Friday, May 29, 2015

What I'm Reading: "The Question of Originality" from Nine Gates by Jane Hirshfield

79º ~ in an early summer pattern of looming humidity and days that heat themselves into thunderstorms ~ two rescued robin chicks nearing fledgling status, thriving, a win for human intervention with cruel nature

Dear Reader, I confess I have been in a state of suppressed anxiety regarding writing. Each May this pattern repeats itself, and so I should learn to "let it be," and yet, each year I succumb. By this I mean that after the spring semester (I do not teach summers), I become enthused by the idea of "writing time" and I make clumsy efforts at drafting. I tend to scribble in my journal in fits and starts until I become a wee bit despondent, believing that I've "lost that loving feeling" of being able to write anything that resembles a poem.

However, no matter the stress of the journal, I'm always reading. Reading in itself can present a another type of stress as I've got loads and loads of new books, along with older books still waiting to be read. I have long believed that sometimes we aren't ready for a book, no matter how much we are determined to either enjoy it or learn from it. Later, the book will find us when we are ready, and usually when we've forgotten the book entirely. Such is the long-winded introduction to my reading today.

I've had Jane Hirschfield's Nine Gates for years, and I've read and learned much from a few of the nine included essays, but only a few. In fact, until this morning, the book was free of marginalia (evidence that I've truly read a book). This book surfaced as I spent a bit of time in the past two weeks thinking about my new job in the fall. For some of my teaching load, I'll have the opportunity to teach more advanced creative writing and poetry students at the University of Central Arkansas, offering me time for deeper discussions about writing/poetry, so I've been pulling books that might prove useful off the shelves.

But, back to this morning. I flitted. I flapped. I wrote a really crappy draft of something I can't even call a poem. I started a load of laundry. I turned to my stack of books and grabbed up the Hirschfield, flipping through the book, and pausing for just a moment to enjoy the smell and the feel of the pages falling from my left thumb as I held the back cover in my right hand. Without even thinking about it, I started reading when the book fell open to the second essay "The Question of Originality." Shazam. This essay touches on my struggle to return to the page, as it explores what it means to try and create an "original" piece of art, in this case, a poem.

Hirschfield begins (and returns to many times) the idea of the physical body as being itself original. She opens the essay with this question: "how does a poet enfold into language the singularity that marks each living creature and object of the world and also those works of art we most admire?" (uhm, oh that's easy, right? no sweat, hah!) So while this is an essay about attempting to write original work, it also touches on the idea of inspiration and what fills up the well (or the compost heap) from which writers draw. Perfect.

In discussing obstacles to originality, Hirschfield mentions "the fear of self-revelation," talking about how much a writer risks because society tells us to be polite and kind and to embrace the white lie rather than telling the truth. However, the best works of art tell the truth (if slantly). The risk we take in putting our thoughts/imaginations on the page is that of failing to please others, failing to fit in, failing to protect our loved ones from the truth, and a "failure more minor: boredom, triviality, confusion. Risking seeing that we are lesser beings than we had hoped." Oh, god, that last one is a killer. Yet to create something new, we must risk, we must dig for the truth. According to Hirschfield, in order to find this truth, this inspiration, we must embrace a self-imposed solitude, as well as a self-imposed awareness and interaction with the world.

Here, I realized how difficult it has been for me to truly embrace solitude when I've come to the desk each morning. To embrace solitude means to turn away from the computer and the smart phone, and, for me at least, to turn off the music (even instrumental music). I am one easily distracted by the buzzing of the clothes dryer, by the insistent mewling of the hungry cat, by the coffee gone cold at my elbow in need of a zap in the microwave. Time and time again, though, I refocused on the page (keeping a running list by my right hand of "to-do" items as they popped into my head in an attempt to distract me). This work of shutting out the world and focusing on the page brought the reward of Hirschfield's thinking, revelations & questions.

In describing the work of apprenticing one's self to the page, Hirschfield describes the practice "that muscles the tongue with words as a dancer's barre work muscles her legs and back with movement." Yowza! I want to have a "muscled tongue"!!

