Saturday, June 22, 2013

What I'm Reading: Equivalents

88º ~ hot, hot, hot with humidity that rises throughout the day, bright sun with a chance of storms that I do not believe, as they've avoided our neighborhood for so long

I picked up Jessica Baran's Equivalents (Lost Roads 2013) on a whim at AWP, in part because of the book design.  It is a hand-pleasing square, 6.5" x 6.5".  I also picked it up because Baran won the first Besmilr Brigham Women Writers Award, which champions work by female poets who live outside the literary centers on the coasts.  In fact, the deadline for 2013 submissions is just a week away.  While I haven't submitted, after reading Baran's book, I'm inclined to do so.

The notes at the back of the book tell us that Baran takes the title of the collection from the work of Alfred Steiglitz, specifically his set of photographs of the sky, taken from 1925 - 1934.  The collection is divided into three sections, where each section has a title but the poems within are numbered rather than named.  We have "On Dailiness," "On Dissonance," and "The Panorama."  The first two sections contain lyric prose poems, while the third contain poems with traditional line breaks.  The first two sections contain philosophical musings about the modern world (think technology / white noise versus nature / enough calm to contemplate), while the third is a reflection on John J. Egan's panoramic painting of the Mississippi River housed in the Saint Louis Art Museum, containing many of the themes of the first two sections as well.

As I sank into Baran's syntax (sometimes sparse and fragmented, sometimes prone to catalogs and lists), I kept coming back to the movie, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), the title of which is a Hopi word for "life out of balance."  The film contains no plot and no dialogue, but is a series of scenes exploring the consequences of modern technology on the natural world and on our society / lifestyle.

Baran's themes run in similar veins, without, perhaps, the clear call to action as in the film, and her poems are definitely not plot driven, instead piling images and aphorisms one after the other until we are weighted down with contemplation.  She uses the language of commerce, capitalism, and politics, interwoven with the language of artifice, photography, and film.  For example, the first poem in the book opens with this:

I'm not interested in propaganda. The space where you arrived is empty when you leave. The lake is open to questioning. Everyone has a different method: of lending, of accruing debt. Water can be boiled in all sorts of weather, but the pot cannot be outsourced.

Everywhere in the poems, we are reminded of the artifice of modern life.  The poet is clearly looking at the world through a specific lens, a lens that may be adjusted or exchanged for another, shifting views and ultimately shifting truths.  Nothing is stable, and we are all facing that gigantic, empty sky of Steiglitz' photographs, which come to symbolize the greater void in living a life out of balance.

Baran's first section, "On Dailiness," is probably my favorite, as it contains many comments on domesticity (and therefore often comments on the female).  In poem number four from this section, she highlights our disconnected nature, a disconnection that began way back when groups of humans gathered into societies and started "taming" the wilderness in order to live.  After describing sheets, sofas, a bed comforter and other daily items of housekeeping, Baran continues:

An anthem to dailiness. An American history of lost civility; the decline of small gestures. ...  Is this the clearing you were looking for? It's not what you expected: not the rich black burnt thatch long lost woodsmen cleared in a wood of pines. Not the tractor-flattened part of the meal-colored prairie. Just a carpet sample thrown on faux terrazzo tiles.

In these poems, we are confronted with a town crier whose words bounce around a cluttered, over-stimulated town square, and we ultimately fear / know that no one is listening as we hear proclamations that "consumption levels are off," "decades collapse," and "[i]ndustry encroaches on nature--a great Modernist trope."  Meanwhile, we must all "self-curate or vanish" as "[i]t's never easy getting words to work" and "[p]lace doesn't matter any more."

