Interview

“Who has not sat, afraid, before his heart’s
curtain?  It rose:           the scenery of farewell.
Easy to recognize. The well-known garden…”
–Rainer Maria Rilke
~

primrose by Ann E. Michael

Herewith, a recap of my side (much edited) of the ArtsAlive! conversation this past Sunday at Soft Machine Gallery. SØrina Higgins was also reading and being interviewed by Lehigh Valley Arts Council director Randall Forte, but I can’t adequately summarize her insightful comments. You can find her book here, however.

~

RF: What is your favorite poem in the collection Water-Rites?

AM: I hate to try to pin down a favorite poem, by my favorite writers or by myself. I once heard Billy Collins reply to that question by saying his favorite poem is always the one he is currently in the process of writing. That’s kind of cleverly evasive, but it’s also a little true. Though sometimes I hate the poem I’m currently working on…

I like the title poem, but I get a kick out of “Doxology” because it is so odd; and perhaps my favorite poem is “Tailfeathers” or “The Big Umbrella” or, for purely sentimental reasons—not because it is my best poem—“At Bull’s Head Pond.”

~
RF: What was the most difficult poem to write?

AM: The most difficult poem to complete was probably the long poem in the center of the collection, “The Valley, the Whitetail: A History.” That was difficult in terms of managing the length and the purpose of the poem; also, it required some research. Yes, occasionally poems take quite a bit of research—I have no desire to be inaccurate when I am writing about history or geology or botany (though I often am, inadvertently, despite my best efforts). Not all poetry is solely a work of the imagination.

There are other ways to be “difficult” however. A poem that was hard to complete was the elegy “I Shall Never Be Nearer,” which came quickly initially but took a long, long time to revise and to come to terms with. Not all of these poems—or any of the poems I write—are “about” me or my experiences, I mean, not as biographical as they may seem. But this poem does deal very specifically with the death of my close friend. It was the day after I learned of his passing, and, completely numbed and sleepless, I went with my family for a canoe trip on the lake. I titled this poem “Single Lines” for several years while I was revising it, because the images came to me in – well – single lines. Single images. I must have revised little tiny things in it oh, about 14 times. So I guess that means it was “hard to write.”

~

RF: So, the opposite question. Which poem was easiest to write?

AM: Some poems do come quickly and relatively easily. Not often, and sometimes those that come rapidly end up being sort of crappy poems. But “Lot’s Wife” only underwent about 2-3 drafts and mainly arrived, haiku-like, as a visual image that carried with it some cultural freight.

Another poem that arrived rather miraculously is “River by River.” That was the result of a car trip to Indiana with my kids and is kind of a list poem. It spooled out as a result of a kind of inadvertent prompt. Will Greenway and Elton Glaser were looking for poems about Ohio for an anthology. I read the call for work, went back to my notebook about the car trip, and recalled an incident with my son and a roadmap. The editors chose it as the opening poem in the main text of the book—immediately following the preface poem by James Wright. I felt completely graced and humbled.

~

RF: How did you choose the title of the collection?

AM: Early on, while I was working on my graduate thesis project, I chose the title for the book. I’d written the title poem but hadn’t really thought of it as the title poem until I recognized how many of the poems dealt with drought or with bodies of water or rain or artworks that portrayed water. And spelling the second word as “rites” as in ritual, rather than as an other interesting aspect of water—the “rights” to water that have caused so much conflict over the centuries—seemed fitting given that there are also rites associated with death. Funerary rites, religious rites. And rites in the form of chants and dances people have done to invoke rain during times of drought. So there’s a pun there, rights and rites, and I love literary puns.

I wanted to use Steve Tobin’s sculpture as the cover art, and Steve granted the rights for that photo (more rights, legal rights) and Keith at Brick Road approved of the image for the book cover. So I am gratified by all of that. The sculpture is an early work of Tobin’s, when he was making art using surgical glass piping. It’s environmental, site-specific art that really looks like a splashing creek. But it isn’t—it is glass.

~

RF: Tell us about your publishing history and about how and if poetry publishing has changed over the years.

