BUILDING BOATS, WRITING POEMS
A Craft Essay by James Diaz
When building boats, we try to craft something that will hold us aloft, a durable vessel that can bear and balance the weight, and hold out against the waves. Some boats are perhaps more beautiful than others. Some just do the job. When you’re in a jam and need to cross whatever inner seas need crossing, you work with whatever you have to work with. It’s important to write against the grain, it’s important to fuck up, fall flat, rip your pages apart, regroup, keep dreaming into the agony. Writing is agonizing. Organizing agony, categorizing wounds, sorting old stories, finding new insights buried beneath the familiar ways of seeing our life.
How did I become the writer that I am today? Therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. Sitting in a room with another person who holds your story and then returns it to you in a different way. It might sound strange but give me a moment to explain. For most of my writing life, I had no voice that I could truly call my own. I was always writing because I knew if I didn’t something bad would happen. Bad things happened anyway, most of them self-inflicted. Quite simply: I wrote to not die. I wrote because it was all I had. Mostly, it had me. I had no idea what to do with it. When I read old pages from my twenties I wince at how little I really knew. And then I think: how beautiful, kid. You did what you could and you didn’t stop there.
I’ve always heard that we write what we know, we write from experience. Well, what do you do when you’re somewhat cut off from your own experience? It can be dangerous to know where you’re really at sometimes. So, you disassociate, separate rooms for different emotions. The right poems never find each other. Sometimes they put cups to doors and listen in. Sometimes they catch a glimpse. It’s a frozen wasteland for a while.
I don’t know why, but I always believed in the power of psychoanalysis. It wasn’t enough for me to be diagnosed and medicated, I needed to know what the deeper story was, because maybe, just maybe, if I could find it, I could retell it. I didn’t have access to it for a long time. But I had access to the rooms of 12-step recovery fellowships. And what I heard there were stories, so many stories. Us addicts can tell a good story. At some point, I began to realize that healing and narrative were kindred forms. The books I loved most were all about people just trying to heal. Like we all are, I suppose. But are we all writers? Maybe. I don’t know. Joyce Carol Oates says that everyone has at least one good story in them. I’d like to think that’s true. I’d hate to think it weren’t. What I do know is the people I’ve known needed it to be true. They needed to be able to tell their story. If you think not everyone has a good one in them, I think you should check out an open 12-step meeting sometime.
By the time I found myself in a psychotherapist’s office at the tail end of my twenties, I was at a place in my life where I just knew that if I didn’t learn what my deeper story was, I wasn’t going to make it. I got lucky, I guess. I found the right person. Someone who sat for years with my numb and frozen states, my painful unknowing, until eventually the ice began to crack. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. But when you’re sitting in a room with someone every week who is listening for all of the things you don’t say, who gives you time to find what those things are, and to speak them aloud for the first time, in your one and only true voice, there is a poem in that that just sort of happens.
What we all do is we tell stories. “My childhood went like this. My father was explosive, my mother was cold. This person said that and then I felt this way. I’m scared. I’m angry. I don’t know what I’m feeling. I don’t want to talk about feelings today. I just want to sit here. Is that okay?” And you do. You sit there and most of the time you can’t even hear yourself talking. You talk and talk until one day you hear parts of yourself getting through. You hear and feel someone hand you back parts of what you’ve just said in a different way. You become curious. You become open. All those doors you locked emotion behind, they too begin to unlock. The more I knew about myself the more I was able to enter into a poem in a real and embodied way.
“Where are you feeling what you’re telling me right now? Is it in your chest, in your gut, in your head? How do you locate your words in your body?” It’s terrifying to get inside of yourself like that. Over time, my body and my words began to meet at a kind of crossroads. “Listen here,” they’d say to each other, “we’re in this thing together or not at all.” Write the body, and the poem really begins to sing. Maybe the only way we become anything at all is by letting other people into our story. We’re changed by others, they’re changed by us. Any therapist will tell you, their patients made them better therapists. Therapy made me, not a better poet, but an open one. Open to the song I don’t always know all the words to, but I’ll sing it anyway. Ugly boat, beautiful boat. Sometimes you just have to build a boat.
I’d imagine there are many ways to find our deeper story. And if everyone has at least one good one in them, I think it’d be a shame not to share yours with someone, somewhere, at some point. Who knows, you might just find you’ve a few more in you somewhere. Where are you feeling it? Head, chest, gut, heart? That is art, location. Compass. Honing in. It takes time to find what kind of state you’re in. But once you do, there is a kind of basic rhythm that begins to take shape. We each have our flavor, our emotional psychic taste buds.
How do we become better at our craft? For me, personally, it was by getting to know myself better. Getting to know myself better through others. Listening to myself through them. Sharing out who I was to get to who I am. A good friend can do that for you as well. Or a fellowship of recovering addicts. Any place where people come together to try and make sense of who they are is an opportunity for, and invitation to, a kind of poetry. All I know is you have to start at the place you’re at. And that place does not always offer you the best harvest. There are seasons and there are seasons. You just have to walk through the not-knowing until you do. Some days you have nothing to say, some days you have too much to say. The good poem, if such a thing exists, is probably somewhere in between. Like they say in the rooms: more will be revealed. Don’t give up five minutes before the poem happens.
In a world so often low on kindness, James Diaz is trying to refill the tank. Poetry is his imperfect medium. Author of two full-length poetry collections, This Someone I Call Stranger (Indolent Books, 2018) and All Things Beautiful Are Bent (Alien Buddha, 2021), Diaz is the founding editor of the online journal Anti-Heroin Chic. He currently resides in upstate New York.
At fifty, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, I drove my 1989 BMW motorcycle from Philadelphia to The Hambidge Center in the mountains of northeast Georgia for a three-week writing residency. They provided me with a cottage in the forest, with floor-to-ceiling windows and enough space for a person to spread out their work. My first feelings, when I’d taken off my jacket and sat down, were—as Wendell Berry describes it in “Stepping Off”—“along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement / a little nagging of dread.” It was so damn quiet.
I’ve always felt an aversion to quiet. I was a hyper only child. The kid with the firecrackers and toy soldiers. The teenager with the boombox. As an adult, I am a talker and—I wince to admit it—a loud one. “Silence,” as William S. Burroughs said, “is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”
In my humble opinion, I’m qualified to write an essay about silence precisely because I compulsively verbalize. I’m the least silent person in the room. I observe silence from the outside looking in. With the least “natural” perspective on the matter of anyone you know.
The Elephant of Silence built a house beside the sea. It contained all you’d need, including a bed and fine teacups. He liked to wash teacups and stare at the sea out the window. His radio cackled, “The Last Forest contains 8,609 trees. A great number, albeit less than last year.” As he replaced his dishrag, he noticed an odd scene out the steamed window: a bride in white washed up on the surf.
There came a knock. He opened his door. The bride stood there dripping wet beside her pet pig. He invited them in. The bride burst in and, with effort, lifted the Elephant of Silence as if he were her groom. Her legs trembled. She moaned. Held there, feet off the ground, the Elephant of Silence waited patiently as the sun set. The pet pig stared at them with open admiration. Soon the bride was pancaked under the Elephant of Silence.
The pet pig butted him with his snout for pure joy. “Shall we go for a walk?” he asked. The Elephant of Silence packed them a picnic lunch. That night they slept in the Last Forest and their dreams were tinted spinach green. Next morning they began climbing the mountain. It took them 2,000 years. Dynasties fell. The forest vanished behind them. They might have been the last two creatures in existence, for all they cared.
At the peak of that foggy mountain, the Elephant of Silence spoke, at last, with reverence: “I have never met anyone as silent as you.”
I wrote this poem in 2012, soon after I started living with my wife, Tiina. The Elephant of Silence is her, I think. I didn’t mean it that way, but it’s unmistakable. She’s from Finland, where folks value calmness and tranquility over storytelling and arrogance. I’ve been to “parties” in Finland where a group of friends sit for extended periods in complete silence. I’ve sat with men in saunas where none of us say anything; they just sip beer, happy as the day they were born.
When there’s a gap in a conversation, I’m the one who panics and fills it with small talk. It’s taken me years of marriage to grasp the importance of leaving space while talking, for everyone to gather their thoughts. What’s more, Tiina is a philosopher. Smarter than me. Far more logical. It might be clear to you already, that in my poem I’m the pet pig, following along beside her, learning from her.
Being by myself in the forest at Hambidge reminds me of another writing retreat I went on at twenty, in 1989. I—living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I grew up—had just decided that I was a writer, and figured that meant I should have some alone time. So I borrowed my father’s 1975 Ducati motorcycle and drove four hours to our old camp in Bear River, Nova Scotia, where my parents and I lived for a year when I was a kid.
The camp, five miles from town and a quarter-mile in the woods from a dirt road, was no longer the cozy candle-lit gingerbread house of my childhood. It had been adapted by neighbors into a hunting shack. They’d shoved the stove under my parents’ old loft and sat at the window, leaning their rifle on the sill. When a deer showed up, alert and beautiful, they shot it. The spirit of the house was gone.
Nevertheless, I arrived full of gusto, with a pen and a sheaf of empty pages to fill with poems. I was set on finding inspiration deep in the forest. What I found, instead, was silence. And loneliness. I was alarmed. I felt aversion, and wanted to escape.
Pure stubbornness kept me from jumping back on the bike and riding home that very day. I had, after all, bragged to my friends about the writing retreat I was going on. So I sat in the armchair, read a long terrible novel a girl had lent me (Sidney Sheldon, If Tomorrow Comes), wrote a poem, slept, and sped home promptly the next morning.
That might have been the longest day of my life.
I always knew that there was value to being quiet. But it’s hard. I resisted.
Despite the noise I generated, I did grow up in a culture of silence, of a sort. My parents were hippies and meditators. Our house contained walls of books on Eastern mysticism, Buddhism, Sufism. Novels, nonfiction, my dad’s math books, comic books. They were readers. There was space in the house for contemplation and curiosity.
I was an only child, used to creating my own games. I was often in my room playing chess by myself; reading comics; playing with toy soldiers. Was I quiet at those times, or perhaps humming and singing to distract myself? I don’t know.
When I became a writer I didn’t think it would have anything to do with silence. But it does.
Over the days at Hambidge I settle into a routine, making my peace with the quiet. Since it’s my weakness, I sit with it. I meditate. I walk slowly in the forest, staying alert but trying not to obsess about ticks and bears and rattlesnakes. I stare at the ceiling. And, slowly, as the dread diminishes, I feel calmer. My focus deepens.
I love the feeling of quiet pooling, when I give it space. I get hungry for it. After days full of such quiet, even the calm communal dinners—populated by seven polite artists, the banjo player from Atlanta, the sculptor from Arkansas, the painter from Spain—seem jarringly noisy. Then I walk briskly back to my cottage in the semi-dark, shut the door behind me, and lie on my back staring into nothingness, until I feel like myself again.
One morning, while I’m lying on the couch puzzling through a poem, I see a movement. A deer at the edge of the deck. Brown on green. Infinite gentleness.
I sit up straight, she sees me, goes still.
Ears high and aimed at me.
When I try to listen in the Hambidge cottage, I realize it’s never really quiet. The house creaks and tics. There are birds outside. The fridge, every hour or two, hums for a while. Cars on a near road make an oceanic whooshing. And of course my tinnitus: a constant buzzing in my left ear from all the rock concerts and discos I went to in my 20’s.
Quieted, other quiet memories from my life, as if on an ice floe, drift by.
Waiting tables in a packed restaurant in Temple Bar in Dublin, August 1998, at noon the day after the Omagh bombing, we were quiet an entire minute. Not a glass clinked.
Sitting by myself in the desert sand outside Las Vegas in 1992.
Hanging upside down from a tree in Bear River in 1977.
Sitting to dinner with my parents, thousands of times, holding hands before we ate.
It’s more about trying to be quiet—that intention, active listening—than a lack of noise.
Or perhaps, my wife who loves neuroscience might say, the poems come from synaptic firings, which occur in a kind of silence.
All I know is, when I’m quiet the poems happen.
When I allow myself the luxurious time and space to slow down and focus, poems spring up out of the cobwebs. The Elephant of Silence is seated in the middle of the room, his great trunk wrapped around my chair. The Elephant of Silence is the room.
I did not say the poems spring up out of myself, for I, and my feeble psyche, don’t feel like the wellspring. Poems arrive like deer. If I’m quiet, they sometimes surprise me with a visit. If I run up to grab them, they bound away.
Silence is, rather than the negation of sound, quiet.
But is consciousness ever quiet? Not mine!
The mind is a noisy intersection between internal thoughts and external environment. Many of us search our entire lives to find a balance between internal and external, which compete incessantly. We use external stimulus, like music, to distract ourselves from unpleasant internal thoughts. Some drugs, like Adderall, treat this process as an imbalance that can be corrected chemically.
Some religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism, suggest we use a mantra—a “sacred” utterance (like Om, or ॐ), considered to possess mystical qualities, repeated with eyes closed—to calm down the internal.
To some extent, I think, the good relaxing feeling derived from mantras, or creating in any form, comes from minimizing internal thoughts and external stimulus, and maximizing focus.
Where does a poem come from? Quick answer: the consciousness of the poet.
Long answer: silence (as I define it), which includes quiet, contemplation, focus, oblivion.
1. Absence of sound; quiet 2. Stillness; calmness; meditation; contemplation; imagination; dreams; the inner world
3. Fascination; sustained absorption; focus 4. Oblivion
First comes our intention to be quiet. With luck, we find it. I shut my eyes. I find a spot under a tree. I quit my job pouring drinks in a disco (Dublin, again). I buy earplugs.
Once I want quiet, it walks beside me. Nearer than I’d thought.
Stillness follows. Now I’m sitting, facing the window, not tapping my foot, not fidgeting. Breathing deeply. And with stillness comes images, the inner cities flashing with lightning.
Contemplation, or reflection, is the impulse toward stillness, and vice versa.
I’m no longer running through a crowded market just to get through it, but walking slow and breathing and pausing to look at the bearded man on a unicycle. I’m riding a bicycle rather than driving. I’m sitting by a lake rather than riding a bicycle.
I am the dreamer. The source of all poems.
With contemplation, images percolate, formlessly. Focus brings discipline to stillness. Focus brings form.
I’m sitting by the lake, a cloud catches my eye. Rather than just looking at the next cloud (or my phone), I hold that cloud in the mind, let it pool, see where it leads. Does it look like a fractured ship sinking into the blue? Is it Coleridge’s “painted ship”? Or Franklin’s ship, trapped in the blue ice of the Northwest Passage?
I want quiet, it comes. The body goes still. The inner world shivers awake. I’m suddenly absorbed in my external environment. Objects pool, morph, go meaningful.
These states of mind can blend, occur in different order. Stillness might happen before quiet. Contemplation and focus might mean the same thing. Some dream, others “think.”
And, it’s worth repeating, by silence I don’t really mean the absence of sound. One can contemplate on a noisy street, with focus. Silence is possible within noise.
John Cage’s composition, 4’33” (1952), is about silence but not the lack of noise. His score instructs performers to take their places and not to play their instruments for four minutes, thirty-three seconds. As a result, the piece consists of the sounds of the environment that listeners hear while the performance lasts.
If we foster contemplation and focus, we can find form. Every artwork—no matter how vers libre it seems—has form. In Cage’s piece, the form (albeit malleable) is the length of time (4’33”), the performance space, the musicians, the audience, the time of day, the light.
Oblivion is the limbo-feeling I sometimes get if I stare too long into the forest or night sky. It says that I am an insignificant speck on the face of the earth, and that my life and my poems are meaningless.
This is, I think, the feeling that scared me at twenty in the forest of Bear River. A feeling of lonesomeness bordering on worthlessness.
But if we hold the feeling of oblivion, and don’t resist it, its value emerges. Because the truth is, of course, we are insignificant specks on the face of the earth.
John Donne liked to imagine himself “coffind”: he posed for his own funeral monument, and slept in his future coffin. Such a reminder of death, putting our brief lives into perspective, is surely healthy.
But we should not stay in a coffin for a week. It’s like a whirlpool that sucks us down in the flesh and heaves us out a husk.
The 1968 spaghetti western, Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence), directed by Sergio Corbucci, animates this idea of oblivion.
It’s a sublime revenge narrative. The main character, called Silencio, is the fastest draw in the West. As a child, bandits cut Silencio’s throat and kill his parents. During the film he, the “hero,” hunts them down. And falls in love with a Black woman named Pauline.
Il Grande Silenzio is set in winter, with great white vistas swallowing up the tiny towns. People freeze in snow, drown in frozen lakes. Everyone shivers. Death is close.
Corbucci leads us to think that the great silence is God, in the form of Silencio the savior. But at the end, the gang of bad guys (led by Klaus Kinski, with nasty charisma) murder all the good guys, including Silencio.
How refreshing! And uncomfortably realistic. The Great Silence, it turns out, is death, coming up the driveway for the good folks and the bad.
By silence, I don’t mean secrecy or censorship; the silencing of voices. I’m not talking about passivity, or what Audre Lorde meant when she said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
Rather, the silence that encourages the opposite: the quiet that allows us to know ourselves. That lets us become more ourselves; more of whatever it is we are already.
Allowing our wounds to surface (contemplation), holding those wounds long enough to write them down (focus), and deciding which wounds will stay in the poem (extended focus as editor), all require a degree of stillness and quiet and patience.
If we are telling the poem what to say, impatiently (viz. noisily), then the good parts (the cloud “magically” turning into Franklin’s ship) might not have a chance to evolve.
We artists love the accolades and the recognition of art, what little comes to us. But the crux of making artwork happens in moments of silence when we are alone. Or moments—among people, with or without noise—when we, like turtles, have withdrawn and found focus, which is an aspect of silence.
Such silence is the source of the work, its theater, its portal of transmission to the reader.
David Lynch describes, in his non-fiction book Catching the Big Fish, how meditation has been a tool for him to become the person and artist he is. The big fish, he says, is the great idea, the film, the line, the vision. We bring ourselves to the water and wait for it to break the surface.
We cannot force the big fish to come. All we can do is live a life that best allows us to glimpse it, when and if it comes.
A simple and ancient idea. When we’re still and calm, the work appears to us. For an artist silence is, as Lao-Tzu said, “a source of Great Strength.”
Rumi summed it up well: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing there is a field. / I’ll meet you there. // When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about.”
Where does art come from? That field “beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing.”
The deer visits me again. This time I’m reading, facing the big window.
I watch her, but do not move. I don’t even lower the book.
We are both completely still.
John Wall Barger’s essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Hopkins Review, Mississippi Review, Poetry Northwest, Literary Matters, The Rumpus, Rain Taxi, Jacket2, and elsewhere. His fifth book of poems, Resurrection Fail, is coming out this fall with Spuyten Duyvil Press. He’s a contract editor with Frontenac House, and teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. (johnwallbarger.com)
YOU ARE A POET (Even When You Aren’t Writing)
A Craft Essay by Mark Danowsky
In Poetics, Aristotle essentially defines a poet as someone who has “an eye for resemblances.” This is a nice reminder to look up, both literally and metaphorically, look around, look within, simply look. We are all trapped in our physical bodies while also inhabiting external spaces. What are your spaces? What is in these spaces?
People say, “Life happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Sometimes, in order to return to your writing, you need to live a little. This is not because you lack content. Flannery O’Connor famously says, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Writers each have their own metaphor for “waiting for the well to refill” so that their ability to approach the page becomes feasible.
When you’re not actively writing, or you feel like you’re not writing as much as you should, maybe you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing. Maybe what you need is a period of reflection. There are times for simply living life and times when you need to write to make sense of the world.
I used to believe all writers need a day job. What I really meant but did not yet understand was that writers need stimulation to encourage them to put pen to paper. It’s not necessarily what you do, it’s that you’re subconsciously soaking in data. In Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry, he writes, a good poem has an “arc of associations which corresponds to the inner life of the objects.” Basically, poetry is all about associative thinking. This is part of the reason I encourage cherry-picking material you enjoy from the various types of data foisted on us 24/7. Pay attention to the different environments you move through; watch how people in, around, and outside your bubble go about daily living; notice repetition and variation; reflect on the particular way your mind and your body move through days that are short and days that seem to go on forever.
A misstep is believing that living wild brings wildness to the page. Going to bars too often and driving Uber/Lyft may be the source of a few of my most entertaining stories, however, these are not the source of my better writing. The times in my life when I’ve been most productive are the times in my life when I’ve had structure and routine.
Writers have notoriously odd habits and routines surrounding their writing. Goethe had his thing with rotten apples; Auden kept a strict schedule (common) which included a daily dose of amphetamines (less common, not recommended); Dr. Seuss turned to hats (not surprising); Haruki Murakami maintains a strict schedule (common) that includes a considerable amount of exercise (also fairly common). Most writers have little practices that are a bit like superstitions.
I’ve heard variations on reasons why writers leave their daily work purposefully unfinished. I find this concept interesting; although, it is not part of my own writing practices. There are writers who say they stop in the middle of a sentence; who begin the new day’s writing by rewriting or re-typing the previous day’s work; who stop writing in the middle of a section because they know where they’re going (so it feels easier to get started the next day); who make a point of stopping while they still feel the urge the continue writing. It is almost exclusively writers who do not write poetry who I have heard speak in this way.
Ask a poet about The Muse and, whether or not they believe in this concept as beyond themselves, they will usually tell you that they write until the words stop coming. Most poets bleed themselves out. A notable exception, Mary Ann Saymn has said that her most notable strength as a poet is her ability to walk away from the page. You can feel it in her poetics. There is a very real distance between lines. The poet has deliberately chosen to let lines sit, to let the poem rest incomplete, to wait for the next best words to arrive.
Stephen Dobyns wrote a poetry craft book called Best Words, Best Order and then went on to write another craft guide called Next Word, Better Word. I find this both interesting and funny. The best words are only the best words for now. This is why poets and writers are often wrongly accused of writing “the same” thing over and over again. It’s not that Stephen King is writing the same book again, it’s that he’s still trying to write to best version based on his original intention.
Matthew Zapruder says, in Why Poetry, that “The poem is an experience of continual speculation and wondering.” To me, Zapruder is saying the poem is incomplete. Incomplete because it requires a reader to bring all of the reader’s experience and thoughts and beliefs to the table while in the act of reading the poem. Each time we encounter the poem, we bring a new version of ourselves. And so both the poem and the reader continues to evolve.
A great poem, a lasting poem, is both good now and good later. In his essay, The Figure a Poem Makes, Robert Frost encourages us to aim for a poem that we can reread over and over without it losing its power. In Frost’s words, “Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a petal keeps its fragrance.” Frost focuses attention on the importance of surprise in a poem. Famously, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” By contrast, Linda Gregg says, “Don’t make the reader do too much guesswork.” You always to have to work to find the sweet spot. The greatest Confessional poets were skilled at walking a tightrope of sentimentality. Too sentimental? You fall off an emotional cliff. It’s hard to do it right but so is anything worth doing.
Mark Danowsky, Poetry Craft Essays Editor, is a Philadelphia poet. He is Editor-in-Chief of ONE ART: a journal of poetry, Senior Editor for Schuylkill Valley Journal, Poetry Craft Essays Editor for Cleaver Magazine, and a regular contributor for Versification.
SHOWING AND TELLING: Seven Ways to Help Your Writing Breathe
A Craft Essay by Billy Dean
“Show-don’t-tell” is fine advice—unless you apply it absolutely, as if you should always show and never tell. But there are no absolute rules in good writing. Here are seven ways your prose and poetry can breathe with both showing and telling.
#1 Body & Mind We know more about the world with our bodies than with our minds because we are more directly connected to reality through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. When you want readers to participate with their imagination, engage their senses with words aimed at their bodies.