While all of this may seem heavy, political, and heart-crushing, it is also comforting to know that there are others out there observing and commenting on the cacophony of 21st century, American life.  It is the job of poetry to slow us down, to open us up to the clutter and the void, and to lead us on, wherever the journey takes us.  At this, Baran excels.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: Small Porcelain Head

85º ~ as promised we have waves of high temps with humidity-induced "feels like" in the 100s and then days of respite, sadly we've missed much of the rain that peppered the state over the last few days, had to water the front garden today

While drafting, revising, and submitting sputter along at agonizing paces, I'm returning to my reading goal.  Today, I've read Allison Benis White's Small Porcelain Head  (Four Way Books, 2013) twice.  Yes, that's right, twice.  Allison and I have an AWP friendship, cemented by a pedi-cab ride in Denver, and while we do not correspond regularly, I am always thrilled to see her smile, which reaches right up to a sparkle in her eyes, whenever we cross paths amidst the sea of other writers at AWP.

Small Porcelain Head was on my to-buy list in Boston this year, and here I am, finally, giving it the time it deserves.  I read the book twice because each poem is an intense, fragmented, short, lyric prose poem, and from the first page, I was gripped with a sense of tragedy and urgency, an undertow of violence against the female body, that lead me in a rush, headlong through the book.  (If you favor a clear narrative with much explanation and abundant details, this is probably not the book for you; however, I found the fragments and sparseness intensely powerful.)  On the second read, I made myself slow down and absorb each poem.

Here's how Allison creates that sense of urgency and dark tragedy.  Many of the poems feature fragments of if, then, therefore arguments.  We are so used to these statements that we keep moving forward, looking for the logical conclusion, which doesn't arrive, except as a general thematic wholeness after the entire book has been consumed.  By fragmenting the logic, the reader is often left without any solid footing, which is the same predicament of the speaker of the book (sometimes a girl or woman with a doll, sometimes the doll itself).  For example, the first poem in the book (all poems are untitled and the table of contents lists the first phrase of each in lieu of such), is made up entirely of two "if" statements without any "then" or "therefore."

If pain is only weakness leaving the body,
black curls, still wet, painted on her fore-

If pain is a desire for dark shapes, even
when dried, glistening, if you are reading

The title of the collection is vital to creating a context for the poems, and throughout the book, we read about, or from the view of, such diverse dolls as porcelain, wax, tin, cloth, conjoined, and paper.  We confront dolls with strings and keys used to "animate" them.  Often the dolls are damaged in some way, heads pulled from bodies, wax faces melted, bodies hollowed out or torn open, hands or feet broken off and missing, etc.  Often, we are reminded of how the dolls' bodies have been manipulated, especially regarding those that come with a pull-string that activates the voice.

Throughout it all, there seems to be a human speaker attempting to navigate a great loss, a grief too large for comprehension, and that speaker questions the worth of going on with living.  In one poem, the speaker states, "Love for the world ... is ruin."  And in another, she refers to a doll that speaks when her stomach is pressed down, stating:

No, she is mute as the moments I accept
God or make a voice from objects, pressing
her stomach, pressing her stomach, not

Without being stated directly, I found themes of pregnancy and motherhood, and most thoroughly, the female body as object, manipulated by both outside forces and internal pressures.  After describing a doll with her arms raised and a turnkey in her head that creates a moaning, the speaker states:

After a while, we moan and lift our arms
in order to feel what she feels: her pose is

As I sit here, flipping through the collection one more time, I'm stunned by what Allison has created with so few words.  This is definitely a set of poems that should be read all together, and I think in order, to gather their true force.  These poems also highlight both concision and diction, as each word bears a tremendous weight.  While they might be prose poems, there is something of Emily Dickinson here that lures me in via the fragment and the condensed yet fraught imagery.  As I contemplate re-reading the book in the future, I imagine much more will rise to the surface, reminding me of both philosophy and the best of poetry.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What I'm Reading: Wild

85º ~ heat and humidity simmering before 9:00 a.m. on the way up to a heat index of 110º, oh joy!

Here's a rare post on a prose book, Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  While the book does chronicle Strayed's hike along the PCT, at its core, this is a book about weathering profound grief.  In Strayed's case, that grief revolves around the death of her mother, who was in her mid-forties when she died of lung cancer.  Strayed was in her senior year of college when her mother died.

