Fear of Hibernation

As I write this, there’s a fire crackling in the fireplace. The dogs lounge sleepily on the floor, and my husband sits next to me. The incredibly gorgeous (but exceedingly creepy) Blue Planet is on the television. (Seriously, ocean creatures, why must you be so nightmare-inducing?) I spent a few hours with a good friend today catching up on life. I will get to spend another few hours with another good friend tomorrow writing and hanging out. The snow from last week’s storm has diminished but is again looking lovely after a fresh coat from a smaller flurry yesterday. Perfect conditions for hibernation.

Hibernation is defined as “the condition or period of an animal or plant spending the winter in a dormant state.” Yes, it is winter. And yes, I have been dormant. The dormancy above has been relaxing, down time that I treasure. But my writing brain has been dormant as well, and this is troublesome to me.

Usually winter is a productive creative time for me- the weather is not tempting me outdoors, and the long drag of school days without breaks usually leaves me very eager to think about other things at home. Any other things. But not this winter.

After the poetry writing I did in January at the conference I attended, every bit of writing I’ve done since has been non-poetry related – this blog, reviews of other poets, proposals and lessons for work, etc. The poems are dormant.

I am hopeful that they are dormant in the same way the iris bulbs in front of my house are dormant – sleeping safe beneath the soil of everyday “stuff” but ready and able to push through and bloom when the weather dictates. But there is a nagging fear that, this time, the poems are dormant the way a volcano can be dormant – seething beneath the surface for years and years and years, roiling and alive but never surfacing. And this is a little scary.

Why? I will be retiring from 36 years of K-12 public school teaching in 2020. It has always been my dream that writing would become my everyday job, that I would devote the time and energy to it that I never could while teaching full-time all of these years. But what if the well is dry? What if, when finally faced with the time to write, I have nothing to say?

For now, I cannot answer that question. I am still curled on the couch; the fire is still burning. Somewhere inside, I hope the lava is not destroying the blooms.

 

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First Reads: Like A Fat Gold Watch

I have a confession to make: I have not read much of Sylvia Plath. I remember reading The Bell Jar in high school, but as a poet, I have not spent much time with her work other than the “famous” poems. Not because I don’t  like what I do know – on the contrary. I have taught and treasured “The Mirror” for years, and the sounds in “Mushrooms” have been a textbook on sonics for me.

But in reading the new anthology Like a Fat Gold Watch: Meditations On Sylvia Plath and Living, I realized how much of Plath’s work and life I do NOT know. This new anthology, edited by Christine Hamm, is a digest of response to and literary conversation about Plath’s poems that both introduced me to Plath in a new way and also to new writers. As I did in my initial First Reads post, I will not seek here to intellectually dissect the anthology but to give my impressions upon first read: what jumped out at me, what I enjoyed, what I will want to return to again.

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The Big Picture: In her introduction editor Hamm writes, “Plath’s work is a rebellion against the rigid prison of femininity identity–she writes about ugly, impossible, unpleasant, threatening things. The ugly female body, its scars, its blood, its hunger.” This sets up the scope of the anthology as well as pushes against the vision of Plath as “the saint of emo teenage girls and self-harming woman,” preparing the reader for multiple contexts in which the contributors have experienced and responded to Plath’s work.

Structure: The anthology has each author’s bio and a brief statement about their included work as a preface to the work itself. I enjoyed this structure as it allowed me to know a little about the writers and how they had engaged with Plath before I read. I had never seen this before–author notes and bios usually are placed at the end of an anthology –but this structure was interesting to me, especially since I didn’t know some of the Plath references. Many of the contributors are Plath scholars, and this intense scrutiny of her work has inspired me to be a better student of poetry in general.

The Variety of Responses: I had imagined that the anthology would be all poems, but it is not. Poems are here, yes, and good ones (I’ll mention some favorites later), but there are also essays, short stories, visual art, & explications of Plath poems. The poems themselves take several different forms from free verse to a sonnet crown to complicated collage work. The variety made the anthology well-paced and engaging.

 

The Quality of the Work:  There is much to love here, and I cannot quote every piece, but I will highlight a few pieces to which I know I will return. Tasha R. Cotter’s essay “Explication of Three Ariel Poems” was both intelligent and interesting, something hard to find in critical essay. I will now attend to these three poems with Cotter’s essay as a guide and a touchstone for my own opinions. Lisa Cole’s poem “The Truth Pulled From Her Mouth” is lovely, ominous and hopeful all at once, ending with “To become that which hurts us/is to thrive, to conquer.”  J. Hope Stein’s poem “Ted & Sylvia” offers a glimpse both into the relationship between Plath and Hughes and into the speaker’s relationship and desire to be Sylvia: “When we first met,/you asked me to be Ted./& I said to myself, come on,/what would Sylvia do?/When I say SPRING I mean SPRING.” Angela Veronica Wong’s “In Spring” provides masterful line breaks and stunning lines like “My crabheart scuttles like a nightmare.” And Sarah Busse’s “Four Letters to Sylvia” are both homages to the poet and their own universes of words: “Dear genius, dead girl, what can I tell you of sea/or moon, more than you know?”

