Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Drafting Days: Finding the Groove

76º ~ the air thickened with humidity, a quarter inch of rain yesterday, more on the horizon for today, the six-week-old sod rejoices, we humans struggle for breath

Dear Reader, I have done it. I have written 11 lines that I do not hate.

Blessed be the work of Lucie Brock-Broido who rarely fails me. Instead of listening to the no-voices today...well, after listening to them for two hours...I heaved myself up and said, "screw it...I'm going to write an 'Am' poem even though I know I've done one before ('June' from Blood Almanac), and even though I know I'm imitating the form found in Lucie Brock-Broido's 'Am Moor.'"

Here's the thing. The first time I read "Am Moor" in Davis McCombs' form & theory class at the University of Arkansas, the poem sang to me in that weird, connective voice. I bonded with it more than with any other poem in The Master Letters. Yes, it seems ego-centric to focus on the phrase "I am," but by excising the "I," the poem explodes into the mysterious mix of persona and poet.

So today, I started with all the things that I'm afraid of right this minute. No, I started out thinking I was writing about things that have me stressed today, having suffered a bout of "wild mind" at 2 a.m. and getting little sleep after that. Quickly, I realized that beneath those little stresses was a whole lot of fear. Once I cracked that door open, the poem unfolded.

This draft is teeny, tiny at only 11 lines, but the drafting of those lines felt like singing...stuttering while singing, but singing nonetheless. And if it takes writing several more "Am" poems in this fractured lyric form for me to discover whatever's coming next, then so be it. I'm tired of trying to think of something new.

PS: B-I-C works!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

BIC and Writing Badly

79º ~ a thin cloud cover muting the sun, a week without rain, spent the morning watering

I've written before about BIC (butt-in-chair) and writing badly, and once again I find myself right there at the beginning of the cycle. This cranky brain time is often compared to starting up a physical activity again after a time of inactivity; one must re-train the muscles or the brain's sparkplugs to fire at the right the time, to strengthen, to succeed.

So, for the past week, I've been at my desk every morning for several hours, often reading, sometimes scratching really crappy lines in my journal, and from time to time, doing nothing at all but staring. However, after years of experiencing this cycle, for the first time, I'm not really too anxious about it. Sure, there's the ever present fear and all the negative voices, but I'm holding on to past results, to the knowledge that I've been here before and I've found my way out.

One way out is to exorcise the negativity, so here's a list of what I'm hearing in my head these days.

"All the good topics have been taken."
"There's nothing left to write about."
"You've already written about your grandparents, your parents, your boring to go there again."
"Nobody wants another bird poem so stop writing that!"
"Nature has been done to death in poetry. There's nothing new there."
"No, you can't write another poem about what you see outside your window."
"No, you can't write more poems about the body and illness."
"No. No. No. No. No."

Still, I scratch on. All the while, Gillian Welch is singing in my ear:

"There's gotta be a song left to sing
'Cause everybody can't have thought of everything
One little song that ain't been sung
One little rag that ain't been wrung out completely yet"

I hope so...I know so...I just don't know what's around the corner for me yet. So, here's a toast to letting the process work, to keeping my butt in the chair for however long it takes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Today I Wrote a Poem

74º ~ the sweet warmth returns, praise be, all sun and a breeze that can only be defined as "playful and non-threatening"

Today, I wrote a poem. It is only the third poem I've written in 2014, my slowest period of writing yet.

I have been looking forward to a return to focused writing for several months, but this morning, I had to put my pen where my mouth has lately been. By this I mean that sometime in April, I think at the Arkansas Literary Festival, I was asked about writer's block, and I proudly declared, "I don't believe in writer's block!" If memory serves, I conceded that sometimes I write really shitty drafts, but that I always try to write.

This morning, I began with a method that has rarely failed me: the word bank. For any new readers, this is when I skim a book (usually of poems) from a writer I admire, and I "steal" the nouns & verbs, and sometimes adjectives, that stand out. I let these fall on my journal page in a tumbling mess, my goal being that spark of inspiration/ignition as two words strike each other in just the right way. Today, I filled my page and sure enough a teeny, tiny little spark occurred and I jotted down some quick lines. However, these lines were mostly about sound and I wasn't connected in any emotional way to the meaning, so they fizzled out.


I decided to go back to what I'd been doing the last few days...just reading. I picked up Bright Power, Dark Peace, a chapbook jointly written by Traci Brimhall & Brynn Saito (Diode Editions, 2013). While I'm desperately looking forward to reading this book, I didn't even make it past the first page, "Traveler's Guide to the Ruined City." This prose poem takes the form of an information page one might find in a travel guide or almanac with sections for population, location, history, language, etc.

I didn't even read the descriptions following the section headers. I just dropped the book and picked up my journal, knowing that the angry sisters from last year had something else to say via this adopted form. I didn't use all of the same categories as Brimhall & Saito, and I used line breaks because prose poems are hard for me. Interestingly, I didn't need my word bank at all once I began describing the home of the angry sisters, not a town, city, state, country, etc., but their center of operations, the abandoned barn in which they live together. Who knew?

So, thanks to the inspiration of fellow poets, I have a new (probably shitty) draft, "The Angry Sisters: An Almanac," and that is all that matters.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What I'm Reading: Ghost Gear by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

59º ~ in the grips of a cold spell not natural for the middle of May, all is gray, yesterday only up to 61º, today they foretell 73º, but I am doubting

Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014) is a book drenched in water, the water of oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks, and rain. Within that water a body might be buoyed or swept away, and therein lies the promise and the threat at the heart of Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum's re-visioning of his own coming of age. A master of the lyric narrative, McFadyen-Ketchum takes us back, back, back, sometimes to the time of his father before the son's birth, sometimes as far back as the origin of the universe, but mostly back to the time of his own youth as he grew into manhood and tested the boundaries of geography and emotion.

In one of the opening poems in the book, "Tonight," the poet murmurs,

If only I could drop into sediment and murk, so much lost
of the heart's heave through amnion and the liquid wake
and sleep, so much forgotten of the ocean's collapse
and the skull cap's crowning.

The rest of the book is an attempt to reclaim the memory of those key moments in childhood and to examine how those moments helped create the current "I" of the poet-speaker. In doing this, McFadyen-Ketchum allows that not all memory is accurate, but through a deep concentration on authentic details (that trait of the best poets among us), he gets as close as possible.

As example, here is the beginning of "Slag":

I remember sweat, three pennies pressed wide
by the twin track of the train
barely a cinder's heat in my pocket, shirt slicked
to my back like the last bit of flesh on a picked-clean bone.

The train in this poem echoes other trains, along with cars and planes, that appear throughout the book. The speaker on the cusp of adulthood seems always intent on speed, on getting out and getting away, as indeed "Slag" ends with just such a longing:

I wished for the galloping forth of the Minotaur,

and instead it was the Tennessee Southern barreling forth
the coal economy as I crouched just inches
from the flashing-past boxcars,
envisioning the day I'd take off at a sprint
and hurl myself into another land.

This need to test the limits, to move out and away (with some great speed!) from childhood weaves in and out of nearly every poem in the book. Ultimately, though, the poet recognizes what many of us recognize about our family and our childhoods: "I never left that place. I never / returned to that place."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What I'm Reading: Trace by Simone Muench

67º ~ light showers, gray skies, multiple birdsongs, the privets all in bloom (ugh...privet blooms make privet berries, privet berries make privet seeds, privet seeds make baby privets which must be pulled)

I have been a fan of Simone Muench's work since I read Lampblack & Ash (Sarabande, 2005). Last week, I had the time to read Muench's latest, a chapbook of centos from Black Lawrence Press, Trace. (It looks like Sarabande has just published a full-length collection of these centos as well: Wolf Centos.)

A cento is typically defined as a collage poem made up of lines from other poems, sometimes by the same author, sometimes not.

In Trace, each poem is titled "Wolf Cento" and is listed in the table of contents by first line. The thread of the repeated title reinforces the theme throughout this book, as we are in the land of the wolf, the land of forests, huntsmen, and animal instinct. The closeness of animal instinct and what we think makes us human (thus above the animal fray) is at the heart of the matter.

In the back of the book, where I normally jot notes to myself about a collection, I have one small phrase: sound explosions. That sums it up for me, and here is an example from the first cento in Trace.

With flowers in their lapels, nine
howling wolves come hungering.
A surge of wet syllables
dangles from their mouths.

As alway, Muench delighted me with her images and I found myself underlining multiple lines on each page. And there, dear reader, is where I hesitated. Just whose words was I underlining? And with that, my mind went all wonky on the idea of authorship. At the end of the book is a two-page list, tightly packed, of "source materials," a list of names in alphabetical order with no titles of individual works and no connections to Muench's individual poems.

Let me pause to say that at the same time I was reading Muench's book, I was grading final essays in Comp I, essays in which students were meant to demonstrate synthesis of source material and proper MLA documentation. In other words, the time was ripe for me to question the cento.

As a composition instructor, of course, I am hell-bent on making sure my students give credit where credit is due, as an artist, this often conflicts with the idea of shared material and the way artists build new pieces of art from the work of those who have gone before. This butts right up against my work in paper collage, where I was so concerned about copyright that last year I consulted a copyright lawyer about the work I was doing.

The letter of the law is that the way I do my paper collages, I am violating the copyright held by every photographer, artist, and graphic designer who produced the image I cut up. The letter of the law is that when we write centos, unless the original work is out of copyright (and that is very rare, as even texts from Homer's time are often still in copyright for the translator, or the work of writers from the first half of the 20th century are often still in copyright for a family member or trustee), we are violating copyright.

Yet, the cento and the visual collage are clearly "new works." The way Muench smashes lines together or deftly weaves them into a new fabric is her art. The way she sees connections and makes for us as readers some wholly new experience is her art. Is that art by its nature something less than a poem in which she brings each word to the page on her own? Is the cento that much different from my own experience with word banks, in which I "steal" words from other writers and smash them together to form lines of my own? Where does the line exist between raw material and theft?

I know that in other cultures, the idea of individual ownership is not so onerous, but in the 21st century American world of "me, me, me" "look at what I did" the cento (and the collage) stands out as a challenge it seems, as a place to acknowledge the makers of the original pieces while at the same time enjoying and celebrating the new creation. And Trace is certainly a collection that I celebrate.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Full to Bursting

74º ~ humidity declining after 36 hours of sopping wet air and 1.5 inches of rain, a yard newly sodded & now in need of mowing, all the trees in leaf, the world is all pale green

Sometimes life is full to bursting, dear reader. And that has been the definitive case for this semester, for good and for ill. Happily, C. seems well on the mend and nearly back to normal, final grades have been recorded, the large landscape project completed, and my eye now turns back to poetry and home. I won't be attending any conferences or residencies away from home, but I plan to make May 19 - June 20, my own private writing time, minus four days when I'll be working to help host the Arkansas Writers' Conference at PTC.

In the meantime, here are some of the happy poetry things that have happened of late, in no particular order.

One of the poems from The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, "Choosing Not to Bear" is included in the Mother's Day feature currently up at Escape into Life. Editor, Kathleen Kirk shows her amazing talent of pairing poetry with art, as always, in this feature, and I appreciate so much that she wanted to show another side of the idea of mothering.

My contributor copy of burntdistrict arrived and waits for me. Here are just a few of the folks with whom my poems (two sickly speaker poems) share pages: Maureen Alsop, Simon Perchik, Michael Levan, Emma Lister, Jennifer Martelli, Barbara Duffey, and so many more. All thanks to the editors, Liz Kay & Jen Lambert, for giving the sickly speaker a home.

Also, my contributor copy of bluestem has long been on my desk, featuring "Seized with a Small Fever," another sickly speaker poem. The lineup of writers in the 2014 print edition is lengthy and mind blowing, including but not limited to: Hannah Cook Cross, Darren Jackson, Jane Satterfield, Marilyn Kallet, Al Maginnes, Charlotte Pence, Gary McDowell, and so many more. Thanks to all of the editors and readers at bluestem for the inclusion.

Two more sickly speaker poems found a home, this time online at Tupelo Quarterly. While this journal has only just begun, it is already one of my favorite reads. Again, I'm surrounded by fellow poets whose work I admire deeply: Dan Albergotti, Kwame Dawes, Chera Hammons, Nancy Reddy, Adam Tavel, and so many more (again).

Yes, the sickly speaker's entire manuscript has been circulating with publishers again this year, currently as The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. Just recently, I was stunned when the manuscript was named a semi-finalist for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize with Sarabande. With all my years of experience with books 1 and 2, I know to take this small victory and celebrate. Yes, this is a good indication that the book will find a home, but I also recognize that it probably won't be a quick journey. In the meantime, many congrats to Jordan Zandi's Solarium, which won the prize this year.

With nothing on my radar save poetry to read, the Carolina wren has taken up his post near my window to provide the background music, and the breeze is cool enough for now.