October focus

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October. I’ve put my vegetable garden to bed, deadheaded and pruned the perennials. The leaves are yellow and red and orange and brown, and the white pines are dropping their old needles. Quieter days, quieter nights: fewer insects, amphibians, and birds making their noises.

Well–there are the danged woodpeckers

I expect to keep this blog less frequently this month, or to make the posts shorter, because I am taking part in what is for me a new endeavor: an online poetry workshop. I am taking a month-long class with Daisy Fried through Providence’s Fine Arts Center, 24 Pearl Street.

Daisy Fried lives in Philadelphia, 24 Pearl St. is in Rhode Island, and my fellow workshop participant-peers live in NH, MA, IN, MC, ME, NY, VA, NJ, VT, CA, AL and IL. Oh, the amazing connectivity of the world-wide web!

I’m somewhat tech-savvy but only to a limited degree, and reading online is still cumbersome for me. Nonetheless, I am curious to see how the virtual critique will work, given that we are not face-to-face as we comment, enthuse, and suggest. Interpretation takes on multiple meanings in an environment such as this one. And whether I can keep on top of the comments and reading! That’s another type of challenge during the academic year for me.

I feel thrilled to be back in the position of student, though. I’m the sort of person who might stay in school perpetually if I could manage it. Even autodidacts sometimes enjoy the camaraderie of peers.

If you are interested in the process, and how it goes for me…I shall eventually report back on these “pages”!

 

Writing process? Got that. Sort of.

Last year, I was invited into a blog-go-round for writers (see this post). Many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for tapping me for this 2014 blog tour on “the writing process.” I read Wheeler’s 2010 book Heterotopia and was wowed; she’s also the author of  The Receptionist and Other Tales, Heathen, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920′s to the Present  and other work. With Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace, and other members of a dedicated collective, she coedited Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-po Listserv (Red Hen, 2008). We got introduced virtually via the Wom-po listserv.

Lesley is a formidable scholar and critic who writes a wise and witty blog, which you’ll find linked to her answers in the paragraph below this one. Now the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, Wheeler has held fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the American Association of University Women. Wheeler received her BA from Rutgers College, summa cum laude, and her PhD in English from Princeton University. Despite all these amazing academic chops, which could appear intimidating, Lesley strikes me as approachable, generously interested in the wide world (not just ivory towers), and funny.

Click here for her answers to the prescribed questions. Below are my own.

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1)     What am I working on?

I have a completed manuscript that I sent out last year, The Red Queen Hypothesis; but I have had a change of heart about it. I am revising it completely. It’s a major renovation, because as I revisited the not-yet-book I found myself re-thinking the purpose of the collected poems. I had originally conceived the manuscript as an experiment in nonce forms, with a biological theme threading the poems together. As I re-read my work, I realized that my thinking, my purpose, for the poems has altered. Let’s just say some major life changes have been underway in the background of my creative efforts, and the influences made themselves felt. The book as originally imagined turns out not to be the book I want to write.

So, what I’m working on this year turns out to be what I was working on last year, only re-envisioned. I did complete (I think!) a collection of poems centering on adolescent girls of the 1970s that is a sort of a girls’-eyes-view of Bruce Springsteen songs–it’s called Barefoot Girls.  I’ll be sending that out to find a publisher.

Meanwhile, I am writing new work which, alas, seems to be rather dark–if you happen to consider poems about mortality to be dark.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I would love to say that my poetry is wildly original in approach or style, but it isn’t. If you were to categorize my work as “eco-poetry,” it would be different from the genre because of a quieter rhetoric. If you were to call my poetry “nature poetry,” it would not fit quite comfortably into the genre because of its trending toward the intellectual. My poetry is usually “accessible,” but I don’t eschew the multisyllabic latinate vocabulary at all costs, and my allusions are often a bit arcane. I like form and classic poetic strategies, but I also like to break rules, and I adore free verse and prose poems. What did Stevens say? “All poetry is experimental poetry.” Yes. That.

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Journals, because of Harriet the Spy when I was 10, and ever since. Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_cover

Blogs, to practice the less emotional, more inquisitive side of myself and because I’m an autodidact.

