Now my days alone have a certain shape to them – I wake about nine, turn on the symphony and have juice, fruit and a pot of black coffee. Read a bit (still Gide’s Journal), talk on the phone – to Richard [Miller], or Frank [O’Hara] – sometimes Mike [Goldberg], or others. The three or four, sometimes five hours on this canvas – it hasn’t begun to come yet, but I keep thinking of things to do.
Then a few d0mestic chores for myself, a cold shower, a cold hard boiled egg and one or two rums with Rose’s lime, more reading, more records. Tonight I meet Frank at the Cedar for dinner, then to the late showing of “East of Eden”.
The Journals of Grace Hartigan, July 1st 1955
Thursday of last week saw the first of what is, for me, a surprisingly long list of readings, mostly of poetry with, here and there, a modicum of prose levered in. Totally Wired is a monthly series that takes place in the Wired Café Bar in the centre of Nottingham, and organised by the poet, Becky Cullen, along with two lecturers from Nottingham Trent University – Rory Waterman and Andrew Taylor – both poets themselves. It’s no surprise perhaps that the majority of the audience are on the young side [let’s face it, anyone south side of fifty or so registers as young to me these days] or that a good number – the majority? – are students from NTU. What is a surprise is how many people are there, extra chairs having to be hauled up from the back of beyond, so that by the time Andrew has gone round collecting the names of those poets who want to read from the floor and the event is due to begin there’s a real sense of being squeezed up close to one’s neighbour and sharing their air – in my case, that of my daughter Molly Ernestine, who’s come along for moral support and is prepared to step into the breach should I falter.
The first four readers do two poems each, good poems read well, and, after an introduction from Andrew, I’m on. One of the most difficult things for me, when working out which pieces to read, is what to begin with. It doesn’t want to be too long, too obscure, too – for God’s sake – too dull. I used to make a habit of kicking off with “What Do You Say?”, a sort of riddle of a poem, to which the answer is the saxophone player Roland Kirk – which is fine when I’m doing a poetry and jazz gig with the band, but less successful otherwise – most people tend to scratch their heads in mild bemusement and I can’t say I blame them.
So, emboldened by the fact that not long since I was in Nottingham to take part in a Frank O’Hara tribute at the Five Leaves Bookshop, and surmising there may be more than one or two O’Hara fans in the audience, I opt for “Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)”, which is exactly that and turns out to have been a reasonable choice.
After a pause in which I take the risky step of asking people not to applaud after every poem (as if!) on the grounds that I could probably fit in another poem in the time lost, I make my way through the remainder of my twenty minute set. You can see, feel, the audience listening, responding in what I think of as the right way – a couple of laughs in the right places – and I can relax and enjoy what I’d doing.
At the interval, Molly hustles and sells the relatively few books we’ve brought with us; I chat to friends, drink another (seriously good) flat white, and wait for the second part of the evening and half a dozen more readers – a good number reading for the first time – and it’s a real pleasure to hear so many good new poems – some humorous, some heartfelt, some both.
I say my goodbyes, shake hands, and Molly and I set out for the station and the London train, the sounds of poetry and the strong sense of having had a better than good time reverberating around us.
For those who like to keep abreast of those things, this is what I read …
“Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)”
“Winter Notebook” [Also with quite a few changes]
“The U. S. Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.”
… Nothing too unusual, save for “Slow”, a poem I dedicated to Lee Harwood and Paul Evans, and which I thought to read after receiving a positive comment about it from John Kieffer on this blog, and the little poem set in the Botanical Gardens in Washington D.C. – as I said, the last thing you might expect coming out of. D.C during the week of Trump’s inauguration is a love poem.
The U.S Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.
The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue of that morning’s watering,
green hose slack within the leaves.
We used to come here, safe, and sit
not touching, humidity high in the nineties
and helicopters hovering, a block beyond the Hill.
In the display of medicinal herbs, I break
small leaves into my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding; foxglove
for the muscles of the heart.
When we meet again a year or more from now, by chance –
the departure lounge at Heathrow, hurrying
along the platform at Gare du Nord,
and your eyes as, uncertain
whether to offer your cheek for a kiss,
you hold out, instead, your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies I have long carried:
the knowledge that, nurtured, passion flowers
in the darkest places.
The keen-eyed will note that’s been trimmed and altered a little since it was published in Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)
The next poetry reading I have coming up is at Words & Jazz, Downstairs at the Vortex, in Dalston, East London, on Thursday 23rd March, after which I’m back in Nottingham on Wednesday, 12th April for an evening of Poetry & Jazz at Bromley House Library, with Ian Hill (saxophones) and Geoff Pearson (double bass). Then, on Friday 28th April, I’m at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden [or, just possibly, at Bar 48, Brixton, please check] for Fourth Friday, where I’m hoping to be reading alongside Debris Stevenson, with two sets from singer-songwriter, Liz Simcock.
