There are two things I do nearly every day without fail: write and run. I like to talk and think about them together because, to me, they are twin feats of both discipline and imagination. Growing up a competitive runner, never very good compared to the other people I competed against, I learned to value the sport as a way to keep me both grounded and honest. Your body has a way of letting you know how well you’ve treated it. Or how poorly. Lining up for an ultramarathon, I view the months of training prior as a succession of drafts. Practice gives me an idea of what to expect out of a race, but I like to leave room for surprise because the body, like a poem, holds more wonder than we can grasp. One of the reasons I race these long races is less because of some feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing, but more for the strange and wondrous moments of mental and bodily access that arrive without any warning.chop! chop! read more!
POETRY AS PRACTICE How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction A Craft Essay by Scott Edward Anderson In this lyrical essay on the writing life, Scott Edward Anderson shows how poetry can be more than a formal approach to writing, more than an activity of technique, but a way to approach the world, which is good for both the poet and the poem.—Grant Clauser, Editor Walking in Wissahickon Park after dropping my twins at their school in Philadelphia, I find muddy trails from the night’s heavy rains and temporary streams running along my path. The fuchsia flowers of a redbud tree shine brilliantly against the green of early leafing shrubs. A few chipmunks scurry among leaves on the forest floor. Birdsong is all around me: I note some of the birds—if they are bright enough and close enough to the trail or I recognize … chop! chop! read more!
The superhero is a staple of pop culture, but poets can use elements of superhero identity to craft poems and explore their own mythology. Lynn Levin offers a writing prompt designed to allow poets to reach beyond the real in search of other truths.chop! chop! read more!
Pacing in poetry can be used as a focusing technique. Both fast and slow pace equally have the ability to draw in a reader’s focus in slightly different, but complementary, ways. A sudden shift into high gear can raise our excitement or anxiety, while hitting the slow motion button compels us to look with greater scrutiny and concentration. Either way, pace is a kind of volume adjustment–by turning the volume of the poem up or down you force a shift of attention upon the reader.chop! chop! read more!
Writing poetry has also reminded me once again to pay attention to the rhythm of language. Rhythm is central in poetry, but I often overlook it when writing nonfiction. When we read anything, there’s a hidden music to it. We hear the words, as well as the relationship between the words, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the complex intertwining of word and phrase and sentence. Listening to rhythm is understood and expected in poetry, but I’m now more conscious that it’s just as important in nonfiction. I’ve been thinking much more about rhythm and flow. I’ve started reading my nonfiction aloud, as I do with my poetry. Since I’m a musician, I’ve always at least unconsciously understood the relationship between writing and melodic line and rhythm. Writing poetry, however, has reminded me of that relationship, made me sit up and take notice. And in recent months, my nonfiction, such as my short essay “Cut,” has become more rhythmic and musical.chop! chop! read more!
I live in Provincetown but I’m from West Virginia. I’ve been thinking of the simultaneous provocation and balm that literature, like art, can have on moments of social and economic crisis. In Provincetown, year-round residents are disappearing as more and more houses are bought as second homes, thoroughly and exquisitely renovated, and then occupied in the summer only. In my hometown, Madison, West Virginia, streets have emptied out as an economy built on coal mining weakens, in part due to worries that burning fossil fuels overheats the planet. I want to paste a poem on the front of the beat-up house down the street from me in Provincetown where, in the last few months, shade trees have been cut and an architect’s sign has been planted out front. Here’s the possible poem…chop! chop! read more!
THE EMPATHY MACHINE, Part Two
by Kelly McQuain
Tweet No Evil
In an effort to get my head around what I consider the purpose of art-making, I attended three writing conferences during summer 2015. The first was at U.C. Berkeley and was supposed to commemorate the influential 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference fifty years prior, inspired by a student Free Speech Movement earlier that year. But poet Vanessa Place’s inclusion on the bill caused the commemoration to implode.
Place, whose current project uses Twitter to disseminate instances of the “n-word” from Gone With the Wind, has been the subject of controversy before. Place’s name on the Berkeley schedule caused many invitees to drop out in protest. The organizers canceled the conference and replaced it at the last minute with Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A Berkeley Poetry Conference.
