The Best Revenge: or, Writing the Human

I’m not a forgive-and-forgetter. I’m more of a I’ll-let-it-go-this-time-but-it’s-going-in-your-permanent-record type. So you’d think I’d enjoy a good revenge fantasy poem. But, having encountered a couple recently, I find I feel impatient with them. Why? Do I think art should show the best we can be, not the worst? The best AND the worst, maybe. But revenge fantasy, nor even actual revenge, is not the worst of us. It’s the pettiest of us. And for that, perhaps, it has not, at least in these few poems I read, fulfilled for me the act of art. I can do petty any old day. It takes real strength of imagination to conjure the worst of the human impulse. And the best. I ask from poems this kind of imagination. In a revenge tale, there’s always a bad guy and the victim, even if the roles reverse. And the victim’s act of revenge has an aura of holy justice about it, no matter how bad is the act. There is a god-like nature of the revenge act that is not as interesting to me as the exploration of the flawed and contradictory human nature.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I saw the movie I, Tonya recently, and found it fascinating. The filmmakers gave us no heroes, nor anti-heroes. Every character is fucked up. But somehow not entirely unlikeable. At least not 100% of the time. It’s a crazy story of crazy people in a crazy subculture in a crazy world. Just as cartoons sometimes reveal the world more truly than a photograph, so this cartoonish movie somehow showed the tragic nature of humanity. It’s billed as a comedy, but only in that comedy and tragedy are so closely aligned. I found it a deeply sad movie. And satisfyingly so, because of the manifestation of gray areas, the beautiful chiarascuro of the human plight of living with ourselves.

 

 

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Formtion, Functiorm; or On Navigating Form and Function

I had been working on a multipart essay when I wondered if it was really a sectioned poem. So I spent days and days easing, tapping, tweaking, clipping each segment into lineation, attention to rhythm, structures, and all the various things that poetic forms allow/require of us. And now I’m not sure it works. But the process has been interesting.

On the one hand, the poeming process helped me make the language and sentences more taut and efficient, catch repetitions, reorder thoughts. Creating lines allowed me to inject additional suggestions into the ideas, or even with a line break subvert what I was saying, or at least question it.

But too often, the lines gave gravitas to places I didn’t really want emphasized. It made some ideas too weighty, too self-important. Some ideas I wanted to slip in with more subtlety, subtlety that demands of lineation did not seem to allow.

So I’m going to take the newly taut language and spread it back out, give some good fat back to some of the sentences, allow a more languid pace.

But I also realized that one thing I was looking for in this poetic exercise was another layer of thinking, or a honing of direction. I am still in the process of finding that. I read a novel recently and thought, “Hm, that was a pretty interesting idea in search of a good story to find itself inside. This wasn’t it.” I fear that’s what I have on my hands right now.

Or maybe function will follow form. If I make it a play, maybe I’ll figure out what I’m trying to get at. Maybe an opera. Perhaps it’s best as a haiku.

I think I need to do more thinking work to distill what’s important about what I’ve written down. And I’m hoping this process of traveling back and forth between genres will help — the way you isolate an egg yolk by tipping it back and forth between pieces of egg shell, letting the egg white slop out.

 

Let Us Now Praise; or Word Power

Paris’s Pantheon is devoted to honoring the Republic’s “great men”…and Marie Curie. By now there are some other women, finally. In the crypt lie the remains of defenders of the Republic; soldiers many, and statesmen, but also scientists, and, of great interest to me, writers. The Pantheon in some ways is devoted to the power of words, words that roused the citizenry, words that safeguard  laws and rights and philosophical ideas of how to be citizens, words too that rendered by imagination tell stories and orate poems that stir us and remind us of the best, and the potential worst, that lies within us. In 100 years, if we’re still here, we humans, whose words will we still be quoting? Who will be our great writers who by their ideas and imagination will safeguard our humanity?

 

Rinse, Repeat; or If Picasso Can, So Can I; or, Using Images in Repeat

I was looking over a newish poem, and, of an image I used, I thought, Oh, no, I can’t use that. I used it already in another poem. But as I was exploring an exhibit about Picasso’s creation of “Guernica,” I found out how often he recycled images. I don’t mean, for example, his various drawings and paintings using the image of the Minotaur — he was obviously exploring various mythological and psychological aspects of that character. I mean, oh, there’s a variation of that screaming horse. And there it is again. And there’s a disembodied arm. There’s another arm. In “Guernica,” the screaming horse became a central image, but he had used it previously sort of beside other things. It grew into its ultimate place in “Guernica,” even moving upward in the composition even as Picasso was working it out over the short period in which he generated the piece. So if I want to reuse the image of, oh, I don’t know, the often cloudy fish tank in my mother’s old folks’ home, well, I can, dammit. It’s my screaming horse.

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