Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Master

I spent part of the holidays reading Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. The Washington Post’s book review called it “hardly a typical summer book,” and it does seem like a perfect winter book.

The Master is convincingly written from the start: “As he moved his head, he could hear the muscles creaking. I am like an old door, he said to himself.” Tóibín creates a style that seems true to James without mimicking him. When Aunt Kate suggests trying to contact the dead, Tóibín has Alice, Henry’s 16-year-old sister, forcefully dismiss the idea: “One need pray for nothing. Reference to those whom we should meet again makes me shiver. It is an invasion of their sanctity. It is the sort of personal claim to which I am deeply opposed.” This sounds so true to James’ own spirit! Who else would object to contacting the dead, not so much out of scientific skepticism as out of a sort of “good manners” that reaches beyond the grave?

I really enjoyed the book, but I did have some reservations. Now that I look back on it, maybe the problem is that none of the other characters seem as strong as Henry. Perhaps this was part of the tragedy of James’ life: he knew women, like the novelist Constance Woolson (who committed suicide partly because of James’ unresponsiveness to her), who were his match in intellect and insight, but the men he was closest to were like the narcissistic sculptor in the novel. This may have made it all the harder for James to confront his own homosexuality (it’s hard to think of him as “gay”!), but the novel frustrated me because so often James seems to get away without confronting anything.

I haven’t read that much of Henry James, but I love The Golden Bowl. It has a great scene where Charlotte confronts “the Prince” with her love for him, and he can’t deal with it, and James makes us see just how thoroughly and terribly he can’t deal with it. Tóibín similarly shows us a James who “can’t deal with it” either, in so many ways, but we never really get a confrontation. We just get James wistfully looking down the canal in Venice where Constance killed herself and wondering if he might have done something.

This all interests me because I’ve been writing poems about the lives of artists, and it brings up the question of what the difference is between a historical novel or poem and a biography. At times I felt that Tóibín had written a very sensitively and vividly imagined biography, but one that didn’t quite come together as a novel. I felt that something was missing for me from The Master, and as I feared that what was missing might also be missing from my own poems, I got rather obsessed trying to figure out what it was. I hope someone else has read The Master and will tell me what they think.

Monday, December 26, 2005


How nice it is to be home alone today in the quiet, in the lull between holidays. I was out walking in the sun this morning with my dog, Greta, but already, as I look west to the ocean, the next storm seems to be moving in. Christmas was pleasant, and everything worked out--the morning with the family here, dinner at my son's new flat with his fiancée. We'll do Hanukah later in the week when I can handle the idea of celebration by frying. And New Year's Eve we'll be meeting old friends for dinner in an East Bay restaurant. Right now, I'm feeling more inclined to think that I'll never eat and drink again--and look forward to restarting my YMCA membership in January, now that they approved financial aid. My brain and body need it.

I realize though things may not be happening as fast as I want them to, I really am lucky with all the important things: love, family, friends, my work in poetry. And right now, that is enough. And I'm happy for the Internet and the blogs, which let me feel connected to others, to share ideas and words.

Happy holidays and a wonderful New Year to all of you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Poetry Reading

It was really a thrill over the last couple weeks to get to do three readings with poets like Robert Hass, Ishmael Reed, Lyn Hejinian, Chana Bloch, Alan Williamson, and Brenda Hillman—all to celebrate the new anthology Zack edited, The Face of Poetry. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to read with a group like that again.

One thing I learned is that, while I’m reasonably nervous about reading my own work, I love reading other poets’ work. The readings’ format was that each poet read just one of their own poems and then a couple of their favorite poems by other poets in the anthology.

Well, I am just a total slut when it comes to reading other people’s work. I love it all. I could read all night long, everything from Lyn Hejinian to Billy Collins, John Ashbery to Sharon Olds, soup to nuts. (Actually I limited myself to Agha Shahid Ali’s “In Arabic,” Robert Hass’s “Interrupted Meditation,” and Mary Ruefle’s “Merengue.”) I’m not a great reader, but I think I do all right and I sure enjoy it. I only hope someday I’m as relaxed when it comes to reading my own work.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Woohoo! Dragging the Lake!

Friendship has its perks. I 've got Robert Thomas’s new book, “Dragging the Lake,” chosen by Carnegie Mellon this time last year. I have my own copy already, for that matter. All right, so do the rest of the members of our group, but that’s what I mean.

And it’s a wonderful book. Robert was worried about the cover and apparently is not too sure what he thinks about it, even now. He selected the photo, but didn’t get to see the treatment until the book arrived on his doorstep in South City. I like it! The swath of sea green gives it a woozy surrealistic feel, and that part of the photo is kind of slightly out of sync, as if it is being refracted by water.

