blackbirdonline journalFall 2009  Vol. 8  No. 2
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KATIE FORD  | Twelfth Annual Levis Reading Prize

A Reading by Katie Ford

Terry Oggel: Good evening. I’m Terry Oggel, Chair of the English Department here at VCU. Welcome to the Twelfth Annual Levis Prize reading, given by this year’s winner, Katie Ford, honoring her collection, Colosseum, a book-length sequence about Hurricane Katrina published by Graywolf Press. More than 150 entries were narrowed down to ten finalists by our MFA students, and the final judges came from the faculty of the MFA Program in Creative Writing in our English Department. Recipients of the prize receive an honorarium and are brought to Richmond to present this public reading in celebration of the award.

The Levis Reading Prize is presented on behalf of VCU’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. Sponsors include the Department of English, James Branch Cabell Library Associates, Friends of the Library, the VCU Libraries, the VCU Honors College, Barnes & Noble Bookstore, and the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The roll call of previous prize-winners is getting to be quite long: Matt Donovan for Vellum; Joshua Weiner, From the Book of Giants; Ron Slate, The Incentive of the Maggot; Spencer Reece, The Clerk’s Tale; David Daniel, Seven-Star Bird; Susan Aizenberg, Muse; Steven [sic] Scafidi, Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer; Nick Flynn, Some Ether; Joel Brouwer, Exactly What Happened; Sandra Alcosser, Except by Nature; and Belle Waring, our first Levis Prize winner, for Dark Blonde, in 1998.

This honor in Larry’s name goes to the author of the best first or second book of poetry published in the previous calendar year. It’s hard to believe that this is the twelfth award. Considering the volatility and instability of today’s world, twelve years constitutes a long tradition. The volatility of the world was what Larry’s poetry confronted—and by that means, mediate fractured experience. This year’s winner, by exploring the relationship between violence and beauty, follows Larry’s lead.

With this honor, we remember a distinguished poet, essayist, teacher, scholar, and, above all, mentor for many of us in the department. Larry was our colleague until his untimely death in 1996.

At this point, let me call attention to the mixed-media portrait of Larry here in the front of the room. It was created by VCU artist David Freed. David is with us this evening, in the back. David, please rise, and let us join in welcoming him. David worked with Larry on several joint projects, and the English department is most appreciative that David has given the department this richly fascinating life-size depiction of Larry on long-term loan. It hangs in our department office suite, where you are all invited to view it. We are extremely grateful, David. Thank you for your generosity.

Along with Larry himself, we are pleased to recognize Larry’s family whose support has contributed to making possible this yearly highlight in the life of our department. In that vein, I commend the selection committee for choosing such a deserving winner, and I thank Katie Ford for joining us to share her poetry with us. An important tradition can thus continue. Now let me make room for my colleague, Kathleen Graber.

Kathleen Graber: In addition to celebrating Katie Ford’s Colosseum tonight, the Creative Writing Department would like to take a moment to honor the memory of another of this year’s finalists for the Levis Prize, Craig Arnold.

Craig Arnold’s first book of poems, Shells, was the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and his many honors include the Rome Prize, the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton, a Fulbright Fellowship to Columbia, and a fellowship from National Endowment for the Arts.

On April 27th, while on a US-Japan Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship, Craig Arnold disappeared on a small island in Japan. He had gone alone to explore an active volcano and he never returned to the inn where he was staying. After an intensive international search, it was concluded that he had probably gotten lost and fallen to his death. The ravine to which they tracked his trail, however, is very treacherous and his body has not been recovered. Arnold’s second collection, Made Flesh, is both a retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone and a wild, intimate, unsettling, and unforgettable meditation on the nature of love. And in his honor I’m just going to read to you the very end of the book which is an excerpt from the title poem, “Made Flesh.”

[“Made Flesh,” Craig Arnold, Made Flesh, Copper Canyon Press, 2008.]

Now I’d like to turn the podium over to Greg Donovan who’s going to speak to you about Larry Levis.

Greg Donovan: Behind every poet who writes there stands a long line of poets who make his or her poetry possible, poets who have opened doors that allow these poets here and now, stumbling through their own impossible moment of time, to walk out into a possible landscape, and to find themselves there. Standing behind every poet writing in English is the great lonely and lovely and tragic John Keats, who stands behind the great lonely and lovely and tragicomic Wallace Stevens, and it is Stevens who stands quite helpfully and hopefully behind not only Larry Levis, but also Katie Ford, holding the door open for them. In the poems of both Ford and Levis, we encounter a consciousness that turns to disturbed and threatened landscapes and finds there disturbing and threatening sources of power and awakening that make it possible for them to find ways to understand themselves, allowing us to understand ourselves and make our way through, just as Stevens and Keats did before them. As Levis has written, “No matter what the landscape . . . at the moment of writing: the wave takes the shape of the fire. What is ‘out there’ moves inside. The poet becomes threshold.”

