Monday, November 15, 2010

Backwater Poet: Greg Keith

Greg Keith is a poet whose work not too many people know, but he is one of the poets who contributed to the headwaters of my own poetry, one whose work I sometimes forget still abides (he lost his battle to cancer in 1998), faithfully flowing for decades, full of rich nutrients from the ground of the giant watershed, still feeding my work and helping to shape the standard against which I measure all poetry. In short, he is a part of my own personal canon, and you could do much worse to make him a part of yours.

Keith has no major awards to his credit and only one published book of poems for his decades-long love affairs with language and science, but his legacy is a body of work that joins the empirical (hard science) and the lyrical aspects of the human condition in a rare marriage that retains the romance inherent in the new and the unfamiliar, while moving beyond youthful infatuation into a mature union that holds up over time. Hear the title poem to his book, Life Near 310 Kelvin:

Life Near 310 Kelvin

Air so still stars barely twinkle, still busy inside.
Just step out into the dark yard and the air starts
eagerly stripping momentum from the skin.

Her cheek so chilled it made cool fingers hot--heat
needs these directions to go, some difference to erase.
Iron straight from the forge, fierce with tiny agitation,
donates freely the deep KE it has just received.

Hot's whatever gives you heat and cold is how heat goes.
Either way, something has happened and you know it.
She arrived. She departed. Sunlight has finally
reached the tables on the eastern side of the street.

Heat falls out of the intervals between breadcrumbs.
No trail home. Birds have devoured every morsel.

Heat, the ratchet keeping time from slipping back.

Although Keith was an expert in computer technology, his measure of artistic success was not quantity of output or publication credits. He considered '94 a good year: "one article, one story, three poems published." Keith's hesitation to "rush to publish" either in print or on line is now even more poignant than it was in his creative non-fiction story, "Literary Passions," (published in 1998), in which he pits his wit and humility against a Bukowski-type anti-hero who challenges him to a poetry write-off in a Santa Cruz bar.

The story reminds me of Bill Henderson's comments in his introduction to Pushcart Prize XXXIV about how in the literary world speed kills: "Another lust that consumes our culture today is speed, not the drug but the electronic version. This is especially deadly to writers. On-demand vanity publishers will zip out your efforts, no questions asked (and usually no readers found). It's a mistake for writers to be in a huge hurry to be takes years, maybe a lifetime, to figure out what you want to say and how to say it. Because you can burp out a poem or short story on line, you will not immediately join the ranks of the immortals. Indeed you will be embraced in the Pantheon of Twitter. Or maybe The Kingdom of Kindle will admit you. Fast books, no binding needed. Toss when done."

Even though slow and steady does not always win the race, in the case of Greg Keith, allowing the thirteen and one-half billion year-old universe to reveal itself in his work through a diction both aware of science and the human condition, connects its history with our story, and can render the quantum just as easily as the galactic to be the quintessence of existence. And consciousness: listen to the neuron's story in "What the neuron knows:"

"How to listen, to mull the rumors in its thousand ears
and what size grain of salt to take with each.
How to speak its one word or keep mum. Given time,
how to change its little mind about the weight it gives its sources.
What the net is is
gangs of such neurons and weighted connections.
What the net knows it salts away in blind trust at the nodes,
its wealth spread out in unnumbered accounts."

Greg marveled at the discovery that photons disintegrated on their long journeys from the stars to earth. How then, do we see them? On the way, these dying particles meet up with younger free-roaming photons that become excited from the transfer of energy and information, which is carried to its final destination by those who have never seen their parent-stars.

Such is our mission--to receive the recognized pulses of light flashed by others, to add our own visible energies, and to carry the resulting message as far as we can! Gregory Keith is one of those photons. You may never have seen his star, but you can be energized by him to create your own!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

MiPOesias Magazine!

Didi Menendez has a multi-channel publishing network that not only presents some of the best poets and artists working today, but she adds value by aggressively marketing them through cutting edge technology, as well as in traditional print forms. For Didi, it's about publishing as an art form and giving herself totally to that art and her artists. And even though she's all about relationships, they never get in the way of her demanding excellence in the work. Check out this issue of MiPOesias Magazine to see what I mean, as well as the link to MiPOesias, to see her other publications!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Long Poems: Galaxies of the Poetic Universe

Long poems. What are they? Book-length continuous flows of lines and stanzas or series of poems capable of standing alone, but interacting in a way that forms something more than a manuscript? How long is long? "Howl" qualifies when compared to a haiku, but how about when one considers "Iovis," the twenty-something year project by Anne Waldman, now approaching 1,000 pages? Or is "long poem" an inappropriate term for her multi-volume series--no different from any poet's life-time body of work, capable of being considered "one poem."

And how do long poems differ from shorter poems? Is length the only criterion for a long poem, or is there a qualitative difference, more akin to the difference between a black hole and a normal star, than the difference between a large jupiter-like planet and a small frozen body like the planetoid Pluto?

Indeed, in the poetic universe there are a seemingly infinite variety of ways that words and lines, stanzas and non-stanzas cluster together to form varied structures, in the same way that matter clumps together to form asteroids, planets, stars and galaxies.

The following poems are major bodies of work--a beginning list of important long poems to view and review to expand one's understanding of the poetic universe. Feel free to add to the list, post a review, or comment upon them or the idea of the long poem. It's all part of the work of producing new text that just might stimulate the birth of another long poem.

A. R. Ammons, "Garbage," and "Ommateum": both booklength poems in many sections.

Anne Carson, "Autobiography Of Red": a novel in verse.

Chaucer, "The Canterbury Tales."

Hart Crane, "The Bridge": modern poem in multiple sections centered on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Dante, "The Divine Comedy"

T.S. Elliot: "Four Quartets": long poem of ontological philosophy.

H.D., "Trilogy": three long poems of spiritual exploration, bordering on midrash, written during the London bombings of WWII: "The Walls Do Not Fall," "Tribute To The Angels," and "The Flowering Of The Rod."

Homer, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey": classic Greek tales to which all western literature owes a debt.

Robinson Jeffers, "Cawdor" and "Medea": lyrical narrative poem, based upon Jeffers own tragic love life, and a verse adaptation of Euripides' drama, created especially for the actress Judith Anderson.

Kenneth Koch, On The Edge, Collected Long Poems: A collection of six longer (36-116 pages) poems.

Larry Levis, "Elegy": In some ways this final book of Levis, published posthumously and edited by Philip Levine and Peter Everwine, can be considered one long poem.

Milton, "Paradise Lost"

Ezra Pound, "Pisan Cantos": some of the most lyrical verse in the English language.

Tomas Transtromer: several poems in "the great enigma" are longer (20 pp. or more).

Walt Whitman, "Leaves Of Grass": classic collection of poems or parts of one long poem that brought American poetry into the modern era.

