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Author Spotlight & Reviews

When I Was a Poet

When I Was a Poet

By David Meltzer

City Lights Publishers, 2011

144 pages, $10.95

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Reviewer’s Note: I received a review copy of David Meltzer’s When I Was a Poet directly from City Lights Publishers last summer. While reading the book on a quick trip for a family-related emergency of sorts, I began to fill a small notebook with short bursts of a fast-clipped poem-series. This poetic assemblage mixing David’s lines between my own responses generated the gist of what became the official book review (see below)—the poem-series itself follows. I had the honor of reading this poem in David’s presence as part of a group reading celebration for When I Was a Poet @ the Meridian gallery here in San Francisco hosted by SF State Poetry Center on Sept 1, 2011. It’s a pleasure to see both versions find a home on HTMLGIANT thanks to Ben Mirov. Rock on. -pjd]

I first came to know David Meltzer while taking his classes in Poetics at New College of California in San Francisco. Without being at all insincere, and not feeling the least bit lame, I find myself repeatedly able to say that he’s the closest thing to an angel I’ve ever arrived at being in the presence of. His poem-soul shines through both in his eyes and his play with language. His classes contained as much stand-up comedy routine done sitting down as poetry while all along weaving in active historical lore about language, ideas, and culture. As the poems in When I Was a Poet make clear, David’s got his hands in a little bit of everything and anything. From his teenage years as a NYC transplant down in Los Angeles until the current day, David’s lived in California and the West Coast with its weird idiosyncratic kinks is prominent throughout his work.

 

California dreamin

Hollywood Boulevard occult bookshop

Tower to ceiling shelves of glyphed tomes

Brittle dreambooks powdery gold pages

Copper scrolls scratched w/ sigils

Promise future power triumph

Watching Pacific Ocean waves weave in & out

 

As City Lights editor Garrett Caples notes in his Craft Work post on the book for the Harriett Blog, the selection for this volume “drew a handful of pieces from various publications post-dating his [Meltzer’s] previous book, a selected poems from Penguin called David’s Copy (2005). Selecting the rest among his unpublished work shed interesting light on his process.” In other words, this is very much yet another selected Meltzer spanning several decades of his enormous output which serves as both an invaluable introduction to his work and a rewarding prize full of previously unknown work for familiar readers.

 

The poems are relentlessly compelling.

 

Do life,

know death. The rest

is restless.

 

The writing is not only concerned with encouraging itself to keep going, getting more poems written, but addressing the world-at-large as well; there’s no end in sight, or at least there’s the awareness that it’s better to hope there’s not.

 

Heaven when it happens

is another closed door

you wait behind

going blind

w/ smashed cup

jammed into your hand

& nothing to do

but sing the blues

to all the other ones

 

David is very much alive in his skin. He’s the type of individual that makes a room light up. An infectious joy spews from his being as he lives a life committed to not only doing least harm but also spreading the news of the interesting fun to be had once you put yourself to work getting to know specifics about things around you: the past, the present, and the future all meeting in the now.

 

When I was a Poet

Everything was possible

there wasn’t Anything

that wasn’t Poetry

 

Nothing holds you back in life more than yourself. People, like words, need to be sparked; inspired to see how opportunity aligns in the unexpected moment, that sometimes “words work best when / they know they can’t.” Don’t hold yourself back. Once you begin associating with the outside world—an impossible reality to resist—there’s always the danger of your words and actions taking on their own agendas or being sidelined by foreign interests, but don’t give up. Or, at least, it’s a fair question to ask why one would.

 

The past that won’t

catch up to

the present

 

history makes itself up

until others

make it up

 

David’s been a part of many kinds of history. Both of his parents were working professionals in the entertainment industry and he has numerous friends who make it as visual artists, musicians, poets, and writers. From the well known to the word of mouth, David and his work have been making the poetry scene since he was in his twenties.

 

This collection presents a strong display of Meltzer’s graceful force as a lyric poet. One of the rarer poem-series (a form David favors writing in) included is the, as again noted by editor Garrett Caples in his post for Harriet, “short, vintage series, “French Broom,” which had previously appeared as an Oyez Press pamphlet in 1971 but was never collected into a book.” This series of untitled sections is prime Meltzer. David is at his best when he’s just riffing about writing, getting the language to come together in his head: skull-brain, eyes, nose, mouth, and finally, tongue. The whole messy bag of flesh which it takes to arrive at the poem: “My blood mixes with plaster / sealing the poem together.” It’s a messy, vital business that gathers together all the experience any one of us is made of; everything and everybody that contributes to our individual shot at being the one composed of many which we are.

 

Typewriter strikes paper

Needle thru cloth

Allow it.

My grandmother was a seamstress

My grandfather a tailor

My father sat before his table

Sewing jokes into the air

Something like satori

To think of it splinters my brain.

No judgment

 

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

THE BRILLIANCE OF DAVID MELTZER

 

 

David,

 

When I was a Poet, Man, You are a Poet!

 

Closest thing to knowing an angel I’ve ever arrived at, your poem-soul I at first refused for dumbreasons in dumbways (drunken no show) now burns an easy path straight through to the heart of poetry in me.

