Guest Post, Patricia Clark: Recalibrating your poetry settings, or using the past to help you write better in the present

You’ve been traveling, let us say, perhaps to France. Your body’s in another time zone and yet you’re back at home base and ready to get back to your writing. There it is, though, a blank page, and you suddenly freeze. Or you’ve come through the winter and you’re tired—of students, colleagues, meetings, papers to grade. Now you can sit down. You’ve just submitted final grades. You want to write and feel ready. But there it is again—a blank computer screen, or a blank page. Where to begin?

Some of the most basic questions loom at such times for me as a writer. What is a poem? How do I write one? How did I ever write one in the past? If these questions don’t loom for you at times, or re-loom after a spate of not writing, I am surprised. Go on about your life as usual, your happy work—the suggestions that follow are for those of us, the troubled ones, who need answers to these questions.

It’s a truism that reading other poems and other poets can help you get going. I want to suggest a particular kind of reading, one that has worked me in the past. Find an anthology—an old anthology (of twenty or thirty years ago, or longer)—one that collected great poems of the past. Two I found near me recently are these: Fifty Years of American Poetry: Anniversary volume for the Academy of American Poets, introduced by Robert Penn Warren, copyright 1984. Another is: 100 Great Poems of the 20th Century, ed. by Mark Strand. Published by W.W. Norton in 2005. Many other anthologies would work for this exercise. Look around, and/or go to a used bookstore and see what you can find.

Why does it help if the book is old? I recommend a book where you don’t recognize the writers’ names, and thus their words, cadences, rhythms, forms will be new to you. You want to encounter freshness and be jolted anew by the voices of poets.

Why should I read the poems out loud? I recommend this so you may really hear the poets. Slow down, enjoy the poems, don’t worry about starting to write yourself—but I guarantee that something you hear, some approach to a subject, some way of beginning a poem, will jolt you into action.

What are some of the poems that did this for you? I am referring to the Mark Strand volume mentioned above. Find this and read these. See if you aren’t changed by the encounter.

A.R. Ammons, “The City Limits”

Amy Clampitt, “Marine Surface, Low Overcast”

Hart Crane, “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”

May Swenson, “Question”

Wislawa Szymborska, “The End and the Beginning”

Derek Walcott, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”

William Carlos Williams, “These”

James Wright, “The Journey

Can you be more specific about what you found reading these poets of the past? Let me try. The Ammons’ opening, for example. I love the confidence with which the poem starts, “When you consider the radiance,” – and the surprise of the word “radiance.” Notice that it could be another word; you could put your own word in. But the poet begins and just starts; he is spinning out his observation of the world and its details, and I suggest that the writer doesn’t know where this poem will end up. The writer is doing what my teacher Richard Hugo suggested: following the music. Start somewhere yourself; start anywhere. Start your sentence and write. Get going. Follow the music.

Ditto the Amy Clampitt poem. I defy you to read the opening stanza and not be simply entranced by her use of vocabulary and sound. What a spin of words!

Out of churned auereoles

this buttermilk, this

herringbone of albatross,

floss of mercury,

déshabille of spun

aluminum, furred with a velouté

of looking-glass. . . .

What happens for me as a reader is a re-centering of my poetic spirit. I can practically hear the gears turning and my brain saying, “Oh, this is poetry. This is not prose. This is amped-up language.” Encountering this poem, I feel washed in the spirit of poetry—re-calibrated is the word I used in my title, and I mean it. Maybe over days of other reading—newspapers, sign, schedules, menus—I need to see the real thing in order to recall how to make it. Yes, I am getting closer. I am also getting the itch to write.

Another example: Hart Crane. I think perhaps it is the utter plainspoken simplicity of his poem’s beginning, the sheer lack of flair, that astounds me and causes me to stop in my tracks. Listen: “There are no stars tonight / But those of memory. / Yet how much room for memory there is / In the loose girdle of soft rain.” Perhaps I have grown tired of my contemporaries, of everyone competing and nearly shouting for attention. “Look at this!” “Notice that!” Again, a re-calibration. Poems may be quiet and still effective. It is not always necessary to shout or to jump around. Just tell it straight (there is no “telling it straight”). You see how I contradict myself. Well, so be it.

A final example: May Swenson. Yes, I know her name; yes, I know she is/was a well known poet. Her poem “Question,” though, is a jolt. Her poem gallops away with energy and punch from the start. I want to go on this ride. Listen again, “Body my house / my horse my hound / what will I do / when you are fallen.” I’m amazed, entranced, and my ear is immensely pleased. It could be that reading these other poets does even more than re-calibration. I find a new music, or my old music made new, through this reading. I feel my sentences tightening, reading May Swenson. I may even decide to start a poem using her direct address, or following her stanzaic pattern or rhythm.

I’ll go out on a limb: I think of all writers, of all genres, poets have the toughest job. Why? They must begin again so often as most poems are short. Thus, we must become experts in beginning. When things freeze, though, and when doubts build up, do feel confident in turning in certain directions. Read poets of the past in an anthology. The difference in years from their time to yours will help you hear their words better. Please try it! Beyond just helping you get started with writing your own poems again, you may find some poets whose work you want to explore more fully. Each of these I mention above are ones I’ve now reading much more fully. After a dry period, re-calibrate and jump start your writing juices by a good dose of reading. Trust me! I hope this works for you as it has for me.

