Entries in 4. THANK YOU Steve Orlen (8)
I started WWC MFA at age 53, terrified. Worse than terrified, ashamed— of not having written or submitted anything for over 15 years, of having deliberately given up poetry in the ‘70’s as a self-indulgence no one ought to be able to afford, and also of having lived approximately next door to the Goddard program here in Vermont for however many years it was, without even having noticed it! I felt old, rusty, and futile: paradoxically, my life was so ineffectual without writing poems, that I might as well write poems! But I had to do an awful lot of dithering first. I did my dithering on Steve. O dear! Packets of long long letters chockablock with the gory details of my long long sad story. All this as I huddled over ancient fragments I’d written and packratted, trying to breathe a little life in, or out. Steve put up with all this. I couldn’t have endured that first semester with anyone who didn’t. Composing a poem as so hard! It is still so hard! One thing Steve did was suggest to me that it might be easier than I thought, or that I could at least try writing-easy to begin with, relax, let come-what-might for a draft, that sort of thing. I rejected this notion until, a few times, I got so desperate at the emptiness of my pending packet that I just held my nose & did what he recommended, rattled off any old thing, pretended, bluffed, tried to let-go into shamelessness. Steve said he liked those poems, and it’s possible he did; his natural aesthetic is looser, more narrative & meditative than mine. I hated one of them so much that I would have nothing further to do with it, but another survives, part of the mz oeuvre, anomalous, a road-not-taken, or not again, as it seems to me. So the panic of difficulty I faced became, I realized, my choice. Not because of my stupidity, distemper, laziness, lack-of-talent or moral disqualification, but my choice: the hard stuff (stuff that’s hard for me) was what I wanted to do. Oh! OK. I guess I can bedevil myself with all that angst if I want to. Thank you, Steve. Thanks for telling me to “ride the music.”
ANTOINE DOINEL’S SECOND COUSIN,IN THE CLASSROOM & AT LARGE
I first met Steve Orlen in August 1980 in an apartment in the Back Bay area of Boston—a third-floor walk-up above Brothers III, a bar located at the somewhat seedier end of Robert Lowell’s “hardly passionate Marlborough Street.” Steve and Gail were packing up the place, having spent a sabbatical year in Boston. Gail’s canvasses were rolled up in various corners; open cartons of art and poetry books and suitcases of clothes were scattered about; a cheerful sort of disarray backlit by late afternoon sun and suffused with traffic noise. Their sofa, it turned out, had actually been Lowell’s just before he died—it’d been loaned to them via Gail Mazur.
Steve’s sabbatical year had been my first in the Arizona MFA program. Although I’d gotten close to Steve’s compadre Jon Anderson, I still felt like an alien among most of the other poetry students. At the time, Norman Dubie was the big influence on people there. My poems sounded and smelled like they were from another planet (there was a rumor that I had a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Princeton—it must have been disappointing to find out that I’d only spent a year there as a grad student in anthropology).
Even then, my poems had a lot of the detritus of pop culture in them and a jagged sense of rhythm. They were narrated from odd angles; and besides being metaphorically dense, they were more likely to be about a character portrayed on a pinball machine (“Jungle Queen”) than about my mother and father. I was interested in the maximum amount of excitement per line, and that seemed to have little to do with writing clearly and directly about my life. I don’t blame anyone for feeling confused by or suspicious of the poems, they were so all over the place. Still, the criticism had a peculiar edge to it.
While Jon responded to my work enthusiastically, there was sometimes a dismaying hostility directed at me from the rest of the workshop. At The Shanty, after class one night, one woman came up to me, asked me how I was liking the program, and then announced that she didn’t like my work. “Your poems don’t do what poetry’s supposed to do,” she insisted, already half-lit. I hung out with George Shelton mostly (someone else who didn’t quite fit—his steeply musical and quirky miniatures were about as far from the Dubie Planet as you could get!), and fiction writers like Dave Schweidel and Steve Schwartz. My friendships with Tony Hoagland, Bill Olsen, Bruce Cohen and David Wojahn were cemented only later—during that first year I couldn’t really see them clearly because of the weird vibe. In the summer, I headed back east to live with my girlfriend.
I mention all this because I think I was looking for something from Steve when I phoned and arranged to meet him. Maybe some kind of psychic protector, maybe just some signal that I belonged. I was nervous about the visit. Despite the chaos of the apartment, Steve and Gail had a glamour about them, the handsomeness of good looks combined with experience and verve—as such things might seem if an insecure 25-year-old guy were looking at a worldly couple in their late 30’s.
This glamour clearly had much more to do with Gail than Steve. Gail has always seemed way more Paris than Queens. There’s probably a shot of her in some Truffaut movie, walking past a zinc bar on a rainy morning in the11th arrondissement. Steve belongs in a Truffaut movie too, as a cousin of Antoine Doinel, a sensitive bad boy grown up out of the districts of the working class and set mischievously and introspectively loose upon the world.
My memory of Steve from that first get-together is a bit blurry—the impressive hank of hair, yes, the tattoo of a bird on his forearm, the way he has of strolling rather than walking (he’s a cross between a flaneur and a hood, really). In one of his poems, Jon refers to Steve’s “masculine face,” and that was true; but it was an open and expressive face, generous in its curiosity. Big strong nose (or “smeller,” as Steve would say). The kind of light acne-scarring that actually makes some guys look “rugged.” His eyes were a little hooded, but reflective, warm; and the big-frame glasses he’s always worn lent his face a slight dramatic intensity. Steve’s glasses pull his face into focus and make it more willful. He liked then and still likes to tilt his head toward you, to get closer to yours. It’s a gesture of intimacy and confidentiality, it’s not invasive. You feel it as part of his attentiveness.
