Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, June 25, 2011

the fact of a wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down...

Robert Frost's poems are filled with "stuff" like walls, fences, snow, trees, horse-drawn carriages, etc. He was a master observer of the ordinary who wrote in an extraordinary way about the minutia of our world. His eye was not only keen, but directly connected to a mind equally keen. His ability to take readers on a journey into their inner "stuff" by way of items we take for granted is an amazing gift to all of us.

I've been thinking since yesterday about a comment made by a woman at the reading I gave with 3 other authors (I was the only poet). She said in essence that she likes poetry because poets have such a command of language, vocabulary, and imagination to make some thing new and exciting out of the ordinary. She went on to say that she heard some of the "ways you said things" and thought to herself that she would never have looked at it that way. This is heartening to me as a writer, as a lover of words and images. I cannot recall the example she used, but it felt mighty good to hear her respond that way. Truly it is a "holy challenge" to make images come alive by using fresh language. I do spend more than just a little time on revision, looking for "the best way to say" what I am writing. I have a technique that works for me. Let me share.

After I have "gotten down" the first draft, I print it out and circle all the nouns (read: images), I underline all the verbs. Then I go back and fuss over each circled or underlined word, trying on other choices like pairs of shoes, waiting for the right fit, the most exciting or appropriate choice. I go back and compare how the poem then reads, line by line, checking to see what happens to meaning and what happens to impact. Then I do a further draft with lines and stanzas moved into different positions. Again with the reading for change and impact. Then I look one more time at line breaks and stanza breaks to see if end words are "engines" or sloggers. The final tweaking is for the little things: too many or unneeded articles? too many or useless adjectives? are there adverbs that are padding not adding to the poem?

Sometimes, I just hit a wall (the one that something doesn't like!) and have to get distance. I need a vacation from my own work. Luckily, I am rarely working on one poem at a time. I can put the clogged piece in a folder and forget about it for a while. Often the poem that is not working so well is a John-the-Baptist poem (making a way in the desert of my writing for THE ONE that is coming). The next thing I work on can be standing on the shoulders of the one that wasn't getting done today, waiting for its voice. Not often, NOTHING seems to be working. In that case what I need is a wall around the work and a game-changer.

I put on some Pink Floyd (I like "The Wall" by the way, no surprise!) and change my whole outlook.

Walls are so useful. Ain't it grand? Ayuh.

Friday, June 24, 2011

It's Your Space... writing with setting as a consideration

Character, controlling metaphor, action, conflict, resolution of conflict. Sounds like the stuff of novels or memoir, right? Yes, of course. But what many people do not realize is that poets who write narrative poems deal with these too, but in a more condensed frame.

What I care about most of all (other than strong imagery) is that I set the poem somewhere. I recall teaching a class in community college where students questioned the importance of setting AT ALL, much less in a poem, especially in a poem. Of course there are schools of thought where the poets believe that it is all image and language and setting is not a factor. Bah! Double bah, I say.

One thing we all agree upon is that we want our readers to engage with what we write. We want a connection. I heard Billy Collins state emphatically that we must address the reader in some way, whether covertly or overtly. He went so far as to say that a collection of poems ought to begin with a "dear reader" kind of poem. I'm not so sure he is right about this, but...  What I believe is that we (poets) need to anchor our readers in some kind of locale, even if that place is not a place they have visited or inhabited. If we can act to include physical space in our poems, we can invite readers into that space with us.

What is the definition of place as it pertains to writing poems? Is it some grand locale, like the domes of Russia or the rocks of Zion National Park? Or can place be one small view of a larger space, like under a bed, in a car or closet or bed? Certainly. In fact, I suggest that poets ought to do what some great photographers do, squint a little to eliminate the "big picture" and focus on the minute detail IN the picture. What a daunting task it is to write about "the forest" for example, or "the sea." How limiting it is for the writer to have a seemingly unlimited topic. Better yet, write about a particular nest in a particular tree in a specific direction (the northernmost birch). Of course one of the most famous poems of place is a bit indefinite in its location, while appealing to the universal idea of its place. I refer here to Frost's Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Frost handles the nonspecific, the generic, by engaging the reader in speculation as he himself wonders. Whose wood these are I think I know lets the reader believe that these are woods of a specific person and place. The reader will suspend concern over the specific location and ownership in favor of having just clues to these. This is a good strategy for a poet to use. Leave 'em wanting more in a sense.