–Patricia Clark

Guest Post: Patrick Madden, Some Notes on Expectations

My daughter loves this riddle I told her:

You are driving a bus. At the first stop, 7 people get on. At the next stop, 3 more get on. At the third, 2 get off and 5 get on. At the fourth, no one gets on and 2 get off. At the fifth, 7 get off and 1 gets on. At the sixth stop, 2 get on and 2 get off. At the seventh, 10 people get on and 3 get off. What is the bus driver’s name?

Reading it here, you can easily figure it out, because you can return to the text and reread, but aloud, this gets people (nearly) every time, because once they hear the numbers, they start trying to do arithmetic, thinking you’re going to ask them how many people are left on the bus. I apologize for stating the obvious. The point of the riddle is misdirection, a subversion of expectations that’s satisfying in its cleverness instead of frustrating. This is just one example of this principle in action. One might easily point to most Hollywood movies, for instance, with their twists and turns to keep viewers guessing. I know this, and you know this, but I hope it’s worth revisiting briefly here, as I retread some of my own path to realizing it (making it real), and applying it to essay writing, specifically.

Over the years, as I read and wrote and taught and critiqued thousands of essays, I formulated an observation into a theory. For context, you should know that, including graduate school, I’ve been at this essay thing semi-professionally for twenty years. Through reading and writing countless good and bad examples, I came to feel that the best essay endings worked their way backwards through the text to shift a reader’s understanding of the whole, to reconfigure interpretation from a new insight. Thus, the endings were a surprise that made sense; they granted an insight beyond what I would have come to on my own, but not beyond what was reasonable. I became fond of saying that this represented a surprising inevitability (or inevitable surprise).

While I never thought myself original for noticing this (and creating a handily chiastic catchphrase to describe it), it took me quite a while to discover that Aristotle had theorized essentially the same thing in the Poetics:

Such an effect [Tragedy inspiring fear or pity] is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. …

A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc.

That is, “because of this” versus simply “after this.” We want causation, not simply correlation. “The king died and then the queen died” is not a proper story. No, wait. It is a story, according to Forster, but it’s not a plot. A plot requires not only “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” but a sense of causality (“then the queen died of grief”). For context, you should know that Aristotle’s source texts were epic poems and plays, and Forster’s focus was the novel, primarily. And here we are talking of essays, mostly, though the principles, as I have said, apply broadly.

Expectations affect not only endings, influence not only twists of plot and action. When we read, we bring myriad expectations to the text, from the most basic (that it will be decipherable), through the conventional (that it will exemplify proper grammar), through the contextual (that it will present to us a world we recognize or, sometimes, characters that we “relate to”), to the transcendental (that it will satisfy in us a spiritual yearning we didn’t quite know we had). We read through our expectations at every turn, and every straightaway, too.

No one’s expectations are infallible; no reader is ideal. Yet I am paid to read others’ work and offer my honest critique, asking them questions and suggesting ways to improve. Perhaps the commonest category of misstep I find in draft work has to do with failing to meet or anticipate readers’ expectations, failing to consider the expansiveness of language and the way ambiguities can be detrimental, even antagonistic to readers. I tell my students that I am a lazy, impatient, intentional misreader. I expect them to do the work of considering their words and phrases and rooting out unintentional misreadings. Because I will misread them every chance they give me, I say. We laugh, but they know I’m serious.

I find such problems all the time, but I suppose I ought to include here an example. So I’ve asked permission of one of my students, whose recent essay caused me and her classmates a slight bit of consternated amusement. The essay was titled “Love Bursts,” which pressed play on my mental boom box with a two-song playlist of Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” and Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” each of which strings together a litany of bad things love does (scars, wounds, marks, bleeds, brings me to my knees, etc.). [I could, too, have remembered the Everly Brothers’ original “Love Hurts,” or covers by Roy Orbison or Cher or… and who can forget the J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks”? {rip J. Geils, who died a few days ago, and who was raised, I’ve just learned, the next town over from my hometown in New Jersey}]

Anyway. “Love Bursts” seemed obviously a sentence, subject-verb. Bursting was something love did. This determined my reading. And the first section did nothing to revise my expectation, as the author returned to her childhood, to a night she spent with her aunt and cousins in a hotel. Her mother had allowed her to go only on the condition that she not wet the bed. Uh oh. You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? Our narrative expectations are primed. But they’re also confirmed in their reading of the title. Love bursts… we’ve got a bladder ready to burst in the nighttime, so… It’s obvious.

Only it wasn’t. The section ends in a display of auntly love, with smiles and bubble bath and not a hint of anger or frustration. Only later in the essay, two-thirds of the way through, does the title reconfigure into an adjective-noun phrase. It’s been about bursts of love all along, but I didn’t know it. I felt a bit misled. The author, knowing from the get-go how to apprehend the titular phrase, was surprised at my (and most of the class’s) misreading. It’s important to note that I don’t believe her to be wrong with her title choice; I just want her to think more broadly about potential meanings.

