My first full-length collection Submerged (forthcoming, ELJ Editions, 2018), came about from a nasty case of writers block and meeting the right reader at the right time. Of course I had the urge to write, I just had nothing to write about. I would sit at my computer and think of nothing. For hours and days. Everyone runs into this, but I didn’t expect my writers block to turn into something publishable, let alone a book, to say nothing of a book about a single, unified idea: the coming water.
At first I came up with a simple exercise: I would just type for as long as I could type. Nonsense or whatever, if it came out of my fingertips it went down on paper. I tried to type at least one full page a day – no breaks, no punctuation, just a block of text. The next day I’d start from where I left off. After a full month of doing this I had 40 pages of block text, most of it incomprehensible. Then I started digging. I went line by line looking for good ideas. I would look for good opening lines and good closing lines, and for any fully-formed ideas. If a line was horrendous I would leave it and just move on to the next for fear of erasing anything, even a bad line, which might find itself useful later on. This actually took a good two months or so, and eventually I began to see certain patterns. Water, for one, popped up everywhere. I had been having dreams of water frequently.
When I was young, my family and I would often vacation at the Jersey shore, staying at a bungalow right on the boardwalk with an uninterrupted view of the ocean. I would have nightmares of the ocean pouring in over the beach and sweeping us all out to sea. It was horrible. But I found those dreams starting to creep into the text. I began to cut away everything that wasn’t water related. The text was beginning to take a more definitive shape, with everything relating to the water and these dreams I had been having about it. Individual poems began to come into a clear focus. And then hurricane Sandy hit.
Like many, I suffered from losing many possessions to the storm, but I survived without any physical harm. The mental harm though, was great. As I worked on this massive chunk of text I began to add to the parts about water with events that happened during Sandy. I didn’t start out to write a series of poems about a hurricane, but it all fit together so well, like a puzzle, that I had to do it. It was almost as if the writing about the water was a kind of premonition.
Eventually I whittled the original hunk of text, along with the additions of the Sandy-related pieces, to stand-alone poems, close to 80 pages worth. Then I re-read them again and finally selected 40 poems that felt coherent and related to each other and retained the feel of what I wanted to do but still could stand on their own. I was quite happy with them, but it wasn’t “book-length” and I was pretty sure I had dried the well while writing it. I put it away in the spring and that summer packed my bags for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
At Bread Loaf I had the good fortune to meet some amazing people, including my workshop leaders Tom Sleigh and Brian Russell. Tom and Brian were the first readers of this new work I had been working on for over a year by this point. I took their suggestions seriously, especially Tom’s idea to include some prose sections, much like William Carlos Williams had done with Paterson. Having been born in Paterson, I thought that this was the greatest idea that ever came to be. I read a slew of books Brian recommended and took Tom’s advice to start writing prose pieces that aligned with the theme of the rest of the poems. It only took a good year and close readings by my friends Anna Guzon and Brian Simoneau to get the whole order and pacing of the manuscript right. But what I ended up with was a full manuscript that looked and felt right to me, and thankfully that sentiment was shared by Ariana D. Den Bleyker and the good people at ELJ Editions, who picked it up during their annual open reading period.
What had started out innocently enough as a little writer’s block breaking experiment is now forthcoming in early 2018 as a book titled Submerged. I hope my next bout of writer’s block works out as well.
From the Greek word meaning one who knows,
it’s what we call the center of the sundial
whose understanding comes to us in shadows
that are its voice, and ours, the saint of all
who speak and can’t quite say what they are meaning.
How do they know, you ask, they who stand
inside their bodies, by their words, by things
that must be larger than the shape they’re in.
On Sunday, September 20 (2015), there’s going to be another election in Greece. We just had an election this year, in January, one that had felt hopeful and brought in Alexis Tspiras’s SYRIZA party. There had been euphoria for the anti-austerity changes it promised. Less than 6 months later, SYRIZA called for a referendum. There had been little headway with the Euro group, who essentially wanted previous (austerity) agreements to continue despite the fact that Greece’s economy had shrunk to a level of no-growth & unemployment had risen again. Youth in the 20-30 age range were the hardest hit; unemployment was at a staggering 51.8% in May 2015. But the Euro group wanted Greece to be an example, too. Even if things were not working out, as Tsipras said in a meeting after he buckled to the Euro group terms, after 61% of the country had voted “No” or “OXI” to the measures (or perhaps because of this), Europe, and particularly Mr. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, refused to cut any of the unsustainable debt. Famous economists the world over were speaking of how much better it would be for Greece to leave – but then what – large ideas have a tendency to have very concrete body counts when they fail.
