Ring the bells; or, On Successishness

Every year around my birthday I pause to do a year-in-review. This was a particularly good year with regard to my creative life. I had a chance to participate in two visual art shows, which put me in conversation with new people on new topics, including process, product, and science, plus again was part of a festival of short films. I got a chance to see my work shown in a public space and projected large in both a gallery and a theater space. This was huge fun for me.

I got a handful of poems published. I still haven’t broken through into my A-list lit mags, nor even my B-lists, but work that’s out in the world is better than work that’s sitting on my computer twiddling its thumbs. So that’s cool.

Had some great writing retreats and a conference that were rich in friendship and creative stimulation and beauty.

And I’ve had another year of exposure to wonderful art, music, dance, nature, architecture, and food. And chocolate.

I had the thrill of riding a bike past blooming fields of redolent hyacinth. I had the unforgettable and awful experience of watching in person Notre Dame burn; but, not to appropriate a tragedy, but I must say there was a strange grace in being able to be among Parisians and tourists sharing the grief on the bridges surrounding the cathedral.

And I have a whole new swath of poems that I’m in the in-love with stage about. (That won’t last long, but I’m trying to enjoy it while I can.)

I think it’s important, this year-in-review ritual — and I usually combine it with going to a fawncy cafe in my town for a once-a-year cappuccino and the best croissant in the world. I don’t do it often enough, and often fear counting my blessings aloud, as I’m superstitious and generally walk around feeling like there are several large shoes over my head waiting to drop (or am I thinking of Damocletian swords?), and worry that too much reveling will…well…I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, a pause like this helps me to live that kind of life worth living: the examined kind. And to ring my own personal bells that still can ring, and let some light in. And I share it here mostly to remind you too to ring a bell.

Here’s a blog post from some time ago in which I think about the definition of “success”: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/pass-go-collect-…r-successishness/

What do you do with a drunken sailor; or, On Failure

I am thinking today about the economic notion of “sunk costs.” I recently finished a project that took a lot of time and effort, and I hate it. It sucks.

I’ve spoken in this space before about how all creative people must allow themselves to make sucky work. But I need to take a minute to dwell in the rendeth-my-garment frustration of coming to the end of creating something only to be gravely disappointed. A moment of grief must be allowed. A flopping about of dismay.

But in the end, crap is crap, no matter how much time and good intentions it took to make. There’s no regaining the time and attention. It’s all part of the process. And I know I’m supposed to be focusing on appreciating the process. But, arrrghghgh.

I know some of you softies are thinking, “Oh, you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s probably fine.” There are some good moments in it, I’ll admit (it’s a cartoon), and I continue to be astonishedly pleased at some of the things that can come out of my not-entirely-in-control scribbling with my fingertip on the iPad. But a few moments doth not an entire piece make.

Can it be saved? I don’t think so. I’ll give a little time to trying to piece something together from the moments I like, just to indulge you. But I’m not sanguine. A word which also means bloody, which is closer to how I feel.

I’ll also spend some time thinking about whether I learned anything along the way, so it might not all be for naught. Processing the process, as it were.

So allow ourselves to make crap, yes. But I think it’s also worth taking a moment to grieve the sunken treasure of time and creative energy, the debris of the process settling lightly on the ocean floor, glinting of false promises.

Synchronistically, I heard an interview recently and it took me three times to understand that what the interviewee was saying was “work of art” not, as I had braingzingingly thought, “workfart”…

Then we take Berlin; or, Editing the Heart of the Matter

Most editing advice edits at the level of the word or sentence: do you have too many articles, are your verbs too boring, are your sentences too syntactically the same? But sometimes (often?) I find the problems I can’t seem to overcome with a poem are either in the entire approach of the poem, or the content. This is far harder to fiddle with effectively.