I made it from Philadelphia in time to attend the last day. There was a lot of talk about colonization theory, and at the end of the day people sat in circles discussing race and their feelings in ways that were careful not to offend. I learned that the organizers kept notice about “conference 2.0” largely on the down-low out of fear of protests. Ironic, I thought: How do you create a platform for change when safety concerns the conversation to members of the Berkeley phone tree?
What I know of Place comes from her controversies and the strange fact on the Internet she likes to pose for pictures in Salvador Dali drag with pineapples. Like Goldsmith, Place has become another poster child in the debate over who is allowed to say what.
Cathy Young, writing for The Washington Post about the dangers of appropriation, recently observed, “When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.” I agree in principle, but I don’t think it applies to Vanessa Place or Kenneth Goldsmith.chop! chop! read more!
THE MAN ON THE COUCH AND THE MAN WHO SPEAKS POEMS by J.G. McClure I pay a therapist an hourly rate to listen to my feelings. I pay literary journals reading fees to read about my feelings. My therapist says she’s struck by two parallel versions of me: the Man on the Couch who seems pathologically unable to feel, and the Man Who Speaks the Poems who feels all too deeply. She wonders which is real, or are they both? One of me finds a parallel in art to go with this question from life. In his classic short piece “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges talks about two versions of himself, whom I’ll call Borges the Famous Author (who wins awards and has deep thoughts) and Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee (who reads with befuddlement about the exploits of Borges the Famous Author). Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee enjoys … chop! chop! read more!
WHY I WRITE
Or, It’s The End of the World as We Know It and I Feel (Sorta) Fine
by J.G. McClure
I remember as a kid going to a science museum somewhere in Missouri. They had an exhibit—basically a rickety computer with MS Paint hooked up to a radio transmitter. The idea was this: you’d draw a picture, the transmitter would transmit it upward, and voila, your masterpiece would travel out among the stars, waiting for distant life-forms to receive it. Whether this actually happened or whether it’s merely a cocktail of youthful misunderstanding and nostalgia is beside the point. I remember it, and I remember the conviction that aliens would discover my rudimentary stick figure family and feel a pang of pathos for life on our little rock.
This was a great deal of pressure. If the drawing was bad, what would that say about our society? The aliens who found my little sketch—the lines rough, the colors off—might decide not to visit us after all. Or worse, they might rain fiery death down on us all for my grave sins against representational art. (My sketches were not good. If that turns out to be what dooms our world, I apologize.)
A recent piece in Esquire, entitled “When the End of Civilization Is Your Day Job, or, Ballad of the Sad Climatologists,” explores the “pre-traumatic stress” experienced by climate researchers: the prevailing sense of apocalypse among the folks who know apocalypse best. The story describes “the gradual shift from hope of prevention to plans for adaptation” to an Earth so unrecognizable that we shouldn’t even call it Earth anymore. (One writer proposes “Eaarth”). Even the “optimists” of the story speak of glacial melt, rising sea levels, and the obliteration of coastal cities worldwide as a foregone conclusion. As one researcher puts it, “We’re fucked.” Some of the less-hopeful scientists have moved into the woods (as far inland as possible) and set up off-grid cabins to wait out the end of days.chop! chop! read more!
IN PRAISE OF MISTRANSLATIONS
On Conversational Translation
by J.G. McClure
We all know Freud talked about the ego and the id. Except he didn’t. What he actually talked about was Das Ich und Das Er, which is to say, “The I and the It.” The words “mean” the same thing, except they don’t. When we translate Freud, we use the Latin pronouns for “I” and “It,” whereas Freud used the regular, everyday pronouns of his German.
It’s the same meaning, sort of, but the Latin “id” is outside our ordinary speech, and so it lacks the disturbingly uncanny mix of familiarity and otherness that “the It” conveys. “The id is made up of our primal desires—inaccessible and constantly influencing our actions, while the ego struggles to keep up.” “The It is made up of our primal desires—inaccessible and constantly influencing our actions, while the I struggles to keep up.” Hear the difference?
I love translating poetry. I’ve done many translations. But it’s my suspicion that translation is fundamentally impossible. As Cervantes said: reading even the best translation is like looking at a Persian rug from behind.chop! chop! read more!
