How many books of poetry do you have in your kitchen? None? Don't give me that look. For so many of us, cooking involves reading, stirring with one hand and holding the cookbook open on the counter with the other. My well-worn copy of Fannie Farmer automatically falls open to Banana Nut Bread, exhaling a poof of flour. Opening that cookbook is a special moment: the first line of a poem that concludes with the sinking of teeth into a warm slice of sweet, comforting bread.
Recipes are interesting kinds of texts because they mostly comprise direct commands: the syntactic bane of our global information society. For certain, commands are easier and cheaper to translate, and they're not without craft, but they're about as interesting as army rations are to the palate or soul. But when a recipe issues a command, we become hungry rather than defensive. We're more enthused about obeying "Spread half of the mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers" or "As soon as the cumin spatters, add the chopped garlic" than we are about "Make 10 copies of this report" or "Invest in your IRA or die a pauper."
The Sound of Poets Cooking, a combined cookbook and poetry anthology, embodies this coming together of the literary and culinary arts. More than 60 poets, many of whom have North Carolina connections, such as Andrea Selch, Paul Jones, Jaki Shelton Green, Scott Owens, Al Maginnes and Mark Smith-Soto, ladle out enticing recipes and crafted verse, woven thematically together. The brainchild of Richard Krawiec, a longtime local teacher, writer, publisher and activist, the book also marks the debut of Jacar Press as a full-fledged literary publisher.
As you thicken the sauce for the Peach-Mango-Plum Pork Chops, you can ponder Roberta Beary's plum haiku, which rests on the facing page like fruit ready for the pan: "old plum tree / father's watch heavy / on my wrist." As editor, Krawiec believes that poetry belongs as much in the kitchen as anywhere else. At odds in most other sectors of our lives, creativity and utility come together in the preparation of meals both everyday and for special occasions.
Recipes are much like magic spells, if you think about it: They consist of words that conjure things up. Since before the great bard haunted Macbeth with "Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble," people have added eye of newt—or maybe cinnamon—to a simmering brew intended to make others swoon.
Fred Chappell hilariously picks up on this emanating power in the opening poem, "Pot Luck Supper: Aunt Lavinia Strikes," in which the aforementioned aunt's casserole, impervious to table blessings, threatens to destabilize the universe. We've all been there, right? That baking dish at the neighborhood potluck, where you wonder if it's vegetarian, meatatarian or alien? To me, the rhyme of "chicken a la king" with "Jell-O ring" is akin to that indeterminate crust that crawls up the side of the dish and has to be soaked for a month to be scraped off.
This book offers not only normal recipes but also poets' recipes. Gaye Pollinger's brownies are introduced with a note that they "survived a 1,000 mile trip via US mail and STILL arrived moist and chewy." The first step in Alan Summers' Rosehip Curry recipe (yum!) is to write for several hours in a walled garden in direct sunlight. And Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, in the six or seven minutes it takes to soften browned cauliflower, offers this parenthetical advice: "Right around now, I get bored, so I use this time to do my bends, stretches, and standing yoga postures."
Generosity is at the core of Krawiec's vision for The Sound of Poets Cooking, as well as for Jacar Press overall. Proceeds from the sales of this cookbook/ anthology will become small stipends for poets to conduct free writing workshops in their communities. Poets with an idea for a workshop can complete a proposal form at the back of the book.
This mission underlies forthcoming Jacar titles such as The Next Moment, a full-length collection of poems by Mebane's Debra Kaufman, and a book of essays by Heather Jacks (whom Dr. Phil called "a straight, female David Sedaris") titled MILF Notes. Chapbook and book contests, as well as a sonnet sequence by former North Carolina Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer, are down the road for Jacar.
Reading The Sound of Poets Cooking, you may find yourself standing in the kitchen and rummaging in a drawer for measuring cups, even as you're finishing a poem, because cooking is our modern-day magic. If Houdini has little to offer us, we still have Guy Fieri. Because you gotta eat. And poets, they gotta write.