I was gambling in Havana; or, On Creativity and Intent

Following up on last week’s post https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2021/02/15/kiss-me-on-a-midnight-street-or-creativity-and-letting-go-of-control/: So adventure, yes, but what of more serious concerns? I again approach this idea of “what the poet intends.”

I’m referencing here something a friend said that I agreed with in the moment but now think I may disagree: she said the context of a critique should always be the poet’s intent for the poem. I’ve also preached intent as a necessary level in the revision process. But I’m thinking now that if the poet has an intent for the poem, she’s already lost the poem. “But that’s not what I want the poem to do” is a phrase I hear — and say — in response sometimes to critique. But it’s that very wanting, that very conscious intention, that maybe should not be trusted.

Am I saying that a poem develops its own path, and the poet needs to learn to get out of the way? That sounds awfully woo woo for me. But maybe I’m kind of thinking that way.

But I’ve also argued that if you don’t know your intention for a poem, you’re in danger of writing too superficially. Could that also be true? Am I overthinking?

I think I’m perceiving that at certain stages in the development of a poem, the poet needs to move at first without much conscious thought, much the way I just laid water and color down on my paper, and then turned the paper around and around. What I intended was that somehow the colors would create some shape that would allow me to find something on the page to make a picture of. That didn’t happen. In the absence of that intended result, the absence of a discernible object or presence, I had to find another way. The frustration of my intent turned out to be a freedom and a way to discover something new.

The word intend is from Latin meaning stretching toward something. Sometimes in the writing of something, the process of writing itself causes the thing to stretch toward something unexpected. And it might take a clear-eyed view, probably after some time away from the poem, for me to be able to see what my own poem is saying, what it’s claiming as its own intentions or my own subconscious ones.

I’ve got a few poems in my holding cell at the moment, and keep revisiting them. They’re not bad. They’re not good. One in particular came out of an art exhibit the details of which I can no longer remember, but I know I wanted to write something out of the experience of that exhibit. I’m wondering now if I need to leave the exhibit behind, and see if the poem is actually reaching toward something entirely different. But no! That’s not what I intended! Plus if it goes in an entirely different direction then it won’t fit in with this manuscript I’m developing!

Tough luck, kid. Is this an adventure, or ain’t it?

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.”

Shadoobee shattered shattered; or On Text and Image

As a project to occupy me, I decided to use each section in a multi-sectioned poem I wrote as inspiration to make a monoprint, then I figured I’d write the poem section on each print.

But my writing is terrible, some of the sections were really long which meant I’d get impatient with writing them out and inevitably make a mistake (would that be interesting, the cross-outs?), the ink obscured too many words (did I want them obscured? Would that be interesting?) so I decided to just write a fragment of the poem on each print. 

I’m happy with the prints but the words disappoint me. Wasn’t it enough that the poem inspiration was in the DNA of the visual piece? Or is it my poem? Is it the fragments I chose? Is it that words and text have, to my mind, a problematic relationship — reminiscent as they can be of sentimental cards or cartoons? What am I looking for in this pairing? Should I have left visual enough alone? 

I took a dive into what other people were up to with visual poetics. For example, I found an issue of Indianapolis Review that was devoted to visual poetics, plus some other journals like crtl+v often have visual poems of some sort, and Tupelo Quarterly which often has interesting work of various sorts. I was looking for examples that really gave me a zing, the sense of “yes, THIS is what it can be.” 

I found lots of fun stuff, but I’m not sure I have yet found what I’m looking for. There’s a lot of collage with ransom-note style pasted-on lines of text. Often the text is brief, aphoristic, or enigmatic, which is okay, I guess, but not greatly of interest to me. Some people are using full poems, which I appreciated. But then I have to ask what the visuals do for the poem — is there something expressed in the comparison/contrast? Or is it just fun? And after I while I got tired of the ransom-note look and crazy juxtaposition of images ripped out of magazines or old textbooks. There’s a lot of it going on. Often the text and what it conveys is less compelling than the mish-mosh of visual, and I guess, being a reader and writer, I want the text to have more heft, to be more “privileged,” if you will. 

