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

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Lost in the Tachana Merkazit; or, Embracing Changing Poetic Tastes

I’m starting to feel a twinge of dread every time I open up a newly published book of poems from some of my favorite publishers. I read the blurbs and raves, think okay! as I open the first page. Read a poem, and hm. Read a poem, and falter. Read a poem, and fade. Read a poem read a poem, and I am lost in a maze, I cannot understand the announcements over the loudspeaker, I am in the Tel Aviv bus station again — a great place to get felafel (something about the added taste of diesel fuel?) but an easy place in which to feel confused.

I have this sense that the publishers are moving farther and farther away from work that I connect with, much less work that resembles my own. I am paranoid that I’m falling out of touch with the kind of poetry the modern world wants to publish, wants to read. I feel like people are connecting to poetry all around me and I’m standing in the middle of it lost. Is there a shift in taste happening? Or is it my tastes that are changing?

I guess there is indeed a kind of grace in contrast — this disconnected feeling makes it all the more wonderful when I stumble upon a book I do connect with, poems that inspire me, that cause me to wonder, to envy, to just enjoy. I fall upon them as a starving person. These are poems I can learn from, I think. These are poems toward which I can work.

It feels like I have to revisit my A-list of publishing houses because maybe it’s no longer worth it for me to fling my poems against their walls. I’m just not doing work they’re going to be into. The good news is that I need to keep reading and reading more widely among the many fine small publishing houses in the contemporary poetry world. In poetry’s house there are many mansions.

I appreciate Small Press Distribution’s lists of bestsellers and staff favorites. These have been great sources of publishers and authors new to me. Grace Cavalieri’s best-of lists in the Washington Independent Review of Books also has great leads.

Creating a new A-list is an opportunity. My bus is around here somewhere. But until I find it, there’s some good felafel to be had.

 

 

Easy Pieces; or, Editing as Meditation…Editation?

It’s been years since I worked on a jigsaw puzzle. My mother and I used to do them together, bent over the puzzling pieces, saying, “Let me get just one more, and then I’ll stop.” When I got one for a gift recently, I just thought it was cute and whimsical, and thought to put it aside for some rainy day when we had guests who might want distraction.

But I opened it up. I’m sucked in. One thousand pieces.

The picture is a painting of a couple walking through a park in the rain. It’s not a good painting, managing to be both sentimental and garish — the colors are improbable. But as I’ve been working on the puzzle, my sense of shape and color is enhanced. After spending time sifting through the pieces, when I walk away I see the world afresh, my eye still alert for that certain shade of orange, for a piece with a little blue in one corner. I see new colors everywhere in the everyday world. And I’ve come to appreciate the picture painter’s bold use of color, his or her fearlessness at slapping a stroke of cerulean in a shadow, a smear of fresh-grass-green on a tree trunk.

Because I’m seeing the painting through tiny shards of it, seeing the bits of tree for the forest, I’m enjoying what’s been accomplished here in the details, as I pull back to look at the overall picture.

And it occurs to me that if I could bring this level of attention to my writing, it could be a powerful editing tool — to slow my process way down and see each and every word, how the words fit together, how they elbow each other, where space is used, and then pull back to understand each element anew as I view the whole piece. And also use that heightened awareness of word and silence as I encounter the world.

I tend to gallop through editing, working quickly, instinctively, shoving words or lines around. If you look at me working on a jigsaw puzzle, you see me bent almost motionless over the pile of pieces, examining, searching, maybe poking with a finger to get a better view of this one or that, sorting some out by color. If you watch me edit a poem, I’m cutting and pasting, deleting, undeleting, retyping.

But now I’m tempted to literally cut up my poems, even my essays into separate words, and spend a slow time piecing them back together, with the slow breath of concentration and meditation.

I know that putting together a thousand-piece puzzle is a slow process that will take weeks, and I accept the pace, and enjoy the process.
So why am I in such a hurry with my writing?

 

Let Me Take You By the Hand; or, On Developing a Reader’s Guide

Friends and family have been extremely generous about supporting my poetry — buying each book as it has come out, sometimes buying an extra copy to give away, sometimes even reading them! Sometimes even reaching out to tell me about a poem that affected them in some way. But a few have said things like “I’m sorry, I don’t really understand the poems” or “I don’t like poetry” or “I don’t read poetry at all.” With them in mind, for my last book, Glass Factory, I created a short reader’s guide, thinking that I could provide some hand-holding to those who might enter the book with trepidation, or those who might not enter at all without some guidance.

It turned out to be quite a fun process for me (although I confess, I don’t know if anyone really used the guide — perhaps it was more fun for me than anyone else….)

I started thinking about some of the most important poems in the book in terms of theme, the most difficult poems in the book in terms of easy access by the reader to what was going on, some of the craft stuff I was doing in some of the poems, and the ideas or impetus behind some of the poems, some backstory, so to speak. Then I started writing up little paragraphs about some of the poems. Once I had a few of these, I started to see that I could break up the guide into what I termed “Inspiration,” “Craft,” and what I ended up calling “Obscure References and Inside Jokes.”

I also thought it was important to give readers some idea of who I was, and how these poems fit in the context of my life, so I created an “About Me” section. I also know people are also interested often in how people work, so I added a section about my process.

I did spend some time trying to think about questions for further thought that I thought might come out of the collection — but I only did that tedious task because all the other reader’s guides I’d looked at had done that.

