NaPoWriMo, Day 2 (Day 7 for Everybody Else)

Today’s prompt is to choose a color and then to “dye” the poem with that color.

Also, not uncoincidentally, Happy Easter.

Red

Easter week, post-mastectomy,
my mother asks me to check
the bandage over her incision.
Below her ribs I see the tube
draining fluid and blood
from higher up, where
her left breast used to be.
I hesitate because this is her body,
broken for R.J. Reynolds. This is
her blood, shed for Philip Morris.
Fifty years they pierced her inside.
Fifty more it will take me
to forgive them. Still,
she is up and around again,
just three days after
her surgery. Surgeon says
when the flow of blood
and fluid drops, he will pull
the drainage tube and she
will be free and whole, ready
for the rest of her life.

Recap of Poet As Art Reading and Workshop, Jan. 27-28

Last weekend was poetry bliss here in Bellingham. On Friday evening, Megan Snyder-Camp and Christopher Howell gave  stellar readings at the first installment of the 2012 Poet As Art series. The Lucia Douglas Gallery in Fairhaven was packed to capacity with lovers of poetry. Each poet read engagingly for two segments. Christopher Howell divided his material about evenly between poems from such earlier books as Light’s Ladder and Memory and Heaven, and new pieces included in the 2010 collection Dreamless and Possible:  Poems New and Selected.  Megan Snyder-Camp read mostly from her volume The Forest of Sure Things, which won the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book award in 2010. She concluded, though, with a set of new poems relating to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, placing these figures in contemporary circumstances. Reader, I swooned. Snyder-Camp told me she is still working on this series and hasn’t published them anywhere yet.  I have to be patient, but I’ll be keeping an eager eye open for them to start appearing in journals.

On Saturday, I was one of a dozen lucky writers to attend the workshop led by Christopher Howell. He introduced his topic–the relationship between “image” and “voice” in poetry–with remarks on the dramatic features that image and voice can create in a poem.  For instance, within any poem the speaker’s voice is inherently dramatic because it is a presentation, and gestures that the speaker makes can be played up to heighten the distinctiveness of the voice. The dramatic nature of the poem increases when the voice contends with the literal meaning of the poem, or when voice pulls against the poem’s images, creating irony.

This attention to dramatic elements within a poem interests me because they help me understand, also, some interesting ways to tell a story within a poem. Though a good proportion of my poems have some story-like aspects, I rarely attempt to write fiction, since I can’t seem to narrate my way out of a paper bag. This is probably because I shy away from conflict, which is the primary engine of a story’s plot development. What Howell’s analysis suggests to me is that useful narrative conflict can derive not only from characters and setting, but from tensions between the subtler elements of image and voice. If dramatic irony counts as conflict, and therefore as a way of moving a narrative forward, I can approach writing narrative poems with more courage. (Don’t hold your breath for any fiction from me, though–I still have no idea how to construct a plot.) And, Howell assured us, we don’t even need to think of a poem as a complete narrative; it’s sufficient, even desirable, to envision a poem as an excerpt from a story.

Though I’ve reflected on these points at length, during the workshop itself Howell moved on quickly from these remarks to show us examples of poems that demonstrate these techniques of image and voice. He took us through a thick packet of published poems by a variety of poets, and gave us a second packet to study, imitate, and enjoy.

And early on, he had us begin writing. To help us generate poems using new, unexpected voices and images, Howell provided us with prompts using repetitions, word salads, and provocative first lines. These were very productive for me, but my absolute favorite exercise was based on the poem “Spar” by Tomas Transtromer–in the original Swedish. After verifying that none of us knew Swedish, he instructed us to make an impressionistic translation of the poem. I got one full draft and a second start out of this exercise, and both took me into poetic spaces I’d never have sought intentionally. Here, for instance, is the start  of the second poem I drafted using this exercise:

Spare

The knowing clock it all:  the men gone. Grief has stood
within each doorway bloodied.
Long the rememberers bear those lintels
in their satchels of doubt,
at once always losing their beloveds again
and promising themselves it never happened.
One night in the year,         [and then  the time ran out]

I don’t even know what the subject of this poem is. The Passover? A war or raid? These images–really, all of this material–completely surprised me. I’m eager to get back into this draft and continue my “translation” to see where it ends up.

This was one of five new drafts and starts I left the workshop with:  a full and superbly productive day. I thank Christopher Howell sincerely for his wisdom, his keen perception of how a poem works, and his tremendous generosity as a teacher. He made the workshop terrifically worthwhile.

