February’s coming to a close, and the forecast indicates a chance of snow soon–but the gardener feels stirrings of approaching spring.
Time to buy seeds, order supplies, plan the garden. Time to mow the meadow before the ground-nesting birds get started on their spring dwellings. Last night the temperatures went well below freezing, but the winterhazel has bloomed. Snowdrops push up from leaf litter: a glimmer of white petals still held close to the stem. Waiting for a string of warm days to open up for the early pollinators.
Indeed, the days lengthen at last. Next week marks Spring Break for my college, and with a little more flexible time available, I hope to pin down my garden plans. Each year, I try to incorporate something innovative in the small patch of (mostly) vegetables. This year, I’m tempted to try short-season artichokes.
Thinking about the garden energizes me, gets my creative side jumping. It’s partly the anticipation–will this plant emerge, grow, thrive, fruit? Will voles and insects and viruses attack it? Will the weather cooperate? For example, I’m glad I did not plant potatoes last year–the weather was too wet. Should I take a chance on potatoes this year? (Oh, those tender new spuds lifted from the warm soil in August…)
And tomatoes! So many varieties from which to choose.
Bounty (our own, in 2015)
Anticipation feels different from expectation, though the two are related. For me, at least, the connotation of the first is more open-ended. Anything can happen, though let’s hope what happens is good. Expectation seems more results-oriented. I am not a results-oriented gardener; I like surprises, I appreciate the education I get even from failures.
Come to think of it, I could describe myself that way as a writer or poet, too: not results-oriented, more intrigued by the things I learn when I work at the writing.
Even when the results do not pan out, even when I finally must give up on a poem that is not working, I learn a great deal about where and why a particular approach fails. This is why writing requires practice, patience, and time to analyze and reflect on what those “results” tell the writer.
Poetry and publishing: two topics that seem diametrically opposed, if you look at them under the perspective that’s the norm in the USA—that of business, capitalism, popular culture. Shake off that norm, however, and publishing can be re-imagined as aural/oral, visual, textual, cinematic, digital, interactive…who knows?
When a reader begins to deepen her understanding of creative literature, she will also find it necessary to widen the concept of publishing. Some folks say this is a new world. Or they’ll claim things were better in the old days. Curmudgeons and prejudices abound.
In my lifetime, I have observed and been part of significant and constant changes in what constitutes publishing, from Linotype to Huffpost. Recently, I participated on a panel of poets talking to students who have just begun an MFA program. The panel was a discussion, but it jogged reflections on the process of getting poetry to an audience. So here’s a compressed version of getting poems published, as I experienced it.
I began to submit my work in the very early 1980s to the indie-publishing journals which were extant at the time: photocopied, stapled zines with print runs of 300, or maybe just 150. I was new at writing and aware that my work wasn’t ready for Ploughshares or Poetry and the so-called top-tier journals I purchased and read carefully and tried to learn from.
As a 20-year-old woman, I was not exactly full of self-esteem. Why did I submit at all, when I knew my poems were juvenilia? Well, I know that now…at the time, let’s say I knew they weren’t up to the work of Elizabeth Bishop or Audre Lorde. The reason was mentorship. I had two good friends who encouraged me to send work out but to be realistic. To read the journal first and analyze my work in comparison to what appeared in the magazine. Good advice—and let me tell you how much harder that was in the years before the internet! As I lived in New York and Brooklyn and Philadelphia, however, and it was the 80s, there were good independent bookstores to browse, and good libraries. And there was Dustbooks.
So analysis was crucial, not just for deciding where to submit but to learn how to be a better writer. It was important to compare, to take apart, to hear meter, to recognize rhythm and consonance and the fabulous image and the fresh metaphor, to say how does that writer achieve what she does and can I learn it? Without slavish copying?
Damned difficult. But thanks to publishers, at least the materials were available. If we hadn’t had poetry publishers, it would have been even harder to learn the craft; and I’m not the sort of sui generis writer who just creates out of genius. I had to study, practice, revise, and learn the hard way. Alas.
In the later 80s, I started doing some editing and publishing of other people’s work. My dear friend, David Dunn, and I had a small press that put out two broadsides and four chapbooks. Taught me a great deal. I helped to edit a Xerox-zine in Philadelphia in the 80s. Meanwhile, I kept getting work into small press journals nationwide, mostly these photocopied deals with tiny readerships; but the minor successes kept me going. After awhile I had enough hubris to try the better-recognized journals, with some success. This is how it works: persistence, but not bull-headed, blind persistence. One persists through the learning process; revises, practices, finds trustworthy people for feedback.