I'd heard numerous interviews with Strayed on NPR and read lots of positive comments on blogs and social media before I opened the book.  I was surprised, though, at the connection I felt almost instantly.  Strayed grew up in Minnesota and graduated from high school just a few years before me.  For a few years, we were both in the same state, both going to colleges only a hundred miles apart.  She's the age of my sister, and when I look at her author photo of her blonde hair/blue eyes, I realize I went to college with any number of girls who might have appeared just like her.  More importantly, she knew she was a writer even in college, just as I did, although it took her awhile to work out the kinks and become a writer, just as it did for me.

With deep honesty, Strayed details her downward spiral after the death of her mother, including her use of sex and drugs at the period in her life as a way to try to make her way, motherless, in this world.  As she hits rock bottom, she decides to make a drastic life change by heading west to hike the PCT.  She is completely unprepared and inexperienced and spends much of the book learning by doing (which often left me feeling anxious and stressed for her).  Throughout the book, Strayed displays an incredible ability to remain self-aware and willing to share that self-awareness with true honesty.  She pulls no punches with herself or with the reader.  She lays herself bare both physically and emotionally, and through that action, she comes to terms with the death of her mother and with what she is making as a kind of life.

Here are the parts of the book that jumped out at me, with page numbers from the 2012, Vintage paperback.

"Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.  I decided I was safe.  I was strong.  I was brave.  Nothing could vanquish me.  Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.  Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away.  I simply did not let myself become afraid.  Fear begets fear.  Power begets power.  I willed myself to beget power.  And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid."  (Strayed's italics)

The one book that Strayed carried the entire length of her hike and didn't burn as she read, to lighten her load, was Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language.  At this point in the book, Strayed mentions the poem "Power."  The poem features Marie Curie and ends:

She died a famous woman denying 
her wounds 
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

100  describing her mother's incredible physical pain in her last days
"The way she begged for something that wasn't even mercy.  For whatever it is that is less than mercy; for what we don't even have a word for."

111  describing what it was like as "the only girl in the woods, alone with a gang of men" and her trail-induced dirty/stinky body
"By necessity, out here on the trail, I felt I had to sexually neutralize the men I met by being, to the extent that was possible, one of them."
***this sentence lept out at me as a parallel to what women have been doing for decades in the workplace

141  regarding the drudgery of the trail and the endless steps that make up the hike & MATH!
"I walked on, a penitent to the trail, my progress distressingly slow."  (Ultimately, this slowness is what heals Strayed, as it forces her to confront her grief in elemental ways.)
"In my perception, the world wasn't a graph or a formula or an equation.  It was a story."  (This describes Strayed's attempt to use her map and compass to navigate through the snow and how she never really took to math...uhm...DITTO!  This quote sums up my relationship to the world as well and may explain why I'm terrible at telling distances, weights, and measurements of all kinds, but I can tell you the "relation" of things.)

209  describing the moment she loses her boot and how she expected someone to "come laughing from the woods...saying it had all been a joke."
"But no one laughed.  No one would.  The universe, I learned, was never, ever kidding.  It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back."

304  describing the Rich book and lines of poetry
"Often, I didn't know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands--so close and present and belonging to me--until I reached for it and it flashed away."
Yes, Yes, Yes!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Would You Say I Have a Plethora?

88º ~ in the words of Glenn Frey, "the heat is on," a punishing sun, humidity low now, but on the rise, no breeze to speak of

So, there are two 80s references for you, dear readers.  The first, in the post title, = The Three Amigos; the second = Beverly Hills Cop. If you are unfamiliar with these allusions, get thee to Netflix and get thee quick!  Ahem, it seems I'm unable to write without ripping off others today (sorry to you, too, Shakespeare!).

Ok, I'm in a bit of a dither.  I'm a bit disgusted with myself.  I'm a bit out of control.  Here's the issue; I pride myself on being super organized.  When I've described my way of tracking submissions in the past, many of you have commented on just that organization.  Well, today, I proved myself a bit of an idiot.