It was Steve’s voice that struck me then, and stuck with me. I trusted it immediately. In accent and pitch, he sounded a lot like the guys I grew up with, the men in my family, my cousins, brother and father. No surprise since we’d both come from Massachusetts mill towns. There was some of the same working class story-teller’s command of plot and pacing when he told about his childhood in Holyoke, or when he annotated the characters of various people he thought I should get to know in Tucson.
But the expressiveness of Steve’s voice was and is something else—it possesses some contradictory qualities. On the one hand, it’s very evenly-paced, and its deepness suggests steadiness and intention. But it’s also got a lot of inflection in it, and lots of asides and rhythmic pauses and hesitancies. Within the steadiness, there’s a lot of subtle modulation going on from phrase to phrase. And he often uses non-verbal sounds to signify approval, dubiousness, acceptance, transition—it’s an interesting kind of accessory to his very active sense of diction: with Steve you may get to hear “pussy” and “jacaranda” and “interstitial” all in the same sentence. In his tonal complexity, Steve is a walking breathing example of what Frost meant by “sentence sounds”: he communicates as much by how he says something as by what he’s saying.
And it’s all in his poems, that expressiveness of voice. It makes the poems alive with urgency, even when they are at their most calmly authoritative in terms of narration. People talk often about the Jarellian aspects of Steve’s work, but to me—in means, if not feeling and subject matter—there’s a lot of Lowell’s influence in it. Maybe the influence is absorbed into such a different character that it isn’t noticeable at all (or maybe Lowell is so unfashionable now that few people would recognize it). In any case, the subtle urgency of an Orlen poem is unique—unlike some better known narrativists of the moment, he never mistakes an engineered hysteria for drama. There is no melodrama in the work. And it should go without saying, but the narrator of Steve’s poems is compelled not only by a psychological need to tell, but also by a desire to entertain (now there’s a notion that we might want to see come back into vogue: that a poem should work hard to get you to think and feel by way of amusing and interesting material and means).
I was lucky to have heard that voice as much as I did in a classroom setting. As I discovered back in Tucson, Steve was a very different teacher from Jon. Tony Hoagland speaks elsewhere here about the allure of Jon and Steve’s friendship, and its affect on my generation of students at Arizona—the two of them had a Jules et Jim-thing going at that point, and if you felt a part of it, its aura rubbed off on you. Probably not everyone felt included; however much there was a value placed on emotional vulnerability and sincerity, it was definitely more of guy thing. Still, it tended to be pretty democratic.
Jon’s style as a teacher was pretty much in a hit & run, guerilla mode—he had six or seven things he wanted to teach you about poetry. They were big things. They had scope and were about an associative process or musical logic or the character of the poet or why Kurosawa’s Yojimbo could be important to your next poem—and he was not above messing with your mind a little, in a healthy sort of way. He was encouraging, but he didn’t make many demands.
You didn’t really go over poems with him outside of class; he was more likely to respond by reading you something out of James Agee’s And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, or by telling you an allegorical story about Jorie Graham and a coffee cup. It was all weirdly, intuitively helpful, even if you couldn’t quite understand how.
Steve was—as he remains—the best example I know of a hands-on teacher, one whose interest in craft and technique is equaled by his awareness of the moral and spiritual aspects of writing.
His primary lesson was that you had to remain a student if you expected to grow as a poet. “Reverse-engineering” might be a good term to describe what he would do with work by poets whom he loved—he was adept at taking poems apart and examining how they worked, their structural strategies or syntactical impulses, how someone might use a reflective image to develop a character’s presence, the ways in which a line might counterpoint a sentence as it propelled down a page, the shifting of beats from line to line, alterations in point-of-view and the scale of perception. Steve made it clear that poetry couldn’t depend simply on sensibility or character (despite the fact that his own poems had such a clear sense of personality and voice). You could acquire a syllable-by-syllable discipline by patiently picking through great poems, and you could bring it to bear on your own work. You had to.
Neither was he shy about entering into your work when you brought him poems outside workshop, as he always encouraged you to do. His judgment could be considered and tactful, generous in praise, but it was…unhmm…assertive in its attentions. Though it never felt like he was beating me up, Steve did annoy and piss me off at times—the infamous story of the semester-long personal tutorial he performed on “The Venice of The North,” maybe my first good poem, is told quite nicely by Tony over in his essay on Steve. What he doesn’t say is that half-way through this week-in-week-out lesson on revision, the poem got accepted by Crazyhorse. When I told Steve, he was delighted for me; it was my first quality publication. Then he started showing me again what I could still do to make the poem better, and on we went for another month or so, sometimes in his bunker-like office in the Modern Languages building on campus, sometimes at his dining room table or under the ramada in his backyard. I’m sure I had been hoping that the acceptance would put an end to all further interventions.
He did much the same thing with “Cures,” another poem that ended up in my first book. A good 15 years later, the piece got included in an anthology of rock n’roll poems called Sweet Nothings (an early Elvis rendition of “Mystery Train” figures strongly in the poem). The anthology was reviewed by Greil Marcus in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and Marcus praised the poem and used it to illustrate an argument about the uses of pop music in both movies and literature. Marcus was a longtime hero of mine, a great culture critic who had written extensively on Elvis, Dylan, The Sex Pistols, etc. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. But I had to laugh when Marcus singled one particular line, a line of discursive commentary that Steve had gone over again and again, showing me how to compress the statement and rearrange the syntax so that it had a lyric intensity. Steve is as much the author of that line as I am.