But of course, it’s the inside, the poems that are the best part. Brendan Galvin calls it: “…deeply satisfying and snazzy.” Chase Twichell says it’s …“smart…and profound.” I call it astonishing. It will be in bookstores in February.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

25 Years Ago Today

...John Lennon was shot and killed in NYC. I didn't go to any memorials. I wasn't sure what the point was, and in any case, had my own problems (was going through a miscarriage at the time). But friends called me to tell me about JL--some considered him "mine." Some of us sat around talking about him--I guess that was our own memorial.

We put the cocoanut John gave me on our make-do coffee table and I told the story I've told about a thousand times, about the weekend I spent with the Lennon entourage in Syracuse, NY in 1971 and how it changed me. Curiously, I've never been able to place the essay I wrote about the weekend--mostly, I get back comments like, "beautifully written, but not for us." But everyone wants to hear the story.

Death is a funny thing--that is not funny-haha, funny-peculiar. I get why people have developed concepts like heaven. It's hard, nearly impossible, to conceive of someone you know and love not being there anymore, not being anywhere. It feels like they're simply someplace else. And just as oddly, they never grow old, never change. People who are recorded or on film are, as they say, immortalized--immortal. But he was such a human immortal, the John Lennon I met that weekend.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Everyone's got needs...

I realize that this is not exactly a profound first blog posting. But I'm far too agitated by sleep deprivation and baby-gear shopping to post anything of depth. In lieu of such, I offer:

Lisa needs a stable environment, love and attention.
Lisa needs a tree.
Lisa needs braces.
Lisa needs a bigger grin and lots more warmth from an overly conscientious Julia Roberts.
Lisa needs to more clearly communicate to clients how they can benefit from LISA membership.
Lisa needs to go to the museum tomorrow, and I think you should take her.
Lisa needs a miracle healing.
Lisa needs a kick in the arse.
Lisa needs to be attended by trained medical personnel.
Lisa needs Help! Will you help Lisa out?

All true, save the braces (had those for 6 years, and boy are my teeth straight). I especially like the idea of offering my clients membership, with its many clear and compelling benefits.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Diane needs....

Yes, I couldn't resist the meme that's going around. Diane needs... a little entertainment, now and then! These are pretty good (Google your name and "needs"):

Diane needs a pigfoot and a bottle of beer, some reefer and some gin, and crawlin' kingsnake.
Diane needs to apply herself more conscientiously ...
Diane needs to get some sleep or perhaps this is her glass ceiling. ...
Diane needs to meet with Doreen and set up security.
Diane needs to see these paintings
Diane needs help right now.
Diane needs to be more sexy and more out there,
Diane needs to put her hair up and Cowboy volunteers
Diane needs to consider her contractual obligations
Diane needs: a little discipline and a little training. ...

Hehe. What Diane really needs is to hear about her effin' manuscript!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Poems I’m Sick and Tired of Reading

All the poems on How the Things in My Writing Space Symbolize My Life. You know the poems I mean: “As I write this poem I look at the dull blade of the letter opener, the postcard Brian sent me from Machu Picchu, and the snowflake of dried cat barf on my desk, and I realize that this simple collage symbolizes my entire life.”

A poem related to the “collage” poem and equally over-symbolic might be called the “tableau” poem: “As I walk through the park I look at a red-haired boy climbing the red steps of a slide, ketchup wrappers scattered like autumn leaves, and a robin in the shadow of an Exxon sign, and I realize that this scene captures the entire meaning of life.”

Yes, I’ve written poems like this myself, and I’ve read good ones. Still, I’m sick of them. What poems are YOU sick of?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Poets as Heroes (Not)

Some people have commented on Ira Sadoff’s recent essay in APR on William Stafford, believing that Sadoff crossed the line with some “mean-spirited” criticism (William Logan Lite) of Stafford’s poetry. What interests me is what we mean in general when we say that negative criticism “crosses the line.” I’d say we mean criticism that crosses over from criticizing the poem to criticizing the poet.

There’s nothing wrong with harsh, even viciously mocking, criticism of a poem. Hey, sometimes it’s fun! And you can learn something from making smart, nasty fun of John Ashbery or Sharon Olds or even Wallace Stevens or Yeats. After all, if you haven’t read Mark Twain’s hilarious and merciless skewering of James Fenimore Cooper, you haven’t lived. “Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and I don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes-horse.”

When criticism turns into ad hominem Swift Boat-style attacks on someone, though, that’s something else. Of course it’s a fine line, and critics probably shouldn’t self-censor themselves anymore than poets should. Twain pretty much said that Cooper was a total idiot, after all, and the world would be a poorer place if he hadn’t said it.

