Kiss me on a midnight street; or, Creativity and Letting Go of Control

I haven’t been writing much. This is not unusual for me. I go for long periods without writing much, or writing little bits that I discover later, or writing quite a bit only I haven’t noticed it. Mostly these days the notebook sits closed. But I’ve been willing to paint. Maybe not with alacrity, but I’m more likely to open my little sketchbook than my notebook.

I’ve been painting mostly from photographs, even though I know from my artist friends that that is frowned upon, although I’m unclear why, but one friend is Rather Stern about it. So I do it anyway, but feel guilty about it, which I figure makes it okay. Something about the efforts of imagination or something. But a photograph reminds me about how light and shadow works. I tend to be afraid to go too dark, and unsure how to maintain light, so a photograph keeps me working forward on those fronts.

Anyway, after reading about one artist’s more freeform approach of putting down water and color and then finding an image in the patterns it made and enhancing it, I decided to try that. Rather than doing my usual wet onto dry, I wet the paper well, added color, and a bit more, then rewet and added a new color, turned the paper around so the colors veered and wandered. I contemplated that for a bit, liking the soft hues. I wanted some darker stuff, so I did some spattering. For some reason, that didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to fold the paper in half, like little kids do to make those butterfly-sort-of pictures. Disaster. My spatters turned into pale squashes, and now my paper had a fold in the middle of it. Contemplated that. I still liked the colors and had just received a card that had a cutout garden on top of shiny paper, so I thought to do something like that, and dismantled the card and laid the cutout on top of my paint. Ick. What I really wanted was the opposite — I wanted the flowers to be cut out and the background intact, but I had no interest in the persnickety Xacto knife requirements of such a thing.

More brooding. In the end I turned to my usual go-to, my pen. I lack a very fine-point brush, so I end up using my pen often to outline things in my paintings. I scrawled some squiggly flower and leaf and grass shapes on top of my colors. I quite liked it, and thought to myself, “Well, that was an adventure.”

And I thought what a wonderfully human moment that was, a moment of contemplation of the past, its frustrations and questions, coming out the other side appreciating the, dare I put it, “journey.” I suppose it’s possible that the maple tree by my house comes through a windstorm, boughs intact, and has some equivalent sigh of satisfaction. But it seems like a very human thing. And it occurs to me that my writing efforts would also benefit from that kind of shake-up, of venturing into unfamiliar methods. Unknown, unknowing, trying this and that, contemplating, folding, turning upside down, mopping up spilled words, doodling. I’d like to look up from a writing session and think, “Well, that was an adventure.”

Sit right down; or, On Handwriting

My mother died recently, and I was grateful for all the emails, phone calls, and Facebook comments, people moved to reach out to me, to touch, electronically. I was moved. And I was amazed that a ton of people sent me cards. It was so lovely to receive these bits of paper and color through the, let’s face it, miracle of the US Postal Service. It was startling and thrilling to see, of all things, people’s handwriting! The loops of one friend, the scratch of another dear soul.

Wow. That all these people took the time to stand in front of a selection of cards at some store, trying not to breathe in someone else’s Covid germs, debating whether this card was too sappy, that one too cute, then took it home and, I would bet, to a person, paused, pen clutched in curled fingers, thinking “what on earth will I say??” And then they commenced, and said in black pen or blue all number of lovely things, including just “thinking of you,” which was true and warming.

And the signatures! Do I sound like a lunatic?

But this evidence of our selves, our scrawly names. In these typefaced days of electronic signatures and stock emojis, of typing someone’s address or phone number into your phone rather than have them scribble it on a scrap of paper, the distinctiveness of handwriting has been hidden. It exists. We all haven’t collectively forgotten how to write. Although I do hear that children are no longer taught to write cursive. We all still, at some point or another, put pen point to paper, and the heft of pen and hand and arm, the wick of inkpoint, the tautness or looseness of loop or line are an intimate part of us.

It was a tender moment for me to see this evidence of my friends on paper, to see in their lines, thick or thin, even or jiggly, their thoughts of me, and of course, as the death of a mother is a big event for everyone, their thoughts from within themselves and their own experience of loss or the anticipation thereof. Stunning.

