Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Interview with Poet Linda Pastan

This installment of Advice for Writers is an interview with one of my favorite poets, Linda Pastan. Linda Pastan's many awards include the Maurice English Award, the Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumni Award, and the 2003 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The former poet laureate of Maryland, she is the author of fourteen books of poetry—the latest of which, Insomnia, won the Towson University Prize for Literature.

Q.: Who were your teachers, mentors, or role models? What were the most useful or lasting lessons you learned from them?

Linda Pastan: My only teachers, mentors, and role models were the poets I read in books. As an only child growing up in New York City, I lived far from my school in a kind of isolation, books were my company, and luckily my parents had an extensive library. (I did work for one semester, in graduate school, with the poet J.V. Cunningham.  It was a one-on-one “class” during which he assigned me various forms, and so I learned the rules before learning to break them.) The lasting lesson I learned from reading Dickinson, Keats, Auden, et al., was to be unsatisfied with what I was writing; to try and try harder!!


Linda Pastan

Q. How has the situation of women poets changed since you began writing seriously in the 1960s?


LP: When I first started sending poems out to magazines, I considered using initials so that the editors wouldn’t know I was a woman. Women were not published nearly as much, and they were hardly reviewed at all. That has certainly changed. On the other hand it still seems to be the case that when male poets write about domestic things—marriage, children, etc.—they receive serious praise, but women poets writing on the same subject are more often condescended to.


Q. Do you enjoy reading your poems to an audience? What is the difference for you between publishing your poems and reading them out loud to people?


LP: To me, the poem on the page is what matters most. Some poets read their work out loud well. Others, T.S. Eliot, for example, read them terribly. It doesn’t really matter to me. But I do enjoy reading to an audience. It helps me to realize that there are real people out there, actually reading my work.


Q. You’ve written a lot about families, marriage, and parenthood. How do you approach writing about topics that are so familiar and close to home that it’s hard to get distance on them?   


LP: I don’t think a poet should aim for achieving distance from a subject. The point is to get up close.


Linda Pastan’s most recent book of poems is Insomnia


Q. Do you see yourself as a Jewish writer? How does Jewish tradition and/or Jewish literary tradition shape your work and your voice as a writer? 


LP: I am Jewish, and I am a writer. And I do use Jewish imagery in many of my poems, imagery I learned from Orthodox grandparents. And I love writing on Biblical subjects, particularly  the book of Genesis. But I don’t consider myself a “Jewish Writer,” just a writer who happens to be Jewish.


Q. When you compiled your book Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, did you rewrite any of the earlier poems? If so, what were you looking to change or improve? 


LP: I think it was Auden who said poems are never finished, merely abandoned. I keep making small revisions on poems, even after they have been published in magazines and then books. And I am still making changes to various poems in the margins of my copy of Carnival Evening.


More information on Linda Pastan's most recent book of poems, Insomnia.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe


Other posts on writing topics:


How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, January 1, 2021

Why Our Political Life Needs Inspiring and Memorable Language

There was a time when the political life of the United States of America featured stirring and memorable language. The ideas in that language inspired people not just for a particular news cycle, but for the lifetime of our republic. Sadly, the era of uplifting and memorable political discourse seems to have passed, at least for the present.


Martin Luther King Jr.’s “How Long?” speech in Montgomery, Alabama; March 25, 1965


The lack of moving and unforgettable language has left a void that has made our democracy weaker. We are now subject to barrages of the most banal social media messaging that stands uncontested by words that hold our hearts and democratic values. We need to rise again to the summit of discourse, to find language that displays the panorama of what we stand for and that energizes people not only in our country, but around the world.

The United States was born with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. That document included language that has resonated throughout history:

    We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The idea that people have freedom and happiness as birthrights was revolutionary in the 18th century, when divine-right monarchies still held sway almost everywhere. The Declaration of Independence inspired people to risk life and limb for self-determination, and to take on the world's greatest superpower at the time. Those ideals continue to vibrate today.

When the United States was split apart by the Civil War, the greatest test of our history, Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg on the battlefield where only a few months before soldiers had offered their lives for the Union. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address of only 271 words concludes:

    …we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 

Lincoln's emotional speech stands in bold contrast to the long, shopping-list discourses of today that try to touch on every political issue and appeal to every possible constituent. 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches during the civil rights movement also had the ability to motivate people to take action based on the highest ideals. When the marchers who were beaten in Selma, Alabama, finally arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery, Dr. King said in his “Our God Is Marching On” speech:

    I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody's asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?…How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

We need speeches like that again from our progressive leaders, speeches that sanctify our ideals in ways that are unforgettable and make us pull back the tears. Without speeches that can serve as lighthouse beams to guide us, our political discourse gets sucked into the whirlpools of social media. 