There’s some work with embroidery that’s kind of interesting. Sometimes sheer excess is interesting, but it’s not something I can or want to emulate. A LOT of stuff is going on with erasure. Again, some of it is interesting. But it’s not erasure I’m looking for.

I enjoyed this use of music score by Esther Sun: https://theindianapolisreview.com/esther-sun-violin-concerto-in-e-minor-opus-64/

Cartoons I find are not interesting me. I often find the multi-frame cartoons make me feel claustrophic. 

Maybe what attracted me most in this dive I took are objects that use text, and little books or tea bags or other ways people are incorporating words into things, but again, mostly gnomic in nature. 

This question of sense-making or meaning-making seems relevant in my quest — not enough sense in the words and I’m left frustrated, too much sense and I’m left feeling like the visuals are decoration. 

Maybe it’s asemic writing that I’m after — asemic meaning without a unit of meaning. Asemic writing alone, itself the only visual input, is less interesting to me. But asemic writing as part of a larger visual work? 
Maybe this is the most freeing use of text-like stuff in the embrace of other visual input. Then my eye and mind are free to course among them. 

Plus my bad handwriting would then be artful. This is what I could explain to my husband when he complains about not being able to read what I added to the shopping list. (What’s the mystery? It’s either “ice cream” or “cookies”.)

It was fascination; or, On Writing the Same Damn Poems Over and Over Again

I was feeling rather smug about having a new collection of poems for which I could start gathering rejection letters, until I realized that at least 10 of the poems in the 50 poem collection seem to be the same damn poem over and over again.

Yes, they differ in imagery and rhythm and movement, but they land in the same place, with they same no-duh realization.

I know I often feel like I’m writing the same poem over and over, but to have it so plainly in my face is, well, annoying.

I thought I could get clever and tried to turn one poem on it’s head, so it at least STARTED in the same damn place but ended someplace else, but I wasn’t fooled by my trick.

It’s funny, of course, because I hadn’t realized how obsessed I’d been. But clearly I’ve got issues. Or one issue, anyway.

How many such poems can a collection can get away with having? Two? Three? Four if I hide them throughout and distract the reader with shiny objects?

I don’t know. Is it so wrong to be frankly obsessed with the same idea? I mean I am climbing the same mountain yes, but it is indeed by different routes.

It’s not wrong, I guess; it’s just boring.

Well, I’m staring at them all now to see who gets to stay and who gets tossed off the island.

And if I’m going to do what I can to get obsessed with something ELSE.

And you always show up late; or, On Words (and Life) That Go Forward and Backward

The other meaning of the word “career” got me thinking about my “career” and my life’s career, and about how much I love double-entendre and the tricksiness of words. So as I careered (derived from horse riding) and careened (derived from ship repair), from one kind of life to another, little remained that looks like a career (derived from wheeled vehicle).

In fact I cleaved from path after path, quitting this, trying and quitting that, cleaving to a desire to be true to myself, whoever she was at any given time.

I buckled up in each trajectory’s car, buckled down to the work, but inevitably buckled from the pressure to sit.

I overlooked clues to what make me satisfied, overly concerned with some imagined authority who overlooked my choices.

Okay, maybe I’ve pushed the game too far. But I love that these are known as “Janus words,” that old two-faced bloke. But truly, I have careered, and cannot claim to have had a career, a definition that includes the notion of durability, of a devotion of time.

And the only thing I can say I have been devoted to across time is words. I have also loved silence. And there we have poetry.

But where am I? Who am I in all this mucking about? Harvey Oxenhorn in the wonderful Tuning the Rig has this to say about that: “Maybe…the problem isn’t knowing ‘who you really are’ but thinking that you can ever know. In an age when experience is far-ranging and the demands of daily life are so complex, perhaps integrity resides in not one ‘true’ strand of endeavors or desire but in the intelligence and love and dignity with which each person’s crazily conflicting strands are parceled, warmed, and served. That kind of strength is filamented — flexible, though prone to fray. It bind against itself, and holds.”