William Carlos Williams, "Patterson": Williams' classic poem using the conceit of a city to describe "the entire knowable universe."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Do We Write?

Dawn Haines begins her essay, "To Begin, After A Long Time Gone", in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers with the following sentence: "In January 2006 I graduated from a low-residency program and stopped writing." Sound familiar? How about her analysis of why: "The deadlines instituted by the MFA program I attended had given me the incentive--even the discipline--to write, but after I graduated the reality hit me: Writing is hard."

Haines has hit upon the precise reason I write this blog and the reason I founded an online poetry community: the writing life is a life of connection--a connection with what others have written and a connection with other writers. In an MFA or BFA program we wrote, at least in part, because we purchased, among other things, an ongoing community of fellow-writers with writing deadlines imposed upon us.

Unless we find (or make) a substitute community that holds one another accountable after leaving the program, many of us will do something like what Haines did: "I thought a break [from writing] was rational...I was tired of fighting for time and for the even more difficult-to-acquire quiet space I needed for writing...Before long, I noticed I was feeling bad. Really bad. So bad that I wouldn't get out of bed. I told myself that tomorrow I'd start writing, every day, just for me. But I stayed in bed and read novels and watched movies on y son's portable DVD player. I turned on my computer only to read e-mail and catch up on American Idol news. And the longer I didn't write, the more I felt like a failure because of all the unwritten words."

The path back to writing, for Haines, came from listening to a member of her writing group who suggested she simply write about not writing. That led to other ideas that she developed into stories and she was back on track.

What is your path back into the writing life? What are you spending your time thinking about? Write about it! What are you spending your time doing? Write about it! What are you reading? (Oops, not reading--pick up that book you bought your last MFA semester, the one that you never got around to reading.) Write about it! As Haines points out, you don't have to have open-ended hours of isolation to make progress. You don't have to live the idyllic writing life in order to write. And that brings up the question: "Why do you write?" Do you write in order to fulfill other needs--to feel important, to be a success, to avoid being a failure? Or do you write for the intrinsic benefits that writing brings?

Haines writes to connect--to connect with her readers, yes. But more important, to connect to herself. "It's a process of unfolding, and what it reveals to me--however troubling--is deeply satisfying. There is no failure in discovery. Often when I'm writing, I feel most alive."

What Haines is speaking about is writing as a deeply meditative (spiritual) act. Like breathing, it has benefits outside of itself. But there is a joy in simply focusing upon and experiencing our own breath. In. Out. In. Out. Read. Write. Read. Write.

How can we not do it and be alive?

Haines concludes so well: "Writing is about making connections and creating something where before there was nothing. It's about energy and intellect and gifts. It's about hope. This day, in spite of myself, the writing did what I nearly forgot it could do. And more."

Here's hoping...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Best of AWP: Putting Together Your First Book II

E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel distinguishes between story and plot: story being "a narrative of events arranged in time sequence," and plot being a narrative of events, "the emphasis falling on causality." Forster reserves story for the "wriggling and interminable, naked worm of time," the skeletal backbone of actions present in any literary organism. Plot, on the other hand, involves the hidden, mysterious, causal elements necessary, among other elements, for transforming the bones of a story into a living, breathing piece of literature.

Nicky Beer's contribution to the panel discussion ("The 25th Poem: Putting Together Your First Book) centered around Forster's distinction, applying it to the sequencing of poems in a book, with the main point that each poem is to be viewed as an action contributing to plot, rather than merely the story. Thus the poet should strive to link poems organically, rather than chronologically, to achieve the greatest effect.

James Allen Hall echoed this maxim and pointed out that a chronological structure does organizational work, but what is also needed is emotional work. One should consult the images in one's poems as one would themes in a musical score and attempt to organize them in the same manner.

Anna Journey (author of If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting (The National Poetry Series), emphasized that there is no one right way to organize a book of poems. One can group them by theme (somewhat artificial), one can utilize a linear ordering (tends to box one in), or one can "allow the poems to order themselves." (This is where I gagged!) Journey articulated her own strategy as one that attempts to "persuade a reader by voice." By this she said she meant to "sense the psychic preoccupations of the poems, and make them resonate."

Finally, Sandy Sang (author of Sediment (Four-Way Books) emphasized the overall diversity of the manuscript. She advised creating an arc (not necessarily narrative) from beginning to middle to end, where every poem is seen to have a purpose. This begins with identifying the "core poems" and discovering a direction for the book from them. Identify the themes that appear again and again and utilize them as an organizing principle.

Of course these panelists were poets and, therefore, most of the advise was couched in metaphor. But if the advise was difficult to reduce to a ten step program, at least it provided a tremendous amount of motivation to experiment with order and structure in one's manuscript. So much so that the next morning I went downstairs from my hotel room at 5:00 AM and completely re-ordered my full manuscript. It may not win any awards any time soon, or even be published, but it is better for the process, and I think I have finally laid to rest my misgivings about its weaknesses. Perhaps more importantly, I'm ready to move on and write another manuscript. Maybe that's the lesson to be learned. If, after making it as good as you can, your first manuscript doesn't get published, just write a better one! And while you're doing it, you might look at the advice of these award-winning poets.

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Schedule At AWP

Wednesday, April 7:

4:00 PM: Arrive at Hyatt Regency Denver

8:00 PM: Terry Lucas reading at the Mercury Cafe (with Naugatuck River Review Poets)

Thursday, April 8:

10:30-11:45 AM: R125 "The 25th Poem"

3:00-4:00 PM: Signing at Naugatuck River Review Table

Free the rest of the afternoon for being at book fair tables and touring book fair.

08:30-10:00 PM: Keynote Address: Michael Chabon

Friday, April 9:

09:00--10:15 AM: F113 "Writing Sex, Implicit Censorship in Contemporary Poetry"

10:30--11:45 AM: Free Time for meeting up with people or book fair.

Noon--01:15 PM: F158 "Newer Testaments"

Free the rest of the afternoon for being at book fair tables and touring book fair.

08:30-10:00 PM: Gary Snyder & Anne Waldman Reading

Saturday, April 10:

Early AM: Available for meeting up with people for breakfast or midmorning.

Noon: Leave for airport.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tygerburning Literary Journal

Congratulations to Jacqueline Gens, editor, and the following poets, among others, whose work appears in issue one of this new journal:

Nikoleta Nousiopoulis, Matt Ulland, Stephen Delbos, Barbara Paparazzo, Steven Riel, Ilya Kaminsky, Sara Lafsyk, Dorinda Wegener, Annmarie O'Connell, Nin Andrews, Douglas Piccinnini, Howard Faerstein, Joanna Cooper, Bhisham Bherwani, Adam Fieled, Ivy Page, Terry Lucas, James Harms, Brian Henry, Chard DeNiord, Roberta Feins, Lana Hechtman Ayers, Erica Lutzner, Janet Barry, Barbara Lovenheim, Tara Betts, Karen Dietrich, and Kent Maynard.

