Help me solve the mystery of it; or, On the Ongoing Process of Learning to Write Poetry

I think the poems in Victoria Chang’s Obit are a lesson in how to write poems, if only I were clever enough to be able to draw out that lesson, articulate it to myself. 

Something about the contrast between the careful rectangle of them and the leaps within, between the dispassionate tone and the intensely personal experience, between the dispassionate tone and the imaginative leaps, between the utter clarity of them and the sometimes inexplicable details, between the cleverness and the seriousness. 

I come away from them (I can only read a few at a time) and find it almost impossible not to start writing in that tone. I found the same with reading Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets. I kept writing Seussians; but of course, not, as both Seuss’s and Chang’s brains are wildly their own, their experiences wildly refracted through their personal prisms. 

It’s been fun to try to ski in their tracks, but ultimately it leaves me gasping. And of course, the trick is to take away something of the effort and skill and artistry, but ease it back toward my own rhythms and directions.

I love reading poems that are so amazing that I have to put the book down and catch my breath. Poems that surprise me and inspire me: in how I live, what I notice, and how I write. Poems that remind me of the power of what is said and the beauty of what is left unsaid.

Hey, that’s no way to say…; or, On Translating Wang Wei

In the brain melting heat of last week, I pulled out a very short book I’ve read many times but it was the only thing I thought I could concentrate on. And what a pleasure it was again. Poet friends, if you have any interest at all in translation and you have not read this book, please find a copy of it: 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger with additional commentary by Octavio Paz. My MFA experience was not my favorite life experience, but it brought me to this book, for which I am forever grateful.

Presented is a 4 line poem of 5 characters per line, by Wang Wei, a Chinese poet from the 700s, written in an ancient Chinese literary language no longer spoken. A rough character-by-character English approximation is offered, and then 19 different translations from both scholarly-oriented and poetry-oriented translators, each with a short observation by Weinberger, often containing some delightful asperity. For example, he says of one attempt: “Thus Liu’s version is more accurate than most, but the first two lines heave, the third gasps, and the fourth falls with a thud on the mossy ground.”

But even as he is being impatient with a particular translation attempt, Weinberger is very forthcoming about the enormity of the translation task, detailing some of the challenges of translation in general, and particularly, translating a tonal language with a tradition of strict syllabics.

Paz’s translation is one of the 19, and additionally he is almost given the last word, as his concluding brief essay allows him to reveal some of his considerations and reconsiderations around his translation attempts.

But Weinberger ends with a postscript that gives the last word to an infuriated professor from a Mexican university that wrote a spitting letter about Weinberger’s ignorance of some scholarship around the final character in this 20-character poem. 

And that is the life of translation. Glorious and messy and hopelessly imperfect. And filled with passion.

It makes me want to try 19 of my own translations of this one poem, just to see how far I can wander and how close I can stay. 

But you gotta have something; or, On Writer’s Block and Reading

I discovered the cure to writer’s block. Decide finally your rattly old car needs to be replaced so you can stop worrying about it. Do some dreadful car shopping, including endless reading of articles in Car and Driver or other magazines you would not otherwise frequent. While you’re in the middle of a reaction from your second Covid shot, buy a car you can live with for a price that gives you only partial dyspepsia. Sell the old car for far less than you had thought you could get. Boom: Start writing again.

Or was it springtime.

Or finally boredom.

Well. I guess I’m not sure. Anyway, I have several pages of scrawl, so that’s good. But I’ve also got a pile of really good reads (hm…could that have been what got me going…?), so I thought I’d share some.