Perhaps this makes it sound like Steve simply rewrote a student’s poems, which is not true. He worked like an architect, sketching out possible solutions to particular design problems. His teaching was open-ended, it required me to follow-up and elaborate upon his suggestions. It would have been a lot easier if he had simply re-written the poems. His technical concerns always seemed linked to seeing clearly the events and forces that shaped a life, your life. There was this sense that your soul was at stake when you wrote a poem, so you better get it as right as you could—Steve never said it this way, but then he didn’t have to, you could hear it in the way he spoke of poetry. Just as importantly, for me especially, was the sense you got from him that writing poetry was a really pleasurable and lucky thing to be able to do with your life. It was easy for me to get lost in those years in the difficulties I felt in growing as a writer. Steve’s sense of the “serious play” involved in writing was an antidote for those feelings.
And, as I’ve said, he taught constantly by example and reference to the work he admired and got pleasure from. My enthusiasm for Phillip Larkin’s poetry at this point in my life is much diminished (though I do not doubt his greatness). But first reading him under Steve’s tutelage helped give me a sculptural sense of a line; and Larkin’s methods of narration led me back all the way through Hardy to the English & Scots ballad tradition. Steve’s openness to a wide-range of poetry, and his sense of how it all might be useful to your writing, was exciting, at times inspiring.
Besides the syllable-by-syllable approach, he also made large, sometimes funny or absurd generalizations about poetry. Like: “You should have passionate beliefs about aesthetics, but you should change them every other week.” Or: “Even people you think are dumb can say smart things in workshop, so it pays to listen.” Or: “Who would you rather take a cross-country train trip with, Frost or Rilke”? Sometimes he would take you aside and utter some baffling observation: “So-and-so and So-and-so are better writers than you and Tony, but you two will end up being the better poets because you’re angrier.” A distinction like that could give you a lot to think about for a long time. And of course there was plenty of the kind of talk about poetry that crosses over into gossip (is there a bigger gossip than Steve?).
His literature seminars could be demanding in how they made you work, and both encompassing and quirky. One semester, he taught a fantastic class on journals, notebooks and odd prose forms—we read Camus and Elias Canneti and Cioran, and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and an “oral” biography of 60’s “it girl” Edie Sedgwick, and The Journals of David Toback, and the prose poems of James Wright. We kept notebooks and wrote short pieces of our own. It took me years to realize just how profoundly the class had shaped my own sense of what a notebook was for, and how important it might be for my work. Not to mention the notion that your job as a writer was to actually look at the world, to observe how you moved through it. I remember Steve reading to us a passage he had written in his own notebooks that revolved simply around the feeling of standing in front of a bank building downtown, a sort of phenomenological description. I wasn’t surprised to see something quite like it in the opening of “A Stairwell, Outside A Bank,” the first of the new poems in The Elephant’s Child:
Through the iron bars, a stairwell, and in it
The shadows of the iron bars, black, aslant, severe,
And gray concrete steps going up and going down,
And a dark well of coolness rising like an echo,
But no one, nothing flourishing, astonishing or dying.
And then how he returns to it at the end of the poem, after an encounter with a homeless guy, a sort of doppelganger whose life had gone wrong, and who has asked him simply, “Are you a spiritual man?”
And instead of answering glibly
I stood there and wondered what spiritual meant.
What people mean by it. I didn’t engage the man.
What came to mind were iron bars and shadows, and the stairs, and no
Meaning in that but some beauty I must have seen,
Cold as some beauty is, and momentary,
And through the gap between the beauty and the void
Something like an echo of water running over rocks.
If I felt lighter than my body
I didn’t have the means to weigh it then.
The beauty in this passage of lyric meditation is in seeing, and thinking hard about what is seen; it’s in the care that has gone into the writing, and the moral care the writing embodies. I don’t think there’s any other way to experience the metaphoric development in the poem, the working out of it, except as a form of mindfulness.
Because of these different forms of care, Steve may be the only person whose opinion of my poems might disturb or concern me. There have been moments when I have thought about how he might react to some new development in my work. It wouldn’t stop me from writing something or pushing in a new direction, but it would worry me. The worry is silly in a way. Steve is, as he was as a teacher, enormously supportive and/or gracefully tactful, even at his most honest.
I don’t think that this is some remnant of our teacher-student relationship, or at least I hope not. I think Steve has always been something of a tuning fork for me—I can test the trueness of my poems with it. This trueness is in the voice of his poems, and is their strength; and I certainly hear it in Steve’s voice when I talk with him, his good spirits and the thoughtful probing.
Nowadays I see him mostly in the summer, when he and Gail come to Boston for a couple of weeks to stay with family and friends. When he got to town this past June, we arranged a meet near Harvard Square. I picked him up at the corner of JFK Street and Memorial Drive, near the Kennedy School of Government, in the midst of a traffic squall of bad proportions, and he started talking before he had even sat down and shut the door. We started driving down along the Charles to my house. As always, I was amazed at how quickly we were back into it—“it” being what feels like a conversation that is uninterruptible. Its pleasures are one of my life’s most steady feelings. And Steve is one of my dearest friends in or out of the art, and terribly important in my life as a poet and a teacher.
