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This item is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

News & Notes
George Economou · Jeffrey Wainwright writes: George Economou, who died in May 2019 aged eighty-four, was a Greek American poet, translator and teacher of remarkable range. I first knew him when I was a temporary colleague in the English Department of the Brooklyn Center of Long Island University in 1970-1. He was a prominent member of what was a vibrant and sociable group led by the Trotskyist Shakespearean Paul Siegel which accommodated scholars, poets, dramatists and novelists.

So sophisticated and metropolitan did George appear, I was amazed to discover that he hailed from the far West. The son of Greek immigrants, his father was a rancher and businessman, he went to school in Great Falls, Montana. From there he did undergraduate work at Colgate University, then both a masters and a doctorate at Columbia. He began teaching at the Brooklyn Center in 1961. He stayed there until 1983 when he became Chair of the English Department at the University of Oklahoma and Director of the Creative Writing programme until his retirement in 2000 to Philadelphia.

George’s earliest scholarship was in mediaeval literature. It was an interest he maintained, publishing a translation of the C version of Langland’s Piers Plowman in 1996, and he edited translations from troubadour poetry, Proensa and The Poem of the Cid, both by Paul Blackburn.

Editing and scholarship were always important to George both in their more conventional forms and in the more adventurous work of his long-time friend and associate Jerome Rothenberg in his anthologies, including Technicians of the Sacred (1968) and America A Prophecy (1974). These interests, and the diligence they demand, come together in his remarkable book published in the UK in 2009 by Shearsman Books, Ananios of Kleitor. This is a scholarly edition of a fictional ancient Greek poet only known from the slightest papyrus fragments. It is a brilliant parody of scholastic procedures, culminating in the twentieth century where, pulling at one strand and another of the editorial task, he uncovers one of his editor’s connection to a Nazi war crime in Greece.

The other stand-out amid George’s copious output is his Complete Plus: The Poems of C.P. Cavafy in English (Shearsman, 2013). This is the culmination of decades of work on Cavafy which George published both in magazines and in small, often beautiful, editions. These relaxed, unassuming translations clearly exemplify George Steiner’s ideal, repeated in the introduction, that ‘translation should embody an act of thanks to the original’.  

George Economou’s devotion to poetry was deep and lifelong. He was also, as I know to my own benefit, a great encourager. He will be missed by his wife of over fifty years, the playwright and poet Rochelle Owens, and by his many friends and former colleagues.

Lawrence Upton · Scott Thurston writes: Lawrence Upton (1949–2020) had a long and remarkable career as a multi-disciplinary artist (poetry: verbal, sound and visual), performer, educator, organiser, editor and researcher. I first met him at Bob Cobbing’s Writers’ Forum workshops in about 1990, and we maintained a connection right up until a couple of months before his death.

Lawrence was a restless, brilliant innovator who worked out of a deeply-embodied poetics wherein his kinetic imagination generated ideas that could find expression in words, sounds or visuals, or all these modes simultaneously. He was a prolific collaborator. Some of his best-known work was with the sound poetry performance trio jgjgjgjg (1976–79), with PC Fencott and cris cheek, which toured internationally, and the three-hundred publications of the extraordinary Domestic Ambient Noise (DAN, 1994-2000) co-authored with Cobbing. I had the good fortune to see Lawrence and Cobbing perform from DAN in the late nineties and always relished the wild and complex chemistry between them. Each six-page pamphlet contained a visual score of dizzying energy and texture which would then be performed as an abstract vocal duet.