Copies can be pre-ordered at

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When All Else Fails

In an earlier post (01-12-10, "Breathe In, Breathe Out: Read, Write"), I wrote that there was no such thing as a writer's block--only a reader's block--to emphasize the primacy of reading to writing. Here I will share the poets who never fail to inspire me, and some of the poems that have kicked in the muse as I have, in the words of Larry Levis, "stare[d] at the whorled grain of wood in this desk/I'm bent over until it's infinite," trying to "make it make it/Confess everything."

I read the following books at least once every couple of months, memorizing a new poem each time, and keep them on my desk for reference. Then whenever I need a particular attribute in a line or a poem, I consult these poets, whose work in that area I consider to be nonpareil. Here they are in the order that they happen to be stacked on my desk right now.

1. The Selected Levis, selected poems by Larry Levis.

Indispensable for learning how to write a long lyrical line. Read aloud these opening lines from "Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand":

One was a bay cowhorse from Piedra & the other was a washed-out palomino
And both stood at the rail of the corral & both went on aging
In each effortless tail swish, the flies rising, then congregating again

Around their eyes & muzzles & withers.

Their front teeth were by now yellow as antique piano keys & slanted to the angle
Of shingles on the maze of sheds & barn around them, their puckered

Chins were round & black as frostbitten oranges hanging unpicked from the limbs
Of trees all through winter like a comment of winter itself on everything
That led to it & found gradually the way out again.

In the slowness of time. Black time to white, & rind to blossom.
Deity is in the details & we are details among other details & we long to be

Teased out of ourselves. And become all of them.

2. Between Angels by Stephen Dunn

I often turn to Stephen Dunn, the master of shining the searchlight of extraordinary mindfulness onto the ordinary details and happenings of life, when I want to find pleasure in a turn or twist of thought as a kind of modern-day wisdom literature.

From Between Angels found in his volume of the same name (1989):

I shop in the cold
neon aisles
thinking of pleasure,
I kiss my paycheck

a mournful kiss goodbye
thinking of pleasure,
in the evening replenish

my drink, make a choice
to read or love or watch,
and increasingly I watch
I do not mind living

like this. I cannot bear
living like this.
Oh, everything's true
at different times

in the capacious day,
just as I don't forget
and always forget

half the people in the world
are dispossessed.
Here chestnut oaks
and tenements

make their unequal claims.

Now hear these opening lines from "The Reverse Side," a poem that blooms from this one, a decade later in Different Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize:

The Reverse Side
The reverse side also has a reverse side.--Japanese proverb

It's why when we speak a truth
some of us instantly feel foolish
as if a deck inside us has been shuffled
and there it is--the opposite
of what we said.

3. Astoria, by Malena Morling

Morling achieves astonishing connections between the dots of daily existence with a minimalist diction. Her worlds attract me like dark (as in invisible) matter that turns into brilliant light when you allow yourself to be pulled towards it. Here are the opening and closing lines to "If There Is Another World":

If there is another world,
I think you can take a cab there--
or ride your old bicycle
down Junction Blvd.
past the Paris Suites Hotel
with the Eiffel Tower on the roof
and past the blooming Magnolia and on--


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
ass you by in space
and where you pass by them,
each car another thought--only heavier.

All is heavier than it seems in Morling's worlds. But you can only get there if you let go of everything and allow yourself to be pulled in by that "weightless seesaw of light."

4. Rose, The City in Which I Love You, and Book of my Nights, by Li-Young Lee.

For sheer musicality, Li-Young Lee is hard to beat. I turn to him whenever I want to hear major work in a minor key:

(From "Epistle"):

I know nothing,
but what I sang of once with others,
all of us standing in the vaulted room.

But there is wisdom
in the hour in which a boy
sits in his room listening

to the sound of weeping
coming from some other room
of his father's house...

...Who was weeping? Why?
Did the boy fall asleep?
Did he flee that house? Is he there now?

Before it all gets wiped away, let me say,
there is wisdom in the slender hour
which arrives between two shadows.

It is not heavenly and it is not sweet.
It is acompanied by steady human weeping,
and twin furrows between the brows,

but is is what I know,
and so am able to tell.

5. Barter, by Ira Sadoff

Almost the opposite of Morling and Lee, Sadoff's poems are high in thread-count and are, therefore, quite dense, but drape, oh, so beautifully. They are complex, jacquarded weaves that never completely give up all their colors and sheens.

Hear the opening lines to "An Uplifting Story":

It's so muggy out the person next door is clamming up
inside us. I say we because of cheap linguistic theory.
But I want to insert something personal, to get over
the rough spots, to get closer, to pan in, to take the long view,
to acquire professional assistance--these are other options.

--To Be Continued

Friday, March 5, 2010

One Poem May Hide Another

"One Train May Hide Another" is a brilliant poem by Kenneth Koch. It's one of those poems that is intuitively so right that upon reading it, one may have the thought, "I could have written that." In fact, given the title, without anything else, I dare say that many a poet would write some of the lines in it, or very nearly. But none of us did. Perhaps there were other poems in the way of it like:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.

Today I had the experience of one poem hiding another, and I offer it as yet another way to break through (or to allow the poem to break through) the proverbial writer's block.

I am in the second day of a three day writing vacation that I have been planning for over a month. (I haven't taken enough time lately to focus on generating new work, and I have been looking forward to holing up in my downstairs study, with nothing to distract me from generating some new work.) In preparation, I had started two separate poems (which I oftentimes find will merge into one), both using the technique of starting with another poet's line. Yesterday I spent about eight hours trying to add something cogent and exciting to each. I ended up with four lines on one and six to eight lines on the other that I wouldn't show to someone who had never heard of poetry, much less to anyone from my writing group.

This morning I pulled out yesterday's horrific beginnings with a fresh attitude. After a few minutes it became apparent that lightning was not going to strike either of these two damp strands of tinder. So I just stared a while at the one I had entitled "Poem Beginning With A Line From Malena Morling" which began (and I'm not embarrassed about this line because it is hers): "Tonight, because all matter crumbles." And the next lines read "I want to insert something personal, a prayer/rising like the flame of a candle, roughly shaped/like a tooth worn down for all the souls locked away in purgatory."

Meditating on these lines told me that I hoped to find some substance to add to Malena Morling's great first line, in order to create a poem that evolved from hers, but that was truly mine. This thought reminded me of St. Paul's definition of faith: "For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The substance of things hoped for--yes that was what I was looking for. Then I remembered the gospel song sung in all the churches of my youth: "His Eye Is On The Sparrow (and I know he watches me)." I wrote: "I grew up believing that God had his eye on the sparrows," and I was off and running with another poem. It took me less than five minutes to write the first draft of "The Substance Of Things Hoped For," and another fifteen minutes to generate six separate drafts of what sets before me as an eighteen line poem. The drafts are far from over, but I now have an entire piece to edit for the next month or so.