Essays and criticism or reviews, because writing that type of work requires skills my brain needs to exercise in order to do other things, such as be an educator; and because I love to read and think about what I’m reading.

Libretti, because colleagues asked, and new things are compelling to attempt.

Poetry, because I can’t do without it.

4)     How does your writing process work?

Interesting question at this time, as I feel the way I go about writing is changing after many years of pretty solid operational process. It may be that I am getting older or because see above: significant life changes.

One thing hasn’t changed, and that is the need for a certain kind of solitude. Distractions aren’t in and of themselves anathema to my writing process, but the distractions need to be of a non-urgent kind. I don’t mind being distracted by a broad-winged hawk overhead or a siren in the distance or an overheard conversation, but sometimes even a loved one’s “Hello, I’m back from the grocery store!” shifts my focus irrevocably.

[aside: My loved ones do not really understand this effect.]

The way I begin a poem is akin to how I’ve heard mindfulness described. I allow myself to be relatively vacant, and something drops in to fill the moment. I assure you this is nothing like a bolt of inspiration from the blue; and usually all I get is a phrase, a metaphor, an image, an aphorism. But it’s a start. From there, the process is about association, relationships, combinations, experiment, and a certain amount of loopy freedom to write a bad poem if that’s what emerges.

Then, I pause. The draft sits there for days (weeks, months, years) until I decide to start revising poems, which I tend to attack in batches. That’s one thing I do differently these days: revise in bunches the way I did back in graduate school under a time crunch. What I currently notice changing, too, is the way that I enter emptiness. In years past, my favored way was to take a walk or to work in the garden. Physical issues have to some degree limited the amount of time I can spend doing those activities, and finding an acceptable substitute has been hard. I am muddling through, waiting to see what works best.

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Next up, April Lindner and Zara Raab. They should have their writing process blog posts up sometime in the next 7-10 days; and I am excited to learn what approaches each of them takes.

April Lindner is the author of three Young Adult novels: Catherine, a modernization of Wuthering Heights; Jane, an update of Jane Eyre; and Love, Lucy, a retelling of E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, forthcoming in early 2015 from Poppy.  She also has published two poetry collections, Skin and This Bed Our Bodies Shaped.  With R. S. Gwynn, she co-edited the anthology Contemporary American Poetry for Longman’s Penguin Pocket Academic series.  April lives near Philadelphia with her husband and sons.

Zara Raab’s latest book is Fracas & Asylum. Earlier books are Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of the remote Lost Coast of Northern California in an earlier time. Her poems, essays and reviews appear in River Styx, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and The Dark Horse. She is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast ReviewRumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name?  was a finalist for the Dana Award. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.

Studio. Space.

Contemporary artist and blogger Deborah Barlow writes: “A studio, like a womb, is a vesseled space, a geolocation from which one’s work, intentionally free of its context, can emerge.” http://www.slowmuse.com/2013/11/25/up-stairs-in-sight/

In another recent post, she talks about artists’ decisions about whether or not to offer studio tours, and art critics’ decisions about whether or not to visit studios. The critics she mentions (Saltz and Smith) prefer not to see the studios of artists whose work they are reviewing. The sense I get is that the critic needs more objectivity–a disinterestedness–and that a working artist’s studio is a personal space, one through which perhaps the critic might learn too much (context? biography? vulnerability? …one wonders).

I wrote my graduate thesis on how time works in poems, and for a long time I considered writing a followup on space in the poem, particularly the kind of vesseled, nested, interior space to which Barlow alludes (and Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space).

What spaces are conducive to the creative process? Such variety! I have friends who love to write in diner booths or cafes, and others who need complete silence, no distraction (Annie Dillard wrote in a closet; Robert Frost in a shed). One writer I know must be in bed to write. Another must be outdoors. The place matters to many people–but not to all of them.

Writing’s different from painting, sculpting–arts that require at least a few tools at hand.

But some of my writing friends need a computer, or a candle; a pencil and a legal pad, or a fountain pen and a spiral notebook; a bookshelf; darkness; classical music, or the blues.

