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Now available from Penguin Books: Absentia by William Stobb. Find it in traditional book form on amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. Also available for mobile devices at iTunes bookstore and google books.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Couple of Recents...

"I think I / pretend, mainly to understand my motives,"
            from "Interval," published in Colorado Review, and picked up by Verse Daily, here.

"I think the poem's trying to enter the storm spiral that is trying to think in a historical time period where thinking itself is hastening global crisis." From "The KR Conversations," in July, 2015, Kenyon Review online. Here.

"What is happening
seems mainly about to happen--
a fade into a possible other
sandbox strewn with trucks and full
of buried Superballs (TM)
somewhere deep in in-
or external space."
                               From "What is Happening," in Kenyon Review, July / Aug 2013. Online here.

"everything's quiet but I'm wired / with weirdly woven histories-- / waistcoats, lightning bolts, powdered wigs and IV bags."
                   from "Earl of Rochester," in the July / Aug print issue of Kenyon Review, available here.

"We hoped meaning would arrive. We figured we'd be happy when it came, like the one friend who makes your whole social circle work, when that friend is late for the barbecue and you're all staring at your phones."
                      from "Meaning," in Passages North 36. Available here.


                 



Thursday, June 4, 2015

Homage to Jay Meek, Part Two--Jane Varley

The second installment of the notes from our 2015 AWP memorial panel, honoring the late poet, novelist, teacher and editor, Jay Meek, comes from Jane Varley.  Jane teaches writing and chairs the English department at Muskingum University. She is the author of a book of creative nonfiction, Flood Stage and Rising; a chapbook of poetry, Sketches at the Naesti Bar; and co-author of the coaching memoir, You Must Play to Win! with Donna Newberry.  Jane was a student of Jay's in the creative writing program at the University of North Dakota.


I put a lot of time and thought into this panel presentation—and it is such a paradox, the more I was thinking and writing, the more I cut from the text. It is because I care so much and this is so meaningful for me. Words don’t do justice to my feelings.

Also I get a little jittery because of the egocentrism and self-referencing of so many writers. I’m not above it—my first stop is often speaking of my own experiences. But with Jay Meek, I want to define something that runs exactly counter to that. He had the most remarkable use of the first person pronoun that you will encounter in contemporary poetry. He is both at the center of his poems and standing outside them at the same time. He saw the self of narration, and maybe even the “self” of existence, as somewhat alien at all times. Jay was a stranger at home, and he was at home in foreign places. And the other way around too.

Let me show you what I mean. His poem “Counting the Birds at Christmas” has four parts—and is set in a couple of different places in the North Dakota landscape. If you know North Dakota, you know this landscape can be stark and filled with nothingness. One of the sections of the poem shifts the focus from the external landscape to the internal, and here is a place with that amazing use of the I pronoun.

How can I account for the years I have failed myself,
the times I have not acted out of passion,
but out of some control I imposed upon my passion,
as if I feared what I wanted from my life.

Some days I feel ashamed of myself, even at my age.
Walking alone, I hunch my shoulders together
as if I wore great white wings,
scapulars I might pull around myself for comfort.

Other days, I have pulled feathers from my skin,
the charred white feathers of a goose,
white feathers, blue feathers, sad and exotic feathers
I have won from years of wandering.

(“Counting the Birds at Christmas”  Headlands: New and Selected Poems. Carnegie Mellon)

It’s Jay’s way of being in the in-between—like he is on two plains at once, in the actual world and also moving across time. The self-knowledge and intellect packed into the perspective amaze me (I have searched for better words in this writing though find I can only say it like this, just telling the truth), and I find the humility of his poetry to be absolutely fascinating and often very very moving.

I found that same humility in Jay himself. I wanted to take some pleasure today in sharing some personal details about him. There are many I can think of, but mainly what stays with me is how you’d find him in his office looking out the window. Standing there with his hands clasped behind his back. Like at any moment he was going to pick up a telescope and look out over an ocean on the university’s quad. Really, it was remarkable. Such presence he had. Jay would get really agitated and pissed off at the petty fighting that can happen on a campus, especially at department meetings, but that really wasn’t him—he was most himself looking out that window.

Also, I wanted to mention his handwriting. It was a printing style with a slight right lean. It was really pretty, like sketching—and if you looked at a whole paragraph it was uniform with equal spaces and very straight lines, and it made me think of train tracks. And you might already know something about Jay’s devotion to trains, which connected right to his soul. If you don’t know that, all you have to do is read the poems, especially the book Trains in Winter.

The last aspect I’d like to talk about is Jay’s incredible patience. I can’t imagine a more kind and generous respondent. He was straightforward too—if he thought a poem really wasn’t going to work, he’d find a sideways way of telling you that. I remember once, in response to a really crappy autobiographical thing I was writing about my Catholic upbringing—where I was just trying way way too much and too hard, he told me he had a great idea. He said I should take it down to the Castle Church. And that I should nail it to the door.

