Lazy days, Sunday afternoon; or, On Artistic Journeys

I recently watched Free Solo, that documentary of a man’s extraordinary un-roped ascent up El Capitan. Before I saw the movie, if I thought of his journey at all, I just that “wow, that’s nuts.” I had somehow not expected the amazing preparations he made, both with his body, and certainly with his mind, but also the carefully mapped, hold by hold, route, which he practiced roped again and again until he had every move internalized. Certainly this was a tale of an internal journey, for sure, both into his certainty that he could do it, but also, I think most significantly, when he was able to say, cameras trained on him, partway up the wall face, “No. This is not the day for this.” And called it off and went back down, knowing he’d have to wait another six months to try again, knowing he was tangling up the film producer and his crew as well. But when he finally did the ascent, he knew every move so well, he went surely and rapidly right up the face in a scant few hours with no hesitation, as a strange dance with the wall. It was indeed a kind of choreography he created.

I thought of this movie in contrast to the “journeys” described by two poet friends of mine who got it into their heads to each write a heroic crown of sonnets — that is 14 sonnets of 14 lines each, the 14th of which contains the first lines of each of the previous sonnets. Or something like that. Wow, that’s nuts.

But what struck me, in contrast to Free Solo, was how each of them talked about the great unknowns of their journeys, every step being felt out in the dark. They said things like “I thought I was going to start in this way, but then decided to try this other way” or “I thought I was writing about this thing, but the more I got into the unfolding of the poems the more I realized I was writing about this other thing entirely.”

Their journeys were more like the first ever roped ascent up El Capitan, no doubt accomplished in fits and starts, heading up one way only to retrace and try another route. One of the two adventurers started with the crowning final sonnet and backed into each of the others. The other started that way then realized she didn’t need the “heroic” part and just revamped to do a regular crown, as that is what served the movement of the poems she was writing.

It was exciting to hear about. Both of them found the form created interesting limits they had to figure out how to negotiate.

Of course, they also embarked on these adventures after years of careful study of the art and craft of poetry, and some poking around into the history of sonnet crowns. 

And of course, El Cap had never been free climbed, so the whole thing was an unknown. For mortal stakes.

I guess my only point is that any crazy idea one might want to try is part dream, part incredible preparation, as well as part throwing yourself into it and figuring it out as you go along. Any such challenge is part flinging your body at a stone wall and your mind into the well of form and chaos.

My other point is how much I’ve enjoyed lounging on my couch with little ambition, hearing about other people playing out their crazy ideas.

Into the mystic; or, On the Limitations of Words as an Artistic Medium

I’m trying to write a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail and although I now have a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail it seems to be just a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail instead of what I really want to talk about which is that something about the experience feels more like the trail is skiing me or I am the terrain being skied on.

I am both the dip in the land where a small stream moves through and the bend in my knees that takes me down and up. I’m the curve around the glacial erratic and how I curve around the erratic and yes some part of me is the erratic, this one, furred with moss and lichen, dripping some days like I’m my own little microclimate, my own world, rock and sediment and weepy. How is that? What is that? Do you know this feeling too? But the poem does not capture that.

So I take things out, leave half-sentences and space the wind blows through, leave some parallel tracks of where I’ve been, how I go, but still I’ve said nothing of this ownership, terrain of me, me of terrain, meandering through the great hummocks of rockmass, stringing marsh to marsh. I fail to mention how I stand in the bowl of one marsh, often in snowfall as if a globe’s been shaken, and I’m the small plastic form inside, or I’m the bowl, or the shaker.

I want to say something about finitude. I want to say something about endurance. Rock and water. The deceptions of snow. Something about my body in motion, the land at rest; the land in motion, body at rest. The poem utters, mutters, but in the end fails.

Filmmaker Agnès Varda said in an interview something along the lines of “I believe the surroundings inhabit us, guide us.”

This is no circular route. I go out. I come home. Muscle and bone and panting breath. Broken rhythms. Mute mountains. Sky blinks. Snows covers everything quietly. Light glints on blown snow, disappears. The lines of my passage disappear. Highlight. Delete.

