of Time, and meet each other or each other’s tattered, inside-out shadows in mid-flight.
Now we’ve arrived at the balmy, apocalyptic date of 2012, and I’m glad you’re all here with me, especially Ben Aleshire, and all the Burlington poets, especially my brave and self-sacrificing teachers and comrades past and present, and especially Cécile Reuge (p. 25).
— Burlington, September 2012