Thursday, June 30, 2016

Process Notes: To Live in a House of Grief

83º ~ a brief respite from the heavy humidity, time enough to have mown the yard yesterday so the view is tidy, the sky nothing but blue all the way up

For those who have said the process notes help.

My summer goal is 20 collages and 20 drafts of ekphrastic poems based on those collages. The count stands at 12 collages completed and and 5 drafts written. I continue to struggle with letting go and trusting that the process will work, even though it is the letting go that works every time.

The collages are 9" x 12" and collected now in official-looking portfolio to protect them. When I sit down for BIC time (BIC = butt in chair), I flip through the portfolio and try to let intuition guide me in choosing a piece for the day. This is a bit difficult because I made each piece, so each has already spoken to me in some way (the disadvantage of self-ekphrasis). However, eventually, I choose and pull a collage from the portfolio. The size makes it easy for me to sit with the art, to run my fingers over the surface (the benefit of self-ekphrasis), to hold the image very close or prop it farther away. I sit in silence. I observe. I absorb.

And then, hopefully, a line strikes me.

Today's first 2 lines are:

A girl born reaching

3" x 5" detail

This is my fifth draft in the project and the second one in a row that uses one of the human images in the collage as subject (the earlier one I wrote process notes for did as well). These human images happen to all be girls. Three out of five drafts with "the girl" or some variation at the center. So now, because what would we be without our worries, I'm worried that I'm simply re-covering territory I already covered in The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. However, there is little of the prairie in these, little of the agriculture that marks that book. So, maybe...maybe it will be okay.

I set myself this project because I wanted to discover, again, my obsessions, and I wanted to come at that discovery aslant (via images). It may turn out that my obsessions are what they have always been: what it means to view the world through female eyes and live in the world in a female body & mind. What if I'm a one-obsession poet? I do not want to be the kind of writer/artist who simply re-creates the same work over and over. I want to stretch and grow, and yet, I write/create what is in me to write/create.

For now, I will repeat to myself for as long as it takes: trust the process, trust the process, trust the process.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Should I Stay, or Should I Go?

92º feels like 98º  summer

I would love to continue to blog but I feel stymied. Is there anything you'd like to know that hasn't already been covered elsewhere?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Draft Process for "Lesson Seventeen" ~ Once Again, the Only Way Through is Through

87º feels like 96º ~ grass creeping higher as a result of thunderstorms and rain, no incentive to mow in liquid air, four robin chicks on the front porch continue to flourish

A few weeks ago, I described my summer writing project of collaging and then writing self-ekphrastic poems. I've been creating collages without difficulty since then. I'm working on 9" x 12" Bristol paper, both on the vertical and horizontal. The idea being that I might publish the poems alongside the collages and I'm aiming for consistency of materials / size. I'm also not using any 3-D elements on the collages.

As I said, the collages have been non-stressful in terms of creation. I set out to work with the images on a purely instinctual basis, not trying to create any narrative, not going into a piece with a pre-set idea or mood. I sift through my large image drawers and grab onto the first few items that catch my eye. Then, I bang them together on the blank page and see what's what. Mostly, I'm able to stick with instinct. Once or twice, I've had to throw an image back and search again. Once the large images are in place, I move on to filling out the piece, again trying to go with my gut and always on alert for when I reach for the easy cliché. 

Now, as for the writing, well, that has not been such an easy, gut-level thing. I have stuttered and started for days. I've gazed and gazed at the images I've created and forced some really bad lines into my journal. Today, I approached the process again with the same results, and I started to get that niggle of a voice, that whisper, "This is a disaster. You have no more poems to write. Why did you think this would work?" etc. 

I stopped. I stopped for what I thought was the day, figuring I'd collage again and try the writing later. 

But then, I thought, "Maybe I just need a clearer prompt. Maybe I need to read a prompt on writing ekphrastic poems." Even as I thought this, I knew that I knew what an ekphrastic poem was and I knew what the prompt would say; after all, I've assigned the very thing to my students. Still, I Googled. I got this brief essay from the Academy of American Poets and read:

"And modern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity’s obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects."

Yes, yes, yes. Of course I knew all of this, but something about reading those four verbs "interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to" gave me just enough of a jolt to hear a line coming through about the collage I'd just been staring at for 45 minutes. And then another line. And another.

Once again, the only way through was through. The only way to a draft was to keep my BIC (Butt In Chair) long enough to find my way through the doubt and the bad lines. I may have to relearn this every time I get to a period of silence, but perhaps I'm moving more quickly through the lesson these days.

Today's draft happens to be titled "Lesson Seventeen: Girl and Fox Consider the Nature of Time" ("Lesson Seventeen" is a scrap collaged at the bottom) and begins:

A girl gazes down a ruler's length.
A fox gazes up, noses a human scent.

I don't want to publish the complete collage now, but here's a little glimpse into a detail of the collage titled the same as the poem. This is 3.5 " x 5" from the upper right corner.

One of my goals for this project is to discover new source material for my poetry via these images. I'm hoping that letting my instinct guide me will reveal repeated images and new obsessions. Here's to the work and to the hope, in equal measure. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Poetry & Practicality

91º feels like 97º ~ not yet 10:30 a.m., needless to say we've entered SCUBA weather again, meaning to breathe outside is to breathe in liquid air and to wish for a SCUBA tank and respirator ~ on the plus side, the robins have 4 chicks in the nest on our front porch and we have taken to walking the long way round the house to avoid startling the adults away from feeding the wee ones

This morning, I finally had time to read "Why are so Many Poets also Artists?" a feature from yesterday's Literary Hub. In this interview-essay, Maggie Millner offers insight from a handful of poet-artists in their own words. As I've become more and more engrossed in collage, I am more and more interested/concerned/curious about how my visual work influences/detracts from/explodes my writing, so this gathering of voices was a must-read.