Lawrence devoted much of his life to creating and holding spaces for various networks of artists, whether working for the Poetry Society (as chair 1974–78), running the Sub-Voicive Poetry reading series (1994–2005) or editing his own magazine and small imprint RWC (Read Write Create). Like many visionary artists, Lawrence could be a somewhat tricky customer in person, prone to spats and feuds, but he was also capable of acts of great generosity. He was kind enough to publish some of my poems in his RWC series in 1998 (Two Sequences) and in response to my request (‘Think I’ll leave it up to you for the cover – possibly give the texts a once over crush gyrate across the copy glass to shake em up a bit? in your capable paws’ – from an email from me to Lawrence) he not only created some amazing cover art but went on to create a whole sequence of visual poems which was published in 2000 by Paper Brain Press in San Diego as Game on a Line – all riffing off a single phrase from one of my poems: ‘line senses my breath’.

I want to leave you with a taste of the multifarious voices of Lawrence on the page. These phrases from the performance text Stone Head (dedicated to Alaric Sumner) show him working in a typical paratactic collage mode: ‘Apartment Delete as applicable In the art of ConnectionPaper Honourable to Branch Station Escort of art Housecoat / spontaneous discipline Delete a or b as applicable’ (1999). Yet he could also present more direct material in innovative ways, such as this short performance text published in Auditory Experiment(s) (2001):
A sandstone rock stack breaks the incoming tide
[lengthy pause and then repeat up to 25 times – vary length of pause slightly each time]

Finally, when the stresses of London life would send him off to favoured retreats in Greece or his beloved homeland of Cornwall, Lawrence could create beautifully simple and revealing images and ideas in the form of verse-letters to poet-friends such as Eric Mottram or Ulli Freer. These lines from ‘Letter to Ulli’ (1992) are deeply poignant as I reflect on his passing:
    If I had food and water and a place,
one valley made in silence would suffice.
I would keep my silence with the world.

Fortunately, the effort to secure Lawrence’s personal archive for posterity is now bearing fruit.

Michael McClure · Colin Still writes: I learned this morning that Michael McClure has died. Here is the poignant email I received from his widow, Amy.

‘Sunday night we were able to bring Michael home from hospital for his last day. On hospice comfort care. Oxygen pumping, docs sent his favorite drugs, plus a sip of deathbed Johnnie Walker Black Label per his long-held desire. Though he was done, body miserable wracked O painfully here not here... Still, surrounded by LOVE, friends here in art, friends here in music swirling right here, not virtual, exact, now, here... last breaths less labored, peaceful, after call from an adored grandson... quietly gone... bronze bell, chanting, washing, bronze bell coming going, bell filling soul, I Like Your Eyes Liberty swirling, washing gently dressing, keeping vigil til dawn, moonlight, tranquil, here not here, here not here, to the far shore – there not there – that dust will be in love:
This soul that was a god’s hot prison cell,
veins that with liquid humors fueled such fire,
marrows that flamed in glory as I strove
shall quit the flesh, but never their desire.
They shall be ash. That ash will feel as well.
Dust they shall be. That dust will be in love.
    Francisco de Quevedo, 1580–1645
‘What cherished lives we live, Loving friends.’

A fuller account of the poet and his work will appear in the next issue of PN Review.

Valuable Voices · The Poetry Archive celebrated its twentieth anniversary in May. It is such a crucial and established ingredient in our poetry culture that the news is doubly surprising: that there was a time when it did not exist, and that so altruistic an enterprise should have survived.

The brain-child of the then poet laureate Andrew Motion, it began as a charity dedicated to ensuring that a safe and accessible recording would be kept of poets reading their own work. Hearing how poets speak their poems brings, they believed, a deeper level of understanding and enjoyment. Whether or not this is true, a poet’s own reading often reveals intentions, accents and inflections and provides a valuable extra resource for poetry readers. The danger is that it plays into the contemporary rhetoric which seems embarrassed by the word ‘reader’ and insists on referring to those for whom poetry is a passion as an ‘audience’, as though there was a common response, a group response, to the very specific thing which is a poem. The Poetry Archive does not, except accidentally as we all occasionally do, contribute to that rhetoric. ‘We archive, care for and preserve these uniquely valuable voices,’ they declare, ‘for the long term so that future generations can hear them whenever they want to.’ Also for the short terms so that contemporary readers can possess them. ‘As a charity, the funds we raise from your kind donations and memberships enable us to keep sharing these wonderful collections free-of-charge across the world.’ Most of the recordings are expertly produced in studio conditions without an audience or a video camera. The poems are not upstaged, the text remains in the audible foreground.

