Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Value of Adjectives

The value of adjectives 

Most poetry I read today falls into two "adjective categories," the spare and the spoiled. As magazine editor (Pulse Literary Journal) I get a ton of submissions. In fact I am working on the latest edition to be up by the end of this weekend. What I notice and what I always notice like some blinking red light is a tendency to overuse the adjective. Remember that this part of speech is needed to separate one noun from another and to avoid confusion. There is a difference between a red, leather-bound book and a green, soft-bound book and if you are sending someone to fetch the book you want, they need to know. BUT, in poetry does it matter? Not so much. But I see poems where the writer has strung together a long list of adjectives to modify or explain a single image. Do I need to know that the waves are thundering, forceful, dangerous? Yes, but I like to think any reader can find out those three characteristics of particular waves by what those waves wreak. Or by the metaphor or simile created for them. EX: geraniums, burst open with the colors of fireworks. Isn't that more interesting than listing the variations of colors in a plant? Doesn't that expression convey more than color?

I belong to a wonderful poetry group. We meet in our local library every other Tuesday. We meet to look at rough drafts of our poems, give suggestions for revision, and talk about what works. We trust each other to take the long view, and to scrutinize the minutia too. One thing I notice is that we all have a similar problem in our poems: over-explaining. This comes via overuse of adjectives. It is a common affliction that stems from a desire to get the image clear, to paint a lucid picture for the readers of our poems. I firmly believe however that this lucidity is best achieved with a spare number of adjectives. If we say red, red rose is the rose more red? Not so much. And using an adjective in hopes an unclear image will become clear is just nuts. Is it not better to say the river is dying of thirst than to say it is dusty and low? Adjectives are getting too much work these days, and metaphor is underemployed. So the struggle for clarity continues.

There are of course any number of poets who have the problem solved. I recommend the following 8 poets/poems:

Richard Wilbur The Writer
BH Fairchild  Brazil
Anthony Hecht The Grapes
Dana Gioia Nosferatu's Serenade (Ellen's Dream)
Elizabeth Bishop Sestina, The Waiting Room
Patricia Smith Siblings
Dorianne Laux Girl in the Doorway, A Brief History of the Apple
Carol Muske-Dukes Love Song

These poems stand for the best of sparseness and yet are rich and lucid. I go to them again and again when I am feeling that my own poems are falling into the rut of adjectives.

What about you?

Friday, June 10, 2011

so, how 'bout them Sox?

You will think this post is going to be about baseball... OK so it is a little about baseball...and just a little about ferns... and a little about weather.  My point is that poetry, in its natural state is about all of these things and more. We live IN this world and WITH all its "stuff," and can no more divorce ourselves from that than we can fly on our own. I keep going back to two issues: the signified and the signifier along with when is life a copy of a copy or is all of it a copy of some original text, some slice of the Divine? When does the "stuff" of life become poetry on the page?

Take baseball for instance:

I stayed up until 145 AM to watch it. It was the Sox and the Yankees. Most if not all sane people went to bed at a normal hour, leaving the game to itself, to its eventual swan (black or otherwise). Not me. I was fully awake and engaged until the last out. This is in part the "stuff" that makes me, well, ME. Who knows when a baseball game became a poem for me, but it did. Its sounds, its delays (last night a 3.5 hour rain delay), its gestures and habits, its energy or lack of energy. To me it is the same as my writing. Same elements, including more often than not, its late hour. Both sides in any given baseball game believe God is watching, God cares, God will come through and nudge that ball out of the park. You see Big Papi strike his chest, raise his hands to the heavenly realm whenever he gets a homer. And there are those aforementioned rain delays... didn't the Almighty Himself send down big weather to throw off one team and give the other a chance to regroup? Well, in my writing practice it is the same, kinda. I often feel that there is some opposing force (team?) out there waiting to do in my efforts. Could be the editor/publisher ultimately, but it's unfair to blame some blurry "other" with a big red pen. Mostly it is me blocking me. It is the little evil editor Carol sitting on the poet Carol's right shoulder (on the side of my "good ear" of course) doing her worst. When the writing is really in the zone however, I am like Big Papi, fist pumps to the sky and a big grin on my face. I've made meaning (for myself) and made art (for you). I've hit on a bit of ephemera that makes us teammates. Is it a poem inspired from On High? Not so much. It is likely a very common thing, like planting ferns in the heat, or daring to go outside in a thunderstorm to measure the angle of the lighting forks.

