Auld Lang Syne

Friday, March 9, 2012

Wind and writing

NOTE: This blog was begun earlier and abandoned due to... well, some interruption or distraction.

Last night was full moon and fully windy. I was blown out of a deep sleep by it. After going outside to my porch to lay the rocking chairs on their sides, I spent a little time thinking about wind and the fact that it gets to us via all our senses but one: sight.

I think that writing is like that in reverse. It is providing sight to the reader, allowing her/him to see what I see. It may be a motion or a sound or a feeling, but I can give it a body. I can imbue it with shape and texture. When I write, I have a desire to place an object in sight, to put an orange on a blue plate on a white tablecloth. I want the dripping juice from the orange on my reader's chin, the smell of it in her/his nostrils. That orange cannot be an idea of an orange or an abstraction of it. It is it.

When I teach writers (poets especially) I aim to get them finely-tuned to concretes. I reject "tree" in favor of "oak" for example. When we write, there is the draft version where abstractions spring up like weeds. OK of course to have these in your drafts as they are OPPORTUNITIES for revision. Get it down on paper (or screen) and then be ready to up the ante in revision. The real work of poetry is found here.

I encourage a deeper kind of revision that encourages replacement of the generic with the specific. Hat is less specific than bowler or beanie or baseball cap. Why leave it to the reader to figure out?

Why not paint the poem with a specific brush of a specific color. What is YOUR idea of "red?" Mine might be carmine, or maybe scarlet. It might be the color of a sunset that is just off being a true red, tinged with prussian blue. If I want you to see that sunset with me, should I leave it so vague that we are not seeing it together? I think not.

Of course not every line or phrase is total concreteness, nor should that be the case. Pairing ideas (abstractions like happiness) with concretes rachets up the heat and makes things come alive on the page. Here is an example from a poem in my 3rd collection: I Write in the Greenhouse (2011). Note the abstractions (scent and happiness) are quickly followed by its concrete (orchids) and by a concrete action (bending). This strategy puts clarity into the mind of the reader and invites her/him INTO the poem as an experience.

The scent of happiness
is in the orchids
you tend, bending...

Think for a moment about how to embody the abstraction of love, perhaps one of the most badly used abstractions. Consider this contrast:

The young man loved her and could not stop thinking of her.


What young man carved his first flute here,
sang his courting song?

Which is more appealing to a reader, will likely be remembered? And speaking of memory, how do we possibly treat this abstraction in a concrete way?

Consider this example from my latest collection, Native Moons, Native Days:

Pond Water

It gets up your nose

when you roll the kayak,

gets in your blood after summers at the pond.

It will always call to you,

will always know when you return.

Maybe there’s a splinter from the dock, still

deep in your heel, a small sliver

that seemed healed over. Maybe once a year

the spot reddens, pinches a little, a signal

to pack your shorts and bathing suit,

get in your car and head back

where even in midsummer, it gets dark

early, save for the light the pond makes.

This poem is all about memory. Nowhere in the poem is the abstract word, memory, used. But the poem, as a whole and in all its parts is memory of another time, a calling back to that time. One thing you might do when writing a memory as a poem is to do the whole first draft in prose. I like this method for students as it makes a comfort zone of material out of which to extract specifics and extrapolate on them. Once the details are down on paper, right there to see, it is time to pull out the abstractions and mix in the concrete. Like making a building out of raw materials. It's YOUR building. Make it beautiful. Make it real. Make it easily visited by others.

So, let the wind blow beneath the full moon. Let it be a mover of willows and tulip heads. Let the moon cast shivers of ivory on the whole place, the fox in the hedgerow and the mourning dove hovering on the phone wire leading to your sage green victorian house. Let is be as much itself as it appears to you. Your reader will be happy to experience it all through your SIGHT.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Vernal Equinox; time to shift writing into high(er) gear?

I am in love with time. I own several wonderful wristwatches, have clocks all over my house (set to varying times which, oddly enough doesn't mess with my head at all) and pride myself on being (mostly) ON time for things. I enjoy thinking about time and timing. I often sit and listen to the ringing in my ear (tinnitus) and think of it as some massive clock gonging to get my attention. But what does this have to do with the Equinox and with writing? HA! thought you'd never ask!

