Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sprawl

The internet is an amazing, sprawling thing. In the past 24 hours, I've added 2 new blogs to my list that I check daily: Hayden's Ferry Review and Kenyon Review. I like the trend of journals turning to blogging. There is often such a long lag-time between issues, and there is so much potential for posting extras. I just can't keep up with who is out there. These two blogs have been in existence for quite awhile without my discovery.

In a post yesterday on the Kenyon Review blog, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky brings up the ever present debate about talent, craft, and hard work. Are writers/artists born or made? Can we teach an art to someone born without instant talent? In his introduction, he says, "Good writing can come from talent or craft or plain hard work, but great writing requires all three." Then, later, as he proposes the long view of building on talent/will/desire to create/etc. through careful practice, he imagines a student disappointed by a tough critique in workshop. This is Lobanov-Rostovsky's response to the student:

"It’s not that 'we just don’t get it.' You just didn’t get it right! But no worries, mate, because you don’t have to prove yourself a genius by writing a perfect first draft. Geniuses revise. (I’m having that printed on a t-shirt as we speak.) And your first book won’t be your best book. You’ll mature; you’ll ripen. You’re not a morning glory, but a slow-growing vine. Only your author photo will remain unchanged as the years pass."

I love it! "Geniuses revise." My new motto.

Lit Crit

I've been reading D.A. Powell's latest post on the Harriet Blog over at Poetry's website. I'm so thankful Powell took the time to write this post, as it reflects many of my own feelings about literary criticism. I admire scholars of literary criticism, but I have always shied away from delving too deeply into criticism, mostly from the fear that any one school of thought might influence my poems. I prefer to rely on instinct and imagination.

Here's the quote I love the most from Powell's post:
I think it’s okay for poets to step away from the academy for a while and just read, write, see a movie, eat a plate of chicken and waffles, write a little more, go to sleep, dream about catching tigers in red weather.

As far as criticism and reading other writers, I'm encouraged by Powell's defense of reading by instinct, accepting what resonates and passing on what doesn't. It works for me.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What I'm Reading: The Usable Field

About ten years ago, I was in the habit of noting when and where I acquired my books. I'd jot down the month/year and the city on the inside of the back cover. Somewhere along the way, I dropped the habit, and now I wish I hadn't. I'm no longer sure when I started reading Jane Mead's poetry, but I have her first two collections well-earmarked: The Lord and the General Din of the World (Winner of the 1995 Kathryn A Morton Prize) and House of Poured-Out Waters. This week, I bought and read, devoured really, her third book, The Usable Field.

Mead comes closest to being the poet I wish I were today. As one of her blurb writers, Alan Williamson, describes it, "Confessional detail and philosophical argument are reduced to traces, but their resonance from underneath leaves no doubt that this work is serious." As I've been sifting through the poems in my new manuscript, I am haunted by the question: Is this too personal, too confessional? Mead builds beautiful poems that are clearly based on her real-world experiences and the truths she has discovered; however, the poems rarely reveal anything personal. How does she do it? Vexing.

Here is the opening of "Sister Harvest Brother Blues"

Because there is no earth-light,

because there is none other, we remain

wayward and hampered. No one


will be going this day with us.

The main force is the usable field

or sun on the useless bunchgrass,--


Here is the opening of "With No Praise from the Far Dark Reaches"

I believe in the horse and the marshes--I believe

in the crow,--talisman of apple tree and pear.

I believe in the wall. This wall and the other.


Did I say the willow? I believe the willow

knows what the dead know, passing over.

Many of the poems have the feel of the elegiac, and several of the poems reference "the dead." Those of you who have read my recent poems might have seen me do the same. In fact, as I began reading Mead's book, my little inner critic-demon was chirping away that Mead was doing what I'd set out to do and much better.

Most of Mead's poems in The Usable Field are short, intense, contained. They are largely one page or less, with a few exceptions. I have to admit that I favor the short poem. I've never had the attention span necessary for lengthier works. Mead manages that great trick of poetry, compression, with masterful force.

I'm grateful for another distant mentor.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Practicalities

Today, I'm actually following my own advice. Each semester, I remind students about the importance of backing up their work, and each semester several students (and often myself) lose whole papers, stories and poems to computer glitches. So, today, I'm actually going to use the external hard drive that I purchased six months ago to back up all my files.

Another practical application on tap for today is the actual construction of the computer file for Glacial Elegies. So far, I've just been shuffling hard copies of poems around; however, I finally feel ready to create that lengthy document. Much tinkering to follow....

Monday, July 21, 2008

Overcoming

As promised, here are 5 ways of overcoming the doubts and obstacles.