What of the "stuff" anyway? I planted ferns this morning, stifled by the heat rising up from the wet garden after last night's boomer storm. Surely these are not the only ferns ever planted, nor the only steamy day we have had or will have. Are these events mere copies of others just like them? Or, by writing about this planting thing, am I leaping the mundane, the copy mentality, and growing something unique?  If I focus the poem on the regenerative spores on the undersides of the fronds, if I see whole worlds living therein, am I in partnership with the Creator, just a step away from understanding the Divine? I think so. If I am more interested in the poetry of lightning than worried about being struck by it, do I therefore inhabit Lorca's world of the Duende? I might just. And I'm okay with that really. I like the danger that lurks around poetry, especially poetry where the person of the poem, or the poet him/herself is not just a copy of every other poet or poetical stance that has come before.

I enjoy reading what others say about "confessional" poetry, the subversive ideology of "I removal." These folks are passionate about avoiding themselves in their poems. But to be honest, do we not have to admit that if we were to take ourselves OUT of our poetry, we'd be like the androids in Blade Runner, not even knowing we were not human. I enjoy my humanity, relish it, live happily in the very messy realm of it. If I were to avoid myself, divorce me from me, I suspect my poetry would be some freakish language game, and not at all ready to touch YOU and your humanity. I want to feel your eyes on me as you read, I want the scrutiny of your wondering if the person in any given poem might just be the real me. I like to think I am unique, but I admit to being a little bit like the android Deckerd, a copy of me. I shed my outermost self frequently, keeping what seems valuable at the moment. I think my funny little verse bio says it all:

Bio, Schmio
When I was five, alive
in a little body, when I was six
picking up sticks, when I was seven, seventeen
maybe, eighteen, no seventeen, I was a version of me.
When I sat at the kitchen table, tabling
conversations too hard for my parents to accept,
tables like arithmetic were hard 
for the me I wanted to be. No bright star was shining
over the place I called home when I left,
no one waved good-bye, come again soon,
you’ll always have your room here. No one
but me on that bus, fishbowl in my lap
watching the mama fish eat her babies one by one.
Where did I go then
instead of off into normal? 
When I was seventeen, seven, five, 
alive meant towing the line, 
sitting straight, being seen not heard, 
kleenex bobby-pinned to my head
like a hat for church, 
rain pounding the windows,
caterpillars raining on the tent at Sebago Lake.
When I was 35, I’d reached my five year old’s goal:
to be 35. What was left? A world of other people
thinking they knew me, thinking they were right
about me, and me thinking the five year old me was still 
sitting under a tree on a smooth white sheet
playing teacher, making the dolls write in verse.
But even though I am a copied and remade "me," I am NOT a copy of you. So in the world of knock-togethers, intersections, pairings, poetry serves to make the human connection. Like baseball, like ferns, like weather.
And the stuff of both our lives intersects when you read a poem and think oh that has happened to me too or when a tear grows in the corner of your eye. If I am touched by that, if that makes me want to touch you again and again with more and more poems, I am not like Deckerd. I am the real me.

The beauty of poetry, poetry of real people, is that we each bring a chunk of our human experience to it. Readers or writers, we all have a stake in the reasons the poem exists on the page. We all have an interest in seeing how this life is going to come out in the end, and by what means we will arrive at that moment.

