Ya know it’s a lie; or, Why We Write

A friend asked me recently what I hoped to accomplish when I wrote a poem. I stammered something about it not reallly being a desire to accomplish something, but more the way you say ouch when you bang your elbow. Only more pleasant. Sometimes.

But that didn’t feel entirely right.

Then I said something about wanting to show the reader something, startle their perspective, the way the view changes when you shift the kaleidoscope and the colored fragments fall into different patterns. But that certainly didn’t seem entirely true. I rarely think about the reader at all.

I started to say something about how poetry appeals to me because of its compression. But although that’s true, that’s not really why I write it.

I started to say something about art as communication, but at that point I knew I had my cerebral hat on, and that that didn’t really get at what she was asking.

So don’t I run into an article by that damned George Saunders, who got it just write — I mean, right. In a Guardian article from 2017, he wrote this: “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he ‘wanted to express’, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”

Word, George. What he said.


All the noise noise noise; or, On Writing from Prompts

I was trying to write in response to a prompt the other day — a wonderful monoprint. But all I got was words.

You know what I mean. Yes, there were sounds and syntax and “meaning” or meaningish business but really it was all blah blah blah. I never got past the mask of vocabulary and earnest snuffling. I was too aware of being aware, too hard trying to try. Ugh.

So tiresome when my mind gets in the way of my brain, when words stand between me and what I might not be able to say in words but which is exactly what a good poem can do. Or the silence in a good poem, maybe. The white space.

I have an uneasy relationship with prompts. I can’t trust the whole set-up, because sometimes they work: I drop into some strange space of utterance and up bubbles things strange and fantastic; and sometimes they don’t, and I’m clutching my pen and strangling the empty page with grabby fingers of text.

It has something to do with breathing. No. It has something to do with attention. No. Is it in the set of my jaw? Should I squint my eyes? The whole enterprise seems impossible. Except when it’s glorious.

If the effort toward writing from a prompt seems too effort-full, the only thing to do is walk away. Go yank weeds or walk or lately I’ve been taking objects and slathering them with blue paint and dragging them across paper. A bottle cap. The red mesh that onions come in. A stick. Good fun.

Maybe THAT’s my response to the monoprint prompt. I don’t know. And I can’t trust this space of not knowing. Because sometimes it’s confounding. And sometimes it’s exactly where I need to be.

You’re where you should be all the time; or, More on Paying Attention

Once again, that wonderful site Brainpickings offered up something that got me thinking. This is a quote from Alexandra Horowitz from her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes: “Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound — but to function, we have to ignore some of it.”

Artists (and I include writers in that category, even though we’re not always; plus I am always bemused by the title of that venerable site and magazine “Poets & Writers,” but at least, for once, poets are listed first…) seem to be people who retain that interest in and personal inclination toward noticing, less inclined toward ignoring that wash. The act of making art is combining that attentive power with whatever resides inside that caused us to notice what we noticed.

It occurs to me, doubtless again, that revision is the art of clipping away everything we may have noticed in the wild world of detail but which may take away from highlighting what caught our attention, what echoed some inner — what? vibration? emotion? memory? some deep imagining?

I don’t know what it is that makes us makers, what notices us noticing what we notice and calls us to create something, something that records that electric moment. Because it does feel like a kind of recognition, or sometimes a reckoning, that moment.

Today on my walk I asked myself to notice light. Although I draw and paint, I’m not primarily a visual artist, but I know that light and shadow are vital in the world of visual art, so I challenged myself to pay attention to that particular input. It was staggering! All the twinkling of dew on jewelweed, the variegated shadows on fern fronds, how light works its way into the forest, and the astonishing fact of clouds. It was a day of clouds on clouds on clouds leaning on the hills or looming from behind them, and every cloud was an elaborate array of white and gray and gray-blue,  dark edges, white hearts, a little purple, maybe some green. Or was I imagining that?

Should I choose to write about that, my job is, I think, to get down what I noticed, and let what is inside me that caused that interest to rise up and help me find the words. To match those details with something that speaks out of those details.