When John Murillo’s poems pack a punch, be prepared to fall down. Not all of his newest book, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, made me fall down, but enough to have made it worthwhile to enter the ring. Here’s an excerpt from “On Negative Capability,” in which the speaker and his friend Jojo and two girls in the back are racing down a dark road, headlights off:

                        Come road

  come night   come blackness

and the cold  Come havoc

  come mayhem     Come down

God  and see us    Come

  bloodshot moon running

alongside the ride  as if

  to warn us away from   as if

to run us straight into  some

  jagged tooth and jackal-throated

roadside ditch


Here’s a sparkler from Erica Bodwell, from Up Liberty Street (Finishing Line Press)

“Ode to the Yellow Sparkle Snare Drum”

Power sparkler, noise maker,

Percussive silencer of sisters. I’ll stand on tiptoes

To pound you, slam you, slap you, tighten

Your tension rods, snap your snare head.

I’ll carry sticks hard and long

For you. You saved me

From the flute and its case like a doll’s casket,

From tiny boxes of thin reeds that splinter like envy,

From white plastic chairs in the wind section.

Silver-circled dazzler, I’ll snap my sticks into the clip

Screwe into your hoop, slide you into the plush red

Of your slick hard case, keep you

From dust and snaes. O yellow sparke snare drum

Thank you for giving me a reason to walk with weapons.


And one from the terrific Dialogues with Rising Tides by Kelli Russell Agodon:

“Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror”

The evening sounds like a murder

of magpies and we’re replacing our cabinet knobs

because we can’t change the world but we can

change our hardware. America breaks my heart

some days and some days it breaks itself in two.

I watched a woman having a breakdown

in the mall today, and when the security guard

tried to help her, what I felt was all of us

peeking from her purse as she threw it

across the floor into Forever 21. And yes,

the walls felt like another way to hold us

and when she finally stopped crying

I heard her say to the fluorescent lighting,

Some days the sky is too bright. And like that

we were her flock in our black coats

and white sweaters, some of us reaching

our wings to her and some of us flying away.

Darkness on the edge of town; or, On Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha

Anthony Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha has been an engrossing read. It details violence against Mexicans in the United States in poems that splash and splatter across the page. Set in landscape format, the book unfolds with white space and quick bursts of text, as if almost every poem is a kind of erasure, the text a struggle to stand against the white space.

A central poem is “Prelude to a Mexican Lynching, February 2, 1848, Guadalupe Hidalgo; or The Treaty of Peace, Friendships, Limits, and Settlement” which is an almost-30 page erasure of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which, as an end to the Mexican-American war, required Mexico to cede to the US all or parts of what we now know as the entire Southwest. The so-called treaty was bilingual, and Cody’s erasures show two erasures on each page, a dotted line separating the English and the Spanish. The erasures from the preamble and Article 1, for example say in English, “animated by a sincere desire to/end/the people/as good neighbors/There shall be/ America and the Mexican/without place.” And on the Spanish side: “las calamidades/que/existe entre/paz y/ciudades/sin/personas,” which I translate as “the calamities that exist between peace and cities with no people.” (Cody himself supplies no translations of the Spanish threaded throughout the collection, which meant some happy leafing through and discovery in my Spanish-English dictionary.)

Lynchings of Mexicans were widespread before and after the war, and many of the poems serve as witness.

Some poems bunch text, as in “Nightjars,” which ends with a flock of the word “before” or the cacophony of “this had a name.” Others play with the structure of text or interact with photographs. Official words are scrutinized, historical photographs are questioned.

The word “apocrypha” means hidden or secret writings. Cody takes history as a text to be broken open, and in so doing he reminds himself, and the reader, “Recall that beneath you, are the others.”

Sitting downtown in a railway station; or, On videopoem “Everywhere West” by Chris Green and Mark Neumann

I am mesmerized by this videopoem, linked below, the rapid flash images that nevertheless seem rarely to change, short stops in motel or diner parking lots nothwithstanding, and an occasional glimpse of the changing character of the landscape, but only a glimpse, as the landscape is chiefly anti-land, it’s the roadscape, mostly the highwayscape. We all know it. The blacktop, the yellow lines, the signs flashing by flashing by and the rear ends of trucks, stolid, unimpressed with your own meager mileage-eating.

