friday roundup: you do not need to leave your room edition

img_8251

Here is what the walls of my study look like these days. Thank you, critical thesis.

Dear Reader, I keep starting blog posts like this: I had not intended to be away quite so long. It is still true. I’m just trying to keep all the balls up in the air: my thesis work, my editorial work, motherhood, keeping people (reasonably) well-fed and the bathrooms (reasonably) clean. Laundry (insert deer-in-the-headlights look here). And lest we forget: the poems.

[Confession: I am really good about not forgetting the poems. They are always my first priority, and I work on them every day before doing anything else. This may be a character flaw, but it’s the character flaw that has saved my life.]

At any rate, I’m here to share a few things this cold, snowy Friday.

“to let the words write the words”  One thing I want to share is this amazing essay, “Bewilderment,” by Fanny Howe. I’d printed it off a few weeks ago and finally sat down to read it. First a little background: up until several months ago, my process for writing  a poem was to free-write whatever came into my head, often something off a line by another poet, and often, amidst writing, returning to that line, and then to shave the free-write down or  mix it up or do whatever I needed to do to it to make it a poem. Lately, though, my process has undergone a big (and often, for me, bewildering) shift: Words and lines arrive from I know not where. I write them down. More words and lines arrive. I write them down. And so on until (sometimes) a poem is made. I’ve been thinking of it as the LISTEN & DICTATE process of writing poetry, a phrase which I came across in this interview.

But in this essay, Howe writes a description of her writing process which better describes my own. I never would have been able to articulate it—which is why we need the rock star poets of the world: so they can tell us what we’re doing—but it is exactly how my poems have been arriving and making themselves. Howe writes:

First I receive the impression of a time period as an experience of pure language, glimpses of actions, emotions and weathers. I jot down whatever comes through—in a rush of words. Then I begin to see what is being said and to see it as it unfolds, as if from afar and sometimes I actually stand at a distance from the words that are there. Spotting word-associations and what their sounds suggest and prove about the “point” of this emergent poem forces me to remove my body from the action; to let the words write the words. Letting the lines cohere on their own volition is crucial. Literally it is like watching someone else take form in the dark and I am weirdly disassociated from the action, an observer, a voyeur, though all the objects in the room, and the body, are familiar, are even “mine.”

An experience of pure language. To let the words write the words. Yes, please.

the poem wanders away from the demonstration  Since the election, there have been many calls to many different kinds of action. On social media, in articles, and elsewhere, I’ve read several outright imperatives and a few gentle suggestions that our poems must now be political. That poetry that does not engage in the public sphere and advocate for change is a useless endeavor.

I disagree. I think the act of making art is, itself, political. Roethke: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” Lyn Hejinian: the poet must “undertake the preservation of otherness.”

I also think that poems are the very opposite of tools. Which is not to say that a poem can’t be political and can’t become a rallying cry for a movement—we know poems can do this—but it is the poems themselves that decide what they will be. It is the poem’s will, not our own.

This essay at Lithub by Matthew Zapruder expresses and explores these ideas better than I have here. In it Zapruder argues that poems are an unreliable vehicle for advocacy; that:

The poem is by its nature and design easily distracted. It wanders away from the demonstration, the committee meeting, the courtroom, toward the lake or that intriguing, mysterious light over there. What is that light? It looks like something, I’m not sure what, I’m sorry to leave this very important conversation but I have to know.

He also argues:

The role of poetry in our time of crisis is the same as always: to preserve our minds and language, so we may be strong for whatever is to come. And also, to preserve the possibility of mutual understanding, not by arguing for it, but by demonstrating it.

