You’re the Salt in My Stew; or, Viva la difference; or, Diversity

One of the great things about being on a writing retreat is being able to paw through the piles of books the others have brought. In one pile I stumbled on an anthology edited by my old teacher-for-a-week Judith Kitchen of short creative nonfiction (In Short, eds. Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones) within which I found a piece by my old friend Fred Setterberg who wonderfully counters my daily crabbing about the state of the States with this metaphor for what we do when we’re at our best.

He quotes, in “The Usual Story,” Nora Zeale Hurston as writing: “Everyone is familiar with the Negro’s modification of the whites’ musical instruments, so that his interpretation has been adopted by the white man himself and then reinterpreted.” Then Setterberg notes, from his stance in the crowd at the Preservation Jazz Hall: “The bass player…launched into a flutter of notes that were both too rapid and dissonant for New Orleans vintage jazz…demonstrating how music — culture — argues, blends, dissolves, mutates, advances. The odd bird who hears something different plucks his strings too quickly or queerly or flat out plunks the wrong note, but he does it over and over until it sounds rights. He finds his own groove and fashions new music from the old. And that’s exactly what American music — American culture — has managed to do.”

How can we not value the gumbo of us, the jambalaya we are, chunky and piquant? Our language itself is a mongrel; or no, a palanquin, a vessel, a ship, a hammock. I can barely talk to you without calling down the whole array of immigrants to our shores, plus the people who were here when they got here.

Yes, English is a difficult language to rhyme in, with all its variety of endings, which is why poetry in English has long gone in different directions from the old endy-rhymey road, and American poetry has been perhaps particularly jittery and digressive, if also ahistorical and culture-centric. But also wide-armed and ribald and jazz-bit.

The diverse rabble of us elbow-jab and glare, and sigh together, and laugh, which itself is one language. Maybe laughter and music are the two things that will save this species from itself. I don’t know. But I thank Fred for giving me a little air today, a moment of breathing room. And it smells sweet.

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You Can Leave Your Hat On; or, Rethinking Writing and Editing

I like to flounce around thinking I know things.

So it’s good when I stumble upon ideas that wake me up to my profound ignorances. A few things I read recently made me rethink my often cavalier approach to writing and particularly to editing.

First was this from1984: “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.” In 1984not only is history rewritten daily but language itself is being narrowed, and as language narrowed, thought itself stultified. Thinking and language is, for us, our wag-tongued species, inextricable. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”

I have always loved words, even as a little tiny kid would leaf through a book on the family shelf called How to Build a Better Vocabulary. Words were as magic as magic, and as delightful in the mouth as chocolate chip cookies, as cake with candles. And I can almost remember a visceral sense of my mind expanding as I encountered new words that struck me, words that opening up new worlds, new ways of thinking.

I just read Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks, a wonderful book about books and words, specifically words of regional dialect that describe things specific to regional experiences: how the fog creeps across the moor, the way certain rock formations sparkle, how the regular passage of a small animal through a hedge creates a hole. Worlds and worlds, words and worlds.

I think of Rilke in the 9th Duino Elegy: Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit, tree, window…. (Well, is the best translation “pitcher”? Or is is it “jug”? “Carafe”? “Box of Wine”?) Looking through my recent drafts I think I’ve gone slack with language. One editing exercise I do in my writing workshops is to ask everyone to examine all the verbs in their draft, and act to wake up those verbs, make them carry more weight, move with more gravitas or fleetness. Editor, edit thyself.

And then I encountered the words of an old friend, whose work never fails to humble me to my own limitations: Doug Glover has a new book of essays on writing coming out. It’s called, characteristic of his humor, The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form. Here in an adapted extraction published on TheWalrus.ca, Glover speaks volumes about sentences:

A few key quotations from Douglas Glover, “The Power of a Good Sentence,” on TheWalrus.ca:

– “One day, I happened to read an essay called ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was talking about sentences, but instead of repeating platitudes, he showed how to construct sentences on the basis of conflict. Instead of just announcing a single thesis, a sentence begins by setting out two or more contrasting ideas; the sentence develops a conflict, intensifying toward a climax, a ‘knot’ Stevenson calls it, and then, after a moment of suspension, slides easily toward a close.”

– “Suddenly writing a sentence became an exciting prospect, a journey of discovery, a miniature story with a conflict and a plot, the outcome of which I might not know at the outset.”

– “The lesson is to inject conflict, rhythm, plot, and energy into your sentences by deploying relatively simple forms. Never leave a crude sentence snoozing on the page when there is the possibility of dramatic elaboration.”

Oh, dear.

And so I fall back, retreat — retreat!– to the beginning — or, is it really the beginning, or some waypoint on the spiral? — to begin again, to roll/push/shove/muscle/spin/turn/revolve/cycle/trundle my rock of carbuncled words and sentences up the rubbled hillside again.

