More reading, more poems

Here’s my second post on what new or new-ish or new-to-me books of poetry I am reading during 2020 National Poetry Month. This time, newly-released from Tinderbox Editions, Lesley Wheeler‘s collection The State She’s In.

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First, a little background about Wheeler, a poet, novelist, and educator who has been extremely supportive of contemporary poets and poetry in her classes at Washington & Lee University, in her administrative positions and presentations at AWP, and on her blog and other social media platforms. The state she’s in is metaphorical, but it is also Virginia, with its fraught history, and it’s also the body: female, white, mid-life.

What I want to write are responses to, not reviews of, the books I have been enjoying. And there is much here to enjoy! Each of the book’s sections carries the same title: “Ambitions;” and after I read these poems (almost in one go, the way I’d read a novel), I returned to the table of contents and considered how each set of poems made a list of ambitions, and also, what it means to have ambitions. Particularly for a woman in a 21st-c Western capitalist society, sometimes ambitions read like anger. Are met with anger. Require rage to confront, even though rage alone will not solve the problem. (Appropriate to insert here how I love her poem “Spring Rage”? Yes, appropriate.)

Wheeler’s use of haibun forms to explore state’s-rights racism or workplace harassment is something I found startling. I keep returning to these and other poems to appreciate, on each subsequent reading, the surprises in the craft as well as the barely-contained frenzy expressed, and also the keen observations of the world that act to calm the speaker down. A tough balance, that.

On the whole, The State She’s In feels like a fierce call to pay attention, not just to the reader but to the speaker in these poems–she’s finding her route toward sagacity but kicking away at what we take for granted, not wanting to find personal equanimity if it means hiding what she knows to be true. These poems oppose ignorance in all its forms, including the privilege of choosing not to learn (or not to act, or not to act fairly and justly) that gets practiced at the highest levels of the academy, the government, and in any form of society. Wow!

If enough of us could get together and recite Lesley Wheeler’s “All-Purpose Spell for Banishment” (p. 57), maybe we could make “The Nasties” vanish.

The woodpeckers

More of April itself appears in today’s National Poetry Month poem-a-day challenge, which I suppose is apropos.

I’m now aware that Lesley Wheeler has also been challenging herself to compose a poem a day this month, per this post on her blog. Quite a few poets have committed one way or another to adding poetry to the world each April! Those of us with full-time careers often need some kind of nudge to remind ourselves to take time to do what we love.

And those of us employed in academia are currently facing end-of-Spring-term grading, upcoming commencement ceremonies, graduation and award banquets, and other time-consuming responsibilities as the academic year draws to a close. So: keep writing, Self!

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All the Little Aches

The small woodpecker’s repetitious tock tock tock
against an old mulberry tree, at dawn,
unlocks the little aches and bids them go
into the wakened body. If only, after sleep,

like the old mulberry tree at dawn,
the body would awaken into frantic buds
and not a weakened body only sleep
half-heals until it settles, somewhat twisted,

like a bough. Awake, the frantic buds
of April burst, unfurl. Tick of the bedside clock
as woodpecker’s repetitions–tock tock tock–
unlock the little aches and let them go.

~

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bird in hand

On revision (again)

iceimageI am going to go out on  a limb here and make a blanket statement: Revision should be every writer’s middle name.

I tell this to my Comp-Rhet introduction to academic writing students all the time, but they have difficulty figuring out how to revise effectively. There are good tactics out there, but they do not work for everyone; how a person thinks and learns and processes information varies considerably. Lately, I have been using a strategy I teach to students writing essays to revise my poems. I ask myself: how is this poem organized? Is the structure working with or against the poem? Too predictable, or not predictable enough?

Just as in a well-wrought prose piece, a poem’s obvious and underlying structures matter a great deal in how well it “works” for a reader. It’s also an aspect of writing that people tend to overlook, so analysis of structure in the revision stage can be useful.

Another revision strategy I have been mulling over recently coincides closely with what Grant Clauser describes in this post, The Poem Is the Question. He writes:

I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems… Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader.

I have found myself going back to a draft and asking, “What got me going on this poem? Do I even recall? Is the impetus an interesting one? If not, can I change it?” Clauser suggests a more specific kind of investigation, and it’s one I have been employing today (snow and ice out there and the roads are lousy, so the campus is closed–hooray for a half day of unexpected free time).

Lesley Wheeler has also recently blogged about revising. She observes that the word revision, which places “emphasis on ‘looking anew’ doesn’t entirely capture” the process of late-project revision. She’s listening to her own words aloud as she revises…another approach that has worked for me.

Maybe the month of February calls to us as a quiet time of yin creativity, which is a way of looking at revision as an inwardly-focused energy–as opposed to marvelous bursts of creativity from inspiration or the much-vaunted Muse. The lunisolar calendar used for centuries in Asia calls February the first month of spring (立春  lìchūn)! I had better keep at the revising, therefore. Before I know it, yan energy will return with the start of the gardening season in eastern Pennsylvania.

