Work vs. work

Untitled-writerOutside Academia: The Writer…

 

Lately, I have felt overly-occupied with my so-called day job. The work I do at the college is personally rewarding and pays my bills; I love the challenges it offers and the people with whom I work, but I am not what one would term career-driven. Even though I am employed by a university, and even though I teach (just one class a semester), in many ways–as far as scholarship, research, and poetry go–I remain “outside academia.” An interesting paradox. But if I over-extend at my office, I find less to say at my writing desk at home.

Poets Mary Oliver and Kay Ryan also spent most of their careers working at colleges without climbing the spiral stairway of academia’s ivory tower. Well-received, excellent writers–and Oliver even sells quite well for a poet–they aren’t “academics.” It is heartening to know that such poetry luminaries are, like me, not academics. I often wonder how they managed to balance teaching with writing poetry.

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What I do “at work” where I earn a salary, and what I do when I “work” on poetry, seem quite separate to me, and I question whether one informs the other. I feel that being a poet does influence, though subtly, the way I approach teaching and tutoring. (It does not seem to have any influence on the way I do record-keeping, spreadsheets, or paperwork.)

By contrast, my day job at the college seems not to have much sway over my poetry; I write prose about teaching and tutoring, but my career work does not often appear as topic or substance in my poems. I notice, too, that Oliver and Ryan do not often write poems about their day jobs (both of them have retired by now–but still). In fact, I would venture that the way my day job affects my poetry is mostly as a time and energy drain.

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I have challenged myself to write at least two poems a month that in some respect relate to my work with students. That prompt forces me to remember that I am not two separate beings, one at the college desk and one, pen in hand, on the back porch at home. I remain my whole self, and I place my whole self into both endeavors. I can work with that.

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Love. Poem.

A beloved member of my family will be marrying in June, and I was asked to find a poem apropos to the celebrants and the occasion. I have written two epithalamiums (or epithalamia) and can testify to the difficulty of composing a good poem that is also a marriage poem. Anyway, in this instance, I wanted to find a suitable long-term-love-commitment poem by someone other than myself. Talk about abundance of choice!

Knowing the celebrants’ interests and tastes narrowed things down a bit, and the poem had to be “short & sweet.” The ceremony will be out of doors on a trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which made me inclined to look for natural imagery in the poem–but nothing so dense as to distract from the place itself.

What a splendid task! I allowed myself the luxury of looking at poetry books randomly, paging slowly through anthologies, browsing handouts I’ve collected for and from classes over the years. Just flitting from poem to poem over the course of weeks, occasionally marking something that seemed particularly likely…no pressure…

When I came across the poem “Tree Heart/True Heart” by Kay Ryan, I was startled into admiration.

It doesn’t start off like a love poem. It offers little in the opening imagery to suggest romance, or life attachment, or promise.

It is breathtakingly brief, revolves around wordplay and connotations, sounds lovely when read aloud.

The last two lines clinch the “commitment” in the poem; and the three lines preceding that final, spare, achingly-sweet sentence made me gasp when I re-read the poem, trying to figure out how Ryan managed all this in 16 lines, not one of which contains more than five words.

Love is all you needOkay, now you want to read the poem, right?

It was published in The New Yorker on September 26, 2011 (p. 116), and I am certain that I will be violating some sort of copyright if I reproduce it on this blog.

I hope Ms. Ryan forgives me, though if The New Yorker or her publishers find out, I may have to take this post down. It seems likely to me that The New Yorker has bigger fish to try to catch, however, so here goes. And I am putting in a plug for Kay Ryan’s books. Go buy them, preferably not second-hand, because poets make hardly any money from book sales and no money whatsoever from second-hand sales.

 

Tree Heart/True Heart

by Kay Ryan

The hearts of trees
are serially displaced
pressed annually
outward to a ring.
They aren’t really
what we mean
by hearts, they so
easily acquiesce,
willing to thin and
stretch around some
upstart green. A
real heart does not
give way to spring.
A heart is true.
I say no more springs
without you.

