Sunday, December 30, 2007

What I'm Reading: Fire Baton

Several months ago, Davis McCombs recommended the book Fire Baton by Elizabeth Hadaway. Finally, I've had the time to sit with it for several days and soak it in.

The poems in this first book by Hadaway reach out and latch on to the reader's ear. They are formal in the best sense...a rhyme scheme and meter that are so flawless as to melt on the tongue and in the ear. At first I hardly noticed more than the ringing true rhymes that end many of the poems with an echo of Shakespeare's sonnets. The more I read, the more I paid attention, the more I saw the underlying craft and admired it.

A brief digression on paying attention...it seems to me that poetry requires a certain dedication from the reader that other types of reading might not. Again, these are mere speculations, and I certainly don't claim to be "right" in any argumentative sense. However, I do think that poetry calls for an alert and diligent reader, someone willing to read and re-read the same poem until all the subtle flavors breach the palate. It reminds me of my attempts to read philosophy in college. In any case, I find that from time to time I am not in the best frame of mind for reading poetry, and I might dismiss a book or a poem as not my taste only to return to it in a quieter frame of mind and wonder how I could have missed what it had to offer the first time.

But back to Hadaway. I was immediately drawn to her poems because she writes out of a rural, working-class background, albeit one of Appalachia rather than my more familiar Midwest. One of the first poems is in defense of the proper pronunciation of Appalachia: "All Short-a Appalachia." It opens already on the attack:

You want to ratchet this world's fury down?
Then learn to say it right. Not Appa-lay-
cha, Appa-latch-a. This means you,
you NPR announcers earnestly
enunciating all the accent marks
in Spanish or Sanskrit...

Throughout the poem, Hadaway uses as many short-a words as she can pack into the lines and reinforces her stance through a crescendo of word lists, ending with "It's short a: acid, ash, scab, smack, / catastrophe, Cassandra, slag, last, wrath." She has a way of zinging those last lines in her poems that make me pause and then re-read the whole thing to see how she got to where she ended.

A list of titles of some of the poems:
The Black Dog of the Blue Ridge
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Car, of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona
Faculty Parking Apocalypse
Disney Ride Song of the South
Fearing the Loss of My Hounds
Magic City Mortgage Co., 1951
Fancy Gap
Richmond Breastworks

Throughout the book, we see the speakers of the poems conflicted and attempting to reconcile the knowledge gained by leading an intellectual life with what they were brought up to believe. There are issues of class, gender, and religion, all themes that resonate with me. It was definitely worth a second and third read in the right frame of mind, and I will look forward to Hadaway's future poems.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Time

As most of you know, I lead an academic life, teaching at a local community college. This means more time off over the holidays than most folks, and each year I look forward to it for weeks, imagining long days of reading and writing. My last work day was December 13th, and I've spent precious little time writing. I was mentally drained by the end of this semester and spent my first weekend of freedom drooling on the couch and berating myself for wasting writing time. Then the onslaught of family visitations began, and now finally, I am back in my just-barely-cluttered writing room and my batteries have been recharged to about 80% capacity. I'm ready to go...but wait...life interrupts and there are the mundane obligations of paying the bills, washing the dishes and the laundry, playing with the cat, calling the contractor who is bidding on our bathroom renovation, etc.

Each semester I implore my students (in all of my classes) to try and set a schedule for themselves. For my creative writers I repeat the words of one of my first writing instructors, Jon Hassler, the fiction writer from Minnesota. Jon said, "Set a time for writing. I don't care when. Start small with 30 minutes and work up to two hours. The only thing I ask is that you don't do anything else except write in that time. In the beginning you might just sit in the chair with a Coke and stare out the window. That's fine. Eventually, you'll get bored and start writing." Ok, so it's been...gasp...almost 17 years since I heard the speech, so I'm paraphrasing a bit, but you get the picture. [I distinctly remember the Coke reference, though...I'm a Pepsi fan.]

That schedule was easy for me as an undergraduate and even as a graduate student; however, now that I am a full-time instructor, a homeowner, and a spouse, the schedule gets a bit slippery. There will always be something that needs doing, someone that needs my attention, and a couch calling my name.

For those of you who are also struggling with time, I suggest setting the schedule, but being easy with yourself when it breaks down a bit. Just get back on track as soon as possible. I will say that a writing schedule is a lot like an exercise schedule. You build momentum, and when the schedule is interrupted, it takes time to get your mind muscles back up to speed. Another suggestion is to find a writing partner. I did so much better staying on track this last semester with the help of my friend and colleague, Angie Macri. We gave each other poetry assignments and then exchanged the results. Some of the assignments spawned beautiful poems I never would have come to without Angie. Some of the assignments resulted in rickety half-poems, but always with a redeeming line or two that I could use to begin something new.

So here's to all the new lines we'll be sharing in the new year! Let the clock tick. [Faintly, faintly.]