What about the lines I wrote yesterday? Maybe they will become poems and maybe they will not. Perhaps they will reveal other lines and entire other poems that they have been hiding. Maybe they will be abandoned forever, having served their purpose.

It is told that a pupil of Allen Ginsberg once came to him in frustration over not being able to come up with the right ending for a poem. "I can't seem to finish this poem," he told Allen. "Can you tell me what to do?" "Certainly," Allen replied, "just write another poem."

One poem may hide another. Or as Kenneth Koch concludes his poem on the subject:

When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too, one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristam Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you're asleep there, and
One song hide another song: for example "Stardust"
Hide "What Have They Done to the Rain?" Or vice versa. A pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hid another, you sit at the foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you'd have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ambition: For the work, or for the self? The roots of writers' original sin and redemption redefined.

The Pushcart Prize. Even typing it now, I get goose pimples. The two dozen poems and forty to fifty-something combined stories and essays (technically creative non-fiction pieces) in the annual anthology are selected from over six thousand candidates, representing the best writing from each of more than one thousand small presses and journals each year in the opinions of their editors. Just being nominated is an honor worthy of inclusion on one's curriculum vitae. And no matter what one's aesthetic sensibilities, there is no doubt that the winners are among the most substantive literary works published during the previous year.

The issue of recognition of the work of art as separate from recognition of the artist is dealt with in two of the winning essays in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology: "How To Succeed In Po Biz" by Kim Addonizio, and "God's Truth Is Life" by Christian Wiman. Both should be required reading for anyone writing anything other than a shopping list or the occasional birthday message inside a blank card for Brownie points gained from your lover or your mother.

"I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself," writes Wiman, "but I'm not sure I believe in that anymore." "If a poet's ambition were truly for the work and nothing else," Wiman continues, "he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making, but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self..."

If casting doubt on the possibility of pure altruism were the only rubric of faith that Wiman could muster, he would come off as simplistic, and his piece as another whining essay from the sidelines of fine art. But through vignettes of his and other poets' experiences, intertwined with personal reflection about the relationship between art and life, Wiman succeeds in creating parables that elucidate our journey into our own practice of writing as a spiritual (not religious) path:

"Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one's being, one's material, and Being itself. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity. Bit it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names."

While Wiman is busy dissecting the pickled corpse of ambition in the laboratory, splitting hairs with a precision linguistic scalpel, slicing his way through the flesh to reveal its heart, Kim Addonizio, oiled down with satire, has been dirty dancing with the body poetic, seducing the serpent in the garden, wrestling with the angel in order to receive the blessing of the paid poetry reading she deserves that will launch her career. Now, wearing a sheer Machiavellian nightgown, she joins us for an interview, offering step-by-step advice, in the midst of her mounting insecurities:

"Once a bona fide, i.e., paying invitation has been extended, try to obtain as high a fee as possible. Tell yourself you are worth every penny, but secretly feel the way you did when you were on food stamps--other people need and deserve this more than you. Feel anxious about the upcoming trip because you hate to travel. Feel anxious because you are basically a private person and can't live up to the persona that is floating out there in the world acting tougher and braver than you. You are a writer, after all, and prefer to be alone in your own house with your cat. You don't really like your fellow humans, except for your lover, whose stories and mannerisms can be usefully stolen and put into your writing. When he traveled with a carnival as a young man, he learned to eat fire and to put a nail up his nose. Sensibly, he left the carnival to work in sales, while you suspect that you have become a sideshow act, a fake mermaid shriveling in her tank, uselessly flipper her plastic scales."

After stressing out over the highly implausible (yet actual) events of the presenters not having obtained any of her books for sale, missing her ride from the airport and ending up lost, trying to climb into the window of a private citizen's apartment she has mistaken for the university residence, being cursed at by the father of two teenage girls who come to the window to ask for cigarettes thinking she is a prostitute, and scores more of similar stories, Addonizio tells us:

"Go ahead and have a little more vodka with lemonade, and get slightly drunk by dusk. Try to write a few good lines and then give up in despair. Tell yourself you are foolish, feeling terrible when you have actually been asked to share your work with other people. It is the work that you love, and sometimes you even get paid for it. Tell yourself you are lucky, that people envy you. Tell yourself this is what you toiled and sweated your whole life to be able to do, and now you are doing it, and above all, don't be such a god-damned little baby."

The message is not that we are forced to chose between Christian Wiman and Kim Addonizio--though disparate in style, they are consonant in message. Wiman himself explains the difference in his concluding remark: "It is not that imperfections in the life somehow taint or invalidate perfections of the work. It is, rather, that these things--art and life, or thought and life--are utterly, fatally, and sometimes savingly entwined, and we can know no [person's] work until we know how, whom, and to what end he [or she] did or did not love."


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poems Connected at the Lips II

According to Philip Levine, when he was given the task of editing the late Larry Levis' "all but completed manuscript" that became Elegy under Levine's guidance, he first thought that Levis was "cannibalizing certain passages from some poems in order to heighten and enlarge other more ambitious poems." But Peter Everwine, Levine's colleague at Fresno State, convinced him the Levis was using "motifs or riffs to unify the collection." It is my assertion that these connective themes and tropes also flow across the covers of previous collections, spilling forwards and backwards, informing and being informed by other poems from other works, much like separate poems that are variations on a theme. The strongest example of this process is found in the two poems, "To a Wren on Calvary" (from The Widening Spell of the Leaves) and "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" (from Elegy).

Due to its length, I will not reprint here "To a Wren on Calvary," but rather will direct the reader to the following link for reference:

What follows is a reprint of the shorter poem:

The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World

Once, there was a poem. No one read it & the poem
Grew wise. It grew wise & then it grew thin,
No one could see it perched on the woman's
Small shoulders as she went on working beside

The gray conveyor belt with the others.
No one saw the poem take the shape of a wren,
A wren you could look through like a window,
And see all the bitterness of the world

In the long line of shoulders & faces bending
Over the gleaming, machined parts that passed
Before them, the faces transformed by the grace
And ferocity of a wren, a wren you could look

Through, like a lens, to see them working there.
This is not about how she thew herself into the river,
For she didn't, nor is it about the way her breasts
Looked in the moonlight, nor about the moonlight at all.

This is about the surviving curve of the bridge
Where she listened to the river whispering to her,
When the wren flew off & left her there,
With the knowledge of it singing in her blood.

By which the wind avenges. By which the rain avenges.
By which even the limb of a dead tree leaning
Above the white, swirling mouth of an eddy
In the river that once ran beside the factory window

Where she once worked, shall be remembered
When the dead come back, & take their places
Beside her on the line, & the gray conveyor belt
Starts up with its raspy hum again. Like a heaven's.