One of my summer goals was to rip up and reorganize into two chapbooks what has been circulating as manuscript #2.  Now, that manuscript has been making the rounds FOR YEARS and has existed in so many iterations that I've lost count of the number of different ways it has been organized.  However, somewhere in all of the reorganizations, I forgot to keep track of the poems I pulled from the manuscript and set aside.  So, this morning as I was working on the remainder of the manuscript after taking out all of the fairy tale & saint poems earlier, I realized I had two more stacks: body poems and elegy/prairie poems.  Then, it dawned on me that there was a body poem that wasn't in there, "Vespula Cures," published by the lovely folks at Connotation Press, lo these many years ago!  When I went looking for that poem, holy crap!, I found nearly a dozen poems that were languishing in the purgatory of a "published poems" folder on my desktop but that hadn't made it to a manuscript, or had but had been removed st some point.

I pulled one thread and a whole sweater unraveled at my feet (one of my plethora...hee hee).

So, I've spent the last two hours, printing off copies of poems from 2010-2011 (pre-sickly speaker) that weren't included in any current manuscript.  Then, I shuffled my new chapbook piles, and I do have the makings of three chapbooks: fairy tales/saints, body, and elegy/prairie.

So, this was a good chunk of work, but I'm kicking myself for how long this whole process of book publishing is (be it chapbook or spine-book) and how much I set myself back by losing track of perfectly good poems, poems that coalesce in a new way now that they are grouped in smaller portions.

This, then, is the work of poetry, stumbling blindly through the dark, going by instinct built on years of practice.

Onward!  (Or, in other words, "Write, very old one, write like the wind!")

Monday, June 10, 2013

Draft Process: Had We Been Born Boys

82º ~ preparing to weather at least seven days in the high 90s with the heat index tipping toward 110, the humidity reaching "unbearable" stages, still from inside the house the sun and the breeze cheer me

Welcome back to a more positive outlook, dear reader.  I did take the weekend off from poetry, spent it with Cheryl Strayed's Wild (though I still have the last section to read), the Chicago Cubs (1 for 3), housekeeping, and collaging.  Still, as I read Strayed's intense memoir, I found myself jotting notes in my journal about the angry sisters.  One of those notes prompted today's draft.

That note was the phrase "had we been born boys."  While gender is not at the forefront of Strayed's story, which is about navigating the loss of her mother, the undercurrent is filled with gender, as Strayed remarks again and again how few women are also hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, and as she comes to terms with her own use of sex as a way through grief.  Somewhere in the reading I thought of the angry sisters and how they wield the tools of their father (hammers, saws, axes, etc.) with ease, and how influenced they are by their father's view of women.  (And here, some autobiography seeps in, as, yes, I am one of three daughters and no sons.  Yet, I'm happy to say that the angry sisters have taken on a story of their own that deviates wildly from mine.  For example, anyone who has ever seen me try to use a hammer would testify that I am a total klutz and unskilled at building/fixing things.)

At first, my draft began with the above phrase as the first line, but it quickly became apparent that the phrase would become the title of the draft.  The rest of the poem is just 15 lines, three stanzas of five lines each, each line roughly eight syllables, give or take...I'm no formalist.  This line and stanza length presented itself quickly and wholly in the first stanza, and then I had to tinker to get the next two to fit, but that tinkering helped me focus my images.  The three stanzas imagine how the sisters' ease with their father's tools, the influence of his "stash of girly magazines," and their quest for vengeance would be different if they were born male.

My worry about this draft is that it all seems so completely obvious, a feminist cliche.  Time will tell, and I have to remember Anne Lamott's encouragement of shitty first drafts!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Staying on Target: Writing Without Deadlines or Distractions

73º ~ they say the heat & humidity will arrive by Monday with temps in the upper 90s and humidity bringing the heat index up into the 100s; for the next 3 days, though, oh, the glorious late spring delirium remains, window thrown wide open in celebration

A scene from Star Wars.