THEN, Saturday night, since I was too exhausted to write but not to read, I sat down with Megan Snyder-Camp’s book and read it cover to cover. Not only did I get to re-experience the pleasures of the poems that I’d heard her read Friday evening or that I’d read previously on her attractive and informative web site; I also learned a great deal from it as to how to tell a story over the span of a book of poems. I discovered, through her gradual assemblage of narrative elements, that poems do not need to be arranged chronologically in order to convey a story, nor does the poet need to use up space within the poems to provide explicit exposition. Rather, I found I was able to piece together the bits of narrative more impressionistically–and with even greater attentiveness, once I became aware that there was a story to discover. By the end the book, I’d experienced a felt connection to a place (a small town on the Olympic Peninsula) and to at least two families who’ve lived there. The poems’ light touch with such subjects as grief and motherhood actually creates a powerful emotional impact. I suspect that Snyder-Camp’s frequent playfulness with language and syntax slips these effects past our accustomed emotional defenses, and they affect us all the more strongly as they accumulate. I look forward to reading The Forest of Sure Things again to discover what further illumination and enjoyment it offers.

On Knowing versus Being “Baffled,” and Which One Is More Productive, with Sincere Thanks to Wendell Berry

I enjoy not being certain about most things. But on one burning issue, I’m impatient for clarity.  Last fall, a recurring preoccupation of mine re-recurred.  (It has to do with being horrified by the foundational narrative of monotheism; I’ll post more on this soon.) This resurfacing of an earlier issue sent me to some fascinating books on psychoanalysis, theology, language, and myth–a couple of which I’d read before, and one new to me–for some solid, or at least plausible, answers.

But then, I had the poetry reading to prepare for, and after that, the holidays were suddenly demanding my attention, and then, a visiting family member treacherously introduced me to the crime series Lie to Me, and I put my reading on hold. Consequently, having stalled in my quest for answers, I put writing about everything on hold.

Then, today, I happened on this tasty morsel from a poem by one of my favorite nature writers, Wendell Berry, that a friend had emailed me months ago:

THE REAL WORK

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

(From Wendell Berry, Collected Poems)

This lovely passage got me started again. Not on the reading–that will happen when it happens, in the slivers of time between everything else–but on writing, and particularly, blogging. I’d somehow, subliminally, talked myself into the perception that until I’ve untangled the whole knotty theological problem I’m confronting, I won’t have anything to write about it.  However, as I told my first-year writing students over and over for twenty-odd years, having everything figured out comes at the end of a writing project (if ever), not at the beginning of it. It’s in the process of writing that I can discover what I think and what I have to say.

This is, naturally, the first thing I learned in graduate school about how to teach writing:   writing is a means of discovery. How easy this principle is to forget, though, when what I’m after is an answer, an explanation, a nice, hefty chunk of certainty. But if I attain that certainty, what then? I’ll need to find a new problem to be “baffled” by, since, as Berry says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”

As WordPress is reminding me in the lower right-hand corner of this page I’m drafting (and revising and editing and re-arranging and re-reading), “Just write.” Okay, I will.

More, and right soon,
Jennifer

“Poetry and the Spiritual”: A Workshop with Paul Piper

Saturday afternoon I attended a fantastic workshop with poet, librarian, and dog whisperer Paul Piper. Like the nature-writing workshop of his I took eight or nine years ago, this one, titled “Poetry and the Spiritual,” had participants reading and discussing a broad selection of sample poems. Paul, a kind and skillful leader, loosely grouped the poems into such categories as “prayer poems,” “ecstatic / love poems,” “wrestling-with- / investigating-God poems,” “apocalyptic poems,” and “encountering-the-spiritual-in-nature poems.” As you can imagine, I found this approach–and the poems, and the discussion of the poems–tantalizing and inspiring.

One poem I hadn’t encountered before, a Kwakiutl women’s prayer, especially fascinates me:

PRAYER TO THE SOCKEYE SALMON

Welcome, o Supernatural One, o Swimmer,
Who returns every year in this world
That we may live rightly, that we may be well.
I offer you, Swimmer, my heart’s deep gratitude.

I ask that you will come again,
That next year we will meet in this life,
That you will see that nothing evil should befall me.
O Supernatural One, o Swimmer,
Now I will do to you what you came here for me to do.

(From Women in Praise of the Sacred:  43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, ed. Jane Hirschfield, NY:  HarperCollins, 1984.)
I love the reciprocity of the relationship between the human and the salmon expressed here. This poem also resonates with mythologies around the world that tell of a deity who dies, feeds its people, and returns to do it all over again.

