On my desk: a jug of pink peonies, family portraits, convex mirror, strand of pearls, an hourglass, a glass of pilsner, a skull, a knife.All that just on the cover art of Svetlana Alpers’s The Art of Describing (avec sticky note saying “Constantijn Huygens / Emperor Constantine?”). Surrounding the Alpers: a slack Valentine’s Day rose, photos of my son, broken pink Miu Miu sunglasses, a Sony Handycam, a glass of cheap wine, a dictionary, and a bookmark. The bookmark says “The Book Trader, 501 South Street, Philadelphia,” which I discovered as a fifteen-year-old from Valley Forge and subsequently became as important to me as, say, Zipperhead, the immortal punk shop. The bookmark also says “Open Every Day 10 a.m. to Midnight,” which in 1985 would give any future Belle & Sebastian fan a certain shiver. What I am working on: Something that will incorporate the name Walter C. Arensberg, a Brooklyn storefront that exudes Novocaine and hyacinth, and a very young fortune-teller who sits in an open doorway at the bottom of a steep stairwell and calls out to passersby, “Ma’am, would you like a reading?”
What’s on my desk: As much cobalt blue as possible (drinking glass, evil eye, beaded stamp box, Chinese porcelain bowl, enameled child-sized pot, ink) because it is clarifying to look at a color so pure and exact that also (hopefully) drives away bad spirits; calculator and income tax papers, which unfortunately make me think about the godforsaken uses of our tax dollars by this administration; cellophane-wrapped packages of all the great postage stamps of strong and righteous people that are available these days ( James Baldwin, Isamu Noguchi, Cesar Chavez, Zora Neale Hurston, Wilma Rudolph, Paul Robeson); and lots of beautiful note cards because I am trying to write thank-you notes to people I don’t necessarily know who might not expect them, to thank them for their vision or courage or beauty. What I’m working on: The final edits on my next book of poems, American Sublime, which will be out in the fall; an edited collection of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems with an essay about her early days in the black Chicago art scene; a group of poems, in collaboration with Marilyn Nelson, about Prudence Crandall, the white woman who opened a school for black girls in Canterbury, Connecticut, in the 1830s, and persevered until the townspeople set the school on fire; an essay about Caroline Bond Day, who was one of the first black women anthropologists, in the 1920s; an edited collection of “lost” twentieth-century African-American poets; a new poem here, a new poem there, when I get lucky.
On my desk are the ultrasound photos of our child at nine weeks. I call it blob-bird-monkey-son sucking thumb. There’s a DVD of Billy Bragg searching for the memory of Woody Guthrie that I’m supposed to send to a friend. And there are the news clippings of Bobby Almand, a childhood friend who was abducted and murdered in 1977. I’m working on a very long poem about him and it, which is to be the centerpiece of Miscreants, a new manuscript.
Slumped against each other in a brotherly manner (as though slightly drunk and needing to lean) at the back of my desk stands a row of books about as long as I am tall. These include Putnam’s Complete Book of Quotations, Proverbs and Household Words; Japanese Ghosts & Demons; Science and the Paranormal; The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon; an antique cookery book called A Selection of Dishes and the Chef’s Reminder; V. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; The Tibetan Book of the Dead; The Kama Sutra; some Freud; Joe Brainard’s I Remember; and Baudelaire’s essay book The Painter of Modern Life. Also several hefty Norton poetry anthologies I periodically vow to read in their entireties at that mythical, never-so-far-arriving moment in life when I have more free time. Pinned up salon-style on the wall right behind the books (therefore hovering over them and the desk in intuitive disarray) hangs a constellation of little pictures. Laminated holy cards (one depicts St. Michael planting his sandaled foot on a prostrate, batwinged devil’s head) are stuck up among assorted photographs. Many of the photos are snapshots of people I love who I don’t get to see much anymore due to death or geographic distance. There are also inspirational pix: views of places I’d like to visit if I didn’t hate and fear traveling (partly because I can’t bear leaving my beloved desk behind) or portraits of writers and animals I admire. Current writing pursuits fall into approximately three categories. (1) Essays to write and/or severely edit for what I hope is a near-finished manuscript. One I’m working on now concerns an odd volume called The Newgate Calendar, which chronicled careers of criminals incarcerated in Newgate prison. (2) A piece provisionally titled “Mrs. Frankenstein.” This could turn out to be a long poem, a series of linked prose poems, or simply an example of literary vivisection. (3) Assorted poems, essays, or poem-essay hybrids on such hot topics as Asperger’s syndrome, and the drug habits of famous eighteenth and nineteenth-century writers.
Currently revising Nomina, a book of sonnets, and starting work on Aurora, or A General Account of Bonding. Aurora is a deity and an ambient, amorphous (though time-triggered) dawning. A General Account of Bonding is the translated title of Giordano Bruno’s De vinculis in genere, which aspires to enumerate and describe every form of human attachment, many base, false, and delusory. Bruno divides the book into three lists:“Bonding agents in general,”“What can be bound,” and “Cupid’s bonds and bonds in general.” The first two lists are of thirty sections; the third breaks off at section twenty-three, mid-sentence, with the words “The lover complains to the beloved if…” My work is a response to each of Bruno’s numbered sections, most about a paragraph in length.
I am finishing up a second book of poems, Angle of Yaw. It’s largely concerned with how our spectacular culture utilizes various photographic media to feed itself an image of itself—how we’ve substituted the camera for the God-term. I’m also interested in the commercialization of public speech and space—if elegy, for instance, can survive in an age of advertising. I’m interested in Fascism. Literally on my desk: Tom Jones; Tylenol PM; Tristram Shandy; The Mandarin: a Novel, Aaron Kunin’s unpublished masterpiece of negative anthropology; a mess of Great Bear Pamphlets downloaded from UbuWeb; the little Dover edition of Los Caprichos; Miles Champion’s Three Bell Zero; Eirin Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person; C. D.Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil; a book of Chekhov’s stories opened to “The Wife.
On my desk an old, dark fetish object which, to preserve its power, I must pass over in silence. A G5 Mac. A bottle of tobacco-colored ink and a good pen in a ridiculous pewter snake stand (a present from someone close who knew I would love it). Also, to the left, a large brittle nymph stick insect corpse with freshly glued antennae and forelegs, taken out of its box to be photographed for the cover of a book of my essays called Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, & Transcendence (forthcoming from Shoemaker & Hoard). A palimpsest of razor marks in the white linoleum surface of the desk, testament to those pre-computer days when I cut and pasted photo-ready copy of manuscripts that were published for Lost Roads Publishers. A champagne-colored chamois cloth for my glasses.Two bottles of Poland Spring Mandarin Orange sparkling spring water, both days-old and nearly empty. A hand, aged about forty-nine years. ✯