*

 

Sitting in your classes

 

that old death hall

Duncans too taught in

 

echoes all round

 

No past

No present

No future

 

that Now

 

*

 

What’s said

weighed against

what’s not

 

the shining through

against dull

withholding throb

 

those who

“see only love”

know

 

*

 

No show

David’s hour

 

*

 

What’s a poem, anyway?

 

“When I was a Poet

No need to know it”

 

*

 

Absolute hydra phonic bliss

 

“Into the dawn

The door opens”

 

*

 

Live your own lives

you tourists!

 

“The past that won’t

catch up to

the present

 

history makes itself up

until others

make it up”

 

*

 

Getting it said

what matters

most

 

that you say

whatever

needs saying

 

it just gets better

with age

 

until it doesn’t

 

“Art tattoos blue needles

into moonlight skin

junk light makes mirrors perfect”

 

groovy oblivion

endless talk

banter unwilled

unmediated

but not un-thought

 

*

 

“dig It

Creeley said”

 

Compulsive flinging

of words

 

*

 

Between doing

things get done

 

ghost marks

spot raids on the living

 

re-reading notes

going over old times

 

how far it goes

just to be getting there

 

“When I was a Poet

Everything was possible

there wasn’t Anything

that wasn’t Poetry”

 

Getting It—

that it, again—

to stick

 

the real deal

 

*

 

Phantom goons

don’t scare

 

“words work best when

they know they can’t”

 

*

 

That’s not Poetry

that’s the thin

John Ashbery look-a-like

sitting at the table across

ordering a martini

& a meal

talking into formica

 

give him

whatever he asks for

 

*

 

“renowned Beat author”

 

I think of you

as angelic saint

of laughter and naughty splendor

the greatest of light

pouring out your eyes

 

*

 

“looking to see if there’s a

shape beyond the imagination”

 

Finding in a vowel

that song

remains unchanged

deliberate soloist

of impossible hour

 

*

 

Fallen unfallen

the Talmudic

in you reading

across from here

at the makeshift bar

 

two birds fly in

through open door

lost to a game of chase

gone dangerous

 

“I saw it in my words, saw its wings move

protected by its spine. Once

named itself Vav, 3rd letter of the 4 letter

Name, blessed our home, table, bed,

the desk I work on. Vav

first seen in a phonebooth on Masonic.”

 

too many heavy feet

& luggage wheels rolling

round this terminal

for such a pair

 

*

 

That sudden hop

conscience changing

no longer to be

once you were

skipping out on

that score

 

“Do life,

know death. The rest

is restless.”

 

into this one

irrefutable bore

reading & writing

all the time

just to get on

with living

 

*

 

Self important

nobody

 

*

 

Silly

building cities

on plateaus

only to wash away

 

“flat glamour of suburbs

diningroom wall mirrored

rec room basement w/ faux wood

paneling, well stocked bar

TV, new furniture in living room

protected by plastic rubbers”

 

whole communities

of consciousness

passing & gone

this similitude of ours

 

 

*

 

Don’t ridicule

don’t know

no way of finding out

until you go

 

“& nothing to do

but sing the blues

to all the other ones”

a traveling kind

of sport

takes you places

never thought

 

*

 

Brilliance of

an hour

 

“who gives a fuck

about losing a life

& gaining a faith?”

 

*

 

The muse

real

alive one

to hold

 

having known

no need

let go

no doubt

 

this’ll last

 

“we still want to chitchat the everyday

binds & holds our rite together

a hummable tune art rides on”

 

 

 

*

 

NO whiskey

 

thousands of feet

 

up in air

 

*

 

“California dreamin

Utopia’s just around the corner”

 

Always sit on the West

facing ocean when flying

bits of California coast

show out window now &then

 

“California dreamin

Hollywood Boulevard occult bookshop

Tower to ceiling shelves of glyphed tomes

Brittle dreambooks powdery gold pages

Copper scrolls scratched w/ sigils

Promise future power triumph

Watching Pacific Ocean waves weave in & out”

 

*

 

NO whiskey

but ask

 

& now

some Jack

 

on the rocks

 

*

 

Last sheets

acknowledging the end

never to arrive

language just goes

no destination ever final

 

“Typewriter strikes paper

Needle thru cloth

Allow it.

My grandmother was a seamstress

My grandfather a tailor

My father sat before his table

Sewing jokes into the air

Something like satori

To think of it splinters my brain.

No judgment”

 

*

 

Air travel

as a practice

reserved only for

poetry readings

or health checks

on fathers

 

*

 

Recognize

the poem

seeing eye to eye

witness to aural

as well as

visual stimuli

impulsive

to the last

 

“The better your song the more lovely the light

She offers in return.

It is not a contest

It is a binding.

A singing together.”

 

middle of afternoon

busy traveling

reading books for review

catching up

coming to

as it were

final deliberations

what goes where

when with who

how to get there

finally

an open question

 

*

 

THE FLIGHT SOUTH

postscript—written first

 

Tinsel beast over

shining sheet of white

puffs of blue below

sheeny haze above

far off depths

into which to plunge

taunts self-indulgence

folded into becoming

Southern California

arriving dull & bemused

let down

nothing aside

from the pools

imagined drained & skateable

soothes the unease

 

 

SFO – LGB – SFO

Jul 19-20 2011

 

 

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at the University of San Francisco. His most recent book is “There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn’t Talk”: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011)

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