AWP conference 2013

I am heading up to Boston next week with about nine thousand other writers, writer-educators, writer-publishers, academics, and business people. The annual Associated Writing Programs conference will be in session March 6-10. I posted about the conference briefly last year...and last year’s conference introduced me to Brian Boyd’s work on cognition and storytelling. So I am hopeful that this year’s programs and panels will prove equally enlightening.

The conference offers a chance to meet or at least hear some of my favorite writers and to talk with interesting colleagues. Best of all, there are thousands upon thousands of books and literary magazines to browse. If I feel shy, I can interact with books at the Bookfair and “meet” my fellow writers through their polished texts instead of face-to-face (or body-to-body in the packed bar). The main problem with any event of this kind is the lack of places for introverts to regain equilibrium. At AWP, there are quite a few introverts; and people tend to claim a spot by a window, balcony, or corner somewhere in the conference area and send out “don’t disturb me, I’m recharging” body-language signals. Or they eat alone in the restaurant without looking too uncomfortable about the status of solo diner.

Writers understand.

~

Lori A. May offers her insights on the conference here, with a focus on people who are considering graduate school programs. I will be participating in a panel on that topic: the Low-Residency MFA. My main interests, however, remain bibliophile-oriented: discovering poets whose work I haven’t encountered before, finding new books by favorite poets, learning who is editing which long-running journals, and finding new journals to peruse.

By contrast, here’s a lovely, very funny article by Kay Ryan that appeared in Poetry magazine in 2005. The second paragraph sets the tone:

Once, when I was about twenty-five and not yet entirely aware of the extremity of my unclubbability, I did try to go to a writers conference. Thirty minutes into the keynote address I had a migraine. It turns out I have an aversion to cooperative endeavors of all sorts. I couldn’t imagine making a play or movie, for instance; so many people involved. I don’t like orchestral music. I don’t like team sports. I love the solitary, the hermetic, the cranky self-taught. Make mine the desert saints, the pole-sitters, the endurance cyclists, the artist who paints rocks cast from bronze so that they look exactly like the rocks they were cast from; you can’t tell the difference when they’re side by side. It took her years to do a pocketful. You just know she doesn’t go to art conferences. Certainly not zillion-strong international ones, giant wheeling circuses of panel discussions.

How, then, one wonders, can it be that I have just come back from AWP’s annual conference in Vancouver, treading upon a lifetime of preferring not to?

I fear I am rather in her camp. I do like orchestral music, but I prefer chamber ensembles. I don’t care for team sports. I love the solitaries, the St. Simeon Stylites of the world; there’s a bit of the hermit in me. Crowds–shudder! Yet a conference of writers at least offers the promise that I will be among others who understand how I feel and who feel that way themselves now and then.

St. Simeon Stylites

St. Simeon Stylites

Another advantageous aspect to this event is that I get a chance to talk about poetry and creative writing with people who are as passionate about it as I am. I can discuss the logic and music behind free verse line breaks and learn contemporary writers’ opinions about the sonnet. Is the metaphor dead? Does symbolism have any place in modern writing? Is hypertext the new L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? Does anyone understand the significance of the tattoo that says “December 10, 1830” on that young woman’s arm? (It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday). I can talk about my book Water-Rites with people who are working on getting their own poems published and discuss current projects with folks who are sure to have ideas and advice to share.

So the event is worth a bit of discomfort on my part. If I get too overwhelmed, I can go back to my room or walk the chilly Boston streets or have a chat over coffee with just one person at a time.

Or maybe find a pillar in a park somewhere. I think I recall one at Bunker Hill….

bunker-hill-monument

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Exhaustion & bloom

Isak Dinesen: “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.”

~

Some days, the little is…quite little. I am not exactly taking a break from reading and writing, but a great deal of my reading these days is student-written work; and the writing tends to be corrective.

There are also events in one’s life that tend to push back against the time needed to dwell on creative things.

Kurt Vonnegut: “So it goes.”

~

I’m re-reading Descartes. The best part of his philosophical writing, in my opinion, deals with his conscious desire to remove all prejudicial thinking from his mind. I have my doubts as to his success in that regard, but I love the splendidness of trying to attain the mental tabula rasa. Open-mindedness, a virtue more human beings should strive to embrace.

~

And there is also exhaustion, pure and simple. Some days, I need my rest.

