“Who am I, why am I here, why did I cut my hair, I look like a squirrel”; or Thoughts on Poetry of Place and Self

I periodically dip into A FIELD Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, an anthology of terrific essays, attested to by all the pages I’ve dog-eared because of the wisdom therein. This time I read Larry Levis’s meditation on Donald Hall’s meditation on the poetry of place, “Eden and My Generation.” He writes, “…[F]or a while in the late sixties and early seventies in this country, it seemed to me that almost every American poem was going to locate itself within a more or less definite place, was going to be spoken usually in the first person singular, and would involve, often, …testimony to the poet’s isolations.”

Levis suggests that from a poetry of place in which place was specific and represented a lost Eden, this kind of poetry of place has been shifting in favor of finding different ways to imagine the imagery and ideas of that loss. Of the poetry of place in general he notes, “It is the geography of the psyche that matters, not the place.” He notes “Eden becomes truly valuable only after a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrecoverably, from what it once was.”

“And yet most younger poets still testify precisely to this alienation and isolation, this falling from Eden. Only they have changed it. It is as if the whole tradition has become, by now, shared, held in common, a given…,” he observes. He wonders, “Again, in some unspecifiably social sense, it may be that places themselves became, throughout much of America, so homogenized that they became less and less available as spiritual locations, shabbier and sadder.” He considers, “it may be that this…new homelessness…is what a number of…new poets have in common when they practice the ‘meditational’ mode–for what they tend to hold in common is, at heart, a contradiction: an intimate, shared isolation.”

But I wonder if this isn’t exactly what poetry is, an intimate shared isolation? Don’t we sit alone with a volume in our hands seeking to find contact with another mind/body/soul/individual? Maybe I overstate it. And maybe he overstates a poetic drift away from poetry of place. But as I read desultorily across literary magazines and volumes, I do find less about exterior place and more about interior place, specifically the interior place of identity. Is this the new home that we’re writing about, the home of who we are, or think we are? And is self-identification by definition an exercise of comparison to others, in some way an oddly collective act? Funny.


Chow Down; on Food and Remembering Anthony Bourdain’s TV Presence

I’ve been thinking about Anthony Bourdain, whose onscreen personality exhibited boundless appetites. He was bawdy, curious, rowdy, insightful, and gastronomically insatiable. He follows in a long tradition of writers who love to eat and talk about food and places of food, and revel in the act of eating, whether alone or in company. Yes, his show was predictable in that everything he tasted was “terrific.” But it was, of course, the journey around the tasting that was delightful, and his hilarious commentary, his sometimes in-your-face contemplation of the politics of place, and his endless (and apparently endlessly funded) interest in eating anything anywhere. With gusto.

His spirit acted for me as a counterbalance to the many conversations I hear swirling around me in which people talk about what they are no longer eating. It’s not conversations about eating that I mind, it’s this culture of deprivation I fear it reveals. I wonder if the world is so much with us and beyond our control that all we have left for power is to stop eating dairy or whatever. This makes me sad, both about the state of the world and about the state of living. And I guess about the state of conversation. Much less the state of writing about eating.

We are against so many things, that is “up against” as well as “trying to say no to,” that is, fascism, racism, hatred, destruction of the environment, loss and loss and loss of things we held dear or didn’t think to hold dear until we began losing it. I do understand that taking a stand against eating meat is taking a stand toward helping the environment. I do. Oh, but a rich pot-au-feu, brown and redolent with onions and browned meat, hint of rosemary almost moldery but sweet. The brief resistance but ultimate juicy surrender of a sausage to the teeth, nip of peppercorn in the nose, indulgence of fat against the mouth’s roof. Selfish of me. Did someone say shellfish?

Many books have been written of late calling to consciousness the human eater and our affect on the environment and on the eaten. Is this line of literature replacing the gastronomic adventure tale?

It weighs on me, this being an omnivore, and hungry.

As it should.

I think of the flower in my garden that appeared suddenly, doubtless introduced by some bunny’s poop, perhaps the same bunny who chiseled off a stalk of my balloonflower, perhaps the same bunny whose haunch I found one morning, the rest of him munched by a neighborhood cat perhaps, and the hummingbird exploring that new flower, and the bug floundering around its stalk, and the carrot I’m eating, pulled from the dirt, its feathery greens useful later for soup, and the mosquito sucking from my ankle. What a world, what a world. We eat and are eaten. What are we to do?

Call me a short-sighted Epicurian dreamer but I wish for us a world where freedom is understood to be the freedom to responsibly depend — on each other the world over, on the earth and all its bounty (I’ll feed the worms if the worms will help feed me), and the freedom to be dependable, to help those in need. I hope this will allow us to taste pleasure in all its forms, in moderation, and aware of the costs. To enjoy eating again, and eat up. And talk and write about it too. With gusto. Rest in Plenty, Tony.