If you read my poetry (what? you don't have my latest books? fie unto thee I say!), you will notice that time and landscape are inextricably wound together. I have come to see (for myself) and notice (in others' poems) that time is part of setting; and without a sense of time in a piece of writing, it is just too freaky and loose for me to stay IN for the long haul of reading. We live our lives by calendars (chunks of time) and we schedule ourselves by this artificial blocking of time. We look at clocks to see when the meal will be ready, when to go to bed, when we prefer to get OUT of bed, etc. Why then is it not the most natural thing in the world to attend to issues of time in our writing?

I recall a fiction class in my undergrad years where we were asked to comment about a story and one student decided that the character's son probably suffered from AIDS. Now this story took place in the 1950s. What is wrong with this picture? Hmmmm, let me see.... oh wait! 1950s... no one had heard of AIDS, not yet on the horizon, much less a factor in a short story. So, time a HUGE factor here. An author, sans sic-fi genre, would not have factored in a non-existent disease because it was not TIME for it to appear in writing. By the way, this student argued on and on that "it could be a about that" while the professor silently ripped out his hair (metaphorically). I recall the incident here as a way of showing that time IS part of setting, a critical part.

When I write a poem, I am acutely aware of "when" as much as I am cognizant of "where." If I am writing a poem that is set a kitchen for example, the "stuff" of the poem will determine the time, or conversely the time will determine the "stuff." A wringer-washer will help to locate the poem's place in time as being perhaps 1950s or earlier. A washboard and brush might date it even earlier. A rock and stream even earlier. Time. It's a necessary element in writing.

My 5 year old grandson is writing a small piece on Abraham Lincoln, a bit of a deja vu to my daughter decades ago. He writes, "Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin." This simple sentence LOCATES time. Even without the date specific, it locates time. He may be unaware of this now, but hopefully as he continues to do his school writing he will notice and appreciate how time can work for him.

Another issue for me regarding time is linear time vs circular time. What is the way I look at time? Personally I can write in both linear and circular time. But my THINKING is more circular, the notion that time is a wheel, spinning along with returning elements (altered? sometimes) and with lessons to be learned along the wheel. I see nature as repetend also, and the idea of time as circular is evident in the cycles of nature. This of course brings me back to the title of this blog, Vernal Equinox. I am gobsmacked over the equinoxes and the solstices. I see these as grand gestures on the part of the universe, the earth, the Creator. Yes, these specifics-named events are noticed and named by men. BUT the concept, the actuality of what time does is not man-made at all. Every year on the equinoxes, I stand eggs on end. Naysayers insist it is not possible on these days more than on any others. Ha! I do it. It is real. I take pictures of the eggs on their ends. It is phenomenon I have witnessed first-hand.

I digress (of course). My point is that these markers of time are important to me and make me even more aware of time's tricks, magic, and flux. Isn't it great to have this built-in muse for your writing? This wonderful anchor or wings for your writing? I contend that time is critical for all reading, and for writing. I am excited for the wheel to roll around again and hesitate, if briefly, at equinox.

A few years ago I wrote an equinox poem (suitable for vernal or autumnal equinox... since they are equal time partners). I reproduce it for you here:


In one breathless shudder

within the hiding away time,

the earth rolls

quietly to a stop.

So finite and rare the moment,

it is dared only at the exact halves

of each year, and goes

mostly unnoticed.

I challenge you to:

1. Think about how time factors into your own writing and share your thoughts here
2. Write about something wherein time is a factor and share here
3. Write about the equinox and share it here

In closing, I am using this oncoming equinox as a kick-in-the- to infuse my writing with new energy. After the egg rolls back onto its side, I will pick up the pen.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Enough with the snow already (even if we've had not much of it)

I awoke to flakes swirling slowly like some kind of snow globe was shaken outside my window. Don't get me wrong here, I think it is lovely and magical. BUT... enough already. It's March and I am ready to be sitting outside with my laptop or a book (or my iPad books). I want my two friends to return to Maine from NYC and FL so we can start meeting to write again. I want sunshine so my legs will get brown again. I want to be able to wear pretty shoes that I don't have to carry with me to put on after I get inside wherever I am going. I want to pack away my long sleeves and coats. Is this too much to ask?

Something too about winter and writing: it is inspiring for about a minute and then...