Hitchin’ a ride; or, Brief Thoughts on Art, Self, and Death

A friend asked at lunch one day something along the lines of “What happens to the “me” of me when I die?”

This seems a question better posed over dinner and too much wine, but anyway.

I had been thinking about that very thing before she posed the question, and continue to do so, and have been reading about the mind and consciousness, the mind-body question — is the mind or consciousness the brain in its materiality and chemistry, or is it something else? Here are some other writers’ thoughts that resonate around this.

Christian Wiman quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who just before his execution by the Nazis claimed: “I want my life. I demand my/own life back. My past. You!” Wiman writes, “It’s not the future that Bonhoeffer feels slipping from him, but the past, not some totality of existence he fears losing — he still believes in salvation–but its molecular singularity, all the minute perceptions and sensations, retained by the body if not the mind, that comprise one particular human consciousness.”

In 1956, William Faulkner, who hated interviews, took time to describe this impulse to the Paris Review:
“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.”

Khalil Gibran wrote this, which seems relevant: 
“But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.”

But perhaps Pokey Lafarge answers it best. He sings: “I’m singing la la la.”

There’s always something happening there; or, On Reading Phil Memmer’s Pantheon

I’m a gobbler. I vacuum my meals, I gobble the pavement under my quick step, I whip-read such that I’m always having to reread because I went too fast to remember what I read. But I’ve had this book of poems now for several months and I love it so much I can only bear to read a few poems at a time. This rarely happens to me, and I’m so thrilled to have the experience, especially during the pandemic, when everything seems to have slowed down around me, and my brain too, stumbling and bleary.

The poems are imaginative, beautiful in all the ways of beauty, sometimes funny, always poignant, almost unbearably so — but in a very good way. Indeed Phil was filled with some holy spirit with these poems, so full are they of wild winds and homely wonder.

Every poem is entitled by the name of the god who is speaking: The God of Wisdom, The God of Snow, The God of Driving Alone in the Middle of the Night. And each god reveals itself in tercets of its thoughts in the form of epistles to a “you” who is we, we who are staggering in the created world.

One poem is called “A Muse.” This might be my favorite. (No, even as I write that, others clamor for my favor.) Anyway, in “A Muse,” the muse describes how hard it worked to gain “your” attention so as to give you “…a worldly thing//to move you, in a world of things/by which you refuse to be moved….” The muse claims credit for the fog that canceled the flight that created a cascade of events that interceded with the haphazard car inspection that resulted in an accident that provided the writer with “…a copse of roadside trees//in peak spring, a perfect green/you might, on another ay,/have sped right by….”

And really that little quote does no service to the wonderful reeling out of the poem and its characters. I just cannot do justice to any of these poems with any snippet of lines. They are a wonder and a delight, and now that I have finally read every poem, I almost can’t bear/really can’t wait to go through them again.

Pantheon was published by Lost Horse Press in 2019. The book has a ghostly black cover that has a funny feel to the touch, as if it’s covered in soft leather, a pair of pale hands folded lit in the gloom.

Got the rockin’ pneumonia; or, On Writing About Current Events

I was thinking about the hazards of writing current events poetry, and asked some poet friends if we talked about Covid in our poems are we not in danger of having them become dated?

One argued that we are writing poems out of a specific experience, out of an extraordinary time.

But don’t all times feel extraordinary when we’re in them? 9/11, World War I, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of a parent — all of them were times that felt catastrophic to the individuals inside them. How to write a good poem that transcends its extraordinary time to encompass all extraordinary times? Or should that even be a goal? Why not linger in the time and be frank about it?

Another person called attention to Yeats’s Easter 1916 as a poem grounded in a specific experience but a poem that has transcended the time of that experience. It is a wonderful poem, which certainly by the title grounds us firmly in time, though makes the assumption the reader will understand the reference to the Irish uprising. That phrase, though, “terrible beauty,” captures the imagination and takes me in any number of directions far from Irish soil. And the naming of the dead is an ancient rite that we still take part in. The movement of the poem to the unceasing natural world is both a common approach of putting us in our place and also effective, a useful reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence. But even though he wrote it shortly after the event, the poem already feels like a historic, long view. It has a vital distance, the “I” a distant onlooker from the start, already elegiac.