Finally this: I would most certainly rather ride cross-country with Steve than with either Frost or Rilke—that one is pretty easy—though he would have to agree not to tease the waitresses too much when the train stops for food, and he would have to promise not to eat with his fingers, except when absolutely necessary (in both cases).
INTRODUCING DOCTOR SOFTY
I got it early on that we don’t choose our subject matter. Ten years later I got it that we don’t choose our genre. As for structures—as for forms—as for the particular ways our own personalities must be articulated and shaped on the page: Steve Orlen taught me, rescuing me, that the architecture isn’t exactly an option, either. And he would not say personality in this context. He would say character, an idea I’ll get to in a minute.
In a letter to me once, Steve said:
My personal, simplistic theory about poets such as you, and me, and some others, has to do with ADHD. I think that’s what we are, maybe not clinically but at least enough so to use the category as a way of thinking about poetry and poems. ADHD as in manic & energetic & imaginative & associative.
In another letter, to get more exactly to the struggles he helped me understand and attempt to correct, Steve said:
A terrific, energetic, exciting, fascinating mess!
I can’t tell you how important it was to get the say-so to search out the structures and forms that most suited my own, most natural vision of the world, since only therein and thereby can come the content that has been waiting all along to address the complaint of “the old woman” in Steve’s “Poem for Men and Women” who says that “what nobody ever mentions is exactly what we need to know.” Steve’s permission did not come mainly in the form of his letters, though. Instead, it came from the poems.
Here, in Steve’s poems, the poet is no contrivance, no escape from personality, but an actual character one might admire and wish to emulate—someone open and generous and unafraid enough to be “where and what it sees,” to quote Emerson. The poet is pissing with Mick Jagger. He’s remembering the girlfriend who wouldn’t talk without truth serum. He’s in love with Dolly Parton and hell-bent on understanding the sick mind machinery of the Nazis and hipsters in sunglasses and “very tall Africans” and “really tiny Europeans” and Lewis Carroll and one of the masons too depressed to wake up to return to his work on The Great Wall of China.
In other words, the poet is everywhere at once and not too shy to admit it. He’s feeling it all at once. In “Stolen Kisses: 1968,” the poet, Orlen, is frustrated enough to speculate that “The mouth is the place all loneliness begins.” Meanwhile he’s really too honest and hopeful, too buoyant and bright, to really believe it. He’s therefore occasionally prying, or so he worries, asking everyone where they came from and who they are and what they remember and how it feels and what they think. Let me say that again. He’s therefore occasionally prying, or so he worries, asking everyone where they came from and who they are and what they remember and how it feels and what they think.
He worries he’s an intruder, a voyeur, because he “wants to know everything.” Even at his “most reasonable, most contrite, [he] can’t stop explaining,” he says, because he wants to get to the center of—the lowest, most fundamental gravity and frothiness of—how it feels to be, simply, a person. Maybe “the displaced Princess of Bohemia,” but also, most importantly, “the fetal Siamese twins” and “the albinos and the amputees, the retarded / and the refugees” and the elderly widow just wanting the song for snow to return.
Listen to the language I’m using. He’s open. He’s generous. He’s unafraid. He is not shy. He is feeling it all at once. He’s honest and hopeful. He’s buoyant and bright. He’s prying, he’s asking.
In the work of Steve Orlen, these aspects of character find their correct form and structure in the story. The story, in turn, gives a natural and unencumbered shape to the voice of the poet which might otherwise make “a terrific, energetic, exciting, fascinating mess.” But Steve’s poems are not merely narrative. They are so richly textured, so full, because Steve marries the narrative and meditative and lyric modes so effortlessly, layering one mode among the others line by line and, sometimes, word by word. This marriage of character and event to thought and music is what, I think, allows Steve to spin his poems out to the length he does. He delights in stories, yes, but there are always places to think and feel about what he’s showing you. While a purely lyric poet would find a dramatic place to end the poem fairly early on, Steve pushes on past that place to about ten other places.
It’s what makes him so abundant and democratic, so copious and plural and alive.
I tell my students all the time that that they must transfer their desire for approval to the poets they most admire. So many of these poets are dead. That shouldn’t stop us, of course. But meanwhile, occasionally, the mother and father poets are still alive and breathing. In fact, they end up right in front of us in the exact same room under the exact same ceiling, surrounded by the same books and expectant faces.
What a marvel that is. We don’t deserve it. It is therefore the most genuine gift.
It is my great pleasure to introduce you to Steve Orlen (aka Dr. Softy aka PoDoc aka Turk aka Bruce Springsteen), the father poet who taught me what kind of poet I most needed to be by teaching me how to be my own person come hell and high water both.
STEADY EDDIE: Some Memories of Tucson and Steve Orlen
His hands had a slight, but insistent tremor to them. Big thick fingers. That may be the first thing I noticed about Steve Orlen. In those days you were allowed to smoke in your office if you were a professor, and at my first conference I saw him lift the orange flame of a match to his Menthol Cool. It trembled, and I wondered if it wasn’t a symptom of what they call The Drink (It wasn’t). Steve had a deep, slightly gravelly voice, a big nose, some acne scars. His eyes seemed slightly unfocused. He was fond of letting you know that he didn’t belong in the academy- he was a J.D., a juvenile delinquent, a hoodlum from Holyoke, Mass. He had a faded blue tattoo of a swallow on his brawny forearm, which, in fact, didn’t look like the arm of a professor.