The voice drones on and I mean that in the nicest way, because it’s saying interesting things, mournful things, meaningful things, and I drift in and out of focus, as I do on the road as the miles slip by and I think suddenly, wait a minute, where am I.

There is music in the background that is meant to live in the background, the way the radio blurbles along as if anyone is really listening, when often times it’s just noise against the great and awful silence, the silence of Life, or Aloneness, or Eternity, or The Grave, and the DJ prattles on, and the songs merge as if one long song and what you thought at one point was your finger bopping to a beat had become many miles before just a nervous tapping, or vice versa.

And arrival becomes a strange and new way of being, disorienting, and for a moment you forget how to live in one place, and you miss, a little bit, the moving road.

I skied today under a wide blue sky, and had the trail to myself, and was thinking about this videopoem, and also wondering, as I often do, what is the purpose of life, if life has a purpose. Sometimes I go down a nihilistic spiral with that question, but often I end up at Rilke: “Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate…”

I could skate away on; or, On Alice Oswald’s Dart

Another book-length poem has come to my attention, and although I don’t think I have the effort of will and attention to create such a thing, I do find I’m attracted to the ambition of them. This one is Dart by Alice Oswald, published back in 2002 by Faber and Faber. The Dart is a river in England, and Oswald traveled the length of it, talking with people who live by and on and with the river, and has created a chorus of these voices and the river itself murmuring and splashing through the length of the book.

In a brief intro she suggests that all the voices should be considered those of the river, but I actually found that conceit distracting. A river, after all, is not necessarily just the water running through a channel, but it’s the walls and marshes of the channel, the rocks in the way, the grasses smoothing the bottom, the fish in the grasses, the woman laying a fly along the surface with her line, the man floating on a tire, the kid kerplashing in from a rope swing. I think about The Wind and the Willows and its river, a character itself, which was the river’s own stories blended with the wind in the reeds and the River Rat in the bank and Toad splashily sculling.

Oswald’s voices include a bailiff seeking poachers, fishermen eluding the bailiff, a worker in a milk production plant that uses the river water, sailors, birdwatchers, kayakers, the dead, the living, the water, its currents. In truth, the first time through, it was not an easy read, so slippery did it move through different tones and material, although the voice changes are signaled with a note in the margin. But the second time through was smoother and I was more easily able to ride the current.

Here’s a bit from the beginning, the source, as it were:

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea.

Here’s another:

how water orders itself like a pack of geese goes up
first in tatters then in shreds then in threads
and shucking its pools crawls into this slate and thin limestone phase…

Not every bit has this level of movement and liquidity, but my favorite portions do. Here, memorably, terribly, the river takes a kayaker:

come warmeth, I can outcanoeuvre you
into the smallest small where it moils up
and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head…

And here:

Sleep was at work and from the mind the mist
spread up like litmus to the moon, the rain
hung glittering in mid-air…

I saw a sheet of seagulls suddenly
flap and lift with a loud clap and up
into the pain of flying, cry and croup
and crowd the light as if in rivalry
to peck the moon-bone empty
then fall all anyhow with arms spread out
and feet stretched towards the earth again.

That’s just a taste and glimpse of all that’s encountered in the book. It was a wonderful ride.

I heard the news today; or, On Poetry Making Use of Non-poetic Texts

I took a dip into the work of Muriel Rukeyser recently, a poet whose work I was only vaguely familiar with. I spent time mostly with “The Book of the Dead,” her documentary-ish exploration of a tunnel collapse and its corporate cover-up. It is quite contemporary in feel, though it was published in 1938 as part of her second poetry collection, US1. She uses research, reportage, and the borrowed voices of witnesses or individuals who stood in the middle of the situations that stirred her. Bringing home to the reader social justice concerns in a visceral way.