So if not today someday soon find a reason to send someone a card with your own chickenscratch inside. It seems, the sending of a card, to be an isolated event of individual effort, but upon receipt it becomes a shared experience, an art, a dance of ink-to-eye and mind-to-mind. And we need such small personal actions in the cold world. Sometimes Times New Roman and smiley faces are a bit too stiff. They hide us, the skinny scrawl or thick slash of us sprawled on paper like a grin or a grimace or a wink and a smile.

The regular crowd shuffles in; or, More Poems

It’s interesting to go back to old poems. I find I do not have the urge to revise them, nor do I read them with critical eye at all. They were the poems of a moment, a time in my development as a person and a poet. I see them with fondness and appreciation of the places my mind was at, the things I was trying to get at that interested me at the time. They are old friends, flawed and familiar, yet made a bit strange through time. I presume they look at me in the same way.

Here are a few poems from my old chapbook Rugged Means of Grace, which Finishing Line was kind enough to publish back in 2011. A lot of the poems in it I put also in Perpetual Motion. Here are some poems that got left behind.

from Bestiary

2. Lettuce

Such sturdy substance
at my source, one seed,
but risen rosette, now
this labile, sea-
like self, I’m silly,
frilled as a lizard. Unsolid,
I’m salad. What the hell’s
happened to my head?

3. Tulip

You arose striated,
cleft, and dumb.
Became ribald
with attention,
your sex displayed.
You’re all lips now.
If I kiss you once,
you’ll tell me everything.

6. Peel

There are feathers
and things that look like feathers:
a frost edge, a fringed petal, today
a shred of sodden apple
skin left in a bowl’s puddle,
a live thing turned dead, turned
into the leavings
of a live thing flown.

Consumed

I slice a line    from Perlman’s violin concerto.

Suck it down.             Lick

the slice of a lemon sky. Again.  A hunk of Giant

mountain I rip,                                    fists

of lavender, stuff                     them in my mouth.

Wad and gnaw a      photo: wrinkled

Galician woman. On               my lips

smear liver-red zinnias.                       I must eat

beauty. Seeing is not             enough, hearing

not enough. Taste       alone is not enough.

May I           sweat beauty.

May         I stink of. May

I       deliquesce to. May I

    disappear.

Some Poems

Just some poems today, from my books. I can’t find a copy of my first book, a chapbook from Finishing Line called Rugged Means of Grace, but I’m sure I’ve got some around here somewhere, and will add one from that little volume.

Found

There’s a baby
in the crisped litter
of a roadside wood today, made pale
and lovely by an October snow.
Then even the skin is brittle.
It’s never the big thing
but the fine and permeative that destroys
often beautifully. How are we a thing that hates
and is so hard to hate?
There’s a boy
tucks a note into the pocket
of a coat he’s sending a stranger, saying
“Have a good winter. Please write back.”
A branch breaks, a lamp flickers,
the dog digs at a flash of something
paler than snow. A boy uncrinkles a note.
What happens next?

(from Perpetual Motion, The Word Works, 2012)

The dark is shifting almost imperceptibly

toward you. I know that much 
of endings. As usual I’m mistaken,
though, about what’s moving.
Not the dark onward but you
and I falling toward it, and sometimes
it is beautiful, fanned in flame,
and some days, as today, obscure.
Hymn so cautious will lead you
humming. I hope.

( from Glass Factory, The Word Works, 2016)

[While the day]

While the day is its own
autocracy, I am citizen
staring out at world,
touch the cool glass of rain’s 
mirror. Color deepens 
then fades, a slow flicker
as if I am blinking,
as I must open the eyes
inside myself to keep
democracy alive.

::

          the day is

                    world

         the cool glass of

          Color               

                   a      flicker

                 blinking

                          the eyes 

                       to keep 

                   alive

::

          the 

                     world

                        the eyes

                          keep 

                  alive

(from Being Many Seeds, Grayson Books, 2020)

I heard the news today; or, On Poetry Making Use of Non-poetic Texts

I took a dip into the work of Muriel Rukeyser recently, a poet whose work I was only vaguely familiar with. I spent time mostly with “The Book of the Dead,” her documentary-ish exploration of a tunnel collapse and its corporate cover-up. It is quite contemporary in feel, though it was published in 1938 as part of her second poetry collection, US1. She uses research, reportage, and the borrowed voices of witnesses or individuals who stood in the middle of the situations that stirred her. Bringing home to the reader social justice concerns in a visceral way.

