If it’s not too late, make it a cheeeeseburger; or, Presenting the Self

I am rererereading the most excellent book by Vivian Gornick on writing, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. Although the book is about writing personal essays and memoir, she says so many smart things that are absolutely applicable to writing poetry.

She herself distinguishes personal narrative writing from fiction and poetry this way: “A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly–inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires [geesh, what kind of poetry has she been reading?!?!]–but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative…must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from.” I would argue, though, that her ultimate point is of deep relevance to the poet, whether that poet has created a narrative persona other than him- or herself or has used the frankly personal “I” or has no apparent persona at all.

(People always think poets are writing about themselves anyway, and that everything in a poem is “true.”)

Gornick writes: “The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming…self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.” She calls this unsurrogated narrator, this narrative persona, the “instrument of illumination.

She says “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” And aren’t the most resonant poems the ones that strike us with that wisdom, that “thing”? Poems that lack it might be interesting; but I guarantee you won’t carry them folded up in your wallet for times of trouble, or quote them at relevant life points, or carry a book of them with you through eleven apartment moves.

She talks about being “engaged at the deepest level” in which “writing does not wander about on the page accumulating description for its own sake, or developing images independent of thought, or musing lyrically. The point of view originates in the nervous system and concentrates itself in the person of a narrator who…is to use the narrating self only to shape those associations that will provide drive and lead on to inner resolution. These writers might not ‘know’ themselves–that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us–but…they know who they are at the moment of writing.” This presence of the narrating self to the situation creates the “story,” or, I argue, the effective poem. I’m not talking just about the confessional poem. I’m talking about any poem in which the poet engages with the world and is spurred to write out of that engagement.

Gornick talks about finding the other in the self and using that self-investigation to provide purpose and tension in an essay or memoir. But isn’t that also the case in poetry — is there not a crucial element of investigation, and aren’t we often asking questions of our selves? And must they not be so intimate that you, the reader, are also engaged in that self-same self-investigation, advertently or inadvertently? As Gornick puts it, “…a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows…[t]he act of clarifying on the page….”

About this idea of “truth” in a piece: “Truth…is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to makeof what happened.” It seems to me this is as true in poetry as in any kind of literature.

Of course, this is not what all poets are about. Some are functioning on the surface of sound, or the whiteness of page and what can be played out there, or are at some other kind of poetic enterprise. So I admit maybe my thinking here is too narrow. I am writing about the kind of poetry I am trying to write, not the kind of poetry that is widely lauded in the contemporary world (poetry which makes me feel like there is some huge club all of whose members are speaking some secret language I have not been initiated in. I consider this a failing in myself.).

She talks about “looking for the inner context that makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance…” That’s the kind of poem I’m talking about.

 

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D…do do do..d..da da da da is all I want to say to you; or Why Make Art

If I’m not actually writing, I try to be at least making something — a video poem, a series of drawings, some act of creativity. Recently I made a, as it turns out, rather elaborate and complicated accordion-binding book with a cover made of two small picture frames within which I made collages. (Yeah, I haven’t been doing much writing lately….)

It was quite an undertaking, and I had never made such a thing before, so it has some flaws — I folded some of the pages incorrectly and had to refold, so the old folds are still evident; I pasted some of the sections together on the wrong side so the pasted portion shows instead of being hidden behind the new page; an item has already fallen out of one of the collages. You know how things go. But it was a process, and a product, and therefore, satisfying.

I showed it to a friend, who said, “Oh, what are you going to do with it?”

I became confused. Was I supposed to do something with it? I thought the doing was the doing. I thought the showing-someone was also a sufficient doing. Was there more? Am I supposed to…what?…submit it to an art show…sell it on eBay?

Okay, I write poems, and some of them I send out to try to get published. Some of them I put together with others into a manuscript. Some of them get thrown away. Some sit around in their underwear for a very long time. If I was required to “do” something with everything I made I’m not sure I’d make stuff at all.

Or do I only make stuff because somewhere in the back of my mind there’s a possibility that I’ll do something with them, like get them published, win international acclaim, cash prizes, etcetera?

I don’t know. I’m sort of flummoxed.

I just wanted to make this thing and show it to someone. Now it sits around looking at me like it’s waiting for my next move.

So. Here it is. This is my next move. Ta da. Let the international acclaim and cash prize flow.

Shunning the Frumious Bandersnatch; or, Finding the Right Words

I was listening to something the other day when it occurred to me that the writer had used all these multisyllabic words that were buzzing around my face like annoying flies, getting in the way of the words that were actually saying something. (I was reminded of a regular commentator on my local public radio station who would lugubriously and with ponderous solemnity pontificate his cogitations and delibrations with as many multisyllabic appellations as he could prestidigitate. I would turn the radio off when he came on and snort several good monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words at it.)
Suddenly, inside all those words flailing around, I heard a phrase of five short words that all by themselves made a satisfying gong that shattered the buzzing of those long words, that resonated with meanings and suggestions and layers.