Fortunately, I have lots to do. Poetry Month is upon us in 3 weeks. I am preparing for that by seeing to the list of poets for the Poetry Swarm, getting contest info to the schools, and attending the meetings at the library. I am searching for 4 high school students who can get a break from classes to come read at the library on a Wednesday at noon, and of course am prepping my own work for readings. I am also working on my BIG Wilbur project (see an earlier post for part of that). Dana Gioia suggested to me that I make an appointment to see him in person. I am nervous about doing that but really NEED to just do it. He is at Amherst in fall semester, so I have a goal: October.

So, what to do with my current slump? (sun just broke through... is it a sign?) I RARELY have slumps. I can usually, on any given day, just sit down to write and something happens. I don't usually have to talk myself into it, or thump about on the keyboard until something happens. But the past several days I have had little impulse to do it at all. Is this a leftover dullness from my horrible cold? I WANT to want to write. I just don't. Someone out there please give me a challenge. A prompt. A kick in the behind.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Writing the contemporary ghazal

First of all, let's get the pronunciation right: it's saying "huzzle" as if you are scraping a popcorn kernel off your tonsils. Ok, Now on to how to approach this wonderful and challenging form.

Recently, I was the member judge of a Maine Poets Society contest. I chose this form because it is challenging and rewarding. I encountered it in a serious way about 5 years ago and find it a great discipline in its strictest form, with all kinds of room to explode it to one's own tastes and ideas. Here is my talk, a bit edited to omit comments about the judging process.

The Ghazal (g-huzzle or in Spain the gacale)

There is some question as to where this form originated, whether in the Arabic world of Persia or Andalusia (Muslim Spain).

Wherever it originated, it is a newcomer to English speakers relatively speaking, often a lot looser in its adherence to the original form. Certainly, in its arabic format, it is more restrictive. For example, in the Arabic formatting of a ghazal, there would be no enjambment of lines or couplets. It is wise to remember that the definition of the Arabic, ghazal, is the cry of a cornered gazelle, one who knows she/he is about to die. So the lamentation and repetends are reminiscent of that desperation, that ending. Of course not every writer of the ghazal is going to restrict him/herself in tone or topic to the last ebbing moments of life or to an atmosphere of sadness. No topic ought to be abandoned if the writer is truly interested in making a ghazal. Annie Finch, Ghazal for a Poetess, admonishes the writer that this form is intended for the erotic. Yes, that can be the case. But there are many many of these poems which do not take that as a directive. Look at the amusing ghazal of John Hollander where he uses the form to write an ars poetica.

I am interested in the stand alone couplet, as found in many forms of writing poetry. I am interested in ancient forms that can be adapted to contemporary writing, and interested in forms that exist or once existed in other cultures and can be made in people of Western culture writing in English.

There is something magical, really, in writing and reading and listening to ghazal, almost a lilting quality exists there. Even in those considering banal topics such as politics or pop culture, the music is undeniable. This is due to the rhyme and the repetends, a truly contrapuntal approach: point, counterpoint, music upon music.

Some Western critics of the form say that these poems seem to go nowhere. Well, that is because Western thoughts of time and space tend toward the linear. Other cultures, especially indigenous cultures, do not live within a linear framework. Thus the ghazal is perfectly acceptable in its wandering nature, its seeming disunity. One might ask: Is the poet wandering about in his/her own thoughts? Is she/he talking to her/himself? Or, as Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. says in her intro to The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals From the Diwan of Hafiz, “ this a nugget of wisdom [of a] disciple who seeks union with God? One ought to ask oneself is the poet actually talking at all?

The nuts and bolts:

A ghazal is at least five couplets long, but there is no limit on length beyond that.

Some rules about the form are clear and strict. There is an opening couplet (or two lines) that is called the matla, which sets up the rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is called the qafia. There is a refrain phrase or word (repetend) called the radif.

In some ways, once the poet sets up the rhyme and repetend scheme, he or she becomes its slave. Having said this, however, in English ghazals, we might free ourselves a bit by varying the radif a little to use an off-rhyme or a delicate change in the qafia (rhyme word) or a bit of a tweak in the radif (repetend). We might enjamb the lines of the couplets. Many western world writers do these kinds of variations. We might not have the couplets interchangeable, instead having the whole poem flow in a linear fashion.

