Collection

As I’ve previously mentioned–I have been putting together another manuscript of my poems–a collection. I had a few ideas on how to make the poems work as groups, but it turns out they are not happy together. I don’t think a poetry collection needs an “arc,” but I like to have the poems converse with one another in some way. Resonate with or inform one another. That’s what I am enjoying in Louis Simpson’s 1980 collection Caviare at the Funeral. I realized my aim in collecting my work was off when reading his book just recently…and now, I am reconsidering my manuscript approach. Again.

This may be one reason why, despite being a fairly prolific and reasonably well-published poet (in journals, etc.), I am so pokey at getting books into the world.

But I am considering what it means to be a collector, which is not the same as a curator. There is a difference between collecting one’s work and curating it into an experience for a reader (including oneself). Curating has never been my strength: I was the kind of child who collected things randomly, attempted to organize a doll or rock collection, but mostly just had little piles of stuff that interested me.

That’s poetry, too…little piles of stuff that interest me.

 

 

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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

 

The takeaway

ampersand

so, I did what I set out to do: I exercised the necessary discipline to draft a poem a day during National Poetry Month, and I pushed against my “comfort zone” by publicly posting those drafts as they came to me. Usually I do not share my initial drafts with anyone other than fellow writers in my writer’s group or a few poets with whom I correspond. This was an interesting experiment on the personal level, therefore, a sort of forced extroversion as well as effort in productivity. I now have 30 new drafts to reflect upon, revise, or ignore.

It has been years since I came up with that much work in four weeks’ time. For the last decade or so, my average has been closer to six or seven poems a month. And I would not have posted any of them as they “hatched.” I would have waited until I spent some time with them and figured out how best to say what they seemed to want to say.

That’s not an unwise approach in general; I see nothing wrong with letting poems stew awhile. And quite a few would have ended up in the “dead poems” folder. Nevertheless, trying something innovative tends to prove valuable. The takeaway is that I am glad I finally managed the NaPoWriMo challenge. A few of the poem drafts you may have read here stand a chance of evolving into better poems. Maybe some will end up in a collection (years down the road). That result feels good.

The takeaway is also the realization that I no longer worry about how others judge my poems, the way I did when I was starting out and discouraged about having my stuff rejected by magazines. Not because there’s less at stake–indeed, I feel as invested in my writing as I ever was. The difference comes with the kind of investment, the ambition to write something meaningful or beautiful, and not viewing the poems as results waiting to be determined as valuable by someone more authoritative.

I’m 60 years old and well-educated in poetic craft, style, purpose, analysis. I’ve been writing poetry for over four decades. At this point in my life, that’s authority enough.

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Self in the World

Goose stands sentry in the dew-strewn meadow.
Blackbird browses dry grasses woven along embankment,
emerges, slim stems clenched in its beak.

Under the footbridge, polliwogs gather,
backing into its shade–hawk overhead,
bluejay screaming territory! the crows respond–

Sun halos the water-strider’s shadow,
making a cluster of coronas on submerged stone
where wood frogs squeak and leap into stream current

surrounded by bedstraw, henbit, dandelion,
Amur honeysuckle, garlic mustard, stiltgrass,
invaders all. Except the frogs, who found the stream–

itself new to the landscape, gouged here in the 70s.
What do I notice, then? That some of the living adapt?
What do I make of myself in this world?

~

canadian goose on grass field

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

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Finally, to close the month of April, here is a lovely tribute to Mary Oliver by her friend and fellow poet, Lisa Starr.

Thank you for reading, and for the support of readers and poets this month.

Tanka

The second day of my daily poem challenge won’t give me much time to compose. A tanka poem may be in order.

These 5-line poems pose considerable constraints on the writer and, in my experience trying to write them, require frequent revision to get the moment vivid enough. So this one will be a rough draft. An experienced tanka poet may be able to compose tanka rapidly; my attempts usually need eight or ten revisions…well, here goes.

~
Past midnight, silence
4 am, flying squirrels chirp–
maple buds redden at dawn

how sleep eludes
those who mourn

~

 

Other poets working on daily-writing include Michael Czarnecki of FootHills Publishing, who posts a daily poem (usually haiku) on his Facebook page here.

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Deer metaphor

I think the best poem about a car-struck deer is Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark.

Like Hayden Carruth’s “Mother,” (see my last post) Stafford’s poem is, for me, a kind of zenith–something to which I might aspire, but look, it’s already been done. So why pen my versions of the experience? Especially when I am not the writer Stafford was.