I love the generosity of that thought, how it allows us all to stumble and be contradictory, to be wrong and strong and uncertain, changeable and changed. It opens its arms to confusion. I pinball, therefore I am.


And speaking of looking backward: here are links to two poems published online in lit mags that are now in print inside my new chapbook, Being Many Seeds (www.graysonbooks.com/being-many-seeds.html):



I don’t know I don’t know; or, On Writing a Chapbook: The Story of Being Many Seeds

So with the birth of a new collection of poems, I thought I might share the backstory, as the poems came together in an unusual way, for me.

The poems in this book began as a monthlong exercise in imitations. Each day I’d choose a poem from a literary magazine or book of poems I had lying around, and I’d try to do a word-for-word imitation, but trying often to use opposite words. That is, if the poem started “One early morning…” I might say “Every late night….” I tried to choose poems that seemed unlike anything I might write: longer lines, narrative rather than lyric.

I didn’t overthink the process, I just let words rise up as prompted by the original poem, and figured whatever subject matters were lurking in my brain would arise naturally from this process. So then I had thirty or so of these, and looking back through, I was interested in many of them.

I began revising them back toward my own voice and rhythms. But they never felt entirely OF me, there was always something a bit different about them. So I thought I’d try a radical revision, really strip each poem down. That was fun.

So I decided to strip them down again.

Then I realized that each of these stripped down versions had something interesting to say to the version before. When I began understanding them as erasures of themselves, I got interested in presenting the poems in all three versions, particularly when the erasures began heading in different directions from the originating text.

Still I felt something missing. I remembered a couple of Rebecca Solnit books had a separate text running across the bottom of each page, like a murmured conversation happening elsewhere in the room. In real life this would have made me crazy, such an eavesdropper am I. But on the page, I loved that view out the corner of my eye of this sort of secret subtext.

So I thought about what the poems seemed to be talking about and around. And I got thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I’m not sure why. I had read bits and pieces of his work over the years, and I knew I had a book or two hanging out on some dusty shelf. So I began reading his work again, and thinking about his ideas, and having my own response to his thoughts. And so I began to set my thoughts running across the pages of the poems.

I had begun to envision this as a digital object, something you could watch while the erased words disappeared before your eyes, and the essay text appeared down the side of the virtual page. But I didn’t know how to do this, nor did I know how to contact an organization or person that did, nor did I know how I would get such a thing out into the world. So I created a paper-based version, at first having the essay text running sideways on each page, so you’d actually physically have to turn the page around. But some beta readers questioned this, so I ran the text across the bottom.

But the idea of a visual version haunted me, so I began experimenting with what software I did know how to use to try to approximate my vision. This was arduous and had several dead ends, but I finally figured out how to make it all happen in iMovie, and created some music/sound and manipulated some of my own photos.

So more than any other collection of poems, this one came together through a series of “lemme try thises” and “maybe I’ll try thats.” I felt through much of the process that I was moving through a combination of instinct and blunder, like walking around a familiar room but in the total dark. I was never entirely comfortable. It was a really stimulating process, and fun, in the end, if a bit bumbly in the middle.

So I encourage you to get uncomfortable. Turn out the lights, get up and wander around. Let something catch your eye and turn toward it, try it. Don’t think too much. Have a little fear, but not too much. Whether my book or video appeal to you or not, you will have a very interesting experience, I can promise you that.

Being Many Seeds, the book: www.graysonbooks.com

Being Many Seeds, the movie: www.vimeo.com/marmccabe/beingmanyseeds


Of Rich and Royal Hue; or, On Writing and Paying Attention

Having cancelled an anticipated spring trip, and maintaining the recommended isolation, I’m experiencing the wakening of wanderlust, as friends south of me post pictures of croci and daffodils but all around me is the bleak of northern early spring.

But isolation is forcing us to roam very locally, trespassing here and there, following logging roads or ATV trails currently quiet. With leaves not yet out the land remains revealed in all its lumps and wrinkles, and we course through it, following streams or the lines of topography, discovering a neighbor’s old apple orchards, a rocky and windy hilltop that seems elf-haunted.