Jay’s patience and mentoring went far beyond the page. It was like he was waiting for me to make my own discoveries and put faith in those discoveries. He had a way of guiding that, which was very abstract and maybe even kind of magical. Again, it’s hard to describe. And I’m not the only former student to describe him as a ship’s captain. That was the spirit he projected.

I’d like to read my favorite passage from Jay’s work. It exemplifies what I valued back when I worked with him and what I will always value, and always learn from. How he isolated moments of experience or an image, and then somehow infused them with feeling and philosophy and understanding and intelligence.

"I have always believed my life to be a gift, no less than your own, and that we choose our acts because we care for the exquisite movement that is always passing through us, if only we awake to it. We live as if each day brought a new turn, when we might stop to watch the polar bear at the zoo swim in his grand style, or when we might read a menu posted outside a restaurant in the old quarter, and it will become important, like a vase of forsythia that holds the greater day in place. We make those moments happen, not by denying our lives but by inhabiting them fully."
 (The Memphis Letters, p. 75)


And one more thing. I can’t help but hear this line as a directive. It’s also from The Memphis Letters, where our speaker is opening his soul up in letters. [He says most simply and directly, as though he could picture us here now: "know that I am with you, more presumptuous than church bells, and no less spirited than the morning air. From my childhood, whatever rivers I have walked beside, whatever stones I skipped toward the far bank, the waters of my life flow to this day.
Say of me: He liked baseball. And he liked to ride trains."
(The Memphis Letters, p. 105)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Homage to Jay Meek Part One--Thom Tammaro

At the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference, I was honored to be part of a memorial panel celebrating the life and work of the late poet, novelist, editor, teacher, friend, father and husband, Jay Meek (1937-2007). The other panelists and I (Anna George Meek, Jane Varley, Yahya Frederickson, and Thom Thammaro) discussed ways that we might work to advance Jay's legacy. One small step is to publish our panel presentations in some public forum, so they might be available for Jay's present and future readers. Here is the first of those publications--Thom Tammaro's talk, reprinted below with permission from the author. Thom Tammaro is the recipient of two fellowships in poetry from the Minnesota State Arts Board, a Loft-McKnight Award in poetry, and a Jerome Foundation travel grant to Italy. He is the recipient of three Minnesota Book Awards.


“Words put own and carried in the dark”: Homage to Jay Meek
April 11, 2015, Minneapolis AWP
Thom Tammaro, Moorhead, MN

Let me begin with the last stanza from a prose poem by Jay Meek called “Trains in Winter,” the title poem of his 2004 collection from Carnegie-Mellon University Press:

Hope’s the pure country I was born to, where the trains run on schedule in their periodic and beneficent sadness. I want to forget the casual insults that often pass for humor, and imagine the letters lovers might write, or the letters friends send every winter as their sentences cross the distance of the page. Their words are like a train arriving in Los Angeles while another train approaches the desert, and still another leaves the Chicago yards. Tonight I want to lie in my own bed and listen to trains moving across America toward a place still humanly possible, desirable if difficult, a day’s journey away.
***

I first met Jay Meek in 1984, about a year after I arrived in Minnesota and during Jay’s first year at UND in Grand Forks. My colleague Mark Vinz and I drove to Grand Forks to met Jay at the Westward Ho Motel, a wild west-themed hotel that verged on the surreal: barrel tables and lanterns, western things like spurs and leather saddles, and wagon wheels and tool-like things from barns, all hanging on the walls and rafters. I remember the three of us sitting for three hours in a darkened corner of an otherwise large and unoccupied room—drinking beer, eating peanuts and shucking the shells to the sawdust floor—though I’m not sure that’s what we were supposed to do with them—laughing and talking poetry. It was a grand night and the beginning of a twenty-three year friendship. On the drive home, I remember thinking, This western edge of Minnesota might not be so bad after all!
***
Jay—and soon after Martha (and Anna, who was mostly out east chasing degrees in music and writing at Yale, and Johns Hopkins, and Indiana Universities)—and I spent a great deal of time together in restaurants; over home-cooked meals; and in cars driving to-and-from poetry readings.
***
Jay read, edited, and published my poems. He skillfully edited my second collection of poems—taking a bloated manuscript of 85 poems and reducing it to 50, making it a much better book. Jay was a fine, fine editor, whose feedback I valued and trusted more than any other’s.

We wrote letters of recommendation for each other—or spoke on each other’s behalf—when we applied for jobs and grants and writing residencies.