This evening, as my way of invoking the spirit of Larry Levis on this occasion of remembering him, I’ll turn not as I have in the past simply to personal reminiscences about him, but to a particular poem, “Linnets,” and to a particular Levis essay, “Some Notes on the Gazer Within,” which reveals the deep background of that poem.

In that essay, Levis reluctantly agrees with himself to seek to answer the question, “Where do poems come from?” And the answer for him—as it was for Wallace Stevens, whose essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” stands behind Larry’s own essay—is the imagination. But specifically, it must be the imagination embroiled in a struggle with reality, caught in the act of resisting and seeking to escape “the pressures of reality,” as Stevens phrased it. Levis refers to that reality, what is “out there,” as a landscape: “I don’t know what could be more unfashionable just now than the whole ‘idea’ of landscape, but at times, for me, the world is a landscape, and I think of my own poems as if they were landscapes.”

Levis distinguishes between the landscapes of sterility—“the shopping mall, the suburbs, the business loops, the freeways and boutiques with cute names” which are actually “the death of the landscape, and the eye’s starvation”—and the landscapes that can actually generate a poem. Such a landscape is one which stares back at the gazing poet in the same way that the contemporary poem itself stares back, without agenda, without a map. The landscape of the tract houses and endless suburbs are sterile because “no one has ever died into such landscapes.” He writes that staring “at a Kmart . . . I find [sic] myself rapidly aging,” and “I do know that as I watch my eyes pay enormous taxes while the gazer inside me dies for a few moments.” Meanwhile, “the authentic experience of any worthwhile landscape must be an experience of my own humanity. . . . I am filled by, looked at by, the landscape itself; the experience is not that of a mirror’s, but a true exchange, until even something as negligible as some newspapers lifting in the wind on a street, at night and before a rain, are somehow soiled by an ineradicable humanity, and by the presence of the dead, and of the about-to-be-born.”

Levis suggests that “one of the tasks of contemporary poetry” has been “to recover the poet and the idea of the poet for our time.” This is an activity performed against the “pressures of reality,” including some terrible and consuming realities at times, such as war itself, which threaten to erase the poet and poetry entirely. He writes, “After Hiroshima, haiku and tanka forms fell into disuse, surrealism became the ruling aesthetic. Do such devices, such methods, bring the poet closer to the world or hold attention at a workable distance, or both?” Levis answered that question from his own writing experience. “My most frequent problem as a poet,” he wrote, “is to have no subject, to have ‘nothing at heart,’ an ailment that Stevens once defined as misery.”

One solution for this problem of being silenced by the misery of alienation and the pressures of reality was to turn to the natural world, and specifically to animals. “When animals occur in poems, then, I believe they are often emblems for the muteness of the poet, for what he or she cannot express. . . . The other thing that occurs infallibly when the poet places the animal in the world, or in the world of the poem, is the recovery of the landscape.” Sometimes the animal is an imagined beast, like the lion in Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” who allows the poet to redeem the too-real landscape of pig slaughter and smoky factories. Sometimes it is the purity of otherness in the animal which allows the poet to find voice, as with Elizabeth Bishop’s fish, or D.H. Lawrence’s snake, or Sylvia Plath’s bees, or Robert Lowell’s skunks. I might add that this pure otherness that redeems the landscape and opens the poet’s voice is what one finds in Katie Ford’s “Little Goat,” and in the parasites in the tainted flood water in her poem “The Singing,” or the locusts who were once human in her poem “Beirut,” and the birds of a cold and windy April who “draw their necks deep / into their bodies” in her poem “Easter Evening,” just as we do.

At the conclusion of his essay, Levis writes, “To write poems that matter to me, I must become, paradoxically at the moment of writing, as other as a poet as any animal in a poem. . . . Unless this absorption into the other occurs, I am condemned to be immured within the daily ego, the ego that lives in the suburbs. This was my problem when I began a long poem, ‘Linnets,’ in 1973.” And now I’ll let Larry continue to speak for himself as I read to you the last few pages of this essay from The Gazer Within, in which he will quote from his own poem, “Linnets”:

[“Gazing Within,” Larry Levis, Some Notes on the Gazer Within, University of Michigan Press, 2001.]

