Phoenix; or How Poetry Helps

I’ve been indulging one of my greatest pleasures again: rereading. Harry Potter. What a fine, satisfying read these are. I started at the end, having forgotten how things all ended up. Then backed up to books 5 and 6. There’s nothing better than reading about the battle of good and evil — so much better than living it, as in real life, it’s far more nuanced, subtle, confusing, layered, annoying. In Book 6, Someone Very Important dies (in case you’re the one person left in the world who has not read it because of some ridiculous “I don’t read fantasy” bullshit or something). Then this small thing happens: “Somewhere out in the darkness, a phoenix was singing in a way that Harry had never heard before: a stricken lament of terrible beauty. And Harry felt…that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song…How long they all stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning…” Music does something to us. Carries us, takes us, holds us. But I also thought about the calls over the internet I see not infrequently: people asking for recommendations for poems to offer someone in need — can anyone think of a poem for a friend who lost a child, for someone who is dying, someone who needs a way to feel better about the wounded world. Poetry too eases our pain as we listen to the sound of it in someone else’s words. In the initial stranglehold of deep emotion, we are wordless. Our sounds are more like music, albeit unmusical. But quickly we tend to reach for words. Often “why” or “no” or “but…” or, in my case usually, a good old monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon curse word. But it’s not long before people often seek words of ritual or of talisman or succor, and this is often found in poetry. And I guess this is a fine ambition I can have for my own work, that someone, sometime, somewhere finds in my words their own emotion, and that it somehow helps or delights or makes them for a moment feel connected. Kind of sappy? I know, but hey, I just stopped crying over the ending of Book 6. Give me a break.


On Reading On

I am, again, trying fiction — reading it, that is, not writing it. I am generally impatient with fiction, hard to please, difficult to lure, short-tempered with sentiment and many kinds of subject matter. I’m more than halfway through the book, and at this point, I, the reader, now know more than the main protagonist. I know the answer to the question he is asking. I wonder about a possible surprise twist — and if I wonder, then it is no longer a surprise. I am not particularly attached to any of the four main characters, and already have a sense of their fates. Yet I want to read on. Why is that?

How has the author created a world that has, in many ways, been painful to read about — Turkey during the Armenian genocide — with characters who are not lovable, particularly, and a plot whose greater trajectory is pretty clear, and yet I linger for the details? The writing itself has not intruded on my consciousness as being either particularly good or not good. But I guess the author has made it interesting enough that I want to see the entire weave, to see how the whole fabric of the story lines come together. And I am interested to know what the main character will do once he discovers what I already know.

This was an interesting tactic, to be so obvious with the plot, and yet create enough tangle of warp and weft that the whole weave is not yet entirely evident, the pattern not fully exposed. So kudos to you, Aline Ohanesian, for deftly wrapping me in the story, snug, a bug in a rug.

On Poetry Craft: A Megablog

I’ve been keeping this blog for several years now, and decided to combine all of my posts thus far that have dealt specifically with issues of poetry craft, as I’ve wrangled over the years with my own poems.

In the document linked below, you’ll find general observations, notes on some specific poems, and, most importantly, my thoughts on the guts of poems and editing considerations. I hope you will find something in there of use. Write on.


All the Noise Noise Noise; or, on Paying Attention

Donald Revell’s trippy The Art of Attention is making me impatient, but he offers this quote from John Cage: “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” I’m curious at his use of the word “noise” (etymologically linked to nausea, interestingly enough, which comes from seasickness) and what he means by “mostly noise.” What is the rest of what we hear?

This morning the tinkle of what was either water dripping or the far song of red-winged blackbirds was the first sound I was conscious of. A lovely way to start the conscious day. Now the humph, clatter, and mumble of clumps of snow sliding off the new metal roof. Sometimes alarming, startling, confusing, nevertheless, as I know what the noise is, I find it mostly amusing, that the slick roof boots its snow piles so readily and with seeming vigor.

My husband and I clash about noise — he likes to thoughtlessly click on the radio just to have noise. I am forced to listen — there is no such thing as background noise for me. I always listen. (I don’t always find it fascinating.) I have a love/hate relationship with noise — appreciate some of it, detest others, and that often I’m unable to control noise’s access to me makes me anxious.

I believe my mother began truly aging when she began losing her hearing but refused to wear a hearing aid. Conversations became difficult, birds turned silent. (But the good part is, she is rarely disturbed now by noise. Which is good, as she is living in community and the place is rarely quiet.)