This is what writing, and its vital partner editing, is all about: shuffling through the noises to find the satisfying and resounding gong.

In the structure of a poem, each word, as an I-beam or a column, needs to be carrying weight and be balanced with the others, or be deliberately off-balance. Multisyllabic words have to be used carefully because they can visually and sonically outweigh or overshadow other words, rocking the whole enterprise, and not in a good way. They also run the risk of sounding self-conscious. (Why use “utilize” when “use” will do, except that you think it sounds fancier?) (Or maybe you need three beats in that line, I suppose. That might be a justification…but a pretty shaky one.)

Similarly, grand and abstract words can weigh too much: love, for example, soul, universe. Even “moon” has to be handled with care. (I was advised once to not use the moon at all, as it’s been soooooo overdone. But, I mean, geez, I can’t NOT talk about the moon.)

It takes patience (and humility), I think, to not get caught up in my own extensive vocabulary options, to instead wait for, or mine for the often more simple utterance that says more than its parts.

And then to have the courage to surround it with silence, the vital partner of speech.

 

Whittle While You Work; or, Considering Wood Carving and Writing

I’ve been reading about the art of wood carving in David Esterly’s fascinating The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. The author said several things of interest to me as a writer.

Here’s one that echoes Rilke’s idea of “being only eye,” that is, looking at something so intimately that “self” consciousness falls away but something of the deeper self rises up. Esterly writes:

“Once I gave lessons in foliage carving. I proposed to the students that we reject the idea that carving should be a means for self-expression…The assignment would be to carve a laurel leaf, a leaf of extreme simplicity. I asked the students to throw themselves entirely into the leaf, seek its essence and express only that, putting aside their personalities and carving only with hands and eyes…At the end of the day? There were eight individual leaves, some more compelling than others, but each distinct from all the rest…Trying to express the leaf, the carvers inadvertently had expressed themselves. But it was…a self-expression…from a union with their subject.”

I talk about this a bit when I lead writing workshops at an area art museum. I ask people to give themselves over to looking, and then, by challenging them to write constantly in a timed session, invite the inadvertent utterance onto the page. In this way we give ourselves the chance to surprise ourselves.

In some ways carving is somewhat similar to — not writing exactly, but more like editing. We carve away all the words that distract from the core of the work. Here’s how he describes his process:

“Maybe I hadn’t thought hard enough about what really happens when you make a thing…You start out at the top of the chiasmus, all right. But soon enough the moil of the making fills your consciousness and informs your decisions. You plunge down that X, like a fallen angel, toward the crossing point with the thing you are making, the point of equal power…a sustained congruence of maker and made…It’s not clear who’s boss.”

I know other people, especially fiction writers, talk about their characters taking over. I wouldn’t characterize my experience of writing a poem in this way. I have in the course of writing been surprised sometimes about what has come out, but have not had a sense in the act of editing that I was or was not in charge, but rather either things are coming together or not, the poem is either what I’d hoped or not, it either is a thing or it ain’t. I don’t get this sense of battle.

I do understand the feeling that the thing I made is, to some degree, an “other,” with its own being-ness. But I can’t say that the poem “tells me” what it wants to do. It seems less like a struggle about who’s boss than a question of whether I’ve even chosen the right piece of wood in the first place, the exact piece of wood to be shaped into what I am learning along the way is my intention.

It’s not that the made thing itself has ideas but rather that the gap between my idea as it presents itself and evolves in its own making and my execution of that morphing idea is sometimes unbridgeable.

It’s sort of like when I try to read small print with my contact lenses in. Neither bringing it closer nor holding it farther away works. It’s just unreadable….In contrast to this highly readable, very interesting work, an intimate glimpse into art making of a different sort.

How Do I Know?; or, Learning to Assess Our Own Work

I encounter again the ubiquitous “Send us your best work” bullshit advisement on the submission page of a literary magazine. Listen. I have never looked at a poem and thought, “Okay, well, this is mediocre, I think I’ll send it to x literary magazine.” Have never read through a manuscript and thought, “Oh, well, this is better than some of the crap out there, I think I’ll send it to x publisher.”

You bastards, I AM sending you what I think, at that moment, is my best work.
…I think…

Do I read it a week after I’ve sent it out and think, “Holy crap, what was I thinking?” Sometimes.

Do I get your rejection back and think, “But this is the best work I’ve ever done and you STILL won’t take it?” Sometimes.

Do I get your rejection back and think, “Hm, well, I think you were right about that”? Sometimes.

The big question is how do we know when our work is at its best. How do we develop within ourselves an adept critical eye.

No, really, that’s a question. Please tell me: How do I develop within myself an adept critical eye?

