Broken bicycles; or, More on Revision

I’m puzzling over a poem and indeed it feels like a puzzle. Jigsaw maybe, as I try pushing pieces against each other and they resist or yield. Or remember Tangrams? You got a set of shapes and were challenged to fit them together to make different forms.

In this poem, the last line was bothering me. It felt thumpy, like, “OKAY HERE IS WHAT THIS POEM IS ABOUT.”

And yet it seemed important in its own way, so it occurred to me to repurpose it as the title instead of the last line.

Okay, but that left the former second to last line just dangling there, insufficient. So I started shifting groups of lines around, swapping sections, turning sentences around, flip-flopping the images and ideas of the poem, starting in the middle, starting toward the end, restarting from the beginning I had started with.

I know the incredible satisfaction of occasionally getting all the pieces to fit together: suddenly, snap, you have the shape you’ve been trying to make. But I must ask of the poem: Is there a piece missing?

This is the challenge of the poem versus the Tangram, I guess. It’s possible I’ll never be able to make the desired shape because a crucial piece is missing, and it’s not as easy as getting on my hands and knees and checking under the couch. I need to identify the gap and write into it.

So at the moment, for all my shifting and switching, the poem looks — instead of like a good solid square or a kitty or bunny — like a gappy rhombus in a hat.

P.S. My video poem is up at Atticus Review https://atticusreview.org/narrow-the-vessels/

Watching the ships that go sailing; or, On Confusion and Intention and Revision

My life is one long ebb and flow of thinking-I-know-stuff/realizing-I-don’t/thinking-I know-stuff/realizing-I-don’t. Sometimes the tide feels exhausting. Sometimes exhilarating.

I’m talking (mostly) about writing and poetry here. The effect of the waves is humbling/humiliating. And it goes, and I go, on and on.

Just recently I was in a conversation about the revision process and following the energy of a poem; that is, feeling the lines that have strength and movement in them and taking out or revising all the lines that don’t meet and match that energy. But then the author of the poem under observation said something like, “But I want the rest of the poem to lead up to that moment. Without the lead-in, I’ve lost the journey.” And I remembered another conversation in which someone said about the critique process something like, “But you have to understand the poet’s intentions for the poem, you can’t just wade in with advice.” Then I wondered about myself: do I always know what my intentions are?

(And all this is why for many many years I have avoided critiquing other people’s poems unless they are friends and specifically ask. And even then sometimes I avoid it. Because inevitably I get tangled up in that tide, water up my nose.)

What if where the good strong energy in a poem is not where you want it to be, is at odds with your intentions for the enterprise, if you know what your intentions are? Do you follow the energy, or the intention? Do you tug on the energy to serve the intention, or give up on intention to serve the energy?

Does a poem have the space for an ebb and flow of energy?

Does the reader? Maybe a little bit. But the reader doesn’t give a shit about the poet’s intention, unless it’s either completely unclear or condescendingly clear. In between, it’s all about the reading adventure. Isn’t it? Or is that just me, all impatience and huff?

(All this flopping around gets worse (better?) when I’m looking at someone else’s poem. Plus I’m puffed up by the sheer power they’ve given me by asking my perspective. Ha ha, they think I know stuff! Then I’m freer to know more/understand less, to think I have a broader perspective just because I’m not scrabbling blindly inside my own poem. Not always the case. Often not the case.)

Do poems have their own impulses? Do they try to have their way with us? The subconscious certainly can and does, and to the extent it may slither out into a poem, well, there may be something the author can learn from what has been spilled onto the page. It at least must be contended with somehow, even if it’s deleted out and sent back up into the subconscious.

If someone saw my subconscious slipping, would I want them to tell me? Theoretically, yes, as it could be great for the poem. In reality, though, would I be able to hear them? I’m sorry, now, what was that again?

Do poems teach us how to write them, or is that one of those silly conceits that make what we do sound more mystical than it is?

The more poetry I read, as I’ve said here before, the less I understand about poetry. The more conversations I have, the stronger the pulls of the tides: I know a bunch! I don’t know anything! I know a bunch! I don’t know anything! And yet I keep talking, like the rumble of pebbles and the swish of wash, creaking call of gull.

 

And lead you through the streets of London; or, On Poetry Revision as a Journey

So when last we spoke, I was surrounded by 10 poems all of which descended in similar ways to the same simple place. I call them my WE ALL GONNA DIE poems, because that’s pretty much what they all say. Ho hum.

And as you may recall, the big issue was that I needed them to fill out a reasonable page count for a full-length poetry manuscript. Some of you would say, and I do hold it against you, well, just write a bunch of new poems. Let’s not be hasty. Who can write new poems in 90 degree weather?

