Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gotti's Son is a Commie

Gottes Sohn ist kommen
uns allen zu frommen
hier auf dieser Erden
in armen Gebärden,
dass er uns von Sünde
freie und entbinde.
Back in 1980, while I was working on my MFA in creative writing at Brooklyn College, I took a poetry tutorial with John Ashbery. Though I was officially in the fiction writing program, by that time I was writing short prose pieces that straddled the boundaries between short stories and prose poems. John agreed to take me on for a tutorial. In a sense it was an odd pairing of mentor and student. While I admire Ashbery's work, it's also about as different from mine as you can get, often extremely dense and oblique compared to my preferred mode of bare simplicity. Yet we shared a love of many of the same writers, especially the French surrealists and the OuLiPo writers, a number of whom he knew personally.

The tutorials consisted of one-on-one meetings for a half hour every other week throughout the semester. I'd bring John works in progress for critique, and his suggestions were always most astute. One of the greatest compliments I've ever received as a writer was when he told me my short prose series "Bagatelles" was "frighteningly simple." He'd also suggest writers I should become familiar with, and the works he suggested were always compelling.

But in addition to critiquing the work I was generating on my own he also gave assignments. He's a big fan of fixed forms, and I wrote several pantoums under his tutelage. I also wrote a piece based on an Italian rebus. Another favorite assignment of his was to have his students write pseudo-translations of poems from languages they didn't know, a kind of surrealist exercise. I remember he once gave me a section of the Finnish Kalevala to work with.

I haven't worked with this last method for many years, but I decided to try it with an old German hymn (above), words by Johann Roh. Here's my version:

Gotti's son is a commie
and Allen's his foreman,
hair of diesel earth
in Armen's garden.
This is one fun Sunday:
fried and in bondage.


Anonymous James said...

Brooklyn College - Boylan Hall (west wing) 4th floor studios, common area (a.k.a granny's room).
Below is a tentative list of topics to be discussed. Following each
topic student request/concerns will be discussed. Bring your
questions, comments, concerns or email them to us in advance.

9:30 AM  

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