Penny watched a rabbit hop under the snow-covered rosemary, ears down and alone.
Stories with nothing but imagery, however vivid and beautiful, can be boring and pointless unless you give readers a context for what you are showing them, and why. When you want readers to participate with their intellect, engage their understanding with words aimed at their brains.
Penny glanced at her cell phone. Five bars. Why hasn’t he called?
#2 Peaks & Valleys Exploit the distinction between words aimed at the mind and words aimed at the body with “peaks” of showing and “valleys” of telling. Peaks are high points when your readers are holding their breath, and valleys are low points when they are pondering what they saw on the peaks. Juxtaposing peaks and valleys grounds images in information.
Jim pulled the pistol out of the glove box and pushed the barrel under his chin.
Doctor Evans had told him there was no cure, but Jim had a cure. Life sucks, then you die—alone, angry and full of regrets.
#3 Scene & Summary Your setting will be a boring, irrelevant background for the action and the dialog unless it merges images and information to set the stage for your plot, your character’s mood, and what can happen.
Most stories alternate “scene” writing—which shows readers what happened—with “summary” writing—which tells readers what happened. The trick is to balance scene with summary, showing with telling, facts with feelings, and imagery with information.
The sky was filled with dark, threatening clouds. In the distance, lightning could be seen but not heard. Like small children, the men huddled near the fire, seeking its warmth and familiar glow. Hank looked up. The storm was moving their way. He reached forward and poked the smoldering fire with his cane.
He would tell the story again, tonight, because, in the story, the world promised what might have been. Outside the story, the world closed in again, actual, bare and unyielding.
#4 Brevity & Presence Showing can be more precise than telling, whereas telling can be more concise than showing. Precise details give your readers more sensory-oriented information to enhance their presence in the story, as in example A, below. By contrast, a concise telling gives your readers fewer details to compress time so they are not burdened with every aspect of a character’s preparation for the real action ahead, as in example B.
A) Sharon pulled into her space at the Oak Knoll Apartments, turned off the engine, got out and heard the satisfying beep as she tapped her remote. She climbed the stairs to her apartment, unlocked her door, and closed it behind her. She tossed her purse on the dinner table, kicked off her shoes and threw herself onto the bed. Lying there with her face buried in the soft, pillowy comforter, a dark wave came over her.
Remembering she had forgotten to lock her door, she rolled off her bed, walked to the door and felt, as much as heard, the snick of the deadbolt as it slid home through the strike plate of the sill. Would she ever feel safe again?
She poured herself a drink—vodka without the rocks. She opened her purse and saw the canister of pepper spray Anthony had given her. She resisted the urge to grab it and pretend to point it at Jack’s face. Instead of seeing the spray transform his arrogance into anguish, she saw a guard, hairy and huge as a gorilla, his black eyes boring into her under his ape-like brow, and his voice mocking her with a growling, “You brought pepper spray to a gunfight? Want me to break your neck or just shoot you?”
B) Sharon was afraid the compound would be guarded by dogs. So she tossed a canister of pepper spray in her purse before leaving the house.
You noticed, of course, that we don’t know what’s bothering Sharon. The first example doesn’t tell us why she no longer feels safe, and the second omits her reasons in the interest of brevity. Both are missing context, which is neither necessarily good or bad. It all depends on your motives for keeping your readers in the dark. Perhaps you want to enhance suspense or save a surprise for later in the story. Whatever the reason, keep in mind that showing without telling and telling without showing can be boring, pointless and confusing unless you give readers a context for what you are showing or telling them, and why.
Too much or too little of anything is unbalanced. When it comes to showing or telling, we can balance our writing with a combination of both to enhance both presence and brevity with context. Below is a third example demonstrating how to alternate scene and summary to move your readers from imagery to information:
C) When Sharon got home, she kicked off her shoes and poured herself a drink—vodka without the rocks. A wave of fear washed over her. In her mind’s eye, she saw a guard, hairy and huge as a gorilla, his black eyes boring into her under an ape-like brow, his hand on his gun. [Scene]
Anthony was asking her to risk her job, her career—maybe even her life. For what? The cause? Him? They hadn’t even slept together. One date, two drinks, and a kiss on the cheek as they said goodnight. She was a legal secretary, not a spy. And how would she get into the place? Even if she got past the dogs, the guards, and the locked doors, how would she know which disk had the data that Anthony needed to put Jack and his crooked buddies behind bars? [Summary]
#5 Convey & Evoke Telling can move your story forward, speed up the pace, and spare your readers from long, boring passages. But, as we have seen, it can also leave your readers standing outside your story like spectators. Telling readers how a character feels is trying to elicit an emotional response with words rather than with sensory clues. Think of words as handles to carry the idea of a feeling from writer to reader, not the feeling itself. Instead of directly informing your readers about a character’s feelings, as in the first example below, show them the symptoms so they can participate with their own emotions, as in the second example.
A) Shirley was so sad she wanted to die.
B) Shirley stood on the cliff watching the waves crash against the rocks below.
Let’s examine these differences in greater detail. In example A, above, readers are limited to what the narrator is telling them about the character’s feelings. But it’s merely a description of the character’s inner thoughts—as if the narrator is pointing at the character from a distance. The narrator becomes more present than the character. And that makes it more likely that the readers will not identify with the character in a personal way because they, too, feel distant from the character.
In example B, the narrator has all but disappeared because the narration, not the narrator, is showing the character in a particular situation. And that increases the likelihood that readers will feel little or no distance between themselves and the character in the scene. Most are likely to feel as if they are standing on that cliff with the character.
#6 Clarity, Curiosity & Closure Showing can be more subtle than telling. But you don’t want to be so subtle that your readers feel like they’re working a crossword puzzle without the clues, as in example A, below. You can be both subtle and clear, as in example B. And you can achieve clarity by igniting your reader’s curiosity, then satisfying it with closure, as in example C:
A) With every step across that furrowed field, Sylvia heard the rumble hammering her ears get closer, louder—more like a mongoose circling a cobra than the moon orbiting earth.
B) Sylvia watched Jake drive away with Jean, her best friend, in that truck they painted three summers ago—the one his dad gave her to repair so Jake could drive it when he turned 16. He’d never know how much she loved that truck, the rust bleeding through its other color.
C) Her gold ring tossed on the tracks was no match for iron wheels rolling into the station. She would leave Jake and buy a ticket to tomorrow, where she would go, with alacrity, alone.
#7 Walking the Dog My goal has been to convince you that your best writing will result from asking yourself, How do I want my readers to respond to that sentence, this scene, my story? rather than, Did I follow the hallowed rules of writing?
Even my show-and-tell suggestions might keep you from your best writing if you follow them absolutely. So let’s examine another rule some writers apply absolutely, a rule they justify by saying that Anton Chekhov told us to avoid all adjectives and adverbs because the use of modifiers constitutes telling. He didn’t say that. He said, Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.
Chekhov advised us to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Being too specific is like walking your dog on a short leash: your readers won’t be free enough to bring your words to life with their own imagination and intellect. Being too is like walking your dog on a 30-foot leash: your readers will wander off the path you want them on. In the first example below, I haven’t crossed out all my adverbs and adjectives. I’ve crossed out as many as I could to ensure my readers will respond as I intended:
Little Tommy pedaled his younger sister’s oldJC Higgins bicycle to herelementary school as quickly as he could, hoping he’d get there before any of his friends saw its girly-pink seat and sissy-blue ribbons twirling conspicuously from the bent handlebars.
The second example, the same text minus extraneous modifiers, gives my reader freedom to imagine a vivid scene—without wandering off the path I’ve chosen:
Tommy pedaled his sister’s bicycle to school as quickly as he could, hoping he’d get there before his friends saw its pink seat and the blue ribbons twirling from the handlebars.
Billy Dean is a retired technical writer with degrees in English and Engineering. His essays, how-to guides, poems, and stories have been published in trade journals and magazines, and on the Internet. His goals are to craft prose and poetry loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.
WORKING FOR SURPRISE: On Running, Prescriptive Teaching, and the Language of First Drafts A Poetry Craft Essay by Devin Kelly
For many writers, the first draft of a work can be either something magical or something they just have to step over to get to the next draft, and the next one. Devin Kelly celebrates the first draft and questions the fetishism of revision.—Grant Clauser, Editor
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.
A few days ago, I posted a thread on Twitter that began with the idea that sometimes your first drafts can be your best drafts. I was responding, in some ways, to a sort of celebration of the masochism and self-deprecation of writing that often gets circulated on social media. It’s not surprising to see people talking about how bad their first drafts are. “Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can,” Anne Lamott writes in the canonical Bird by Bird, a seminal work on the craft of writing. Such a narrative is familiar: you write something you might think is wonderful, you put it away, and then you return to it and realize that it is a god-awful pile of shit. I don’t have any real qualm with this kind of narrative other than…well, maybe I do. I’d like to see another narrative celebrated (at least alongside it!): that of the surprising and wonderful first draft.
Before I go on, I want to say that there are different kinds of work, and that both discipline and work can look like many different things. Sitting down to write at 6 in the morning every day can be a kind of discipline. Writing a stream of conscious narrative can come from a place of discipline. The ability to structure and offer discipline to your life can come from privilege, whether that’s the privilege of money, or time, or job security. Some people create discipline out of lives that are filled with work.
About 23 miles into a recent 50-mile race last November, I began walking. A few miles prior, I had entered the marathon-long stretch of canal towpath that twirled and rolled alongside the Potomac River. I was in roughly thirtieth place in a field of close to a thousand and positively geeking out, excited for the soft and flat surface that extended outward like a dream for miles upon miles. Once on the towpath, I settled into a rhythm and tried to quiet my breathing. A few miles rolled by right near seven-minute mile pace and then, with the sudden sharpness of a bird’s quick descent from sky to ground, I stopped. No reason. No labored breathing. I just did. Other racers appeared behind me, emerging from the misty air, and passed me by. First one, then more. I was doing calculations in my head, trying to figure out how much time I had lost, how much I would have to salvage. And then I stopped this, too. I breathed. I walked forward. And then shuffled. And then one foot became two and those feet became meters and then, finally, those meters became miles.
There was a moment in that time of stoppage that was full of self-pity. I looked back on all I had done in preparation, this series of little drafts, and then looked at my not-moving feet, and felt this looming sense of anger and desperation and pity, that this event was not turning out the way I planned. I don’t know how you move on from those feelings other than by simply moving. As I shuffled back into the race, I began to create new goals for myself, to let myself be surprised by the present moment – the ache lifting from my legs after a warm cup of broth, the man and his dog knee-deep in the shallows of the river, a kindness-mirage.
I’m comparing running to writing here because each is a kind of work that offers access to different kinds of presents, in the sense of both time and gifts. And it takes work. How that work looks, though, and the effects of such work, can vary from writer to writer. When I brought up some thoughts about this via twitter, Natasha Oladokun, one of my favorite contemporary poets, mentioned how Li-Young Lee sometimes asks himself, “What impulse was I privileging in draft #2 that’s been killed by draft #17?” What a generous and self-interrogating thought, to understand that the work of working on something doesn’t always make that something better. Runners face a similar kind of problem in the build up to high-endurance races. A succession of heavy-mileage weeks can burn out one’s legs and leave one in worse shape, even when they’ve been running more. It often takes a kind of generous and inquisitive listening to one’s body in order to perfect that type of long-distance training.
Years ago, I arrived at my MFA program without having taken a single creative writing class in college. Unfamiliar with the rhetoric and dynamics of workshops, I grew to lament the idea of process. I looked at the specific edits fellow students gave me for my stories and knew that if I took each one, I’d have some jumbled mess of prose that hardly resembled me. I looked at other students who carried around the same story from workshop to workshop, and how it morphed and changed but never grew to be anything that resembled what the carrier wanted. I shook myself repeatedly, trying to remind myself that it’s not always about the story we tell but rather about how we come to it, and what we open ourselves toward, and what reveals itself to us in the process. I don’t really write to understand so much as I write to accept my own fundamental state of misunderstanding. Likewise, I don’t run a race to finish it. I run a race to dwell in the forever-encounter with the mystery of my body and my body’s place in this world.
So what now? I guess what I am trying to say is not that our first drafts are always absurdly beautiful, or that we should all stop revising, but rather that there is a language of surprise and generosity that exists within the confines of the first draft that can, at times, be beneficial to us as writers and people. And I think that what you want from your own writing depends on what you want from the world of writing. Sometimes the publishing world doesn’t celebrate the intrinsic adulations that writing for the self often brings about. Those feelings of surprise, inventiveness, generosity of self. “When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again,” Hemingway writes in On Writing. National Book Award winner John Casey literally titled his advice-for-writers book Beyond the First Draft. In a 1963 conversation with David Ossman, Denise Levertov said, “When one has written a first draft one may be elated, and one may wrongly think that it’s right as it stands.” Debating whether these statements, Lamott’s earlier one included, are right or wrong is a fruitless hill to die on, but it bears questioning why, for so long, successful and established writers and teachers have often privileged the final draft over the first. There is a long list of teachers I’ve had or listened to who repeatedly told me or an audience that the key to writing is revision. But how? And why? And is it possible for revision to look different for different people? And isn’t it just a little weird that, often, the people who talk so frequently about the tedious work of writing are people in relative positions of power? And why, finally, does revision have to prescribed as work, when, often, there is a pleasure in diving back into that heady water?
In the first few miles of the 50-miler that November, as fellow racers and I were all working out of our shuffles and tentatively making assessments about the state of our legs and their prospects for the future hours, we talked. It’s one of my favorite things about long races. You’re racing, and yet, in those early miles, you’re going slow enough to hold a conversation. What’s interesting, though, is how those conversations hardly ever are about the work done prior to the race. Rather, they’re almost always centered on stories of the joys of long races, and the failures, and the oddities we’ve encountered along the way. For all my competitive running life prior to these longer races, all my starting lines were filled with conversation about the work needed to get to those start lines. But when I started running far enough, into the reaches of the why-the-fuck-would-you-do-that, I don’t think anyone cared. I think everyone knew it was a given.
Poetry, to me, is that far reach, that ultra-marathon of writing. That wonder-world of experience and language. And, as such, this is how I approach a poem: knowing there is labor involved but instead choosing to privilege the moments of revelation that such labor provides and the moments of surprise and joy that, sometimes, possibly, excessive labor eliminates. I believe, then, in the unlimited possibilities of the first draft. I don’t believe that anything can possibly be a finished thing. And, as an aside, why the fuck would I want to finish anything? I am already tremendously scared of finishing this thing we call life. I believe that we are always a working-toward, a working-against, a working-with. Always a working, never at rest. Always aware of how little our knowing takes away from the sheer depth of our unknowing. Understanding this, I believe a first draft can be an accurate replication of whatever a poet might be working toward, simply because I believe that a first draft contains within it so many things that do not look like work but, in fact, are. A thought struggled with for weeks. A moment observed and then held. A long walk taken through the night. Why not privilege this kind of thinking about poetry alongside, not instead of, our thinking of craft, and work, and structure, and time? Why do some teachers prescribe a craft that only works toward some or one of these things? Why not privilege surprise too, a labor that does not look like writing, a generosity of self-belief? Is it because these things are not as teachable as form?
I don’t relate to any sort of prescriptive advice about poetry, mainly because I don’t think there is such a thing as a good poem, especially in relation to the world outside the reader. I think a poem can be good at things that we prescribe as certain aims of poetry, and can, more importantly, be of a sort of intrinsic good for the poet. But to privilege the value of re-writing a poem toward a more prescriptive and extrinsic goodness over the value of simply discovering and expressing that poem within and through the self in the first place is, I think, a dangerous thing. I’ve heard and read discussions of craft that prioritize the extrinsic value of publishing rather than the intrinsic value of writing a poem that helps one move through one’s life, or memory. This is the dangerous and beautiful nature of the poetry world. It is an art form that exudes its limitless and boundless opportunity. A poem can be as tightly-wound as a sonnet and as excessive and explosive as a free verse poem whose lines run off the page. And even a sonnet can move through many iterations and experiments. Read Petrarch next to Bernadette Mayer and see this. It’s a beautiful thing.
When I do teach poetry, I focus on aspects of permission and surprise. I want students to understand that those small, hard-to-grasp moments when you write yourself through a door you never could have opened before into an exact description of a feeling are small miracles. I want to help students create a space within themselves that is permissive and generous, that gives them the access to move through moments that might be harder to move through without poetry. How this looks is different for each student, and that, I think, is the beautiful hardship of teaching poetry. There are a lot of wrong ways and few right ways. But I can say this: Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to look out a window at the setting sun and make up words for the vast spectrum of ever-changing colors you see. Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to think of the first time you felt deeply scared that the sky would suck you from the ground and how that feeling grew in you, unprompted, a land-swell of fear. Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to gather your vegetables and neck bones and chicken stock and come to the next class with a stew for all of us to eat.
Devin Kelly is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the books Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (CCM). He works as a college adviser in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem.
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 their song—the red flash of a cardinal lights on a branch nearby; a robin lands on the trail ahead, scraping his yellow beak against a rock.
Observation like this helps feed my database of images, fragments of music, and overheard speech, which prepares my poetry-brain for the work of choosing words, putting them in a certain order, and forming phrases into lines, stanzas, and eventually entire poems.
Remembering a line I’m working on, I worry it like a dog with a bone, gnawing on the words, their syntax, imagery, sound or feel in my mouth and mind. Playing with the line, I’ll follow it until it leads somewhere or dumps me in a ditch, when I’ll file it away for another day. I’m paying attention to where the poem wants to go.
Paying attention in the age of distraction is hard. At any moment, there is a myriad of distractions tempting us away from our writing: the latest bombastic tweet by our deranged president; someone posting a delicious plate of food on Instagram; or the steady stream of Facebook posts showing all my poet-friends and acquaintances meeting-up at AWP.
Paying attention in the age of distraction is hard. At any moment, there is a myriad of distractions tempting us away from our writing.
In many ways, the writing life seemed easier in the age of the typewriter—nothing but a blank page staring back at me, waiting for my fingers to move. No smartphone at the ready buzzing with the latest text from my wife, my kids, that Amazon.com delivery. “Let’s just take a minute and see who it is,” I say to myself. “I’ll get back to the writing.”
Consequently, it’s worse when writing on a computer, especially if it’s connected to the Internet. Writing something about a bird I heard singing on my walk this morning, I wonder—are they found here? At this time of year? Is that the song I heard? Let’s just take a look at the Cornell Bird Observatory website and verify…wait, is it the Bird Observatory or Center for Ornithology? (Minimizes Word document and clicks open browser…ah, it’s the Cornell Lab of Ornithology…I feel better.)
Poetry, the late Mark Strand wrote, “allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, poetry permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.”
If we’re paying attention, however, we can put our busy lives in perspective, create a context for what we’re doing on this planet. Lived like this, life is not about going through the motions; rather, we actively participate in life, in all its facets. And for poets, this means approaching life with eyes open and taking notes.
“I have no clear goal in mind for the notes I take,” poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming writes in Writing the Sacred Into the Real. “Other than to help myself remember the intensities of the day, the mix of sensation and thought as it rises and falls with the swells.”
For me, note-taking happens sporadically. Ordinarily, I work on poems in my head for a long time before I put anything on paper. As I get older, however, I find taking notes helps—especially if I’m busy with daily life—work, family, getting the dry cleaning. The “Notes” app on my iPhone is one repository; notebooks and the occasional scrap of paper are another.
As with Deming’s, my note-taking may or may not lead to a poem or an essay or much of anything. Yet, as she imparts, “taking them forces a kind of attention that makes the experience richer, and attention is central to both artistic and spiritual practice.”
Practice. That word speaks to me: poetry as practice feels right. We are amateurs of a sort at translating the unsayable, doing so requires attention and practice. While we must pay attention to fleeting moments of inspiration, more often we’re slogging away at draft upon draft of a poem, trying to find where the poem really wants to go.
And for this we need daily practice. Ezra Pound suggested poets write 70 lines a day; novelist Graham Greene stuck to 350-500 words per day and would quit as soon as he hit that limit. Counting it out, I find it is close to the same amount, given a typical line-length in contemporary poetry. (Accordingly, this being the age of distraction, I don’t trust my memory of Greene’s word-limit, so, I double-check. There are conflicting numbers even from Greene himself, so I’ll stick with this range.)
Working the poetry-brain in this way makes it easier to pay attention, not only to our surroundings, but to our words and what the poem is trying to say. Moreover, this is a reciprocal act, regenerative: paying attention is what poet Mary Oliver calls “our endless and proper work.”
The practice of poetry, like yoga, meditation, exercise or any other practice prepares us for paying attention. Consequently, attentiveness leads to a richer poetry, grounded in place, specificity, and real-world observation that can make a poem come to life and help the reader see the world in a different way.
As with Alison Deming’s note-taking, whether we get anything “done” or accomplished in terms of a draft or a finished poem is beside the point. The act of practice alone makes it easier to get work done and makes us more receptive, more available to the poems we must write. In turn, practicing our writing, through note-taking or drafting, makes observation easier. Through this practice, we become more attuned to the world around us and the poems tend to come easier. (Well, at least the bad first drafts!)
For me, the practice of paying attention is part of the practice of poetry, as the practice of poetry is part of paying attention, a cyclical, symbiotic relationship. This type of attentiveness I’m writing about is akin to what Zen practitioners call deep listening.
As the Zen practice implies, deep listening requires complete receptivity—an openness and attentiveness to what’s possible and to asking questions. If we have a question to answer through poetry, we need to ask it. Nevertheless, it sometimes seems like our minds are on auto-pilot and we are not truly paying attention, causing us to miss both questions and answers.
This deep listening and acute attentiveness is a form of tuning to the right frequency.
This deep listening and acute attentiveness is a form of tuning to the right frequency. Like the dial on a car radio, if you turn a little too much to the right or left, you lose the signal. Through the act of paying attention, we fine-tune our ability to find the right frequency. Think of a new violinist searching for the right notes with bow to strings—it takes practice to make melodious music.
One winter a painted bunting shows up in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park near where I live. He’s lost his way and finds refuge for several weeks foraging among the native grasses and shrubs behind the ice rink.
I’ve seen painted buntings before, in their southern, native habitat, so I want to see this Brooklyn visitor who strayed far from where he belongs. Finding his general location is easy; I look for a large group of birders: scopes and field glasses and big-lensed cameras trained on the spot. Even with his bright, variegated plumage, however, it proves hard to make him out among the reds, greens, and yellows of the meadow floor. Watching me stare at one spot for five minutes, my dog grows impatient.
Then, a flash of movement to the left catches my eye and I notice a bit of cobalt blue where that color can’t be. There he is, the painted bunting, as resplendent as I’d imagined: worth the wait, worth looking hard for, worth the patience and effort.
A poem can be like that bunting: elusive, hard to pin down, but once you’ve got it, you can’t let go. Paying attention to the colors hiding deep within the grasses, we find the kernel of a line or a phrase that leads to another line, and another. Sometimes obscured, sometimes difficult to extract.
As a poem takes shape, it requires attentiveness too. Am I using the right words to say what the poem wants to say? Are my line breaks speeding up or slowing down the reader? What is the cadence, tone, and sound of the poem saying and is it appropriate to the subject matter? These are all questions I ask myself while revising my poems, being attentive to what is happening in the poem and how I can help make it clearer—to get out of its way and let the poem tell itself. This kind of attentiveness to the poem, tuning the dial up or down to hone-in on the frequencies allows the poem to cut through the noise.
