Steller: Making enemies, through poetry

2013-10-04T00:00:00Z Steller: Making enemies, through poetryTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 04, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Just who does this Jefferson Carter character think he is, anyway?

In July, a man writes a poem, as a letter to the editor, memorializing 19 dead firefighters. And this Carter guy has the gall to criticize it?

“This poem was poorly written, graceless and mawkish,” Carter wrote, setting off a number of angry reader responses.

Those who know Carter, a retired Pima Community College, instructor, weren’t surprised to see him weigh in when a Star reader wrote the poem, then another reader wrote in to praise it, prompting his critique. Carter, it turns out, is both an accomplished local poet and a nationally known poetry crank.

He’s been kicked off two Internet poetry sites for his cantankerous critiques, often about efforts he considers amateurish — or in some cases about an objectionable category of poetry, such as “identity poetry,” which derives from the writer’s ethnicity or other social groupings.

“He’s just an equal-opportunity hater,” New York-based poet Amy King told me.

She blocked him from an Internet site she managed because he kept critiquing poems that were entered in contests and not supposed to be critiqued, she said.

“I don’t have a big filter,” Carter acknowledged when we met Wednesday at Ike’s Coffee and Tea on East Speedway. “Being like I am has serious consequences.”

But friends such as poet Mike Gessner say Carter is not just a provocateur — he means what he says and cares about the art.

“It’s not just a joke,” Gessner said.

Over a scone and a coffee, Carter, 70, explained he doesn’t think people need to meet some lofty, Platonic standard in their poetry. He simply thinks they should do minimal work before trotting out a few lines of writing and calling it a poem. For example, they should read contemporary poetry, he said.

“Don’t write unless you get some background,” he said. “Take a community workshop, take a literature course.” Most of all, he said, people who want to write need to read.

“Everybody’s talking, everybody’s writing, nobody’s reading,” he said.

Matthew Conley, who teaches poetry at the University of Arizona and heads the Tucson Poetry Festival (coming up next April 4-6) said he and Carter have argued often over what’s good, what’s bad and even what’s poetry.

He and Gessner both describe Carter’s poetry as accessible with insights that take the reader by surprise. One of his best-known poems is called “Thunder”:

Lightning, then, of course, thunder.

We can get used to anything.

The window, lit up, shakes

& we’re comforted, pulling

the blankets to our chins. The dog,

half-blind, diabetic, fat as a woodchuck,

burrows between us, panting,

trembling like she’s never heard

thunder before. Maybe she hasn’t,

she lives so much in the moment.

Here’s her day: I was in. Now I’m out.

I was out. Now I’m in. You going

to eat that? You going to eat that?

I’ll eat that! Here’s her night so far:

What’s that? Thunder. What’s that?

Thunder. What’s that? Thunder.

Leafing through Carter’s 2010 collection, My Kind of Animal, I found myself laughing at poems we probably can’t reprint in a family paper. Mined with sexual references and foul words, the poems play to a person with my tastes and hit an occasional deeper point. Here’s “Helen”:

She’s almost 90, her forehead

like an uncloudy day. She must’ve

been a beautiful baby. Now

she farts during yoga, plow pose,

cow-face pose, even corpse pose,

you can hear her backfiring like

an old Vespa among the scented

candles. Nobody laughs. Certainly

not me. No jokes about gasasana,

the five inner winds, the vibrations

of the blissful sheath. I’m practicing

ujaiyi breath, pretending I’m fogging

a mirror, imagining my blurred reflection,

which is almost nothing & preparing

to bow & say the divine in me

bows to the divine in you.

See what I mean?

Ten years of yoga have helped Carter develop greater compassion, he said. Although he still finds it hard to resist some scraps, he regrets some of them. As when I informed him the writer of that poem about the firemen was a 92-year-old World War II veteran in an assisted-living home.

“I really do want to be a better person,” he said. “Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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