Just last fall, I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with words that came—came for nearly a year, water after a dam breaking, quenching the barren silence I thought would not return. Every time this happens, I think I’m in the clear at last, as if silence is an addiction I’ve finally beaten back.
But once again, days of not writing stretch to weeks, then months. Silence becomes emptiness, and emptiness becomes a sensation that I carry inside me. How does it look, the place where the words are pent? The dam that holds them back, I know its texture and composition—thick, stringy muscle, the kind that starts in the neck and reaches up to the skull. I’ve seen those diagrams in the chiropractor’s office, waiting for the doctor to pull my body from its hunched posture, evidence of years bent over book, desk, notebook, laptop.
Though the dam is muscle, the place where the words stay is smooth and empty, polished bone. Its emptiness is what I carry inside. How can it be both empty and full of all the words that will not come? It is like the skull without a brain inside, a rib cage without a heart. It’s arid as hell. It never lets me forget that it’s a real place.
And where is this place? In the body, without doubt—and not in a single location. It floats effortlessly from head to heart to hand, bumps against the liver and lights, flutters around the reproductive organs, circulates through the blood. I wonder that it doesn’t kill me, this hard marble passing through the tiniest vessels, pinging off the cells. It stops my throat as I am reading, a constriction that I interpret to mean you will never write again.
When I walk in the garden I feel it rolling around inside, growing smoother and harder. I stoop to weed and feel it knock against my heart, knock when I look up and see the neighbor’s scruffy tom pluck a bird right out of the air. I cry out, and the cat startles, drops the bird, leaps into the brush.
I pick the bird out of the grass—a finch—and turn it from side to side. Its black legs like twigs poke from its underbelly. Its head is wet, a red smear that looks like blood but may be feathers. Its heart is pounding. I sit on the step, cupping it in my palm. I think I can do this much, keep it from harm until it dies. It watches me, its eyes black and sharp. After a moment, the lids flutter closed. Its heart slows. The cat comes out of the bushes, flops into the grass, licks his front paws. Five minutes pass, then ten. My husband, who’s been weeding the bed of Casablanca lilies, walks over, looks into my hand, says, “Bird’s a goner, I’m afraid.”
The bird seems both dead and alive. Its stiff legs don’t move, even when I brush them with my finger; immobile are the passerine toes, two forward, one back, an ingenious clamp. Its eyes remain closed. My hand is its bier. But though I wait for it to falter, the rhythm of its heart stays steady as my own pulse. I catch myself wondering how long this is going to take, feeling guilty because this is an amazing moment of communion with nature, etc. and here I am, thinking about what I need to do, what needs to be accomplished before the day is over. I’ve sat beside the dying; I know that ushering someone out of this world is as important and meaningful as ushering someone in. Even a bird deserves that respect.
I scowl at the cat and wonder why my neighbor won’t keep him inside. Sitting idle seems odd. Usually when I’m in the backyard, I’m working—weeding, planting, mowing—or waiting for my two red dogs to finish their business. What’s the point of carving out this green oasis, if one never has time to enjoy it? And will the poor bird’s heart never falter? I look away from the bird, at the honeysuckle arching over the path, fragrant with blossom.
The heart doesn’t falter. One minute I’m sitting on the step with the bird on its back in my hand. The next minute it’s shot into the apple tree over my head, and then airborne, it’s on to the rest of its life.
My car rolls to a stop at the red light. I’m on my way to stake out a position in the carpool line at my daughter’s school. I look to the left, and see a boy on a bicycle, zooming down the sloping sidewalk. It’s February, and he’s wearing a puffy blue parka. A backpack bounces up and down on his back and he’s got a wide grin on his face, and eyes intently fixed on the sidewalk in front of him. There is something about the boy that stirs me suddenly, and I feel overcome with the need to write. Not about him. I am overcome with the urge to dive back into my work-in-progress, and to make some progress, after weeks of uninspired dabbling – you know the kind, opening the document, changing a word here and there, deleting a line, hitting ‘save’. I don’t know why the boy ignites this need to write in me, but he does. My fingers tingle. In the carpool line I lever the driver’s seat back and open up my laptop. I exhale. I start to write. It’s that easy.
It’s not, though. I wish I could say that from that point forward my fingers flew across the keyboard and the words poured forth. Writing isn’t like that. There are so many in-between times; there are moments when you feel mired in the soul-sucking everydayness that is so often life and can’t see the way up over the edge and out of it. Inspiration can be so elusive, so demanding of time and space. The older I get, the less my brain can contain all at once. The older I get, the more I seem to take on, the less time and space there is available to me – for me. The less time I have to create, the more frustrated I grow, the less I feel like who I want to be, really and truly, 24/7: A writer.