I guess what I’m saying here, to myself as much as to any of you, is: keep writing your poems. If they are political, so be it. If they are about a pair of socks a friend knit for you, so be it. If they are about the moss growing on the garden bench despite the snow, so be it.

and in a departure from our usual Friday programming  I am not going to share a poem today. Not because there aren’t one thousand poems I could share, but because these words from Franz Kafka seem to belong with the other words I’ve written here today. And because, in a way, they are a little poem in and of themselves:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

I’m planning to try a little something new here moving forward. Which is: smaller, more frequent posts. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, I’m wishing you warmth, comfort, and poems, yours and others’.

friday not-a-roundup: becalmed edition with the word brush

 

Paint_brushes_and_fruits

becalm v. [with obj.]  leave (a sailing vessel) unable to move through lack of wind. From be- a word-forming element with a wide range of meanings, and calm from Latin cauma “heat of the mid-day sun” from Greek kauma “heat” (especially of the sun), from kaiein “to burn.”

It’s not hot, but I’m feeling becalmed. Between meeting a deadline just now, and the loss of three singular artists this week, and it being Friday in general and no food in the house, and not even having peeked at the laundry that I’m sure has piled up while I’ve worked on my deadline, I’m just sitting here, my sails flagging, wondering what to do first, next or otherwise.

So here is a small thing that many of you may have already seen circulating on social media, but which I’m holding onto as a rallying cry for making art fiercely and always, becalming be damned. From C.D. Wright’s “Cooling Time”:

“I believe in a hardheaded art, an unremitting, unrepentant practice of one’s own faith in the word in one’s own obstinate terms. I believe the word was made good from the start; it remains so to this second. I believe words are golden as goodness is golden. Even the humble word brush gives off a scratch of light.”

brush n. an implement with a handle, consisting of bristles, hair, or wire set into a block; a slight and fleeting touch. From Old French from Old French broisse (Modern French brosse) “a brush” (13c.), perhaps from Vulgar Latin *bruscia “a bunch of new shoots.”

Happy Friday and thanks for reading.

friday (mini)roundup: ‘was she fierce?’ edition

Herself at Alta Lodge, Utah

Herself at Alta Lodge, Utah

Happy Friday, Reader. Today’s roundup will be brief-ish (I am not so very good at brief, but brief-ish I can sometimes manage), for there is Another Half-Day of school.

Last week (the week before last?) I posted a photo of a book I was reading, Cartas Aspasionadas: The letters of Friday Kahlo. It is a cool little book whose package (and contents) holds evidence of past worlds; look:

IMG_4785

The stamped due dates make me wildly happy.

Anyway, about Frida, a reader asked in the comments: was she fierce?

And I wanted to say, Yes, yes she was! But her letters reveal the art to be fiercer than the woman. Or like all of us perhaps, that she was fierce sometimes, not others.

She doubted the worth of her art, even while it was being acquired by the Louvre. And it seemed that a lot of her feelings of self-worth were dependent upon the status of her stormy relationship with Diego.

Of her painting, she wrote: “I think at least a few people are interested in it. It’s not revolutionary. Why keep wishing for it to be belligerent? I can’t.”

Of Diego: “I love you more than my own skin, and … even though you don’t love me as much, you love me a little anyway—don’t you? If this is not true, I’ll always be hopeful that it could be, and that’s enough for me… .”

And of the intersection of the two: “I’ve lost my best years being supported by a man, and doing nothing else but what I thought would benefit him.” (In fairness to Frida, she also supported Diego once or twice, bailing him out financially by selling her art).

Well, we are all flawed. And women were, for many generations, raised to find their worth in a man and/or a family, and not in their own work. I think that’s starting to change.

So, was she fierce? I think her art is fierce. I think she was fierce sometimes and not others. I think we should all be as fierce as possible in our art, our life’s work, and in our love for others and ourselves. I think we should be fierce about not letting any one of these elements of life devour any of the others.

What she was, though, that I did not know, was a poet. Here is a little poem she wrote in the guise of a letter:

*

Letter to a Girlfriend in France (probably Jaqueline Breton) by Frida Kahlo

Since you wrote me on that clear and distant day, I have been wanting to explain to you that I cannot leave those days behind or return timely to the other time. I haven’t forgotten you—the nights are long and difficult.