On the other hand . . . I think it’s crucial to maintain the line between the writing and the writer. How often we cross that line! How often we say, “What a courageous poem!” as if the poet were some sort of moral hero for writing it, and implying that so many other poets are cowards. And often when someone accuses a poem of sentimentality, they’re really accusing the poet of personal shallowness, not just having written a flawed poem.

I think it’s a mistake whenever critical judgments of writings turn into moral judgments of writers. Some of Emily Dickinson’s profoundest poems were turned into sentimental drivel by editors who unforgivably changed her punctuation or added a syllable to even out the rhythm. It proves how thin the line is between the profound and the sentimental.

Sometimes an embarrassingly sentimental poem can be revised into an electrifying poem by changing one word. The point is: the same person wrote the electrifying version and the sentimental one. You can’t go from judgment of the poem to judgment of the poet. For one thing, it makes poets too determined to write “courageous” poems, or “compassionate” poems, or “honest” poems, and they forget about just writing good poems.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Poetry made of Goose Liver...

First, I am thankful that Thanksgiving is over. My mom is no longer there for us to go to (John's mom is in Boston), and I cook. This year, John was really busy outside the house (well, someone's got to earn money, and I haven't been doing much of that lately). He did help me on Thursday with last-minute everythings, but mostly I did all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and organizing. I brined the turkey, made two pies, a dozen-ingredient stuffing, and... well, everything but the cranberries and the sweet potatoes, which others brought. By the time everyone left, and we cleaned up and finally turned in at 1:00 this morning, I was so exhausted you could have mopped the floor with me, and I wouldn't have had the energy to protest.

Today is very quiet. I don't even mind doing more cleaning (but no cooking!) at my own pace. John and dog are gone to the studio, the rain has stopped, and it's a lovely fall day. I just had a small piece of leftover brie cheese (didn't get any yesterday), a toasted roll, and a big bowl of cold, cooked brussel sprouts (no competition there).

Oh yes, the title of the post. We were sitting around the fire drinking liqueurs, and I remembered I wanted to try Deborah Ager's suggestion of Exquisite Corpse. I got some resistance, but we did it twice, and while no memorable poetry resulted, everyone got a kick out of it--especially with one funny line about a lobster complaining about being put in a pot. But then we played the parlor game (I don't know the name) where a word that no one knows is picked from the dictionary, then the real definition is put in a hat along with each person's contribution of fake definition. The object is to guess the real definition and fool the others into believing your fake is it. Poetry must have been one everyone's mind, because one definition--pastry made of goose liver--was read, "poetry made of goose liver." Well, I s'pose you had to be there, but we laughed so hard it hurt....

So, it was a good Thanksgiving, and as I said, I'm glad it's over.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Friday, November 18, 2005

Long time, no post

Robert has posted, Beverly has posted, but it's been ages since you've heard from me. I realized that today when I invited someone to look at our blog here, and looked at it myself, this evening, with a stranger's eye, and realized there's no trace of me. Maybe an explanation is warranted.

I haven't been myself of late. I'm waiting to hear word on my manuscript (to give the plot line without the details), and what I wanted to do was post some hurrah here, some celebration, but it's been ages without word (two possibilities, no promises), and it could all go poof now or the next instant. And that's all I can say.

I do have ideas I want to post. I've been gestating this idea about subject, about the concept of what a poem is about. I've also got some responses to Charlies's posts about rejecting aesthetics--mostly terminology. But I can't think clearly, can't get beyond the idée fixée (and I hope the accent marks work on Blogger).

So anyway, i'm still here, if not wholly, at least in part. TTYL, as they say--soon?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Proust’s Wrinkle in Time

I promise this will be my last Proust post, but I can’t resist. Just look at this one sentence. Yes, it starts as an embarrassingly corny metaphor. What do you expect from a book called In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower? The adolescent narrator is infatuated with a “gang of girls” he meets at the seaside. But if you can get past the girls-as-flowers, past the ludicrous “having botanized among such young blossoms,” and keep going, it’s worth it. He’s watching the girls walk along the seashore with the ocean in the background:

For this present object [the girls] was the one I would have preferred above all, as I knew perfectly well, having botanized so much among such young blossoms, that it would be impossible to come upon a bouquet of rarer varieties than these buds, which, as I looked at them now, decorated the line of the water with their gentle stems, like a gardenful of Carolina roses edging a cliff top, where a whole stretch of ocean can fit between adjacent flowers, and a steamer is so slow to cover the flat blue line separating two stalks that an idling butterfly can loiter on a bloom that the ship’s hull has long since passed, and is so sure of being first to reach the next flower that it can delay its departure until the moment when, between the vessel’s bow and the nearest petal of the one toward which it is sailing, nothing remains but a tiny glowing gap of blue.