Monday, November 16, 2020

Interview with Poet Kip Zegers

For this blog, I interviewed the poet Kip Zegers, whose new book, A Room in the House of Time, was recently published by Dos Madres Press. I first got to know Kip when he was the coordinator of the Park Slope Food Coop in the late 1970s. Later we helped start a writing group together, the Slow Motion Poetry Collective. I’ve always found Kip’s thoughts eye-opening. 

Kip Zegers

Q. What craft issues do you feel you are still learning about as a poet? How do poets continue to polish their craft once they find a style that feels natural and authentic?
 
Kip Zegers: My sense is that techniques are what we figure out in order to write the next poem. After we have read a fair amount, and written, there are ways of going forward that we figure out to solve a problem. Some of these come from reading, others rise from the moment that drove us to work. One morning I was writing in my journal, and was holding a book in my other hand as I worked. Then I looked at what I was doing. I thought, Why am I holding Frank O’Hara in my otherwise empty hand? On that day, it was obvious that I had a question to answer and the style of that poem was new to me, as part of a brand new question. The poem turned out to be the final poem in A Room in the House of Time, and the book ends with O’Hara saying, “from here you find your own way home.” 



Q. You write movingly about your childhood and your family in A Room in the House of Time. It seems there were many silences in your family, going back generations. How do you use words to write about an absence of words, and how did that feel as a writer and family member to touch some of those previously unspoken stories? 

KZ: I began, in the 1970s, with family and neighborhood. There is a way that our lives spiral up and we see, climbing, or aging, the same material from a new angle. A line from a poem in this book imagines my parents, somewhere out of  time, having once more been the material for poetry. After my father says, “‘Is he finished with us, at last?’ She answers, ‘Still so wordy, such a talker,’ and now I see them sleeping, at rest.” These lines could not have come forth 10, 20, or 30 years ago. The poem seems to have let the parents go, and those last lines were a great pleasure to discover. But it turns out I was not finished, and now I have a new poem imagining my father in heaven. So to write about quiet folks, write about what they did, then find that there are after all a few quotes that come back to you, and finally, invent what you need to find out about. I learned that last from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior

As to how it feels to write of this, I think of a line from George Oppen, whenever the mind rises even a little it is flooded with happiness. (I don’t know where those words are to be found; I live with them as true.) 

Q. Many of these poems evoke an older generation that has passed away. What can writers learn about their families and themselves by talking about elders who are already beyond hearing the author’s words?

KZ: If we are  not writing what we already know, if we are working with valid material, we may learn a long-elusive truth. And Emerson says in his essay “The Poet,” “Genius is the activity which repairs the decay of things.” I like that he is not talking about “a genius,” he is talking about such repair as part of an action, the action is genius. My first published poem, 1975, was about my uncle Aaron, family dentist who would not use Novocain, it was about trauma. I was stepping out of being the victim, and there was my own poem standing with Marge Piercy and Lucien Stryk in a magazine called New American and Canadian Poetry. One learns to be among the dead, to see the real shadows they cast, and be alive. I learned that I had an uncle who was both deeply flawed and a good man. 

Q. Some of the poems in your book deal with the current of emotions under the surface of the everyday, such as the poem “Daily.” Since there is a quality of sameness about everyday life, how do you as a poet make daily life resonate? How do you choose which details to highlight?

KZ: My own notion is that one does not choose details, one distrusts the abstract and goes on one’s nerve, as Frank O’Hara advised. “Daily” imagines a day in the life of my wife, who is a doctor/researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. I was here on the porch while she was getting started for the day, something made me listen to the sounds from two rooms away, and I just began. Somewhere along the way I thought of praise, of the house and its things helping: “Home she finds / rice and chicken waiting, warming / as best they can.” Then I thought, all that is here is alive. My memory of this is that once I got the notion of praise, I had the details, they rose up, but lines like “as best they can,” or “when she leaves the garage closes its one eye / and waits,” are both false as realism and true to what I feel about her presence in our place. In this case, and often, choosing was not the issue: paying attention is what matters, and the poem became a gift to work with. However, I believe that if I invented the details the poem would have been false. 

Q. Some of the most moving poems in your collection relate to your career as a teacher of high school English and creative writing at Hunter College High School in New York City, where you were on the faculty for 33 years. How did your teaching deepen and provide material for your own writing? 

KZ: I have always been interested in daily life, in the ordinary, for if we want folks to love poetry, it helps if poetry loves them. The hard part is to get past copying, or as William Carlos Williams put it, “Plagiarizing nature,” to seeing, to perceiving.