The water. The ship, the dock, and the departure that made you so small to my eyes, imprisoned in that round window, that you were looking at in order to keep me in your heart.

Everything is intact. Later, there came the days, new of you. Today, I would like my sun to touch you. I tell you that your daughter is my daughter, the puppets, set up in their large glass room, they belong to both of us.

The huipil with purple ribbons is yours. Mine are those old plazas of your Paris.

*

If that’s not a poem, I don’t know what is.

Here is what a huipil is.

All this thinking about fierceness reminds me of a quote from Isadora Duncan:

You were once wild here. Don’t let them tame you.

Let us all be fierce, wild, untamed, artists, lovers.

friday roundup: walking the plank, how to end a poem, and when in doubt, art

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

Dear Reader,

Are you still there? I am still here. I am still juggling, dancing, dashing and dodging, but alas, never balancing. I am still reporting to my desk in its four-foot stretch of wall space with regularity — “as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos… .” And they do. Intermittently. As one of my first teachers of poetry (and a mother of four) used to say: “Life is very lifelike.”

Anyway, onto poetic thoughts and musings….

walking the plank  I am still reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (Wow — just noticed the price on that baby. Hunt around. I found it for much cheaper). I am still finding gems page by page, sometimes a whole essay of treasure. After figurative language, line is probably my very favorite element of poetry — both in reading and writing. I like it best when reading or writing a line of poetry is like walking the plank. Here is Catherine Barnett (who I quoted a few weeks back as saying poetry is “a ruin of prose”) on this march-toward-death quality of the line:

“Poetry gives me endless options, and where and how to end the line is, for me, one of the most energizing possibilities, uncertainties, because it holds within it the possibility of beginning again at the next line, and that little vertical fall is fuel, libido, a little vertigo — and because it holds within it the possibility that the line won’t end, not / this / time. Preserving your options is only a poor man’s strategy for forestalling death. A line-break is the same. Mortality confronts you at every line. Is this it? Is this it? Is / this / it?

Let us give thanks for smart poets who write essays and books on craft so that we can read them. Amen.

how to end a poem  (insert maniacal laughter here). And lo, it is said, “Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.” Yes they are. But I gave a little craft talk on endings at my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and the outcome was a list of strategies for ending a poem. I could kick myself for not making this list ten years ago. Here is the list:

  • Bold claim
  • Shift to the imperative voice
  • Direct address (“Greetings, Earthlings.”)
  • Apostrophe
  • Dialogue / something spoken
  • Make a list
  • Ask (a) question(s) (Personal favorite: Lucille Clifton, “quilting,” “how does this poem end? …”
  • (needless to say) Strong image
  • Explicit entry (or re-entry) of the speaker
  • Big swerve (e.g., description, description, description, statement that seems to have nothing to do with the description but obviously does because it’s in the same poem)
  • Change in perspective (a widening or narrowing of the lens, so to speak)
  • Return to or break from pattern used previously in the poem (formal, syntactical, metrical, etc.)

These strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are not offered as The List, just a list. One that I plan to keep adding to as I study poems and their endings. It will not make endings easy, but now you have a list of things to try when you don’t know how to end a poem (or maybe you already had this list and I am late to the party).

when in doubt, art  Sometimes the world feels heavy and incomprehensible (most times?). Then it feels like whatever tiny lines we can write on a blank page don’t matter. Because tsunami. Because QSIS. Because the plane. Because the girls. Because school shootings. Because starving children. Because midterm elections. Because “surgical strikes.” And the list goes on. When the world feels too heavy to write about, I often turn to art and write an ekphrastic poem. Art, I feel, is reliable. It always has more to give — more beauty, more comfort, more hope, more humanity. And of course, art is of this world, too — so then I feel better about the world in a roundabout way.