Love it or hate it, you’ve got to wonder: What is going on here? What begins as a dated (to put it kindly) image of girls as gentle rose stems suddenly, uh, blossoms into a convoluted image of an ocean liner and a butterfly. This is metaphor deliberately out of control: girls equal flowers, ship’s hull equals . . . what (aside from some phallic overtones)? And what does that “gap of blue” equal?

An image of girls on the beach turns into a meditation on the relativity of time and space and perspective and . . . what? One thing it suggests is that from a certain perspective an ocean liner and its world of power and commerce are nothing compared to a flower petal. Another is that someone who loiters moves faster than someone who steams full-speed ahead, and that a “tiny glowing gap of blue” is (from, let’s say, an artist’s perspective) all that separates two worlds that are light-years apart.

Doesn’t this remind you of A Wrinkle in Time? It’s as if Proust is learning to time-travel by crossing those wrinkles, going from a madeleine to his long-dead aunt, from an ocean liner to a rose, ultimately from the living to the dead and back, because something may survive death only if a cookie is as strong as the ocean. Somehow from the girls on the beach Proust moves to an almost abstract manifesto: “Nothing remains but a tiny glowing gap of blue.”

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Watching John Ashbery Write

I love the piece (subtitled above) by Larissa MacFarquhar in the current New Yorker on Ashbery. Here's a nice passage: "He's trying to cultivate a different kind of attention: not focussed, straight-ahead scrutiny but something more like a glance out of the corner of your eye that catches something bright and twitching that you then can't identify when you turn to look."

This is why I can't read Ashbery for a long stretch but like him in small doses. A whole book becomes numbing, unlike, say Charles Wright, where a book keeps building on itself to something huge. Ashbery's books (not that I've read many of them, maybe just a couple) are really collections of singular poems, and while the cumulative effect might force another kind of experience, it's not one I want to stay with long. Picking up one poem at a time though (at least certain ones, including two of the three in the New Yorker this week) is kind of a thrill.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Swimming In It

You know that paragraph on water from Joyce’s Ulysses?

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire? . . . Its universality: . . . its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers . . . .”

And so on it flows for one glorious 500-word sentence. What do you call that? That moment in a poem or story where the writer has discovered a vein of ore and decided to mine it for a while, where a musician has discovered a riff and decided to swim in it for a while. It’s interesting because it’s controversial. When Joyce starts in with his list— “torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells”—part of you just wants to tell him to shut up: “OK, I get it! You could have stopped after the first couple words, and you certainly didn’t have to keep going with “geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms . . . .”

Perhaps prose writers are more prone to this sort of indulgence (I think of it as characteristic of Salman Rushdie, for example), but at the same time—isn’t it almost the essence of what is meant by lyrical? Writing becomes lyrical at the moment when speech becomes song, and isn’t that the moment when we discover something worth repeating? Not an idea but a gesture, a rhythm, a pattern:

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid . . .

Isn’t repetition (with variation, of course) the essence of song, whether it’s Walt Whitman or the song of the indigo bunting: fire, fire; where? where? here, here; see it? see it? (Digression: you may think this is a crock, but check out this cool “transcription” of birdsongs by Tomm Lorenzin.)

I’ve been thinking about this because I think I’ve become way too afraid of repeating myself, way too cautious and embarrassed by this sort of self-indulgence. It’s interesting because it demands a lot of a reader. It demands something different from what a poem full of broken syntax or literary allusions demands, but it demands a sort of surrender and trust: No, this poem doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or maybe I think I already know where it’s going and I’ve been there, but . . . maybe I don’t, and maybe the writer doesn’t know either. Maybe I wouldn’t have guessed that “hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides” would end in “faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.”

Friday, November 04, 2005

Chameleon in the Blogosphere

I just can’t keep up with all the arguments on poetics. Have you checked out the “three-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system” of poetics being discussed—and very perceptively, e.g., by Robert (no relation)—on various blogs? The three axes, by the way, are “tradition/innovation,” “self/community,” and, uh, “polemical/nonpolemical,” or something like that.

I find these arguments very interesting, but (interestingly) I can’t get very interested in taking a position. Perhaps this only proves I’m at the extreme of the nonpolemical axis. It does occur to me that a better name for that axis might be “negative capability/positive capability.” Maybe I’m just weak when it comes to standing up for my convictions, but I’d rather think I’m like Keats’ “chameleon poet,” as he said in one of his letters:

What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet. . . . The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. . . . It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact hat not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature – how can it, when I have no nature?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Check out Nancy Taylor Everett’s poems from her “Juliet As Herself” series in the current Blackbird. Nancy is a member of our group although currently “on sabbatical.”

While you’re at Blackbird, also check out the feature on Larry Levis, one of my absolute favorite poets. I liked Tom Andrews’ moving and funny review, “The World as L. Found It,” of Levis’ Elegy, made more moving (and perhaps funnier, in a way Levis and Andrews would appreciate, I think) because Andrews, like Levis, died at a young age.

