“human being being human”

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This POETRY tribute issue (June) devoted to Gwendolyn Brooks is fantastic—poems of homage, notes and photos from her archives, essays on her work and her life and their bearing on our poetry and our times.

One of my favorite bits is the following quote “written on a slip of paper in her archives”:

Who “does life” as a “poet”? One lives as a human being. In that activity, life “as a poet” is included, I guess, along with life as a black-eye pea boiler, life as a baby-maker, life as a lecturer, life as a Listener, life as a typist-for-five-lawyers. I never gave up love, lunch, book-reading, movies, restaurant-romping, strolling, friend-visiting, for “life-as-a-poet”-ing. Poeting has been, always, part of this life, my life as a warm-hearted resilient, open eyed human being being human. —Gwendolyn Brooks

This  may hold a little something back—creative people must sometimes say no to things in order to have time, space, and solitude to make their art. But the idea of art as one element of a very human life seems just right to me. The trick is in the balance, I suppose.

Also not to missed in this issue: Patricia Smith’s poem, “A Street in Lawndale.” Its third section begins,

Murders will not let you forget.
You remember the children you had—suddenly quarry, target—
the daughters with gunfire smoldering circles in their napped hair,
the absent sons whose screams still ride the air.

—Patricia Smith, from “A Street in Lawndale”

Here’s the POETRY Magazine website if you want to get your hands on this issue.

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!

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!

bridges, headwaters

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[Hmmmm… the preview is not showing attribution for the art I’ve used here. Here it is: wikimedia]

I’ve been reading (re-reading) Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures in Madness, Rack, and Honey. This is because I want to be able to write essays that are as smart, well-crafted, labyrinthine, and aesthetically pleasing as her lectures are.

In “Someone Reading a Book” she writes:

There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

In the margin, I have scrawled: Maybe we write poems as bridges to the world. What I meant was: Maybe poets write poems in an attempt to bridge the distance between themselves and the world everybody else lives in. Maybe a poem is an attempt to enter that world.

I know that I often write out of a sense of bewilderment. The world bewilders me. My life bewilders me. Even my own mind bewilders me. Writing poems helps me to understand things, at least a little bit.

Maybe this desire to enter the world is the original wound. Who said it first—that all writing comes from a wound? Maybe Dorianne Laux?

Other times, I’m not so sure I want to enter the world everyone else lives in after all. Ellen Bryant Voigt:

HEADWATERS

I made a large mistake I left my house I went into the world it was not
the most perilous hostile part but I couldn’t tell among the people there

who needed what no tracks in the snow no boot pointed toward me or away
no snow as in my dooryard only the many currents of self-doubt I clung

to my own life raft I had room on it for only me you’re not surprised
it grew smaller and smaller or maybe I grew larger and heavier

but don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better

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.

last missive from the wee, small house

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Dear reader, I am up with the birds stealing a few moments at my desk. My desk which I will likely not see again until August. It will be a summer of transience—some time at my parents’, some at my aunt’s and uncle’s, maybe some camping(?)—as we wait to get into our new house, do a bit of necessary work, then finally move in.

The thought of this for a homebody such as myself is a bit overwhelming. But books and blank notebooks have a way of saving us (me), so I have sent some ahead to be kept out of the moving van and storage. Let’s not think now about how I will have to haul them hither and yon all summer as we make our wanderings from place to place.

The books that have been saving me this week are these:

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I have always loved early C. D. Wright (Translations..).  The Poet, the Lion &c. is brand new, and I feel it should be required reading for all human beings. You could say it’s a poetic poetics. You could say it’s one, long ars poetica. You could say it’s a road map for how to live.

Here are some lines that have kept me going this week, from “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer”:

*

That the poems we snatch from the language must bear the habit of our thinking.

That their arrangement strengthens the authority on which each separate line is laid.

That they extend the line into perpetuity.

That they enlarge the circle.

That they awaken the dreamer. That they awaken the schemer.

That they rectify the names.

That they draw not conclusions but further qualify doubt.

That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.

That they clear the air.

That they keep a big-box sense of humor at the ready (like an ax in a glass case).

That they bring the ship nearer to its longing.

That they resensitize the surface of things.

That they will not stand alone.

This is our mind. Our language. Our light. Our word. Our bond.

In the world.

–from The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. 

 

*

And now I’m off to gather bed linens and take them to the laundromat for washing (because I cannot even with the thought of used bedsheets of teenaged boys sitting in an un-air-conditioned storage unit all summer).

I don’t know when I’ll be back here, but I’ll check in when I can. Meanwhile, read on, write on. Meanwhile, let’s remember: You can quit anytime. Why quit now?

friday roundup: poetry is, the poet is, & “and so there came to me sorrow”

Reader, this is my desk right now:

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How often do I start these posts by saying everything’s chaotic? Well, this time I mean it. We’ve (mostly) moved out of the house to have some work done on it and everything’s chaotic. Poetry has not been the first thing on my mind, but I think I can scrape together a roundup. Here we go:

sometimes I think I should avoid all social media now and forever amen But then I read something like Ange Mlinko‘s reflection at FSG’s Work in Progress today, which I never would’ve seen if not for social media, and I think I have to stay on social media now and forever amen.

