Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Planning to Write or Planning to Fail?

As I write this, I am deep in the throws of writing a statement of writing plans as part of applying for a major writing fellowship.  I am taking a break in the process to share the following thoughts.

Writing a statement of writing plans is like sketching a trail through a dense wilderness that one has only flown over at thirty thousand feet.  On the one hand, it is quite impossible to get it right the first time (or, perhaps, the tenth); on the other, it seems like an absolutely necessary first step if new poetic territory is to be properly explored and mapped.  The question of where one will ultimately end up can never be answered ahead of time.  However, a discussion of possible starting points and provisional directions to push toward seems a worthwhile strategy for expanding one's vistas.  But, what may be a reasonable process in the natural world may not be so in the realm of the arts.  

Viewed in one way, intention has little or no place in the writing of poetry, being a sort of trap, a room with no view except for what can be thought of ahead of time within the confines of that same room.  Dean Young asserts in his essay "Beyond Intention" that a poem should always subvert our best efforts at intention.  "More than intending, the poet attends," he states.  And if this were true of poems, would it not also be true of poetry projects and manuscripts?  

But if intention should give way to attention, then what exactly is the poet to attend?  Certainly one answer is the view (vision?) outside.  But shouldn't the poet also sit with one's own work, day and night, like a parent on the floor playing with one's children, or like a faithful relative with a comatose patient, listening for some change of breath, watching for some motion of the lips, in order to dutifully carry the faint whispers and murmurings to the physicians in the hope that some treatment can result in a transformation of life?

In my view, on each side of the pathway that leads to great poetry (or the quintessence of any art form), there is a diversion that leads to ruin.  On the one hand is the labyrinthine side trail of planning, where no risks are taken than are not measured ahead of time, and every attempt is made to plan the outcomes before the first step is taken, the first word is written.  On the other hand is a sheer cliff, with little chance of surviving the plunge into the unknowable.

In front of us, however, is a path that takes from either side of its surrounding terrain, challenging us to give our most advanced thought to the creative act, along with our most recklessly primitive risk-taking.  Perhaps rather than writing to a precise subject matter or with a predetermined diction or end in mind, a mapping  of the meta-language of a project of poems that, for example, explores what Young calls "primary human dilemmas," is one way of negotiating this path.  Young explains:  "By exploration of primary human dilemmas, I mean the primitive, the assertion of the monstrous if need be, the instinctual, visceral, sexual, rogue, absurd, sometimes derangement as a form of innocence.  Primary even in afterness."  

An example of this primary human dilemma can be found in Yusef Komunyakaa's "Work," or in Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion," or even in the more graphic "How to Be Eaten by a Lion" by Michael Johnson, appearing in The Best American Poetry 2009.  Perhaps Dean Young best sums up the issue when he says that "Poetry is when the animal bursts forth, inflamed.  It ain't always pretty.  We are permitted to say everything is possible, brief consolation for what we've taken that we don't want and what we should have taken but were too afraid, proud, or stupid to.  We can't have everything."

More thoughts on this to come.  And, hopefully, more poetry.  But for now, it will have to wait. I have to get back to writing my writing plans. 

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shaindel Beers' "A Brief History of Time"

Part Bukowski, part Kim Addonizio, part Lorca, with a seasoning of Emily Dickinson, Shaindel Beers' poems in A Brief History of Time resist being captured and placed in the standard cages of critical theory the way a giraffe can at times see its captors approaching and gracefully gallop away, or at times deliver a kick strong enough (as Beers tells us in "My Love, A Partial Explanation"), to "decapitate a lion with a single kick if it threatens her calf." The giraffe, in fact, is an excellent metaphor for Beers' body of work in this, her first book: the poems are fully grounded in primal imagery, sometimes camouflaged in the midst of the growing canon of smart barroom confessional ballads, and always standing tall above the dry savanna of mediocrity, reaching for, and almost always grasping, the choicest fruit in the topmost branches of poetry that the academy has to offer.

Beers offers us a mottled vision of human existence in the same way her poem, "Body Shop," serves up its life-embattled body parts: "fifteen pounds of fat," "the pale blue moons/from under [her] eyes," "the tooth chipped on the roller coaster," "the cyst from [her] imperfect hand," "the removed right breast--it has a birthmark and is smaller," by "turn[ing] the rest...inside out and/serv[ing] it up/all raspberry silk on a silver platter." And in consuming her words, we receive a deeper vision of our own existence, and even come to love (others yes, but mostly ourselves), without having the pressure of doing even that perfectly.

