You Make Everything Groovy; or, Writing and Depth

I had the great pleasure recently of watching a small whale arc up from dark water and descend, arc up and descend, all muscle and gleam, powerful, mysterious, and yet intimate somehow, that glimpse of this Other, strange and yet flesh-like-me, breath, blood, bone. And as I’m also in the midst of first-round-reading for a poetry press (I’ve written about this process in this blog many times, I know), and poetry is much on my mind, it occurs to me that that’s what I’m looking for in a poetry collection: muscle and gleam, strangeness and yet intimacy.

There are many fine collections, many also that I simply don’t get at all, many that I know are of the kind of thing that is in vogue and maybe I should pass them up the ladder just because it might be the Next Big Thing (so many of which I don’t get), many that don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts, and some that are written by people who have not seemed to have studied the craft of the art. But it’s the arc of something mysterious I’m looking for in this deep water, something alive and that makes me feel both a strangeness and a kinship.

It takes patience to see a whale in the vastness of these waters. I walk and look and sit and look, and fear to look away at just the wrong time.

And here I read and read and read, worry and fear I’m not smart or sensitive enough to catch some important collection. But then something will catch my eye, and rise and scatter light, and I’ll think, “There! That’s something special.”

Now how to write such a collection is another question all together, as easily done as making a whale from a bunch of blubber and bone. The spark of life required takes some kind of god-like Let-there-be-light or a Big Bang.

No, that makes it sounds impossible. It is a deeply human manifestation, such writing, and they too have to rise from the deep, from some muscular impulse. It is possible. I’ve seen it. It takes patience, remember?

There is a wildness about the collections that catch my eye, a rawness. And that’s what I worry about in my own work, that it’s too mannered, that I intellectualize while keeping what’s untamed in me leashed. I don’t want to subdue my savage self in my work. I want to write wild.

 

The Name is Bond; or, Writing Within Constraints…or Not

Someone asked me recently what kind of constraints I put on my work. I didn’t understand the question. Constraints? You mean, other than my own vast limitations? Hunh? But what he meant was the kind of thing poets do sometimes, challenge themselves to write within limits: for some of us free-verse people that might mean writing within a form such as a sonnet or villanelle or the dread sestina, or with a strict count of syllables per line. Or it make take the form of writerly play: write a poem without using the letter e, or use six random words from the dictionary.

I have had spasms of trying to write in form. I still shudder to remember the crap I’ve written. Sometimes my poems do, though, begin to take the form of a form: I’ve had poems that seem to take the shape of a sonnet, have had poems begin to exhibit a rhyme scheme, or that show the kind of obsession a form like a villanelle brings out. I could be more willing and try to be more able at encouraging/allowing that, and making the best of it. But to start out with the intention to write in a form? It makes me shudder.

As for the other tricks, the only thing I do — and this only when I haven’t been writing at all — is substitution. That is, I’ll take someone else’s poem, ideally someone whose work is different from mine, so I’m off-balance to begin with, and then word by word substitute my own words. So “…while I pondered weak and weary” becomes “after we made assumptions, burly and full of ourselves,” perhaps. I do this to shake up my work, or push me into process when I’ve lapsed into lassitude.

They do feel like tricks, these constraint games. And I feel like I can feel the artifice in the final product. Which for some people is the point. My own mind, imagination, abilities, proclivities, ignorances, prejudices, blindnesses, laziness, insistence on some kind of logic…well…etcetera…are constraint enough. Aren’t they?

I want the poem to become its own organic thing, growing in bumps and spurts to whatever lumpy, limpy, or suave form it fits itself. My job is to give it some oomph and stay out of the way.

Some would argue, though, that working within constraints requires the imagination rise to a new occasion.

Hmph.

And haven’t I nudged myself before for the active engagement of the imagination?

Hmph.

Come on. Maybe it’s sonnet that hard. Maybe I shouldn’t get my pantoums in a bunch. Maybe terza rima in me yet. Mayb it’s tim for somthing nw.

 

“Who am I, why am I here, why did I cut my hair, I look like a squirrel”; or Thoughts on Poetry of Place and Self

I periodically dip into A FIELD Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, an anthology of terrific essays, attested to by all the pages I’ve dog-eared because of the wisdom therein. This time I read Larry Levis’s meditation on Donald Hall’s meditation on the poetry of place, “Eden and My Generation.” He writes, “…[F]or a while in the late sixties and early seventies in this country, it seemed to me that almost every American poem was going to locate itself within a more or less definite place, was going to be spoken usually in the first person singular, and would involve, often, …testimony to the poet’s isolations.”

Levis suggests that from a poetry of place in which place was specific and represented a lost Eden, this kind of poetry of place has been shifting in favor of finding different ways to imagine the imagery and ideas of that loss. Of the poetry of place in general he notes, “It is the geography of the psyche that matters, not the place.” He notes “Eden becomes truly valuable only after a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrecoverably, from what it once was.”