February: awaiting the snowdrops’ blooms. (They’re nearing…the white tips are visible, enclosed in the deep green spathes.) Meanwhile, fragrant yellow winterhazel.

corylopsis

winter hazel

Memoir & the lyrical narrative

I have decided to devote two class periods to exploring the lyrical narrative with my students. The reason evolved from, not exactly a revelation, but a dawning awareness that this particular mode of poetry connects more easily with students than other modes.

Popular music, of course, sets the contextual stage here. American country music fills the nation’s highways and airwaves with lyrical narratives and modern-day ballads. The story-song appears in a wide range of musical genres from rock to rap, born from simple blues narratives and Appalachian ballads and from John Henry and Casey Jones to glam-rock “epic rock ballads,” new wave, Motown, British invasion (think “A Day in the Life”) and quirky indie lyrics–not to mention huge hits like “Lying Eyes” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” or oft-played 70s narrative songs like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” These tunes are all before my students’ time, but they have their own lyrical narrative popular songs; they “get it.”

Bruce Springsteen: lyricsThunder Road

Bruce Springsteen: lyrics
Thunder Road

Narrative lyrical poems hook readers who might not otherwise spend much time closely reading a poem because of those critically important pronouns “I” and “you” and because there’s a human impulse to stick with a story. We want to know how it ends; and we want to figure it out in our own subjective ways, to put the speaker/writer’s experience into our own (or vice versa) and interpret the narrative on our own terms. We also like to be a little surprised.

Why?

I’ve touched on the topic of the cognitive need for narrative in a previous post, and on Boyd’s story-telling impulse research (here), and now–in light of reading the lyrical narrative poem–I want to offer an excerpt from Oliver Sacks. In an excerpt from Speak, Memory, Sacks writes:

“There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected…Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves… Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable. We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity.”

How can we honestly interpret a poem without acknowledging immediately that our brains are highly subjective processing organs that inherently interpret and experience input differently? Our personal narratives, our memories and recollections, limit, expand upon, and influence our interpretations. That is why I insist that my students accept all “expert interpretations” of famous works with a grain of salt. Every human brain re-creates based upon subjective, unique processing; the fact need not keep us from admitting of rational thinking, but it must affect human interpretations of phenomena. Especially subjective phenomena such as art.

This is also the reason I warn my students not to assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet himself or herself. Poets invent, and they can invent personas. Furthermore, in their efforts to write truths–emotional truths, lasting truths–they may alter physical, actual, memory-based “truth.” In other words, maybe the story happened just that way. Or didn’t. Though “for the most part our memories are relatively stable and solid,” the paradox of art is that altering the facts can lead to deeper truths. Sometimes the facts seem altered from one perspective but not from another. Other times…well, I confess, I myself have changed some facts in poems in order to make the poem better. In such cases, craft supersedes the need for stony factuality. I guarantee I am not the only writer who employs this strategy.

Whose life is it anyway? And whose art? Sacks reminds us of the loosey-goosey aspects of recollection: “The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as ‘creating,’ and remembering as ‘recreating’ or ‘recategorizing.’” Thus, the lyrical narrative is a form of memoir, created through individual perception and recreated through the process of memory itself. Which, all of us being human and therefore fallible or otherwise liable to err, and subconsciously quite able to lie to ourselves, means that the lyrical narrative could end up as mythical as the stories of Mount Olympus.

And just as compelling to generations of human listeners or readers.

A voyeur’s fascination that the reader may be witness to the human-talking-to-human in the framework of a storyline is a significant part of what engages audiences. This poem might be memoir! It may be true. It may be genuine experience, something to which I can relate. There’s emotional frisson, or thrilling curiosity, or the dread of knowing it will all end badly. But I must know; and I want to believe it might be true. Tell me sweet lies, oh troubadour!

~

*Note: the image above is not Bruce Springsteen’s handwriting. He prints. An example of his actual lyric drafts is here.

Introversion as character?

Holy pop-psychology, Batman! Introverts are asserting themselves all over the place! At least, you might think so based on current media trending. There was that insightful and rather humorous  2003 article called “The Care and Feeding of Your Introvert” in The Atlantic magazine. More recently, Susan Cain has brought us the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. When popular culture embraces an idea, parodies and simplifications and misinterpretations spawn in the stream of cultural consciousness. Some of these are charming, such as Dr. Carmella’s Guide to Understanding the Introverted, with its hamster-ball analogy. Mostly, the chatter masks any actual usefulness of categorization. Categorization as a method of understanding has had its pros and cons going all the way back to that master of the process, Aristotle.

