friday with screen door and Bill Knott

Doors are such a rich symbol. I could spend my life thinking and writing about them. As Gaston Bachelard writes in his The Poetics of Space, “[T]he door is an entire cosmos of Half-open.” Yes.

In my personal mythology the screen door is amongst the pantheon. Mine is an old screen door, wood-framed and warped, scuffed and cat-scratched, patched and pressed into. It never quite latches, just thwacks against its doorsill and remains open by a crack.

Recently, thanks to the good people at Open Books who know every book by every poet ever, I discovered the work of the poet Bill Knott. I was stunned to learn that he was from a little town in Michigan called Carson City, about ten miles from the little town in Michigan where I grew up.

It would be hard to overstate how little these towns are. Between them are backroads and farmland, soybeans and potatoes.

Barns and farmhouses.

Screen doors.

I confess to a fondness for poems that engage with liminalities ( this bit from C.D. Wright’s One With Others is another of my favorites: “The river rises from a mountain of granite.”).

Here’s a Bill Knott poem I spent some time with this morning:

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Just this:

What if we never entered then—        

//

Here’s more about Bill Knott from The New York TimesHis selected is called I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems 1960-2014, and is edited and introduced by Thomas Lux. Have a good weekend. Thanks for reading.

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!

friday roundup: long time no see edition

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This terrible photo of the book fair is apparently the only photo I took at AWP.

Well. I have my reasons.

I am thesis-ing.

I have been to D.C. and San Francisco and D.C. and back again in the last three-and-a-half weeks.

Care and feeding of the young.

Doing my own work first.

Etc.

But I’m here to tell you a little bit about AWP and to share a poem I read this morning.

AWP was a meat-grinder of the best sort. You run from session to snack bar to book fair to the place you told your friends you’d meet them for dinner. On loop. You finally see in person the editor who was so good as to publish your poems, poets whose work you admire, and your writing friends from distant outposts (or perhaps you are the one in the distant outpost now, but you get what I mean). It is tiring. It is overload for 12,000 introverts. But it is also a little bit of heaven. Here’s why:

You only have to be yourself: poet, critic, editor (in my case). Everyone sees you as a professional, a colleague. They ask about your manuscript and encourage you to keep sending it out. They mention seeing your poems here and there and how much they enjoyed them. They ask about your thesis and encourage you to send it to this conference they know about so you can present it there. To them, you are no one’s mother, wife, daughter, sister, auntie, neighbor, or potential PTA volunteer. There is no laundry to fold, no ground beef to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner. People want to talk to you about poetics, about the work of Poet X in Journal Y. They wonder if they can send a review copy of their book to the journal where you work. They ask what kind of work you’re looking for. They heard the panel you moderated was great. They ask what your next project is and tell you about theirs.

And that’s what I loved best about it.

Now I’m back in my study-with-the-door-that-closes working on my thesis. Writing a few little poems or notes for poems. Starting my day by reading poetry because that’s how I make sure the day will be okay. Here’s one I read this morning from Donika Kelly‘s debut collection Bestiary. Which you should buy here.

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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 (mini-)roundup: “I too am not a bit tamed” edition

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“Hawk Poised for a Fight” by ZhOng Schan Tchow (wikimedia)

Dear Reader,

I had not intended to go quite so quiet for quite so long, but there it is.

I’m enjoying living in a house again.

I’m not enjoying the results of the election, and the aftermath.

In the bleak times, I usually turn to poems. But this time even most of my standby poems-for-troubled-times aren’t helping.

Still, a mercifully, a poem has presented itself to me, an unlikely candidate perhaps, from one Walt Whitman the self-appointed bard of this nation. (Right now, it feels like he was overly optimistic about the Republic. But that’s another post for another day.)

I’ve been reading and re-reading section 52, the last section, of “Song of Myself.” And although the text may not support it (#sorrynotsorry), I’ve been thinking of our nation as the speaker, and of the citizen as the speaker. I regret that, as a citizen, I’ve been mostly gabbing and loitering over the past several years. I’ve been thinking about the work we have before us, and how the ideals of our nation are elusive and endangered. That we must put on our boots, sound our yawps, and keep encouraged. But not be conciliatory: I too am not a bit tamed. 

I give you Uncle Walt:

*

from SONG OF MYSELF

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of the day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to vapor and dust.

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.