And I realized there is a direct line between her work and several other collections I happen to be reading at the moment: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ, and Travis Cebula’s The Sublimation of Frederick Eckert. All of these make use of documentation and imagination, witness and response, text and visual presentations. And they all, to my mind, stretch the traditional sense of what poetry is: From Rukeyser’s use, for example, in “Statement: Phillipa Allen,” of altered lines from a witness statement, set in the dialogue format of a play, with dashes to set off each line of of the questioner’s questions and Allen’s replies; to Choi’s snapshotted notes and scribbled Korean characters and a respondent’s doodled map of circles; to Rankine’s “situation scripts” making use of news coverage; to how Cebula’s poems, launched from an old newspaper clipping, explore the fictionalized life of the first suicide off the Empire State Building tumble down the page, sometimes in two columns, some words bracketed as if a photojournalist froze moments of the fall.

Is there music here? Sometimes. Is there form? Of strangeness, yes, and sometimes borrowed from non-poetry-looking documentation. Is there compression? Of vision, certainly, of focus, if not always of text. Is there silence, as weighed against sound? Yes, and often interestingly, insightfully so. How they take from and make use of documentation interests me, text dimensioning itself from text, like a 3D printer transforming code into form.

I must confess, though, this interests me intellectually, but it’s the other book I happened to grab in quick Covid-breathing-down-my-neck visit to the library that grabs my poetry heart. It too takes its cues from something concrete, in this case a video clip and some photographs. Ross Gay seems to be attaining incadescence in front of my very eyes with each new book. Be Holding is magnificent, as it achingly slowly tells of the fleet seconds details of an improbable dunk, a “baseline scoop,” by Dr. J during a 1980 NBA finals game, interspersed with curling and twining tendrils of sidebars and meditations on holding, on flying and falling, on love. This is poetry that truly engages me as a reader, a writer, and as a human bean.

This is news of the finest kind. Oh, boy.

Have my seat; it’s for free; or, In Which I Discover I Know Nothing About Poetry…Again

I still remember the shock and betrayal I felt, not to mention the physical discomfort, when whatever little asshole kid I was see-sawing with jumped off when he was down, and I was up, and I came slamming down. It made me ever suspicious and I have been always careful with whom I see-saw. Well, the world of poetry sometimes feels to me like that kid — playing nicely then suddenly, inexplicably wham. And I’m down, bones rattled, teeth jarred.

I keep encountering poems lately I. do. not. get. Don’t get ’em. What are they doing? What are they talking about? Why has the poet chosen to do what they have done? What am I to take away from them? WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?

Obviously, I know nothing about poetry.

I mean these are well respected publishers and much lauded books and widely praised poets. So obviously everyone other than me sees something in them and I’m too much of a dolt to see the greatness.

No wonder I can’t get my poems accepted for publication lately! I clearly have no idea what I’m doing! I go along, writing my stuff, reading stuff, venturing my opinion about what I’m reading. Then wham. Who am I to have any opinions whatsoever on anyone else’s work when I am clearly so. out. of. my. depth. Who am I to be scribbling and typing and — good grief — sending stuff out?

Poetry? What the hell is it? Don’t freaking ask me. I ain’t getting on that see-saw today.

Barrelin’ down the boulevard; or, One Last Thing About Revision (This Week, Anyway)

So I plastered a bunch of my thoughts about revision last week and the week before. But there’s a terrible secret I’ve kept tight to my chest. And that is that I don’t really think anyone can teach us how to revise our own poems.

You can try all these ideas and techniques. But there is no way to really know when a poem has achieved something close to its potential except by writing and reading and writing and reading and developing your own sense of what you want your work to do.

And by reading, I mean, reading like a practitioner. That is, when we meet a poem that affects us, we need to take it apart and figure out how it did its magic. And we need to do this over and over again with all kinds of poems. And we need to try the tactics, retry, try something else.