To be in the midst of “things/that must be larger than the shape they’re in…” is what it often feels like to let the body succumb to a terror and also, a gift; the unknown moment of a certain nakedness, experienced as the wager of crafting a piece of writing, or any art that will transcend the moment in hopes of becoming more than itself, as William Carlos Williams famously expressed it in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” —
I had hoped not to write incessantly about Greece, to speak so constantly and obsessively about the facts of its and others’ failures, but the moments one finds oneself in aren’t always moments of choice. Perhaps Greece, too, didn’t believe it would find itself in such a dire situation. Its leadership certainly was negligent (to be very generous about it), and in Tsipras’s case, dangerously naïve. But the history of humanity is more about its failures, the grand gesture that meets with the flawed reality of fact, than it is about the successes of those ideals. It seems as if every so-called ideal or success has been built, since antiquity, on the backs of those who sacrificed. If not the outright slaves, then those who, willing or not, were sacrificed. The tragic heroes are those with enough compassion and sense of the collective good to take it on themselves to admit to the mistake. There is Oedipus, who swears he will do all it takes to rid his city of the plague only to discover he is the source of the scourge and then, heroically and nobly, puts out his own eyes… Gnomon, “the one who [now] knows” … There are others, too, Antigone, and Hamlet. While mistakes have been made in the building of the Eurozone, no one is sharing the responsibility. It seems easiest (apparently) to scapegoat Greece, to sacrifice it perhaps.
Meanwhile, Syria has exploded and refuges have poured into the country since August. A crippled economy is doing what it can, and Germany is taking in the largest percentage. It (perhaps) is also finding itself in the midst of “things/that must be larger than the shape they’re in…” Maybe they want to show the world they’re not always stingy and vindictive.
But back to Greece. John Psaropoulos has a pre-election piece in Al Jazeera. He calls it “An Election without Aspirations.” It’s poignant to hear the resignation in the words of a woman who forgives Tsipras’s “negotiating stumble with Europe’s debt-collectors, saying ‘it was clear that he wasn’t ready, but there were interests in Greece and abroad that wanted him to fail.’” Kostas Lapavitsas, who is part of the Popular Unity party, says,”Greece has become already a marginal and insignificant country in the monetary union and the EU. Why? Because it’s going nowhere economically. It’s a beggar, fundamentally, and it has terms dictated to it. We want to reverse that.”
In Greek tragedy the reversals and catharsis have come when those in power have their fallibilities revealed, belatedly, sometimes forcefully made to see them. It is already very late and no one has taken the responsibility for seeing… none of the governments, including SYRIZA, have taken the mistakes seriously enough to pay the collective costs. But this includes the Eurozone members too. As Williams has told us:
“Try not to make things personal,” someone said at work, at the beginning of the year’s faculty meeting; it was said with humor, and in light of the political climate. A 23% VAT tax was put on private education. Removed from meat, which went back to being taxed at 13%, and now put on education. It was another absurd mistake. It was going to hurt language schools as well. People could barely afford to pay tuition let alone tuition with an added value tax. Another large chip in the country’s dismantling. Another example of blindness or plain idiocy in the country’s leadership… I want to close my eyes and just smell the tang of the fall sea, let “the center of the sundial” come to me “ in shadows”… it forces its own recognitions. Anna Akhmatova in 1919 in her poem “Why Is This Age Worse…?” (trans. Stanley Kunitz) tells us “In a stupor of grief and dread/have we not fingered the foulest wounds/and left them unhealed by our hands?//”
If you studied poetry in high school, you may have not-so-fond memories of being asked to endlessly dissect Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or perhaps William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Maybe your teacher asked you to extract a poem’s rich symbolism, to explain its meaning, and maybe the consensus you came to was that all poems are really metaphors for Death or Love or Other Big Concepts. (I remember one particularly painful English class where someone drew a box around each stanza of Williams’s wheelbarrow poem and proclaimed that they were, in fact, shaped like wheelbarrows: symbolism of the highest order.)