Thursday, December 20, 2007

We Are Family

Yes folks, it's that time of year again, the time when we we gather together with friends and family to celebrate our holidays and the new year. It's a mix of happiness and stress, complicated by the practicalities and impracticalities of travel, for those of us who shoved off and forged ahead, making lives far from our familial shores.

What has this all to do with writing? For those of us whose work is rooted in our personal lives, stretching out from the Confessional poets into some new poetry that isn't straightforwardly personal but takes the personal at a slant, there is always the delicate matter of publishing poems in which family members may appear...or may think they appear...and not in a good light. This question must not come up for those more distant philosophic, intellectual poets, writing at a distance from their own lives, cloaked in layers of speakers more and more removed from their own biographies. I admire their work, especially their precision with language and images, but I'm often left with one hand opening and closing as I reach for something to hold onto, something to take with me when I'm done [greedy, greedy].

My boss, a fellow poet, tells his creative writing students two things that apply to this discussion: one, something needs to be a stake in the poem and two, for material -- go into the black box that sits underneath your heart and harbors all the messy stuff of your life. For my own work, I believe in these statements as well. I want to write poems that offer something to the reader, a new insight into the struggle to live and love, lines that they can carry around for solace in the dark times as I carry Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, Walt Whitman, Charles Wright, Pablo Neruda, and so many others with me. My writing also emerges from those dark intercostal spaces in my torso where my body builds muscle memory of pain and gladness.

So, I am left with poems that, if not directly confessional, are slantly confessional. The "I" speaker is one incarnation of me, one moment in time of me, and that "I" is struggling to make sense of the troubling world. And yes, sometimes these poems involve those people closest to the black box...my family. For me, I come from an intelligent but non-literary family. They all read, but they read mainly mainstream, popular fiction, newspapers, and general interest magazines and have little knowledge about the world of poetry, its form and theory, its craft. And so how do you explain to your father that a poem about a father's fall from perfection is only loosely based on the realities of his presence in your life? How do you tell your sisters that you aren't judging their lives, merely trying to examine how and why and to what result they made the choices they made?

This is probably one argument against the confessional in poetry...you don't have to worry about hurting someone's feelings if you're making everything up. However, I think there is something to be said for the risk that is at stake when the poem comes up out of closely held hurts and fears. Yes, the language must still be precise and the images new and awe-inspiring, but without the risk, the something at stake, then I'm left feeling let down and empty...when reading or writing a poem.

And so, "once more into the breach," which is also a welcoming home. May you all be safe in your journeys!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Second Verse

As 2007 draws [swiftly, swiftly] to a close, I'm looking ahead to what 2008 has in store for my writing life. I will be giving up my administrative duties at work and returning to the classroom full time, and while the grading burden will increase, I believe my general stress level will decrease and allow more room for writing. [I hope.]

My main goal for 2008 will be to get the second book out there, and I am currently going through the process of shaping the manuscript. The title of this post comes from the cliche...same song, second verse...because I find myself swimming in the same morass of uncertainty that I swam in while gathering together Blood Almanac. Shaping a book is an organic process, and I'm continually surprised at how grouping poems together draws out nuances I hadn't even been aware of in the first place. The key, then, being to group poems in the strongest combination, taking advantage of every nook and cranny nuance. I am a bit envious of poets like Maurice Manning (see the last post) whose books grow out of a single vision and voice.

After Blood Almanac came out, after I'd traveled and read, I started thinking about what might come next. I tried to think in terms of theme or single vision, but I just don't seem to work that way. The poems come as they come, with whatever direction and content is swirling around in the vortex at the time. I play with form and rhyme and all the other building blocks after the genesis of that first image or line.

What I fear now is that I might have the beginnings of two books, one more traditional than the other. I have a strong core of poems right now that I've collected under the working title, Glacial Elegies, and all have to do with the Midwest and the dead. I was fortunate to not have to face death directly until well into adulthood, as all 4 of my grandparents remained living into their 80's. I lost both of my grandfathers in the past several years, and this has shaped my writing in unexpected ways. However, there are those other poems, the ones that don't necessarily slip perfectly into place when I've got everything spread out on the table. These poems are more language based (although not LANGUAGE poetry), more fragmented, and less directly involved in the driving themes of the Glacial Elegy poems. So, what do I do? Do I create a separate section with just enough commonality to make the book hold together? Do I separate the two and acknowledge that it might be another year before either one is fully finished?

The answers are out there to be had, and I will try to embrace the adventure inherent in sorting them out. Of one thing, I am certain, the road to publication is neither quick nor easy (for most), so I remind myself once again about persistence and endurance--two necessities in surviving the struggle for publication.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What I'm Reading: Bucolics

Here's the first of what I hope to be a regular feature on this blog, a mini-response to a book of poetry I've recently finished reading. I don't mean for these to be standard book reviews, but rather a spattering of thoughts and impressions.