1. Celebrate the victories, big and small.
Each acceptance, each public reading, each note from a reader means the work is paying off. I still get a thrill when an editor takes the time to compliment one of the poems he or she has accepted. Sometimes, when the doubts are there, I look back at my collection of contributor copies to remind myself that others have found my poetry worthy of a public space. Sometimes, I look back at my emails from the folks at Anhinga to recapture that energy.

2. Cultivate supportive friends and family members.
Writing is hard, isolated work. Largely, we writers spend a lot of time inside our own heads. When the doubts arrive, reach out to a good friend, colleague or family member. Let their words remind you that the process of discovery necessary for each new poem, story, essay, or other art piece is worth your time and energy. My dad admits that he doesn't really "get" poetry, but he tells me that he is proud of what I've done, regardless. It might sound sappy, but it helps.

3. Try not to wallow in self-pity or self-recrimination.
This is a take on Megan's comment from the previous post. I do have a habit of wallowing in self-blame. A lot of valuable time can be lost this way.
3 1/2. If you must wallow, set yourself a time limit.
Give yourself one evening with Ben & Jerry or a bottle of wine. Vent. Then get over it.

4. Create a hands-on tool kit for jump-starting new work. The best way I've found to break the cycle of the doubtings is to get back to the page. I'll often ask a fellow poet to give me an assignment and a time limit. It might be a bit contrived, but it gets me back to the work and away from the couch. I also use submissions for this purpose. Sometimes focusing on the business side of things gets my mind off the doubts and back to the work. After all, in order to send something out there, I have to believe it is ready for public consumption. This often leads to revisions, which leads to ideas for new poems.

5. Pobody's Nerfect.
My mother, in all her wisdom, knew from the time I was very young that I have a tendency to beat myself up over mistakes. She once gave me a bookmark with "Pobody's Nerfect" on it. Lately, the phrase has come back to comfort me. Be kind to yourself. Each day offers a new chance to overcome the doubts and jump back into the writing. If you feel like you've let the doubts stifle you, just remember that there's always another chance to get back to the page.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Questioning

My friend Megan Chapman has a great, brave post on her blog this week that contains a journal entry in which she questions her art and herself as an artist. (Megan gives away a piece of art to a random commenter once a month...check it out!) Many folks have chimed in through the comments, but I find myself lingering on the questions and thinking about my own questioning/doubting/ second-guessing.

If you read this blog back in June, you know that I sent out about 20 submissions containing new poems. I've now gotten back a few rejections; at the same time, I've been combing through the new manuscript with the most critical eye yet, and I'm finding some weaker points. As the summer is now about 2/3 over, and school/work is looming on the horizon, I've also taken a moment to reflect on what I've accomplished. All of this reflection, leaves me thinking I could be doing more. I have not written every day, as I intended. I have not read all of the books on my "unread" shelf, as I intended. I have spent some days on the couch watching baseball and Netflix films. I have spent some days reading political thrillers instead of poetry/literature. I have spent some days reading other people's blogs rather than writing. Does this mean I am not serious enough about my work? When given the entire summer, with no obligations and therefore no excuses for not working, I feel a bit like I've let myself down.

Megan talks about having to be a sales person to get her work out there on the market and wonders about how that might influence her. I know that for me, perseverance in submitting work, in marketing myself as a "serious" writer, has been the only way for me to get published. Most of my individual poems go out to dozens of magazines before being accepted. Blood Almanac was accepted after over 50 rejections. When hearing of other writers and how their work is accepted almost instantly and from the press/publication of their choice, I begin to wonder if my work holds up.

All of this questioning must seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think it is important to acknowledge the doubts that run like a minor current through my mind on a pretty constant basis. For me, it is important to acknowledge the doubts and then find ways to overcome them.

Next time...methods to overcome the doubts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

AWP Registration

Registration for AWP in Chicago opened yesterday - here. Last year, AWP in New York sold out of registrations well before the conference.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Roots

"This is Iowa...and not only are the people nice, they have a hard time believing anyone else is not nice." -- Joseph Geha in the essay "Where I'm From - Originally."

I'm reading a collection of essays written by Midwestern authors called Townships, edited by Michael Martone and published in 1992. I've had this book for about 9 months, and I no longer remember what reference led me to it; I'm simply grateful that Martone solicited these essays and published them.

When I entered the MFA program at the U of A, I had only a vague sense of my subject matter; however, the creative writing program at Arkansas is, if nothing else, a program built on the strong literary tradition of Southern writers. Two particular classes got me thinking about regionalism and where I fit as a writer. One was Dr. Brinkmeyer's class on the Southern Novel and the other was one of Skip Hays' form & theory classes, the one on the novel. Reading Faulkner, O'Connor, and a host of others, it became clear that there was a definite sense of what it means to be Southern and to write. Reading broadly, I could also identify this definitive regionalism in authors of New England and the West. Even authors who exist outside the mainstream in these areas echo, reflect, and refract that sense of region. What's left? The Midwest. What are the basic tenets of a Midwestern regionalism/aesthetic? I have struggled with that question ever since.

Martone makes a point in his introduction that the Midwest has defied definition from the beginning. For all intents and purposes, it stretches from the Ohio Valley to the Rocky Mountains. It covers eastern forests, sweeping prairies, all the great northern rivers that feed the Mississippi, and the short grasses of the plains. This is a massive amount of land peopled by a great diversity. While many of us are connected to the land through a family history with farming, there are just as many of us connected to the urban blue collar of factories & city jobs.

So, does a sense of Midwestern regionalism exist in literature? Does it begin with Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis? I think the net surrounding and defining what it means to be a Midwestern author is there; however, it must be larger, looser and more accommodating than the rest. The essays in Townships are helping me grapple with my own sense of regionalism.

I laughed at the quote from Geha because I am constantly frustrated when faced with people who are just mean-spirited and small-minded. None of this is to suggest that Midwesterners (or myself) are constantly good and moral; we are all flawed individuals.

Perhaps place no longer matters quite so much in literature, given our global age. Perhaps these questions of regionalism drift to the antique. Perhaps my own personal struggle between rootedness and mobility lacks the power of political, economic, and social struggles. All I can do is write what comes out of me and try to say something true about my experiences in this lifetime.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Glacial Progress, 2nd Installment

It's been about a month since I posted news of Glacial Elegies. When working on Blood Almanac, I kept all the poems in a simple file folder, which presented problems when I tried to look at the sequence and shuffled the poems unknowingly or when I knocked the folder off my desk every other day. Wednesday, I did the same with my folder for GE. Suddenly, it struck me...get a three-ringed binder. Not sure why I was so slow to think about using some kind of binder, but there you go. For me, going to any office supply store can be a dangerous outing. I've never been a fashion horse, but just set me loose in a room of paper, post-its, pens, binders, & etc., and I can quickly lose all sense of my budget.

In any case, I found a three-ringed binder with a colorful pattern of blues, purples, and greens. I'm usually quite practical about these things and just get the black or white binder; however, there's something earthy about this design, and it caught my eye. I spent yesterday printing up all of the poems I'd previously organized in my GE folder. (Last month, I laid out all the poems on the wonderful 8 ft. conference table my husband had the good sense to buy. I got down the basic order for the poems and some sense of the section breaks.) After printing the poems, I punched the holes and loaded them into the binder. It's much more organized than the folder; I can flip through the poems more easily, and I get a better "feel" for the book. It might seem new-agey/touchy-feely, but loose pages are harder for me to imagine as a book.

What surprised me is that I have more than met the minimum number of pages (usually 48) that most presses require. When I was working on the first book, it felt like pulling teeth to get to the minimum, and even then, Anhinga asked for more poems before publishing the book. In this go around, I guess I held back from envisioning the entire manuscript. Perhaps having the first book out there gave me some breathing room to just let the poems happen.

Now, I have the luxury of removing a few of the poems that might not fit and spending the next 6 weeks thinking about and crafting a few poems that I think need to be in the book. There are a couple of angles regarding death & mourning that I haven't covered yet that I'd like to explore. At the moment, I'm feeling really good about meeting my first deadlines for submission, which begin at the end of September. I'm sure the book will continue to evolve, but the basic structure is there, and that is satisfying enough for now.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What I'm Reading: Elegy

Without doubt, Larry Levis died far too young at the age of 49 in 1996. Elegy is the collection he had very nearly completed in the months before his death. Philip Levine edited the collection at the request of Levis' family.

I have read individual poems from this collection in the past, but the cumulative effect of reading poem after poem is that of an almost unbearable sadness. The last nine poems are titled in this vein -- "Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand," "Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage," "Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope," etc. While all the poems in the book explore the fragility of human connections, how easy it is for those connection to become lost and broken, the elegies capture the human condition perfectly. These poems explore the need for relationships juxtaposed against the need for solitude. They illustrate the sad fact that we often destroy what we love, and this is frequently shown through the age-old conflict of humanity versus the natural world.

This is a book that weighs on the reader. What astonishes me now, looking back over the poems, is that Levis confronts his (and our) mortality so straightforwardly. For instance, in "Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It" he writes, "We go without a trace, I am thinking," followed by "What are we but what we offer up?" Then, in another tone altogether, in "Boy in Video Arcade" he writes, "So Death blows his little fucking trumpet, Big Deal, says the boy." The defiance of youth in the face of death just sucks the air from my lungs.

I'm sure Levis' death so soon after writing these poems and at such a relatively young age for our times contributes to the weight of these poems; however, the poems are haunting and powerful of their own accord, whether the reader knows the backstory or not.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Worth of Work

Next door, construction workers are adding an addition to our neighbor's house. It's been a summer of concrete, two-by-fours, and nail guns. Most recently, the roofing crew arrived. In the heat of July, they appeared last night at 5 p.m. and worked until 9. This morning, they were already on the roof at 7 a.m. My husband and I are fortunate to have a tiny, mother-in-law cottage behind our house, which serves as my husband's office and man-cave. We make frequent trips across the small backyard during the day, visiting each other with questions or observations or to take care of the mundane minutia of bills to be paid and household chores. Just now, as I crossed back, the 3 men on the roof next door were in a huddle discussing some aspect of the job apparently. They are all Latino and converse entirely in Spanish. As I looked up at them (for how could I not?), their conversation ceased and they simply stared at me as I made my way back into the house.

This little interaction made me wonder: what must they think of us? After all, we are too young to be retired, yet we don't go to work like most of our neighbors. Do they think me spoiled to be able to leisurely wander about the backyard? Both my husband and I are teachers, and both of us use our summer days to first recuperate from the school year and then to pursue our intellectual interests. When, I watch these men, who are clearly experts at what they do, sweating in the heat radiating up off the tar paper and shingles, a momentary guilt wafts through me.

My brother-in-law is a master automotive electrician. He also rebuilds cars that have been totaled and resells them. His work is dirty and physically taxing, involving long hours crawling underneath and around and inside cars. He give me no end of grief for my teaching schedule. Likewise, when people find out both my husband and I teach, their first comment invariably falls in the realm of "oh wow, you get summers off!" Forgive us if we get a bit defensive, but we aren't sitting around eating bon-bons and watching soap operas. Yet, how to convince especially those people working blue collar jobs that there is worth in philosophy and poetry?

A poem seems a bit paltry in the face of working 12 hour days trying to feed and house a family. As I contemplate the lives of the men next door, I feel a certain pressure to make these long days of summer count, to not waste my time, and to be grateful for those leisure moments.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Stars & Stripes

Two poems for Independence Day:

Walt Whitman - I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day--at night the party of young fellows,
robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.


Langston Hughes - Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars
?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What I'm Reading: A Murmuration of Starlings

A Murmuration of Starlings is Jake Adam York's second book of poems and winner of the 2007 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry--Open Competition. While I've admired York's poems in journals over the past couple of years, I missed his first book Murder Ballads and plan to go back to that as soon as possible.

The opening poem of A Murmuration of Starlings, "Shall Be Taught to Speak," begins with the familiar territory of how European Starlings were introduced to America in 1890 in an attempt to populate North America with all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. However, the poem then makes a dramatic shift to a photograph of a lynching in Arkansas from the same time period. This twining of the images of starlings and racial discord sets the theme for the rest of the book, which is mostly concerned with the Civil Rights era. At first, I thought the poem a bit heavy-handed in the connection; however, on reading the complete book, I have come to appreciate its place.

The rest of the book is wave on wave of poems that circle one of the most painful episodes in our history, poems of Emmet Till, riots, and the Birmingham church bombings. While the poems serve as historical markers, they are transformed by the careful weaving of one extended metaphor that is ever-changing: the starlings as darkness, threat, voice in the face of silence, all the buried secrets that refuse to remain unheard.

With subject matter so laced through with emotion, it is sometimes easy for a poet to let the themes carry the poem, to let technique slip; not York. He is a master of sound and line. He does not rely on hard end-rhymes but nests sounds within lines and then lets them echo throughout the poems, something subtle and haunting.

This is a book heavy with history. Living now in the south, I'm left with the question: How do we rise, phoenix-like, from so much hate?


York's website offers this about the book:
A Murmuration of Starlings is the second in a projected series of volumes that elegize the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

I inadvertently began this series in the course of composing Murder Ballads when poems about industrial accidents in Alabama's steel industry lead me into the veins of the state's racial history, through which I found my way to (or, more properly, back to) the stories of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the gruesome murders of those whose names are inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. After Murder Ballads was complete, I dedicated myself to extending into a series the poems for the Civil Rights Martyrs, and within about 18 months, I had a series of poems revolving around an exploration of the Emmitt Till murder trial and an exploration of the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson.