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. 🙂

 

Advertisements

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.

******

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

******

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.

 

So This is the New Year…

…and I don’t feel any different. With apologies to Ben Gibbard for stealing the lyric, this sums up how I feel nearly every new year.  I certainly cannot predict every surprise that may be around 2018’s corners, but I never have been the prescient sort. Although I will be one year closer to retiring from public school teaching, realistically, things will not change for me all that much otherwise.

I will laugh with my husband & my son, worry about my parents, appreciate time with my students & my friends, and fall in love with the first truly blue sky of spring.  My weight will fluctuate despite my best attempts to be fit, I will fight small battles with my health & aging, and I will stand on a beach & marvel at the ocean. I will crave pizza & mashed potatoes and wish that they were as good for me as salads.  I will stomp & sway, carried away by live music, shout lyrics at the top of my lungs, and I will write.

Some days I will write well, the words arriving like gifts from the ether. Some days I will struggle to fill a page, doubting every glide of the pen, every keystroke.  I will be proud of my work one day, and the next, I will question whether or not I should even bother. I will read poems in journals/books and convince myself that mine belong on those same pages. Then I will read poems in journals/books and despair that mine will never measure up. This year, I will be attempting to post here at least once a week, something that I have missed since letting it lapse months ago. So I will write.

And this week in particular, I will spend the rest of my school break  with my family and some good friends. I may write a lot. I may write almost nothing. But at least I plan on writing & reading, and I am taking two Christmas gifts with me for that purpose: Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic & a new travel journal. I also plan to have Commonplace Podcast in my headphones, Rachel Zucker’s collection of intimate & insightful conversations with poets.

All of these things will bridge the gap into the new year – family, words, friends, love – and into new writing. So cheers to 2018 – and let there be no distance that could hold us back.