Looking at the world more closely requires a twofold approach to paying attention: outward and inward. Outward: what’s going on around you and what you see, what you notice. Inward: what’s going on within you and your reactions to what you notice. Combined, this inward and outward focus develops our ability to see things others do not see and allows us to call attention to those things in our writing. Inward-focused attention also helps turn observation into a poem, aligning the frequencies and images into metaphor through a complex process of our own devising.
Not to overplay the spiritual aspects inherent in this level of paying attention, it is, in part, a form of showing up, of being present, that can’t quite escape a spiritual element. Distractions govern so much of our lives—from social media to work-life—we so rarely allow time for a deep attentiveness. If we make it a practice, however, we can begin to form insights and become more receptive to the poetry even in our everyday lives.
Perhaps paying attention helps us uncover the unsayable, the unseeable, what needs seeing and saying in our poetry. Of course, paying attention in this age of distraction requires retraining ourselves in many respects. From my own practice, however, I find the more time I put into being attentive—inwardly and outwardly—the more often it leads to better poems.
Writing poetry may be an unnatural act, as Elizabeth Bishop once said, but through daily practice and paying attention, it may become a bit more natural or at least it appears that way to the reader.
Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks In Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award. His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Pine Hills Review, Terrain, Yellow Chair Review, The Wayfarer, and the anthologies Dogs Singing (Salmon Poetry, 2011) and The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody, 2013), among other publications. You can read more about his work at his website and follow him on Twitter @greenskeptic
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.
WRITING THE SUPERHERO POEM A Craft Essay by Lynn Levin
Gods and demigods, the superheroes of myth and legend, have provided people with drama, wisdom, moral lessons, and hopes of divine intervention for thousands of years. Thunderbolt throwers like Zeus and Thor, fierce beauties such as Athena and Artemis, super-mortals like Hercules, not to mention countless deities and folk heroes from other world traditions may be seen as the forerunners of Superman, Batman, Zena Princess Warrior, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the comic book pantheon. Anthropologists tell us that the transcendent, that sense of unearthly force, is a universal feature of human perception (or the human imagination, depending on one’s point of view). Today’s supernatural pop-cultural good guys and bad guys tie into our attraction to the transcendent. We want larger-than-life fictional superheroes to rescue those in distress, combat the forces of darkness, and entertain us. While comic book writers, TV or movie producers, and video game developers are usually the ones to rally the superheroes, poets can write superhero poems which enlist and evoke the transcendent power of myth.
Superhero poems attract poets and readers for a host of reasons, among them dreams of triumph, rescue, the restoration of justice, and a psychological fascination with the doubled self. In her fascinating essay “Poems about Superheroes,” originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Stephanie Burt observes that poets and readers are attracted to superhero poems both out of both familiarity and mystery: we recognize the characters, and we know what a secret identity is. Superhero themes allow poets to become fantasy writers.
Superhero poems might speak of happy victory, but they are often grim. In his poem [my neck a toothsome feeding ground vespered swarms had drunk of me before this new batman] subtitled “a song for Robin,” (Tea, Wesleyan), D. A. Powell writes of an orphaned and seductive Robin who has affairs with numerous men as he seeks to attract his next Batman. The Boy Wonder is not fighting crime; he is looking out for his own future, hunting for his next savior but not in the name of love and partnership. His quest is ruthless, based on survival.
Another dark superhero poem comes from Lisa Prince, a poet and writer from Southern Ontario. In “Icarus’s Daughter,” Prince borrows from the classics but wings away from the traditional myth of the overreaching and doomed Icarus. Here the daughter of the tragic figure tries to be human in the face of legend; she struggles on after things fall apart.
She had not longed for flight, despite the wings she’d been given.
Between her toes, sand. Every call she heard was ocean. Every step she took was wave.
Her fingers, nimble, plucked those vibrant feathers one by one. Hope to a stranger. Faith to a bride. Peace…
…she knew none.
In the empty spaces of her wings, nothing grew. Pale skin turning paler, sicklier.
The song was clearer now that she knew. It was those wings binding her. Those wings…
…spread against the morning sun, leaving her translucent, standing atop a crested hill, overlooking
blue-green waters, pale and still.
all she needed to do
With her eyes closed she breathed the scent and sound of the ocean
spread her wings
The family tradition for self-destruction moves Icarus’s daughter to pick apart her wings and plunge into the sea. This suicidal fall is very much the opposite of what we usually think of when we think of soaring comic book heroes.
I experimented with a superhero prompt in a recent poetry writing class at Drexel University. The prompt proved effective far beyond my expectations. The superhero prompt appealed to the students’ familiarity with and delight in pop culture, and it encouraged them to write through a persona. Some students created mighty warriors. Others celebrated very down-to-earth champions, such as working mothers or superheroes in itchy costumes.
Here is the superhero poem prompt:
Write a poem about a superhero you are fond of or who excites your imagination. This might be a character who comes to your rescue or the rescue of others. The character might restore justice, overpower evil doers, or make the world a better place. On the other hand, the superhero might cause trouble. The character might accomplish amazing feats or more modest feats. You can write about a traditional figure from myth or contemporary pop culture, or you can invent your own superhero.
After I explained the prompt to my students, I shared a few poems from Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Becoming the Villainess (Steeltoe Books), a collection of superhero persona poems. In her book, Gailey includes poems that focus on characters from fairy tales and Greek mythology as well as some superhero figures of her own making. The samples from Gailey combined with the students’ own familiarity with mythology, comic book, and other media superheroes, as well as the students’ eagerness to speak through a mask helped them generate vivid poems.
The prompt proved liberating in many ways. Surprisingly, none of my students wrote about existing characters from myth, legend, or popular culture. These college poets all made up their own superheroes who spoke to their fears and desires. Often the poems starred regular people, such as the previously mentioned working mothers, whom the writers held in high esteem. The exercise led many students to write poems with more action, more story, and more character development than they would normally do.
In this poem by English major Amberlyn Wilk, the superhero is a glamorous and angry protectress of young women.
The Raging Bitch
She protects the streets with her winged eyeliner on point so women can go out at night without pretending to talk on the phone. No more evil lurks around the dark corners when she’s patrolling. Ladies no longer speed walk home with keys carefully placed between their fingers. There are no more tiny pink cans of mace squeezed Into the teeny little pockets of their skinny jeans. They don’t need to call an escort because she is there— The invisible escort is always with them. And you know she won’t break any of her French tips When she destroys any predator who may be prowling the streets. She is something that the law could never be, What the women of the world have been crying out for. She is a there to make sure that 1-in-5 stat disappears Because she can see that the wolf whistles in sheep’s clothing. No longer will a woman leaving the house after 9 pm Be playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette because she is there. She is there to make sure that no more women Sleep with a knife under their pillow. She knows that Christine wasn’t wearing the wrong clothes and Katherine isn’t just a loose slut and Amy’s silence did not equal consent and Brooke didn’t lead him on and Sophie didn’t enjoy herself at all. And she knows above all else that none of them were asking for it. The system has failed them But she never will.
In contrast to Wilks’s fierce avenger, computer science major Andrew Yaros created a mild-mannered comic superhero who uses the power of pun making to lighten the burdens of mankind.
Super here? Oh…
Every day, I tell myself This curse isn’t worth it, This burden is more than I can carry, Why has this responsibility been thrust upon me?
But we live in horrible sick society, A society without puns And someone needs to make them, And that someone is I.
I’m compelled to make puns No matter the time or season, And even when I write poetry I make puns without rhyme or reason.
And every day, I carry my burden. I create puns whenever I can, Even if no one will hear them: It must be done for the good of man.
I live in fear each day, Knowing the world will lapse Into chaos, famine, and nuclear war If I neglect my duty for but one minute.
It is the hell I live in, But it cannot last forever: One day I may need to have a son of my own To pass the torch to, as my father did to me.
A world without puns? A world without me.
The superhero poem prompt, obviously, can be broadly interpreted. My students’ superheroes sometimes swooped the skies, and sometimes they were fierce, but more often they were humble souls, very human, and friends to mankind. Traditionally good characters can take on questionable roles. Conversely, superhero poems can serve to redeem or re-envision mythic or comic book figures who have been saddled with a bad reputation. I have written a series of poems about Lilith, a figure with roots in ancient folk tradition, who, non-biblical legend has it, was the first wife of Adam. Lilith has suffered a very bad rap in legend, but my mission has been to humanize her and be kind to her. For example, in one of my poems, Lilith goes shopping with Eve at Macy’s.
We love superheroes because they are exciting and because they fulfil our wishes for power, vengeance, justice, rescue, and other goals that seem beyond our reach. In poetry, they also turn out to be powerful muses.
Prince, Lisa: “Icarus’s Daughter” appears by permission of the author. The poem was first published in Prince’s Sign Language (and other hand signals), a chapbook in the November 2006 issue of Lily: A Monthly Online Literary Review.
Wilk, Amberlyn: “The Raging Bitch” appears by permission of the author. Copyright c 2017 by Amberlyn Wilk.
Yaros, Andrew: “Super here? Oh…” appears by permission of the author. Copyright c 2017 by Andrew Yaros.
Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, translator, and teacher. Her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, Per Contra, Painted Bride Quarterly, Boulevard, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her website is www.lynnlevinpoet.com. The second edition of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press) by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin is expected to be published in 2018. “Eve and Lilith Go to Macy’s” and Levin’s other Lilith poems may be found here.
DON’T BE A DRONE
Manipulating the Reader Through Pitch and Pace
A Poetry Craft Essay
by Grant Clauser
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.
Try this experiment–recite the alphabet out loud. First, start out slowly. Then speed up. As your recitation gets faster, your voice will involuntarily rise in volume. If you do the opposite, start fast and end slow, your volume will decrease. I’ve actually tried this experiment with my kids using a sound pressure meter, and their voices changed by a few decibels. Both shifts cause the listener to adjust their attention. The first causes the listener to sit up straight, triggered by the excitement of the louder voice. The second causes the listener to lean forward, paying extra attention to the details.
In many poems, pace control is achieved through syntax and diction. Essentially, any change in syntax or diction is a cue to the reader that pace and/or volume is also changing. A shift from long sentences to short ones, or description to metaphor, all signal that the poem is getting louder or quieter, faster or slower.
One of most obvious ways to impact pace and volume is the command. It’s the direct address to the reader that wakes us up and asks for our attention. Richard Hugo uses this frequently, as you can see at the end of “Farmer, Dying” where he piles on a series of commands in one stanza:
And we die silent, our last days loaded with the scream of Burnt Fork creek, the last cry of that raging farmer. We have aged ourselves to stone trying to summon mercy for ungrateful daughters. Let’s live him in ourselves, stand deranged on the meadow rim and curse the Baltic back, moon, bear and blast. And let him shout from his grave for us.
When we get to “Let’s live him / in ourselves, stand deranged on the meadow rim…” we can hear the pitch rising. If you’re reading it out loud, you’re standing up at this point as if in the throes of an anthem. The words “scream” and “cry” a few lines up act as signals for what’s coming. A command in a poem provokes an almost instinctual response in a reader. It’s the most active voice possible, and the hardest to ignore. When you hear a command you either oblige or resist, but either way, you engage with the words.
The next hardest to ignore is the question. What’s the most natural response to hearing a question? Answering it, of course, which you just did in your mind. Poets, like trial lawyers, sometimes use questions deceitfully. They know the answer, or at least their answer, but they want to trap you into answering it for yourself. That way you’re captured by the internal logic of the poem. Turning to Hugo again, this time in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” he uses the entire third stanza to hound the reader with a series of questions that are more-or-less rhetorical:
Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat so accurate, the church bell simply seems a pure announcement: ring and no one comes? Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium and scorn sufficient to support a town, not just Philipsburg, but towns of towering blondes, good jazz and booze the world will never let you have until the town you came from dies inside?
Being a master manipulator, Hugo follows up that question stanza with a command “Say no to yourself.” However, the questions in the prior stanza are the primary volume controllers. Each question feels louder than the rest. Each one asks the reader to question their core values. It’s like a parent berating a child, wearing him or her down with questions that are really accusations. Readers can’t help but respond .
Even when a poem doesn’t answer its questions, and many do not, it still hooks the reader in the search. Readers are like cats following the light from a laser pointer–they can’t help themselves. Jennifer Givhan’s poem “Polar Bear” works on this principle with a rhetorical question that compels the reader to the poem’s conclusion phrased as another question. After the initial question we come to a long sentence constructed of pancake-stacked clauses that speed the poem along:
… We are on my bed crying for what we’ve done to the polar bears, the male we’ve bonded with on-screen whose search for seals on the melting ice has led him to an island of walruses and he is desperate, it is late- summer and he is starving and soon the freeze will drive all life back into hiding, so he goes for it, the dangerous hunt, the canine-sharp tusks and armored hides for shields, the fused weapon they create en masse, the whole island a system for the elephant-large walruses who, in fear, huddle together, who, in fear, fight back.
And then the rush stops on line 22 with a period, and a hard emotional stop that coincides with a change in setting (from the description of the polar bear attack to the speaker’s son), which is also where the author brings up the ends of the metaphor and ties it in a knot for the reader.
Kim Addonizio’s poem “What Do Women Want?” starts out with strong declarative statements, “I want a red dress. / I want it flimsy and cheap,” which you probably hear in a moderate pace and volume – not whispering or shouting, not dragging or rushing. The hard and medium-hard end-stop lines keep you from moving too quickly. A few lines later the poem picks up speed thanks to the the shift from short statements to a longer sentence that goes on for seven enjambed lines. The effect is like a creek, burbling along, and then it tumbles through a waterfall, speeding up along the way for those seven lines. But what always happens at the bottom of a waterfall? There’s a pool where the water, or energy, gathers, stops for a moment, then moves again. Directly after that seven line waterfall, Addonizio slows us down with shorter lines, shorter sentences, and more end stop lines that make it hard to rush through.
Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones,” which has become something of an anthem for the times, uses these techniques and others as it pushes and pulls the reader along. It controls the reader so expertly that you feel you’re a car on a roller coaster, and your only choice is to follow the rails. The opening short, end-stopped, declaration, “Life is short, though I keep this from my children,” acts like a thesis statement for the poem. It’s followed by a much longer sentence, broken up into enjambed lines that use repetition, all of which speeds the poem along and raises the emotional pitch. Directly in the middle, Smith alters the pace with two emotionally-laden statements achieved both by startling images and an ecclesiastical-sounding sentence structure:
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird. For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake.
That’s an interesting moment in the poem, because it’s a gut punch. Midway through the experience we are forced to reconsider our place (as reader and as people in the world) and reorient ourselves. Getting back to the roller coaster comparison– this is the moment when the car is paused at the top of the ride, and you’re looking nervously at the park down below. The very next sentence is the dive to the bottom, propelled by three enjambed lines. Then the poem continues to repeat phrases from the first half, lifting and turning its imagery, jolting the reader back and forth until the poem rolls smoothly back to ground.
So why all this attention on pace and volume? Because poetry shouldn’t be monotone. It shouldn’t be the white noise you fall asleep to or the drone of the late night TV news anchor. Why do TV commercials blast their volume? Because the change gets your attention of course, and getting attention is the first step in getting you to engage with the content. As in advertising or marketing, poetry can be (and I’d argue that it should be) manipulative, and a poet who knows how to control a reader’s attention and emotions is a poet I enjoy reading. A poem that hooks you by the nose and pulls you down the road is one you’re going to remember.
Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of two poetry books, Necessary Myths (Broadkill River Press 2013) and The Trouble with Rivers (Foothills Publishing 2012), plus the forthcoming collections, The Magician’s Handbook (PS Books) and Reckless Constellations (Cider Press Review Books). In 2010 he was named the Montgomery County Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. In 2014 he was a guest poet at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He also writes about electronics, teaches poetry at random places and chases trout with a stick. His blog is www.uniambic.com. Email queries to [email protected].
ACROSS THE DIVIDE AND BACK
How Writing Poetry Is Changing My Nonfiction
by Vivian Wagner
I started out long ago as a poet, as many young writers do, in high school. I liked the brevity, simplicity, and mystery of poetry. But in the intervening years I’ve become a nonfiction writer, focusing on creative nonfiction, memoir, journalism, and academic writing. That has been my professional and personal identity, and I thought that’s the way it would stay.
That is, until I volunteered for the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, committing to write a poem a day for thirty days. I signed on to the project spontaneously, never thinking it would change my identity and my writing practice. But the experience ended up radically altering my perspective. The challenge brought me back to poetry, and it’s transformed both my nonfiction prose and my writerly identity.
The first obvious thing is that when writing nonfiction, I have much more room and space to fill. That sometimes leads to carelessness in word choice, because I’m often trying to meet a particular word count, measuring my output that way. Writing poetry has reminded me that every word matters and has value. There’s no time or language to waste. As a nonfiction writer, I’m constantly looking at the little number counter on the bottom of the page in Microsoft Word.
What I’ve found—or remembered?—with writing poetry, however, is that it’s not about the number of words, but their quality. Much of my poetry starts in handwritten form, and when I commit it to the screen, I’m more than likely cutting, rather than adding. I never look at the word count when I’m writing poetry. It just doesn’t matter. The fewer words, the better.
This is not likely to change the fact that I have to pay attention to word count while writing nonfiction, but—especially in the revising process—I’m now thinking more about the life in those words. I’m lingering with them. I’ve always loved freewriting and taking tangents, and this technique is still a good way for me to get my original material on the page or screen, both for nonfiction and for poetry. But writing poetry is teaching me to understand the joy in revising, cutting, and condensing. Expanding inward, rather than outward.
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.
It’s as if my nonfiction is now being written by a poet.
Imagery, too, has become more important to me. Imagery is there in my nonfiction, but it’s often secondary to story, scene, and character. In poetry, concrete, vivid imagery is central, and when meaning is there, it often expresses itself through imagery. Even my lyric essays focus on narrative, but I’m learning that those stories can take shape through images as well as through dialogue and scene and character. So just as my Tupelo 30/30 Project poem, “On Doing Yoga in the Basement of the United Methodist Church on High Street,” since published by Grandma Moses Press, weaves together imagery and narrative, my lyric essay, “Displaced Person,” tells its story through a series of images. In other words, imagery is no longer a secondary consideration for me in nonfiction. Images can express layered meanings, pushing a story in many ways at once.
I’m also finding that many poetry practice books lend themselves just as well to writing nonfiction as they do to poetry. Two of my favorites are Scott Wiggerman’s and David Meischen’s Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry and Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. The excellent prompts in these books—including creating word lists and timelines, gathering word hordes, collecting synonyms, and crafting collages—work just as well for nonfiction as they do for poetry. Many nonfiction prompts focus on storytelling, but these poetry prompts have been pushing my nonfiction in new and unexpected directions. This year, I’m also working my way through the wonderful book, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano, and moderating a Facebook group for others doing the same. Most of the pieces I’m writing for this project are poems, but some might be classified more as lyric essays or prose poems. Honestly, I’m not too worried about genre anymore. I’m just writing.
It might be tempting to think of ourselves as belonging within the boundaries of only one genre, but I think it’s more helpful to embrace the possibilities afforded by crossing borders between genres. Creativity, after all, thrives in hybridity. Art lives in the spaces in between.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Narratively, The Atlantic, Zone 3, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry chapbook, The Village (forthcoming from Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books). Visit her website to learn more.
SOMEONE IS WRITING THE REAL WEST VIRGINIA by Mary Ann Bragg
An artist in Provincetown, Massachusetts named Jay Critchley has a knack for provocation. He once parked a perfectly legal sand-encrusted car in a big parking lot downtown, a statement in part about the town paving over a harbor-front beach because of the need for more parking for tourists. Another time, he offered the abandoned, underground septic tank in his backyard as a summer rental and theater space at a time when the town was in trouble with the state about its housing density and the disposal of human waste.
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:
Many Of Us Newcomers
Beat-up blue van, that unshaved guy, stomach out, sold drugs, someone said. So respectful, almost silly, I once ran into him at the airport in D.C., “my spouse” fuzzy-haired, rotund. Missing too the owner, gray as sleet,
house sold, orders pizza now from high tops, blurts out: “I didn’t know they were going to cut down the trees.” Swimming pool rumored, he says; permit yellows in front window, grimaces at Bay Colony rental. Biggest antique
on the street, misshapen, white, added on and on and on, ivy rife, dirt driveway in lumps, electric power wired for empty, architect sign the only dignity. That man, gray as sleet, knocked on my door once: “I built this house.”
So who next? Dead mouse on the path to the beach, chicks flee pocket park, gate beyond: respect private property.
In the empty Ben Franklin store in Madison I want to read a poem, and invite other writers to read. My poem here might be something like this:
Everything That Falls Apart
I want that cotton pantsuit, paisley, upstairs gifts wrapped, girls’ department at Cox’s, far end of Main Street. But no. Homemade, very nicely homemade. Braces tightened I tear through Piece Goods, Saturday in the city sister strollered, Butterick seams cut and ripped, hot cashews hoarded in mittens, the Trailways bus leaves from Andy’s.
I could unfold metal chairs for the reading, and bring a cooler full of drinks, make it low-budget, and maybe people would come, people whose hearts are breaking, people who might like to hear what someone else is thinking.
I’ve been studying the poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” by Isaac Rosenberg. The poem, published in 1922, is about a World War I soldier on the Western Front; morning breaks, and then a rat runs across his hand. Rosenberg was one of the English soldiers in the war whose poems contain real and gritty details, rare for the time, about the overwhelming loss of life and the harsh and unromantic conditions of warfare. The poem isn’t Rosenberg unloading his emotional pain on the page. It’s not a distraught diary entry. The poem’s tone is restrained and almost ironical, mysterious and delicate in its conversation with the rat, until near the end when you come to understand how afraid, how mortally afraid, the soldier is.
I want to write a poem like that.
Earlier this year, while I was waiting for my mother at a doctor’s appointment in Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital, I walked a few blocks downtown, jaywalking when I wanted to, except there were no cars. This was on a Friday in the middle of the day, but it was like a Sunday morning. I kept walking toward a bookstore that I know on Capitol Street. I stepped inside. The place was busy and vital with literary magazines, coffee, comfortable seats, and shelves and shelves of books. I always go to this bookstore. I always buy more than I can afford. The bookstore is a beacon, a balm, and a statement. Someone has taken a stand with books and coffee right in the middle of an economic and social crisis with coal.
I live in Provincetown because it’s more welcoming of gay people than most places and I’m gay, and because the town is surrounded by the ocean and I love the beach. But I live in West Virginia too. I write short stories about West Virginia. I wrote this essay. In Matthew Neill Null’s essay, “No One is Writing the Real West Virginia,” Null argues that readers and publishing companies crave, “from a place like West Virginia, its most lurid and preconceived fantasies, as well as simple characters hopelessly shackled to their id.” He points to American writer Laura Albert who has continued to gain notoriety for her fiction published under the pseudonym J.T. LeRoy. Her novel Sarah (2000), written in first-person, is about an androgynous 12-year-old boy in West Virginia who adopts the persona of his mother Sarah, a truck stop “lot lizard.” For Null, what the wider readership wants from a place like Appalachia is a teen-age boy dressed in women’s clothes turning tricks at a truck stop. Readers, Null says, want “snake-handling Pentecostals” not United Methodists—a genre that Null calls “meth-lab trailer porn,” and he says that’s what’s being published.
Part of Null’s unspoken argument seems to be that Albert doesn’t have any apparent ties to West Virginia, and instead just overlaid her fantasies about mountain life on the harmless victim, the state of West Virginia, and that she shouldn’t do that. Albert was outed in 2005 and 2006 as the writer behind the J.T. LeRoy books and part of a literary hoax involving her boyfriend’s half-sister making public appearances as J.T. LeRoy. I read Sarah when it was first published because, like Null, I was curious and glad to find out more about a West Virginia-born author who was getting noticed at the highest levels in book reviews. My impression of Sarah then was a sense of the characters in a whirl of motion with no recognizable details of the state where I grew up.
