Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Ground Zero:" Notes on Formulating my 2013 Reading List While Reading Sharon Doubiago

In another blogpost I wrote that reading and writing were like breathing in and breathing out--it's difficult to do one for very long without the other. One of my new year's resolutions is to read more. I devoted almost all of the additional time I gained in 2012 to writing, and not much to additional reading. So in 2013 I'm taking my own advice.

It's not that my time spent writing was not productive (I produced more work, had more of it published and given recognition in 2012 than in any year of the last ten--culminating in hearing last week that a chapbook of mine, Altar Call, will be published in February), nor that I spent no time at all reading (I probably averaged a book a week or more), but I want to make sure that I'm getting enough caloric intake for my output, and that I"m getting the highest possible quality of poetry in my diet, with enough variety that I don't miss out on any ingredients essential for maximum creativity.

The first step was to make a reading list for the year. I'm still in the process, but what I've done for the past five days is to read one poet a day (in chronological order) from Contemporary American Poetry, one chapter a day from Waldman's Vow to Poetry, and several pages a day from books on my shelf I've neglected for a while--the first of which has been Sharon Doubiago's Love on the Streets--her selected poems from each of five of her books.

My plan is to look up all of the poets I don't know or haven't read from Vow to Poetry and each of the sixty-six poets (all of whom I do know) from CAP and, based upon the sampling I make, list books that I want to read, allowing myself to add other books by free association or by bumping into other poets and writers along the journey. By the time I get through Doubiago's book, I should have quite a list compiled for the year. So far on the list:

The Poems of Stanley Kunitz 1928-1978
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke
I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
The Hunger Moon by Marge Piercy

These books are not necessarily the books I recommend that you read, but they do seem to be calling to me where I am in my reading/writing pilgrimage. Berssenbrugge, for example, is known as a "language poet," whose work resists narrative--a style I do not easily write about, or usually bring to my own work. But in listening to her read some of her poems, and in hearing her speak of dividing her time between New York and New Mexico--about which she says in answer to a question from Charles Bernstein about what she finds to do there (in NM), that she "shuts her gate, reads, sets up her work, and writes her poems"--I find a connection which I want to explore.

Marge Piercy, another poet whose work I did not know prior to this week, on the other hand, is one whose work is inexorably intertwined with story. Objects and experiences are the units of her poems, and the measure of their value is their "usefulness." She reminds us that the beauty of a vase in a museum is always tied to how much water it can hold.

This practical side to her is at once obvious when one deals with her personally. After reading her poems in CAM, I happily discovered that she is a facebook friend of mine. I sent her a brief message about her poem, "A Work of Artifice," about how a "bonsai tree/in the attractive pot/could have grown eighty feet tall/on the side of a mountain/till split by lightning./But a gardener/carefully pruned it./It is nine inches high." Near the end of the poem, she gives readers a tasty epithet. I wanted to acknowledge the obvious craft that went into the poem, which brought about the following exchange:

ME: Such a great poem for so many reasons--the form enacting the content, the tight, clipped lines, the spot-on tone, the truths that hold up: "With living creatures/one must begin very early/to dwarf their growth . . ." I'm working through Contemporary American Poetry. Today is your day, and your section is an oasis. Thanks. TL

MP: Thanks. But why not use something more recent? like from The Crooked inheritance or The hunger moon.

I know that this poem is "beautiful," she seemed to be saying, but there are many more poems of mine that are more "useful." I like that sensibility. And the fact that after over five decades of writing she is still creating excellent work makes me want to discover how she does it. But, Piercy would shrug it off and tell me that what she does is not that uncommon, that she's just doing what she's supposed to do--as in the title of one of her poems--"To Be Of Use," which opens with the following lines:

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

Me, too, Marge. Me, too.

And so, while I'm amassing my reading list for 2013 (other books are on it--actual books sent to me from fellow and fella poets--you know who you are--that I look forward to--thank you very much--and about which I will comment in due time), I'm not waiting for it to be finalized in order to begin reading--I'm just jumping right in with Sharon Dubiago's Love on the Streets. I've read most of the book, but never straight through. And never with my current mindset, so it seems like a first read. A bonus is that I get to hear Doubiago read next Tuesday night, right here in Mill Valley at Sweetwater (8:00 PM for any of you who might live in northern California). Here is section one of "Ground Zero" from Psyche Drives the Coast (1990):


We met on an evening in July
in one of the old taverns of this town,
two poets, unable to write, newly arrived,
hunted and haunted. For me,
the escape. For you,
the return.

You said you would show me
the Olympic Peninsula.