AM: I had my first poem published in a tiny literary journal back in the days of Xerox-ed micro-magazines, 1981 or 82. I’ve been publishing pretty regularly since then, regularly but not ambitiously. Lots of individual poems and essays in individual journals. I had no academic reason to get a book out, and I had no real direction either. It didn’t seem to be on my to-do list when I was in my twenties. Then, at 30, I had my children. Most of my creativity went in the parenting direction, though I continued to write. I didn’t really work toward book publication until about 1999. Then I began to think about it—after David Dunn had died. In fact, I got a chapbook and a full-length collection of his work out after his death. This is hard to do—to convince a publisher to put out a book posthumously. After all, the poet cannot promote his work. That’s hard on small publishers. But I succeeded. So I thought, I guess I can get my own books published. Maybe. And my first collection was a chapbook Spire press published right after I graduated from Goddard, 22 poems about building a house, sort of ecologically-invested nature-type poems.

Things have changed in the world of poetry publishing, but it is still hard to get your work into actual print—ebooks and POD self- or partially-self-published options, as well as the web and blogs, have changed the spirit of the poetry world only marginally, though I do think these options have made it possible for more people to read and encounter poetry. The absence of critical, discerning, well-read editors & proofreaders is a loss, in my opinion; but poetry is finding other ways to deal with that. And those editors are still out there. Underpaid and overworked and cranky, but out there nonetheless. MFA programs, perhaps. Critique groups have maybe replaced salons and absinthe cafes. I don’t know.

~

RF: Any advice for aspiring poets who want to get published?

AM: I’d advise aspiring poets to be ambitious. But there are many ways to be ambitious. I’m a bit of a plodder, but I hang in there. I’m not great at networking or schmoozing or even being sort of normally assertive—I’m quite shy with strangers and hate to ask even small favors…like asking an editor to consider publishing my work. Or asking people to host readings. I mean, that goes with the job, but it’s taken me a long time to get good at doing that. I hate that stuff lots more than I hate being rejected. I don’t take the rejections hard at all. My weaknesses lie in other areas. So I can say, if you want to get published, you might not want to do what I did…anyway, if you are eager to see print soon, you might want to be more assertive and organized. On the other hand, I have been self-promoting rather badly for thirty years; and I’m okay with that because the poems are better after thirty years even if my publicity skills are not.

I’m kind of outside the box as far as the “po-biz” goes. I do my job at the college, which is only marginally poetry-related, and then only when I am teaching a section of intro-to-poetry. (Mostly I teach remedial comp and tutor students in English; I like to remind myself that Kay Ryan has the same kind of job!). I attend conferences when I can get away and when I can afford them; I have taken seminars and workshops over the years, but not religiously or frequently. The “big thing” I did for my so-called career was to get an MFA from Goddard College in 2003. This was after I had won a PA Council on the Arts Fellowship—back when the council was giving those out. Please lobby your congress people for an increase in federal and state arts funding. That was so crucial for me, earning that grant. A great confidence-builder.

Since then, I’ve earned my MFA and have four chapbooks and this full-length collection coming out and a job in academia that I probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for my graduate studies and a certain amount of dogged persistence of a sort of quiet variety that I seem to possess in abundance. I still send out individual poems for publication in print and online, though not as often as I should if I were really eager to stay on the po-biz radar. I keep up a blog and a Facebook page for “promotional purposes” but don’t expect to see me on your Twitterfeed anytime soon. Technology takes me away from my reverie zone and is, generally, bad for my poetry. What’s good for my poetry are long walks, gardening, and genial loafing, visits to museums, viewing architecture and geological formations, long face-to-face chats with friends, and reading reading reading.

The quote that opens my book, the Rilke quote, kind of sums that up for me. It’s really the well-known garden that makes me recognize where the poems are coming from. The scenery of farewell, in this case, opened up the place this collection began, in loss and later in fullness.

Advertisements

Reading & discussion

Sunday, April 29th, at 2 p.m., I will be reading at Soft Machine Gallery in Allentown PA, at a special program hosted by the Lehigh Valley Arts Council. The event is described below:

Poetry: Getting the Word Out!

Location: Soft Machine Gallery, 15th & Green Sts., Allentown, PA

Arts Alive series event. Local poets will read selections from their new books and unravel the mystery of getting published. Hosted by LVAC director Randall Forte.

~
Ann E. Michael, author of the upcoming (June 1, 2012 release date) poetry collection Water-Rites and
Sørina Higgins, whose poetry collection Caduceus was released late last year.
Books available for sale. Refreshments provided. Sun 2 pm. Admission $10.

Reverie

“The image can only be studied through the image, by dreaming images as they gather in reverie.” ~Gaston Bachelard

I’m immersed in Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie, which has a subtitle I adore:  “Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos.” In the book’s first section, however, I felt myself a bit bogged down because the reverie of words (language) he describes deals with word gender. That works for French, and for most languages [or so I understand], but not for English.