But above all Steve Orlen gave off an impression of calm, and of steadiness. Everything he did seemed measured and considered, almost slowed down. There was something distinctively un-self-involved about him, like he wasn’t in a great rush to get back to something else more important than you. He wasn’t full of gratuitous manic show-offy intellectual energy, but he issued considered opinions, and he asked actual questions.
This would have been about 1981. The year before, when I had arrived at the University of Arizona, Steve was on sabbatical in Boston for a year. His best friend Jon Anderson was teaching classes, and Jon would relay stories of Steve in Cambridge—how Steve was practicing a regimen of early morning writing, getting up at five, and before he was really awake, covering pages with free associated sentences.
Sometimes in class, Jon read the workshop poems Steve had written during his sabbatical—he read them from thick, folded white pages of typescript he had received in the mail, —to us they looked exotic and charged, like real poems, compared to ours. They were poems that would appear in Steve’s second collection, (one of his best— A Place at the Table.) They were Jarrellian poems, which valued a kind of fabular imagination combined with the voice of a speaker whose identity was guessable but not explicitly revealed. Norman Dubie had been, in part, one of the influences on Steve’s first book, Permission to Speak, but now a more mature, perhaps less affected mentor, Jarrell, was in the house. Now Steve was coming into his own voice. One of those poems was “Big Friend of the Stones” It starts like this:
The donkey doctor came covered with rain
and a gift, a picture of Jesus that changed
when you looked—his head seemed to wag.
My father is a good man
with a pinecone for a head—
all summer he chops firewood
when the air is hot, not cold.
I’ve watched him from the rubbish pit
where I was playing with a snail…..
But I could not save the donkey.
he day the donkey died, a strange
white peace came over our land
like the doctor’s white hand
into his breast pocket. My father said
the donkey was a friendly old man
because he carried his burden over the land
with the flies in his ears
and the dog at his legs.
…I sneezed. I pushed the dirt back
over him and thought, go to heaven
Where you belong and get yourself cured,
Old favorite of Christ. …
Jon was the famous one of the two friends. He had published In Sepia, his third book, the year before, and it was one of the most read, most widely admired books of poetry of the time. In our little poetry cosmos, Jon was a minor cult figure. The friendship between Jon and Steve was famous, too, in that world. There weren’t many examples like that, of non-macho male friendship, around; to me it seemed like one of the benefits of being a poet, to be permitted to have close male friends. And it was a real friendship. Steve had worked to get Jon offered a place on the faculty at the University of Arizona the year before.
Aesthetically, Steve and Jon were part of a larger movement of that era in American poetry, a shift away from the poetry of image and flashy morbid surrealism, towards a meditative narrative voice. (You can read about that movement in an essay by Ira Sadoff, published around that time in American Poetry Review). Jon and Steve had invented a label for their style of poetry; they called themselves Sincerists, and they seemed to mean it. They wrote poems to each other, they met for drinks after workshop, they talked about their feelings without irony. They were the post-James Wright/Robert Bly generation. And Jon, that semester, taught Wright’s book Two Citizens. in his seminar, for its passion, and its artlessness.
As I say, the friendship between Steve and Jon was pretty famous; and the reputation of it, the legend of it, had an odd and positive influence on our Tucson community –it had the effect of fostering strong, intimate male friendships. David Rivard and David Schweidel, the two Davids, wore t-shirts with the words, Not Rivard on them to distinguish between them. Steve Schwartz, William Olsen, Robert Boswell, Rolly Kent, Gibb Windahl; Michael Collier and David Wojahn; Boyer Rickel, George Shelton, Bruce Cohen—we were all members of the tribe of Steve and Jon. There were frequent big dance parties, where all the guys tried to out dance each other into the sweaty early morning hours, while their wives and girlfriends watched tolerantly from the perimeter.
As is supposed to happen in graduate school, close friendships were formed. Many of us remain friends- I remember sitting at a table with four other writers—Steve Schwartz, Boswell, Dave Schweidel—, all of us taking a pledge never to have an author photo taken with an ironically raised eyebrow. I remember getting into a shouting match with Rivard over Robert Hass’s book Praise. I remember Rivard confiding to me one night, with a tone of tragic conviction, “If we don’t publish a book by the time we’re thirty, it’s all over.”
But Steve himself was about thirty-five before publishing his first book. He had had to wait. Jon had been precociously gifted and published right out of grad school. Even then, it seemed that their friendship, from a professional perspective, could have been complicated in ways, though you could not find two less competitive guys. But they had very different styles. Steve worked hard, almost every day on his poetry. For Jon, writing a poem seemed to be more sort of a spiritual event, an alchemical process which he engaged in intermittently. At that point he had published three books—and after In Sepia, it seemed that poetry writing—the act of actually sitting down and doing it—had become an ordeal for Jon, a painful act, one that required so much introspection and effort that it was quite formidable. He didn’t attempt it that often. They were both kind, and gentle teachers. But their styles as writers, their modes of working, could not have been much more different.
In fall 1980, Steve and his painter wife Gail—a babe, whom we all fantasized about—returned to Tucson. Steve started teaching again; in class, he was serious and intent, very responsible to his duty. After workshops he always invited students to meet him for a drink at the Shanty, on 4th Avenue (where they should have a plaque with his name on it). Cool desert evenings, the big back patio of the Shanty, the Arizona starry sky overhead, the beer and endless talk of poetry. Steve, who always seemed relaxed, interior, calm, ready for conversation.
