Guest Post, Hannah Lee Jones: Poet Expend Yourself

guest postPoet Expend Yourself 

Several years ago, I was a beginning poet determined to learn the craft of poetry without the rigaramole and expense of earning an MFA. Inspired by my friend Rebecca Wallwork’s model—interviewing accomplished writers to get at the gems of their craft, which she’d then share on her blog, The MFA Project—I launched my own blog, Primal School, where I would do something similar with poets.

What I knew then was that I wanted to connect with and learn from other writers. I was prepared to give myself over to everything the art and craft of poetry would demand of me. I wasn’t as prepared to run into my own resistance to everything else the poetry universe demands of its artists.

With the blog my project began easily enough, beginning with questions for the poets I interviewed: How did you come to write this poem? What did you mean by this particular line? Tell us about your revision process.  As I mined for the poets’ techniques and sources of inspiration and highlighted their work on the site, I got to know the people behind the poems. Relationships blossomed. Poets expressed their appreciation for the blog, for the attention and care being given to their work. In a few cases I even helped boost poets who were just starting their careers and whose credibility would be supported by an interview feature. As young as Primal School was, others had even begun sending their students to the site as a resource.

In the winter of 2017 I began a seasonal stint as an intern at Copper Canyon Press in what was then my backyard of the Pacific Northwest. I regarded this experience as another brick in the growing poetic education that was my self-created MFA. In a drafty building in the middle of Fort Warden State Park I made copies, filled book orders, and read the manuscript submissions that came in. In retrospect what was fascinating and almost funny about this period was how quickly my perceived status in the poetry world grew in a manner which had absolutely nothing to do with anything I’d written or actually done. I watched with fascination the god-like projections poets would lavish on Copper Canyon editors in spaces like AWP, some of which inevitably spilled over onto staff and interns including me. I noticed my ego eating it up. I also observed that something in me had developed an allergy to a disjunction I was seeing — between the artifact that is a poem and the life that is its habitat; between poet and other; between poet and the world. It was around this time that my writing dried up, and with it my personal life and the structures in my world which I had come to regard as given.

The exact source of this disruption is difficult to name. But I suspect that the seeds for it were planted during a trip to South Carolina for a writing residency in late fall of 2016. The election of our new president was around the corner; the lefties who were my peers at the residency were not the least bit concerned that this would be the outcome. I wasn’t so sure. For reasons of curiosity and cultural immersion I formed a deep relationship with a Trump supporter who had been kind to me, and as I got to know him, I understood instinctively that his stories were the life which had been missing from my experience. Life to me could no longer consist only of reclining on my chaise lounge with a volume of Tranströmer poems, so far removed from a world coming undone with its poverty, grief, abuses and addictions. I still wanted my poems, but their fuel source was out.

For the grand embrace of the All that is America, the poet we love returning to time and time again (of course) is Walt Whitman. Revisiting his “Song of Myself,” I detect an inspirational whiff of the thing that was missing and that I’d left behind when I committed my life to poetry:

I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes and mauls, of the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

When the calling came for the open road I knew I had to respond, which I eventually I did. My writing naturally was reignited.

Gary Dop gave a memorable interview on Primal School in which he advocated for poetry as one of the great healing agents in a culture which has lost its spiritual center. I think it’s worthwhile to examine the question of whether the literary community as a function of this wider culture has also strayed from its center — whether that’s in the way we write (towards a style or objective rather than our deepest selves); or in any number of paths we walk unquestioningly (first you publish poems in journals, then they win prizes, then those poems become a book, then the books win you more prizes, and you get to repeat the cycle ad nauseam till the end of your career); to our relentless concern for how others react or what others are thinking or doing, whether that’s in the reviews we write or how we go about sharing our work (we give readings, of course). I see nothing wrong with any of these things on their own; it’s the blind adherence to them as inevitable steps forward in the career every writer that I’ve begun to question.

As an experiment in confronting these time-worn paths and really challenging whether they are for me, I recently took a break from submitting to journals and have been giving my poems and other writing away on social media. I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this. The recent critiques and discussions around “Instapoets” are compelling for the questions they raise: What is “accessible”? Who gets to say what’s good, or what poetry even is? Why is it seen as a waste of a good poem for an author to post it to a social media platform right away (which constitutes publication) instead of submitting it for the formal validation of appearing first in a journal? Bob Dylan’s Nobel win, along similar lines, got me thinking about poetry as a wider arena that in a more inclusive world would encompass songwriters and spoken-word artists and others like them (I’m thinking of people like Gregory Alan Isakov, Cleo Wade and Andrea Gibson). As artists they are all masters of the creative giveaway, a concept worth revisiting in Whitman’s later lines:

What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever.

