Sunday, May 15, 2011
Pillars of Poetry 2
Day two of thinking about my "pillars of poetry" and I turn to BH Fairchild. Yes there is a bit of a theme between yesterday and today: teachers who taught me directly, plus by their poems. Eventually I will switch to indirect teachers (learned from their writing, not in classes with them). So look for Henry Beston next, followed by Bishop, Millay, and others.
Today I am focused on BH Fairchild who was my professor in my undergrad program at Cal State University at San Bernardino. I attended later in life due to a series of personal snafus (my own doing) and raising a family. I has just been laid off from a LUCRATIVE freelancing job (writing online music profiles... wrote the first one ever on Jessica Simpson by the way). I sat at my desk boo-hooing about the layoff, and the total lack of $$$$ facing me, and decided to return to college and knock off the last two years. CSUSB has a creative writing major within the English major so it was a perfect fit... and a 30 minute drive from my house. First thing I did was to sign up for three classes with Fairchild. The dept. chair worried over this, saying I would either be right in my element or rue the day I put all my eggs in this one basket. He was worried I would not get along with this man and quit. Ha! The guy did no know ME! From that point onward I was on a roll, headed toward the greatest college experience one can have: totally focused on the work, brilliant guy leading the way. Enough of that part.... on to what I learned.
Yesterday I mentioned that Jack Myers gave my confidence a jolt.... should have started with Fairchild. Confidence increased here too, but in a totally different way. I was on a mission to demonstrate competence, and in fact for some reason wanted this man to see me as VERY competent. So I dug in and did everything he suggested to a fare-thee-well. If he suggested we write ONE poem in a certain way, I'd do three. I practiced every technique he mentioned, over and over. I read every author/poet he mentioned, even those I'd already tackled before. I took more notes in his classes than I had taken cumulatively before. Simply put, I became the student I had always meant to be. This splashed off in my other classes too. I was back in love with the lover I'd abandoned: learning.
You want to know what this did for me as a poet. I started paying attention to EVERYTHING. I started really SEEING the world and grew a desire to find ways to pass that on in my poems. I was an okay poet before that, but as I read and listened and took notes, I was challenged to find much better, more interesting ways to put the world I was inhabiting on paper. I wanted desperately for other poets to say about my poems: gee, I wish I'd written that."
Fairchild showed me something new in that I saw the ordinary as beautiful, the gruesome as lovely, the mundane as miraculous. I will never again look at ordinariness as ordinary. (so, thanks for that, Pete). I learned too that we live in a world of sound bytes, cliché, and overuse of practically EVERYTHING. I no longer wanted to be in that world, coming to realize I needed to create another world in my poetry. I can make that world available to others through my poetry. I can enliven, explore, explain and not visit the same place twice, or visit it twice with a new eye to it. I learned about SOUND and discovered that, although I am completely deaf in one ear, I have sound INSIDE that is not deaf-oriented. I can hear with my eyes, with my body, with my PEN. Pete showed me that.
One great thing about studying with him that most new writers might not think so great: oh man, could he criticize, and boy oh boy, did he not sugar-coat. There were those moments when I cringed at what he said about a poem. I remember writing a "Christmas" poem and hearing the words I hated: "This poem is WAY too sappy. Can you write about Christmas without so damn much Christmas in the poem?" The hairs stood right up on my neck and I felt my face get hot, not with embarrassment, but with ANGER. Oh baby, I did not like that. Who could fault Christmas? Why is that sappy?
Well, the gauntlet was thrown down. So, I determined to write a "holiday" poem without mentioning the holiday at all. It is all about "is-ness" as Pete will say, EMBODY things, don't just put them on the page. ANYONE can do that. Result: a poem that has an amaryllis as one of the images. Nothing says Christmas season more than an amaryllis. Ta-Da! From that point on, I have striven to make things show what they are: concrete images are my best buddies.
You want to know what this did for me as a poet. Well the biggest thing I suppose was that I started paying attention to EVERYTHING. I started really SEEING the world and grew a desire to find ways to pass that on in my poems. I was an okay poet before that, but as I read and listened and took notes, I was challenged to find much better, more interesting ways to put the world I was inhabiting on paper. I wanted desperately for other poets to say about my poems: gee, I wish I'd written that."
But as Pete aways says about teaching and learning about poetry, it is the poems themselves that do the teaching. So it is here. I look to his poetry for details and find a stunning teacher there. The greatest learning in his poems is the employment of fresh language in illuminating the magic of ordinary life and ordinary human interaction. In narrative poetry there is the danger of losing the poetic in the mundane, the "this happened, then this happened" thread that threatens to turn poetry into "reportage" or simple scene setting. Fairchild's poetry shows there is another way to tell a story. This is important for my own work. But his poetry is not simple storytelling. It is always about embodiment. This keeps ordinariness from being ordinary, pushes the boundaries of simple. Look at the poem, The Woman at the Laundromat Crying "Mercy" for evidence:
And the glass eyes of dryers whirl/ on either side, the roar just loud enough/ to still the talk of the women. Nothing/ is said easily here. Below the screams/ of two kids skateboarding in the aisles/ Long white rows of washers lead/ straight as highways lead to a change machine/ that turns dollars into dimes ... In back, the change machine has jammed, and a woman/ beats it with her fists, crying "mercy, mercy."
This very ordinary scene becomes more of a life look lesson because of the unique look at this microcosm of domestic duty through the glass eyes of the dryers.
I want to do this in my poems. I ask myself constantly if I have made my poems live on the page. I use what I call the "Fairchild Test" to check my work. If a poem fails this test, I go back to work. I often go back to work. But once in awhile I am successful.