For example, I have a poem now that is well grounded in sensory stuff, but it takes a sudden turn at the end, and I can’t figure out if that’s okay, or if it seems abrupt because it does not grow organically out of what came before in the poem. Is it another poem all together? If I take out that turn, the rest of the poem seems unfinished. Maybe I have yet figured out what the poem is about, so I stuck on this other thing. On the other hand, maybe I just need to weave the ending into the rest of the poem. Or maybe the poem just sucks and I need to start over.

Do you see the problem? This is not a put-a-comma-in-take-it-out thing. This is an existential quandary at the poem level.

Sometimes if a poem does not seem to work it’s because I have not reached far enough. In this case, it may be that I’ve reached too far — beyond the scope of the poem into another poem all together.

This is the most interesting aspect of the editing process, eyeballing one’s own utterances, meditating on the source of images, the hidden reasons behind unconscious choices of vocabulary, choices of sound. Something has appeared here on the page, blurted out of my various levels of consciousness. It interests me. It fails me.

Sometimes ideas can be unearthed by playing at the level of word and syntax and sentence and sense-unmaking — so editing at that level can be useful too for this deeper examination — but at risk of the nicely arranged Titanic’s deck chairs’ fate.

I need to ask of the poem what it’s deepest intentions are. I need to ask, brutally, whether this is a poem that has enough to be said that it’s worth saying. Is it a nice description but not much more? Is it a clever snapshot but not a well considered moving picture with chiarascuro and resonance? Was it a moment’s effort that came of some deep bodied quake or a moment’s effort that came of a brainy shake?

I owe it to myself and the poems to ask this.

And if I have even a whiff of doubt, I need to listen to it, even if I share it and others say ooh and ah. If I think something’s awry, then something’s awry.

There is some level of communion I have to come to with a poem like this, to feel its beating heart. And if I can’t find a pulse? Well, there’s my answer.

You don’t know me; or, The Art of Submissions

I got a testy rejection letter the other day, advising me essentially to “read the damn journal.” Oops. I thought I had, but indeed when I went back and reviewed the contents, the submission instructions, the “about” page, I discovered that the mix of poems I sent was pretty much exactly wrong for this journal.

They specifically state they’re not into political nor spiritual poems, and three of the five poems in the group I sent could definitely fit into those categories. I would argue they are not entirely or exclusively “political” or “spiritual,” but still, I can see why a harried first reader would shove the whole packet of them aside as “not quite right for us.” Also many of the poems in the magazine are in what I think of as the stop-making-sense tradition, and the editor also writes in that mode. Although I have poems that are less logically sound than others, the poems I sent to that magazine are definitely more organized and logical than the editors might be attracted to.

My bad, as they say. I feel quite ashamed, in truth, as I’m usually pretty careful to try to align what I perceive as the sensibility of a magazine or publisher to what I send. Although I do sometimes get in the devil-may-care mode of just sending stuff out because a deadline is here and hey, who knows.

It takes time and patience to become familiar with a target market’s sensibilities, which anyway are often fairly broad. It can be confusing. Usually if I see one poem that looks like something I could have written, I feel assured. But really it’s better to see three or four such poems to be confident that someone on the editorial staff might look kindly on my submission. Or three or four books from a particular publisher that might be in the mode of what I write. Also, editorial staff change and tastes change, so I also have to be on top of that, updating my library of lit mags and new publications from my favorite publishers.

And I need to be aware of the range of my own work, and have at least in my head a general categorization of the poems, from clear logic to looseygoosey, from easily categorizable as, e.g., “political” or “spiritual,” although in general I try to write stuff that can’t be quite so pigeonholed, so safely uncategorizable.

Sometimes I weary of the research, which means I either do what I did, that is, send inappropriately, or, often, I put off the submission work to another day when I might have the time and patience to sift through the target mags.

Anyway, dear editorial staff, I am genuinely sorry to have wasted your time. I know it’s a big pain. The good news is it’s going to be a while until you hear from me again, so I can make sure my name has faded off the list of authors who clearly didn’t read the damn journal.