What the process of creating the guide did for me is to help me step back and look at the individual poems and the collection in the way I had not before. Writing about the life context within which the poems were written gave me surprising insight about what had been going on for me in the years in which the poems were written. It made me enjoy the process of writing some of these poems in a way that I hadn’t been conscious of when I actually wrote them. It was such a useful process that I wonder if I should do it now for the full length collection I am sending around for publication at the moment, because it might give me some ways back into the collection to make it stronger.

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/glass-factory-readers-guide/

 

Oil and Water; or On Feeling Heartened…If Not Entirely Optimistic…

As I’ve written before, I have a love/hate relationship with the magazine Poets & Writers (Fear and Loathing on the Publication Trail: https://wp.me/pCJhS-1L), wreaking as it does in me the havoc of hope and despair with each turn of the page. But what a wonderful little jolt I got from an article in the most recent issue.

In “On the Trail,” Mary Allen meditates on rejection, writing, and faith. She writes: “If writing gets too tied up in ego, or in the desire for approval, faith can get lost. I have an inking that for writers, faith resides inside the act of writing itself — that if you stop writing for any stretch of time you’ll lose your faith, and if you lose your faith for any reason, the act of writing will lose its luster in your mind. And all the allure and appeal and belief that writing is a sensible, worthwhile endeavor will leave you, and you’ll be depressed, disheartened, deflated — because you will have lost the very thing that keeps you going.”

I had been feeling that very thing — depressed, disheartened — and know in some ways it is an ego thing (when I announced to my writing group that I was in the slough of despond, their only reaction was along the lines of “Still?”), okay, in ALL ways it is an ego thing. And Allen prods me to get back to business.

Even if I think I have nothing to say, I need to say stuff anyway — what I see, what I imagine, what I remember, or just words for the sheer glorious sound of them.

I tire of toiling in obscurity but it’s not the obscurity that’s important but the toil. Toil is etymologically from the idea of crushing something (namely, olives, way back when), and I like that. And obscure only means, after all, cover. And a camera obscura is a dark room in which a fine image can be projected.

 

The Living End; or, On Writing Endings

I’m good at beginnings. I can begin a million things. I just often can’t figure out how to end them. I think I have been writing poetry because of my anxiety about endings — by virtue of the relatively short nature of poems, my how-will-I-end-it anxiety is shorter too. This is why I’ve found writing essays and fiction so grueling and unpleasant. But even writing poems I find myself reaching with increasing desperation for an ending, sometimes long before I’ve even figured out what I’m writing about.

At least I’m aware of it — admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? So I start to recognize my end-times anxiety and purposely both relax and try to continue writing through it, trying this direction and that, trying to get myself to write right onward, toward any number of endings, writing even past an ending, so I can make sure I’ve said what the poem wants to say.

I got a critique once about a group of poems that they all fell toward an ending in the same way, so I have to watch my tendency to wrap things up in the same way, to be too tidy. One instructor told me I had a tendency to write poems that were closed-ended rather than open-ended, so I need to think about this often. Geesh, it’s no wonder I have anxiety. Another mentor commented on a number of my endings, and offered several alternatives, none of which I liked. Another mentor offered a new ending to a poem, which I took and then published the poem with that ending. But now when I read the poem aloud in readings, I always revert to my original ending.

My mother is very old and I fear her ending — at the moment she’s at least overtly physically healthy, if absent her memory, but I fear her end will be slow and painful, as so many old people’s ends can be. How can I balance my concern for her ending with my concern for her continued life? I have similar fears for my poems as I write them. I want them to die well. Well, no, I want them to live well, and to end well. What’s that sentiment about sliding up to the pearly gates yelling “woo woo”? I want that for my poem endings.

Too often I’ve had the experience of a piece of writing never “in the end” revealing to me what it was really trying to figure out, so I loop around and around until I give up, or shove some ending on it like a cork. When I’m very lucky, a poem falls gracefully to some image that opens the whole poem up. Or, and again, this takes luck, I find the ending right there at the beginning, and realize I’ve just written the whole poem upside-down.

As a child I loved to hang upside-down on the handrail of our walkway, or off the couch watching TV upside-down. Lately I’ve been missing that perspective on things, and no amount of downface-dog or head-standing quite replicates the bliss of just hanging around in reverse of the known world. So if you come to my door and think you see feet instead of a head sticking up above the couch, well, I’m busy.

What the what; or, Reading Siken’s War of the Foxes

I’m reading the poems of Richard Siken and am totally intrigued but am unable to identify why exactly. The poems in War of the Foxes are mostly about painting; not about particular paintings necessarily but the process of painting. I guess I’m finding it very interesting to feel a mind at work, roaming among mind, eye, object, intention, query. I’m not always tracking the logic of the poems, not always coming away at the end feeling like I’ve seen something differently or had myself altered in some way. But along the way with many of the poems, I’m transfixed by the playing out of the poem down the page and in the mind. I had not heard about his work before I read the Glück essay that heralded his Yale Poets Prize collection Crush. I have not read Crush, and this work feels very different from what Glück cited in her intro, poems that felt catapulted, urgent. This book is careful. Odd. It’s somehow inspiring me. I keep catching ideas of my own out of the corner of my eye as I read his poems. Much of the book feels like that random, disconnected, scattershot approach that I hate in contemporary poetry — but then there are these moments that ring some gong in me. Something mysterious trembles in the disconnections. Damn. What’s going on here? These are philosophical poems, poems of consideration, of why and wherefore, mixed with birds and colors and foxes and sky, blackbirds and twigs, poems of what on earth are we doing here. That’s my question too. It all gives me paws…