The advice part of this essay will be brief and general (“feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others” — Montaigne): Try to be aware of the various readings and meanings readers may come to give your text. Understand language not as denotative but as accumulative and tentative, words in order forming constellations from which meaning emerges. Anticipate your readers’ questions and objections, and avoid problems or address them as you write (perhaps even in direct address; the essay is wonderfully open to such meta-textuality).

If I weren’t already past the respectable word limit for blog posts, I’d talk us through an expert example of managing expectations, but instead, among so many possible models, I will simply exhort you to read Brian Doyle’s “His Last Game,” which was a Best American Essay in 2013. Savor how it both confirms and subverts your expectations throughout. To wrap up, then:

I love this story my mother told us. For context, you should know that for many years she worked as a secretary at a law firm that handled lots of motor vehicle cases.

You need to have uninsured motorist insurance. With the cases I see every day… there’s a lot of people out there driving around without insurance, or without enough insurance. And if one of them hits you… you’ll be on the hook for the damages. For years I kept telling Chris Leone, “Chris, you need to get uninsured motorist insurance,” and she wouldn’t listen. “Liz,” she’d say. “You worry too much.” But I kept telling her, for years, and finally she got uninsured motorist insurance.

You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? And while you’re sad for Chris, at least you’re glad that she got uninsured motorist insurance just in time.

Except… in time for what? Nothing happened. Nobody hit Chris. Chris didn’t hit anybody. “Mom!” we laughed. “This is the part where an uninsured motorist hits Chris’s car, and…”

“No,” said Mom. “That’s it. She got the insurance. Now she’s covered.”

For context, you should know that almost exactly a year ago, my mother died of cancer. Because she had smoked almost her entire adult life, we long knew that the day would come, yet I echo what many have said: you’re never really prepared. Despite the disarming pain that still catches me unawares and plunges me into a deep melancholy, I am grateful that her whole family, her husband and all of her children and our spouses and her grandchildren, and many of her friends, gathered from near and very far to spend her last days with her, when she was still awake and aware and laughing and praying and telling us all how much she loved us. When she was gone, or nearly gone, I don’t quite remember, we told this story to each other and it was a salve to our wounds.

 

Guest post, Sara Schaff: The Age of Success

My first book came out in the fall, which still feels miraculous to me. The stories took years to write and years to find a home for. Holding the actual book in my hands for the first time, I felt moved by the lovely cover and by the physical presence of words I had labored over in my thirties—which, by then, were almost over.

Next month I’m turning 40, a number that used to seem distant and possible to avoid. As my stepfather likes to remind me, when he turned 40, I made a giant banner that read “Over the Hill” and hung it on the wall as a snide happy birthday greeting. (I was thirteen at the time and probably more concerned with the fact that he was my stepfather than I was with his age, but whatever, he’s right: 40 looked ancient.) Alice Munro was 37 when she published her first book. Toni Morrison was 39. George Eliot 40. As a beginning writer I’d read the bios of brilliant, “late-blooming” writers and feel inspired. But also terrified: I couldn’t imagine waiting that long to find literary success.

When I began graduate school in creative writing almost a decade ago, I considered it reasonable to assume that my two years there would soon lead to the vision I had of “success”, which included not just a published book but tenure-track job and “a viable writing career.” To some of the twenty-somethings in my program, I probably already seemed old at thirty, but forty still seemed so far away. Of course I would publish a book before I was anywhere near forty!

One thing I couldn’t have known is how in my thirties the whole nature of time would change. Days and years used to feel full and incremental and possible to keep track of. Starting in grad school everything began to hurtle past.

Yet somehow the writing continued slowly. Mostly while I was working full time. And though sometimes the slow writing was painful, often it was the opposite: every word I made time for reinforced for me the joy of making art. Every sentence contained the promise of a magic trick—plucking something from my head and making it live on the page.

I’d like to believe that writing while working made me a better writer—or at least a writer who can usually find a few minutes to write, because sometimes that’s all there is. In grad school, I adored listening to professional writers talk about their schedules: the coffee in the hand, the butt in the chair for the hours of 8-to 5, or 9-2 while the kids are at school. It felt like a dreamy formula: caffeine + hours + story = bestselling/award-winning novel. For the majority of us who are working office jobs, or teaching, or taking care of tiny children, that kind of schedule is a luxury, not a mathematical proof.

Sometimes you have to write at work in secret. (I did some of my happiest writing in an office cubicle.) Sometimes you write only while the kid is sleeping or doesn’t realize you’ve slipped upstairs for some writing time but is about to realize it, so better write that sentence real damn quick. Sometimes you have to write late at night when the house is a mess. Sometimes early in the morning. (But never at 4am. Writers who get up that early are masochists and no wonder: they’re totally sleep-deprived!) If you want be a successful writer and you’re neither independently wealthy nor supported by a large advance for your Great American Novel, be flexible. Be kind to yourself. But don’t forget to write.

For me, the idea of success continues to be a moving target. I’ll never win any award for youthful brilliance. Probably not even for brilliance of the “over the hill” variety. My forties might slip by faster even than my thirties. But throughout the next decade I’ll be writing—ten minutes here, an hour there. My second book will come together slowly, and sometimes I will doubt whether it will come together at all. Every minute and every word along the way will be a small gift to myself. And, eventually, I hope to someone else.