The older I get the more I believe that to expend oneself creatively is an act of communion that burgeons out beyond the individual into something that Gregory Orr describes as “the Beloved that is the world.” Recently I had an exchange with a poet who remarked quite cavalierly that he’d never understood poetry as needing a purpose that was rooted in anything that wasn’t the self. I disagree with him. Poetry demands that the self come to fruition and nothing less. But I think the self is just a conduit for the transmission; the real reason we write is to connect with the Other in as many ways as our tools will allow us. In a world steeped in suffering such as ours is in these times, the reason we write is because of our love and our pain, which are shared; our desire to sustain our belief in a world where goodness and mercy and mutuality have not been exterminated.

I am grateful for and continue to hold in highest respect the institutions and individuals who train our poets, who publish their books, who promote their careers. Without them I wouldn’t still be writing poems. I’ll be culling from their wisdom and ideas as I find my own path forward. But I also care about whether we are connecting to the full with the world around us; whether we are honoring our contract with life by saying yes to our deepest and most colorful possible participation in the universe through everything we create. That would be something worth giving my life over to.

Guest Post, Caleb Nelson: The Oulipian Strategy

guest post, Caleb NelsonTHE OULIPIAN STRATEGY

We might think of Ouilpo as the ultimate writing workshop program. Of course, Ouilpo is more than that. The organization has a longevity few literary groups can claim. In the essay “Raymond Queneau and the Early Oulipo,” scholar Warren Motte writes, “Oulipo has certainly shattered the record of longevity for literary groups, leaving Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Lettrism, Situationism, and so forth behind like so many sleek but abashed hares bested by the tortoise.” The constant quasi-religious in-fighting of groups like Lettrism and Surrealism made it almost impossible for the members to remain a unit. For example, André Breton’s excommunications of those like Robert Desnos and Raymond Queneau (Oulipo’s cofounder) seems almost tyrannical in hindsight. Ouilpo somehow avoids this. As Motte describes, “No excommunications here, no ritual immolations, no spectacular au·to-da-fé, no gore-drenched seppukus.” Oulipo achieves this relative peace perhaps out of its very ambitions and aims, its structuring.

Raymond Queneau described Oulipo as “Rats who build the labyrinth from which they try to escape.” In an essay called, “Into the Maze: OUILPO,” scholar Mónica de la Torre argues, “The concerns of the original members of the Oulipo were, at least, two-fold: on the one hand, they wanted to write literature that could not be easily consumed and disposed of, literature that was always in the making… Oulipians also wanted to devise a system to guarantee that writers would not run out of innovative formal possibilities.” There’s a playful paradox at work here. The Oulipian literary model attempts to impose arbitrary constraints on the writing process, and, at the same time, hopes to produce lasting, transformative (non-disposable) works of art, which suggests there’s a useful/latent degree of freedom lurking within such constraint. The idea of not running “out of innovative formal possibilities” might seem sort of old hat in our age of algorithms, but it wasn’t in the 1960s.

Oulipians wanted to maintain a system of procedural innovations for writers, but they also wanted their literature to be transformative. They differed from the Surrealists in the sense that they considered “automatic writing” to be a form of cheating. According to Queneau, in his 1963 essay, “Potential Literature,” he says the Oulipian goal is “To propose new ‘structures’ to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity.” Again, it’s kind of like the ultimate writing workshop formula(s)/exercise(s). Torre explains the exciting, if not obvious, possibilities of such a program, “Thanks to the Oulipo, poets with writers’ block can explore lipograms, perverbs, antonymic translations, homophonic translations, spoonerisms, centos, heterograms, pangrams, and a myriad of other forms instead of agonizing over the blank page.” Oulipo didn’t invent these forms or procedures, but rather, according to Torre, they rescued them from “literary oblivion.”

A writer I love and admire comes out of the Oulipian world, the Italian short story writer Italo Calvino. Calvino has a wonderful collection of short stories called Marcovaldo, which are obviously still worth reading today. In an essay called “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” Calvino describes some foundational Oulipian assumptions. He writes, “primitive oral narratives, like the folk tale that has been handed down almost to the present day, is molded on fixed structures, on, we might almost say, prefabricated elements – elements, however, that allow of an enormous number of combinations.” Here, we see again the Oulipian fascination with a predetermined “labyrinth” as a set of literary possibilities. Calvino goes on. He argues, “Even if the folk imagination is therefore not boundless like the ocean, there is no reason to think of it as being like a water tank of small capacity. On an equal level of civilization, the operation of narrative, like those of mathematics, cannot differ all that much from one people to another, but what can be constructed on the basis of these elementary process can present unlimited combinations, permutations, and transformations.” Combinations. Permutations. Transformations. Calvino, rather brilliantly, outlines the Oulipian strategy. I have to say, this program/project may partially explain Oulipo’s longevity. The possibilities within this mazelike framework are unexpectedly open and endless.

