Crossing State Lines: An American Renga is not an accomplishment.  It is a miracle.  Here we have each of 54 American poets reflecting on today’s America by writing 10-line poems.  Each did this in two days.  Each (with the exception of Robert Pinsky who started the chain) was charged with reacting to the lines that came from the poet just before and each was then free to write whatever the notion of our nation called to mind.

The result is a collaboration various and exalted, yet as approachable as our cross-country highway I-90.

Ten lines in two days might not sound like much, but to create 10 worthwhile poetic lines with such parameters in such a short time frame is not an undertaking any poet would relish.  Still, to engage in this once-in-a-lifetime conversation about America through an ancient Japanese tradition was an opportunity none of these major figures in literature could turn down.

Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. poet laureate started the renga from Cape Cod.

Beginning of October, maples
Kindle in the East, linked
To fire season in the West by what?

Actually, this project started when one of our country’s most celebrated painters, Eric Fischl, began talking to friends about his idea of bringing America to America through various art forms.  Fischl wanted to offer U.S. citizens a way to talk to each other about the way we think about our country since 9/11.  He envisioned a traveling road show of art of all kinds—paintings, sculpture, plays, music, film and literature—that would start the conversation.  This undertaking called America Now and Here engaged the minds of some of our country’s most notable artists including Ed Ruscha, Alex Katz, David Salle, Chuck Close, Carole Bayer Sager, Laurie Anderson, Edward Albee and Jasper Johns, whose work is pictured above on the cover of “Crossing State Lines.”

Carol Muske-Dukes (left), who we’ll have the privilege of spotlighting soon with the publication of her collection of poems called Twin Cities due out in June, is a good friend of Fischl and his wife, the artist April Gornick.  Together with poet Bob Holman she took on the project of bringing poets to the gathering and the result is this beautiful volume featuring such venerated poets as Rita Dove (right), Brenda Hillman, Edward Hirsch, Kimiko Hahn, Billy Collins and C.K. Williams.

Muske-Dukes was also responsible for bringing Edward Ledford, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army to the renga.  Ledford was in the Pentagon on 9/11.  He is a poet soldier and his lines reflect on an image that has long held symbolism for him—that of a dictionary that remained open and untouched on a bookstand though the building directly above it had been sheared off.   His is an eyes-wide-open contribution to “Crossing State Lines” and an eye opening window into the soul of a man who plays an honorable role at a time that speaks of something other than honor.

You can read Ledford’s lines along with those of Carol Muske-Dukes and the kind and brilliant Robert Hass at  the NPR website.  They are but a taste of the luscious banquet that is this product of four and a half dozen heroes of American verse. In the 1960’s we might have called this a “happening.”  Today it is a blessing.

“Crossing State Lines” should be in the pile of gifts for any graduate who loves literature and in every home in this country as well.

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