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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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?

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

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.

 

 

Top to Bottom: or, Reading Good Stuff: Margulis and Pines

I am reading the essays of biologist Lynn Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan. As a biologist and peerer at the microcosmic, Margulis sees the world as divided basically into bacteria and everything else, and basically regards humankind as a big vehicle for the wily adventures of bacteria over time.

At the same time I’m reading the poems of Paul Pines, Jungian, fisherman, seaman, flaneur of NYC jazz clubs, Bourbon Street, the beaches of Belize, and the ideas of ancient philosophers and gods.

The juxtaposition is mind-whirling.

Margulis’s essays contain sentences such as: “Whether we are discussing the disappearing membranes of endosymbiotic bacteria on their way to becoming organelles or the breakdown within the global human socius of the Berlin Wall, we must revise this rectilinear notion of the self, of the bounded I.”

Here is Pines: “Father//cross my fears inside the lotus/move me to grace like a swallow/my soul is an anagram show me its shape/I am not who I am”

I love Margulis’s large view of time and life, and her unromantic and yet appreciative consideration of humankind, our cells plodding along, our genes unraveling and reraveling. “Thinking, like excreting and ingesting, results from lively interactions of a being’s chemistry,” blandly states an essay by Margulis, Sagan, and scientist Ricardo Guerrera. So there it is, all my lines towards poems, my strategies toward publication, hopes and dreams, all just a bunch of elements having fallen off the table of elements and rolling around inside of me.

But I love too that Pines enshrines in his poems our human imagination, the gods we’ve conjured, the dreams considered, the ways in which we affect each other, we tender bacteria-vehicles, we wayward chemistry experiments. He writes:

Einstein
talked about
a unifying idea in Nature
the way Aquinas did
an uncreated Creator
about space
generating itself
out of itself

the way Nicholas Cusanus
did a circle

whose center
is everywhere…

and now we know
what they meant
may still be detectable
at the moment
of creation
as a broken symmetry
that eventually comes to rest
in a symmetry
so sublime
it contains
the death
of every atom
and every star
and unites us
even as we speak

I read for this. I read for this kind of shoving around of my perspective on life, this dizzying shift of the telescope’s scope, skin of a hand, pocked and creviced as a planet, and dust of star, plumed, fingered. The ridiculousness of what we are; the sublime. This is the grounded and the heavenward, this is literature of what we are, and of the best we can be.

Margulis, Lynn and Dorian Sagan, Dazzle Gradually, Chelsea Green, 2007.
Pines, Paul, A Furnace in the Shadows, Dos Madres Press, forthcoming.

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/

 

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…