But to make art, I then need to wade back in to all that I noted, and pare away and pare away everything that’s not vital to those inner interests. It can be a slow process. Confusing, for sure, as for me, only time reveals to me what is really important. This is tricky, of course, because I become attached to what I’ve noticed, wonderful details, or I become distracted by bigger things: Meaningful Notions, perhaps, or Earnest Intentions. It’s also tricky, of course, if I want a poem that meanders, that gets distracted. Even that must be carefully managed.

With revision the task of looking is not over. With revision I need to get sharp at the developmental phase mentioned in the opening quote. To create: notice everything; to revise: focus and focus.


Broken bicycles; or, More on Revision

I’m puzzling over a poem and indeed it feels like a puzzle. Jigsaw maybe, as I try pushing pieces against each other and they resist or yield. Or remember Tangrams? You got a set of shapes and were challenged to fit them together to make different forms.

In this poem, the last line was bothering me. It felt thumpy, like, “OKAY HERE IS WHAT THIS POEM IS ABOUT.”

And yet it seemed important in its own way, so it occurred to me to repurpose it as the title instead of the last line.

Okay, but that left the former second to last line just dangling there, insufficient. So I started shifting groups of lines around, swapping sections, turning sentences around, flip-flopping the images and ideas of the poem, starting in the middle, starting toward the end, restarting from the beginning I had started with.

I know the incredible satisfaction of occasionally getting all the pieces to fit together: suddenly, snap, you have the shape you’ve been trying to make. But I must ask of the poem: Is there a piece missing?

This is the challenge of the poem versus the Tangram, I guess. It’s possible I’ll never be able to make the desired shape because a crucial piece is missing, and it’s not as easy as getting on my hands and knees and checking under the couch. I need to identify the gap and write into it.

So at the moment, for all my shifting and switching, the poem looks — instead of like a good solid square or a kitty or bunny — like a gappy rhombus in a hat.

P.S. My video poem is up at Atticus Review https://atticusreview.org/narrow-the-vessels/

It was fascination; or, On Writing the Same Damn Poems Over and Over Again

I was feeling rather smug about having a new collection of poems for which I could start gathering rejection letters, until I realized that at least 10 of the poems in the 50 poem collection seem to be the same damn poem over and over again.

Yes, they differ in imagery and rhythm and movement, but they land in the same place, with they same no-duh realization.

I know I often feel like I’m writing the same poem over and over, but to have it so plainly in my face is, well, annoying.

I thought I could get clever and tried to turn one poem on it’s head, so it at least STARTED in the same damn place but ended someplace else, but I wasn’t fooled by my trick.

It’s funny, of course, because I hadn’t realized how obsessed I’d been. But clearly I’ve got issues. Or one issue, anyway.

How many such poems can a collection can get away with having? Two? Three? Four if I hide them throughout and distract the reader with shiny objects?

I don’t know. Is it so wrong to be frankly obsessed with the same idea? I mean I am climbing the same mountain yes, but it is indeed by different routes.

It’s not wrong, I guess; it’s just boring.

Well, I’m staring at them all now to see who gets to stay and who gets tossed off the island.

And if I’m going to do what I can to get obsessed with something ELSE.

Like breathing in and breathing out; or, On Poetic Clarity

I don’t always want my poems to follow the strict rules of logic. I want there to be some air in my poems, if not leaps at least some hopping, some request that the reader understand less with the mind and more with that other thing that comes into play when we react to a piece of music, for example, or a piece of visual art.

It’s a response in the quiet of the self, inarticulate, “moved” as in to be set, internally, in motion.

But that being said, confusion in the mind creates confusion in the poem, and part of the process of revision is to clarify clarify clarify — both my intention behind and the poem’s expression of that intention. But even that sounds more logic-based than I want the poem-making process to be. Oy.

I’m working on one of my poems-that-start-as-long-blathers. I started it some weeks ago, let it sit, worked on it, let it sit. Now when I go back I am confused about what I thought I was up to.

Some of that confusion is the lack of logic in the poem’s thinking. But I’m finding as I’m clarifying that, I’m losing something. I’m making changes based on logic, but I’m losing something that was special and beyond logic. I’m finding I need to go back to the self who first blathered and ask what? what?

Unfortunately, that self is gone with the passage of time, and this other, confused self must sit with it all.