Mlinko writes, amongst other things, about her own discovery of what a poem is. She writes a little argument against poets needing beautiful places: “Learning another language is a thousand times more useful to poetry than a room with a view” (though, again… I would not look down my nose at a room with a view. I would not.). She reminds us that a poet’s task is not to gush over things. Here are a couple of her definitions of what poetry is, what a poem is:

“Poetry is articulation: conversation and history and the fate of persons.”

and

“I would no longer think of a poem as an aesthetic object, but as a fragment of an abiding conversation.”

I love this last idea especially. Every poem a fragment. Every poem in a continuum. Read the whole (short and entirely readable) reflection here.

a poet is … or is not. I’m reading Denise Levertov’s translation of Guillevic. I have another, bigger translation of his work, but so far I’m enjoying Levertov’s more, primarily because of her translations, but also because it’s much smaller and more mangeable. I am that kind of reader, I guess: Give me a tome and I’m overwhelmed before I open it; give me smaller and more manageable and I will go in, and deeply.

Anyway, the book is prefaced with remarks by Guillevic about what a poet is and is not. This was written in a time when all was written in the masculine and I’m going to let those references stand without the [sic] [sic] [sic], but feel free to imagine other pronouns, whichever fit your life. Here’s what he says:

“For the poet is he who has the power to make with the language of his country certain combinations which other men need in order to find themselves, to find the world—to live.”

and

“For poets, there is a road that must be travelled in order to arrive at living on the true side of life, that side of it one can finally affirm… .”

and

“(W)hen I say here, poet, I do not mean versifier, but that man who writes a tortured language in which other men—and the language itself—can recognize themselves as true.”

I can sign up for that.

and so there came to me sorrow  Here is a beautifully sad little poem of Guillevic’s that I keep returning to (it is untitled, but bears the dedication: a Colomba (to Colomba; and that a should have a little left-leaning tag above it in the French).

*

I had married a wand of willow
and so there came to me sorrow.

We never took those long voyages
through clouds towards
a depth of sky.

But I was poised
for moments or for eternity
like water in water.

—And now the time comes when he must know
who, on the riverbank, has touched
his bride,
the willowbranch:

whether it is again he who suffers
so much, and in so many landscapes.

*

It’s interesting… in a note, Levertov admits to departing from the literal meaning of the second line of the poem, which literally translated would read “and of course the worst one that came along.” For me, her translation loses the humor of Guillevic’s words, but is ever more poignant. I don’t translate, and don’t have a well-formed opinion of whether translators ought to depart from meaning this radically, but in this instance I’m pretty much loving the Levertov translation.

I’m interested in, and frankly a little puzzled by, the shift from first-person (“I”) to third-person (“he”) in the fourth stanza. A little distancing happens in that shift, but you don’t often see this… . What I’m saying is that shift would get nailed in workshop! :). But I guess if you’re Guillevic you can get away with it. And I like the quirkiness of it.

Thanks for reading, happy weekend!

 

friday roundup: going to seed edition

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It’s Friday again (and here I think of Robert Hass: “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself.”).

I had planned to be at AWP this week, but Things Changed.

Today is April 1. I am not fooling about anything. Last year on this day, one of my darlings replaced the sugar with salt and I ended up with salty tea at 5:00 a.m. In case you can’t tell I AM NOT OVER IT YET, and therefore am boycotting April Fool’s Day. Forever.

Now, for the roundup:

going to seed  After my musings on a room of one’s own, a friend sent me an article by Annie Dillard in which she writes about her writing digs. She keeps things simple: sheds and tents:

“When you build a fancy study—a houslet—or add a room to your house, you lose the fun of the thing. A toolshed or a tent, like a tree house, lets you fool yourself into thinking you are not working, only playing. ‘Society’s norms be damned,’ you tell yourself, ‘I’m on the lam.'”

I can see her point, and I’m not much one for “fancy,” but I would not look down my nose at a study, a room in my house. I would not.

My favorite part of the article has more to do with the writing life than writing studios. She writes:

“In order to write books I spend fully as much energy ignoring what I was reared to notice as I spend working. The feats of discipline people think writers perform to drive themselves to their desk are easy evasions of the real hard work: not playing along with the rest of the world.”

Can I get an amen? And here’s the best line of the essay:

“Going to seed is an act of will.”

How I love this line! A friend pointed out that “going to seed” is such a nicer thought than “living in squalor.” I’m all in for going to seed. I wish I could link to this essay, but it is apparently the only thing in the world that is not findable on the Interwebs. If you are intrepid, you can go to the library and see if you can find it through EBSCOhost or something… it appeared in Architectural Digest under the title “Keeping It Simple.” Also it’s in this book.

the only thing we really have This week I stumbled upon and thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Blake’s article at The Rumpus, “Men Explain Submissions to Me.” She discusses some of the demoralizing aspects of submitting poems to lit mags, and the even more demoralizing feeling of getting mansplained in the process. But even better, she gives us a list of soul-preserving things to do (and not do), reminding us that “the only thing we really have is respect for ourselves and our art.” What I love about her list is that it is steadfastly committed to the writer keeping her agency throughout the submissions process. “Treat your work the best you can,” she writes; and, “Guard your energy at all costs. Your energy is best for your writing.”

