I heard the news today; or, On Poetry Making Use of Non-poetic Texts

I took a dip into the work of Muriel Rukeyser recently, a poet whose work I was only vaguely familiar with. I spent time mostly with “The Book of the Dead,” her documentary-ish exploration of a tunnel collapse and its corporate cover-up. It is quite contemporary in feel, though it was published in 1938 as part of her second poetry collection, US1. She uses research, reportage, and the borrowed voices of witnesses or individuals who stood in the middle of the situations that stirred her. Bringing home to the reader social justice concerns in a visceral way.

And I realized there is a direct line between her work and several other collections I happen to be reading at the moment: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ, and Travis Cebula’s The Sublimation of Frederick Eckert. All of these make use of documentation and imagination, witness and response, text and visual presentations. And they all, to my mind, stretch the traditional sense of what poetry is: From Rukeyser’s use, for example, in “Statement: Phillipa Allen,” of altered lines from a witness statement, set in the dialogue format of a play, with dashes to set off each line of of the questioner’s questions and Allen’s replies; to Choi’s snapshotted notes and scribbled Korean characters and a respondent’s doodled map of circles; to Rankine’s “situation scripts” making use of news coverage; to how Cebula’s poems, launched from an old newspaper clipping, explore the fictionalized life of the first suicide off the Empire State Building tumble down the page, sometimes in two columns, some words bracketed as if a photojournalist froze moments of the fall.

Is there music here? Sometimes. Is there form? Of strangeness, yes, and sometimes borrowed from non-poetry-looking documentation. Is there compression? Of vision, certainly, of focus, if not always of text. Is there silence, as weighed against sound? Yes, and often interestingly, insightfully so. How they take from and make use of documentation interests me, text dimensioning itself from text, like a 3D printer transforming code into form.

I must confess, though, this interests me intellectually, but it’s the other book I happened to grab in quick Covid-breathing-down-my-neck visit to the library that grabs my poetry heart. It too takes its cues from something concrete, in this case a video clip and some photographs. Ross Gay seems to be attaining incadescence in front of my very eyes with each new book. Be Holding is magnificent, as it achingly slowly tells of the fleet seconds details of an improbable dunk, a “baseline scoop,” by Dr. J during a 1980 NBA finals game, interspersed with curling and twining tendrils of sidebars and meditations on holding, on flying and falling, on love. This is poetry that truly engages me as a reader, a writer, and as a human bean.

This is news of the finest kind. Oh, boy.

Have my seat; it’s for free; or, In Which I Discover I Know Nothing About Poetry…Again

I still remember the shock and betrayal I felt, not to mention the physical discomfort, when whatever little asshole kid I was see-sawing with jumped off when he was down, and I was up, and I came slamming down. It made me ever suspicious and I have been always careful with whom I see-saw. Well, the world of poetry sometimes feels to me like that kid — playing nicely then suddenly, inexplicably wham. And I’m down, bones rattled, teeth jarred.

I keep encountering poems lately I. do. not. get. Don’t get ’em. What are they doing? What are they talking about? Why has the poet chosen to do what they have done? What am I to take away from them? WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?

Obviously, I know nothing about poetry.

I mean these are well respected publishers and much lauded books and widely praised poets. So obviously everyone other than me sees something in them and I’m too much of a dolt to see the greatness.

No wonder I can’t get my poems accepted for publication lately! I clearly have no idea what I’m doing! I go along, writing my stuff, reading stuff, venturing my opinion about what I’m reading. Then wham. Who am I to have any opinions whatsoever on anyone else’s work when I am clearly so. out. of. my. depth. Who am I to be scribbling and typing and — good grief — sending stuff out?

Poetry? What the hell is it? Don’t freaking ask me. I ain’t getting on that see-saw today.

Barrelin’ down the boulevard; or, One Last Thing About Revision (This Week, Anyway)

So I plastered a bunch of my thoughts about revision last week and the week before. But there’s a terrible secret I’ve kept tight to my chest. And that is that I don’t really think anyone can teach us how to revise our own poems.

You can try all these ideas and techniques. But there is no way to really know when a poem has achieved something close to its potential except by writing and reading and writing and reading and developing your own sense of what you want your work to do.

And by reading, I mean, reading like a practitioner. That is, when we meet a poem that affects us, we need to take it apart and figure out how it did its magic. And we need to do this over and over again with all kinds of poems. And we need to try the tactics, retry, try something else.

