Silence & solitude

Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence. James Ragan’s Too Long a Solitude. Jane Brox’s Silence: A Social History. Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude

Is it just a coincidence, or did I subconsciously start reading books dealing with silence and solitude in the weeks before I planned to spend a few days alone in a friend’s rural cabin? And will the relative silence make my somewhat maladaptiveness to busy environs even worse? For I freely admit that living for thirty years in an area that borders on the rural, and spending so much of my time in the garden, has made me less inured to excess, human-made noise.

Sara Maitland writes, after spending some years outside of London ensconced in a quiet town, that “going to cities, to large parties, or to any place where there are a significant number of loud, overlapping but different sounds remains stressful and tiring at best.” This reaction is not mere “introversion”–indeed, for most of her life, Maitland appears to have been an exceedingly social and sociable person, quick with a retort, response, or witty reply and often in the company of boisterous, talkative people. She definitely cares deeply about relationships and communication, both between close friends or family members and between reader and writer/author. Like her, though more of a shy person in my younger years than she was, I value communicative aspects of conversation and togetherness while finding it harder than ever to live in the midst of noise pollution.

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Near Windemere, where Wordsworth trod…

Of course, writing is a communicative act, a form of creating relationships between reader and writer, and therefore may not always or necessarily thrive amid silence, or in solitude, though that Romantic notion remains intact in most people’s minds. When I consider my own work, I recognize the lyric “you” (implying an Other), the narrative action (requiring the behavior of living beings dwelling in the world with Others), and various interactions among the lines that set up relationships that are not only abstract or metaphorical but concrete and physical, even when the poem skates along the reflective mode (how can there be a consideration of  a Myself without an Other?).

So although part of my brief upcoming “retreat” is, in fact, for solitude’s sake–a few days to be alone with my own writing process and make some creative decisions–the solitude’s less urgent than the silence. I’m not an ascetic nor a spiritual seeker, just a writer who wants a few days unplugged (and not entirely so) to mull through ideas and revise some poems. This process seems easier to me when I do not have to deal with anyone’s society, even the companionship of those I love. It’s been quite awhile since I last made this kind of silent time for myself, and I’m curious as to what will result.

Maybe just some naps and daydreaming, which might not be an entirely fruitless harvest.

 

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Anticipation

Public relations and poetry are quite separate pursuits, in my mind, yet how else will readers learn that I have another chapbook nearing publication? Yes! Barefoot Girls, a series of 24 poems winnowed from a much longer set, will be appearing in print from Prolific Press later this year.

2021 still seems quite a way off, but perhaps it isn’t too early to mention that my full-length poetry collection The Red Queen Hypothesis will see publication then from  Salmon Poetry, an independent publisher in County Clare, Ireland.

Anticipation! I’m eager to see what the books will look like, eager to know whether anyone will read them, and experiencing that little frisson that comes with waiting for potential delight.

I cannot express how grateful I am to the folks behind small independent literary presses for all they do to keep poems circulating, to publish lesser-known writers, and to promote the literary arts generally. They are not making money from the process; they do it for love. Society benefits. Bless them all and donate to them if you can. But the best way to help small independent presses and publishers is to purchase books from them. Browse Prolific Press’ bookstore here, Salmon Poetry’s poetry book catalog here, and Brick Road Poetry’s books here (scroll down far enough & you’ll see my book Water-Rites, still available). Another small-press venture that has been plugging along for years is Michael Czarnecki’s FootHills Publishing. Two of my chapbooks are available from its website.

Dear Readers, purchase a few books from these stalwart independents, even when there’s a lower price used on Amazon. I’ll be thrilled if you buy one of my books but gladder still if you take a chance on an author you don’t know and discover some terrific poems and poets in the process.

Of course, when anticipation becomes realization and my new book becomes available, I will try to don my PR hat and let you know it’s in print. Thank you!!

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Barefoot Girl ca. 1974 or 75

Waves & relationships

I had planned to take a little “vacation” from difficult books this summer and read a bit of fiction, go to the movies, work in the garden. And while Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid covered the challenging topic of reading and delved into some neurological explanations for the process of how we read and how literacy changes our brains, Wolf writes in layperson’s terms and divides her text into easily understandable chunks. It was a relatively easy read on a complex topic and reminded me that I need to re-read Proust’s famous essay “On Reading Ruskin.”