In Boundless, Katherine Winter wrote this: “What if we were to stay in one place, get to know it, and listen? What might happen if we were not always on our way somewhere else?”

I took a tracking class once and was so envious of the teacher’s intimacy with his land. He took us to where he’d been checking on a porcupine family. Imagine knowing where a porcupine family was living! I did notice this winter from a large brush file on a neighbor’s land the crisp stink of what I think was fox musk. That was exciting. My trail camera delights me with capturing the comings and goings of a deer family, the trajectory of a fox every few nights, and many many shots of moving leaves, and how the day’s shadows move through the backyard. I know the chipmunks are making good use of the area under the porch, and I just hope it’s not them I hear in the wall. For the past three months, I have watched daily the stream’s many faces, from frozen to frenzy. The other morning an odd bird peep made me look out the window from my bed in time to see a male turkey walk past, with a female peeping at him, then another male hurry up and inflate himself to his puffed up glory. What drama!

When early hominids began to develop what we now know as language, surely it was driven by both need and wonder. So it’s a long history I feel when I say — either to myself, or my husband, or in a poem, or right here — “Hey, look at at that!”

This is Katherine Winter again: “I hadn’t before known earth as a text underlying any word spoken or written by man.” I love this idea of earth as text, of the wildlife around me as text — and by text I mean, and I presume she means, something to be “read,” studied, interpreted, and is a word that in origins means woven.

So even as we’re homebound in our neighborhoods, whether they be urban or rural, small town or suburban development, we’re part of the fabric of what’s around us. And as writers and readers, I guess we might as well weave.

He blows it eight to the bar; or, On Moving Forward, Breaking Out, Stepping Up, Boogying Down; or, On Writing Better

I have an MFA in poetry. I pursued it because I felt I’d come to a plateau in my work, and I feared I did not really know what I didn’t know. And I felt like an MFA would be a good way to get some outside input into my work and to have a good impetus to focus focus focus. I was largely self-taught before that, reading texts of craft and some criticism, having some conversations, and, of course, reading reading reading poetry.

The MFA experience sort of kind of worked, but as I had never had any undergraduate preparation in poetry, nor English at all, it was not quite enough. Once I got my MFA I felt like I was really ready to pursue an MFA. I am lacking great gobs of history and information and could be more skilled in how to read a poem as a poet.

Fortunately, there is no end of great books about all this, and I try to keep a regular practice of reading them, but have fallen down in the recent past. I am feeling again on a plateau, and am happy to have stumbled upon Craig Morgan Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress. He examines the work of a variety of poets, sometimes in depth over the course of a lifetime’s work, sometimes in a more focused way, trying to determine the forces at work in someone’s work over time.

Although I don’t always follow what he’s saying, and am often perplexed at his assertions of examples of a poet’s best work and work that is weak. (It’s not helpful that he uses words like “obviously,” when what he is saying is not at all obvious to me; and assertions such as X work is “the best of the decade,” or Y is “a bit too much.” It makes me uneasy and insecure in my own assessments, and I don’t really need any more of THAT, thank you very much.) But he has a generous and sensitive eye, and for a poet, it must be a gift to be read by Teicher, for all that he can be bit stern in his discernments.

The chapters cover in depth and breadth of work: Merwin, Plath, Gluck; and in more concentrated segments, Ashbery, Francine J. Harris, Yeats, Lowell, and others. Again I’m reminded of the importance of taking one’s time in reading poetry. I cannot be reminded of this enough. And indeed I come back again and again to reading as a primary tool in a poet’s progress.

I have talked before about how to improve: More Better Blues. What I say then still applies now, and in the spiral of life, will apply next time I find myself stopped and slightly confused about how to move forward. But it occurs to me that this moment of pause, lifting my head and looking both back at where I’ve been and forward toward where I might go is itself a part of the process of improvement.