It’s the same old story everywhere I go; or, On Story and Fact

I have written in this space before in praise of our story-hungry nature, that our love of each other’s stories is the best of us human beings. But it occurred to me recently that it can also lead us astray. Not everything is a “story” — that is, if a story is something specific to the teller, and if another witness to the story can tell another version — sometimes things just are as they are.

Or are they?

On the radio, a journalist was speaking of the facts of a situation. A caller called in to assert that there was “another side” to the “story.” But are not facts something other than elements of a “story”? Are they?

There are deep histories of philosophical and scientific discussions of what is “truth,” “perception,” what is “real.” I’m sure Nietzsche had something juicy to say about it. Can there be such a thing as a fact? Or indeed was the caller correct — there is always another way to interpret, another “side,” another story? Is a fact always open to interpretation?

I’m reading a murder mystery. Based on the blood stains, how dried they are, how the body attended to the wound, the fact seems to be the person died between 3:00 and 4:30 a.m. Or did it happen earlier and the person held a bandage to the wound, with some antiseptic on it, so it could have happened earlier; or it was particularly dry that day so the blood dried faster, so it could have happened later? Was the getaway car blue? Not if the witness was colorblind.

What a slippery slope is truth. How can we wake in the morning and step onto the floor if all is in doubt? I want the caller to be wrong. A fact is a fact and there is no story, no other side. I worry that if I believe it, it’s a fact; if you “disagree” over a “fact,” you’re just wrong. Right? But how do we know, and how do we know what we think we know, and who is “we” and do we know things differently from one day to the next?

Is it symptomatic of this strange world we live in right now that I am even querying “fact”? If there is no such thing as a fact, how do we manage? If everything is story, and there is always another side, how do we, we nation-builders, we beings of communication and cooperation, how do we ever do anything together, if we can’t even agree on a basic understanding of the situation at hand?

I think about two paleolithic hominids arguing over animal scat. “That’s saber-tooth tiger poop. We better get outta here.” “No it’s not, it’s dried muskox poop.” “Is too.” “Is not.” Etcetera.

 

So Quiet in Here; or, In Praise of Silence in Poetry

I hear the tick of drips off my metal roof onto the deck, somewhere a low hum of a machine in the neighborhood, far off a rumble of a truck just discernible, the leaves are moving outside my window but I can’t hear their titter in here. I hear the steady jangle of my tinnitus in one ear. Now the truck is gone. Now I hear the dehumidifier in the basement kick in. More drip drip from the roof. This sounds like noise on the page, but feels like quiet to me. Most of the year my neighborhood is blessedly quiet.

Some of you may know of my ten-plus-year plague of dog barking — two dogs on one side of me, four on the other. Calls to the police, tearful calls in the middle of the night to the dog owners, consideration of murder, consideration of suicide. I think the only thing that saved me was the otherwise quiet of the neighborhood. And the quieting with age and personal development of the sounds inside my head — the thoughts, I mean, the expectations, the shoulds and coulds, the grasping at and letting go of what I thought was power. But while I was in the middle of it, I thought I’d lose my mind.

And a recent article in The Atlanticindicated I was not wrong. Sounds deeply disturb us. In “Why Everything Is Getting Louder,” Bianca Bosker notes: “The earliest noise compaint in history…concerns a bad night’s sleep. The 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgameshrecounts how one of the gods, unable to sleep through humanity’s racket and presumably a little cranky, opts to ‘exterminate mankind.'”

Alas, we apparently sprang back.

She also cites at least half a dozen incidents in 2019 alone of people shooting other people over noise. Sing it, sister. Noise exposure has been shown to increase blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, dementia, agression, and depression. Good grief.

I wonder if this is why I was drawn to poetry: the importance of silence in it, the tension between sound and silence that often resolves in a sound spoken into and reverberating in silence, and then dying away, leaving silence (or the post-poem moo) once again, replacing the noisy self, at least for a moment.

I need silence. It’s a visceral thing sometimes.