Anyway, I read a stellar ekphrastic poem in Blackbird this week, and I’ll leave you with it. It is “An Early Nude by Rothko” by Lindsay Bernal.

Happy weekend!

friday roundup: to recapitulate, understatement, and ‘failures like rented rooms’

Hopper's "Sun in an Empty Room"

Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room”

I won’t bother with a “since the last roundup” list. Even I don’t want to know.

Oh, but wait — there was a kid-free trip up to The City (as peninsula-dwellers call San Francisco).

And two critical response papers finished and sent off.

And as much po-time as I could squeeze out of two weeks of half-days of school.

And now:

to recapitulate  I’m always interested in the concept of truth in poetry. I know of some who vehemently feel that anything that is not actually (factually) true does not belong in a poem. I know of others who believe that the facts are only important insofar as they support a truth. Truth as concept, I mean — not necessarily what happened but the universal truth of the experience of what happened (if that makes sense).

I place my feet firmly inside the second camp.

Real-time digression: This makes me think of Beth Ann Fennelly‘s poem “Mother Sends My Poem to Her Sister with Post-its.” The poem is a series of short passages that read like what’s written on the post-its. Here’s one:

“She got this wrong / it was me not her father / who sang her ‘Irish Rosie’ / she was so sick with measles”

Real-time digression: I also love, love, love Fennelly’s poem “Poem Not To Be Read at Your Wedding.” Here’s a link (scroll down) and an excerpt:

“Well, Carmen, I would rather / give you your third set of steak knives / than tell you what I know.”

Ahem. But I digress. What I was planning to share was this quote from Louise Glück, the X-acto Knife of Poets:

“To recapitulate: the source of art is experience, the end product truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.” (from Proofs and Theories, Ecco Press, 1994).

Amen.

understatement One of the things I wrote about in one of my papers due this week was ambiguity. I’m interested in how a certain quality of ambiguity invites the reader to engage more deeply in the poem, and to continue the work of the poem through that engagement. I won’t bore you with the criteria I propose create that quality of ambiguity, but I will share a couple of quotes from the section on understatement and the withheld image in the old work-horse Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry:

“Never tell a reader what will leap to the mind without your telling.”

and

“Mature writers prefer to understate, to say less than they might rather than more, so that the meaning can explode within the reader.”

Yes — that explosion of meaning — that’s one of the things I love about reading poetry. How you can read the poem at 5:30 a.m. (or whatever time you read in your neck of the woods) and then two Tuesdays later, while you’re wiping the counters at 9:00 p.m. it hits you, a possible meaning for that poem/line/image. Yes.

failures like rented rooms Short poems. I adore them. I read them. I study them. I cannot seem to write them. I aspire.

Here is a short poem by a poet I’ve only just discovered, thanks to another poet who wrote about her work on Facebook (I pause to admit mixed emotions and eternal gratitude for the tribe-building function of Facebook). The poet is Deborah Digges. As with my recent discovery (thanks to another poet — though not on Facebook) of Jack Gilbert, I cannot conceive of how I’ve lived 42 years on the face of this earth and never read Deborah Digges’ poems until now.

*

Custody by Deborah Digges

The first warm evening in April
I unpack my summer clothes, dresses
in which you knew me, hanging
from the lights and mirrors and windows.
Once our idea of heaven meant
all the dead relatives waiting
on the kept lawn of the many mansions
as if, suddenly sinless, they had nothing
to do. Now I’ve come to see our failures
like rented rooms to which the boarder
returns and falls asleep fully clothed,
only to wake at a cat’s cry
or a child’s, locked away in
one of the neighboring houses.

*

I love how that “like rented rooms” can be read both literally and figuratively. And how she brings sound in at the end to keep the poem ringing in our ears.