#ArtLitPhx: spark! Mesa’s Festival of Creativity

This year’s Festival of Creativity will feature an exhibition of 16 art cars and motorcycles, multiple hot rods, lowriders, and interactive arts experiences for people of all ages.

Spark! celebrates the imaginative spark in all of us, by showcasing Arizona artists and performers and inviting visitors to explore and enjoy live music, aerial dance performances, hands-on experiences, live art-making, installations, demonstrations, a variety of foods, a beer, wine and cocktail area, and more. Spark! Will take place on March 17 from 12 pm – 11 pm and March 18 from 10 am-5 pm at the Mesa Arts Center (1 E Main St, Mesa, AZ 85201). Admission and parking are free!

 

Authors Talk: Natalie Young

Natalie Young

Today we are pleased to feature author Natalie Young as our Authors Talk series contributor. Natalie begins by reading “Notes on Earth Life” before explaining how the poem is part of a larger series about a human woman, an alien, and a monster. She shares that her “goal is to combine actual history and reality with speculative fiction to explore identity and human absurdities, as well as culture and environment.”

Natalie also explains how her manuscript attempts to “show a different perspective of things our culture does that we tend to accept as normal, but when seen from fresh eyes can be peculiar.” She reveals that using the voice of an alien helped her achieve this because putting on a mask adds distance. Natalie also delves into her inspiration and the process of choosing what topics to include in her poem.

You can access her poem, “Notes on Earth Life,” in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Authors Talk: Geeta Kothari

Geeta KothariToday we are pleased to feature author Geeta Kothari as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, Geeta discusses the power of prompts and reveals why constraints and limitations can be helpful in writing.

In particular, Geeta focuses on the phrase “freedom can hinder creativity.” She also discusses Scott Kaufman’s review of Patricia Stokes’ Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of BreakthroughJeff Oaks’ “An Alphabet of Escapes,” and Brenda Miller’s The Pen and the Bell to make her case for the use of prompts.

Geeta then goes into more detail about her own experience with prompts, specifically with her story “Border Crossing.” She leaves the listener with one last tidbit of wisdom: “not everything one writes is worth sharing or even keeping, but…any writing is better than none at all.”

You can read Geeta’s piece, “Listen,” in Issue 11 of Superstition Review. You can also purchase her new collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, here.

Guest Post, Dixie Salazar: Dippity Don’t

Dixie Salazar picture

        “Imagination is More Important than Knowledge”   Albert Einstein

Growing up, I always felt different. Of course I struggled with this, trying desperately to fit in, reading in the dark, trying to strain my eyes so I might need glasses because one of the “popular girls” wore them and I thought they would give me access to her status. When the surfer girl look came along, I was again, out of sync, with a mass of kinky/curly hair that only went straight when I set it on huge orange juice cans slathered with Dippity Do, even attempting to sleep on this torture contraption, so I’d be acceptably straightened for school the next day, only to have my smooth cap of hair spring back into a froth of frizz as soon as the morning fog hit. Next came ironing—my hair, that is. I wanted that parted in the middle, straight down the sides Cher look, with a long, silky rope of hair that swung down to my waist. But I gave this up after singeing the side of my face, not the in look I was going for.

I’ve now made peace with my hair; in fact, I celebrate my hair, along with all the other differences that plagued me growing up. It turns out they are all the best things about me and they help me to appreciate and participate in the arts. So here’s my rant against uniformity, and I don’t think it’s overstating the fact to say that uniformity is a danger facing our entire country. Just look at the current state of national politics.

 

Rant #1 Uniforms: Parents and teachers love them, but aren’t they the first step toward cookie cutter soldiers, mass-produced to join the ranks of the corporate/military assembly line? I don’t know how I would have made it through school or my first mind-numbing job without the crutch of daydreaming my next day’s wardrobe. I loved putting together unique colors and styles and being creative with fashion. I still do. And unlike teenagers and gang bangers, I don’t want to look like everyone else.

Rant #2 Paint Nights: Where everyone pays a fee to put on a smock and follow a stroke by stroke demo from a so called artist, to supposedly unlock their hidden talents. And they each go home with an almost exact replica of the leader’s painting, and they are all the same and they are all happy and brag the next day about discovering the artist lying dormant within them for so long. Please! All they unlocked was the hidden copyist lurking inside. This is just wrong…on so many levels it would take several more blog posts and a lot more ranting to deconstruct.

