Filling the world with poems

Taking part in the blogging tour means trying to keep up with what other poets have been posting, and in the process raising my own writing frequency. Recently I’ve read several writers’ insights about, fears of, and approaches to the process of submitting work for publication. I have also had several in-person and by-email discussions about the perceived or genuine value of publication of one’s work, and some advice on how fervently to pursue publication (and in which venue).

A perennial topic among literary types:

http://ofkells.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/on-rejection-and-some-advice-from-drag.html

http://webbish6.com/what-ive-learned-from-my-millennial-friends-as-a-gen-x-writer-or-how-to-submit-like-a-millennial/

https://uniambic.com/2018/01/24/poetry-submission-strategy-whatever-works-for-you/

http://webbish6.com/the-importance-of-resilience-in-the-poetry-game-and-in-life/

https://lissaclouser.com/2018/01/26/accepted/

https://lissaclouser.com/2018/01/30/scared-to-submit-yer-poems/

~

I’ve also read articles urging poets to consider submitting on a “tier” basis. First-tier journals are the long-standing literary magazines such as Poetry, The Paris Review, APR, and the better-known university-affiliated literary journals. The tiers move down from there, and it gets complicated deciding whether a lively, well-visited online site is a “higher tier” than a lesser-known print venue.

A friend advised me not to post drafts or unpublished poems online, as they are then ineligible to appear in most literary venues, online or in print–generally, these journals want first-rights for publication. These concerns once mattered to me; I no longer care.

Why the change?

My outlook has moved on. I’m not seeking an academic appointment or a job teaching creative writing at the college or graduate level. I’m no longer starting out–I’ve had my poems published in literary venues of many types since 1981! If I haven’t made the “top tier,” maybe I never will; I still submit to those journals now and then, but I set no store by their rejections, though I would be happy if I had a poem accepted by–say–Poetry. [I miss the days when I’d get a little slip of paper with the formatted rejection emblazoned with what a friend calls Thurber’s “Evil Pegasus.”]

 

pegasus

This image by James Thurber belongs to The Poetry Foundation

 

My intention in this decade of my life is just to keep writing and to get the poems out into the world in whatever form, venue, media, or technological method may exist. I do recognize that many other poets are either just starting out or trying to secure a career in the writing field–or trying to advance in the university–and for those poets, a concern for the cachet of the journal or venue and the extent of its reach for the correct audience matters considerably. I’m not suggesting anyone take a cavalier approach to publishing; it is serious work (those curious about publishing, see the blogger links above).

Tedious work, for me.

Nonetheless, I do occasionally submit to journals, as the listing to the right with links that sometimes but not always work discloses. Most recently, I am glad to report that I have two poems in Antiphon #22. < The link will take you to the journal in .pdf format. This time, I did not provide an audio file; but some of the authors have, and these are always worth a listen.

Yet another new way of filling the world with poems. Psalms. Antiphons. Moving poems. Texts. Podcasts. Anthologies. Journals. Websites. And more.

 

 

 

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Equinox, different

ann e. michael poet

Autumn

Translated by Renata Gorczynski

 

Autumn is always too early.
The peonies are still blooming, bees
are still working out ideal states,
and the cold bayonets of autumn
suddenly glint in the fields and the wind
rages.

What is its origin? Why should it destroy
dreams, arbors, memories?
The alien enters the hushed woods,
anger advancing, insinuating plague;
woodsmoke, the raucous howls
of Tatars.

Autumn rips away leaves, names,
fruit, it covers the borders and paths,
extinguishes lamps and tapers; young
autumn, lips purpled, embraces
mortal creatures, stealing
their existence.

Sap flows, sacrificed blood,
wine, oil, wild rivers,
yellow rivers swollen with corpses,
the curse flowing on: mud, lava, avalanche,
gush.

Breathless autumn, racing, blue
knives glinting in her glance.
She scythes names like herbs with her keen
sickle, merciless in her blaze
and her breath. Anonymous letter, terror,
Red Army.