It’s interesting, as a process. A tad annoying as well. I was sure I was onto something back then. Now I can’t remember what.

I have found in my work as a copyeditor and my brief stint teaching a course that not-great writing comes out of not-great thinking. The authors and students who couldn’t quite think through something couldn’t write through it either. That being said, overthinking can kill a piece of writing as surely as underthinking.

I believe in the first-step technique of opening the mind and letting stuff spill out without regard for logic or connection or any kind of controlling. But then that orderly mind has to wade in and pull weeds.

I have, however, been known to overweed. I have a sad little patch in my garden right now to show for it, and a peony whom I thoroughly traumatized. Judicious must be the weeding, so air can move, ideas can stretch out, images can take on different casts, and the writer can be surprised, as well as the reader.

Wow, this is difficult. I find that I need, as I sit with this confusing/confused poem, to think less, breathe more.

We shall be released; or, On the First Person Plural in Poems

I’ve been advised enough times not to do it, you’d think I’d stop trying. But here we are again. The royal “we,” I mean, possibly, or the group of us who do such a thing, as opposed, I guess to the “they” who do not; that is: use the first person plural pronoun (we) in poems. Why do I keep trying to make it work?

It interests me to write poems from the perspective of this identity: a member of the human species. From this perspective I can think about the so-called “human experience,” not as “in opposition to the nonhuman,” but as a part of a, let’s face it, pretty significant force on the planet, and as a representative of a species that is able to think about itself and go “Hmm…really?” A member of a species that is aware of, possibly obsessed with, death, and, therefore?, a bit obsessed with life and its meaning.

But the use of “we,” or MY use of “we,” shall I say, has caused people to become argumentative (“you do not speak for me,” they say, or sometimes just “oh yeah?”) or to be otherwise put off by the lack of immediacy and intimacy (“hm, what are you distancing yourself from,” they ask). I don’t know, though. Do I not have the — what: right? capacity of imagination? proper hubris? — to speak out of that human stance?

The use of the all-humanity “we” has a long tradition, but fell out of favor when societies began saying “hey, wait a minute, this ‘we’ is not representing me, but rather the autocracy.” So social movements that overthrew old hierarchies to introduce a more democratic worldview plus a rise of the validation of the personal experience led to, it seems, a skeptical view of the poetic “we,” so fakely grand and oratorical it seemed, off-putting and snooty, the voice of empire. But I want to call it empirical: that is, based on experience, verifiable by observation.

As an anthropologist by study and natural inclination, I’m a participant observer here on earth among you/we humans. I hear your/our/my joys and pains and confusions. I believe that for all our differences — beliefs, tastes, fears of spiders v snakes, ability to roll the tongue or no, color, hair type, tattoo-level, who you worship, who you fuck — we humans are more the same than different. That’s the “we” I aim to write from.

But okay, fair enough, I’m not all people, and doubtless my imagination fails to capture much of the you-ness of you and your experience. So what’s the big deal for me about switching to “I”?

For me it gets tangled in the history of confessional poetry. As if what “I” am about to tell you better be pretty personal, or you’ll be disappointed.

Maybe contemporary taste is not willing to abide less than a confession. Maybe we don’t want to hear from some damn “we,” who, in point of fact, is a middle-aged white lady who quite possibly indeed does not know shit from shoe polish.

There has been much scholarship and musing on this topic, as I have found in my dive into it all. Back in 2004, writer Laura Miller said this in the “The Last Word” column in the The New York Times: “Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one….You could say that the history of Western literature so far has been a journey from the first-person plural to the first-person singular, the signature voice of our time.”

On aerogramme.com in 2017, editorial director of The Masters Review, Sadye Teiser, noted this: “If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark. But it also has the singular ability to harness a power that is not limited by the bounds of one character’s individual perspective. That is why the first-person plural is often used to describe events, be they real or unreal, that feel bigger than us. Even if there are things that we experience differently, there are others that we share, and that, especially in our times, is worth remembering.”

Martin Buber had this to say about “we”: “For the word always arises only between an I and a you, and the element from which the We receives its life is speech, the communal speaking that begins in the midst of speaking to one another.”

In Poetry in 2010, Jane Hirschfeld said: “I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use ‘we’ in a poem to speak of ‘us all,’ but it’s a concept I still believe in — that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them.”