My sister, my spouse, and I all have worked in the publishing business-as-business, in how-to and B2B magazines; I was a typographer, proofreader, copyeditor, writer, indexer. All of that background was valuable in its way and never kept me from pursuing creative work. So I did eventually go for my MFA, in my 40s, and I got chapbooks and a collection published at long last in spite of—oh, you know—life.
Because I feel that poetry needs audience, I was early to jump on the online publishing wagon, despite colleagues who warned that it wasn’t really as acceptable a venue as academically-affiliated print journals. Nonetheless I’ve found myself enthralled by online journals, by audio-poems, moving-poems (video), podcasts, blogs. I’ve watched well-respected magazines migrate to the internet. And there are problems with online publishing. I know about them, wrestle with them, yeah—keeps life interesting.
My route has not been the academic route, although I work at a college today; I am more of an outlier. Poets and writers can be nurses, doctors, mechanics, or landscapers, grandparents, people with disabilities, insurance industry managers, post office workers, tutors. Each of us discovers her own process for writing and for getting the poems into the world. Mine is pokey and slow and frequently interrupted, and my next long collection won’t appear until 2021, nine years after Water-Rites, my first. But I feel satisfied with my publishing record, such as it is. People do read my work, which is kind of the entire point of writing, no?
When everything is easy and there’s no chance of failure, life is boring. Writing creatively means taking risks, creating tension. Publishing creatively requires the same things. Risks, imagination, persistence, curiosity, analysis and a willingness to be open-minded. Fun pursuits, but not always easy ones.
It seemed to me to have been a long time since I devoted serious focus to my creative work–I mean in terms of organizing, keeping track, revising, submitting to journals, compiling a draft manuscript of newer work…the so-called business of poetry. I resolved therefore to spend a weekend at the task. Alas. The weekend revealed to me the extent of my benign neglect: ten years of not-really-being-on-the-ball.
I do not consider myself a particularly prolific poet, but I found myself faced with well over a ream of poetry pages, many poems only in their second or third draft and far from “finished.” Maybe an average of 70 poems a year for ten years. Do the math: this is not a weekend’s work. [le sigh]
Where to begin? There is no beginning. After an hour or so of trying to prioritize the various components of the job, I gave up and just started at whatever had become the top of the pile. Analysis: which drafts had any glimmer of possibility? Some erstwhile poems could easily be culled into the “dead poems file” I keep under the cabinet with the dust bunnies. Others required considerable revision.
Fascinating process, despite aspects of tedium. I encountered poems I forgot I’d composed. I looked at the dates I began and revised them, tried to discern where my thoughts and feelings were at the time. Somehow, going through poems in no way resembles looking at old photographs–it’s not that sort of memory jog. Indeed, the poems are not involved with the memory part of my brain but with the creative part.
And that is exactly what I have been neglecting: the creative, imaginative, intuitively analytical side of myself.
In the process, I found a chapbook manuscript to submit–I had completely neglected it–and several worthwhile poems. I have no idea yet how much further I can get into the pages of past poems, and whether I might fashion another manuscript from the lot. But I’ve decided the work should not be neglected.
A writer is a person who enters into sustained relations with the language for experiment and experience not available in any other way…A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.
Writing is a process that elicits consciousness in the individual writer, often as the writing unfolds. Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Joan Didion: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
Perhaps oddly–perhaps not–Stafford’s definition that what a writer is comes down to what a writer does bears a certain resemblance to Gerald Edelman‘s “neural Darwinism” theory (ca. 1989 in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, a more reader-friendly version of models developed in his neural topology trilogy*). Edelman basically says consciousness isn’t a “thing in itself” so much as it is a process that the embodied brain does. The brain’s processing capabilities are individual and endlessly myriad and they operate, claims Edelman, through the re-entry of information in intricately complicated links and physiological systems. Thus, through evolution’s incremental layering of human beings’ brains, what we call higher-order consciousness makes its appearance.
And then on to gesture, semantics, lexicon, syntax, language, culture, &c.
What is daunting about consciousness is that it does not seem to be a matter of behavior. It just is–winking on with the light, multiple and simultaneous in its modes and objects, ineluctably ours. It is a process and one that is hard to score. We know what it is for ourselves but can only judge its existence in others by inference.
…Once a self is developed through social and linguistic interactions on a base of primary consciousness, a world develops that requires naming and intending. This world reflects inner events that are recalled, and imagined events, as well as outside events that are perceptually experienced. Tragedy becomes possible–the loss of the self by death or mental disorder, the remembrance of unassuageable pain. By the same token, a high drama of creation and endless imagination emerges…The wish to go beyond these limits [of embodiment] creates contradiction, fantasy, and a mystique that makes the study of the mind especially challenging; for after a certain point, in its individual creations at least, the mind lies beyond scientific reach…the reason for the limit is straightforward: The forms of embodiment that lead to consciousness are unique in each individual, unique to his or her body and individual history. [italics mine]
To me, this passage–in a book about neural mapping and brain physiology–feels “poetic.” But what do I mean when I say the concept of embodied consciousness, and consciousness as a series of intricate, synthesized processes, coincides with being a writer? Or in my case specifically, a poet?
