Friday, July 3, 2020

KEN HAAS: BORROWED LIGHT





Borrowed Light, Ken Haas, Red Mountain Press, Seattle, Washington, 74 pages, $21.95 paperback, www.redmountainpress.us


In Borrowed Light, Ken Haas’s poems are ordered with a sensibility I wish more poets would employ. The groundwork of his aesthetic is laid for the remainder of the collection in its first poem, “Birdsong.” It reads as an ars poetica, placed at the beginning of Borrowed Light to underscore his debt to other poets, and to establish themes of gratitude and connection.

Birdsong

Regarding the question of nature or nurture,
             we quarantined some birds at birth,
             finches mostly, to see what songs
             they might come to know,

             whether they would sing at all.
             Their brethren in the wild meanwhile
             were learning many tribal hymns
             for waking and working, loving and mourning.

When the culled were returned to the fold
they did have songs, only a few
of kettle and clock,
cloistered heart and challenged soul.

They were welcomed nonetheless
and taught the standards by and by
as their own songs vanished
in the mallow and cottonwood trees.

But at the moments of return
when the whole flock was gathered
frightened and still:
what strangeness, what stories!

The smart choices of diction and direction that Haas makes in “Birdsong” are emblematic of those he makes throughout this, his inaugural collection. The music in this poem anticipates poems whose sound work of rhythms and tones enact the narrative and images found therein: “Regarding / quarantined,” “birds / birth,” and “all / meanwhile / tribal / culled / fold / mallow / whole / still” are all examples of the chime of related tones. And mixing iambic and dactylic lines provides an element of gravitas that does not harden into dry diction.  

Even the title, Borrowed Light, takes on new meaning with this introductory poem, positioning the poet in a place of humility. Haven’t many poems begun in “quarantine” (Dorianne Laux’s point that all poetry begins in secret), and only later did they become part of the body of “tribal hymns?” And isn’t a poet’s work transformed upon encountering the work of other members of the wider poetry community? And don’t their voices retain something of their own birth cries throughout the process? “Birdsong” is a wise choice for a first poem of a collection born and raised in a nest with mentors such as Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Ellen Bass and others. “What strangeness, what stories!” is an apt description of Haas’s own work.

The remaining poems know where they came from and show appreciation for their prosodic sources—the light borrowed from both the canon and from Haas’s own mentors—that helped to shape the poet’s narrative material. They are aptly placed with primarily lyrical connections of familial or romantic relationships, interests spanning childhood to adulthood (music, baseball, science), or his family’s immigrant history.   

Almost without exception, Haas demonstrates his ability to tell a story well, to engage his readers emotionally, while avoiding sentimentality. He uses images and language familiar (although not commonplace) to his readers, and risks some obscure (although never opaque) terms. When he speaks of things that matter most—the arts, love, death—he does not fall into abstraction, but rather shows us a saxophonist “Two hours straight, One song. / End[ing] on his knees,” or an aging father’s “soft brown leather loose-leaf binder” containing lists of where everything is and who gets what. Even if you’re not a fan of jazz or baseball, the following two poems cannot be denied because their true subjects are the same: love of an art form, and love for the players of that art, with no energy left over for spectators who watch from afar.


Trane

None of us in 1966 wanted to be a white kid
from the Bronx. So I rode the subway down
to hear the man who might make me cool.

The gasbags claimed he played higher math.
His friends said he practiced like a guy with no talent.
This cat who told Miles that once he got started
he didn’t know how to stop. Yet could start
anywhere, like with raindrops on roses,
drive past the ghost town of pride,
then bring you back safe,
to some other home.

Such a sweet tooth that his horn was often
clogged with sugar; such a soft touch
that he packed binoculars to look for stars
where you couldn’t even find the moon.
A navy man, like my dad.
Saint of a church in the city where I moved to live.

That night at the Vanguard he blew in tongues.
Two hours straight. One song.
Ended on his knees. Dropped a stitch
I can still pick up or use for grip
in any ditch, on any ledge.

He emptied his arms in a wave that even now
            speaks to the kind of man I could become,
            teaches what a gift is,
            warns there’s little sing-along,
                        what just happened
                        just happened
                        and what comes next doesn’t follow,
            asks if I’m in this
or just listening.


The Catch

Night game at Candlestick toward the end of its days.
June Rockwell, season ticket-holder of the so-so Giants,
has lured me out to see the wretched Cubs. First date.
When I pick her up, she asks if I’ve brought my glove
and I tell her I’m from the Bronx where we do everything
with our bare hands.
Thin crowd, uneventful innings, until two out in the seventh,
when Chicago’s lumbering, chaw-spitting right fielder
nicks a rising heater that sails backward several sections
from our box seats into a circular gale like the twister
in Wizard of Oz, the ball at its apex still no real concern
Twenty rows away.

And yet, in its final moments, the object of common regard
begins to beam intently, inevitably, for my patron’s unarmed lap.
I? Bud Light in one hand, fully adorned bratwurst in the other,
no kidding, I refuse to panic, so the hot dog becomes at last
the missing glove, explodes like a grenade as the seamed orb
makes exceptional contact.

When, after a decent interval, I look up, June, standing now,
a Jackson Pollock of ballpark cuisine—tinsels of pork rind and
sauerkraut in her startled hair, glitter of mustard and relish from
brow to chin—says not a word, does not go to wash up, just
lowers her quivering body. The wind dies. The home team fails.
We do not speak on the drive back.

Ah, what might have been. But not for me. I’m romantic in that
other way. This way. For this night, no if-only will ever rival what
happened. Watch as we reach June’s flat, she turns, caked still
with the spectacle I have made of gallantry and kisses me.
Softly, briefly, decisively. Watch the fog rise to claim her
for the perfect past.

More than the obvious common love for jazz and baseball, evidenced in the lines from “Trane” (“That night at the Vanguard he blew in tongues / … /Ended on his knees. Dropped a stitch / I can still pick up…”) that mirror lines in “The Catch” (“Night game at Candlestick toward the end of its days / … /[where] the hot dog… / …explodes like a grenade as the seamed orb / makes exceptional contact”), these two poems are emblematic of the kind of connection I feel is best—discovery of connection and metaphor in the texture of reality, rather than in the making of them. And there is a lot of material in these poems that a lesser poet might have thinned out into abstraction or opined into commentary. But Haas mostly avoids both. Keeping with Pound’s advice that the natural object without abstraction is always the adequate symbol, Haas writes about the messy catch: “Ah, what might have been. But not for me. I’m romantic in that / other way. This way. For this night, no if-only will ever rival what / happened.”  

