Conferencing, distance

Rather at the last minute, I found out that West Chester University’s Poetry Center was hosting a virtual conference during National Poetry Month. Previous WCU poetry conferences have been in person, and often in June; I used to attend when I had the time and money, since I can drive to West Chester in about an hour. For years, my full-time job has interfered. This time, the fee was low and the panelists and readers were people whose work I enjoy. While I could not attend all of the sessions or enroll in a 3-day workshop, I could at least “zoom in” to many of the events.

I’m glad I did. But before I write about this year’s conference, a brief history of my experience at past WCU Poetry conferences.

Initially, the conference poets focused on formal poetry: writing in forms, meters, and employing rhyme at a time when the major forces in U.S. poetry leaned more toward free verse. Dana Gioia was one of the co-founders, and the conference brought in such writers as Anthony Hecht, David Mason, Rachel Hadas, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Wilbur, Molly Peacock, and Timothy Steele…to name just a few (I haven’t forgotten the others, I just cannot list them all!). If you’re not familiar with them, Google their names and locate some of their poems; their work is considered “formal.” By some. The term itself is rather fraught. I’ll skip that argument for now.

It took considerable bravery on my part to participate in the conference the first time I attended, because I was writing mostly free verse, was not an academic, and was more or less acclimated to being a not-very-ambitious stay-at-home mother. I’d started my MFA program, however, and told my advisor that I wanted to learn the things I’d missed concerning historical patterns of poetry. I loved and grew up with rhymed and metered poems but had no idea how to create them. Hence: the WCU conference, which happened to be near enough that I could get away and back for four days and not have to do too much re-scheduling to accommodate my kids, pets, garden, and spouse.

Frankly, I was intimidated. The poets were all so…accomplished. Most were college professors, many were critics, lots of them had written books–lots of books–and even many of the people attending had won prizes and had significant publications. They were keenly and frighteningly “smart” folks, well-read and well-traveled. But after awhile, I felt more at ease. Sam Gwynn, Molly Peacock, and David Mason were hilarious. Rachel Hadas demonstrated intense and generous listening, and was so kind. And I learned so much (and bought so many books…) that I attended at least four more WCU conferences. Then I got too busy.

The Poetry Center and the conference have changed directorship a few times. For awhile, the late (and wonderful) Kim Bridgford, who later established the Poetry by the Sea Conference, was at the helm; currently, the Center’s guided by Cherise Pollard, who came up with the theme that drove this year’s panels and workshops: The Healing Power of Empathy. Healing and empathy are qualities we need when times are hard and seas are rough. It’s important to remember that healing requires change. It’s a change-state verb. Sometimes those changes feel uncomfortable, painful–and empathy can help, as long as we employ it in an active way (empathy as a change-state).

I managed to draft a sonnet in 15 minutes, thanks to Molly Peacock, and heard some new-to-me voices in poetry, and listened to poets who are deeply engaged in the work and art of poetry discuss their processes, enthuse over their influences, and say what drives their curiosity. I found kindred writers who are, like me, endeavoring to put voice to people with dementia and express the grief we experience as our Best Beloveds lose personality, language, ego-consciousness.

Lesley Wheeler shared the writing prompts her panel put together on her blog, here; she and her four co-panelists (see blog) reflected on feeling across distance, another apropos topic in the current times. It seems we can and do find methods to be human together, even when we are apart. I think of all the letters I wrote when I was in college, and afterward, as I moved around the eastern USA, changed addresses, and tried to keep my friends and family informed as to who I was and what my interests were. In my attic, there are boxes of correspondence written in the days before email. Many of them are now letters from ghosts. Words I will never hear again from living mouths, but a way we kept “in touch” despite, and over, distance. And still do.

Bro-ken

In the northwest sky this morning, mackerel-sky and mares’ tail clouds like fins, wispy and broken up against the blue, brought to mind the book I’m reading: Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. In this book, essays on place and environment interweave with “word hoards” or mini-dictionaries, a rich lexicon of regional terms that describe specific observations concerning weather, geographical formations, topology, the sea, plants, moorlands, mountains, and mines. He uses the word adit! (See my post here.)

 

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mares’ tail clouds

 

Macfarlane’s word hoard draws mostly from the British Isles, but his essays–in this collection, many are based on books he has loved–assert that naming is noticing, noticing is loving, and loving means preserving or saving. “Language deficit leads to attention deficit,” he says. He’s not incorrect. My own experience concurs; for the past few years, I have had less time and energy to walk my meadow and take the two-mile amble along the back roads of our neighborhood, and as a result, my written expression feels both a bit contracted and less precise. I need to get back to the land.

Meanwhile, more broken things, from which (see this post) we may encounter or derive good words. The most recent break happens to have been the nose of a Best Beloved. I think it is time the broken things spell gave us a break.

In that vein, here’s a 1932 poem by Carl Sandburg, “Broken Sonnet”:

May the weather next week be good to us.
The strong fighting birds, so often ugly,
Jab the songsters and bleed them
And send them away; the wranglers rule,
The fast breeders, the winter sparrows,
The crows.  The weeds, the quack grass,
The tough wire-grass, they have it all
Their way.  May the weather next week
Be good to us.

~

 

Learning the form(s)

I’m extremely pleased that five of my poems appear in the latest edition of Mezzo Cammin, a web journal devoted to formal poetry by women, edited by Kim Bridgford and beautifully designed by Anna M. Evans, both of whom are excellent poets–of formal verse–themselves.