And I believe — I have to believe — by doing this over the course of who the hell knows how long, we’ll develop some instincts, some skills, and some confidence. And when the poem isn’t living up to itself, something in us will feel uncomfortable, our skin will not fit us quite right, our ears will flick forward and back at some sound that’s not quite right, some voice inside us will whisper, “Sorry, you just don’t have it yet.”

And we’ll sigh and unscrew the carefully packed poem, pull all the guts out, and start all over again, adding this, taking away that, turning the pieces around, and putting it together again, then sitting with it to let those hard-won instincts have their say, their little jabs and hmms.

Good luck.

Notes on Revision: A Megablog

Reblogging this because, well, it’s a MEGAblog.

O Write: Marilynonaroll's Blog

I’ve written often over the years about my grappling with the revision process, ways I’ve approached it, ways I’ve been confounded, approaches I’ve read about and tried, ones I’ve read about but have been too lazy to try. I decided to go back through all the posts I could find that talked about revision and distill the barest skeleton of stuff so as to create a sort of quick-and-dirty revision cheatsheet. This is not to say I’m an expert, it’s just to say here’s some stuff I think I’ve learned along the way that maybe you’d find useful too. Or not. Whatever. Anyway. Here’s some stuff.

Remember: look for the shine and sheer away what’s getting in the way, or carve it so that the light and shadow work how you want them to.

Remember: it’s a spiral process. Start anywhere. You’ll be back there again eventually, but hopefully from…

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Notes on Revision: A Megablog

I’ve written often over the years about my grappling with the revision process, ways I’ve approached it, ways I’ve been confounded, approaches I’ve read about and tried, ones I’ve read about but have been too lazy to try. I decided to go back through all the posts I could find that talked about revision and distill the barest skeleton of stuff so as to create a sort of quick-and-dirty revision cheatsheet. This is not to say I’m an expert, it’s just to say here’s some stuff I think I’ve learned along the way that maybe you’d find useful too. Or not. Whatever. Anyway. Here’s some stuff. 

Remember: look for the shine and sheer away what’s getting in the way, or carve it so that the light and shadow work how you want them to.

Remember: it’s a spiral process. Start anywhere. You’ll be back there again eventually, but hopefully from a slightly different vantage point.

Remember: time is the best editor.

But here are some ways to break it down:

The Words

– Are the verbs active? Are they surprising? 

– Are the nouns specific? Are they image-based? Or are they abstract or calling too much attention to themselves with their fancy multisyllables?

– Are there too many articles? Not enough? Could you gain specificity and heft by changing an “a” to a “the” or vice versa?

– Are the adjectives and adverbs necessary and are they doing enough heavy lifting? 

– Is punctuation serving clarity? If you’ve eschewed punctuation, is that serving the poem? 

– Is the tone right for the subject matter? Or wonderfully wrong for the subject matter?

The Sounds

– Have you read it aloud and does it flow? Are there sticky spots? Clunky sections?

– Are you paying attention to assonance, alliteration, onomatopaeia? Do the repetitions of sound work for the poem’s intentions? 

– Have you paid attention to rhythm? Does it have an interesting beat and flow?

– If you’re working in meter, does it get established, then break in such a way that is interesting and that serves the meaning of the line?

The Lines

– Are the line breaks serving purposes, in terms of ideas, rhythms, sound, controlling the movement of the poem? 

– Do most of the lines have integrity or heft (rather than just being throw-away lines to get to the next meaty bit)? 

– Do most of the lines start strongly? Do most of the lines end strongly?

– Is the white space serving the poem?

The Look on the Page

– If you’re using a form, does the content serve the form? Does the form serve the content? Would imposing more control enhance the effect of the poem? Does the poem need less control, a little wildness?

The Silence

– Have you provided some silence such that you are controlling the roll of the poem down the page, in the mouth, out in the room?

– Is there too much information? Could you let the reader sit with some ideas by giving them some white space?

The Energy

– Is there a place of energy in the poem that might show you how to trim around it, or how the rest of the poem might need to be energized to meet it? Or maybe your poem really should be headed in the direction of that energy, and more writing is needed.

The Beginning

– Does it start at an interesting place/moment/idea/emotion? Or have you hemmed and hawed some and the poem might be stronger by starting several lines down where things are really happening?

The Ending

– Does it come to some ending so thoroughly that you can hear a far thud? Is it wrapped up so tight in a bow that it’s face is getting red from trying to breathe?

– Does it wander off such that the reader is left wondering why they bothered to follow along? 

– Does it make sense; does it make glorious nonsense?

The Order of Operations

– Does the flow of images/ideas/sounds/silences make sense? Or does it make glorious not-sense? 