Initially, then, I found myself wondering why I was reading the text. But I like Bachelard’s style, enthusiastic and looping and always replete with inquiry upon inquiry; and I love his dedication to and defense of poetry. Not all philosophers have been so kind to poetry.

As I was driving to work one morning, however, I found myself dwelling upon the above chapter about the reveries words can inspire. I fell into a recollection of myself as a very young child, the way I loved to peruse the dictionary. Even before I could read, the heavy tome with its onion-skin pages and glossy color plates of the flags of the world or of gemstones appealed to me as a room in which to become lost, a forest of leaves in which to cover myself or to lie upon, a river of language in which to be immersed. When I was older and a more capable reader, I browsed the examples, the multiple meanings and uses, the parts of speech and the etymologies of the words.

Ann E. Michael

Bachelard, I realized, is correct. The contemplation of words themselves leads to reverie, to thinking about thinking, to making dreamlike concatenations that chug through the consciousness and lead to imagination. His example involves contemplations and imaginings about the genders of words and how they suggest all kinds of interweavings and reactions, but noun gender need not be the motivating inspiration. For me, etymology accomplishes the same ends.

Contemporary adult life offers few chances for reverie. My commute to work is often the only time during the week when I can daydream a bit. My best opportunities for reverie are during a walk outside or while gardening, but I don’t get to do those things every day. I agree that reverie or daydream leads, very often, to poetry or to philosophical innovation or understanding; and Bachelard’s initial chapter on the rambling, amusing, aimless process of reverie makes me wish to go back to my childhood days of less responsibility and more imagination. Of course, that is impossible, but of course, that is part of what the philosopher intends (there is a later chapter on childhood reverie…I will be reading that pretty soon).

Boredom invites reverie. Who, in these busy times, with the many entertainments we carry in our pockets, is ever bored? So many of us, when bored, simply turn off the iPhone or the TV and sleep.

“It is a poor reverie which invites a nap.” ~Gaston Bachelard

My upcoming musings on this book will probably include garden reveries. Or memoir. Or etymology. Who can tell?

Haiku impressions

The reading Friday at Blind Willow Bookshop, a lovely used bookstore specializing in literature and unusual or rare books, combined the voices and perspectives of three poets who are exploring Japanese poetic forms.

Here’s a summation of my own remarks, though Marilyn Hazelton and Ann Burke had much to share. I’m not including the poems we read, either–Ann Burke’s haiga-like tanka poems coupled with art work or photos were lovely, though, and I wish I had files to post. Marilyn included work from the tanka journal she edits, red lights.

~

I learned about the haiku form long ago, but I can’t remember exactly when. I think it may have been during my junior high school years, though I certainly didn’t learn it in school—there was no poetry taught at my schools. I was exposed to poetry through other means: church, nursery rhymes, my own reading, relatives, song lyrics.

Initially I learned the syllabic approach, 5-7-5 syllables in English. That is the way the form was taught in the USA the 1970s. And it was clear to me early on that haiku is visual or physically-based; the imagery is sensual and real—in other words, what is in the world is in haiku, and vice versa. So it is not imaginative in the sense of fiction or dream. It engages the imagination in other ways, which means the poet has to corral quite a bit of compressed and specific imagination into a few words. The intense compression of these brief forms requires the poet to work hard at expression through the tightest possible means in language without employing what we in the Western traditions term symbolism. Classic Chinese poems often used symbolism, but Japanese poems relied more on allusions of several types (historical, poetic, seasonal). We tend to term these “symbols” (ie, cherry blossom equals spring romance) but that is not actually an accurate way to define the way concrete imagery is used in Japanese poems.

Later, after more study, I learned some details and contexts for the seasonal allusion, the references to previous poets or poems, the cutting word, the reasons haiku in English may need to be briefer than 17 syllables for maximum effect; and I found out about related forms of Japanese poetry such as haibun, renga, tanka. I met Marilyn Hazelton and learned through her, as she studied and taught the forms, in English, to other aspiring writers. Japanese poetry forms may seem to follow arbitrary rules, but that is no more true than asserting that western sonnet forms follow arbitrary rules.

My study of this poetry brought me a better understanding of the Imagist poets of the early 20th century in the sense of how they were influenced by, and how they misinterpreted, the haiku poem, crafting in the process some critically important poems for western readers. Poetry is a marvelously flexible art, elastic and willing to morph as its authors are willing to experiment. I think of much of my work as based in a ‘haiku moment’ for inspiration or image.