There are additional delightful instances of poems that lend their light to others and then reflect that light, calling and answering across the pages of this collection in clusters. “Lottery Day, 1970,” about draft-age boys diverting their attention from the draft lottery by “taking infield practice and shagging flies,” exchanges lyrical DNA not only with “The Catch” but with “Sleeping in the Crack” about actions and objects to help distract and comfort a boy amidst real childhood dangers— “Simo’s pizza, / A Moose Skowron glove, / “Janie Siegel next door,” and “Unidentified Objects,” a poem about adult buddies playing golf as an escape from a UFO Expo. 

At other times Haas lays two poems before us in the spread that illuminate one another like binary stars. This is true of the penultimate title poem, “Borrowed Light,” and the final poem, “Speaking in Tongues.”

Speaking of the moon’s indirect light from the sun that is offered up to us, the poet concludes: 

Since all the pocked rock has
is offered up,
your heart tells you to say
this is everything you need,
though it is not warmth, not bread, not love.

So you borrow what has been borrowed
to disquiet the hours and ways
that go out darkly from here,
and you stitch a quilt of strange comfort
from the debt of this light,
where Washoe ghosts
truck with Donner bones
and the stricken tongues of wolves.

But, like all things in Haas’s work, each poem is carefully placed to resonate lyrically, and thus no poem can be fully appreciated alone. The title poem’s facing poem, “Speaking in Tongues” is as necessary to “Borrowed Light” as the theme of borrowed light is to the entire collection. 

After the poem begins with a lover sitting up in the middle of the night “like a jackknife and says something like, I put the couch in the microwave,” the poet digresses to a college classroom where a woman stands and speaks in tongues for three minutes. This prompts a desire to sleep with her “not because I wanted the translation,” says the poet, but “because I wanted the transport— / to be that possessed, that called. The lines that follow speak to the “stricken tongues of wolves” from “Borrowed Light:”

At the dawn of my seduction by language,
I knew that its mind was not enough.
I needed someone to speak for its body,
its suet and thew, its love affair with the tongue
unvexed by meaning or context.
I need the vocables
our hirsute ancestors used before knowing
to what or whom they might wake,
the words whose work is not to tell us
but to reach us, dream to dream
in the middle of the night.

Almost all of the time, Haas’s language fulfills our most ambitious of dreams about what this collection can be. The times it fails are so few that we are startled awake to the reality that poetry is a human endeavor and, thus, imperfect.

In “Chemo and Late Love” the poet continues writing after the poem has ended with “Hilda, there was so little love in our line / that all I heard you say was suffering.” The next nine lines seem to be afterthought to this reviewer. And occasionally the diction is not as polished as we come to expect from a collection this tightly-crafted. In “Truxel Road,” for example, an otherwise fine poem, “where we quit just not to kill something” is followed three lines later with “though Pam just took cider from the shack girl.” These instances do not spoil the experience of reading “Borrowed Light.” They simply allow me to sleep at night knowing that a new poetry god has not descended to earth to humiliate the rest of us mortals.

One final criticism—the cover. That a collection of uncommonly mature poems for a first book, voiced with tight, jazzy sound work, should be represented with an unimaginative front cover is, for this reviewer, disappointing. What is inside Borrowed Light is not to be judged by what appears on the outside, except for the glowing blurbs by Ellen Bass and Joseph Millar, along with Haas’s own credentials on the back cover. 

In the poem “Perfection,” Haas, in the context of a fortieth high school reunion, argues for the value of all of us—as we once were and as we have become—whether we were “the pouty ingénue,” “the over-developed blonde,” “the kid from the projects,” “the hairy one,” “the sweaty one,” or “the frail, nervous one / who rode the D train early / with the night nurses and winos, / dubbed “Hércules.” A woman rushes up calling out to the narrator of the poem “Hércules, Hércules….” She was devastated to learn that he had not become “the U.S. Ambassador to Spain,” because of his mastery of Spanish. The poem ends with 

I was about to tell her she had the wrong guy—
that was another boy.
Then I remembered who we all were once. 

Ken Haas has written a book of poems that helps us remember who we all were once, and in his own words from “Trane,” a book “that even now speaks to the kind of [people we] could become.” And the poet asks us all: are we in this? “Or just listening?”

Either way, Borrowed Light is essential reading.

Ken Haas has been published in more than fifty journals, including Clare, Cottonwood, Existed, Forge, The Helix, Natural Bridge, Poet Lore, Quiddity, and Spoon River. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has won the Betsy Colquitt Poetry Award, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He received a BA in History and Literature from Harvard College, and an MA in English for the University of Sussex, U.K., where he wrote his dissertation on Wallace Stevens. The son of European immigrants, Ken grew up in New York City and now lives in San Francisco where he works in healthcare and sponsors a weekly poetry writing program at UCSF Children's Hospital. www.kenhaas.org.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Titles & Epigraphs

Day 7: Titles & Epigraphs

Introduction

Today is the final day of our time together, examining some of the major anatomical features of the lyrical-narrative free verse poem. I've saved the title and possible epigraph(s) for last because my experience is that the better ones emerge from the poem, rather than from dictating to the poem what it's about.




POEM:

Ice, Ice

When I woke up this morning I knew there was horror, I
remembered the rain last night and I knew the ice had
come. I knew the doves would be dragging their stiff tails and
I knew the years would be filled with broken branches. I sing
this for Hubert Humphrey, dead last night, and I sing it
for the frozen trees and the bouquet of frozen buds,
and the tiny puffs of smoke now rising from our chimneys
like the smoke of cave men rising from their fissures,
their faces red with wisdom, their dirty hands scraping
grease from the stones and shaking ashes from their beds,
their black eyes weeping over the chunks of fire,
their tears turning to ice as they leave the circle.

By Gerald Stern. From The Red Coal (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)


CRAFT:

Titles

If you have been with me from the beginning of this online retreat, you will likely remember the hypothetical young poet from Richard Wilbur's essay, "Writing Off the Subject" who wrote down the title "Autumn Rain" and then attempted to write a poem about autumn rain, running out of what to say about the subject in 2 or 3 lines (Day 2, HERE). Part of the problem is the poet began with the title before he knew what the poem was going to be about. I turn again to Verlyn Klinkenborg to elaborate:

Imagine this:
The piece you're writing is about what you find in the piece you're writing. [Re-read that sentence!]
Nothing else. 
No matter how factual, how nonfictional, how purposeful a piece it is.
Sooner or later, you'll become more interested in what you're able to say on the page and less interested in your intentions. [!]

You'll rely less on the priority of your intentions and more on the immediacy of writing.
It may sound as if I'm describing a formless sort of writing.
Not at all.
Form is discovery too.
It's perfectly possible to write this way even when constricted by
A narrow subject, a small space, and a tight deadline. [Line breaks and capitalization the author's.]

