I first read Tomaz Salamun in graduate school at UNC Greensboro. My favorite writers then were Robert Hass, Raymond Carver, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, the dead Russians; I was easily influenced by what my teachers taught and my friends liked. One day, a fellow student, frustrated with our workshop's narrative, predictable, linear, very 90s poems (it was the early 90s, after all) brought in a pile of poems that included Salamun's "I Have a Horse" and "History":
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"
"History and "I Have a Horse" I think are better poems than the first one here, "Jonah." But somehow Jonah became one of my favorite poems, part of my blood and bone. It felt familiar and strange, its simplicity and tender voice refreshingly transparent, earnest, sweet, at a time I was trying to wrap my mind around, say, Jorie Graham's poems, or prying my eyes open through a 18th-century British literature class (the mention of "Clarissa" is like Ambien to this day). In an Irish literature class I was gulping down quantities of Yeats and yet remained stubbornly attached to his early sentimental pieces, "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" and "When You Are Old and Grey." They reminded me of the very first literary poem I remember loving, Wordsworth's "Daffodils." I didn't understand the complexities of Irish history, didn't care for Yeats's creepy seances and communing with afterlife, just as, I confess, I'm still shaky on the Eastern European history informing Salumun's poems. Being versed in the historical contexts of these writers' lives would only deepen my appreciation for their poems, but I don't think the poets would disapprove of my limited knowledge of politics. The language alone offers abundant beauty and lasting resonance.
I remember running to the Poets House in the mid 90s for a reading by Salamun, that feverish feeling of anticipation, the thrill of hearing the word live. I've kept the poster for that reading the way a Deadhead would keep a bumper sticker of dancing bears. The poster is in a box of keepsakes in my closet, along with ticket stubs for Pavement and Yo la Tengo, a map of Greensboro, xeroxes of poems, dog-eared and coffee-stained. Ah, grad school.
Katherine Mansfield said, “To be alive and to be a writer is enough.” To be a reader--a close second indeed. Tomaz Salalmun reads on Friday, October 12, 5pm at NYU Creative Writing Program.