I started wondering if I couldn’t nudge some of them in a different direction. Alert readers will say, hey, wait a minute, didn’t you have a post not that long ago claiming that one needs to stay true to the poem’s originating impulse, stop manhandling it to be something other than what it became? Fortunately, I have no alert readers, so I can ignore that.

If poems can be said to have a turning point — and apparently they can be said to have such a thing. Much has been written on it, so I won’t go into it here. Actually that’s because I haven’t read most of what’s been written on the “turn” in poems, mostly because I’ve read almost none of it. I only just learned that a “turn” in a poem is a thing. I mean, yeah, the sonnet “volta,” but apparently all? most? many? poems have a turn/turns in them. I’d have to think about that harder, but it made me consider the poem as a path or, if you’ll pardon the expression, “a journey.”

As  such, there may be certain points along the path in which another road might be taken. So I’ve come to look at each of these poems in this way, trying to catch just what moment, what line, what word might offer an opportunity for the poem to turn, to vee away or veer somewhat from where it had been going. What will happen?

This is actually kind of a fun exercise for 90 degree heat. Way more fun than trying to conjure up brand new poems. That’s for autumn.

Speaking of autumn, here is a link to a videopoem of mine on Atticus Review that I shot while in residency at MASSMoCA last fall. https://atticusreview.org/narrow-the-vessels/

And have I mentioned I have a new chapbook out? Oh, I have? And I’ve given you the link?  www.graysonbooks.being-many-seeds? Oh. Sorry.

 

Stepping across the ruins; or, “The Bees” by Audre Lord

THE BEES
by Audre Lorde

In the street outside a school
what the children learn
possesses them.
Little boys yell as they stone a flock of bees
trying to swarm
between the lunchroom window and an iron grate.
The boys sling furious rocks
smashing the windows.
The bees, buzzing their anger,
are slow to attack.
Then one boy is stung
into quicker destruction
and the school guards come
long wooden sticks held out before them
they advance upon the hive
beating the almost finished rooms of wax apart
mashing the new tunnels in
while fresh honey drips
down their broomsticks
and the little boy feet becoming expert
in destruction
trample the remaining and bewildered bees
into the earth.

Curious and apart
four little girls look on in fascination
learning a secret lesson
and trying to understand their own destruction.
One girl cries out
“Hey, the bees weren’t making any trouble!”
and she steps across the feebly buzzing ruins
to peer up at the empty, grated nook
“We could have studied honey-making!”

It was fascination; or, On Writing the Same Damn Poems Over and Over Again

I was feeling rather smug about having a new collection of poems for which I could start gathering rejection letters, until I realized that at least 10 of the poems in the 50 poem collection seem to be the same damn poem over and over again.

Yes, they differ in imagery and rhythm and movement, but they land in the same place, with they same no-duh realization.

I know I often feel like I’m writing the same poem over and over, but to have it so plainly in my face is, well, annoying.

I thought I could get clever and tried to turn one poem on it’s head, so it at least STARTED in the same damn place but ended someplace else, but I wasn’t fooled by my trick.

It’s funny, of course, because I hadn’t realized how obsessed I’d been. But clearly I’ve got issues. Or one issue, anyway.

How many such poems can a collection can get away with having? Two? Three? Four if I hide them throughout and distract the reader with shiny objects?

I don’t know. Is it so wrong to be frankly obsessed with the same idea? I mean I am climbing the same mountain yes, but it is indeed by different routes.

It’s not wrong, I guess; it’s just boring.

Well, I’m staring at them all now to see who gets to stay and who gets tossed off the island.

And if I’m going to do what I can to get obsessed with something ELSE.

Like breathing in and breathing out; or, On Poetic Clarity

I don’t always want my poems to follow the strict rules of logic. I want there to be some air in my poems, if not leaps at least some hopping, some request that the reader understand less with the mind and more with that other thing that comes into play when we react to a piece of music, for example, or a piece of visual art.

It’s a response in the quiet of the self, inarticulate, “moved” as in to be set, internally, in motion.

But that being said, confusion in the mind creates confusion in the poem, and part of the process of revision is to clarify clarify clarify — both my intention behind and the poem’s expression of that intention. But even that sounds more logic-based than I want the poem-making process to be. Oy.

I’m working on one of my poems-that-start-as-long-blathers. I started it some weeks ago, let it sit, worked on it, let it sit. Now when I go back I am confused about what I thought I was up to.

Some of that confusion is the lack of logic in the poem’s thinking. But I’m finding as I’m clarifying that, I’m losing something. I’m making changes based on logic, but I’m losing something that was special and beyond logic. I’m finding I need to go back to the self who first blathered and ask what? what?

