I guess I'd have to say that I am a hay gatherer - or at least one of the ones who watch others gathering hay. For me, the axis of the world turns on interesting and intimate detail and the broad, revolutionary sweeps of actions that history makes sometimes clear to us. Or the music of the spheres.
As a poet, I am in love with the inexplicable, the mystery of not knowing, as long as it is inextricably bound up in the constraints of everyday life and a preternatural consciousness. As a painter, I'm like the seven-year old boy we saw on the F train yesterday-Christmas Day, 2008-with his favorite present, his first digital camera, framing shot after shot along the tracks at Seventh and Fourth Avenues in Brooklyn. "Perfect," he'd exclaim out loud for every click of the shutter! A kind of Platonic ecstasy in everything we do.
The poems read by the NEA panel are part of a fourteen-poem cycle-a response to Edward Mitchell Bannister's landscape paintings. I was intrigued with the painting titles, which suggested social and industrial-era issues in a way that his paintings, often bucolic and dreamy, do not. Not at first glance, anyhow. Bannister was a Romantic, an African-American painter, a lover of the sea, and sometimes social activist in the city of Providence in the late nineteenth century. Many of the paintings no longer exist, and I have taken license with their form and content, resurrecting some in my own way that might otherwise be lost for all eternity.
I'm a dad and a husband, too, and these things are central to who I am. Like supporting the ones who rely on me to be there. For me, the honor of achieving an NEA is grand, and helpful, for the life of a poet (who's married to a sculptor!) is never easy. But it is something we can't live without.
The Drinking Pool
for Jesse Murry
Perhaps I too am a shade, as you turn to speak with someone
standing by. We loiter at the center of the pavilion, but even
a Garrison or Bronte will look straight through us, now that
the war is over, the fight for equal rights is done. What have
we won? I have my private atelier, my leisure time to paint,
and you, your flourishing Madame Carteaux, Hair Doctress
salons and your society. The drinking pool, as I capture it,
is bottomless, feeding creatures of the world that fly at night
to siphon goats' blood and bison gall when it's cool. Fire-
red sun sets over a pond of evergreens. My Lisbon bakers
cry saudade, longing for a place that isn't anywhere, a state
of mind that can't be bought but in a meadowscape I try
to paint before evening falls. A lark lets out a single note
as if to say, I would have made out very poorly were it not for you.
from Bannister's Landscapes
Bill Allen currently works as a writer for the United Nations Development Programme in New York and teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts online. Allen's poems have appeared in publications such as Crab Orchard Review, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, and Ploughshares. His poetry collections include: The Man on the Moon (Persea Press, 1987), which was selected by Philip Levine to win the NYU Writing Prize, and Sevastopol:On Photographs of War (Xenos Press, 1997). He lives in New York with his wife, the sculptor Barbara Westermann. Allen's work can be seen at: www.ekphrases.com.
Photo by Barbara Westermann