~~

If the autumn of 2017 seems a bit more menacing than usual to some of us, there is reason for it. In Zagajewski’s poem, the season rips, extinguishes, and is merciless, personified as a raging “she,” hoisting bayonets, who embraces creatures and steals away their very breath. The imagery in this piece hurts–that penultimate stanza–and the anonymity of the letter, terror, that closes the poem leaves me rattled and uneasy.

Just for the record, I do not usually think of Fall in this way. I like the season’s inconsistent path toward Winter, its occasional tarrying, its rain, its oddly warm days, its early-morning frosts. Into every lifetime there come little eras of discomfort and fear, however; and it has been a challenge to see this autumn in quite the diffused and orange-tinted light of certain delightful autumns past. Today, I went searching for a poem to recognize the season, perhaps to comfort myself. I found this one, and despite its harrowing tone (or perhaps because of its attitude), I felt spoken to.

Much has been claimed about the healing power of poetry. Not all poems are healing sorts, however. Sometimes what speaks to the reader is not a small miracle of personal spiritual healing but a set of words and images that embody an internal understanding of an entirely different kind–a poem that acknowledges the fears we have, or that captures our rage, or our sorrow–a poem that says to the reader: “You, too, are human, and this may be a shared feeling between us, strangers that we are.”

In my little valley, Fall 2017 has not been early in the meteorological sense; the days have been summer-hot and often humid. Even the nights have been warm. Despite the lack of cold glancing scythes, I do find myself asking questions not unlike those the poet poses in his second stanza. Why should it, or we, or one among us, destroy and scatter and spread metaphorical or actual plague?

I do not have an answer, nor does Zagajewski. But I have this poem, which touches me with its humanity, its recognition that crying children everywhere ask “why?” And I know the poem is not “about” autumn, despite the title.

~~

IMG_0127

Also for the record, this poem can be found here and also in Zagajewski’s book, Without End: New and Selected Poems. [Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.]

Hunger for words, words for hunger

When I was very young, our church became involved in the War on Poverty outlined by the Johnson administration (1964). My father attended events and marches to raise awareness about the fact that many people in this wealthy nation, the USA, were struggling–even starving. It seemed, probably idealistically, that a country as prosperous as the US was in ’64 would find a way to insure that all its citizens could have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. (This was Johnson’s “Great Society”)

A memory:

My sister, my mother, and I are seated at the table in our little apartment kitchen in Yonkers, NY. My father is away on pastoral business, but the previous evening, he’d told us that we were going to fast the next day in solidarity with poor people who never had enough food to eat. The reason for fasting was to let us feel how they must feel.

My little sister thought that was unfair. She was, in her defense, only four years old.

Of course it was unfair. That was the point. Why should some people have plenty of food while others went hungry? That is unfair. (This logic she understood, though I don’t think either of us made more of the connection at that time.)

“You kids won’t fast the whole day,” my folks said–just suppertime.

Now it is suppertime. We are at the table, and the table is bare. We each have a glass of water, not milk. And we are hungry. Our mother has fasted the whole day. Isn’t she hungry? Yes, she says. She’s hungry. It isn’t a good feeling, and we whine awhile, hungry and in addition, bored.

“Okay,” she says, “you can each have a piece of bread. One piece.”

It is something, but it doesn’t fill the stomach.

bread

bread

Another memory:

I’m in my thirties, with young children of my own now, and talking with my mother about her past–a past she has kept from us, and from herself, and is slowly learning to accept. A past that included growing up during the Depression with five siblings. How her father refused, out of pride, any kind of government relief. How hard her mother worked to keep the family from going hungry.

I think, then, that my mother knows what it means to be hungry.

~~

Many decades later, the term for hunger has become, in legislature and grant proposals, “food insecurity.” The jargon, the euphemism, distances us from the facts. People without enough good nutritious food are not insecure. They hunger.

I don’t want words to operate that way, moving the reader away from understanding. I want words to bring us close, to open up the mundane and horrible real and the fervently imagined possible. Language that sears and mends, the interpretation of which also can sear and mend, words that do not act as misprision but as multi-faceted revelation. Those are the words for which I am hungry.

