Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sharon Olds and her new book; another expansion ahead for me

Sharon Olds changed me from a timid vanilla ice cream with raspberry sauce writer to more of a rum raisin ice cream writer. From expected to unexpected. From bland to bold.

When I read her book, The Father, Alfred A. Knopf 1992I became brave. She wrote bravely and I could do the same. This collection of poems became a touchstone for poems I knew needed to be written.  What she wrote about (the dying of her father) and the way she wrote about it did not mince words. She used skillful diction and structure to come at this topic with honesty. Death and dying was taken off the pedestal of veiled sentiment or sentiment at all, and placed right there in front of us. Death, and in particular slow dying, was no longer a topic to be hedged, but was confronted in its nakedness and inevitability. We all secretly want to know, but no one was talking about it. Certainly no one was talking about it like Sharon Olds. Here is a poem that exemplifies that for me:

My Father's Eyes

The day before my father died
he lay there allay with his eyes open,
staring with a weary dogged look.
His irises had turned hazel in places
as if his nature had changed, bits
of water or sky set into his mineral solids.

and he swerved his blurred iris toward me and with-
in it for a moment his pupil narrowed and
took me in, it was my father 
looking at me. This lasted just
a second,

Then his vision sank back down
and left only the globe of the eye, and the
next day his soul went out
and left just my father there 

I'd never read such a thing. No overt emotion whatsoever, no flowery speech, just clear vision, inspiring diction. The poem shows what is possible in the intimate moments of our lives and our deaths. The rest of the poems in the collection are as barefaced, some even more so. I wanted to write with such clarity, such attention, such bravery. Olds' work gave me permission.

I'd always written safe poetry. I did not tackle topics that were lurking in me. It was not that I did not want to/need to write about being molested as a child, or about my father's post WWII PTSD, or my difficult relationship with my mother. I very much wanted to write about those things, not just to serve my need to vanquish them, but because I knew (have always known) that others had similar experiences. Maybe they needed to hear someone else say these things out loud. But who would say them? Maybe me? But I was a good girl poet. I was concerned about whether or not I came off as a good girl in what I wrote. I was trapped in the good girl image fostered by my very proper parents, an image I eventually held for myself too. I chose silence because that was what good girls did, to the point that my poems were too safe to be real.

Along came Sharon Olds and her book. For the first time in my reading life, a woman writer was telling some big Truths. She was writing in such a way that there was authenticity even boldness, all the while using the tools poetry uses to attract. Her skills as a poet showed me how to write. I could say the previously unsayable and still be a good girl. Good had nothing at all to do with Truth in writing. I could get at the reality in my own life and connect to the lives of others if I was brave enough. I did not need to shy away from the tough parts and hide in the shadows of safety, but it would be a dance. I would need to balance my writing to expose Truth through careful diction and style. Fortunately I have had great teachers and models for doing this. Sharon Olds, unbeknownst to her, played that role for me. When I think of the balance, the dance, I remember these words from Ric Masten about relationship:

Let it be a dance we do
Let it be a dance for two.
In the good times and the bad times too,
Let it be a dance.

Of course Masten was referring to a relationship between two lovers, but I see it as the same relationship between poets and readers. The steps must be careful and skilled. The dancers must be in a partnership.

Once I discovered my bravery in writing, I was faced with figuring out how to tell my own truths without disrupting the life I wanted to live as wife, mother, daughter, friend. Since that moment I have defined and redefined Truth and revised my way of getting to it. I am certain this will be an ongoing project as I move along my own timeline as a writer, as a woman, as a woman writer. It is not a simple thing to stay authentic in writing. It would be easy to slip back into the bowl of vanilla ice cream, that safe place where no one is ruffled by my writing. It is too easy to back down, back off, back away deferentially. But I will not back up and become the timid writer I was.

Until last evening, I had never met Sharon Olds in person. I did not yet have a copy of her latest book of poems, Odes. (by the way, the ode is not my favorite kind of poem to write, or to read). I was privileged to hear her read and to meet her afterward as part of the 16th Annual Terry Plunkett Poetry Festival, where I was a featured reader. The topic for the festival this year: Poetry and Truth. It was wonderful to hear her read, to engage with her audience for Q & A. A high point of the evening for me was meting her, getting her to sign my First Edition copy of The Father  as well as her new book, Odes, and being able to thank her for helping me to become brave.

Her new book is all about being brave even within the parameters of form (the ode) and I discovered in these poems a bravery coupled with humor, pun, word play, and liveliness of expression. I have only read (or heard) five of these odes, but I can tell you that there is another lesson for me therein. I urge you to find a copy for yourselves and read it. If you dare. It is a risky book. But then again, why not take the risk and discover something. I look forward to another expansion for my own work, thanks to this book and thanks again to Sharon Olds.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Revising is an art unto itself

Poem made. Seems pretty good. Is it done, ready for prime time? Well...

