Après le AWP


I happen to be living temporarily in my hometown, Minneapolis, living in a motel with a giant golden styrofoam Gopher (Univ. of MN mascot) in the lobby.  This happens to be a few blocks from the SE Mpls neighborhood, by the U of M & the Mississippi & Tower Hill, where my family on both sides have lived for about 150 years now, ever since George P. Gould, my great-grandfather, married the daughter of a riverboat captain named Jacob Lawrence, who's name was Jessie Ophelia.

I'm here, as I've written/blogged already, because my father John Gould is in hospice, on his deathbed, & he & my mother can use some help, & because I'm able to be here (thanks to my wife primarily), & because I want to be here.

& as it happens there was a massive gathering of poets in Minneapolis this weekend.  The annual Associated Writing Programs Conference (AWP) was convocated at the splendid & immense convention center, wherein converged at least 10,000 literary people, hundreds of publishers, & so on.

So for a couple days I shuttled between the nursing home in St. Paul & the fervid, spontaneous & scheduled festivities in Minneapolis.  Twin Cities.

I discovered a good bookstore (James & Mary Laurie Bks) & a good performance space (Pow Wow Grounds).  I heard some beautiful poetry, met some wonderful people in person, bought a few rare (& new) books.

For a long time I used to mock the AWP conferences - on principle, I thought.  I was devoted to the concept of the writer as absolute free agent : of the poet as semi-divine being, entrusted with the sacred voodoo of the Word.

Actually I'm still devoted to that concept.  It's just that now I think everybody at AWP is committed to the same thing.  It's just that everybody else there has their own particular necessities & difficult aims to attempt to accomplish, duties to fulfill.  Devotions which are perhaps at odds with my own, but no less absolute.

How boring!  But life, friends, is boring.


Which brings up Berryman, which brings up Henry....

What a hard time I had of it on Thursday night at the Rain Taxi Walker Art Center Extravaganza.  There I was, in the heart of Minneapolis postmodern ultra-coolness, trying with gaucheness in extremis to interest some of the swimmingly hip poets with whom I was barely acquainted to allow me to get up on stage that night - & read a section of a long poem in honor of my father, John Gould.  Excess of Quixote.

The coolness of the Walker is like an icicle - a Popsicle, to be exact.  A prophet is not honored in his own country.  I used to gather wild grapes in the swamp NW of the Walker as a boy.  I shook hands (in a line of Boy Scouts)  in the football field next door with Hubert H. Humphrey.  I took part in school plays (& suffered terrible anxiety cramps) with the girls of Northrop School, at the Women's Club (just across the famous Ashbery Bridge).  Yet that Thursday night (April 9, 2015, 150 yrs after Appomatox) I was the humiliated outcast, persona non grata.  No one wanted to hear about it.  You don't jump up on stage at the Walker Art Center with the likes of Ann Carson (who actually handed me her book for free).

Nevertheless I read my poem eventually - on a more fitting occasion, the following evening (Friday, Apr. 10).  I was at the Laurie Bookshop on 3rd Ave N., with the Station Hill / Geo. Quasha / Kimberly Lyons / Vincent Katz / Burt Kimmelman / Pierre Joris / Nicole Peyrafitte / Martha & Basil King / Elizabeth Robinson / Sam Truitt / Laynie Brown et al. crowd.  Beautiful bookstore.  After refusing to add me to the schedule, they grudgingly allowed my rude interruption ("one more poem!") at the tail end of the reading - & applauded my recital.  Mission accomplished.  I'm grateful to those characters, poets all.


Why was I so obsessed about doing this self-abasing, humiliating Henry thing @ AWP?  Because the time was right.

On April 10, 1998 - exactly 17 years before - I finished the long poem Stubborn Grew.  It was Good Friday that year.  In the closing passages, there is a recapitulation of everything that went before - but put through a sort of Finnegan-Wakean Irish phase-shifter.  Then suddenly the voice of my father breaks through : he addresses me, directly, elegiacally - & the poem ends.  You can read it here.  I wanted to read this passage in honor of my father this weekend, & I was very stubborn about it.... & so it came to pass.

In that passage, the persona of my father speaks about my (Henry's) "crown", and that he must "go to Jerusalem".  This is part of the Shakespeare ambience (see esp. the chapters "Ancient Light" and "Shakespeare's Head").  In Henry IV pt 2 there is a climactic scene where the young Prince Hal, visiting his dying father (Henry IV), puts on his father's crown ahead of time... & his father catches him at it.  Meanwhile his father is dying... regrets never having fulfilled his vow to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem (to repent for usurping Richard II's throne)... & then is carried into the Jerusalem Chamber, where he expires.  This is all there, at the close of Stubborn Grew.

Last Friday I was "Henry" - Berryman's, Shakespeare's - fulfilling my own strange little vow, reading my elegy in honor of my dear father...  "when men least think / I will".

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