That article notes the steep decline in quiet places. I am fortunate to have easy access to the woods, both in my immediate area and up in the Adirondacks. But one of the places that represents quiet for me that feels lost is the library. The library of my young childhood was in an imposing edifice with a large staircase and lions at the gate. Inside was hushed and hallowed, high ceilings, huge windows. Whispers were the mode of communication.

Now, in their efforts to be a relevant community resource, libraries still have books but have lost the hush. At my library now, a modern affair, my perusal is racketed by two homeless guys complaining about a third, and a tutor trying patiently to go over some algebra equations. (Yes, I’m one of those cranks, complaining about “these days” and loud about “the good old” ones.)

Oh, I long for the days of shushing. In the quiet of the library, words and books seemed to be holy things, the library itself a sacred space. Now it’s just another place to have an overly loud cell phone conversation.

I’ve been experimenting in my poetry with placing white on the page among words. We had an interesting conversation about this at my recent writing retreat — how do you decide where the space goes in such a setting? Natural pauses, deliberate choices to withhold information or make the reader wait, and some instinct about what words or phrases could use the kind of emphasis that silence around them can provide was our best guess at an equation for such decisionmaking.

Sometimes I fear it makes the poem look too self-conscious on the page. Ooh, look at me all spread out here. But mostly I like it. It eases me somehow to allow some light and space into these poems I’ve been working on, and even imposing them on old poems in revision. Nothing worse than a poem that barks at you from the page, incessant, tied to a pole in the backyard.

The dogs? One of the two on one side died some years ago, and the remaining one is very old and mostly barks from inside the house at predictable points in the day; on the other side, the noisiest of the four dogs eventually died, and then owner moved away, and I heard that she too has died. Ah. May they all rot in a noisy hell. I’m not THAT far onward in my personal development and inner Zen.

I need you to need me; or, On Favorite Poems

We often in the poetry world talk about “loving poet X’s work,” and I easily fall into that habit of speech, but in truth there are no poets whose work I unequivocably love; rather, there are poems I love. Sometimes it so happens that many of those poems are by the same poet.

The “who’s your favorite poet” question just does not equate with my actual experience of reading poetry, which is much more “yawn, yawn, hunh?, WOW, yawn, yawn, hunh?” in nature. Even the poets I think I can turn to with fairly reliable pleasure can, at some stages of my lumpy development, leave me cold.

I think I’ve talked about this with regard to Tomas Transtromer and how perplexed I’ve been every time I encounter his poem “The Baltics,” even by the same translator: sometimes with a shrug and sometimes with a WOW. I can’t explain it, because I can’t see inside the tinker-toy structure of my state-of-being in any given moment.

I have this experience with Keats — I read excerpts from his poems, that is, lines cited by someone else, and think wow, I need to read this. Then I do. And I fail to find whatever was the frisson that made me interested in the first place. It’s like seeing a star best by looking at it out the corner of your eye. Keats in full frontal is just not much of a view for me, at least — again — at the stages of development

I’ve gone through thus far. Dickinson too fails me, or I fail her, again and again, although I’ve greatly enjoyed some discussions I’ve listened to about her work, and a fascinating book I read about religious dimensions in her work, whose title and author I have no recollection of. Left to our own devices, Dickinson and I sit silently over tepid tea and dry cakes.

I’m saddened and of course self-blame-y over my inability to gush along with the crowd. But, again, I’m falling into the habit of mistaking a poet for the entirety of his or her work. In fact, Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant…The Truth must dazzle gradually/or every man be blind–” is a central tenet for my thinking about poetry (that goddamn end hyphen notwithstanding).

And I found myself mentioning in passing in a conversation (I was obviously showing off) Keats’s “La belle dame sans merci” not long ago — thinking more of, if truth be told, one of those pre-Raphaelite-type illustrations than the poem itself. And his ghostly hand is vivid in my mind, although the point of that poem rather escapes me.

I circle back to a whole variety of poets and poems in case I happen to “need” them in the given moment. And thanks to my leaky memory, sometimes it’s like encountering a poem for the very first time.