Coming round again; or, THIS is the post on structure I meant to post last week

What I have loved about John McPhee is how he manages to be transparent in his telling of his tales. It’s like he’s standing behind you, just out of range of your peripheral vision, but speaking into your ear, whether he is narrating a raft trip down the Colorado or trying to explain the many geologic folds of the eastern seaboard. But in his recent book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, he reveals himself, and his approach to writing, all the things he’s learned over his long career, primarily as a staff writer for the New Yorker. If he gets a little cute, maybe it’s because he’s not used to talking about himself, and, after all, after all the fine books he’s written, I guess he deserves to be as cute as he feels like. But he is also generous in offering readers a glimpse into his thought process as he has put together some of his classic stories.

The most interesting essay to me was “Structure.” He talks about the process of trying to figure out where to start a story, not to mention where to eend it. And as a poet, I appreciate this dilemma. I often find, both in terms of genuine interest, and in terms of energy, the power of a poem often starts several lines after I think the poem starts. I often find this in other people’s poems as well, people who have entrusted me to look at an early darft and comment. Other people have characterized it as “throat clearing.”

But McPhee usefully talks about the structure of a story, and how you can potentially start anywhere in the structure. As I don’t tend to write narrative, or story-telling, poems, this does not entirely apply to me, but the idea that a poem or a story need not start at what might be considered “the beginning,” is useful. Yes, sometimes you need to set a stage, or lead a reader in to a situation, or give a little back story, but often the most effective thing to do is to start in media res, the middle of things.

This is why I love the editing exercise of cutting the poem in half and starting with the middle section and see what happens. Maybe the top half goes on the bottom, or is best slid in somewhere after the middle, so a back and forth effect is created, or maybe the top half gets tossed, because it’s not pulling its weight.

McPhee has often created fairly elaborate diagrams to understand the basic structure of his story, and then decides what event markers can make good starts and ends. In fact, the essay itself rambles around a bit, and crosses back on itself, and occasionally tried my patience, as sometimes his work has done. But I appreciated the journey, as I almost always do.

He emphasizes, though, that the structure of the telling must come out of the story itself.

And isn’t that true of a poem, too, as I talked about in an earlier post about form. I experienced this myself recently, as I set out to write what I thought might be an essay. And I wrote, as I always do, in prose, stretching into the topic. Then I set to introduce possible line breaks and stanzas.

As I began to do this, I got a visceral reaction. No no no, something said. The line breaks almost made me sick to my stomach to look at. I took them out, let the lines roll out and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever this thing was, and it might be that puzzling beast we call a “prose poem,” it wanted to stretch out, it wanted to wander and linger. And I also started to jumble what came first, in the end cutting out sections and shuffling them around like a card shark, in much that intuitive process in which I try to put together collections of poems.

As I’ve mentioned before (it’s lucky I have few regular readers, as I appear to be shamelessly repeating myself), Tony Hoagland usefully talked about how attention must be paid to how the reader is asked to enter the poem, through a door or thrown into the deep end?

McPhee described the process in one story of realizing that an encounter with a bear that happened, in chronological terms, about three-quarters of the way through the narrative, could serve to shape the entire piece. So, understanding that particular story as a circle, he started with the bear, and everything else led back to that moment.

It seems like a good idea to start with a bear. I find often people are committed to the chronological narrative of what they’re talking about in a poem, and can get visibly shaken when it’s suggested that they throw that chronology out the window.

I was thinking about this while reading Diane Seuss’s poem “Still Life with Turkey.” The center of the poem is her recollecting being asked, when she was a young child, if she wanted to view her father in his coffin. She said no, and the poem reflects on her role now as someone thirsty for seeing. So the poem starts with sight, not the father but a turkey in a still life: ” The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot…” The poem lingers on the turkey for a few lines, then wanders to the memory, reflects then, “…Now I can’t get enough of seeing…” and ends with the turkey: “…the glorious wings, archangelic, spread/as if it could take flight, but down,/downward into the earth.”

The journey of the poem, like the journey of a story, should start with — and take you to — the bear.


Bring it on home; or Thoughts on Structure

A family crisis plus daily rejection emails plus a flurry of other small irritations recently put me off my writing “schedule” (ha ha) or really any of my efforts to be creative. I’m in a funk and wonder what it’s all for anyway. So I watched Project Runway. Or, in this case, Project Runway All Stars (In which contestants from past Projects Runway re-compete. Really, guys? you have nothing better to do than this again? Dmitry, I’m really surprised at you).

Anyway, in spite of some terrible calls on the part of the judges (Are you freaking kidding me? I shriek), and truly horrible styling for the host, poor Alyssa whatever-her-name-is, always stuffed into some inappropriate boob-bulging dress and teetering in some ridiculous high heel (Are you freaking kidding me? I shriek), I find it inspirational.