How to get into these poems? There are so many entry points! Had "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" never been written, there still would be a plethora of worlds to explore within "To a Wren on Calvary." We could begin with the reversals, each of which seem to be a kind of ideational chiasma: "the unremarkable," rather than the remarkable being that which lasts, the faces of the thieves being covered with wings and their bodies naked, "the quiet flowing into things," for example. Or we could contrast Levis' use of understatement alongside his pragmatographic descriptions, such as the "unremarkable wren" set against "small hawks (or are they other birds?)/...busily unraveling eyelashes & pupils.../I cannot tell whether their blood spurts, or just spills." Or, as in the virtuosic passage in lines 50 ff., which begins unassumingly with auditory meiosis, crescendos through ordinary description and, finally, ends in graphic sounds of violence:

Still . . . as they resumed their quarrel in the quiet air,
I could hear the species cheep in what they said . . .
Until their voices rose. Until the sound of a slap erased
A world, & the woman, in a music stripped of all prayer,

Began sobbing, & the man become bystander cried O Jesus.

The virtuosic is achieved, in part, because of the two worlds that Levis has created--the one on Calvary, and the one taking place on every hill in every city that is populated with people who are trying to love through their hate and hate through their love--and, in part, with the blurring of these two worlds by borrowing images from one and putting them into the other, fitting so perfectly, without explanation or the need to explain--the child camouflaged behind his toy left out on a lawn, while his parents tear at each other with claws and beaks sharper than those of any bird of prey, the boy who "saw at last the clean wings of indifferent/Hunger, & despair?," the father who cries out to Jesus when he sees what he has become as a bystander to (and thus a participant in) the violence around him.

Were this poem the last word from Levis about the world of the thieves dying on Calvary and the world of the neighbor couple and their boy being robbed of their lives "in the town/That once had seemed, like its supporting factories/That manufactured poems & weaponry, Like such a good idea," it might seem enough. But Levis will not let enough alone.

Somewhere between the time this poem was published in The Widening Spell of the Leaves in 1991 and a few weeks before his death in 1999, Larry Levis wrote "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World,"--both an answer to, and a continuation of, "To a Wren on Calvary."

What is immediately noticeable about this new poem, is that its jagged typographical edges have been smoothed down with time. Unlike its predecessor, the poem is written exclusively in quatrains, its lines flush against one another like feathers, without a single one out of place. This is an enactment of the more palpable presence of the wren, despite the indication in the title that it is invisible "to the world." But certainly it is quite visible to the world of the poem, being named no less than six times in twenty-eight lines, compared with only four times in sixty-seven lines previously. What world, then, is blind to "the poem take[n] the shape of a wren" that is "perched on the woman's/Small shoulders as she went on working beside/The gray conveyor belt with the others?"--the wren of ferocity and the wren you could look through (contrasted with the dead wren with its "oily feathers stretched, blent, & lacquered shut/Against the world . . . a world [the poet] couldn't touch" in "To a Wren on Calvary"), the wren that flew off and left the woman standing on the bridge, "With the knowledge of it singing in hr blood."

Is it the world that does not read the poem--meaning the world devoid of the poem, devoid of the "surviving curve of the bridge," the bridge that connects the extraordinary to the ordinary, the bridge that is the poem, that is our salvation as we take our places "beside her on the line, the gray conveyor belt/Start[ing] up with its raspy hum again?"

But the poem that returns is not simply a revised version of the original. It is a closer look at the post-messianic world created in the first poem, the world as it exists for the woman in the second poem, not only after the deaths of the men on the crosses, but after the death of her marriage and (dare say I?) the death of the husband himself. And because the relationship of the second poem to the first is that of one facet, enlarged in the lens of the jeweler's loop, to the whole of the gemstone, the second cannot only be instructed from the first, but it can tech the first, re-examined in light of its uniquely focused and polished material.

Not only, for example, do we see in the "long line of shoulders & faces bending/Over the gleaming, machined parts" the small hawks plucking at the faces of the thieves on Calvary, but in the actions of the birds "unraveling eyelashes & pupils" the dehumanized indifference of factory workers brought on by the drudgery and meaninglessness of their work except to provide them with their next meal. Not only do we hear Calvary's death-whisper in the river that flows below the bridge where the woman stands, we can hear the river's flow and its connectedness to everything in Death's whisper. Not only does the cross of Calvary inform "the limb of a dead tree leaning" in "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World," the image of the dead tree points to a path away from the soteriological sufficiency of the cross.

These examples of dialogue between the two poems grow from Levis' nearly objective position, allowing for multiple voices within him to not only be heard, but to collaborate in the construction of a poem, or in this case, of a larger work that transcends the bounds of one volume of poems and breaks through into another.

"Poetry must be made by all, not by one," said Lautreamont. May we not only listen to all of its voices, but answer them as well as Larry Levis in his "Widening Spell."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Call and Response: Poems Connected at the Lips

All creative acts lie somewhere between the endpoints of conscious debt to and unconscious reliance upon works that precede and inform them. Creating poems is no different: the process is neither a totally collaborative one, nor a unilaterally individual endeavor. All poems in some way collaborate--with a language they inherited rather than created, with other genres of literature or fine art, with pop culture or with the poetic canon as threads beautifully woven into the one giant tapestry, improving it for all time--or, perhaps, thrown against it as mere pieces of inconsequential fuzz to be quickly brushed off, but mostly laid down as one artist's vision, gleaned from multiple, albeit unnamed sources.

But there are poems that speak directly to other poems across time and space, threads purposefully chosen to be woven in with other strands, with the hope of absorbing, if possible, precisely the same light that is shining on them, reflecting back a changed understanding and appreciation of both as a result of the play between them--Conversation Pieces as Kurt Brown calls them in his anthology of the same name.

Within this volume, he includes sections with such titles as "Replies to the Shepherd" (with no less than eight poems written in response to Christopher Marlowe's famous poem beginning "Come live with me, and be my love,/And we will all the pleasures prove,"), "Variations on a Theme," including Michael Waters' "The Inarticulate," a poem that precisely relates the wondrously debilitating effect of reverie alongside William Meredith's "The Illiterate" and a category entitled "In Good Fun" in which William Carlos Williams' sparse and powerful "This Is Just to Say" is placed along side Kenneth Koch's poem with quite lengthy lines beginning with "I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer."