What I care about in the work of Thoreau is the unity in his life, the staying home because home is the true place, and his endless desire to know. You can learn in a place where you belong. 

Once I’d been teaching for a while, I made a poem about that work, that grew into work about life in that building, and both in New York City. I have a full length book, The Pond in Room 318, that explores this work. The poems of school went from portraits, to poems of place, to poems of deeper questions. As I did my teaching. I like to think that the poems and my teaching grew up together. They went from Wow, these kids, to These kids in New York, to Look what we are doing here! There is a piece in this book titled “Up,” which remembers a girl creating out of math anxiety, and the words of a boy writing about his weird family and his weird life as a middling student. What still moves me is the words, “these / of those who stood inside the difficult / and spoke.” “alchemists for real / making precious from the raw.” I was lucky to have a job to grow in; it might be that one's own growth makes new possibility for the kids. I was fortunate in meeting kids who stood up inside the difficult.  But maybe not. 

My bedrock is best expressed by George Oppen in his long poem, “Route” part 2: “There is a force of clarity, it is / Of what is not autonomous in us,” the idea that we are each part of all, that part of us and part of things (here of certain kids) connect. I did not really know the secret lives of kids, I did know our connection.

Much of who we are is autonomous, our fears and neuroses, but part of us is also warm and alive and connects. I like best the phrase of the philosopher Jacques Maritain, we have an “Illuminating intelligence,” a kind of intuition that makes it possible to connect to the things of our world. 

Kip Zegers is from Chicago, educated in Catholic schools, and later at John Carroll University, Northwestern University, Union Theological Seminary (he dropped out to be a conscientious  objector), and Hunter College (teacher training). Zegers has published numerous chapbooks and full-length poetry books, the last three from Dos Madres Press: The Poet of Schools, The Pond in Room 318, and A Room in the House of Time.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe


Other posts on writing topics:


How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Writing Great Titles for Your Poems, Part 2: The Title as an Invitation to the Reader

I recently picked up a book by Chana Bloch, a poet who is particularly good at writing titles for her poems. Chana was the one who suggested the title of my book The Number Before Infinity. For one of her own poetry collections, she came up with one of the best titles I know, The Past Keeps Changing, almost a Zen koan.


Chana Bloch (1940–2017)
Chana Bloch,1940–2017. (photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell)

Just looking randomly over the table of contents of Chana Bloch’s collection Blood Honey, I spot a number of poem titles that grab my attention. The first one that arrests me is “The Messiah of Harvard Square.” In this title, she mixes the mundane with the spiritual in a way that intrigues me. Who is this Messiah of Harvard Square? I want to know.

 

Chana also has a poem in this book called “The Discipline of Marriage.” Again, a bit of a paradox. We don’t often think of marriage as being a discipline, but that’s what’s intriguing about the title. How is marriage a discipline, and what can I learn about relationships from this viewpoint?

 

Another title I like in this collection is “Wild Honey.” Anytime you have the word wild in a title, it piques my interest, and honey is something sweet and delicious, so the combination is irresistible. There is also a one-word title that makes me want to read on, “Blue.” Since we all feel blue from time to time, that title welcomes us into the poem. In a similar vein, there’s a poem in this collection called “The Naked Future.” Now that, I really want to know more about.

 

In short, Chana Bloch’s titles often beckon the reader to learn more, to unravel a paradox, or to explore a complex situation—all good ways of buttonholing readers and getting them to look deeper.

 

I picked up another poetry collection to see what titles made me want to read the poems, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968–1998 by Linda Pastan


Linda Pastan (photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell)

Linda’s titles often make me eager to find out what comes next, either because they suggest interesting puzzles or the revelation of secrets, or they present a conundrum. Here are a few I really like:

 

“The Obligation to Be Happy”

“RSVP Regrets Only”

“There Is a Figure in Every Landscape”

“You Are Odysseus”

“It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank”

“25th High School Reunion”

“Who Is It Accuses Us?”

“Routine Mammogram”

“The Myth of Perfectability”

“The Apple Shrine”

 

Do you see what I mean? Each of these titles poses a question of a sort. The reader is engaged, wanting to find something out. What happened at her 25th high school reunion? Was she pleased, disappointed, depressed, embarrassed, refreshed, seduced? Was the mammogram really routine? What the heck is the myth of perfectability?

Chana Bloch and Linda Pastan demonstrate that a poem title can do so much for a poem. A poem title is almost like a trailer for a movie. It should whet your appetite, and get you to want more.


