Saturday, April 19, 2008

 

Thursday, April 24th & Friday, April 25th

All at the CUE Art Foundation
511 West 25th Street, Ground Floor
(between 10th & 11th avenues)
New York, New York
212.206.3538

 

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Cynthia Miller

Paintings

Curated by Ron Silliman

Opening reception:
Thursday, April 24,
6-8 PM

The show will be up through May 31
Gallery hours, Tuesday through Saturday, 10-6
Closed Sunday & Monday

Catalog available

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Words + Music, 6:30 PM, Friday, April 25th

Ron Silliman
Charles Alexander
James Fei

 


images © 2008 by Cynthia Miller

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Friday, April 18, 2008

 

I was planning on running this note next Tuesday, after the awards ceremony dinner on Monday. But as Ugly Duckling Presse has already posted a notice on its website & sent an email to its list, I’m running it today.

Here is my statement, as it will appear in the awards ceremony program on Monday, April 21st, giving the William Carlos Williams Award to Aram Saroyan for Complete Minimal Poems from Ugly Duckling Presse of Brooklyn:

The world was not ready when William Carlos Williams first published Kora in Hell in 1920 and the complete version of Spring & All three years later. Those books had a profound impact on American writing, even though they languished out of print for decades until they were brought back by City Lights in 1957 and Frontier Press in 1970. Aram Saroyan's minimal poems were even more of a scandal when they first appeared in the 1960s, foretelling not one, but several of the directions that American poetry would take in their wake, even as they too went out of print and stayed that way for over thirty years until Ugly Duckling Presse of Brooklyn seized the opportunity to make them available again. Like all miniaturists, Aram Saroyan uses the poem as a giant magnifying glass on the language of our lives and the processes we use to understand this. A work like "Blod" - that's the entire text - calls up not merely the words blood and bod, but all the sexuality that truncated latter term conveys, refusing to settle on one side or the other. Reading Complete Minimal Poems, we are struck by just how sturdy these poems have proven to be and just how brightly Saroyan's sense of humor shines through these pages. These poems are works of great optimism, and are as radical and strong in 2008 as the day they were written.

As I noted when I submitted this to the folks at the PSA, I think that the William Carlos Williams Award is the perfect prize for this book, and that this book is the perfect selection for this prize. The synergies just don’t get any better.

Here is a poem from the book that I recommended also be included in the awards ceremony program:

That borders on being visual poetry, as do a number of works in this extraordinary book. I wondered at the time if a visual poem had ever been included in a PSA program before. And I wonder even now if readers will recognize the ways in which this very brief poem engages the oldest of literary devices, rhyme. One of the things I like about it is the way it makes clear that visual poetry & “poetry” are not entirely separate genres. Other poems here echo the shorter works of Louis Zukofsky:

Not a
cricket

ticks a
clock

Nor am I imagining the connection. There is at least one work in this volume explicitly dedicated to “L.Z..” One thing this larger collection really accomplishes is to spell out just how rich & various Saroyan’s different strategies were with such a densely compact canvas.

Complete Minimal Poems contains the work from three books that appeared between 1968 & 1971, two of them from Random House. A fourth section appeared as part of the New York School anthology, All Stars, in 1972. A fifth is gathered into book form here for the first time. When Saroyan received an NEA grant for his work, he was the subject of fulminations from various Babbits on the floor of Congress. Indeed, it was probably the NEA’s first scandal.

As a result, Saroyan took the heat for an awful lot of writing that would come after, which could not have been fun. By the early 1970s, he’d done what he wanted with this form & moved on. But these works stand on their own almost shockingly well. Since I’ve never met him (I suppose it’s conceivable that we’ve been at the same event at some point, tho I’m not aware of it) I’ve never had the opportunity to thank him for opening up the landscape so broadly. I was only one of dozens & dozens of poets who benefited from these poems. The William Carlos Williams Award seems like the perfect opportunity to note just how important these poems have been.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

 

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Continuing with my narrative of the William Carlos Williams Award.