Some other gems:
"Originality can be hunted. Concentration's deep attentiveness; permeability to accident; persistence; curiosity; a wide vocabulary of outer and inner worlds -- these are just a few of the ways. Playfulness and rebelliousness help."

"Learning to trust the possible and to accept what arises, to welcome surprise and the ways of the Trickster, not to censor too quickly -- all are lessons necessary for a writer."

"Attentiveness may appear to be empty and passive, to be nothing at all, yet under its gaze, everything flowers."

"Originality lives at the crossroads, at the point where world and self open to each other in transparence in the night rain."

"If we demand change too insistently -- in art, or in the self -- something grows stubborn and digs in its heels."

Poetry poses "again and again a question that cannot be answered except with our whole being -- body, speech, and mind. What is the nature of this moment? poetry asks, and we have no rest until the question is answered."

And so, I will return to the desk with renewed attentiveness and a restored belief in whatever's coming next.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What I'm Reading: Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

67º ~ overcast, slight breezes ~ two massive wind storms blew through in the past 48 hours ~ lost one robin chick, put the remaining two back in the nest (scraggly, down-covered) and they are both thriving

A few posts back, I asked some questions about poetry of witness. On Saturday, I took Seam by Tarfia Faizullah out of my AWP box and started to read. From the first poem, I realized that this book would provide not only beautiful poetry, but some answers to my questions as well.

Seam was the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry - First Book Award winner and came out last year. I'm glad I held off buying it online and waited for AWP, as I happened to bump into Tarfia Faizullah at the Crab Orchard table and was able to have her sign my copy.

I had read a few of these poem in journals prior to the book coming out, but I didn't know that the entire book was an exploration of the 1971 civil war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh. In the book, Faizullah, born in the US to Bangladeshi parents who had immigrated in 1978, takes on as her main subject the lives of the "Birangona," the over 200,000 Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers (often kidnapped and held captive to be repeatedly raped and otherwise abused over the course of the war). In the book, Faizullah sets herself up as the "interviewer" and talks about traveling to Bangladesh as an adult to research the war through which her parents and grandparents had lived.

In thinking about my questions of poetry as witness, here is what I noticed, in no particular order:

~ Faizullah has a direct connection to the horrors she explores (is this direct connection necessary?)
~These do not appear to be persona poems, but autobiographical journeys. The "I" here seems to "be" Faizullah, at least in relation to the information provided in her author's note.
~ Faizullah does not preach or provide answers; instead, she questions and makes herself vulnerable to the answers.

In terms of the book, there are layers of tension here. The tension of a first-generation American returning to the homeland of her parents. The tension of the war and its atrocities, particularly against women. The tension between generations as Faizullah references herself, her mother, and her grandmother. The tension between genders, as the women who suffered through the war were then celebrated by the Bangladeshi government but ostracized by their own family, friends, and communities. All of these tensions are expressed through a wonderful repetition of key images throughout the book:

seams (as in what holds us together, as in a vein of something precious and hidden, as in what has the potential to be ripped open and exposed)
twining (a way of binding hair, the wrapping of a sari around the body, a sense of connection to family or to the land)
green (lushness, tropical, fecund, humid, omnipresent)

Here are a few excerpts to give you a sense of Faizullah's amazing gift of imagery and the line.

from "Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh":

Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald

inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between

us still irrepressible--

(I hope you stopped and read that passage out loud. Not only are the images revelatory, but also the sounds.)

from "Interviewer's Note" part i:

You walk past white high-rises 
... .                             Past smoke
helixing from an untended fire.
Past another clothesline heavy
with saris: for hours they 
will lift into the wind, hollow
of any bruised or broken body.

And, finally, here is the beginning of "Interviewer's Note" part v:

But wasn't it the neat narrative
you wanted? 

This question smacked me right between the eyes in terms of a poetry of witness. We want to create a "neat narrative" out of pain and suffering. We want to create art out of something hellish and terrifying, but that "neatness" is always suspect, always pulled against and apart by the seam underneath, the seam that makes us ask time and time again: how could one human being do that to another?