A good anthology not only draws a thread thematically but allows each individual piece its own space to create a world. Like a Fat Gold Watch does this quite well, giving each piece the opportunity to shine on its own merits as well as enter a larger conversation with a poet who most people know of, but now will want to know more deeply.  I recommend this anthology not only to anyone who already has a relationship with Plath’s work, but also to Plath “novices” like myself. I guarantee that you will enjoy this collection either way.

 

 

 

When the Writing Gets Tough…

the tough:

  1. get going
  2. do what they can
  3. give up

Honestly, I can relate to all three of these answers over the past couple of weeks.  Let’s begin with Answer C. I swear that everything I have tried to start over the past week has turned into a steaming page of trash. I came upon a John Dos Passos quote that seemed to speak to how I have been feeling when I try to draft new work:

“Trying to write –God! I have a brain like a peanut… Found a peanut, found a peanut echoes in my head, the insane song.”

Yep. That sounds about right. Peanut brain. Racing in 900 directions, none of them helping with what should be growing into a poem. Anxieties and daily frustrations creeping into every spare thought. So I gave up on trying new work & began focusing on other things.

Which leads us to Answer B. Doing what one can. Which for me were those other things mentioned above – revision, reading, and taking notes for a review. I revised some promising work from late last year, took notes on a new anthology I am hoping to review, and I read. I am teaching Twelfth Night to my 7th graders right now, so I found solace in Shakespeare, which I often do. I am also reading Colin Meloy’s delightful Wildwood aloud to my 6th graders, and his language is just as rich and clever in this YA fantasy as it is in his songwriting for The Decemberists. I read the new issue of Tinderbox Poetry, which is, well, go read it yourself, especially this beauty by Michael Schmeltzer.

Which leads us to Answer A. Get going. Feeling better, I began to prepare some older poems that, after revision, seem ready for submission. I kept to my writing plans for the week, even if the drafts are awful and my notes for the review are not making much sense at this point. I kept moving forward.

And I’m looking ahead – to using my newly-completed home office as a quiet writing space; to an upcoming poetry day scheduled with my good friend and fabulous poet Kristin LaTour; to taking my 7th graders to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for most of them their first live Shakespeare performance; to dinners and quiet nights with my husband; to the snow that is forecast for tomorrow.

I’m eager for whatever words may come in the next few weeks, even if I have to look for them. And I’ll have this Neruda quote (purchased at a visit to his home in Santiago)  over my desk to remember that I am not alone:
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The Ear as Portal

When the pen is stuck, my first inclination is always to read. To crack open a book or journal and roll around in someone else’s words and syntax for a while, let my vision guide me to a key that will unlock something new inside my own lexicon. Being a reader is an important practice for every writer, but I often forget how important it is to use the ear, to listen to the work of others to concentrate the mind and the ear on words that are NOT in front of me, to process them in a purer, more challenging way.  I have been doing this electronically through the wonderful Commonplace Podcast with Rachel Zucker, but I always learn something from hearing poets read live.

I was reminded of this last night at a wonderful reading sponsored by The Poetry Center of Chicago. Their Six Points reading series, at which I have had the pleasure of reading myself, hosted Tarfia Faizullah and Kaveh Akbar sharing their poems and then a conversation about Tarfia’s upcoming book and poetics in general. Having been enraptured by Seam when it debuted four years ago, I was not surprised to be enamored with every poem Tarfia Faizullah shared from her upcoming Graywolf Press book Registers of Illuminated Villages. 

Even in the small number of poems she shared, I could hear the multiple meanings of the word “register” – an official list or record, part of a range of voices or instruments, and the action of detection or recognition. These were poems of witness, of generations, the great melodies of all the small things that register in the heart. Faizullah’s reading style was engaging and strong with no hint of artifice or “poet voice.”  My reaction to Kaveh Akbar’s reading was similar – I was familiar with many of the poems from his chapbook Portrait of An Alcoholichaving reviewed it earlier this year, and those poems were lovely to hear in the air, along with newer poems. All were image-rich and full of turns, his reading style all sway and angle. Both poets held the audience with their voices, registers finely tuned to the instruments of their words.

I had a notebook with me, as I always do, but I took no notes. I was present in that moment, listening, as was the rest of the audience packed into the tiny art gallery, an audience that included many other celebrated young voices in the poetry world. During the conversation portion of the evening, I did write down one thing Tarfia said that I wanted to remember:

“We all write with a particular combination of vision & blindness.”