I started to read the book again recently, and pretty soon came across a small detail about one of the state’s poorer counties that resonated with me as true. I can’t tell whether Albert has ties to West Virginia. She works in nonprofit development in San Francisco, according to her website. But writing about Sarah now has made me also think of the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005), which has more details of West Virginia children fending for themselves. I’m reminded of what Null says about the appetite among readers for rural clichés blown out to fit their fantasies. I read The Glass Castle when it came out and had a hard time swallowing the truth of those details. Still, the memoir has done well in sales, notably as a New York Times bestseller for more than six years, according to publisher Simon and Schuster. While Albert doesn’t say much on her website about her background, Walls does in her publisher’s bio. She grew up in the Southwest and in a mining town in West Virginia. She graduated from Barnard College, worked as a journalist in New York and now lives in rural Virginia.
I see West Virginia more and more in literature. It might be Null’s novel Honey From The Lion (2015), about the brutality of a rebellion against the state’s logging industry at the turn of the century, from which he read at a bookstore in Provincetown. It might be Jacob Knabb, writing an essay in Vice about the end of the coal economy in Boone County, where he and I grew up. It might be Emma Copley Eisenberg’s short story in Cutbank about a young woman’s move from a hilltop in West Virginia to Philadelphia. It might be Dean Marshall Tuck’s short story in Fugue about a lot of things: the history of Chief Cornstalk, the collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River, a father’s love for his daughter and an apparition called “Mothman.” There aren’t any boundaries, though, when it comes to a writer claiming a place as home. We don’t get to say who can write the real version, and what details are allowed. Writing the real West Virginia might mean you don’t use the words “West Virginia” at all. Maybe it just means you as a writer were born there, or your parents or grandparents are from there, or you drove through the state once and some details stuck with you, or whatever. Albert can write what she wants, and so can Walls and anybody else.
There are no boundaries either when it comes to reading about the place we call home. I have found the real West Virginia in The Country Girls by Irish novelist Edna O’Brien and in Sister Carrie by Indiana-born Theodore Dreiser. Both novels are about young women leaving their rural hometowns behind permanently for a life in the city, which is my story of departure in 1984 from West Virginia to Boston when I was twenty-six. I read Sister Carrie first, in the late 1990s, and even then it took me a while to realize that the story of Caroline Meeber (“Sister Carrie”) heading by train in 1889 to Chicago was a tale of rural flight and more importantly that rural flight was even a phenomenon that could be written about. The Country Girls, which I read two years ago, meant even more to me with its underlying themes of a young woman’s emerging independence and sexuality in the 1960s. The scene where Caithleen first arrives in Dublin with her friend Baba reminded me, with a jolt, of the wonder and uncertainty of first arriving in a city that could be your future. Both novels have scenes where the young women stay in cramped quarters with relatives or with families that provide supervised housing. It was the same for me, staying with my girlfriend’s aunt and uncle just outside of Boston, taking over her uncle’s bedroom with all our stuff and then asking to stay longer than we expected, until we found an apartment. We too went out looking for jobs shortly after getting to Boston, as Sister Carrie and Caithleen did.
In a different way, I also found the real West Virginia in the poem “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, a Missourian who was writing from England around 1920. I was reading the poem during the time I was in Charleston to take my mother to the doctor’s office. The details of a hopeless lower-class life in London, the typist lighting her stove and laying out food in tins, the ruminations of the old man Tiresias, and the overall tone of most of the poem captures, for me, the bleakness of the emptied-out storefronts in my hometown. But at the same time the poem doesn’t end in ruin, in part because of the use of Sanskrit at the end, which to me means something like: Rely on your history for strength.
I’ve found the real West Virginia in tangential ways too. In an earth science class it suddenly occurred to me as we studied tectonic plates that the tall rock shaped like an hourglass on top of a mountain in Lincoln County, West Virginia, that my uncle had shown me and my cousins one day, could possibly date back to a time when the Northern Hemisphere was covered with tropical swamps, when the vegetation would eventually be buried and over millions of years turn into beds of coal. In the Charleston Gazette-Mail, too, I’ve read about the boulders at the foot of Ice Mountain in Hampshire County, the talus, where cold and dense air sinks into the crevices in winter, where ice forms, guaranteeing over generations that by the Fourth of July families in the area would have plenty of ice to make ice cream.
I find myself thinking longer term, reaching back in geological time to when rocks formed and reaching forward to a time when, for example, global warming could drastically change the cycles of ice-making at Ice Mountain, and all of that leaks into my writing about West Virginia. So too does the life of Anne Newport Royall, one of the country’s first newspaperwomen who lived with her husband, a Revolutionary War soldier, in the unincorporated town of Sweet Springs in southeastern West Virginia. There’s a roadside plaque there for Royall, who in 1827, after her husband died, published her one novel, The Tennessean; a Novel, founded on Facts, before turning to travel writing and eventually journalism. In that early novel, a colonial fairy tale filled with stock characters and fantastic coincidences, you can see what her values are—to take care of those who have no voice—and how those values extended into her later career in newspapers. I take that to heart: Royall’s consistency in values across a lifetime of writing. A much greater influence has been feminist and poet Adrienne Rich, in particular her book What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993). I can remember first reading the book and feeling something quaking inside me. Rich’s message was simple enough. You can write a poem. Writing a poem can save your life. Writing a poem can be a “keenest joy.” Your own life is valid material, and as poets “we must use what we have to invent what we desire.”
At the time, I only half-understood what that meant. But as I flip through Rich’s book now, I find an airline ticket from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Houston, Texas, where I wrote what I think was my first poem, “And So It Goes,” about eating Thanksgiving dinner in Galveston, Texas, with complete strangers because my sister had been called away from the table to an emergency at work. Tucked in Rich’s book is also a newspaper clipping, one I had cut out about a woman in Madison, West Virginia stealing a refrigerator from her landlord when she left in the middle of the night without paying back rent of $200. I have an early poem entitled “Madison Woman Runs Off With Refrigerator.” I have an early poem entitled “Ennui,” about sitting at an office desk in tight pantyhose, and another entitled “Mr. French Thinks I’m The Secretary.”
All of those early poems were written in New England, but they have West Virginia in them, and they suggest themes that have emerged in my writing more fully over time: economic hardship, being stuck in unproductive work, alienation between men and women, alienation between cultures, desperate acts and a failure to act. Now, twenty years later, I’m asking more of myself and I’m asking more of other writers like Null and Knabb. They both see doom in West Virginia’s future. Knabb’s essay “A Portrait of Coal Town on the Brink of Death” ends with statements about how “powerless” he is to do anything except burn down a coal company’s billboard. Null’s assessment of West Virginia is: “We’re at the end of our road. By century’s end, half of West Virginia will be a moonscape of blasted rock, drilled and mined and stripped to nothing, all to produce cheap energy for the very people who have looked down on the place as backward; the rest will be a green playground for the wealthy, on the level of Jackson Hole.”
I don’t agree.
It’s our duty and responsibility as writers to address our concerns more and more fully, “to invent what we desire,” as Rich says. I can write a poem about the cracked Art Deco facade of a vacant beauty salon in Madison but I could also organize a one-day literary festival in the old Ben Franklin store across the street. A literary festival would be a surprise and provocation, an in-your-face response to the gloom of a Main Street hardened and hunkered-down with the strain of a bad economy. A literary festival would be a balm, a commitment to something as ephemeral as a poem and a statement of confidence in the potential of Main Street.
Of my neighborhood in Provincetown, I could write an essay about the depressing proliferation of “Private Beach” signs, and the new “No Dogs” sign down the street in a newcomer’s yard that actually shows a dog with a turd coming out of its butt. But as a writer, I can do more. I must do more. I could write a series of stories of Provincetown natives who have sold their houses for unbelievable amounts of money and moved away. I am thinking of excerpts I read of Voices From Chernobyl by Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich, which retold interviews she’d conducted as personal stories. I could write other stories from the perspective of those out-of-towners who might buy a house in Provincetown, and pay a crazy amount for the privilege, but then find that no one is very friendly on their street, and maybe they didn’t mean to disturb the neighborhood in the way that they did. What if a series of Alexievich-inspired stories start a town-wide conversation about alienation in Provincetown, and how we live in a guarded way, protecting our driveways from U-turns and telling drivers with out-of-town license plates to slow down yet we welcome the benefit of summer rental income and rising property values.
The problem with writing something down, something like this essay, is that then you have to act on it.
I’ve been thinking too of a writing workshop for fourth-graders. I hated fourth grade. It was a turning point. I got an “F” in conduct. Someone “got their period” and I didn’t know what that meant. But I wish I’d had the chance to do some creative writing, where maybe the germ of an idea about how to provoke, how to be a balm, how to do both, might have pushed to the surface. No one in my fourth-grade class was thinking of going to college to be a writer or to major in literature. But what if a fierce young writer could be nourished?
Mary Ann Bragg is working on her MA in English at UMASS Boston.
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.
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 limit the conversation to members of the Berkeley phone tree?
What I know of Ms. Place comes from her controversies and the strange fact that on the Internet she likes to pose for pictures in Salvador Dalí 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.
In a statement on an earlier version of her project, Place wrote that her intention was to “[steal] Margaret Mitchell’s ‘niggers’ and claim them as my own.” Place, a practicing lawyer, is spoiling for a courtroom showdown. Her goal is to get the Mitchell estate to sue her, pitting Mitchell’s appropriation of black lives against Place’s own appropriation of Mitchell’s text—and too bad if contemporary African-American sensibilities get hurt in the process.
I also don’t think Young’s statement applies to writers like poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who gave Place and Goldsmith a reprieve from public acrimony in September 2015 when he emerged as a self-styled martyr for embittered white male poets. Hudson, writing under the female Chinese name of Yi-Fen Chou, had a poem selected for Best American Poetry 2015 by Native American guest editor Sherman Alexie. Hudson’s assumption of a Chinese nom de plume was vilified as an act of “yellow-face” that stole a slot Alexie admits he would have favored for another writer of color.
Alexie himself was attacked for letting the poem stay. Removing it, he wrote, “would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.”
This controversy sheds new light on how identity politics affects the way writing gets vetted and published, and it raises objections about the defense of such systems. Certainly it was wrong of Hudson to game the selection process, but isn’t the fact that he did so a sign that the straight white male hegemony is on the run? On the other hand, the skeptic in me can’t help thinking that some of Hudson and Alexie’s most vocal detractors are less interested in razing the hill upon which the old king stood than in colonizing it for themselves.
The truth is, it’s hard for all writers and artists, but even harder for those who are marginalized. We work in a broken system: It’s called the world. What goes missing in our recent debates is how cultural and political functions of art sometimes trump notions of beauty.
The Nude Joker
“All poetry is experimental poetry,” Wallace Stevens famously noted.
It’s probably also true that “lyric poets tend to be allergic to conceptual poetry.” At least that’s the opinion of writer Alec Wilkinson of The New Yorker. In an October 2015 profile, he portrays Kenneth Goldsmith as an aging enfant terrible, misunderstood by the poetry world and an object of jealousy among his contemporaries.
“I tried,” Goldsmith says in reference to The Body of Michael Brown controversy. “I’m an experimental artist, and I failed, on a very big stage. I wanted to work with hotter material, and this was so hot it blew up in my face…. I’m an avant-gardist. I want to cause trouble, but I don’t want to cause too much trouble. I want it to be playful.”
Michael Brown aside, what irritates people like me is that Goldsmith brands his work as poetry rather than a kind of performance art. But he’s as much a poet as the fashionistas in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” are expert tailors. A provocateur for provocation’s sake. Performance art is only fun if you’re in on the joke, not if someone’s running away with the gold of the kingdom.
Some of Goldsmith’s endeavors, like printing out the Internet, mine a vein of bizarro stunt poetry where each new endeavor must outdo what came before. Other forms of conceptualism, like Place’s Gone With the Wind project, are so enamored of their concepts that they end up perpetuating the injustice they rail against.
As critic Cathy Park Hongwrites in The New Republic, “Goldsmith, who previously exhibited zero interest in race, saw that racism was a trending topic and decided to exploit it… and people roared back in response.” Or, as UCLA professor and poet Brian Kim Stefansputs it,“When did it become the job of the enlightened ‘avant-garde’ artist to fuck with the minds of people of color (and not their classic targets, the bourgeoisie)?”
On the other hand, Marjorie Perloff brings up a different point in The New Yorker piece. “Now a poet is an activist who writes in lines,” she complains. “That has nothing to do with poetry. It’s just provocation and proclamation.”
In terms of adding to a broader understanding of the avant-garde, I think Goldsmith is simply repeating concepts we already know, uploaded long ago into the cultural zeitgeist by such popular sources as Calvin & Hobbes, circa your childhood.
For his part, Goldsmith is reportedly lying low. “He has shaved his beard,” Wilkinson writes in The New Yorker, “so that he won’t be recognized.”
It’s not lost on me that there is more than one kind of beauty to consider in all this:
• the aesthetic beauty of sensory experiences
• and the beauty of ideas, the truth of which is sometimes unpleasant
When Perloff dismisses activist poetry as mere provocation, she implies it falls short aesthetically. But there is beauty also to be found in empathy. Empathy is the way we imagine ourselves into the position of the “other”. Empathy is an artistic and political act—and our failure to harness it results in a myriad of ethical and political problems.
But how to do it?
Art & the Appropriation of Identity
Avant-garde “appropriation” techniques of the late 20th century have now become 21st century “colonialist” bad art practices—and it’s not just the poetry community that is experiencing the growing pains of identity politics.
In the fiber arts world, men and women fight over who gets to do what. Male quilters hate women-only exhibits. Women go nuts that men make work that talks about gender—even if it’s a man who is transgender. In the jewelry realm, it’s all about indigenous people and colonialism and tribal identities, with fights going on about who gets to make what. Woodworkers get into fights about ethically sourced materials and who’s more ecologically legit. With ceramics, it’s a tiresome argument about whether what we do is art or craft, and how some people who’ve never worked with clay before are suddenly getting shows in big-name galleries in NYC. We have debates over skilled versus de-skilled work, about whether materiality matters or not. I’m not aware of what, if any, contentions glassblowers have. Sigh. –A Pondering Ceramicist
Clearly an issue to consider is power: whether a person appropriates “down,” taking from those with less power; or “up,” taking from those with more power; or “laterally,” taking from those with roughly equal power. Appropriation should strive to be appropriate—that is, suitable to the circumstance. What complicates this on the personal level is that there are usually multiple markers in play: person A may have racial privilege but person B has monetary, age, or ability privilege.
Art-making has always been a way of identity-claiming. The tools, objects and ideas we create have long been the way cultures get built. It’s only natural we guard these things, for they describe who and what we are. We’re right to question if we’re being poached. Yet art-making is also about the exchange of ideas and a deepening of shared humanity. It doesn’t always have to be about colonization; it can be about cross-pollination. It can be communion.
In this way, art surpasses the limits of time and identity, serving as a virtual reality mechanism immersing us in the lived or imagined experiences of others. We should be careful not to dismiss this worthy exchange as a monstrous and unhealthy form of appropriation, but instead see it as one of the ways in which appreciation and respect can grow—a path by which obstacles can be overcome.
This in no way excuses Michael Derrick Hudson’s falsities, or the insensitivity that Place and Goldsmith have shown. Their lack of empathy underscores the fact that empathy can actually enhance logic, deepening it by providing a checkpoint for accountability.
I think today’s true avant-garde poets fuse advocacy for social change with aesthetically rich work that is more than mere diatribe. They reject language’s supposed “non-meaning” and the snarky irony that has for too long reigned as a default baseline for registering experience—and this may not sit well with experimentalists who have painted themselves into a corner. They acknowledge the human response to beauty and understand we are attracted to the expressions of other cultures because we are attracted to beautiful things. They realize none of us exist in a hermetically sealed environment, that the people we meet and interact with change us, become a part of us. While respecting the identity of the other, we can also embrace it.
What Do Our Selves Draw Upon?
Last summer I also attended the Lambda Literary Retreat and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. In Los Angeles, at Lambda, I met Vanessa Place’s wife, editor Teresa Carmody, at a reading. Carmody was attempting to give away thick copies of a book of monographs the two had published. Even for free, the books weren’t exactly selling themselves. I thumbed through a copy and spoke with Carmody, telling her about my experience at Crosstalk. She told me she wouldn’t have let Place go to Berkeley even if the invitation hadn’t been rescinded. Too dangerous, she worried. Despite my concerns about Place’s project, I was glad to learn she had a partner looking out for her—and saddened too that in the fight for social justice anonymous hashtag warriors could bully a couple into fearing for their safety.
Overall, the Lambda Retreat was a time of growth. Yet it was no queer utopia. The sixty-plus writers who attended may have been united under a rainbow banner, but our perspectives weren’t all the same. It hasn’t taken hitting middle age for me to realize the concerns of Gen X queers like myself are not the end-all of the movement, only part of its evolution. Trans issues are now at the forefront, alongside a new sense of sexual liberty made possible by prophylactics like PREP. I wouldn’t wish on anyone the trauma I experienced coming of age in the AIDS years: the anxiety and fear, the lives lost along the way. Gay and lesbian Boomers and Gen Xers worked hard to forge a world where younger generations wouldn’t have to endure such fear, and by many measures, though certainly not all, it’s been achieved. At the same time, I didn’t think those struggles would be so quickly forgotten.
Each evening we would gather in a different venue to listen to the Lambda Fellows read. As I got to know the group through their vast and varied voices, I was reassured that the queer community is collectively stronger for our differences. That I am stronger for having met such people. What they said became a part of me, became a part of all of us—their words working as agents of change, charging the particles of our future selves.
Isn’t that, as writers, exactly what we want our words to do? To send new ideas into the hearts and minds of others, to transform them?
But wait! What stops you from making art? It’s different for everyone: Green-eyed monsters… Disability… Discrimination… Thinking it’s easy… Making excuses… Fakers… No money… Procrastination… Snake oil… Confusion… No vision… Leg pullers… No buzz… Religious a-holes who destroy art… No support system… Self-doubt… Indifference… Thought police… A dead albatross around your neck… Not practicing… Distrust… People casting shade… Worry—time is running out… Freak-outs… The fear it’s all a game…
Art as an Empathy Machine
Working among serious writers at Lambda, and later at Sewanee, affirmed for me that art-making shouldn’t be a Rube Goldberg machine, an elaborate prank designed to pat you on the back as you piss on old graves.
What I’m interested in is refining the code I create by—but I’m also wary of claiming certainty. I see value in what Keats called “negative capability,” the ability of individuals to perceive beyond predetermined capacities, to marvel in doubt and mysteries unconstrained by pure logos. I believe we need new modes of perception that inspire thought as opposed to curtailing it.
To be clear, I’m not in favor of a “tsunami of silencing” poets, as one social media poster accused me of recently. I wouldn’t dare tell “experimentalists” to quit making art, only to quit foisting failed experiments onto the world. I’d tell them to self-regulate their output, to use their network of friends and fellow artists to provide critical feedback.
What I’m in favor of is artists asking themselves better questions, of examining their personal motives. It’s not that we shouldn’t question aesthetics, identity, or privilege—or even poke fun at, rant at, or dethrone the guardians of the hegemony. Rather, I’m saying that our identities are exceedingly complex. I do not claim we are living in a “post-identity” or “post-racial” culture. Instead, I believe we each encompass multiple identities, and when the focus narrows onto a singular aspect we tend to forget the impact our other identities also play in this messy enterprise of sharing the planet.
At a time now when identity cannot be stripped from art-making, when art is increasingly being used as a vehicle for social change, perhaps what is needed is an Empathy Credo writers and artists can use to help shape their ideas. Maybe we should look at:
Intention: What am I fighting for, and how does this work help? If I’m declaring open season on sacred cows, am I killing for sport or does something’s survival hang in the balance?
Feeling: Am I adding to the pain of the disenfranchised? If this project causes pain, does it also offer healing?
Aestheticism: Does the work provide a visceral aesthetic experience?
Motive: Am I doing this only to show off? To prove I’m the smartest, funniest, or most daring? Why am I pushing these limits? Is it for personal vanity, or to expand the boundaries of human experience and understanding?
Forgiveness: Have I allowed room for doubt and uncertainty, for the making of mistakes—both my own and those of others?
Identity: Am I open to transformation and the porous nature of who we are, the idea that humankind overlaps and learns from each other, that there is fluidity in the self? Have I respected that?
Accountability: Am I willing to put my name on this creation?
A sense of humor may help with these. (I’ll also add that I think these questions might serve to guide critics as well.)
Dear Reader, the questions you ask yourself may be different than mine. But I hope, as artists and writers, you will ask them. If we don’t look closely at what we are doing while engaged in the very act of creation, it will be very difficult to save face later. Who knows what might be overlooked? Who knows what will be brushed aside?
 In May, a Change.org petition called for Place’s removal from the review board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. In less than two days, the petition garnered 1500 signatures. AWP removed Place, resulting in shouts of victory by some and cries of censorship by others, most notably poet Ron Silliman.
 Certainly there must be room for play in the art and literary worlds. Some of Goldsmith’s students have said they find appeal in the “Zen-like” practices that his conceptual (often algorithmic) uncreative writing approach offers (and which are described in detail in the Slate.com piece by Katy Waldman, who sat in on Goldsmith’s “Wasting Time on the Internet” class). Yet when such play comes at the undue expense of someone else, I have to ask: Is the game worth it? Procedural poetry, at the best of times, offers formal restrictions that can lead to surprise and innovation: a fun starting point. As an end to itself, I worry this kind of art does indeed result in wasting time—on the Internet or elsewhere. It often proves a recipe for producing robotic, unreadable texts. At its worst, slavishness to rote procedures can eclipse conscientiousness and implicate motive. I’m left to wonder, Why should the means of creation supersede content? I say experimentation is best viewed as a mix of educated guesses and happy accidents measured against an ongoing series of value judgments.
A Note About the Illustrations:
The images were inspired by numerous sources, among them: the creatures of mythology who continue to haunt me; various online photographs; Calvin & Hobbes cartoons; the colony collapse of the honeybee (and all that implies about our precarious relationship with the world); the art of activist Rini Templeton, whose brilliant drawings I happily discovered by way of Christopher Soto’s Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press—check it out!); the stories of Ganesh taught to me over the years by colleagues at the Center for International Understanding as well as my college buddy, Deepak; favorite wild minds of the past; The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print by Hokusai, which I saw once in the Michener collection at the Honolulu Museum thanks to the benevolence of the East-West Center; the strange workings of Rube Goldberg’s funny-bone mind, to which my father first introduced me; memories of protests and AIDS quilt displays in the late 1980s; the art of the late Keith Haring, who once kindly drew a sketch for me when he didn’t have to; my own sketchbook full of the faces of the beautiful and inspirational people I met during the summer of 2015 at the Crosstalk, Color, Composition conference, the Lambda Literary Retreat and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; people alive enough to make art, fail at art, succeed at art and argue about art—but most of all the people who want art to do the world good; The Muppet Show; the Superman comics of my childhood; the brilliant cartoonist Lynda Barry; and, finally, the musician David Bowie, who passed away during the creation of this but whose songs have always been essential.
