Sing it sing it; or, Telling the Daily Story

Although I may have spent a little more time performing in public than the average schmo — singing, speaking and reading poetry, giving speeches, presenting information — I have never gotten comfortable with it. It occurred to me the other day that even having someone turn to me and say, “So how’ve you been?” strikes me deer-in-headlightsish.

I often hear myself stumble through some down-in-the-mouth response, and wonder why I’m doing that. It occurs to me that the other thing that strikes me in that moment is that fear I have of bringing the wrath of the gods down on me if I admit to contentment, to positive thinking, to having good fun.

I also have experienced more often than my anxious ears care to, in the event I do manage to report positively on my beings and doings, someone say something along the lines of “It must be nice,” which gives me some kind of survival guilt.

Cripes, I’m a delicate flower! How did this happen to me?

Well, that’s for the shrink’s couch, but now that I’ve become aware of what all happens when I’m confronted with this pretty easily foreseeable situation, maybe I can better prepare myself for the risk and resilience of answering positively. Because I have generally been doing pretty positive things: new work, little projects, outdoorsy things, keeping good company, and generally going about my business noticing things, generally being “pretty good.”

Or I can just do what my old colleague Arnie Will would do in the face of such question: consistently and with great ebullience, he’d reply “Ab-so-lute-ly faaan-tastic.” It pretty much stops the conversation.

Then maybe in the moment I can quickly piece together a little narrative, something from my recent days that can anchor the conversation.

Constructing stories of our days and lives is something we humans seem to do innately. It seems to be how we make sense of life and the passage of time, and how we connect to each other, each of us tumbling around in the tempests of our own teacups.

But we can also be stuck in a story. It’s fashionable nowadays to talk about a “narrative” and “changing the narrative,” and in many ways, it’s a wise realization — that what we believe transcribes what is possible. If our story of our own situation is limiting, it seems entirely possible that we are limiting our situation and story, that if we edited our story, we might shift our understanding, we might open up possibilities.

I heard a commentary on the radio referring to a new book out called The Queen, which examines the “welfare queen” narrative that was used successfully in the Reagan era to cast deep aspersion on the social service system by painting welfare recipients as living large through government handouts. That story persists, even in the face of other more credible and widespread stories of people scraping by.

The American pull-up-your-own bootstrap story is a double-edge sword: it can give hope to those who want to change their circumstance, but can discredit people screwed by their circumstance, indeed by the generational history of their circumstance by highlighting the stories of people who were able to overcome their circumstance. Must be nice…

On the other hand, the old American democratic narrative notion that “anyone can be president” story has proved itself in…well…all kinds of ways.

So my thoughts have meandered far from the simple question “how ya doin” and my ridiculous response. Sometimes stories do that, I guess. And that’s absolutely fantastic.

With the coming of the sun (in this northern hemisphere anyway, you southern hemispheres also have cause to pause), this seems like the opportunity to tell our stories anew. So, spill it, sisters and brothers. And maybe the most important story is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves. Might as well make it a good one.

 

 

Somebody was watchin’; or, On Participant Observation and the Artistic Urge to Tell

Once out of high school, I never again took an English class, so dismayed was I by those classroom conversations that started with “What do you think the author meant by [insert image-thing apparently symbolic in nature that all along I had thought was just the thing]….” I felt at the time that such discussions sapped all pleasure from the reading. I was impatient then and hubristic.

Gee. How I’ve changed.

I went to college intending to be a biology major and spend my life observing animals of some sort. But what with one thing and another (such as the almost-failing grade in Bio 101) I ended up an observer of an animal, all right, the human animal.

As an anthropology major I learned of the anthropological art of “participant observation.” Indeed discovered that it was a skill I had been practicing all of my life. As the youngest-by-more-than-ten-years member of my family, most converations took place over my head, with me listening in and trying to make sense of it. As the child of a volatile father, moving quietly and keeping still and having one eye peeled for what might happen next was key to avoiding conflict. As a shy and introverted child, I naturally tried to blend in, avoid attention, even as I still wanted to be part of the group.

It was in part that tendency I had anyway of sitting and watching and taking note that had attracted me to animal behavior studies in the first place. And, as it has turned out, is the skill I use most as a writer of poetry. Thanks to my anthropology studies, I can understand what I’m up to as I sit in whatever milieu, observing, and trying to look like I belong there.

I was reminded of all this recently as I have been reading Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. The book is Busch’s extended meditation on the powers and prisons of invisibility. I’m not entirely sure what the takeaway is from this book as a whole, but each chapter provided an interesting set of thoughts ranging from the deliberate invisibility of some species’ adaptations to the imposed invisibility of homeless people on busy streets.

She talks in one chapter of Keats’s assertion that the poet specializes in being a chameleon: of becoming a planet, a creature, another person. Busch was moved to write the book, she says, by the vehemence with which society insists on flouting the self, branding the self, identifying the self as a political act. Maybe, she suggests, a little wallflowering isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe if we keep still, we can see more clearly.

But haven’t I written in this space that art is an attempt to communicate? To stand up from the group and say “Let me show you what I’m seeing.”

Which makes for an interesting tension sometimes  in the artist: the urge to merge, and the impulse to emerge and speak.

Oh, the water; or, on Kathleen Graber’s Capacious The River Twice

I was thrilled to see a new book by one of my poet gods, Kathleen Graber. The poems unfold, or unscroll, down the page, sometimes multiple pages, and are polymathic in their contents. One moves from an eipgraph on the recalculation of the age of the universe to a comet no one will ever see again, as its orbit is longer than any one human life, to her brother who died before ever seeing a cellphone to vultures to two photos taken of that comet and finally to how long grief lasts.

If that sounds like too much for one poem to hold, I did not find that to be so. It seems like in these poems Graber is pushing the outermost walls of the poem’s container and it holds and holds.

Last year I spent several months on a project on this very thing — pursuing where the unfolding threads of a thought took me and how much digression a poem could stand. I found I thought it could stand more than some editors and trusted advisors could, so I pulled in the ropes of thought. But reading these poems I’m not sure now. I have the urge to go back to that poem and unleash it again.

As I read and reread the book, called The River Twice, knowing I wanted to write a blog post about it so I could encourage you all to read this brilliant poet, I searched for excerpts I could include. But the poems are so braided that I couldn’t pare off a piece of a poem without losing the power of the whole. So here are a couple of links to poems in their entirety. Throughout the volume are these “Dear America” poems, which, although at first made me think of Stephen Colbert in character in his old show (“America,” he’d begin, pompously…), I found to be among the most poignant in the book.

Here is one from the American Poetry Review: https://aprweb.org/poems/america-peaches.

And here is one that was published in Plume: https://plumepoetry.com/america/.

I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do.

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.