Two reams

As regards my recent long weekend assessing and organizing my work, the most startling revelation has been its sheer volume. I keep my printed poem drafts in an old-fashioned cardboard letterhead/correspondence box which holds two reams of paper–1,000 pages–and the box was full. Among poets who experience writer’s block this abundance may seem a problem worth having, but keep in mind two things:

1) This output represents over 15 years of uncompleted, unrevised drafts and

2) Most of the poems are crappy, or mediocre at best.

Apparently I have taken to heart William Stafford‘s advice that if one has trouble with writing, “perhaps you should lower your standards.” *

Abundance is a fine thing, but anyone who has ever cleaned a barn stall or an attic knows that sheer volume does not count for much. And one cannot spin bad drafts into gold without considerable help from supernatural guides or wily trolls, neither of which accompanied me to the cabin.

Rumpelstiltskin-Crane1886

Thus, I had to toil on my own, critique my poems, evaluate which ones have most “promise,” and try to keep myself from throwing absolutely everything into the woodstove. The work required solitude, discernment, frequent breaks for walks, tea, exercise, reading work other than my own, and (eventually) wine.

Also the occasional nap. My brain gets sleepy after awhile.

The outcome? I winnowed, though possibly not enough.  I have begun the disciplined, for now, revision process of the “active” stack of work. It is entirely possible that there’s a collection or two in there, though I will not know that for some time.

It will not be gold, but it will be a vast improvement over the accumulated dross..


IMG_6501

Part of the process…

*In an interview with Bill Moyers, and widely quoted elsewhere

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.

~

9780399590344

 

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.

 

 

 

Obstructions

Things that get in the way, viz., from Online Etymology Dictionary:

1530s, from Latin obstructionem (nominative obstructio) “an obstruction, barrier, a building up,” noun of action from past participle stem of obstruere “build up, block, block up, build against, stop, bar, hinder,” from ob “in front of, in the way of” (see ob-) + struere “to pile, build” (from PIE *streu-, extended form of root *stere- “to spread”).

I’ve been in an odd sort of writing funk–not a writer’s block in the classic sense, because I am writing–both prose and poetry. Drafting, anyway. I feel the obstruction in a different area of the writing life, about which I’ve written in the past: publishing, submitting work, creating the manuscript…getting the work into the world. All writers face these issues if they want their work to find its readers.

My current obstacle is … motivational? existential? self-inflicted? I have not decided yet, but it feels real enough. I want to put together another manuscript and have, I think, enough completed, “good” poems to make a manuscript; many of them have already appeared in literary journals. What stops me from corralling the poems together and composing my next book?

I know what it is.

My not-yet-second book stops me.

images

Sir John Tenniel, of course.

After about 7 years of endeavoring to get The Red Queen Hypothesis into print, no takers. Perhaps I have not sent it to enough publishers or contests, but I have done what I can given time and budget constraints. Perhaps, though I have had four excellent critical readers consult with me on it, the book still needs work; maybe the poems just are not strong enough (though the majority of them have previously been published in journals).

Maybe the book is simply too quirky to find a comfortable publishing house; I admit that I knew that before I even began submitting the manuscript around. The poems are semi-formal (yes, like a prom!). They range in form, and many of the poems use nonce forms, invented forms, slightly-damaged versions of formal poetry, and also free verse. Rhyme, off-rhyme. Rhythm, meter, off-meter, sprung rhythm. But a mix of these.

Outliers are often difficult to place, particularly when the imagery of the poems tends toward the natural environment, and the subject of the poems tends toward the speculative, and yet nothing about the poems is particularly edgy or youthful or ground-breaking.

This book represents me, the person (not just as poet) perhaps too well. I do understand why it’s been difficult to place.

As to how RQH acts as obstacle in my writing life? Um. I guess I have to say I am finding it hard to move to the NEXT manuscript when THIS one still hangs out in my psyche and on my hard drive, unpublished. I know that should not impede me; I have many colleagues who work on multiple books simultaneously, sometimes even books in different genres. How they do that remains a mystery to me, however; I guess I do not share that operating system–though I dearly wish I could learn it.

Etymology tells me I am building up a hindrance. There are other things building up can do, though. I need to build up a way over…and then “to spread” the words, perhaps in some other way. Maybe even self-publish. Or put aside the foundation I have built and use what I learned in that process on the next composition.

What is an obstruction but a challenge to surmount?

How to start

My students often get confused at the beginning of their essays; a common complaint is “I don’t know how to start!”

I feel for them. Beginnings are difficult. Recently I was wondering why that is so.

~

Driving home during a blizzard–concentrating on seeing the road, staying off the shoulder, anticipating the curves, watching for oncoming vehicles. Tense, I’m trying not to clutch the steering wheel. Eight miles home seems long when the visibility is nearly zero and the back roads have not been plowed. And then a blur of activity to my right, a thunk against the passenger side window, and a sweeping shape looms in front of me, veers; a fan, dark stripes, pale breast-feathers, strikingly yellow claws. I’ve nearly hit a broad-winged hawk. And that thunk was a smaller bird that had been harrying it through the snow.

Broad-winged Hawk Flying

A startling incident, that experience heightened my awareness of where I am (in the world), in which environments (natural and human-made), and when (now!).

Sometimes, happenstances such as this evolve into, or figure in, poems that I will eventually write. The image, the occurrence, offers a way in.

~

Returning to my question about how to start: the blockade many people make for themselves is that they think they have to know what they want to say before they write anything. “What is it I am trying to say?” the writer asks. We have been instructed to keep in mind our aims when we write.