Maybe, despite the occasionally asinine discussions, this sparked your enduring love for poetry. But did your English teacher ever talk about the importance of poetry? Did he or she ever stand there and reassure you that one day you’d be grateful you read Frost, the way your math teacher insisted that you’d one day thank her for teaching you algebra? It seems to me that the tendency to dismiss poetry as eccentric or irrelevant starts with the way we interact with it in school.
Of course, most of us encounter poetry long before we’re asked to study it. We grow up reading Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss or other rhyming books. We grow up learning chants at summer camp or rhyming our names in an endless loop (Casey, Casey, Bo-Basey, Banana-fana…) or just making up nonsense words to pass the time. We learn to talk and read by fumbling with language, by stretching it to its limit, which is the beginning of poetry. But by the time we get to school, poetry becomes just another topic on the agenda, a vehicle to teach students the definitions of diction and tone and mood.
The way we talk about poetry affects how students will think about its value, and it’s too often discounted. After I taught a week-long poetry camp recently, I handed out an evaluation to the students, who were all around high-school age. Though all of the students said the class helped them improve their creative writing, only some of them said it would also help them be a better writer in school. Having seen firsthand how reading and writing poetry can improve students’ language skills, the disconnect between these two answers is frustrating. But I don’t blame the students; rather, it’s an example of the way poetry is presented in our schools and consistently undervalued in our culture. We don’t talk about it as a useful skill, when in fact it’s an incredibly useful tool to expand vocabulary and introduce students to many different voices and topics. (And for a perspective on the undervaluing of poetry in monetary terms, I recommend Jessica Piazza’s wonderful project and companion blog, Poetry Has Value).
Although teaching is not my profession, I’ve had the chance to teach creative writing to various populations over the last several years, including juvenile delinquents, elementary school students, and adult writers. Still, I don’t claim to be an expert. But the power of language and writing is so clear to me that I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we gave poetry a little more attention in the classroom, if we celebrated its ability to craft something beautiful and startling out of the same words we use every day. In my experience, teachers are often surprised by the ways poetry can be tied into other academic subjects. Plan a lesson on cinquain and students get practice with identifying words as nouns, adjectives, or verbs. Plan a lesson on haiku and students get practice counting syllables. Teach a lesson on William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say” and even third graders can identify the irony. So why don’t we value poetry in the same way we value multiplication tables or the timeline of the Revolutionary War?
Despite the fact that studies have shown many students are reading below grade level, particularly black and Hispanic students, as well as students from low-income backgrounds, teachers often skip over covering poetry completely, especially in the younger grades. It’s often the case that they don’t know enough about poetry to feel comfortable teaching it. (When I’ve visited classrooms to teach, that’s the most common thing I hear.) But it’s also a wider problem that stems from the culture of constant testing in our education system. If no one is demonstrating the value poetry can have for students, teachers are apt to see it as frivolous, especially when there are “important” (and testable) skills like math and science to cover.
True, poetry won’t get a man to the moon. But what good are the equations that get him there if he can’t communicate clearly what he’s seeing once he lands? Poetry can be as important as the five-paragraph essay to the way we teach students about language if we’d only let it. As Williams famously wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
I’m never more aware of myself as a patchwork—a centerless (practically) amalgam—than when I think of teaching. It isn’t just that I say the phrases I heard my teachers say—though I certainly do that. It’s that I often say these phrases in the same ways, using the same inflections, notes of irony, surprise, or suspense. I remember one of my first writing teachers, Alan Michael Parker, talking about how a poet might interpret for the reader. Don’t stick your finger in my pie, he said. I don’t recall when he said it—or if he said it more than once—or even if I understood what he meant. In fact, I’m sure I didn’t understand. But I can hear him saying it . . . can hear the way his voice rose in pitch as he spoke, pretending a little belligerence. My pie. He sounded almost petulant. What pie were we talking about? I wasn’t sure. But it was his.