Guest Post, Robert Krut: Heroes Are Dead; Long Live Heroes

 

Robert Krut Bio PhotoI have a handwritten postcard from Allen Ginsberg. And not some random handwritten postcard I discovered in an antique desk drawer at a flea market, or bought online somewhere.  It is handwritten to me. It is, needless to say, one of my most prized possessionsAs you might imagine, it is framed and hanging within view of the computer I am typing on at this very moment.

Ginsberg was my first big literary hero—the person I read obsessively, rhapsodized about to others—I carried around my copy of his glorious red-covered Collected Poems everywhere I went.  I drove my high school English teacher crazy by insisting I share “America” with the class, “go fuck yourself” and all. I wanted to write like him, and if I am honest with myself, I wanted to be him—free, wild-bearded, hand to the sky and capturing the lightning of electric lines right to the page.

So, I wrote him a letter.  Certain I was the first teenager to ever write him and tell him how much his poems meant to me, and how my high school just “didn’t get it” (looking back now, my teacher was more than accommodating of my obsession), I told him how I was also from New Jersey and wanted to be a poet.  Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, a postcard was sitting on the kitchen table when I got home (my Mom was smiling when she said “well, you got a postcard today…”).  In a cruel twist of fate, he even suggested I come to a reading in the city and introduce myself—but the card arrived the day after the reading (cursed by slow mail over the December holidays).  But I had my postcard.  My handwritten postcard from my hero.  And that was more than enough.

Naturally, in the coming years, I discovered many literary heroes that led me to want to write, each one stepping into the hero role: Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Michael Burkard. . . they all became not only writers I admired, but those that lit fires, guided my own work (often leading to not-so-infrequent unintended homages).  With each new hero, the previous faded a bit into the background–needless to say, when my Carver obsession began, my attempts at poems were stripped-down affairs as opposed to the expansive, no-thought-should-be-discarded Ginsbergian approach.  Denis Johnson, of course, married those two approaches well, in a sort of tough visionary literature–his poem “The Veil” has remained on my office wall for twenty years.  I suppose this sort of admiration is human nature.

Ultimately, the sort of “hero worship” I had early on for Ginsberg was somewhat similar to that of other, earlier incarnations of fandom: my bedroom as a little kid was plastered with posters of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter; my early teenage years saw U2 and REM on those same walls.  Ultimately, they made room for Bob Dylan memorabilia; Dylan directly pointed me to Ginsberg, who took up the hero mantle.

When you admire someone so completely, of course, it is only natural to see them not only replaced, but also drift a bit back.  At times, we even have to discard them to move past their (encouraging, sparkling) grip.  For me, by the end of my undergraduate years, I would say things like “I’ll always love Ginsberg, but…” completing that sentence with phrases like “his Collected Poems could have been half as long” (my precious red book!), or “I’m realizing I can go straight to the source–Whitman!”  As time went on though, I kept a place for my hero in my heart–I had my list of lingering poems that still knocked me out, taught him periodically over the years (a visionary literature class here, a political poetry unit there, etc.), even thrilled at going to City Lights Books in San Francisco.  But it was never truly quite the same as those first few years in the rush of discovering his work.

Now, though, after a recent event, I realized that my love for Ginsberg was never only about the cult of personality or some cartoon of his “character.”  There was–is–real magic in his work, so it was only a matter of time that I would revisit my full force love of his poetry, and role as a poet.  In going back to him after all these years, I can appreciate him on a deeper level–embracing what I love, acknowledging any limitations, and feeling the rush of connecting with poetry for the first time again.  It’s a great feeling–I encourage all readers to go back to their first heroes and see if it happens for them, too.

My renewed fervor grew out of the most common of occurrences for those of us who write poems–a simple conversation where someone asks “who is your favorite poet?” Or, similarly, but with a bit more breathing room: “who are your favorite poets?”  It’s always nice when someone asks this at a party–particularly when you’re the only one there who may write (or publicly acknowledge writing) poems, as you see someone taking an interest in poetry–so often I am pleased to see a real interest out in the “non-poetry” and/or “non-academic” worlds about poems.

That being said, I have also learned over the years that, in those moments, breaking out truly contemporary, or even slightly obscure older, poets leads to blank stares–I have killed many a conversation over the years extolling the virtues of names that didn’t register in the conversation partner.  So, typically now I mention someone relatively well-known that I do love, but that will bridge the discussion.  Typically a response of “well, it all starts with Whitman and Dickinson” is a solid one, and allows for an engaging conversation.  Other names that have worked well in these moments include Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop (for reference, “One Art” and “The Moose” are very popular; “The Man-Moth” tends to unfortunately be a deal breaker).  It should be pointed out, though that mentioning these “classic names” provides a perfect chance to share newer ones, as common ground has been established. Last month I was at a bar where someone asked about poets and I followed up a Whitman reference by saying “and if you want to read some great contemporary work, go find Danez Smith.”  Later in the night, that same person came back to me and asked me to repeat the name so he could enter it into his phone for future reference.