~

My beloveds–who are an ocean apart at present and miserable about it, and who aim to make sure that each has “no more springs/without you” –agreed that this poem suited their intentions, their personalities, and the leafy stretches of the hiking trail.

Thank you, Kay Ryan. Thank you, human beings, whoever it was who invented the arts, and poetry.

Art, story, story, art

Yesterday, I attended a reading by former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan in a more intimate setting (a luncheon) than I’ve ever been privileged to hear her at in the past. An audience member asked her how she would define art. Alas that I don’t write quickly enough to have taken her words down verbatim, but she offered a lovely answer.

She said that if a person cannot really be happy without doing it, and cannot keep from needing to do it, and if it nourishes or gives back to that person in ways nothing else can–then that “it” is art, in her opinion.

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I suppose art also ought to speak to others, but I am not sure that is as necessary as art critics think it is.

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Speaking of critics, and of art, I was impressed with Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel The Giant, O’Brien for reasons that made a few critics rather lukewarm about it. The author is best known for her amazing historical works, well-researched and full of believably human perspective. O’Brien is a departure in several respects although still historical fiction. I read this book as an ambiguous moral tale, a myth, a story about stories (and art) and a depiction of ways the Enlightenment created significant losses in the midst of its gains. So I was less bothered by the exaggeration of certain personalities or minor plot gaps. O’Brien, a storyteller of the most shamanistic/primitive sort, also possesses a modern (Enlightenment) intellect and an artist’s “intuition.” But he never achieves fame, or the goal of restoring a beloved pub–the place he learned his craft–and dies painfully and slowly, impoverished and nearly abandoned.

As O’Brien nears death, Mantel writes that there comes “a point in fatigue or pain when logic slowly crumbles from the world, where reason’s bricks sieve to crumb. Where content flits from language…and departs.” And her character, the giant–who embodies in his hugeness the epitome of mythical narrative, the kind that sustains us even in dire poverty–eventually comes to the conclusion that the poor among us lose all. Of the poor man, he muses:

Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that, the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of rocks. But the wind and the sea wear the rocks away; and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

What within us plaits and knots and folds and twists but the brain itself? We pass along our knowledge and, more importantly, our stories. That is done from brain to brain through language and music and art, even as the individual brain comes to the end of its viability and vitality. We step sideways into another person’s brain, just as O’Brien’s listeners memorize his tales, his cadence, his figurative speech. So, in the end, O’Brien is wrong.

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I attended a funeral today at which the officiant encouraged us to keep the departed alive in our hearts and for the future by telling stories he had told or by relating stories about him to anyone who might listen. I know I have previously written about this idea in conjunction with readings and philosophers and art and literature. The more I encounter it, the truer it seems to me.

The bereaved spouse at this funeral is a person who is losing her own story through senile dementia, though she has some occasional awareness of her memory loss. Her ability to carry on her husband’s narrative is already deeply diminished or perhaps completely gone.

These are among our risks.

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These words brought to mind my long-time friends, the craft-artists David Ellsworth (turned and other wooden forms) and Wendy Ellsworth (beaded forms). This month, for the first time in their many years together, they have a joint exhibit in the gallery space at Jenkins Arboretum (Devon, PA). The photos below are snapshots Wendy took, and their individual work is best viewed in person or on their studio website. [Contact the artists for permissions, photos, information about workshops and talks.]

Wendy Ellsworth's seaforms, and a necklace

Wendy Ellsworth’s seaforms, and a necklace

Wendy's "Sunset" (with David's turned-wood frame/container)

Wendy’s “Sunset” (with David’s turned-wood frame/container)

David Ellsworth's "Emergence" series

David Ellsworth’s “Emergence” series

I have known Wendy and David for over 25 years, and I can testify that the work each of them does fits Kay Ryan’s description of art. They are artists, and their work nourishes both of them–and nourishes us, the beneficiaries, as well.

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For today, these are my stories.

www.ellworthstudios.com

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.

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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

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.