Now I’d like to introduce Kathleen Graber.

KG: Katie Ford is the author of two books of poetry, Deposition and Colosseum, and the chapbook, Storm. Ford has a graduate degree in theology from Harvard University and another in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her B.A. in English is from Whitman College. She has received awards and grants from the Lannan Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the PEN American Center, and Prairie Lights.

Colosseum opens with an epigraph from H.D. and it tells us: “there, as here, ruin opens / the tomb, the temple; enter.” What the reader enters is an unflinching mind bent on the excavation of devastation, the unearthing of its literal, psychological, and spiritual repercussions: work that arises out of the poet’s attempt to reckon with her experiences as a resident of New Orleans in the days immediately leading up to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina and her journeys in the months that followed, both back to her home in that city and, then, to Italy, that site of so many other disasters.

Colosseum was named one of the “Best Books of 2008” by Publishers Weekly and one of the “Top 10 Poetry Books for 2008” by the Virginia Quarterly Review. Katie Ford now lives in Philadelphia with her husband, the novelist Josh Emmons, and teaches at Franklin & Marshall College.

It was a pleasure to spend time with Katie Ford’s poems, and it’s an honor to introduce her tonight as the winner of the Levis Reading Prize. I remember how deeply moved I was the first time I read Larry Levis’s Winter Stars,a book that permanently changed my understanding of how poetry can work its magic. And I’ve been haunted all week by his poem “There Are Two Worlds” which begins with this proposition: “Perhaps the ankle of the horse is holy.” I think this line came back to me because it is one among many to which I could imagine Katie Ford saying something like “yes,”or even “amen.

Among the words that come to my mind when I think of the poems of Deposition and Colosseum are testimony, evidence, spell, vessel,and witness.But ultimately what I rest upon is oracle,not simply because the poems ring with the authentic authority of revealed truths, but because the truths they seek to pronounce are such difficult and contradictory ones.

Those bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina are wisely advised, for instance, in her poem “Tell Us” to ready themselves. But in the next stanza, the disseminated wisdom is of another sort: “do not panic,” she writes. But not because there is no cause for alarm, but rather because there are forces absolutely biblical in proportion—from fire to flood—before which “you cannot be ready.” With a similar precision, she turns on the tender lies we use to deceive ourselves, and with remarkable yet simple grace somehow both debunks and honors them. “If I kept watch,” the speaker of “Petition” confides, “watch would be kept over me, I thought.” And at the end of a poem meditating on our thirst for the miraculous as it is made manifest in “The Shroud of Turin,” a voice pleads, “Please do not prove anything away.”

Yet if the world—which once wanted, as Rilke says and Ford quotes, nothing more than “to pass through us,” to beturned from matter into breath—has become now a windfall of relics and ruins which goes on ever only enacting again and again its relentless “methodology of absence,” that does not mean that the ankle of a horse is not holy or, for that matter, “a school of koi” in a green pond in a Japanese garden. One comes away, in fact, from these poems convinced that it is precisely because “there is no scientific evidence of consciousness / lasting outside the body,” thatthe horrors and small pleasures—a trip to the movies with someone we love, or that freight of images the eye stores in that place which can never be emptied—matter all the more.

As cities crumble and burn, it is no surprise that language, narrative, and meaning also at times seem exhausted. And, perhaps, it is only by the kind of subtle syntactic twisting and grammatical law-breaking that we find in Ford’s poems that one can hope to convey what it feels like to be human on earth in the twenty-first century at the edge of an impenetrable universe addressing a dead god, or, at least, an evermore silent one.

And yet. Something as ancient and ephemeral as a swarm re-collects, and is recollected, amid the ruin. For like the birds in her poem “The Manner in Which One Is Able to See,” who dangle in the sky above the charred place the forest was before it burned, we, too, find ourselves dangling, returning always to “something gone.” If all of that that has ever been has been shattered, Katie Ford’s poems reach us like a trove of reassembled tablets, their music every bit as pointed and potent as it is mysterious. Please welcome Katie Ford.

Katie Ford: Hi, thank you so much. Sometimes as a poet you hear words you’ve said like not sure if there’s any scientific evidence that consciousness lasts outside the body and, you know, things, events like this where you feel Larry Levis and Craig Arnold so much here, I’m not so sure I was right—and I’m glad if I’m not.