February turns into March, which turns into April. Two questions bother me:
How can you call yourself a writer, if you are not writing?
What was it about that boy on the bicycle?
I’m all about self-affirmations lately. Not à la Stuart Smalley, not yet, but the kinds of affirmations that make you accountable to others. It’s May now, and last week, I told someone that I was, first and foremost, a writer. I tend to keep that information bottled up inside, private, the way we keep our political affiliation, or our religion private. I have tried to work on this, because I’ve been a writer for almost my entire life. Own it! I tell myself over and over again, so I do, when I can.
I am a writer, I said out loud.
“Oh?” this person replied, head cocked to one side. “That’s so nice! What are you writing?”
And, just like that she morphed in front of me into the boy on the bicycle. He turned to look at me. What ARE you writing? he seemed to be asking as he whizzed on by, this time in a t-shirt and jeans. And, more importantly, why aren’t you doing it?
Writing is not easy. The mechanics of it might be – the act of stringing together words to form sentences, but wading through the negative noise to get the mechanics to work for you – that’s the daunting part. I’m in that in-between space now. If I stand on my very tippy-toes I can see the edge leading out of this place, but I’m still working out how to reach it. The process of transitioning away from the noise of the semester, and into reclaiming the time and space I need to create, is a hard one for me. I liken it (unoriginally) to peeling off a scab, or (more originally) recovering from jet lag. I have to cut loose all the weighty odds and ends I’ve been carrying with me for months, and re-enter a world where I belong, but which feels unfamiliar at first – all right angles and unusual shadows – until one day everything shifts into place again.
One May five years ago, during this recovering-from-jet-lag, transition-to-writing period, I wrote 20,000 words in just under three weeks – most of them while sitting in the carpool line at my son’s school. That is not my usual writing space, but the ritual of that process became such a part of me that my mind would begin racing almost before I had put the van into ‘park’ and turned the engine off. In the summers, when I am most prolific, my ritual is to get up earlier than my family, make myself a pot of tea, and to sit at my desk in my home office. If I start early enough, I can get in almost four hours of writing time before my family begins to stir. With that first cup of steaming tea poured, I feel the familiar urge to write – to create – take hold of me.
Mired in final exam grading, and assessment report-writing, and used car shopping, I fantasize about going on a writer’s retreat, somewhere remote and extraordinary. It would be just me and endless pots of tea and the words would stream out from my fingertips like sparklers on the 4th of July.
If I can just get to June, I tell myself, I’ll have the time to write.
In the meantime, I block out word count goals in my calendar. 20,000 words by Week 2, 30,000 by Week 3, and so on until I reach a decent goal for a working draft. Word counts are like mile markers, I tell myself out loud while I lace up my sneakers for a run. If I can map them out, I can get there.
Two miles out, two miles back. The landscape is thickening around the edges, settling into early summer at last. A quarter of a mile from home a neighbor crosses the street with his little white dog. I stop to pet her. She scrabbles against my legs, licking and wiggling. Sweat tickles my back. I wish the neighbor a good night and, as I pull away, picking up speed down the hill towards home, something unexpected happens: I feel a shift – something comes loose. In the most marvelous of full-circle ways, the little white dog has made me think about the boy on the bicycle, who has made me realize this: that the most valuable writing, not unlike the most valuable living, takes root in the everydayness — in the midst of the most mundane, in the absolute ordinary.