LEAVING APPALACHIA: Overlap in Poetic Landscapes
by Julia Paganelli
In August, I stuffed my summer dresses and cooking implements into a Toyota and trekked eighteen hours from Appalachia to the Ozarks. I’ve been tallying the difference between the mountain ranges.
Appalachia is older than the Ozarks—cliffs softer. More oil painting than chiseled sculpture.
I’ve been reading up on architecture. In the book Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, Rowan Moore writes, “Where things get interesting is when desire and built space change each other, when animate and inanimate interplay” (19). Of course, Moore is referring to the architect her structures, but I’ve approached these theories otherwise. I’ve approached as poet to landscape.
Moore states, “Architecture is experienced as background or not at all” (91). An architect fails when she creates a place that cannot be added to by he who lives there. Landscape is meant to be lived into, as are poems.chop! chop! read more!
THE POET’S “I”: DISTANCE THROUGH FIRST-PERSON
by Katie Rensch
In a recent conversation with a group of mixed-genre writers, it came to my attention that we were all writing in the first-person, well, more or less. In fiction, we call the first-person the “main character”, in poetry we say the “speaker” of the poem, and in nonfiction it’s the writer’s name because the “I” must, by definition, be the person writing. We might just call these labels for the first-person simply labels. Character, speaker, writer –is there really any difference? I would like to think the “I,” that one small, vertical line, one letter, was so simple.
Because voice is a basic element of craft we are encouraged to think no true distinction exists between genres. As writers we enjoy the simple rules of voice because it gives us boundaries. We have three choices: first-, second-, or third-person. In my own reading and writing of poetry, though, I have noticed a great capacity for the use of the first-person voice, and I’ve come to understand it as a gesture, one that is possible in all three modes of voice.
Lately I’m drawn to Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971) and the way the first-person voice draws distance between the speaker’s voice and the body, the natural world, and place. In her often matter-of-fact voice, Bishop navigates the geography of our human landscape. In these poems, I find a skilled craftsman who uses the first-person in nearly all her poems –even ones that on the surface seem to be in second- or third-person. These poems expose the ability of the “I” to create both intimacy and distance.chop! chop! read more!
by Nathaniel Popkin
Two men, one aged 61, the other 65, each born in late January, each a father in grief. The first is the Israeli writer David Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in the brief 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon. The other is the American poet Edward Hirsch, whose son Gabriel died of a drug overdose in 2011. On a bookshelf these men and their books may stand together, G then H, Grossman then Hirsch, David then Edward. They are joined too by the instinct to drill into unfathomable sorrow. In 2008, Grossman produced a startling work of preemptive mourning, a novel published in Jessica Cohen’s English translation in 2010 as To The End of the Land and last summer the ecstatic lamentation Falling Out of Time (also translated by Cohen), both brought out in U.S. by Knopf. Hirsch reviewed Falling Out of Time in the New York Times Book Review shortly before Knopf published his piercing seventy-eight page elegy, Gabriel.chop! chop! read more!
CROSSING THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE: ARCHER, BOB’S BURGERS, AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY by J.G. McClure 1. The emotional landscape of the reader determines the work that can reach her. Imagine the interior world as a sea: the boat-poem can move ahead, but the truck-poem can’t. Conversely, if the interior world is a field… 2. Over the holidays, I’ve been binge-watching Netflix, especially two animated comedies starring H. Jon Benjamin, Archer and Bob’s Burgers. The same deadpan voice comes from two vastly different characters. Sterling Archer is a James Bond parody working at an inept spy agency. He’s wildly narcissistic, a barely-functioning alcoholic, a womanizing braggart whose skill as a secret agent is—as he constantly reminds everyone around him—nonetheless legendary. He is, above all, a terrible person. For example, we often find him planning to inflict bizarre punishments on his servant Woodhouse—the man who raised him in his mother’s absence—for minor failings. (“[Woodhouse] … chop! chop! read more!
RETHINKING THE SHITTY FIRST DRAFT
by George Dila
I do not write shitty first drafts.
In fact, that phrase, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, popularized by Anne Lamott, offends me slightly—both the idea of thinking of my own work this way, and also that word itself, shitty, to my ear an ugly and repellent adjective.
What does the phrase mean, though?
To quote the wonderful Miss Lamott, from her book-that-everyone-has-read, Bird by Bird, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”chop! chop! read more!