So I didn’t know we’d be talking so much about animals, but I’m really glad to change a little bit what I was maybe going to read and start with two poems about animals. And I’m actually teaching a unit next week on animal poems and my students always kind of laugh a little bit like it’s gonna be the easy week, the happy week, kind of cartoonish, and they’re actually some of the saddest, most haunting poems we have, I think. So, let me find it now, since I’m changing my way. . . . And as I read, I’ll also read passages from people, writers and artists, who were really influential to me while I was writing the book and beyond—not so much influence a particular poem but influencing the life of trying to sit down to write and trying that as much as possible and sometimes failing, a lot of times failing, actually. But this poem is called “Little Goat” and I’m really happy that it’ll appear in Blackbird soon. “Little Goat.”

[“Little Goat,” Katie Ford, Blackbird V8N2]

A note found in the studio of Michelangelo after his death was written to his apprentice, and all it said was: “Draw Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”

I’ll read a couple of poems first here about getting out of New Orleans, and the first is called “Flee.” The only thing to recall here from that story is how X’s were painted on every house in order to search and examine them and have a record of the date and the team that examined the house and whether anyone was found in the house. So this is “Flee.”

[“Flee,” Katie Ford, Colosseum, Graywolf Press, 2008.]

“Tell Us.”

[“Tell Us,” Katie Ford, Colosseum, Graywolf Press, 2008.]

In some ways, to get the lyric kind of sound I felt I needed in this book I went to the great Russian poets of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s writing under Stalin. Actually Marina Tsvetaeva was most important to me in that time and she wrote, “I didn’t want this, not / this, (but listen, quietly, / to want is what bodies do / and know we are ghosts only).”

“Fish Market.” One thing that occurred in New Orleans soon after the flood was that the people very connected to the history of the city who were born and raised and maybe even went back to the French settlers or to the slave trade, wanted to show that they could still live off that land and still eat from its lakes, eat the fish of the lakes. And Lake Pontchartrain, where all the water was pushed back, and of course after the flood was completely contaminated . . . I remember seeing footage of people fishing the lakes, very soon after, some weeks after, and then saying, you know, “I ate the fish from the lake and I am alive.” And at the same time, suicides in the city were climbing and climbing in number. So this poem’s called “Fish Market.”

[“Fish Market,” Katie Ford, Colosseum, Graywolf Press, 2008.]


[“Vessel,” Katie Ford, Colosseum, Graywolf Press, 2008.]

“Somewhere there are happy cities. / Somewhere there are, but not for certain.” And that’s Czeslaw Milosz. I’m gonna go back to the opening poem of the book called “Beirut.” In some ways it’s a poem of the day I was born and what was going on in the history of that moment. And also, I remember thinking of Beirut when I was trying to get out of New Orleans because it was the city of my childhood that I remember my mother listening to the radio and talking about, how no one could get out of Beirut during the civil war of the early ’80s. So this is “Beirut.”

[“Beirut,” Katie Ford, Colosseum, Graywolf Press, 2008.]

I’m going to read a couple of poems about returning to the city after, you know, it was less risky to. Some people went back right away. I went back about probably four months later. As you probably know, New Orleans—prior to the storm, and then, after, it got worse, and still continues to be very bad—is a city of a lot of crime and violence, and so in some ways this poem returns to that fact. And it’s called “What We Get.”

[“What We Get,” Katie Ford, Colosseum, Graywolf Press, 2008.]

You must know—and I realize I’m kind of in the south here—some of you say yes, some of you say no, so I’m . . . so I know you probably know those winters where it’s just like a dip, and then it’s hot again. But you all know New Orleans is famous for its celebrations and parades. And the Mardi Gras after Katrina was smaller but important in so many ways, and so this poem is partly about watching the parades of that time, of that year. And there’s one political parade that is traditionally satirical, and so of course that year there was a lot of content available. And it’s the oldest parade, it’s not . . . nothing electrical is allowed, so everything has to be either, every float, has to be either motored by humans peddling or by horses or mules, and it goes through the French Quarter. So that year, I mean it was pretty morbid, nothing was withheld really. But there was one float, if you recall the past French president Chirac, who . . . you know, in New Orleans all the French words are really killed, so we called him “Cherack.” But there was a float that went by and had a plaster Chirac, and referring to the Louisiana Purchase there was a huge sign that said: “Buy Us Back Chirac.” And so we were wishing for any leadership really but what we had. Anyway, it was also a time when people’s psyches were breaking very easily. And so this is called “Spring Wish,” and it starts with a Dickinson line: “As from the Earth the light Balloon / Asks nothing but release—”

[“Spring Wish,” Katie Ford, Colosseum, Graywolf Press, 2008.]