*

friday roundup: Emily Dickinson in the kitchen edition, and some other stuff

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Another Friday. Next Friday we will begin living in a house again. Granted, it will be a house full of many unpacked boxes and mostly empty of furniture, but it will be a house. And the  most important thing is this: my books and bookshelves will be there. I confess, I cannot wait to live in a house again. I cannot wait for the first time I’ll think of a poem I love that I haven’t thought of in a while and feel like reading, or of a poem I admire that I know can help me on a point of craft in one of my own poems, and then I’ll turn around, and walk over to my bookshelves, and find the book where the poem lives, and pull it down off the shelf, and open it in my own two hands. And there that poem will be. Bliss.

save me Meanwhile, can we talk about Emily Dickinson? Thank you. Because yesterday, Open Culture ran a story with the following headline: “Emily Dickinson’s Handwritten Coconut Cake Recipe Hints at How Baking Figured Into Her Creative Process.” The article quotes the Dickinson Museum website which says:

The kitchen appears to be one of the rooms where [Emily] Dickinson felt most comfortable, perhaps most at home.” But the “many drafts of poems written on kitchen papers tell us also that this was a space of creative ferment for her, and that the writing of poetry mixed in her life with the making of delicate treats.”

Then goes on to point out a poem drafted on the back of a recipe for coconut cake: “Presumably the recipe inspired the poem.” [*raises eyebrow]

I’m going to call this romanticizing. Yes, Emily Dickinson—who once wrote “God keep me from what they call households”—spent a lot of time in the kitchen. She was a woman living in the 1800s, after all. Said the woman living in the 2010s who also spends a lot of time in the kitchen. Ahem.

I don’t think this necessarily means the kitchen was a place of creative ferment for her. More likely, in my opinion, scraps of language and ideas for poems followed her everywhere, including to the kitchen, where she would jot them down on anything that was available. Just like I do. Just like Edward Hirsch talks about writing in the car while waiting for his son to finish soccer practice. Just like Ray Carver is said to have written in the car so he could get out of the house and hear himself think. Was the car a place of creative ferment for these writers? Or were they just fitting their writing into their lives wherever and whenever they could? Just like we all sometimes stop in the grocery store aisle to jot down notes for a poem. At the basketball game. At the doctor’s office. In the middle of the night. &c.

[Okay, so I got that off my chest. Thanks.]

form again  I’m still thinking a lot about form in free verse poetry. Here are a few snippets from this week’s reading:

“Let chaos storm! / Let cloud shapes swarm! / I wait for form.” —Robert Frost (Poor Frost! and I mean that in the best possible way). From the Frost Friends website.

Robert Hass on the technical authority in the photographs of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams: “The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination.” From What Light Can Do.

And Susan Stewart on form (this is a paraphrase): Our creation myths are all about formlessness coming into form. Think of Genesis: And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Thus giving form to things becomes an act of creation. From Poetry and the Fate of the Senses.

Yet how much room for memory  Someone shared a Hart Crane poem on Twitter earlier this week, and I fell in love with it, so I thought I’d share it with you. It’s called “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” and you can read it at the Poetry Foundation website. Aside from its many other wonderful traits, this poem made me realize anew how a tiny point of craft can have enormous power. I’m looking at the way he set the name Elizabeth out by giving it its own line. The effect of this for me is that it doubles as a beckoning, a form of direct address to Elizabeth, the speaker’s grandmother. I don’t think it would feel that way if it had come at the end of the line above where it sits on it’s own.

Have a wonderful Friday and thanks for reading.

friday roundup: make the words for me

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One of *those* weeks. Nothing flowing. Feeling uninspired. Can’t seem to pay attention reading. Can’t seem to string together a coherent thought. There are weeks like that. I’ve learned to chalk them up and just fold the socks. So just a few little snippets today, including something…

…from the archives  I was looking for a particular quote last night, and figuring I’d probably shared it here at some point, I searched my olds posts for it. Didn’t find it, but I came across this gem, which, after the dead-endedness of the week, gives me no small measure of comfort. I give you Mary Ruefle:

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I want to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

Yeeeeessssssssss. From Madness, Rack, and Honey.

on form  I’ve been reading (or trying to read) and thinking (or trying to think) about my critical thesis for my MFA program. In a moment of enthusiasm last spring, I decided I’d write about form in free verse poetry. While I am actually really interested in this topic, right now it feels like a brick wall that I’m hitting my head against. This too shall pass. Meanwhile, I’m collecting little bits of what other writers have said about form. Here are a few that I’m particularly fond of:

“If goals create content / stealth creates form” —Fanny Howe (not sure I agree, btw)

“Something that you feel will find its own form.”—Jack Kerouac (also not sure I agree)

Form is “the organization of experience from the manifold of sensation.” —Alice Fulton quoting Kant (this one I can go in for)

“Love buries these ghost forms within us.”—Frank Bidart (now we’re cookin’)

“[W]hatever is said / in the world, or forgotten / or not said, makes a form.”—Robert Creeley (officially in love)

make the words for me  Amidst my trying to read, it is always a poem that pulls me in, wakes me up, makes me pay attention. Here’s one that did the job this week: Rachel Hadas’ “Codex Minor.”