So how was it, ten years later, teaching my own creative writing class, that the phrase slipped out of me? Was I looking for a way to discuss how drawing conclusions in a poem actually limits a reader’s involvement . . . how it locks a reader out? Trying to help a class see why “telling”actually makes a text less inviting and participatory, even though it might seem to ensure wider understanding? But I didn’t say that. I talked about Alan’s pie. At least I think I did. Afterwards students said that phrase back to me, smiling, enjoying it, enjoying me for it. How had it gotten from him to them, if not through me?
That’s what I mean by centerless amalgam. Ed Hirsch often began classes by asking if we had any hopes, fears, or dreams for the future. Something like that. It was offered playfully, but I have no doubt—he has such a commodious soul—that had I or anyone earnestly offered a “dream for the future,” he’d have made space for it and found its dignity. I suppose he was really just asking if we had questions—but simultaneously letting us know that the floor was open, and that our work together would be informed by a spirit of serious play. Now, I’ve never said that exact phrase. But Ed’s rhythm and the ethos of an open invitation? God yes: it’s come out of my mouth more times than I can count.
Amalgam. Patchwork. There are dozens of examples—and perhaps many others from earlier teachers that I can’t recall.
But I’m not in debt only to my past teachers. I’m also in debt to my past self, past moments of clarity. And this, too, is a kind of copying. At some point, in some class, I uttered the phrase, criticism honestly offered is a form of love. I know that’s a little cheesy, but it expressed something I believed—still believe—that suggestions for emendation offered without ego or agenda are a generous act. I wanted students to think about workshop in more lyrical—even grand terms. So now I say that phrase every semester, usually around the third week when we just start workshop. Is the phrase any less stolen, any less delivered, because I am its originator? At least I think I am its originator. Maybe I’ve just forgotten who said it to me.
So many examples. The screenwriter Dave Kajganich once taught me about narrative structure using William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force.” I’ll never forget Dave’s right there, finger jabbing at the page, pointing to the line “Nothing doing,” which initiates the story’s conflict. I always say, right there, when I teach that story. Or Cynthia MacDonald’s exhortation that I make a poem the best that it can be. I discovered years later how useful that phrase was to encourage revision without taking a stand on a text’s value. Revise this until it’s great? Not so likely. . . . Cynthia’s finesse has become my finesse.
A teacher, then: a concentration of luminous moments—from past teachers, from past selves. How many new such discoveries, conjured on the spot, take place in a classroom? Maybe one or two a term? Fewer as years pass? Perhaps when I think I’ve had a bad day teaching, that assessment should be tempered by the inherent value of what I’m delivering: it may have felt bad to me, but I’m dulled to all those great phrases and formulations I’ve stored up over the years. Maybe their value can’t be completely obscured by clumsy delivery. And maybe on days when I think I’m really good, there should be some tempering, too. After all, much of my work has been integration, not invention.
In one of the bursting moments of Song of Myself, section 24 (“Unscrew the locks from the doors!”), Whitman describes himself as a conduit for speech: “Through me many long dumb voices. . . .” Whitman focuses on those who have been silenced, but the idea resonates more generally—how voices can move in and out of us, how we can speak about the human voice, a single, collective thing. I’d have thought it would be through writing and reading poetry that I’d glimpse that connection. I would have wanted itto be through poetry. But that said, I should probably just be glad that I’ve experience it at all.
Poets, like anyone else, have always had a real life in the real world. Unless they were Homer retelling a traditional story, they have always begun from somewhere within their own experience. (And who knows why Homer chose to tell that particular story?) The focus of most poets, however, has not always been as narrow as it seems to be today.
Ever since Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton and others moved American poetry into the “confessional” mode, our national poetic dialog has become a litany of self-centered anecdotes and monologues: “here’s what I saw” or “such-and-such happened to me.”
Well, speaking of being self-centered, I personally am sick and tired of those often rather limited poems. They remind me of my “friends” who post regularly on Facebook what they ate for breakfast and how many miles they ran.
That’s why I am teaching a new poetry workshop – to prod participants toward some fresher or deeper perspective on their own experience. This workshop is called Child, Shaman, Sage: Widening the I (Eye) of the Poem, and I am proposing three possible directions in which participants might develop their personal poems.
1. One direction is to take on the child’s point of view. Drop the adult knowledge and open the poem to the naive sensorium and limited experience of the young.