Doorbells and Sleighbells and; or, Reading A. R. Ammons’s Garbage

I love when literary synchronicity happens, that is, when I’m thinking about a thing or have just written about it and suddenly, randomly stumble on someone else thinking or having thought about the same thing. I decided, spurred by a mention of him in an essay on the long essay/poem, to finally explore the poetry of A. R. Ammons. He’s someone whose work I’m surprised I haven’t sought before, as his interests in science and the land are right up my alley. But it’s always been one of those, oh, yeah, I’ll get to that.

But I got my hands on Garbage, his booklength, multipart poem. And there in the first section were things I had written about that very day in my own notes: the competition of trees, the dismay of overabundance, and what has also been on my mind, which he puts this way: “…we tie into the/lives of those we love and our lives, then, go//as theirs go; their pain we can’t shake off…”

The book as a whole contains a lot of…well, stuff. Quite a bit of it is about itself, Ammons being clever about writing about writing, amusing himself to no end. So I have had to plow a bit through it all and hard-to-follow meanderings but just as I would get impatient and start to mutter words like “self-indulgent” under my breath, he’d hit me with something like this from section 3. We are watching the driver of a garbage truck on top of the municipal mound of garbage:

…the driver gets out of his truck
and wanders over to the cliff on the spill and
looks off from the high point into the rosy-fine
rising of day, the air pure, the winds of the
birds white and clean as angel-food cake; holy, holy,
holy, the driver cries and flicks his cigarette
in a spiritual swoop that float and floats before
it touches ground: here, the driver knows.
where the consummations gather, where the disposal
flows out of form, where the last translations
cast away their immutable bits and scraps,
flits of steel, shivers of bottle and tumbler,
here is the gateway to beginning, here the portal
of renewing change, the birdshit, even, melding
enrichingly in with debris, a loam for the roots
of placenta…

That “gateway to beginning” found among the ends of things, the detritus, the beginning found in the ends of things, as a tree grows outward from the center and rots that way too, having absorbed a lifetime of nutrients, having shared what it had.

I didn’t love much of Garbage, but it taught me something about the glory of excess, and the boldness of pouring it all into the poem, carrot peels and rotten meat, old receipts and fancy packaging, and having the patience and faith in the process to make a path and find a pattern.

 

Great Balls of Fire; or, A Spillage of Essays

I’ve been reading to expansive anthologies of essays, How We Speak to One Another, edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold, and Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, edited by Marcia Aldrich. I pick them up, open them at random, and read the essay that appears, with varying degrees of interest. I keep wearying of all the essays and putting the books aside, determined to take them back to the library. But then I’ll find something particularly intriguing and keep them a while longer. This is the challenge, I find, of anthologies — they’re often too much of a good thing, interlaced with other stuff, and too much of that too.

I admire the impulse behind anthologies, and from far off, admire the many ways writers creatively tackle a subject and form. But just like department stores, fabric stores, bookstores, and library shelves, I get easily overwhelmed. A collection of essays by one person, or a book of poems, has that authorial eye/voice to connect them all. An anthology is a flower collection, one of those massive English gardens, or the gardens at Versailles where we finally flung ourselves to the ground near the little lake and watched, slack-mouthed from overstimulation, the clouds pass by.

Many essays in How We Speak are essays written in response to other essays. These can fall short if the reader isn’t familiar with the originating essay, or if the response essay insufficiently captures it. But often the dissection of how the originating essay worked on the writer is worth the read. Other essays in that anthology consider the essay itself, the nature of time, memory, “truth,” in the form.

Waveform represents the ways in which women are exploring the form. It too contains a graphic essay (by the same author/illustrator as the one in How We Speak, which suggest that, no offense intended to her, but maybe there are others out there, or it’s a form asking for more people to jump in), as well as braided things, meanderings.

My biggest mistake was probably to take both volumes out of the library at the same time. Piggish. But I wanted to get a sense of what essays were doing these days. And that I accomplished: graphic essays, lists, analyses, weavings of memory and fact, almost-random delineations, litanies, rants, letters, real and imagined. I am drunk with essay, and staggering under a list of new writers whose work I need to explore. (The other problem with anthologies — so much more to read.)

What can’t an essay do? Even an arcane topic that should only interest a few can be engrossing with a captivating narrative voice, an intriguing through-line of narrative, or a clever device that keeps things snappy. One essay in Waveform illustrates through fake letters a variety of rejections in the author’s life. Brenda Miller manages, in “We Regret to Inform You,” to show-without-telling her young ambitions as an artist, her attempts to find a boy to go to the junior high dance with, her experience dropping out of college, miscarriage — and does so with both poignance and hilarity.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan has this to say in her essay “On Collage, Chris Kraus, and Misremembered Didion,” in How We Speak: “Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I like essays that remind me of traveling. They lie low. They don’t try quite so hard to prevent me from being bored. They are confident enough to admit that they are nothing more than a rug, and in doing so, have the ability to take it out from under me.”

