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Monday, October 21, 2013

Words that Cast Long Shadows

When the poem I have been working on suddenly revealed itself to be in form, my resulting rearrangements to satisfy the form included the trimming of certain lines where the poem was too verbose, as well as the panicking over stanzas that were missing requisite lines. I marked where more words and images were needed, and set the poem aside.

Later, when I came back to the poem and stared at the gaps, I suddenly remembered how certain words I had heard or read in the past few days seemed to speak to me, to demand my attention, to the point that I had jotted these words down in a notebook. I got out that notebook and saw the word "pinwheel". A good word, but it had nothing to do with my perforated poem. But wait--yes, it did. And suddenly my poem had a pinwheel in it. Creation myth was on the list, and soon that went in the poem as well, despite seeming at first glance to be not even tangentially related.

A few more list words worked their way into the poem, and the gaps were closed up, the poem finished.

At first I thought how weird it was that the words I had been culling from the universe earlier were just the words I needed now; it made me recall an image I had earlier this year, that inspiration is floating in the air all around us and we just have to pay enough attention to find it and pluck it out of the air. I don't really believe that inspiration exists a priori, despite that vision, and yet, here were the words I would need for my poem written in a notebook before they were needed, while tens of thousands of other words read and heard during the same time period had easily vanished from my mind.

But that's just the beauty of the unconscious. Either (in an unlikely scenario) my unconscious knew the very words I would need later because I had already begun the at-that-time-unstructured poem when I started the word list, or (more likely) my unconscious was merely identifying words that had deep resonance with me, words such that my interest in them would enable me to connect to them to whatever I was thinking about, because of the way the mind seeks connections, looks for patterns.

Whatever the reason, here's my take-away: words that catch my attention, words that make me say, "huh...." or "I haven't heard that word in awhile," in short words whose word-ness or very essence make me stop in my tracks for just a moment, those words should be written down; they will probably be useful to me very soon.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Concrete Wolf 2013

Concrete Wolf (Lana Hechtman Ayers, editor and publisher) is holding its annual chapbook competition. This is the press that published my chapbook, so it is near and dear to me. If you've got a manuscript ready to go out, please consider sending it here. This year's judge is Carol Levin. The entry fee is $20; the deadline is November 30th; pages should be between 16 and 26. Good luck!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

Not too long ago I read the advice of a major poet (but I did not write down this advice, so I cannot attribute this) that each line of a poem should contain at a minimum three surprises. Three surprises--this seemed excessive and unattainable and so I did not write down the advice and expected to forget it.

But I haven't. And I'm glad I haven't, as this idea has improved my recent poems more than anything has in a long time. And I don't know who to thank for it; if you know, please tell me (I tend to think its one of the Charleses (Wright, Olson, Simic....not Bukowski or Baudelaire), but then again, maybe not).

I'm not sure what the mysteriously unknown major poet counts as surprises, but I have counted: especially effective line breaks, unexpected word choices, fresh images, imaginative use of punctuation, alliteration or assonance or other repetitions of sounds, internal rhyme, manipulations of the usual grammar, non-intuitive pairings of words, the occasional insight, unusual subject matter, anything that makes me think or read twice.

I also only aim for two surprises per line, as I am just a beginner at this. But lines that have no surprises in them suddenly jump out at me and demand their fair share. And it may be the highlighting of the weak line, the disallow of a single weak line, that is the biggest benefit to me of this technique: the idea that it's not enough for a line to be carrying the reader toward the next, better line.

When I read a poem, it is the sense of wonder and surprise that pleases me most, so it seems only obvious that that is what I should be writing towards. But it wasn't obvious to me. Until now. Surprise yourself, and the reader will likely also be surprised.

(Also, I like checklists; give me something to measure or count and I am all in. This technique really works for me!)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Most Famous Book Set in Every State

Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (Pennsylvania). Steinbeck's East of Eden (you know where!). Hemingway's To Have and Have Not (again, you know where!). These are the most famous books set in states that have been formative places for me. Check out the states that most matter to you:

Most Famous Books Set In Every State_Larger

This clever map is from Business Insider. Check out their site.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Tripping the Light Ekphrastic

A few months ago I wrote about Black Tongue, a journal that pairs artists and poets in a collaboration of ekphrasis.

I've now run across another journal with a similar mission of pairing poets and artists to respond to one another's work. This one is called The Light Ekphrastic.

I may find more of these interesting projects, and if I do, I'll post about them.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Spooky Beauty

I've been doing a lot of reading about people who have disappeared and how they are honored/remembered/mourned by those left behind. This is for a project I'm working on...Anyway, in doing so, I've run across a few interesting things including:

1) Stuff You Should Know has a display of 21 unusual epitaphs found on actual tombstones, including Martin David Huff, Sr.'s last declaration (or a declaration made on his behalf): "Inclined to mischief."

2) During my research, I ran across the intriguing story of child-prodigy novelist Barbara Newhall Follett, who disappeared at age 24 after a fight with her husband. Born in 1914, Barbara had her first novel published in 1927 (by Knopf!), when she was just twelve years old, to rave reviews. When her father, who worked in publishing and was able to facilitate her career, left the family for another woman, Barbara and her mother did some traveling until they ran out of money, necessitating Barbara's going to work as a secretary at age sixteen, without ever having graduated from high school. Early marriage and a sense of adventure and travel followed, but something went wrong in the marriage, and Barbara disappeared, though it is unclear if she did so willfully. You can read all about it at Farksolia, a website named after a place in Barbara's imagination that was the subject of her first novel. This website is curated by Barbara's half-sister's son, Stefan Cooke, who has also put together a book on the life and disappearance of his aunt. You can download Barbara's first novel, The House without Windows, and learn more about it here.

So much for spooky, here's beauty (although both of today's spooky entries have a sense of beauty about them):

3) Yesterday I went to the Kobe Biennale Exhibition at Meriken Park. Large shipping containers, more than 90 in total, are turned into private exhibitions for artists from all over the world. The theme is "Saku" or "Bloom," and it is manifest in many of the pieces offered. There are interactive installations that invite audience participation, 3D work, video installations, installations you enter, more traditional visual work, sculptures, ikebana (flower arranging), and calligraphy. Really interesting work; if you are in Kobe, you should go. Tickets are 1400 yen for the port installation only, and 1800 yen for a ticket that also gives you access to 3 museums over on Museum Road (the ticket is good for one admittance to each exhibit, at any time during the two months that Biennale runs). I got the 1800-yen ticket and am looking forward to seeing the other exhibits in a few weeks, when I have some free time.

ALSO: FREE ADMISSION for the 3-day weekend starting today: 10/12 - 10/ 14. Take advantage!!!

I saw some interesting work with shadows there that has me thinking hard.....

4)  Finally, I just finished reading Katherine Towler's &  Ilya Kaminsky's A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith (Tupelo Press), a collection of essays. I have a marked ambivalence about God, religion, spirituality, but cannot stop reading, thinking, and looking on the subject, and was comforted by Christian Wiman's citation of Blaise Pascal in the book: " If you are searching for God, then you have found him." There are remarkable essays in here, but in particular I recommend those of Carolyn Forche, Kazim Ali, Jane Hirshfield, Jericho Brown, Li-Young Lee, and Alicia Ostriker. Many of the others were fascinating as well....This is a book worth having.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Go Figure!

Bored of my own last few self-indulgent posts, I am today happy to recommend to you, via Maria Popova's Brain Pickings, literary action figures, including Edgar Allan Poe (whose birthday was last week):

Other figures include: Austen, Dickens, Wilde, and Shakespeare.

Popova also showcases a line of non-pose-able collectibles in three categories: artists (Dali, Picasso, van Gogh, and Warhol), scientists (Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Tesla), and writers (Twain, Joyce, Shakespeare, and again the inimitable Poe). Check out this link to see them all.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

One Round of Self-Doubt

Recently I have been looking at my growing pile of rejection letters and thinking perhaps I have better ways to spend my time; maybe I should concentrate instead on contributing more financially to our family, on spending more quality time with my kids, or on studying Japanese. Maybe everyone around me cringes when I talk with childish self-indulgence about trying to write, to be a writer.

.......Then I ran across this, from a well-known essay by short story writer Kathryn Chetkovich on being the girlfriend of Jonathan Franzen.

"It’s not as though anyone thinks that being a good writer makes you a good person. But it helps. (Isn’t this perhaps one reason why women, as a whole, are more apt than men to see writing and reading as therapeutic acts? All that private time spent rendering and transforming personal experience on paper is easier to justify if the writer – and, ideally, the reader – is healed in the process). If you’re truly talented, then your work becomes your way of doing good in the world; if you’re not, it’s a self-indulgence, even an embarrassment.

But how do you know you’re good, if not by comparing yourself favorably to others (an essentially ungood activity)? And how many women are comfortable doing that?"

Kathryn Chetkovich, from “Envy”, in Granta, Summer 2003 issue


The other voice in my head says, "No one will take your writing seriously unless/until you do," but how can I take my writing seriously when no one else does? (Okay, not no one else, but no one in publishing). Round and round I go.


Now it occurs to me that this post is related to the post I wrote yesterday, about whether to write or not what conflicts with actual family history, embedding those invented facts within that history and willfully failing to make a distinction.

It occurs to me now that a good writer should write whatever is necessary, actual facts be damned, whereas a good woman (and to a lesser extent, a good person, gender unspecified, and in both these cases I mean a culturally-defined good woman/person) should not write what might be unsettling or uncomfortable or disturbing for her family. I can't be both a good writer and a good woman/person. Shall is shoot for the lower target, or the higher? Should I give up on both?

Or, even more accurately, I can't be both a good daughter and a good writer.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

In the Family of Truth

I am working on a poem (okay, a triptych of poems, or maybe a suite) about an actual event, or series of events, in my family--tragic ones, taboo subjects. I an interspersing actual facts with metaphorical "facts". On an artistic level, they work together well, but I wonder, how will my family members react (should they read what I write; they almost never do, but going rogue with the taboo stuff just might attract some attention).

For example, will they argue that this person did not play the mandolin, as I have suggested he did by having one leaning on his wall? Will they say, you could never have had that conversation with that person at that time (for some absolutely true logistical reasons)?

Is it worse that I include real details about that person--should I just switch everything up to avoid that problem, so that the factual and the invented aren't intertwined? If I do that, the poem loses its gut-punch for me, but it shouldn't do so for an audience who doesn't know the actual details, while perhaps sparing my family members who do......

But I don't want to take out the "true" stuff just because I added non-factual details to yet make the poem even more true, in a larger sense.

This is what I'm thinking about.