And that’s a wrap. Have a good weekend. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: imagination radiating, modifier or amplifier, and “Pale / by the road to the North”

Klimt: "Mountain Slope at Unterach on the Attersee" 1916

Klimt: “Mountain Slope at Unterach on the Attersee” 1916

Hello, Reader and happy Friday. Since the last roundup there has been one, actual FULL week of school (the only one since school started a month ago — and don’t worry, this week was not a full week again, so the kids aren’t getting exhausted or anything. Ahem.); three critical response papers and one creative packet completed and turned in; one novel abandoned (reading, not writing), one Nutcracker audition (not me); two cross country meets (not me); two tennis lessons (not me); one allergy appointment (not me); one orthodontist appointment (not me); one four-point plan (every single one of us). I think if I hear of even one more four-point plan in my lifetime I’m going to have to consider becoming a space colonist despite my fear of flying. **I’ve come back to add a nuance here, because I am no expert about what should be done about QSIS (which some call ISIS or ISIL), but I abhor the slick packaging of words of war.**

 

Oh also: one marathon drafting session and two worthwhile revisions. Also one measly submission. Alas. This week I bring you:

imagination radiating Last week I had to take a break from le Bachelard. He was starting to get under my skin. It was when I got to “the increased intimacy of a house when it when it is besieged by winter” that I knew I was in trouble. Then when I read, “Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons” and “on snowy days, the house is too old,” I said to myself, Okay then. Enough of that. I put the book aside. (I used to do that with boys, too, and later men; if they started to get under my skin I was like, See ya!)

But Bachelard, Bachelard. I couldn’t stay away. I went back to it. And now I accept the Feeling of Doom that comes when one reads a book they know they will never again live without. Wherever I go in my life, I will be carrying Bachelard along with me — literally and figuratively. It’s like a marriage.

Anyway, here is something to think about regarding images and what Bachelard calls “poetic revery”:

“Poetic revery, unlike somnolent revery, never falls asleep. Starting with the simplest of images, it must always set the waves of the imagination radiating.”

No pressure.

modifier or amplifier  A poet-friend introduced me to this article on line by Rebecca Hazelton. In it, Hazelton says:

“Line can be difficult to talk about because it doesn’t operate independently of other poetic elements, as sense, syntax, sound, and rhythm can. Instead it is a modifier or an amplifier of sense, syntax, sound, and rhythm — which is precisely why an exploration of line can so illuminate poetry as a whole.”

The article then goes through close examinations of line in various poems, and suggests several exercises we can use to explore the options opened up to us by different uses of line in our own work. I have read, marked, scanned and tagged this article as a keeper. I hope it’s useful to you.

“Pale / by the road to the North” Here is the poem I was planning to post last week. Then, Life. It’s by the late Johannes Bobrowski, a German poet who was imprisoned in Russia during WWII and was relatively unknown in the U.S. until his work was translated in the 1960s. I, for one, am glad to have found his work. Here is:

NORTH RUSSIAN TOWN by Johannes Bobrowski

Putoshka 1941

Pale
by the road to the North
falls the mountain wall. The bridge,
the old wood,
the bushy banks.

There the stream lives,
white in the pebbles, blind over the
sand. And the caw of crows
speaks your name: Wind
in the rafters, a smoke
toward the evening.

It comes,
a glowing in
the cloud, it follows the winds,
it watches for the fire.

Remote fire breaks forth
in the plain,
far. Who dwell near
forests, on streams, in the wooden
luck of villages, listen
at evening, lay
an ear to the earth.

*
!!!”the wooden luck of villages”!!! Yes. Also, note his very astute use of “an” in the last line, rather than “your” (I know this was translated, but, let’s assume the translation is faithful). “Your” would’ve limited the power of that ear. The ear would’ve belonged to those “who dwell near forests… .” The “an” allows the ear to belong to the dwellers, yes, but also allows the town itself to become an ear laid to the earth. Well, that’s my reading anyway. Also: O, how he builds tension with his syntax and line. I aspire.

And now, since the kids don’t have school today I guess I will go do a bunch of mom stuff. Happy Friday, happy weekend, and write on.