The next time through, the stacks on the blue chest were down to two piles, seventy books. It’s not that this was any neater – I don’t do neat – but the lower level of clutter there as one walked in the front door of our house immediately suggested that I was making progress. What had seemed like an overwhelming task a couple of weeks ago, now began to seem do-able. I was already beginning to think about which of these books deserved to seen as the best of the best of the best.

I dragged another small bookcase down to my office and shelved the books from the other two stacks there (with the exception of those where I already owned copies, which I put instead into a separate pile from which I donate periodically to Kelly Writers House). I wouldn’t be returning to those books, at least as part of this contest.

I was much more playful in my rereading, I think, than I had been in my first round. If there was a poem in a book that I really liked, I tended to head for it first. Tho sometimes I would do just the opposite, go first to one that had completely puzzled me. In several cases, I wasn’t reading the book for the second time, but at least the third as I’d read it – in a couple of cases even reviewed here on the blog – before I received my three cartons of books.

In the process, maybe six books – but no more – got demoted from the “I want to give this book a prize” pile to the second, larger stack. On the other hand, five of the volumes in that second stack got promoted to the prize pile. By the end of my second read-through, I had a stack of 19 books, every one of which surely deserves some award for brilliant writing.

Thirteen of these books were by women. Only two or three of the books represented a kind of poetry that I’m not certain William Carlos Williams would have approved of, were he still alive. And I began to think about Williams and what it means to have his name on this award. I reflected on the fact that Williams had been far more militant about schools of poetry than I’ve ever been (indeed, more militant than Pound, whom he never quite forgave for imagining a more creative & intelligent T.S. Eliot than the banker himself could have fashioned). As the most significant modernist not to flee to Europe, Williams had every opportunity to observe the evolution of the School of Quietude first hand. I thought about how his breakthrough early books, such as Kora in Hell (1920) and Spring & All (1923), had been allowed to languish out of print for decades, even tho the latter – published by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Press in Dijon in an edition of just 300 copies – is quite possibly the single best volume related to poetry (it’s both poetry & critique combined) published during the entire 20th century. Both volumes were rescued by small presses, Kora by City Lights as the seventh in its Pocket Poets Series in 1957, Spring & All by Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press in 1970. Naming the award for small and university presses for Williams makes perfect sense. Even his “big” publisher, New Directions, is not so large.

Thinking of Williams & his relations to presses & to kinds of poetry gave me a template for thinking through these 19 volumes. His idea that the function of art is to create additions to nature, to make of the world a more abundant place, seems to me almost the baseline of what should expected from a poet. If you’re only going to write poems that look just like the poems that existed before you got here, what is your value? All of the nineteen volumes move poetry forward in ways that should make a reader optimistic about poetry, even on a blood-drenched planet that is devouring the last of its major natural resources.

At this point I knew pretty clearly which book spoke to this award in the most forceful way. I wanted a book that I could say – as one could of Williams’ best – that it was a book that would change poetry itself, deeply & permanently. I told my wife & kids which volume, were I to be hit by a truck, they should tell the Poetry Society of America should receive the prize.

But I still wanted to read a half dozen books again, and did, just to see if I wanted to name “finalists” – the PSA allows you to cite up to two – and if so whom. One volume seemed to me easy to settle on, because there was just one book that actually made me cry while reading it (tho I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the author’s intent – it was just so amazingly well done). And then a second finalist I thought long and hard about – more than a day just contemplating this book & this question – since the volume did represent a kind of poetry I’m pretty sure Williams would have, at the least, furrowed his brow over. But it was/is too brilliant not to cite, so I decided to name two finalists.