It occurred to me recently, not for the first time, that my swimming reminds me of my writing process. I’m a lap swimmer in a community pool. I swim very long distances. My pool is not part of a fancy gym. The locker room is way too small. Sometimes it’s as crowded in there as a subway at rush hour. There’s a grungy gang shower too, with cracks in the tile and some broken fixtures. Hot water is more a hope than a reality. You have to bring your own towel to this place and last week someone pried open my combination lock and stole the money from my wallet while I was doing my laps. I was grateful they left the wallet though, and figured maybe they needed the $22 more than I did. Actually, I love this gym and I love the pool, which, unlike the locker room, is clean and well-maintained. The lifeguards are friendly. Now, writing has its challenges too. Sometimes the water isn’t hot and the fixtures are broken. And the most obvious comparison between the two is that lap swimming is this solitary effort, where you literally throw yourself into the deep end and just take off. Most writers understand that part. Personally, I’m not the flashiest swimmer or the fastest. My technique isn’t the prettiest either, but I do keep at it. That’s like my writing. And like writing, the benefits of swimming work best when you stick to a regular schedule or routine. You increase your stamina over time. Writing a short story is like a long swim for me. It’s tough to get started sometimes. You can struggle at first. You flail away. And then you eventually find a rhythm and you pace yourself. You don’t stop. You try not to lose steam before the finish. (If writing a short story is like a long swim for me, then working on my unpublished novel was more like running a marathon at a high altitude – but that’s another topic entirely.) I don’t think of lap swimming as only a metaphor. It has become part of my writing process too. Sometimes a swim will clear my head and get me back into a space where I can work. But I’ve also tackled plot problems, created back stories for characters and tried out dialogue as I thrash around in the pool, sometimes losing count of my laps as a result. I’m grateful for my time in the water and for my time at the computer too, when things come together and I have enough momentum to carry me through. I think my writing and lap swimming have become somewhat linked in my mind, the endurance part anyway, the personal challenge, the dogged persistence. As with anything, it comes down to commitment — that happy dedication to something that will eventually become part of who you really are, at any moment, on any particular day.
“Inspiration comes after writing, not before,” Yakich states in his new book Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide. I stumbled over this for a few moments because traditionally we are made to believe that the formula is a.) become inspired, b.) now write. But really I think Yakich is saying all inspiration can do is make the poem better through the revision process, where the writer can then pull from the various resources given to them. The first time a poem is written needs to be wholly from the inner gut of the writer. I find this to be true in my own writing, a lot of people probably do, even though I hadn’t thought about it before picking up this book. Yakich will tell you the opposite of what everyone else does, making you re-think not only poetry, but also writing and the world of writing in general. It is his honest and “unconventional” advice that make Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide a memorable and valuable experience.
There are a lot of “craft” books on poetry, (Whatever that word craft means? As if writing is equivalent to a macaroni pinwheel or scrapbooking, etc.) most notably The Triggering Town by Victor Hugo or The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach. Unlike many books on writing though, Yakich’s Poetry: A Survivors Guide—I’m so happy it’s a survivor’s guide and not this bougie, talked up craft book that only academic folk can parse out—will fit right into a poet’s life like the first time they read Whitman’s Song of Myself and actually understood it.
Unfortunately, in many books like this, we find the author putting themselves in front of the work. Look at me, look at me! It turns into an ego thing, a mine is bigger than yours. “Critics will try to tell you ranking is for experts and disappointment for amateurs . . .. ” Yakich tears apart those people who make poetry not for everyone, specifically when talking about The Best American Poetry series that is released once a year. “There are usually some very good poems in the collection; 1994 was particularly a fine year. Still, a more accurate title for the series would be something like A Clutch of Unconcatenated Poems That a U.S. Poet Kinda Enjoyed in the Small Hours Before Drifting off to Sleep.”
“There is no accounting for taste. What one reader admires, another disdains… Don’t pretend to love a poem you really find dull. Don’t be afraid of disliking a great poem or poet.”
Whether you are new to poetry or experienced, this book uncovers things about the poem that you did not know or understand or remember. Yakich’s advice and observations on poetry are real, they’re meaningful, they’re not pretentious and they’re for the greater good of poetry and its writers. “Someday, when all your material possessions will seem to have shed their utility and just become obstacles to the toilet, poems will still hold their value.”
Yakich wrote this for his students, I am a student, this is the most genuine book on poetry I have come by. This book tackles every ounce of the poem and the poem in the real world: knowing the poem, reading the poem, writing the poem, publishing the poem, reviewing the poem. It really is a survivor’s guide and all of us poets and poetry readers can get something from it.
Reading this survivor’s guide will make you feel why you fell in love with the poem. Not only will it remind you why you fell in love, Yakich’s smart, playful, humble and sometimes brash words towards the poetry will make you realize (hopefully you already knew) the importance of the art in your life, others, and the social setting.
“Poetry’s irrelevance, therefore, becomes its importance,” he says.