I write almost every day. But not all of my writing is writing. Most of it is revising.

For me as poet, revision is the best part of the process. I look at a particular poem and ask the same question: what does the poem want? Years ago I took a week-long workshop with poet Michael Dennis Browne wherein he posed that question to us, a question I had never considered. Since that time, I cannot revise without the question. As I wait to hear what the poem is saying, I review some possible revision strategies, try on a few and see what might make the poem stronger or more definitively a "poem." (another topic for another post)I used to think of revision as something I would do to peel away layers that were obstructing the poem's message or motive. Until the Browne workshop and later Jack Myers' workshops that was my strategy.

Myers says in his helpful book, The Portable Poetry Workshop (Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), that revision was once thought of as violating a sacred gift... the workings of the unconscious. The idea that a poem comes from somewhere unearthly or is bestowed as a vision or is some kind of dictation from on high has always befuddled me. I've been in workshops where someone defended her/his poem by saying this didn't come from me and I have no right to alter it. I wonder why the person is writing at all if the writing is mere dictation. Do people who feel this way see themselves as prophets or soothsayers or mystics? Isn't automatic writing best left to the religious?

Myers tells us that re-vision is actually the act of taking a closer look and seeing a poem with new eyes, then implementing techniques which potentially make the poem stronger. He promises that this process is engaging, rewarding, and worth doing. He is right.

Let's look at three types of revision.

1. Reductive Revision

This refers to the kind of cutting that most think of as the hallmark of revision. Get rid of the following and at least the poem will be tighter:

a. unnecessary modifiers (cut out extra or extraneous adverbs, adjectives!)
b. passive or flat verbs
c. obvious and over the top transitions
d. narratives or plot elements that are fillers (do not add to the poem but only provide back story)
e. too many prepositional phrases
f. poet-intrusive or editorial comments

This is a decent strategy for the beginning poet to find ways to tighten his/her poem, however this is just one way, and a base-level way to revise.

I am as guilty as the next poet when it comes to having extraneous elements in my poems. I get so intense over the imagery, the syntax, line breaks, end words, stanza construction, etc. that sometimes the throwaways creep in when I am distracted. Using articles (a, an, the, etc.) is my biggest issue right now. I must pare them, tame them, even obliterate them.

I am getting better about adjectives and adverbs. I've been on a campaign to free the literary world of ly words for some time. They almost never add much to the understanding of a poem. Clearly, less is more. But some poets are married to adverbs.

Ing  words are on my hit list too. I try to rewrite without them. Always seems to make the poems better.

Adjectives in strings of 4 or 5 drive me up the wall. Just because one is good doesn't mean 3 are better. How many dark, grey, ominous, threatening, thunder clouds are better than one nimbus. A wise choice of adjectives is a better strategy. Hint: if there is a list of adjectives that uses a bunch of commas, revise them out.

Another way (my personal favorite after doing the reductive revision) is to ADD material or elements to the poem. The poem may want to be more, say more, embody more.

This, in my opinion, is where the art comes in.

2. Additive Revision

If a poem seems clunky to me, the first strategy I use is to print out a copy and write some notes in the margins, arrowing where the places in the poem are not quite right. I may do a free write or I may write out (in prose) what I mean to say here is.... I can find new material in the free writing of my intentions. Sometimes clarity appears and I can move toward fixing the clunky part(s). Sometimes I just look for places where there might be something new or surprising to insert. This may seem a bit dangerous and I get a feeling in my spine or in my chest that I am venturing into deep water. I was working on a poem just yesterday where this was the case. The poem was ok, but lacked something to unify and to give it a bit of a punch. I chose a single line, a repeating line. I inserted the line in three places, the result being that the POINT of the poem emerged. It was a line that had been running through my head, that I had pushed aside in my desire to get the incident just right, accurate. Once I agreed to let the line into the poem, it began falling into place. Is the poem done yet? Maybe not. But it is better, clearer, more like itself.

Here are a few ways to insert additive elements to a poem:

a. add images
b. add flashbacks or flash forwards — be careful here, consider changes in verb tense a way to go back or go forward in time
c. insert an anecdote (SMALL) that is supportive of the larger story being told
d. add a line that repeats at least 3 times
e. add color, landscape, food,  or even game elements ... let it flow and look a the results; can always take out later
f. add a mysterious line that seems dystopian or utopian
g. add a quote or phrase from science, mathematics, or literature

These are just some ways a poet can be additive in her/his revision. Be creative. Settle in and let the poem reveal what it wants/needs. Worth remembering: when writing about something that happened, it is not necessary to be wholly factual. Get at the essence; the kernel of truth that lies somewhere, perhaps somewhere buried in fact. You can lie a little. Sometimes you need to lie a little.