Rant #3 MFA poetry products: O.K. This one may make me unpopular, but I can’t be the only one who feels this way. I’m talking about MFA produced/work-shopped poetry.  I swear that it has a smell (not fragrant). Three lines into reading one of these poems, my nose is twitching and my eyes begin to glaze over. It’s obvious the writer has mastered quite well the template for pleasing his/her professors. Granted, there may be imagination at work at times and even adept writing, but it remains static within the normalizing template. They were very smart, industrious students and they’ll become smart, industrious teachers and editors who’ll direct the next generation down the same rutted path of boring mediocrity. And we now have a tautology, a closed self-perpetuating system as well as a love fest. The students give their professors glowing evaluations so they can keep their jobs and the professors in return give the students glowing recommendations so they too can get jobs and …and they publish each other and read to and applaud each other. And most people who don’t understand (read) poetry accept it and go away reinforced in the fear that they just don’t get it.

 

Granted, the hot mess that is current politics won’t be easily solved by eliminating uniforms, paint nights, and MFA poetry, but unless we change our intrinsic value system and promote creative individualism and critical thinking over the mass consumption of acceptable, locked in place ideas, we are doomed to be ruled by those who would have us all look, think, talk, dress, act and vote alike.

One of the side effects of creativity is empathy. It’s impossible to relate to someone who is different from you if you can’t begin to imagine their situation or their plight as one you might experience yourself. Nurturing imagination in children is a crucial step toward creating a world where we value differentness and otherness. Walt Whitman said, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person.”

And finally, in the words of Alice Walker, “This is a wonderful planet and it is being destroyed by people who have too much money and power and no empathy.” I would just add that it’s being destroyed by people who have no imagination.

Intern Post, Briauna Kittle: How the Writer Got Her Start: A Look at the Art of Creation

Humans have always been obsessed with how things came to be. Originally, this started with existence, how humans arrived on Earth, how our planet was formed, what caused the lights in the sky; once those topics were milked for all they were worth, these stories narrowed down: how the rhino got its skin in the classic porquoi tale best told by Rudyard Kipling, how narcissism created the echo and reflection from the Greek myth, or why male genitalia looks the way it does as given in the Winnebago Trickster Cycle from the Winnebago Native American oral tradition. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how the same stories are told in a multitude of ways. This could be attributed to use of oral tradition, the passing down of stories through voice, carrying through different narrators with different styles of speaking and different interpretations of the same events. In this way, the story is always changing and refining through a never-ending cycle of editors in order to become the tales we know today.

woodcut of elephant getting its trunk

A woodcut by Rudyard Kipling showing how the elephant got its trunk for his book of porquoi tales, Just So Stories.

There’s something satisfying about creation, too, like scratching an itch you didn’t even know existed. The act of creation through writing, art, music, and crafts is highly valued, even though nobody wants to do it. Everyone dreams of writing a novel but taking on writing as a profession is still generally met with hesitance (“Creative writing? What do you plan to do with that, teach?”). However, in a more visual sense, such as works-in-progress videos by various artists or with crafts like crocheting or knitting, people are hypnotized. I find there’s nothing more calming than watching someone make a watercolor painting, and when the work is finished, I want to find the artist and thank them for allowing me to watch. When I crochet in public, I’m always greeted with a “What are you knitting?” (I’ve given up correcting them) followed by the person watching me work as I wrap the yarn around the hook and pull it through the loops.

The downside to creating is, of course, dealing with doubt. I don’t think anybody in creation stories ever doubted their actions, but being in the arts requires juggling doubt and dancing with failure. One of the ways I personally deal with this is by writing my own creation stories. I’ve found it kick-starts my imagination and returns me to the mindset of seven-year-old me who loved to write how things came to be, to the point of writing a chapter book about star formation. Creativity is a must, too. Why do snails have shells? Well, obviously, a snail started out as a slug and decided it wanted to become strong, like the ant, so it found a shell to live in and now carries its own house on its back as a strength building exercise. It’s unscientific but gives us a new way of looking at the world which is exactly what literature and the arts aim to do: show new perspectives so that we may live without hurting others. Bonding through any form of creation, especially through storytelling, gives us the chance to understand something new, both in intellectual and empathetic standpoints. Even if your next work doesn’t make you the next Charles Dickens, it’s still creation and has the possibility to change someone’s viewpoint. Even if it’s not something you want published, tell the story to a few friends and tell them to pass it on to someone else; in a few generations, you’ll have a masterpiece.