 

 

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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Seemingly small stuff

Things to view, things to think about.

Sub Rosa’s post on floral aesthetica here.

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Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, thanks to Harvard (it takes a few seconds to load) here.

qalace ed

William Bartram‘s 18th-century drawings of American flora.

bartramx

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Lovely words from Lesley Wheeler, and so true for me, too: “…reading and writing puts me in an honest place. Plus, while poems contain struggle of all kinds, they also constitute separate worlds it can be a great relief to enter, because good poems are not unjust or disruptive of bodily integrity.”

Whelmed

The other day, I mentioned to a friend that I anticipate a busy May, what with sundry beloveds graduating and having birthdays, and visitors from far places, and the end of the academic year at my place of employ, and prime planting-out-the-vegetable-garden season upon me…

She said perhaps I am overwhelmed.

All of the above events are wonderful things. And I have considerable help in accomplishing them, so there are no great burdens on my shoulders. Overwhelmed sounds, well, overstated. That got me thinking about the words overwhelmed and its opposite, underwhelmed–is there a “whelmed,” just on its own?

Turns out there is (archaic, notes Merriam-Webster):

WHELM transitive verb
1. to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something; cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2. to overcome in thought or feeling
intransitive verb to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it

And its source is Middle English (thank you, Online Etymology Dictionary):

early 14c., Middle English whelmen “to turn upside down”… Figurative sense of overwhelm as “to bring to ruin” is attested from 1520s.

Maybe I am whelmed, then, as per definition 2 above; the feeling I have doesn’t jive with the connotation of “to bring ruin.”

At any rate, I herewith offer some diversions by writers of other blogs and sites instead of my own work–with the exception of the first link on “Say It Today.” Read and explore and allow what’s delightful to wash over you without disastrous effect.  🙂

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From Haverfordwest Library, accessed through Casgliad y Werin Cymru

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Brothers & Storytellers, a brief essay of gratitude at Say It Today

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Lesley Wheeler’s delightful, on-the-spur-of-the-moment, Day 29 of National Poetry Month poem should amuse those who write poetry and those who meditate and…well, just fun.

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Donna Vorreyer on writing “a whole lotta poems.

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Kelli Russell Agodon on writing a poem a day (and forgetting about quality).

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Finally, Theodora Goss on love, home, and work–priorities that feel pretty “right” to me.

Smalls

This week in the blog tour, both Kelli Russell Agodon and Lesley Wheeler (poets) blogged about smallness, small things, smaller lives.

And a lovely (small) erasure poem by Dave Bonta got me thinking about ‘little things’:

in the night bog
I part with my road
curious about other things

I lack philosophy enough
to understand bread
or the question of touch                                            —Dave Bonta

~~                                             ~~                                                     ~~                                             ~~

iris reticulata

~

Just yesterday, these tiny iris reticulata bloomed along the woodlot’s edge. This evening’s forecast is for a nor’easter and up to 8 inches of snow. So long, for now, little irises. During the brief time I observed you, beauty entered my day.

~

Can we even understand such small and usual things as bread? As touch? As the winter’s blossoms? Could we entertain an aesthetics of small things?

Or do I lack the philosophy for that?

 

Pruning, weeding, & poetry manuscripts

Gardening has been a dismal endeavor this past summer; I just did not devote my usual energies to the landscape, the perennials, or even to the vegetable patch. For a number of reasons I will not enumerate here, I did not even get to the weeding. I wish I could say I spent my energy on writing, revising, and submitting my poems–alas, no.

Tangle of weeds & blossoms

Tangle of weeds & blossoms

After a weekend of trying to catch up (in two days) on two months of garden neglect, I caught up on my reading a bit and found this delightful and appropriate post on Lesley Wheeler’s blog: “Restlessly pruning the overstuffed closet of a poetry manuscript.” Her analogy is to a closet and wardrobe, but the underlying concept of assessing and culling works for perennial beds and poetry manuscripts (and attics, and basements, and garages, and…)

This post appeals to me because, in addition to rallying myself to the cause of deadheading and pruning and weeding in the great outdoors, I have also been working on cleaning up two manuscripts. Wheeler asks of her work:

 

  • Is the book telling the most involving, interesting story I can pull off right now? Is the narrative arc complex yet clear enough to satisfy an involved reader?
  • And yet this is a collection of wayward fragments, not a wholly coherent narrative. Do the poems have some spiky independence from each other? Are they various?
  • Am I making the same moves not too often, but just often enough to keep the poems working in relationship to each other? This means reading for repeated words, ideas, stanza shapes, and other devices.
  • Who will be my readers, and how do I hope they’ll feel and think about this project?

Wise questions to ask of a book of poems; also see Jeffrey Levine’s Tupelo Press blog for his exhaustive take on the process.

Clearly, reorganizing and evaluating my collections are not the kind of work I could accomplish in two days.

In that way, weeding and pruning the gardens offers more immediate satisfaction, though it left me with some scratches, rashes, and a sore back!

 

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.

~water-rites_cover

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.

~

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.