Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"When Stepping into Darkness"

Today I learned that my life-long friend and poetry mentor, Keith Wilson, died.  He died a week ago today as I was making preparation to travel to Chicago for the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Convention.  Without him, I would not have made this trip, nor would I have embarked upon the long journey into poetry that began for me in 1970 as a student in his poetry class at New Mexico State University, where he taught for more than three decades, both in his college classroom and in his kitchen classroom that served as cross-roads for major poets (including himself) of The New American Poetry, inspiring multiple generations of family, students and colleagues to write better and to live more nobly than they ever thought they could.

Keith's accomplishments and awards are too numerous to list--they can be found in the many eulogies and references to him and to his work both on line and in print without much difficulty. I was fortunate enough to be engaged with his life and his work--some 40 volumes of poetry--for almost 40 years through a life-long exchange of letters and poems--a collection that I will discuss later in another blog.  For now, I would like to post a poem of his that he entrusted to me in January of 2000--I do not know if it has seen the light of publication, or whether it is a poem he shared with me only, as it exists as an edited and re-edited series of hand-written scribbles on pocket-sized yellow paper, with the note:  "The first poem of the new century!  1/13/2000."

I can think of no more fitting words for Keith's passing than those in his final draft:

When Stepping into Darkness

Begin by throwing words
that spread, light,
Darkness is,
after all, only the absence
of light.
on canvas, wood or paper
will do as well as
singing, dancing sculpting
all colors and meaning
into a blue swirl of doorway,

Keith, my dear friend, you painted that doorway quite well.  I only hope that as you danced through it, you took with you an equal measure of the same joy that you left for us.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Writing Life

I'm convinced more than ever that if I am not producing text it is, in large part, because I am not reading.  Therefore, for me, there is no such thing as "writer's block," only "reader's block." 

Writing without reading is like breathing out without breathing in. You can do it for a little while, but then you get down to those really stale verbal molecules you have to strain to get out, and then finally down to nothing.  At this point you either inhale or lose consciousness/die/etc.  Or maybe you're breathing, but not deeply enough to be as healthy as you could be, and what you need is a regular brisk walk or jog along new poetic paths to get the inspiration flowing.  Perhaps you're already in great shape, reading/writing every day, taking in and putting out high quality life-giving work, but the air in your neighborhood seems to have a funny smell to it lately.

Whatever your situation, you can benefit from fresh winds of language to get you going again. So here are a couple of my favorite writers, along with their books that always seem to clean out my pipes.  Maybe they will do the same for you.  If not, find your own and share them with writer friends.  Share them with me.  No neighborhood is guaranteed to remain smog-free forever.

Malena Morling:  Ocean Avenue and Astoria.  
Suzanne Buffam:  Past Imperfect

Not only do their names line up quite nicely on the page (in Times New Roman 12 point they align perfectly), but their poems produce the identical effect in my body:  they cause me to fall in love with poetry all over again each time I read them.  Morling and Buffam are both minimalists who carve deceptively simple lines on the page, creating tantalizing worlds of wonder that subvert all of my expectations of mundaneness.  Each word feels perfect in the mouth and to the ear, each line digests easily, but every poem remains with you for days, weighing heavily on the heart.  

"If there is another world,/I think you can take a cab there--" begins Morling in the opening poem to Astoria.  Then after leading us seductively down boulevards and through streets with ordinary names and extraordinary details such as the Paris Suites Hotel "with the Eiffel Tower on the roof," she invites us to take the driver's seat and turn left "if we're inclined to."  But she warns us that even though things seems familiar, we must be careful in this "other" world to "yield to the blind,/as the sign urges us/especially," she says, "since it is a state law./Especially since there is a kind of moth/here on the earth/that feeds only on the tears of horses." (!)  Who knew?  

And in the next two lines, although we did know that "Sooner or later we will all cry/from inside our hearts," how could we have guessed that "Sooner or later even the concrete/will crumble and cry in silence/along with all the lost road signs." (?!)  In typical fashion, after connecting this world's imagery with the unlikely imagery of other worlds (for Morling, poetry is all about making connections that have previously gone unnoticed), she ends the poem with an invitation to continue on in the world of the poem, but only if you're ready:

And if you're inclined to, you can continue
in the weightless seesaw of the light
through a few more intersections
where people inside their cars
pass you by in space
and where you pass by them,
each car another thought--only heavier.

Suzanne Buffam once said to a class of students at Columbia College Chicago:  "It's not art unless it breaks your heart."  I don't know if this statement is original with her or not, but I do know that Buffam's poetry not only breaks my heart with an innocence that has negotiated a place to stand in the middle of a garden full of  imperfection, terror and death, but shatters my brain with its virtuosic mastery of the relationship between the sonic, sensory and ideational levels in her work.  Listen to this voice in her ars poetica, "There Goes A Window."

Someone is smashing up the house next door.
Smashing its eyes out, smashing up
its coffers, its lintels, and its delicate, filigreed lid.
But it's okay--there's a sign out front

that says so.  Getting paid to do a job
makes it legitimate and brings the sun out
from behind a black cloud.  No one
is paying me to say this.

Then with the eyes of a child just come, as Plato believed, from the presence of absolute reality, Buffam describes her own Kitchen, closet and yard in a way that blends the cognitive with the perceptive:  "I have a wealth of rare books in my closet,/and a dearth of understanding in my heart," for example.  Buffam closes the poem (but not the dialogue) by describing a scene in the yard where she is sipping on drinks with friends, feeling the dew in the grass with her feet, when a mosquito

land(ed) gently on my wrist and without
warning, withdrew from me
a priceless draught of my life's major work.
I don't know how else to put it.
To speak at all is to speak in tongues.
That's the thing about Buffam, she doesn't really know how else to put it, except with her honest tongue, her smart brain and her broken heart.

Jack Spicer said:  Poems should echo and re-echo against each other . . . They should create resonances.  They cannot live alone any more than we can.  

As writer's we can do no better than to listen to the poems of Malena Morling and Suzanne Buffam, and bring to life other poems to keep them company.