I was particularly interested in this statement by Andrews:

I’m thinking of John Koethe’s helpful essay on Ashbery, “The Metaphysical Subject of John Ashbery’s Poetry” (in David Lehman’s collection, Beyond Amazement). Koethe makes a distinction between poets who write out of a “‘voice,’ which basically amounts to a projection of a personality—either the poet’s actual personality or one he assumes” and those, like Ashbery, whose work “is informed by a nonpsychological conception of the self . . . .
This also reminds me of Beverly's comments below about poetry and psychology. I think it’s probably true that poetry is divided between poets whose work is profoundly psychological and poets whose work is based on “a nonpsychological conception of the self,” and that the two are so far apart they hardly speak the same language. That’s why some poets are so contemptuous of the “Poet looks at a daffodil (or a dune buggy) and has a shattering insight” type of poem: it’s because it’s psychological, so even if the insight really is shattering (and not a sentimental cliché), it still can never get beyond (from their point of view) the limitation of being psychological.

I don’t know if it’s possible ever to bridge this gap, but if anyone does bridge it, I think it’s Larry Levis. Andrews (whose essay is a lot funnier, in both senses, than I’m making it sound!) argues that Levis is, like Ashbery, on the nonpsychological side of the fence. I agree that Ashbery is, but it’s awfully hard to categorize Levis. Andrews quotes this wonderful passage (“Swollen with the eucharist of failure”!) from Levis’ “Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate.” It seems both psychological and nonpsychological, and beyond both:

We were never the color-blind grasses,

We were never the pattern of the snake
Fading into the pattern of the leaves,
Never the empty clarity one glimpses

In water falling, in water spreading itself
Into the thin white veil of what is never there,
The moment clear and empty as a heaven

Someone has just finished sweeping

Before the moment clouds over and again
Becomes only an endless falling of water
Onto stone, and falls roaring in the ears

Until they ring, and the throat suddenly
Swollen with the eucharist of failure,
A host invisible and present everywhere,

Or, anyway, present everywhere we are.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

On A Novel Jag

I just read (a) HOWARD'S END because I wanted to read (b) Zadie Smith's ON BEAUTY which is based on the Forster book. Then I had to start (c) A ROOM WITH A VIEW and finished it last night. Hard to believe I got through an MA in Lit and never read E. M. Forster. Sadly true but his books are all fresh to me now, one of the virtues of having a haphazard education.

Anyway, I'm enthralled. A gay male Jane Austen! (Whom I did not read in school either--what was I doing? oh yes, modern poetry). Mordantly funny, I believe the phrase is. Though his attention to courtship and domestic life transcends hers, IMHO, because he's absorbed in the transcendant meaning of these things, the "love more mysterious." His books read like poetry, slower and with strange compelling sentences.

Zadie Smith's book is also wonderful. She extends Forster's attention to gender and class to race and further questions of aesthetics and physical beauty. What a deal that book is, morphing the plot line of H-E just enough to keep it interesting and totally up to the challenge. She's brilliant.

I recommend choices a, b, and c, all of the above.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

“Interesting” “Interview”

I liked the interview with Thomas Lux featured on Poetry Daily this week. I found particularly “interesting” Lux’s response to a question from Mary Karr: “You wrote in an essay that the last thing you want to hear someone say about your poems is that they are ‘interesting.’ Ditto!”

I’d have to agree with that, even though I’ve been known to complain that so many poems are profound and passionate and true but just not very interesting. By “interesting” I partly mean entertaining, intellectually entertaining, poems that give you that feeling of “Ah, I’ve never thought of it that way before but . . . .” Yes, I want to get that feeling from poems.

But I also want more, and when someone says a poem is interesting, that’s often all it is. I read a lot of poems that are interesting but leave me feeling that while they’re interesting enough to make a great essay, or a great op-ed piece in the newspaper, or a great stand-up routine by Bill Maher, or a great set of facts for Harper’s Index, they’re just not poetry. Where’s the imagination and passion of, well, say, Shakespeare? Where’s the fury of “Out, out, brief candle!” or the playful magic of “Where the bee sucks, there suck I” or the dark imagination of Cleopatra: “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast that sucks the nurse asleep?”

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Creeped Out

It's not just the fact that some people are spending lots of money to string orange bulbs over their shrubbery (really, folks, it's just two short months until Christmas!), and it's not just the huge fake spiders--only slightly less unpleasant than real huge spiders, not my kind of fun. What really bothers me about Halloween decorations is the death stuff: the hanged effigies, the tombstones in the front lawn, the skeletons with the heads detached. It's not that I don't understand the origins and psychological need and cultural resonances. And yes, I know I'm showing no sense of humor.

