Saturday Apr. 25, 2015

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Detroit Pheasant

From a window, the boss calls to us
where we load his truck with bricks.
“Turn around fellas—look.”
A pheasant wades through the brown grass
across the street, vanishing
and emerging from the tangle.
A shed leans near a phone pole.
Bumpers glint from the weeds.
Blocks from the old foundation
angle through the earth.
The pheasant paces his courtyard.

We have killed the city which lived here.
The hieroglyph of its streets and rails
has joined the ancient lost tongues.
Buds unfold on a dwarf maple.
A rooster hollers.

“Detroit Pheasant” by Michael Lauchlan from Trumbull Ave. © Wayne State Avenue Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission of the author.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (books by this author), born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939. He worked in the insurance business for 35 years, and he would get up early and write poems for an hour and a half before he went to work. In 1999, he was diagnosed with cancer, and he became so depressed that he retired from the writing as well as the insurance business. “One morning I came home, and I sat down with my notebook close at hand and, you know, I had been keeping a journal but I wasn’t writing any poems,” Kooser said. “And I wrote this little poem and I was really thrilled that that had come back for me — you know, that that was maybe a sign that maybe I was kind of recovering, in a lot of ways.”

He began writing little poems on postcards and mailing them to his friend and fellow writer Jim Harrison. The poems were collected into Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison (2000). Composer Maria Schneider chose nine poems from Winter Morning Walks and set them to music in 2013. The resulting CD won three Grammy Awards. She loves all of his books, she says, but these poems really spoke to her. “You know, I’m from southwest Minnesota. They feel — the landscape, the light, the things he describes — I mean, they’re so, so beautiful.”

Kooser’s latest book of poems came out last year. It was almost 10 years in the making, and it’s called Splitting an Order (2014). When asked recently for his thoughts on the future of poetry, he said: “I hope that more and more people can be led to discover the pleasures that poetry offers. Too many people get through their whole lives having completely missed out on that.”

It’s the birthday of poet and journalist James Fenton (books by this author), born in Lincoln, England, in 1949. The Telegraph called him a “21st Century Renaissance Man.” He’s been hailed as the best poet of his generation, and he was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 2007. He also was kidnapped by the Irish Republican Army; rode the first tank into Saigon when the city fell to the North Vietnamese; and was forced by the Khmer Rouge to eat his dog. He wrote part — just a small part — of the book for the musical Les Misérables, and he receives a fraction of a percent of the show’s worldwide royalties as a result. Les Miz is so successful that it’s made Fenton a rich poet.

He studied at Oxford, where he was deeply influenced by the work of W.H. Auden. He also became close friends with author and contrarian Christopher Hitchens; they were roommates during college and remained close for the rest of Hitchens’ life. Fenton read his poem “For Andrew Wood” at Hitchens’ memorial service. After Fenton left Oxford, he decided to pursue a career as a freelance foreign correspondent. He used the money from a poetry prize he’d won to travel to Southeast Asia, where he covered the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam.

Fenton’s poetry collections include Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle (1969); A German Requiem (1980); Dead Soldiers (1981); and Yellow Tulips (2012). Some of his journalism has been collected in All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Asia (1989).

Fenton said, “My feeling is that poetry will wither on the vine if you don’t regularly come back to the simplest fundamentals of the poem: rhythm, rhyme, simple subjects — love, death, war.”

The Saint Lawrence Seaway opened on this date in 1959. It’s a waterway system of locks, canals, and channels that connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. There had been canals that preceded it, but the first proposals for a major seaway operated cooperatively by the United States and Canada were made in the 1890s. Canada wasn’t terribly interested at first, but by 1932 the two countries had hammered out a treaty. For the next 20 years, it was mainly the United States Congress that held things up, to the point that the Canadian government was considering taking on the project solo. But in 1954, the proposal finally passed both houses of Congress and ground was broken later that year. The first ship to navigate the seaway was an icebreaker, the D’Iberville; the seaway opened to commercial traffic two months later. The Saint Lawrence Seaway’s channels and locks are large enough to accommodate ocean-going freight vessels and allow them passage to the heart of North America — all the way to Duluth, at the western tip of Lake Superior. Unfortunately, the seaway has also allowed in a number of invasive species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels — at a rate of a new species every six months — that have adversely affected the Great Lakes ecosystem.

It’s the birthday of the man who said: “I have never written a short story. I’ve written some three-page novels and some thirteen-page novels.” That’s novelist Padgett Powell (books by this author), born in Gainesville, Florida (1952). He went to college in Charleston, South Carolina, studied chemistry, and headed off to graduate school. He dropped out after the first semester and spent eight years as a roofer in Texas, working on a novel on the side. He said: “I believed at the time I came out of that that I would be a better writer for having done it, and for being in physical shape. I still subscribe to this idea. I am suspicious of a soft body.”

After those eight years of manual labor, he went back to graduate school at the University of Houston, this time in creative writing. The writer Donald Barthelme took the young writer under his wing. Powell said, “I met Donald Barthelme and subsequently lost part of my mind — my original literary mind.” He revised and finished his novel, and in 1984 he published Edisto, and it was a big success. It got rave reviews and he won several important prizes. After Edisto, his books got bad reviews, and he went through a long period where he couldn’t even find a publisher. But in 2009, he published The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? — a book composed entirely of questions, and it was a best-seller. His latest book is the novel You and Me (2012).

He said: “I like the idea that fiction is a license to lie. It takes the mundane and constructs something interesting out of it. Fiction is usually a perversion of what happened into what could happen. Fiction converts ordinary life into hard gossip.”

It’s the birthday of writer Howard R. Garis, born in Binghamton, New York (1873). His most famous character is Uncle Wiggily, a gentlemanly old rabbit who always wears a suit and a silk top hat. Garis was a reporter for the Newark Evening News and he wrote hundreds of children’s books, many of them as a ghostwriter. He published his first Uncle Wiggily story in a newspaper in 1910, and it was so popular that he ended up publishing an Uncle Wiggily story six days a week for more than 30 years. By the time he retired, he had written more than 10,000 stories about the rabbit.

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