Horse, then, unhorses…

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view from here

It is finished.

That is, I have finally sent off both my creative thesis and my critical paper to my Master’s program.

The creative thesis I could’ve sent months ago. The critical paper was a particular, and long, labor of love, and I must admit to shedding a few happy/sad tears upon finishing.

I have also removed all the index cards, with the voices of so many writers written across them, from my study walls. It ends up I could not bear to part with the cards altogether, so I fastened them to paper and put them in a folder in my desk drawer.

I’ve lived with these cards and their voices for months now, and although I find the mostly-bare walls more aesthetically pleasing, I miss being able to look up and see the quote I knew would be there, just where I’m looking.

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“Urge and urge and urge” —Whitman

“It’s almost as if we sing to each other all day.” —Robert Pinsky

“Love buries these ghost forms within us.” —Frank Bidart

Plumly: consonance, assonance, & surprise.

“No verse is really free.” —T.S. Eliot

“Wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall” —Robert Duncan

“[S]ilence is finally the only perfect statement.” —A.R. Ammons

“The poem’s form is where resemblance and distinction intertwine. It’s where you can’t tell something. Dancer from dance, for example.” —Heather McHugh

“It is always less tiring to substitute method for intelligence.” —H.T. Kirby-Smith

“Meter developed in response to the motion of human lives… .” —Stephen Dobyns

“I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form.” —Theodore Roethke

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful…” —Charles Darwin

Paul Fussell: the pleasures of meter are physical

“I and this mystery here we stand” —Whitman

“Craft dries your tears.” —Molly Peacock

“The rhythm is like an other, attending to me.” —Pinsky again

Calvino: not light like a feather, light like a bird.

“The form of the poem unlocks the mind to old pleasures.” —Donald Hall

“Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning. I couldn’t unpeach the peaches.” —Annie Dillard

Is this then a touch? … quivering me to a new identity… —Whitman

Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.” —C.D. Wright.

*

And more, so many more. I will carry them with me. It’s almost as if they’re singing to me all day.

friday roundup: Whatever in passing

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Spring is trying to arrive; some days yes and some days no.

(I think) I’m nearly finished with my creative thesis and my critical paper.

There are nine weeks of school left for the kids.

We just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb known to humankind.

There is an app that will wake you up to the sound of birdsong.

I’m not sure what to make of any of it, but here are some things:

no Creative people say no. Women, especially, are conditioned not to say no. And never the twain shall meet.

Someone once tweeted (I can’t remember who, but the words have stayed with me): You will have to say no in order to do your work. It will be worth it. I have said no to lunch invitations, movies, shopping days, volunteer “opportunities,” children, laundry, dinners (as in making them), hairstyles (as in having one), arguments (both having them and settling them), sleep, and more, in order to do my work. I just said no to a second game of PIG on the driveway basketball hoop with my darling girl. “I wish I could, but I have to work today,” is what I said. The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Here are two articles about saying no, and one even gives you some good ways of saying it: One. Two. Spoiler: Even Dickens said no.

reinforcements A friend posted this on Facebook the other day, and it’s now hanging above my desk. In case your will to say no requires reinforcements:

A woman must be careful not to allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She must simply put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only. —Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Men may also need to be careful about this, but since those who identify as women still do most of the child-rearing, household-running, and the Administrative Caca that comes with those tasks—none of which are ever “finished”—, it’s especially important for the Sisterhood.

Whatever in passing  This morning I read two poems at Poetry Northwest‘s website written and translated by two women—Ye Lijun and Fiona Sze-Lorrain—who said yes to their art. We will never know what they said no to in order to do it, but I am so glad they did, because these poems are exquisite and they kindle in me the desire to keep trying to make exquisite things with words.

You can read them here.

one more thing I recently—and finally—created an author website. If you click on it, it will become more findable. Would you? Thanks. www.mollyspencer.com.

Happy weekend!

from the notebooks

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I love to look at artists’ notebooks. ^^Here^^ is mine. (Well, actually, I prefer to look at the insides of the notebooks, but sorry, this one’s still too fresh to bare).

It is a messy place, scuffed, tagged, dog-eared, x’d out, scrawled across. I’m against making the notebook a sacred place. I’m in favor of messes.