You should go read the whole article / list here.

a poetry of shine  I’ve been spending a lot of time with C.D. Wright’s Steal Away: Selected and New Poems. Here’s a kind of ars poetica that I’ve really fallen for:

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MORNING STAR by C.D. Wright

This isn’t the end. It simply
cannot be the end. It is a road.
You go ahead coatless, light-
soaked, more rutilant than
the road. The soles of your shoes
sparkle. You walk softly
as you move further inside
your subject. It is a living
season. The trees are anxious
to be included. The car with fins
beams through countless
oncoming points of rage and need.
The sloughed-off cells
under our bed form little hills
of dead matter. If the most sidereal
drink is pain, the most soothing
clock is music. A poetry
of shine could come of this.
It will be predominantly
green. You will be allowed
to color in as much as you want
for green is good
for the teeth and the eyes.

*

Wishing you a happy April 1, no fooling.

 

friday roundup: squalor, sad poems, and blackberries

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This  may or may not have been the scene at my writing desk for most of yesterday.

Dear Reader, it’s Friday again. I’m dashing this off early because later this morning I’m going to see the Bonnards at the Legion of Honor. (!!!!!!!!!) Bonnard is one of my favorite painters of all time. I’ve lost track of whole days paging through books of his paintings, and now I get to go see Real Live Bonnards With My Own Eyes. I can hardly believe it. Isn’t this life amazing?

But first, the roundup:

squalor  n. a state of being extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty or neglect; from Latin squalere, “be dirty.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about squalor this week. This is because a meme has been circulating on Facebook with a quote from J.K. Rowling on how she was able to be a mother and write a book. The quote, which I believe comes from this interview, is this:

“(P)eople very often say to me, “How did you do it? How did you raise a baby and write a book?” and the answer is, I didn’t do housework for four years! I’m not Superwoman, and living in squalor that was the answer.”

At first I felt a little rush of jubliation: Oh, it’s okay if I neglect all the housework and just write for four years, because this is how you get a book written! But almost immediately, I thought, Ick, I don’t want to live in squalor. Maybe I won’t be able to write a book. I’m by no means a neat-freak, but at the Wee, Small House we all work together to keep the place relatively clean and tidy. Because I want my home to be peaceful and welcoming and relatively clean and tidy. I feel like June Cleaver when I say that, but it’s true. I don’t do well in squalor or anything near it; it distracts me and makes me miserable.

Then my larger-minded self reminded me of a few things:

  1. Memes are not the answer. They are often clever, funny, wise, and/or insightful, but they are not the answer.
  2. I have already written a book, although I have not yet found a publisher for it, and I did it without living in squalor.
  3. Yes, if you want to write a book you’ll have to make tradeoffs.
  4. Every writer gets to decide what her own tradeoffs are. J.K. Rowling was willing to live in squalor; that’s what worked for her. My tradeoffs are usually made in the economies of sleep, time with friends, and the nature of the meals we eat (hello, grilled cheese and tomato soup, once again).
  5. And then, yes, sometimes the writing gets short shrift because of life, life, sewing ribbons and elastics on your daughter’s pointe shoes, and life. To quote Sarah Ruhl: “Life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

So, friendly reminder: You can write a book. You will have to make tradeoffs. You get to decide what the tradeoffs are. You will find a way to do it that works for you. You don’t have to live in squalor (although you may choose to). Life is not an intrusion. Amen.

sad poems  I am often drawn to the darker pockets of life in my writing, because those are the pockets of life I’m trying to understand. I understand the joys, but I need to probe the sadnesses for their meaning. Sometimes I worry that if people knew me only through my poems, they’d think I was sad, conflicted, and skeptical to the hilt. That’s why I was so happy to come across a short piece by Kelli Russell Agodon this week on the topic of sad poems. She writes about why she’s drawn to dark subjects in her poems, and shares a poem by Linda Pastan that can be everyone’s answer for why we write sad poems. The essay is here; go read it.

blackberries  I’ve been spending a lot of time with one poem this week as I attempt, so far unsuccessfully, to tame my essay on Larry Levis and the elegy. I’ve been spending a lot of time with one line of the poem in particular: A word is elegy to what it signifies.

If you know this line, you’ll know it’s from Robert Hass‘ “Meditation at Lagunitas,” one of his best-known poems. I’ve read a couple different things (the actual sources are lost in the fogs of memory) over the years that kind of criticize this poem as too romantic, or too simplistic, or whatever. I don’t know. I remember coming across it years ago, before I knew who Robert Hass was and before I knew much contemporary poetry, and really loving it. And for me it’s a poem that I learn something new from each time I spend time with it. I still love it, still learn from it. Here it is for you to enjoy.

I wish you the best of tradeoffs and blackberries in triplicate. Thanks for reading!