‘white gatekeepers’ · In June, the president and five other board members resigned from the American National Book Critics Circle, citing racism and breach of privacy. Laurie Hertzel had served as president since 2019. She announced her departure from the twenty-four-member board after a fellow board member, Ugandan-American writer Hope Wabuke, posted screenshots on Twitter of an email exchange that included correspondence from Hertzel and board member Carlin Romano. The NBCC had been working out the wording for a response to recent events. Hertzel writes, ‘As members of the NBCC board were trying to work out the wording of a statement in support of Black Lives Matter and against racism, especially in our own realm of publishing, private exchanges were made public on Twitter, which made it impossible to continue with this discussion in good faith. […] I, along with five of our board members resigned, though not in a coordinated fashion. I can only speak for myself when I say that such a breach of confidence precludes the sort of deliberations that are essential to the NBCC’s mission as a critical organisation.’ Romano, a former NBCC president, had raised objections in his email to the proposed statement from the NBCC board, notably that ‘white gatekeepers’ in the publishing sector ‘stifle black voices’. Romano responded that many black writers benefited from ‘good-willed white editors and publishers’.

‘worse than the bare minimum’ · The Poetry Foundation in Chicago (which most famously publishes Poetry Magazine among its many other commitments) was radically shaken in June and its forward direction sharply altered after an initially ill-considered response on 3 June to the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. The Poetry Foundation President Henry Bienen and chairman of the Board Willard Bunn III resigned after poets and activists protested the organisation’s response to the police killing of George Floyd. Their departure followed a few days after the release of an open letter drafted by thirty poets and signed by over a thousand others, which declared that the original Poetry Foundation statement that it stood ‘in solidarity with the Black community’ and denounced ‘injustice and systemic racism’ was ‘worse than the bare minimum’, vague, non-substantive, proposing no actions or concrete commitments. The president and chairman of the board were disappointed that their own staff did not support the Foundation’s work and record; their departure seemed to reflect an underlying dissatisfaction within the Foundation itself with the directions it had been taking.

The Poetry Foundation staff and the remaining directors published an open letter in reply to the original open letter. They did not immediately respond to some of the original demands, among them that the president be replaced by ‘someone with a demonstrated commitment to both the world of poetry and the project of creating a world that is just and affirming for people of color, disabled people, trans people, queer people, and immigrants’ as well as issuing a ‘meaningful statement that details the specific, material ways it plans to “work to eradicate institutional racism” from the board of directors’.

Poetry Foundation staff in their response apologised ‘for our silence in the face of crisis amid the call to dismantle institutional racism’ and pledged ‘ongoing action in response to the call to dismantle white supremacy’. And here they provided a list of specific commitments:
  • the donation of $250,000 to the Artist Relief fund to aid individual poets and writers and a further $750,000 to organisations fighting for social justice and working to advance racial equity in poetry and affiliated art, as approved by the Foundation’s board of directors
  • redirection of resources ‘to develop and implement ways for audiences who have primarily engaged with the Community and Foundation Relations Department programs to be welcomed into and find meaningful content across all editorial and program areas’
  • ‘seeking to partner with an individual or team of Black historian(s) to research and document the debt that the Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine owes to Black poets in extensive detail’
  • ‘researching important out-of-print books by Black poets and the archives of Black presses, in partnership with Black organisations, scholars, publishers, and writers’
  • ‘reassessing our building policies and physical space, magazine editorial decisions, digital programs, and programmatic decisions across all departments of the Poetry Foundation’
  • ‘calling on senior leadership and trustees to donate to local, grassroots organisations fighting for social justice’
  • ‘publishing a list of resources of local action groups and funds, and amplifying social justice efforts by poets, on our website and social channels with input from the community’

