Nathaniel Mackey: Black breath matters

African American poet, essayist and academic Nathaniel Mackey gave us an extended consideration of breath—in poetry, music and black life

Gregg Popovich, the best and most innovative coach in professional basketball, responded physically to the election of Donald Trump. It made him “sick to my stomach,” he told NBA beat reporters before the Spurs played on Friday.

He wasn’t alone. The election took a physical toll, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, sometimes attacking the gastrointestinal apparatus and sometimes the nervous system. Or maybe your windpipe became scratchy and your chest constricted with the enormous weight of the political events, compressing your lung and interfering with your respiration.

Maybe you couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said it 11 times, face down on the sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as a New York City policeman applied a chokehold to his neck. Then he passed out, and neither the gathered squad of policemen nor the EMTs who responded to the call attempted to revive him. The cause of his death, according to the medical examiner: “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner couldn’t breathe.

Poet/academic/music writer Nathaniel Mackey mentioned Eric Garner several times at Reed College this week, both in his poetry reading Thursday night and his lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Friday, a talk that linked the advanced jazz explorations of black jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s—Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell—to experimental poetry at the same time, to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, among others. Maybe the common theme of lecture and poems was simply that Black breath matters, a phrase Mackey used.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

The common language the poets and musicians of the ’50s shared, the common physical link, involved breath. Ginsberg famously organized “Howl” with the idea of breath: “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit,” he said. “My breath is long—that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” As Mackey pointed out, it doesn’t quite work out the way in practice, neither with Ginsberg nor with Olson, here in his 1950 essay, “Projective Verse.”

“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Breath is funny. I can control my breath to a certain extent. I can huff and puff until I make myself light-headed, for example, or slow my respiratory process to a level barely perceptible. But then, most of the time, I am breathing without thinking about it at all, autonomically, firing up under stress and damping down during rest. I like the effort to connect creation (in Olson and Ginsberg’s case, poetry) to breath, both to acknowledge its importance and to employ it consciously. I do have to say that it seems…abstract. Idealized. Theorized. Both Olson and Ginsberg would have hated that characterization, because they were so interested in linking mind and body, maybe even to argue the primacy of body.


Places of enchantment, page to stage

How I watched my novel "The Enchanted" become a play in Edinburgh, and what the theater has taught me as a writer


A few weeks ago I was sitting front row at a stage in Edinburgh, Scotland. The lights were dimmed.

I was remembering a day several years before.

It had been a bright spring day, and I remembered walking out of the death row prison where I work, trying to save men from execution. My car keys were in my hand, rustling. I felt the fetid air lift off my skin.

I had passed under the high, stained gothic walls, the guards at the towers with guns resting idly on me. I could hear the prison doors slamming.

And I heard a soft voice, speaking clearly.

“This is an enchanted place,” he said.

I had known right away that this was not an inmate I had met. But he was there, on the dungeon of death row, waiting for me in a cell like the others I knew, and he would tell me a story.

So started the journey into my first novel.

Rene Denfeld in Edinburgh with a puppet from the group Pharmacy's stage adaptation of her novel "The Enchanted."

Rene Denfeld in Edinburgh with a puppet from the group Pharmacy’s stage adaptation of her novel “The Enchanted.”

I went home that night and the poetry began. I wrote and wrote. Over time the narrator became so real I could see him. He would perch next to me in his prison smock, his feet bare, his toenails and fingernails curled into talons from not being allowed scissors or sharp items of any kind. His hair was grey around a caved, toothless face. He looked at me with longing.


Hunter captured by the game

In Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis" at CoHo, Shaking the Tree takes a green look at the thrill of the hunt

It’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and in his time, poetry was considered a noble trade. Shakespeare made his mark there first, and most of us know by memory a few of those famous lines: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In Shakespeare’s century, theater was in large part for the raucous and bawdy, pint-lifting hoi polloi: the commoners. It’s been rumored of late in the papers that the Bard, himself, tried to secure a noble crest for his family, perhaps to hush the naysayers who believed he was little but an upstart with an impressive vocabulary. But, the chalk-complexioned ginger Queen Elizabeth put most of those rumors to rest, and here we are today celebrating his insights on the human condition. It can be argued that despite the success of his politically themed theater, his strongest suit was a deep understanding of the heart.

While we may have plowed his sonnets in our younger years for our own romantic endeavors, it is usually the case that today Shakespeare’s poetry probably isn’t in our stack of books. Shaking the Tree, as part of CoHo’s SummerFest series of short-run shows (this one opened Thursday and closes Sunday)  regrows an appreciation of his other, and perhaps, more personal work by way of a staged version of his brilliant poem Venus and Adonis.

