Monday, September 4, 2017

Process Notes

I was thinking of asking my students to journal about the process of writing one of their poems later in the semester. So I ask it of myself now with a recent poem titled (at this point) "I Never Dreamt of Trees." It began with trying to recreate in words the physical sensation of dropping off to sleep as I sat in a chair. Not my eyes heavy but my head. There was such a pull. And the sensation so vivid.

So I had the notion and I kept clinging to that notion/image while looping around it as if it were a maypole. (driving in my car, driving in my car) Little half sentences and repetitive bits remembered and written down. First writing in the back pages of my general notebook, sometimes up the side of the page.

Then the words being slid around and fastened into couplets--this time on google drive so I can access this poem start anywhere. Where do the lines end? Considering the line breaks makes me lop off a few words.

I go back to my original notes and realize I've left out "stickiness," "the stickiness of dreams," but really it's there in other words  (but sticky is such a good word). I wonder if I have gotten in this idea that the things I dream of are not from nature. I wonder if the poem which feels meditative/observational wants to go somewhere (and it should). Picking up toys I remember that I wanted to have something about Chinese handcuffs in there.

I think I am realizing that this poem is not yet done (I don't want to read it right now). Last night when I dreamt I realized there is a much better sense of surround in the dream than I was thinking. Maybe that's the part you forget first when you wake up. Background goes, then the not-really narrative.

Friday, January 6, 2017

What Keyser Soze Has to do with My Most Recent Poem (and Googling)

It was my lunch hour. I had a little time, a little space, a great deal of quiet. I was trying to write a poem but nothing would come. It felt like floating in a sea of corks. No fluidity. Lots of blunted mental buffeting.

Finally, I decided to Keyser Soze the second half of the poem. I turned to my bulletin board and picked off random pieces of language to move things along. Some of the language I chose: astra, full cold moon, onion sets. Also, from stuff I'd seen on the internet that morning, the idea of winter, the idea of the northern lights.

At different times this week I was dib-dabbing at two separate poems. Here are some of the things I googled in the course of composition:
--mukluk--spelling and manufacture
--counterpane--is this word obsolete?
--clog dance--and its ties to the industrial revolution (who knew!)
--astra--word origins
--macron--exact definition
--musical saw on youtube--what do they sound like? first song was "Ave Maria"
--saucers of milk for the fairies ("green jacket, red cap/ and white owl's feather!")
--bank as in river bank or bank at the side of the road--looking for definitions and synonyms

My sister googled:
--deadly nightshade again (paralysis)
--girl's names beginning with "L"
--Slovak for "be quiet"

Googling is terrific for quick (and sometimes unexpected) facts and connections, but I miss the pages of my old dictionary, my old Roget, the massive OED.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Is Order Important?

It seems to me poets are continually faced with the problem of order. Once the poems are done we keep having to cluster and recluster when we submit them. Should we send a range of work in those 3 to 5 poems? Should we send related poems, poems from a series, poems with the same voice, poems in the same format? Which poem should be placed on top?

If we're giving a reading we have to decide which poems to read and in what order. And there are further complications here. Some poems read aloud better than others. Some are surefire crowd pleasers--accessible enough, complicated enough, deep but with some self-deprecating humor.

When we're putting a book together, we have to consider the reader in a different way. We have to think about how people read. If it's a novel, mostly I'd say they begin at the beginning and continue through to the end, unless it's a bad mystery, and we skip all the middle and just read who-done-it. I know when I read The New Yorker, I almost always start in the back--those briefer pieces easing me into its intellectual waters. When reading the newspaper, people will habitually attack it in a certain way--comics first, horoscopes, sports, editorials. What about a volume of poems?

Some poets say they don't really think about the order of their poems as they're fitted into a book. They claim readers just dip into a book of poetry--gulp, gulp--so worrying about order is unnecessary. What would be important for those who approach the book as the insect does a flower--hover, land, buzz around some more, hover, land--is that the poem they land on is a good poem--something that will attract, maybe even entrance the gadabout reader, so they'll make another pass at the pages.

But I think the unconcerned poet is missing an opportunity. I doubt they'd be satisfied with a hodgepodge of work stuck together like a ball of used masking tape. Perhaps their manipulation of poems occurs in a more wordless, subconscious state--a kind of literary feng-shui. If a book of poems is looked at as a deliberate sequence, however, meant to be read in a particular order, then the effect on the reader can be cumulative.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Troublesome Poems (I've Had a Few)

Recently, I headed up a workshop about troublesome poems. It was called Vital Signs: First Aid for Poems. In gathering useful thoughts for the class, I wondered if all the categories of troublesome poems, all the queries/flaws/doubts could break down to:

The poem that is there but in disguise--uncover:
  • And here I do not necessarily mean to uncomplicate the poem because layers and braiding and teeter-tottering between different materials can be effective. One does not always speak directly in a poem.
  • Is there a lot of language clutter in the poem? Could the poem benefit from lopping off the beginning or the end which is where we tend to get explain-y? Could the poem be improved by deducting 10 percent of the words/20 percent of the words?
  • Have you read the poem out loud? Have you put your finger down on the place where it “sounds funny” which can be a rhythm problem or maybe a grammatical problem or a problem of clarity or the discovery that what you wrote does not really mean what you want to say?
  • What about using line breaks or white space to put more room in the poem, pauses where meaning can accrue? 
The poem that is not yet there--call forth: 
Discovering/calling forth is harder. (No reference to a muse intended or welcome here.)
  • First, I would say get rid of the idea that the poem can mean anything, that the images and language are just serviceable placeholders that the reader hangs his own experience on. If that was so, why bother? Therefore:
  • Readdress the images you use. If there are no images, this is worrisome. Be more specific which is the same as being in control of your poem. Create the landscape of the poem, so that the kitchen chair is the kitchen chair you remember, not the placeholder for the reader’s experience.
  • Make language choices that are unexpected, that keep the reader awake while reading. This has to do with their sound and their aptness and their specificity all at once.
  • Is the poem you’ve written from the wrong perspective? Or from a too usual perspective? Does it needs a new focus? Sometimes I recommend writing what I call companion poems--poems with a different speaker or addressed to the acorn under the speaker’s foot or in the voice of a series of waves on a winter day. How can I approach in a different way--sideways/upside-down/more thoroughly? Which is to say tell it slant.
  • Sometimes maybe you’re boring yourself? By which I mean you are writing in the way you have always written and maybe you want/need something else.

Friday, November 20, 2015

How I Thought/Think About Poems I Write (Connection)

A long time ago, I was trying to write a poem that was solid, all of a piece, weighty as a stone that I could drop into the vast water of a reader's attention. There would be that satisfying plop noise and then the rings travelling out all the way to the invisible beyond.

Then my desire for narrative crept in. How do I make the poem longer? How do I put the story together, where does it end? And now the rock isn't the poem, and the poem is not a container. The poem is an action bouncing off the surface of the water again and again. Or it's the points of the star that show how to draw a constellation like a crazy skeleton with faulty cartilage allowing some flex and bend.

So many of the ways I thought about poetry I have broken down. I have put aside line break rationales in order to embrace the pudding of white space holding things up, together or apart, on the page. Maybe hearing different rhythms  hurried this along? Maybe a growing love for piece-i-ness? Maybe the fatalistic nature of growing older recognizes a truth about connection: putting two things together is what makes them jump.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Multiple Meaning

Because I am temporarily between parking lots/structures, I have to remind myself to go feed the meter at work. I have a hot pink post it on the upper right hand corner frame of my computer. The first time I read it inadvertently, I did not think parking. I thought of the system of stressed and unstressed syllables that lurks in the back of most poets' heads. That thing implanted by the poems of the past, the memorizations of the past, the dramatic schoolroom declamations of the past. The lilt I recognized and recreated without fully understanding.

I have written in meter, but not frequently after the first 10 years of school. Sluffing off meter was part of the great unloosening I felt as a teen and young adult--all the things that were gotten ride of: white gloves, hats, garters, bathing caps, pantyhose, sexual abstention, the kind of politeness that erases self. When I am seen and heard, it is in ghost meter if anything at all, the iambic pentameter-y ice cube tray of our normal locutions: section, cube/section, cube/ section, cube . . .

Right now, the sun coming through the window at my back is highlighting that post it note and nothing else. Meter! An exhortation! Rather than apply it to my work, marshalling my language in recognized ways, I will merely continue to accrue quarters.

I am afraid to say anything about the parking meter being on my mind because of my vehicle!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Retreat to Writing (and Some Fabulous Early Fall Swimming)

Some of the notes I wrote to myself in a random way last weekend (a writing retreat):

  • Do I ever want to talk to myself about style? I think I am thinking about the crazed kind of quality (and I think I am diminishing it to call it crazed) of poems like “At Home in the Middle” or “If the Dead Could Just Hang Around.” The lecture poems I don’t have to understand why they’re put together that way. Aunt B—maybe like putting a broken vase back together—pieces and lines.
  • When things come back try sending out grouped work which I said I would do and didn’t—food poems (ketchup!), lecture poems, Cleveland poems.
  • I know the poem-a-day thing in October is foolish time-wise. But maybe I’ll do something different. Maybe each day I will work on some broken poem. Go through stuff and find things to improve. –“Something about Darkness” surely, the one about miniature golf.
  • Tweak Aunt B still—make a list of concerns.
    • length from section to section
    • “voice” of author’s notes
    • I’m pretty sure I don’t want it to be longer
    • do I want to Cleveland it a bit more?
    • there are many things I didn’t put in. Could some be included in existing sections? “What are You Going to Do?” “I just stood there.”
    • why is Aunt H so rich for me lately. Maybe it was just being in the continual presence of her decay.
    • I like repeated last two stanzas in each
    • something about confessional
    • something about wondering why her mother never visits?
    • the boundary dispute relationship with her neighbors
    • what did being a woman mean to her?