When I start a new notebook, I always write this quote from Robert Hass inside the front cover, even though I don’t really believe it: “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.”

It’s the half an hour part that I don’t believe.

But you can do at at least some of your life’s work in half an hour a day, so there’s that.

Here are some snippets from my notebook, selected at random:

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“Over again I feel thy finger and find thee” Hopkins… Deutschland

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Lament for Untitled

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Also, that Goya painting.

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(Imitating Wright, god help me)

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3/15/2017 ( and you? )

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wing
broken wing
snapped wing
snapped wing of your doubt

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S-P as a Paper Boat

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Also: the moon as ashen

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bleh
bleh bleh bleh

Note: written below attempts at poems

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A.R. Ammons “A Tree Full of Cleavage Bared Branching”—one word from it: chantless

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papery->chartaceous(!), tissue, parchment

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flange
rail
cringe
blear
share (as n.)
unchild
shoal
vault
reeve

//

From Linda Gregg’s poem “Blake”:

“I am finished with knife and window / My bed will be underground soon enough. / I will persist in this impermanence / that flesh holds. The body smooth, / the voices speaking within.”

shit goes wrong

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I have mostly been writing my thesis nonstop for the last two weeks. A draft is due tomorrow. I should be working on it now (and will soon), but I’m stopping by here to share a link to two of my poems in this month’s THRUSH poetry journal.

They are poems from my first full-length manuscript which is currently making the rounds.

At first glance, they might appear to be poems about love gone wrong—Persephone and Hades, you know the story. But when I wrote them they were attempts to reckon with the reality of serious, chronic illness. Illness that was never going away.

More broadly, I was attempting to reckon with the problem of suffering. Suffering, which—as long as there are sentient beings in existence—is never going away.

Shit goes wrong.

Sometimes something dark kidnaps you and takes you underground through a rend in the earth. You’re down there, you’re hungry, you miss your mother.

But after a while it becomes your life. YOUR life. And so, while you wouldn’t choose it, you can’t exactly wish it away either.

Here are the poems, and make sure to read the rest of the issue, too. Thanks for reading.

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(Note: The first poem is also an ekphrasis of the painting above, View of the Campagna, 1832 by Friedrich Wasmann; oil on paper mounted on cardboard, Hamburger Kunsthalle. You can find a larger image of it here).

I attack the ruse.

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(art from wikimedia)

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Nobody is attached
by Tomaž Šalamun

Nobody is attached. You too are not. You too
are undressed and warm, breathing like a

hare. We breathe slowly. I’m the thorn.
The thorn. I go into the goblet. I toss

the string. There’s a bucket on the string. It
splashes in the fountain. At the bottom of the fountain

there are does with big eyes. I limp, I eat kohlrabi,
point with a finger, and ask too much. Calm

yourself. It will come and vanish. You’ll be mute
and black and you will fall asleep on the shelf.

Combines will halve you. The shy ones
the rag opened the eyes to the timid ones.

No one loaded the duffle. The lamps along the path
were made of white plastic. I attack the ruse. I love.

*

I love this poem for its strange unconnectedness. Richard Hugo: “Connections are not stated, yet we know the statements are connected. They are connected because the same poet wrote all (of them). That is, they are products of one vision that, along with style, becomes the adhesive force. This adhesive force will be your way of writing. Assume the next thing belongs because you put it there.” From Hugo’s “Nuts and Bolts.”

I am almost mad when it ends up the lamps along the path are made of plastic. But then I see how it fits perfectly, waking us from the dream of the poem.

I’m not sure who translated this poem, but Šalamun translated his own work at least some of the time. I found this poem via the poet Gretchen Marquette, whose book May Day is fantastic. You should read it.

Happy New Year!

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

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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 roundup: listen and dictate, you can quit anytime, and the most beautiful thing

Dear Reader, today I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything until lunchtime. After a few weeks of nearly constant running, this feels luxurious and I plan to enjoy every minute of it. Let me assure you that there will be Poems, and there will be Tea (and later, if I am honest, there will be Cleaning Out the Refrigerator). But first, let there be a roundup:

listen and dictate  Several weeks ago, I read this interview at Oxford American with Rebecca Gayle Howell, whose poetry collection Render / An Apocolypse recently came out from Cleveland State University Press.

