Saturday, September 20, 2014

BIC & Poetry vs. Collage

81º ~ feels like 85º, summer's having a final blowout sale this weekend with temps and humidity climbing, a promise of cooling down in the new week & the new season, hummingbirds continue to battle it out, one bird trying to claim all four feeders in our yard

First, a celebration of BIC (butt in chair), as it really does work. This morning, I flailed about for at least an hour, starting two miserable drafts in my journal before stumbling onto what I really wanted to say/write.

I have to thank Brent Goodman this morning.  His poem "The Brother Swimming Beneath Me" bleeds into the line "is not dead yet... ." That sparked a first line for me, "Dad isn't dead yet, but disappearing." Many of you know that my dad has been dealing with Parkinson's for years. Recently, he has shown all of the elements of Alzheimer's setting in as well. As always, it is a struggle for me to be so far away and to know that my mom and my oldest sister bear the brunt of his caregiving. I thought that's what the poem would be about, but no.

Instead, today poetry did that magical thing. The draft went in another direction, focusing on my dad, not me, and helping me see something about him that I'd never been able to articulate before. The draft, titled "Undersong," actually reveals a man "letting go" of the world long before symptoms appeared because the world had advanced beyond his recognition. Yes, it is based on autobiography, but there's a good deal of fictionalizing going on in there as well.

*Note, "undersong" is a real word with a real definition, but all these silly spell checkers keep telling me otherwise. Le sigh.

So, hurray for BIC and for poetry as an act of discovery that helps me make sense of my world. It might not make living in that world any easier, but it helps.


Now, to poetry versus collage. I don't really mean this as a "versus" kind of thing, but the form of "this versus that" is easy shorthand. What I mean to say is this: I am torn. I have a limited number of hours to devote to my creative life, and I'm having conflicted thoughts about where my collages fit in with my poetry. Truth is, some mornings, I'd rather be making a collage than stumbling over the page in this broken way of late. Yet, I have been "a poet" for so long that I feel guilty about wanting to be making a different kind of art.

I worry that if I don't keep my BIC, I'll lose my poetry muscles (from past experiences, I know I will), but if I'm uninspired by writing and inspired by working with visual images, shouldn't I honor that?

Anyone out there who makes art in multiple fields care to offer any advice? This is much weirder than genre-switching on the page. Each practice requires a whole different physical space and movement, a different firing in the brain. Help!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Voice: Lost? Forgotten? Changing?

66º ~ edging toward fall, squirrels racing about with nuts to bury, no hummingbirds this morning...are they migrated and gone? -- oh wait, one just flirted by

Today, I'm consumed with the idea of poetic voice.

In grad school, lo those many years ago now, I remember the moment I was said to have "found my voice." It was when I began writing the poems that would become Blood Almanac. It was when my poems might still have held some imitative quality of the writers I admired, but had finally grown into their own skin, their own obsessions, their own range on the page.

That voice, obsessed with the Midwest, prone to mid-length lines and shortish poems, enthralled by music and sound within the line, held up for almost 10 years, into the poems of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. Then, with The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, the voice became "skewed" by persona. The sickly speaker had her own pace, her own Victorian-esque and baroque sensibility, and there is very little of the Midwest in her book.

Now, I'm out in the dark again, searching for "my voice." Yes, I wrote some "angry sister" poems, which were persona (and different from the sickly speaker), but by and large, I am not gripped by any obsession at the moment. I have no fire in my belly and no sense of the line on the page.

But, today, with my BIC, a draft came calling. It is plainspoken and direct. The lines are shorter than those with which I'm most comfortable. There's very little magic realism, fairy tale, or high imagination at all. In fact, the subject is about being "unhaunted." I was reading a poem from Anna Journey's If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, a book filled with the speaker being haunted by the departed, and haunted in that lush Southern way, when this draft of mine arrived.

This draft, "The Long Unspoken," comes out and it's all about how being "unhaunted" is a failing on the speaker's part, which seems to me to be directly about my feelings on voice, passion, and "inspiration" at this moment. I am "un" and it is a failing.

No worries. I know this will pass and that the BIC system will work itself out. In the meantime, I continue to read, both poetry and non-fiction. I continue to open myself to the possibilities and whatever new version of my own voice is coming next.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Writing is Hard: Walking the Walk

81º feels like 87º ~ heat index to surpass 100º today, but then, the cold front lingering to our north will dip into the state and we will "plunge" into the high 70s tomorrow, sweet plunge it will be ~ whether heat or shortening days, the hummingbirds have been a bit overzealous of late

Every semester in my Creative Writing I class (a mixed-genre intro class) students come into the class with varying degrees of experience, but all with a desire to wrangle their emotions onto the page through words. And every semester, we hit a wall about now, as the students learn that writing is hard work. This is not a surprise to those of us long at the task, but many of my students have spent years writing in diaries and journals, letting the words fly and feeling great about it, but not having been introduced to the idea of writing for an audience. In my class, they come face to face with a new discipline, an attempt to apply a different kind of craft, and the great balancing act for me is to introduce them to craft without deflating their desire.

I talk a lot about messy drafts, consideration of audience, becoming aware of words as our palette, etc. And I talk a lot about BIC (butt in chair) and revision, revision, revision. Today, I'm living all of these lessons again as I search for new terrain in my poetry. I'm putting my BIC three times a week and I'm scratching and clawing, fighting with words.

Today, four messy pages of half-assed drafts in my journal before, again, I returned to the "am" poem. And then, some smooth sailing as the poem began in the journal:

Am jaw clenched hard
                            by dawn's alarm,

It unwound from there and I got about 3/4 of it in my journal before turning to the computer to try and find the end of the draft. And here I had to persevere; I had to let the poem reveal what I had to say, and that is hard.

Are there poets out there who sit down knowing "I am going to write about the energy of nightmares through the use of a dog with a stick metaphor, and I'll incorporate a savior figure and how the speaker trades the nightmare for an allegiance to a perhaps shady character"? Or simpler "I am going to write a poem about the lady at the pool who swims for 30 minutes and slaps & kicks the water as if trying to beat the life out of it"?

If so, I envy you at this moment. Perhaps I've come to the page like this in the past, but if I have, I've forgotten how it is done. And, this coaxing of the poem up out of the depths is terrifying...every single time.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day & the Political Poem

83º ~ feels like 89º, dew point 74º, the swelter-weather returns, bubbling up to heat indices nearing the century mark later this week, no real rain, watering for the second weekend in a row, hummingbirds abound

This morning, the first thing I read was a Philip Levine poem, "Coming Close, the daily poem from The Academy of American Poets. I went on to read another Levine poem, "What Work Is," archived by the Poetry Foundation. Both of these poems present the complicated lives of working-class people. Among Levine's other poems there are more direct implications of what happens when one moves from the working class to the middle class, as I have done.

This set me off in writing a really cliched, too overt "political poem," about my relationship to work. I mean, the draft is really terrible.

But, it got me thinking, how do political poets, and I count Levine as such, poets who comment directly on the conditions of the people with whom they are concerned, how do they do it? How do they honor their subject and make art of it? How do they avoid sentimentality? How do they avoid exploiting the very people they seek to honor? How do they move me without driving me away with points too blunt and too sharp?

If anyone has any answers, I'm all ears.


In the meantime, I must engage in that domestic labor that is grocery shopping and laundry and catching up on bill paying on this glorious holiday that not everyone gets to enjoy. Many folks, especially in retail and food service will be hard at labor today. May they prosper.