Batman is copyrighted by DC Comics

Batman is copyrighted by DC Comics

Recently, I’ve been participating in discussions, virtual and face-to-face, around the topic of introversion and extraversion as personality or character traits, and the value or lack of value of the categories as well as the definitions of these words. Popular culture, which perhaps ought to be called majority culture, as usual flattens and simplifies the concepts. “Introverts” are shy and quiet, “extraverts” are sociable and talkative.

Or not. The current psychological meaning of introvert is based on the work of Isabel Briggs Myers and her colleagues and means, broadly speaking, a person “predominantly concerned” with his or her interior thoughts or sensations and less concerned with “external things.” An extravert (sometimes confused with the non-psychological, more general term extrovert), by contrast–naturally–is more concerned with life’s “practical realities” and gains more gratification from what is outside the self.

A friend of mine recently blasted the Myers-Briggs type indicator assessment as being responsible for promoting stereotyped ideas of introverts and extraverts and claimed the assessment is worthless (she used an earthier term). I don’t agree that Myers-Briggs is worthless; like any assessment tool, however, it cannot provide anything more than a snapshot of a personality. It can provide useful insight when combined with careful observation, professional knowledge, and other methods of determining character and personality. Just because Myers-Briggs is probably the most-applied or most-trusted personality assessment tool in the world does not mean it is always accurate or can be interpreted by laypeople…or even by experts. Brief forms of the test online are just that: brief forms, less complex, and therefore–as human beings and the mind and consciousness and personality are exceedingly complex–considerably less reliable as to results.

Then there is the whole concept on which the test, and others like it, are based. Carl Jung posited the notion of two dichotomous pairs of cognitive functions operating in the human psyche, and the test is derived from his initial explorations concerning those dichotomies. Well, that works–if you are a dualist. Not all of us buy into the categorization program, and many skeptics suggest that the world is far more interesting than just pairing opposites can explain.

Yin-Yang

I love the idea of harmony the taoist symbol represents, but my sense of the universe’s fractal and relational saved-from-chaos-by-a-thread “reality” tells me things are not that simple. We simplify them to attempt understanding at the human level, but oversimplification leads to stereotypes and fallacies, outcasts and enemies. Introverts and extraverts can face off and talk about how different they are; but Jung and Myers would remind us that these “types” exist on a continuum, despite the dichotomous origin of the concepts. Some people test out right near the middle of the two; some are only partway between the extreme ends of their type. Furthermore, how one defines these terms makes a big difference in how the types are perceived…and people do change as we develop along our own continua.

My father was an early proponent of the Myers-Briggs assessment and has administered the test to me three times (when I was 17, about 26, and in my late 30s). As I matured, my introversion factor changed slightly. Of course, I could have told him that without the test! I had more time for daydreaming at 17, and fewer external responsibilities. By the time I was nearing 40, I had to deal with some significant external realities: my young children and all the practicalities of external life that child-raising entails. The other aspects the indicator assesses changed a bit less, but there was movement; human beings are not stone carvings, and even stone carvings wear down, break, and change.

My own definition of what it means to be an introvert is that I “recharge” best when I am alone or with another person who is quietly reading or walking or daydreaming alongside me. I do not like being lonely; loneliness can occur even when surrounded by society, however, and solitary hours aren’t necessarily accompanied by a sense of loneliness. After spending a day at work, talking with students and colleagues–activities I enjoy–I need to go up to my room and get out of my work clothes and unwind without immediately chatting about my day. Parties can be fun, but afterwards, I need to spend a little time by myself. Concerts and tourist-clogged beaches can overwhelm me, yet that doesn’t mean I find no joy in attending them. I just need to pad the experience with some quiet time before and afterwards. Some of my family members, though, feel drained when they are quiet for too long. They recharge by socializing, or by making and doing things (ah, those “practical realities”!).