I love seeing how the designers rise to a challenge, within minutes conjuring all kinds of ideas, choices of colors, shapes, the imagination, the technical skills required. I love the way they become truly wrecked throughout the course of the competition, sleep deprived, on edge, and how they always say the competition pushed themselves to do things they would not otherwise have done.

I don’t know anything about fashion or clothing design, so I don’t really understand exactly what they mean, but I would like to feel that feeling — of trying something I’m not entirely sure I can pull off. The problem with not being in a reality show about writing poetry is that I have to come up with my own challenges and push.

I have had that experience — in recent times, for example, trying to write a long poem with long lines and leaps, pushing and elbowing and elbowing the boundaries of the poem. My first videopoem pushed me in this way, and my animations. (Can I really draw an octopus that looks recognizably like the same octopus across ten frames? Fortunately, all octopuses look sort of the same….)

So what’s it all for? Well, as regular readers know from a previous post in which I revealed the meaning of life to be, well, a meaningless question, I don’t think “it” is all “for” anything. It just is. I wake up every day (so far). So what am I going to do?

I guess I make things because it can be fun. I write because it’s how I think. I play with animation and video and paint and fabric because it’s fun. I don’t cook things or play tennis or volunteer at a soup kitchen because those things are not fun for me. In the absence of a Project Prod a Poet or a Project Make Something, I have to put myself in the creative zone, and this can be tiring and tiresome. But at least I’m not sharing a room in some hotel with other contestants, and having to worry about what Irina is saying behind my back. Cuz she’s just mean.

Make Me an Angel; or, On Not Committing to a Genre

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I have a love/hate relationship with Poets & Writers magazine. All those contests I’ll never win! All those pages listing who won all those contests I’ll never win! But it often contains interesting articles and interviews. And I got thinking about this quote from an interview with Valerie Luiselli by Lauren LeBlanc.

Leblanc writes about Luiselli: “As a writer she doesn’t confine herself to fiction or nonfiction but instead allows the passion of her interests to guide her note-taking and writing. The genre makes itself known only after she has considered her subject from a variety of angles.”

Exactly, and so beautifully stated!

I don’t know how much is the interviewer and how much was the interviewee in how this was spoken, but I’m grateful to both. I was just putting together some notes for a poetry workshop I’m giving to the general public in April, which is, of course “poetry month.” I would not usually offer a “poetry” workshop. Rather the workshops I have offered ask people to just think creatively and imaginatively and not worry about what genre comes out.

In my intro notes to this workshop (the host organization said I could “do anything I wanted but it had to be focused on poetry”) I want to say something like what this article said, the idea of letting the work figure out its own form. This is part of the mysterious process of making.

As soon as you put a label on something, you’ve narrowed your vision. Just write stuff. And let it be. Meaning let it be whatever the hell it is — nothing, or something, Shakesperean sonnet or story, essay or one-act play. You won’t know until some editorial attention is paid to it.

So I’m going to add to my intro something about “allowing the passion of interests to guide” and “consider the subject from a variety of angles.” Why charge off in the direction of a poem just because you think you’re a poet, or you’re in a so-called poetry workshop? Let’s feel the idea and utterance like clay in our hands. Let’s play with it until it grows feathers and flies.


Off We Go Into the Wild Red-Penciled Yonder; or The Hesitant Editor

Departures make me uneasy, reluctant. I check and recheck routes, dates, times. The prospect of change finds me jittery, mind racing ahead, anticipating the worst.

And maybe this is why first drafts and the entry into the editing process can make me edgy, gloomy. I fear ruination, loss of whatever brilliant impulse created this messy first draft. I fear that by leaving the original, I’ll never be able to get to my destination, much less to get home — home being, ultimately, the poem I want to write.

I start all drafts by hand in a notebook, and there they sit, scribbled, sometimes for almost a year until I can muster the courage to wade back into the fray. I extract those drafts, type them into a second draft on my computer, taking that raw utterance and forming something else. In doing so I stiffen it inevitably — visually, at the very least, taking the crabbed scrawl of my first work and tick ticking it into Times font on a white screen. This is when I start taking things out, playing with line breaks, and listening to hear if there is resonance inside, or whatever it is that gives potential to an utterance, the potential that there may be a poem inside. Have I packed enough in this draft to carry me away and then back home?

Of course, there is no real risk. I know that. I can save each and every draft, if I want, and trace my way back if I get lost. But reason has no standing where irrational fears hold sway. What I am really fearing is that I’m not up to the challenge. No longer a careless writer of what comes to mind, no playing child, but an editor, choicemaker; which words will I befriend, what voice will I take on?