Bucolics is Maurice Manning's third full-length collection. I was first introduced to Manning in one of Davis McCombs' form & theory classes where we read Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions, Manning's first book, which is also quite good. In Bucolics, Manning gathers together a series of untitled and unpunctuated poems. Their subject matter is a speaker in conversation with the divine, and their musicality, images, and repeated themes call to mind a book of psalms. However, this is not the language of the high church. The poems are rooted in a rural, agricultural voice, with a revolving cast of characters, including horses, barns, birds, and the fields.

The speaker addresses the divine as "Boss," and I did have a bit of trouble with this at first. "Boss" called to mind a master/slave relationship, and given that Manning himself is from Kentucky, I felt a bit off-balance to begin. Yet one of the fantastic elements of this book is the way that the individual poems build on one another, washing over the reader like waves cresting. By the time I'd read, re-read, and digested the first handful of poems, I had settled into the use of "Boss" to address the divine, the bigger-than-me force in the universe. As someone with personal issues with organized religion, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the poems. Manning is never preachy and never settles into Judeo-Christian exclusivity. Rather, he exposes the questions embedded in our own humanity.

Here are some lines from my favorites. From "XXVI": "you toss the stars like clover seed / you sling them through the sky you must / be glad to be a sower Boss." Later in the same poem:

you bind
the honey to the suckle Boss
you sow the sticky stuff that sticks
the honey to the yellow belly
of the bee

As most of you know, my central images are drawn from the landscape of the Midwest and the residue of family farming, although my immediate family members no longer farm. The down-to-earth nature of Manning's voice definitely works for me.

In the end, I read the book in two sittings, splitting it almost perfectly in half. I recommend reading the book this way, if not all at once, for those of you with longer attention spans. The poems call back and forth amongst themselves and the collective nature of the book is one of its strongest points.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pending

One more day of serious grading work to do and then I'm free, free, free for a few weeks of R&R with family and friends. I hope to spend a lot of hours reading and writing while the weather turns decidedly colder. Watch for several new posts in the next few days, including some thoughts on Maurice Manning's newish book Bucolics, how to survive a computer crash, and ramblings on putting together a book-length manuscript.

Until then...

Friday, December 7, 2007

Fat Email

Yesterday, good news arrived in the form of an email fat with an acceptance. New Delta Review wants "Why the Wind." This acceptance is particularly reassuring because the poem is one of the first post-Blood Almanac poems that I felt confident about. I've been sending it out for over a year and wondering "how come noboby else wants this poem?" Now, I can rest a bit easier, as it has found a home. This acceptance is also fun because New Delta is the old stomping ground of my boss.

And to keep me humble, two rejections arrived fast on the heels of the acceptance.

***************

Writing time has come to a screeching halt, as official class days are over, finals are looming, and the stack of research papers to be graded seems to grow rather than shrink. If you know someone who is a Comp teacher, send chocolate, give hugs, offer up wine and excuse us our grouchiness.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Submitting to Obscurity

This morning on NPR, I was listening to a report about a museum in Oregon, which will receive a Van Gogh painting, "Ox-Cart," from a regional family. The painting is from Van Gogh's early career and unlike his most famous work is quite dark. The reporter went to a local coffee shop to gather some responses, and this comment stopped me in my tracks. When talking about Van Gogh's sunflowers and how those sunflowers have been branded on all manner of things from mugs to posters to bumper stickers, a woman named Sally Cleveland, who is an artist herself, said this:

"I would rather submit to obsurity than be a coffee mug."

I was taken aback...what? I love Van Gogh's sunflowers and whenever I see them they make me happy, whether they are on a mug or on the wall as a print of the original. Whenever I see a famous work on a magnet or a mug, I am happy to recall the original. I do not presume that the mug itself is trying to be "art," merely a representation, an artifice...but wait..isn't that the definition of the arts? Certainly I can see the intrinsic value in the original painting versus the "mock-u-painting" on the mug, but if it recalls to mind the original, isn't that worthy?

Of course, the real reason the comment brought me up short is because it touches on my medium as well...the written word...and my ego. It seems a brave comment to make for an artist. What is it that I aim to do with my work? I aim to publish as much as possible in the best venues possible. Does this make me vain? Would I "stoop" to having my poem on a mug? A niggling thought in the back of my mind suggests I might. Would I choose to "submit to obscurity"? No, while I know I'm probably never going to be on Oprah's bookclub list, I do hope to find some willing audience somewhere. And this recalls another letter from Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson. This one from 7 June 1862, when E.D. says this:

"I smile when you suggest that I delay 'to publish' -- that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin --
If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her -- if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase -- and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me -- then -- My Barefoot Rank is better -- "

I have read and re-read this letter for years, struggling with my own emotions about publishing. Is the artist who works at the art without thinking of publishing ("barefoot") a purer artist? How much does audience play a role in the creative process? How much does the ego-boost of a publication help push my writing along? Would I continue to write, against all odds, if I received nothing but rejections? I doubt it. For whom do I write? For myself, of course, but I have always written in an effort to communicate, and that implies an audience.

Where is the line between the mass-market mug and Dickinson's "Barefoot Rank"?