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.