The winner already knows who they are, as do the finalists. On Monday, there will be an awards ceremony at a dinner in New York City (I can’t attend, alas). But the winner's publisher went public with a press release on Wednesday, so tomorrow, I will tell you who won, and print my statement for the evening program, as well as the poem from the book I recommended for inclusion in the program. Next week, I hope to get to the finalists. Then, over the following weeks, I plan to get to each of the nineteen books that I found to be completely wonderful. I’m sure those readers who think I use too many superlatives already will want to take a break.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

 

Photo courtesy of Jacket

Henry Gould’s In RI

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Stephen Burt on John Ashbery

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Ron Padgett on A Prairie Home Companion

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Michael Lally on Joe Brainard’s Nancy

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The Patrick Herron publishing renaissance

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Oppen in Buffalo

Robert Creeley on George Oppen

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School of Q:
the empire strikes back

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PEN award to jailed Chinese writer

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Fady Joudah is the new Yale Younger Poet

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E.A. “Archie” Markham
(who sometimes published as Valerie Goodman)
has died

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Halvard Johnson reports that
Rebecca Kavaler has died

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Ulster poet Robert Greacen has died

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Death row poet executed in Japan

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A profile of Elliott Levin

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Bookstores brace for the next chapter

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Oni Buchanan’s The Mandrake Vehicles

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Why is Charles Bernstein on this agenda?

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A profile of M.H. Abrams

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What people like,
Madison version

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A Rae Armantrout page
(tho it calls me, more than once,
”Ron Stillman”)

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A Situationist & his ©

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Is the Arabic world ready
for a literary revolution?

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A survey for readers of books

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“The most published author
in the history of the planet”

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Talking with Sam Green

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How Boston’s poets are coping with
National Poetry Month

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Shakespeare in contemporary cinema

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Why poets sound like that

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“Why should everything be easy?”

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The emotions in Jan Beatty’s poetry

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Poetry can be your friend

Or poetry can be your salvation

& it can entertain the kids

You can put it in your pocket

But Don’t Call It a Comeback

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A new bio of Isaac Rosenberg

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Mary Oliver & Mark Doty

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Are human brains unique?

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Can pols be curators?

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The town saved by quilting

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Tan Dun, Philip Glass
& how much you can get away with

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

 

I spend the next several weeks reading, reading, reading. This contest is almost a Rorschach of contemporary American poetry. In spite of the name William Carlos Williams attached to the award and the prohibition against books from trade publishers, there is no single aesthetic spin to what has been sent in. There are volumes written by World War Two veterans about their experiences in that war, new formalists, long narratives, haiku poets who only send their works to journals that specialize in that form, every manner of post-avant and anti-avant combined. More than a few of these are by poets – and in some instances presses – who are openly at odds with everything William Carlos Williams ever stood for. In such circumstances, what exactly do they think they’re doing in such a contest? Is his name up there simply as Famous Dead Guy? Or, more likely, it’s really a sign that the Poetry Society of America has not lived up to the stewardship of this award, using far too many judges over the years who were themselves opposed to the Pound-Williams-Zukofsky tradition.

My method is to take three or four books that feel, on first glance, pretty different from one another and to read back and forth through them until they’re done. Then I allocate them into those stacks I described yesterday. Most of what I’m reading is fairly good. When I’m doing going through everything once, I look at my piles, all still stacked up on the blue bench in the foyer. There are 20 volumes in the “I want to give this book the prize” pile.

The reason I even have the second pile – books I know I need to reread just to be sure that they don’t really deserve to be in the first group also – is because I’m sure that there are poets – Robert Duncan in his prime would be a good example, but so would James Wright or John Berryman – whose work doesn’t always “click” on first reading, but which turns out to be of even greater value long term than the simple flashy book one can “get” as a single sitting, first time. There are roughly 50 books in this second pile. And it includes a wide range of poets including new formalists, soft surrealists, narrative poets

There are maybe 60 books in the third group, writers whose work strikes me – at least in these specific volumes – as at least decently crafted, but without any other larger driving idea or passion behind it. Again, there is no single aesthetic trend, just a general lack of ambition. You might be able to say that that is an aesthetic trend, in and of itself, tho I would say that’s very sad. And I don’t see any monk-like renunciations of the material world in the poetry here.