The two hours scheduled for the workshop didn’t allow time for writing exercises, so we agreed to draft poems on our own and then circulate them to each other by email. Although I write poems all the time that are spiritual, in both content and intent, I have to admit that this is turning into a surprisingly daunting assignment. Saturday evening, I did draft a poem, one I’m fairly happy with. But by Sunday morning, I realized that this poem, like most I’ve been writing the past couple of years, distances me pretty significantly from the subject of my personal faith. Instead of penning sincere expressions of my own faith / doubt / wrestling, I’ve been throwing my voice in persona poems spoken by scriptural and mythological characters, or writing ironic-voiced philosophical poems that engage theology intellectually, but not spiritually. To be sure, these pieces do fall into the capacious category of wrestling-with-God poems. Nevertheless, they reflect my hesitation to approach the subject of faith too closely.  Doubt, wrestling, skepticism:  these I’ve had a lot of experience (and fun) with in my poems. It’s the faith part I’m having trouble writing about.

Others in the workshop made great suggestions as to how to sneak up on the subject without scaring myself away. Paul described how he doesn’t set out to write a “spiritual” poem; he just works on a poem and allows his Buddhist practice and experiences of nature to influence what he writes.  J.I. Kleinberg pointed out the usefulness of humor as an approach, citing the example of a dog named Cooper who offers Sunday  “prayers” on the hilarious, poignant blog Odd, Good, True. I think these approaches will help me find some ways in to writing about, or to, Whatever It Is that I believe in.

My thanks to the folks at the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest for putting on yet another terrific writing workshop (I can’t imagine a more fitting or enjoyable way to raise funds for the contest, unless it involved chocolate), and to Paul Piper for his thoughtful, expert leadership of the session. I can’t wait to see what other participants come up with in their own poems.

Bootprints on My Dining Room Carpet, and Other Clues That I’m Assembling a Manuscript

It’s first-book contest season, and new poets throughout the land are busy compiling, revising, and otherwise fretting over their poetry manuscripts.  Aside from self-publishing, first-book competitions are the most common way for poets to get their first books into print.  How these work, in the ever-tightening world of book publishing, is that the entry fees for each contest provide publishers with the funding to risk taking on poets who lack previous book credits.  (And ominously, some first-book contests are becoming first- and second-book contests, since these days, a successful first book is no guarantee that a publisher will break even on a poet’s second collection.) In the last seven years, I estimate I’ve spent enough on contest entry fees (most run $10 to $25 per manuscript) to fund the literary launching of Matthew and Michael Dickman.

In hopes of getting launched myself one of these years, I too am in the process of putting together my manuscript and researching which of the several contests with October and November deadlines to submit it to. This time around, I’m refocusing the manuscript to incorporate the large number of poems I’ve written in the last year, which seem (to me, anyway) stronger than than many of my earlier pieces. The subjects of my poems haven’t changed much–they still obsess about the food chain, theodicy, birds, the usual material–but in more complex and, I hope, skillful ways. My tentative title is “Myths of Origin, Falling Away” to reflect my increased use of mythological motifs and personae in the newer poems.

So I’m experimenting with different ways to organize this 60-odd-page pile of papers:

  • Good old topical sections:  a chunk of theological poems, a chunk of nature poems, a chunk of mythological poems… This method has never worked well for me in the past, but I did sequence one version of the manuscript this way just to take inventory as I was getting started last week. At this stage, I did a lot of pruning, taking out poems that appeared weak next to their stronger neighbors in each section, to get the manuscript down to a trimmer and hardier 52 pages.
  • Organization by “voice”:  after a brief section of strong poems that introduce the collection’s major themes, a long section of poems that are quiet-voiced and meditative, followed by another long section of poems that are more kinetic and lively-voiced. I like some of the poem sequences I came up with here, and sorting my poems according to “voice” was instructive as to the direction I seem to be moving in my writing (that is, away from the earnest-voiced poet-in-the-first-person and toward the zingy persona poem).
  • A more woven, cyclical structure:  following the model of some poem sequences that I came up with during my experiment with organization-by-voice, I’m currently trying to meta-sequence the whole manuscript accordingly.  By this I mean setting up repeating cycles, such as of three mythological persona poems followed by a theological meditation followed by a skeptical tantrum followed by a couple of consoling nature poems…and repeating. The actual formula is more complicated (and, to be honest, more flexible) than this, and it’s seriously bending my brain. I feel like I’m trying to juggle eggs, watermelons, chainsaws and flaming torches–about a dozen of each–simultaneously. If I can get it to work, though, I think this will be the best-structured manuscript I’ve come up with so far.