2. Another direction is toward magic. Take on the fluid and shape-shifting powers of the shaman.
3. And the third direction is, of course, the sage who can consider the whole world beyond the personal. The sage can help the writer ask, “Where does my little story fit in the wider universe?
Let’s explore some poems whose authors have used these various strategies.
William Carlos Williams is notorious for the faux-naïveté of “This is just to say…”
This is just to say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
While the poem isn’t written to his mother, it’s still a sort of “hey, Ma, I didn’t mean to do it.” And here is another WCW poem which depends on that uncluttered vision of the child:
The Great Figure
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red firetruck
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
To appreciate this little son et lumière show, we need to go back to being about five years old, still excited about having learned our numbers, and extra thrilled that this number is on a fire truck and we can read it. Plus there’s the excitement of being out so
late at night, after it’s already dark. Only this point of view allows us to fully appreciate the big wow.
Another familiar poem, “in just” by e.e. cummings, flirts with the world of the child.
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
and we’re perfectly happy to believe in the goat-footed little lame balloon man? Here cummings yanks us back to when we used to run our friends’ names together in a verbal blur. And then he adds the magic balloon man. But more about magic in a little bit. For now, let’s look at the most adult and philosophical of poets, Wallace Stevens, who in section XI of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” evokes the tale of Cinderella:
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach…
Although the child’s fairytale reference comes up only briefly, it adds to Stevens’ multi-dimensional look at multi-dimensionality.
Our final “child” in this discussion is John Ashbery who has always liked to play with words and ideas. His poem “What Is Written” follows a runaway train of thought worthy of the young. What happens when a bird steals a spool of thread?
Why is that bird ignoring us,
pausing in mid-flight to take another direction?
Is it a feeling of guilt about the spool
it dropped on the bank of a stream
into which it eventually rolled? Dark spool,
moving oceanward now – what other fate could have been yours?
You could have lived in a drawer
for many years, imprisoned, a ward of the state. Now you are free
to call the shots pretty much as they come.
Poor, bald thing.
Ashbery’s ability to speak to a spool and imagine its life in a drawer makes a good transition into my second route to enlarging poems, the technique I’m calling shamanic magic. I’m not talking about South American magic realism, but about the ability to leap boundaries into the impossible – and surely it’s coincidence rather than magic that two of my three examples are named Hughes. One of them, Langston Hughes, in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” claims the ability to have lived in multiple times and places:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I build my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
Before humans even existed, the speaker knew rivers, and he has lived through the earliest civilizations into the history of the United States. It is by these powerful experiences that he can claim, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
As Langston Hughes crosses time barriers, Ted Hughes is known for crossing the barriers of species. Instead of looking at crows, let’s look at a semi-human figure, the traditional wild man of the woods, or, as Hughes uses the old word, the “Wodwo.”
What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water…
…Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own?
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking
When I first read this poem, not knowing what a wodwo was, I thought Hughes might be transforming himself into a dog. His act of imagination becomes bigger when he is that less familiar creature. (Does being a wild man explain the non-standard punctuation?).
We find another kind of magic in “Hymn” by contemporary Oregon poet Ed Skoog:
My brother is pulling
down the shade
of his detective agency’s
office window. My
brother is locking
the deer in the zoo.
searches his armor
for the golden key.
My brother steps inside
his apartment hidden
in a portside alley
just as a tank rolls by.
Tanks are quieter
than you’d think.
I have so many
brothers, I don’t
know who isn’t
among their numbers.
Every man and woman
who has repaired
a shoe is my brother.
that has apparition
above ground is
my brother. Invis-
ibility is also.
I have omitted several of Skoog’s made-up brothers and also the figurative sisters, but with or without them, you can see this is not a factual poem. In all these poems of impossibility, the world becomes richer and more amazing than it was before we knew the poems.
Finally we come to the sage who offers us the larger context of experience as well as the experience of a larger context.
Consider this tiny poem by little-known poet named Chase Fire. (Isn’t that a wonderful name?)
The Depth of the Galaxy
in a starlit creek…
the depth of the galaxy
around my ankles
A similar manipulation of context is used by Edward Hirsch in “The Widening Sky”:
I am so small walking on the beach
at night under the widening sky.