Here is an example of poems written in response to other poems, a one-sided collaboration of one poet answering another,
"The World Is Too Much With Us' written by William Wordsworth in 1807 and "O Taste and See" by Denise Levertov, written a century and a half later:

The World Is Too Much With Us

by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So Might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

O Taste and See

By Denise Levertov

The world is
Not with us enough.
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination's tongue,

grief, mercy, landguage,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

A study of these two poems is a study in contrast. On a typographical level, Wordsworth's sonnet has the spatial prosody that reflects an orderly universe with clear limits between what the poem is and what the poem is not, roughly in the shape of a tightly-framed, two-story house, while Levertov's "O Taste and See" allows the white space of the page to flow through the poem much like tropical breezes blowing through its open doors. And, indeed, on the ideational level, Wordsworth's universe is a precisely constructed two-story universe--one story a realm of fallen humanity, full of meaningless materialism that has robbed us of our spiritual heritage and sensitivity to the other half of the universe (in which is found our redemption), while Levertov's world is the singular fertile ground of a garden, open to "all that lives to the imagination's tongue."

On the sonic level, Wordsworth's sonnet employs a syllabic prosody of ten syllables per ine, many of which are written in precise iambic pentameter, whereas Levertov's "O Taste And See" is not written in verse, but in what Lewis Turco would call the prose mode--what we might call organic form. Finally, on the sensory level, Wordsworth makes liberal use of description, simile and metaphor within each line, while Levertov employs the entire poem as a conceit--one implied metaphor: the world (of living and of writing) is a capacious garden to be enjoyed, rather than a fractured one in need of repair.

It is not in spite of all these differences, but precisely because of them, that "O Taste And See" is a call back to Wordsworth's sonnet, and to us listening through the keyhole, to break down the barriers of perception that separate with the plea not to see anything as off-limits to experience or to write about. By adding a quantum-leap variation to his famous sonnet, Levertov's poem is not only a one-sided collaboration with Wordsworth, but with the work of many other poets, as well. William Carlos Williams' plum from "This Is Just To Say" and his quince from "A Man to a Woman," the Psalmist's ("O taste and see that the Lord is good" and "They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing'), as well as H.D.'s imagery from "Orchard," make their way into Levertov's poem. And, while not owned outright by the above-mentioned poets, these words, phrases and ideas can be identified as regular workers in their vineyards. Therefore, while their presence in Levertov's garden might not constitute the crime of kidnapping, it might be called a poetic seduction of recognizable figures on fresh ground, where they seem just as at home as with previous suitors.

In a writing slump? Answer a favorite poem from a favorite poet. Answer the worst poem from a poet you hate. Answer your own poem. Too much effort? Then answer the opening line. The ultimate. The penultimate. Answer this article. One you read this morning in your local newspaper. Answer. Write back. Respond to "the call" of language wherever you find it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Our Daily Bread

Philip Levine's The Bread of Time is a must read. It's inside look at Robert Lowell and John Berryman, Detroit industrial working class jobs, Levine's first steps into poetry, his coming of age as a poet, the synthesizing of these and additional experiences, as well as finding Lorca's voice in Poet in New York, are all powerfully written and universally applicable to every poet's journey.

The most interesting sections for me were Levine's discussions of poetic source and influence--a validation of both the way I came to poke at "the burning coal," to steal a phrase from Gerald Stern, and find a poet with whom I share significant experiences in life and a certain tone or temperament in writing. I loved hearing about thirteen-year old Philip's evening ventures into his neighboring, deeply-wooded undeveloped blocks, his climbing into the lower branches of an elm or copper beech tree, leaning back and speaking to the stars, hearing the magnificence of language for the first time from his solo voice before the audience of the universe.

I had a similar experience as a child. My father moved my mother and I from Illinois to northern New Mexico, where he purchased a house in a brand new subdivision, built at the edge of a small oil-boom town, nestled among the high plateaus overlooking the San Juan Valley. Our house was on the last street of the subdivision, and I could walk through our neighbor's back yard, up a hill, and be in John Wayne world, with all of the cactus, sage brush, mountain cedar, dry arroyo beds, box canyons, boulders and cliffs that a nine-year old boy could desire. Being an only child, I roamed those hills, climbed those cliffs, sat on ledges, listened to the rhythms of rattlesnake and sirocco, the music of coyote, and the great voice of silence that inhabited the sand, holding the warmth of day into the cool of night as I lay under the stars and voiced prayers aloud that one day would become lines written on the page.

I was thrilled to read about Levine's experiences in Berrymans' workshop at Iowa, which provoked thought about Levis in Levine's class, and to think about all poets who have studied under other poets--how poetry is this seamless work of art, this one poem, as Malena Morling (translator of Levine into Swedish), puts it. I too was challenge by Berryman, as Levine told about his teacher raising the bar for his class of great poets and poets-to-be (William Dickey, W.D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, Paul Petrie, Robert Dana, Constance Urdang, Jane Cooper, Donald Finkel, Henri Coulette, among others), stressing that the only way they could improve was to attempt writing something beyond their abilities, something they didn't yet know how to write.

The second aspect I liked so much about The Bread of Time was Levine's search, unfulfilled for so long, for a poet who would show him the way into voicing his truth about the abuses of the Detroit blue-collar industrial complex. Levine identified with the hardships of Keats, but his poetry was not couched in terms he was seeking. Upon first discovering Diego Rivera's frescoes, Levine thought that he might have found the model for poetry he hoped to write. But, as he looked more closely at his art based upon the Ford plant at River Rouge, for example, he realized that there was a beauty, an optimism and a tone in it that did not ring true with his experiences at Chevrolet Gear and Axle. Then Levine stumbled upon these lines by Lorca:

I denounce everyone
who ignores the other half,
the half that can't be redeemed,
who lift their mountains of cement
where the hearts beat
inside forgotten little animals
and where all of us will fall
in the last feast of pneumatic drills.
I spit in all your faces.

Levine credits Lorca's Poet in New York for his being able to write "They Feed They Lion," and more importantly, to believe that he could write his truth about his experiences in his unique voice--something to which we all aspire, and for which we are all seeking help from the poets in our world.

But Levine never copies style. He transforms it into something new. In "Pili's Wall," Levine has stretched what would be a much shorter piece by some poets, into an eight page poem, using short, compact lines, thereby enacting the length of a wall, as well as the pictures that appear on it, with his ten sections, each of which depict a different scene. In places, the poem is almost a list poem, expanding each item in the list into a stanzas, such as "the small sister," "the lost dog," "the shepherd," and even "seven jackdaws" from section II:

I am the one
you never drew
the small sister
jumping rope
just within the circle
of the cypress

the lost dog
howling at shadows
and fleeing the chatter
of stones

the shepherd
alone and herdless
who came one afternoon
sweat running
from his eyes

seven jackdaws
soundless, until the sky
and there was
no place.

But "Pili's Wall" is far more than a list of objects appearing on the wall or on its mental image. Pili herself steps into the the scene and brings the reader with her in section X: "I seem//to be this girl, this Pili, waiting/for children/with particular names...old father,/that seems to/be smiling down//on all of us with particular names."