The last pile, that of books that are genuinely incompetent, has just five volumes in it. That’s it. Just five of the candidates nominated by their presses really appeared to be by writers without a clue. Does this mean that I really think that 97 percent of American poetry is, at the very least, competently written? Not really. I believe that the self-selection process accounts for a lot of this. First, you have to write enough work to warrant a book and persuade a publisher to take it on. Then they have to believe in your work strongly enough to submit it. Still, that a contest like this can get this much writing that doesn’t embarrass itself is really noteworthy.

Setting aside the last two stacks, I still have seventy books to think about. I decide I have to read them all one more time. I realize that I could make a case, a plausible one, for every one of these books winning this award. That there are at least seventy books worthy of such attention in any one year’s crop – not to mention those other volumes I held out on the basis of my relationship with their authors and those volumes that never got submitted – probably is the best assessment of the quality of writing that is taking place at this very moment. It’s really a stunning realization. At least it stunned me.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

 

I emptied the three cartons of books sent to me by the Poetry Society of America onto a blue chest we keep in our foyer to contain a household’s worth of backpacks & canvas bags (and, on a more impromptu basis, one of my kid’s bass guitar). Piled into about eight stacks of not-quite-twenty books each, several other things became immediately apparent to me.

First, my own The Age of Huts (compleat) was not the only volume in which I felt too close to the author to make a dispassionate judgment about the work. There were several books, for example, by contributors to my anthology, In the American Tree. There were other books by poets whom I’ve known well for decades, know the spouse, maybe knew the last spouse as well, even in one case a parent, have lunch with them whenever we’re in the same region. Further, some of the books involved are terrific. I can think of two that are better than any volume that has received a Pulitzer in the last quarter century. Since, say, Jimmy Schuyler’s Morning of the Poem in 1981, the last completely great book to receive that award. With a fairly deep (and fairly literal) sigh, I set about a dozen books aside. I tell myself that if nothing else proves worthy, I can return to these and rethink this if I need to do so later.

Second, it becomes almost immediately apparent that some very obvious contenders are absent. Where is, for example, Joanne Kyger’s collected poems, About Now? While I have known Kyger slightly for forty years, I’ve been to her home in Bolinas exactly once (about 35 years ago) and have never really had a correspondence, save when David Melnick & I selected her work for a feature in The Chicago Review in 1970, which consisted of maybe three notes (one of them an apology on our part for the Review’s first attempt at computer typesetting screwing up her contributor’s note – it declared that Gary Snyder was her second volume). Plus, About Now is one of the volumes that came out last year comparable in quality to something like Morning of the Poem. But it’s not here at all. Since I’m not W.H. Auden, I don’t see any value gained by my changing the rules as I go along, so I don’t feel I can merely toss About Now into the pile, knowing that it would almost certainly have been at least a finalist. Instead, I give another heavy sigh at the idea of a university press series that does less promotion than Lulu.com.

Third, I also realize that of the remaining books, maybe 136 in all, I’ve already read at least a quarter, perhaps a third, one of the consequences of doing this blog. This is probably the first moment when I think that, hey, maybe reading all these books in such a concentrated fashion won’t seem so bad. I know that I like quite a few of these. I have a second thought almost as quickly as the first – oh dear, I’m going to have to select from several volumes I really like. There are several volumes I already know to be terrific. This is not going to be easy. I realize that I never will return to those books I originally pulled out of the process.

My plan is this. I’m going to read everything all the way through – or until utter incompetence stops me – at least once. I’m going to segregate the books as I go along into a number of different piles:

Books that are terrific and really deserve a prize

Books I need to reread to make sure I shouldn’t be giving them the prize instead

Books that seem mostly competent, but don’t do anything of great import one way or another.

Books that are not competent at all.

I anticipate that this last category is going to be fairly large. The first one I expect to be quite small, and the second one likewise. Most of what I have here I believe will divide pretty naturally into the final two groups.