Kelly McQuain’s chapbook, Velvet Rodeo, won Bloom magazine’s poetry prize. He was a 2015 Fellow at the Lambda Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices and a 2015 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. McQuain has published poetry and prose in Painted Bride Quarterly, Redivider, The Philadelphia Inquirer, A&U, The Pinch and Weave. He has served as a contributing editor to Art & Understanding and The Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, and his poetry and prose have appeared in numerous anthologies: Between: New Gay Poetry, Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, The Queer South, Rabbit Ears: TV Poems, and Best American Erotica. He has worked as a pretzel maker, a comic book artist, and a professor of English. He hosts Poetdelphia, a literary salon in the City of Brotherly Love. His poem “Jam” appears in Issue No. 1 of Cleaver. Read more at his website.
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 the prose of Stevenson—a wry allusion to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a little joke which tries to establish the separation between art and life by using an example from art beloved by the Borges from life. The lines become hopelessly blurred, and in the end Borges can’t decide which Borges is the Borges writing “Borges and I.” (Idea for a terrible poem: “Borges and I and I and I.”)
I loved a woman named Ariel, who told me I was too sad to live with. She wasn’t wrong. She told me too that I didn’t appreciate her, and again she was right—I was glad for the breakup, because she didn’t fill the yawning emptiness in me and now I was free to chase the abstract possibility of someone who might. But upon losing her, I began writing poems about the loss, and suddenly it became real to me. Holy shit! I thought, I love her after all! Bummer.
But I have to wonder whether I actually love her, or if I love the Idea of Her, or even The Idea of Having Lost Her. After all, a poem always treats the idea of its subject, never the subject itself. You know the argument: signifiers beget signifiers, never reaching a signified. When I write about chipmunks, furry creatures don’t pop into being; when I write about Ariel, she doesn’t feel it.
If I’m writing only about the Idea of Ariel, does the Man on the Couch actually have an emotion, or is it just another one of the Man Who Speaks the Poems’ beloved abstractions? Has art let me in on a truth of life, or is it just re-inscribing the same pattern of abstract desire that led to the loss in the first place? In attempting to answer this question, I end up at Thomas Hardy’s “The Self Unseeing”:
Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
The opening line establishes the three-beat rhythm that will carry throughout the poem, and sets up a kind of certainty: here is the floor. But in the next line, as the poet attempts to really see the floor, the verse accelerates: the beat pattern allows only so much time spent looking at the floor, and the syllables are crammed together to squeeze the observation into that space. Art foreshortens life.
The next couplet enacts the same drama: here is the door (okay) and (uh oh, wobbly meter!) it’s where the dead feet walked in. At the level of form, we see the act of observing and memorializing undermine itself. The poem is an act of remembrance, and in some way it seems to make the past exist: here is the ancient floor, right here! Yet despite all that, the feet remain dead.
As the poem enters the final stanza, the tempo doubles. Up until this point, we’ve had two lines per clause, then a semicolon, then another two line clause. (The first stanza uses, oddly, a comma instead of a semicolon, but the pacing is the same). But by the final stanza, every line is stopped: we get only one line per clause—time is accelerating, the past is slipping away, the form of the art enacts the very loss it tries/fails to prevent. The poem serves at once as a bulwark against loss and the loss itself; it at once laments the inability to hold on to a fleeting moment of life and enacts that inability. The inability to hold onto the moment is, on some level, caused by the accelerating form of the verse: art gives and takes life at once—it ransacks its own temple.
What does all this mean? I’m not sure. Perhaps it means simply that I can’t make sense of life without art, can’t parse the concrete without the abstract. But that approach carries its own risks. I wrote this poem some time ago, about The Man on the Couch’s first girlfriend and his failures in life due to naïve readings of art:
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Surrounded by Portraits of the Artists as Young Men
If Petrarch told the story, I would gaze on her from afar
and at once her countenance would turn icy fire;
my heart would wither, and writhing
in courtly shame I’d know I loved her.
If I were Dante she’d be an angel and through
the span of three epics we’d reunite in glory,
and if I were Keats I’d have tuberculosis
and would be more interested in nightingales.
In fact, I was interested in her, my first girlfriend’s friend—
at least that night I thought I was, though now I suspect
I was more in love with the idea of loving
someone other than the person I was
already supposed to be in love with,
because such longing seemed like
a very poetical kind of longing, and I
was nineteen, an age when it seemed vital
to amass very poetical longings—as if the universe
would not mete out my portion of misery
unless I worked for it with great care. The next day,
wading through the soupy clarity of my hangover,
I thought that if I were Bécquer I’d reject all mortal lovers
and pine instead for an imaginary friend,
a phantom of mist and light who would proclaim
“I cannot love you!” making me swoon many
picturesque swoons. What I should have thought
was if my Laura/Beatrice/Phantom told the story
she wouldn’t be my anything; the story would be
how her friend’s drunk boyfriend spilled the wine
and slurred some come-on featuring a bit of Shakespeare.
Or I should have thought that if my girlfriend told it
the story would be what a dick I could be
and how she deserved better, and she’d be right,
but that wasn’t my story either. I’m not convinced, now,
I had a story—more a rough collage of cut-outs
from the Great Dead, held together by
gluestick and insecurity, festooned with
glittery narcissism. But that morning Bécquer—
his sonnet, his stupid and heartbreaking thirst for the Ideal—
moved me greatly. I knew enough to know
I was alone, and to convince (only) myself that
to be lonely was a gift: the gift of sadness and
a story: my story, the story of me and me alone.
Bad art, or bad reading of good art, can affect others’ lives as well as one’s own, re-inscribing damaging ideologies. For further evidence, let’s stick with Joyce for a moment: take “A Painful Case,” in which the protagonist’s abstract and stubborn belief in the incurable loneliness of the soul leads him to hurtfully reject the one person who could love him, because her expression of love feels tawdry in light of his philosophy/aesthetic. But this is just an emotional reaction to an ideological problem: to accept her expression of affection would mean to accept that we are not incurably alone, and this the protagonist cannot bear. He’s too right to be happy.
Yet I still believe in the necessity of art, of Ideas. Something in the act of making art makes the stuff of life real: the Man on the Couch feels nothing, but the Man Who Speaks the Poems feels all too much, and some of that must bleed back into the Man on the Couch. Art distorts life, art damages life, but art also reifies life.
If we are broken, if our lives don’t feel real unless they’re abstracted through the lens of art, then the crucial thing is to make sure it’s a good lens. We ask art to make our hollow lives full, and in doing so, we ask of art more than it can possibly provide. But art—stupid, heroic, wonderful art—at least attempts to make for us a bearable world.
J.G. McClure’s work appears in Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Colorado Review, The Pinch, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. He has an MFA from the University of California-Irvine and is at work on his first collection. See more at jgmcclure.weebly.com.
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.
Of course, apocalyptic predictions are nothing new. Christianity has argued that we’re living in the latter days pretty much since its inception. (Odd, then, that the GOP-Fundamentalist Complex so vehemently denies climate change—this is what they’ve been waiting for!). And it’s no secret that everyone who lives dies—we each face our own private Weltende.
But our contemporary vision of the end seems different, in that it erases the traditional hopes of immortality. The tormentedly atheist Generación de ‘98 poet and playwright Miguel de Unamuno famously said that there are only three ways to cheat death: plant a tree, raise a kid, or write a book. For a long time I’ve put all my hopes in the book category. I’m certainly not the first: Shakespeare is full of boasts about how his poems will immortalize him and/or his beloved:
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
This is a species of immortality, but a deeply contingent one: when humans can’t breathe anymore, the beloved finally, truly dies. At the time of writing, that wasn’t a great concern. But now that we live in a world in which it is taken as a matter of course that on certain days it isn’t safe to breathe the air (see Beijing or Los Angeles), the line has a new and unintended sense of menace.
There are countless examples, each equally contingent. Take Keats’s fears that he may cease to be, Romanticism at large, Gilgamesh’s tower, Beowulf’s eulogy. Or take the oft-anthologized Aztec song “No acabarán mis flores” as translated by Miguel León-Portilla:
No acabarán mis flores, No acabarán mis flores,
no cesarán mis cantos.
Yo cantor los elevo,
se reparten, se esparcen.
Aun cuando las flores
se marchitan y amarillecen,
serán llevadas allá, al interior de la casa
del ave de plumas de oro.
The argument is familiar: even when flowers wither, my flowers (poems) will not end; they will be carried up into the house of the golden-feathered bird. This comes from an oral tradition: the singing of the poem is what allows it to transcend and endure. But today, when shifting climates stunt the flowers and drive the birds extinct (Jonathan Franzen has argued in the New Yorker that at this stage we should treat conservation as a kind of palliative care: give the birds preserves on which to die out a little more comfortably), how much comfort is left in this boast? Who sings the songs once we can’t breathe the air?
There’s a moment I love in Futurama. Fry, our lovable but dopey hero who has awoken thousands of years in the future, comes upon the dusty ruin of the Statue of Liberty. He falls to his knees à la Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, and cries “No! They did it! They blew it up!” But then something dark and wonderful happens: the camera begins to pan out, revealing more and more ruined Statues of Liberty:
And then the apes blew up their society too! How could this happen? And then the birds took over and ruined their society! And the cows—and then, I don’t know, is that a slug maybe?
The implication is hilariously, devastatingly cyclical: history repeats itself, side by side, again and again, leading always to the same grim end. Ecocritics often call for the dismantling of our anthropocentric worldview—Futurama here argues that even if we manage to decenter humanity, the end is still nigh: once the cows get smart enough, they’ll find a way to ruin the planet too.
Of course, not all climatologists think it’s too late for us to make the changes necessary to keep the Earth livable for us, and it has been rightly pointed out that throwing up our hands and saying we’re fucked doesn’t do any good. I want to believe that the world’s politicos will be able to set aside their squabbles and establish real sustainability legislature. I’m hoping for the best—but I’m expecting the worst. (A pretty common attitude, it seems—just look at the nihilistic GOP Presidential Debate Drinking Game articles going around the web lately, including one from TIME!)
The first book about poetry that I ever read was Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. It’s heady stuff for a teenage undergraduate, and it made me feel that meaningful writing was at once impossible and crucial. I most remember Oliver writing:
I like to say that I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now…It reminds me, forcefully, that everything necessary must be on the page.
Perhaps truly getting everything necessary on the page is impossible. Perhaps art depends on some shared frame of reference—Homer’s “winedark sea” is beautiful because we know wine and we know seas. Flash forward a few millennia from where we stand today, and maybe that framework simply won’t exist anymore. Maybe we simply won’t exist anymore.
But the poet John Skoyles has spoken of “illusions that serve me well.” That is, those ideas that, true or not, allow him to keep going. Here’s mine: I want poetry that preserves us, warts and all.
If it is in fact too late for us, then when the slug-monsters inherit the Earth or aliens show up to terraform our barren planet, I want them to know what we were, how we lived.
Maybe then they’ll feel that pang of pathos I hoped for as I beamed my stick figures into space as a boy. Maybe, as they come to know us in all our triumphs and our failings, we can be a beauty and a warning—and the ruin can end with us.
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California-Irvine. His work appears in Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Colorado Review, The Pinch, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. He is at work on his first collection. See more: jgmcclure.weebly.com.
Image credit: Unsplash, Futurama image courtesy of Fox Broadcasting
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.
“Okay,” you might say, “but Freud is just an example of a bad translation. If we had used I and It, the problem would’ve been avoided.” But the problem is still there. Even when words signify the same thing, the sounds and usage histories of the signifiers (and by extension, the feelings they evoke) are very different. As poets, we learn early on that there’s a world of difference between a rock and a stone.
And that’s just within English. The problems are only compounded when we try to move across linguistic and cultural boundaries. In “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin puts it like this:
The words Brot and pain ‘intend’ the same object, but the modes of this intention are not the same. It is owing to these modes that the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain means to a Frenchman, that these words are not interchangeable for them, that in fact they seek to exclude each other.
Even if the translator is able to find the supposedly perfect translation for a word, the “modes of intention” between the two words remain utterly different. Brot is not bread is not pain.
If I’m just asking you to go to the store and buy some bread, these distinctions aren’t so important. But when we’re dealing in poetry—where every word, every sound is crucial to the experience of the poem—then the idea of a “literal” translation seems like wishful thinking. How could a translation possibly replicate the experience of reading the original?
In his “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” Roman Jakobson argues that “poetry by definition is untranslatable.” The meaning of the poem cannot be separated from the words themselves; rather, the meaning of what is said is formed entirely by the way in which it is said, and untranslatable devices such as the pun “reign over poetic art.” Since, by definition, two languages cannot say the same thing in the same way, it becomes impossible to translate the sense of a poem from one language to another. Instead, “only creative transposition is possible”: poems are so untranslatable that, for Jakobson, taking a poem in Spanish and moving it into English is equivalent to taking a poem in Spanish and moving it into the form of an interpretive dance.
If that’s the case, one possible solution would be to perform such exhaustive etymological and historical research that the translation can include footnoted explanations of everything that is lost. Nabokov, in translating Pushkin, takes this approach. Arguing that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase,” he claims that the translator “has only one task to perform, and that is to reproduce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text.” In order to do so, the translator must have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history, culture, and literary traditions of both the original and the target language.
That sounds good, but there’s an obvious problem. When Nabokov calls for “translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave nothing but a gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity”—he seems to ignore that such an approach utterly changes the experience of reading the poem. Even if it were possible to give footnotes that fully explain every possible etymological, historical, and cultural nuance of every word in the original text, thereby correcting for the problem of untranslatables, what we would be left reading is nothing like the original poem. The experience of reading this new thing—less poem than exegesis—would be wholly different than the experience of reading the original, so the translation has not been (and cannot be) literal.
Nabokov’s vision of translation fails to address an even more insurmountable problem: any translation is inevitably going to be influenced by the translator’s historical position. In “The Pedagogy of Literature,” Lawrence Venuti presents three supposedly-literal English translations of The Iliad, each from a different time period. All of them are totally “accurate,” yet they give three completely different versions of Achilles. He’s a different character in each version—three different Achilleses made to align with the values of three different societies. Although none of them are mistranslations, they all say more about the translator’s history and culture than about Homer’s. Objectivity is impossible.
So where does that leave us? I see two options. First, we could wring our hands and pull our hair and weep. Or, we could choose to celebrate the translation as a new piece of art. Rather than striving toward the impossibly asymptotic goal of “literal” translation, we can revel in the creative possibilities afforded by the meeting of two minds, author and translator.
In this formulation, “translation” doesn’t seem like the right word. “Adaptation” maybe. Or my preference, “conversational translation.” (Converslation?) In other words, translation is more like ekphrasis: when I write about Van Gogh I’m not making a Van Gogh painting, I’m interacting with his work and making something else.
Again, I find Venuti’s arguments useful here. He writes of the “remainder,” those literary effects that can only exist in translation and which therefore “bring the awareness that the translation is only a translation, imprinted with domestic intelligibilities and interests, and therefore not to be confused with the foreign text.”
Though the phrase “only a translation” wrongly suggests that the translated piece is somehow inferior to the original, Venuti’s point about new effects introduced by translation is a good one: it figures the translated piece as something new, something distinct from and not to be confused with the original. Rather than trying to exactly reproduce in English the effects of a Spanish or Greek or German poem—a task impossible from the start—we can choose to celebrate the new artistic possibilities of the conversation between two writers.
In “Taking Gendered Positions in Translation Theory,” Sherry Simon presents a theory in which “writing and translation practice come together in framing all writing as re-writing.” The translation is a new poem, one that comes after and is inspired by the original, yet makes no claim to literally represent it. Quoting Antoine Berman, she writes: “The translator has all the rights as long as he plays his game up front.” Though this isn’t conventional faithfulness, it is respect. Respect for the author of the original poem by not claiming to speak for her, and respect for the reader by avoiding any such deception.
The result of the practice of translation that I’m suggesting here is something like a poetic tightrope walk—freely and consciously re-writing while striving to avoid the potential ethical pitfalls that come with such a practice. And though truly literal translation is impossible, there is of course a spectrum of how radically the two texts might diverge. So I have to conclude that what is appropriate in translations must be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that some Grand Unified Theory of Translation is impossible. Instead of trying to give you one, I’ll close this essay with three “conversational translations” from various points on the faithfulness spectrum.
Here’s a version of Heinrich Heine’s untitled poem usually referred to as “Der Dopplegänger”. Although I’ve translated the sense of his poem pretty closely, I’ve added a new meta narrative. In Heine’s poem, the speaker comically rails against another man for aping his poetical feelings. I know well that blend of narcissism and empathy, so I found myself quietly resenting Heine for beating me to the punch by a couple hundred years. So in my version, the speaker rails against Heine while Heine rails against the man. Though my only major content changes are the title and the insertion of Heine’s name into the final stanza, these changes foreground the interaction between translator and author, and thereby allow for another layer only possible in translation.
Portrait of the Artist Translating Heine
The night is calm, the streets are quiet.
In that house once lived my beloved;
long ago she left this place, and still
the house stands where it stands.
A man is here, staring skyward,
wringing his hands in violent pain.
It makes me shudder to see his face—
the moon shows me my own form.
O Heinrich, mein doppelgänger, my pale companion—
what are you doing aping my lovepain?
It has tortured me here, on this spot,
night after night, since forever ago!
Heinrich Heine, “Der Doppelgänger”
Now for something looser. The poem refers to Catullus 8, and structures itself similarly to his poem. What I like from Catullus—his denial and prodding and masochism, his unrepentant vulgarity and some of his imagery—I took. What I don’t like—vague phrases, the degree of repetition, the gross misogyny—I’ve jettisoned. I’ve added a lot of new language and images, changed the structure, changed the focus, and have explicitly placed a version of myself in the poem so that it can’t possibly be misread as a faithful translation.
Little Anger Poem Catullus 8
Poor fucked-up McClure, stop fucking up.
There was a time you’d go anyplace Ellie commanded—
Ellie, so loved you’ll never again love anyone like her.
There was a time when everything
you desired, you got. And? She wasn’t undesiring.
All suns shone brightly on you then
(sunstroke, saltwater desire)—
Now she says no. You, fuckup, say no too.
So be now hardened, sealed-off,
toughen up your head. Goodbye Ellie.
I am hardened, toughened, sealed-off—
(I am I am I am I am)
What life waits for you, love? Who will want you?
Who will you want? Who will be yours
now? Whose lips will you bite?
Whose lips are you biting? Whose?
And finally, the loosest version of “translation.” I borrow and translate lines from Neruda’s famous “Poema XX [Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche],” and incorporate them into the poem. They’re the engine that moves the poem forward, and the speaker is thinking of Neruda because he’s in the same situation as Neruda’s speaker: his lover is gone, and he’s tormenting himself with thoughts of her in order to get a poem out of it. The couplet format reflects Neruda’s poem, and the closing images of bread and stones borrow from some of Neruda’s favorite objects. But most of the poem isn’t from Neruda at all. Rather, it’s explicitly about the troubled conversation between the speaker and Neruda—whom he at once admires and criticizes. This poem is not at all Neruda’s poem, but it couldn’t exist without Neruda’s poem. In that way, it seems to me a species of translation.
Self Portrait with Pond and Lines from Neruda
Tonight, Pablo, we could write the saddest lines.
You and I on the ramshackle pier, under the infinite sky.
Beneath la noche estrellada: the starry night /
the shattered night, my soul
not content with having lost her
nor you content without suffering
rightly for the loss. I can’t quite hurt
the way I should. You understood.
So what if your couplets were bad?
All kisses and mourning and dew of the soul—
you had to twist the knife. I don’t love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her,
and how to be sure without hairshirt verse?
There was a time I could find passions
without digging—but we, the us from that time, we’re not the same anymore.
Pablo, if you were here, we’d throw rocks
across the water. You’d tease my rusty Spanish
and we’d shake our heads with knowing sadness
at the little fish who rose to surface,
believing each stone a gift of bread.
Of course, there are many situations in which we’ll want a translation that is as close as possible to the sense of the original. Since, for instance, I can’t read Chinese, I’m wholly dependent on careful translators like Eliot Weinberger in order to access any Chinese poetry. It’s not the same but it’s the best I have. Likewise, in quoting Benjamin earlier I depended on a translation. That is, there are cases in which—although bound to fall short of true accuracy—we need the translator to try to get as close to that unreachable asymptote as possible. I’m not suggesting we abandon conventional translation altogether. Instead, let’s keep in mind that any translation will inevitably bear the mark of the translator—and that fact can be a good and generative one.
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California-Irvine. His work appears in Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Colorado Review, The Pinch, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. He is at work on his first collection. See more: jgmcclure.weebly.com.
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 and 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.
Appalachia is tied to coal mining and shale drilling. The Ozarks aren’t tied to one particular natural industry.
When earth is wholly flat, I panic. I do not know which highways will take me away from here, but I can stand over the city, lights blinking. Here goes the topography of my mind: mountains are mountains. Ozarks, staunch with maples like flags, tessellate in my head with Appalachia, staunch with same trees. Appalachia is a tesseract away—and I know my way from Appalachia. I’ve puttered down through Maryland in a death trap with a clown alarm. I’ve curved Delaware, radio crackling with static. Mountains are undertow states away from an ocean.
Therefore: Appalachia is meant for burning while Ozark rocks are meant for scholar’s study.
In poetic landscape, we write a world to overlap with ours. Bedouins and other travelers create habits to be homes—to find “ways to rearrange the bewildering world” (52). In order to master a landscape, nomadic peoples seek to find commonalities in their places. It is in this overlap that home is created.
It is in this overlap that we are able to carry truth of reality into truth of alternate and written worlds. It allows me to find overlay between two mountain ranges. It allows me to get back to the people of my past. And the reader joins me, home a rucksack, carrying his landscape into mine.
Julia Paganelli is a first-year Poetry MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas. Her poetry chapbook, Blush Less, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in Spring 2015. Her recent publications can be found through BOAAT Press, Chautauqua Literary Journal, and Connotation Press.
Work cited: Moore, Rowan. Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture. London: Picador, 2012. Print. Image credit: Brad Hammonds on Flickr
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.
It is no surprise that the two most well-known poems of the collection, “In the Waiting Room” and “One Art,” both employ the most intimate version of the first-person voice. “In the Waiting Room” moves between the “I-then” and the “I-now”. However, these two modes of the first-person are confused between other characters in the poem such as the aunt, the waiting adults, and the women she sees in the National Geographic whose “horrifying” breasts bring her to the pivotal transition of self-awareness.
In the second long stanza, Bishop first confuses her own identity (the child voice of “I-then”) with her aunt’s voice:
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I—we—were falling, falling
A stanza later, Bishop arrives at her moment of self-awareness:
But I felt: you are an I
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Bishop here has taken claim of the first-person voice. She is both the “I” and the “Elizabeth,” a responsible and participating member in the doctor’s office, in society. The first-person voice in this poem is doing more work than simply representing a character. The “I” as identity is a construction of fragmented parts. Elizabeth is Elizabeth, but she’s both her younger and older self, her aunt, a witness and participant. She is the first-, second-, and third-voice simultaneously.
The first-person, then, comes with layers. In a collection of poetry, the writer has an opportunity that I’m inclined to believe other genres do not enjoy. Because of the short nature of the poem, the writer can change the distance of voice, creating an overall, more complex use of voice throughout a collection.
Bishop fluctuates the intimacy of the first-person between poems, but also within. Her use of the parenthetical navigates us to a deeper connection between the speaker and poet, and even reader. For example, the less narrative, more argumentative first-person voice in “One Art” considers how easy it is to lose something we love than to hold on to what we value. In her pithy asides, Bishop writes:
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
These asides distinguish the poet from the speaker. The aside is not only the speaker of the poem, it’s also Bishop, the poet, offering herself “(Write it!)” and her own urgencies on the page. Bishop the poet and speaker is multi-dimensional, and through the “I” she can contradict herself, creating a varied voice and textured poem.