The struggle between the inherited love ideal and the growing edge of the actual has not been written any better to this reader's ear and heart than in "Rebuttal Evidence." "I've been loving in my own way all along," the poet begins in her defense of an evolving ability to negotiate through the roaring river of relationships with its unexpected turns and deadly rapids. In the second stanza, the poem fully engages the reader by turning into both an outer and inner dialogue:

"If I can't love, as you say, then why do I sometimes pick up the phone or hear
the creak of a door and think It's him?
That's different, you might say,
and maybe you'd be right because the dead can't hurt us
and we certainly can't hurt them, so maybe they are easier to love,
at least for me. Maybe this is my abstract way of loving,
which I didn't ask for, but which seems to have always been my way--
that existential struggle between the self and other--
the way I never see where I end and begin in relation to the world,
which somehow always seems to puzzle or offend."

With poignant vignettes, Beers fleshes out this ligature that exists between us all in the remainder of the poem--a corpus of shared abandonment--so that we are all united by our aloneness, bringing to mind a poem entitled "Company," by Suzanne Buffam:

"There is nothing to turn to.

There is an opening.

Beauty inquires within.

How long have you lived here?

Are you happy?

You answer each question

by repeating it, until its edges loosen.

A man walks by with a small dog wearing a sweater.

You are both more and less

alone than you thought."

There is not a poem in A Brief History of Time that does not resonate to and amplify this theme of a common existential dissonance. And there is not a poem unworthy of close examination and repeated readings. Listen to these lines from Beers' liturgical-like ars poetica, "I Give You Words:"

"Because the body is so ephemeral and corrupt,
what is beautiful today may not be so ten years hence,
I give you words."

"Because my thoughts are strange and dreamlike
and not to be trusted to icon or art,
I put them into words for you."

"Sometimes there are no words,
and I am tempted to make up new ones,
but what could new words do that others
in their lives of thousands of years could not accomplish?"

"So I try to use old words, inherited from generation
after generation, and try to make them say new things
as if there was never love before us
on this earth, as if every day we're not drinking
and breathing the molecules of long-dead lovers
who thought they, too, had invented love,
who felt the same tensions and betrayals
and tried to use old words to describe these hopes
and glories of the flesh and mind, and failed
as I have, to say the thing anew."

Reading A Brief History of Time will not necessarily be an easy read--not because the poems in it are not accessible, but because it touches the depths inside ourselves we need to access in order to change. Regardless of our response to the words, they do say things anew. And in this time, that is something very old--as old as poetry itself.

Monday, May 4, 2009

In the beginning was the word...

I recently attended The Marin Poetry Festival.  It was an outdoor, all-afternoon event in beautiful Sausalito, California.  The full range of the poetry continuum of the bay area was represented, from little-known local screamers, all heat and no light, making it up as they went along, to Kay Ryan, the poet laureate of the United States, and several poets somewhere in-between these two endpoints on the poet notoriety spectrum.  One such poet was Sharon Doubiago, and for my money--$5 cover charge, to be exact--hers was the best reading of the day.  Turns out, it was her birthday.  And while that may have contributed to her terrific reading, I told her why I enjoyed hearing her more than anyone else that day, during a break while she signed my copy of Love on the Streets, her latest volume of poems.

What came through Doubiago's readings was her value of the primacy of the word above anything else.  What do I mean by "the word?"  I mean the text, the actual words, the diction, the stuff of which poetry is made:  LANGUAGE.  Next came her reading of the word.  And finally came her--her as poet, her as first person persona, her as a person.  Many other readers that day got it bass-ackwards:  it was obvious that they considered themselves the most important part of the art.  Next came their performance.  And finally, if at all, came respect for "the word."  

This is not to disparage the skill with which some readers render text to an audience.  It is just to say that bad poetry cannot be saved with good reading, and that in order to produce art, the creative act must utilize craft earlier than its conveyance to an audience--craft that produces unique and artful combinations of words into syntactical units that can stand on their own and be interesting, entertaining and elucidating, no matter how poorly or how well they are later read aloud.  A hasty slapping on of paint, no matter how loud a color, cannot make up for faulty workmanship on a bridge purporting to carry people from the mundane to the sublime.  What is required is a little knowledge of engineering and a commitment to use the strongest materials.  

Or, as in the case of The Music Man, in order to have a real band, you gotta have some horns to blow!  Listen to these notes from Doubiago's poem, "I Was Born Coming to the Sea":

I was born in Seaside Hospital on a Long Beach.
The buoy I heard calling from the sea
was a boy calling me
a year to the day they left Ducktown, Tennessee.
While I was coming, Daddy rode the rails
to catch the wheat harvest in Washington,
Mama waitressed the last road west,
a Japanese cafe at the end of Redondo Beach pier.
We rode the Midnight Ghost, Daddy and I gone north for some money,
while Mama and I at the sunset end of the world
brought food from across the sea.

It's not that this poem cannot be read with passion nor acted out in a way that entertains us.  And the poet herself is certainly not absent--she is there in almost every line.  But the reason this poem is magnetic is because, while the narrative is from common experience, the language is heightened in an uncommon way, the way poetry has supercharged language for centuries:  with poetic devices that resonate with the meanings of the words, either read or heard.  

In short, in the beginning was the word...

And the word was God!


Wednesday, February 18, 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.