Fat lot I know.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

 

PBS does Walt Whitman

Ending “poetry-lite
(and using Billy Collins to do so)

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Today is the day
for Tayari Jones’
Dunbar Village Fundraiser
on eBay
with “items” from Jones, Sarah Schulman,
George Saunders, D. Nurske, Natasha Trethewey
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, Carleen Brice & more

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A great interview:
Stacy Szymaszek talking with Sina Queyras

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How to trivialize women’s poetry

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The Washington Post obit of Jonathan Williams

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MP3s of Philadelphia’s Oppen Centennial Celebration
are now online

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Celebrating Siv Cedering

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The Hank Lazer contest

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Cutting and “creative writing”

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The sexual politics of
The New York Times Book Review

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An obit for Andrew Crozier

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Jordan Davis on Michael Morse

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The Griffin Poetry Prize shortlists
are full of good poets

But old ones

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Sridala Swami
on conceptual poetry in
India

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Flarf, like Soylent Green,
is people”

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Turkey’s only journal
dedicated to vispo

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You can interview Allen Fisher

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Daisy Fried on Joe Torra

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Sentences in experimental fiction

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Find the gals at the Chicago Poetry Symposium

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One Young wins the Fred Cody award,
two others are nominated for poetrty

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Talking with Bob Hass

Talking with Philip Schultz

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MP3s of the “lost lectures” of Jorge Luis Borges (in English!)

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Seeing Bunting in Adam Fould’s The Broken World

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The poetry of Heather Thomas & Doug Arnold

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Joanna Scott on Donald Barthelme

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W.D. Snodgrass on confessional poetry

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Talking with Valerie Martínez

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Dan Beachy-Quick on Philip Jenks

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Poetry & emotion

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de Beauvoir in love

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The $300,000 word

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Some bumps in the death of the hardback

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The end is nigh at Rapture

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The scene in Madison

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April 17th is
Poem in Your Pocket Day

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The worldwide Shakespeare marathon

“more about fantasies than the real world”

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Queen’s Poet wins competition

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Reviews of Nate Mackey, Hilton Obenzinger & Louis Masur

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Two Welsh poets,
one the daughter of Dylan Thomas

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The International Dictionary of Neologisms

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Poetry is not dead
tho you might not know it from this

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Everything you ever needed to know about
poetry at Knopf

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Jerry Rothenberg picks Clayton Eshleman for translation award

Rothenberg’s Triptych

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Grace Paley’s posthumous poems

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Ballard’s memoir

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On the journal Sixty-six

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The “SLO (every pun intended) poet laureate” speaks

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East of the asterisk

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Oni Buchanan & kinetic poetry

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2000 attend Mailer’s memorial

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The authorized biography of a not-nice guy

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A profile of Grace Maycock

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One shoe I’ve been waiting to hear drop

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a difference in tone

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A profile of Marilyn Lerch

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Kyle Schlesinger’s “good ol’ days”

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Madison’s poet laureate sets an agenda

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In Duluth, a laureate looks back

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Talking with Kevin Stein

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Talking with Ted Kooser

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Talking with Elise Partridge

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Nicanor Parra’s antipoetics

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Mark Bauerlein on the history of deconstruction in the U.S.

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Dyslexia impacts the brain
differently for different languages

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On symmetry

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The future of book nostalgia

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Spam gets literary

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Are we sure we need a tour
of Bukowski’s L.A.

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Ahsan Saleem, an impressionist poet in Urdu

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A profile of Mark Strand

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Talking with Tobias Wolff

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An evening of Quietude
for one of its favorite novelists

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The future of newspapers

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Against tenure

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Salman Rushdie on Islam

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Adam Kirsch’s Adorno

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Selling Sonnabend

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The physical problems of
contemporary public art

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The galleries of Vegas

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Schjeldahl’s Murakami

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Eugenia Butler has died

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Roger Ebert leaves TV

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Al Gore’s new slide show

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