Something that fills the stomach: embodied, flavorful, wonderful words. That’s one of the reasons I love poetry so much, that hunger for the non-distancing. The relationship that brings us truth. The truth that is often unspeakable.

Poems can take us there:

One Kind of Hunger

The Seneca carry stories in satchels.
They are made of  pounded corn and a grandmother’s throat.

The right boy will approach the dampness of a forest with a sling, a modest twining

wreath for the bodies of  birds. A liquid eye.

When ruffed from leaves, the breath of  flight is dissolute.
What else, the moment of  weightlessness before a great plunge?
In a lost place, a stone will find the boy.
Give me your birds, she will say, and I will tell you a story.
A stone, too, admits hunger.
The boy is willing. Loses all his beaks.
What necklace will his grandmother make now.
The sun has given the stone a mouth. With it, she sings of what has been lost.
She sings and sings and sings.
The boy listens, forgets, remembers. Becomes distracted.
The necklace will be heavy, impossible to wear.
~

Lehua M. Taitano

Altercation, alliteration, & assonance

Recently, while driving to a restaurant just at rush hour, we witnessed a near-accident. The offending vehicles were blocking an intersection but had just managed to avoid collision, and the driver of one car was shouting from his rolled-down window–shouting words that it is a good thing my 90-year-old mother-in-law was too deaf to hear, I might add.

After scooting around to the shoulder and proceeding along our route, my son commented on the driver’s use of the epithet “douche canoe.” It’s one I was not familiar with. “What does that even mean?” I asked, unable to process it either literally or by metaphor; yet I grant there is something appealing about the phrase, for sound reasons (I am making a pun! I admit it!).

Not the insult variety of canoe
Not the insult variety of canoe

~

Poets tend to be enamored of the way language sounds, even those who “write for the page.” We can imagine the sounds, “see” them, as we write. Performative poems rely on sound and continue the ancient oral foundations of poetry in song and chant. Many American students encounter the Beowulf saga in high school; kenning appears on the curriculum, and it is the one aspect of the saga my students always seem to recall.

Dictionary.com says of “kenning”:

a conventional poetic phrase used for or in addition to the usual name of a person or thing, especially in Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon verse, as ‘a wave traveler’ for ‘a boat.’

Poets deepened these modifiers, using kenning to evoke allusions to well-known myths, for example, or doing tricky wordplay such as puns and alliteration…or all of the above.

Moving away from kenning and into the general field of poetic wordplay, poets and others who are facile with language can move with ease to the sarcastic, the suggestive, and the downright vile (a classic example is Catullus–here’s a link to a biography from the Poetry Foundation that includes commentary on some of his well-known insult poems). A quick Google search on Shakespearean insults yields dozens of results from the bard of Avon. One of my favorite strings of poetic invective is from King Lear: “lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue.” Note the alliteration and the meter. Touché.

Closer to “douche canoe” in terms of era is playing the dozens, exemplified for boxing fans through the boasts and challenges of Muhammed Ali–here, crowing over a bout with Sonny Liston:

“The crowd did not dream when they laid down their money
that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”

Elijah Wald has a scholarly book on the tradition of playing the dozens. These rhymes are intended to challenge, provoke, and amuse. The evolution into rap is easy to credit.

~

Despite the aural appeal of “douche canoe” with its long, repeated vowels, I doubt the phrase will enter my personal lexicon. It did remind me, however, of an alliterative insult I heard fairly frequently from my uncles when one of us kids was acting particularly balky:

“Don’t be such a horse’s hind end!”

hindend

Change the mind

“The only job of the poet is to destabilize and expand language. This is how poetry changes the world—not by grand ambition or the lauding of critics. It takes the plodding, unending effort of many to alter line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word the way we describe ourselves and everything around us. This is how we change perception. This is how we change the mind.”  —Jaswinder Bolina (in Poetry Foundation: “The Writing Class”  )

Words to mull over. How do we change perception? Is the change of mind correlated with a change in mind–potential alterations of the brain’s structure or synaptic system? If we destabilize language, do we necessarily alter perception?

