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. 🙂

 

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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.

I’m still here…

Summer, as usual, is flying by, and in trying to cram the most summer into my summer, my voice here has been pretty quiet. But that doesn’t mean I’m not working, folks. I redecorated my son’s bedroom into a guest room/writing room, so now I have my own quiet space in the house, a “room of my own,” so to speak. And I have been writing. And revising. And reading. And reviewing. And submitting. All of those writerly things I’m supposed to be doing.

But I have also been walking my dogs. Lifting weights. Doing yard work. Going to concerts. Getting my hair cut short. Visiting my parents. Watching movies with my husband. Getting ready to entertain friends. Prepping for the impending school year. (Only two weeks away. Yikes.)

And amidst all this, I have been thinking about the whole competitive aspect of the writing world: applying for residencies and grants, book competitions, etc. I wonder if I place too much emphasis on being “accepted” here or there, “winning” something rather than focusing on what those opportunities really bring me: time, community, and an audience. At 52, almost finished with a long public school teaching career, I am not trying to pad a resumé to advance my career. I have no delusions of ever being a “famous” poet, whatever that means. So I need to adjust my thinking.

I did apply for one residency next summer. That will be the only one I do apply for. If I don’t get it, I can spend less money and almost as much time to create my own retreat, perhaps invite a writerly friend along, and find a pretty place to escape from the duties of home and just work. I have two chapbooks that need homes, but rather than continue to spend money to send them to contests, I will be patient and wait for open submission periods from small presses I admire. Submissions to journals are different – I don’t mind “competing” in that market, since that is how our poems find an audience. But I need to be more focused on why I write in the first place – to tell stories, to communicate the world in a way that only I can see it. To be a member of a literary community. To put words together and make meaning.

Walking on the roof of hell, gazing at the flowers

It was haiku day, thus the paraphrasing of Issa. The poems workshopped today by our youngest class members (both still undergrads) astounded me with their originality and skill. If they are any indication of the future of poetry, then poetry is in very good hands.

I also had my conference today with Arda, and we worked on a new-ish draft of mine that is quite weird but has potential. She is an ardent teacher who gives passionate attention to every possibility in a poem, so although I usually feel like workshopping is not the best use of my time in a class, her insights this week (not just about my own poems) have been instructional and helpful in thinking about possible avenues for revision and about the ways that a poem works.

Tonight I’m feeling a little strange. Headache, which I think is brought on by the muscular discomfort of the horrible bed, has plagued me on and off all day – not debilitating, but annoying enough to necessitate breaks from screen or reading. I also have spent part of the evening packing as I need to check out tomorrow before heading to class, so tonight has been a bit of a wash as far as getting work done, although I have done some online reading and submission research, including following some of the responses to the big Triquarterly editorial faux pas that has left many writers angry. (Link is just one response…check Twitter or Facebook for more of the reaction.) I also dug deeper into Jessica Piazza’s Interrobang (still impressed with the language play and form) and read some of Arda’s book It is Daylight. (Very unique – on the surface, her poems seem simple, but there is a whole created universe in there…)

I do have homework to read which involves Berryman and Harryette Mullen – not exactly the poets to tackle with a tired, headachy brain – so I will keep this short. Oh, and I’m also supposed to write a “who am I” poem using one of the ideas of persona, perspective, or address we have discussed this week. Suffice it to say that I will be up for a while yet. It has been a fruitful week of ideas, but my back, my head, and my heart will be happy to be home tomorrow.

*

Today’s Soundtrack

  • Walking – The Hazards of Love – Decemberists and Codes and Keys – Death Cab for Cutie (go to comfort bands when I’m feeling out of sorts…)
  • Writing – Coffeeshop music (waiting for my conference) – wasn’t bad. All indie/alternative selections. No Radiohead.
  • Reading – Pandora Meditation Radio and silence.

 

 

I’m me, and what the hell can I do about it?

Today’s post title courtesy of “Introducing Álvaro de Campos” by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Edwin Honig) – also a reminder. In a week of reading LOTS of poets and poems, my usual despair kicked in. How did he/she do that? Why is that so incredible? Why can’t I write like that? And today, Pessoa gave me answer: because I’m not (insert other poet’s name here). Because I’m me. And there really isn’t anything I can do about it, and that’s okay.

Of course, reading and borrowing techniques/ideas from other writers has always happened. Hell, even Shakespeare did it. But there’s a difference between learning from other writers and comparing yourself to other writers. The first can be productive – the second is mostly demoralizing.

So, today I have been trying to focus on just writing, my writing, not writing to fill a prompt or to mimic another writer or to try and imitate someone else’s success. So far, so good.

Other highlights of the day:

Zucchini Walnut Bread from an Amish bakery at the Farmer’s Market. Enough said.

One of my Bishop/Lowell poems “The Running Away” is featured on the website of The Labletter. Four of these poems were featured in their 2014 print issue, and it is kind of them to give this poem another life online.

Extract(s): A Daily Dose of Lit has accepted a flash piece of mine that should appear some time this week (perhaps tomorrow).

Lowlight of the day:

Catching the trailer for The Giver. Another book I love that the movies will probably ruin. (See also The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Hours…I could go on…)

Hoping that tonight will be submissions night – I have 6 or 7 planned, but I’d be happy with 3 or 4. Because that’s me.