Gold Two: [the Y-wings are running the gauntlet toward the Death Star reactor-port] The guns - they've stopped!
Gold Five: [realizes why] Stabilize your rear deflectors... Watch for enemy fighters.
Gold Leader: They're coming in! Three marks at 2-10!
[Gold Two is slain by Darth Vader and his wingmen; Gold Leader starts to panic]
Gold Leader: It's no good, I can't maneuver!
Gold Five: Stay on target.
Gold Leader: *We're too close!*
Gold Five: Stay on target!
Gold Leader: [shouts] Loosen up!
[he too is picked off by Vader and Company; Gold Five tries to escape but is fatally winged]
Gold Five: Gold Five to Red leader, lost Tiree, lost Dutch.
Red Leader: I copy, Gold Leader.
Gold Five: It came from... behind!

The above is from the original Star Wars (1977), now known as Episode IV: A New Hope.  I confess, I love science fiction, and although I don't read it nearly as much as I did when I was younger, I will forever be a Star Wars/Star Trek geek.  

Why am I talking about this?  Because as I was pondering what to write in this blog post and how to address the fragmented nature of my week, this scene popped into my head, along with the urgent, repeated "Stay on target."  So, here's the scoop.  This week, I've managed to revise and polish a handful of the angry sisters poems, and I've read a bit from Cheryl Strayed's incredible memoir, Wild, but I haven't written a new draft, and I haven't felt really good about my writing self.  I've been getting the first set of rejections for the fever manuscript and I suppose that isn't helping.

Yes, I did get the A/C repaired, tackled an out of control backyard littered with sweetgum balls and in need of mowing, replaced the fried refrigerator, talked to the alarm company and got our system reset after the power surge knocked it offline for a bit, and now, I'm battling fleas!  Our cats were up to date on their treatment and still the biting buggers got in (I suspect I brought them in from the out of control back yard, which is populated by an opossum, perhaps a raccoon from time to time, and an outdoor neighborhood cat...yes, we live in the CITY).  Still, I'm not teaching, so tackling those tasks on top of laundry / dishes / vacuuming / etc., really doesn't mean I have NO time to write.

Yet, I am failing to stay on target in terms of my writing goals and I don't know how I feel about that.  I do know I am my own worst critic, my own worst task master, etc.  See, last year, I decided I would write a poem a day in June.  I did this b/c the sickly speaker had gathered such momentum that I wanted to finish her story.  This year, I don't feel that compulsion.  The angry sisters poems are still floundering in the darkness.

Also, truth be told, I'm confused about pacing.  I wrote all those poems for book #2, which has failed to be accepted in either contests or open reading periods (with 3 verdicts still out there but not looking good).  I published a great majority of those poems in lit mags, and now many of those poems are five years old or more.  I've read them at readings and heard back from folks who've read them online or in print.  I'm beginning to feel disconnected from them. If and when they actually do appear in book form, will my connection to them return?  Now, the sickly speaker is out there and many of those poems have appeared or are forthcoming.  I've read them at readings here and there; I've gotten feedback from readers.  And now, she's being rejected in book form as well.  

What do you think about this?  Just giving up on the idea of the book and publishing the individual poems in journals and letting that be that.   So be it.  Is that enough?

But back to today's post title (see I'm all over the place), what is my target for these long, undistracted days of summer when there are no clear deadlines, no papers needing graded, no students needing responses to their frantic emails, etc.?  Am I a "bad" writer if I don't produce copious numbers of drafts this summer?  Who is judging me?  What would happen if I took a break from poetry?  If I simply ignored my desk and made my way about my daily household chores and then watched hour after hour of mindless TV reruns while playing solitaire on my iPad?  Would that make me a "bad" person?  

For someone with perfectionism issues, the idea of staying on target is a double-edged sword.  Yes, it drives me to "succeed" at the goals I set for myself, but it also makes it really hard to cut myself some slack when I "fail."  (I may not be using those quotation marks correctly, but I'm trying to indicate those measurement words that mean something different to us all.)  And the question at the center of it all: Just exactly who is it I'm trying to please?