And I believe — I have to believe — by doing this over the course of who the hell knows how long, we’ll develop some instincts, some skills, and some confidence. And when the poem isn’t living up to itself, something in us will feel uncomfortable, our skin will not fit us quite right, our ears will flick forward and back at some sound that’s not quite right, some voice inside us will whisper, “Sorry, you just don’t have it yet.”

And we’ll sigh and unscrew the carefully packed poem, pull all the guts out, and start all over again, adding this, taking away that, turning the pieces around, and putting it together again, then sitting with it to let those hard-won instincts have their say, their little jabs and hmms.

Good luck.

Notes on Revision: A Megablog

Reblogging this because, well, it’s a MEGAblog.

O Write: Marilynonaroll's Blog

I’ve written often over the years about my grappling with the revision process, ways I’ve approached it, ways I’ve been confounded, approaches I’ve read about and tried, ones I’ve read about but have been too lazy to try. I decided to go back through all the posts I could find that talked about revision and distill the barest skeleton of stuff so as to create a sort of quick-and-dirty revision cheatsheet. This is not to say I’m an expert, it’s just to say here’s some stuff I think I’ve learned along the way that maybe you’d find useful too. Or not. Whatever. Anyway. Here’s some stuff.

Remember: look for the shine and sheer away what’s getting in the way, or carve it so that the light and shadow work how you want them to.

Remember: it’s a spiral process. Start anywhere. You’ll be back there again eventually, but hopefully from…

View original post 1,115 more words

Notes on Revision: A Megablog

I’ve written often over the years about my grappling with the revision process, ways I’ve approached it, ways I’ve been confounded, approaches I’ve read about and tried, ones I’ve read about but have been too lazy to try. I decided to go back through all the posts I could find that talked about revision and distill the barest skeleton of stuff so as to create a sort of quick-and-dirty revision cheatsheet. This is not to say I’m an expert, it’s just to say here’s some stuff I think I’ve learned along the way that maybe you’d find useful too. Or not. Whatever. Anyway. Here’s some stuff. 

Remember: look for the shine and sheer away what’s getting in the way, or carve it so that the light and shadow work how you want them to.

Remember: it’s a spiral process. Start anywhere. You’ll be back there again eventually, but hopefully from a slightly different vantage point.

Remember: time is the best editor.

But here are some ways to break it down:

The Words

– Are the verbs active? Are they surprising? 

– Are the nouns specific? Are they image-based? Or are they abstract or calling too much attention to themselves with their fancy multisyllables?

– Are there too many articles? Not enough? Could you gain specificity and heft by changing an “a” to a “the” or vice versa?

– Are the adjectives and adverbs necessary and are they doing enough heavy lifting? 

– Is punctuation serving clarity? If you’ve eschewed punctuation, is that serving the poem? 

– Is the tone right for the subject matter? Or wonderfully wrong for the subject matter?

The Sounds

– Have you read it aloud and does it flow? Are there sticky spots? Clunky sections?

– Are you paying attention to assonance, alliteration, onomatopaeia? Do the repetitions of sound work for the poem’s intentions? 

– Have you paid attention to rhythm? Does it have an interesting beat and flow?

– If you’re working in meter, does it get established, then break in such a way that is interesting and that serves the meaning of the line?

The Lines

– Are the line breaks serving purposes, in terms of ideas, rhythms, sound, controlling the movement of the poem? 

– Do most of the lines have integrity or heft (rather than just being throw-away lines to get to the next meaty bit)? 

– Do most of the lines start strongly? Do most of the lines end strongly?

– Is the white space serving the poem?

The Look on the Page

– If you’re using a form, does the content serve the form? Does the form serve the content? Would imposing more control enhance the effect of the poem? Does the poem need less control, a little wildness?

The Silence

– Have you provided some silence such that you are controlling the roll of the poem down the page, in the mouth, out in the room?

– Is there too much information? Could you let the reader sit with some ideas by giving them some white space?