Of course, I am aware that I have cherry-picked some quotes here, in order to bolster my continued attempts to get away with my “we” penchant. And you can continue to question my judgment about it. And we will continue this wrangle to voice ourselves to each other. After all, we’re in this together.

All misty wet with rain; or, Seeing the Forest Through the Trees; or, More on Revision

I swore off workshops long ago for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, but as I’d been brooding over this particular poem for a while, and as isolation breeds a kind of insanity, I signed up for one.

It was not as bad as I’d feared it could be, although not as useful as I had hoped, but I did get one takeaway, which is, perhaps, all one can realistically hope for. It was worth the price of admission, but perhaps not entirely worth the hours of sitting staring into zoomland.

And I share it with you here for free. Cuz that’s the kind of gal I am.

The editing (or “revision”) process is often one in which I start with the idea of finding the weaknesses in a poem and getting rid of them. The process was reframed for me in that workshop in this useful way: Find the shining points in the poem and clear away anything that may be getting in the way of the shine.

It is very useful, this idea that the elements of a poem stand next to each other and cast shadows. You may want the shadows. You may not. I am grateful to be reminded to understand how the elements of a poem are standing together, what shadows they cast, what is illuminated and what is obscured by those shadows, and to take control of how light and shadow passes through the poem. You may want some, I think — some “chiaroscuro” in a poem, clarity/obscurity play of elements. But it needs to be carefully controlled so what is highlit is meaningful, what is shadowed is purposeful.

This may involve all the usual elements of revision: trimming, cutting, rearranging, but by thinking about it in terms of light and shadow, I’m able to bring a different kind of attention to the process, like thinning a grove of trees so as it strengthen the diversity of species, or dividing my vast, tangled patch of iris to let it thrive. So thanks for that, workshop.

As for the rest of the story, the workshop did give me the impetus to wade back in to the poem. I knew trimming would be advised, and some wholesale deleting of stanzas. A friend happened to be in the workshop and also had some specific advice re: my use of pronouns (more on that in another post) and the ending, as well as some need for clarification. So I took all that in hand and headed in, taking down trees.

Then I realized I could move stanzas around for logic of thought process.

I took out the ending. I wrote another one. Took that out.

Wrote a different beginning. Took that out.

Changed the pronouns.

Retitled the poem. Reretitled the poem. This process is useful for establishing my own understanding of the poem’s intentions.

I tried to walk away for a while. But kept thinking of new things to try. I put back in some things I took out earlier on.

All this changing led it to somewhat change direction. Okay, I thought, let it turn, and I’ll see where it goes.

It didn’t really go. I realized I was now writing things in to force it to go in this new direction. I felt like I was forcing the poem away from the thinking that was the impetus behind it in the first place. I took them out.

Finally, I went back and reread the original version of the poem. You know what? I kind of like it.


I don’t know I don’t know; or, On Writing a Chapbook: The Story of Being Many Seeds

So with the birth of a new collection of poems, I thought I might share the backstory, as the poems came together in an unusual way, for me.

The poems in this book began as a monthlong exercise in imitations. Each day I’d choose a poem from a literary magazine or book of poems I had lying around, and I’d try to do a word-for-word imitation, but trying often to use opposite words. That is, if the poem started “One early morning…” I might say “Every late night….” I tried to choose poems that seemed unlike anything I might write: longer lines, narrative rather than lyric.

I didn’t overthink the process, I just let words rise up as prompted by the original poem, and figured whatever subject matters were lurking in my brain would arise naturally from this process. So then I had thirty or so of these, and looking back through, I was interested in many of them.

I began revising them back toward my own voice and rhythms. But they never felt entirely OF me, there was always something a bit different about them. So I thought I’d try a radical revision, really strip each poem down. That was fun.

So I decided to strip them down again.

Then I realized that each of these stripped down versions had something interesting to say to the version before. When I began understanding them as erasures of themselves, I got interested in presenting the poems in all three versions, particularly when the erasures began heading in different directions from the originating text.