Though Steve was kind to me, and liked my critical writing, it was clear that he didn’t see much promise in my poems. He told me once that I needed more music in them. “Music?” I thought. I didn’t know what he meant, really. The bright lights of the program, the big talents were Bill (William) Olsen—he was Jon Anderson’s unofficial protégé, and David Rivard. My close friend Rivard really was one of Steve’s pet students. And Rivard was indeed very good. He and I were best friends. I remember there was a period when he took the same poem back to conference with Steve once a week for two months—each time they had a conference, Rivard would come back gnashing his teeth and cursing because Steve still didn’t think the poem was right. The poem was called “Venice of the North” – it turned out really beautiful, in Rivard’s first book. I think, from being stubborn, he learned a lot from Steve.
After I graduated in ‘82 or ‘83, I stuck around Tucson—teaching adjunct classes, impersonating a PhD student, working in the Arizona Artists in Education program. My friendship with Steve deepened. He loved to talk poetry as much as a grad student. I would move away for awhile, then return to the high Sonoran desert. I loved it there even though I was a mess in ways.
I especially remember one year when Steve gave up writing poetry. He decided it wasn’t working for him- had had a period of deep disillusionment in his own gift and his career. So, one day he just decided to quit it. He has the capacity to make decisions about behavior like that. That next year, Steve turned towards fiction; he wrote drafts of two novels—modeled after Kundera, I think. He worked like a mule, cranking out pages. But in some way, the novels didn’t quite work.
The miracle occurred when Steve came back to writing poetry. All of a sudden, it seemed that he was a substantially bigger poet—he had a command with the long, rhythmic unfolding sentence he hadn’t owned before. And he began to write the best poems of his life. Those were the poems of This Particular Eternity, which might be his very best book.
The influence of a teacher is hard to measure; one soaks up aesthetic preferences without even realizing it. But what I learned from Steve that I especially value is things about how a grown man acts. I learned a lot from watching him t reat people decently, even when he didn’t like them. To this day, he comports himself like a low gas flame, that burns low and steady.
The other thing I learned from Steve Orlen is how to stay with your work. From Steve, I’ve learned again and again about a writer’s allegiance to work: that you just do it, that you give yourself to it as an end in itself. And that when it isn’t working, you try to figure out how to renew your relation to it. You work through the periods of deadness and aridity. You face your own deficiencies of craft and try to alter them. To sit back and start over again and again.
Over the years I’ve watched Steve perform this alchemy of reinvention again and again. “I’m going to write short poems for a few months” he will announce, straightening his glasses and taking a drink. “I’m going to write poems in which the characters are talking household objects” Or “In my new epic poem, written in iambic hexameters, a cloud named after Abraham Lincoln discusses his life in heaven.”
The life of the poet is different from poetry, isn’t it? But the steadiness itself is a kind of compensation, a kind of rail track that you keep going down, not thoughtlessly, but relentlessly, and it becomes its own end. And the friendships, they are also a big compensation. What you get to, I learned from Big Dog, is the life we might not have otherwise not found.
Steve Orlen. The Elephant’s Child: New & Selected Poems 1978-2005. Ausable Press. 2006. 145pp. $16.00
I’ve never met Steve Orlen. Until recently, I hadn’t even read much of his work. But after reading his latest book, which includes a section of new poems entitled The Elephant’s Child, and selected poems from his five previous collections, I’m undeniably left with the sensation of having shaken his hand, or of having talked with him over a drink at some airport bar in the middle of nowhere. Orlen’s work winds itself up in the gears of everyday life—sex, nostalgia, guilt, love, communication—and in doing so tugs at the questions of living, and goes searching for the joy of the movement from beginning to end. If narrative poetry is out fashion these days, I’m thankful Orlen didn’t get the memo, or rather chose to ignore it, because both the new and old poems here carry on the tradition of the storyteller—of one poet sharing his tale with the rest of us. Orlen consistently pushes the poem so that his story melds with our own, and in the middle somewhere we can share our thoughts, embarrassments, dreams and hopes.
Wallace Stevens writes that “Poetry is a process of the personality of the poet. This is the element, the force, that keeps poetry a living thing…” In The Elephant’s Child this is especially true, and not just because the concept of the self becomes a theme for Orlen in individual poems, but because this collection covers the span of nearly thirty years, and chronicles more than a lifetime. What’s remarkable is reading Orlen’s later poems next to his older work, and realizing that even if the topics might have slightly changed, the project is still the same. In “The Art of Conversation,” one of the new poems, he writes “Don’t you love it when two people actually talk?” In essence, this line captures what I think are some of Orlen’s best qualities: his straight-talk, his questioning, and his ability to subtly get at the strange and beautiful moments in life—those moments when we become aware of being in the moment, or in the poem, or in our own conscious story. There is no pretense in Orlen’s tone. He’s inviting, but he doesn’t dumb things down—he has too much respect for his fellow readers. If this book were a bar it’d be the best bar possible: slightly dark, with good music on the jukebox, and as he notes in “A Day in the Life” there’d be “No cover and no minimum / If you were broke you could stand by the ventilator….” We’d all be on a strictly first-name basis, just like in “The City of Poets: 1966”: “Not a last name among us yet.”