And might a reader accuse me of hijacking Stafford’s imagery when I write about similar incidents? I suppose I do run that risk. Nonetheless, the whitetails occur often in my poems from the past 20 years because I live in eastern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has an estimated 1.5 million deer—about 30 deer per square mile–and I suspect that in the suburban-rural zones such as the region where I reside, the number is higher. ann e michael

As a writer, my inclination has pretty much ever been to write about environment and place and to supply anecdote or lyrical narrative. Deer abound in my environment and in my work; and deer get killed on the roads here. The imagery lodges in my consciousness. After so many years observing them, deer have become both subject and metaphor. I may swerve, but I cannot always avoid them.

The following poem is from my collection Water-Rites, and here it is the speaker’s husband who pushes the doe’s body off to the side of the road. The presence of children changes the perspective considerably, despite other similarities to the Stafford poem. Maybe that is all I can offer: a slightly changed perspective, a different closure. I cannot un-moor myself from the images and places that inhabit me.

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Yellow Forsythia

We glimpsed the doe
trying to rise, and failing,
in the roadside darkness.

“Stay here,” my husband said—
and a moment later,
“She’s hit.” I nodded. I’d seen
skidmarks on macadam.

The doe lay on her side and thrashed
while our engine idled,
thrashed, shuddered;
my husband placed his hand
on her neck.

In the car, our son stared
at the darkness. Our daughter wept:
“He’s frightened the deer.
She’s kicking to get away.”

The doe jerked, paused. “No,”
I said, “Your father is touching it.
Soothing it, so it will not die alone.”

He knelt by the quieting body.
Blood ran from the muzzle.
One ear twitched, I could see it
in the headlights. Death
closed in, a gentle exhalation.

My husband eased the carcass
off the road shoulder. He said,
“She must have suffered awhile.”

“Stupid cars,” my daughter muttered.
Her outrage engulfed our station wagon.

My son watched the white-
throated body, the yellow
forsythia lit by car lights.
He said, “Close the windows, please.”

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Poet and blogger Molly Spencer recently posted a lively consideration about recurring and repeating images here: https://mollyspencer.wordpress.com/2019/03/07/the-spider-why-the-spider-or-a-defense-of-recurring-images/

Worth a read, and worth discussion, too.

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.

 

 

Discomfort

It’s important, I think, to experience discomfort–it means I am facing a new task, a new perspective–that I’m learning something. I tell my students that if they are totally comfortable with the concepts in their coursework they are not learning anything yet. Education does not come without risk, whether the risks be physical, social, emotional, or intellectual. When we feel uneasy, it may mean we sense danger or sense the presence of someone manipulative, dishonest, or unkind. It may, however, mean we are simply “outside of our comfort zone.”

Tony Hoagland‘s poems offer examples of how we learn through leaving our familiar attitudes. Daisy Fried’s insightful 2011 commentary on his poem “The Change” notes the need for such uncomfortable moments. Poems Hoagland wrote as he headed toward his death from cancer at age 64 do not shy away from making the reader feel awkward, unhappy, or–in some cases–relieved, even glad. It can feel wrong to acknowledge relief as part of death. That recognition tends not to follow U.S. culture’s social norms.

I’m not claiming all good poems rile up discomfort; some poems offer joy or embrace a comforting openness; and, as readers bring their own differing experiences to the reading of a poem, the same poem that discomfits one person may appeal beautifully to another reader.

This post came about because I feel I have come to a period of discomfort in my work, and it troubles me but in a good way. I would rather feel discomfort with my writing than disengagement with it. Disengagement is writer’s block, which does not describe where I am at the moment. Instead, I feel rather as I did when I began to write and revise using formal patterns. My written expression up to that point had all been in free verse or prose, so adapting to villanelle or sonnet structure or sapphic meter seemed risky, difficult, “wrong.” Wrong for me, for the writer I believed I was, for the writing voice I had developed for 20 years.

And I was wrong about that, too! My initial discomfort aside, I learned so  much about poetry, including about my own style, through the practice of formal verse. The wonderful online journal Mezzo Cammin (formalist poetry by women writers, edited by the amazing Kim Bridgford) has published several of my poems in the past. Now, two more of them! Please click here.

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Sarah Sentilles’ book Draw Your Weapons elicited discomfort in me but also marvelous connections (she and I have read many of the same authors). Her observations about art, violence, pain, and language weave in and through stories of a soldier-turned-artist and a WWII conscientious objector.

Between the development of these men’s stories, Sentilles cites research, philosophers, artists, and personal experiences and forces her reader to recognize how even the language we speak is complicit in accepting violence as a given rather than as something that human intention and action can change, if slowly.

I finished reading this book two weeks ago and am still mulling it over, returning to passages, marking some of her sources as “to-read” for myself.

It’s possible that Sentilles’ text in some way stirred up my discomfort with my own work.

And that would not be a bad thing. Getting out of the familiar is not only how learning happens; it’s how creativity happens.