So I’m currently on a mini-book tour of Texas, although I don’t know if “mini” ever applies to much in Texas, since this wee ramble over the interstate prairie includes 3,000-plus miles of driving in 12 days. That’s a lot of hours of sitting behind the steering wheel, staring at the road, driving on mental autopilot, working on my next novel—in my head. As a young writer, just starting out, I used to write every day religiously, believing that constant work is the key to success, which it is. But now I value more the thinking-time: If I know what I want to say, I can usually find the time to sit down and say it. The “constant work” is complex, and involves more than writing that next scene of, say, a 35-year-old woman holding a teenage boy hostage, whom she caught tom-peeping her, and whom she shot. But now she has to dress his wounds, feed and care for him, and decide how to return him to his father, who scares her, who she thinks is abusing the boy. To add to that complexity, I’m currently promoting my novel The Bird Saviors, just out this summer, and have a deadline of November 1 for the final draft of a new book of short stories, which already has a publisher. All that is fine and dandy, but what I really want to do is write the new one, tentatively titled The Lost Person. (That may change. The title, I mean. I tend to come up with a dozen/20 titles before throwing up my hands in despair and choosing Contestant Number One, or whatever sounds good that day. My first title was The Donkey Woman. Then I thought: Hmmm. That may give the wrong impression. And the first words you see on a book shouldn’t give a wrong impression, right?)
When I don’t have the time to sit down and write, it seems I’m often driving. I drive and think, What should happen next? This woman is nicknamed The Tooth Fairy by the boy, because she looks like what he imagines the Tooth Fairy would, if the TF were real. She works at a bar/restaurant, and she hates drinkers and eaters. She constantly sees the big bellies and pink faces of Good Time Charlies, and she’s developed a decidedly sour view of mankind. Should the boy’s father be one of her customers? (Probably.) Should he make a pass at her? (Hmmm. Probably not. But maybe.) What about the boy’s mother? What happens if the father thinks someone else has abducted his son, and is certain he knows the identity of his abductor, but he’s wrong? What would he do? (I suspect this part will end very, very badly.)
What I see on the road often ends up in my fiction: In an early scene of The Bird Saviors, an ornithologist picks up a dead hawk’s body on the roadside (did that). On a recent trip I snapped this photo of what appears to be a unicorn, but what I guess to be a rather unusual white donkey. I’m betting that beast makes a cameo appearance in The Lost Person, or whatever it ends up being called—The Donkey Princess, maybe. Because wherever there’s a unicorn, a princess has to be waiting in the wings.
Matthew Gavin Frank is a contributor for Superstition Review’s Issue 7. In this interview, SR talks to Frank about work and his newest piece, The Morrow Plots.
SR: After so much time spent in the food and wine industry, what inspired you to pursue degrees and careers in writing and poetry?
Matthew Gavin Frank: I loved writing well before I fell into the food and wine industries. I remember—I was about 10—going through my parents’ dresser drawers when they were otherwise occupied. I remember it as a Saturday. My dad was likely working. My mom was likely working-out: one of those Jane Fonda VHS tapes. In one drawer, I found a short essay she wrote about her own father’s death when she was 13. She spent her life teaching grammar—past participles and shit—to 7th graders, but, up until that point, I never knew she wrote. And, she never wrote anything again outside of letters to the editor. So stumbling onto that essay allowed me a richer engagement of my mother as a human being, I think.
Soon after that, I remember (this was 5th grade) collaborating with my friend Ryan Shpritz on a series of gross-out stories. A few years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my family in Chicago, my mom sat us down with these scrapbooks she made when my sister and I were toddlers. In the column that asked for my interests, she wrote, “Ghosts, blood, anything ghoulish.” Fucking blood. According to my own mother, one of my primary interests as a toddler was blood. So my later collaboration with Ryan, on this series of stories called “Death at Dark” (I, II, III, and so on) had its roots in those early interests. Mrs. Buccheim, our teacher—fabulous perm—allowed us to read our work in front of the class each week. She loved that we were writing extracurricularly. Once, in D at D part VI, I think, some poor sap caught his hand in a garbage disposal, and we compared the resulting carnage to a punctured egg yolk. Shannon Elliott, the cheerleader, cried. After that, Mrs. Buccheim, bless her proper heart, put a stop to our public readings. So, I then realized that writing not only had the power to reveal, but the power to get one banned.