But back to Ginsberg–at a recent party, sensing that my conversation partner might have loved the Beats back in the day, I mentioned my old hero.  To my shock, this was not met with a positive response–the person, laughing in a good natured way, let me know “Oh no!  I can’t stand Ginsberg!”  I was surprised at how quickly I snapped back into being that teenager again, with my Ginsberg love back front and center.  The good thing, though, as I now realize, is that my hero worship had been replaced with admiration–and in defending his legacy, I could feel myself reconnected with him, and what excites me about poetry, all over again.

I made my case.  In a world where everyone can be so cynical, isn’t it refreshing to have his poems out there, in all of their rambling, heart-on-sleeve glory?  In a time when it is so necessary, isn’t it exhilarating to read poems facing capital-A America straight on?  What lover of poetry didn’t want to break out “America” on November 9, 2016?  And have you read “Supermarket in California” recently?  It feels fresh and heartbreaking all over again–only now Ginsberg is the one we meet in the grocery store instead of Whitman.

And, if the poetry/politics intersection doesn’t do it for you, there is the personal and spiritual work.  The teenage version of me read “To Aunt Rose” and loved it.  But as we all get older, and lose people we love, good luck reading it, with its detailed and loving portrait, and not only marveling at its poetry but also tearing up at the emotions.  Additionally, the spirituality that runs through so much of the work, with its mix of Judaism and Buddhism, takes us out of the rough observations of the political work and places American life on a different plane–try listening to his reading of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” with Phillip Glass and not feeling like you are floating five feet above the ground.

All of this came out though that party conversation, and I was back in, full force.  In doing so, I reconnected with something I loved about poetry from when I first started writing.  That night I went home and wrote, and I did the next day, too.

We put our heroes away for a bit for a reason, and we certainly can’t sacrifice what is new in poetry to stay safe in our comfort zones–we would become boring if that happened.  At the right time, though, it is worth revisiting them once again, with the deeper understanding that comes from time as well as the larger world of literature. We see them with added depth, but lit by the spark that first excited us about writing.  In the end, it leaves us admiring them as writers, not heroes.  And I say that as I look up at Allen Ginsberg’s handwriting from 1990 on my wall.

Guest Post, Philip Gross: Beyond Yes or No

Philip Gross HeadshotIt seems so long ago now: Brexit, the British equivalent of America’s Trump moment.  By a similar slight tipping of an almost equally divided electorate, that necessary legal fiction called The British People chose to leave the European Union.

What the fiction concealed was a polity more split than ever, and with no wish to reconcile… not to mention the widening cracks between the four countries of the British union, the United Kingdom, or between regions of England itself.

As for the Yes/No question – making it so simple, you would think – that concealed complexities that would not have fitted on ten sides of ballot paper, let alone that one tick-box. Whichever way you voted, you’d been trying to ignore the fact that half your allies looked for all the world like enemies. Even one word, Yes or No, seemed like the answer, in each voter’s mind, to a whole array of different questions. Were you saying No, or Yes, to complicated bureaucratic legislation… or to globalisation… or to bloody foreigners… or to a gallant attempt to heal the fractiousness of a continent prone to internecine wars?

That was nine months ago – time for something, or at least some understanding, to have come to birth.

Some fifty years ago, I stumbled on the unappealing-sounding The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. I do care about science, but what it suggested, eye-openingly, was more. It concerned how we change. Why is it that we don’t change smoothly, incrementally, as we gain more information? Largely we don’t, not individuals any more than nations; we move in jolts and lurches, with ideas seeming to seize power in sudden coups.

Kuhn’s insight was that we live in a matrix of information, some of it fitting our current account of things, any things not. In newer terms, we think we know what is the signal, what is noise. We live with the freight of things we tell ourselves might be an error, or irrelevant, or just waiting to be better explained next week. Then one day, someone says What if that’s not the story? What if the exceptions are the story, in the margins of the page?

In Britain’s Brexit moment, we heard a blare of noise. The fact that it was being organised into a cruder, nastier and falser story is not the point. The howl of hurt unfocussed rage, of whole neighbourhoods, whole regions who saw no place for them in the current story, the yearning to uncomplicate things, violently, was going to be heard.

Was it a feeble response then, from some of us stunned by a genuine grief, to pick up our pen or laptop and write poetry? In my case, not even political poetry, not continuing the argument by other means, because my paradigm-shifting moment said: Maybe it’s the story of Yes/No that’s the problem, which we have to get beyond.

Alphabets are how young children come to language. A is for Apple, and so on. Trying to see what it was I felt such grief at losing, I found myself spelling out an alphabet of Europe, in the poem here. It contains some close-up details of European history that rarely feature in the headline stories, but that’s part of the point. Brexit barely features. The letters spelled out a wider story – of Europe already much more various than we tend to think, Europe now reeling at the impact of an age of population shift, of continents spilling, leaking great migrations. (This is not new. It’s the periods of apparent stasis that are the exceptions.) With migrant boats sinking offshore, we were struggling to be the Europe those desperate people dreamed, and we hoped, we might be. We needed to be bigger, in heart and practicality. Instead, nation by nation started backing into fear and defensiveness, into our smaller selves and stories of the way things used to be.