If you accept Hugo's and Klinkenborg's assertion that you don't know what you're writing about UNTIL you discover it IN what you're writing, then waiting to title your poem (or to select an epigraph--if it even needs one--see Heather Bowlan's essay below), until after the poem is written makes a lot of sense.

It may be possible that Stern wrote down the title "Ice, Ice" before he wrote any lines in the above poem, but I doubt it. I doubt that he knew prior to writing the poem that he would include ice twice, and its first use (line 2) would be in the present and its second use (last line) would be in prehistory. That correspondence is what makes the title so perfect. And I believe more perfect titles can be discovered after writing the poem.

Epigraphs

"Almost every poem could have an epigraph if inspiration and interest were the criteria," begins Heather Bowlan in her essay "Against Epigraphs" published online HERE. "But I'd like to propose the opposite," she continues. "Let's put a moratorium on epigraphs until we know why we have them in the first place." Bowlan's main criticism is one many of us have experienced firsthand: epigraphs often contain stronger language than the poem that follows it. "[The epigraph] raises the stakes before the poem even begins," says Bowlan. Yet, she later asserts that there are ways an epigraph can work.

"Epigraphs can act as a lens for our poems, focusing our thoughts and language in response to an idea, helping us find our way into a subject." But this is not easy, Bowlan acknowledges: "This is difficult, patient work; to find an epigraph that can have a subtle or quiet power, and to write and wait to find out if the epigraph and poem resonate."

This last statement seems to assume that the epigraph is selected prior to writing the poem. I would assert that a better way is to write the poem first and then discover whether an epigraph is needed and, if so, what it should be. In other words, the default setting most poems should have in regard to both titles and epigraphs is "wait and see." Wait and see what turns up in the poem.

A personal pet peeve is taking the first line of the poem as the title. How many poetry readings have I attended where a reader says: "The title of my next poem is "The Sun is Going Down." Pause. Then they read the title: "The Sun is Going Down." Pause. Then the first line of the poem: "The Sun..."--well you get it. I do like titles that appear in the poem, but later, and not always exactly the way they appear. Like "Ice, Ice." Nice.

PROMPT:

For a poem you have yet to write:

1. Write down the following as a provisional title to a poem: "Poem About What I'm Going to Find in the Poem As I Write it."

2. Write the poem.

3. Find what it is you wrote about that sounds like a good title.

4. Repeat #3 three more times.

5. Provisionally substitute each of the four title candidates for the original title.

6. Choose whichever title causes you to gasp (even a little) when you get to the part in your poem that prompted the title.

For a poem you've already written this week:

1. If the poem has a title, cross it out or delete it.

2. Look more carefully to see what the poem might really be about.

3. Select 3-4 possible candidates that might be more what the poem is really about.

4. Provisionally substitute each of these title candidates for the original title.

5. Choose whichever title causes you to gasp (even a little) when you get to the part in your poem that prompted the new title.

Final closing thoughts from Verlyn Klinkenborg (that can be applied to titles or any other lines of poetry):

You're holding an audition.
Many sentences [words, lines, titles] will try out.
One gets the part.

This will get easier with practice.
Don't be alarmed if it takes a day or two of trying out [lines]
Before you find the promising one.
It may only be promising enough to lead you to the
real [words, lines, title].

..........................

How do you decide what works?
Your emerging skill as a reader will help.
You'll read your lines against the backdrop of all the rest of your reading.
You'll get better at examine your own choices--the ones you've already made
And the ones you see waiting to be made as you reread
what you've written. 

...........................

In closing, I'd like to thank Marin Poetry Center for sponsoring this online writing retreat, and Rebecca Foust for inviting me to host it this week. As I'm sure many of you have experienced, I have learned a lot preparing for these posts. I took to heart the advice that I didn't really know what I was writing about until I set out writing. I did have a few ideas, but I allowed the poems I selected to dictate much of what I said. Thank you to all of these wonderful poets whose work I've shared. And thank you to you wonderful poets who have dropped by and tried some of the prompts. I've received multiple emails with copies of poems written this week from those prompts, and been encouraged by some of you telling me these posts have broken you out of a writing slump. I would love to have you post poems written from these posts or any comments you may have in the comments section.

JOURNAL:

Naugatuck River Review (website here) is a journal of "Narrative poetry that sings." They are not open for submission at this time, but they publish two journals a year and one of them is comprised of finalists and semifinalists to their annual poetry contest.

RECIPE:

Nine After Dinner Drinks to Make Your Stomach Feel Good: HERE.








Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Last Lines




Day 6: Last Lines

Introduction

Today we will explore last lines in a lyrical-narrative poem.





POEM:

What My Father Told Me

Always I have done what was asked.
Melmac dishes stacked on rag towels.
The slack of a vacuum cleaner cord
wound around my hand. Laundry
hung on a line.
There is always much to do and I do it.
The iron resting in its frame, hot
in the shallow pan of summer
as the basins of his hands push
aside the book I am reading.
I do as I am told, hold his penis
like the garden hose, in the bedroom,
in that bathroom, over the toilet
or my bare stomach.
I do the chores, pull weeds out back,
finger stinkbug husks, snail carcasses,
pile dead grass in black bags. At night
his feet are safe on their pads, light
on the wall-to-wall as he takes
the hallway to my room.
His voice, the hiss of lawn sprinklers,
the wet hush of sweat in his hollows,
the mucus still damp
in the corners of my eyes as I wake.

Summer ends. Schoolwork doesn't suit me.
My fingers unaccustomed to the slimness
of a pen, the delicate touch it takes
to uncoil the mind.
History. A dateline pinned to the wall.
Beneath each president's face, a quotation.
Pictures of buffalo and wheat fields,
a wagon train circled for the night,
my hand raised to ask a question,
Where did the children sleep?

By Dorianne Laux. From Awake (Carnegie Mellon, 1990)

CRAFT:

I could have easily used this poem yesterday when we were discussing emotional connection. I saved it for today because, although she is a master at writing poems that connect with her readers emotionally, Laux is so intentional about building the intensity right up to her ultimate line that is often the strongest line in the poem. In her words, "In poetry there is no such thing as denoue-effing-ment. In other words, the final line(s) should be the knock-out punch--every time. This, according to Laux, is one of the features that distinguishes poetry from other literary genres.

On day 1 of this series, we looked at what Suzanne Buffam had to say about opening lines in her short poem that not only told us, but also enacted what opening lines should do: engage the reader's senses and make an emotional connection. Her poem about closing lines is also spot-on and echoes Laux's belief.

