David had a similar response to my first poem. I was 14 and snarky about Edward FitzGerald`s irreligious and misleading translation of Omar Khayyam. Take the cash and let the credit go, " etc. I loved the poem but disagreed with its sentiments, so I set out to compose a retort in the same quatrain structure.
Do you have any idea how bad Fitzgerald`s translation is? " David admonished. Of course I didn`t. I loved it, the way the enlightened " selfish today love Ayn Rand`s Atlas Shrugged. It would be many years before I learned that Khayyam was hardly the man the Victorian FitzGerald had given the West. He was in fact a mystic and mathematician much more to my liking. But I had begun my checkered career as a poet.
When David and I were studying at Manhattan`s Dwight School we had a mentor, Assistant Headmaster George B. Donus, who was passionate about the classics and is undoubtedly responsible for my repeated rereadings of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Mr. Donus was of Greek descent, and I have often wished I could discuss my fondness for the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and other matters Greek with him.
My unpromising career as a poet was interrupted not so much by a stint in the Navy or the untoward necessity to earn a living as a newspaperman, but rather by my habit of melting down and calling it by other names. It happened first in the spring of my junior year at Columbia. It was sunny that day on 116th Street when suddenly everything got too big, too loud and too close. They probably would have called it a nervous breakdown in those days. I`m sure I called it good cause for a beer. It happened again, often accompanied by spotty amnesia. " You wake up one morning and can`t remember how to tie your shoes. It`s as if your hard disk had thrown out files during the night, but you don`t know which ones yet. Sort of a metaphor for life`s surprises.
In retrospect this was very good for a poet. We`re all mad, but we`re mad in different ways, and a poet has to discover and celebrate his particular madness while tossing in its harrowing throes. But in my 30s, burdened by the weight of my own follies, I gave up poetry. Well, I gave up writing it, but I kept on reading and studying it. I had discovered, as I tried to fathom my meltdowns, that I hadn`t wanted to be caught saying what I meant or meaning what I said. It was a horrifying discovery, something like Dorian Gray`s painting in the attic. My poems had been a pretense, or so I concluded.
But when I resumed writing poems in 2001 the problem had vanished. In fact, I couldn`t disguise what I meant for the life of me. Better yet, I knew what I meant. It was such an exhilarating feeling that I found to my surprise that I wasn`t giving much thought to publishing these poems. This was curious, I thought. Then I remembered my years of pondering the work of Ibn al Arabi, and I saw that I regarded the making of a poem as an act of co-imagination. I was, with God, co-imagining an ever-evolving universe. This was my job, my prayer.
I can`t say much more about this, for the moment, the moment being the announcement by Kent State University that they have given me their Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. Here then is the transcript of a story about this prize and my book, Far From Algiers:
Poems in response to 9/11
win coveted Kent State prize
Wick Poetry Center Kent State University
For immediate release
Contact: Maggie Anderson, Director Phone: (330) 672-2067
Wick Poetry Center Fax: (330) 672-3333
301 Satterfield Hall, P.O. Box 5190 email@example.com
Kent, Ohio 44242-0001
KENT, OHIO "Anyone who doubts the value to society of our aging population should take heart in the example of a 73-year-old retired newspaperman who has just won one of the nation`s most coveted poetry prizes for a book of poems he was inspired to write after the attacks of September 11, 2001,
Djelloul Marbrook of Germantown, NY, and Manhattan, is the 2007 winner of Kent State University`s Stan and Tom Wick Prize for his book, Far From Algiers, to be published by the Kent State University Press in the fall of 2008. Poet
Toi Derricotte (inset) of the University of Pittsburgh faculty chose his book out of nearly 450 submissions.
Stuffing sky-blue notebooks in his pockets, he began walking around Manhattan determined to affirm his beloved city and country in the wake of the insane and murderous attacks. Marbrook had started writing poems in Manhattan when he was 14. In his thirties he abandoned writing poetry after publishing a few poems in small journals, but he never stopped reading and studying poetry.
Then at age 67, appalled by the terrorist attacks, the poet in him awakened. He had no idea of making a book or even pursuing a theme, but sometime in 2006, as he considered his work spread on a dining table, the underlying sensibility of more than 100 of the poems emerged. The clue was the title of one poem, Far From Algiers. "
Marbrook recognized that he had been writing about belonging and unbelonging. As he examined this emergent idea he saw as a veteran journalist that the massive population dislocations caused by poverty and globalization rendered alienation a pressing issue of our time, an aspect of its Zeitgeist.
He saw that his own experience in America "having been born in Algiers to an American artist and a Bedouin father "foreshadowed the post-war experience of millions of people uprooted from one place and struggling to set down roots in another. Because his stepfather, Dominick Guccione, was a Sicilian immigrant, the poet had ample reason to consider the problem of foreignness. " Just as Irish, Italian and other immigrant groups had grappled with alienation, Marbrook saw immigrants the world over coping with nativist sentiment in their new countries.
Marbrook had arrived in America a gravely ill infant. A doctor warned his grandmother and aunt, with whom he spent his first five years, that he probably would not survive. But his grandmother was determined not to allow him to die on her watch.
That he was American he never doubted. He played baseball and ice hockey creditably and served honorably as a Navy volunteer. But there were inklings from his maternal family that perhaps he wasn`t quite as American as they were, the same sort of signals emitted today by people who wrap themselves in the flag.
Complicating matters for him, his mother invented a romantic story that his father had died in a hunting accident while she was pregnant. It wasn`t until 1992 that he accidentally discovered his father had lived until 1978. The truth was that Djelloul had been conceived behind the back of his father`s girlfriend. His father chose the girlfriend, and Djelloul and his mother departed for New York.
In this milieu of lies and otherness "far from Algiers "Djelloul strove to become his kind of American. I owe it to the Navy that I have any idea of who I am, " he says. The Navy was my first family. Its acceptance was unconditional and unalloyed. Any danger being in the Navy might have posed seemed an inconsequential price compared to this. I finally knew the name of the game. "
Marbrook began his newspaper career with The Providence (RI) Journal (where his first editor renamed him Del) and later worked as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal, The Washington Star and MediaNews newspapers.
Learning of the prize, Marbrook sent flowers to Toi Derricotte, the highly regarded poet and University of Pittsburgh English professor, who made the award. Derricotte wrote back, Thank you so much for the flowers of Emily Dickinson; and thank you even more for that exciting, wise, sad and unique manuscript of your poetry. I am 66, so maybe the sad and ironic humor that I`m developing spoke to me from those poems, and also the way you embody the painful paradox of social and spiritual violence. And then to read more about the history of Algiers and see how colonialism is the same always and everywhere! Thank you for your poems and your philosophy! "
Derricotte and Marbrook will read their work at Kent State together in October 2008 after the book is published.