Very Well Then I Contradict Myself; on the First Person Perspective in Poems

I have worried sometimes about my use of “I” in poems. The “I” is certainly not always me; sometimes it is a character or a handy perspective point for the observations around which it is wrapped, a simple first-person eye-to-the-telescope.

The tricky thing with the “I” is that often for an effective poem, the “I” can’t be too full of itself. It can stand in the way of the reader. Sometimes the “I” is useful for starting a poem, but then it might need to be edited out as, in the writing, the poem becomes more about what that “I” saw than the “I” seeing. What is the correct balance for an effective poem between the “I” doing the seeing and the thing seen? Sometimes the “I” throws off the balance.

If the “I” is needed, there needs to be enough transparency in the “I” that it can easily become you-the-reader.

This makes me think of a larger philosophical question about the self. This is the wonderful writer Olivia Laing from her book To the River: “…is it not necessary to dissolve the self if one hopes to see the world unguarded?”

It occurs to me that to make good art, there does need to be a dissolution of the “I;” but then possibly its re-creation as a vehicle for the art, an eye for the seeing.

Which makes me think about a rhetorical question posed in an introduction to a poet at a reading I went to recently, a question I thought was supremely dumb. The introducer asked: Are all poems self-portraits? Of course they are/are not and what’s your point? Of course they are a product of wild imagination shaped by the individual experiences of the writer, and a fake wig and glasses, or stripped down to nude and dancing a watusi. I mean, really. Then there are issues of form, function, experimentation, imitation. There’s wordplay, nonsense, dreamblather. And the possibility of this reconstructed “self,” this constructed “I.”

Lorrie Moore in an article on LitHub said this: “Fiction writers are constantly asked, Is this autobiographical? Book reviewers aren’t asked this, and neither are concert violinists, though, in my opinion, there is nothing more autobiographical than a book review or a violin solo. But because literature has always functioned as a means by which to figure out what is happening to us, as well as what we think about it, fiction writers do get asked: ‘What is the relationship of this story/novel/play to the events of your own life (whatever they may be)?’ I do think that the proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What that cook makes from what’s in the cupboard is not the same thing as what’s in the cupboard–and, of course, everyone understands that….[O]ne’s life is there constantly collecting and providing, and it will creep into one’s work regardless–in emotional ways.”

Which loops me back to the “I” and who the “I” is or who it can be.

Bertrand Russell wrote: “An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

I think that merging occurs, in a poem, through the use of visceral verbs and vivid images, not through words that represent emotions. No “I felt…” but the depiction of a body feeling, a body in the world. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s you. But I know we’re all in this together.

I’m Rubber, I’m Glue; or How Mindset Affects Action

In the ever-astonishing Brain Pickings, Maria Popova’s treasure trove of ideas delivered right to my email inbox, I read some excerpts from Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. Dweck’s idea is that there are two types of mindsets that people have about themselves, mindsets that shape how we think about ourselves and the challenges we meet in life: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. She says this: “When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself. In one world, failure is about having a setback….It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.”

And as usual these days when I consider something presented as a duality, I think, yes, and yes; therefore, no, the idea of a duality is just not appropriate. Spectrum, maybe. Spiral, perhaps. Of two minds, probably.

At any given moment, confronted with any particular challenge, I enter both those mindsets. What I do next depends on which one wins, which one wins depends on any number of factors, including how motivated I am with regard to the particular challenge, how distracted I am by something else outside of the particular challenge (hunger, having to pee, whatever), who I’m imagining is my judge and jury if I am imagining one, and what the next required step might be.

I used to play a fair amount of tennis and never got much better at it. At first I had a growth mindset, then, after I while, I had a fuckit mindset. I mean, a fixed mindset. Fixed on never playing that stupid fucking game again.

Often when I get a writing rejection, my thinking goes something like this: oh-crap-why-do-I-suck-I’m-so-not-good-enough-not-smart-enough-I- quit-okay-well-wait-maybe-I’ve-learned-X-about-this-and-so-I’m-going-to-try-this-new-approach. Or sometimes I think: okay-I’ve-tried-X-and-Y-and-Z-and-learned-these-things-but-I’m-not-achieving-what-I-want-and-seem-not-to-be-particularly-good-at-this-and-am-tired-of-trying-so-I’m-going-to-stop.

I might switch those spectrum-movements in a few months, quitting one thing, restarting another.

