Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Muse: New York's Poet Laureate

. . . I'm always trying to hear the sound of the words, and trying
 to take out everything that doesn't feel alive: That's my goal: 
to take out everything that doesn't feel alive. 
And also to get to a place that has some depth to it. . . .
~ Jean Valentine

I started "Monday Muse" to introduce you to our state Poets Laureate. I first wrote about Virginia's recipient, Claudia Emerson, then Missouri's David Clewell and Oregon's Lawson Inada. Today, I'm featuring Jean Valentine, New York's state poet. (My choice of state each week is entirely arbitrary.)

New York established its Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for poets in 1985. Codified in the state code (N.Y. Stat., Sec. 8.11), the two-year appointment is made by the governor on recommendation of an advisory panel of "distinguished poets" and "persons with particular expertise" in poetry. Each honoree becomes a member of the panel that selects his or her successor. Unlike some states, New York stipulates that its state poet "promote and encourage poetry" and give two public poetry readings within the state each year. It also awards the incumbent an honorarium of $10,000.

Among other well-known New York Poets Laureate are Stanley Kunitz, Robert Creeley, Audre Lorde, Sharon Olds, John Ashbery, and Billy Collins.
* * * * *

Jean Valentine, New York's 2008 - 2010 appointee, received the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for her first book of poetry, Dream Barker, and Other Poems (Yale University Press), in 1965. Between 1969 and 1979, she published three collections: Pilgrims, Ordinary Things, and The Messenger (all Farrar, Straus & Giroux).* She followed these with Home Deep Blue: New and Selected Poems (Alice James Books, 1989) and The River at Wolf (Alice James, 1992), The Under Voice: Selected Poems (Salmon Publishing, 1995), Growing Darkness, Growing Light (Carnegie Mellon Press, 1997), and The Cradle of the Real Life (Wesleyan Poetry, 2000).  She was awarded in 2004 a National Book Award for Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965 - 2003 (Wesleyan Poetry). She published in 2007 Little Boat (Wesleyan Poetry).

Valentine's poetry is spare — in her best work, every word counts, and she can create in a very few lines a dramatic image that sticks in your brain, as in this example from The Cradle of Real Life: "Snow falling/ off the Atlantic / out toward strangeness / you / a breath on a coal".

Her plain language often is haunting, as in the opening lines of "One Foot in the Dark" from Door in the Mountain: "People forget / Don't forget me", or the beautifully economical and evocative "My old body" from the same collection:

My old body:
a ladder of sunlight,
mercury dust floating through—

My forgiveness,
how you have learned to love me in my sleep.

Simplicity, brevity, and lack of embellishment mark all of Valentine's poems. Frequently, the poems comprise straightforward statements or sets of words layered one on another, unadorned by adjectives or adverbs. Cumulatively, they root you in the ever-present "I", the seeking, and the deeply felt loss, as in "I have lived in your face":

I have lived in your face.
Have I been you?
Your mother?         giving you birth

—this pain
whenever I say goodbye to thee

—up to now I always wanted it
but not this

Valentine's other work includes a chapbook, Lucy: A Poem (Quarternote Chapbook Series, Sarabande Books, 2009), which is addressed to the skeleton of one of the earliest known hominids; and The Lighthouse Keeper (Seneca Review, 2001), her edited collection of essays on the poetry of Eleanor Ross Taylor. Her Break the Glass (Copper Canyon Books) is due out this year.

In addition to the National Book Award and Yale prize, Valentine has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts awards, among many other major poetry prizes, awards, and grants. She also has published poems in numerous literary magazines, including American Poetry Review and Ploughshares.

Valentine has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Hunter College, New York University, Columbia University, and other higher education institutions and in writing programs, seminars, and workshops. She lives in New York City.

Resources

* These three volumes are difficult to find; however, all the poems are collected in Door in the Mountain.

Information on the history of the state poet position is available through the New York State Writers Institute, State University of New York. The institute's bio of Valentine is here.

Valentine can be heard reading her own poems here on her Website. Other audio clips of Valentine reading various poems can be found here ("Door in the Mountain") and here ("Susan's Photograph"), and also here. (There are other sites with audio clips, which can be found easily on the Web.)

An interesting interview with Valentine is here.

4 comments:

Kathleen said...

As I'm learning, this is where I want to go - it is so appealing. "Simplicity, brevity, and lack of embellishment mark all of Valentine's poems. Frequently, the poems comprise straightforward statements or sets of words layered one on another, unadorned by adjectives or adverbs. Cumulatively, they root you in the ever-present "I", the seeking, and the deeply felt loss...."
Can't wait to go exploring her writing. Thanks Maureen. :)

Dave Fuller said...

Thank Maureen for doing this. I will quickly admit I wouldn't have given thought to the work of other state laureates had you not raised awareness. Not only that but you've made it so easy for us to take a closer look.

M.L. Gallagher said...

How soothing and uplifting the sparcity of her words. How evocative the images.

Thank you Maureen. As the other's have said, I would never have checked these poets out without your inspiration!

Hugs

Louise

S. Etole said...

I've enjoyed the quotes you've shared and the greater awareness you have given us ...