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 http://www.marickpress.com/index.php?/Books/

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 talk...to 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.