No, poetry is not the answer. It might look towards a better question, one that’s wider, deeper, than the Yes/No story. So few words, such a slight art form. Still, it points a way to being more.

 

               Trying to Spell Europe

                          

Armistice: for a minute or two, we understand each other. Silence. Then the

harder part, a life’s work: language must step in.

 

Banlieux: the writing in the margins of the city. Dark illumination. Yes, and we

will need to read it before we can understand ourselves.

 

Calais: the lost thing that inscribed itself not only on one dead queen’s heart but

thousands, where it translates into any home or hope.

 

Danube: not to forget, there is this other river that shapes half of Europe, that

concentrates its melancholy in the (what else?) Black Sea.

 

E-numbers are a way of knowing, that’s all. Of perceiving what our tongues can’t

tell. Did we think Brussels hid them, microscopic numbers in our food?

 

Frisian: the language most germane to English, of a country on and not on any

map, its heartland those long islands, barely more than shifting dunes.

 

Gross: allow me, please, this little word for Big; not just because it’s mine. Because it’s here.

Because it feels, in its bones, the swash of centuries.

 

Hanseatic: now, there was an empire – without borders, without army. Gabled

houses, and the weighing out of herring shoals, their scales, their silver.

 

Indigenous: for us, the word is affectation, scarcely old enough for habit. It’s no

time at all since the first stragglers happened on a house swept bare by ice.

 

John, Johann, Jean: three guys, three guises of J on our tongues, slipping from one

set of taste buds to another, as in a wine tasting: rinse, spit, taste again.

 

Kick out the Ks, unsettling letters. Tolerable when accompanied, as at each end of

knock. They are the crackling of boots through Northern, Eastern, forest dark.

 

Lulled, on the other hand, by languid sounds of Languedoc (disregard the silenced

voice in that word too) as if L was a lingua franca we could speak.

 

Médecins Sans Frontières, there’s a clue: not that our wounded borders are in need

of healing, but that borders are themselves the wound.

 

Nation: a shape that casts its shadow in the light of something other – maybe the

glare of empire; also the tiny candle of a stranger in the corner of the room.

 

Overseas is a word that comes too easily to islanders. Offshore (yes, with its stain

these days of dodgy dealings), that may be more to the point.

 

Pétanque, pelota, pesäpallo: we should give some time to other people’s games.

Not to compete, just listen to the tunk or whap against the wall next door.

 

Q’ran: he’s learned to write it; it disturbs him still, that letter abroad without its U,

old rules unput, and the sound of its catch in the throat.

 

Renaissance, Reformation, Risorgimento: it seems we never make a move without

the prefix glancing back at what was lost before.

 

Stars in too snug a circle on their blue-sky flag? As we know, it’s only where we’re

standing, looking, that makes any constellation hold.

 

Tundra crisping the Northward edges of our vision. And the South wind on the

windscreen with its gauze of desert sand. Both these define us.

 

Urals: there’s a skyline, and a far one, but why should this crimp in a landmass

make a continent, unless it mirrors some crimp in our minds?

 

Volte face or viva voce or (in acclamation) viva anything… From now, there’ll be

examinations on the border, to turn the voice back, though it only wants to live.

 

West is the wall we’re backed against, with, we would like to think, the setting

sun. Then it too takes ship, off, out. Leaves us standing on the shore.

 

X is that otherness, that and the Z, Basque shows us. As if any easy kinship was

being nixed. It’s a cross in the box, but no one tells us what the question is.

 

Yogh: that Saxon letter, never travelled, still leaves its guttural trace on our Y, a

shadow on each clumsy impulse towards Yes and You.

 

Zero, now, and zenith… Zodiac. I could go on. Wherever did you lay your hands

on words like these, their smell of spice route, alcázar, bazaar?

Guest Post, Robert Detman: The Real Risk is Writing

Robert Detman bio photoWriting anything worthwhile is an invitation to risk. Besides being largely subjective, risk is many faceted. Risk may be taking on the mantle of a writer, and foregoing a stable career. It can also be thought of as the effort you take to draw a reader in, or it may be what you are willing to do to your characters. Risk can also mean stretching oneself and tackling unfamiliar, outright uncomfortable, genres. But are any of these really risking all that much?

In his introduction to The Best American Essays 2016, guest editor and inveterate birder Jonathan Franzen explains how the writers in the collection have risked in their essays, and that this became the basis for his selection. Franzen writes: “[…] The risk I feel most grateful to a writer for taking: shame. As Arthur Miller once said, ‘The best work that anybody ever writes is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.’ […] Your material feels too hot, too shameful, to even think about? Therefore you must write about it.” Risk is fundamental to the writing process.

The writer faces potential humiliation for putting their thought into words. I occasionally feel a jolt of anxiety when I think too deeply about what thoughts I’ve put into words, though over time I’ve developed a thick skin. Once I reveal myself on the page, I try to move on. I sometimes confront the anguish of letting work get published and then finding typos, but I’m more likely to embarrass myself by failing to catch a clunker of a sentence, and then hope it goes unnoticed. I am always grateful to editors who ask about my intent before committing my words to print.