3. Deep Revision

This can be the scariest, also the most rewarding, process of all. It requires a poet to be somewhat relentless and cold-minded. It requires a poet to be willing to change everything about the original in order to arrive at the real poem. It requires a poet to fall purposefully out of love with every part of the original, only to discover what is really wonderful.

What would happen, for instance, if the poet took the original poem apart, laid all its elements separately on the table, then reassembled (rewrote) using either reductive or additive revision strategies? Deflate or expand each element.  Every line, every phrase, every stanza.

Certainly, separating the elements will give the poet a new view of each as an independent gesture. It allows the poet to assess the strength or weakness of each and make informed decisions about revision.

The poet should consider changing the shape, format, or form of the poem. Sometimes a poem just wants to be a pantoum, a sonnet, or a poem in heroic couplets. Sometimes, it wants to be a prose poem. It is helpful not to be nailed to writing (constructing) the poem in one way.

The great thing about revision in general, deep revision in particular, is that the possibilities for great improvement abound. Be brave enough to try.

Quickie Revision Checklist:

1. Read the poem aloud until you get to point where you KNOW it deeply
2. Do not revise while writing the first draft.
3. Keep every draft until you are certain the poem is satisfied.
4. Do not title the poem until (at least) two drafts into the process.
5. Play line/element agains each other to check for repetition (the bad kind) and for confusion (always bad)
6. Check for mixed metaphors.
7. Check all verbs for activity and power. 
8. Check for a overabundance of adverbs and adjectives.
9. Try making the end (line or stanza) the beginning, the beginning (line or stanza) the end. What happens?
10. Put the poem away for a week or two (or longer) after you think it is done. It may not be.

When you are ready, send your poem to a trusted poetry reader. See what glitches she/he may find. If needed, go at it again. Remember, if you have to explain the poem to someone, you have not let the poem have its own voice. 

Revise, re-envison, re, re, re  until the poem has had its say. Listen to the poems. They will speak on their own behalves. And keep in mind, remember ... it is a PROCESS.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Metaphor is not just for poets, although it may be the poet's life blood

Yesterday my husband forwarded me an article on metaphor which I share in a link below. It is worth reading even if you are not a writer.

I admit that I think, speak, and operate in metaphor all the time. I see this as one of my strengths.

People often say to me, oh you have such a way with words or I've not thought about ___________ quite like that.  I am speaking in a metaphorical way, choosing comparative language or substituting an image or idea to make the idea, issue more pointed, clearer, relatable.

My kids used to accuse me or inserting drama when I did this. True enough if drama means heightening the conversation or my speech with metaphor. When I would say your room is a pig sty I did not mean that literally, but even at a young age they got that pig sty was not good. Later they understood the full meaning of pig sty and knew I meant to compare directly the dirty nature of their rooms to the mucky, icky place in a barnyard.

Two gestures of metaphor:

There are two types of metaphor. Direct and Comparative: your room is a pig sty (direct) or your room is like a pig sty (comparative... aka simile). The clue here is the use (or not) of comparatives such as like, as.

We hear metaphor in our daily lives, in advertising and political speeches and even in the music we enjoy.

(Direct metaphors)

She is sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, she is the month of May.
(from My Girl) 

(similes/comparative metaphors)

He is behaving like a bull in a china shop. 

I wandered lonely as a cloud. 

black as night

sweet as candy

sharp as a tack

guilty as sin

These are not obscure. They may be oblique however, choosing a different path to get to a truth. Sometimes comparative metaphors end up being clich├ęs due to overuse. Metaphor creation, therefore, can be a bit tricky.

There is another way to use a simile which is to emphasize by opposite:

clear as mud 

We all know mud is not at all clear, so we understand that these two words do not equate. That makes the argument for whatever the phrase refers to as being in fact unclear, murky, muddy.

Another way to examine metaphor in literature and in speech is to look at single words to find a controlling metaphor. 

A controlling metaphor is one that dominates (controls) an entire literary piece or is ubiquitous in a person's speech. For example, a character or a live person may refer to things in light of certain images or actions. Constant references to food for example may indicate the person sees life as a banquet. Depending on the tone of the piece or the tone of speech  that may further indicate that the person sees life as a banquet to which she/he is not invited. The use of controlling metaphor is a great way for a writer to enhance a scene or develop a character.

This literary device is frequently seen in poetry.  For poets, metaphoric diction, including controlling metaphor, is tantamount to creating intensity and deepening (expanding) meaning. 

Controlling metaphor is similar to extended metaphor, which extends over a large portion, but not all, of a literary piece. When you read the article linked below, be very careful not to confuse controlling metaphor with metaphor used to control. There is a difference.

For now, I absent myself to the kitchen where my side dish for Easter dinner is cooking like a champ. (mixed metaphor), which is a topic for another day, along with the way slang has evolved (or perhaps devolved) into or from metaphor.

Your assignment: READ the article