And so, I'm thankful once again, that I've come across the right book at the right time, and I'm thankful to have these poems, these beautiful, gut-punching poems.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What I'm Reading: Dear Mark by Martin Rock

58º ~ a bizarre cold front spreads quite a chill for late May ~ windows open, seated with blankets

One of the best things about attending AWP each year (the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is the "chance encounter," when a writer who knows a writer you know and are talking to joins the conversation and your circle of friends widens.

Just such an encounter took place at the Hilton bar in Minneapolis this past April as I was having drinks with my poet-friend Traci Brimhall. Her friend, Martin Rock showed up and introductions were made. Later, in the book fair, I ran into Martin at the Gulf Coast table, as he is currently pursuing at PhD at the University of Houston, home of Gulf Coast. In our conversation, I learned about Martin's chapbook, Dear Mark, published in 2013 by Brooklyn Arts Press. Happily, I made my way to the BAP table and purchased a copy.

This chapbook finds its inspiration in the paintings of Mark Rothko, and each poem is titled after one painting. In addition to the title, each poem is preceded by a line drawing of the "blocks" included in said painting. Everything is black and white, so these outlines simply serve as reference points.

I have to say that I have little experience with ekphrastic poetry, finding it quite difficult to use a piece of art (created by someone else) as inspiration. When I've tried, I've mostly ended up with poems that "report" the elements of the piece of art. Not so with Martin Rock's poems in this book. I read the first 3/4 of the book away from the computer, and thus away from looking at the original Rothko images. The poems all held up. As an experiment, I read the last 1/4 of the book with each painting up on my screen as I read the poems. This was interesting, as I could often see the gate into the poem provided by the painting, but once I was into the poem, I only glanced back at the image on the screen now and again.

What impressed me most about these poems is the incredible attention to line breaks. The poems are all free verse and employ many different strategies in stanza breaks and justification. The form of each poem is organic and one can sense how each form mirrors the content of the individual poem. And then there are the line breaks. Here are just a few examples of line breaks that took the top of my head off.

First, from the opening poem and opening lines of "No. 5 / No. 22, 1949":

In the mustard sky
                    clouds have gathered
       inside a box

of Plexiglas.

OK, look at that again. We read the first two lines and think "a description of the sky, weird color, but a sky." Then, as we move into line 3, with no end-stop to prevent us falling into the phrase "inside a box," we get the surprise that the sky is not the actual sky, but an artificial one. The enjambment between lines 2 and 3 is crucial to the artifice that will permeate the rest of the book.

This happens again in "No. 61, Rust & Blue, 1953," only this time, Martin uses run-ons to enhance the enjambed lines and heighten the sense of ideas merging.

Down the path, a barn has left its lights on.
       We're lying on the red clay & it is cold
against my cheeks & eyes the barn
        atomic in the distance. Families are huddled
in partitions underground I fear
        we're one of them.

Now, usually when I see "wonky" syntax like this, I get easily frustrated by a poet taking unnecessary shortcuts. But, in Martin's case, these run-ons are integral to the meaning evoked by the poem (there is a sense of dangerous science & technology, a sense of a dangerous future waiting throughout the book). Look at the opening line. It is a straight-forward sentence. There is order in the world (even as we understand this is a moment of dis-order, because of the note about the lights). Then, we read through lines 2 & 3, getting that the cold clay is touching the speaker's face, but then this is blurred with the barn, seen at a distance and appearing "atomic" as it is illuminated in the dark. The barn is dangerous. This is reinforced by the underground bunker idea and the run-on in line 5. There are slightly different meanings, depending on where one reads the run-on.

Families are huddled in partitions underground, I fear.
We're one of them.

Families are huddled in partitions underground. I fear
we're one of them.

This muddled syntax heightens the reader's sense of fear and danger, even though it only takes us a moment to understand the meaning of the lines.

And I'll leave you with the opening of "No. 43, Mauve, 1960."

Forbearance is no longer a word
                     than is ascoliasm, in which medieval
      children beat each other to tatters.