As I work on all this, I pace around my dining table, making numerous lines and piles on it with my poems, then writing down the sequences I’ve laid out–then gathering up the pages and laying them out differently, according to a different idea of order. This passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life always comes to mind when I’m assembling a manuscript:

“I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet” (46).

At Dillard’s suggestion, that is exactly what I am doing as I write this. Cheers to you, Dear Readers, and more soon.

Note as of Oct. 10:  Jeffrey Klausman’s comment on this post, and my reply, ended up over here.

On the Consolations of the Sharp and Pinnate: The Art of Elsa Mora

Early last week, while I was still grieving intensely for our departed tabbycats, I clicked on through to the other side and landed in the wondrous creative universe of Elsa Mora. To describe her as a mixed-media artist originally from Cuba and now living in L.A. does little to convey the vast breadth of her work or the astonishing history of her life. She does papercutting, embroidery, fiber art, and ceramics, as well as drawing and painting. In her blog, “Elsita” writes charmingly about the backstory and creative process for each piece she features in her expert photos. Her explanations of her works, which frequently draw on psychological and folkloric material, read like an illuminated catalog of Jung’s archetypes.

What grabbed my eye most strongly is her papercutting art–also here, here, and here–and especially her interpretations of plant shapes. Trees abound, with vining, pinnate leaf pairs structuring and bordering her evocative scenes. Important symbolic parts of the human body–heads, hearts, eyes, wombs–sprout, and are formed by, graceful stems of leaves. At the tips, those leaves are pointy-sharp, like the knives and scissors that Elsa Mora uses to create them.

I find something consoling, something deeply clarifying, in those leaves and their sharpness. Is it in their being so crisply paired, ordered, symmetrical? Or/and that the vines and branches connecting those leaves also help form the symbol-rich human figures in many of her pieces?

It seems that each of those leaf pairs is its own tiny scissors, trimming away my grief-frayed edges.

I’m slowly treating myself to the large archives of her main blog, a page or two a day, for ongoing consolation. And inspiration, too:  I’m beginning to feel another leafy project coming on.

Great News from Tupelo Press

Today, Tupelo Press announced the winners of its Spring 2011 Poetry Project.  The prompt was to select a line from Anne Marie Rooney’s poem “Last Evening:  Index of First Lines” and, yes, use it as a first line. I wrote and submitted three poems, and one of them, titled  “Year of the Rattle,” received an Honorable Mention! No prize money, just glory–and some much-appreciated  external affirmation that I should keep sending these things out. The poem is published here on Tupelo Press’ web site; be sure to scroll to the top, too, to check out Rooney’s remarkable poem and the winning poems based on it.

Farewell, Zonker Bonker and Baby Tabby

Sad goodbyes to our two beloved tabby cats. Yesterday, we had to put down Zonker , whose failing kidneys finally stopped responding to the intensive veterinary care that had been keeping them functioning for the past year and a half. As we mourn that sweet marmalade kitty, we also grieve Baby Tabby, who disappeared in July. I don’t like to picture Baby’s likely end, in the jaws of a coyote that neighbors say they saw prowling our street this summer. Two days ago, indulging my wishful thinking, I made one more round of the local animal shelters, just in case his homecoming could give his buddy Zonker, and all of us, a lift on Zonker’s last day. No success.

So I just have to imagine Baby snuggled in next to Zonker in the little grave in our back yard, our two Love Tabbies warming each other in this sleep as they had for many years in their cozy naps on our haystack, on our beds, in the sun on our deck.

Now, the struggle to make meaning out of these goodbyes. Here’s one attempt of mine from several years ago, originally published in the journal Rock & Sling (vol. 4, issue 2, Winter 2007):

 

Strange Accounting

Grieving Tomcat, flattened in the road
Easter morning, I told over the litany
of his many names and nicknames
and wept, harder, at “Daffodil.”  His orange
tabby patches and white roundnesses,
the blameless pink of his nose and mouth
and ears, had all suggested increase

of blooming and brightness.  Amid the lilies,
I always forget:  this is my season of loss,
of wondering what to do with loss, of watching
as the cosmic accounts are reconciled
by means of a heroic and terrible dying.
I struggle to understand this system of bookkeeping.
Still, the ultimate audit intrigues me,

and that night I re-read the Franciscan
who says that when you are resurrected, all
that your heart has loved is resurrected with you.
And so I prayed for salvation, not so much
for my own body as for the eventual unburying
of fur, of purr and pink and scamper,
and the everness of springtime without passing.