Most of all, the poet needs to become passionate about place, gain a certain intimacy with it. If he or she is writing a poem that takes place in a car for example, be very sure of the look, smell, feel, sounds of that car. Name it. Claim it. If the poem takes place in a kitchen, what items are there? What happens there will be believed only if the mise en scene is correct. In a recent poem, Lemon Cake, I was careful to include teacups and egg beaters to anchor the poem in space and time. In her poem, Girl in the Doorway, Dorianne Laux is very specific about the location of the speaker of the poem and the girl herself. She got it so right that when we read the poem, we are THERE hearing the dryer, seeing the V of light between her legs as the girl goes out into the sunshine. We are not told ABOUT what is happening (internally for the mother or externally for both mother and daughter). We get the poem, the incident, fully present,fully engaged. It is in large part because Laux understands setting in a poem, is fully passionate about the details so that we can become impassioned too. Ask yourself if the poem would have been as intense, so poignant, if the setting had been different. I think not. The mother's place just outside the daughter's room lends the whole poem a deep intimacy that would not exist if the mother was in the kitchen thinking about things. Richard Wilbur takes a similar stance in his wonderful poem, The Writer. The father, presumably Wilbur, is on the outside, overhearing and speculating about his daughter's activity (my daughter is writing a story). Again, the details of place reinforce and amplify the meaning of the poem. There is a window, desk, typewriter, typewriter keys, chair, desk, all of the things that belong in the place of the poem (mise en scene). Again, the wedge of time and space we are permitted to observe makes the poem solid and universal, invites us in and keeps us there until the final lines. Again, the poem would not have impact on our deeper selves if it were not set in the particular small vantage point of the  closed door and the overhearing father. Both Laux and Wilbur chose a small spot and a big issue and made them work together. These poems are not just musings of parents whose children are embarking on life without needing them. They are instead, poems of physical and emotional place. They both use setting to platform feeling.

I can't help but think of Wordsworth and Coleridge here. Both Tintern Abbey and Frost at Midnight occupy specific spaces.

What about setting the negative in place, a setting that is dark, dangerous, or regret-filled? OK, so Dante took his main character to the underworld and let him see the horrors that a wasted life might bring. I'm not talking about the kind of epic locale he used (though he did it brilliantly). I'm talking about space that is unlovely, dreary, boring, frightening. For example what about setting a poem in a kitchen, putting the character's dreadful situation of abuse on that black and white patterned floor, adding in normal utensils and furnishings. Can setting that is "normal" work for action that is not? Oh most definitely, in fact wonderfully. Then you are using setting for contrast, to make metaphor for secrets. In my first collection, Daughter of the Ardennes Forest (a verse memoir published by Main Street Rag in 2007), I set the poems in and around WWII and the Belgian-German theatre. In this way, I could write persona poems as well as poems that comment upon the nature of post-war PTSD and its effects on families. Without the setting, the poems would simply have been artifice. I was able to place myself and my parents, especially my father, into the place where the PTSD had its origins. The longish poem, Lines Composed Upon A Visit to Maddingly Cemetery was literally a visit to a spot, and the imaginings evoked from what was found there. Combined with a "tolling of the names," the place, the setting, makes for a clear view on the part of the reader as to the price of war. This poem is certainly not a celebration of place, yet it is an honoring of what led to the place's existence. The poem, In My Foxhole Again is a poem that uses place and time to recreate the hellishness of war. the final stanza illustrates my point:

In my foxhole again,
refuse of fifty years brushed away,
exact location calculated as we once did it,
I stop and listen for the click of the camera.
For one shitty second, it's not the camera at all
but that click you hear just before
you die, the shell hitting bone or ripping you
into pieces small enough to mail home
to your mother who's been watching the door
and lighting enough candles to burn down the world.