This knowledge sort of fed all kinds of ideas about revolt, writerly and otherwise. Soon, I started thinking a lot about food. Growing up in a microwave-and-saturated-fat-centric family, it took me a while realize that the food world was larger than a radiated Lean Cuisine paired with Crystal Light pink lemonade. There was some impetuous revolt growing in me in my late teens in response to the crappy undergraduate meal-plan dinners (if you could call them that) served in Hopkins Hall, where I worked for a while—a very short while—clearing trays and washing dishes. I remember the particular dinner that inspired this culinary rebellion. It was this disaster of Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast. It broke me. I began reading books on food and wine, determined to do better than this, which took a while actually. At some point, I came across an article on Barolo wine and vowed to go to the region where it was made. After a couple days, lazing in the vineyards, eating fresh pasta and white truffles, I vowed to return to live there and, upon returning to the States, trashed my microwave in vulgar ceremony. I thereafter took all sorts of restaurant jobs, and found a common thread: when chefs get together after work for drinks, and one chef asks me what I like to do in my spare time, and I say, “write poetry,” it’s ever a great conversation killer. Eventually, I realized I needed to chat about such things with some like-minded folks.
SR: I have heard some poets say that it is important for young writers to first go out into the world and experience life before writing about it and/or attempting to go into a MFA program. Others insist that the jump straight from undergraduate school to a MFA program is necessary. As someone who left home at age 17, experienced the world young, and returned to academia, what advice would you give to young writers?
MGF: I feel perfectly ill-equipped to give young writers lifestyle advice. There is no prescription for this shit. If you need and want to write, you will need and want to write, whether flipping eggs in an Alaskan diner for a living, or immersing oneself in academia. Folks are always talking about how MFA programs can be ruinous to burgeoning writers, who should first experience the world and gather stories; other folks insist that the training provided by the MFA is not a stylistic evening-out, but is essential to burgeoning writers and that it’s the outside world with its various bankrupt distractions that can be ruinous. So, everything can be ruinous, is the thesis, I think.
I tend to believe that these extremists are giving both the MFA program and the “world-at-large” too much credit. If you want and need to write, I’m not sure either choice has the power to strip that away and ruin you. Everything is situation-specific. The shunning of the academic construct in order to lead a vagabond lifestyle worked for me. That’s what I needed to do. I know incredible writers who never left academia—went straight from undergrad to MFA to PhD to a tenure-track position. That’s what they needed to do. I do think surrendering to whimsy is important, but such whimsy manifests itself in myriad ways for myriad people.
SR: I noticed that comments about your books by poets such as Norman Dubie and Cynthia Hogue are quoted on your website. Did you work with them during your time in the MFA program at ASU and if so how do you feel that they have influenced your writing?
MGF: Yeah, I worked with Norman and Cynthia, also Beckian, Jeannine, Alberto—all of whom were fabulous and influential. I love Norman’s poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, generosity of spirit, and their hilarity. I love watching the master of the dramatic monologue do his thing. I love how some of his poems combine the best of PBS’s Nova with the joy inherent in the telling of a fabulously bad joke. Norman once told me: “Dude, all my poems are jokes,” which is, of course, a joke, I think. This has inspired much of my own work. Wrapping joke in verse is hard, but so much fun. I can sense Norman’s joy in writing these poems as I read them. And every so often, Norman drops the veil, and steps, larger-than-life, center-stage. I love these moments, when he breaks the fourth wall. His poem, “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont” is a great example of this. It ends:
In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,
And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf. What
I want to know of my government is
Doesn’t poverty just fucking break your heart?
Reading this for the first time, I felt like Ronnie Ballenger had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again, and Kelly Konopka laughed so hard milk came out her nose. I’m similarly disarmed and embarrassed, and delighted. As a poet, it seems Norman could not help himself here. There is a time for restraint in poetry, and a time when restraint should not be part of the poem’s language. Norman understands this. And the result is often an exhilarating, guilty pleasure. The line break after the “What” is essential to this effect, this surprise. In my own work, as a challenge, any time I try to pull off the presence of a booger, or something like it, that’s Norman’s influence.
Cynthia’s work taught me to stay in one place, poetically-speaking, for a while, to allow the poem to become itself. To keep looking at the thing again and again and again—to micro-examine the thing via various contexts and lenses, and then, just when you think you’ve got it, to turn away from the thing, to stare into the opposite direction, and then to describe what you see there. This sort of technique allowed me, in a thematically-linked book like The Morrow Plots especially, a fulcrum to which subsequent poems could attach like burrs, and spin.
SR: Was The Morrow Plots the original title for the poem? And if so, did it come naturally? What made you choose it as the title for the entire collection?
MGF: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Yeah: holy, even. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Upon researching old newspaper articles from the ’20s and ’30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.” And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous At the Drive-in Volcano that winter. So yes, this obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things.
