Posts Tagged ‘2010: Poetry’


Bipolar Alien: James Tate @ KWLS 2010

07/06/2010  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post



James Tate in Key West. Photos by Curt Richter.

David Lehman, praising Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in Newsweek on the occasion of the publication of her Collected Poems, wrote that she “accomplished a magical illumination of the ordinary, forcing us to examine our surroundings with the freshness of a friendly alien.”

I was reminded of this apt summary towards the end of James Tate’s reading at the 2010 Key West Literary Seminar, when a friendly alien in fact appeared in a poem:

Someone had spread an elaborate rumor about me, that I was
in possession of an extraterrestrial being, and I thought I knew who
it was. It was Roger Lawson. Roger was a practical joker of the worst sort…

So begins “The Cowboy,” from Tate’s most recent volume The Ghost Soldiers. The narrator goes on disbelieving in the alien for about half the poem, until he reports:

…I nearly dropped the¬†groceries. There was a nearly transparent
fellow with large pink eyes standing about three feet tall.

Tate’s humor in this poem, and in the other three he read from The Ghost Soldiers at the 2010 Seminar’s Friday morning session, is the primary thing I suspect most Seminar attendees came away with. I say so because almost every sentence Tate read was greeted with a huge roar of laughter, as if the poems in their public manifestation were a series of one-liners. Tate did not seem to shy away from this. He even stifled a few chuckles himself as he made his way through his carefully inflected delivery.

The laughter seemed an appropriate response as Tate developed the absurd situations, the menacing Middle American surrealism, of each poem. But as the poems went on they revealed their emotional cores, which seemed to me to be anything but funny. In “The Cowboy,” for instance, just when the narrator has agreed to collaborate with the alien and help fulfill his wish “to meet a real cowboy,” he finds the creature “dancing on the kitchen table, a sort of ballet / but very sad.” The alien has heard from his father: “‘I just / received word. I’m going to die tonight. It’s really a joyous / occasion, and I hope you’ll help me celebrate by watching The Magnificent Seven…'” The situation only becomes more poignant, and by the end of the poem it borders on heartbreaking:

…I felt an unbearable sadness come over me. “Why must
you die?” I said. “Father decides these things. It is probably
my reward for coming here safely and meeting you,” he said. “But
I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy,” I said. “Let’s
pretend you are my cowboy,” he said.


Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven

Granted, the premise is a comic one, and one can argue that the emotional punch of the finale is only increased by the yuks generated by the lines that lead up to it. But I found myself feeling a little like a friendly alien myself as the laughs cascaded throughout the San Carlos Institute’s auditorium, a friendly curmudgeon of an alien who would have trouble explaining why the people in the theater were laughing so loudly and for so long at the sad words of the man on stage.

One more look @ the 28th annual Key West Literary Seminar

01/28/2010  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

"Clearing the Sill of the World," the 28th annual Key West Literary Seminar, was an extraordinary event. Seven U.S. Poets Laureate joined as many winners of the Pulitzer Prize, along with up-and-coming poetic talents and a truly remarkable audience of readers, writers, teachers, and poetry lovers of all stripe. Unseasonal rain and record low (sub-50°!) temperatures kept everyone away from the beach but it was just as well. This was an event you didn’t want to miss a moment of. Some highlights:


Pulitzer Prize winners James Tate and Yusef Komunyakaa, along with Rita Dove, Maxine Kumin, and Robert Pinsky, took part in a panel discussion on Saturday morning entitled “A Poet’s View: My Life in Poetry.”


Tate and Komunyakaa had each other and the house laughing, as they discussed the perils of identifying one’s self as a poet.


Komunyakaa: “Gender plays a part in it. You get these weird looks from other guys, you know, ‘You write poetry!?’"


Tate: “I got to a certain point in life where I finally just said, ‘Yeah, why not? I’m a poet.”


New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon delivered a lecture and reading on the subject of "The Borderline." The moving account touched on Muldoon’s boyhood in divided Ireland, the plight of a troubled schoolmate-turned-soldier, and Muldoon’s appreciation for poetry that brings one up to and across borders.


On Sunday morning, Erica Dawson read a number of poems from her Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize-winning debut collection, Big-Eyed Afraid.