On Last Lines

The last line should strike like a lover's complaint.
You should never see it coming.
And you should never hear the end of it.

From The Irrationalist (Canarium Books, 2010)

Buffam's three-lined poem is a good description of Laux's final line "Where did the children sleep?" Notice how it would not be as strong if we could see it coming, if somehow the poet gave it away with a title "Where the Children Slept," or earlier in the poem, without the distance from the father that the back-to-school narrative provides. Buffam refers to this kind of surprise as "subverting the reader's expectations," which is precisely what Laux's last line does. And that subversion is married to the strong emotions we feel for a child asking an innocent-sounding question that is, in reality, a question informed by horrific experience.

Buffam's description also applies to Michael Ryan's final line in "Not The End Of The World" from Day 5. (If you're dropping in without having read yesterday's post, click back to it and read the poem.) The power of the line, of course, lies in the fact that the lines right before the final lines appear to be winding down to a "happy ending" with the wounded "bird gone. All the birds were gone." And we think yay! our little guy survived. But then the poet shows us a desolate space in the circle where they were--"a space so desolate / that for one moment I saw / the dead planet." Boom! We never saw it coming. And we will continue to hear the line ringing for a long time.

Li-Young Lee's poem, "Persimmon" (see Day 3 in this series), builds more and more lyricism between and among his narrative-driven stanzas, until in the final stanza his diction sings in a register higher than any other time in the poem.

The only time Waters (see Day 4 in this series) lets go of his tight reign on concrete imagery is in his final line that relaxes its hold and allows abstraction to help convey a universal truth: "while the power gathered in his thigh / surged like language into my thumb."

Saving the best line(s) for last is an effective way to end a poem. But that doesn't mean that the final lines tie everything up in a bow. Leaving some mystery is usually far stronger than resolving every conflict and solving every problem in a neat, tidy manner. That is why Dorianne Laux repeats several times during her workshops: "In poetry, there is no deneou-effing-ment."

Sometimes that means that in revising a poem the poet must cut their way back to the strongest line because the poet kept writing after the poem was finished. When workshopping a poem, some poets will resist changing a poem in this manner. "But that's not the way it happened," they may say. I love Dorianne Laux's response to those poets: "We love you, but we really don't care. This is not about what did or did not happen, it's about making a better poem."

PROMPT:

New Work Prompt:

Write a narrative-lyrical poem about a difficult experience (can be 100% from your imagination or part experience / part imagination). When you feel the poem has come to an end, look to see whether the final line(s) are the strongest in the poem. If they are not, cut your way back to what feels like the strongest lines and see what you have. If you cut so far that you don't have much of a poem left, then think about how you can strengthen the final lines with stronger imagery, metaphor, or some other poetic device.

Revision Prompt:

Look at one of your poems whose ending doesn't seem to be working. Put a + beside the strongest lines in the poem; an = beside the acceptable lines in the poem, and a - beside the weak lines in the poem. 1) Cut all of the weak lines; 2) distribute your strong lines so that the first 3 lines are all strong lines and the final 3 lines are the strongest lines. If the strong lines don't work in that role, rework them until they do.

JOURNAL:

Star 82 Review:

Always open for submissions HERE.


RECIPE:

Easy-to-Make, Healthy Pecan Pie





Prep Time:     10 min
Cook Time:    35 min
Total Time:    45 min

Servings:        8 slices
Calories:        410 / slice
Author:          Lacey Baier

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup raw honey
2 tbsp coconut oil, melted
3 eggs
1/2 tsp fresh orange zest
1/8 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp unsweetened almond milk
1 tsp ground ground cinnamon
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour
2 cups raw pecans
1 bottom pie crust

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. In a large bowl, combine raw honey, coconut oil, eggs, fresh orange zest, sea salt, unsweetened almond milk, ground cinnamon, pure vanilla extract, and whole wheat pastry flour. Stir to combine.

3. Arrange the raw pecans into the prepared 9-inch pie crust.

4. Pour the liquid filling mixture over the pecans, spreading some with a spoon if necessary.

5. Place into the oven and bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 20-25 minutes.

6. The pie will rise in the oven. You'll know it's done then it has small cracks in the top and is no longer giggly.

7. Remove from oven and allow to cool, preferably overnight.



Thursday, April 30, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Emotional Connection



Day 5: Emotional Connection

Introduction

Today we examine ways of building an emotional connection with the reader in a lyrical-narrative poem.





POEM:

Not The End Of The World


What flew down the chimney
into the cold wood stove
in my study? Wings
alive inside cast iron
gave the cold stove a soul
wilder than fire, in trouble.
I knocked the window-screen out
with a hand-heel's thunk,
and dropped the shade over
the top half of the window,
and shut the study door,
and wadded the keyhole,
hoping whatever it was
would fly for the light,
the full, clean stream of light
like the sliding board from heaven
our guardian angels slid to earth on
in The Little Catholic Messenger
weekly magazine. I genuflected once,
but only to flick the stove-latch
and spring behind a bookcase
through a memory-flash
of church-darkness, incense-smoke
mushrooming as the censer
clanks and swings back
toward the Living Host
in His golden cabinet.
A dull brown bird no bigger
than my fist hopped modestly
out, twisting its neck like a boxer
trying to shake off a flush punch.
And there on my rug, dazed,
heedless of the spotlight, it stayed,
and stayed, then settled down
as if to hatch an egg it was hallucinating.
So I scooped it into my two hands,
crazed heart in a feathered ounce,
and sat it outside on the dirt.

And there I left it.
It didn't even try its wings,
not one perfunctory flap,
but staggered a few rickety steps
before collapsing, puffing its tiny bulk.
I watched behind a window
other identical little dull birds
land within inches and chart
circles around it. Five of them,
cheeping, chased an inquiring cat.
Then all of them one by one--
by this time a dozen--mounted its back
and fluttered jerkily like helicopters
trying to unbog a truck,
and, when that didn't work,
pecked it and pecked it,
a gust of flicks, to kill it
or rouse it I couldn't tell
until they all stepped back to wait.
It flapped once and fell forward
and rested its forehead on the ground.

I've never seen such weakness.
I thought to bring it back in
or call someone, but heard my voice
saying, "Birds die, we all die,"
the shock of being picked up again
would probably finish it,
so with this pronouncement
I tried to clear it from my mind
and return to the work I had waiting
that is most of what I can do
even if it changes nothing.

Do I need to say I was away
for all of a minute
before I went back to it?
But the bird was gone.
All the birds were gone,
and the circle they had made
now made a space so desolate
that for one moment I saw
the dead planet.

By Michael Ryan. From God Hunger (Viking, 1989).