I can close my eyes, hold my nose, refuse to taste, but I can’t not hear. My work is to make the best of the noise, to pay it attention. Revell writes, “A musician is inclined to listen, and when he listens, the sounds are music.” He advises, “Incline our senses…toward…the noise becoming music.”

New Notes from a First Round Reader

It’s that time of year again, and I am wading through the entries. Here’s how it works with this publisher: They amass a cadre of first round readers for this full-length poetry manuscript prize, then randomly assign 20-25 titles to each person. Our assignment: Find only a handful to recommend on to the second round readers. The few, intrepid second round readers then choose one or two from their piles to recommend up to The Final Committee, who hash it all out in some hidden corner of the world until the white smoke rises on a new winner.

Here’s the thing: I have an aesthetic. There are kinds of poetry I am highly unlikely to connect with.  There are topics I tend to be bored with. That being said, although I thought no more interesting work can ever be generated at this point, for example, about dead parents, I have found yet a new and inspiring take on the subject. I am always happy to be surprised, happy to be contradicted. I know I have a perspective on poetry that will inevitably exclude collections that others might fall upon gladly and lift to the heavens. I am, at least, aware of my biases, and there are times when I have the sense that a collection might be considered of high merit by someone other than me — in such cases I might throw it back to the editor to suggest someone else read it, or I move it forward in the hopes I’m somehow on track with that intuition, even if the poems themselves are not of great interest to me.

But mostly I just accept that I like what I like, and I’m doing the best I can to remain wide-eyed and open-minded. Ish.

That the publisher has identified a group of readers with varied aesthetic I believe is true, as there are years when the winner is a manuscript I would probably have passed over. This terrifies me, but should be of some comfort to you. When I, yearly, confess my terror to the publisher that my narrow view will fail to catch the Next Great Poet, the publisher waves me off with aplomb, assuring me that they know that good work will be passed over, but that good work also will rise. And there’s always next year.

If your collection is one of those that might fall outside the pie-slice shape of my taste in poetry, I now and publicly apologize. But contests are a crap shoot. You get the first reader you get. That’s why persistence is key. You might send the exact same manuscript to this contest next year and get a more sympathetic reader. It’s just the game.

So, please, I beg you, as a first round reader who knows my limitations, try, try again.

Post-script: Some notes:

– If the instructions say to take out the Acknowledgments, then TAKE OUT THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. That you’ve had a poem published in Poetry is not likely to make me more likely to move your work forward.

– Insert page breaks between your poems. Do not just hit return until a new page appears.

– Don’t do fancy formatting with titles. All that work happens when your manuscript gets accepted and goes to layout, and you’ll just have to strip out the fancy stuff anyway. Don’t underline them or bother to italicize them or indent them or such unless you have some particular reason for doing so.

– As I’ve said in previous posts, make sure every poem kicks ass. The more poems you put into a collection, the more likely it is that you’ll include ones that aren’t as strong as others, which weakens the collection. Remember, there are a lot of poets out there, and a lot of people doing good work, and I’m only supposed to forward a handful of the manuscripts, so in the end, I’m looking for reasons NOT to move your manuscript forward. Don’t give them to me.

Previous posts about this experience:…und-reader-redux/…sts-depresses-me/

Ready About, Hard Alee; or, The Strength to Change What I Can, Etcetera

I was reading recently about Stockholm Syndrome — when captives fall in thrall of their captors; that is, when a bond is formed between captive and captor in the psychological intensity of the situation, even as the captor abuses the captive — and I worry about it. When I complain and complain about some situation but seem to be unwilling or unable to take any steps to either change the situation or change my attitude toward it, it occurs to me that I have bonded with whatever it is that is apparently holding me captive — the hell of the fears I know versus what I don’t know and therefore have not yet imagined to fear. (This is a stretching of the strict definition of the syndrome, which was developed in 1973 after the study of a bank robbery and hostage situation.)

At base, I guess, it’s a way to survive, but over the long term, it’s a continuation of an imprisonment even after the door is unlocked and open. I have to remember to stop on a regular basis and ask myself what captors I’m in the thrall of, what dynamic am I wedded to as the hell I know, what is it that I keep complaining about that I can change or change my attitude about. And I always have an answer or two or four. And often over time, it’s the same damn thing.

Yeah, I know you friends to whom I complain think I can’t hear myself…but I can. It takes time to move the giant, lumbering vessel of mind and spirit sometimes. One might hope for epiphany and instant change, but mostly life is about little lessons learned and forgotten, relearned and reforgotten, effortful tugging on the intransigent wheel and infinitesimal shifts of the inner ship of state.

Ahoy, there. Ahoy.