Part of the intrigue of Orlen for me is in the chances he takes—he constantly risks embarrassment, or stumbling, especially in some of his poems dealing with sex. In “Poem for Women and for Men,” one of his longer poems and the last of The Elephant’s Child section of the book, he notes “Sex will make a fool of us from the end to the beginning.” And yet even realizing this, Orlen writes about sex often, because even in today’s world with a media driven by sex (as erotic fetishism), the real sex as sex, or sex as we know it in our own bedrooms, in our own memories, still lies mostly in the realm of shadow, and “What nobody ever mentions / Is exactly what we need to know.” Just as the word “ambivalent” in “Poem Against Ideas” is “a story shrunk to a word,” so too is sex. Orlen takes the time to stretch the story out, to examine it, to speak about it at greater length.
Throughout this book, and thus throughout his work, Orlen makes a major commitment to the story: telling it, trying to understand it, building on it, revising it. We see part of the original intrigue of stories in “Reverie: The Saturday Evening Post,” which features Orlen at ten reading sentimental stories “Because a person could go on with life, a little bit chastened, a little bit wiser, / After the story’s end.” But Orlen takes this original concept of the story and stretches it, makes it his own. He’s often openly contemplating boundaries between one person and the next, between sincere communication and too much information, as in “Ars Poetica: Most Embarrassing Moments,” when he asks:
How open should one be? And where was that line you crossed
At your own peril, and of what value was the crossing?
To make us feel more comfortable
In a conforming world? Or harmful, alienating, casting a person out?
Orlen’s often at his best when he’s asking questions, because he’s asking about what constitutes an individual, or how we can better communicate, or what have we came through to get where we are. “Blind Date” features a litany of these questions spaced throughout the poem, and I’d recommend the poem itself as a literary guide for breaking the ice:
What parts of yourself have you given up on since leaving your home town?
Have you ever been lost? Broke? Have you ever asked your sister
What she thought of you back then, when you were kids?
Ultimately, I get the feeling that Orlen honestly wants the answers to all these questions, and more. He wants to know the world, and he wants to know his fellow people. What I respect about Steve Orlen is that he doesn’t forget. Later in “Reverie: The Saturday Evening Post” he writes “I’m still a nostalgic man. History cures nothing. Irony? Perspective? Nothing.” His questions about life often lead back to his self, and that self as constructed as a personality living in the world. Even if words can only mirror personality, in Orlen’s case I think we’re getting a pretty good view. He is, ultimately, that Elephant’s Child asking “What does the Crocodile have for dinner?” And we are the Crocodile, answering, “I think to-day I will begin with the Elephant’s Child!”
Ordinary Marvelous: On Being a Student of Orlen
Even at the time, I knew how lucky I was.
Steve Orlen was my first professor in the overheated world of graduate-level writing, and his combination of zero bullshit with extreme kindness I’ve never seen before or since. Even Orlen’s handouts are friendly, funny, somehow self-deprecating, and precisely pertinent. I’m still learning from my cache of Orlen letters and marked-up poems, so elaborately inscribed with intersecting lines they resemble a map of the New York subway system, or assembly instructions for some mythical device. The more difficult his request (“Rewrite as one long sentence? Double the length of each sentence? Use no sentences at all?”), the gentler and more enthusiastic he is. No one can tell you your poem is crap while raising your spirits like Steve.
Nothing in the Orlen file is ungenerous. Everything in it urges me reach out in some way – to another student, a poet or poem, an insight. Orlen coddles his students like little eggs, all the while talking nonstop about his wife (whose gorgeous paintings appear on his book covers) and his son, in person and in letters, just as in his poems. Here’s my life, he says. Ordinary, marvelous, full of material. How could it be otherwise? And, always, How’s yours?
He pretends not to be as smart as he is, but he’s too smart to overdo it. He’s got a delicious bad-boy past and is not afraid to press it into service for his poems, yours, or anyone else’s. The man knows how to tell a story, and when not to.
Orlen embraces embarrassment. He puts everything into his long, talky poems, which are exquisitely controlled and constructed in their unfolding. They’re warm and broad and shockingly true, like a hug with a hypodermic in it. They risk. My very favorite of his poems (“Nature Rarely Confides in Me”), rife with beauty and grace and wisdom, also uses the phrase “the splatter of cum on her thighs.”
Do all of his students have an Orlen phase? In mine, my distant adolescence abruptly sharpened and started to look funny. Suddenly I was writing long-lined, loose-limbed poems about it. Then, without Orlen’s notes cheering me on, I stopped. It was a function of the nearness of his attention, the equivalent of writing on steroids. Could I do it again? To save my life? Of course not. But the poems remain, a fossil record of that magic semester. And afterward, what I got from Orlen lingered, seeping into the next set of poems, the next, and the next: a wilder image; a snippet of narrative; a bawdy joke; the odd, bold admission.
There must be someone who doesn’t love Orlen. What I’d learn from such a person. And what a poem it would make.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT LOOKING EVERYONE IS DANCING
In an early American silent movie,
There’s a paddlewheeler huffing down the Mississippi River.
There are black people and white people,
And when the white people are on-deck
They’re sight-seeing, the women whisperer under parasols,
The men tip their tall, beaver hats, looking as though
They’re always about to start a business deal.
A black man shines a pair of boots, a black woman
Runs clothes up and down
A tin washboard, a black man with a cane pole daps his bait.
But when the white people go off-screen
To wherever white people go
The black people right away start dancing.
A cake-walk, syncopated, with a pail of water
Balanced on their heads, and some sort of jig-for-two, dresses flaring.