We called each other on the phone; we wrote letters and postcards to each other; we sometimes met for coffee at the Country Hearth Restaurant, halfway between Grand Forks and Moorhead.
***

I remember those mornings when I went out to get the mail and found a letter, postmarked Grand Forks, with Jay’s name handwritten in the upper-left-hand corner above the green and black and logo of his university. How I loved letters from Jay! How I loved sitting down with them—finding my way through the elegance of his sentences, the intricacy of his paragraphs, the depth of his ideas, and always the joy and quirky humor which balanced the seriousness of his complex and amazing mind.

Sometimes he wrote postcards to me and to my cat, Bucko:

Dear Thom and Bucko,
            It was good to see you two on Monday and I’m writing to say that a great coincidence happened, for that night Anna called to say she’d for the first time eaten a tomato and cream cheese sandwich.  You know, I had bread from Great Harvest to take back, so the room temperature cream cheese and tomatoes [ones I had given him from our garden] were terrific on white, and I’ll try them tonight on sunflower whole wheat.  Bucko, you might not want to try it.  Let the two-leggeds do it.  It’s always a charge to see you both—not you, in quite the same way, Bucko, although you’ll recall I noted aloud how handsome you were—and I carrytoday again an image of the Terminal Bridge hanging in the air. Who can cross over, to what other liveable and human shore?  Love to you all, Jay.
***


E.B. White ends Charlotte's Web with Wilbur the Pig’s eulogy for his dear friend, Charlotte the Spider. Wilbur says, “[Charlotte] was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
***
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”  Jay Meek was both.    
***
In late March of 1999, someone from the Bush Foundation contacted me and said that Jay Meek had made the initial cut for a Bush fellowship, and would I be willing to assist them with round two, by conducting what he referred to as a “Kitchen Conversation” with Jay Meek. These were informal talks and interviews with 2nd round applicants, meant to sound like we were sitting around the kitchen table talking smart.  I said yes, I’d be happy to, but I disclosed to them that Jay was a close friend.  Evidently, he knew that already, as applicants had submitted the names of people who might be willing to talk & write on their behalf.

On Saturday, April 10, 1999, Jay and I spent two amazing hours together—yes, we actually sat around my kitchen table and talked— and today I’d like to share with you some of that conversation which eventually became my report to the Bush Foundation. Jay told me that throughout his career, he had been “awakened” by travel—the aesthetic and artistic challenges of each of his books were born as a result of travel, of moving through foreign landscapes and meeting people in their communities, then allowing those landscapes to be absorbed by the body and soul and the intellect—and returned through the language of poems.

Jay remarked that he was “most alive” when he was about to embark on a new writing project—just as he was excited by thoughts of unknown adventures and possibilities when he was on a train leaving the station. For Jay, the quotidian world was liberated by travel, risk, and the need to feel “alive.” For Jay, poems were articulations of human passion, journeys of celebrations, despite restrictions and limitations experience often places upon us. For Jay, these moments represent some of his most rewarding experiences as an artist.

As a “teaching poet”—and Jay always and carefully defined himself as a “teaching poet” throughout his career—Jay remarked that he found great reward from helping students find their way toward their own liberating moments, and he spoke of several students who have done so. There was great pride in his voice and expression when talking about these successful students—three of them sitting next to me today.

About his book, Headlands: New and Selected Poems (1997), Jay told me that it was “an important book for [him], [his] first mortal act as a writer”—he said that the collection was a turning point in his life, a kind of retrospective of what his life had been, both as a writer and as a human, a documentary of his inner life as it played itself out over the years. Jay remarked that as a young writer, he saw the writing life as a “sprint” toward some unknown end, but that now, from his vantage point as a mature writer and human, he saw the writing life as a long race, with failures and triumphs. He was now more patient to watch his art grow, and more accepting now of failure, which he saw as a wise teacher. Where time was once an adversary, it was now an ally.  Where earlier work experimented with various masks and personas, Jay seemed most intent on moving “the biographical self” to the forefront of his poems to explore the way the “self” intersects with the events from personal and collective experience. The poems beginning around 2000 were “tethered” to real events, people, and places rather than imagined landscapes and persons, the strategy of work found in two previous collections, Windows (1994) and Stations (1989). His poems grew from an emotional and intellectual center of the self, and recorded the inner life as it played itself out in a 4-5 year cycle.
***
So much of what Jay wanted in his poetry and his life can be found in his last books and poems.

“clarity and richness
hope and sweetness
and words put down and carried in the dark.”

This is all that Jay asked for.