This kind of break causes me to stop and write "wow" in the margin. If we read only the first line, we get the idea that "forbearance" is no more. Then, as we continue to read, we realize "no longer" has a different meaning all together. So cool. Of course, as you read the rest of the poem you realize that the whole poem is about patience & restraint versus wildness. And all of this suggested by an abstract painting built of blocks of color. So cool.

And I would probably not have learned of this book, without that "chance encounter" at AWP in April. So very cool.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Readings, Appearances, and Loose Ends

68º ~ overcast skies, spring thunderstorm season is hear, dew points edging into unbearable territories, the robin parents are busy feeding the young in the nest outside my window

With final grades turned in over a week ago, I'm wondering why I have a week's gap in blog postings. Taking a look at my calendar reminds me why.

Every year I see the turning in of grades in May as the end of the semester and the beginning of SUMMER. I also see this day as the moment I should launch myself 100% into the writing life. Every year, it seems, I forget that May is full of loose ends, and this year those loose threads are compounded by my job transition.

Other teachers and professors will recognize that my calendar, post-graduation day, is filled with nothing but doctor appointments and household maintenance tasks. These are all the things pushed back in the hectic days of the spring semester.

However, mixed in with these for the past week have been two poetry events. Yay.

On Friday, the 15th, I had the pleasure of reading for and talking with a creative writing class at the Arkansas School of Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts in Hot Springs, AR. James Katowich, an old friend and stellar teacher, invited me down for the last day of classes there. I have to say that the students were incredibly attentive, given that I stood between them and lunch, as well as between them and declaring the last day of classes over. While I read from all three of my books, I have to say that the sickly speaker (aka The Alchemy of My Mortal Form) resonated well with these students. As this book is so new for me, I'm always happy when it finds a welcome audience.

That welcome audience was repeated on Saturday, the 16th, when I did a book signing at WordsWorth Books in the Heights. WordsWorth is a great independent bookstore in Little Rock that happens to also be only a few blocks from my house. I love all the folks who run the place, so it made me happy to sell a nice number of copies of Alchemy there. Signings are a different beast than readings. In this case, I had about an hour an half at the bookstore, and somehow, my friends managed to arrive in a perfectly spaced distribution. I never felt rushed to get through signing and talking with one friend, but I never had long stretches of empty time either (although that wouldn't have been so bad since I was stationed in the arts section).

My next event with the sickly speaker will be in Fayetteville at Nightbird Books (another great independent) on June 4th at 7:00!

Now, about those loose ends. When I haven't been at health appointments or waiting for the bug man to come and spray, I've been working on extricating myself from PTC and entangling myself at the University of Central Arkansas, where I'll be joining the faculty of the Arkansas Writers MFA Program and the Department of Writing this coming fall. Having been at PTC for a decade, I had no idea how time consuming this process would be. However, I'm thrilled to be taking my teaching to the next level, so I'm not too bothered by forms, meetings, and the physical removing of objects from one office as I look forward to moving into a new one.

And that, dear reader, is where I'll be for the rest of this morning. Soon, though, the summer will begin in earnest and with it, glorious, uninterrupted days of writing.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Poetry of Witness: What is My Responsibility?

68º ~ soggy, all is soggy ~ 3 inches of rain in 2 hours overnight, lightning & thunder, true torrents

In the aftermath of The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, my poem drafts have taken quite a journey. I started with the angry sisters and from there I've branched into writing prose poems in a series I'm calling "Chain of Evidence." All of these poems have to do with missing, exploited, or murdered children, some very young, some nearing adulthood.

In part, these poems arose because last fall was the 25th remembrance of the abduction of Jacob Wetterling from St. Joseph, MN, where I was then just beginning my undergraduate years at the College of St. Benedict. This terrible anniversary coincided with the reports of a missing toddler from Searcy, Arkansas; Malik Drummond has not been found, and every time I stop for gas, his picture stares back at me from the pump's video display. And of course, this is Arkansas so news of the West Memphis Three is always in the air, and along with it the murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore.

There are so many of these stories it is almost too much to bear.