SR: In The Morrow Plots there is an enchanting set of lines that I am curious about. “…The book opening/to your knees/explodes with border scenes—/skeletal fish becoming women/with piñata faces.” The imagery and the musicality are beautiful. Where did your inspiration for these lines come from?
MGF: Firstly, thank you! When I was long ago an undergraduate at The University of Illinois, I used to sneak into Lincoln Hall at night. I was taking a Biology course from this guy George Kieffer—this wonderful old madman on the cusp of retirement who would run around his lecture stage, waving his hands and screaming about having found dead bodies in the nearby Boneyard Creek. He would triumphantly howl, to his teenage and twentysomething students, “You’re all headed toward Max S [the end stage of entropy], Max S! That’s when you’re dead!”
It was one of those buildings that had locked behind Plexiglas cases all sorts of wrinkled beasts pickled in jars of alcohol. I remember halls of fetal pigs, halls of snakes—both of which are good for poetry, of course.
So I would sneak in there at night, climb to the top floor, exit a window, and sit on the roof’s ledge overlooking the center of campus. Sections of the roof were made of copper and were beginning to green. I would often write up there, read up there by a pocket flashlight. From that vantage, The Morrow Plots were visible. I have this memory—fabricated or real, I can’t tell—of sitting up there, watching the stars or some other youthful romantic shit, with two books open on my lap: a biology textbook, and a glossy book of old Mexican movie posters. One book on each thigh. I’m trying to hold them both open, while also trying to not fall off the roof. The stars. The Plots. In the biology book, I remember some anatomical cross-section of a cod or something. In the second, an image of the second. Honestly, I don’t know if this is true or not, but this memory, when coupled with the violent history of The Morrow Plots, served to inspire this line, and this poem. The poem struggles, I think, to make all of these odd histories gel with the images that attend them. Struggles to deal with the ways in which height and distance both reveal and obscure. And how everything on earth is, of course, magnificent, terrible, and indistinct from a rooftop.
SR: Is there a particular poem or poet that first provided inspiration for your stylistic choices as a writer?
MGF: The poet Mike Madonick was the first poet who taught me that the muse occurs during the writing process, and not beforehand. That, to write a poem, in his words, is like, “[being] a dog let loose in a field, you pick up scents, another dog perhaps, a pheasant, or the quick motion of a grasshopper turns your head, and then your owner calls, you scramble back or you want to run or you just stand there and cock your head, look at him because you’re puzzled about the strange demand he’s put on you, as if he owned you.”
I was lucky enough to have Mike as a teacher, and am lucky enough to have him as a friend. I remember, as an undergrad, I declared a psychology major. Then, I took my very first poetry workshop with Mike, and he said something as simple as, “Poets are fucked-up people, generally,” and I rushed out of class and switched my major to Creative Writing, as if Madonick had given me some sort of permission to be my dumbass self, and to do the dumbass things I wanted to do.
SR: What advice do you have for writers with an interest in travelling and/or cuisine as subject matter for their work?
MGF: Don’t skimp tent-wise. Purchase one that decently blocks out the rain. This is your home for a while. Make it so. Create a little nightstand in the corner with a stack of books you plan on reading, and your notebook. Keep your watch, glasses and lantern on it, each in their own little spot.
Remember how when you were five, the optometrist told your mother in front of you that you’d be blind by age 30. Remember how you used to walk around your parents’ house at night, feeling your way in the darkness, practicing for blindness. Remember bumping into your dad’s collection of antique metal Coca-Cola trays. Remember the loudness. Finger your glasses on that makeshift nightstand in the tent—see in them, and your (however limited) retention of your sight, a lovely Fuck You to that optometrist’s version of fate. Contemplate fate, and other such nebulous things, no further. Go to sleep and dream about pasta.
If camping along the ski valley road in Taos, New Mexico, bring your own toilet paper, lest you want to succumb to the discarded Subway napkins the guy the next site over push-pinned to the pit toilet wall.
When camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, listen at night to the hippos laughing. Take notes in vocables.
Camp at Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park in mid-September. Wake up in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis dancing pink and green over the mountain. Write a horrible poem about it. Revise it into a better poem, but realize it’s still horrible. Write a new poem. Put an oyster in it.
In a pinch, when preparing ramen noodles over a propane camp-stove, choose the pork flavor; boil the noodles in half-water, half-pineapple juice. Contemplate the illusory makeup of gourmet. Remember: ratio is everything. Two cans of Stagg Chili + one can of Libby’s Corned Beef Hash = tolerable high-calorie meal. One can of Stagg Chili + two cans of Corned Beef Hash = digestive demoralization from the throat on down—this is a ratio that may cause you to abandon your current course, flee the woods, get on the first plane to Paris, and have a vegetarian dinner at L’Arpege. After that, think differently about the tomato.
