Influences, personal & poetic

Someone recently asked me what my poetic influences were. I admitted to some confusion about the meaning of “influences” in this question. “Do you mean which poets wrote work that influenced my writing style, or do you mean what sorts of people or experiences or art had an influence on the things I write about?” I wondered. Or maybe which poets’ lives influenced me somehow? There are so many ways to interpret that question.

I did assume the person meant the noun form of influence:

influence n. [ C/U ] us /ˈɪnˌflu·əns/

Cambridge Dictionary of English

the power to have an effect on people or things, or someone or something having such power. The kid next door is a bad/good influence on Kevin. She used her influence to get her son a summer job.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the word was originally an astrological term (13th-14th c) that described how stellar positioning acted upon human destinies. It designated a “flow” from the stars, but also “a flow of water, a flowing in,” from Latin influere “to flow into, stream in, pour in,” from in- “into, in, on, upon” (from PIE root *en “in”) + fluere “to flow.” What star streamed its power to me or exerted its effect upon my writing?

When I read a wonderful poem, I do feel the piece has exerted its power, that language, words, imagery have the strength to sway my emotional field. After reading an entire collection by a good writer, I sense a resonance–intuitive, unsettling. Sometimes, the work evokes in me a desire to do what that writer has done. That’s one type of influence. The list of such writers would be lengthy indeed.

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Other influences, though–amazing works of art, thrilling architecture, deeply moving music or dance–I could not exempt those as streaming into my consciousness, awakening me to something new. Or human beings, especially those I love best.

And places. Environment matters to my poetry. In the city, I wrote city poems. In the country, I write country poems. After I’ve traveled somewhere new to me, I conjure the place in my mind and it exerts its own kind of power on me.

Influences, in my writing life, are generally bound to experiences; I’m not a very imaginative writer. “A change in the weather is sufficient for us to create the world and ourselves anew,” wrote Proust. I am not contradicting myself in this paragraph. But I think I will have more to say on this topic soon, once I mull it over a little longer.

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Diminishment

When a friend who grew up in Central America visited the USA for the first time, she arrived in New York City in January. She encountered the airport, security, passport service, crowds, parking lot, the traffic en route to Central Park, shivering a bit as she went in and out of heated places to the cold weather and back. But when she finally found herself walking the city streets with her host, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon amid the many noises of downtown, she stopped and stood still a moment–listening intently.

“But–where are the insects?” she asked.

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“We notice the losses,” says David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.

Brooke Jarvis, New York Times Magazine Nov. 27, 2018

While I do not expect to hear insects in New York in the dead of winter, the “windshield phenomenon” is something I noticed here in the USA during the 1980s. I recalled long cross-country trips in the car with my parents and the constant need to clean smashed bugs from the window and front bumpers or grilles, back when I was a child. And somehow, once I was driving, that task became less necessary. I decided that pesticides such as DDT were responsible for fewer bug-splats, but I did not consider the long-term ramifications that Jarvis describes:

Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere… In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period.

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Right. And a loss of bees leads to a loss of any plant requiring bees for pollination. A loss of beetles and dragonflies and mayflies and even the much-maligned mosquito leads to birds that starve, not to mention amphibians, reptiles, and some omnivorous or insectivorous mammals–particularly vulnerable bat and marsupial populations. The bottom of the food chain matters more than most human beings ever stop to consider.

One part of this article mentions the important, even crucial, role of people who study nature without having gotten degrees…the so-called amateur botanists, lepidopterists, and hemiptera observers. Another reason I find this article so interesting has to do with how Jarvis employs thoughtful, reflective moments in the piece, while maintaining a journalistic stance:


We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.


Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.

Maybe it’s my personal inclination towards the natural observation, but I find some resonance here. It’s what I tend to do when I write poems–to celebrate the common, or at any rate to notice it. I notice, too, the diminishment.

Some readers have told me my poems feel sorrowful, and maybe that sense of diminishment hunkers behind even the more celebratory poems I write. That’s an idea worth my consideration as I revise my work. Maybe Diminishment should be the title of my next collection.

Anyway–read Jarvis’ article. You will learn much. Even if you’re one of those folks who “hates bugs.”