If the first-person voice is the most intimate, then the third-person is easily the most distant. Perhaps this is why the persona poem is so popular. The form allows the writer to work through a character while also engaging an intimate voice –the best of both worlds.
“Crusoe in England,” the second poem in the collection, is written through the persona of Crusoe, a character from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. With such an exact and prescriptive title, Bishop does not obscure her intentions, and we immediately understand the “I” in this poem as a more distant version than the one employed in “In the Waiting Room” or “One Art.”
Bishop initiates this distance with phrases such as “The papers say” and “probably,” which indicate a translated experience. However, the “I” does surprisingly assert itself in moments that seem closer to the poet speaking than to Crusoe. Bishop writes:
…………………….. …The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems—well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss…” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.
The speaker, more concerned with understanding the “bliss” in a poem seems to be an “I” closer to the actual poet than to the experience of Crusoe, but it is this slight step out of the character of Crusoe that allows Bishop to reclaim his experience, to reclaim the “I”.
In lyric poetry, I find it near impossible to negate the individual. The poem inherently celebrates the “I” even if this celebration is through observation. Bishop at times avoids the first-person, but she appears behind her close attention to detail. In these poem, the “I” becomes an implied presence.
As an absent observer in “The Moose”, Bishop takes us on a bus tour that travels from loss to joy, through landscape, and overheard conversation. Bishop withholds the “I”, leading us to initially mistake the poem as third-person. However, Bishop is present as she takes us…
…on red gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,
through late afternoon
a bus journeys west…
It is nearly impossible to stop reading, the beauty of Bishop’s language and tenderness toward sound pulling us through the landscape and down the poem. The presence of the observer is immediate. Without Bishop, there would be no poem. We would not arrive at the moment when the moose impedes the bus’ travel down the road and the poet describes a shared experience of joy:
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
Bishop cleverly allows the reader to become a participant of this joy. Her implied presence, that distant first-person, creates space for the reader in the poem. The “We” here is a collective identity that includes the characters in the poem, the poet (even though the “I” never presents itself), and us, the readers.
We might come to think of the third-person in poetry as a false first-person. In Geography III, more poems celebrate the collectiveness of the “we” than the individuality of the self. However, the most striking poems in the collection, “In the Waiting Room” and “One Art”, stealthily use the first-person, and we feel as though Bishop is letting us in on a deeply biographical, intimate moment.
Now when I think of the first-person voice, I do not simply type “I” and understand what it means. This one stroke of the keyboard contains so much possibility, identity, closeness, distance, and variation. Nor had I considered that the “I” was hovering in all of my poems, second- and third-person. It is ultimately the mysteriousness of the “I”, the drive to constantly redefine and fragment our identities, and the terror of lyric poetry, that returns me to the page, to the poem.
Katie Rensch is a poet and essayist living in Minneapolis. She will graduate from the University of Minnesota with her MFA in poetry in the Spring of 2015. She is the founder and CEO of SnailBooks Literary Library, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving readers access to small press books. Her video essay, “A Mind of Winter,” under collaboration with Jes Reyes, was featured in the Altered Aesthetics film festival and will also air on Minnesota public television, winter 2015. Her work is also featured in Luna Luna Magazine, The University of Iowa Daily Palette, and the Des Moines Art Center 2010 catalogue.
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.
Presumably, Times editors asked Hirsch to review Falling Out of Time because the men share fatherly grief (and indeed the search for other bereaved parents is a theme of both Falling Out of Time and Gabriel, which finds company among other poems about parental grief). The book jacket calls Falling “part play, part prose, pure poetry.” Hirsch is renowned not just as panoptic and searching poet but also as an interpreter of the poetic art. His 1999 How To Read a Poem is one of great works of lay interpretation; better yet, his A Poet’s Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a wide-ranging and yet also sweetly personal reference, came out about the same time as Falling.
In his review, Hirsch notes that Falling opens with a man who sets out, five years after the death of his son, to see him once again (“Strange: him,” he tells his wife, “without his noneness, I can no longer remember.”). The man is soon joined by others, as the book fills with archetypal and yet also profoundly real parents who have lost children. Surely, Hirsch could be one of them, as Grossman may in a sense be all of them. But the poet in his Times review doesn’t say: he never reveals his loss, or Grossman’s, or the coming of Gabriel. Eventually, he says, “Some people bear a loss that seems unendurable, and yet it must be endured. It is unacceptable, and yet it must be accepted.” We are to understand that Hirsch knows, but then why not tell us? Why not deepen our insight? Perhaps the poet didn’t wish to pigeonhole himself or Grossman; perhaps he believed Grossman’s book could or should stand alone as art, never mind the personal backstory. Perhaps mentioning Gabriel or Uri in the review would have been too painful. A writer needs distance, especially if he wishes to judge another’s work. The mind can’t be clouded. All are legitimate reasons—his prerogative. And yet, as a reader and admirer of both men, interested in thinking about Falling and Gabriel as acts of poetry compelled beyond reason or even writerly inspiration, I wished for more. The personal, as Gabriel tells us—“Lord Nothingness / When my son’s suffering ended / My own began”—powers the poetry.
But this essay of mine isn’t concerned the craft of literary criticism. It is, rather, an attempt to see where, in the context of these two writers and their recent work about this so very painful subject, the pen drifts. Is it to poetry? Must it be (If Sophie of Sophie’s Choice was to write her own story, would prose suffice)? Where are the boundaries? My own writing—always prose in fiction and non-fiction—is sometimes called “poetic” (Song of the City, my first book, was given a title after Whitman). Is this a question, then, of style or feeling or form?
Grossman spent years writing and performing radio plays—this was his genesis as a writer. Avram, one of three central characters of To The End of the Land, is a writer: he turns his life and the lives of Ora and Ilan into stories, to be acted out, transformed into theater. Grossman wrote Falling in theatrical verse, an unreal form that seems to match the parent-mourner’s sense of disjuncture: this can’t possibly be happening to me. The book has two storytellers, the Town Chronicler and the Centaur, a writer, who, because of the loss of his child, can no longer find the words. The two characters, we must feel, represent the two sides of the writer’s instinct, both of them distorted by grief: the Chronicler, with his wish to document the pain of others, demanding truth (while perhaps ignoring his own pain and loss of a child), and the Centaur, silenced by the enormity of the pain. In the Centaur, we can hear Grossman’s own geek voice, sounding much like the young Avram, too, suffocating language for pleasure:
Sometimes I play games
on it, the goddamn it,
activities: “Death is
deathful.” I wink at it,
like it’s a little game
we play: “Death will deathify,
or is it deathened? Deatherized?
Deathered?” I patiently recite,
Over and over, rephrasing, finessing:
“We were deathened, you will be
deatherized, they will be
What else can I do—
nor live. At least
remains, at least
it is still
At the same time we can hear Grossman saying to himself, but wait, your duty as a writer is to see things clearly, to confront them. “Tell me about the cradle,” the Town Chronicler says to the Centaur, after waiting out the despairing wordplay.
Centaur: What’s that? What did you say?
Town Chronicler: The cradle. In the big pile behind you.
Centaur: I hope with all my heart, you miserable clerk, that my ears deceive me.
Town Chronicler: It has two ducks painted on the side.
Eventually, the Centaur will acknowledge the loss of his son and the Town Chronicler will admit to his own infant daughter lost thirteen years before—a loss he could never confront or accept—and he, with the Centaur trapped at his own barren writer’s desk, joins the Walking Man, whose son died five years before, and the Elderly Math Teacher and the Duke and the Woman Atop The Belfry and the Woman in The Net and the Cobbler and the Midwife and others whose pain of loss is too enormous to conceive trying to reach a borderland, where for a moment, at least, they might find their children.
Together, they walk toward the borderland and as they walk—abstractions becoming real pulse-beating creatures, the necessary detachment forced into retreat by the powerful act of sharing grief and discovering words—husbands and wives, mothers and fathers come to terms:
I understand, almost,
the meaning of
the sounds: the boy
as holding truth.
When I finished reading Falling, after feeling the Centaur’s eventual relief tinged with regret that he had been able tame the enormity of his son’s loss into mere words—that this was indeed even possible and that he had indeed wanted it—I was overwhelmed by sorrow. Grossman had transformed his experience and back again, upon himself, upon the reader. Hirsch, in A Poet’s Glossary, calls poetry “An inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language,” and he quotes a dozen or so writers—from Borges to Yeats—trying to define it. Emily Dickinson, he tells us, wrote in a letter in 1870, “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry.”
Wasn’t that about how I felt after reading Falling (and indeed Gabriel)? “Poetry / ” says the Duke to the Woman in The Net, “is the language / of my grief.” But Hirsch, in his Times review of Falling, asserts that Grossman’s aspiration to poetry succeeds “instead as fiction, the storyteller’s art.” As formal poetic verse, however, it falls short of the border. “The staccato line breaks are flawed and the lineation is probably the weakest aspect of this otherwise well-written book,” he argues.
Now what are we to make of this judgment? A literary agent, recently rejecting a submission of mine, called my writing “fluent.” Was calling Grossman’s prayer of a book “well-written” a similar kind of jab? And why not allow this even flawed lineation to be considered as poetry, if it wishes to be, especially if its impact is poetic?
I ask these questions not to criticize Hirsch, but merely to wonder, as he does throughout the seven hundred plus pages of A Poet’s Glossary, about the borders. Hirsch himself is a rhythmic poet. He writes often, as he does in Gabriel, in three-line verse:
Lord of Misadventure
I’m scared of rounding him up
And turning him into a story
God of Scribbles and Erasures
I hope he shines through
Like a Giacometti portrait
I keep scraping the canvas
And painting him over again
But he keeps slipping away
This kind of metered verse, Hirsch says in A Poet’s Glossary, “is a way of charging sound, of energizing syllables and marking words, of rhythmically marking time.” Its power comes from the poet’s capacity to “disturb language…turning [words] toward each other, shaping them into patterns.”
Notably, Gabriel succeeds, as Falling, “as storyteller’s art,” poetry nodding to prose’s progressive army across the border. We learn of a boy, adopted in New Orleans in a terrible downpour, whisked to Rome, a torrent of a child, uncontrollable, besieged by seizures, tics, wild energy, anger, pharmaceuticals, experts, delusions, who always needed to swim in the thickest vein of life, who died tempting fire in a hurricane: “When Gabriel cooked / The flames rose too high / And the fire alarm sounded.”
In Hirsch’s hands, the metered pattern transforms narrative into a propulsive weapon. This is certainly poetry, language forced to beat back against wailing, against imagination, against sense, against form. And aren’t Grossman’s words, too, not just beating back, but in their sheer force creating form? That form may be fiction, but for the trouble it has cost my heart, I am certain it is something else. For poetry is the language of grief, it must be. In the hands of an insolent Centaur, in the imagined terror of any parent, in the wail of Hirsch: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.”
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.
CROSSING THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE: ARCHER, BOB’S BURGERS, AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY
by J.G. McClure
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…
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] thinks he’s people!” “I have to go make an old man eat a bowl of cobwebs”). Woodhouse, for his part, is a fawning servant and a hardened heroin addict. He also has no qualms about knocking Archer unconscious and blaming somebody else—he assures us he’s done it plenty of times. And Woodhouse is probably the most honorable person in the show.
If all this sounds really dark—it is. What’s odd, though, is that the show is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. And strangely, the darkness isn’t particularly troubling: somehow, the fact that feeble old Woodhouse is shooting up isn’t tragic—it’s hilarious.
Then there’s Bob’s Burgers. Here, Benjamin voices Bob, a struggling small-business owner running the titular burger joint with his wife and kids. Where Archer is muscular, dressed to the nines, and almost super-heroic in his combat skills (think of a drunken Jason Bourne), Bob is beer-bellied, hairy, and always appears in an unassuming white T-shirt. He has an average family, an average job, an average appearance, an average name—the archetypal everyman. The plotlines focus on the family as a family. Though the characters are tested by bizarre circumstances—a robber who dreams of being a Broadway star or a documentarian determined to convince Bob of the evils of eating meat by making him befriend Moolissa, a cow in a wig—the familial tensions that arise are soon resolved and the strength of their bond is reasserted.
The biggest differences between the shows, though, are the underlying assumptions of their universes and, as a result, what the shows implicitly ask of their audiences.
Bob’s Burgers asks for empathy. For all their oddities, the central characters are still presented as human. Strange things happen, but this ordinary family nonetheless remains an ordinary family, and we’re asked to understand them as such.
Archer, on the other hand, makes no such claim on the audience’s empathy. The characters are so absurd that we’re never really asked to see them as people. Archer’s universe is much more nihilistic: terrible things happen to the characters, but none of it really matters, because they’re less people than exaggerated types.
That’s not to say that Archer asks less of the audience than Bob’s Burgers does. They both ask us to accept a certain vision of the universe. Bob asks us to accept a fundamentally hopeful universe in which, though bad things may happen, love prevails. Archer, meanwhile, asks us to accept a much bleaker universe, in which anything that can go wrong will go wrong, in which suffering is so omnipresent that it becomes at once insignificant and comic.
I was recently talking to Liz Meley, a friend and fellow poet. I said, matter-of-factly, that it’s a shame Bob’s Burgers isn’t nearly as funny as Archer. Liz, surprised, said that Bob’s Burgers was by far the funnier cartoon. On second thought, though, she remarked on my preference: “Given your emotional landscape lately, that makes sense.”
Liz and I have known each other for a few years. We talk about our lives and we share work often. As such, she’s seen my work and my emotional landscape shifting. When we first met, I was primarily working in the mode of poets like Alan Shapiro or Michael Ryan: dark, direct, tightly-controlled lyrics of personal heartache.
While I’m still a huge admirer of these poets and am deeply influenced by them, I’ve increasingly come to align myself with poets like Matthew Zapruder, Jeffrey Schultz, and Dobby Gibson—poets whose use of humor and modulation of tone yields an oblique, often zany approach to pain. Their emotional distancing is actually used to enhance the emotion through the weight of the unsaid or the evaded.
On the personal level, when Liz and I first met I was in the depths of a self-destructive and self-absorbed depression, feeling my own pain intensely and moping around enough to earn from her the (affectionate) nickname “Eeyore.” Over time, my emotional landscape has changed: less sad, probably more nihilistic, I find myself (in my work and in my life) bitterly laughing far more often than crying.
And there’s her point: Archer is able to reach me because the universe it asks its audience to accept is a universe of bitter laughter.
Bob’s Burgers can’t have the same effect on me because it’s not the right type of vehicle to enter my current emotional landscape. If I’m a field, it’s a boat.
Now take a look at Philip Larkin’s famous “This Be the Verse.” The universe that it asks the reader to accept is not unlike that of Archer: bitter laughter is the best response. The poem, in its bouncy nursery-rhyme tetrameter, tells the reader that each successive generation is only going to fuck things up worse than the last, so the best thing to do is to go kill yourself, and after you’ve killed yourself, make sure not to have any kids. The argument is so exaggerated that we can’t entirely take it seriously—we don’t feel that Larkin is actually advocating that we off ourselves. At the same time, though, the pervasive sense of despair is deadly serious: it’s a bleak, bleak (and very funny) universe.
Or, in a similar vein, take Russell Edson’s “Fire Is Not a Nice Guest.” Here’s an excerpt:
I had charge of an insane asylum, as I was insane.
A fire came, which got hungry; so I said, you may eat a log, but do not go upstairs and eat a dementia praecox.
I said, insane people, go into the attic while a fire eats a kitchen chair for breakfast.
The fire was eating an old lady. I said, one old lady, yes, and a child for dessert.
I said to the fire that it may take a siesta in the maniac’s bed. But the fire wanted to eat the bed. You are too hungry, fire, I said. But, by that time the fire’s whole family had moved in, and was eating out the corners of the asylum – Hey, that’s where the dusts have built their cities.
But the fires will not listen as they do not like to starve.
The poem does not ask us to have any empathy with the fire’s victims. Okay, sure, go ahead and eat one old lady. Just one though. And also a kid. Fine. These characters aren’t really characters at all; they’re sketches, outlines quickly made and dispatched in service of something else. Indeed, the speaker seems more troubled that the fire has consumed the dust’s “cities” than he is by the people it’s consumed.
It’s not that the poem is devoid of emotion. Not at all. It’s simply that the emotion isn’t located in the characters; it’s located in the total vision of this bizarre and burning universe.
Conversely, take a poem like Brooks Haxton’s “Screech-Owl Pie.” The speaker sees a roadkill owl, and imagines it must have been chasing a mouse before it was hit. Then this:
to think: the mouse the car set free
might well have been the species
people train to sing
for ears of wheat. And friends of ours
who taught with us by that same road,
though dead, may train us yet
to sing for them, to say, by reading
from their poems, how beautiful
Kashmir and West Virginia are
without them. Screech-owl pie, wings
spread with talons underneath, contains
no more an owl than shut books do
friends. And as for us who happen by,
who hunker at the guardrail: listen.
Year-round after nightfall
the white-footed mice are singing.
Like Edson’s poem, death is pervasive here. As is a certain wry humor: it’s an elegy told through singing mice and “screech-owl pie.” Unlike Edson’s poem, though, the emotion is very much located in the characters. The dead were real people, the speaker’s loss is real, and the light touch of humor is a poignant way of at once coping with and magnifying the pain, like a splash of green added to make a red painting redder.
The type of humor here is quite unlike the humor in Bob’s Burgers, yet both ask the reader for emotional investment in human characters, and both ask the reader to accept a universe in which human connection triumphs.
And yet, as I write this essay, I notice my categories breaking down. While I can’t quite connect with Bob’s Burgers, I can connect with Haxton’s lovely poem. But haven’t I established that my current emotional landscape is best traversed by a vehicle built from nihilistic humor, not the character-driven-empathy of Bob and “Screech-Owl Pie”?
Perhaps it’s simply that my emotional landscape permits me to connect with Haxton’s sadness in a way I can’t connect with the fundamental optimism of Bob’s Burgers.
Or perhaps it’s simply a question of my expectations of genre; maybe I’m more open to finding meaning in a poem than in a cartoon.
Or maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s that some works are amphibious vehicles. Maybe such works can make their way across either field or sea to reach us, churning up and changing our landscapes as they cross.
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including Fourteen Hills, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), Colorado Review, and Green Mountains Review. He is at work on his first book.
In fact, that phrase, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, popularized by Anne Lamott, offends me—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.”
This method of writing is Miss Lamott’s answer to the self-doubt most writers experience when faced with the blank page, whether they are writing a poem, a short story, an essay, or a novel. It is also her antidote to the unrealistic desire for perfection writers wish for their work. Just let it all pour out. Let it romp around. The result will be shitty, but you can make it perfect, or at least better, later on.
“All good writers write them” Miss Lamott tells us.
And, it seems, most advice givers seem to agree. Obviously, they tell us, the only reason the first draft exists is to get us to the second draft, and the third, each one, presumably, getting closer to the perfection we crave. Plow ahead, we’re told. Get to the end without revising. Give yourself permission to write badly. Write from start to finish. Force yourself if you must.
One went so far as to say, “If you can’t write a shitty first draft then you can’t be a writer.”
Well, I can’t, won’t, and don’t write them.
In fact, I cannot even allow myself to write a shitty first sentence, let alone immediately follow the first with another few hundred shitty sentences. This does not mean that what flows from my brain through my fingertips through the keyboard and onto the monitor’s screen is exactly what I want it to be. In fact, I am a ruthless reviser, an eager re-writer. The difference between the way I write and the “let it all pour out” Lamott method is that I do exactly what she warns against— obsessively revising as I go along.
Imagine building a house using Miss Lamott’s pour-it-all-out strategy.
The builder has all his materials on site. He begins pouring cement for the foundation, it is uneven and the cement is somewhat watery, but he can’t stop to fix it. He begins hammering the walls up. They are cockeyed, and a bit shaky, but no problem, he can fix them later. He begins working on the roof. Oops. Forgot the electrical wiring. Well, he’ll get it later.
You get the idea. The builder would end up with a pretty shitty house; so shitty it would probably be easier to tear it down and start over, maybe a little more carefully the next time.
Well, I am here to speak out for we careful builders, we obsessives, we writers of short fiction who write slowly, laboriously, painstakingly, and with no apologies, constantly fixing as we go.
Let me use as an example the short story I am working on right now.
I know how important the opening of a short story is. I know what the first sentence or two must accomplish. So I can’t allow myself a shitty first sentence. The whole narrative depends on that opening. For this new story, I worked on the opening sentence for a couple of writing sessions, trying different strategies, different approaches. Through trial and error, the sentence suddenly came together. By the end of that writing session I had an acceptable version of it, which I revised the next day, to my greater satisfaction. Only then did I proceed. The writing of the story will continue this way; revising what I have written, then writing a few more paragraphs, or even a few more pages, and then revising again.
When I have completed what some might call the first draft of the story, it will have already been revised hundreds of times. It will be a competent story at this point, but still open to some revision, to polishing, to “tinkering”. But it will not be shitty. It will not be a mess.
This is not a method I recommend for everyone, but it is the only way that works for me.
“All first drafts are shit,” Hemingway said. I think what he should have said was “All my first drafts are shit, because that’s my writing method.” But it’s not my writing method.
Not to say that wonderful literary work cannot be produced by pouring it all out and fixing it later. But it is not, as Miss Lamott and others would have us believe, the only way to write.
So my advice, contrary to Miss Lamott’s, is to write the way that works for you. If it works for you to pour it all out, pour away. If you can’t write that way, don’t try. And by all means, don’t feel guilty about it. Obsessively revise as you go. Anne Lamott will never know.
George Dila is the author of a short story collection, Nothing More to Tell, published by Mayapple Press in 2011, and the short story chapbook Working Stiffs, published by One Wet Shoe Press in 2014. His short fiction and personal essays have appeared in numerous journals, including North American Review, Raleigh Review, Flare: the Flagler Review, Potomac Review, Palooka, Literal Latte, Fiction Now, and others. His flash piece “That Summer” appeared in Issue No. 2 of Cleaver. A native Detroiter, he lived in Ludington, MI, a small town on the Lake Michigan shore. George passed away unexpectedly and peacefully in April 2016, while vacationing with his family in New Mexico.
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.
When you hear a poem, you know you’ve heard a poem: the words have an intensity and movement that’s unique to poetry, especially if patterned into meter and rhyme. Even free verse lines should have a charge and rhythm that distinguish them from prose.
When you see a poem, do you know you’ve seen one? Prose poems may muddy the water, but the answer is still usually Yes. A poem sits on the page unlike a story or essay. It’s surrounded by (and often includes, via stanza breaks) more white space: sometimes there may be more whiteness than words, which imparts a blank pressure on the text. And most of the poems we read and write have the same margin pattern: the left is flush, a straight descent, and the right is ragged, as if torn or chewed off on that side.
However, that rough outer alignment is determined by a critical internal decision, the most important point in the line: where it should turn. Each enjambment is a deliberate step, a reversal and descent, so that a poem is written in lineated verse and not just chopped-up prose.
This essay, as I type it, has a ragged right margin. But with a few clicks of the mouse, that far edge of text could easily be justified, reformatted so that the right is smoothed out parallel to the left, both margins straight for as long as the words continue. That’s what prose is.
You can’t do that with a lineated poem. The line must end where it ends: to justify the right margin would be to violate the poem’s constant turning and returning. That ragged right outline is essential to a poem’s being, a sign that it’s different from the prosiness that flattens us all the time. There’s an edginess about that far edge, a wildness and unpredictability: visually, its contour is one of the most poetic parts of poetry.
Sometimes I indent the left margin, if that feels integral to some movement the poem needs to make. Sometimes I play with leaps of tabulation, just for the sake of shaking up the orderly vertical descent of the lines down the page. But in the end, flush left is the default mode: almost all of my poems descend in an orderly manner, at least on the sinister side.