CRAFT:

Ellen Brock posts YouTube Videos covering several aspects of writing. She is a novelist, so not all of what she says applies to writing poems. But a lot applies to lyrical-narrative poems, particularly what she says about how to establish an emotional connection with readers. Below, I've listed her "Seven Reasons Readers Don't Care About Your Characters" and applied them to Ryan's poem to suggest how he did (or didn't) make an emotional connection with his readers. I encourage you to re-read the poem and come to your own conclusions, as well. The video can be accessed here in case you'd like to listen to it.

1. "The personality of the character is in your head, not on the page."

There are three main characters in the poem: the narrator, the injured bird, and the flock. I immediately have a liking for the narrator because his actions indicate he has an empathetic personality that values the life of whatever flew down his chimney more than personal property: "I knocked the window-screen out / with a hand-heel's thunk / ... / hoping whatever it was / would fly for the light," (lines 7-14).

2. "Telling about the character's personality traits instead of showing."

Instead of telling about his connection with the bird or going off on an abstract rant about we are all connected to nature, he shows readers he is connected to this bird (and implies we all are) with simple actions such as: "Do I need to say I was away / for all of a minute / before I went back to it?"

3. "Sharing mostly negative traits but not showing why. It doesn't have to be a lot. Sometimes just give the reader even a little hint about why the negative trait exists in the character."

The narrator indicates that the little flock of birds could be trying to save the bird or kill it:

Then all of them one by one--
by this time a dozen--mounted its back
and fluttered jerkily like helicopters
trying to unbar a truck,
and, when that didn't work,
pecked it and paced it,
a gust of flicks, to kill it
or rouse it I couldn't tell... [my bold]

4. "You're not indicating what the character wants."

The narrator definitely indicated by directly saying and by showing with actions that he wanted the bird to be set free and to live.

5. "You're not introducing a problem--what's in the way of what the character wants?"

Again, the problem was introduced in the first lines: "What flew down the chimney / into the cold wood stove / in my study?"

6. "Your character is a stereotype or trope."

The narrator does not sound to me to be stereotypical, but is quite relatable, and yet shows uniqueness of perception, particularly in the final line.

7. "You're not putting the reader in the character's shoes--sensory information please!"

The poet places the reader in his shoes all throughout the poem. Examples: "I watched behind a window [and we watched with him] / other identical little dull birds / land within inches and chart / circles around it." "I thought to bring it back in / or call someone, but heard my voice / saying, 'Birds die, we all die,' / the shock of being picked up again / would probably finish it...."

PROMPT:

Write a narrative-lyrical poem using the above seven guidelines in order to build connection with your readers.

JOURNAL:

Free State Review
(Submissions HERE) is always open for submissions. Barrett Warner is a quirky guy (I know him personally, and he would say that), but also a genius of a writer and editor (he would say that as well). If you read his "Hot Tips" for submissions you'll see that he's a wild and crazy guy. But his points are well taken about what constitutes strong poetry.

PRESS:

Trio House Press has extended its deadline for its full-length poetry manuscript contest until May 15th. Submit HERE.


RECIPE:

Comforting Beef Stew






Prep time:
20 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours 50 minutes


INGREDIENTS:

2 lbs beef stew meat (preferably chuck), cut into 1" cubes

3 large carrots, peeled and diced

4 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced

1 large onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1/3 cup flour

1 tsp paprika (optional)

1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1/2 cup red wine

1 1/2 cup beef broth

1 sprig of fresh thyme

1 sprig of fresh rosemary

2 bay leave (dry or fresh)

3 Tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste


INSTRUCTIONS:

1. In a large bowl, combine the flour and the salt and mix well.

2. Add the beef cubes and mix until all the pieces are coated in flour. Reserve.

3. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil until almost smoking. Add the beef and cook until browned. That should take about 5 minutes. Reserve.

4. In the same pot, add the veggies and cook for 5 more minutes or until they develop some color.

5. Add the paprika and season with salt and pepper.

6. Add the wine and scrape the bottom to release all the delicious, browned bits.

7. Add the Worcestershire sauce and the beef broth and give it a good stir.

8. Add the beef cubes back to the pot.

9. Make a bouquet garni with your herbs by tying them all together with twine. Add the bouquet garni to the stew.

10. Once the broth is boiling, lower the heat to its lowest setting, cover and cook for 2 1/2 hours, checking now and then, or until the sauce has thickened and the meat is fork tender / falling apart.

11. Remove the bouquet garni and serve!





Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Imagery





Day 4: Imagery

Introduction

Today we examine the importance of the lyrical-narrative poem's imagery that allows the reader to see the action and characters in the mind's eye, rather than simply hear the poet talk about them.






POEM:

Horse

The first horse I ever saw
  was hauling a wagon stacked with furniture
    past storefronts along Knickerbocker Avenue.
He was taller than a car, blue-black with flies,

and bits of green ribbon tied to his mane
  bounced near his caked and rheumy eyes.
    I had seen horses in books before, but
this horse shimmered in the Brooklyn noon.

I could hear his hooves strike the tar,
  the colossal nostrils snort back the heat,
    and breathe his inexorable, dung-tinged fume.
Under the enormous belly, his ------

swung like the policeman's nightstick,
  a dowsing rod, longer than my arm--
    even the Catholic girls could see it
hung there like a rubber spigot.

When he let loose, the steaming street
  flowed with frothy, spattering urine.
    And when he stopped to let the junkman
toss a tabletop onto the wagon bed,

I worked behind his triangular head
  to touch his foreleg above the knee,
    the muscle jerking the mat of hair.
Horse, I remember thinking,

four years old and standing there,
  struck momentarily dumb,
    while the power gathered in his thigh
surged like language into my thumb.

By Michael Waters. From Parthenopi: New and Selected Poems (BOA, 2001)

CRAFT:

Sight, sound, touch, hearing--there is not a line in "Horses" that does not utilize one or more of those senses. This poem lives in the world of sensate experience through its vivid images composed of concrete language. And yet, by the poem's end the reader is exposed to an abstract truth about poetry itself--something to do with the power of image and language and how they affected a little boy to become a poet because they are the basis of poetry itself. But if the poem had stated that truth using those or other abstract terms, the poem would be telling us in a way that countless weaker poems do. Instead, Waters shows us how the experience of a horse was the basis of his becoming a poet in those final lines (still grounded in the concrete): "while the power gathered in his thigh / surged like language into my thumb." The only abstract word in these lines (and one of the few in the poem) is "language," and yet even it lives in two worlds at once, evidenced by the words you're reading on this screen that can be printed on paper.