Headlands is a book that I encourage you to read (and purchase, if copies are available today, and I think they are). It is a book that looks backward to the early arc of Jay’s career as a poet—and then looks toward the work of his future, work that would find its way into his last two collections.
***
I’m sorry to report that Jay did not receive the Bush Fellowship that year (though he had previously received on in 1989), but his wishes and desire for a poetry that moved “the biographical self” to the forefront of his poems to explore the way the “self” intersects with the events from personal and collective experience did find its way into his last two collections, The Memphis Letters, an epistolary novel (2002) and Trains in Winter (2004), as well as in unpublished book-length manuscripts.
***
Jay Meek wanted an America where the trains ran on time and moved across America, “toward a place still humanly possible.”
***
Jay Meek’s friendship was a generous friendship, as was his poetry. Here are two brief stanzas from his poem “Layover” from Headlands (90):
           
            “…I am tired of having to invent my life
 I am tired of caring for those
who are dear to me, only to have them leave
as I have had to leave.

I wish I could be generous in holding them all,
the friends I am grateful to,
those who on many quiet evenings
have made me glad.”                                              

Jay Meek’s gift to us was his poetry filled with a generous humanity.
***

I’d like to end with a paragraph from Letter #50, the last letter in The Memphis Letters (134). Like Tom Joad’s Shakespearean-like “wherever” monologue in Chapter 28 at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, Jay’s passage resonates with generosity, humanity, compassion, desire—and belief toward a place still humanly possible, desirable if difficult.
For me, it comes closest to the heart of the poet—and the human being—that I knew Jay Meek to be:
All too soon now I will be leaving. I will sing for those who are empty, for those who are low on courage and lack words. I will sing for those who live in their own shadows, because I know their songs, and for the shy and tongue-tied, because I am one of them. I will sing for those in small towns, where our century is strangling them, and for those beaten down in the cities.
***



Thursday, April 2, 2015

Connectivity

Benjamin Staudinger, Milky Way, wikimedia commons
Later, I will be conscious of the fact that being outside at night is one of my favorite things. I will experience a kind of internal exhale when I have an opportunity to just sit out, alone, hearing cars on the highway and the Empire Builder sounding its horn about a mile west of us, beyond the Mississippi. I will love slow hours, watching the moon move, airplanes and satellites, a light breeze shifting the maple tree. This night, though, I have been called away from my basketball—I’m acting out a radio broadcast of a Minnesota Gophers game on a toy hoop taped to the living room paneling—and asked to go out to the garage and check on my father. He has been working for a long time on a complicated repair to his Oldsmobile, and it’s a cold, mid-winter night, so he has the heater on. My mother is worried about the ventilation. “If he’s blue, it’s probably too late,” she tells me. I hurry out the door and immediately feel the heat of my body sucked into the darkness. I run across to the garage and burst through the door: Dad quick-slides out from under the Cutlass on his rolling dolly and says “what the hell?” He looks me up and down. “Not even a jacket?” He’s fine. I step back out and close the door. It must be very cold—by then, I’d heard the stories about throwing a glass of water and watching it freeze in mid-air, the stories about exposure, frostbite, and hypothermia: that in the last moments before you die, you feel an incredible warmth wash over you. So I’m hurrying across the twenty yards of open space between the house and the garage, when I look up at the sky. Out of town where we live, the stars are brilliant, and I notice for the first time that there’s a contour to the array—the column of the Milky Way. A slowness starts to happen, and I feel that I could elapse out there, my eyes pinned to the revolving galaxy. A couple years later, age 10 or so, I would make a fort under the low branches of a pine along the margin where our yard slopes down to the river marsh, and I would have the experience of people searching for me, though I am right there, at the edge of the yard, and would only have to say, “here” to stop everyone panicking. On this night, though, it’s too cold. If I were to lie on my back and stare up at the sky—years later I’d do this on the Black Rock playa, where the cord of the galaxy is even more intensely, vividly visible, and I’d feel a tangible sense of connectivity between our planet’s surface and the surrounding cosmos—within minutes, I would become terrain, ice crystals forming across the surface of my starry eyes. So I turn away, go inside, and inform my mother that her husband is still alive.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Boo

Boo would drink six beers and practice tricks until punch-in time.  Invent an eternal detective armed with throwing star lashes, put her on the trail of a fugitive—he'd run ‘til the cliff dropped or the blade sliced his neck.  Or he’d just repeat something, like Marilyn, Marilyn, and I suppose go through every image ‘til there were no more—then she’d be gone, and that was another trick.  I’d be playing rummy while he vocalized—he’d start from scratch: name the fluid, name the bubbles, the permeating feeling.  Make a sound to signify mind-travel to a ceiling fan, microwave color-scraps as they originate in linoleum and travel into the ragged weeds colonizing the broken joints of what we called our office.  He hadn't even clocked in.  Just going on with words I didn’t even know, articulating concepts I'd probably never learn.  He seemed both happy and a little frightened.  Frightened by happiness maybe.