A solo tap dance on a wooden crate, and all around them
The little shoeless kids
Clap to the rhythms of bone-clappers and a kazoo,
Swirl of river mist
Ghosting around the bodies.
It was beautiful, and ridiculous,
And racist, of course, but when
I came out of the theater onto the busy city street,
I shut my eyes tight.
I started walking. Immediately came that sound,
The quick advantage of feet. I could tell
What was going on. I’d seen
The movie. I knew that the Asians in the crowd
Were doing the dragon-dance, salsa for Latinos, Ghost-Dance,
Hip-hop, hora, tango, waltz.
Stuff was happening all around me.
I began to feel my white feet, white knees and hips
Adjusting to the beat,
Shifting and swaying to chit-chat and honk-honk,
Clothing whispers, boot thuds and stiletto clicks.
A cell-phone was playing “The Star-Spangled-Banner.”
I heard Bye, Mom. I love you
And This time be on time.
Way up ahead a man was singing
Hey brother, can you spare a dime?
I was so into it I forgot the trick,
The necessary artifice and stratagem.
I opened my eyes,
And sure enough the white people had come back
From wherever they went
And we were a moving crowd again, diverse
As any American city these days, and alone
With our thoughts, a very
Ordinary crowd but quite remarkable
When I began to pay attention,
And have paid attention since,
Trudge-dance, and high-heel-wobble
And gawky-as-a-turkey dance,
Briefcase-swing and mop-and-bucket dance and
If you were standing at your window looking down,
You might have said,
Hey, Mama, look,
Even the white people are dancing today .
“I was fourteen at the time,” she said. It must have been summer
Because the light through the tall windows came at her
Like a swarm of bees. She wanted
To take off the lid of her skull, like a hat,
But it wouldn’t come loose.
“So I took off all my clothes in the big parlor.
Beethoven’s Ninth was on the radio – I didn’t even know
Such music existed.” The last movement, that ecstasy
The composer must have known was not in the service of God,
And because she couldn’t dance to it
Except in a kid’s goofy imitation of ballet,
Something like her spirit floated right out of her skin.
Light pushed her this way and that.
She felt like the ocean must feel in a storm. How that teenager
Must have felt when the big swan entered her
And brought her something like bliss
And something like a horror of a future just like this moment,
But going on and going on and on.
Some people can’t help it. We want some proof.
We come home to see the layers of the past,
Like the archeology of Jerusalem, open for everyone to see.
The trees cut down and the earth gauged out.
The bones dragged to the surface and polished,
Then the earth smoothed over.
Across the street, the corner market
Is now a bodega, and in front, two young mothers
Who used to speak one foreign language and now speak another
Murmur over their baby carriages
And where used to be shade
Is now a warming circle of sunlight.
“When I go back to visit, I’m always outside looking in,
Through one of those huge windows, but the light feels cooler.
I’m seeing this girl, so confused by being fourteen
She’s given up her body and become limitless,
And though I’m thinking she’s nuts, I envy her
Because I’m always older.”
Steve Orlen: In His Own Words
I grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In the 1950’s, it was a working-class factory town Most of the grown-ups knew each other because they were born and raised there, and it didn’t seem to matter much whether you were Irish or French-Canadian, Polish, Jewish, Italian, or what class you came from. It was a tough place to grow up, where you learned how to throw the first punch before you learned how to read a book. You learned how to say what was on your mind, not what was in your mind. I learned there were at least three languages: the good English I was taught to speak at school and the bad grammar everyone spoke in the streets, and it became very important not to mix them up. The third language came from inside, the way I talked to myself, the hyper self-awareness of a kid who thinks too much. It was usually in the form of questions. Who am I? What’s the difference between that person and me? What am I supposed to do now? This gave me a sensitivity to language and experience that would later serve me as a poet.
On the Narrative Poem:
I learned how to tell stories at the feet of my father and my uncles. They always smoked cigars and made fun of each other. The stories they told went every which way. It took a long time before they’d get to the point, so I learned to be a patient listener. Most of my poems come from experience, and every experience has a narrative. When I sit down to write, I tell my stories the way my uncles did, not chronologically, but following whatever paths occur to me at the time. In fact, this is the way the mind moves. So, my job as a poet is to find something else besides chronological time to organize the material. And if I’m lucky, while I’m organizing I’ll find out what the poem wants to be “about” - what the theme might be. I think this quirk of mine has helped me to sort of re-invent the narrative poem.
I was what they called “a bad boy.” I acted first, then thought about it afterwards. I skated on the thin ice at the reservoir, I ran away from home, I stole cars with my friends, I sassed my teachers and got thrown out of school, I smoked and drank, I had sex before I even knew what sex was. I was an impulsive kid; but also that’s the way it was where I came from. I spent my time in tenement courtyards and on the streets of the Veterans housing project up the hill. In summer, I worked in factories and on tobacco farms. I hung out in the diners and the poolrooms, listening to the old guys. I sat in my neighbors’ kitchens and watched the family dramas. Everyone - every family in the neighborhood, the Polish kid at the next desk in school, the French-Canadian woman who worked at the next machine in the factory, the Jewish man who raised pigs, the priest who played ball with us - seemed unique to me. Who is this person? What made him who he is?
On His Childhood Prospects:
My father once called the principal of the junior high. He asked: If my son wants to go to college, should he take Latin or French? The principal said, “You don’t have to worry about your son going to college. He’s going to jail.” Then he hung up.