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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Help Me If You Can; or On the Stages of Project Completion

Sometimes when I’ve just “finished” a project, I get all bouncily excited. I can’t wait to get it out into the world, CERTAIN that the world will be AGOG. At times like this I wish someone would gently wrest the “Send” button from my hand.

If I do excitedly send the fresh, new piece, fortunately it takes so long for most places to respond that the rejection letters come less as a knife to the heart of Tigger as a knife to the heart of, say, Kanga, perhaps, or Roo, or, depending on the day, Eeyore.

If I’m a sensible bear, I’ll put the piece aside. I’ll come back to it later and HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT IT. Then I’ll put it aside again and later come to it with a more measured response. Although if I wait too long, I’ll get too Wol-ish about it all, and that can be insufferable.

So, having just finished a couple of pieces about which I’m WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC, I’m going to try to breathe through the bouncy part, and try to put my new pieces aside for a while. I’m hoping to get fairly quickly back to my usual, Piglettish state: slightly worried, somewhat confused.

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.

 

Long, Winding; or, Getting Published

I am traveling, which is fun, surprising, frustrating, pleasant, extremely unpleasant, invigorating, exhausting, a privilege, a self-inflicted curse, the whole gamut. While I’ve been gadding about, through the miracle of modern communication systems, I’ve received word that although not a winner, I was a finalist in a contest, and also received two more outright rejections for my work. And so it goes, says the narrator watching the journey of Billy Pilgrim. I often, in the grim thick of it, wonder why I travel, and why I try to get my work published. I can’t explain either, except for some complex cocktail of ego, hubris, drive, curiosity, and this need to connect, perhaps. We sat by a tidal river in a funky little place that was playing Steely Dan, BB King, Supertramp, and ate crustaceans that we don’t usually eat, bristling with claws and exoskeleton, toasting Anthony Bourdain’s memory. We left hungry but feeling like we’d accomplished a small thing, as I felt when I heard of my finalist spot. Staying home is nice too. Not doing the research required to send work out, not girding the loins for the inevitable rejections, just either doing the writing or doing something else entirely — that’s nice too. But before long I start listening keenly to others’ tales, pore over maps, surf the Poets &Writers deadline pages, pack my bags and set out. Again and again. That’s the only Way.

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.

The Hardest Part; or, Aspects of the Writing Life

There are many facets of the writing life. I thought it might be useful to log some of the major ones. Living the examined life, you know. Here are some aspects of the writing life:
– There’s the “get a job so you can pay the rent” part.
– The “find the time and psychic space to do it” part.
– The “have absolutely nothing in your head and wander around the house aimlessly” part.
– The self-recriminating “how can I be a writer if I don’t write” part.
– The “have ideas but can’t quite seem to figure out how to get them on the page” part.
– There’s the “write a bunch of stuff” part.
– The “what is all this crap?” part.
– There’s the tinkering, the taking out and putting back in and moving things around part, which sometimes happens only in the head; sometimes you manage to do it on the page, and it’s fun. That part.
– There’s the “this is brilliant” part.
– The “oh, wait, no, this is dreadful” part.
– There’s the “hm, I like this” part.
– There’s the research into what literary magazines and publishers might like the work part.
– The sending out and sending out and paying fees for the privilege of getting someone’s attention to your work for five freaking minutes part.
– The looking back at what you sent out to which lit mag/publisher and the “why on earth would I send them THIS” part.
– There’s the petty jealousies, the eye rolling, the “are you freaking kidding me, THIS got published” part.
– There’s the “this person’s work is so brilliant I don’t know why I even bother” part. With its corollary, the “I quit writing forever” part.
– There’s the waiting, the waiting, the wayayaiting.
– There’s the “okay, I can’t just keep checking email and mail every five minutes on the chance one of the twenty-five places that have my work will get back to me finally; I HAVE to get back to work” part.
– The acceptance! Hee hee hee! Perhaps a small dance. That part.
– The seeing it print! but can’t reread it yet another time because you’re sick to death of it just check to make sure that is in fact your name beneath it part.
– There’s the forcing yourself to the page part and starting something new part, anything, anything at all.
– The vital necessity of dealing with that dangling cobweb or smudge on the refrigerator door you’ve been ignoring for a week part, with its corollary: the vital necessity of mopping the kitchen floor right now part; with its corollary above, the wander around the house aimlessly part.

So to all of you living the writing life, huzzah. May some parts linger longer than others! As for me, I’ve got some cobweb wrangling to do.

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?