Meet your spouse in a Latin jazz bar on one island or another—one that you previously defined as fickle. Propose to her at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Do this realizing that you are surrounded by nuclear test sites. Do this realizing that nearby Arco was the first town in the U.S. to be lit by atomic power. Do this realizing that you are camping on the rocks on which the astronauts practiced for moon landings.
No matter where you are, surrender to the street food, even though it will make you sick.
It’s over between us. We knew it would come to this, and the news that you’ve been accepted by a new lover is a bittersweet reminder of what we once meant to each other.
It’s with an effort, Story, that I remember our first days together: you showed up at the back doorstep of my awareness—naked, untamed, willful—dangerous! You entered my life as a vague notion, a possibility. How could I resist falling passionately and obsessively in love? For weeks I could think of nothing else but you. Friends knew—they saw it in my inwardly turned eyes, my inattention to their conversation. “Not again,” they warned, shaking their heads. They know me to be a destructive lover.
And they were right—I followed my old patterns. It wasn’t enough to cherish you as you came to me—I had to try to change you. I insisted that you look a certain way: with fierce demagoguery I controlled your language; you spent time only where I allowed; only those individuals I chose for you were permitted inside your paragraphs. Worst of all, nearly every time we met I questioned your size. Trim down, I commanded, tighten up—what will others think? Yes, my lost love, I confess, how you appeared to others was always a priority—when they appraised you, what would they be thinking of me?
Can you believe that I was only searching for your heart? Can you believe the paradox of my love—my efforts to improve you were intended to prepare you to be loved by someone else.
Then, Story, you were nearly done. How old the new looks in retrospect. The truth is, in our last moments together, even as I straightened your seams, swept your hair from your eyes, and corrected with a finger wag the last imperfection of your speech, I was already forgetting you! “Finished” is a cruel word, dear Story. I sent you away, and you didn’t object. I forgot about you, until your new lover wrote: “Is Story available? We love her and want to feature her in our pages.” And without a moment’s pause I’ve given you up. It’s a formality—our end was born in our beginning.
It will be months before I see you again, Story. Our names will be paired, but you’ll no longer belong to me. My eyes will scan your glittering new font and narrow, justified columns, but I won’t read you. I’ll have archived your heart. Acquaintances will quote you to me, and I’ll look at them, confused. “Who?” I’ll ask. “What?”
I’ll be listening for the backdoor laughter of a new lover.
So, Story, adieu—forgive my fickleness—even the brief flirtation I’ve shared with this letter has cooled. It’s all part of the game.
Taken from Anne Lamott’s essay in her book Bird by Bird, the “shitty first draft,” or SFD, tries to make the most difficult step in writing easier. The concept is simple: write everything you can all at once and get it on the page. In her words, “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper” (25). Don’t filter yourself, or you will never get past the first paragraph. I have always hated writing my first draft out of fear of that it will be worse than a 5-year-old’s first book report. Even Lamott recognizes her fear that if something were to happen to her, she would never have the chance to go back and fix her SFD.
The SFD is important to me because it transformed the way I write. My first draft is supposed to be bad, so it’s perfectly OK if it is. The worse the draft is, the better actually because it means I have more to work with to make it perfect. After chucking everything onto the page, the ideas are there, and only need tweaking (or maybe entire paragraph upheaval) to get it where I want the work to be. The point is the SFD provides a starting place when you didn’t have one before.
After the SFD, I spend the rest of my writing time editing it, stripping the work to its barest bones, and building it back up again. I have a tendency to overwrite (and by tendency I mean 1000 words over the limit on a paper). My SFD usually contains at least double the words allowed and is plagued by repetition. My writing process consists of paring that overwriting down day after day to get it under the limit—condensing sentences, and clarifying ideas.
The same thing goes for my fiction pieces and this post. I can write pages of text, giving me paragraphs to work with. Because of all the prose I have, I can cut down the bad, horrible, and not-so-good stuff and allow the best float to the top. I can take out an entire scene to a story, or rework a character’s personality when I realize I want her to be angry with the world instead of happy to be alive. The SFD provides a canvas and base to build upon and create a better piece.
Have you ever used an SFD before? What other significant tools have you used to make your writing process easier?
