Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mark Statman on how Kenneth Koch continues to teach

Mark Statman, who published his first collection of poems, Tourist at a Miracle, in 2010, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with a memoir of friend, mentor, and father-in-law Kenneth Koch.
Kenneth’s Death
he’s dead and
I still don’t believe:
years later
I’m walking someplace
and I’ll think
this is something
I’ll tell him
when he gets back
when he gets back 
as though where Kenneth’s gone
is simply too far away
to telephone or
send a postcard
which is why we haven’t heard
for so long
from a man who couldn’t stand
not to be in touch 
when he gets back
we’ll be up
half the night
a good bottle of wine
recommended by Sharon
at the liquor store
maybe even one of those
Cuban cigars he’d
stopped smoking
we’ll be up half the night
and Kenneth won’t
get in
a word


from Tourist at a Miracle (Hanging Loose Press, 2010). Used with permission.
I first met Kenneth before I met Kenneth. That is, I was a sophomore at Columbia and the mystery surrounding Kenneth’s by then legendary Imaginative Writing class was palpable. Twelve students allowed based on a portfolio submission. I knew others who had taken the course and they looked at me with some sympathy. They knew my poetry. It was too West Coast. Too Gary Snyder. Or, in the words of one good friend, “a bad version of Louise Varèse’s translation of Rimbaud.”
But I wanted this class. At least I thought I did. So I gathered what I thought were the least Beat, the least Snyder, the least Varèse/Rimbaud and turned them in. And the list was announced. The top twelve. All wonderful poets. But not me. I was number thirteen. 
Except, to my good fortune, one of the twelve, inexplicably, discovered a conflict in his schedule. He wouldn’t take the class. Or he would. Wouldn’t. Or. Or. Or. Finally he decided he wouldn’t. So there I was, number thirteen become number twelve. I was in. And what an education. Reading Williams and Stevens, Hemingway and Stein. And Kenneth’s scribbled notes: “Okay, but why?” “Yes, this will work.” And Kenneth’s enthusiasm. His love for teaching poetry. Of course, he was late to almost every class, saying in that light stutter, “I’ll try not to let it happen again.” But it was easy to figure out why—when it was a good class, he simply held us over—who would want to leave? 
I studied with Kenneth some more. I remember in his Form in Poetry class, Kenneth felt we weren’t getting it. He jumped on the giant conference table around which we all sat. He insisted I jump on the table with him. We read from The Tempest, Kenneth declaiming, me whispering. We got it. This was dramatic verse. This was spoken word before spoken word. This was poetry. 
Kenneth and I grew closer. At a reading he gave with Ron Padgett my senior year he turned to me and introduced a young woman: “This is my daughter, Katherine.” It wouldn’t be for another year when, as assistant to the Artistic Director at the New York Art Theater Institute, that I grew to know Katherine’s paintings. I loved them. We became friends. She came to poetry readings I was giving. Eventually we fell in love. 
And life got interesting. Kenneth was moving from teacher to mentor, older poet to my younger. Now he was to become father-in-law. And over the years, friend. One of my closest. I would show him poems and he would talk to me with honesty, compassion, respect. When I finished writing the manuscript for my first book, Listener in the Snow: The Practice and Teaching of Poetry, I remember vividly the day he read it. I was out at his house in Bridgehampton, swinging in a hammock Katherine and I had bought in the Yucatan years before. Kenneth came over with a funny look on his face, one I don’t think I had ever seen. He said, “I’d like to write the preface for this book.” 
I was stunned. Stumped. For almost two decades of marriage, I had tried to keep my writing relationship separate from our personal relationship. Of course we would have the most passionate debates at dinner, sometimes causing everyone else to leave the table as we went at each other about poetry, fiction, whatever. 
But this was different. I called Ron Padgett who, along with Chris Edgar, was my editor on the book. I asked him what I ought to do. I told him I thought it seemed strange. Ron asked me if I was out of my mind. If Kenneth Koch wanted to write a preface, I was crazy to say no. And Kenneth went on to write a line I value so much: “The teaching of writing may never be the same again.” 
Kenneth influenced me in so many ways. As a poet, he taught me about hard work. That the first and fourth and fifth drafts were only the beginning. That every word mattered and that it was the poet’s responsibility to make sure the reader knew why. Once he said to me, “My problem isn’t writing good poems, it’s writing great poems.” At first I thought that was arrogance. Then I realized how true it was. How easily he could write the wonderful occasional poem—birthday, anniversary, whatever. How he could just flat out write something witty and charming. But the great poems, starting with the second “Circus” and continuing with “Some General Instructions,” “To Marina,” “One Train May Hide Another,” to the poems of New Addresses (how incomplete and inadequate this list feels, and how great at the same time)—these were the poems of a master. 
I miss Kenneth. I still speak with him almost everyday. Of course he fills my teaching. He fills my writing. He tells me when I’m sloppy. Lazy. I wish he’d been alive to see the Lorca book I did with Pablo Medina. To see Tourist at a Miracle. To see Black Tulips, the new book of selected poems of José María Hinajosa coming out this fall. 
One of my students, commenting on the wonderful reading this past March hosted by Charles North at Pace University to celebrate Kenneth—the readers included Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, Anne Waldman, Jim Jarmusch, Tony Towle, Siri Hustvedt, Jordan Davis, myself—noted that, ten years after his death, she felt she too was a student of Kenneth’s. 
And in so many ways, since so many of us still are, she is. 
John Ashbery hailed Poet in New York: A Bilingual Edition (2007), the translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s watershed work by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman, as “the definitive version of Lorca’s masterpiece, in language that is as alive and molten today as was the original.” “Statman has translated Lorca brilliantly,” Joseph Lease writes, “and [in Tourist at a Miracle] he gives us a version of New York that Lorca would recognize and welcome. This book is a delight.” Statman’s other works include two collections of essays about teaching writing: Listener in the Snow: The Practice and Teaching of Poetry (2000) and The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing (with Christian McEwen, 2000). He is an associate professor of Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College of the New School and also taught for many years for Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Also of interest: 


Related LOA works: Kenneth Koch: Selected Poems; American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse (includes two poems by Kenneth Koch); Poets of World War II (includes two poems by Kenneth Koch)

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