“And yet most younger poets still testify precisely to this alienation and isolation, this falling from Eden. Only they have changed it. It is as if the whole tradition has become, by now, shared, held in common, a given…,” he observes. He wonders, “Again, in some unspecifiably social sense, it may be that places themselves became, throughout much of America, so homogenized that they became less and less available as spiritual locations, shabbier and sadder.” He considers, “it may be that this…new homelessness…is what a number of…new poets have in common when they practice the ‘meditational’ mode–for what they tend to hold in common is, at heart, a contradiction: an intimate, shared isolation.”

But I wonder if this isn’t exactly what poetry is, an intimate shared isolation? Don’t we sit alone with a volume in our hands seeking to find contact with another mind/body/soul/individual? Maybe I overstate it. And maybe he overstates a poetic drift away from poetry of place. But as I read desultorily across literary magazines and volumes, I do find less about exterior place and more about interior place, specifically the interior place of identity. Is this the new home that we’re writing about, the home of who we are, or think we are? And is self-identification by definition an exercise of comparison to others, in some way an oddly collective act? Funny.

Another Round of Notes from the First Round

It was time again for my task as first-round reader for a poetry book contest. Once again I approached with self-doubt and angst. Once again, I learned some things to apply to my own work.

The twenty-five or so manuscripts I looked at were uniformly pretty well-written, which tells me that people are taking the time to learn something of the craft of writing (or at least reviewing the rules of grammar) and the art of poetry.

But I found that several of these full-length manuscripts felt more like solid chapbooks with other stuff stuffed in around them. This is interesting and a useful cautionary tale. I need to examine my own current full-length ms to make sure I have truly a full group of good poems and not a core of good ones and some bubble wrap.

A corollary to this is that it seems like collections are getting longer and longer. And I’ve noted in an earlier post that contest rules are asking for mss that are of higher and higher page count. I just don’t think this is a good thing. I want a book of poems to be a small world I live in, roaming around, revisiting streets and vistas. I don’t want to wander forever in strange terrain. Too many times I’ve encountered collections that after a while make me say “Enough already.” This is not good for poetry, already fighting an uphill battle for readers. Too many poems invites too many weak poems. I favor shorter and stronger throughout. Whack ’em with some good stuff and go.

“Ahem ahem”: I found that, no lie, 80% of the manuscripts were chock full of epigraphs: epigraphs for the ms as a whole, for sections, for individual poems. And 98% of the time the epigraphs added nothing to the experience of the poem. Why why why do people do this? It seems like a lot of throat clearing and paper shuffling. Unless they provide some vital context, I just don’t see the point. I began to resent this imposition on my time. They’re unnecessary ruffles. Think of Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. If you want to use someone’s line in your work, have at it; just give them a nod in an end note. But epigraphs? Enough. Stop hiding behind someone else. Just start the poem, poet.

I also found often that I didn’t understand people’s line break decisions. I tried counting syllables or beats, in case I was missing a form or something. But an awful lot of the time the line breaks seemed suspiciously random. (I’ve written about line breaks before: Line Item) So I need to go back and stare down my line breaks, justify them to my now line-break crabby and hyper-vigilant self.

Finally I read a couple of mss that were interesting in content but in the end never transcended their own material. I talked about this a little bit last time with regard to essays. Where is the emotional center and how is my vision being shifted? The same goes for poems: experience has to launch to something beyond itself. Otherwise a cigar is just a cigar. And where’s the art in that?

Burning Bright; or, Innovation and Authenticity in Videopoetry

I’m interested in things different, innovative; but look, I am not interested in them for innovation in itself. I still want to be communicated with, emotionally touched and intellectually engaged. I want art to change me, shift my perspective, rattle my mind, open my eyes, tilt me to one side. I want my heart to grow three sizes.

When someone says of a movie “the special effects were great” I don’t bother to go. If that’s what the movie was then it’s not what I want to do with my time. When poetry does fancy things on the screen, or if I can “interact” with it, it better be worth my while in terms of what I get out of the experience. I can be impressed, sure. I can be diverted, yes. I’m easily distracted from tasks at hand by something shiny and moving. But give me yourself, not what your technology can do.

I struggle with this in making videopoems. My grasp of technology and visual arts is tenuous, my understanding of what sound can do rudimentary, and my distrust of the way emotions can be manipulated by sound is high, but I stick with it. Because this is the era of the audiovisual milieu, and I’m interested to explore how poetry can be engaged actively in it.

I watch a lot of videopoetry. Most of it does nothing for me, I’ll tell you the truth. Often the text puts me off. (But as I’ve discussed here, I am having a problem with much contemporary poetry, and I know the failing is often mine. But sometimes a poem that is a string of barely connected lines is just a bunch of barely connected lines.) Often the visuals are repetitive and flashy for no purpose that adds value to the equation: text+visuals+audio=videpoem.

The end product must be more than the sum of its parts. How to do this? Damned if I know.

I need to amass for myself a little library of kickass videopoems that I can go back to and think yes, that’s the stuff; now why does it work so well.