Which may be why it’s the right-hand side that most interests me, that dexterous margin, and how its series of Returns finally looks. What pattern of declivity does it make, what persistence-of-vision impression does it leave in the eye and mind?
A tidy right-hand margin, with all the lines pretty much the same length, is visually stable. It creates a safe solid block of text, even if separated into stanzas. It imparts the same kind of regularity for the eye as blank verse does for the ear.
A jagged right-hand margin, with an unpredictable variety of line lengths, is more uneasy and off-balance. It unsettles the reader, however subconsciously.
And of course there’s a wide range of possibilities between these two options. It all depends on what’s discovered in the writing and desired in the reading.
Should the first line be long, a springboard into the poem? Or does it need to be brief, a quick-step entry?
Should the last line spread out, a base for the poem to land on? What if it came up short, an unexpectedly sudden exit?
And how should the lines in between vary their terminal in-and-out: dramatically, or subtly, or randomly?
I don’t think about such questions early in the drafting process. But at some point, when the words are more certain, I do think about how their appearance will influence a reader’s experience of the poem, and I keep tweaking the lines until their cumulative visual arrangement pleases me.
(The irony of such obsessiveness: When the poem is printed in a magazine or book, in a different typeface, its profile is going to shift, the page’s negative space growing or shrinking in its interaction with the poem’s adroit margin.)
I doubt most poets think about the right-hand side of the poem very much, if at all. Maybe it’s just me, the lapsed designer transferring his graphic obsessions to his poems.
But I do try to handle that margin as dexterously and deliberately as possible. This is challenging, since that aspect of the poem is mostly an accident of composition: poets live and move and have their being in lines, and once the line is finished and the enjambment made to the next one, it will stop where it stops and be part of the figure it happens to make.
So far, this is a challenge I enjoy.
It’s not a matter of cleverly making shapes with your outmost margin, as when one of my student writers revealed that the key to his uneventful poem was that it looked like a city skyline if turned ninety degrees to the left. It’s not a matter of creating steps, or crenellation, or some other imitative silhouette.
But it is a matter of cantilevering the lines just right, so that the poem’s architecture makes a satisfying space for the reader who beholds and then enters it. That’s one reason the shift from design studio to poetry-writing workshop was a natural one for me: good poems are like good buildings, the result of many drafts, a series of plans and sections and elevations fine-tuned till everything fits and pleases.
For me, some of that pleasure comes from the right-hand margin, whose sinuous sculpture—much more than the standard upright left-hand margin—may best embody the poem’s dance down the page.
Michael McFee is the author or editor of fourteen books, most recently That Was Oasis (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012), his eighth full-length collection of poetry; The Smallest Talk, a chapbook of one-line poems (Bull City Press, 2007); and The Napkin Manuscripts: Selected Essays and an Interview (University of Tennessee Press, 2006). He has taught in the Creative Writing Program at UNC-Chapel Hill for several decades.
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.
As I was writing this essay, I wanted to avoid the very subject itself. I wrote around and over and beside the deepest thing and committed the very sin I advise against always. In not writing the truth, I manufactured all the things I find wrong with the world at large: insincerity, self-importance, poetic babble, entertainment for entertainment’s sake, all of it mattering little. Even this introduction is a way to stall my saying This Is an Essay About Despair, which it is, but also is not.
But how do I speak truthfully about despair, which you may know already for yourself? Or tell you that I write from the depths of despair, understand only after I have been deep in the ravine and clawed my way out, survived the misery that is more than melancholia but is instead a paralyzing day-in and day-out sickness without seeming not only disgraceful to you but, worse, pitiable?
Despair is never only despair, though when you are despairing you cannot know this. Surviving despair: that is where I have found poetry and the marriage therein is the only real thing I know of which to speak.
“Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord” says Psalm 130. “Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” This psalm is one of fifteen Songs of Ascent, which scholars believe were sung as worshippers ascended up the road toward Jerusalem. These particular psalms, or songs, are all hopeful.
How significant that The Song of Ascents asks upwards for and then receives from on high; it descends from above, and from the depths toward high do we send a prayer. In a time of need, and in this psalm, we “wait for the lord more than watchmen wait for the morning.” I don’t know what is to be done with the significance of high and lowness, other than to cherish the grandeur. I am not an evangelist. I do not know enough about God except to talk about mystery and mercy.
To be clear and also personal, I have never been of the mind that poetry is therapy though if one finds it therapeutic, then I’d say it speaks further to the importance and magic of same. But I can only speak the truth as it has been mine and in truth, not only do I not find poetry therapeutic, I find it, when I am in the depths, by turns ominous, dangerous, stupid, fruitless, terrifying to even think of, must less attempt to create.
Later, halfway up the ravine of despair, I might, in an attempt to get back to the work that my real and sane self knows matters, look at a draft of a poem and think how trivial, how solipsistic, how boring. And then, somehow, one day, there is a pin-prick of light, some beauty in the darkness. Something will finally make a little sense. I am up. I am back. I am clean, rested, fed. I have returned from the far country; it is the reward for surviving: simply to say, I have come back.
In the depths, I cannot wash my hair much less write a poem, can hardly get up for a drink of water, much less pick up something to read. Things are only barely bearable and it is only afterwards, talking about it at all, that one wonders how one could have gotten oneself into such a state. Of course, in the state itself, one cannot imagine a state otherwise. To remember that just yesterday I went to the grocery store, taught a class, talked on the phone, wrote a thank you note is as impossible as doing anything those well-meaning people advise or suggest: getting some fresh air, joining a gym, finding a group. To them I say you might as well be asking me to cut off my own limbs.
You see how dramatic the whole affair is. Where is the art, you ask? And I ask myself the same. The only answer is in the form itself. If you are suffering and poetry is your balm, then write it. If you are suffering and cannot will yourself to write, accept it. In the meantime, in your days of melancholia, remember that there is mercy. And when you are feeling mercy, remember that it was not always this easy.
That is how I try to live a grateful life. The best thing, by which I mean the hopeful thing, about crisis is that its late Middle English origin reminds us that the word means “turning point.” The crisis is only temporary; things can’t stay as bad as they are. The Greek use the word as “decide” as in, decide to stay, decide to continue, decide to wait, wait for the morning, decide to continue to essay, decide to continue to try. The beauty of things collapsing is that something new comes in its place.
II. Not Choosing Not to Be
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
The poem is famous for teetering on the edge of blasphemy. As an artist, he nearly loses control. As a priest, his conflict with God is more than one of doubt, but of desolation, or even absence. That affirmation, even feeble, “I can” (as in he can wish for the morning to come) echoes the song of ascents in Psalm 130. I could talk at length about Hopkins’ use of the Petrarchan sonnet structure, the direct address to God while also equally directly addressing despair, one and the sameness, the poet’s question about how a merciful God would subject the poet to the depths of despair.
The sonnet, that famed form of obsessive self-debate, is fundamentally an existential one: an argument as much with the self as with God, or the space we believe God should be when we doubt he is present. Even if feasting on despair would be like eating the decaying flesh of dead animals, the poet does eventually and metaphorically feast in a resurgence of faith, of hope, of cheer.
That final moment, after a long year of darkness, is one of recognition and acceptance. I would argue that the very fact that Hopkins does NOT choose NOT to be (in other words, he chooses to be, chooses to continue) is an affirmation of if not God Himself, then of mercy existing and this poem of immediate, urgent despair becomes, surprisingly, one of hope. After all, we delight in those exact rhymes of the second stanza: Clear. Cheer. Year.
Jack Gilbert, a hero of mine, did an interview with Gordon Lish, in which they discuss what Gilbert calls two kinds of poetry. Poems that give delight, and poems that do “something else.” Lish asks him to explain the “something else” and Gilbert says, “I think serious poems should make something happen that’s not correct or entertaining or clever. I want something that matters to my heart, and I don’t mean “Linda left me.” I don’t want that. I’ll write that poem, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being in danger—as we all are—of dying. How can you spend your life on games or intricately accomplished things?
And politics? Politics is fine. There’s a place to care for the injustice of the world, but that’s not what the poem is about. The poem is about the heart. Not the heart as in “I’m in love” or “my girl cheated on me”—I mean the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world that know spring is coming.”
In the same interview, Gilbert says he likes to write poems of “profound tenderness,” poems that exist not because something is sad, but because it matters. We must dice order from the chaos of the heart.
And this idea, mattering and believing, was the best teacher I ever had. All I knew to try to do was to write a poem that matters. All I know to teach another poet–if I have anything at all—is that you must learn to write something that matters. (My God!) My God.
III. I’ll Come When Thou Art Saddest
I’ll Come When Thou Art Saddest
I’ll come when thou art saddest
Laid alone in the darkened room
When the mad day’s mirth has vanished
And the smile of joy is banished
From evening’s chilly gloom
I’ll come when the heart’s real feeling
Has entire unbiased sway
And my influence o’er thee stealing
Grief deepening joy congealing
Shall bear thy soul away
Listen ’tis just the hour
The awful time for thee
Dost thou not feel upon thy soul
A flood of strange sensations roll
Forerunners of a sterner power
Heralds of me
In this case, the “I” of the poem is an ambiguous speaker—the muse, perhaps, speaking to the poet, or the beloved, or God. Or, more interestingly, all three as some “sterner power”—the muse IS the beloved IS God who comes when you are saddest, and laid alone in the darkened room.
But, the poem is as much about sadness as it is clemency. Sadness and art is a long marriage. I know that I am not the first (see Bronte, see Hopkins) nor will I be the last to attempt to articulate the unsayable, to attempt to describe despair in an artful way. We are all, in a sense, trying to say the same things but in different ways.
Leon Bloy, the French writer, says, “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have existence.” It might be noted that this is the epigraph to Graham Greene’s beautiful but despairing novel The End of the Affair, and further noted that Bloy lived an agnostic youth and only after meeting a devout Catholic, underwent a dramatic religious conversion.
It feels uncomfortable to even mention my own poems in the same breath as these other artists, and yet, I do believe it is true that poems are born from other poems, books are made of other books, the questions of the human condition always the same, variations on a theme. And, in the case of suffering, or poems about suffering, it feels important to not rank poets since it is to my mind equally fruitless trying to rank suffering. Pain is pain. Art is art. Suffering is suffering. Someone feeling more despairing than you does not make your despair less. All they, I, we, are trying to do is write what matters. Art is proof that hope is alive.
I wrote what turned into a book of poems that I hope do matter and therein is both sadness and joy, despair and mercy. The idea of merging the muse with God with despair is a theme, for lack of a more precise word, that I found meaningful in writing To See the Queen. And I suppose it might be said that Bronte’s ghost haunted me as much as any other specter of the past or of the imagination. Writing poetry does answer some spiritual need even if the answer is that there is no answer and one is left with that “flood of strange sensations” that Bronte describes.
The book is written in three sections. The first, called “Liliana,” is an attempt to explain a figment, her presence. I was for a while very ashamed of having an illness—depression, despair—but have come, partly through writing this essay, to confront the subject matter honestly. There is no way around the deepest thing, the thing that feels true to me, except to say, I was sick, I saw a figment, I was healed, and then I made art. The gift, the mercy, is in the craft itself.
Liliana appears as a figment, representative of love and debilitating sadness, a god-queen that reigns over despair and clemency alike. I tried to maintain a delicate balance and hope this work transcends a personal interiority in order to address larger themes of desire and grief, illness and faith, pain and beauty—that emotional arc which makes a life. The inner, psychic world can be harrowing and wild but then (by some power that seems outside the self) become a sanctuary. I have tried to explain this “narrative” through image and landscape and metaphor, depending most heavily on the blurred presence and voice of the figment of Liliana.
I know some poets who have an arc for a book already mapped, a narrative already assigned, but that is not how it was for me. I hung a clothesline in my house and clothes-pinned the poems along it so that I could see the poems at once and try to decipher a structure. It took a long time and I had to dismiss a lot of poems to finally see the shape emerge. The sections might speak to the myopic and telescopic lenses; I wanted to see Liliana and God and love and sadness from all the angles I felt were available to me. Moving the lens closer or further away was one technique I found that would allow me to see clearly. Even when the ideas were blurred, I wanted the image—and the poems in general—to be as precise as possible—and true to the tension I was addressing.
One of the fascinations I had during the writing of some of the poems was this sense that there was more than one “real self.” She was, in the spirit of Emily Bronte and Hopkins, both the muse and my God. Figuring out how to craft a poem around her was difficult and I thought often of Gilbert again. He said, “you have to write a poem the way you ride a horse—you have to know what to do with it. You have to be in charge of a horse or it will eat all day—you’ll never get back to the barn. But if you tell the horse how to be a horse, if you force it, the horse will probably break a leg. The horse and rider have to be together.”
IV. Domestic Majestic
Because in my teaching we are often surveying poets, reading a few poems by many poets, the concept of Trope is difficult. They don’t have enough material to see patterns or themes or motifs in particular ways and so must rely on the tropes of Literature at large—the crucifix, for example, to understand it as a literary device. But tropes have such potential to be much more nuanced. I suppose it speaks to the idea that the longer we are exposed to a certain thing, the more mysterious it becomes. Repetition, in my own writing, is always a far less conscious formal choice than other choices—such as stanza or even title, where the poet makes deliberate choices about craft.
It was not until I had my clothesline up that I began to see recurring images, or themes. It seemed appropriate to work with the recurrence of certain images so that they worked more like symbols, or at least had that possibility attached. All the crises the book is trying to reconcile are never solved and become harder and harder to distinguish from each other. God is love is a figment is sadness is variations on the self. If, then, God lives inside some version of myself, it makes sense to me that I would see the same figment and experience sadness over and over. It was only because I could see her often that Liliana came to be more fully realized. After all, if she were only a singular episode, I could not have seen her as clearly. She became a presence, not a guest, just as the crises of the heart are less episodic and more chronic; they are the crises that make a life.
But the more nuanced version of this is something I could not have seen until after the fact. The use of household objects, for example—lamps, baths and bathwater, dresses, kitchen knives, the rooms of a house—became a recurring motif I was not even aware I was using. I think of Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. Bridge, despairing, arranging the flowers, moving room to room in the company of only herself, trying to arrange what can be seen as a way of making sense of the inner life.
Liliana reigned majestically in the rooms of my house. I was lucid. I knew she was not “real.” I knew that she was a figment, but knowing she is a figment does not make her unreal. Instead of being a person like you or me, she was a person like a figment. Still real. It was like living with royal company. The majestic lived in the domestic. Her highness came to my lowness and the domestic became majestic. By turns, blessing and curse—like the imagination, especially when the inner life is haunted. She was the muse, the “vessel,” the divine, the sublime, but also the ugly and the real, the brackishness, the wretch, the enemy.
I discovered that her changing forms throughout the book served to examine more truthfully the complexities of love, grief, God, and also the different versions of my self. Yeats says, “We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. … The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self as one may choose to name it, comes to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality.”
Nature’s majesty, too, became a way of accessing some different channel of consciousness. I think again of Hopkins carrion, the choice not to feast. I am drawn often to animals, plants, weather, the ocean, and suppose I find something about the supreme indifference of nature calming, somehow comforting. Marianne Moore’s poem, “A Graveyard” writes it truest to what I mean: “the ocean, under the pulsation of light-houses and noise of bell-buoys, advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which dropped things are bound to sink—” Weather, especially, is metaphorically complex.
These poems arise from an acute, clinical, life-threatening despair. And yet my doctor, specifically, used to talk about the “weather” of the brain. She would talk (beautifully unaware of the metaphor) about patterns of pressure, storms—their predictability or suddenness, their ability to damage, the precautions against them—, calmness, winds gentle or severe, about highs and lows of moods as though they were tides of the sea. It struck me as a very true description, and it was comforting to think of the map of the mind that way.
Kay Redfield Jamison is a professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and is an authority on manic-depressive illness, specifically. Her book, An Unquiet Mind, works as a medical text and memoir—straightforward and beautiful, scholarly and emotional. There are stunning moments of precision where she will talk about the “almost arterial level of agony”; “One would put an animal to death for far less suffering.”
In another book of hers, Touched with Fire, there is this:
Biographer Leon Edel, in a lecture given before the American Psychiatric Association, carefully shied away from speculations about the genesis of melancholia, or “tristimania,” in writers and artists; he did, however, powerfully argue for melancholia’s crucial role in the arts. ‘Within the harmony and beauty of most transcendent works,” he said, “I see a particular sadness. We might say it is simply the sadness of life, but it is a sadness that somehow becomes a generating motor, a link in the chain of power that makes the artist persist…”
I know that I am not saying anything new. The domestic-majestic marriage is long and complicated.
V. The Triumph
If my entire thesis—if the big advice in this lecture—is to first find what matters and then find a way to write meaningfully about something important in a way that matters, then it makes me feel like a phony if I skirt the issue. How can you trust me or believe anything I am saying if I don’t, in addition to talking the talk, also walk the proverbial walk or, in this particular case, perhaps more appropriately, the plank. I believe that despair is the opposite of the poem, of poetry. The poem’s content may be despairing, even hopeless, but the act of it, the existence of it, is opposite despair. The attempt at being true, even, as Sylvia Plath says, “true to my own weirdnesses” is the price we pay for self-awareness.
Now, if despair is not your deepest thing, you still have a deepest thing. Sometimes I call it the one true thing, meaning, what Linda Gregg calls your amulet, your buried seed, your essence, your resonant source. The thing you are writing about even if you are not writing about it. The subject you cannot escape even if you think you have tricked it and escaped it. I also call it a Real Place and it is the shape of a circle, tiny, from which all the other things you say and write must be borne and through which they all must also pass. Identifying your deepest thing is part of the work of an artist, I think. Maybe it is your political anger, your sexuality, your family. That is part of it.
The other part is making art from it. This is where you use the techniques you learn about when to use or not use form, about meaning-relation in rhyme (see Philip Larkin’s “Talking in Bed” for example), about whether or not to invert the sonnet structure, or use repetition, about confronting the thing by speaking to it, or confronting the thing through silence. This is when figurative language and the power of metaphor can better explain what your thing is. That is how you make sense of your massive feelings, if you can construct art that includes it, even if you don’t include it.
I am leaving out Shelley’s “Julian and Maddalo,” wherein Julian remembers Maddalo said “Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong; / They learn in suffering what they teach in song.” I am leaving out Dover Beach, Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, Flaubert and his Emma Bovary whose “future was a dark corridor and at the far end the door was bolted,” Nietzche, Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s fevered formalism, her cry that “Time does not bring relief / you all have lied / who told me time would ease me of my pain,” Louise Gluck. I am leaving out Simone Weil’s compassion for the suffering and Saint Francis’s cell where he prayed on a stone bed with a wooden pillow. I am leaving out Sylvia Plath “blissfully succumbing” to the “whirling blackness” of “eternal oblivion” and relying on my own experience as a testament to surviving despair.
This does not mean I have triumphed in all ways, but in some that matter deeply. Triumph is a spectrum. I reconciled: Less an exultation and more a sigh. Liliana took her leave of me because I wrote her away, which does not mean despair does not come visit me, but it is not the same; it is not she. I knew when she left she would not come back.
But despair returns in different forms, still crippling, still numb gray brimming nothingness. I learned, when I wrote the last poem of the book, never knowing why her name was Liliana or how it was I came to know that, I learned a nearly unbelievable thing: variations on the word Allison include the name “Elianna,” which, according to the Hebrew Naming Guide means “God has answered.” Coincidence, magic, God—I don’t know. But I am convinced—and reminded—there are forces at work greater than myself. As Henry James says, we do what we can, we work in the dark; the rest is the madness of art.
Allison Seay is the recipient of fellowships from the Ruth Lilly Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her first book of poems, To See the Queen, won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize from Persea Books. Other work has appeared in such journals as Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, The Hollins Critic, Poetry, and Pleiades. She teaches at Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia.
A version of this essay was first given as a lecture at the University of California – Riverside.
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 answered, “that I hopped on one foot.”
An unforgettable reply. At the time Szymborska was 88 years old, and the memory of her happy hop is a blessed thought.
Many modern writers have become a species of nomad, living in exile because in their homelands freedom of speech is limited. One of the most important tasks of PEN International is to support imprisoned writers and journalists around the world, and there is more than enough to tackle there.
The written word is regarded in some regimes as a threat, and censorship of both the internet and the printed media is well-known. To avoid criticism, some provide writers with free food and lodging in prison. Very generous, and totally idiotic—what a healthy society requires is free debate and free exchange of views. We do not live by bread alone. It is the duty of the state to support literature in every way; while it is the duty of the writer to write good books and, if necessary, to maintain a critical stance in relation to those in power.
Such is the distribution of roles in a healthy society. When Fleur du mal was published in 1857, Charles Baudelaire was dragged into court and accused of blasphemy. Who was emperor or president at the time? No one remembers or cares today: the political figures have slipped back into the region of shadows while Baudelaire’s book remains, an unchangeable masterpiece.
In Poland’s history, we find examples of the choice writers must face when freedom of expression is not respected—to stay, or to go into exile.
Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923, she witnessed the Nazi depridation, followed by the Soviet époque of despotism. She stayed in Poland, living most of her life in Kraków, studied, taught and wrote poetry. She distanced herslf from the powerful and concenetrated on her writing. Her collected works number some 350 poems. Asked why she had not published more, she answered, “I have a trash can at home.”
This ironic humour is also found in Szymborska’s poetry. Simple, everyday events are transformed by the power of metaphor into great poetry. Her work is full of an ordinary life’s inventory of objects and situations, as in the poem “Cat in an Empty Apartment”: the cat is alone at home with the furniture, lamps, carpets and bookshelf, while the owner is away—perhaps at work, perhaps dead.
In the famous poem “Nothing Twice”, Szymborska writes: “Nothing can ever happen twice./ In consequence, the sorry fact is / that we arrive here improvised / and leave without the chance to practice.” As for Szymborska, she died for the first and only time in 2012.
One of the nomads, one who chose exile, is Czeslaw Milosz. Already in the 50s he left Poland and settled first in France, then in the USA where for many years he was a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Berkeley, the University of California. In 1980 he received the Nobel Prize. After the upheavals in Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall, he returned to his native land. It is 10 years now since his death. He was buried in Kraków as, later, was Szymborska.
But Czeslaw Milosz’s oeuvre is still of prime importance for lots of people worldwide. His experiences in youth, trapped in between Nazism and Stalinism, may be compared to the situation faced by many writers today, with the world again in the midst of great disruption and change. How do intellectuals adjust to a totalitarian state? Milosz has thoroughly explored this theme with an insider’s sensibility to its impossible paradoxes.
His work is pervaded by a strong ethos which, coupled with a robust irony, gives his poetry its lasting quality. In the poem “Ars poetica?“ he writes: “Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”
In Warsaw, I enter a book store. Milosz and Szymborska are well represented on the shelves—autobiographical works, essays, poems. I buy a cup of coffee, and spend an hour or so nosing among the books and leafing through the Polish journals. Finally I buy “Proud to Be a Mammal” by Czeslaw Milosz—it has to be the one.
I take the bus across the Wisla River to Praga, the only quarter in Warsaw that was not destroyed during the Second World War. The tumbled old houses in Praga have seen Poland rise again in the 30s, watched as Stalin’s and Hitler’s grandiose madness fell to ruin. German and Russian tanks, filled with nervous, cigarette-smoking young soldiers, rolled over these paving stones. Here Milosz could have walked in the 40s, newly composed poems in his shoulder bag, on his way to a reading or to meet a friend.
He relinquished his homeland, went into exile, turned his back on the proclamations of authority issuing from the corridors of power. This is why his poetry continues to be read, and he is remembered around the world. Most intensely by those who have felt, on their own foot, the pinch of the shoe.