The Foundation’s managing board, having made these specific concessions, undertook to ‘do more to examine whether the Foundation is a welcoming place for staff and all of our constituents’, and to provide ‘a conduit for Poetry Foundation staff and the poetry community to provide critical feedback’. It committed itself to ‘begin an immediate process that reevaluates all aspects of the Foundation’ and to ‘institutionalise equitable policies’, an effort the board says will ‘start with an equity audit of all Foundation policies, practices, and structures’. The audit ‘will be comprehensive, transparent, and take time to reshape the structure and culture of the Foundation so as to create a broadly welcoming environment. A strategic planning process between the board and the staff will follow this audit.’ If the language of the initial Foundation statement was pious and vague, the language of the declaration of general intentions, after the list of specific actions, is hardly concrete. Whatever is done will be managed by an ‘Equity Oversight committee’ whose membership has yet to be revealed. It will ‘recommend to the board changes in practices and programming, and grantmaking that can be quickly implemented to better serve poets and audiences in a more equitable manner’. Finally, the board pledged to ‘develop a broad and diverse applicant pool of candidates who share a deep commitment to diversity, equity, and building a culture of inclusion as well as the expansion and enhancement of poetry’ when it begins its search for a new president and board chair.

In all the broad brushing, the actual achievement of Poetry Magazine under its current editor Don Share to represent the widest possible constituency of writers and writing, and to welcome new critical approaches and initiate dialogues, was glossed over. Some of the drafters and signatories of the initial open letter attacking the Foundation had been active with Share in the magazine, as contributors and commentators, and knew that it in no way conformed to their general polemic. One is put in mind of Zarathustra’s, ‘Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful… Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget what they would do if only they had – power.’ Don Share has now announced his intention to stand down.

The Poetry Foundation was established in 2002 after a $200 million donation made by Ruth Lilly, an heir to a fortune built by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, specifically to Poetry Magazine. The Foundation’s guidelines mandate that the organisation never spend more than 5% annually of the total market value of the endowment in a given year.

Derek Walcott Prize · Arrowsmith Press, together with the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and the Derek Walcott Festival in Port-of Spain, Trinidad, announced the short list of the first annual Derek Walcott Prize for a full-length book of poems published in 2019 by a living poet who is not a US citizen:
T.O. Bobe, Curl (Sean Cotter, translator, Wakefield Press, US)
Julia Copus, Girlhood (Faber&Faber, UK)
Douglas Walbourne-Gough, Crow Gulch (Icehouse Poetry­Goose Lane Editions, CA)
Legna Rodriguez Iglesias, A Little Body Are Many Parts (Abigail Parry and Serafina Vick, translators, Bloodaxe, UK)
Adelaide Ivanova, the hammer and other poems (Rachel Long & Francisco Vilhena, translators, Poetry Translation Center, UK)
Nick Laird, Feel Free (Norton, USA)
Ye Lijun, My Mountain Country (Fiona Sze, translator, World Poetry Books, US)
Arvind Kirshna Mehrotra, Selected Poems and Translations (New York Review of Books, US)
Kei Miller, In Nearby Bushes (Carcanet, UK)
Mary Noonan, Stone Girl (Dedalus, Ireland)
Roger Robinson, A Portable Paradise (Peepal Tree, UK)
Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves (Anansi, CA)
Serhiy Zhadan, What We Live For, What We Die For (Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps, translators, Yale University Press, US)

The winner, to be selected by Glyn Maxwell, will be announced in July. The prize includes a $1,000 cash award, along with a reading at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, the publication of a limited-edition broadside by Arrowsmith Press, and a week-long residency at Derek Walcott’s home in either St. Lucia or in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.