But ever since 9/11--really, right after that horror--when people trotted out their death-is-a-joke stuff, I thought, wait, this is too real, too soon, too close for comfort. Since then, we've had no dearth of death, man-made and natural: car bombs and hurricanes, earthquakes and soldiers in body bags, far away and up close and personal. Last year, I was in a red state right before the election, and the face of Bush and fervor for the war along with the Halloween torture scenes put a real ghoulish twist of irony on the landscape--in my mind anyway.

And today's paper: a teen is charged in a murder by beating, an unhinged mother tosses her three babies to their death in the ocean, death toll of US soldiers in Iraq climbs toward 2,000, hurricane Wilma wreaks havoc in the Caribbean. And then we have the jolly--ho, ho, ho tombstone inscriptions and knives hanging.

Okay, I'm ready to admit I have issues. Maybe I'm just soured 'cause I no longer have a little person to make a Halloween costume for. I made some great costumes, in the day. And carved a mean jack o' lantern.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Lyric Equals Narrative Times the Speed of Light Squared

I went to see Doctor Atomic Tuesday night at the San Francisco Opera. Like Diane, I had some mixed feelings. Unusual for opera, it was the libretto, not the music, that wowed me. Peter Sellars’ juxtaposition of texts was inspired. Where else could you hear at once the poems of John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, and Muriel Rukeyser, sacred texts from the Bhagavad Gita and the Tewa Indians, and the memoirs of Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, and other scientists and soldiers who developed the atom bomb? As Diane said, one of the most inspired moments was Oppenheimer singing Donne’s “Batter My Heart” sonnet while almost singing to the Bomb:

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Oppenheimer himself may deserve the credit for this particular stroke of genius, as he himself named the site of the first atom bomb test Trinity because of Donne’s sonnet. To me the tortured syntax seemed expressive of Oppenheimer’s tortured conscience, and I even liked the clash of dictions when Donne’s sonnet followed the general’s discussion of his calorie-counting.

I thought much of Sellars’ staging was inspired as well, though it occasionally seemed heavy-handed, like the Bomb hanging over the baby’s crib. One touch I particularly liked was the ending where the chorus watches for the explosion of the first atom bomb while facing the audience. Yeah, where else would the chorus face but toward the audience while they sang? But to me it was a powerful statement addressed to the audience: The Bomb is not some gadget; no, it’s you. Very likely that interpretation did not occur to anyone but me, though, including the director!

As far as the music, overall it did not do a lot for me. The San Francisco Chronicle review (and many others) said things like “haunting lyricism” and “shimmering beauty,” and maybe all that was there, but I’d be lying if I said I heard the lyricism and beauty. I did hear rhythmic drama and excitement, though it never quite had me on the edge of my seat. The truth is that if Jon Stewart did a parody on the Daily Show tonight of George Bush singing “in the style of a John Adams opera,” I doubt I could tell it from the real thing.

But the words! As a poet I couldn’t help being thrilled to hear poetry sung like this, and I thought the singers were great, especially Kristine Jepson as Kitty Oppenheimer, but really everyone in the cast. The vision of Rukeyser’s “Easter Eve, 1945” was strikingly original—“now I name death our black honor”—and for some reason the phrase “promiscuous as mercy” sticks with me. The “duet” of the Bhagavad Gita’s prayer to Vishnu, “flame-eyes staring,” and the Tewa song to the cloud flowers of thunder was dynamite. It’s worth seeing this opera if you have a chance.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

To Pantoum or Not To Pantoum

I've been working on a poem that I couldn't get to come together in any interesting way, then I happened to be reading BAP again, finally getting to the end, and came to Cecilia Woloch's "Bareback Pantoum" which I liked very much and there it was, what the poem needed was to be a pantoum.

The puzzle of it, making the lines work, is what's appealing about writing a pantoum. I know, you can easily go astray with the puzzle of a poem (I'm really susceptible to that, love word puzzles). Now I 'm thinking about whether to bring my pantoum to group today—I don't think my group likes pantoums much. The last one I brought, they disliked the repetition. Maybe it just wasn't very good. Though North American Review took it.

So I'm thinking the problem with pantoums is that they're fun to write, not as much fun to read. Repetition DOES get numbing. I vary the lines quite a bit to try to offset that, keep some element of surprise in the poem, but still... I did like Woloch's. I don't like to read sestinas much, though there are exceptions. Even villanelles, in spite of a few great ones like Bishop's "One Art" and Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle" and one by Roethke that I'm forgetting the title of. The challenge of keeping the form alive, not feeling predictable, having great lines, etc.—the usual poetry challenges ramped up in a determined direction. It's the love-hate relationship (like to write, don't like to read) I have with all formal poetry, sonnets included. Though again, big exceptions. Maybe just the attempts of us more ordinary, plebian poets.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Me Bad

I’ve been back from Paris for over a week and still haven’t posted anything here. We had a great time, though I’m not sure to what extent any of it will ever show up in my poetry. In some ways it was a vacation from writing, although I did finish reading the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time on the hellish 12-hour plane ride home (more on Proust in a future blog). My favorite day in Paris may have been the day we visited the Marmottan Museum, which has an amazing collection of Impressionist paintings, especially Monet (the images on the website, by the way, do not do it justice). If you visited Paris and missed the Musee Marmottan, you blew it.

