blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


PIVOT POINTS  |  Third Generation Poet

Laura-Gray Street

The web of relations starts for me with Buffy [Elizabeth Seydel] Morgan, whom I have known all my life and who has been, in my poetic development, the most long-standing role model, mentor, and friend. Through Buffy I started learning from Dave Smith long before I sat in his workshops and lectures at Warren Wilson. From Dave I learned to ask the really hard questions of my work, to ask a poem "Why?" and "So what?"

I also had the incredible fortune at Warren Wilson to work with Larry Levis. Once I had to deliver my work to his house. I remember driving through Church Hill, half-intentionally lost and writing to him later how I wanted that range of textures in my poems: brass historical plaques; parks; concrete; saw dust and street grit; the young woman crossing 27th, gold hoops in her ears, cigarette dangling from the arm cocked out at her hip; the condemned property with windows blown-out, vacant and its front door slack-jawed, off the hinges. It is the kind of heterogeneity I find in Larry's work. A kind of biodiversity.

Rereading Larry's letters from the spring of 1996 when he was my supervisor is, for obvious reasons, painful. I was waiting for his response to my fourth of six packets when I received news that he had died. Painful too because it resurrects a hard time in my life, which sums up in a word: divorce. Linked as they are in time, I cannot separate the two experiences, those two deaths, and so I can't talk about his influence without putting it into that context. The poem "Disposable Goods" in this exhibit is one I was working on (in embryonic form) during that semester with Larry; it was a poem he encouraged particularly. In my first letter to him I mentioned a comment a visiting writer had made in a poetry class at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, that "Every poet needs a certain amount of self-hatred." The assertion appealed to me then, but Larry had this to say: "It may be true. Certainly some great artists, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio made great art and also had a degree of contempt for themselves. But the reasons for this are complicated. Caravaggio was angry, impulsive, and he killed a man. His later portrait of Goliath's severed head, held by David, is a self-portrait. Michaelangelo's self depiction is similarly diminishing: a young man holds him down with a foot on the chest of the then old, dying artist. He also hated painting, and, possibly, a system of patronage that compromised him, one in which the Pope could rent him to put something on the ceiling of a chapel. If self-hatred is necessary, I think forgiving ourselves is just as necessary, especially in difficult times, though it is harder to do."

The German naturalist, Ernst Haeckel, who originated the term, "ecology" in 1866, needed a word to describe a new science that studied the relations between organisms and environments: the study of ecosystems. In many ways, Pivot Points strikes me as just that, an ecologic study, a portrait of two ecosystems. I have become increasingly fascinated with the idea that language itself is a kind of ecosystem, and increasingly convinced that this idea is not simply a fanciful metaphor. As poet Matthew Cooperman writes, "A poem is an ideal habitat for words." I try to teach this to my students, and, if I am successful, it is because a network of teachers showed me rigorous, forgiving ways to give words a home.  

 Potters' Field
   Disposable Goods

   Notes and Acknowledgments
   Levis Reading Loop