It has something to do with taking in the world–through the senses, which is all my body’s really got–and synthesizing all those years of experiences, memories, books I’ve read, poems and plays I’ve loved, people I’ve known, relationships with the environment and with human beings and with other creatures, the whole of my personal cosmos. Referents and reentrants. Relationships actual and imagined. “The remembrance of unassuageable pain.” The process of loafing through the world.
Writing, where much of my so-called consciousness dwells. Not in the outcome, the resulting poems or essays, but in the doing.
More about writing-related processes and politics here: Poet Bloggers
* Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection; Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology; The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness.
When a poem employs first or, in some cases, second person, readers generally assume the stance is the writer’s. (For more on this, see previous post.) I won’t deny that that is sometimes the case, a situation which has led to the contemporary idea that a poem is always a form of self expression–yet another assumption that is only true in part.
My Best Beloveds have been known to accuse me of writing a lyrical narrative incorrectly. “That isn’t how it happened,” they say–and they are right. But poets are not journalists, nor even memoirists. A poet chooses the event, image, or story that will make the poem do its best work which, dear readers, is not necessarily factual.
Even relationships may be imagined, or imagined from a different-than-expected point of view. The poem may have emerged from a prompt having nothing to do at all with the poet’s own relationships or experiences, and yet seem true.
Here is an example of how the first person (lyrical narrative) point of view may or may not reflect the writer’s actual experience. In the example below, revision, change of stance, and allusion make this “father poem” not about my father, exactly. (For a poem that is about my father, as I imagined his experience, see this post.)
I began this poem when I came across the Chuang Tzu quote. Call that my “writing prompt.” As my father had been dangerously ill at the time, the aphorism resonated. Yet the poem did not seem to head where I thought I wanted it to go…to be specifically “about” my own father. The allusion to the Chinese sage does not feel much like my own family–the image did not jive with my parents’ backgrounds. I tried the poem without the aphorism, and it became totally boring. I returned the quote as an epigraph and tried couplet stanzas then, developing the image of old slide projector screenings (pardon the pun), something I recall vividly from my childhood.
Then, my dad’s condition improved. He recovered. I put the poem away for awhile, and when I went back to consider it, I realized the poem did not need to be about him. Or about me, for that matter. It’s still a poem in progress but works better now.
Who is the “I” in this poem? Shall I let the reader decide?
The sage Chuang Tzu says, when you step
on your parent’s foot you know
you are already forgiven.
My father’s no sage,
just an old man beginning to die.
Unable to smile at his pain
he smiles at us
at my mother holding his hand
at my sister holding her anxious thoughts;
he smiles at her fears and they seem
translucent, like slides projected
on the wall, pictures of our childhoods
hovering near, colorful but not crisp—
and instead of our rounder faces
and smaller forms fading
he is fading, sallow among the sheets, white screen,
blank wall, and he’s forgiven me in advance
for all the injuries I may do
treating me with gentleness
though I’ve trod upon his foot
again, and again, and again.
…it seems like all i do is work…i’m feeling abit friendless of late. working weekends didn’t help my social life either. anyway there are still some bugs in the system.i’ve got to get used to working again and i’ve got to learn how to right again, right. i mean write. i’ve been away from my muse too long or at least not on speaking terms with her.
things to do
make friends (with others and with myself)
get out of here!!!
write some more
i don’t think that i ever knew how to write…it was (is) something that i just did (do) akin to breathing or my heart beating
and here’s to poetry and learning how to walk again. and here’s to jazz and here’s to you again and here’s to life and here’s to love and here’s to all that we hold dear and here’s to everything else and here’s to me: my return to the ball game.
Sun on snow. I turn off the radio during my drive to work, concentrate on the slippery road conditions, try not to get too distracted by the pines’ elegant white drapery or the bird silhouetted above–hawk? Crow?
This activity acts as a form of drafting poems.
Walk to the mailbox on a Saturday morning. Watch clouds. Listen to the sounds of vehicles in the distance. Observe shadows. (Also drafting.)
Lunch break walk, also drafting. Sitting indoors with a cup of tea–drafting, but only if I’m alone and watching the birds at the feeder outside.
Drafting takes more time than any other part of the poetry-writing process.