The Musee Marmottan is a small museum off the beaten track on the west end of Paris near the gorgeous park the Bois de Boulogne, and combining the museum with a long walk through the Bois de Boulogne makes a beautiful day. Visiting the park also gave me an opportunity to try out my primitive French, which apparently I knew just well enough that when I asked people for directions on how to get to the Bagatelle Gardens, they seemed to think I knew what I was doing and in a very helpful, friendly way rattled off five minutes of directions in French that were incomprehensible to us.

What struck me most, I think, was the vast emotional range of Monet’s paintings, despite (or because of) their narrow range of their content. How much complexity and depth was plumbed in painting after painting of the waterlily pond and rose arbor in his garden! What began as almost a scientific experiment on capturing the varied effects of light on water became in some paintings an evocation of deep beauty and peace and, in others (often those painted during the horror of World War I), an almost abstract blaze of violent passion. The rose arbor becomes a tunnel of fire with no light at the end. The peaceful blues and greens of the Japanese footbridge become a Jackson Pollock-like explosion of yellows and reds of a bridge going nowhere. Perhaps Monet was responding to what was going on in the world, perhaps he was simply going blind, or perhaps both, but it’s amazing how much he was able to express by his obsessive focus on a few simple images.

Meanwhile, I had a long talk with my editor on Sunday going over the final corrections to my book manuscript. Supposedly the book went to the printer on Monday and I should have books in my hand in a couple of weeks! I’m awfully excited, but also anxious because . . . I still haven’t seen the book cover, although I know they’re using the photograph I selected. I’m not 100% sure the book has gone to the printer, though; there may be some last-minute kinks to work out on the cover design. The suspense is killing me!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Overwhelming (link)

Yeah, even I, in my obsessions, can see an overwhelming need.... I poke my head out of my turtle shell and realize... here the sky is blue, days warm, nights crisp, and there are no real problems. Sure, we have complaints--who doesn't?--and I can complain with the best of them. Yeah, life isn't fair. Yeah, some people have all the luck.

But we really have been luckier than a lot of people. In five minutes, tens of thousands of people were gone. Are we getting inured to disaster? Is this just another one of them?

I thought I wouldn't miss a chunk from my unemployment check this week. Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) simply goes where there's a need. And that seems to be everywhere, of late.

If the above links work the way they are supposed to, you can visit their site and donate too.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Small question, big poem

I've got a question for the blogosphere out there--in case anyone is actually reading this blog... I have just completed (again) a long poem or poems in the voices of the women who were associated with Picasso. Yeah, some of you may know that I started this in 2003 or thereabouts and finished it (or got sick of it) about a year later. But I had second thoughts or a second wind or something and in the last month or so have added four poems to the series. I think it is done--minus tinkering.

The Gallerie des Femmes, as it is presently called, will go in my second book--if the first one ever gets published. But I'd like to attempt to send Gallerie itself out for publication. Does anyone know of a journal that will even look at an 18-page poem? I would be willing to publish some of these poems separately, though I'd like to give the editor a chance to choose which one(s). But I'm afraid if I send 18 pages anywhere the reflex will be to toss it into the trash.

Suggestions? Any of you ever tried to publish something really long ?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Atomize My Heart

Last night, I was privileged to see the brand-new, never yet performed Dr. Atomic opera at the Final Dress. I was pretty psyched. John has been a super in the San Francisco Opera for maybe nine years now (for those who don't know, super=spear carrier/soldier/servant--whatever--and he isn't paid and he doesn't sing), but never before has he been so involved and inspired. Mostly, supers are treated like furniture with legs, but in this opera, Peter Sellars, the director, sat down with them and said that they were actors, not supers, and an integral part of the opera. John, like everyone else, watched DVDs on Oppenheimer and read all about it. We have been keyed up and ready.

Well, I liked Dr. Atomic, but did not love it. It may be because of my ignorance of opera conventions and my own biases. It was very interesting (and John has a huge part, so it was fun to track him). I liked the drama of it best--the set, the lighting, the dance/movement. People raved about the music, but all I can say about the music is that it worked, was very dramatic. I am not qualified to say what is good music in terms of opera.