Again, not to pound this point, but, well, to pound this point, time is a wonderful filter.
If only I would listen to myself and not get overexcited by a new piece and start sending it out in the first blush of blind optimism.

I think I’m going to create a new folder called Hold It! (I’m a great creator of folders…) and put in it every new poem I’m excited about, and I’m not allowed to look at them until at least a month after I’ve put it in the folder. AT LEAST a month. Six months is probably better.

In six months I’m a different person than I was six months before — new skin, blood, colon, fingernails, as cells replace themselves throughout the body at varying rates. So surely the new me will have some fresh insight.

But I’ll have the same eyeballs, though, and mostly the same brain, but new neuronal networks. So in order to shove myself along developmentally, as the pink-faced new poems cool their heels in the Hold It! folder, I should work on my eyesight and my memories. Which means to me that I should read more and widely in poetry especially, and when I find a poem that makes me say “wow, that is good work,” spend some time taking a look at how it works at working. But also other kinds of written work, because all kinds of literature can feed perspective. And I should also look at art, listen to music. And probably dance a little, even if it’s just in my kitchen.

All these kinds of inputs have the possibility of opening my brain to new ways of seeing, new ways of communicating, new ways to imagine. So when I open that folder again, I can see with altered vision and new light.

Once I do look at the poem again, I should also question myself harder. What do I mean here? This is all very fine sounding, but is it more than sound and fancy? Have I dug deep enough into the initiating impulse behind this poem? Do I even remember what I thought I was writing toward? If I’ve forgotten, what, then, presents itself to me in this poem, and is it interesting? Does energy spark and fade throughout the poem? Inquire of that movement: why does it shift, how can I make the whole thing spark and arc? Inquire of every stinking word. Does it belong, does it add, does it move, does it shimmer, does it hold water?

Ugh, with such big questions, I fear I may never open up the Hold It! folder again. Wasn’t it easier just to love the poem and ship it out and take the rejections as they came?

 

This Little Light; or, A Wish for the New Year

On the figurative eve of this new year I had two dazzling experiences of listening. One took place in my town’s venerable coffeehouse: a concert by Amy Helm, who sings with a body full of rhythm and heart and shining eyes like some kind of earth-bound angel. Her father too, Levon Helm, shone this way. And the second was the Netflix film of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show. It was all I could do not to get up from my chair in order to fall to my knees.

I felt as if some central core had been split open and the inner flame of humanity was revealed, and I needed to respond with my body, needed to prostrate myself to this fire. You know the old Jewish myth that the deity dropped vessels of light and we humans are its shards. I saw in these performances the great glitter of us, what is the best of us, we members of this odd and difficult species, broken and sparkling.

Yuval Noah Hariri defines intelligence as the ability to solve problems and consciousness as the ability to feel. These artists seem to wring out of themselves and into their work the essence of consciousness. They seem to be fearless in showing the edges and facets of themselves through their work. This is inspiring — remembering that inspire is an in-breath, a re-oxygenating of the cells of the body, an awakening.

I love words, poetry, but it’s music that wrenches me most deeply, often vocal music, often that magic of tune and word and beat that creates a live thing that enters me, skin and bone, gut and vein. Many things move me, but only music guts me. Well, with an exception: Hearing Ilya Kaminsky orate “Do not go gentle.” That was transformational.

I dabble in music but am no musician. Still I can hope and strive to create in my own written work this kind of reaching and opening, this level of capturing light. If I could write a poem that could even slightly glitter like those performances, I will have done what I set out on this path to do.

So for this new year, I wish for all of us that we find some light to let loose from our jagged edges, that we find our shine.

Open Mic, Insert Pen; or, Notes on the Editing Experience

As I shifted uncomfortably in my hard chair the other evening, it occurred to me that sometimes my experience of attending an open mic is not dissimilar from my experience, at times, of the editing process.
I approach with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
The lights go down. I can’t see clearly.
I eat a cookie.
Poems are going on and on.
I feel like a small ogre in the dark, thinking things to myself like: “No, no, no.” “Cut that line. That one two.” “Stop there. Stop. Stop.” “What are you going on about now?” “Nooo.” “What on earth are you talking about??” “Too long! Too long!” “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
I feel uncharitable. Can’t I be more open-minded to these poems?
One cookie is not enough. I eat a second cookie.
Sometimes I think things like: “Hm, that wasn’t half bad.” “Hey, something really interesting is going on in this one.” “Oh, wow, now THAT is a poem.” “That was interesting. I could learn from that.”
Sometimes I laugh out loud.
Two cookies is too much.
Often I forget a moment later what I thought was interesting.
I forget what I had thought I learned. I forget the idea I had. I become confused and overstimulated.
After a while, I get physically uncomfortable, my body stiffening in the chair, my feet shuffling around underneath me in an excess of unexpended energy and cookie sugar.
I feel lonely in the dim light, the cacaphony of words.
It’s a relief to finally just go home and go to bed.