In addition, notice how many of Waters' lines accomplish their purpose with few or no adjectives or other modifiers--instead, lot of nouns and verbs, the bones and muscles of language. Very little connective tissue is present. This enables readers to "see" pictures in their minds. You can't really see anything except nouns and verbs--people, places, and things, doing something, acting on something, or being acted upon.

I happen to know Michael Waters. And I know that he underwent a major shift early on in his understanding of how to approach writing a poem. In his early twenties, he thought the best way to create a poem was to begin with an idea for a poem, and then to let that idea guide where the poem went. After his first book, he discovered that a better way was to begin with language itself--a word, a line, a few lines--and then to allow that language to go where it seemed it wanted to go. To give language its head--pun intended. Ever since, Waters' poetry has lived in the concrete, but in so doing has discovered timeless truths--a prosody that has produced, in my opinion, some of the best poetry of the second half of the twentieth and first two decades of the twenty-first century. An interview with John Hoppenthaller in which Waters speaks about that change is no longer available online. However, I share portions of it in another blog post while reviewing Waters' book, The Dean of DisciplineHERE.

PROMPT:

Write a poem about an animal or object using concrete images in every line. Be sure to remain in the concrete until the very end. Refrain from overtly telling how the object of your affection made you feel or stating some abstract truth. If there is a greater truth in the poem, give yourself permission to use only one abstract word in the final line to point to it. Consult a thesaurus to find concrete words that shape your images so they lean toward that truth, but never state it outright. And remember to use more nouns and verbs and fewer modifiers. Have fun!

JOURNAL: 

Boulevard: Submissions are open until May 1st and include a year's subscription HERE.

2020 Passager Poetry Contest: Deadline is May 10th for this press that only accepts submissions from writers over age 50. Submit HERE.

RECIPE:

Sicilian-Inspired Blood Orange Salad




Serves: 4

INGREDIENTS

For the salad:

3 Cara Cara oranges, cut into segments

6 blood oranges, cut into segments

1/4 large red onion, cut as thinly as possible

1 bunch of mint, julienned and a few leaves torn

1/4 cup sheep's milk feta

For the dressing:

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1/3 cup pistachios, lightly crushed

Salt and pepper to taste


INSTRUCTIONS

1. Assemble all the citrus segments in a large bowl and mix in onions. Set aside.

2. In a small skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high. Add the cumin seeds and cook until the seeds pop slightly and a lovely fragrance emits from the pan. Add vinegar to the pan and swirl to mix. Season with salt and pepper and toss all over the citrus. Mix in pistachios. When plating, add mint and pistachios to the tops of each portion.


Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Lyricism



Day 3: Lyricism

Introduction

Today we look at how lyricism slows down or halts the narrative flow in a poem in order to allow the poem to sing.





POEM:

Persimmons

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the years, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down.
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets:   chip chip. Dew:   I've forgotten.
Naked:   I've forgotten.
Ni, wo:   you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn't ripe or sweet, I didn't eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents' cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He's so happy that I've come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloths,
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

By Li-Young Lee. From Rose (BOA, 1986)

CRAFT:

Being one of the 3 classical divisions of poetry (lyrical, dramatic, and epic or narrative), much has been written about lyrical poetry. A helpful, easy-to-read article on "thoughtco.com" summarizes the following:


  • A lyric poem is a private expression of emotion by an individual speaker.
  • Lyric poetry is highly musical and can feature poetic devices like rhyme and meter
  • Some scholars categorize lyric poetry in three subtypes: Lyric of Vision, Lyric of Thought, and Lyric of Emotion.
For our purposes, we are not so much concerned with what constitutes a "lyric poem," but rather what lyricism in a lyrical-narrative poem entails. That is much easier to describe. My definition would be a break or slow down in the flow of the narrative that focuses more on the language than on forwarding the story, usually by describing (through all kinds of prosodic devices such as simile, metaphor, repetition, meter, rhyme, half-rhyme, chiming, etc.) things from external or internal landscapes. In our eating metaphor, lyricism is slowing down the chewing and swallowing  of the story in order to savor each bite through all of the senses. 

And, appropriately, "Persimmons" is not a purely lyrical poem, but rather a poem that tells a story (or several stories) with markedly different stanzas--some almost purely narrative, and others almost purely lyrical. I say almost, because Lee's language is so powerful that even when it is forwarding the story it has delicious lyrical overtones, and whenever he halts it completely to dwell on a single flavor, it still contributes to the story. Look at the following breakdown and see if you agree:

Stanza One is primarily narrative. (By the way, notice how the opening lines grabs our attention by jumping right into the action of "...Mrs. Walker / slapped the back of my head.")

Stanza Two is primarily lyrical. The action is slowed down by naming and describing each step of peeling, sucking, chewing, and finally swallowing the sweet persimmon meat with gorgeous language.

Stanza Three resumes a narrative pace, although the scene has changed (see yesterday's comments on writing off subject), and there is a healthy dose of lyrical imagery and a metaphorical description of two lovers.

Stanza Four slows the narrative pace again with rumination, explanation, and description using metaphor. 

Stanza Five picks up the pace with the story of Mrs. Walker bringing a persimmon to class, cutting it up, and passing it around for everyone to eat a bite. More action, less description.

Stanza Six is only three lines long and stands in contrast to the previous stanza by providing the metaphor: "...every persimmon has a sun / inside, something golden, glowing / warm as my face."

Read the remaining stanzas and decide which is more dominant, narrative or lyricism. Or are any stanzas pretty much evenly balanced? What about the gorgeous final stanza? Lyrical? Certainly. Does it have any narrative element(s) at all?

I am aware that I have overly-simplified the kinds of lines in a poem. Certainly not all lines of every poem can be categorized as narrative or lyrical. Some lines are mere conversation--either actual conversation between characters or, more commonly, a conversation between the poet and the reader, such as the early lines in stanza two: "...This is precision. / Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted." Pretty much just information. However, by the end of the stanza: "...Now eat / the meat of the fruit, so sweet, / all of it, to the heart," the language is definitely lyrical--those "e" and "t" sounds really cause the lines to sing. Where does the transition occur? It's difficult to tell. And that brings up another category of language in a poem: transitional language. So, we have now discussed at least four different categories of poetic lines in a lyrical-narrative poem: 1) narrative; 2) lyrical; 3) conversational; and 4) transitional. My point in all of this has been to distinguish between the language that "tells the story" and the language that "stops or slows down the action and sings about the props and scenery and actors.

PROMPT:

Prompt 1:

Write a lyrical-narrative poem that alternates one stanza of furthering the story with the next stanza slowing down or stopping the story and using language to provide description that uses repetition of sounds. Try to stay in the concrete rather than using abstract words such as "love" or "beauty." Play with making a strong distinction between stanzas, occasionally throwing in a stanza balanced with both narrative and lyricism.