I was considered shy as a child and adolescent, but few of my current friends would say that shyness is one of my most obvious characteristics. These things are matters of environment and perception, not merely of some implacable temperament. In fact, I have several friends who appear much “shyer” than I am but who are extraverts, because they feel a sense of increased energy after social interactions or going to concerts or cities, whereas I need to retire, book in hand, to my quiet chair for recuperation. Ask anyone who knows me and you’ll learn that I love to talk and can be quite gregarious. Sometimes. And after awhile, my need to transmit and receive sort of slows down. After that, I don’t need to have anyone attend to me, converse, or ask me if I need anything. I don’t need interaction anymore–I’m like a cellphone nestled in its charger.

Even a cellphone needs a few minutes when no one is talking. That doesn’t negate its role as a conduit for communication, does it? As any reader can tell from this blog, I am concerned with “interior” thoughts and sensations but speculate on and relate these thoughts to the wider world, which is also my main impetus for thinking these thoughts in the first place.

Enabling & stewardship

The season of seed catalogs is upon us, and I begin to fantasize about all of the vegetables and flowers I want to grow and how I will arrange my small garden area to accommodate them. I imagine having time to keep the rows cultivated and the foliage free of insect pests. Yes, I need to do some work on the fencing. And yes, some terracing might help where the garden’s taking a decidedly southeasterly dip. The asparagus patch finally played itself out, so it will need some restructuring and weeding; I’ll have an opportunity to use that area in a new way.

There’s snow on the garden now. All of this planning is purely speculative on my part. Yet–how clearly I can envision it, in my mind. One of my concerns is whether I’ll feel hale and hearty and energetic enough to get all of this work accomplished!

Ah, my garden-consciousness brings me to the mind-body problem, though perhaps in a more physical way than philosophers encounter it. My conscious mind imagines the garden that does not yet exist. Is that garden real or an illusion? What makes it possible for me to conjure it so vividly? Is it merely memory of past experience? If so, why does my imagination invent a slightly different garden–this year’s ideal? My animal self takes action, physical action (phenomenological action) in order to bring about fruition to feed the physical body that loves the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes and fresh beans and tender lettuces. Do my actions cause the plants to grow? No. I’m more of a steward or a guide. I help them get a better-than-average start.

This sort of thinking brings me around to a (2011?) post by biologist Stuart Kauffman, on the NPR philosophy blog.

Kauffman says:

We think we live in a web of cause and effect. We do. We also live in a web of enabling opportunities that may or may not be seized, and the living world, biosphere up, unfolds in a different way, creating ever new possibilities of becoming.

But these possibilities often can’t be stated ahead of time. No one foresaw Facebook when Alan Turing did his work in the first half of the 20th century. Nor can we foresee all the possibilities of the evolution of life.

Life is not a well-formulated, complex optimization problem to be solved. We do not know all the variables that may become relevant.

Science is my life, and it is wonderful. But science will not ultimately know everything.

In the world of modernity, our values have become badly deformed. Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” has replaced “integrity, generosity, and courage” as our First World cultural ideal. Modernity does not serve our humanity well, although it does offer enhanced standards of living. We are reduced — to price tags, cogs in an economic system making often useless products in the name of forever GDP growth on a finite planet. The bankers corrupt themselves and our government. Our government does not yet realize that its better job is to enable, not command, to “garden,” to coach, to enable the creativity of its peoples, here and around the globe.

Yes, that’s it. I engage with my environment partly by enabling things to grow or flourish. The term enabling has garnered some negative connotation in recent years due to its use in psychology: we are warned not to enable alcoholics, manipulative people, or those who need to learn some grit and self-motivation. The idea of enabling is, however, essentially positive: to help, to nurture. In fact, I think I prefer to think of myself as one who enables the earth rather than as a steward–though both concepts suggest that we human beings must engage willfully with the world.

We have work to do here on earth. And I am well aware that I do not know, with my garden, “all the variables that may become relevant.” (Past complex variables have included drought, hail, flooding, and beetles.) My small part this year includes serving the land I temporarily inhabit as well as serving myself and my family our favorite foods.

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My favorite sources for seed include: Seeds of Change, Territorial Seed Co., Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, and–while less on the organic spectrum, the British firm of Thompson & Morgan for its amazing variety of herbs, vegetables, fruits, ornamentals and grasses from heirloom to the latest hybrids. For American gardeners interested in some truly historical strains, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello offers quite a selection.

(Photo: a previous year’s garden in May)