Is it this real or perceived distance that offers an avenue into the power of the poem? I don’t know.

We in conversation about this agreed that something happens sometimes with a Big Event; its moniker becomes a shorthand for a layered mishmosh of received wisdom and assumptions and perceptions, and that can be hazardous for a poem. We also agreed that any particular person’s “how I suffered during X event” is not likely to make for a very good poem. Something needs to happen in a poem, some kind of specificity, some kind of universality.

Of course, this is true for any poem, not just a poem rooted in a Big Event. Does every extraordinary moment have its poem? Do each of us inside every extraordinary moment have our poem?

You’re really hanging with the crowd; or, Someone Else on Keats and Negative Capability

Readers may remember my fulmination against Keats and this much-made-of notion of negative capability (https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/keats-pisses-me-off-or-the-beauty-of-fact-and-reason-or-art-and-reaching-irritably/). I have often felt very alone in my impatience with it. But then I encountered this welcome article: http://jacketmagazine.com/40/theune-keats.shtml. I pass it along, having little else useful to say on this or any other matter today.

Broken bicycles; or, More on Revision

I’m puzzling over a poem and indeed it feels like a puzzle. Jigsaw maybe, as I try pushing pieces against each other and they resist or yield. Or remember Tangrams? You got a set of shapes and were challenged to fit them together to make different forms.

In this poem, the last line was bothering me. It felt thumpy, like, “OKAY HERE IS WHAT THIS POEM IS ABOUT.”

And yet it seemed important in its own way, so it occurred to me to repurpose it as the title instead of the last line.

Okay, but that left the former second to last line just dangling there, insufficient. So I started shifting groups of lines around, swapping sections, turning sentences around, flip-flopping the images and ideas of the poem, starting in the middle, starting toward the end, restarting from the beginning I had started with.

I know the incredible satisfaction of occasionally getting all the pieces to fit together: suddenly, snap, you have the shape you’ve been trying to make. But I must ask of the poem: Is there a piece missing?

This is the challenge of the poem versus the Tangram, I guess. It’s possible I’ll never be able to make the desired shape because a crucial piece is missing, and it’s not as easy as getting on my hands and knees and checking under the couch. I need to identify the gap and write into it.

So at the moment, for all my shifting and switching, the poem looks — instead of like a good solid square or a kitty or bunny — like a gappy rhombus in a hat.

P.S. My video poem is up at Atticus Review https://atticusreview.org/narrow-the-vessels/

Watching the ships that go sailing; or, On Confusion and Intention and Revision

My life is one long ebb and flow of thinking-I-know-stuff/realizing-I-don’t/thinking-I know-stuff/realizing-I-don’t. Sometimes the tide feels exhausting. Sometimes exhilarating.

I’m talking (mostly) about writing and poetry here. The effect of the waves is humbling/humiliating. And it goes, and I go, on and on.

Just recently I was in a conversation about the revision process and following the energy of a poem; that is, feeling the lines that have strength and movement in them and taking out or revising all the lines that don’t meet and match that energy. But then the author of the poem under observation said something like, “But I want the rest of the poem to lead up to that moment. Without the lead-in, I’ve lost the journey.” And I remembered another conversation in which someone said about the critique process something like, “But you have to understand the poet’s intentions for the poem, you can’t just wade in with advice.” Then I wondered about myself: do I always know what my intentions are?

(And all this is why for many many years I have avoided critiquing other people’s poems unless they are friends and specifically ask. And even then sometimes I avoid it. Because inevitably I get tangled up in that tide, water up my nose.)

What if where the good strong energy in a poem is not where you want it to be, is at odds with your intentions for the enterprise, if you know what your intentions are? Do you follow the energy, or the intention? Do you tug on the energy to serve the intention, or give up on intention to serve the energy?

Does a poem have the space for an ebb and flow of energy?

Does the reader? Maybe a little bit. But the reader doesn’t give a shit about the poet’s intention, unless it’s either completely unclear or condescendingly clear. In between, it’s all about the reading adventure. Isn’t it? Or is that just me, all impatience and huff?