Unfortunately, that self is gone with the passage of time, and this other, confused self must sit with it all.

It’s interesting, as a process. A tad annoying as well. I was sure I was onto something back then. Now I can’t remember what.

I have found in my work as a copyeditor and my brief stint teaching a course that not-great writing comes out of not-great thinking. The authors and students who couldn’t quite think through something couldn’t write through it either. That being said, overthinking can kill a piece of writing as surely as underthinking.

I believe in the first-step technique of opening the mind and letting stuff spill out without regard for logic or connection or any kind of controlling. But then that orderly mind has to wade in and pull weeds.

I have, however, been known to overweed. I have a sad little patch in my garden right now to show for it, and a peony whom I thoroughly traumatized. Judicious must be the weeding, so air can move, ideas can stretch out, images can take on different casts, and the writer can be surprised, as well as the reader.

Wow, this is difficult. I find that I need, as I sit with this confusing/confused poem, to think less, breathe more.

We shall be released; or, On the First Person Plural in Poems

I’ve been advised enough times not to do it, you’d think I’d stop trying. But here we are again. The royal “we,” I mean, possibly, or the group of us who do such a thing, as opposed, I guess to the “they” who do not; that is: use the first person plural pronoun (we) in poems. Why do I keep trying to make it work?

It interests me to write poems from the perspective of this identity: a member of the human species. From this perspective I can think about the so-called “human experience,” not as “in opposition to the nonhuman,” but as a part of a, let’s face it, pretty significant force on the planet, and as a representative of a species that is able to think about itself and go “Hmm…really?” A member of a species that is aware of, possibly obsessed with, death, and, therefore?, a bit obsessed with life and its meaning.

But the use of “we,” or MY use of “we,” shall I say, has caused people to become argumentative (“you do not speak for me,” they say, or sometimes just “oh yeah?”) or to be otherwise put off by the lack of immediacy and intimacy (“hm, what are you distancing yourself from,” they ask). I don’t know, though. Do I not have the — what: right? capacity of imagination? proper hubris? — to speak out of that human stance?

The use of the all-humanity “we” has a long tradition, but fell out of favor when societies began saying “hey, wait a minute, this ‘we’ is not representing me, but rather the autocracy.” So social movements that overthrew old hierarchies to introduce a more democratic worldview plus a rise of the validation of the personal experience led to, it seems, a skeptical view of the poetic “we,” so fakely grand and oratorical it seemed, off-putting and snooty, the voice of empire. But I want to call it empirical: that is, based on experience, verifiable by observation.

As an anthropologist by study and natural inclination, I’m a participant observer here on earth among you/we humans. I hear your/our/my joys and pains and confusions. I believe that for all our differences — beliefs, tastes, fears of spiders v snakes, ability to roll the tongue or no, color, hair type, tattoo-level, who you worship, who you fuck — we humans are more the same than different. That’s the “we” I aim to write from.

But okay, fair enough, I’m not all people, and doubtless my imagination fails to capture much of the you-ness of you and your experience. So what’s the big deal for me about switching to “I”?

For me it gets tangled in the history of confessional poetry. As if what “I” am about to tell you better be pretty personal, or you’ll be disappointed.

Maybe contemporary taste is not willing to abide less than a confession. Maybe we don’t want to hear from some damn “we,” who, in point of fact, is a middle-aged white lady who quite possibly indeed does not know shit from shoe polish.

There has been much scholarship and musing on this topic, as I have found in my dive into it all. Back in 2004, writer Laura Miller said this in the “The Last Word” column in the The New York Times: “Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one….You could say that the history of Western literature so far has been a journey from the first-person plural to the first-person singular, the signature voice of our time.”

On aerogramme.com in 2017, editorial director of The Masters Review, Sadye Teiser, noted this: “If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark. But it also has the singular ability to harness a power that is not limited by the bounds of one character’s individual perspective. That is why the first-person plural is often used to describe events, be they real or unreal, that feel bigger than us. Even if there are things that we experience differently, there are others that we share, and that, especially in our times, is worth remembering.”

Martin Buber had this to say about “we”: “For the word always arises only between an I and a you, and the element from which the We receives its life is speech, the communal speaking that begins in the midst of speaking to one another.”

In Poetry in 2010, Jane Hirschfeld said: “I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use ‘we’ in a poem to speak of ‘us all,’ but it’s a concept I still believe in — that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them.”

Of course, I am aware that I have cherry-picked some quotes here, in order to bolster my continued attempts to get away with my “we” penchant. And you can continue to question my judgment about it. And we will continue this wrangle to voice ourselves to each other. After all, we’re in this together.

