Judith Johnson on "Writing and the Sense of Community":
The idea that writing is a solitary act of self-expression does not reflect my experience of writing, or of my own relationship to my community. Self-expression is certainly unavoidable, but not a useful primary goal. The self is the least interesting of the things art embodies, and this embodiment is less an act of expression, of pressing outward, than it is an act of inwardness, of registering, of careful attention. By emptying oneself of ego, of preconceptions, of the already known and experienced, one creates a space through which poetry, experience, life, may make its own way.
. . . All writers need this sense of community, so we do not get arrogant and distant and full of ourselves. The single most important thing any teacher of writing can do is to keep students firmly focused on their initial community as constituted by themselves, and their obligation, therefore, to learn from and nurture each other. The rest is technique, and it can be learned, but the sense of community is a central spiritual necessity.
Letter to Judy from Colorado Springs
by George Kalamaras
This is the city of Nikola Tesla—how all that electricity could have been here and ignored. Buried in shafts. Released. I could spend lifetimes and never understand how a person could kill, claiming God, from lightning strikes on Pikes Peak to radium in the healing waters of Colorado and Manitou Springs. I hate the hotels. The bagels are boring. Part of me would rather giveth my human fur unto the muleskinners and the traps. Let me thank you, my darling, for the birds of prey overhead, for the hawk you sent decades before, keening through my gut. You called it by baby bird names. You called it Whitman and salt. Bachelard and phosphorous. Even Marie Ponsot and a cure for consumption. I never breathed so well as I do now. I never knew you in Belgium. Nor the uranium implanted in your once-twenty-eight-year-old throat. I never knew how in almost dying you could so clearly reach twenty years ahead into my grief. When they eat dirt, I understand earthworms are not merely feeding but are also digging a burrow. I could have spent decades longer as a hermit, before meeting you, content to carry a hut in my throat-latch thatch, and Whitman would have never discovered the line’s great ache, the dislocation of Long Island gnats in Conestogas in the Missouri Breaks. Was it you or Bachelard who slept all those years in the same bed with his idiot brother? How can I sleep with myself and allow my invisible woman body to make me more of a man? What can I finally bring you? Gift you? How shall I tell? When do we love without love? The death of the mother-mouth is all it takes for a rain curtain to fall, fiercely from the West. It is necessary, it is written, to be necessary. Given the expression of the thin-gummed man, there is so much we continue to hide. You once wrote of a great angry owl in search of its kill. You visited this place years before, though it was Aspen, writing poems with Paul Blackburn and becoming more of the world. There are cities of mathematics and cities of sleep. A poetics of generosity. What happens to the soul when the breath breaks apart into phosphorus and zinc? Mine tailings of raw religion have claimed this place from generations of Cheyenne. Have stripped it in a frightenly ancient way—fish by fish, fossil by fossil—from there to here. The imprint of the shy octopus in the rock can still bite—mixing poison in its saliva—and pull one’s diving mask off, dragging something almost human to the bottom of even these mountains. Oceans of prairie grass not that far east are not a cliché when one speaks of even one bone of the buffalo dead. Yes, I say buffalo, not bison. It is sometimes good to not be too precise. For the gush of gold, Judy. For the pour of ore that—with the Silver Bill Repeal—ached this place. For the sake of something more. We prayeth this city of Tesla, complete, return us unto the pores of the tongue—divine and electric, replete.
(for Judith Johnson)
About Judith Johnson:
Judith E. Johnson (formerly, Johnson Sherwin), poet, fiction-writer, performance artist, and editor, is the author of eight poetry books, including Cities of Mathematics and Desire and The Ice Lizard (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005 and 1992). Her widely exhibited inter-media installation, "Friedrich Liebermann, American Artist," is forthcoming as a digital novel. Former President both of the Board of Associated Writing Programs, and of the Poetry Society of America, she is editor of 13th Moon Press, which publishes 13th Moon: A Feminist Literary Magazine, The Little Magazine, and starting in 2008, poetry, fiction and children’s books. Between 1955 and 1985, she published under her married name, Judith Johnson Sherwin. Now retired, she is Professor Emerita of English and Women’s Studies at the State University of New York at Albany. (Bio from Poets & Writers)
About George Kalamaras:
George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.
Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.
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Read George Kalamaras's previous letters to:
- John Haines
- Dan Gerber
- Li Ch'ing-chao
- Dick Hugo, February, 2018, and also in 2014.
- Federico García Lorca
- Bill Tremblay
- Gerrit Lansing
Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own.
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Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email email@example.com for more information.