My poetry often varies as to style; I am not a dedicated formalist, but I feel that writers learn a great deal from experimenting with many styles. Learning to write a sonnet, for example, requires considerable effort and ideally results in the production of many lousy sonnets. Many, many lousy sonnets. Until, one day, the motivation, language, imagery, and form coalesce into a good sonnet. The challenge derives in part from the frame and form the sonnet uses; other challenges arise with sestinas, rondelets, villanelles, haiku, sapphics, and (yes) free verse. Practice does not always make perfect in the case of poetry, but practice helps. One learns the form and its specifics, reads zillions of examples by the best poets, endeavors to write to suit the form, and finds that the resulting effort…fails. Miserably. And then one tries again.

The practice can be meditative, or it can be a kind of discipline. It’s certainly liable to be frustrating at times. I am reminded of my tai chi class, in which I am also tasked with learning a form and practicing its specifics until, after long study, I am not absolutely terrible at the movements. I learn a few more moves, integrate them into the series I have memorized for a couple of years now, and try to get my balance and position down and some grace and flow going. I might add–these are not personal strengths of mine. So it’s difficult.

In addition, my tai chi master teaches us qigong movements, and suggests that we experiment on our own time to invent sequences that work for us. But this is not the same as getting all jazzy and experimental with tai chi; no–in class, and when practicing the form, we students are expected to follow the moves as taught and as closely as we are physically able to do.

Does this mean that when writing in form, I maintain a strict formalist approach to poems?

Um, no–as can be seen in the five “nonce form” pieces in this issue of Mezzo Cammin. Sometimes I start with a standard and jazz it up. This is true for many poets writing today and in the past, because sometimes what we want to express carries an unconventional edge to it, and sometimes the ideas or emotions we want to convey (often mixed emotions or ambiguous ideas that require the reader’s engagement to decide) cannot be shoehorned into the strictest details of the formal framework.

The first of the poems in this issue of the journal is perhaps the most unusual for me–I was definitely experimenting. The allusion is biblical (the parallel verses Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15) and the experience is second-hand, and I find the situation deeply sorrowful. Loss of a child–it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with compassion and unable to know what to do for the mother. In this case, I felt I’d try to convey the ancient sadness in a contemporary setting, a retail shop, probably in some suburban mall. So I am mashing together the old with the new; an experimental set up for the poem just seemed necessary.

I would not do that in tai chi class.

Learning forms for poems–new forms, ancient forms, classic forms, forms from other languages and cultures–keeps a writer freshly informed with the world and engaged with the process of expression through words, rhythm, sound, and imagery. It helps a writer see the perspective of art, the framework, and to see beyond those things as well. Forays into styles, genres, and arts that one has not tried one’s hand at previously present vivid and useful learning experiences. Even if the result is a hundred lousy sonnets or some mediocre watercolors or the worst short story ever written. We learn from mistakes; they are our most relevant teachers.

coffee spoonsHere, a collage attempt–a collaboration between my then-teenaged daughter and me. Call it an effort to practice a different form (visual art). What is in the frame? The presentation of a line from a famous poem. Let’s see if you can figure it out. [Hint: those oblong dark spots are actually coffee beans.]

 

Sonnets & talking about the arts

Poet Kim Bridgford is reading this evening at the West Chester Poetry Center in West Chester PA, but I can’t attend because I am tutoring a student. If you haven’t heard of Bridgford, however, you might want to look up her work. For one thing, she is currently the director of the Poetry Center in West Chester; she’s also an educator, scholar, editor and online publisher or the journal Mezzo Cammin, the major force behind the Women’s Poetry Timeline, and an excellent poet whose sonnets may change your mind about “old-fashioned” forms.

Her new book includes sonnets about classic films. Her last book featured a series of sonnets responding to items in The Guinness Book of World Records.

Cool inspirations and material for a centuries-old poetic form. If you aren’t familiar with Marie Ponsot, she’s another poet who’s masterful at contemporary language and situation while using classic forms.

I’ve been reading Peter de Bolla’s book Art Matters and thinking about art and the arts. His book explores plastic and visual arts (sculpture, painting), music, and literature and tries to posit the argument that there are–or could be–ways to discuss the inexpressible “aha!” the audience feels when encountering a significant work of art. He suggest we are possessed of a cultural “mutism” that keeps us from putting into words what it is that moves us about a work of art.

Instead, he says, art criticism and various statements about poetics and aesthetics clutter up the field of discourse so that the “average” person–the non-scholarly, non-critic viewer or reader–feels voiceless or inadequate to the perceived task of describing why he or she gets an almost physical reaction to art, or to one work but not to another work. Good point, that. It follows the I-don’t-know-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like school of art criticism. More people might enjoy talking about the arts if they felt up to the task.

Perhaps you read sonnets in high school and felt ho-hum about them. Perhaps you think old movies are uninteresting. The idea of reading Bridgford sonnets about Hitchcock might not intrigue you very much. But suppose you read one of them and, much to your surprise, you felt a kind of shiver when you reached the last line. You hadn’t expected the poem to end the way it did. You also understood the poem on the surface, its storyline so to speak, and you “got” something more from it that–you cannot explain.

Mutism. Possibly you experienced it while standing in the mural room of MoMA where Monet’s “Waterlilies” triptych is mounted, or at the foot of “Winged Victory” at the Louvre. Or when you first read Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” or saw an Ansel Adams photo full size, up close. I’ve experienced it many times: Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s “Suite Otis” rendered me speechless when I saw it. I had had some experience talking about visual art and literature; I had little vocabulary for dance. I was, simply, wowed.

De Bolla says what I experienced was a somatic response to art followed by mutism. I haven’t finished his book yet, so I don’t know if he will offer a solution to the problem of how to describe the indescribable. I also am not convinced that the language is necessary. I feel quite satisfied with the frisson.

More about art soon…Steve Tobin’s installation at Grounds for Sculpture is this weekend, and I intend to be there.