Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New York Poet Steve Turtell on Frank O'Hara and the Substance of Joy

New York City poet Steve Turtell’s collection Heroes and Householders was published in 2009 by Orchard House Press and reissued in May 2012 in an expanded second edition. His 2001 chapbook Letter to Frank O’Hara was the 2010 winner of the Rebound Chapbook Prize awarded by Seven Kitchens Press. It was reissued with an introduction by Joan Larkin in 2011. He is currently at work on a memoir, Fifty Jobs in Fifty Years, and Peter Hujar: Invisible Master, a study of the life, work and influence of the photographer. You can follow him on Twitter as @rdturtle, friend him on, and read more at
Letter to Frank O'Hara

It had been raining for ten years—

just after our vows too, when the life

of the party shouted “Drop dead.”

What aplomb! All those faithless Springs

suddenly worthless. Years of abandonment

counting for nothing. Oh horrors of

enchantment, beauty of truculence.

You can always depend upon the hostility of lovers

But we, a glamorous, shuddering chorus,

eyes averted, move en pointe past

Double Portrait of Frank O'Hara,
Larry Rivers, 1954/1955 oil on canvas
the confessional’s lurid glow,

that peep-show of self-pity. Really, Mary!

As if our holy yawns don’t prove

we’re simply riddled with purity

and will float softly, silently

as the dreams of the inconsolable rhinoceri,

pitiable as the tears of lost seagulls,

sure as Adam’s apple pie, straight to heaven.

The angels’ impatience says we’ve

all prayed for too little and they

can’t wait to scold us. God’s redecorating.

He wants all his darlings back.

Oh Frank. Have you missed us terribly,

whom you never met? I picture your daily

grand jeté over the sun, knowing the moon

never tires of loving you. I long to change

costumes and visit. Let’s see. Blandishments,

pitchforks, foreskins. Well! But then Edward

told me you had the longest he’d ever seen.

My mother loved me so I got to keep mine,

ensuring that there I would always be a goy.

Just knowing that I’ve kissed lips that once

kissed yours—but enough. Discretion is

the better part of careerism. Now there

is only one poet I love to read while dreaming.

The Substance of Joy
Johannes Vermeer at the National Gallery

A cautious friendliness prevails.
Strangers smile sweetly,
apologize when passing. 
The Girl with a Wineglass 
 c. 1659-1660, Oil on canvas

We all gawk at
“The Girl with the Wineglass.”
A few risk comments.

Her smile, tulip red dress, the blue-gold
“harlequin” tiled floor—get more
and less informed notice.

I look at the cordial glass
—precarious between
finger and thumb, and her grin,

not yet slack. A dandified,
self-styled connoisseur
sweeps by. Dark fedora,

mauve brocaded-satin scarf,
camel-hair coat, cordovan wingtips
—all gorgeous, elegant. His hauteur

alone worth the effort of some
painter or other—Whistler
in a very bad mood? 

The comments die down
around him. Why embarrass
ourselves when all we want

is pleasure, and pictures of it?
After he's gone I say to my neighbor,
“She looks drunk.” He considers,

shrugs before backing out.
A Lady Writing a Letter 
attributed to Vermeer
c. 1665-1666, Oil on canvas

The three-deep crowd surges
ever so politely forward.

It’s difficult to get close
to the paintings; but not
as difficult as painting them

with such unwieldy tools:
soft mounds of oily pigment
spread in blending rivulets;

the oddly shaped knife;
tiny thatches of sable
carefully bound to thin sticks;

the camera obscura Vermeer
peered through at lovely women,
at the ample room with a few props

—the wall map weighted
with iron-blue dowel,
a table, a leaded window

filled with the famous light
he lured onto his canvas.
Centuries later, we too love

what he so clearly saw:
thin red gleams on parted lips,
a liquid, white slice of teeth,

thick rugs bunched like
pantaloons on the waxed table,
the shimmering folds of lemon-

souffle gowns, caressed by
the same sun that shone on you,
now shining on us, on the intricate

smears encrusting the linen
canvas, all that remains of
the substance of your joy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poet Neil Ellman Visits Kandinsky's "Small Worlds"

New Jersey poet Neil Ellman has twice been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. His poems appear in print and online journals, anthologies, and chapbooks worldwide. His ekphrastic poetry includes nine chapbooks devoted individually to the works of Dalí, Miró, and other modern and contemporary artists. Parallels: Selected Ekphrastic Poetry, 2009-2012, is his first full-length collection. 

Ellman based the following poems on Wassily Kandinsky's 
1922 series of lithographs, woodcuts, and etchings called 
"Small Worlds." Kandinsky (1866-1944) was an early champion of abstract painting, known for his lyrical style and innovative theories on nonfigurative art. In his 1910 treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he made famous his belief that abstract colors and forms could be used to express the “inner life” of the artist. He taught this and other lessons at the Bauhaus, the historic Weimar institution that brought together artists such as Josef Albers, Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, and Piet Mondrian. In 1911 Kandinsky played a central role in organizing Der Blaue Reiter, named in part after the Russian artist’s favorite color—blue.

Small Worlds I
(after the lithograph by Wassily Kandinsky)

So tiny
their dwarf-star eyes
new worlds
in miniature
firefly sparkles
splintered glass
collect the sun—
when worlds collide
small wonder
at our wonderment
how very small
we are.