Writing Great Titles for Your Poems, Part 1


Zack’s most recent book of poems, 
Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe


Other posts on writing topics:


How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, July 31, 2020

Writing Great Titles for Your Poems, Part 1: Interview with Robert Hershon

For many poets, a title is a necessary evil, a part of the work that the writer would rather not bother with. After all, the substance of the poem is in the body of the poem, right? What’s to be gained by adding some frilly header that repeats what’s already in the poem, or that only relates obliquely to the rest of the text?

 

But titles can play an important role in bringing the reader into the poem. I enjoy the titles that the poet Robert (“Bob”) Hershon gives his poems, so I interviewed Bob recently about his ideas on titles.


Poet Robert "Bob" Hershon

Q. Do you like to title your poems?

 

Bob Hershon: I do. One thing I like about a title is that it can do the work of several lines in the poem that you can then omit. A good title eliminates the need for that “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” type of filler.

 

Q. What’s your advice for writing a good poem title?

 

BH: Something that speaks to the poem without summing it up. I’m partial to “No poetry but in things,” to paraphrase William Carlos Williams. Your title should stand out, it shouldn’t sound like everybody else’s titles.

 

Q. What do you think about poems that don’t have titles?

 

BH: When I see a poem that’s just called “Untitled,” it seems like an opportunity lost. Many poets, including writers I’ve published and whose work I like, don’t use any title at all. In that case, it’s hard to identify the poem. For all practical purposes, the first line then becomes the title.

 

Q. What do you think of simple titles or one-word titles?

 

BH: I think a title should be fun. I know that many poets I admire and like personally take a different approach and use simple, generic-sounding titles. They’re entitled to their titles.

 

Q. Are there kinds of titles you just plain don’t like?

 

BH: There’s something terribly ostentatious to me about calling a poem just “Poem.” I also don’t particularly like a title with a “This and That” structure, such as “Truisms and Inconsistencies.” That particular construction annoys me, for some reason.

 

Q. What’s a recent title you’ve written for one of your poems, and how did you arrive at it?

 

BH: Recently I wrote a poem about the brain’s inability to forget old song lyrics. Initially I had a kind of flat title for it. This morning I woke up with a different title for it in my head, “An Old Cowboy Went Riding Out One Dark and Windy Day.” Some people might recognize that as a line from the old pop song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” But even if you don’t recognize it, the title works on its own in a different way. Adding that title allowed me to cut a line or two from the middle and tighten the poem up.


Robert Hershon’s most recent book of poems is End of the Business Day. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He was executive director of The Print Center for 35 years and has been coeditor of Hanging Loose Press since its founding in 1966. Among his awards are two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Writing Great Titles for Your Poems, Part 2


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe


Other posts on writing topics:


How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, July 10, 2020

Does a Poem Have to Stand on Its Own?

An intriguing question came up in my poetry writing group the other day. One of the poets brought in a poem that had exciting language, and seemed to be about a fascinating topic. But no one in the group could quite figure out the general subject of the poem. Once the poet clued us in about the theme of the poem, all the pieces fell beautifully into place, and we could see how strong a poem it was.

The writer said that the poem made sense in the context of a collection in progress, where several of the poems that come before this one are about the same topic. The poet asked, “Should a poem be able to stand on its own?”

Great question! Thinking about it, I realize that we usually encounter poems differently now than we did before the Internet became the dominant source of information. In a collection of poems by the same writer, there are many opportunities for a poem to rely on the works around it for context and support of its meaning.

Books of poems where individual poems are just part of the volume or part of a series within a collection were once not unusual, such as William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, or John Berryman’s The Dream Songs

Handwritten manuscript of Wordsworth's The Prelude
Few of the poems of those books make a lot of sense when you read them individually, with no idea of the project of the entire collection, but taken together, each poem is understandable. Well, fairly understandable, in the case of Pound or Berryman!

But how often do we now read an entire collection assembled by the same writer? Usually, we read poems online, in literary magazines online or in print, or in anthologies, where poems are rarely in the setting of several other related poems by the same writer.

These days, authors are lucky if one to three hundred readers pick up an entire collection of their poems. Much more frequently, our poems are encountered one webpage at a time, experienced separately by a reader. This is one huge advantage that poetry has over other literary genres, such as fiction or drama—most poems can fit easily on a webpage. Why give up that advantage by requiring more context to understand a poem?

So my personal answer to the question, “Does a poem have to stand alone?” is an unequivocal Yes, especially in the era of the Internet.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Hubs of Creativity: Why Do Certain Places at Certain Times Become Artistic Centers?

In the history of literature, visual art, and music, there are times when an extraordinary group of artists gathers in one specific place and time, seemingly defying the odds. I’m thinking of two examples: Florence, Italy, in the Renaissance; and Detroit USA during the heyday of Motown Records in the 1960s.