I don’t really have a studio these days. Maybe it is time I lent my mind to carving out a creative space? –Somewhere nestled, vesseled, interior: (A Room of Her Own).

Below: A location…space, intentionally free of context.  🙂

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Depression & the creative process

I was recently chatting with a psychiatrist about the creative process, specifically among poets. He admitted that he doesn’t know much about poetry, but I was nevertheless surprised to learn that he believed the stereotype of the poet who works most creatively when depressed.

“You deal with depressed people all the time,” I said. “Do they strike you as particularly motivated to do anything creative?”

He admitted that one hallmark of depression is loss of motivation–to do anything, let alone create expressive art of any kind. So it would follow, I suggested, that a period in which a person is seriously working at what he or she loves would be unlikely to coincide with a full-blown depressive episode.

“What about those poets who write about, say, staring out a window and sadness,” he asked, “They seem to write about being depressed, to express the feelings of depression.”

True, some poets experience depression (some commit suicide, too); and some express those feelings in verse. Yet none of the working writers I know who struggle with forms of depression write while in the midst of the “black mood.” They can only write well when the mood has not seized them fully; and while they may try to convey those feelings of the ‘inexpressible,’ they write and especially, revise, the work during more productive hours when melancholia has tapered a bit.

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Drurer’s Melencolia I (wiki images)

It takes concentration, creativity, and analysis to craft a poem that adequately means what depression feels like. You cannot access such things when you are truly depressed. Some writers want to portray the experience; others want to explain it; still others prefer to write about the desire to escape, or even to embrace, the melancholy; others simply relate what they observe. Trying to pigeonhole all writers who address despair defies reason and suggests that all writers undergo the same feelings and experiences. Excuse me, we are individuals–diversely, wildly, enthusiastically unique.

That said, I cannot make the claim that no one has ever created a great work of art or poem while in the midst of a clinical depression; I merely posit that it’s likely that poetry composed while the author is gripped by existential melancholy will not meet the poet’s own standards.

Lewis Wolpert, a biologist and author, says, “I claim that if you can truly describe what it is like, then you have not had a true depression. It’s an illusion, and completely unlike anything else. When you are immersed in it, you enter a world without reference points, so once you recover it is very hard to relate how you felt.”

A world without reference points–that is the attraction depression might hold for a writer: the creative summons to relate an experience that is essentially beyond description. But most writers are not able to answer that summons while in the depths themselves.

And many writers are not troubled by depression at all. [See this 2012 article from the UK’s Mental Health Foundation for essential insight and clarification of an earlier study–that abstract is here.] The studies do suggest that writers are more likely than the general population to have bipolar disorder, which makes a kind of sense to me: after the sinkhole of a depressive period, the active “manic” phase might permit a writer to accomplish a great deal, including possibly a description of the void. Or it might not.

At any rate, I hope that people–psychiatrists, for example!–eventually recognize that we should not stereotype artists and poets any more than we should stereotype people who have mental illnesses, different accents, or skin color that is dissimilar to our own. What makes artists “different from other people” remains a mystery despite years of research and speculation, and my gut feeling is that the difference has more to do with other aspects of the creative process than it does with depression of any stripe.

In which I discuss the theme of death in literature

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Victor Brombert offers an octogenarian’s reflections on death, literature, and the creative process (storytelling, history-creating, poetry-inspiring) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education. I found his musings of interest partly because I have best beloveds who are octogenarians and partly because Brombert is a dyed-in-the-wool humanities professor (professor emeritus of Romance and comparative literatures at Princeton) whose thoughts on mortality cannot help but have been shaped by his long associations with such texts, as well as by his long life and his experiences. “After Omaha Beach, where I discovered that I decidedly did not have a heroic vocation, I also discovered between the hedgerows of Normandy how repellent the smell of dead cows and dead men can be, how repulsive the sight of half-burned tank drivers finished off by machine-gun bullets, their bodies folded over the turrets, or of gunmen and mechanics who had tried in vain to crawl out of escape hatches,” Brombert recalls; then, he reminds himself that he had considerable warnings about war’s savagery–through literature–citing Montaigne and The Iliad. In fact, he says that “the theme of death stood for me in a special relation to literature.”