And will any of the strangers I meet like the result? In editing mode, that question rises, grim as the sun on the hot sidewalk on the walk to the first day of school.

I wonder if other people share this editing dread. It’s normal to fall in love with a fresh draft of something exciting and new. Why mar the lovely face of this beloved with some virtual red mark of the editing pen? Surely it’s brilliant as is. First word, best word. And maybe it is. Maybe it is. But I won’t know until I voyage into the process of questioning what’s there — does this belong? does that sound best or is there a better way? does it contain more vitality if I turn it upside-down? — and come to the destination on the other side.

It’s only after I begin — taking away here, adding there, shifting, turning — do I regain courage, lose self-doubt. Once the journey begins, any journey, I’m fine. I find my way, lose it, find it again. And I stop worrying about the outcome, stop worst-case-scenarioizing, stop worrying whether I’ll make any friends.

I figure there’s no changing, at this point in my life, the way I respond to setting off from Point A to some distant Point B. I can only give it a nod, and start the car.


Love the One You’re With; or On Envy, Fulfillment, and the Writing Life

I had dinner recently with someone from my past. We were pretty much in the same places in our lives for a little while. Then our directions quickly diverged. She stayed a while longer in the job we both had; I quit. She got married; I stayed single for many years. She had kids; I did not. She got a new job I might have liked; I started my own business, which is what she had intended to do. Her salary increased; I spent my savings. She became the head of an organization, responsible to her staff, board, and the people who rely on the services of her organization. I live pretty much my own life in my own way, accountable to almost no one.

I have a great life. But being with her rattled me for a time. Who was I then, and what am I now? Should I have been more ambitious? Should I have tried harder to find purpose in that career I had at the time?

I’m pretty sure I made the right choices for me at the right times and for the right reasons. And I know I would not be happy living her life. But still, something nagged. I was surprised to feel some envy.

I haven’t looked it up but I wonder if envy is from the same root as the French envoyer, to send, as if some imagined and unfulfilled future has sent someone back to say nah nah nanah nah. Or maybe there’s some connection to vie, as if envy is to enter in to some competition, some vying for something. Because of course, it takes two to envy.

Or three, rather, as there is the damnable Other person who triggers the whole thing, and the Self, of course, but then there’s the Shadow Self, that imagined person living the life of the Other, endlessly happy, rich, and trouble free. And that’s the absurdity, of course.

Okay, I looked it up, and envy is from the Latin in + videre, to see. So envy is a seeing in, but a seeing that’s through a glass darkly, it seems. Somehow it came to mean to see with malice. But me, I am seeing amiss. The only thing I’m vying with is my shadow boxer, a funny shaped version of me flinging around on the floor. We bounce and dance around the ring, but our punches miss every time.

As happens so frequently, into my inbox popped the latest post from the incomparable website Brainpickings which contained exactly reflective ideas that further enlarged my thinking on this stuff. Brainpickings mastermind Maria Popova stumbled on a book called A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Field, published in 1934. Joanna Field was a pen name for psychoanalyist Marion Milner. Milner decided to spend seven years studying what makes for fulfillment and happiness by examining her own moments, observing her own brain’s movements through the range of discontents and contents.

It turns out the very act of closely observing, both her thoughts and the world around her, brought a widening of vision that itself was joyous. Here are two observations Popova quotes from the book that I found particularly interesting.

Field/Milner wrote: “…what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values.”

And this: “I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose, whether it would not burst its way out, or if the purpose were too strong, perhaps grow distorted like an oak whose trunk has been encircled with an iron band. I began to guess that my self’s need was for an equilibrium, for sun, but not too much, for rain, but not always… So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.… that my real purpose might be to learn to have no purposes.”

And I think about the kind of observation and reflection required to make art, particularly (but I am biased here) poetry. Isn’t it great that the very process required to make art is what Milner discovered is the process required to feel fulfilled, once we’ve jettisoned the ideas of fulfillment handed to us by parents, others, society, tradition. This is not to say that fulfillment is not found in all kinds of work, but rather that it is found in moments of quiet, sensory-based attention to what is at hand, whatever is at hand — a meeting with a client, the combining of ingredients for a cake, the resolution of a column of figures, or the act of mustering experience, imagination, and language to write a poem.

Milner wrote: “I had felt my life to be of a dull dead-level mediocrity, with the sense of real and vital things going on round the corner, out in the streets, in other people’s lives. For I had taken the surface ripples for all there was, when actually happenings of vital importance to me had been going on, not somewhere away from me, but just underneath the calm surface of my own mind.”