On Tuesday, 23rd May, along with Leah Fritz, Danielle Hope and others, I shall be reading at Primrose Hill Library, North London, in a benefit for the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, and on Thursday of the same week, the 25th, I’m reading with the John Lake Band as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe.
Oh, and I might sneak a few poems into my session at Almondbury Library, Huddersfield on Thursday, 9th February, when I’m talking about my 40-odd years as a writer.
Celebrations of Frank O’Hara’s life and work, both, of course, closely entwined, continue apace. Last Saturday’s colloquium at the ICA – Frank O’Hara and Friends – broadened out those celebrations to include references to the work of some of the other poets and painters of the New York School with whom O’Hara was closely associated. One such, the artist (and sometime jazz musician) Larry Rivers, contributed the collage, based on his own nude portrait of O’Hara, used on the cover of the 1974 Vintage edition of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, and shown below. And today, it should be noted, marks the 89th birthday of one of the foremost of the New York poets, John Ashbery.
The ICA event was, as those occasions tend to be, a mixture of the interesting and entertaining with the academically obscure and self-serving, the first keynote speaker, Geoff Ward, Principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, being all of the former and none of the latter. Jess Cotton, a PhD student from UCL, talked interestingly about the relationship and cross-influences linking O’Hara and fellow poet James Schuyler, and Eleanor Careless (great name!), studying for a PhD at Sussex, spoke of the connections between O’Hara and the painter Helen Frankenthaler and his poem/her painting Blue Territory in the context of “gendered risk”.
Last night’s event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, organised by Leah Wilkins, was an altogether less grandiose affair and none the less enjoyable for that. Some fifty people crowded into the store, taking up all the available chairs and filling all the nooks and crannies between bookstands, to listen to largely unexplicated readings of O’Hara’s poems by, amongst others, the poet and lecturer, Matthew Welton; the newly in place director of Nottingham Contemporary, Sam Thorne; gay literature historian, Gregory Woods; and founder of Mud Press, Georgina Wilding. As I said when someone commented kindly on my reading of The Day Lady Died, that poem is so close to perfect that being given the opportunity to read it aloud feels almost like stealing.
You’ll have noticed, if not from this blog then from elsewhere, quite a lot of brouhaha around the 50th anniversary of the death of New York poet, Frank O’Hara on July 25th. 1966. Some – a mass reading of Lunch Poems outside the South Bank’s Poetry Library – just gone; more to come. On Sunday, July 24th in London there’s a one-day symposium – The Day Before O’Hara Died – organised around O’Hara’s life and work at the ICA. As well as talks, readings, discussions, there will be a number of rare and limited editions from the Poetry Library’s collection on display. And then, less grandiloquently, there’s a celebration of O’Hara’s poetry at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham on the evening of Wednesday, July 27th. The poet, Matthew Welton, will talk about the importance of O’Hara’s work and a clutch of others – Becky Cullen, Leah Wilkins, Gregory Woods, David Belbin and myself, will experience the joy of reading a selection of the poems aloud.
I don’t know if anyone is going to be reading “My Heart”, but if they’re not, maybe they should.
I’m not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don’t prefer one “strain” to another.
I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind, I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says “That’s
no like Frank!”, all to the good! I
don’t wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be be,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart –
you can’t plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.
Running a theme here, and with a one day symposium on O’Hara’s life, work and friends at the ICA on Sunday, 24th July, there may be even more. But for now, following up on the previous post’s recent poem from Out of Silence, here are a couple more that somehow didn’t make it into the New & Selected. (Wonder why?) The first comes from Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998), the second from Taking The Long Road Home (Slow Dancer, 1988)
Seven Year Ache
“There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy
but you can’t miss a day of it, because it doesn’t last”
Frank O’Hara. “Poem”(“And tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock”)
Listening to the radio this afternoon,
thumbing through my well-worm life
of Frank O’Hara, its pink and purple annotations,
I notice Top Hat is on TV in time to see
Fred and Ginger shelter in that convenient bandstand
and marvel at the way she mimics so perfectly his routine.
And I think of the young O’Hara watching them for the first time
from those red velvet seats of the Worcester Warner’s.
How he loved them! Ginger’s ‘pageboy bob’, Fred’s
‘peach melba voice’. Watching them now,
I hate Astair’s dinner-suited smugness,
the certainty he’ll get the girl at the end.
