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.

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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.

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.