When we write about visual art, as I love to do, we get to put ourselves and our ferns and ballgames and weather into the art. We ruffle about in the images we see and ideas come, mostly from a spark of something, some "stuff" we have in our own lives. We see one of Peter Ralston's photographs, for example,  and feel a jab in the gut or an arrow to the temple. We do not have HIM there to interpret, to let us know his mood or method of seeing, or even where the photo was taken in many instances. We must enter into an asynchronous partnership with him and figure it out on our own, hoping that the copy of the copy (the poem about his photo about the place he was depicting) is somehow real, somehow not an android.

So, how 'bout them Sox? I felt every raindrop and heard every bolt of lightning, got a major headache when they were behind. I knew I was going to have my love affair with baseball, Red Sox baseball, justified. I also knew I was no android, that the game, like poetry would satisfy and parallel my writing, even in the worst of it.

Post-game note: Sox 8 - Yankees 3. Copy that.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Poets for Change and Peace

Well, here it is fellow poets and peacemakers: an event that you will want to attend, to be part of in some way, 100 Thousand Poets For Change. I am organizing locally. The event is going to be held simultaneously with the rest of the world. The idea is this: area poets gather OUTSIDE at the harbor here in Rockland (maybe the gazebo down by south beach) and read poems we write about peace and sustainability, and also read ONE poem together in a single huge VOICE. This part will be videoed and shared on the big bridge web site where all the other events will be posted. Visit this web site to see where in the world all the events are going to be held. It is an amazing project. I'm happy that the Midcoast area is one of the event locations!

Think about who you'd like to see reading, think about a poem we might read together, think about writing a poem for the event.

A favorite poem; you should read

If you  have not read the collection, Interrogations at Noon, by Dana Gioia, you might consider looking for a copy and adding it to your library. I first heard Dana read the poem below at the Teaching of Poetry Conference in Santa Rosa CA in, hmmm, maybe it was 2000??? I was absolutely gobsmacked by the poem, part of a libretto he'd written for the Nosferatu opera. The poem is part of a 3 part slightly longer piece. The other 2 parts are wonderful too, but THIS bit really gets to me. Enjoy.

Nosferatu's Serenade (aria from Act II of Nosferatu)

I am the image that darkens your glass,
The shadow that falls wherever you pass.
I am the dream you cannot forget,
The face you remember without having met.
I am the truth that must not be spoken,
The midnight vow that cannot be broken.
I am the bell that tolls out the hours.
I am the fire that warms and devours.

I am the hunger that you have denied,
The ache of desire piercing your side.
I am the sin you have never confessed,
The forbidden hand caressing your breast.
You've heard me inside you speak in your dreams,
Sigh in the ocean, whisper in streams.
I am the future you crave and you fear.
You know what I bring. Now I am here.

while downstairs...

Today is beautiful again and I ought to be outside planting the rest of my garden. I will, later. But first...

I am working to get the new website ready. I've hired a designer to get things up and done, but need to fill in the details for her. I hate this kind of thing, because it seems like me loving on me. But if the word is going to get out on my books and activities around poetry, I have to do it. Grrrr. Once it is done, with links to everything in place, I will be a happy camper. I will be once again able to focus on why I even NEED a web page for myself: POETRY.

I am pretty happy with this blog of course, but need to get people here to read, comment, participate. Again, soon all the links will be in place. I also have the webzine to manage. Needing to shore up the design and post new issue. Once the author page is up, links all in place.....

while downstairs... guy laying new tile in bathroom, in hallway leading to barn where EVENTUALLY new laundry room will be. Ahhh, at least there is SOME visible progress.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

2am and I'm still at this computer

I am excited and cannot sleep; Red Sox beat the Yankees. But that is not why I am up late. I am in the midst of restructuring my existing web page, creating a new "author page" and am about to get a new laundry room. In the midst of all of this, I am ready to get back to work on submissions. I have a "bucket list" of places I'd like to see my poems and will keep knocking on those doors. I try to submit at least twice a month, an all-day procedure but worth it. The well has been a little dry lately as there is a ton of my work "out there" and no news on any of it yet. But there are amazing things on the immediate horizon, including a book launch for the new book, a couple of readings, a panel discussion/reading. I love doing these. It is so wonderful to hear the poems as they come out of my mouth, so grand to see the faces of those in the audience as they hear them for the first time. I think, other than the writing, the sharing with my poetry group, etc. I love the public readings the most. It is so wonderful to stand in front of a group of people who love poetry and let them hear what I have written. A very wise person once told me that when you read or teach, there is no need to try to please the whole room, because you are really there for ONE person who needs what you have to say. So the excitement, the mystery for me is to look out and imagine who that ONE person is.

