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.

~

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.

Composition

Forgive me, readers–whoever you are–this weekend I am composing poems instead of a blog post, revising the work (see this post) and creating new stuff from dribs, drabs, sketches, notes, and the windy day outside with its sky full of variable, intermittent, strangely-colored clouds.

 

 

In print

I have been lucky in print this year. Two literary journals that I’ve long admired, Bellevue Literary Review and Prairie Schooner, published my poems, and so did the newer journal Naugatuck River Review. This is “a big deal” to me, because it is always exciting to be admitted into the pages of a magazine I like and because, despite the advantages of online/cloud-based literary journals, I love print!

There’s something inexpressibly marvelous about holding a book in my hands, turning the pages, and having a physical object–paper, binding, print–to carry with me.

Online magazines, theoretically at least, have a longer reach and can capture more readers (“hits”) than print. Literature requires audience, and the interwebs offer potentially millions of visitors to the poem online; but the operating word here is potential. What’s possible isn’t what generally happens. The readers of online literature, those people who stay on the poem long enough to read it–and then read the next poem, and the next, on-site–are not as legion as we poets might wish.

Through moderate use of social media, I do publicize my own work when it appears online (see links to the right on this page!). I welcomed the appearance of literature on the internet because one of my purposes for writing is to communicate with people. Readers matter to me. Getting my words into the public domain is the only way to begin that process of communication, and though online journals seem like the most ephemeral form of ephemera, they do make it easier for me to “share” (thanks to Facebook, I am beginning to despise that word) the poems or essays I’ve crafted.

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Print journals, like books, lack the immediacy of the online publication. They are not interactive in the way some online journals can be (see my recent audiofile and poem in The Maynard as an example), although some print journals are pretty experimental and interactive in quite innovative ways, such as Ninth Letter.

I encourage anyone who reads my blog to check out other bloggers on literature and poetry, and a good place to start is with Dave Bonta’s Poet Bloggers Digest. Searching the internet will open up a world of excellent poetry in carefully edited and curated literary journals.

The internet platform permits poets to read their own work, in podcasts and on YouTube, and to launch videopoems into the world. It has been a boon for poets to find audiences of all kinds, not just people who read poetry journals.

However, my cat will never circle and then settle on an online literary journal. So there’s that…

~

[I tried to snap his photo when he sat on Prairie Schooner, but he jumped up and moved on.]

 

 

 

Neglecting the work

It seemed to me to have been a long time since I devoted serious focus to my creative work–I mean in terms of organizing, keeping track, revising, submitting to journals, compiling a draft manuscript of newer work…the so-called business of poetry. I resolved therefore to spend a weekend at the task. Alas. The weekend revealed to me the extent of my benign neglect: ten years of not-really-being-on-the-ball.

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I do not consider myself a particularly prolific poet, but I found myself faced with well over a ream of poetry pages, many poems only in their second or third draft and far from “finished.” Maybe an average of 70 poems a year for ten years. Do the math: this is not a weekend’s work. [le sigh]

Where to begin? There is no beginning. After an hour or so of trying to prioritize the various components of the job, I gave up and just started at whatever had become the top of the pile. Analysis: which drafts had any glimmer of possibility? Some erstwhile poems could easily be culled into the “dead poems file” I keep under the cabinet with the dust bunnies. Others required considerable revision.

Fascinating process, despite aspects of tedium. I encountered poems I forgot I’d composed. I looked at the dates I began and revised them, tried to discern where my thoughts and feelings were at the time. Somehow, going through poems in no way resembles looking at old photographs–it’s not that sort of memory jog. Indeed, the poems are not involved with the memory part of my brain but with the creative part.

And that is exactly what I have been neglecting: the creative, imaginative, intuitively analytical side of myself.

In the process, I found a chapbook manuscript to submit–I had completely neglected it–and several worthwhile poems. I have no idea yet how much further I can get into the pages of past poems, and whether I might fashion another manuscript from the lot. But I’ve decided the work should not be neglected.

And I have a lot of catching up to do!