Given that “talent is widespread,” as the writer Ishmael Reed once said, it’s surprising that large circles of great artists seem to spring up in particular places and times but not in others. Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance, had a population of roughly 60,000, about the same as the current census in Bismarck, North Dakota, or Terre Haute, Indiana—not exactly known as artistic hotspots.  How is it possible that a city of that size could produce a roster of great artists too lengthy to even list here, including Michelangelo, da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Donatello, Fra Filippo Lippi, etc., etc.?

The Piazza della Signoria, Florence’s central square
Similarly, Detroit in the 1960s gave rise to so many of the greatest artists in the history of rhythm and blues, including all of The Four Tops, The Temptations, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and all the Miracles, etc., etc.

All of Motown’s hit records were made in a recording studio in the garage of a house in Detroit
In literature, these hubs have also occurred at various times and places, including the Romantic poets in England in the early 1800s, the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, the Beat Generation in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s. Why does a particular place and time spawn so many major artists, and other times not, even in the same location?

I think part of the magic formula is that a community of artists is willing to shape work to make it accessible to a large audience, and that their work meets a particular need at a particular time. At the other end of the equation, there have to be people who appreciate and support a specific art at a given time.

Florence during the Renaissance was a global center of finance and trade. Families such as the Medici built powerful banking empires. But not every banking empire has spawned painting, sculpture, and architecture like the Medici did in the Renaissance. After the otherworldly focus of much medieval visual art, there was also a collective need in the late 1400s for a culture that celebrated worldly beauty. To quote a renowned poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici himself:

Chi vuol esser lieto, sia
di doman non c'è certezza.

He who would be happy, let him be,
Of tomorrow there’s no certainty.

The artists of the Italian Renaissance were incredibly good at creating beauty that built upon the Catholic tradition but also championed the sensual in everyday life. Think of Botticelli’s Primavera or The Birth of Venus, or Michelangelo’s nudes.


Michelangelo, Dusk and Dawn from the Medici Chapel, Florence
Artists of the Italian Renaissance also worked to make their art accessible to the public, creating sculptures for urban piazzas, and painting frescoes in churches. Art became part of the public identity of the Florentine people. I remember visiting Florence when I was in a pre-teen in the 1960s and learning about a nursery rhyme that children recited in the city, attributed to Michelangelo. The rhyme makes fun of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati because his Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria was not as well carved as the adjacent David

Ammannati’s statue of Neptune, Florence, Italy
The rhyme went like this: “Ammannati, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato!” “Ammannati, Ammannato, what a beautiful piece of marble you ruined!” Art became part of the fabric of life in Florence, a source of civic pride and enjoyment for every inhabitant.

Similarly in Detroit in the Motown era, there was both a willingness on the part of artists to address a public hunger, and a supportive audience. The rhythm ‘n’ blues of the 1960s followed the period of the 1950s when convention and traditional values tried to suppress the pleasures of sensuality and passion. It was a time when couples were almost never portrayed as even sharing the same bed in movies and television. The audience for popular music was eager for an affirmation of love, energy, and passion, and the artists of Motown were ready to provide “Dancin’ in the Streets,” a hit song by Martha and the Vandellas.


Barry Gordy Jr., the entrepreneur behind Motown Records, was also a genius at recognizing and promoting talent. He was particularly savvy about what it would take to get people outside African American communities to accept the energy and sensuality of that music. Gordy hired Maxine Powell, who had a finishing school for fashion models in Detroit, to guide Motown performers on how to walk, talk, and dress so that they would make a winning impression when performing or giving interviews.

So, in both Renaissance Florence and Detroit in the 1960s, there was a marriage of artists willing to make their work accessible to a wide audience, and an audience that was thirsting for culture to give them permission to enjoy facets of experience that had been repressed.

I realize I’m leaving out something extremely important. Florence in the late 1400s and early 1500s was heir to an artistic tradition stretching back hundreds of years. The city had been a center for art dating back to the great Byzantine paintings of Cimabue in the duocento (1200s of the Common Era). Detroit music of the 1960s also drew heavily on centuries of civilization, building on the legacy of African and African American culture that can be traced back to the sacred rituals of Yoruba and Ibo religion of West Africa. Hubs of culture don’t appear in a vacuum.

But for many great artists to flourish in a particular place and time, there does have to be that particular match and tinder of the artists’ willingness to bring their work to a wide audience, and a moment in history when the audience thirsts for art to meet a fundamental human need.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

The Motown Last Dollar Choice and What It Means for Writers
How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry