Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Reading & Teaching Poetry = Gathering Encyclopedic Knowledge of the World

45º ~ more bright sun, temps on their way up to "spring-like" for the rest of the week, no "winter precipitation" in sight ~ apologies to my eastern US friends currently under the blanket of ice & snow


I've learned a lot in my life by reading prose: novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, book-length CNF (especially memorable: The Hot Zone, which taught me all about Ebola back in the 90s). In these works, I immerse myself in new ideas and experiences I will never have myself but can expand my empathy (oh giant heart getting bigger every day). So, props to prose allowing depth.

But, there is poetry for breadth, empathy again, yes, but also breadth. In particular, I mean reading the individual poem in a lit mag, anthology, or as a teacher working with a student. When reading a bunch of individual poems by individual poets, I'm given one small window (concision) into an idea, emotion, or topic. The immersion might happen on many re-readings of the poem, but given how many poems there are to read and how short this life is, I'm more apt to keep moving through the anthology or journal at hand, gathering many, many experiences in a short time-frame. Also, when I'm reading poetry, I am much more likely to stop and turn to the dictionary, perhaps because in prose I'll allow the context to suggest meaning, and I'll move on to stick with the pace of reading full pages (depth). In poetry, the context often isn't enough, and because each word carries much more weight in a poem (compression), I find myself needing the full definition. So, I expand my vocabulary, and often my knowledge of some topic new to me.

Yet, in reading poems for students, poems that are still in the messy middle of their making, I must gather huge swaths of information I might not have at the ready. This week, I'm working with students on poems about: Jorge Luis Borges, the spotlight effect, a handmaiden attending Cleopatra at her death, Blind Willie Johnson, the Norse myth of Ragnarok, colonialism in Jamaica, basic human anatomy, cleaning out the gutters, and more, more, more. For each of these, to be the best help to my students, I have to have some basic understanding of their subjects in order to provide feedback on where the poems are working and where they are not. I confess, Wikipedia is becoming a familiar page in my Chrome history.

I confess, too, that I love my job, even as I find myself fighting for every minute to read and respond, even as my own writing time suffers. I know that all of this vast knowledge will pay off in the quiet days of summer when I have that time to come back to the blank page, filled up with images and words that have tossed & turned together for months and are only then ready to tumble out onto the page.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Finally Getting My Submission On

40º ~ bright, clear sunshine, the kind of clear that only seems to happen in the coldest months


I've spent the day with my B-I-C (butt in chair), thanks in part to a helpful spouse who brought me lunch, and now my energy wanes and my stomach grumbles. Still, I have been too absent from this space, so I'll push through (and know that a smoothie will be my reward!).

The first two hours of my chair-time today were spent reading, contemplating, and critiquing student poems for my graduate poetry workshop. Their work fairly sparkles on the page and today it inspired me to stay in the chair and continue on with my own work of revising and submitting. Happily, I drafted two new poems in the last three weeks via writing with my students in several classes.

While I knew I wanted to work on submissions again today (I sent out two non-simultaneous submission packets earlier in the week), I also knew that I needed some time to re-familiarize myself with the poems that are floating around in various stages of dress and undress.

I began by flipping through my "ready to go, but not out there" stack. Lo and behold, I found more tinkering revisions. These are not sweeping, but with distance comes clarity, clarity regarding where the lines might be muddied or bogged down. After a few nips and tucks, I felt confident again in the stack as a whole. Therefore, I turned to my "drafts" stack and began reading out loud, slowly. I listened for which drafts felt the most whole, the most "ready," and those I set to one side. Knowing my goal of submissions, I put the other more unfinished drafts away for another day. That kind of revision takes its own session. Again, I proceeded through the stack, making slight tweaks or significant whacks, adding in a line or two, as well. Eventually, I found two more poems that needed more work than I had space for today and set those aside as well.

Finally, I flipped through my "ready to go" stack, now a bit heftier, and found four poems that "worked" as a mini-manuscript. I know not everyone does this, but I find more confidence in submitting when my little bundles hold together either thematically or in form. Having my list of targeted magazines that I compiled earlier in the week, I went to work, this time sending one packet out to simultaneous journals.

In essence, my process has not changed significantly over the years, although now I do much more record keeping online, and I no longer have a separate manilla folder for each poem, as I no longer need to print out so many furious versions. Still, submitting takes time and quiet, just as writing does, and it takes a willingness to root out the weak spots, the wonky lines, the cliches slinking through the middle stanzas. I'm fortunate to have had such time and such quiet today.