So, I found myself writing about all of the people whose lives are touched when a child is taken, never to be heard from again or discovered dead. Some of the poems are about those closest to the child, and some are from the point of view of bystanders or children who live several towns away who have heard the stories.

I'm tackling a new form with these poem, the prose poem, and that brings doubt enough; however, these are also poems of witness and with them comes a question of responsibility, a question of rights, really.

Do I have the right to write these poems? How do I avoid sensationalizing the events, something that I would consider a true horror were my reader to feel it? How do I treat the victims with respect? And, ultimately, what is my purpose? Why am I driven to this material? Is there something in it for me, attention or a feeding off the voyeurism of our society in such cases, that I should reject?

Why do I feel hesitant to write these poems? Is it because I do not have first-hand experiences with such atrocity? Should these poems only be written by people who have suffered this kind of catastrophic and on-going loss?

These are all the questions I'm wrestling, even as I hear new lines in my head and open my journal to draft.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

MOOC Experience: How Writers Write Poetry 2015

68º ~ high clouds leftover from last night's storms ~ trees and eaves dripping, shedding the last of the rain ~ birdsong ~ swish of tires on wet roads

This morning I've been luxuriating in the freedom that arrives after final grades are posted. This freedom allows me to do the things I've pushed to the bottom of my priorities for the last month, and today, that means actually starting the University of Iowa MOOC: How Writers Write Poetry 2015.

For those unaware, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. These are free courses hosted at major universities or by private groups. They offer online content, usually in the form of videos supported by discussion boards and sometimes quizzes and assignments. A person may sign up and participate to receive a certificate of completion or the like, and that means doing all of the assignments. Or, a person may sign up to absorb the content but not participate in assessments or assignments (therefore not "earning" official completion). I'm the latter.

How Writers Write Poetry 2015 is a repeat, with new content, as the same course was offered in 2014 with a huge following. While the course began on April 13th, this is the first I've been able to devote any time to it. I'm so glad that I threw caution to the wind and signed up. I say "threw caution to the wind" because I'm well aware of how hairy the spring semester gets toward the end, and I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to give the course much time in April-early May. Still, by signing up, I now have access to the material and have gone back to the beginning.

This morning I watched the videos for Week 1: Notebooking, Sketching, Drafting and Week 2: Form and Content. I already knew I wasn't going to participate in the quizzes or discussion boards, so I could simply watch the videos and take notes for my own enjoyment.

In Week 1, we heard from Lia Purpua, Kate Greenstreet, and Robert Hass about how writers generate material. Of the three, I'm probably closest to Purpua's approach, having my handwritten journal ever at the ready and collecting scraps throughout the day to stuff between the pages.

I was a bit surprised by Greenstreet's process of using a single Word doc to collect all of her scraps. Each morning, she transcribes whatever she's scrawled on notecards and receipts and such from the day before, "stirring the new fragments" into the document. Then, she reads over the document until something coalesces into lines for a poem. There's a lot of cutting and pasting in a new document.

I confess, I've always championed the idea of writing generative material by hand (Purpura's message as well), but I'm now intrigued by the digital form of journalling that Greenstreet accomplishes.

Hass had more to say on simply generating lines and getting to drafting. He began with Mallarme's saying about poetry not being made of ideas but of words, which was a great reminder for me as I'm back to square one in terms of writing. I'm in search of my next obsession, and I need to go back to the words.

This dovetailed beautifully into Week 2, in which we heard from Mary Jo Bang, Carol Light, and Carl Phillips. Bang reminded me that "all sound carries weight," and that the best poets have an intimate knowledge of the weight of individual sounds within words, within lines, within stanzas, and within the whole. She also reminded me about the vital element in poetry: repetition. Of course I know all of this, but it's good to re-touch that base.