The bottom line here is this: write with an eye and ear to setting. Consider that setting may indeed be a character in the narrative you wish to tell. Your poems will take on an irresistible quality and will satisfy the truth.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nature Writing and May Swenson

I am reading May Swenson again. I was fortunate enough to find an uncorrected proof of her book, Nature in a used bookstore. I have NOT looked up the poems as they appeared in a corrected version to see if there were revisions before final printing.

In part I am reading Swenson to prepare for the panel I'm on tomorrow at the Cary Memorial Library in Wayne, Maine. (The rain in Maine stays mainly in Wayne? FORGIVE this horrible parody!) Reading May Swenson's poems, one can see that they convey a sense of human place within geographical place. I hope my poems do that. I try to make poems do that. Swenson's poems are a great barometer for me and for anyone who writes about the natural world. Her poems have been variously praised by Robert Lowell, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur (you KNOW how I feel about him!), and Maxine Kumin. Wilbur says she has  a great relish for wild nature and a knowing sympathy with wild creatures. Not to diminish Wilbur's analysis, but I think she has much more than that. I think her poems show a great connection between humanity and its roots: the land and everything on it, under it, in it, above it. Mona Van Duyn says Swenson has an ability to see and love each form of the world. Yes. And again, yes.

I wish I'd have known her personally. I'd loved to have been able to have great discussions on writing place. But lucky me, I have her poems. Her fifty years of work is my conversation with her. I'll share a poem that I love and leave you to glory in the connections she makes between the natural and the human:

Hearing the Wind at Midnight

I heard the wind coming,
transferring from tree to tree.
I heard the leaves
swish, wishing to be free

to come with the wind, yet wanting to stay
with the boughs like sleeves.
The wind was a green ghost.
Possessed of tearing breath

the body of each tree
whined, a whipping post,
then straightened and resumed
its vegetable oath.

I heard the wind going,
and it went wild.
Somewhere the forest threw itself
into tantrum like a child.

I heard the trees tossing
in punishment or grief,
then sighing, and soughing,
soothing themselves to sleep.

This poem does so much. Primarily it is a nocturne, a dream poem, a musing. But it is so much more. Notice the connections she makes to the human behaviors we all recognize and pay particular attention to how she does this. I am keenly interested in her second stanza, where she notes that the wind wants "to stay with the boughs like sleeves." I immediately made a connection to the Wilbur poem, Love Calls Us to the Things of This World where laundry on a clothesline is filled with angels (the wind). Surely Swenson's line was a direct result of having read the Wilbur poem. Or is there a grand collective consciousness that allows us to tap into one another? Maybe, but surely Swenson would have been aware of Wilbur's fine poem and was struck by its imagery. I love this about poetry. The lineage of poets, our holy "begats" if you will. We stand on the shoulders of those who also write and they on ours. So if someone asks, "who's your daddy?" answer with the name of a poet who influences you!

It is notable that in this same stanza Swenson leaves the rhyming pattern of the rest of the poem, and its 2nd and 4th lines do not rhyme. This is no accident at all. Rather this is the heart of the poem and she gives it a subtle place as such by avoiding the schema she employs for the rest of the poem. This is where she points us to our own connections to nature and its to us. There can be no confusion about her stance.

It is a little bit amusing to me that the poem is written in first person, something that was being highly criticized during the bulk of Swenson's writing years. But she had to do that. The connection to the world outside was too strong for the poem to work in a neutralized persona. It had to be her own connection (the "I" of the poem, if not the poet herself).

Swenson moves the action of the poem, like the wind, from coming to going. Brilliant. We are more "there" with her because she does this. The wind blows in from the forest, which is throwing a temper fit like a 2 year old, and then it blows away, leaving everything to cope. The poem ends on a lullaby image, and so does the wind's terror. We have wrap-up without reduction. Swenson does this with flair, sticking to the natural world, but making the connection to we who try to soothe ourselves in it.