I am disappearing so far into the dark
I have vanished from sight.
I am a tiny seashell
that has secretly drifted ashore
and carries the sound of the ocean
surging through its body.
I am so small now no one can see me.
How can I be filled with such a vast love?
Just as these poets play with size, a “sage” poet can also play with time. That’s what
A.E. Housman does in “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble” where he thinks back to a Roman soldier standing cold guard in Britain.
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ‘twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
And then there are some amazing pieces like “Leda and the Swan” by William Butler Yeats where the poet is the child, the shaman, and the sage all at once.
“Her thighs caressed/By the dark webs” is the young girl simply seeing what is and not knowing enough to call it rape; “her nape caught in his bill” is the transformation to birdhood; and then come the amazing consequences only a sage could see and write:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
We know that Zeus’ orgasm will change the world. Leda will be the mother of both Helen and later Clytemnestra, that Helen will cause the Trojan War, the breaching of the great walls, the final burning of the city. We know Clytemnestra will kill Agamemnon when he finally comes home from Troy. We know that nothing is without consequences.
Needless to say, most of these poems I have quoted would be tough models for anyone but I hope that as my workshop participants revise they can try exploring the concept “child, shaman, sage.” May they find inspiration to stretch their own work beyond the simple report “this personal thing happened to me and here’s how it made me feel.” The English language and the human mind are wider than a Facebook posting.
(This piece was originally delivered as part of the panel “Yoga & the Life of the Writer” at the 2013 AWP Conference)
It was suggested—perhaps in a sly way to urge us to hit that sacred middle-mark of the AWP Panel between 5 and 10 minutes—that each of us contribute testimonials of 7 minutes or so; quote: “one minute for each chakra.” Coming to yoga practice as I have, which is recently and already invested in a practice of poetry, I thought what you might expect: “too bad about the seven chakras, six would have made such a swell entrance to the form of the sestina.”
This is just to say that I am coming to most of the teaching of a yoga practice through my understanding of verse. So that when it is suggested I might visualize a purplish ball of light, it is not at all unlikely I will think of Williams Carlos Williams’ icebox plums, sweet and cold. I don’t see this as a conflict. It is in translation altered but enriched. There are connections; obvious alliances: the way we are encouraged to take our poetry off the page, carry our embodied mindfulness off the mat. An implicit understanding that boundaries blur and that to begin a poem or a session is to begin again living the practice in that strange and arresting world of the moment.
I was once staffing a function at which the general consensus was that the best verse was that which could be recited with military vigor. After hearing C.D. Wright read from her impressionistic, liminal, experiential, imagistic, voice-heavy, Deepstep Come Shining an indignant audience member asked the poet an interesting and entirely impossible question: “So, if it doesn’t have to rhyme, then what is poetry?” I thought her response graceful. Savvy. It was not reactionary against one who wanted parameters by which to appreciate and condemn, but something along the lines of “I don’t pretend to have a definition, but I can tell you what some other people have said about the art of poetry.” She then presented an eclectic array of possibilities about how one—or many—might get at not defining an art. And what is “yoga and the life of the writer” if it doesn’t rhyme? If it is not simply this pose, this form, this collection of stressed and unstressed moments, how can it feed us or be made valuable? I offer seven non-definitions of the connective tissue:
In translation. It begins with breath, with which the history of poetry begins. It is the most basic. It is salvation. Inspiration is not a misnomer. So, thus, as a writer I cast back to that call from an outside source with which to work: my time on the mat is an act not of pure creation, but of translation. Chuparosa: the Spanish for hummingbird. Rose sucker. Does it hum or rose? Yes. The French have a word for the moisture created around inclusions in an omelet. I need that word but know it already in my body. What is found there.
Alice Fulton’s Feeling as a Foreign Language on the table beside my desk. She is gesturing at the content of poetry rather than form alone, that the correct form, rather than being debated for its external merits be the one that allows us to feel something. In a poem. Perhaps elsewhere.