A rush to publish has probably caused its share of shame for writers. The writer never knows how her work is going to be received, and this is always the hump to overcome in submitting work. A lot of writers probably see writing in general as risky–which might explain why many don’t write beyond the comfort of a familiar genre. Some writers won’t send their work out to the world, and though fear of rejection is the typical reason, it may be that they are afraid that what they’ve written will be misconstrued. Every time I send work out, I wonder, “Will these editors think I’m crazy?”

Writing is a private act that one makes public, which then becomes a transaction with possibly countless unknown readers. Having an opinion and crafting an argument could be seen as hazardous, particularly if you live under a repressive government. But for many of us, it simply means we invoke the ire of those who might disagree with us. The anonymity of the internet’s comment streams seems to have made this possibility rampant; otherwise, it is foolish to be overly concerned with the reactions of trolls. There is the danger of alienating someone by writing about them in a memoir, and revealing their secrets. And there is the possibility of offending someone by your subject matter and how you deal with it. This last item is a risk that the writer takes every day.

Recently, there has been a call for “trigger warnings” on some works of literature at college campuses, to warn unsuspecting readers of a potential post-traumatic stress disorder reaction. Seeing how literature has been around for hundreds of years without the equivalent of an FDA label, this notion of endangerment seems oddly concocted out of a hyper-aware desire to not offend. This political correctness on steroids subtly wants to imply that writing about an event is akin to a writer perpetrating it.

A misconception about writing–often by those who aren’t writers–is that the writer exposes herself with every utterance, revealing her darkest secrets. But rarely does this occur. On the other hand, many of the essays in the Best Of American Essays 2016 have the feel of voyeuristic confessions. One essayist, Katherine E. Standefer, in the essay, “In Praise of Contempt,” writes of sexual emancipation at the hands of a man she does not like. Laura Kipnis, in “Sexual Paranoia”, details her attempts to challenge college campus harassment policies. In Richard M. Lange’s “Of Human Carnage,” the writer explores his witnessing a suicide, and an unwillingness to become further involved in the investigation. Many of the essays have clever shock value. Still, having written, published and had their work selected for the Best Of American Essays, I wonder if these writers believe they have risked in the way Franzen sees it. Perhaps our sense of risk lessens in proportion to the publicity of our work.

Writing about an event in my past, I could put someone I once knew in a compromising situation, by naming them in relation to this event. This person, I could argue, might deserve the attention I give them; on the other hand, is it really my right to expose someone, even if I think they deserve it?

I recently wrote a memoir about a period in college when I experienced a harrowing bout of depression. I initially felt uneasy submitting this to journals, but perhaps my piece might offer solace to someone who has gone through something similar (though maybe it would only trigger PTSD). Time and distance from the material made it easier to write the essay, but I had to consider repercussions. Though I altered names to avoid implicating some acquaintances, the story is about my own battle, and I can bear whatever outcome it entails. Writing this piece was oddly cathartic, by the way–the thrill of the risk?–though it might have been less problematic to write it as fiction.

One person’s risk is another’s voyeurism, particularly if one seeks the attention. But to be a writer is to demand attention, and writing about oneself puts the writer in welcome company. Even at a reading where the audience laughs at an awkward passage possibly not intended for a laugh, at least the writer was heard (in lieu of being read). For the most part, the writing community is supportive–after all, we’ve all risked attempting to be writers.

Whatever writing project you take on, it is really only yourself you are imperiling, and at that, you may be the only one who perceives the risk. Maybe the most valid claim is that, if you believe your writing is taking a risk, then it probably is. Ultimately, taking a risk in writing is what makes it worth the effort.

Guest Post, Renee Nicholson: Infused

Creative Writing in a Chemotherapy Infusion Center

Bio photo of Renee NicholsonIf it’s Wednesday, you won’t find me in my office, not at my desk at home nor the one at work. You won’t find me at the quirky Blue Moose Café, or The Grind just off campus, indulging in reading and writing with a healthy dose of caffeine. You won’t find me in the Robinson Reading Room of the Wise Library at West Virginia University. Instead, you might find me riding the Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, a monorail that connects the various WVU campuses around Morgantown, traveling from downtown to the Health Science Center. When the doors open at the depot, you might find me climbing stairs and walking across the parking lot towards the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Institute, making my way to the second floor of the building, to the chemotherapy infusion center. It’s here that I spend Wednesdays, working with patients with cancer, although I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I’m a creative writer. Instead of taking a patient’s vitals, I’m there to take his or her story.

The chemotherapy infusion center is a large box; the outside of the box is lined with cubbies, with three walls and a curtain that slides across for some additional privacy. The box’s center contains nurses stations, computers that can be wheeled around to cubbies, The kind of instruments and gear you’d expect to see in a bustling clinic. When I arrive I check in with the charge nurse. She’ll direct me to patients who I might have deliveries for—deliveries not of flowers or lunch but of stories—and or direct me to new patients to work with. New patients, new stories.