Then my dad said I should read Reflection in the Waves by Pablo Bandera. Here’s a physicist with a philosophical bent who tries “reconciling the realism of Aquinas with the empirical evidence of quantum mechanics.” I like Bandera’s interdisciplinary approach, a blend of physics–his main area of expertise, a “true” science–and philosophy, anthropology, evolution, even theology. Does Bandera entirely succeed in persuading me that the observer effect of quantum physics is a human-based, perspective conundrum that may not be a problem at all? Not completely, but it is an intriguing theory about which I remain open-minded. The recognition that being human alters the observing mechanism seems sensible to me.

I would never suggest that Reflection in the Waves is an easy read for the average informed person. It contains a few fascinating observations and summaries, however, that relate to human relationships (our need to connect), to communication, literature, and art. He writes:

What distinguishes us humans from other objects around us, including other measurement devices, is not that our reality is not somehow irrelevant for the physical world, but that our relationship to this world is such that it transcends the mere subject-object relationship currently envisioned by the physicist.

Reality=relationship to others and the world. That’s a contemporary way of interpreting Aquinas. I’ve never before thought of myself as a Thomist, and the very idea makes me giggle. But as a writer, especially as a poet, the relationships and connections in the physical world are the stuff of metaphors that engage the conscious mind of abstract thought and help to put the poem across to other readers’ minds (thank you, Maryanne Wolf). Perhaps not so far from philosophy, or physics, or neurology, after all.

Etc. & refrains

Some years, I have devoted my National Poetry Month energies to attending readings, getting out in the world to listen to writers; some years, I’ve tried hard to submit at least 30 poems to magazines and journals; some years, I have read two poetry books a week for the month of April. This year, I wrote a poem draft a day. OK, now what?

When you love poetry, you do all of these things anyway. Having a month to celebrate the art merely acts as a public awareness campaign, though it has reminded me, year after year, to aim for a bit more discipline in my creative life.

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I have also been reading, of course, bookish person that I am; this past month, a real standout–and a difficult book in a few ways–was An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. The novel offers a way in to the cosmology of the Igbo people (Nigerian, mostly) while wrenchingly capturing the anxieties of modern life and the timeless agonies of lovers separated by class, race, status, religion (whatever gets in the way of lovers). Obioma successfully interchanges voices, languages, creoles, narrating from the point of view of a guiding spirit. Spoiler alert, the book ends with tragedy, and there are tragedies large and small throughout. The tension of human anxiety works really well, and all of our fears.

The guiding spirit, who has accompanied centuries of human hosts through their lives, has a refrain: “I have seen it many times.” I thought of Vonnegut’s “So it goes.”

Trying to imagine my own refrain…it might be something on the lines of: Life’s difficult, so we have art and poetry and love and one another to get us through.

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art by my daughter at age 8

 

Marvelous anomalies

“Human consciousness has at least as great an impact on the planet as any force of nature, yet its existence is in doubt because science does not know how to describe it.” —Marilynne Robinson

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One of the things I most enjoy when reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays is her earnest yet delighted devotion to the preciousness of being a human on the Earth. “The sheer plenitude of things a mortal encounters is a marvel in itself,” she writes, and her prose illustrates how all that she encounters deserves attention and compassion. Humanity, in particular, is a marvelous anomaly (“What a piece of work…”) which she lovingly defends while noting our “propensity to error” leads us into great evils but also to the kind of wide-latitude indeterminancy within which “we construct our minds and our civilizations.”

With clear logic and complex ideas and sentences, Robinson dismantles the logic that dehumanizes us. She demonstrates “that much influential thought is fundamentally incoherent” (this thought includes philosophy, psychology, and scientific theory) but nonetheless informs our norms, our behaviors, the tenor of our beliefs and our entire lives. Too often we are reflexive rather than reflective. Too often we dismiss feelings as irrational, when they originate in our bodies and minds and often work to alter what we regard as facts, thus biasing our perspectives. Emotions are part of our beings as humans. So are questions, especially the unanswerable questions.