What’s Love Got To Do With It?; or, Art and the Question

I’m in the middle of an interesting writing experience. I have yet another new batch of poems (Ugh! MORE? When I already have one full length and two chapbook length manuscripts that I can’t get published? Damn me and my productivity. I depress myself.) that I’m revising through. As I questioned the logic behind one of them, forgetting the reading I was doing that inspired it, I began researching the topic more — which was the origin of life on earth.

Yeah, I know.

So anyway, I found this incredibly fascinating article on BBC.com that summarizes the research thus far and how dead ends in previous research often actually contained useful thinking that informed later research, once someone took a look back on the old stuff with a new eye.

This is the revision process in a nutshell — everything old can be new again. (But again, emphasis on “old,” that is, the necessity of the passage of time to allow one to re-see, re-view, to see afresh, with new eyes.)

I’ve now traveled miles away from whatever I was trying to say in that original poem, and am aswamp with new information that astounds and intrigues me. What it asks in me that I may turn into a poem I have no idea yet. It may never be a poem. But what a fun rabbit hole it has turned out to be. And this question about the question is key.

Research is always about a question, sometimes posed in different ways or approached from various routes. And this too is poetry. Some of the poems I’m editing are interesting but lack a central question. This is what can come of writing from the middle of research — one feels briefly as if one knows something! But to reach back into the central question is essential to make art. Art comes out of the not-knowing, the search. Otherwise, you’re just presenting an academic theory.

There’s a local man who makes hundreds of paintings of local landmarks. They’re okay, in that they have some personality to them and a signature style. But there is no mystery, somehow, no way in which the artist is admitting he doesn’t know something about his subject matter. I’m not even sure what I mean by that. I just know there’s a blandness to the presentation such that I’m fine with looking at it once, but it’s not something I’ll bother to look at again. In contrast, I have a landscape hanging on my wall that I look at often. I’ll find a new streak of color I haven’t noticed before, or haven’t admired in a while. I’ll enjoy anew the shadowed trees, a smear of light on the pond edge.

One of the brilliant things this article is doing with the history of the research of the origin of life is presenting it as an unfolding, of stalls and restarts, of conflicts and alliances, certainties and doubts. The subject and the researchers are alive and wondering, just as the artist of my landscape shows herself.

In these poems I’m editing, I have to reach back to find my wondering self, if it’s there. If there’s no wonder, there’s no poem. Life, as it’s turning out, probably began in a shallow, soupy mess of chemicals and metals with some light thrown on it.

Hey, I’m a mess of chemicals and metals! Maybe I can create some stuff that has some life in it…

 

Sweet Confusion Under the Moonlight; or, The kingdom of God is within you; or, Making the Better World

I had read the news as usual that morning and fell into the now-usual doom gloom. Then the radio reminded me that another of my music pantheon died recently. Dr. John has ascended.

And the station played a tribute to him for a few hours, but I was vacuuming and stuff so heard a bit here and bit there, nodding to the beat when I could hear it, otherwise swept in my own to-and-fro, but they closed with “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” and I thought, Right, Mac? Right?

But then I opened up Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights.

The Book of Delights is Ross Gay’s almost-daily, always-exuberant, sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant record of his days’ delights. Which are often found in not so obvious places.

Although that groovy dude — and here I’m talking about Dr. John, although Ross Gay is indeed also one groovy dude — Dr. John’s oddball let’s-face-it-a-bit-whiny sly if-I-don’t-do-it-somebody-else-will devil on his angelic shoulder (have you HEARD the “Boogie Woogie Twins” with Jools Holland? Shut. Up.) makes it almost impossible for me to not leap up and boogie around the kitchen, there’s often a dark undercurrent in his music, that undeniable blue note, a hint of wrong-place-right-time. Some might call it duende.

And just as you might tire, thinking, all right, enough, you perky sonofabitch — and here I’m talking about Ross Gay — I don’t know that anyone would call Dr. John a perky sonofabitch — Gay will slip in an essayette that reminds us ever so subtly of that yin to yang, the old no-joy-without-sorrow note that sometimes being a black man in this world causes him to stumble over even in the midst of this practice of delight, or even just being a human in the world, and doing the hard work of loving in the face of losing.

And so Gay corrected me: No, Timothy Johnson and Shane Minor voiced by the good doctor were incorrect — there is not necessarily a better world someplace; the better world is right here, if we only notice it.

And we ourselves, with paean and call, hum and curve, laughter and the invention of a good can opener, are what can make it the better world. And old Mac Rebennack did that too, bringing us all into his funkin’ boogie woogie, his bluesy praise, his daily delights.

And I too, even my sometimes-crabby, impatient self can participate in this making. It only takes a moment’s notice.