Ridenour and Kerrigan, playing games. Photo: Gary Norman

Ridenour and Kerrigan, playing games. Photo: Gary Norman

Rebecca Ridenour’s goddess, Venus, shimmers in a golden gown, barefoot and with braided hair. She comes in with a case of vanity and the feral, celestial aura of a hunter. What she’s hunting, she’s not sure of, but in most cases it would take a male form. Ridenour is a suppressed volcanic wait of hormones. Here begins the triangle of insight by Ridenour, director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and Matthew Kerrigan as Adonis. All three play with Shakespeare’s mock view of how a petulant female chases a closed-hearted male, but both Venus and Adonis surface in the end as losers in a complicated game.


Poetic justice: Cafe Lena cooks again

On Wednesday, a reunion of the legendary hangout and poetry open-mike space will bring back the good times and rhymes

Well, only metaphorically: the actual cooking’s been history for fifteen years now. But Cafe Lena, the sassy little joint on lower Hawthorne Boulevard where the breakfast and lunch spot Jam is now, was something of a legend in Portland literary circles during its ten-year run that began on April 3, 1991.

“Neither of us had restaurant experience,” recalls poet and memoirist Leanne Grabel, who ran Lena with her husband, poet Steve Sander. “The idea was to do a poetry place. The restaurant aspect was secondary … but the cafe turned out to be a restaurant with three meals a day, an in-house baker, and so on and so forth.” Poetry, though, was Lena’s raison d’être, and especially the open mike, which regularly drew performing poets like Doug Spangle, Marty Christensen, Brian Christopher, Walt Curtis, and of course, the owner/operators.

Cafe Lena was packed and jumping on open-mike nights. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

Cafe Lena was packed and jumping on open-mike nights. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

“I’m sure the open mike started within two weeks of opening,” Grabel recalls. “It lasted the whole 10 years. The first night it was totally packed. I remember I had both my daughters there as I was the employee and Steve was the cook. I remember having to drive around looking for day care, as it was obvious I couldn’t have my daughters with me. It was really busy.”

Words, words, words: you could invent ’em, you could eat ’em, you could rearrange ’em, and for a razzle-dazzle decade, people did. Melissa Sillitoe of Show and Tell Gallery (“Art. Caffeine. Community. Good Times. Beginners Welcome.”) has carried on the poetry open-mike torch with weekly events at Sound Grounds Cafe, 3701 Southeast Belmont Street, and from 6 to 8:30 p.m. this Wednesday, June 22, she’ll be hosting the Cafe Lena Oral History and Reunion. Leanne and Steve will tell their stories, Sillitoe says, and then other people can come up to the mike and tell their own. Let the good times, and the tall tales, roll.

Grabel, Sander, and kids: Lena was a family affair. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

Grabel, Sander, and kids: Lena was a family affair. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

PNCA 2016 Edelman lecture: Life After Death

Portland author Sheila Hamilton speaks on destigmatizing mental illness


Editor’s note: On May 10, Emmy-award winning journalist Sheila Hamilton will deliver the 2016 Edelman Lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art“Destigmatizing Mental Illness.” Hamilton, whose 2015 memoir All the Things We Never Knew recounts her being blindsided by her husband’s bipolar disorder and suicide, will speak about her personal experience with mental illness and advocate for a more holistic approach to mental health. 

After the talk, musician and activist Logan Lynn and Jennifer Pepin, whose J. Pepin Art Gallery works to reframe the perception of mental illness, join Hamilton in a discussion moderated by Benedict Carey, science reporter for The New York Times, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

Hamilton hosts the KINK morning show in Portland and serves on the boards of Girls Inc. and The Flawless Foundation. This excerpt, from chapter 24 of her memoir, is used by permission of Seal Press/Perseus Books.

I took a big breath, steadied myself, and began, “Deepak Chopra joins us this morning on Speaking Freely; his newest book is called Life After Death: The Book of Answers.”

If I’d prepared myself the way I should have, the way I normally do, reading and rereading the publisher’s notes, the author’s bio, the prepared questions, I wouldn’t have been so jolted by the words “Life After Death.” Instead, the lump in my throat threatened to explode, and tears squeezed out the corners of my eyes. My voice halted, then broke, and I couldn’t continue speaking.