Cruising through the piece, nodding my head in affirmation, I came to Paige Taggart's contribution. A poet and jeweler, Taggart states, "The most practical thing is not to be an artist at all. The idea of practicality feels tied to capitalism. I don't like being practical and most practical people bore me because they make all their life decisions based on a certain set of principles that ties into 'the system.'" Then Taggart ties practicality to the patriarchy.

This brief passage brought me up short and lit a fire under all my insecurities as a poet and artist. I felt my non-hip, middle age severely, and my imposter syndrome kicked in full force.

Here is the key question: Are being creative and being practical mutually exclusive? (And the mirrors to that question: Have I been kidding myself this whole time? Am I too practical to be an artist? Must an artist live an impractical life on the outside in order to create?)

I mean, come on. I drive a 10-year old Honda Civic that still gets 35 - 40 mpg highway and 25 - 30 mpg in town because I keep diligent track of its maintenance (and routinely do the math on gas milage).

After years of college and grad school requiring some student loans and credit card debt, I spent the first decade of my working life paying it all down to 0.

I buy basic clothes that I wear for years and years, and I don't wear make up. Some of this has to do with feminist principles (if men can succeed without being prettified, why can't I?), but mostly, I'd rather not spend time trying to figure it all out, as I'm not naturally gifted at or interested in fashion and style.

The list could go on and on, but it will always add up to this: I am a practical person. I've worn this badge with pride and connected it to my Midwestern background as the daughter of the children of farmers. I've listed "efficient," "organized," and "able to meet a deadline" as positive traits when applying for jobs. And now, I'm re-evaluating it all.

Let me say here that I'm thankful for Taggart's words for giving me a chance to look again at the idea of practicality in the artistic life. I can see why she ties this descriptor to the patriarchy and "the system," but I resist the idea that practicality must be tied to capitalism and "the man."

I confess that my practicality might hinder me from taking my wildest leaps, and that worries me greatly; however, having grown up in a working-class family of unstable finances, my relationship to financial security is probably more conservative than some (others who have grown up in this situation lean the other each their own). I know that I've done my best work as a poet as I've matured financially and have been able to put "paycheck-to-paycheck" behind me. I understand that for others, living a more precarious economic life isn't as stressful, but for me that unease is a block to creativity, not a sustainer of it.

I also see a clear benefit from my practical nature when working on sending my poems out into the world. Being organized comes naturally to me and makes me happy (when I'm most stressed I love to clean my file cabinet drawers and send loads of paper through the shredder to recycling). This skill set has helped me keep track of submissions and publications, and I think it helps me persevere after rejection as well.

In the end, I am probably a person who would bore Taggart; however, I'll make a claim here that my practical nature serves my art. I'm not going to be the one to downsize and put all my belongings in storage so I can go on a life-changing trek; I'm not going to be the one to leave my academic job and open a bookstore/art space; I'm not going to be the one to take the massive, visible leap. But, I'll feel secure enough physically and mentally to take those risks on the page.

Still, I'll keep Taggart's words in mind when my inner-voice reaches too quickly for practicality, especially during the great incubation period of inspiration.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Keeping On Keeping On (The Submission Slog Song)

74º ~ a morning of drizzle with the sun now trying to break through a heavy layer of white clouds, all is humid and soggy

Getting back into the swing of my writing life in earnest means getting back into the swing of submitting poems to journals for possible publication. While poetry receives the least attention and the least compensation from readers and editors across the board, there is a perk. We usually have tons of "pieces" to submit. A novelist may work on a book for years before getting to the process of finding an agent and publisher. A short story writer or essayist can only send one piece at a time to a journal or magazine. Not so the poet. Yes, we labor over our one- to two-page poems for hours, days, months, years, etc., but we build up a stockpile of work and we are able to submit 3 - 5 poems at a go.

Yay, us!

Well, a subdued yay, anyway because the flipside is thickening one's skin to a slew of rejections.

After being out of the habit of regularly submitting, I have quite the stockpile of unpublished poems. I've spent the last week or so combing through those poems and making final polishing tweaks. After polishing, I grouped the poems into batches of 3 - 5. Then, once the piles were ready to go, I had to go back to my time-worn Excel spreadsheet of journals and start looking for places to send the poems. No matter how much research I've done in the past, I still have to do more. That journal that has always read in the summer? Nope, they're taking this year off. That lit mag that used to refuse simultaneous submissions? Nope, now they take 'em, meaning I have to shift my stacks. And onward the process goes.

*This process only works because I've spent years being a reader of lit mags and learning which journals might be receptive to my style. There are no short cuts, not even submission-bombing all the currently open markets listed in Duotrope, which takes even more time, and I don't believe yields greater results.

After much work, I have submitted mini-manuscripts to 14 journals in the last week. Most of the packets were 4 poems each.

Here's a new observation for me about the process.

I have to be bright-eyed and energetic (read: first thing I do for the day) or the doubt seeps in through the slog of preparing files and I decide the poems aren't ready. It's a hard balancing act. I want to be as careful as I can to send poems that are "ready," but I started to notice that the later I went in the day, the more poems were labeled "not ready." Looking at them the next morning, I had a new confidence.

Now, only time will tell if the confidence is well placed. Such is the poet's life.