Friday, November 21, 2014

Elizabeth Gordon McKim: A Poet of the poem. A poet of the people.

Elizabeth Gordon McKim

Elizabeth McKim: A Poet of the poem. A poet of the people.

Interview by Doug Holder

Elizabeth Gordon  McKim is not just about getting her own work out there. A respected educator, poet and influential member of the Expressive Arts Movement, McKim engages the community, other artists, and students, so they too can realize their creative potential. As the poet, and McKim's partner Etheridge Knight said:" You must be a poet of the poem, and the people". McKim is the embodiment of this.

Elizabeth Gordon McKim has published five books of poetry, the latest being The Red Thread (Leapfrog Press). She is a teacher, performance poet, spoken word artist, and has been an adjunct professor for forty years in the department of Creative Arts in Learning at Lesley University. McKim is the poet laureate of the European Graduate School, and the Jazz Poet of Lynn where she lives, in a renovated shoe factory. She is included with four others in the new anthology, Wild Women of Lynn, published by Blaine Hebbel and The Ring of Bone Press.

I had the pleasure to interview her on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: You were intimately connected with the famed prisoner poet and civil rights activist Etheridge Knight. Can you tell us about your life and times with him?

Elizabeth McKim: I knew him in the last decade of his life. He died in 1991. I met him through a poet in Worcester, Mass., Fran Quinn. We were both going down to work in the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was in the late 70s. Fran thought we should stop in Memphis where he was living. He was married at the time to a woman from Worcester, Mass. And here, I heard him read his poetry. And that was very important for me because he was one of the best readers of poetry I have heard. I never got bored, even when I heard the same work over and over again. He had a major belief in the poet, the poem and the people. He reminded me never to forget your people when you are reading or they will forget you. When I teach children I tell them not to forget their people—speak up and speak out!

There were a lot of things that were connected with music that Etheridge knew about. At Goddard College, where I got my Maste'sr Degree, I learned so much about movement, breath and song. This went well with Etheridge and his work. He did have an amazing message for black men, but it really did spread out from there. The manuscript I am now working on now has several essays about him, interviews, and poems. I have a lot of his papers and eventually I plan to put them in a university archive. I did spend a year and half in Indianapolis where his family lived—it was a wonderful community of artists. Here I learned how community can be so important to making art. I learned how people inspire each other—painters with poets, etc…

Etheridge, when he was first in prison, at Michigan City—wrote his first book of poetry. He was published by the Broadside Press—a very important press for Black poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, etc…, all of whom were published there.

DH: You have been described as a pioneer of the Expressive Arts Movement. What is that movement exactly—as you understand it?

EM:  The Expressive Arts Movement, more or less started in Cambridge, Mass. at Lesley University. A man named Shawn McNiff , who was an expressive therapist at Danvers State was an instrumental figure here. He believed that language, paintings, movement, etc… all inform one another, especially working with the healthy side of people. Creativity is the important thing. They named discipline at Lesley “The Expressive Arts Therapy.” Antioch College in Ohio, and Goddard had small programs at that time, but now there are centers across the country and the world. Appalachia St. University has one, there is a center in Toronto, another fine one in San Diego—to name just a few. I always think of Allen Ginsberg’s, who said “ All I wanted to do was to get back to the body where I was born.” In some ways that’s what the expressive arts are all about. We now train students to get out in the community and work with conflict resolution in the community. They are in rehab centers, prisons, etc..

DH: Tell me about this organization “Troubadour” that you are involved with?

EM: It is a consortium of singer/songwriters, poets, writers, going out and working in the schools. They engage the students through different art forms. They work to increase literacy—they try to turn the kids on. We make partnerships with the schools, get funding etc…

DH: You are the Poet Laureate of the European Graduate School in Switzerland. What is that about?

EM: The people, who started this, were the people who started out at Lesley University. Folks like Paolo J. Knill, Steve Levine, and Sally Atkins. They started the school there. It is between Geneva and Zurich. We stay in an inn—and believe it not the innkeeper built the school for us. In addition we have a partnership with New York University. We help people work in the community with others. We have visiting artists, lectures—there is a PhD program—we even have a small school in South Korea.  We need all this in these times of deadening violence. The arts are crucial in all the different aspects of living. We teach compassion. We ask students to think about what’s like to be another person? And hopefully the other person will learn to ask what it is like to be in the “other's” shoes. It is important to think outside of yourself.

DH: Tell me about this “ Wild Women of Lynn” anthology you are involved with. How are you guys wild?

EM: Blaine Hebbel was a major force behind this. We are wild and mild. Inside every person who is creative, there is that wild, creative storm.

November 21,2014

All the leaves are gone
Away/ and gone to glitten
Where are my mittens?
Brilliant chilly-wind
Stirring my remembrances
On the way no where
Give the love...
The lasting pleasure.
Give it in full measure.
Find the fruit. Be at
The special spot. Beat the drum.
Be here. Be there. Be where?
Again and once again.
Bear it. Wear it. We are it!
What else do we have?
We do desire it!

--Elizabeth  Gordon  McKim

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Molly Lynn Watt's "On Wings of Song" flies high

Molly Lynn Watt's "On Wings of Song" flies high

 Review by Bert Stern

 To order go to  Wings of Song

 "On Wings of Song" ( Ibbetson Street Press) is a clear-eyed account of racial oppression in the US and of the people, black and white, who struggled to end it. What gives the book its special authenticity is the point of view, which is intimate – a positioning of the narrator’s eye gained by Watt’s own lifelong efforts in the struggle.