Basically, however, when you are learning the form, try to follow the original plan and keep your couplets on track.

There is often (most often?) an address in the final couplet, an actual naming of the beloved or the person who is the subject and object of the passionate expression of the whole. Hollander makes up a name, using Qafia and Radif in combination, another nod to his making the ghazal as an ars poetica.

The form is a wonderful place to combine lyric moments within a restrictive framework. This is quite a liberating thing. One can let seemingly unrelated couplets SUGGEST new unifications. In other words, allow the reader or listener to make universal connections. Of course there are those ghazals which are more unified. Even there, the reader has something to do to make the unifications strong and connect them to her/himself in a deep or fanciful way.

This form allows the poet to be mercurial while being restrictive. It is a lovely dichotomy for serious poets. It is freeing to be able to wax widely on a series of seemingly unrelated positions or to make a series of observations or parable-like statements. Let the connections be conjured by the reader. Let there be mystery.

Whether your ghazal follows the strictness of the original intent or is looser in its interpretation, the couplet allows you to get in and get out quickly. As long as you adhere to the use of qafia and radif, you are using the form. In judging, I allowed for all interpretations. I was looking for the qafia and radif and the couplet framework (even if the couplets were not separated from one another on the page).

I think it wise at this point to showcase an example from John Hollander, Ghazal. Listen for (look for) the ending repetend “at the end” in each second line of the couplets following the initial set up couplet. Of note: this is also an ars poetica, which comments on the form itself:

Ghazal (John Hollander)

For couplets, the ghazal is prime; at the end

of each one’s a refrain like a chime; at the end

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,

It’s this second line only will rhyme at the end.

On a string of such strange, unpronounceable fruits,

How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

All our writing is silent, the dance of the hand;

So that what it comes down to’s all mime, at the end.

Dust and ashes? How dainty and dry! We decay

To our messy primordial slime at the end.

Two frail arms of your delicate form I pursue,

Inaccessible, vibrant, sublime at the end.

You gathered all manner of flowers all day,

But your hands were most fragrant of thyme, at the end.

There are so many sounds! A poem having one rhyme?

— A good life with a sad, minor crime at the end.

Each new couplet’s a different ascent: no great peak

But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.

Two armed bandits: start out with a great wad of green

Thoughts, but you’re left with a dime at the end.

Each assertion’s a knot which must shorten, alas

This long-worded rope of which I’m at the end.

Now Qafia Radif has grown weary, like life

At the game he’s been wasting his life at. THE END.

The ending is very playful, with Hollander using the traditional signature couplet, called a makhta, in which a poet invokes her/his own name. He chooses, however, since this is an ars poetica, to make up a name using the two repetends, the qafia and the radif. Very clever of him.

Notice that Hollander could take most of the couplets and rearrange them in any order, save the first and final ones. This is a hallmark of the strictest ghazal. Note also that his couplet contain enjambments of lines (though not of stanzas). A ghazal which enjambs lines is referred to as a qata. Let me read to you now a couple of ghazals I have written, Ghazal of the Dark Blue Suit and Sea Ghazal. Both of these are gata. I think I prefer the qata.

Another challenge one might make in writing this form is to rhyme every line. I did this in the following poem, Prison Ghazal [wrongly accused] I also did NOT use the qafia just before the radif. I tell you this, and show you the poem in order to underscore that you might change things about for your own "take' on the form.

Prison Ghazal

[wrongly accused]

How did I come to this disarray

losing myself to open air, to this dismay.

What will I eat and do each day?

Oh such a battered twist this dismay.

I’d rather open up my wrist and flay

off my own skin, such dismay.

Losing ground day after day

I bare can take this heart-heavy dismay.

The sky is filled with birds that pray

for me in my dismay.

The trees droop so and, dismal, sway

to match the steps I count and pace in my dismay.

An eagle screams, forgets its prey

drops one fine feather to cheer this dismay.

Dark grows the sky above, and the way

it shrugs its black attire shows its dismay

at the wicked who thought me a piece to play

in their smudgy game of evil and dismay.

A priest I am and thus shall ever stay

no matter what humiliation or dismay.

I bare my soul, and say

my God why leave me in such dismay?