James Schwartz is an ex-Amish poet/writer and author of The Literary Party: Growing Up Gay and Amish in America (inGroup Press).
The bookcase beside my bed is Amish made, a hand-crafted remnant of my Amish roots here in Michigan. Browsing a varnished shelf I see both old hardcovers,and a few new. Travel books, poetry collections by C.P. Cavafy and Thom Gunn. No Amish books?
The Old Order Amish have yet to contribute to American literature and letters; although some Amish dabble in religious writing and verse as a hobby and many ex-Amish have written memoirs. An actual career in the Arts would be frowned upon, considered “worldly” and sinful. Considering the drug-addled, booze-drenched legacies of many a poet they are perhaps justified in this thinking. The Amish Literary Canon as of 2013 would include ex-Amish memoirs, Boneyard the Stephen Beachy/Jake Yoder collaborative novel, the lovely poetry of Julia Kasdorf (read her collection of poetry Sleeping Preacher) and my Literary Party. Shelter Somerset has written several gay Amish romance novels, which is rather fabulous I think!
Few Great American Writers mention the Amish (not even Whitman). John Updike is an exception. I grew up happily without television (and electricity) but my father allowed me free reign at the local library which fueled my love of (secular) literature and poetry. On winter nights Dad would read aloud from the Bible or chapters from Robinson Crusoe.
I spent many days and nights dreaming out my window, dazzled by the great Masters, dizzy from the brilliance of Shakespeare, Whitman, Austen, Shelley, Keats, Byron and Wilde. I longed for literary salons and exotic travels (minus the horse-drawn buggy), to escape the drudgery of my Midwestern Amish existence and onward to Capote’s Tangier or Ischia.
A Capote Reader – Truman Capote
I still have my copy of A Capote Reader with its gorgeous short stories and European sketches:
“Now that hot weather is here the afternoons are like white midnights; shutters are drawn, sleep stalks the streets (Ischia).”
“The southern sky was as white and burning as a desert; there was one cloud and it drifted like a traveling oasis (A Ride Through Spain).”
“From distant towers oboe players serenade before prayers; drums, hidden but heard, tom-tom behind closed doors, and the voices of men, singsonging the Koran, carry out of the mosques into the narrow moon-bright streets (Tangier).”
I spend a morning in Capote’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama in December 2004, en route to Florida with my father. By now I had read every word Capote published and even Dad had had a good chuckle over The Grass Harp. The Faulk House, as Capote’s childhood home is called, has burned down but a state marker has been erected and the foundation remains, small pink flowers growing through stone crevices. Dad, being a retired mason, was especially interested, walking the charred parameter. We take the Monroeville Walking Tour, visit the courthouse where In Cold Blood was filmed and dutifully sign the guest-book. The highlight of that crisp, cool day was my Amish Dad striking up a long conversation with a local who just happened to be Harper Lee’s mechanic!
Beside A Capote Reader is The Bridge – Hart Crane
Another book I keep returning to. Hart Crane is not an easy read, but patience is a virtue:
The Morning glory, climbing the morning long
Over the lintel on its weary vine,
Closes before the dusk, furls in its song
As I close mine…
Illuminations – Arthur Rimbaud
Translated by poet John Ashbery, Rimbaud’s masterpiece ever illuminates:
Graceful son of Pan! Around your forehead crowned with small flowers and berries, your eyes, precious spheres, are moving. — (from Antique)
Rimbaud, on my shelf, is placed next to the collected poetry of Paul Verlaine.
The Great Enigma – Tomas Transtromer
Translated by poet Robin Fulton.
The 2011 Nobel Prize Winner in poetry (New Directions) includes all of Transtromer’s brilliant poetry and beautiful prose memoir Memories Look At Me. From his haunting poem “The Crossing-Place”:
Ice-wind in my eyes and the suns dance
In the kaleidoscope of tears as I cross
The street that’s followed me for so long, the street
Where Greenland-summer shines from puddles.
Dances for Flute and Thunder
Praises, Prayers and Insults
Poems from The Ancient Greek
Translated by poet Brooks Haxton
This small collection of ancient Greek poetry from 5th century BCE, is a must read. “Three Love Notes” excerpt by Plato:
When you count the stars, my love, I want to be
The night sky, looking into you with all those eyes.
Flesh and Blood – Michael Cunningham
Before his brilliant novels The Hours and Specimen Days Michael Cunningham wrote this dazzling, epic generation-spanning novel about a Greek immigrant family. Thank me later.
Lastly, The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The new film is fine but it is a film. Read the book if you haven’t.
I never imagined I would one day be the first ex-Amish openly gay poet, but it is the reason I keep turning down roles on Amish-esque reality TV.
The literary lights shine brighter than Broadway / Writing until dawn or the kerosene lamp / run too low on oil / to see my dreams.
What’s on your poetry shelf?