Issue 7 contributor George Estreich recently published a new memoir, The Shape of the Eye, in which he describes the blessings and challenges of raising his daughter Laura, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Estreich is known for his book of poems, Textbook Illustration of the Human Body, which won the Rhea and Seymour Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books.
While writing Shape of the Eye Estreich was faced with new challenges, both technically and personally. Having a strong background in poetry, Estreich found writing a memoir to be both a foreign and familiar experience: “When I wrote poems, I was mainly concerned with language, line by line and word by word […] In a way, I was still writing poetry, trying to get each sentence right, to find the right word and metaphor and form. At the same time, those formal choices became part of a larger goal.”
Creative nonfiction can have its own challenges, especially when the topic is so personal. Estreich commented on that intimate quality of Shape: “It’s odd to have written so much autobiographical work, in poetry and prose, because I think of myself as a private person. So there was a tension between necessary truth-telling and privacy. Also, if one is writing about people one cares about, and one acknowledges that true stories can do harm to relationships, then writing and family are in tension too. Storytelling is an ethical act. I don’t have a formula for resolving these tensions, and I don’t think there is one, but these issues were never far from mind.”
Despite the challenges creative nonfiction presents, Estriech found that, “in writing nonfiction prose about Laura, [he] wanted to be, in a small way, an agent of change.” Estreich goes on to say, “I wanted to raise questions about what “normal” meant, and to raise the question of who counts in our society. More specifically, I wanted to oppose a complex and singular portrait of Down Syndrome to the generic, medically ratified portrait that most people know.”
Estreich’s memoir has received attention from both the medical and literary fields. He has spoken and presented excerpts of the novel at the Willamette Valley Down Syndrome Association, the Spring Creek Conference on Nature and the Sacred, and the World Down Syndrome Conference in Vancouver. Estreich remarked: “I don’t know what effect Shape has had, but I hope it’s been positive. I do know that the responses to the book so far have been very gratifying, from other parents and from medical professionals. I’ve spoken to a number of medical audiences, and am always glad to have the chance to answer questions and have the necessary conversations. In general, I’ve found an extraordinary amount of goodwill, which reflects the goodwill Laura seems to inspire in person. This isn’t to say that attitudes don’t have a long way to go, about Down Syndrome or disability in general. But as a writer and a father, I’ve been very happy with the response to my book so far.”
The Shape of the Eye is a finalist in the 2012 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and has been nominated for a Reader’s Choice Award (you can vote online for the memoir here). You can read an excerpt from Shape of the Eye and find out more information on George Estreich’s webpage.
If writing better poetry is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, then you’ll want to take a look into Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen’s new book, Wingbeats. Wiggerman and Meischen, an SR contributor from Issue 7, have compiled the wisdom and advice of 58 poets in order to create exercises that showcase the poetry writing process.
As a poet and former Poetry Columnist for the Texas Writer,Scott Wiggerman is no stranger to the world of poetry. He has conducted a number of workshops for the WLT Poetry Study Group and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Wiggerman found he kept returning to poetry staples, like The Practice of Poetry (edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell), for reference, but what he really needed was something new that applied the same variety of techniques. Wiggerman writes that he was looking for something that “combined exercises and essays by poets who actually teach, both academics and non-academics, this time. Since it didn’t seem to be forthcoming from anywhere, I asked my partner about creating and publishing such a book. I foolishly thought it would be a project that I could handle alone, but David came on board as co-editor almost immediately, thank goodness!”
From the simplest activities to the more involved tasks, Wingbeats provides aspiring poets with exercises along with real poems that show what these look like in action. “We wanted to create a book that poets would actually use, and I wanted a book that would work well for poets both in MFA programs and those, like myself and several of our Wingbeats contributors, who learn the craft of poetry on their own or through the occasional workshop,” wrote Wiggerman.
Wiggerman and Meischen’s new book not only covers standard poetic techniques, but also new strategies for revision, collaboration, and inspiration. If you’re looking for some hands-on experience in writing poetry, Wingbeats is a great resource.
Wiggerman also recommends that aspiring poets seek out workshops and writing groups for guidance: “The absolute best way to learn how to write is to write–and many books or MFA programs can ‘teach’ you this. But it takes feedback as well, and for this, one needs someone to share his or her work with. Of course, it also helps tremendously to read poetry. One of the adages of writing is to ‘show, don’t tell,’ and while Wingbeats does tell, it also shows through poem after poem. It’s the way I like to teach my workshops, letting poems speak for themselves by showing how they’re done.”