And I realized there is a direct line between her work and several other collections I happen to be reading at the moment: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ, and Travis Cebula’s The Sublimation of Frederick Eckert. All of these make use of documentation and imagination, witness and response, text and visual presentations. And they all, to my mind, stretch the traditional sense of what poetry is: From Rukeyser’s use, for example, in “Statement: Phillipa Allen,” of altered lines from a witness statement, set in the dialogue format of a play, with dashes to set off each line of of the questioner’s questions and Allen’s replies; to Choi’s snapshotted notes and scribbled Korean characters and a respondent’s doodled map of circles; to Rankine’s “situation scripts” making use of news coverage; to how Cebula’s poems, launched from an old newspaper clipping, explore the fictionalized life of the first suicide off the Empire State Building tumble down the page, sometimes in two columns, some words bracketed as if a photojournalist froze moments of the fall.

Is there music here? Sometimes. Is there form? Of strangeness, yes, and sometimes borrowed from non-poetry-looking documentation. Is there compression? Of vision, certainly, of focus, if not always of text. Is there silence, as weighed against sound? Yes, and often interestingly, insightfully so. How they take from and make use of documentation interests me, text dimensioning itself from text, like a 3D printer transforming code into form.

I must confess, though, this interests me intellectually, but it’s the other book I happened to grab in quick Covid-breathing-down-my-neck visit to the library that grabs my poetry heart. It too takes its cues from something concrete, in this case a video clip and some photographs. Ross Gay seems to be attaining incadescence in front of my very eyes with each new book. Be Holding is magnificent, as it achingly slowly tells of the fleet seconds details of an improbable dunk, a “baseline scoop,” by Dr. J during a 1980 NBA finals game, interspersed with curling and twining tendrils of sidebars and meditations on holding, on flying and falling, on love. This is poetry that truly engages me as a reader, a writer, and as a human bean.

This is news of the finest kind. Oh, boy.

Have my seat; it’s for free; or, In Which I Discover I Know Nothing About Poetry…Again

I still remember the shock and betrayal I felt, not to mention the physical discomfort, when whatever little asshole kid I was see-sawing with jumped off when he was down, and I was up, and I came slamming down. It made me ever suspicious and I have been always careful with whom I see-saw. Well, the world of poetry sometimes feels to me like that kid — playing nicely then suddenly, inexplicably wham. And I’m down, bones rattled, teeth jarred.

I keep encountering poems lately I. do. not. get. Don’t get ’em. What are they doing? What are they talking about? Why has the poet chosen to do what they have done? What am I to take away from them? WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?

Obviously, I know nothing about poetry.

I mean these are well respected publishers and much lauded books and widely praised poets. So obviously everyone other than me sees something in them and I’m too much of a dolt to see the greatness.

No wonder I can’t get my poems accepted for publication lately! I clearly have no idea what I’m doing! I go along, writing my stuff, reading stuff, venturing my opinion about what I’m reading. Then wham. Who am I to have any opinions whatsoever on anyone else’s work when I am clearly so. out. of. my. depth. Who am I to be scribbling and typing and — good grief — sending stuff out?

Poetry? What the hell is it? Don’t freaking ask me. I ain’t getting on that see-saw today.

I want you to show me the way; or, On Reading Kay Ryan

I picked up Synthesizing Gravity, a collection of Kay Ryan’s essays, eager to discover what this brilliant poet has to say in prose…only to find the intro was written by another in my literary pantheon, Christian Wiman. Listen to this: He writes, “…Kay Ryan is…in some way native to…a realm in which gravity and levity are vivid kin….” Isn’t that amazing? That’s a realm I would like to move to. My literary Canada. He suggests Ryan’s purpose is: “…to light the space between mind and world. To light, and thereby lighten, the space between mind and world. To lighten, and thereby lessen, the space between mind a world.” I say yes to all that. Yes. And I haven’t even gotten past the intro.