Still I felt something missing. I remembered a couple of Rebecca Solnit books had a separate text running across the bottom of each page, like a murmured conversation happening elsewhere in the room. In real life this would have made me crazy, such an eavesdropper am I. But on the page, I loved that view out the corner of my eye of this sort of secret subtext.

So I thought about what the poems seemed to be talking about and around. And I got thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I’m not sure why. I had read bits and pieces of his work over the years, and I knew I had a book or two hanging out on some dusty shelf. So I began reading his work again, and thinking about his ideas, and having my own response to his thoughts. And so I began to set my thoughts running across the pages of the poems.

I had begun to envision this as a digital object, something you could watch while the erased words disappeared before your eyes, and the essay text appeared down the side of the virtual page. But I didn’t know how to do this, nor did I know how to contact an organization or person that did, nor did I know how I would get such a thing out into the world. So I created a paper-based version, at first having the essay text running sideways on each page, so you’d actually physically have to turn the page around. But some beta readers questioned this, so I ran the text across the bottom.

But the idea of a visual version haunted me, so I began experimenting with what software I did know how to use to try to approximate my vision. This was arduous and had several dead ends, but I finally figured out how to make it all happen in iMovie, and created some music/sound and manipulated some of my own photos.

So more than any other collection of poems, this one came together through a series of “lemme try thises” and “maybe I’ll try thats.” I felt through much of the process that I was moving through a combination of instinct and blunder, like walking around a familiar room but in the total dark. I was never entirely comfortable. It was a really stimulating process, and fun, in the end, if a bit bumbly in the middle.

So I encourage you to get uncomfortable. Turn out the lights, get up and wander around. Let something catch your eye and turn toward it, try it. Don’t think too much. Have a little fear, but not too much. Whether my book or video appeal to you or not, you will have a very interesting experience, I can promise you that.

Being Many Seeds, the book: www.graysonbooks.com

Being Many Seeds, the movie: www.vimeo.com/marmccabe/beingmanyseeds


Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles; or, Anatomy of a Poem Making

Here’s a sentence I see on Facebook or heard spoken at open mics that I do not understand: “I wrote a poem today.”

There is no way what I write in a day could be considered, in my mind, “a poem.” It MIGHT become a poem. Someday. But in one day, it is and can only be some stuff I’ve written that is amorphous and possibly colossally crappy or just random thoughts that will never be more than that. I guess other people work differently. The best I could say in a day is that I took some lumps of stuff that I wrote x days/weeks/months/years ago and poked and prodded and twisted it into something that either might be a poem or is The Best Poem Ever Written but check back with me tomorrow.

I’m working with a bunch of pages of thought over several days, seeing whether there’s anything in there that seems like a poem, i.e., seems like it’s saying something more than it’s saying and doing so or can do so in some kind of interesting way that can make use of silence and pauses and imagery and rhythm.

Which I guess is my basic definition of what a poem is.

So I’m taking these pages of longhand and moving them onto my computer, and, interestingly, to me anyway, they are taking the form of triplets, that is, three lines that seem to form a whole, a whole that is somewhat distinct from the three lines that came before and after, but that speak across the gap (Can I call them tercets? Do tercets have to rhyme? I don’t know). And by three lines, sometimes I mean three sentences or three fragments, or one extended thought that seems to have three parts or within which the introduction of the pause of a line break, or the wink or nudge of an enjambment or caesura suggests a deeper layer of how to read the thought.

It’s interesting to me that I did not set out to think in threes nor to develop a form at all but rather the content itself dictated this approach, at least in this first round. Isn’t that funny? This is form finding itself, or content finding its form, elbowing out all awkward and sticky, stretching and yawning.

When I see it finally all stretched out, then with fresh eyes I can try to “hear” it, assess whether it’s something greater than its parts. As I read it to myself, I want to feel the movement of air in it, of sound and quiet, but also a sense of things moving in the dark. This is a gut-level response.

Sometimes I know right away that what I have is not working, it is too filled with, e.g., self-consciousness, or feels effort-full, or just falls flat, no feathers nor loft. Sometimes I think, oh, yeah, this is a Thing. In that case, as I’ve written here many times before, only time can provide me with a check on that response.

Before I do much more fiddling around with this Thing-Possible I’d better let it lie for a while. Back to the Great British Baking Show for me. Tomorrow is another day.