Epistle as writing practice

I am often asked by my peers why “young people” do not come to college with exemplary writing skills. Because I feel protective of my students, I wish to defend them–not always an easy task. My first response is that they have not had enough practice in writing to develop adequate fluency, and I generally follow that by admitting that many of my students have never really read books for leisure or out of passionate interest and that they are quite adept at other forms of communication (social media, looking at you!).

Last year, I decided to spend one class period on epistolary writing. I recognized that one way I developed confidence in expressive writing was by writing letters. Lots of them. Every week to my parents, almost as often to my sister, to my best friends, to sweethearts, grandparents, anyone I cared about. Probably 30 years of letters, which later morphed into lengthy emails as the technology developed.

Letters. Who writes them any more? Certainly not today’s college freshmen, if my students offer any objective measurement of their generation.

The epistolary mode offers students a chance to exercise the use of second-person as a governing pronoun, a style that formal academic writing shies away from except in certain forms of persuasive writing–the opinion column, for example. Teaching my students NOT to employ “you” is such a constant effort that I thought letting them write letters would give them a much-needed break from prescribed academic conventions and allow them to loosen up their sentences a bit.

Before I assigned in-class letter-writing, I asked whether any of them ever writes letters. Not one hand went up. I withdrew from my tote bag a clutch of old correspondence (yes, of course I would be that person who keeps the letters people write to me). After flourishing an envelope–with a 29-cent stamp–I disclosed the contents, a ten-page, handwritten letter from a dear friend. The students audibly gasped. “How long did that take to write?” “Did you read all of that?” Sure! When long-distance phone calls were expensive, letters were social media. We couldn’t just snapchat a photo of ourselves standing on a pile of snow and caption it “Snow!” We’d have to send a photo. Or we’d have to describe without the visual–and this is a practice my students have almost never had to employ.

Lack of informal writing practice translates into lack of writing practice, period.

I even read passages from three letters aloud, and the students were impressed with the vivid writing…writing by “non-writers.” “You could write like this, too,” I told them. “You just haven’t needed to do it, and therefore you think you can’t do it.” Then I asked them to think of a person, a specific person, and come up with a reason or purpose to write to that person, and then just write. The response was amazing. Some of these students wrote more in 15 minutes than they ever have for an in-class assignment. Most of them enjoyed it! One student even said that “this old style of long form texting intrigues me” and plans to start writing letters to a sibling once a week.

Success!

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Letter Writers Alliance is an informal site promoting the hand-written, postal-mail delivered epistolary correspondence. Members can sign up to find a pen pal or just browse the site for stationery, pens, letter-writing tips, etc.

Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

Wow. I found this post by Lesley Wheeler worth re-blogging. It hurts my heart that she found so many of her students had experienced this kind of fear and violence in their schools. But it makes me pleased to be a writer if I can be in the company of people like Lesley and her students, facing what is horrible and difficult and discussing and writing about it. And reading, too–reading poems that face the “dark” in human beings can be as liberating and enlightening as reading poems that offer “hope” or balance. The heart does need rest now and then; thoughtful reflection offers more rest than many folks realize. Thank you, Lesley, for being a teacher.

LESLEY WHEELER

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a…

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Post traumatic stress

Shell shock. Combat fatigue. Delayed hysteria. Contemporary psychology and medicine have another name for it now, post-traumatic stress disorder, and have extended the concept of delayed stress response to victims of trauma other than combat: abuse and catastrophe victims, anyone who has survived a traumatizing experience, of which the world offers many options.

The mental and physiological symptoms that interrupt the rest of the afflicted person’s life? Those are nothing new. Indeed, perhaps the rage of Achilles was a kind of post-traumatic stress response. Maybe whole cultures reflect collective past traumas, responses delayed by decades, even centuries.

Think of it: most modern nations were born of war, boundaries drawn after bloodshed, famine, oppression through colonization, purges and expulsions. Trauma.

We can never escape suffering, although most people seem equipped to repress painful experiences. The human challenge is to remember without demanding revenge, to employ both reason and compassion in the entire community of human beings. Not, for any of us, an easy task.

Lately, I feel a bit as though the country in which I live–the citizens, popular culture, government and also the environment itself, geological, ecological, biological–has exhibited PTSD responses. Probably, now that I think about it, that’s been true for a long time. So I find myself contemplating the long view (see the Clock of the Long Now for a theoretical 10,000-year perspective!)