+++++

Okay, now I have gotten past the intro, and yes, yes to many of these erudite little essays in which Kay Ryan thinks her Kay Ryan-ish delighted thoughts on poems that interest her interesting mind. I have had some friends in my life like Kay Ryan in whom I totally delight and with whom I’m always a little anxious. These are people SO much smarter than I am, totally idiosyncratic in their brilliance, and they just dazzle without being anything grand or fancy but just being their often small-seeming, darkly quietly brilliant selves. And I’m anxious that they find me likable and never discover the dolt I am. This is what Kay Ryan would be like if I could be her friend. And I would love to be her friend. Or at least her roommate at an AWP conference, about which she devotes one hilarious essay, her reluctant attendance at an AWP as a visiting alien, wide-eyed and exhausted by the planet-change. 

Here is something she says, in the context of considering a Robert Frost poem, but so relevant to the poetry writing process in general, I think, and relevant to a discussion I had recently with a poet friend. About her spare, crystalline poems, which I often find engimatic, I’m constantly asking basically, “Can you tell us just a little bit more?” Ryan says: “The amount you need to say is so hard to gauge. How much can you not say, and something will still have the charge of the unsaid? There is a point at which what is said is too pale, or frail, one fears, to tip the mind into the unsaid. And the reason for the pallor might not be punctilio but a genuine failure of force.”

I had to look up “punctilio” (“a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure”) and in so doing sort of lost track of things, but she’s addressing, I believe, choice-making — how to choose the words/syntax/form that will carry the greatest resonance, undone by either too much or too little actual information. 

Here, from another essay, this one considering William Carlos Williams, she comes at the same question from the other end: “How much can you take away? It’s always a question. Or maybe it’s exactly the wrong question, posed like that. If you think you are taking away, then you probably are — diminishing something. You have to be looking for something, feeling for the contours of the thing inside the distractions, trying to add just a little bit moreto what you know.”

All this is to say that Kay Ryan is a delightful essayorial companion, and I’m enjoying this collection without the anxiety of worrying about whether she is enjoying me.

There’s always something happening there; or, On Reading Phil Memmer’s Pantheon

I’m a gobbler. I vacuum my meals, I gobble the pavement under my quick step, I whip-read such that I’m always having to reread because I went too fast to remember what I read. But I’ve had this book of poems now for several months and I love it so much I can only bear to read a few poems at a time. This rarely happens to me, and I’m so thrilled to have the experience, especially during the pandemic, when everything seems to have slowed down around me, and my brain too, stumbling and bleary.

The poems are imaginative, beautiful in all the ways of beauty, sometimes funny, always poignant, almost unbearably so — but in a very good way. Indeed Phil was filled with some holy spirit with these poems, so full are they of wild winds and homely wonder.

Every poem is entitled by the name of the god who is speaking: The God of Wisdom, The God of Snow, The God of Driving Alone in the Middle of the Night. And each god reveals itself in tercets of its thoughts in the form of epistles to a “you” who is we, we who are staggering in the created world.

One poem is called “A Muse.” This might be my favorite. (No, even as I write that, others clamor for my favor.) Anyway, in “A Muse,” the muse describes how hard it worked to gain “your” attention so as to give you “…a worldly thing//to move you, in a world of things/by which you refuse to be moved….” The muse claims credit for the fog that canceled the flight that created a cascade of events that interceded with the haphazard car inspection that resulted in an accident that provided the writer with “…a copse of roadside trees//in peak spring, a perfect green/you might, on another ay,/have sped right by….”

And really that little quote does no service to the wonderful reeling out of the poem and its characters. I just cannot do justice to any of these poems with any snippet of lines. They are a wonder and a delight, and now that I have finally read every poem, I almost can’t bear/really can’t wait to go through them again.

Pantheon was published by Lost Horse Press in 2019. The book has a ghostly black cover that has a funny feel to the touch, as if it’s covered in soft leather, a pair of pale hands folded lit in the gloom.