 

Baby and Zonker, Love Tabbies

Farewell, Zonker Bonker. Farewell, Baby Tabby. Farewell Tomcat, Buster, Poco, Alex, Beanie, Sylvester, Seymour, and our other loved ones. Bless all your hooves and paws.

Mythology On, and Off, My Bookshelf, Part 1

Did you ever see the magnificent film Rivers and Tides, about the work of Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy? I’m smitten by it, and by Goldsworthy’s work, in which he uses whatever natural materials come to hand (sticks, leaves, rocks, icicles, dandelions) to improvise sculptures that erode sooner or later–and sometimes very soon, in the case of, say, floating leaf-snake shapes that uncoil and flow downstream, or icicle sculptures that collapse when the winter sun reaches them. As you can imagine, I dig the frequency of leaves in his work.  Goldsworthy curls them, tears them, layers them, stacks them, weaves them, fastens them, arranges optical illusions with them. Leaves are one of his primary materials for creating.

Now, picture me falling deeper into smittenness with this film when Goldsworthy mentions offhand the existence of a “tree alphabet”–yes, an alphabet based on the names of trees–in ancient Britain. Google offered me no leads; this was 2004. But earlier this year, while browsing in a used bookstore, I found a copy of English poet Robert Graves’s 1948 doorstop The White Goddess:  A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, which is all about trees, ancient alphabets associated with them, and their symbolic and mythological significances. Dear Readers, I swooned.

It took me over three months to meander all the way down Graves’s many-branched trail through the mythological and linguistic thickets of Western Europe and the Middle East. His examples span the Paleolithic period to English Romanticism, with extended, interwoven analyses of ancient Egyptian, Classical Greek, Old Gaelic, and Medieval troubadour texts, songs, and artifacts. Graves’s deft movement from culture to culture and period to period makes his pace feel dizzying, in spite of the book’s length at 500-odd pages. And though I frequently sensed that his rapid jumps elided possible problems with logic or evidence, his comparative approach kept me fascinated. Never before had I guessed that Isis was worshiped in France, or that the Welsh god Bran was Saturn transplanted. Or that Jesus was the most recent specimen in a vast forest of ancient kings whose bodies were sacrificed and eaten, then resurrected and transmuted to a divine status. Or that the primal figure of the White Goddess of the Sea lurks just behind every patriarchal deity worshiped in the West for the past three and a half millenia. OR that the role of the Irish ollave and Welsh bard was originally not just to entertain royalty with their poems, but to preserve–and conceal–the sacred alphabet of the trees, protecting it from invading cultures whose own magic alphabets and powerful deities threatened to obliterate local peoples’ languages, histories, and beliefs.

The White Goddess has been through many editions and reprints since its original publication in 1948 (my own copy is from 1997), and though it is difficult going and frequently flawed, I can see why its appeal persists. As I understand it, this book helped launch the idea current in theology, cultural anthropology, and popular feminism that prior to the ascendancy of patriarchal religions in the Middle East and Europe, the Goddess was worshiped for her power over birth, maturation, and death; growth, fruition, and harvest; dawn, day, and dark. These motifs saturate myth and literature, of course, even to the point of being cliches. But it’s fascinating to read that before they were symbols, they were attributes and manifestations of a triadic Goddess whose own linguistic code was embedded in trees.

Appetizer for Thought: Myths as Vestigial Visions

This past year, American Poetry Review has been running a series of interesting essays by poet Doreen Gildroy titled “Poetry and Mysticism.” I’ve been enjoying the series, and I’m particularly struck by an idea Gildroy includes in the third installment, in the May/June 2011 issue, which I’ve finally had a chance to read.

In this segment, Gildroy addresses, among other subjects, the idea that myths are vestigial visions:  stories created to preserve some glimmers of a revelation, a moment of seeing and expanded understanding. Gildroy asserts that the storyteller seeks out not just the story, but more importantly the storytelling state.  The story is a by-product, and thus potentially useful as a sign of the storyteller’s vision–a map of a visionary experience. She quotes painter Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit:  “If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented.”

What a bold and tantalizing theory! Robert Henri’s assertion that the arts in general were invented to preserve experiences of transcendence goes even further than Doreen Gildroy’s linking of mythological narratives to such experiences. I wonder whether these ideas are echoed by scholars in related fields (mythology, cultural anthropology, depth-psychology, archaeology, etc.). Have any of you run across these ideas before? I’m curious to see what else may be out there along these lines.