The poem, as many of Swenson's other poems, leaves me hopeful for my own work. I have never believed that nature and humanity are separate or in competition. I feel as much a tree as a woman, as much a flower as a wife, as much a tidal surge as a tempered being. I am sometimes steady (rock) and sometimes flighty (bird) and sometimes angry (nimbus). It is comforting to know the legacy, the connection. It's raining today. I awoke to it and to tears running down my cheeks from a dream. How can I deny the connection when it is right here for me. I will make a few notes today for my part in the panel discussion tomorrow. I welcome the chance to say how place and my poetry are cousins, sisters, parent and child.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

launching a new book

Last night was the launch of my new book, I Write in the Greenhouse. My two friends, Gayle and Wendy launched their first books. In a busy world where there is so much competing for time and attention, I am heartened by the big crowd. Over 30 people came and supported the books and us. We had wonderful snacks: fresh fruit platter with blueberries, cheese (Maine cheese!) and crackers, lemon-limeade, and a lemon cake I made FROM SCRATCH. My husband is still talking about the snacks. POINT: serve great food at a launch. LOL

But for me the whole experience was about way more than food or even reading. It was clear to me and to Gayle and Wendy that it was about love. We felt warm in the presence of one another's words. We chose a format that included each of us reading a favorite poem by the others. I loved doing that. Hearing my words from Gayle and Wendy made them come alive for me. And getting to put my voice to their words was humbling. Add to that the delight of seeing people respond to our poems as they did, sighing at the serious poems, laughing like crazy at the comical ones. I surprised my friends by reading two funny poems, Hiding Your Money and There's Something Not Quite Right at Crayola. Because my poetry is generally on the literary side, a bit serious by topic, these poems were a rarity. I did not have time to read Red: a Modern Tale, which is a parody of the classic Red Riding Hood story, which is funny too. I post it here for your reading pleasure. It is written in 14 lines of rhymed iambic tetrameter for those of you who are scanning.

Red: a modern tale
If I could be Red Riding Hood
strolling through that famous wood 
in my cape of color rosey,
bringing Gram a fresh-picked posey,
I wouldn’t dally, stop to chat
with some guy in a furry hat.
I’d never give out Gram’s address 
to someone who stalks the wilderness.
I wouldn’t weaken, wail, or waffle.
I’d prevent an end that’s awful,
spray my mace and blow my whistle,
knock down the beast, snap his gristle. 
I’d give the tale a brand-new spin:
Wolf goes down. Red Riding Hood wins!

I really enjoy reading this one. It was fun to write too.

After the reading and launch we headed over to Waterfront for dinner and chatter. We sat outside by the harbor (yes, I did get chewed upon by some hungry mosquitos, but no matter) Oh my, what fun we had. We stayed until 10 PM and I must say I haven't laughed that much in a long time. Gayle's daughter Samara and my husband, Bill were with us. The conversation ranged from golf (my hubby's recent hole-in-one) to Conway Twitty (Bill looked up his music on his iPhone and we listened a bit), Elvis and Barry White, to raccoons dropping from trees in northern CA attacking a woman. We were having so much fun that the couple at the next table started taking pictures of us! They really kinda got into it with us! What fun.

We will be doing more readings together this summer. Coming next is a teatime reading at the Personal Bookshop in Thomaston on July 16 from 1-3 PM.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Long Days will now recede

No, this is not a downer of a blogpost. It is simple fact: we are in solstice today and we roll slowly to short days from this point. Can you feel this in your body?

I am prepping for tonight's reading/book launch in Camden, Maine at the library. My book is being launched along with the inaugural books of two of my poet friends: Gayle Portnow will read from and sign fog and other atmospheric conditions and Wendy Rapaport will do likewise from her collection, On the Couch with the "good enough" poet.

When I read from a new book, I try to keep the poems from it to a minimum, adding in poems from older and newer work to mix up things a bit. I have made a list of poems to read OUTSIDE the book, choosing a few funny-ish ones to lighten the mood. The three of us will begin the evening with a summer poem each (we are billed as Three Poets of Summer). Then we will each read for up to ten minutes, and end with each of us reading a poem we admire by the other two of us. I think that is a lovely way to show connectedness of the community of poets.

We will have refreshments, including a lemon cake that I am making this morning. I will be reading my new poem, Lemon Cake and it seemed like the thing to do. We will serve lemonade, ice water, and a veggie/fruit tray. Yummy Summer!

Whenever I do a reading, I get very excited. I love sharing poems with strangers. Once people hear your work, they are not really strangers any more. Poetry is a great blender of psyches. I hope we have an active crowd.