If you are still with me here, thanks for staying on target (ahem...reading); I'm sure "this too shall pass."  The goal of this blog is to be honest about the writing life, and this is the state of my writing brain at the moment.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Jello Wrestling, Or How a Draft Becomes a Poem

75º ~ the beauty of spring continues to linger into what is normally something like a hot summer already in early June, partly cloudy but no complaints, calm air, everything lush & green

I confess, I have never wrestled in Jello.  I confess, I used that as the title to this post to get your attention.  I suppose I could have said, "Catching a Greased Pig" as well.  Still, there is something to be said of the analogy between wrestling and revision.

Again today, I turned to my "In Progress" folder and called up each of the drafts I've worked on since November.  That's right, November.  I truly don't believe there is a right or wrong number of days to wait before starting on revision, as long as there is some kind of waiting period to clear the mind.  Some of the poems I've just worked on have been in the folder for six months; however, that is more of a result of my academic life & responsibilities than of any need to wait that long.

The waiting period is crucial, though, because it provides perspective.  The first poem I worked on today was drafted on 14 November 2012.  This poem is one of those that arrived with great energy, and I've continued to remember the opening stanza without really trying to memorize it.  Based on the copies I have printed out, I worked on the poem again in January 2013, making a major change in point of view to the second half of the poem.  All this time, as I've been haunted by that opening stanza, I've also known, I mean known, that something wasn't quite right about the poem, and yet I could see the potential.  I knew what I wanted the poem to do (in an abstract way) but I hadn't figured out how to get it there.

Yesterday and today, I returned to it again, and something simply clicked.  I had to cut away some lines I thought I loved in the second stanza and add something new there.  I had to change the lineation in two or three places.  As many of you know, I'm fond of indenting and creating white spaces; however, there is a craft to this as well, and while it might look like the poet has simply used the enter and tab keys willy-nilly, this is not the case.

To revise well, I have to have a little distance from the initial rush of the first draft so I can catch my breath.  I have to be able to listen, really listen, as I read the draft aloud over and over, tinkering with the linebreaks and the word choice.  The poem really does seem to know where it wants to go, but I have to be able to hear it.

And that, my friends, is the most frustrating thing to read or hear when you are trying to figure out how revision works.  Still, after years of writing, I have to relearn this with every poem.  At a certain point, the poem and I are wrestling with each other.  We grapple with sounds and breath, and eventually, neither of us wins but through the struggle the poem is made.

I'm thrilled to say that I have six poems now, each in its own folder, that seem nearly ready to go out and meet the world.  These will be the first six poems since I finished the sickly speaker series last fall.  I'm hesitant, of course, but also eager to see what reaction they might receive.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Little Chaos and A Sickly Speaker Poem up at Anti-

68º ~ some kind of blessing after the storms, a cool, cool day with very little humidity, tho lots of sun and a sweet, sweet breeze

A weekend trip to the in-laws culminated in returning home to find a wee bit of storm damage.  This was the subtle kind of damage that didn't make itself apparent right away.  No, instead, we surveyed the yard and the roofs and found all intact after Saturday's severe thunderstorms and strong winds.  Only later did we learn we'd suffered the dreaded "surge" and our heating & A/C unit's "board" was blown, so no fan action.  Also, our refrigerator was fried and something in our alarm system is messed up.  All other major appliances intact, and the fridge was 10 years old.  So, repairs and replacements are in the works.

In happier news, the new issue of Anti- is up, and it is stellar, simply stellar.  I'm so happy that one of the sickly speaker poems makes an appearance.  In fact, "The Alchemy of My Mortal Form" is one of the first of the poems from that series.  You can read about the drafting process for this specific poem here.

Today, my plan is to sort through the current drafts of any angry sisters poems and see if I can revise & polish any of them into submittable form.  I've got most of the sickly speaker poems that haven't already found a home circulating, and to tell the truth, I'd sort of forgotten the next step with the angry sisters.  Their poems were simply gathering weight.  Now, onward with the whittling and the tweaking.

Hope everyone has survived storm and fire and all our other current plagues in one piece.