About death’s “special relationship with literature,” my education agrees with his. Before I ever had much experience with death in the immediate small circle of my own life, I had encountered it in the books I read voraciously. I knew death could be gruesome, sentimental, slow, quick, painful, transformative, pointless. But I was very young, and I did not, could not, fully understand with what I was engaging: the very question of being and non-being, of what comes “after” and if there is an “after,” and if those words as we know them (temporally) mean anything at all.

Brombert says: “I began to understand that all art and the love of art allow us, according to André Malraux’s famous pronouncement, ‘to negate our nothingness.'” His reading, his studies of art and humanist thinking, “elated” him. He felt drawn to Montaigne, whose essays he calls “flexible and meandering” and whose reflections on mortality seemed affirming in that death itself was “subject to laws of transition, passage, natural progression, or process.”

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Brombert recognized his job as a teacher of literature was a kind of giving voice to the dead. Here, I think of Hofstadter’s conclusion about human consciousness: that it is shared, carried on–in part–by living human beings after the bodily death. Is that troubling, or comforting? Some excerpts:

[W]riting itself was implicitly suffused with the theme of mortality, especially narratives and storytelling in general (the example of Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights came to mind) as ways of eluding or delaying the inevitable.

Plato set the tone in the Phaedo when he had Socrates tell his disciples, before drinking the poison hemlock, that true philosophers concern themselves with nothing but dying and death, that philosophy is in fact the study of death. This seemed to me rather excessive.

Though never losing sight of his mortal condition, Montaigne is primarily intrigued by the processes of life, the mutations from day to day, as he watches his own decline and feels, as he puts it, that he is dissolving and slipping away from himself (“Je fons et eschape a moy“). His concern is not with essence or being but rather with transition: “I do not portray being, I portray passing” (“Je peints le passage“). Throughout, his Essays affirm the need to live to the fullest. Yet, in a deep sense, his thought seems prompted by the recurrent sense of the transitory and the perishable.

Kind of dovetails with the concept of impermanence, no?

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On a closing note, and back to my favorite topic of poetry….Billy Collins has claimed that “the theme of poetry is death.” Like Brombert’s assessment of Socrates’ claim, I’m inclined to think this statement is a bit exaggerated. There’s merit to it, however. Worth thinking about.

Collins’ poem “The Dead” offers one way of thinking about death in a poem; this link will take you to a clever animated version of this poem.

And there’s a nice example of paronomasia: animating the dead!

Virtual, physical, personal

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Redbud leaf in fall

Through the blogosphere, I’ve met some fascinating and talented people. The virtual connection, although I have learned to value its scope and immediacy, generally seems a bit wanting in connection for me. Even though I tend toward introversion, my favorite way to connect with people remains face-to-face. [Go ahead, call me old-fashioned.]

In the days of listservs and message boards, I first began “meeting” colleagues online. I signed up for the Women’s Poetry listserv (Wom-Po), which is still active today. One of the best things about that list, besides the fact that I learned a great deal about poetry/women’s poetry/teaching poetry/contemporary and historical female poets, is that I met many of my colleagues in person while attending writer’s conferences, readings, and similar events.

What joy for a person like me, who tends to be a bit reserved about meeting new people. For introverts, a virtual introduction and conversational exchange online–even just recognizing a name on the listserv–has made possible a route to social icebreaking at conferences like AWP.

This past Saturday, another virtual connection joined the realm of the physical when I got the chance to meet–in person–artist Deborah Barlow at the opening of her show at Morpeth Contemporary gallery. I’ve seen her artwork on her homepage; but as is often the case, viewing the work in person was revelatory and beautiful. And meeting the artist herself–also revelatory and beautiful!

I recommend her blog, Slow Muse, which has alerted me to many a terrific book on creative thinking, the creative process, and poetry as well as introduced me to several wonderful contemporary artists’ work.

As the seasons undertake the dying-toward-renewal process, I welcome musings and inspirations. The shining, textural depths of Barlow’s paintings offer another way of looking. As do good books and sunny mornings on the back porch.