As an individual, I do not have a long reach nor a significant number of years to dwell on the planet. That need not keep me from using the long-view perspective; indeed, I sense that the type of curating that I have begun in terms of compiling another manuscript and thinking about the life of work I have contributed over the years through child-raising, landscaping, gardening, teaching, helping young people in university, assisting family members, and whatever other small drops one person can add to the ocean of existence, suggests my comfort level with the long now has deepened.

Likewise, I accept that suffering just pretty much covers the human condition from beginning to end, and without it we would never recognize how amazing the earth and its diverse communities are nor appreciate our joy nearly as much. Despite the difficulty involved in recalling trauma, we may need to face it, with the compassionate support of other humans, in order to more fully live our ordinary lives and understand the long view.

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A handsome red fox just scampered across our back yard. Beautiful in the mid-autumn sunlight, a flash of joy.

 

Manuscripting

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: how to organize a collection of poems into a manuscript? I have done it before; after all, I have managed to get several chapbooks and a long collection into the world already.

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And yet. The difficulty never departs, so I have once again been seeking inspiration and practical advice. The interwebs disclose a bounty of information from experts. There are hundreds of articles and blogs concerning this particular challenge, a challenge that seems unique to poets, though I suppose short story writers may encounter similar concerns when choosing how to organize and what to include in a book. If you find yourself wrestling with this task, encouragement and guidance abound. Here are a few articles to check out:

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Chicago Review of Books posted this article, asking four poets how they went about the task (and by the way, all four of these books contain wonderful work–definitely worth reading).

Marilyn McCabe’s “megablog” on the process is here.

In 2011, Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press posted a lengthy how-to on the Tupelo blog.

For the more scholarly reader on this topic, a lovely in-depth article by Natasha Sajé in The Iowa Review.

Poet & publisher Diane Lockward’s book The Practicing Poet includes not only prompts and craft suggestions but chapters on manuscript organization and getting published.

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Now I need to take these generous people’s advice.

Murmurings

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Center Valley, PA, USA

On a crisp, abundantly clear day (for a change!), I opened the car windows to listen to the corn stalks rattling in the breeze. After an unusually wet year, the fields have been too wet to bring out heavy farm equipment, like gleaners. They would get stuck in mud. So the corn stands and, finally, dries in the rapidly-cooling air.

And rustles and swishes, and produces the susurration associated with tree foliage, only louder, harsher. The November sun heightens the contrast between the grassy-looking stalks and the crowd of shadows below the strap-shaped leaves. Zea mays: one of the incredibly numerous poaceae monocots. Field corn, in this case. It surrounds two sides of the campus where I work. On windy days, I can hear it murmuring. It has a wistful sound to it, each plant crackling softly against its many neighbors.

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Ascribing human emotions to non-human things is something poets often do and for which they have been occasionally excoriated (see the pathetic fallacy). It is really I, not the field corn, who’s feeling wistful. There’s no reason not to occasionally explore things such as the pathetic fallacy, anthropomorphism, or clichés in poems, though. Poems can be places for play, puns, irony, and over-the-top expressiveness…where else but in art do we have so much possibility for free rein and experiment?

With that in mind, what came to mind is a decade-old poem I played with long ago. I thought of it, located it in my files, and realized how well it suits this year’s rainy weather. It has never seen print, so this is its first public “share” to the small world of readers. Just to be wistful, and to listen to murmurings.

Fallacy Pathétique

Awful, the sobbing breast of the nearby hill
draped in funereal rain,
moping trees with bedraggled leaves
under dolorous skies.

How coarse and crass the indigent crows
mocking day’s solemnity
over pleading calls for mercy, compassion
from the myriad finches.

Do not quench sorrow but be drenched in it,
small streamlets fast-running
down ratty embankments dull with mud.
O, morning, mourning,

lease your grief to field and gravel and
the huddled owl’s
damp-pinioned back hunched in sleep.
Be terrible and bleak,

stained with the nouns and adjectives of despair,
run down the mountain
with a mouse carcass on your swift spine,
meet the road in a reeking ditch.