Voice

I follow the Women’s Poetry Listserve (Wom-Po), and recently there was a discussion there concerning what poetic voice is. Can it be defined clearly? Does it differ, and if so how, from style? Is it personal, belonging to the writer herself–an attitude? Is it distinct from the creator of the poem, as the “speaker” of the poem arguably is in the case of poetic voice/persona?
A listserv member offered this quote from Kunitz:
“One of my convictions is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images which go back to the poet’s childhood and which are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic. That cluster of key images is the purest concentration of the self, the individuating node. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat.” … from Stanley Kunitz‘s 1975 lecture at the Library of Congress, “From Feathers to Iron.”

A constellation of key images may seem to be imagery, not voice at all; but Kunitz’s decision to connect distinctive voice with a recognizable beat and images, and to further suggest that these mesh to in the compositions of a poet who is writing with clarity and authenticity (my interpretation of what he means by “working at their center”), indicates that voice is a critical component of poetry. I have read the above-mentioned lecture, but Kunitz does not there elaborate on whether he means the writer’s personality, style, or attitude or whether he means, instead, persona. It seems to me, though, that he wasn’t talking about persona (the “speaker” or mask the writer uses in an individual piece). I interpret that the key constellation of images, the “individuating node,” would have to be personal experience of the actual writer–Roland Barthes be damned.

CH Chucrch

Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological approach to poetics and, to some extent, psychology, appears to jive with Kunitz’s pivotal childhood images. It is easier to recognize one’s own key images in one’s work, of course…and I cannot help but recognize that Kunitz has nailed it for me, at least, if not for all poets (writers, artists, musicians, etc.). My own cluster of images, drawn from childhood, include the church. Also the beat of hymns and responsive readings and the King James and RSV Bibles. Also the bleat and wail of diesel engine horns, the progression of fields and trees and flowers, the hum of highways, the sluggish flow of certain rivers. To mention but a few that stay with me.

I am not an adherent to any particular style or form of literary critique, and I am not a whole-hearted phenomenologist, either–but I have to admit that these concepts (the individual’s key images, the individual voice and the persona voice, the rhythm or beat of a writer/speaker) intrigue me. I find them well worth exploring, mulling over.

See Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa post here for a mini-photo-essay that illustrates what I mean.

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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.

Virtual, physical, personal

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Redbud leaf in fall

Through the blogosphere, I’ve met some fascinating and talented people. The virtual connection, although I have learned to value its scope and immediacy, generally seems a bit wanting in connection for me. Even though I tend toward introversion, my favorite way to connect with people remains face-to-face. [Go ahead, call me old-fashioned.]

In the days of listservs and message boards, I first began “meeting” colleagues online. I signed up for the Women’s Poetry listserv (Wom-Po), which is still active today. One of the best things about that list, besides the fact that I learned a great deal about poetry/women’s poetry/teaching poetry/contemporary and historical female poets, is that I met many of my colleagues in person while attending writer’s conferences, readings, and similar events.

What joy for a person like me, who tends to be a bit reserved about meeting new people. For introverts, a virtual introduction and conversational exchange online–even just recognizing a name on the listserv–has made possible a route to social icebreaking at conferences like AWP.

This past Saturday, another virtual connection joined the realm of the physical when I got the chance to meet–in person–artist Deborah Barlow at the opening of her show at Morpeth Contemporary gallery. I’ve seen her artwork on her homepage; but as is often the case, viewing the work in person was revelatory and beautiful. And meeting the artist herself–also revelatory and beautiful!

I recommend her blog, Slow Muse, which has alerted me to many a terrific book on creative thinking, the creative process, and poetry as well as introduced me to several wonderful contemporary artists’ work.

As the seasons undertake the dying-toward-renewal process, I welcome musings and inspirations. The shining, textural depths of Barlow’s paintings offer another way of looking. As do good books and sunny mornings on the back porch.