I will be the first to assert that haiku is not my métier, nor is tanka form. My poetry—and I’ve written a great deal of it—is generally more Western in style and tone, no surprise given my cultural and educational background. Yet haiku appealed to me immediately because, I think, of my interest in visual art and in the natural world.

~

My attraction to haiku is therefore image-based. My interest in Japanese poetry also increased after I studied Zen. The two are inter-related, also no surprise. In my notebooks, and on random pieces of paper I use to jot down ideas for poems, nine times out of ten the phrases I want to capture are physical images. Later, I may try to craft these jottings into a haiku. More often, they get employed as lines in other types of poems.

Sometimes, a poem I attempt to write as haiku becomes a tanka…or a longer poem in some other form (free verse, blank verse, etc.); in any case, the sensual first impression is usually what I first observe and note. My own interest in nature and my physical environment make haiku-type poetry sort of an inclination. So the inspirations and influences for me include Zen, visual art, physical or concrete imagery, nature and season, brief observation, compressed or concise language use, and a quality of universality in the poem.

~

For writers who have done Westerners the service of exploring, interpreting, and explicating haiku and the Zen practice that leads to the haiku moment, I suggest Jane Hirshfield, Robert Aitken, William Higginson, Penny Harter, Hasegawa Kai, Earl Miner, Richard Wright, Gary Snyder.

Another poetry event

To anyone living in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, a reminder about my two upcoming readings–one this Friday (April 20, free, at Blind Willow Bookshop) and one on Sunday the 29th. The event on the 29th is a fundraiser for the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, so there is a $10 fee.

Details are on my Events page.

This weekend, after the bookshop event, I plan to post a recap here. Meanwhile, enjoy the blossoms of springtime.

azaleas by Ann E. Michael

redbud

photo: Ann E. Michael

Passion, art, doubt

“We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”  ~Henry James

Azar Nafisi cites this James quote in Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her memoir-based ruminations on James, she identifies deeply with James’ ambiguity, a trait in James’ fiction that her Iranian students find complex and difficult. She spends a couple of pages examining the problematic aspects of James’ work that frustrate and puzzle her students even as the same aspects appeal to her. She likes the doubt.

This quote, with its passionate appeal to the task of art, and its uncertainty, likewise resonates for me. My encounters with the ambiguity inherent in art stem from a set of experiences very different from Nafisi’s, and from James’. But our passions are similar in intensity, although I would probably tone down James’ phrase “the madness of art.”

Where did the doubt and the passionate “need to make a task of art” begin? I can probably come up with dozens of possible answers for myself. I’ll mention just one right now, the way I learned to feel about visual art. A framed print of the painting shown here [The Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelico and Lippo Lippi] hung on the wall when I was very young. It was the most fascinating object in the house. I spent what seemed like hours gazing at its details, finding the animals among the throngs of people, old men, and young women with their hair in roped braids, children and peasants and half-naked lepers amid the ruins. I knew the story well, but the way it was told in this painting engaged me more completely than any other way I’d absorbed the Christmas narrative. And it was round! It was the only round picture I’d ever seen.

This Adoration moved me, even though I was only six years old. The idealized, pastel paintings of Jesus that hung in the Sunday school rooms were bland and static by comparison; they did not make me want to love the pretty man in the clean robes. But this painting! Even the peacocks adored the Baby Jesus. And yet the picture contained more than adoration and joy. Pain was implicated–the beggars, the cripples–decay was there in the broken-down building. Horses stamped impatiently; some of the people turned away. The whole thing was full of tension and human frailty and doubt as well as gladness.

It strikes me, now, that doubt is one of our tasks; for it is through uncertainty, curiosity, mild skepticism, and a willingness to weather the problems and puzzles of ambiguity that we keep alive our passion for the task of art, to make new, to express, to challenge, and to celebrate. That is what the devoted students in Nafisi’s book manage to cling to as they read “dangerous” books in Tehran. And that’s perhaps what Henry James meant when he stated that we work in the dark.

If the madness of art exerts itself through the tasks, the doubt, and the passionate devotion to doing what we can–well, I can live with that.

Chapbook review

I was away for a few days…and while I was in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Dave Bonta posted a nice review of my last chapbook, The Capable Heart, at his site vianegativa.

Thanks, Dave!

A longer posting of my own should appear here in a few days, after I have readjusted to the lower altitude of my Pennsylvania valley.