The Energy

– Is there a place of energy in the poem that might show you how to trim around it, or how the rest of the poem might need to be energized to meet it? Or maybe your poem really should be headed in the direction of that energy, and more writing is needed.

The Beginning

– Does it start at an interesting place/moment/idea/emotion? Or have you hemmed and hawed some and the poem might be stronger by starting several lines down where things are really happening?

The Ending

– Does it come to some ending so thoroughly that you can hear a far thud? Is it wrapped up so tight in a bow that it’s face is getting red from trying to breathe?

– Does it wander off such that the reader is left wondering why they bothered to follow along? 

– Does it make sense; does it make glorious nonsense?

The Order of Operations

– Does the flow of images/ideas/sounds/silences make sense? Or does it make glorious not-sense? 

– Do you ask too much of the reader to try to follow the leaps and bounds? Is there enough of a through-line of thought to keep the reader going?

The Title

– Does the title you’ve chosen really suit the poem? (Or does it convey what you thought you were writing about but the poem had its own ideas?) 

– Does it do any useful work, like situating the reader, or setting a tone, or giving a hint as to what’s ahead?

– Does it add interest and vitality or is it merely sitting there? If you encountered this title, would you bother to read this poem?

The Content

Okay, this is kind of big. If a poem is an inquiry, you don’t necessarily have to know exactly where you’re going, or where you’ve ended up, but you kind of have to settle on what your intentions are and what direction you think you’re headed.

– Do you know what you’re trying to do with this poem? Or are you muddled and therefore the poem is muddied?

– Do you know too much? That is, did you already decide on your arrival before you even embarked on the journey? Where’s the mystery and thrill of the unknown?

– Are you trying to strong-arm the poem to go someplace it doesn’t want to?

– Are you trusting the reader to grasp your metaphors and the journey of the poem? Are you asking too much of the reader to leap over chasms and wade through confusing thickets?

– Is this a poem in which something is at stake for you?

Play It Out

I’ve made it all sound very systematic, but really, I find I do revision best as a form of play. Here are some ways to play:

– Rewrite it backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.

– Break it apart and put it back together differently. It’s fun to do this physically: scissoring up the poem and taping it back together.

– Underline all the places in the poem that have energy or something special going on. Take everything else out and start with those underlined segments. Write on.

– Take out entire sections one by one and see what’s left. 

– Plot the logic of the arguments/analogies to make sure they are solid.

– Change the voice: if it’s in first person, change it to third, e.g.

– Change the time: if it’s in past tense, change to present, or future!

– Ask a poet friend to take a look at it and try the edits suggested, no matter how off-base you think they are. 

– Try combining two poems into one. 

– Write a new beginning.

– Write a new ending.

– Pick your favorite line and write a whole new poem off of that.

– Try a new title. Sometimes the gap between the title and the text is telling. Sometimes you have to write to the title. Sometimes you have to re-title to the text.

– Insert a diversion. Follow that diversion out — does it lead you back to the original poem, or to someplace new and interesting that is still in keeping with the original? Or have you ended up writing a new and wholly separate poem?

– Do a writing exercise starting with the thought: What I’m really trying to say is…

– Put it away for a month. Better, two months.

And sometimes, you just have to give up and start a new poem.

I wish I had a river; or, On Letting Writing Flow

Unusually for me, I find myself 8 handwritten pages into…well, what it is I can’t yet say, but I’ll loosely term it at this point an essay. I decided to start with a geographic point and then try to get myself to spin out from there, writing in whatever direction consciousness, or subconsciousness, or unconsciousness took me. I’m bemused at this, and am trying to still the anxiety I always feel to conclude a piece of writing, to tie it off, like a scarf from a knitting needle.

The urge to end is, well, urgent. What more could I have to say? How will I ever make all this work together? I’m trying just to keep knitting. What if it never ends? Well, won’t that be something?

Anyway, I found this quote from the ever-enjoyable essays of Olivia Laing, this from her engaging To the River: A Journey Beneath Surfaces, which traces the river Ouse, the same river that swallowed Virginia Woolf. Laing wrote:

“A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.”

Here ice is just catching the edges of the rivers and streams. I watched today a small eddy surge up through the hole it had created in the thin ice. I persevere.