Fellow Poets Laureate Mark Strand and Richard Wilbur discussed the art of translation on Saturday afternoon with Rachel Hadas, Rhina Espaillat, and Robert Casper.


This year’s named scholarships went to (from left to right), fiction writer Andrew Alexander, poet George Green, and poet Will Dowd.


A highlight for many in the audience was former Poet Laureate Maxine Kumin’s "The Long Approach." The Sunday-morning lecture recounted the trials she and other women writers faced early in her career, explored the influences behind her long career as a formalist poet, and expounded on the joys of a life raising horses on a farm in New Hampshire.


Three-time Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky delivered Thursday night’s keynote address, given each year in honor of noted novelist and World War II correspondent John Hersey.


Saturday afternoon saw Harvey Shapiro reading from his body of work, and talking about his poetic upbringing alongside the likes of George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky.


Todd Boss moderated a number of panels, led a writers’ workshop, and read a selection of his work on Sunday.


Billy Collins gave a stellar early Saturday-morning reading of old favorites and unpublished work, including a new piece tentatively titled "The Hangover."


Kirby Congdon talked about his life and work.


Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey read movingly from her work on Saturday, and participated in the final panel Sunday afternoon



Rita Dove’s stunning "How Does a Shadow Shine" weaved several poems from her latest Sonata Mulattica together with accounts of the real life of its protagonist, the 18th-century black violin prodigy George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.

Photos by Sharon McGauley.

Thanks to Bonnie Obremski for the quotes from Tate and Komunyakaa.

From the Curt Richter Studio @ KWLS 2010

01/27/2010  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Photographer Curt Richter partnered with the Key West Literary Seminar for the third consecutive year to continue work on his series of portraits of American writers. Below is a sampling of the work Richter created this January in his temporary portrait studio at the San Carlos Institute.

Todd Boss

Rachel Hadas

Rhina P. Espaillat

James Tate

Mark Strand

All photos © Curt Richter, 2010

A Fish-Eye View from the Sill of the World

01/26/2010  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


Longtime Seminar volunteer Nick Vagnoni captured dozens of unique behind-the-scenes shots of this year’s Key West Literary Seminar with his fisheye lens. This year’s podium, above, was designed by Needham-Fatica, who also produced the printed program, and developed the KWLS website.

The auditorium of the San Carlos Institute, completed in 1924, seats nearly 400. With record-low sub-50° temperatures throughout the Seminar weekend, this was a good thing, as almost no one sought the usual escapes of sun, sea, and sand.


This year’s set, designed by Michael Boyer of the Waterfront Playhouse, was an abstraction of Key West’s vernacular architecture. A facade of louvered shutters opened onto window-scenes of subtropical flora and fauna, supported by distinctive gingerbread and spindly balustrades.


Melody Cooper and Dan Simpson, a.k.a. Private Ear,
sat here, once again expertly handling sound recording and engineering for the Seminar and various receptions.


With an eye toward next year’s Seminar on food in literature, famed cocktailier Jason Rowan flew in at the last minute to raise the bar with his inimitable libations. Recipes for a Richard Wilbur-inspired hot toddie and more can be found at his Embury Cocktails.


The view from the podium. Stagefright, anyone?

Photos by Nick Vagnoni.

Seminar Concludes with ‘The Necessity Of Poetry’

01/11/2010  by Shayne Benowitz  Comment on this Post


photo by Nick Vagnoni

final day of the 28th Annual Key West Literary Seminar concluded
with a panel discussion led by Timothy Steele on “the necessity of poetry.”
Panelists Erica Dawson, Rhina Espaillat, Rachel Hadas, Yusef Komunyakaa, and
Natasha Tretheway were in accord regarding its essential nature. Poetry is a
win-win, Hadas said. It is dynamic and a pleasure from all vantage points;
writing, reading, teaching, studying, translating.


topic was approached from a personal standpoint as well as a more universal
perspective. Dawson began by saying how grateful she was to live in a world
where events such as the Seminar make it possible to bring people together
over a collective love for poetry. She also expressed the desire for poetry
to be even more central in our culture. This was a sentiment echoed by many of
the panelists. Dawson also said that poetry saved her. It was her way of
organizing her thoughts and emotions in a productive manner. Hadas agreed that
poetry is sometimes a life raft of language.