 While the book is historical, it is also lyrical. “Crayola World begins:

 Robin draws sky-blue arches
 burnt orange sun sepia earth sprouts
 maroon father strums raw-umber guitar
 bittersweet mother hold pink flower
 purple sister suck plum thumb.

 And it ends when the child-artist

 . . . picks up black
 draws herself in the center
 that’s me
 the most beautifulest.

 Bushels full of poems have been written about Billy Holiday, but Watt’s “Billy Holiday Sings “Strange Fruit” tops them all. It begins with a close-up picture of Billy herself, and ends, in an astonishing shift, with a first-hand account of an observer’s experience at a lynching.

 "On Wings of Song" is canonic. It restores for all of us the beating heart of an evolving conscience that may never be complete.

-- Bert Stern, author of Silk," "Steerage," and "Winter in China".

Monday, November 17, 2014

Franz Wright Reading Wednesday November 19th

Franz Wright Reading Wednesday November 19th

by Michael Todd Steffen, co-organizer of the Hastings Room Reading Series

This Wednesday, the 19th of November, at 7:00 pm Franz Wright will be reading in the Hastings Room at First Church Congregationalist, 11 Garden Street near the Harvard Square Sheraton Commander Hotel. Franz will be joined by Mary Buchinger-Bodwell and George Kalogeris. I believe this will be the first reading Wright has given in public for a some time. It’s going to be a special occasion, and gives me the space here to make some observations on his poetry.

One of the powerful virtues of Franz Wright’s poetry is its raw intelligence. Through his translations, references in his own poems and in interviews, he has impressed us with a wide-ranging and eclectic literary culture, while often expressing scorn for scholarship and convention, maybe partly for the sake of a mythos he has built about himself as a 21st century Romantic confronting the demons of child abuse, abandonment and addiction, leading his meditations anagogically to the themes of self-destruction and death, yet also to the therapy of speaking about these, recovery, and to a faith in and ultimate reliance on God and a life to come. These make for an interesting, distinctly American combination of derision for tradition and sophistication with a surrendering and humble faith in a redeeming God.

Wright has championed a bold, edgy, tell-all vernacular that warrants disregard for the second part of Emily Dickinson’s advice to tell all the truth (But tell it slant). His poems are edited (most notably in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard) less for content than for effects of counterpoint and silence.

In his 2013 collection F (Knopf), on the Christmas page, page 25, the poet comes to a statement of culmination echoing the subject of his meditation, mortality, an acknowledgment of an end itself:

    But I’ve said all that
    I had to say.
    In writing.
    I signed my name.
    It’s death’s move now.

It is a semantic notation in the music of acceptance of the inevitable: not that any of us are convinced that Franz Wright has exhausted his meaning or his means with poetry. Except to say that it’s okay with him in case.

The strophe is the second of four in a poem titled CRUMPLED-UP NOTE BLOWING AWAY, the title itself making an acronymic suggestion (C B A) of an order in reverse to its zero being, where the order starts back again.

The title also makes a poignant correlative image perhaps for how any of us can be made to feel on not so good a day: like a waded up piece of paper in the wind. Yet in our time of superabundant “pages” available and sent to us in every sort of binding, envelope or electronic mail, perhaps the note on the crumpled piece of paper we just happen to pick up and unfold, thanks to the unique path it has taken to get to us, becomes the most intimate, deliberate and meaningful scrap of reading we’ve had in a long time.

In a different way we notice the strophe’s last line, “It’s death’s move,” appealing less to our personal anticipation than to our curiosity about this game of chess the poet has been playing against Death. It is interesting and disinteresting at the same time, because it is a game neither Franz nor any one of us can finally win, though we have played it our whole lives with every hope and earnestness. This explains the next line and the ecstatic vision, wholly American in character, concluding the poem:

    It can have mine, too.
    It’s a perfect June morning,
    and I just turned eighteen;
    I can’t even believe
    what I feel like today.

    Here am I, Lord,
    sitting on a suitcase,
    waiting for my train.
    The sun is shining.
    I’m never coming back.

How explain the transformation that takes place between feeling as useless and random as a neglected piece of paper and as thrilled and hopeful as a teenager running away from home?

Centuries ago, the English poet John Donne made a similar pronouncement on his disinterest with the board game of mortality: Death be not proud… Donne is pertinent, perhaps questionable in this context, referring to the opening stanza of Wright’s poem. This is a variation on the old speculative question, If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does the tree make a sound? By applying the line of thought to the sun and its light and our vision, Wright significantly exaggerates the futility of the question, still with the purpose of evoking a subjective annihilation. In a much lighter complaint from a lover, Donne chided the sun:

        Busy old fool, unruly sun,
        Why dost thou thus
    Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
    Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
        Saucy pedantic wretch… (“The Sun Rising”)

Wright will echo one word from this passage perhaps for reference, while making his dismissive reply bespeaking the obvious solution to the dark, irresolute question he has been asking himself building up to writing the poem:

    Were no one
    here to witness it,
    could the sun be
    said to shine? Clearly,
    you pedantic fool.