I don’t feel particularly better about myself when I’ve worked hard at something versus if I’ve unexpectedly achieved something with ease. I don’t always want to think of every challenge as something that can help me grow. Often I would like things to come easily to me. But I also work at things, and I am nothing if not resilient. I’m a quitter from way back — quitting jobs, relationships, stupid tennis. But I’m also an avid learner, and work hard at things I’m interested in working hard at. I wallow in self-pity; I churn forward fearlessly. I worry about people judging me; I have no concern at all about people judging me. I’m convinced of my own success; I am equally convinced of my impending failure. And so it goes.

So I wish these studies didn’t always focus on dualities and instead recognize that we’re all, as one friend termed me, “a symphony of contradictions.”

The Best Revenge: or, Writing the Human

I’m not a forgive-and-forgetter. I’m more of a I’ll-let-it-go-this-time-but-it’s-going-in-your-permanent-record type. So you’d think I’d enjoy a good revenge fantasy poem. But, having encountered a couple recently, I find I feel impatient with them. Why? Do I think art should show the best we can be, not the worst? The best AND the worst, maybe. But revenge fantasy, nor even actual revenge, is not the worst of us. It’s the pettiest of us. And for that, perhaps, it has not, at least in these few poems I read, fulfilled for me the act of art. I can do petty any old day. It takes real strength of imagination to conjure the worst of the human impulse. And the best. I ask from poems this kind of imagination. In a revenge tale, there’s always a bad guy and the victim, even if the roles reverse. And the victim’s act of revenge has an aura of holy justice about it, no matter how bad is the act. There is a god-like nature of the revenge act that is not as interesting to me as the exploration of the flawed and contradictory human nature.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I saw the movie I, Tonya recently, and found it fascinating. The filmmakers gave us no heroes, nor anti-heroes. Every character is fucked up. But somehow not entirely unlikeable. At least not 100% of the time. It’s a crazy story of crazy people in a crazy subculture in a crazy world. Just as cartoons sometimes reveal the world more truly than a photograph, so this cartoonish movie somehow showed the tragic nature of humanity. It’s billed as a comedy, but only in that comedy and tragedy are so closely aligned. I found it a deeply sad movie. And satisfyingly so, because of the manifestation of gray areas, the beautiful chiarascuro of the human plight of living with ourselves.



Help Me If You Can; or On the Stages of Project Completion

Sometimes when I’ve just “finished” a project, I get all bouncily excited. I can’t wait to get it out into the world, CERTAIN that the world will be AGOG. At times like this I wish someone would gently wrest the “Send” button from my hand.

If I do excitedly send the fresh, new piece, fortunately it takes so long for most places to respond that the rejection letters come less as a knife to the heart of Tigger as a knife to the heart of, say, Kanga, perhaps, or Roo, or, depending on the day, Eeyore.

If I’m a sensible bear, I’ll put the piece aside. I’ll come back to it later and HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT IT. Then I’ll put it aside again and later come to it with a more measured response. Although if I wait too long, I’ll get too Wol-ish about it all, and that can be insufferable.

So, having just finished a couple of pieces about which I’m WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC, I’m going to try to breathe through the bouncy part, and try to put my new pieces aside for a while. I’m hoping to get fairly quickly back to my usual, Piglettish state: slightly worried, somewhat confused.

Formtion, Functiorm; or On Navigating Form and Function

I had been working on a multipart essay when I wondered if it was really a sectioned poem. So I spent days and days easing, tapping, tweaking, clipping each segment into lineation, attention to rhythm, structures, and all the various things that poetic forms allow/require of us. And now I’m not sure it works. But the process has been interesting.

On the one hand, the poeming process helped me make the language and sentences more taut and efficient, catch repetitions, reorder thoughts. Creating lines allowed me to inject additional suggestions into the ideas, or even with a line break subvert what I was saying, or at least question it.

But too often, the lines gave gravitas to places I didn’t really want emphasized. It made some ideas too weighty, too self-important. Some ideas I wanted to slip in with more subtlety, subtlety that demands of lineation did not seem to allow.

So I’m going to take the newly taut language and spread it back out, give some good fat back to some of the sentences, allow a more languid pace.

But I also realized that one thing I was looking for in this poetic exercise was another layer of thinking, or a honing of direction. I am still in the process of finding that. I read a novel recently and thought, “Hm, that was a pretty interesting idea in search of a good story to find itself inside. This wasn’t it.” I fear that’s what I have on my hands right now.

Or maybe function will follow form. If I make it a play, maybe I’ll figure out what I’m trying to get at. Maybe an opera. Perhaps it’s best as a haiku.

I think I need to do more thinking work to distill what’s important about what I’ve written down. And I’m hoping this process of traveling back and forth between genres will help — the way you isolate an egg yolk by tipping it back and forth between pieces of egg shell, letting the egg white slop out.