Niels Hav is a poet and writer based in Copenhagen. His publications in English include a book of poetry, We Are Here, as well as poetry and fiction in numerous magazines. In his native Danish, he is the author of six collections of poetry and three books of short fiction. His work has been translated into several languages including Arabic, Turkish, Spanish and Chinese.
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. In his essay, Hoagland gives as an example Rachel M. Simon’s poem “Improvisation,” which opens:
One thing about human nature is that nobody
wants to know the exact dimensions of their small talk.
I can’t imagine good advice.
If every human being has skin
how come I can see all of your veins?
Clicks and drips target my skull.
Important voices miss their target.
Some cities are ill-suited for feet.
I’d never buy a door smaller than a tuba, you never know
what sort of friends you’ll make.
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. In Hoagland’s words:
“Improvisation” is a quintessential Poem of Our Moment: fast-moving and declarative, wobbling on the balance beam between associative and dissociative, somewhat absurdist, and, indeed, cerebral. Much talent and skill are evident in its making, in its pacing and management of gaps, the hints and sound bites which keep the reader reaching forward for the lynchpin of coherence. One admirable aspect of the poem is the way it seems capable of incorporating anything; yet the correlative theme of the poem is that all this motley data—i.e. experience—doesn’t add up to a story. Even as the poem implies a world without sequence, the poem itself has no consequence, no center of gravity, no body, no assertion of emotional value.
The logic behind this aesthetic is clear enough: it implicitly believes that in order to confront the fragmented nature of our postmodern world, we need fragmented, postmodern art. Narrative is viewed with fearful distrust, and is equated with deception and rigid authority. The skittery poem makes no claim to impose any kind of order, so it does not aim to deceive or control us. The problem, as Hoagland explains it, is this:
Elusiveness is the speaker’s central characteristic. Speed, wit, and absurdity are its attractive qualities. The last thing such poems are going to do is risk their detachment, their distance, their freedom from accountability. The one thing they are not going to do is commit themselves to the sweaty enclosures of subject matter and the potential embarrassment of sincerity.
By presenting itself as a performance of ironic wit, the poem ensures that it won’t say anything disagreeable. The trouble is, though the language is well-written, the poem won’t sincerely say anything at all.
What does such a poem really mean for us, aside from reminding us (yet again) that we live in a fragmented world and that our narratives are insufficient to remedy it?
But this isn’t news: even Frost, poster-child of the old guard, described a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion,” a description that presupposes that everything outside of the poem is in a state of unending disorder. The skittery poem constantly reminds us of this confusion, while the Frostian poem works (momentarily, provisionally, insufficiently) against it—but in either case, both reader and writer understand that confusion is the state in which we live and from which we work.
It’s worth noting that well before the burgeoning of the Skittery Poem of Our Moment, writers were engaging with similar issues, using similar techniques. Take, for example, the fragmented “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses, in which we’re bombarded with so much raw data, all of it potentially meaningful, that it eventually all becomes equally meaningless while almost-forming an almost-narrative that never quite seems to cohere.
Or take the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, whose brilliant book-length poem Altazor (written, like Ulysses, in the early 20th century) shows a world so chaotic that it eventually leads to the dissolution of the very language used to build it. Though these experiments were revolutionary in their moment, and are deservedly revered, by now their techniques have become familiar. Today, such techniques are no longer truly an experiment per se, but rather a genre trope. Simply claiming “experimentation” isn’t enough to justify them.
By no means do I intend to suggest that the techniques that define the Skittery Poem of Our Moment—intelligence, evasiveness, absurdity, fragmentation—are valueless. Quite the opposite, some of the most moving poems we have use these devices heavily. Rather, I wish to suggest that these techniques must be tools used in service of something deeper. They need to be grounded in a foundation of emotional/moral/human stakes. The moment that these techniques become an end in themselves, as in Simon’s poem and so many like it, is the moment in which they are reduced to mere linguistic showboating.
For an example of Meaningful Skitteriness, I want to turn back to Huidobro’s Altazor. The first canto establishes the terror of protagonist Altazor’s world:
Altazor ¿por qué perdiste tu primera serenidad?
¿Qué ángel malo se paró en la puerta de tu sonrisa…?
¿Por qué un día de repente sentiste el terror de ser?
Estás perdido Altazor
Solo en medio del universo
[Altazor, why did you lose your first serenity?
What bad angel stopped in the door of your smile…?
Why one day did you suddenly feel the terror of being?
You’re lost Altazor
Alone in the middle of the universe]
From the beginning, we see Altazor in the throes of existential dread. The center can no longer hold, and he finds himself adrift (quite literally: he’s presented as endlessly falling, strapped alone to a parachute). As the poem progresses, we realize that he no longer believes in God, no longer believes in any of the old structures of meaning, no longer knows what to believe in, and is terrified and miserable to the core.
Halfway through the book, Huidobro has Altazor utter these wonderful lines, a small but crucial gesture that firmly grounds all of the linguistic experimentation that is to follow:
Y puesto que debemos vivir y no nos suicidamos
Mientras vivamos juguemos
El simple sport de los vocablos
[And since we must live and not kill ourselves
While we live let’s play
the simple sport of words]
This passage gracefully casts all of the nonsensical word-games that Altazor will play as a conscious evasion of his existential dread, the only way to avoid killing himself in an absurd universe. Even the wildest experiments are thus given a heavy emotional weight. So when Huidobro gives us, for instance, a solid block of approximately 200 consecutive puns on the word “molina [mill],” we understand why he does it: it becomes a poignantly obsessive mantra to stave off suicide.
When, eventually, Altazor’s words begin to break down—leaving us with chopped-up, spliced-together terms that look like but are not words—we continue to sense the human stakes. Words, the one thing left to Altazor, are beginning to fall apart too. By the end of the book, we’re left only with howling nonsense syllables, vowels combined and recombined:
lalalí ………….Io ia
i i i o
Ai a i ai a i i i i o ia
That final line is pronounced, more or less, as “ay ahh eee ay ahh eee eee eee eee ohh eeyah”—that is, screams. As strange and experimental as this ending may be, it’s still grounded in a very human pain.
(It’s worth noting that there is another important critical tradition regarding this poem, which sees the ending not as a howl of pain but as a song of triumph. Either way, though, the point remains: we are able to locate the emotional experience that necessitates the technique.)
That notion—that in order for a work to be moving there must be an emotional reality that necessitates its techniques—holds true today. Consider Dean Young’s excellent poem “Afterward (Little Evening Sermon),” which begins:
By the seventh time the story was told,
the girl stood naked in the sprinklers
and the fighter pilot had flown on E
through Russia. The bear could almost talk,
the crippled dog could almost run and we
could almost love each other forever.
Funny word, forever. You can put it at the end
of almost any sentence and feel better about
yourself, about how you’ve worked in a spray
of sparks accomplishing almost nothing
and feel that’s exactly what the gods
intended; look at the galaxies, spilled
milk, their lust and retrograde whims.
The zaniness of the first sentence is enough to keep us sufficiently interested to continue reading. But that zaniness alone would not be enough to carry the poem: if Young merely kept naming strange and unrelated components of the story, we might get a chuckle or two, but that would be the end of it. Instead, Young includes the crucial phrase “and we / could almost love each other forever.”
In an instant, we understand why the speaker’s voice must be so skittery: his zaniness is a desperately manic attempt to avoid thinking about the pain of losing his beloved. The speaker starts to dwell on those painful thoughts, musing about how “forever” is a word that you use to “feel better about / yourself,” but quickly he turns away from the relationship again and wildly reaches for anything else: galaxies, gods, milk. The poem continues:
What was it you were promised? I’m sorry
if it turned out to be a lie. But the girl
really did drink fire from a flower,
the dog did leap a chasm…
Here the line breaks enact the speaker’s pained evasion. The speaker begins an apology—to his lover?—but then retreats to the vague deflection of “if it turned out to be a lie.” Then another turn toward the lover—“But the girl”—and another turn away, back to the skittery images: “really did drink fire from a flower, / the dog did leap a chasm.” Since we understand what’s at stake, each of these leaps carries with it a powerful emotional resonance: we feel poignantly what the speaker will not allow himself to say.
I am not suggesting that a successful poem must indicate its emotional anchor so clearly, or that it must clearly contain some archetypal narrative like the breakup in “Afterward.” Think of Vasko Popa’s wonderfully strange poem “Ashes,” as translated by Charles Simic:
Some are nights others stars
Each night sets fire to its own star
And dances a black dance around it
Until the star burns out
Then the nights divide themselves
Some become stars
Others remain nights
Again each night sets fire to its own star
And dances a black dance around it
Until the star burns out
The last night becomes both star and night
It sets fire to itself
And dances the black dance around itself
Though there’s no explicitly-stated human narrative here, no obvious allegory, we nonetheless recognize and are chilled by the actions: we see some version of ourselves in this ritualized, frightening, exuberant violence and self-destruction.
Now compare Popa’s poem to an excerpt from the Skittery Poem of Our Moment that opened this essay:
Some cities are ill-suited for feet.
I’d never buy a door smaller than a tuba, you never know
what sort of friends you’ll make.
Though its phrases are evocative, there’s nothing to emotionally ground them. Okay, sure, the reader is likely to feel, I accept that you won’t buy a door smaller than a tuba—but so what? Why should I care about your taste in doorways? The poem is too successfully evasive: it evades us so thoroughly that we are not allowed to feel anything.
Michael Ryan once said that we come to poetry because we want to feel what it’s like to be human, for ourselves and for others. Why else would anyone bother to read or write it? In an age where fewer and fewer people read poetry, we’re certainly not writing for the money or the fame. Nor is anybody reading poems in order to have some good water-cooler talk.
If our goal is nothing short of communion, of sharing how being human feels to us—and to my mind that’s the only good reason to be writing poems at all—then we can’t depend solely on language games or fashionable skitteriness. We can’t be afraid of consequence, sincerity, or emotion. We can’t be afraid of the poem’s humanity.
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including Fourteen Hills, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), Colorado Review, and Green Mountains Review. He is at work on his first book.
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.
Today instead of writing, I watched Bugs Bunny cartoons and Marvin the Martian came on to say “Resistance is futile!” And for a cartoon character hell-bent on destroying the planet to get a better view of the moon, he’s right. Resistance is a waste of time and energy.
My middle school child studying for her vocabulary quiz is right, too, when she said: “Stop watching TV and go do your work. You’re cranky.”
A portion of my seventh grader’s vocabulary list. Take five of these words and incorporate them into whatever form you’re tackling today – poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. Take on the challenge of doing a writer’s work. A little bit, every day.
Set the timer on your cell phone or your microwave, and give yourself permission to write just one sentence. That’s how you’ll overcome the art of self-sabotage or procrastination.
First, though, we have to admit that we, as writers, sometimes want the aura of being a “writer” without any of the suffering that the title entails, all the hard work and self-doubt and isolation of being a writer.
In The War of Art, author Pressfield discusses the process of doing one’s work every day, and little by little, following a routine, achieving success that the discipline of writing every day brings.
My own take on this is the “to-do” list: a prioritized list of things I need to finish in the order I should finish them in order to finish my novel, circa.
As a mother of three, I have tons of to-do lists, and I even have a giant Post-It (it covers the side of the fridge) that lists the schedule of day’s events and all of the “big picture” items that need to be done to keep everyone on track. The writing scrawled on the wall is in red ink and there is great satisfaction when something gets crossed off. The reward though is not always enough to overcome the initial resistance.
To combat the resistance, I’ve started a “skinny list:” a 4×6 sized sheet of neon green paper that I can transport anywhere I write. I utilize some of the finer points (from the big on my skinny list), writing down specific scenes and points that are important to me, what I need to include in the novel. I have no more than ten items on the list at each time. This way I can cross off scenes and plot points as they are completed and then add new scenes – and new sheets of sticky-backed sheets.
Make a commitment to a writing buddy or even a non-writing buddy, state a goal publically on social media – and then commit to just that first sentence every day. This commitment doesn’t stop either, when the first draft is done, and you’re hitting the beaches of revision.
Revision. It’s not exactly the same as writing.
Writing is hard, and writing consistently every day is harder.
But being steeped in revision is different than writing every day. You have to be a certain sort of artist to revise, one that’s willing to set yourself adrift in a sea of electric uncertainty. Electric because you have to be willing to let go of favorite words and phrases, sometimes your favorite scenes, sometimes you favorite character that you have created. And that creates a shock — to be that ruthless, that takes courage, and that’s what this art of revision is about, the art of being completely honest with yourself. It’s a shock to be that honest. If you are resisting cutting that “little darling” as Faulkner called it, then what you’re really saying to yourself is: “I really love this extremely clever character, or this funny scene, this small individual thing, more than I love the big picture, the whole of the arc, the book as a whole.” Uncertainty comes into play because you as the writer are unsure once you let go of the thing you like. Then you’re in the position of not knowing whether the thing you come up with to replace what you’ve deleted will be any good.
Until you admit you have a problem, you will be unable to fix it.
I started out as a poet. I wrote poems for years before I wrote anything longer than a page—I appreciate the clever turn of phrase and the startling image or metaphor. Unlike my prose writing, I rarely revised a poem. I kind of cut and sewed as I went along and I didn’t think about it afterward.
Recently I wrote a poem that I showed to a friend, who had the temerity to tell me it wasn’t a great poem. In fact, he had the nerve to tell me it needed work, that it wasn’t good enough. I was hopping mad for a while. A long while. Then I stopped muttering aloud long enough to consider what he was saying: that I had a good idea, that I had written down a “good start” and that I needed to work on the rougher spots on the poem. I just had to give it my complete attention and revise it.
I have done so, much to my own chagrin. I hate to say it, but that poem got stronger with revision, and has just been accepted for publication.
I’m working on other poems, two that I’ve been tinkering with for what I think is forever, but it’s really been just a couple of days: I’m hoping with consistent practice, I can weed out the bad from the good and get it ready to be sent out into the world, a new bird testing its wings, to see if it can fly.
I’m practicing electric uncertainty.
Just as a swimmer pushes against the wall before the start of a lap, resistance can be used as a means to finish a writing project. If you know you’re going to struggle with procrastination, then arm yourself with tools – a timer, a favorite spot in a café, a consistent time of day – and quiet the voice in your head that is yelling “you can’t do it,” or “you’ll never finish” or the worst, “No one who reads it will like it.” All successful writers have one thing in common: each overcame resistance through his or her own personalized form of discipline and finished a project, front to back.
Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, N.C. She holds a B.A. in journalism and English from the UNC Chapel Hill; an M.A. in South Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and an M.F.A. in writing from Columbia University. Her poems have appeared, among others, in The Atlanta Review, The Squaw Valley Review, Pratichi, The Tule Review and The North American Review, where her poems were finalists for the James Hearst Prize in 2011 and 2009. She is the former Blog Editor of Book Writing World. She lives in California with her family.
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.
Last year, it was my good fortune to be able to teach four introductory poetry workshops at a major university. In addition to being the gateway course into the Creative Writing Emphasis, the course also allows the students to bypass taking a supremely unpopular research course. The result is a mix of students from all disciplines, some of whom want to become writers, and many of whom want to avoid, at all costs, writing a policy research paper. I discovered that nearly all of the students simultaneously held two mutually-exclusive notions about poetry. One, that poetry is easy—you just write whatever you feel! And two, that poetry is impossibly arcane—all thees and thous and Grecian Urns and anapests. Among all these students—intelligent, well-educated students drawn from the top of their high school classes—I had only two or three who had read a contemporary poem. Most of the students vaguely recollected some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a few remembered Keats by name. After that, all bets were off.
I was disappointed, but not exactly surprised. My high school had excellent teachers of literature, including a PhD. I was lucky. It was there that I began to discover how powerful literature could be, and I can’t thank those teachers enough. We read everything from Gilgamesh and Beowulf to Keats and Coleridge to Williams and Eliot. And yet, not once did we venture past the Modernists. There were no Creative Writing classes offered.
Still, one of the teachers, Mr. Moore—a balding hippie who would bring his Telecaster to class and shred some riffs before talking passionately about variation of sentence structure—took it upon himself to teach his AP English Language class about writing more than just the essays the national exam would require of us. He took us into the woods to walk through nature and write poems about it. He sent us off the roam the campus and write poems about it. We didn’t workshop the poems, and he didn’t critique them.
And to be honest, I doubt I could have handled it if he had—I was a nervous kid and didn’t think I had a creative bone in my body. Though I understand his reasons for encouraging our efforts and avoiding criticism, the approach had the unintended effect of implying that poems were the spontaneous outpouring of emotion—not pieces of craft to be revised, torn apart, and rebuilt in order to make them better. The poem as it was written was the poem as it would remain.
But it was obvious to me that my efforts were nothing in comparison to those of the great dead we were reading, and I had no sense of how to improve them. Nor did I understand why I did the things I did. I sat at a picnic table under a tree and wrote about some falling leaves and trampled acorns. Most likely we had been reading Wordsworth, and I had intuited that poetry meant writing about transience and death and how great trees are. I had no sense that poetry had moved beyond those tropes, that contemporary poetry had been trying for decades to escape from the Romantic tradition that still forms so much of its foundation.
In “The Education of the Poet,” Louise Glück describes her discovery of poetry: “I read early and wanted, from a very early age, to speak in return. When, as a child, I read Shakespeare’s songs, or later, Blake and Yeats and Keats and Eliot, I did not feel exiled, marginal. I felt, rather, that this was the tradition of my language: my tradition.” Crucially, Glück sees herself here in conversation with the great dead, not merely a passive recipient of their brilliance. And yet, think of your high school poetry courses: you’d read the poems, maybe recite them, learn the Greek names for metrical feet, talk perhaps about imagery—you’d study the poem as an alien object, something complicated from the past to be reluctantly understood.
The idea that you could speak back never entered the discussion, at least not in my experience. Even when Mr. Moore attempted to put us in conversation with the canon, we were cast less as writers-in-dialogue-with-other-writers and more as clever parrots: we had to write an imitation of Whitman, using the stories and scenes of our own lives. Though we were making something, the goal was simply to fit our stories into the structure Whitman had already established. It was an exercise in mimicry, and a good grade meant being a good mimic. Though there was certainly a value in learning about Whitman’s music through imitation, the idea that we could speak back to Whitman, speak against Whitman, never appeared.
Setting aside the lack of dialogue with the poets of the past, consider how the poems themselves are discussed. “What is the poet trying to say?” the teacher asks—as if the poet had tried and failed to say something very simple. When Keats wrote “Bold Lover, never, never canst though kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,” what he meant to say was, “Urns are pretty cool. But maybe they’re not always cool. Because, you know, etchings don’t get old, but they can’t move either, and that’s kind of a bummer.” In high school, every poem has to have a tidy message, and you have to be able to name it.
What I mean is this: poems are taught as messages to be decoded, not as irreducible experiences. No wonder students are impatient with poetry! If the goal is simply to pick out the moral of the poem, then students are absolutely right that poetry is dull and overly complicated—platitudes can be stated much more concisely in prose. This type of message-hunting fails to convey that the way something is said is inextricable from what it means. It fails to convey that a poem is an experience the reader undertakes. It fails, in other words, to convey that there’s any difference between the experience of reading, say, Hamlet—really feeling his indecision, his false starts and worries and paralysis and rage as they all unfold—and the experience of reading the Sparknotes summary of the play.
Fast-forward to college, to these students sitting in my Intro to Poetry Writing class. They feel like their poems have to have a message, but that that message needs to be obscured by plenty of Poetry-with-a-capital-P. The models that they have to work from are some faintly-remembered Shakespeare, maybe some Keats, and a lot of Hallmark cards.
The result is highly overwritten language, a lot of purple greeting-card-speak used to dress up an otherwise simple moral axiom. Inevitably, most of the submissions rhyme and attempt meter (but since they’ve only studied meter as a set of abstract rules, never in practice, the meter is always garbled). The syntax is forced through all kinds of painfully Yoda-esque contortions to make it fit the rhyme scheme (again, not surprising since that was fine in the Renaissance and nobody has informed them that things have changed). Some students know that poems don’t have to rhyme anymore, but they don’t really have a sense of why a poet might use free verse in one situation and why a poet might use a sonnet in another. The idea that you don’t just write whatever you feel—that the poem is a carefully-made thing, that it is an ordered series of narrative/imaginative/sonic/moral experiences that the reader undergoes—is new.
At first, students will ask how to know where they’re supposed to break their lines—they want a formula (poetry is, after all, just a bunch of rules—remember all that stuff about iambic pentameter?). When I tell them that it’s all a question of what effects they want to create with their line breaks, that anything they do in the poem has myriad ramifications and precludes everything else they could have done in that moment instead, they’re at once frustrated and relieved. Typically someone will say, with a mix of complaint and awe, “I never knew writing poems was so hard.”
Around that point in the course, a funny thing happens: the students, nearly all of them, start to really care about their poems. They come to my office and spend half an hour talking about a few lines. They bring me revisions and more revisions. They discuss their work with their classmates, arguing aesthetic points and comparing their techniques to what they’ve seen in Glück or Larkin or Stafford or Siken or Lux. The poems improve immeasurably, and the students move from talking about what a poem means to talking about what a poem does.
This year, I’ve been teaching Introduction to Literary Journalism, and I’ve been surprised by the differences I’ve seen. From the beginning, the students’ writing is far stronger. Sure, there’s a bit of overwriting—any beginning writer deals with that—but it’s to a far lesser degree than the overwriting I would see at the start of my poetry courses. Nor do they feel the need to overcomplicate their pieces, or to throw in some thees and thous to make sure it’s literary enough. Moreover, the students are more passionate from the first day, and they’re much more comfortable engaging critically with the articles. If they hate an article, they’ll tell me—and they’ll tell me articulately why they hate it.
But when I show my Lit J students a poem, they turn suddenly quieter; only the bravest will say anything. Even in my poetry classes, it took several weeks for the students to overcome their fear of criticizing poetry. I suspect this is because in high school, they didn’t criticize poetry—the great poems were great, no question about it, now go try to decipher them.
Since Literary Journalism didn’t fully emerge as a recognizable genre until the last few decades, essentially all of the pieces that my Lit J students have read have been contemporary, free from the stifling aura of reverence and from the old-fashioned language of the poetry they’ve grown up having to read. They’ve seen the Lit J writers as writers, not quasi-mythological voices from the past. They’ve learned, in other words, to read Lit J, rather than to fear it.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should stop teaching highschoolers Shakespeare, Keats, or any of the other foundational poets. If it weren’t for reading Hamlet and “Prufrock” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in high school, I doubt I would have become a writer. These works moved me deeply, though they did not make me feel that I could speak back.
That feeling didn’t come until later, when I sat as a sophomore in my first poetry writing class, reading Larkin’s “This Be the Verse.” The poem works so well because Larkin knows the tropes of children’s rhymes, and because he is self-consciously speaking within and against that tradition. His comically-exaggerated-but-not-exactly-insincere argument—go kill yourself, and after you’ve killed yourself make sure not to have any children—interacts with the bouncy tetrameter of the nursery rhyme to produce an experience that couldn’t exist in any other way. It’s the result of a poet writing in dialogue with the past in order to create something wonderfully new.
“And you can say fuck in a poem?” someone asked.
“Of course you can. Say what the poem needs you to say.”
What does the poem need us to say? To know that, we need to know the poems of the past and the poems of the present. We need to learn the language poems speak, and how and when and why that language has changed. And if we’re going to get anywhere, we’ve got to learn how to talk back too.
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including Fourteen Hills, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), Colorado Review, and Green Mountains Review. He is at work on his first book.