Robinson says science “exploits accidents and relishes surprise”–something that poetry does, too (my aside, not hers, though I doubt she would disagree). But scientific method does not “provide an all-sufficient test for the reality of everything.” By implication, the biblical texts and so-called creation myths offer people a method of grasping the awesome that science cannot answer for and may never yield to, as each marvel reveals new mysteries and new questions.

We cannot say that the stars were arrayed to instruct us in the glory of God, to dispose our minds to wonder, to make us feel our finitude within an order of Being for which millennia are more transient than breath. This, for all we know, is the accidental consequence of the accidental emergence of the constellations, the fortuitous interaction of our unfathomable brains and senses with dazzling reality…We must step back and acknowledge that any accounts of the initial moments that make the event seem straightforward and comprehensible are deeply wrong. Nothing else could be true, considering what it has yielded.

I have not mentioned the words theology or philosophy in conjunction with Robinson, because so many readers would be less inclined to read her work. She’s not afraid to use those words and to examine, often rigorously, what they have meant to societies. Don’t be put off. In the final chapter of her book What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson writes about slander. It’s a short essay I wish all of us would read and think about, especially relevant to our current moment.


“Syntax” by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze.

Manuscripting redux

I have read reams of advice and guidance on how to choose poems for a collection, how to order them, whether to construct an arc in a poetry collection, and so on. I have also had the excellent personal input of good poets and mentors in the process, all of which leaves me deeply grateful and still stumbling when I once again begin the process.

One challenge is excess. I have put off revising for collection for a few too many years, and now I need serious critique and culling; thus, I didn’t know where to begin (as I mentioned in an earlier post). Given a problem, however, creative people tend to develop a method. I chose the simplest one I could come up with: start by pulling all the published work that is not in my previous collections, and see what happens.

What I will discover–in fact, in the early process, already have noticed–is that not all work accepted for publication in a poetry journal reflects my judgment of my strongest poems. Then, too, down the road I will pull some good poems from the evolving manuscript because they do not play well with the others…that is, in terms of tone or subject. As I add things up, I’ll begin to see what might be missing or needed, or I’ll be reminded of an unpublished piece that ought to be included.

This work is exciting. And it takes weeks or months. It will change; my feelings about what I want the collection to say will change.

And then the reading will begin. I will read and re-read the book-as-it-exists and ask generous friends to read and critique the whole.

If I were a more ambitious and organized person, I might approach the manuscript process differently–certainly sooner, and possibly with more of a projected arc in mind from the start. I know that putting together another manuscript will be yet another learning experience, different from chapbook-writing, different from the past books I have composed. The poems differ, too–of course! My perspective, my physiology, my experiences, even my environment, though I have lived in the same house for 20 years.

At this stage, a month or so into the process, a coherence begins to occur. Yes, a book exists in the piles of poems. Probably two books, in fact–but let me begin with abundance (or perhaps, with diminishment) and proceed from there.


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[Not my manuscript…William Blake’s]

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.

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…

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

 

 

 

River of poetry

I attended a lively and unpredictable poetry reading/performance recently, No River Twice. The poets who participate in the group reading develop the concepts at each performance, endeavoring to find meaningful and entertaining ways to permit audience members to sense an active engagement with poets and to experience poems more vividly. It appears to be an evolving performance process, and I enjoyed myself!

Grant Clauser explains the idea on his blog. Most of the poets involved have at least some acting or performance background. They are also active as mentors, instructors, advocates for the arts, and “working poets,” by which I mean they get their work published and performed and are constantly writing, revising, and reading the work of other poets in the service of learning new things.

The poets who performed in Phoenixville, PA, on Friday evening are as follows, but I understand the line-up may change from event to event.

Ethel Rackin

Hayden Saunier

Chad Frame

Cleveland Wall

Bernadette McBride

Joanne Leva

Grant Clauser

Kudos to these folks, who presented a varied and exciting performance. Let’s hope there are more to come.

1978 South Whitley IN, Eel River

South Whitley, IN. Eel River Bridge, 1978.

 

 

Grammar

 

Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.

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After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.

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Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.