It is this dichotomy that draws me to poetry, the push/pull of initiating & then following the poem’s path, even if I’m not sure where it came from or where it is going. Tuning into the registers of language that are singing somewhere in the hollows of my brain.

Observations: “Truth” & Poetry

Being on writing retreat for three days at the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway last weekend left me recharged, rejuvenated, and refocused on what words and poems and community can mean, left me ready to be present in the “spoiled and radiant now,” a line from a new poem by Stephen Dunn, one of the special guests who read on Sunday evening. I wrote several viable, interesting drafts and spent time with like-minded people serious about writing. I got to see some beloved friends who live on the East Coast. These are good things. But there are also some questions floating around in my head, especially about workshopping poems.

The Getaway is a unique community and a welcoming one where anything can happen. For example, this weekend, I was honored to stand for someone saying the Kaddish, a moving moment. One year, I had a rousing afternoon of competitive ping-pong with Stephen Dunn and Diana Goetsch, one of the oddest and most wonderful experiences I have ever had at a writing conference. This weekend, Stephen Dunn read several poems including “Decorum,” one of the first poems I knew of by him and also one that addresses the familiar type of conversation that may occur in a workshop setting. (Read it if you don’t know it…I’ll wait.)

Since the Getaway is based on the premise of generating new work in the AM and taking it straight to workshop in the PM, this strategy puts all participants on an equal playing field, more open to critique and less attached to their precious darlings. Still, over the course of three days in workshop, I heard several insistent comments about how parts of poems were capital t TRUE (and therefore could not be altered). I also heard (not only from writers themselves but also from group members & leaders) many assumptions that the speaker of the poem was “obviously” the poet. These were a bit bothersome.

Poems reveal truths.

Poems create their own truths.

Poems don’t have to be factual to be true.

The need to declare “this really happened” about any part of a poem says to me that the poet is not confident in the world that he/she has created, that the certainty of fact is necessary to explicate his/her choices.  I’m not sure why a poet would feel that he/she must vehemently adhere to facts, especially those not in service of writing a better poem. Most writers realize this and, even though they draft from a factual stance, are willing to leave that stance to improve the writing. I heard poets this weekend, however, who, when they had their turn to speak at the end of workshop, resisted leaving the realm of the factual, even if it didn’t do service to the poem.

In a similar manner, assuming that the speaker of the poem is the writer does not allow the poem to be its own entity. It assumes that the writer must be telling the “truth” about the content of the poem. If the reader cannot separate the speaker from the writer, then he has not allowed the poem to be what it is, its own separate world.

Some may argue that all poems are autobiographical in some way, and I may partially agree with that. After all, I am the one writing the poem – my ideas, my words, my choices. However, that should not prevent me from inhabiting the world of a poem that does not fit my own experience. For instance, if the language and impulses of the poem’s first draft seem to create a narrative of someone leaving a relationship, I could write that poem although I have been happily married for almost 34 years. As long as the poem’s central voice is true, the facts of the writer’s experience don’t and shouldn’t matter.

This is not to say that poems cannot contain true experiences – how else would one ever figure out what to write about? –but once a poem is created, what happens in revision must work within the poem’s own boundaries to improve it AS A POEM. This is why neither of the stances above is helpful to the poet in workshop.

So what IS helpful (at least to me) in workshop?

Pointing out places in a poem where its created universe doesn’t cohere, where the writer has inconsistencies in diction, syntax, or voice that take the reader out of the poem’s established realm or conceit.  Offering suggestions about line breaks. Reiterating the reader’s perception of the poem’s central idea. Discussing confusions in the poem, places where readers are unsure of intent or movement from image to image or event to event. Offering ways in which a title could do more or less work for the reader to draw them into the poem’s orbit. Do any of these for me, and I’m a happy listener, taking notes. I may or may not apply all of your suggestions, but I will learn from them.

As long as you don’t ask me if my poem is true. 🙂

 

Rekindling

“I don’t focus on what I’m up against. I focus on my goals, and I try to ignore the rest.”

This quote, attributed to Venus Williams, is a good summary of my writing mantra for this year. I spent a lot of time last year mired in doubt about my writing. Why was I bothering? So many talented people out there (many of them SO much younger than me) writing pieces that absolutely take my breath away. Like this one by John Murillo. The more I read, the more discouraged I became. I decided to take a step back and see if taking a break from writing poems would help. It did. For a while.