I always enjoy hearing about other poets’ writing processes, and Howell says this about hers:

“An early teacher of mine, James Baker Hall, advised me to “listen and dictate.” If I have a method I return to, it’s that one. I catch a line being uttered somewhere in the inscape, and I write it down. Then I repeat it to myself until I hear something new; I follow its lead.”

Of her book, she says:

“In the case of Render, my process led to an agrarian myth, an almanac for climate change, but I didn’t set out to write such an almanac. I set out to write an honest line.”

These bits have been echoing in my mind since I read the interview: “listen and dictate” and “I set out to write an honest line.”

Their appeal, for me, is in their simplicity. And perhaps in their speed, or lack thereof. If what it takes to write a poem is to listen for a line, write it down, and then wait for what comes next, that seems eminently doable even in the busiest of times. If the goal is not a book, or a Pushcart, or even a poem; if the goal is to write an honest line, well that seems doable, too. And both approaches strike me as slow. Slow in the best possible way. Slow, no rush. Slow, until the time is ripe. Which is not to rule out the words all coming in a rush, but if they don’t, okay, keep going.

you can quit anytime  Here is some encouragement for keeping at it with submissions: The Missouri Review says it plain: Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good. I’m glad to hear this, and particularly glad to hear it from TMR, because I plan to submit poems to them until the day I die. Also, Blackbird, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Northwest, Southern Review, I’m looking at you.

Here’s the takeaway: “You can quit anytime. Why quit now?”

the most beautiful thing  As usual, I’ve strayed from the path of my assigned readings and into the pages of a book I just happened to bump into. This time, I bumped into May Day by Gretchen Marquette. These poems are about grief and loss and fear and also survival. They’re about keeping on, even if there is no “happy” ending. I fell for the poem “Figure Drawing” in particular. You can read it here on the TriQuarterly website. You can buy May Day here.

Let us listen and dictate. Let us keep on. Let us not quit now.

friday not-a-roundup: SYLLABUS and Rumi

IMG_6761Dear Reader, I am here with not-a-roundup, or not quite a roundup.

During these transitional days, I’ve had a hard time finding the stretches of time that encourage deep listening and thinking that are so vital to creative work, and have even found it difficult to read straight narratives.

Enter Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, by Lynda Barry.

I was tipped off to this book by a Q&A with my friend and fellow poet, Sarah Pape.

The book is a collection of notes, questions, sketches, and syllabi created by Lynda Barry during her time teaching interdisciplinary classes on creativity at the University of Wisconsin. Amongst many other things, it introduces a way of keeping a notebook that helps its keeper (1). notice things, and (2). enter into her sources of creativity: the subconscious mind, memories, obsessions, etc.

The basic gist is to keep a daily notebook, in which each page looks something like this (except with your own content, of course):

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Some names have been changed to protect the innocent

One thing I like about the method is that it’s quick–takes about 5 minutes. Another thing is that it’s easy, by which I think I mean: not emotionally freighted, not in the service of any particular outcome. I’ve been at it only a few days, and already I find myself NOTICING more: the curl of an extension cord on the floor (hello, makeshifting), the sign my mom left on my desk in order to preserve its’ fragile legs: “Do not slide this desk—only lift it.” The practice has helped me not only to notice things, but to notice which things I notice. Why does the wording on the sign keep coming back to me? Why do I keep seeing the curl of the extension cord in my mind’s eye?

Anyway, there’s a lot more to Syllabus than this, but if you’re looking for something to jump start or re-energize your creative practice, you could do worse than to get your hands on a copy and try it.

Here’s a little something from its’ pages, a quote from Rumi, which reminds me (again) of why I write so many poems even if most of them go nowhere:

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And here is a Rumi poem that Barry uses throughout her classes. She recites it while her students draw:

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THE DIVERS CLOTHES LYING EMPTY ON THE BEACH
by Rumi; Coleman Barks, trans.

You are sitting here with us
but you are also walking in a field at dawn.

You are yourself the animal we hunt
when you come with us on the hunt.