I hit the space bar on my computer to stop the recorder. Deepak leaned back in his chair.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “This is my first day back to work—my husband just died.” The flesh in my nose swelled up, and my voice sounded weak. I could not continue with the interview until I got myself under control.

Deepak nodded. There was no change in his facial expression, none of the mournful, twisted expressions I’d seen on others’ faces when I told them of David’s death. Chopra was a spiritual leader revered by millions of people around the world, and he couldn’t even offer sympathy?

I prodded him. “Suicide. He shot himself.”

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

No change. His breathing pattern wasn’t altered. He opened his mouth to speak, deliberately and carefully. His lips formed complete o’s and e’s.

“He is exactly where he needs to be, and so are you.”

“Excuse me?” My blood pressure surged. I suppressed a rage building in me that had been buried for years, one in which my emotions, my emotions, had been ignored, sidelined, minimized by the people I cared most about. I loved Deepak Chopra; I’d read every one of his books, except for his latest. The least he could do was show compassion; Chopra owned the word compassion, for God’s sake.

He folded his long fingers carefully on the desk and scooted forward in his chair. “What we’re talking about is pertinent to the book. Would you like to continue?” he asked.


Austen’s ‘Emma’: a wit and a way

Bag&Baggage's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic comedy of manners plugs into a great literary tradition of wit

I’ve been thinking about wit lately, partly because Bag&Baggage Theatre is about to open the Oregon premiere of Michael Frye’s stage adaptation of Emma, two hundred years after Jane Austen’s comedy of manners first met the printing press. Using just five actors, Frye’s adaptation presents the story as if it were a “private theatrical” in the Austen family home, an approach that in itself seems at least a sly conceit. The production opens Friday and continues through May 29 at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro.

Like Rossini‘s splendidly whimsical opera buffa The Barber of Seville, which also made its debut in 1816Austen’s novel was technically part of the 19th century. But both feel more like products of the 18th century (as the Edwardian years seem an extension of the 19th century, which could be said to have ended in 1914).

Clara Hillier as Emma, Joey Copsey as Knightly for Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography.

Clara Hillier as Emma, Joey Copsey as Knightly for Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography.

Certainly Rossini’s opera, with its libretto by Cesare Sterbini adapted from a 1775 comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, is fully in the spirit of the Age of Reason, embellished by a happy nod back to the 17th century theatrical glories of English Restoration comedy and the French satires of Moliere. And Austen’s class comedies seem slung somewhere between classic Enlightenment intellectual balance (Haydn, Swift, Mozart, Gibbon, Pope) and the surge of Romanticism that would engulf the 19th century (Beethoven, Byron, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, on down to Wagner).


Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s voice

The state's new poet laureate talks about writing, poverty, salmon, dams, race, family, and the keeping of a way of life

Elizabeth Woody walked into a Southeast Portland coffee shop two minutes behind me, just long enough for me to have snagged the only free table among a crowd of isolated laptop jockeys, and we sat down. She didn’t bother with coffee: she’d had a press of meetings and interviews since the day before, when her appointment to be Oregon’s eighth poet laureate was announced, and more coffee wasn’t in the cards. Plus, she was getting over a lingering bug.

She smiled, warmly, and we began to talk. About writing, and philanthropy, and poverty, and salmon, and dams, and racial violence, and friendships, and family. “I was brought up in a family that believes in public service,” she said at one point. “The house was always open to people from all over Oregon. People were always welcome.”

When word came from the Oregon Cultural Trust that Gov. Kate Brown had appointed Woody to succeed Peter Sears for a two-year term as poet laureate, I thought it seemed an inspired choice. I didn’t know her, though I knew several people who did, including her aunt, the artist Lillian Pitt. But I’d been familiar with her work for a long time, and knew her to be both a bridge-builder and a master of the difficult art of elevated plain speech, an approach to language that draws people in rather than shutting them out. Both traits seem key to the role of poet laureate, who is something of an ambassador-at-large for language, culture, and connection. They are qualities that helped Billy Collins, whose work is otherwise very different from Woody’s, become such a successful national poet laureate in the early 2000s.

Elizabeth Woody. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust.

Elizabeth Woody. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust.

Woody, who was born in the Navajo Nation town of Ganado, Arizona, and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, is fifty-six years old, and she wears them well, like someone who’s made sure they fit. She’s one of those people who seem present. She embraces situations, concentrating directly on what and who are in front of her, and like a lot of writers she exudes both a comfort with new situations and a protective reserve: a desire to engage the world, and also a determination to safeguard her solitude. Her conversation rambles like a river, and the water’s clear.