brought up Steele’s point, made earlier in the Seminar, that people call upon
poetry in difficult times as well as joyous times. It is a place where the public
meets the private. Poetry, and all forms of literature, reminds us that we’re
not alone, that others have been through the same trials of life. It reminds us
that the world is bigger than we are. Espaillat added that it is the glue
between individuals.


the seminar, the topic of teaching poetry to children at an early age was
emphasized. Many said that poetry was not taught to them explicitly until the
college level. Espaillat called for the nurturing of a “culture of amateurs,”
which she recognized tends to have a negative connotation. In fact, Espaillat
explained, an amateur is a lover of something. Poetry and art must be intrinsic
in our culture.

Clearing The Sill Of The World: Richard Wilbur Reads

01/10/2010  by Shayne Benowitz  1 Comment


photo by Curt Richter

The John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Event commanded a
full house at the San Carlos Institute last night to pay tribute to Richard
Wilbur, in whose honor this year’s Seminar is being held. The evening began with a performance
of two songs from the Broadway musical “Candide” by local singers Bruce Moore and Sandy Walters, accompanied by pianist Vincent Zito. First produced in 1956,
Wilbur collaborated to write the lyrics with composer Leonard Bernstein and
playwright Lillian Hellman.


Wilbur took the stage and was greeted by a
standing ovation. He wintered and wrote in Key West beginning in the 1960s, and
so he began the evening with a Key West poem, “Security Lights, Key West.” The poem likens the “glare of halogen” on the yards of a quiet block to “the settings
of some noble play.” The “pitch-black houses,” he concedes, may be the site of
great drama, as well.


He went on to read two tender poems about love and his
late wife, “For Charlee” and “The House.” He also read from his forthcoming
book, “The Anteroom.” A portion of this book is dedicated to Wilbur’s translations of riddles, and it was with great animation that he shared a few with the crowd.
The riddle is a great from, he said, which unfortunately is usually seen only
in nursery rhymes.


He went on to read his poem, “The Writer,” for
which the name of this year’s seminar has borrowed his line “clearing the sill
of the world.” It was a great pleasure to hear him read this poem about his


In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are
tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.


He concluded the night’s reading with short poems
from his children’s book “The Disappearing Alphabet.” In this, he illustrates
how detrimental the loss of a single letter would be. “For instance, any self
respecting DUCK/ Would rather be extinct than be an UCK.”


The evening ended with another standing ovation
and murmurings from the audience for more. Afterwards, the crowd assembled at
the historic Custom House for cocktails and dessert where Wilbur mingled
amongst poets, readers, and writers.

Clearing the Sill of the World, Day 3

01/09/2010  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Mark Strand and Richard Wilbur.

Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove.

James Tate and Yusef Komunyakaa.

Paul Muldoon.

Photos by Sharon McGauley.

Billy Collins On Poets And Readers

01/09/2010  by Shayne Benowitz  Comment on this Post


Billy Collins spoke this morning on the
relationship between poet and reader. This relationship is intimate and one
that Collins is acutely aware of when writing. The maximum occupancy for a
lyrical poem, Collins said, is two, the poet and the reader.


He divided contemporary poetry into two camps. The
first is poetry where the poet is aware of the reader’s presence, and in the
second he is not. The first are dogs, the second cats, he illustrated in
metaphor. For Collins poetry is a social encounter. He makes a practice of
including a prefatory poem in each of his books explicitly acknowledging the
connection between poet and reader.


On a note to poetic form as discussed yesterday,
Collins said that form is what makes poetry sociable by including the reader.
Free verse also has formal properties, he said. In his revision process, he
often alternates between writer and reader in order to check his
self-expressive urges with an objective other.


In his writing workshops, he will often tell his
students, “Nobody cares about you.” Self-expression is wildly overrated.
Readers of poetry are interested in the poetry, the poetic form, not the poet.
For this reason, a poet’s awareness of his reader is critical.

Photo by Sharon McGauley.


