On Sunday, I had the pleasure of introducing two great poets in a reading at the Writer’s Center: Sam Truitt, whose most recent collection, Vertical Elegies, is really three books in one, and Grace Cavalieri, whose most recent collection, Anna Nicole, retells and reimagines the life of Anna Nicole Smith. Some of the audience members kindly asked for copies of the introduction afterwards, so here it is:
It is such an honor to be here today with these poets in this place. Though they are very different writers, Sam Truitt and Grace Cavalieri have a few things in common. Each of them is deeply connected to the long, rich history of the arts in the Washington DC area; each has a tie to the world of visual arts, Grace through her sculptor husband, Ken Flynn, and Sam through his sculptor and professor mother, the late Anne Truitt. And each is an exemplar of separate strands of modern American poetry of the movement that rose up in the mid-part of the 20th century, that time when what I think of as the second wave of Modernism – or maybe the first wave of Postmodernism, given your preference — was swirling some of the most important currents of our time into new form, new explorations, new ideas about what a poem might do, and how it can mean.
Sam Truitt’s work is grounded in the tradition of Projective Verse or Composition by Field. Originated by Charles Olson, developed by many others, including my personal favorite, Robert Duncan, open field poems reach out to admit past and present, the personal and the historical, the subjective and the objective, creating a sense of the author as at once unreliable and stripped bare, sometimes disappearing into the text, sometimes riding it like a slightly banged up vintage ford Mustang with a whole lot of power under the hood. The three extended works that make up “Vertical Elegies” are dizzying in their sweep, and seem to create and then smash a number of different worlds and ways of seeing. When the poet writes, in section one, “I now see what we call our normal state of being as like a certain stage of drowning,” he captures, as well, the sense that this reader had on first stepping into the book. I felt almost drowned. But in this complex and ambitious work, where words are not only elements of grammar, but objects, stumbling blocks, gestures, shards of sculpture, fragments of self, it is good to let yourself drown, a little. And then, start swimming. The water may look wild, but once you’re inside, it’s it better than fine.
A teacher as well as a poet, Sam Truitt gets some of the best recommendations from his students that I have ever seen. Looking around on the web, I found him such praise as, “Sam is a person who makes you question everything we have been coerced to believe in,” and, my favorite, “Sam doesn’t just think outside of the box. He doesn’t believe in boxes…and if you ask him why, he’ll be only too happy to discuss it at length with you. He is, if you plan to be a writer, the best teacher EVER. Just don’t bore him wit your silly love stories.”
Sam Truitt was born in Washington, DC, and raised there and in Tokyo, Japan. He is the author of multiple books of poems, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2002, American Poetry: The Next Generation, and The Best of Fence, and has appeared in many journals, including Ploughshares, Denver Quarterly, Boston Review, Explosive, Jacket, Talisman, and First Intensity. His book reviews have appeared in American Book Review and the Poetry Project Newsletter. His works of visual poetry have been exhibited at the Rothstein Gallery, Tonic, and the St. Marks Poetry Project, and his writing is in a semi-permanent installation at the Paramount Hotel’s Whiskey Bar in NYC. He teaches at the University of Albany, the college of St. Rose and beautiful Bard College.
Like those post war American poets who were named confessional, and who followed the trial blazed by Robert Lowell, Grace Cavalieri is interested in exploring the formation of the individual psyche, and in giving voice to previously unnamed sates of consciousness. But Cavalieri’s confessional ventriloquism allows her to move out, not in, as she makes us look and look again at the inner lives of women we may have missed, such as Mrs. P, in the Pinecrest Rest Haven poems, who wakes each morning not remembering that she is married to Mr. P; or women whose lives we may have thought we already studied and understood, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, one of my heroes and the hero of Grace’s beautiful collection What I Would Do For Love, or, in the case of Anna Nicole Smith, a woman we may have simply dismissed.
How she manages to accomplish all this while writing countless plays, reviews, and articles, conducting her justly famous Poet and Poem interview show for the library of Congress, and while she continues to work in every way she can for the good of other writers, amazes us all. But when I think of all that she brings to this community and to the art of writing, I know that her mother did a good job — she was aptly named. What she brings, always, is grace.
Grace Cavalieri is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, numerous plays, opera librettos, and texts for television and film. Her 21st play Quilting the Sun was presented at the Smithsonian Institution, and received its world premiere at Centre Stage, S.C. Grace teaches poetry workshops throughout the country, produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem,” formerly on WPFW, now through public radio from the Library of Congress via NPR satellite.
Grace has received the Pen-Fiction Award, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Silver Medal, and awards from the National Commission on Working Women, the WV Commission on Women, the American Association of University Women, a Paterson Prize for What I Would do for Love, and more. She writes full-time in Annapolis, Maryland where she lives with her husband, sculptor Kenneth Flynn.