Although I wouldn’t consider this a videopoem per se, although its inspiration is Blake’s “The Tyger,” its strangeness and creepy wonderfulness is the height of inspiration for me: https://vimeo.com/6787244.

Here’s the videopoem that sparked my interest in the form initially: http://movingpoems.com/2012/03/war-rug-by-francesco-levato/. It’s a bit long, but very interesting to me.

And here’s a recent well-balanced videopoem, I think, that creates something that is more than the text/images/sound alone: http://www.tupeloquarterly.com/these-past-few-days-of-freezing-rains-by-laura-frare-mary-kathryn-jablonski/.

 

 

On the Other Hand; or, Some Poems I Like

To counteract my lament from last week, here are some poems I’ve encountered recently that I quite enjoyed. I’ll collect more as I go along, to keep us cheery and hopeful. Well, okay, I know these are cheery and hopeful poems themselves, but I quite liked them, which itself makes me feel c and h.

Coda

The first tumor distends
through his shirt like a cartoon
heart beating out of its chest–
others wrangling liver & spleen.
We are carrion & meteor, our meat
dress in fire & diaphanous gas.
How to measure dark matter
amidst bright coordinates of stars?
At the cusp, as breath constricts,
slows–we betroth to zero,
held in a dilating spotlight.

— Willa Carroll, Nerve Chorus, The Word Works

 

A Violence

You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays
fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window.
They sound like children you might have had.
Had you wanted children. Had you a maternal bone,
you would wrench it from your belly and fling it
from your fire escape. As if it were the stubborn
shard now lodged in your wrist. No, you would hide it.
Yes, you would hide it inside a barren nesting doll
you’ve had since you were a child. Its smile
reminds you of your father, who does not smile.
Nor does he believe you are his. “You look just like
your mother,” he says, “who looks just like a fire
of suspicious origin.” A body, I’ve read, can sustain
its own sick burning, its own hell, for hours.
It’s the mind. It’s the mind that cannot.

— Nicole Sealey, Ordinary Beast, Ecco

Eye for an I; or Thinking About Louise Glück essays and Art for Our Time

Louise Glück’s critical eye reminds me of the red-tailed hawks that patrol the highways, sharp of eye, beak, and talon. Even in my car I feel like prey.

In American Originality, a book of essays published previously, mostly in The Threepenny Review, and introductions to books she chose as award winners for Yale University Press, Glück examines the state of contemporary poetry with her baleful eye. Even her praise is fierce.

Here are some choice bits I’ve been thinking about:

“Contemporary literature is, to a marked degree, a literature of the self examining its responses…The self, in this sense, was the nineteenth century’s discover, an object, for a time, of rich curiosity…And as long as it was watched in this spirit of curiosity and openness, it functions as an other: the art arising from such openness is an act of inquiry…dynamic rather than static. Narcissistic practice, no matter what ruse it appropriates, no matter what ostensible subject, is static, in that its position vis-à-vis the self is fixed: it expects, moreover, that the world will enter into its obsession.”

(She then goes on to consider the ways in which Whitman and Dickinson skirted narcissism in their own ways, but then pecks at poor Rilke, who rankled her with his guilt-ridden paean to Paula Becker.)

Then: “By the mid-seventies, poets looking inward have begun, simultaneously, to watch themselves looking inward…” and later she he warns: “Our too-eager welcoming of the facile experimental, the derivative experimental (if that is not an oxymoron), suggests that a gulf has been widening between the world as it has been perceived in poems (mysteriously ready to yield insight) and the world as we live it.”

Certainly the world as we live it these days often seems an ironic and edgy place, full of injustices, inhumanity. The poems I’m often encountering these days are perplexing in their codedness, their strings of non sequiturs, or strident in their purposefulness. Is this what she’s talking about?

Did poems once consider the world ready to yield insight and now they do not? Do poems set out to wring insight from the world?

She writes: “Our journals are full of…poems in which secrets are disclosed with athletic avidity, and now, more regularly, poems of ravishing perception, poems at once formulaic and incoherent: formulaic because all world event directly sponsors a net of associations and memories, in which the poet’s learning and humanity are offered up like prize essays in grade school; and incoherent because…the overall impression is that there is no plausible self generating them….The problem of this art is that it lacks meaning, vision, direction.”

This is often how I feel about our times, the chaos, the division, the absence of reasonable discourse. We seem to be struggling with meaning, vision, direction.

At the turn of the previous century, art shifted from representational to abstract, reflecting a time of darkness and fear, the end of one war and the ramping toward another. German thinker Wilhelm Worringer wrote a thesis at that time suggesting that art veered between empathy and abstraction: empathy arising from times of prosperity and abstraction from turmoil.

But look at our tumultuous times right now even as the stock market has been soaring, unemployment rates relatively low (but discounting the chronically, societally discounted). What kind of art arises from this, when we seem to be sorely lacking in empathy and awash in the angular abstractions of mistrust and hate?