Prompt 2:

For those of you who already write lyrical-narrative poems, go back to some of your completed poems or drafts in-progress and identity each line as either narrative, lyrical, conversational, or transitional. Then ask yourself whether you have enough narrative and lyrical lines and if they are in the right balance. How do you know? One way is to have other poets read your poem and tell you. But you can also play a game with your poem. Pretend you are reading it to an audience. When you think the audience (or you) might be possibly bored with "just the story," add some lyrical language. When you feel that the poem has lost its way and is wandering, get back to the story. Then have someone else read your poem for their reaction. 

JOURNAL:

Great River Review is Minnesota's oldest literary journal. Deadline for submissions for issue #67 is May 1st. Submit HERE.

RECIPE:

Persimmon risotto with pancetta and goat cheese:




Course:          Main
Cuisine:         Italian

Prep Time:    5 minutes
Cook Time:   20 minutes
Total Time:   25 minutes

Servings:       2
Author:         Giulia on Jul's Kitchen


Ingredients

1 shallot
200 g of rice for risotto, such as Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano
1/2 glass of white wine
50 ml of lightly salted hot water or hot vegetable stock
1 Fuyu persimmon, diced
100g fresh goat's cheese
2 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
50 g of pancetta
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt

Instructions

1. Cover the bottom of a casserole with extra virgin olive oil, then add the finely minced shallot. Add a pinch of salt, too, so the shallots will stew without burning, as the salt will extract their moisture.

2. When the shallots are wilted and golden, add the rice and toast it over medium heat for a few minutes, then pour in the white wine.

3. When the wine has been absorbed, gradually add the hot stock or hot water, stirring often and cooking the rice over medium-low heat. The cooking time will vary depending on the type of rice you have chosen. Usually 15 minutes should be enough.

4. Halfway through the cooking, add the chopped persimmon, then keep on cooking, adding more stock.

5. While the risotto is cooking, slice the pancetta and brown it on medium fire in a pan, then turn off the heat and set aside.

6. When the rice is al dente, remove it from the heat and stir in the grated Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh goat's cheese. Stir to cream the cheese, then add the browned pancetta with its rendered fat. Add some freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately.



Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Narrative

Day 2: Direct & Indirect Narrative

Introduction

Today we will look at two narrative strategies for the lyrical-narrative poem. Direct narrative utilizes the traditional narrative arc of introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement or resolution. Indirect narrative also tells a story, but is not bound to those categories or that progression.



POEMS:

The Miracle


A man staring into the fire                                                      
sees his dead brother sleeping.

The falling flames go yellow and red
but it is him, unmistakable.

He goes to the phone and calls                                                           
his mother.  Howard is asleep,

he tells her.  Yes, she says,
Howard is asleep.  She does not cry.

In her Los Angeles apartment
with its small color tv                                                                         

humming now unobserved,
she sees Howard rocking

alone beneath the waves
of an ocean she cannot name.

Howard is asleep, she says                                                                 
to the drapes drawn on the night.

That night she dreams
a house alive with flames, their

old house, and her son sleeping
peacefully in the kingdom of agony.                                                   

She wakens near morning,
the dream more real

than the clock luminous beside her
or the gray light rising slowly

above the huddled town, more real                                                     
than the groan of the first car.

She calls her son who has risen
for work and tells him,

Howard is warm and at peace.
He sees the crusted snows of March                                                  

draining the cold light of a day
already old, he sees himself

unlocking the front door of his shop,
letting the office help in, letting

Eugene and Andy, the grease men                                                      
step before him out of the snow.

When she hangs up he looks out
on the back yard, the garbage cans

collapsing like sacks of air, the fence
holding a few gray sparrows,                                                              

he looks out on the world he always sees
and thinks, it’s a miracle.

By Philip Levine. From Selected Poems (Atheneum, 1984)


Dysrhythmia

Old people spit with absolutely no finesse
and bicycles bully traffic on the sidewalk.
The unknown poet waits for criticism
and reads his verses three times a day
like a monk with his book of hours.
The brush got old and no longer brushes.
Right now what's important
is to untangle the hair.
We give birth to life between our legs
and go on talking about it till the end,
few of us understanding:
it's the soul that's erotic.
If I want, I put on a Bach suite
so I can feel forgiving and calm.
What I understand of God is His wrath;
there's no other way to say it.
The ball thumping against the wall annoys me,
but the kids laugh, contented.
I've seen hundreds of afternoons like today.
No agony, just an anxious impatience:
something is going to happen.
Destiny doesn't exist.
It's God we need, and fast.

By Adelia Prado (translated by Ellen Watson). From The Alphabet in the Park (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

CRAFT:

The two poems above are emblematic of two ways of maintaining and building the energy in the body of a poem after the first lines. Both engage the senses and the emotions of the reader. However, Levine builds the energy to a climax through sequential actions and then allows the energy to fall away to a resolution. Prado uses a more meandering, almost anti-narrative strategy with a series of what seem to be non-sequiturs. And yet, a story is told. Both techniques attempt to turn up the energy introduced in the first lines through increased engagement with the reader's senses and emotions.

Levine is a great story teller. In "The Miracle," the classic five-step outline of 1) Introduction of a problem or conflict; 2) Rising Action; 3) Climax; 4) Falling Action; and 5) Resolution can be traced. After the opening four lines that get our attention with the image of a dead brother sleeping in a fire of red and yellow flames, the poet maintains and even turns up the heat in the ensuing rising action, and then lets it cool down after the climax. An examination of each sense would see this increase in energy. But observe, for example, what Levine does with color. The rising action spreads those yellow and red flames of the opening lines to the mother's apartment with its "color TV" that spill into her dream of a house "alive with flames." She awakens the next morning with the "clock luminous" carrying that energy through the night into the "gray light" of morning "rising slowly above the huddled town." And as those images of hot and cool colors rise, peak, and fall throughout the poem, the intensity of the story rises and falls as well.

The climax (re-read the poem to see if you agree) occurs when the mother "calls her son who has risen / for work and tells him, // Howard is warm and at peace." After those lines the action seems to fall and the imagery cools off appropriately: "He [her son] sees the cold light of a day / already old..." And in the next eight lines we have the cooler, colder images of "the grease men / step[ping] before him out of the snow," "the garbage cans //collapsing..." and "...the fence / holding a few gray sparrows." The final couplet provides the resolution of "look[ing] out on the world he always sees / and thinks, it's a miracle."