Moving Forward · The 2020 Forward Prizes shortlists have been announced. The books in contention for Best Collection are:
Caroline Bird – The Air Year (Carcanet)
Natalie Diaz – Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber & Faber)
Vicki Feaver – I Want! I Want! (Cape Poetry)
David Morley – FURY (Carcanet)
Pascale Petit – Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe Books)

The shortlist for the Felix Dennis Prize for the Best First Collection includes:
Ella Frears – Shine, Darling (Offord Road Books)
Will Harris – RENDANG (Granta Poetry)
Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador)
Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia 木蘭 (Nine Arches)
Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry)

The prize for the best single poem will go to one of the following (PN Review is absent from the list this year):
Fiona Benson – ‘Mama Cockroach, I Love You’ (Poetry London)
Malika Booker – ‘The Little Miracles’ (Magma)
Regi Claire – ‘(Un)certainties’ (Mslexia & PBS Women’s Poetry Competition)
Valzhyna Mort – ‘Nocturne for a Moving Train’ (The Poetry Review)
Sarah Tsiang – ‘Dick pics’ (The Moth)

Pulitzer ·  The 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry has been won by forty-four-year-old Jericho Brown for his collection The Tradition. The Pulitzer Prize awards (now over a century old) took place online on 4 May.

The Tradition offers personal and political dissections of modern terrors including mass shootings and the murder of unarmed citizens by police. His previous collection (2014), The New Testament, explored what it means to be a black gay man living in the United States. In an interview with Dive Dapper in 2016, Brown, who lives with HIV, said, ‘I’m not after a rejection of being a Black gay poet. I’m after understanding what being a Black gay poet might allow me. […] I’m not the only, or the first, Black gay poet, so what does being a Southern-gay-Black-poet allow me? What can that bring forth in my work?

That’s what I’m really interested in seeing.’

The Pulitzer board called Brown’s book ‘a collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.’ The title poem of his prize-winning book explores the presence of trauma as part of an American culture that has ignored evil and learned it cannot change without acknowledging the fact of it and its consequences.

Trinidadian-British poet Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise (which already received the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2019) is only the second book of poems to win the £10k Ondaatje Prize for the best book of any year to evoke ‘the spirit of place’. The award was announced in May.
if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me

Pascale Petit, the prize judge and the only other poetry prize winner, called Robinson’s book ‘healing’ and ‘profoundly moving’; it ‘manages to balance anger and love, rage and craft’.

In May it was announced that the Egyptian poet Rabha Ashry had been awarded the 2020 Brunel International African Poetry Prize worth £3,000. Ashry lives in Chicago and writes about exile, the African diaspora, and the challenge of living between languages. She is the second Egyptian writer to win the prize. A New York University Abu Dhabi graduate, Ashry recently completed an MFA in Writing at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago.

With more than a thousand entries, this year’s other shortlisted poets were: Akosua Afiriyie-Hwedie, from Zambia, Ghana and Botswana, Nigeria’s Inua Ellams, Amanda Holiday from Sierra Leone, Nour Kamel from Egypt and Saradha Soobrayen from Mauritius.

When Professor Bernadine Evaristo started the Prize in 2012, African poetry was almost invisible. Today, many African poets are building successful careers and being heard. Now in its eighth year and sponsored by Brunel University London, this is the largest cash prize for African poetry in the world. It is open to African poets who have not yet published a full collection.

Anne Carson · received in June this year’s major Spanish award, the Premio Princesa de Asturias de las Letras. Her work, now widely translated into Spanish by, among others, Jordi Doce, and the subject of many articles, interviews and imitations, has achieved canonical status and she is seen as a great example and enabler, as well as an eloquent advocate by example of the classics. The citation declares that she has achieved in the various modes of her writing ‘unas cotas de intensidad y solvencia intelectual que la sitúan entre los escritores más destacados del presente. […] Su obra mantiene un compromiso con la emoción y el pensamiento, con el estudio de la tradición y la presencia renovada de las Humanidades como una manera de alcanzar mejor conciencia de nuestro tiempo.’

This item is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

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