In October 2015, I met with Dr. Carl Grey. Carl, a young doctor, has a compact, athletic build, blonde hair, thick glasses and a shy smile. He married a woman I knew from grad school who runs the literary imprint of the WVU Press. In my mind, this makes them a power couple. Carl had a clever idea—that patients would be more open to tough conversations with their physicians if those patients had reflected on their lives and values first, and doctors could know those lives and values through expressive writing. But he wasn’t sure how to get started.

I’d worked with a dying man, about a year before, helping him craft a memoir. During this time I learned about narrative medicine, and attended workshops run by Rita Charon, MD, PhD. I like to call her St. Rita, because I find her work a miracle. St. Rita believes stories matter, and that the care of sick unfolds in stories. She believes that through these stories we bear witness to lives, and through writing and reading we join in attention, representation and affiliation in ways that make order from chaos. Through my work writing with patients with cancer, I find my view in line with hers. In the chemotherapy infusion center, I get some of those stories, the stories of the patients. I don’t ask about their cancer explicitly, but of course the patients can talk about that if they want. In West Virginia, where I live and work, patients like to talk about work, food, and family. I can’t tell you how many stories include parts of recipes and the food eaten at family events—from barbecue to soup beans, fried chicken to Hawaiian meatballs. Gardens, too. Tomatoes, squash, beans, lettuce, you name it. In West Virginia, telling a good story is considered an art of its own.

My storytelling patients range from late teens to over 80 years old. They are all receiving chemotherapy for some kind of cancer, some in early stage, others progressed. Not all, but most are Appalachian, many natives of West Virginia who still live here.

Part of the reason I’ve talked in summary about the patient stories is that, under our project, they’re protected by HIPAA. That allows the patient to be in control of their story. We do survey them to see where they end up. Most are shared with family members and friends.

To get a patient story, I sit with each, working through a release form and some surveys. One survey collects quality of life information and another collects demographic data. Both will be logged in a secure database so we can analyze the results later. We have a study group and a control group. The study group begins the storytelling immediately, while control group does the story portion at a later date. I’d never thought of writing in these terms before, and it’s interesting learning this world of research. I go through guided questions to get at stories and while I do this I record the conversation. Later, this recording is worked up into a transcript, and from that transcript I work on a first-person account. When I have the story ready, I bring it to the patient in a crisp blue folder. Patients read through and can make any edits they need or want to make. When their story is finished, it’s theirs to keep and share. Most of the patients I work with have never thought to write anything down about their lives, and when I bring their stories, they get excited to read them. One patient, having a tough day in the clinic, actually went from slumped and ashen looking to sitting up, with brightness in his eyes. Carl has often said the stories turned out more beautifully that he imagined. We do file a copy for the study, and he reads every one.

Carl and I worked for about six months on grants to help make this project a reality. There have been plenty of supporters, and just as many naysayers. We forged on through the conviction of our belief and a lot of long arduous days writing and revising grant proposals. It pays off: of the first group of patients we’ve worked with, about 20% have been referred for symptom management or participated in Advance Care Planning because of the story project. Advance Care Planning is a set of directives patients create so that their wishes for their care are carried out if they are unable to speak for themselves. It shows one way the arts can have a palpable affect in a life, and how humanities and STEM are better together than in competition. The stories actually lead to improved care.

I like to think I might help change health care for the better. I am a rheumatoid arthritis patient, a condition that cut short my progress as a ballet dancer. Writing became a way to deal with that loss, and to forge a new identity. My younger brother is a cancer patient. Diagnosed young, cancer wasn’t just a shock to him but our whole family. Writing has helped me be a better caregiver and sister to him. My brother shares in the excitement about the ways in which writing life stories might better the relationship between doctors and patients.

Our writing in the cancer institute is a two-year pilot project. I don’t know what will come at the end of that time. I hope I’ll be able to do more work like the writing I do with patients with cancer. I feel touched, honored, and blessed to work with them. Most of all, I feel humbled. I find myself the caretaker of stories, and it’s an important job.

Because of this project, a group of patients with cancer will have a part of their life on the page. What I wish and hope is that these stories are meaningful artifacts for these patients and their families. For my share, the process of making the stories creates meaning for me, and buoys my faith in all the good things that writing can do. I’ve been asked if I get depressed going to work in the infusion center, but truth told, Wednesdays are the best day of my week. I know patients don’t wish to be in the infusion center. Maybe the making of these stories makes their time in the infusion center a little bit better.

My work infuses me with hope, spreading through me as if through an IV. A great hope is that more creative writers might have opportunities to do this kind of work. There are many programs people can attend—from the workshops and Masters program at Columbia University, under St. Rita, to more humble workshops, like the one I’m adding to the annual West Virginia Writers’ Workshop. Learning about how others write with patients can lead to new projects and initiatives. I recently learned about the Art for Healing at Yale New Haven Hospital’s Children’s, a program that integrates many art forms in support of healing. There are many, many more. We need to harness this collective power of art and healing. Writing can be a way to personal fulfillment, but writing can also be in service to others. This is one small way. If we have enough small ways, we have something big, changing way we live in the world, word by word, story by story. If we can do it in the heart of Appalachia, where, it seems, nothing comes easy, then I think we can spread it to all the places where people look for care. St. Rita says, “Stories matter.” Believe her.