(All this flopping around gets worse (better?) when I’m looking at someone else’s poem. Plus I’m puffed up by the sheer power they’ve given me by asking my perspective. Ha ha, they think I know stuff! Then I’m freer to know more/understand less, to think I have a broader perspective just because I’m not scrabbling blindly inside my own poem. Not always the case. Often not the case.)

Do poems have their own impulses? Do they try to have their way with us? The subconscious certainly can and does, and to the extent it may slither out into a poem, well, there may be something the author can learn from what has been spilled onto the page. It at least must be contended with somehow, even if it’s deleted out and sent back up into the subconscious.

If someone saw my subconscious slipping, would I want them to tell me? Theoretically, yes, as it could be great for the poem. In reality, though, would I be able to hear them? I’m sorry, now, what was that again?

Do poems teach us how to write them, or is that one of those silly conceits that make what we do sound more mystical than it is?

The more poetry I read, as I’ve said here before, the less I understand about poetry. The more conversations I have, the stronger the pulls of the tides: I know a bunch! I don’t know anything! I know a bunch! I don’t know anything! And yet I keep talking, like the rumble of pebbles and the swish of wash, creaking call of gull.

 

And lead you through the streets of London; or, On Poetry Revision as a Journey

So when last we spoke, I was surrounded by 10 poems all of which descended in similar ways to the same simple place. I call them my WE ALL GONNA DIE poems, because that’s pretty much what they all say. Ho hum.

And as you may recall, the big issue was that I needed them to fill out a reasonable page count for a full-length poetry manuscript. Some of you would say, and I do hold it against you, well, just write a bunch of new poems. Let’s not be hasty. Who can write new poems in 90 degree weather?

I started wondering if I couldn’t nudge some of them in a different direction. Alert readers will say, hey, wait a minute, didn’t you have a post not that long ago claiming that one needs to stay true to the poem’s originating impulse, stop manhandling it to be something other than what it became? Fortunately, I have no alert readers, so I can ignore that.

If poems can be said to have a turning point — and apparently they can be said to have such a thing. Much has been written on it, so I won’t go into it here. Actually that’s because I haven’t read most of what’s been written on the “turn” in poems, mostly because I’ve read almost none of it. I only just learned that a “turn” in a poem is a thing. I mean, yeah, the sonnet “volta,” but apparently all? most? many? poems have a turn/turns in them. I’d have to think about that harder, but it made me consider the poem as a path or, if you’ll pardon the expression, “a journey.”

As  such, there may be certain points along the path in which another road might be taken. So I’ve come to look at each of these poems in this way, trying to catch just what moment, what line, what word might offer an opportunity for the poem to turn, to vee away or veer somewhat from where it had been going. What will happen?

This is actually kind of a fun exercise for 90 degree heat. Way more fun than trying to conjure up brand new poems. That’s for autumn.

Speaking of autumn, here is a link to a videopoem of mine on Atticus Review that I shot while in residency at MASSMoCA last fall. https://atticusreview.org/narrow-the-vessels/

And have I mentioned I have a new chapbook out? Oh, I have? And I’ve given you the link?  www.graysonbooks.being-many-seeds? Oh. Sorry.

 

Stepping across the ruins; or, “The Bees” by Audre Lord

THE BEES
by Audre Lorde

In the street outside a school
what the children learn
possesses them.
Little boys yell as they stone a flock of bees
trying to swarm
between the lunchroom window and an iron grate.
The boys sling furious rocks
smashing the windows.
The bees, buzzing their anger,
are slow to attack.
Then one boy is stung
into quicker destruction
and the school guards come
long wooden sticks held out before them
they advance upon the hive
beating the almost finished rooms of wax apart
mashing the new tunnels in
while fresh honey drips
down their broomsticks
and the little boy feet becoming expert
in destruction
trample the remaining and bewildered bees
into the earth.

Curious and apart
four little girls look on in fascination
learning a secret lesson
and trying to understand their own destruction.
One girl cries out
“Hey, the bees weren’t making any trouble!”
and she steps across the feebly buzzing ruins
to peer up at the empty, grated nook
“We could have studied honey-making!”