– Do you ask too much of the reader to try to follow the leaps and bounds? Is there enough of a through-line of thought to keep the reader going?

The Title

– Does the title you’ve chosen really suit the poem? (Or does it convey what you thought you were writing about but the poem had its own ideas?) 

– Does it do any useful work, like situating the reader, or setting a tone, or giving a hint as to what’s ahead?

– Does it add interest and vitality or is it merely sitting there? If you encountered this title, would you bother to read this poem?

The Content

Okay, this is kind of big. If a poem is an inquiry, you don’t necessarily have to know exactly where you’re going, or where you’ve ended up, but you kind of have to settle on what your intentions are and what direction you think you’re headed.

– Do you know what you’re trying to do with this poem? Or are you muddled and therefore the poem is muddied?

– Do you know too much? That is, did you already decide on your arrival before you even embarked on the journey? Where’s the mystery and thrill of the unknown?

– Are you trying to strong-arm the poem to go someplace it doesn’t want to?

– Are you trusting the reader to grasp your metaphors and the journey of the poem? Are you asking too much of the reader to leap over chasms and wade through confusing thickets?

– Is this a poem in which something is at stake for you?

Play It Out

I’ve made it all sound very systematic, but really, I find I do revision best as a form of play. Here are some ways to play:

– Rewrite it backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.

– Break it apart and put it back together differently. It’s fun to do this physically: scissoring up the poem and taping it back together.

– Underline all the places in the poem that have energy or something special going on. Take everything else out and start with those underlined segments. Write on.

– Take out entire sections one by one and see what’s left. 

– Plot the logic of the arguments/analogies to make sure they are solid.

– Change the voice: if it’s in first person, change it to third, e.g.

– Change the time: if it’s in past tense, change to present, or future!

– Ask a poet friend to take a look at it and try the edits suggested, no matter how off-base you think they are. 

– Try combining two poems into one. 

– Write a new beginning.

– Write a new ending.

– Pick your favorite line and write a whole new poem off of that.

– Try a new title. Sometimes the gap between the title and the text is telling. Sometimes you have to write to the title. Sometimes you have to re-title to the text.

– Insert a diversion. Follow that diversion out — does it lead you back to the original poem, or to someplace new and interesting that is still in keeping with the original? Or have you ended up writing a new and wholly separate poem?

– Do a writing exercise starting with the thought: What I’m really trying to say is…

– Put it away for a month. Better, two months.

And sometimes, you just have to give up and start a new poem.

I wish I had a river; or, On Letting Writing Flow

Unusually for me, I find myself 8 handwritten pages into…well, what it is I can’t yet say, but I’ll loosely term it at this point an essay. I decided to start with a geographic point and then try to get myself to spin out from there, writing in whatever direction consciousness, or subconsciousness, or unconsciousness took me. I’m bemused at this, and am trying to still the anxiety I always feel to conclude a piece of writing, to tie it off, like a scarf from a knitting needle.

The urge to end is, well, urgent. What more could I have to say? How will I ever make all this work together? I’m trying just to keep knitting. What if it never ends? Well, won’t that be something?

Anyway, I found this quote from the ever-enjoyable essays of Olivia Laing, this from her engaging To the River: A Journey Beneath Surfaces, which traces the river Ouse, the same river that swallowed Virginia Woolf. Laing wrote:

“A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.”

Here ice is just catching the edges of the rivers and streams. I watched today a small eddy surge up through the hole it had created in the thin ice. I persevere.

Make a new plan; or, On Memoir: A Reader’s Questions

I just read a much vaunted memoir, and found I kept getting distracted by questions — not about the writer but about the book, about the genre, about the publishing world.

Here’s a sort of anatomy of my reading experience:

– About a quarter of the way through:  This memoir includes very long direct quotation monologues and dialogues that the author is “remembering” from 40 years ago. Haven’t others been criticized for that? Haven’t other authors gotten the hairy eyeball for claiming to remember exact wording? Is this one of the things that James Frey got in trouble for? I don’t really know, as I didn’t follow that uproar, didn’t read the book, and don’t really care if a good story is exaggerated or not, I don’t think. Aren’t they all? What is the thinking about lengthy direct quotes in memoir?

– A little more than a third of the way through: This author writes about a life experience in the context of a place the author neither comes from nor belongs. Haven’t other authors who have done this been accused of appropriation? The author is not claiming to be other than their own identity, so maybe that’s why it’s okay? I don’t know. I’ve never been very clear about why that woman who wrote American Dirt got such a drubbing. It was fiction! The only thing that made sense from one thing I read was that it just wasn’t a very good book. Is the book I’m reading so well written that it can do what it wants? I don’t know. 