Kathleen Fraser’s Translating the Unspeakable is on the table too. These titles resonate. They are next to each other and close in my mind to this project. And that vibrates. There is field poetics in this book. And in this moment. There is Charles Olson’s “the unit/ the smallest/ there is.” There is the concept that placement in space matters, that proximity matters and the slightest adjustment makes major cognitive shifts possible. I am speaking in analogies. There is the concept that placement in space matters and that the slightest adjustment makes major cognitive shifts possible. Adjust your shoulders, adjust your margins.
I speak to my beginning writing students of the embodied character or moment. I am channeling a bit—something that one of my instructors, Ron Carlson, was wont to say. When students became—and would complain of—(what they viewed as) “mentally exhausted” from the process of creating, Carlson would underline another possible aspect; would emphasize the relation between the actual etymology of “manuscript”—something manual, something built by the sweat of your brow. The connection of your physical body to an abstract concept. I, too, recall Carolyn Forché saying whether you ever go back to the notes you are taking for a poem that the jotting down of them physically, them passing through your body, changes you. It is not merely—and I mean ‘mere’ in the Yeats-ian sense: ‘mere anarchy is loosed’—it is not merely the life of the mind we engage when we write. It is clearly not merely only my hamstrings I go to the mat to limber up.
In a one-of-a-kind erasure book by Mary Ruefle, Now It,there are certain lines of a previous text uncovered or, in light of her technique of obscuring with white-out, left uncovered. One struck me particularly because it included a poetic noun that, like the nightingale, resonates almost prismatically, within poetry: Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking,”Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying,” Robert Hass’ “Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan,” Galway Kinnell’s “Blackberry Eating.” And yet it undid expectation: the un-covered lines were: “looked for blackberries/ else you would never find the strawberries.” A reaching to a known edge and finding something else beyond that is just as sweet, more vibrant: a new place within you, a new access, a greater access-point.
In a sculpture park outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan is a massive work by Mark di Suvero: Scarlatti. It is situated in an open field and it is—to my eye—doing a forward-bend of immense weight and gravity. Its nonfigurative, inhuman sits-bones thrust beautifully back and to a cool sky. But the wind is moving—almost imperceptibly, but perceive it—moving the enormous steel beams that are the childhood slash of stick-figure arms. So there is stillness and balance without rigidity. Make it new.
Finally, a line from Permission, an incredible forthcoming collection of poems by Katie Peterson: “The raven lifts/ like having to is part/ of what it is”
I was gonna write about making stories in second grade with my spelling words. I was gonna write about how my mama, who grew up abjectly poor and who didn’t go to college herself until she was forty-seven, understood so well that she gave me Walt Whitman when I was nine–A child said What is the grass?-– and the collected William Carlos Williams when I was twelve. I was gonna write about loving Wittgenstein, that space between the name and the thing he explores, that space I think we inhabit as artists. The power of story, poetry as prayer, how teaching reminds me every day of how miraculous the language we use to live in this life–I had written 500 words.
Then Boston blew up.
And West, Texas.
I quit watching the news years ago, but I stalked Facebook, texting people I know and love in the Boston area. I heard snippets of the working-class drawls of people on the streets in Texas. And I cried.
One sweet-faced freshman at the small liberal arts college where I teach in Virginia, shifted from foot to foot in my office, saying he had family in Boston, asking if he could keep his phone on vibrate.
Other freshmen–wide-eyed and curious and scared–in my American Lit class the next morning, discussed Whitman’s Song of Myself–”What is removed drops horribly in a pail”–as a manhunt locked my Boston friends in their homes, keeping their children home from school, away from windows and doors.
Shelter in place.
My students asked me Why and I didn’t have an answer. I said, “He’s your age, the one they’re chasing. Can you tell me why?”
They didn’t have an answer either.
What we did have was pain, fear, the shared understanding of how vulnerable we all are. We talked about that vulnerability, and they revealed to me that they, these children who were only six years old when planes hit the Trade Towers, feel that vulnerable, that defenseless, all the time.
One, a girl, generally giggly, who reminds me of a sparrow, bit her bottom lip and, said, “We know how much there is to lose.”
Yes, they do.
They were first-graders, carrying lunchboxes and crayons and Pokemon trading cards, when our military went into Afghanistan They barely remember when we haven’t been at war in the Middle East.
They were in middle school when the economy tanked. They’ve seen their parents lose jobs; they’ve packed up their picture books and soccer gear to move out of their childhood homes as a result of job loss or foreclosure. Some of them have learned what it means to be hungry, to be without heat or healthcare, what it means to make do. And to do without.