Although the word “improvement” is maybe not quite right, as it implies some scale, some external and rational system of measure. What do I really mean when I say I feel plateau’d? I think I mean I’d like to feel more out of my depth when I’m in the process of creating. If I feel too sure-footed, then I’m not in learning mode, I’m not bobbing around in a sea of possibility. I think I make better work when I’m splashing and flailing a bit, work that is more interesting — to myself, anyway. I guess it’s that old Frost quote about no surprise for the writer, none for the reader either.

One of the things Teicher identifies as breathrough moments in the work of some of the poets he examines is the breaking free of social constraints. I’m not sure if I feel particularly under the weight of social constraints. But of course, does anyone know that until they’ve broken free, or until someone later, in another decade, looking back, identifies what might be considered a zeitgeist, a social expectation or bind, and what might be considered a breaking?

I don’t know that in the moment any of us can understand our time and then act out of it. I think what he means is they broke with their own conventions.

So my takeaway is less that I should examine my constraints and break them than that I try new things. Try this, try that. Scattershot. Haphazard. Downright willy-nilly. Downright boogie woogie. How hard can that be?

Going out of my head day and night; or, On Finding a Hook to Hang an Idea On

Regularly I cycle through a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing. A poem? What IS that? How do you write one of them thangs? I have this long natter of ideas in my notebook, so I thought, well, maybe this is an essay. An essay?!?! What the hell is THAT? What I suspect is that at times like these I have a bunch of ideas but no pathway into or through them.

Whether poem or essay, ideas need something to hook themselves too — an image, a story — something that can keep the ideas from self-inflating and floating away.

Although I didn’t watch them, apparently on the Oscars, Scorsese was quoted as having said this: “The most personal is the most creative.” I think this is fabulously true. The problem with ideas, mine anyway, is that they tend to be separated from the personal. How do I make these ideas come alive with something from my insides? Why did these ideas or philosophies rise up in me anyway — where in my melange of blood, guts, experience, desire were they birthed?

Without some kind of vivid, visceral structure, these words are just blather, gobbledygooking up the page.

The problem is that I’m a sucker for a well-put idea, even if it’s my own. I get dazzled by thought. I forget that what moves me, stirs something deeper than dazzle, is the combination of idea and that other thing that arises from the body, sensorial, flesh on flesh or wind on flesh or hum on ear, tang on tongue.

Get out of your head, I say to myself. In my head.

It’s funny because lately I’ve been living much more outside, so am filled with fresh air and pines and the rumple of hilltops and dit dit dah of tracks in the snow. You’d think my body would have something to more to say to my head.

Where in my body have these concerns risen? Where is the slant of my truth? Where is the half-open door from which these ideas breathe a scent — damp cellar? root vegetables? cumin and cinnamon? Where do the tracks lead?

Under pressure; or, Prose as a Pathway to Poetry

I’ve written a bunch of thoughts, blather blather. Then I culled through them and found a portion that might be a poem, so I excised it out and started thinking about it poem-ically.

But somehow I wasn’t quite done with thinking about it prosily either, so I kept writing more.

But I looked back and found that pretty much everything I was saying in prose I had already captured in the poem. Yet I felt dissatisfied. Does that mean I have more to say? Or was I just on a roll and overshot the runway? Am I deedledeedledeedling over an abyss of nothing-more-to-say-on-the-subject? I’m perplexed.

My mind(s) go back and forth between the two modes, poem and prose, rereading what I’ve written. I admire what the poem manages to do. Poem Mind starts feeling comfortable. Prose Mind keeps nattering away. Poem Mind says, Um, I already said that. Prose Mind says, But what about this? Poem Mind: Yup.

Either I need to keep writing through, or I need to stop and take a breath and release the endorphins of thinking. There may be a deeper level I haven’t written to yet. I just happened to grab a poem along the way.

And don’t tell Poem Mind this, as she already can be rather insufferable, but the unsaid — the space and breaths of poetry — have the capacity to suggest so much more than the word-filled prose.

But she gets lazy, Poem Mind, and Prose Mind needs to push on, dig down, “read” the white space of the poem and write into it so Poem Mind can perhaps breathe deeper still. Even if Prose Mind repeats herself along the way. Sometimes even that can be revealing of something still unearthed.