– A bit farther along now, and am wondering this: The author tells a story of a life experience against the backdrop of an important issue, but the book remains focused on the author, not on the issue. The person’s life does not particularly reveal anything about the issue nor cause us to understand the issue at another level, deeper than, for example, a nonfiction treatise on the issue. Isn’t that also appropriation? Or something like that? Or at least kind of lame? 

It just seems strange to me that nothing I have read about the book has raised these questions. If it were more of a page-turner, would I be spending so much time putting it down and looking out the window, wondering about these things? Do memoir writers have a duty to make their lives page-turner-y? (Isn’t that what got James Frey in trouble?) 

– Okay, I’m about 250 pages in and it seems to me the author has now learned how to write this book. Didn’t any early readers tell the author this? Why didn’t an editor didn’t step in to point this out and help create a whole book that works? The pace has stepped up, and there is an attempt to integrate the telling self, the experiencing self, and the situation the self finds itself in, and, perhaps most importantly, the other people in the situation. Do editors even do this kind of corrective advice any more? Are some authors so well respected that no one dare edit them?

– By the end, I’m feeling satisfied, although some of the end stuff could have been cut or trimmed, I think. But the book found itself and the story found its way to be told, and the author found the right placement of themselves in relation to the context. But it took more than half the book to get them there.

I think my overall conclusion is that (caveat auctor) a good memoir is very, very, very hard to write.

Well, some things you can’t explain away; or, More Again on Revision Again

I’m participating in a lecture series about poetry revising in which some well respected poets share their own revision experiences and talk with each other about their approaches. It’s interesting enough, and good to spend a concentrated time thinking about this stuff, and I am trying to regard some old poems with freshly tuned eyes.

There is talk of the mechanics of revision — all that examine-the-language stuff, and the excess verbiage stuff, and the unnecessary diversions. But of course the hardest part of revision is less about what’s on the page than about what is not. What is hiding behind what’s there, or what is being denied, what has been diverted by pretty language. What have I been too lazy to uncover or too nervous or too blocked or whatever? No amount of moving words around will necessarily fix the problem of a poem that either doesn’t dredge up the deep enough stuff or doesn’t have the intention or power to do that anyway and so is inherently superficial (at best) or boring. Some poems can’t be saved. I’ve spoken of this before. Perhaps several times. (Here’s one: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/know-when-to-run-or-when-work-in-progress-is-not-making-progress-or-giving-up-as-part-of-the-poem-editing-process)

In the chat part of each session, people ask anxious questions which are really all variations on one question: How the hell do I know if I know what I’m doing?

And the answer of course is you don’t, and you never will. The discussion leader and the generous guests are too kind to actually say this, but I know it is true. There are no rules, no formulas, no standardized operating procedures. No quick tricks that always work. There are handbooks, guide books, how to’s, don’t do’s, but really, the horrible truth is, the only approach that can be at all counted upon is the try-this-what-the-hell approach. And then the I-don’t-like-the-way-it-looks/feels/sounds/ends up/reveals/hides or the yeah-I-can-live-with-that result. 

Although now in retrospect, these poets eruditely share what they can now understand of how a poem came into being, but I promise you, in the moment, they each and all said to themselves at least once: “Gaaaah!”

If the act of writing the poem must be the act of discovery, it’s important to remember this: Many voyages of discovery ended up with the voyager turning back, having mishaps that landed them elsewhere, finding themselves places they didn’t know they’d get to, bobbing in the middle of the ocean needing rescuing, thinking they’ve gotten where they were headed only they were someplace else entirely but didn’t know it, or dead. Every poem effort we make is a voyage into the unknown and we have very little idea what we’re doing, can only control so much along the way, and might end up nowhere.

I’m finding myself lately asking questions in poems that the poem then goes on to not address; that is, the poem reveals that it has a different question it is addressing. My job is to recognize that the question I posed is not what the poem wants to talk about, and then either figure out what the poem is talking about or/and write the poem that actually addresses the question I posed. It takes some time.

There are no answers. There is only more looking, seeking, feeling along the wall for a light switch, trying not to trip over the cat.