I, like lots of other people, have lived or still live in these kinds of truths, but for these kids, this is new.
Many of the kids I teach are from northern Virginia, growing up in the shadow of DC, in those belt-lines of power, in a culture accustomed to not only financial security, but to the security of government work. They are, for the most part, sheltered by their DOD and corporate parents, more so than the kids I taught at a large state school before this. Sending them to our mostly residential university in rural Virginia is, for a lot of them, a continuation of their parents’ desire to protect them.
I’m not judging any of this. It is what it is. But much of the work I do with them, coming from my own poor and rural background, is simply helping them understand, through writing, through literature, that not everyone lives the way they do, in this country, or elsewhere.
I teach as a writer. It’s how I live in the world, and I simply don’t know how to be anything else. I work at a teaching institution; everyone teaches General Education classes, and I love teaching those brand-new-just-out-of-high-school freshmen more than I can say. Even when one of them asks, every semester—
I’m a Bio-PoliSci-Business-Anything-but-English major. What does this class have to do with me?
I tell them, as best I know how, what literature, all art, means to me, and why I think it matters to them.
For me, it is only in literature, in art, that we hear and can intimately know the individual human voice. I tell them that, to my mind, the literature we read belongs much more to them than it does to us, the writers who create it. We, I believe, are reflectors, and in fifty years, the literature created by their peers will reveal their time, their dreams, their fears and values, the hopes they hold close to their hearts. .
Without apology for the tears this discussion always brings, or for what I know many of my own peers will dismiss as sentimental, I tell these young people, that for me the function of all art is to allow us to look across the room at another human being, at each other, and say You are not alone.
We felt alone that day.
As Boston’s police force sought a broken young man their age, and as the death and injury toll rose outside the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, and as the media bombarded the airwaves with conflicting and frightening partial stories, one of my students quietly said, “You know, at first I was kinda pissed at having to read a fifty page poem.” He leaned back, arm thrown over the back of the desk, sprawled in the seat like a young strong animal. Then he smiled. “But, yeah, I really like this Whitman guy.”
I asked, as I do at the beginning of any reading discussion, “So…what struck you? What didn’t you like? What part stayed with you?”
He gave us a page number and we turned to the part he selected, reading it, gratefully, together.
“The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband
sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself….”
I’ve been teaching a class at Columbia which Gary Scheytgart calls Fiction for Dummies but is more accurately a fiction class for poets and creative nonfiction writers who want to steal from the genre. One of these students emailed me with her first story, exclaiming how hard fiction is to write, compared to nonfiction. You have to make everything up!
I have just concluded the opposite. I am writing a biography/memoir about the life of anarchist Modernist Lola Ridge who consorted with the likes of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. You’ve never heard of her, partly because her executor has been promising a biography for the last forty years and is holding the papers, and partly because her work didn’t follow the Eliot and Pound maxims of staying divorced from life and politics.
My publisher suggested a fancy hybrid approach of biography/memoir, not me. Researching and then organizing that research along the lines of creative fiction, that is, with characters, plot, motivation, is a double job to start with. I’m triply challenged when I apply myself to the memoir aspect. Just having lived through events doesn’t give me anything approaching insight. Sure, there’s a nimbus of emotion surrounding the madeleine but where is causality when I need it? I strongly prefer to concoct fiction that slowly reveals itself while I am discovering the details to support it.
My fourth novel Tin God, reissued this April, started from a dream about a conquistador and a “drug situation” maybe my brother was involved in. All I had to do was figure out how to put two completely different stories together. With nonfiction, you have all these footnote-y details lying around everywhere that don’t quite go together. And where are they when you think you’ve got a match? But there is, I admit, big payoff when—voila!—I uncover a piece that illuminates everything, e.g., a letter that says Ridge regretted dropping her son off at an orphanage.
I say: footnotes for fiction! Let’s make those fiction writers cough up their sources, they (and me) who so easily assert that they’re crafting truth out of the dross of imagination. Let’s see the ticket that cop gave you that made your mother so mad you had to write a short story to figure out she was having an affair with him. You know you have it around somewhere.
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