The road was overgrown.
In the headlights of your car I cleared the trees.
The cabin was vandalized, gutted,
the twenty-six oddshaped windows
opening onto the Strait, the Sound, Canada, and all the northern sky
shot out. The sink, the pump, the stoves,
even the doors, stolen.
You wandered around, then out to the deck,
seeming to forget me in the debris.

Victoria, the only human light,
shimmered on the foreign shore.
I heard the groan of a fishing boat below the bluff,
a strange cry from the woods, like a woman,
your ex-wife, the children.

We lay on a narrow mattress in the loft,
amidst bullet shells, beer cans, mold and glass,
the cold, hard bed of delinquent teenagers.

The moon was a broken boat through the bullet-shattered skylight.
We told each other.
First words. I said
one night stand. You said ground zero.
I said I lost my children, my lover.
You said submarine, fucking vandals.
I said kids with no place to go, kids forbidden
to love. You said holocaust. Apocalypse.
I pulled you over on me. The volcano erupted.
The world turned to ash. I cried
love cannot be gutted.
The moon, the stars, the giant trees watched
through a bullet hole.


granddaddy said...

I wonder if your disciplined, organized way of jumping into the work without dallying in the shallows of distraction or delay - clearly the planning and course-setting you practice are not shallows! - makes its way into your writing practice. Of course it shows in the quality and quantity of your output, as poet and reader and blogger and correspondent and audience and critic and champion and ...

What I mean, what I wonder about, is this: when you sit down to write, do you set a course, plan a form, make some sort of mental, spiritual, poetic list or outline, a poetic version of Ten Things I Want This Poem to Do (or Be or Express or Whatever It Is)? Such a practice as that seems like pruning the bonsai to me. I cannot imagine doing it without losing my soul or the soul of my poem. (But I am such a splash around in the shallows kind of guy, wishing I could swim on out there more like the big kids, that maybe I don't get it.)

For me, one of those essential (and usefully daunting?) necessities of poetry, along with that cracked kettle quality of language itself and that crackling numinous space between writer and reader, is managing / overcoming / swimming through the inescapable separation of writing from experience, inspiration from composition. In time, in purpose, in spirit.

I never believe it when novelists claim that their characters take over the writing, that they do not know ahead of time where they are going. But sometimes I can imagine it. That's the way I write best: follow the words. And then try not to kill them with revision.

Terry Lucas said...

Great questions (all in the same capital Q, Question Family)! The answer that strikes me at the moment is that it is different every time, but always along a, hopefully, widening spectrum. Sometimes I begin with a line and, honestly, don't have the foggiest idea of where it might end up. Sometimes, but not usually, I chase an idea (those poems rarely end up good). A few are gifts--i.e., they come almost dictated, word for word, and without much change, no matter how long I work at revision--those are the fun ones, having been wrought in my unconscious for a long time, and are among my best work. And, of course, sometimes I set out to write "in form." I usually have a line, nothing more.

Now that I'm into this commentary, I'm also thinking about the difference between getting a first draft down, and then going to work on it. First drafts are what I've really been talking about. The final draft always comes from a disciplined approach of pruning the bonsai. But, for me, the bonsai is not the first draft, but the experience(s) that led to it, including those of my life (including others'), my reading life, my writing life.

To mix metaphors, I guess I'll go fishing in any waters for poem, use any bait, any rod and reel, and when I get one on my line, I'll try to land it. If I get it "in the boat," then I'll decide whether to throw it back or keep it. Then's the time to go to work cleaning it, and preparing it to be eaten. Sometimes, I go fishing for a trout and catch a bass. Sometimes, I just throw out a worm to see what's down there . . .

I was encouraged yesterday by a comment from Sharon Olds in an online interview. When asked what was the criteria for selecting the poems in her recent book, Stag's Leap, she said something like, "Only one--whether they were good enough. I wrote hundreds that weren't." Sharon Olds. Hundreds that she threw back.

Thanks for making me think about it. I think I'll go throw a worm into the water. :)


granddaddy said...

The idea of “useful poetry” alarms me. (Which is, I acknowledge, just exactly the kind of useful thing poetry can do.) I do not think that “the beauty of a vase in a museum is always tied to how much water it can hold.” I’m not a scholar, not one of the big kids, but I’m not a total philistine either. I do think that the invitation to see the beauty (or mystery or poetry or extraordinary-ness) in an object that has some ordinary, practical use - be it a vase or a urinal - is an important element of art. I do recognize that creating a thimble-sized vase or a vase that had no bottom could provoke attention to how much water it could not hold or to its function as a water holder. I can quote Flaubert on human speech as a cracked kettle. But assigning value to the usefulness of poetry seems dangerous to me. It’s like knocking loudly on the door of the Den of Utilitarianism where sleep he and his fellow thugs Success, Recognition, Market Value, Commodification, and others of their surly gang. “Hey, guys! Do you want to hear my new poem?”