Notice how Prado in her opening lines engages our senses with images of "old people spit[ting]" and "bicycle...traffic on the sidewalk" and appeals to our emotions by showing us how the old people spit ("with no finesse") and how the bicycles navigate the sidewalks (they "bully" there way along). Many poets would continue writing about the old people or the bicyclists, describing them more or talking about old people in general, what it means to be old and why they spit. Or some would select a particular bicyclist and tells us what he had for breakfast, where he was going, and what he was going to do when he got there--.or attempt to stay on the subject in other ways. But Prado doesn't do that. Instead of the standard step-by-step way of building a story, she writes "off subject."

"The unknown poet waits for criticism / and reads his verses three times a day / like a monk with his book of hours." What? I asked myself the first time I read this poem over a decade ago. And then I discovered that the remainder of the poem contained similar seismic shifts in subject matter every two or three lines. Richard Wilbur speaks to this kind of writing in the first chapter ("Writing Off the Subject") of his classic The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (W.W. Norton, 1979):

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: "Autumn Rain." He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn't the subject. You don't know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it's a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain....It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.

I believe that Prado didn't change the subject from old people and bicycles on the sidewalk to a poet waiting for criticism because she ran out of things to say, but rather because she believed what Hugo said, that it was important to keep the energy going in the poem by changing topics before things got boring and because the remaining lines all did have something to do with one another, just not in a linear way.

Notice the leap from one subject to another:

1. Old people, bicycles, and bullying on the sidewalk. (Lines 1-2)
2. Poet and his poems. (Lines 3-5)
3. Brush and hair.  (Lines 6-8)
4. Giving birth. (Lines 9-12)
5. Music. (Lines 13-14)
6. God's wrath. (Lines 15-16)
7. Kids playing. (Lines 17-18)
8. Today. (Lines 19-21)
9. Destiny and God. (Lines 22-23)

Who would have thought the poem could traverse these subjects on its way from "Old people" to "God." But did Prado really change the topic with each shift? After reading the poem a few times, a logic emerges from the sound of the language itself--its music, its rhythms, its tones. I know it's a translation, but the translator chose words intentionally, so its sound work is not by chance. Notice the tonal connections down the page ("finesse / verses" and "erotic / Bach / wrath / caught / agony / anxious / happen / fast"). And notice how elements of each new subject can apply to the previous or other subjects. The criticism that the poet is waiting for could be directed toward the bullying in the previous lines. The mysteries of giving birth, the soul, God's wrath, and destiny vs. God's interaction with people need to be untangled the way the hair needs to be in the previous lines, but the tools (belief in "Destiny" and a "God" that acts in history) are old and no longer work the way they once did.

This is a narrative that has faith in the reader by demanding collaboration, in the same way the poet has faith that "something is going to happen" and demands more from language about ultimate reality than than her religious tradition has provided. To confirm that statement, I invite you to read the entire collection, with poems containing lines such as: "Poetry will save me. / I feel uneasy saying this, since only Jesus / is Savior..." ("Guide"), and "God looks at me and I am terrified. / ... / Before He knows it, there I am in His lap. / I pull on His white beard. / He throws me the ball of the world, / I throw it back" ("Two Ways").

On a personal note, when I first read this poem in 2006, it gave me, for the first time, permission to write any line beneath any other line without worrying whether it "followed it" in some way that I intended or already perceived. It opened up an entirely new way of creating poetry drafts for me.

And on a final note, if you go back to yesterday's poem, "If There Is Another World," you will notice that Morling periodically changes what seems to be the subject quite abruptly throughout her poem. Each time it re-charges the energy present in the poem in a way that is a blending of Levine's and Prado's strategies. Tomorrow we will examine another way of interrupting the narrative flow in a poem--with lyricism.

PROMPT(S):

Straight Narrative Poem


Write a poem that tells a story. Pick one sense (sight, sound, touch, etc,) and one attribute of that sense (size, color, shape, etc. for sight; volume, pitch, etc. for sound; texture, temperature, etc. for touch) and increase or decrease that attribute throughout the poem to correspond to rising or falling action in your narrative. There's no right or wrong--have fun with it!

Writing off the subject.

Select a draft of a poem you have already written or the first lines you wrote for yesterday's prompt. After the first two or three lines (maximum) and before the subject or idea seems finished or complete, begin writing about another subject that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the first subject. After two or three more lines, do it again. Again. Again. For extra credit, when you think the poem might be finished, go back and see if there is any connection between the subjects. Rearrange the lines or manipulate the language to tease out those connections with sound or some other way, like every other line being the next step in the story.

JOURNAL:

For those of you without a published collection, Best New Poets is open for submissions until May 15th. Link is HERE.

For all of you, consider submitting to the Montreal International Poetry Contest. The prize is an astonishing $20K for one poem, 40 lines or less. And lest you think it impossible, Marin Poetry Center's own Erin Rodoni won the award in 2017. Why not give it a try. Even you you don't win, you might end up in the anthology. Early entry (save money) deadline is May 1. Final judge is Yusef Komunyakaa. Link is HERE.

RECIPE: 





For improved mood and quick energy to write a poem, try this carb-laden quick pasta carbonara recipe HERE. In case you have trouble with the link, I've copied and pasted the recipe below:

Recipe courtesy of Tyler Florence (Food 911; Episode "Mangia! Mangia")

Level: Intermediate

Total: 25 min
Prep: 15 min
Cook: 10 min
Yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients:

1 pound dry spaghetti
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta or slab bacon, cubed or sliced into small strips
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
1 handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Directions:

1. Prepare the sauce while the pasta is cooking to ensure that the spaghetti will be hot and ready when the sauce is finished; it is very important that the pasta is hot when adding the egg mixture, so that the heat of the pasta cooks the raw eggs in the sauce.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender yet firm (as they say in Italian "al dente"). Drain the pasta well, reserving 1/2 cup of the starchy cooking water to use in the sauce if you wish.

3. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium flame. Ad the pancetta and sauce for about 3 minutes, until the bacon is crisp and the fat is rendered. Toss the garlic into the fat and sauce for less than 1 minute to soften.

4. Add the hot, drained spaghetti to the pan and toss for 2 minutes to coat the strands in the bacon fat. Beat the eggs and Parmesan together in a mixing bowl, stirring well to prevent lumps. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the egg/cheese mixture into the pasta, whisking quickly until the eggs thicken, but do not scramble (this is done off the heat to ensure this does not happen). Thin out the sauce with a bit of the reserved pasta water, until it reaches desired consistency. Season the carbonara with several turns of freshly ground black pepper and taste for salt. Mound the spaghetti carbonara into warm serving bowls and garnish with chopped parsley. Pass more cheese around the table.