Small Worlds V
(after the lithograph by Wassily Kandinsky)

Hold these worlds
in the small of your hand
remember them
the day they were torn
from the ribs of even chance
your children, your own,
remember them
as they were, not now
having come to this
these worlds in disarray
where anarchy makes
a fool of providence
and yesterday’s trust
what future there was
has lost its faith.

Small Worlds VII
(after the woodcut by Wassily Kandinsky)

In a drop of water
infinite worlds
small galaxies walk
on primordial feet

in the silent ooze
of time
they gather in splashes
baptized by rain—

so many worlds
so little space
to swim with the gods
in creation’s wake.

Small Worlds VIII
(after the woodcut by Wassily Kandinsky)
Measure the dimensions
of our worlds
with a caliper
the distance between
the space between
our minds
and through the lens
of a microscope
calculate the beginnings
and the ends
like strangers and friends
the two of us
in our two worlds
separated by our lies—
we know no other worlds
but these.
Small Worlds IX
(after the etching/drypoint by Wassily Kandinsky)

From creation’s muddle
to these small worlds
from original sin
lost innocence
a ship in a bottle
of my own conceit
draw circles in the sky
and watch the universe recede
I circumnavigate these globes
to know my worlds again
mother and father
origin of all I have become.
An interview with Ellman here 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Worlds of Poet Deborah Keenan and Painter Susan Solomon

Deborah Keenan is the author of nine collections of poetry. Her latest from broadcraft press, From Tiger to Prayer, is a book of writing ideas. She's a professor at Hamline University in the Creative Writing Programs and lives in beautiful, mysterious St. Paul. 
Susan Solomon is a freelance poem-painting artist living in the Twin Cities. She is the cartoonist and editor of Sleet Magazine, an online literary journal.

The following poem-painting is from their collaborative chapbook so she had the world, published by Red Bird Chapbooks. It includes 12 poems by Keenan and 12 paintings by Solomon inspired by those poems. Purchase a copy of their chapbook here.

The World As We Know It
by Deborah Keenan

She had the world
The river and the world
Part of the world
A small part of the world

And the river
A small part of the world
And the bend in the river
And the children’s voices
From faraway she had the world
And the road that led to the world
And the memory of the river
And the memory of the whole
World and then the memory
Of part of the world and
The small part of that world
And the bend in the river
The river which sometimes
Dried up
A drought settled
Into her part of the world
But then she had the memory
Of the drought
To go with
The world
The river
The bend in the river
The children’s voices
And the road
That led
To the world
Where the drought
Was real and just
Memory too
So she had the world.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poet Grace Schulman and Painter Edward Hopper Find a Cure for Solitude

For the next several weeks we’ll be posting poems from The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, in which editor Gail Levin has collected poems inspired by Edward Hopper paintings. Our first is Grace Schulman’s "American Solitude."

Poet and editor Grace Schulman was born in 1935 in New York City, studying at Bard College, American University, and New York University, where she earned her PhD. She is distinguished professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY, and served as the poetry editor of the Nation from 1972 to 2006. She also directed the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center from 1973 to 1985. She has published six collections of poetry, including Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems (2002) and The Broken String (2007). When Schulman was a teenager she was introduced to Marianne Moore, who had a profound effect on her poetics. Schulman wrote on the poet in a critical study, Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement (1986), and edited The Poems of Marianne Moore (2004).

American Solitude
“The cure for loneliness is solitude.” 
—Marianne Moore

Hopper never painted this, but here
on a snaky path his vision lingers:

three white tombs, robots with glassed-in faces
and meters for eyes, grim mouths, flat noses,

lean forward on a platform, like strangers
with identical frowns scanning a blur,

far off, that might be their train.
Gas tanks broken for decades face Parson’s

smithy, planked shut now. Both relics must stay.
The pumps have roots in gas pools, and the smithy

stores memories of hammers forging scythes
to cut spartina grass for dry salt hay.

The tanks have the remove of local clammers
who sink buckets and stand, never in pairs,

but one and one and one, blank-eyed, alone,
more serene than lonely. Today a woman

rakes in the shallows, then bends to receive
last rays in shimmering water, her long shadow

knifing the bay. She slides into her truck
to watch the sky flame over sand flats, a hawk’s

wind arabesque, an island risen, brown
Atlantis, at low tide; she probes the shoreline

and beyond grassy dunes for where the land
might slope off into night. Hers is no common

emptiness, but a vaster silence filled
with terns’ cries, an abundant solitude.

Nearby, the three dry gas pumps, worn
survivors of clam-digging generations,

are luminous, and have an exile’s grandeur
that says: In perfect solitude, there’s fire.

One day I approached the vessels
and wanted to drive on, the road ablaze

with dogwood in full bloom, but the contraptions
outdazzled the road’s white, even outshone

a bleached shirt flapping alone
on a laundry line, arms pointed down.

High noon. Three urns, ironic in their outcast
dignity—as though, like some pine chests,

they might be prized in disuse—cast rays,
spun leaf—covered numbers, clanked, then wheezed

and stopped again. Shadows cut the road
before I drove off into the dark woods.