I want you to show me the way; or, On Reading Kay Ryan

I picked up Synthesizing Gravity, a collection of Kay Ryan’s essays, eager to discover what this brilliant poet has to say in prose…only to find the intro was written by another in my literary pantheon, Christian Wiman. Listen to this: He writes, “…Kay Ryan is…in some way native to…a realm in which gravity and levity are vivid kin….” Isn’t that amazing? That’s a realm I would like to move to. My literary Canada. He suggests Ryan’s purpose is: “…to light the space between mind and world. To light, and thereby lighten, the space between mind and world. To lighten, and thereby lessen, the space between mind a world.” I say yes to all that. Yes. And I haven’t even gotten past the intro.

+++++

Okay, now I have gotten past the intro, and yes, yes to many of these erudite little essays in which Kay Ryan thinks her Kay Ryan-ish delighted thoughts on poems that interest her interesting mind. I have had some friends in my life like Kay Ryan in whom I totally delight and with whom I’m always a little anxious. These are people SO much smarter than I am, totally idiosyncratic in their brilliance, and they just dazzle without being anything grand or fancy but just being their often small-seeming, darkly quietly brilliant selves. And I’m anxious that they find me likable and never discover the dolt I am. This is what Kay Ryan would be like if I could be her friend. And I would love to be her friend. Or at least her roommate at an AWP conference, about which she devotes one hilarious essay, her reluctant attendance at an AWP as a visiting alien, wide-eyed and exhausted by the planet-change. 

Here is something she says, in the context of considering a Robert Frost poem, but so relevant to the poetry writing process in general, I think, and relevant to a discussion I had recently with a poet friend. About her spare, crystalline poems, which I often find engimatic, I’m constantly asking basically, “Can you tell us just a little bit more?” Ryan says: “The amount you need to say is so hard to gauge. How much can you not say, and something will still have the charge of the unsaid? There is a point at which what is said is too pale, or frail, one fears, to tip the mind into the unsaid. And the reason for the pallor might not be punctilio but a genuine failure of force.”

I had to look up “punctilio” (“a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure”) and in so doing sort of lost track of things, but she’s addressing, I believe, choice-making — how to choose the words/syntax/form that will carry the greatest resonance, undone by either too much or too little actual information. 

Here, from another essay, this one considering William Carlos Williams, she comes at the same question from the other end: “How much can you take away? It’s always a question. Or maybe it’s exactly the wrong question, posed like that. If you think you are taking away, then you probably are — diminishing something. You have to be looking for something, feeling for the contours of the thing inside the distractions, trying to add just a little bit moreto what you know.”

All this is to say that Kay Ryan is a delightful essayorial companion, and I’m enjoying this collection without the anxiety of worrying about whether she is enjoying me.

Giving you a longing look; or, On Making Things

As I mentioned last week, I created some monoprints from which I made a handmade book. I’ve made other little books. The making of them pleased me, and as I look at them on my desk, I’m pleased by the having-made.

But if Marie Kondo has named the zeitgeist: “throw it away,” should I really be making objects? I ask myself what is the point. Shouldn’t I be un-making? Dis-making? Should I burn all these little books? If I do it as some offering to some gods does it make that un-making sacred, and therefore worth doing more than just chucking them in the recycling bin?

I live in a dusty house. Or, perhaps, it could be argued, I never dust, so there is dust. Dust on my things, and on my little books. Dust on me, and I will be dust. And someone else will have to decide what to do with my books. Who will be left to dust me? Will all my making be recycled? Ashes to ashes.

I’ve been reading about the human species. We despair of what we’ve done to Earth, but what we should really despair about is what we’ve done to us and our fellow denizens. The Earth can take a lot of abuse and will roil along with our without us until its own destiny is played out. Dust to dust.

I don’t believe in gods, nor even really in life, I mean, I don’t believe that life has a purpose except to sustain itself. Living being that I am I did not reproduce myself, but my body has fed some strange beasts: bacterias and protists, spiders and mites. My books are probably doing their part too, paper that they are and likely highly digestible.

A word, however, is an ephemeral thing. A poem fleeting in the air. Unless I write it down, either on paper or in my laptop, in which case suddenly it takes up space. And if it’s printed in a magazine or a book, and it sits on a shelf, well, I’m profligate. And if you buy it? If you read it, find it pleasing, however briefly? How lovely. And if you then recycle the book someday during your own existential — that is, how can I have such a preponderance of things that exist — crisis? Well, that strikes me as a good thing. Sort of. (It’s lucky that books of poetry are usually paperback.)

I have a box of my own books, unsold, that I’m about to take to the attic, where it will sit until I hit the attic with a frenzy and decide no one will ever buy one and chuck ’em. But these handmade books, the largest one only a bit bigger than my hand? Well. I’ll keep them a little while longer. A bit of me for those booklice to read over, digest.