I am also giving a door prize, a copy of my favorite book in the world: The Outermost House by Henry Beston. This is the book that, although it is not a book of poems, made me dream of doing this writing thing as my life's work. I have probably given away 30 copies. I find them in used bookstores and get them for a song. I have paid at most $10 for a copy, usually around $3. Totally worth it.

I also will read a poem tonight by another poet. I like to do this for the same reason I like reading poems by my friends. It opens up the room, lends a bit of context to why we do this poetry thing. Tonight I will read The Quarry, by James McKean. It is a lovely father/daughter poem by a poet who was a mentor long ago at Iowa. I usually read a Wilbur poem, and had thought to read The Writer tonight, but changed my mind only because we just celebrated Fathers Day. Well, it is a father/daughter poem too. Maybe I will bring it, just in case.

So, I hope the crowd is big and friendly. I hope books get sold. I hope the cake does not fall.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Editing, tinkering, trashing

Just read the Chicago Manual of Style's blog about copyediting and want to share this with you (and I quote, from Carol Saller):

Can the mere possession of a red pencil make someone so trigger-happy she loses all restraint?
H. G. Wells famously quipped that “no passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft,” and there’s something in that. Once the tracking is turned on, you’re itching to leave some tracks. Competent prose can be downright irritating when you’re young and energetic and on a mission to whip the literary world into shape. Come on, come on, you think—surely I know something this writer doesn’t! Sure you do. But it isn’t that. Or that. Or that.
You sit with a dictionary and search engine close at hand. Then why oh why aren’t they your weapons of choice? If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times:
First, do no harm.
Look it up.
And when in doubt, keep your hands in the air.

So I ask you: how does this relate to poetry groups? What happens when we excessively tinker with one another's first drafts? I don't think the answer is undoubtedly that we ought to leave well enough alone... operative phrase "well enough" which is for me the reason why writing groups are exempt in some ways from accusations of trashing. Oh sure, there are people who are not satisfied with any poem they see in group. There are those who will tinker endlessly with one minute phrase. Maybe there is someone in your group who wants everything to be literally TRUE and would not recognize irony or metaphor if handed to him/her on a platter.
But basically there is loads of room (and hopefully PERMISSION) in writing groups for healthy chatter about possibilities. It is pretty exciting really to present a poem to your colleagues and have them sit there devouring every morsel, pencils paused over the draft like rescue helicopters. And what is the harm done to have suggestions, even if they seem off at the time? I love to go home from my group and ponder every detail of what has been offered. Maybe I will not heed 90%, but find one or two things that light up the poem. Oh my, does it feel great when that happens.
I've been asked many many times if a poem that is edited, tweaked, altered, is still the poem the author intended, if it has become  someone else's poem. Truly, sometimes it seems like a wholly new poem once all the ideas for revision have been employed. But the suggested edits are not the poem. And its author is still in charge of the final product. But the bottom line is this: did the editor alter the ideas or thrust of the poem? Did your colleague change the poem's purpose or feeling? I'm not talking here of changes in verb tense that make the poem's place in time more or less immediate. I mean that the poem is more changed than tweaked, less of YOU in there than some new voice. 
I have poems sent to me frequently, authors seeking their publication in my literary zine. I love the chance to work with poets who submit, making salient suggestions such as line break, punctuation, and even verb tense. What I do NOT do, is make any kind of radical alterations. If the poem is not good enough to exist without that kind of purge/replace activity, I need to (and do) refuse the poem for publication. And my key is to "suggest," not change. I love working in concert with the poets on revision. I emphasize to each and all that these are not MY poems and they have final say. I do not ever micro-manage poets or their poems. As editor I have final say only insofar as the choice to publish or not. The rest is up to the poets. My hands are up in the air, or are clapping with happiness.

reading: The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

I think there may be a number of posts on this one, though I promise not to beat up my readers with an abundance, need I say a flood of them.

I started reading this text yesterday (in the car on the way home from dropping our grandson Christopher at his college). I borrowed this book, a collection of essays by John Henry Newman,(Frank M. Turner, ed.), and was engaged immediately by the ideas Newman expressed about liberal (read liberal arts) education and literature and the notion of religious education.