You are in your body
like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you are wind.

You are the diver’s clothes
lying empty on the beach.
You are the fish.

In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up.

Your hidden self is blood in those,
those veins that are lute strings
that make ocean music,
not the sad edge of surf
but the sound of no shore.

*

I am happy to be alive in a world where someone is a professor of interdisciplinary creativity, and where I can learn from her learning. And where moms leave notes to protect the fragile legs of desks, and extension cords loop on the floors of  mostly-bare rooms, looking like the thread of giants or some impossible sea creature forgotten on land.

friday in lieu of a roundup: on keeping the channel open

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From Moby Dick

Reader, one of my friends on Facebook wrote that there are negative amounts of poetry in her life this month.

Here I raise my hand.

And yet, the Universe (well, okay, social media) keeps reminding me that making art is not about production or results.

So in lieu of a roundup, I’m going to share a few things that have kept me relatively calm amidst the negative amounts of poetry in my life so far this month.

#1 the pitch drop experiment  My genius, biochemist older brother told me about this years ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. In the pitch drop experiment, a scientist set up an experiment to see how long it would take for pitch—which seems quite brittle in some ways, and indeed can be chipped off itself at room temperature, but is in fact viscous—to form a drop, and for that drop to fall. That process takes about a decade. I haven’t verified this independently, but my brother told me that when the first drop of pitch finally did fall, the scientist who set up the experiment was not there to witness it.

#2 the paint that is still drying  My genius, poet-artist friend Kelly Cressio-Moeller does this cool thing on Facebook: Every Friday she posts a piece of art and a little something about it. This week she posted a still life by the artist Dick Ket. From wikipedia:

“As a result of his technical experimentation with different formulations and additives to the glaze medium, some of his paintings are not completely dry after six decades.”

#3 the open channel  Yet another friend posted an inspiring quote from Martha Graham about the role of the artist vis-a-vis her work (and specifically vis-a-vis evaluating her work):

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

I think all three of these things speak for themselves. I wish you blessed unrest.

 

friday roundup: the lies we tell ourselves version

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Scary Clown

Reader, I am back from my writing residency. Which was wonderful (more on that soon). And I’m thinking about the lies we tell ourselves.

lie #1: clowns are not scary  I’ve been telling myself this as long as I can remember. Perhaps it all started with Bozo the Clown (that hair, those shoes!); the deal was sealed by reading It in eighth grade. But “clowns are not scary” is a lie. I just now walked out into my garage and was unexpectedly greeted by Scary Clown.

Clowns are scary. That is all.

lie #2: one does not need a room of one’s own  This one’s a little more complicated than “clowns are not scary.”

Many are the times (and blog posts) in which I remind myself that one does not need a room of one’s own in order to write. By and large, I believe this to be true.

But when one goes away on a writing residency and actually has a room of one’s own to write in for ten days, one must then confess that there are benefits to having a room of one’s own.

For example, one can write the titles of all the poems one has written or plans to write on index cards. One can then fasten those index cards to the walls in thematic groupings. To wit:

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This….. multiplied by 3 walls

One is then able to see the pathways along which one has been writing, even though one had thought oneself to be writing “just a bunch of random poems” for months.

One can also hang one’s manuscript on the wall. To wit:

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The ms. – partial view

One might then realize  a couple poems need to come out, one needs reformatting to shine, and a few need reordering. One may be putting lipstick on a pig, but at least one is doing it with an eye to the entire pig.

So, for me the bottom line is: One probably cannot have a room of one’s own all the time unless one is very, very lucky indeed. But one must endeavor to have a room of one’s own from time to time. Amen.

(As for the other benefits of a literal and figurative room of one’s own—the quiet, the time to think, the creative flow, the other-people-cooking-one’s-meals effect, these I will address soon in another post. Meanwhile, let these benefits not be underestimated.)

lie #3: this has *got* to be the last of the snow It is snowing again in the Old Country (also known as Michigan). Although there is no snow fatigue going on here in the Peninsula Town, I remember well the snow fatigue that accompanies March in winter climates. Luckily, we have poems for this. Here is Heid E. Erdrich‘s poem, “Last Snow.”

Happy weekend and thanks for reading!