Little by little, Levine widens the view and the context of the poem appears: a field of cane, stalls of pigs, a hill of olives. The wall is an image that conveys far more than the pictures that are drawn there; it becomes the poems' surface with two sides: sides that within the poem are easy to see, with the geography of the surroundings carefully laid out. With the wall AS the surface of the poem, we the readers, stand on one side, the poem on the other, and we find ourselves moving back and forth across the wall, the images from the poem trailing onto our side of reality, as they are carefully and convincingly brought to life. This is the internal structure and beauty of the poem: an image that carries the poem, as well as an image that stands for the poem, that IS the poem, interacting with us as if we were in the poem, as well--something to consider as we select our images and our images select us.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Planning to Write or Planning to Fail?

Note: this blog is a reprint from "The Widening Spell." While I was writing it, I was deep in the throes of writing a statement of writing plans as part of applying for a major writing fellowship. I took 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.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Poet or Writer of Poetry?

My late friend and mentor, Keith Wilson, taught me that poet is a word best conferred upon one by another, rather than a title claimed for oneself. Ever since, I've answered the question Are you a poet? with I write poetry.

Charles Bukowski, who was neither my friend, nor my mentor (although on occasions I unsuccessfully tried to duplicate his alcoholic visions), said that too many poets spend their time trying to be a poet, rather than writing poetry--which brings us to the question Why do you write poetry anyway? If you've never asked yourself that question, then this discussion will probably not make a lot of sense to you because you are either an enlightened soul without the need for motivation to do what you want to do, or you have not tried to write poetry long enough to hit some kind of a wall that you can't seem to push beyond. Either way, you should stop reading this blog right now, go pick up a good book (preferably of poetry) and never look back.

A fact that I am neither proud nor ashamed of is that I grew up in church. I mean that both metaphorically and quite literally. I was in church every time the doors were open and a lot of times when they were closed. I discovered as a child that many church-goers were more interested in the politics of power in running the church than they were in living out the principles that were behind the reason for the church to exist--they were more interested in playing God than knowing God. This contributed to my developing two minds about religion as a child: 1) a deep faith in something larger than myself and 2) a strong skepticism concerning organized religion being in touch with that something.

I remember one occasion when a prospective preacher was visiting our church "in view of a call" to be our minister. After a trial sermon on Sunday morning, a meeting with the deacon board on Sunday afternoon, and another trial sermon that evening, this preacher had a town-hall type meeting with the congregation to answer any questions we might have. I was around twelve years old at the time and was dealing with what my denomination referred to as "God's call into the ministry" (which is another story for another time). I was searching for objective, observable criteria for knowing whether the Divine was dealing with me on a personal basis regarding the vocation of ministry, and I was quite skeptical of what many ministers (and lay people) put off on God as "his will." This particular minister had shared with us in one of his sermons that he had left the ministry to go back into "secular work" but felt God's calling to him to get back into the ministry. My childhood instincts told me that he was incompetent in his non-ministerial job and, having nothing else to fall back on, had decided that it was God's will to go back into the ministry, so I raised my hand and asked: "How do you know that it's God's will for you to be in the ministry?" Without hesitation, he replied "I don't know. All I know is that I can't do anything else--I have to preach." "Aha," I thought. I've got you. You have to preach because you can't do anything else. And in my mind, not being able to do anything else disqualified him to be our preacher, because I wanted a preacher who was smart, educated, and had all the answers.

Almost fifty years later, I have a different perspective on his answer. I had wanted him to articulate all of the elements that went in to making up my ideal minister, and then to demonstrate how God had developed each of these aspects in his personal and professional life. But this man's goal was not to excel as a minister or even as a preacher of sermons, his goal was not to be anything. It was simply to preach. Why? Because he just knew that after not being in the pulpit for some time, he was unhappy. He just knew he had to preach.

Why do you want to write poetry? To be a poet? Or because of the work, because you can't not write poetry? I think the answer is important. I think the answer determines the quality of work we produce. I think the answer determines whether we continue to write poetry after our formal training is over, after we get that teaching position, or after any number of life's events. I think the answer makes a difference in whether we deserve to be called poets.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What Hurt You Out Of Poetry?

Most of us remember W.H. Auden's famous line to Yeats, "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry," and think about the stereotypical "tortured poet," or remember some personal pain that propelled us into writing our first poems. But how many of us have been hurt out of poetry by a job that demands too much time or energy, by the responsibilities of raising a family, by the disappointment of rejection slip after rejection slip for our poems or our book manuscript, by teaching position interviews that led nowhere?

While pursuing a degree in creative writing, we were externally motivated to stick to a reading plan and to maintain the discipline of writing--if not daily, at least several times a week. After several months (or even years) without that formal structure, perhaps we have not shifted gears and found the internal motivation to advance in the creation of our art. If this is true, I ask you (and me) a question: If you were hurt out of poetry (by something), then what are you willing to give up in order to get it back? In other words, what are you willing to sacrifice for your art?

Larry Levis, in "Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage" asked a far more lyrical, but related, question:

"What do you do when nothing calls you anymore?
When you turn & there is only the light filling the empty window?

When the angel fasting inside you has grown so thin it flies
Out of you a last time without you

Knowing it, & the water dries up in its thimble, & the one swing
In the cage comes to rest after its almost imperceptible,

Almost endless, swaying?"

Hear Levis' answer:

"I'm going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk
I'm bent over until it's infinite,

I'm going to make it talk. I'm going to make it
Confess everything."

What are we willing to do to make our desks talk? Are we willing to stare at it every single morning until it confesses everything? Anything? Until its old? Infinite?

A poet who had the daily practice of rising and writing at 3:00 AM was William Stafford. He was the first real poet I ever heard read live. I was twenty years old, and had never experienced the confluence of idea, form and unassuming passion, like I did whenever I heard him read "Near," a poem that calls for instinctual, immediate action, without waiting for anything else to happen:


Walking along in this not quite prose way,
we both know it is not quite prose we speak.
And it is time to notice the intolerable snow
innumerably touching before we sink.

It is time to notice, I say, the freezing snow
hesitating toward us from its gray heaven.
Listen! It is falling not quite silently,
and under it still you and I are walking.

Maybe there are trumpets in the houses we pass
or a red bird singing from an evergreen.
But nothing will happen till we pause to flame
what we know before any signal's given.

I don't know if something hurt you into or out of poetry. But I do know that if you've read enough and written enough poetry to earn a degree in it (or worked toward one), then you know enough to start a flame with language. So instead of waiting until you know more or are a better writer or any of a hundred other things that might or might not happen in order to make it easier for you: sit down and write a line. Do it before you do anything else after reading this. Anything else! Do it! Make your desk confess something. Flame what you know before any signal's given.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Breathe In/Breathe Out; Read/Write

I'm convinced 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 while, but then you get down to those last few molecules that you have to strain to get out, and then you finally get down to nothing. At this point you either inhale fresh air (read), lose consciousness (stop writing for a while) or die (quit forever).