To be sure, this book, meant to foster the spiritual education of Catholics along with their secular education, has a decidedly religious character. If you want to stop reading this post because that is offensive to you, go ahead. Come back tomorrow when the topic will be something decidedly poetic.

I do, however, feel the necessity to post on this topic FOR myself and those who are interested. I believe that, even for nonCatholics, it is a good read because of how Newman explains and explores the differences between focused, job-seeking education and a deeper knowledge-seeking education. I am only just scratching the surface at this point, but will report back from time to time on what I discover and how my own ideas fit or don't. You might just open up to a few ideas that ring bells in YOUR head too and not be put off by the parochiality herein.

What initially struck me was that the worries Newman expressed about how universities fail to be transformative on a broader basis are some of the very concerns we have now in terms of how universities function and how they succeed or don't in preparing their students for the world ahead. (Add "colleges" here as Newman did not delineate between the two— remember he wrote his series of essays in the mid to late 1800s.) The concerns we face now beg the argument of whether college is even necessary or is worth the huge money it takes to acquire a college degree. We wonder if jobs will be available for graduates or where those jobs will be found. We worry about getting a leg up on other graduates for the fewer jobs that seem to be there. Newman's issues circled the job vs human citizenship (and the question of morality). Is the question of university tied to dollars or to morality? Is the coin being flipped here two-sided or heads-only with little hope for wholeness?

So we are still fighting the battles fought in the mid nineteenth century. Hmmm. Why are we not making better progress? Have we indeed sunk to new lows? Remember as you read this blog entry that this text by Newman is from an entirely Catholic perspective and notably biased in this respect. But if you read between the parochial lines, you may find that many of his basic ideas work for others in sheer force of the virtues of goodness and civility.

Please note that when he speaks of "fallen" human beings, one may choose to read this as if surveying the local news or watching TV, hearing of people who commit social and moral evils. One does not have to believe in "sin" from a religious construct to be able to make a connection to evil in the world. We'd all likely agree that Osama bin Laden was the personification of evil, like Sadam Hussein, like Hitler and the Nazis. We also hear too often of parents taking the lives of their own children, and might read that as "local" evil. So, in that respect, one might read Newman's text in the light of modern criminal trends. One might question if our focus on crime and punishment is a factor which has lead directly to the  highly carceral society we have in the US, with far more people incarcerated that any other country in the world. We need to ask if education, liberal education in specific, can make a difference? Newman believes so, and wrote most eloquently about this.

I quote from the intro (by the editor, Frank M. Turner):

Newman sees the university as a human institution that may and should produce [persons] of broad knowledge, critical intelligence, moral decency, and social sensitivity... (Turner xv.)

and later:

Newman urges a maximally expansive view of the knowledge that should be present in a university while warning that such knowledge must not displace in the human imagination the necessity for receiving religious truth... to produce persons capable of active contributions to society, the university must educate them in history and literature, from which they will be exposed to the recored of the moral evil of fallen human beings. They should also become familiar with the physical sciences, which if pursued too exclusively will lead to an indifference to religion. (xvi.)

So what we have here is a now-classic clash (or at least controversy) between organized religion and secular behaviors and ideas. I think that no matter what side of the fence one might inhabit, it is a healthy discussion to be having. With a surge in religious fervor (real or politically engendered), we need to be well-informed as to the ideologies or proffered arguments of those who are making them. I look forward to a deep read of this text to see where I land. My pluralistic brain is revved up and ready to roll.

From his discourse "Knowledge in Relation to Learning, Newman says this:

And now if I may take for granted that the true and adequate end of intellectual training and of a University is not Learning or Acquirement, but rather is Thought or Reason exercised upon Knowledge, or what may be called Philosophy, I shall be in a position to explain the various mistakes which at the present day beset the subject of University Education. (Discourse 6, #6, p.101) 


...if we would improve the intellect, first of all, we must ascend; we cannot gain real knowledge on a level; we must generalize, we must reduce to method, we must have a grasp of principles, and group and shape our acquisitions by means of them. It matters not whether our field of operation be wide or limited; in every case, to command it, is to mount above it. (Discourse 6, #6, p.101)

This is fascinating stuff. We need to be in command by way of Thought and Reason. I'm good with that.