Today’s Soundtrack:

  • Walking (knees can’t take running three days in a row any more): Tape Deck Heart by Frank Turner
  • About Town: Future Islands – Singles and Manchester Orchestra – Cope
  • Writing – MaybeSheWill – I Was Here For a Moment and Then Was Gone
  • Reading  – Morning Parade – Morning Parade and Morrissey – The Best of Morrissey

Oh, Sun, I’m so grateful to you!

It was the perfect summer day here today (around 75 yet breezy), so I took every opportunity to run and walk and read and write and eat outside before sequestering myself for homework tonight. Plus today’s topic was conversation in poems, thus the line from Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” as a title, so there’s that. ( I could have used Crane’s line “Because it is bitter, And because it is my heart,” but that’s not really how I’m feeling today. )

I did a LOT of drafting – some stream of consciousness, some for the exercises given by our instructor, and some that was culled from random phrases in the small Moleskin I carry in my purse all year to pull out on occasions such as these when there is no particular “project” I am working on. I am enjoying these “experiments” – I’m not sure that they are poems at this point, but that can come later.

Trying to make it a point to read something other than poems while I’m here – yesterday’s wisdom came from Mark Strand’s essays – today, two of MANY underlined passages from Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle:

from “On Beginnings”:  “You might say a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature it is to fly apart.”

from “On Sentimentality”: “A good poem is seldom comfortable; either it vanquishes us with anguish or electrifies us with ecstasy or makes us pause and consider a new sense of the world or unravels us altogether, but never does it make us feel comfortable…”

I also started reading Interrobang by Jessica Piazza, and I am going to be re-reading this book many times. The use of form and rhyme is something I’ve been experimenting with more and more, and I think I have much to learn from this book. Plus the organizing principle is unique and clever. (And who can resist a sonnet crown? I mean, THREE different sonnet crowns?)

Tomorrow in class, we tackle Fernando Pessoa, which I tried to read carefully tonight, but it just made my brain hurt. (I’ll have to try again with fresh eyes in the morning…) Here’s hoping the family who was either smoking or cooking in their room last night (and kept setting off the smoke alarm in their room and waking up the whole floor as the desk clerk came up to reset it) has checked out and paid their “no smoking” room fines. Then I can get a good night’s sleep and be grateful for the sun again tomorrow.

*

Today’s Soundtrack:

  • Running: Kongos – Lunatic
  • Around town: Black Keys – Turn Blue and Kaiser Chiefs Education, Education, Education and War
  • Drafting – God is an Astronaut – All is Violent, All is Bright and Far from Refuge
  • Reading – A combination of Pandora’s Meditation Radio and background television noise from shows I care nothing about. (Dead silence at home is okay – in a hotel, when alone, it kind of freaks me out unless I’m going to sleep.)

 

 

There may be horribles; it’s hard to tell.

Some poets may recognize the title line from John Berryman’s “Snow Line,” one of the poems we read for class today. But I thought it was also appropriate as I try to write drafts to the exercises given by the instructor this week. When I write to exercises or prompts that are very specific, my old rule-follower instincts kick in and that is usually not a good sign for my poems.  So, there may be horribles this week. But it is hard to tell. At this point, I’ve drafted a poem about a valise (it’s a workable draft, but not sure that I’m into it), and tonight a poem about cottonwood fluff. Not two subjects I would have chosen otherwise. Of course, the poems are not JUST about those things, and at least everyone in the class is in the same boat of sharing brand new drafts at the start of class.

Just the first night and day that I’ve been away, and I feel like I have done a TON of reading and writing work. Did some online reading including the following:

Molly Spencer’s “Aubade with Transverse Orientation” at Heron Tree is gorgeous, gorgeous. Wow. Just like Molly! She is a talented poet and a lovely human being. Someone give her a prize and publish her manuscript, please.

New issue of Menacing HedgeI love this journal and love that they feature both audio of published poems and usually several poems by each writer. Featured in this issue are some lovely lyric beauties by Sandra Marchetti and some gut-wrenching (literally and figuratively) poems by Risa Denenberg.

I like to curl up at the public library here in Iowa City – comfy chairs, lots of light, perfect quiet and a well-stocked 808-813. I read and take notes from books I haven’t seen – today’s pick was Mark Strand’s book of essays A Weather of Words: Poetic Perfection. Some things to consider that stuck with me:

“Lyric poems (…) fix in language what is most elusive about experience and convince us of its importance and truth.” (His definition of the lyric and its functions and features is one of the clearest and best I’ve seen.)

On the endings of poems – they “release us back into the world with the momentary illusion that no harm has been done.” (They do, don’t they?)

“Something beyond knowledge compels our interest and ability to be moved by a poem.” (Duh. But YES!)

I also did my book purchasing for the week:

  • Madness, Rack and Honey by Mary Ruefle. I wasn’t going to buy my own copy as I have it on hold at the library, but I’m glad I did. I was underlining the introduction, for goodness sake.
  • Seam byTarfia Faizullah – recommended by a million people
  • Granted by Mary Szybist – earlier work
  • Interrobang by Jessica Piazza – also recommended by several friends
  • It is Daylight by Arda Collins – my instructor for this week.
  • What Light Can Do – by Robert Hass – essays on art and creativity

Whew. I also have some revision drafting on the agenda tonight. Going to try and “stitching” technique suggested by Tom Holmes of Redactions. There may be horribles. But there also may be delightfuls. It’s always hard to tell.

Today’s soundtrack:

  • Running – Jack White’s Lazaretto
  • About town (walking, lunch, etc.) – St. Vincent – St. Vincent
  • Reading – Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
  • Drafting – White Noise. (seriously) & some soundtrack music from The Social Network, courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.