I did other things – wrote reviews, pecked away at an outline for a YA novel, and read SO many books. And when I sat down and tried to write again, one of two things occurred–I was surprised that something of quality showed up on the page, or I nearly wept over the drivel that found its way there. And then I attended the Poetry Carnival at Butler University in mid-August (organized by Kaveh Akbar) and some kind of spark was rekindled. A whole day of readings and workshops and people who love poems. And caramel apples and popcorn and conversation and photo booths. An exercise in a workshop with Ron Villanueva that yielded what is not yet a working poem but something that made me FEEL like a writer. And since then, the poems have started to arrive again –more slowly, perhaps, and with more difficulty. But they are there.

This sense of community, that feeling that I am a part of a larger literary conversation, is something that I seem to need from time to time. Something I hope to rekindle through this blog as well as through making time for these types of events in my life. So, in two days, I will be off to the east coast to start my writing year at The Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway. Its company of writers, amazing setting, and focus on generating new work have been a jump start for me the many years that I have attended in the past, and I’m certain this year will not disappoint.

Emari DiGiorgio, in a workshop there two years ago, discussed the idea of making writing plans, setting goals (short or long-term) that made your writing life a priority. I tried it for a while and, like so many other things, it fell by the wayside. But, starting January 1st, I began again. In a blank journal (I love paper journals and only type after things are drafted in pen first…), I listed the dates January 1-8 and three goals:

  1. Write three-four drafts. (I was traveling & knew I would have significant down time.)
  2. Read and write a post about Rocket Fantastic by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
  3. Read & take notes on two poetry books I am reviewing.

That’s it. Brief. Practical. As I achieved each goal, I checked it off (very satisfying). At the end of the week, I commented on each draft (lousy & weird, keeper, questionable, something there), and listed any other writing-related news for the week. For me, that was a long list for the new year:

  • My review of Avery M. Guess’s The Patient Admits from dancing girl press went live at Crab Fat Magazine.
  • Issue Five of Ovenbird Poetry, which I guest-edited with Darren Demaree, also went live.
  • I had a poem (one that came from that initial rekindling in August) accepted by a journal I admire.
  • I updated the Blog Revival list, which has turned into a full-time job. As of today, the list of poet bloggers returning to the medium numbers over 90, and the post containing the list has been viewed over 1000 times!

Focusing on small goals in this way, I hope to keep a more consistent writing practice this year, one that celebrates the words that ring with possibility and one that recognizes & lets go the words that only sing dirges.

First Reads: Rocket Fantastic

In the claustrophobic space of a airline seat, I opened a book and was transported to a panoramic world.  Stag & fox, love & desire, tenderness & demand. The major general & the bandleader, the angel & the location, the neck & and the twang. It was an oddly-wonderful place for a first reading of Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic, a collection that I will certainly return to for a much deeper investigation. But even on first read, I was immediately struck by four “practices” or “devices” (for lack of more intelligent terms):

The repetition of not only images and key words/terms, but repetition of exact lines in utterly new contexts. I have read many collections where images cycle, but I don’t recall any in recent memory that have used the same lines.This practice, which happens a few times in the book, worked for me like an echo, bouncing a voice or idea  back to me in a way that was both familiar and disconcerting, like motifs in a symphony where the key has changed from major to minor.

The form-switching throughout the collection. Some poems are structured in “traditional” stanzas, some spread across the page with large and purposeful white space, and some are in prose blocks. Each form seems perfectly suited for its inhabitants and its purpose, choices that I want to learn from in terms of choosing the most organic forms for my own poems.

The symbol that Calvocoressi has chosen to use as a genderless pronoun for one of the inhabitants of the poems (the Bandleader), which I do not know how to recreate on my keyboard, along with the use of “whose” as a substitute for the possessive and object pronouns usually associated with gender. The author describes the symbol as “a confluence of genders in varying degrees […] simultaneously encompassing and fluctuating.” At first I thought the symbol would be troublesome as a reader, but instead it allowed me to experience the poems in my own way instead of just the speaker’s.

The choices of proper titles for some of the inhabitants of the poems – the Bandleader, the Major General, the Dowager. Using these titles rather than names allowed me to bring my own preconceptions  and expectations about those words to the poems and then have them shattered, questioned, or twisted.

And these are just structural/craft matters that I want to explore! The content of the poems is also rich, textured & filled with the joy, pain, & longing of being human in a world that is at turns both beautiful and frightening. I usually know after a first read whether a book is one I will return to again and again. The answer here is definitely a resounding yes.

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You can follow Gabrielle Calvocoressi on Twitter at @rocketfantastic.

Her wonderful interview with Rachel Zucker on Commonplace Podcast can be found here

Purchase Rocket Fantastic here

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First Reads will hopefully be a regular feature here. I often write reviews for other venues which require multiple readings and copious notes, but I think that there is also merit in articulating first impressions as most of us don’t have the time to re-read books unless they speak to us in a way that calls us back.