Last night, and then again today, I’m taunted
by the bizarre easiness of dying. O’Hara at forty
knocked over by an errant jeep on the beach,
his mother, frail from hospital and drying out,
tumbling yellow roses into his grave. Such waste!
Each day that’s lived is lived in hope and in regret.
We die each day and not from love but lack of it:
the pull of your hand away from mine, the turn
of your face aside. Whatever flowers you throw
on that fresh-turned earth will carry with them,
bright and unremarkable, the stench of what was missed.
This & Then That
the day is full of possibilities
we can climb the hill into the city
& pass the girl with blue eyes
coming back down
camel coat like a bathrobe
on her shoulders
sleep and love in her eyes
our bags packed with spiced sausage
& cheeses & strong with the smell
of fresh coffee
we sit and eat a slow, late breakfast
you read one of the folded papers
while I wait a little breathlessly
for the waitress to dip low
skirt peeling back from her legs
like fine blue paint
you stop me with a smile
Dave gets up from piano practice
tousle-haired kids draw men like stars
we talk of Rothko, Frank O’Hara, the blues:
Gill out, getting on with life
later we take the cat for a walk
around the park
check out the evening movies
I can tell from the look in your eyes
we’ll be in bed soon
sunset back of the trees
Not having time, sadly, to hang around after the Lunch Poems readings referred to in my previous post, I missed out on a discussion of Frank O’Hara’s fascination with the movies plus the chance to hear some of those assembled reading their own poems with an O’Hara connection. Had I still been there, I’d have read this, from Out of Silence …
(In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)
The rain is falling,
the way it did for Frank
when he stepped onto the sidewalk
that would take him to St. Mark’s Place;
Camels, two packs, in his pockets,
notebook, pen, a little cash,
nothing more on his mind
than a quick espresso on Bleecker or MacDougal,
meeting maybe Grace or Jane to talk of painting:
who was in and who was out, who was caught
with their hand up someone’s skirt in the Cedar Tavern,
who punched out who’s lights –
who was playing that night at the Five Spot,
Monk, perhaps, and Coltrane –
all this talk before moving on
to the bookstores on Fourth Avenue
in search of some hidden gem,
then, lunch hour over, heading back
to the office at MOMA where he works.
And here, meanwhile, the rain is still falling
and I’m wondering what another espresso
would do to my metabolism,
remembering that morning on my way back
from shooting the breeze with Norbert Hirschhorn –
health hero, friend, and grand poet of the Lebanon –
when, after downing two double-shot lattes
in quick succession, I left him at the bus stop
and this pain, like a giant foot, stepped down on my heart
and, winded, I stopped in my tracks,
sweating and fearful at the thought of it all ending here,
so close to where we used to catch,
my daughter and I, the C11 bus to the library,
but then, as I rested, the pain began to fade
and with it my fears and so with scarcely a wave
in whatever direction Bert had taken,
I continued home to where I am now,
sitting at the window, waiting for the rain to cease
so that I can go out for my morning walk
and wondering, in the meantime,
should I listen again to the Berg Violin Concerto
that has just stopped playing or simply sit
and leaf through this beautiful little Tibor de Nagy edition
of O’Hara’s poems – you know, the one with Larry River’s drawings
and Grace Hartigan’s gorgeous painting of Oranges?
How my heart leapt
that morning not so long ago
when I walked into the poetry room at Foyles
and saw it there, face out, among the new acquisitions,
just begging me to buy it, take it home,
even though the poems themselves are already on my shelves
but not like this, and besides, who wouldn’t
take a little more of O’Hara’s insouciance,
his seemingly careless brilliance,
to help them through their day?
The rain has stopped, and the cat,
who, moments before, would deign only
to swivel round and present her more
than elegant backside to the world,
is outside, studiously ignoring the blackbird
digging its orange beak into the earth
at the end of the garden,
and picking up the book of poems,
I consign Berg to another day
and set off in search of my coat and shoes.
Come on! Let’s go!
Yesterday, at the instigation of Edwina Attlee and a small collaborative group sheltering in plain sight under the name, Sitting Room, some twenty to thirty people, my daughter Molly Ernestine and myself included, gathered in the foyer of The Poetry Library in London’s Royal Festival Hall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Frank O’Hara with a reading of his collection, Lunch Poems, in its entirety. Papers were shuffled, poems were duly read and savoured, sandwiches were eaten; copies of the City Lights Pocket Poets edition of Lunch Poems (none of them, I imagine, firsts) were passed from hand to hand, shared, relished, laughed over and wondered at, enjoyed. In that good company, Frank, I like to think, would have felt quite at home.