I love the richness of the language and images, and how they swirl and eddy around and back on each other. I love the rhymes tucked in here and there. I love the way it begins and unfolds in what seems like a deep psychic space, a quiet interior monologue, and then opens out into, perhaps, a memory(?), at any rate a physical place on the earth, and ends in something spoken, a question no less.

And most of all I love this line: “I have no song, bird. Make the words for me.”

Bird, wherever you are, make the words for me, too.

Thanks for reading. I wish you a clear mind, many poems, and a happy weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

friday roundup, half-heartedly

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Dear Reader, it’s Friday. The world we live in and life in general have me feeling quiet and half-hearted, but here I am.

[Editing to say that this image ===========> which I can’t get WordPress to let me label today is called “The Spider” by Nikolas Gysis, via wikimedia.]

I’ve been reading My Poets by Maureen McLane, a really lovely, super smart volume of what I’d call meditative criticism. In a variety of styles and from a variety of vantage points, McLane writes about the poets “who, in possessing her, made her” (quote is from jacket text). She does this, many times, through close reading of poems, but—unlike a lot of literary criticism—her close readings take into account the way these poems and poets have moved through her life as scholar, poet, and human being. It has become a VIB for me (Very Important Book). I recommend it wholeheartedly.

I’ve also been reading Fanny Howe:

Come, tinkers, among droves of acorn trees
Be only one third needful, O
Name things whereby we hope
Before the story scatters. A cardinal
Is red for fever where you passed

!

(from Introduction to the World ; sorry for linking to the Death Star, but could not find it anywhere else)

I’ve been remembering Buson’s poem (short enough to memorize, therefore no need to read), one of my all-time favorites, on this second day of autumn:

I go,
you stay;
two autumns.
(Robert Hass, trans.)

I’ve been writing, early mornings, earlier than ever, actually, since high school starts at 7:10 (!) and I now have a high-schooler (!). The world’s on fire, and there are some amazing world’s-on-fire poems circulating out there, and I would like to write some amazing world’s-on-fire poems. But I’ve been writing poems of the interior: mindscapes, emotional landscapes, questions of how to live. Sometimes I wish there existed a switch I could flip—turn off poems of the interior, turn on poems of public life. Alas, no switch. Still, yesterday I was comforted reading this interview with MacArthur Fellow, Maggie Nelson. In it she says,

“At the end of the day, maybe I’m old-fashioned in thinking that you just don’t get to choose what you’ve got in you to give. You’ve just got to do what each book demands.”

Or what each poem demands.

She also says:

“(T)he work eventually tells you what needs to be in it for it to work, and it has to have what it has to have.”

We know this already, right? But it’s nice to have a reminder. And from a MacArthur Genius at that.

Here’s a poem, a masterful conceit, a world’s-on-fire poem, a necessary poem, a heart-breaking poem, by Nikki Giovanni:

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Happy weekend & thanks for reading.

one of my favorite love poems

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“let us all be from somewhere”

It’s Friday. Even though the world has made me feel so quiet lately, has made words seem so powerless, extraneous even. It’s Friday, and we made it safely to Michigan, to the arms of our extended family, to the place on the map where my body feels safest, my heart most at peace. It’s Friday, and though I’ve missed a few and may yet miss a few more, Friday is for posting poems. So I’m going to post a little love poem that I love.

It’s a love poem for a place. A true love poem—one that knows its lover’s faults and foibles. One that loves anyway. It’s funny. It’s poignant. It’s powerful and powerless, extraneous even. I’ve probably posted it before. It’s “A Primer” by Bob Hicok.

 Let us all be from somewhere.
Let us tell each other everything we can.

friday roundup: precious little edition

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Precious little reading, precious little writing, precious little time for anything but mothering and moving. But words are precious little things, small enough to fit in here and there, and a few have lodged in me this week. Here they are:

what kind of silence?

“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” —Adrienne Rich

what poems ask of us

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From Jame’s Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry. Callimachus was an ancient Greek poet who resisted the then-current fashion of writing long epics; “(K)eep your muse slender,” he wrote.

tracings

This poem, by Risa Denenberg, which I admire for it’s spoken-ness, for the way it treads the line between the personal and the universal, for the way the poem resists itself.

Happy Friday, thanks for reading, dashing off to wake my precious littles…

Photo credit here.