Day 2 of the 28th Key West Literary Seminar

01/09/2010  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


Mark Strand

Rita Dove

Erica Dawson and Rhina P. Espaillat


James Tate


Richard Wilbur

Photos by Sharon McGauley

Timothy Steele On The Pleasures Of Metrical Writing

01/09/2010  by Shayne Benowitz  1 Comment


photo by Sharon McGauley

Timothy Steele
gave a talk yesterday on the pleasures of metrical writing. This was a topic
that many of the poets touched on throughout the day in their readings and
panel discussions. In fact, Rhina Espaillat quipped that she invented
meter as a schoolgirl when she first discovered rhythmical pattern (ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum) in the
poetry her teacher read. In the same panel, Maxine Kumin was quick to correct Espaillat
that she beat her to it ten years prior when she invented meter. This pursuit
of shapeliness, form, movement, and music is at the very heart of writing

For Steele, it
is essential that poets today not abandon meter completely. It is not enough
for young readers and writers to go back to old masters of verse such as Shakespeare
for this metrical pleasure. There must be a spark of emulation from today’s
living writers for the next generation of poets to use meter in a way that is
relevant and modern.

Meter is an
enchanting fusion of order and disorder, Steele explained. It is a sensuous
purchase on language. Meter is set. Irregularity is presented with words,
phrases, and syntax. It is not necessary to analyze rhythm, per se. One can let
it happen. Maxine Kumin also noted that form is used and complied with, but
also violated.

Yusef Komunyakaa
likened poetry to carpentry. In both pursuits there are a particular set of
tools at hand to create something that functions. Each is admired for its precision
in composition. He noted the visceral use of the hands in both pursuits as
messengers of the brain formed through accidental perfection. For Komunyakaa,
energy is the soul of poetry.

Steele asserted
that meter stops you and asks you to check your inspiration. It is an
instrument of discovery. It is meter that gives a poem its shape. Metrical
pleasure is what allows a poem to seep into your consciousness time and again,
recalling upon it in moments of joy or sorrow.

Images From Opening Night

01/08/2010  by Shayne Benowitz  Comment on this Post


Robert Pinsky and Richard Wilbur in the lobby of the San Carlos Institute.

Robert Pinksy giving the John Hersey Memorial Address on modernism and memory.
Kay Ryan and Robert Pinsky in the lobby of the San Carlos Institute.

Photos by Curt Richter.

Robert Pinsky Opens 28th Annual Seminar

01/07/2010  by Shayne Benowitz  Comment on this Post


photo by Curt Richter

wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

hungry generations tread thee down


The 28th
Annual Key West Literary Seminar got under way last night with the John Hersey
Memorial Address by poet Robert Pinsky. After a warm introduction and greeting
by president of the Seminar Lynn Kaufelt and president of the San Carlos
Institute Rafael Penalver, Pinsky spoke on modernism and memory.

He began with
the recitation of two lines from John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” He used these
lines to illustrate that as humans, unlike the “immortal Bird,” we are, indeed,
“born for death” because of our inextricable need to create memory that is
larger than a single generation. In this way, modernism and memory are forever

He noted a Zulu
tribe whose practice was not to worship their ancestors, but to consult. For
Pinsky, this crystallized his feeling that what we learn from past generations
has a transformational quality. Modernism is a form of memory that wants to
disrupt complacency, Pinsky said. He noted some of the great modern poets such
as William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Allen Ginsberg for their way of maintaining
musicality in their poetry while still disrupting and changing, the very heart
of modernism.

For Pinsky, the
act of reading past poetry is a way of “consulting” ancestors as the Zulus do.
He says we must read Keats and tread him down, just as future generations will
read us and tread us down. This is modernity. He noted the delicate connection
between remembering and forgetting, how neither is ever perfect. Forgetting can
never be total and memory can never be exact, and this is the genesis of
culture and psychology.

He concluded
with William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie” and his translation from a verse of
Dante’s “Paradiso” in order to illustrate our need to understand mortality. He
said that the project of life is large and profound, and that an artist’s life
is larger. For Pinsky, poetry is essential, more so than pop music or movies,
for example. This is because poetry is more intimate. It involves lips,
tongues, ears, breath. The act of being “born for death” is noble, mystical,
inspiring, ambitious, and adventurous.

©2016 Key West Literary Seminar | | Developed by: Magnetic Web Media