Then, Carol Light, a poet with whom I'm not familiar but will now be investigating, got me back to the words. She talked about "sonic association" and how she drafts from a "word cloud," very similar to my own word banks. However, instead of mining other writing for words, she builds her clouds on sonic associations. So, she takes the line that strikes her (that inspiration) and then she riffs on building word chains that are only sonically related. She resists the temptation to create a narrative at the beginning and instead focuses on linguistics. She PLAYS. She creates words associated by consonant pairs and rhyme reversals and by drawing out the unaccented syllables. An example she gave was this list: shipreck to recreate to creation to ration. When she's built a long list of words in her "cloud," then she reads out loud again and again letting her mind make connections and associations. Here, she finally lets narrative and meaning enter the picture. Again, this is very similar to my own methods, but it gives me a new twist to try out.

Finally, Phillips explicated two poems to show how their form on the page reflected their content. I was most struck by what he had to say at the beginning of his segment, that there has to be a reason a poem looks the way it does on the page. It isn't finished until it has found its final form. He mentioned the idea of liking couplets and "neat" tercets because they made a poem look "finished" on the page; they made a poem look "well dressed." But, now he is suspicious of gravitating to these two forms too quickly because they might hide a poem's flaws. Wow!

As I watched and took notes, I was also thinking about my role as instructor. I do not know that the videos will be available once the course closes on June 1, but I hope they will be. There are some gems here that I'd love to share with future students.

For now, there's a lot to process here, and Monday, the administrators will post Week 5, so I've got some more catching up to do.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

What I'm Reading: Encantado by Donna Vorreyer with art by Matt Kish

78º ~ a full week of sun and now chances rise again for thunderstorms in the heat of the afternoons, spring is holding on this year ~ the robins have returned to build a nest in the same notch in the tree outside my window that they've used in previous years, must be their second clutch, don't want to think of the fate of their first nest

I turned in my last section of grades last night at 10:00 p.m., and then I slept the sleep of the righteous and the just. This morning I woke to a few nagging emails from students, but even that couldn't detract from my excitement about SUMMER. For me, summer is not "time off." Instead, it's "game on" time for reading and writing, and I'm starting with my AWP box pictured above. Yes, I had and have acquired books before and after AWP. Yes, they are scattered all over the mess that is my home office. Perhaps because the AWP books are tidy and contained, I gravitated there first.

This morning, I spent a good long while with that bright pink & aquamarine gem at the top of the box: Encantado by Donna Vorreyer with art by Matt Kish, published this year by Red Bird Chapbooks. Donna and I are friends via Facebook, blogging, and AWP. Matt and I became virtual friends when he was working on doing a drawing for every page in Moby Dick, a project that later became a book with Tin House Press.

Encantado is a chapbook, which was a great choice this morning as I get back into reading collections of poetry. The word "encantado" comes from Brazilian folklore and means a mythical, often shape-shifting creature, most often that of the freshwater dolphins that live in the Amazon River. These dolphins, botos, are pink. Yes, pink, and they caught Donna's attention when she was visiting Peru in 2002 (according to her note at the back of the book). Donna took the idea of the shape-shifting dolphin from folklore, most often a male dolphin taking the shape of a man to either seduce or kidnap young women, to create the narrative arc of this chapbook. Woven within her poems are amazing images drawn especially for the collection by Matt.

All of the poems in the collection feed the story of a girl/young woman, who is rebellious but also abused and threatened by her father. She develops a relationship with a boto/encantado. However, the poems are not all told from her point of view. Instead, there are omniscient, third-person poems alongside first-person poems from the point of view of the young woman, the encantado, the father, and the mother. This mix provides a multi-layered story, given the short amount of space given in a chapbook, 17 poems in all. The art both illustrates and adds to the story with 11 pages of graphics.

Encantado opens with a prose poem, "Rebellion," in which the girl came of age and "the women of the village warned about the boto, how it took the form of a man at night, how looking straight into its eyes would bring nightmares without end. This was enough to convince her she must try." [Notice that refusing to mind characteristic, key to most fairy tales and folklore.] Then, the book unfolds with free verse poems that provide the story. The book closes with another prose poem titled, "The Real Story." I love this bookending of the story and how even with "The Real Story," we are still unraveling more of the life of this character.

I recommend this book for both the poetry and the art. It's a delight, cover to hand-stitched cover.