This is a poem written about the theater that burnt down. It’s called “Coliseum Theater” and it was on a street called Coliseum in New Orleans. And it was really the old movie house that showed old black-and-whites, and things like that, and plays, and . . . really traditional, old movie house. And, you know, there were a lot of mysterious burnings then, either insurance fires, electrical restart-ups, things like that. So I don’t think it was ever figured out what happened in that, in that burning.

The only word in this poem that I had to look up so maybe you won’t know is thurible,which is the kind of canister, metal thing the priest carries to swing out the incense during a service. I looked back at a draft of this poem and I wanted, I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know the name of it, so it said something like “priest’s swinging thing,” you know? And then I had to look it up. So here’s “Coliseum Theater.” I wrote this for my husband. You know, you’re trying to figure out how this disaster plays out in a relationship, and this was one of the only things I could think of that was helpful in some ways about such a thing.

[“Coliseum Theater,” Katie Ford, Colosseum, Graywolf Press, 2008.]

Okay, I’m gonna kind of leave New Orleans here a little bit and read a few new poems. And there’s a quote I really love from an early poem by Robert Hass where he says, “Bless them, / it is not a small thing to be / happily occupied, go by them / on tiptoe.” I’m gonna read a poem, a new poem that’s in some ways about choosing what to do with a life. And I’ve been writing some things that are sonnet-like so it might sound that way or maybe not, but it doesn’t have a title yet.

[“Choose an instrument: bells. Bells,” Katie Ford, unpublished.]

So I lived in this quite dangerous city of New Orleans and nothing really happened to me. And then I moved to Amish country of Pennsylvania, and the first day my husband and I moved into the house we were going to live in, it was burglarized. And then I went walking to school one day and I was mugged. So, I know, it’s actually comic, it becomes very comic. The same night that I was mugged, the police had to do a search in our backyard for someone who had assaulted an officer and ran and dropped a gun in our front yard. So we quickly moved to Philadelphia for safety, and we are now on the books as the only family who has ever done that.

So I’m gonna read some poems that kind of talk about crime in some ways, and coming back in some ways to animals . . . you know, sometimes I find I use animals in a poem actually as a corrective for human behavior, you know, that they actually behave better than humans in many cases. You know, I’ve never had a wolf strip my house of its curtains and wiring and things like that. So in some ways that’s partly how I think of the animal, that their behavior, at least usually, unless they’re rabid, has some very necessary purpose. So I’m gonna start with a poem called “November Philosophers.” I tried very hard to be able to live in that town. I had a shaman who was a student of mine previously, she did a cleansing of the house, and she’ll appear here. But it turned out not to be enough really. So this is called “November Philosophers.”

[“November Philosophers,” Katie Ford. published in The New Yorker. 9, Nov. 2009]

That poem, the man who appears in it is a friend of mine from graduate school and I sent it to him and I said, “Do you want me to mask you more?” You know, because these are real facts about his life. He said, “No, Frank O’Hara said that poets should write more about their friends, so you can say all that.” Then I wrote a poem that I’ll read now for the poet Doug Powell, who publishes under D.A. Powell, a really wonderful poet. I sent him a poem—he had just gone through a rather harsh heartbreak—and I said, “Do you want this dedication on it, because it shows some things about your life?” And he said, “I want the dedication.” He, you know, felt like he had gone through a lot of pain and if he could at least get a poem out of it from someone else, maybe it would help. So this poem is called “Remedies for Sorrow.” And then I’ll read two short poems to end with. “Remedies for Sorrow” for Doug Powell.

[“Remedies for Sorrow” for Doug Powell  Katie Ford, unpublished.]

I just realized that was supposed to be the happy poem I ended on. And the other two I have here are not so happy. But there’s wine next, isn’t there? So, okay, all right, all right, so I’ll just read two more little poems. This is in a way going back to that kind of worst part of the human. So this is called “Pistol.”

[“Pistol,” Katie Ford, unpublished]

I think I’ll end on this poem called “Little Belief,” which is a kind of companion poem to “Little Goat,” if you can remember him from long ago. I think I was fascinated in some ways by the fact that the goat can feed on almost anything, like wire and fences and bark, and it really doesn’t need any human to feed it whatsoever. I mean it can climb into the craggiest mountain and eat and eat and be just fine. So this is called “Little Belief” and I’ll end here, and with just so many thanks for bringing me here and reading my book.

[“Little Belief,” Katie Ford, unpublished]

Thank you very much.  end

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