Is it YOU?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Poem about food

OK... so we talked this morning about writing about food. I think I will share a poem that my writing group is going to look at today. Tell me what you think and let's discuss why this one works (or doesn't work).

Lemon Cake
First you need great bowls
and a big spoon. Measuring
is easier with Nana’s teacups
the ones graduated
to your kitchen after her funeral.
It was all you wanted.
She used no recipe for lemon cake, 
taught you to measure the heft 
of flour in your palm, to see 
how much lemon juice fills
the teacups, to know a pinch
from a smidgeon just by feel. 
A pinch of cardamom, one 
of nutmeg, a dusting of poppy seeds
over the wet mixture. She mixed
clockwise, said the sun travels
that way and helps the mixture
to rise just so to the rim of the pans.
For frosting, a package 
of softened cream cheese, a splash
of vanilla and one of lemon juice.
Whip in half a hand of sugar  
with the egg beater she got
as a wedding present in 1926.

Later, sitting in your chair by the window,
listening to the rain come in gasps,
you will know her love is in the recipe
she never wrote, the one pressed 
into your hands, hands she taught 
and in the teacup you use tonight for tea.

Smell the lemons, smell her verbena.
— Carol 2011

You can see that this poem is in the second person "you," a reasonable strategy for taking the obvious "I" out and making the poem more universal. It is so even if a reader doesn't have a "Nana." The "you" brings the reader INTO the poem.  

Writing about food

Thomas C. Foster, in his wonderful book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, remarks that writing about eating is hard. He says that is because not much happens. You put food in the mouth and chew and swallow. BUT, he tells us, it is all about what takes place AT the meal, who is there and what kind of interaction happens. He says that eating with others is an act of communion (like sex, passing around a joint, and dying are acts of communion). True enough. If one eats alone it is sustenance only, with the pleasure of the food added in for good measure; if one eats with others one enters into community.

So what about writing ABOUT food items themselves? I just read an amazing poem by Dorianne Laux, A Short History of the Apple, in which she not only describes the eating of it, but intersperses fragments of where the apple has fit into human history. Here is the opening of the poem so you can see what I mean:

Teeth at the skin. Anticipation.
Then flesh. Grain on the tongue.
Eve's knees ground in the dirt
of paradise.Newton watching...

So we have the taste and tactile nature of eating the apple, transformed by the bits about Eve and Newton. The whole poem is like this until its end where she praises the pollinators for their part in making this treat for humans:

Melt-in-the-mouth made sweet
by hives of Britain's honeybees:
white man's flies. O eat. O eat.

The ending is as dramatic as it goes, but without being over the top or in our faces. Laux criticizes mankind for not appreciating bees and their role in feeding us, and praises the apple and its pollinators. A surprise to be sure, and a welcome one. Mid poem she lets the reader know in no uncertain terms that the apple is hardy, maybe hinting at the fact that we are not so hardy ourselves. Fire blight. Scab and powdery mildew./ Cedar apple rust. The apple endures./

I have written about food many times, not nearly as well as this to be sure. But I think it is worth doing. I think by doing so we might gain some increase of appreciation for what is on our tables, or what cannot be on our tables.
Two weeks ago I suggested the topic to my writing group. We exchanged recipes to give us material. I'm excited to see what they have done with this, how hard they thought it was to do. I can say it really beat me up!! I will be bringing a copy of Laux's poem for each member of the group. I know they will love it as I do. Might just be one of my favs at this point.