All misty wet with rain; or, Seeing the Forest Through the Trees; or, More on Revision

I swore off workshops long ago for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, but as I’d been brooding over this particular poem for a while, and as isolation breeds a kind of insanity, I signed up for one.

It was not as bad as I’d feared it could be, although not as useful as I had hoped, but I did get one takeaway, which is, perhaps, all one can realistically hope for. It was worth the price of admission, but perhaps not entirely worth the hours of sitting staring into zoomland.

And I share it with you here for free. Cuz that’s the kind of gal I am.

The editing (or “revision”) process is often one in which I start with the idea of finding the weaknesses in a poem and getting rid of them. The process was reframed for me in that workshop in this useful way: Find the shining points in the poem and clear away anything that may be getting in the way of the shine.

It is very useful, this idea that the elements of a poem stand next to each other and cast shadows. You may want the shadows. You may not. I am grateful to be reminded to understand how the elements of a poem are standing together, what shadows they cast, what is illuminated and what is obscured by those shadows, and to take control of how light and shadow passes through the poem. You may want some, I think — some “chiaroscuro” in a poem, clarity/obscurity play of elements. But it needs to be carefully controlled so what is highlit is meaningful, what is shadowed is purposeful.

This may involve all the usual elements of revision: trimming, cutting, rearranging, but by thinking about it in terms of light and shadow, I’m able to bring a different kind of attention to the process, like thinning a grove of trees so as it strengthen the diversity of species, or dividing my vast, tangled patch of iris to let it thrive. So thanks for that, workshop.

As for the rest of the story, the workshop did give me the impetus to wade back in to the poem. I knew trimming would be advised, and some wholesale deleting of stanzas. A friend happened to be in the workshop and also had some specific advice re: my use of pronouns (more on that in another post) and the ending, as well as some need for clarification. So I took all that in hand and headed in, taking down trees.

Then I realized I could move stanzas around for logic of thought process.

I took out the ending. I wrote another one. Took that out.

Wrote a different beginning. Took that out.

Changed the pronouns.

Retitled the poem. Reretitled the poem. This process is useful for establishing my own understanding of the poem’s intentions.

I tried to walk away for a while. But kept thinking of new things to try. I put back in some things I took out earlier on.

All this changing led it to somewhat change direction. Okay, I thought, let it turn, and I’ll see where it goes.

It didn’t really go. I realized I was now writing things in to force it to go in this new direction. I felt like I was forcing the poem away from the thinking that was the impetus behind it in the first place. I took them out.

Finally, I went back and reread the original version of the poem. You know what? I kind of like it.

 

Drunk on the Moon; or, How Phyllis Wheatley Got Me Thinking about Calder and Cummings

I was looking for some uplift in these trying days, and reading around I stumbled on some Phyllis Wheatley. In her poem “On Imagination,” she wrote this:

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’empyreal palace of the thundr’ing God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
and leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’unbounded soul.

And I thought about how art can “grasp the mighty whole.” And I also got thinking about artists whose work feels joyful to me. I thought about Alexander Calder’s work, those fine lines drawing arcs in space, and that giant piece in Seattle throwing a red arc against the gray clouds and the bay. I also was reminiscing about seeing Calder’s circus, so magical and entrancing, the twined animals, the skinny tightrope walker on the skinny tightrope. But I also found myself thinking about the poems of E. E. Cummings, which seemed a natural leap to make.

They are linked somehow in my mind,  Cummings’s wiry poems, Calder’s poetic wires. Something about wit, about play. Something about space. They ate space and laughed it out, these two originals.

They may have met — both loved France, both gained initial fame in the ’20s, both were from the northeast. Cummings’s family were friendly with Williams James; Calder married James’s grandneice. Calder illustrated a Cummings Christmas poem.

They both seem to have done work that was utterly different, fantastically unique. I’m sure people who know more about these things than I could trace lines of influence, maybe even show me how they stole ideas or mimicked someone else. But that doesn’t take away how fresh their work still feels, how serious minded they were, but how powerful the creative play behind it comes through.

Empty space was the milieu in which they created. The wind blows through their works.

Ah, apparently this is not an original thought — I did some more research and found this quote from art critic Jed Perl commenting on Calder’s work: “…a new type of sculpture, dematerialized and beyond tradition, the plastic counterpart of e.e.cummings’s poetry….”

I don’t know that any visual artist and poet are so connected in my mind, except of course if a poet has written memorably in response to an artwork; Auden on Breughel, for example. But I don’t think of Auden’s work as Breughelian. Chaucer, maybe. Yeats? What visual artist would I like my work to echo? Will the answer give me a pathway toward new work? How can I attempt to grasp the mighty whole?

You only got a broken wing; or, Some Langston Hughes

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

 

Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.