If you don’t subscribe to Brainpickings, I highly recommend you do. Every post is filled with so much fascinating and thought-enlarging stuff. The only problem is that it lengthens beyond reason the list of wonderful sounding books I have to get around to reading.

Read the entry I cited here.

Lingua Franca, Alfie; or What Poetry is All About

“It’s all about language!” Nancy exclaims.

“Yes!” I cry, “That’s it exactly!”

Her undergraduate poetry students, apparently, balk at this. They’re sure it must be all about their experience and their emotion. And, of course, yes, it is, AND ALSO…and yes, it is, BUT THEN…, she tries to explain. Without attention to language, we run the risk of writing prose and sticking random line breaks in and calling it a poem. Possibly with tortured and obvious end rhymes, just to make sure the moniker sticks.

Well, that’s her battle to fight. I have my own: I started thinking surely I could now come to appreciate more of the contemporary poetry I struggle with if I could only remember that it’s all about language.

But actually, often that’s the problem I have. It seems to be all about language…and not much or enough about experience or emotion…much less the other basic building blocks of poetry’s towers, huts, bridges, and many mansions.

A quick tally in my own mind of these blocks include: image, diction and tone, rhythm, silence, placement of words visually on the page. Oh, and intention.

So, language, yes, AND…or I’m left dangling in a language soup. Throw some croutons to this drowning fly. Give me a little logic, some sense of depth of meaning, some boogie woogie; and image, please, give me a flower or a piece of dogshit on the sidewalk or a surgeon’s scalpel under the light, something to grab onto, even if it bloodies me.

I know I’ve lamented this again and again in this blog, and encouraged myself to read more slowly, read with a broader mind and spirit. But I keep forgetting, and getting frustrated all over again when I read the next inscrutable (to me) volume. But I’m ready to dive in again, armed with the battle cry “Language! Language!”

But lest it seem like I only read poetry I don’t get, let me take a moment to mention a few books I’ve read recently or are in the middle of which I am very much enjoying: Lisa Bellamy’s The Northway, Jackie Craven’s Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, and Sarah Giragosian’s Queer Fish. Oh, and rereading Anne Carson’s fascinating Autobiography of Red. Huzzah.

Pass Go; collect $200; or, On Success…or Successishness

I’ve been reading about the origins of life, the mash of elements plus a pinch of lightning and then an “It’s alive” kind of thing.

It was all so unlikeley and random-seeming, life. Cellular matter, a membrane, some cell division, next thing you know, someone’s got a tail, next thing you know, woop, that tail’s gone out of fashion. And here we are. Surprise!

What’s it all about? The tendency of “life” to want to live in the now and onward. The meaning of life? Well, I don’t think there is intrinsic meaning to this random fallout. You want meaning? Make it yourself. We just flail around, a bunch of bacteria and dividing cells, and then it’s over. Well, except for the bacteria.

Which brings a certain amount of perspective on the idea of success, something else about which I’ve been thinking.

I’ve tried a number of pursuits in my life. Had a number of ambitions, both realistic and outlandish. Numerous fancies. Many dreams. One by one, all these things fall away. Pursuit falters; ambition lapses or faces the grim reality of oh-just-forget-it; dreams, well, dreams are forgotten, tossed aside with regret, relief, bitterness, or remain clutched in the hand like a magician’s coin, invisible but caught in the fingers.

I thought I’d be this thing, do that thing, or be that kind of person. With each passing life phase I’ve tried to get clearer who I am, what I’m here for, and how I define success. It’s an ongoing project.

And ongoingly I’ve tried to broaden the definition of who I am. That whole “contain multitudes” thing. The whole “accept the things” and “wisdom to know the diff” thing.

And I’ve tried to broaden my definition of success. The whole “hey, good for you for trying” thing. The etymology of “success” as a noun is pretty much from words meaning “after go.” Which is a pretty low bar to begin with. Everything that comes after my actually doing something is, by etymology, a success.

And I’m finding lately, in moments, that I’m on board with that, that my definition of success is getting narrower and narrower. Between bouts of garment rending over my 15th manuscript rejection or my millionth cry of “This shit got into [insert name of topnotch litmag here] magazine and I can’t get even one poem in crappy [insert absurd name of some rinkydink stapled-together thing that you were sure you could place a poem in…but were wrong, wrong wrong wrong],” lately I’ve been thinking that maybe success is, as the Grinch learned about Christmas, “just a little bit more.”

If I can try to have fun most of the time. That seems to be key. And if I can try to be kind to others and to myself…well…most of the time, or try to remember to be, anyway, well, maybe that’s it. A little kindness, a little fun, as much laughter as I can fit in. Is that all there is?

But what about that pesky kindness stuff…what if I’m a little shaky on that…? Are there gradations of success? Is there such a thing as successful-ish?