THAT DEXTEROUS MARGIN
by Michael McFee
A poem is a visual as well as a verbal object.
Its language is primary, obviously, the sounds the words make, and the effects those sounds have on the reader, phoneme by phoneme and as a whole aural object. But the shape the poem makes on the page is crucial as well.
I spent my first two years of college in design school at a technological research university. It was not a very verbal place or time for me. I logged many hours in studios, drawing and drafting and working on various design projects. I was learning to observe closely and to present what I saw in clear yet imaginative ways.
That visual urge abides in me. My imagination is most often triggered by something I see and try to convert into lines. And once those lines start to become a poem, I can’t stop thinking about the way it looks: my favorite medium in design school was pen and ink, and I want the poem to be perfect down to the very last crosshatch.chop! chop! read more!
The Art of Despair
by Allison Seay
I. Out of the Depths
Perhaps it is a weakness to rely only on my own poetic experiences or sensibilities as a way to talk about craft or as a way to teach. In writing this, I thought of all kinds of things I could write about, things I have discovered about form and experiment and figuring out what it means to write from a Real Place. To be self-referential is sometimes not interesting or helpful to another’s plight in art or otherwise, even if we intend it. I can only say how it has been for me. I can only say the truth as best as I know it and hope that you find some seed of truth you might use for your own work, or find some luminosity that might illumine your poems in a new way.chop! chop! read more!
TO STAY OR TO GO INTO EXILE: Milosz and Szymborska by Niels Hav translated by Heather Spears This year Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize for Literature and, as often before, it was a complete surprise when the secretary of the Swedish Academy opened the door and released the name to the press. Every year this event is a celebration, and the joyous news spreads round the world with the speed of light. I was in Warsaw the year Tomas Tranströmer was awarded the Nobel Prize. Sitting in the mild October sunshine in front of the Literature-House with a group of poets from many countries. It was a few minutes past one, and Transrömer’s name passed cheerfully from table to table. Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel prizewinner from Poland, was asked by a journalist, “What did you think when you heard that Transrömer won the Nobel Prize? “I was so pleased,” she … chop! chop! read more!
IN A SPRAY OF SPARKS:
Emotion, Sincerity, and the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment”
by J.G. McClure
Pick up any fashionable poetry journal and you’re likely to see an example of what Tony Hoagland has called the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Such a poem does not simply lack coherence; it actively resists it….
The characteristics are familiar: leaping from thought to thought, sharply-written-but-largely-nonsensical phrases, quirky humor, an assertive-yet-evasive voice, and so on. We move from talk to skin to cities to tubas to friends, never afforded the chance to stop and consider any one element. The mode is so widespread as to be instantly recognizable: it is what many readers likely think of immediately upon hearing the phrase contemporary poetry….chop! chop! read more!
SAY IT AGAIN, BUT BETTER:
Resistance and Revision
by Devi S. Laskar
Writers get writers’ block. Happens to everyone at one point or another. It happens to some writers every solstice, every month, every fortnight. I struggle every day.
Thanks to a recommendation from an old friend, I’ve been reading Steven Pressfield’s really great book, The War of Art, which talks about resistance and how we as writers get sucked in to the war of Doing Anything But the Writing That is Most Important to Us.
Resistance, as Pressfield calls it, comes in many forms, including but not limited to: fear, self-doubt, self-dramatization, victimhood, isolation and general unhappiness.chop! chop! read more!
THE MISEDUCATION OF THE POET:
High School and the Fear of Poetry
by J.G. McClure
When I was an undergraduate taking one of my first poetry workshops, my poet-professor joked that “high school is where poetry goes to die.” I chuckled, thinking he was simply making fun of the melodramatic effusions of teenage writers.
I’ve since come to realize that what he was getting at is a much more systemic problem: that the way we’re taught about poetry in high school (the last time that many people will likely ever read a poem) bleeds the living energy from poetry and teaches students that the art is nothing but the dusty stuff of a museum of antiquities.
I’ve since come to realize that what he was getting at is a much more systemic problem: that the way we’re taught about poetry in high school (the last time that many people will likely ever read a poem) bleeds the living energy from poetry and teaches students that the art is nothing but the dusty stuff of a museum of antiquities.chop! chop! read more!