Although the book is not an easy read, Starr’s Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience offers interdisciplinary research into how the brain may be altered by powerful aesthetic experience, or at any rate, how the brain responds to these experiences in ways that lead some researchers to believe the brain can be changed by art. Not just by those who create art, but by those who encounter it.

I encountered Bolina’s essay (see link above) a week or so after I completed reading Starr’s book, and the consilience–to borrow a scientific term–seemed powerful. The ideas have not yet cohered in my own mind, but perhaps in time I will have more to say on this topic.

Meanwhile, I revel in the juicy possibilities of changing mind through art.

 

 

 

 

Grief, poetry

I think it is important that people read Mark Doty’s deep and appropriate comments on whether (or, possibly, how) poetry can console “a grieving public.” It’s on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Doty’s poetry has always struck me as particularly powerful at evoking, and embodying, the way the world that is (physical, phenomenological) intersects with the world of the mind (both intellectual and emotional). He is likewise an excellent, reflective, poetic prose writer and memoirist.

On this day, which still sears pretty heavily into the collective and individual consciousness of many U.S. citizens, Doty’s observations about public and private shared grief, and how we “process” such emotions are apt and compelling. Doty begins with Wislawa Szymborska’s heartbreaking, and controversial, poem “Photograph from September 11.” In his commentary, he asks, “What can the artist do, in the face of the dreadful, that which can’t be assimilated?” and says that

To name it is to diminish it and, in the process, to come head to head with the inadequacy of the tools of poetry to circumscribe such experience. It is a gesture recognizable from Neruda’s great poem occasioned by the Spanish Civil War, “I Explain Some Things,” in which he writes that the blood of the children ran in the street “como el sangre de ninos”—“like the blood of children.” There is no adequate gesture, nothing in the arsenals of figuration that will serve; only a terrible plainness of saying, or of pointing toward what cannot be said, can rise to these occasions.

He observes–and I have to agree with him here, “I understand the human need…to give shape to grief, but surely the first response to such a rupture in the fabric of the world ought to be a resonant, enormous silence. To come too quickly to words is, ultimately, a form of arrogance; the easy poem suggests that loss is graspable, that the poet has ready command of speech in the face of anything.”

Elegy takes me awhile. Silence and the awe of disbelief and the need to think come first; indeed, are necessary. For me, perhaps the most stunning September 11 “elegy” is, surprisingly, from Blue Man Group: the mostly wordless video “Exhibit 13.”

Doty moves on: he says, “All poems of public grief are private poems first. If, that is, they are any good, and not merely occasional pieces that serve to mark a moment and reinforce what people already think.” True. And then, these words, which artists are more likely to understand than no-artists, because there is potentially something “hard” in them–

The act of making a poem is a movement from private feeling and perception, the inchoate stuff of experience, into the shared realm of language. At some point along the way, the poet usually becomes less interested in understanding or naming experience, and more intrigued by the words themselves, by the patterned arrangement of sound and silence on the page and in the ear, the pleasures of giving form. And it is a pleasure, poetic making, even when what is being shaped is dreadful.

The aesthetic, the gorgeous, emerging from horror. Isn’t that almost–almost–manipulative? Doty recognizes and disabuses us of that notion by citing his own experience of writing about AIDS:

I was setting things down for myself because I needed to, and then experiencing…that progress toward impersonality which comes with the making of poetry. That must be among the strangest of poetry’s many paradoxes: that we are driven to write by fire and then must distance ourselves to a cool dispassion in order to make those flames burn for anyone else. That is not a heartless thing, or an opportunistic one, to turn your experience into art.

Yes, please read his essay if you are interested in what art is and what it does and how it relates to public experience of any kind.

“I think what the poet must do is pay attention to the nature of subjectivity, to the experienced, lived hour, and trust the paradox that if we succeed in representing that, we may approach speaking to our fellow citizens. I hope so.”  ~Mark Doty

More posts on grieving and art:  Despair&Fear, December 24