I suggest it may be a mistake, though, to figure out what one wants to say before trying to write. When my student writers are truly stuck at the start, I ask them to write what they notice, what they experience, what they hear. Just write it down, describe it: the soft thud of the sparrow (if it was a sparrow–allow for speculation), the sound of wind against the car body, the clearly-visible buteo in the windshield where before there had been near-whiteout. What is it I want to say about the drive, the shock, the tension, the world of natural things? I don’t yet know, but I am writing.

~

Thanks to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Raptor Preserve, Kempton PA.

Clouds & trees

One benefit to living where I do is the way the sky looks in early autumn. Another is the brilliancy of leaves as they change color.

This time of year, even my commute to and from work offers moments of beauty. There are sunrises as I get ready for work, sunsets as I drive home each evening. The skies have been so glorious lately that a friend of mine posts photos on his social media account every day. Autumn arrives, and I wish I were a painter.

Cloud textures: yesterday morning, stippled so densely I could easily imagine ice crystals clustering together in the atmosphere a thousand feet above me. Bouncy puffs, striations, streaks. Today, a more consistent palette of repeated half-rounds. A stream of grey, white, and slate blue overhead, highlighted with thin bands of yellow.

Meanwhile, the trees–first the hickories going golden, then other tints. Today, I noticed the scarlet of a tupelo aflame at the edge of a field and the first big sugar maple shifting to orange. Many of the smaller ornamental trees take on burgundy hues. I can’t describe these landscapes in words! I want words to be pigments. I feel stalled. Maybe I am just making excuses for why I have not been writing poetry lately–(I don’t want to confess to writer’s block, as obviously I am writing!)

10934149_10208044582216651_8508294618826705064_o

Here’s a nice video from Slate that speculates, based on recent science, about why there are more red colors in North American trees than in European trees. Click here!

 

Drought

I hate droughts. I’m a gardener who lives in a temperate region that, on average, receives about 1,150 mm of precipitation annually (45″). Here we are, in the middle of springtime, blooms on the dogwoods and azaleas, peonies beginning to bust out; and I haven’t heard the welcome noise of rain on the roof for over 5 weeks. Generally, May brings this region 2-4 inches of rain. I miss it, and so do the birds and the deer and the insects and the salamanders and toads…and the few remaining farmers.

I water my vegetable garden daily, but I cannot water the whole lawn, the perennial beds, the hedgerows where the larger trees grow. So the grass becomes crisp. And I worry that a strong wind, or a sudden downpour (please?!), might topple a weak-wooded tree that’s been gasping for nourishment.

Drought is also so metaphorical. It signifies lack. A lack of ideas, a creative drying-up, a kind of writer’s block where words harden into obstacles–those things are droughts of a kind that stop thinkers into stasis. If you don’t move, you end up mired.

Not too distant a stretch from the concrete phenomenon of drought to the existential phenomenon of an artistic or emotional “dry period.”

There are several ways to contend with droughts; some require large-scale changes in industry, agriculture, population centers. On the smaller scale, I practice a version of xeriscaping; after years of experimentation, I have learned which plants hold up best under extremes of dry periods or deer depredation. I am alert as to which seedlings are hardiest, which plants can contain themselves in a sort of dormancy until the rain comes. That means I have to let go of my desire to grow certain species and cultivars no matter how envious I am of the way they flourish in someone else’s garden.

And it’s the same with a droughty period in my creativity. Certain things I let go of; I work instead with what struggles along in the mud cracks, what creeps under the brickwork or waits for the next real rainfall. There’s often surprising beauty in those hardy emotions and ideas that stay around when the going gets tough, the things that manage to find shade or that–like cacti–prefer a drier clime.

Being adaptable is important if one wants to make art, to write poems, to compose. Because life isn’t always going to offer ideal circumstances for the creative or aesthetic effort.

~

I hate droughts not only because they hurt my plantings but because they signal a potential disaster in terms of global climate change, and because thousands of people die for lack of that essential element–water. I recognize, though, that suffering sometimes motivates human beings to make changes, to create new approaches…even to make art.

Life is complicated. We evolve through change.

Meanwhile–let it rain!

Quiet earthiness

The beloved life partner of a long-time friend was interred in a green burial today, a glorious May morning full of flowers (she loved gardening…); and I find myself with little to say.

It’s been that way for the past two weeks. Not exactly writer’s block, as I have in fact drafted several poems, but an extreme sense of turning-inward. My nature is reflective–I’ve always fallen into the introvert category (INFP for those who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs assessment)–but my job requires pretty constant interaction with other people, students and colleagues for the most part, and quite a bit of listening and talking. I enjoy my job and find it rewarding; but the stressful weeks just before exams, when term papers are due, can be challenging for a person whose inclination is to read books and putter in the dirt.

I planted seeds in the earth, and picked flowers. And then placed flowers on a coffin woven of reeds which was lowered into the earth.

Returning home the quiet overcame me. I’ve been reading poetry today instead of the Sunday New York Times.

Also, I’ve been reading books on “good death” and “mindful dying,” and the guidance of some sensitive and experienced authors seems appropriate and grounded.

But grief is hard. It’s probably one reason we invented philosophy, religion, and poetry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

One of my go-to anthologies for sorrow is Pinsky’s The Handbook of Heartbreak, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. In addition, I opened Christian Wiman’s book Every Riven Thing at random and came upon his poem “From a Window“–

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving…

 

The poem comforted me (and I read other poems today, by other poets, that also comforted me). This one ends with the following stanzas:

 

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

 

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

 

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

 

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

 

~
The joy comes in, somehow, through the quiet and the dirt and the trees.