Or maybe you're breathing, but not deeply enough to be as healthy as you could be. What you need is a regular brisk walk or jog along new poetic paths to get the vital language flowing. Perhaps you're already in great shape, reading/writing every day, taking in and putting out high quality life-giving work, but lately the air in your neighborhood seems to have a stale odor about it.

Whatever your situation, you can benefit from fresh winds of language to get you going again. Therefore, a regular feature of this blog will be the sharing of poets that can be particularly stimulating in the production of new work. I recently discovered (quite by accident), an excellent new source for such poets: The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets.

In his forward to the anthology, J.D. McClatchy speaks about the poems of these thirty-five poets (emblematic of "a whole new generation of exceptionally talented--differently talented--poets"), creating a clearing "for what couldn't before have been anticipated, even by the poem itself--the passing thought or startling image that makes a thrilled reader stop and wonder"(italics mine):

"This is what good poems do. This is what David Yezzi's anthology does. You are holding now a whole new world
of thought and feeling. Reading it will make it yours, will change your sense of what is possible and necessary.
Plato, when he met Socrates, immediately burned his own poems. I am not suggesting you [will] do that. I am
suggesting you read these new poets, poets who question how we know what is familiar. You will not want to
burn the poems you admire. You will want to add these to them."

And, I might add, you will want to add your own, in the sacred space left by them.

Most poems included in New American Poets are taken from the poets' books, many of which have won major awards. Here is a list of the poets, along with their books of poetry at the time of printing, so you can google them and get a taste of their divergent, yet harmonious flavors:

Craig Arnold
Made Flesh

David Barber (Poetry editor of the Atlantic Monthly)
The Spirit Level
Wonder Cabinet

Rick Barot (Teaches at Pacific Lutheran University and in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College)
The Darker Fall

Priscilla Becker (Teaches poetry at Pratt Institute, at Columbia University, and in her Brooklyn apartment)
Internal West
Stories That Listen

Geoffrey Brock (Teaches creative writing and translation at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville)
Weighing Light

Daniel Brown (Works at IBM, and lives in Baldwin, New York)
Taking the Occasion

Peter Campion (Rome Prize Winner, teaches at Auburn University and edits the journal Literary Imagination)
Other People
The Lions

Bill Coyle (Teaches English at Salem State College in Salem, Mass.)
The God of This World to His Prophet

Morri Creech (Teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte)
Paper Cathedrals
Field Knowledge

Erica Dawson (PhD Candidate in English from the University of Cincinnati)
Big-Eyed Afraid

Ben Downing (Coeditor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review)
The Calligraphy Shop

Andrew Feld (Assistant professor at the University of Washington and the editor in chief of the Seattle Review)

John Foy (A senior financial editor at Itau USA Securities Inc.)
Techne's Clearinghouse

Jason Gray (Coeditor of the online magazine Unsplendid (
Photographing Eden
Chapbooks: How to Paint the Savior Dead and Adam & Eve Go to the Zoo

George Green (Teaches at Lehman College, CUNY, in the Bronx)
Poems have appeared in the anthologies Poetry 180, 180 More and The Best American Poetry 2005 and 2006

Joseph Harrison (An associate editor of the Waywiser Press)
Someone Else's Name
Identity Theft

Ernest Hilbert (Antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia)
Sixty Sonnets

Adam Kirsch (Senior editor at the New Republic)
The Thousand Wells

Joanie Mackowski (Teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Cincinnati)
The Zoo
View from a Temporary Window

Eric McHenry (Teaches at Washburn University)
Potscrubber Lullabies

Molly McQuade (Formerly taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Rutgers University, among other schools)
Stealing Glimpses: Of Poetry, Poets, and Things In Between
An Unsentimental Education: Writers and Chicago
By Herself

Joshua Mehigan (Lives in Brooklyn)
The Optimist

Wilmer Mills (Taught poetry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Right As Rain (Chapbook)
Light for the Orphans (full-length collection)

Joe Osterhaus (Taught at Boston University, University College at Washington University, and at John Hopkins)
The Domed Road

J. Allyn Rosser (Teaches at Ohio University)
Bright Moves
Misery Prefigured
Foiled Again

A.E. Stallings (Lives in Athens, Greece)
Archaic Smile

Pimone Triplett (Associate professor of creative writing at the University of Washington and teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers)
The Price of Light
Ruining the Picture

Catherine Tufariello (Lives in Valparaiso, Indiana)
Keeping My Name

Deborah Warren (Lives in Andover, Mass.)
The Size of Happiness
Zero Meridian
Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit

Rachel Wetzsteon (Teaches at William Paterson University)
The Other Stars
Home and Away
Sakura Park

Greg Williamson (Teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University)
A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck
Errors in the Script
The Silent Partner

Christian Wiman (Editor of Poetry)
The Long Home
Hard Night

Mark Wunderlich (Teaches literature and writing at Bennington College)
The Anchorage

David Yezzi (Executive Director of the New Criterion and editor of New American Poets)
The Hidden Model

C. Dale Young (Works full-time as a physician, edits poetry for the New England Review, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers)
The Day Underneath the Day
The Second Person

So, pick a poet or two (or ten) and sample their work. When you find one that splits open your head or your heart, sit down and write a response to one of their poems until language geysers up in an unstoppable stream. Then do it again. Again. Breathe in. Breathe out. Every day. Remember?

You Have Your Poetry MFA...Now What?

Remember the day you received the telephone call or opened the letter that read, "We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the Poetry MFA Program...?" Remember the buzz? The celebration? Now, two or three years later, after having invested $30,000-45,000 (or worse, borrowed that amount or more), armed with a manuscript of your 48 best poems, you set out to conquer the literary world.

You apply to several colleges and universities for a teaching position in the creative writing department (you were told that the MFA was the terminal graduate degree in creative writing), send out your manuscript to a dozen first book contests, fill out applications for a few grants and fellowships (until the creative writing job comes through), and wait.

Maybe you're one of the fortunate few (for every 100 MFA graduates there is one teaching position in creative writing departments), who does land a teaching position or get your manuscript published the first year. But maybe you're not. And maybe the job of making a living (or of raising a family or of a hundred other responsibilities) to pay off your loans has crowded into your writing time and you haven't produced any new work in months and you're questioning why you ever got that degree anyway.

Now what?

That's what this blog is about. How to keep on writing poetry and growing as a poet after your poetry MFA.

We'll look at the Post Poetry MFA life through the successes and failures of real live Poetry MFA graduates--what's worked for them and what hasn't, as well as provide links and resources to help you stay on track with your first and most important task: continuing to write!

Hopefully we'll also build a community of poets along the way who help one another grow and help one another reach their professional goals in the same way they helped one another while earning their Poetry MFA.