I loved the parts of the opera where the drama and poetry were working together--as in the scene where Oppenheimer sings John Donne's Holy Sonnet Number 14, "Batter my heart, three-personed God." My problem is/was that these sequences did not altogether fit with the rest. It created a peculiar texture. In other words, the diction conflicted. Right before this scene, for instance, the general is talking to Oppenheimer about his diet and calorie counting. Then there's this anguished scene--and not only is the emotion 180 degrees from what came a minute before, but we go from 20th century banality to 17th century poetry ("Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine..."). That was not the only time this sort of problem occurred. We were constantly jumped back and forth. In other places, I just found the writing stilted and inverted as if to make it more musical, but as I love the natural syntax of the English language circa 2005, I found it less musical.

After the opera we went out with John's super friends to Jardinere for a drink. I don't know what they put in their drinks (hey, I had one vodka-and-grapefruit-juice)--or maybe it was because we'd had nothing to eat until we were home, around midnight, but I was awfully hung over this morning. And now we just got a ticket on our old Volvo--two weeks in a row--for streetcleaning.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Busy weekend by the Bay

It was one of those marvelous San Francisco weekends where there were about two dozens things to do at every moment--baseball games, football games, a leather street fair, peace marches, a Green Day concert, blues festivals, film festivals and, as they say, much much more. I spent most of the weekend inside (sigh) completing my InDesign class. I now am InDesigned and outdesigned--no, well, I know how to do stuff, if ever called upon to do it.

It's quiet here, John and poochie off to San Rafael, and I'm enjoying the peace. But of course I'd give anything to hear anything about my manuscript. You would think, considering how busy I've been that I would forget about it, but I never do.

The sun is definitely making an effort. I was going to say that we were having decent weather, but it's not considered weather in the local parlance when it's sunny--weather means something nasty like rain or wind is happening.

And I should, I suppose, get away from the computer now. Lotsa things to do today, and it will be a busy week with four interviews. Plus I am attending the Dr. Atomic final dress rehearsal on Wednesday.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Interesting discussion on Bemsha Swing about poetics. I was struck by a comment criticizing poets “who have no other ambition than to replicate effects they’ve already experienced.” I know this is the standard criticism of “mainstream” poetry, but doesn’t every artist in some sense want to “replicate effects they’ve already experienced”? If they don’t, then they put down their pen and become a pastry chef or a gun runner. Isn’t it a question of what level (or meta-level) of experience one wants to replicate?

Sure, at one extreme you’ve got someone who wants to replicate the cozy feeling they got when they first heard “The Night Before Christmas,” while someone else wants to replicate the disorienting effect they got when they first read Pound’s Cantos. But every poet has taken some core “poetic” or “aesthetic” or “perspective-altering” or just plain life-changing experience from poems they love, and wants to recreate that core experience. Every good poem expands the definition of poetry, but every good poem also abides by some traditional definition of poetry.

Or . . . to put it much more entertainingly, here’s one of my favorite passages from Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. Henry Carr, the civil servant with oh-so-bourgeois tastes, quarrels with Dadaist Tristan Tzara about the definition of art. Stoppard gives both of them some awfully convincing lines. If you’re wondering who wins the argument, well, Stoppard never quite resolves it. To the extent it’s resolved, it’s when James Joyce (that artist both utterly revolutionary and utterly traditional) puts them both in their place.
CARR: . . . I couldn’t be an artist anywhere—I can do none of the things by which is meant Art.

TZARA: Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat. In fact some of my best poems have been drawn out of my hat which I afterwards exhibited to general acclaim at the Dada Gallery in Bahnhofstrasse.

CARR: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.

TZARA: I see I have made myself clear.

CARR: Then you are not actually an artist at all?

TZARA: On the contrary. I have just told you I am.

CARR: But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted. If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. I might claim to be able to fly . . . Lo, I say, I am flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while suspended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply, that is no longer considered the proper concern of people who can fly. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, a flyer never leaves the ground and wouldn’t know how. I see, says my somewhat baffled interlocutor, so when you say you can fly you are using the word in a purely private sense. I see I have made myself clear, I say. Then, says this chap in some relief, you cannot actually fly after all? On the contrary, I say, I have just told you I can. Don’t you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it.

TZARA: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom . . . .

Well, folks, I’m leaving for Paris tomorrow, so Tom Stoppard is going to have to be my final word for a while, but I trust a lot of activity will continue here in my absence. Au revoir!

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Best? Poems of 2005

I have the new Best American Poetry and am somewhat amazed at the choices. There's a few I really, really admire, a few I simply hate, at least one (I won't name names) that's plain prose broken (badly) into lines, but mostly a number of okay-well-maybe-I-don't-know poems. This happens every year. I feel like Charlie Brown looking at that football. I don't understand it. Each year a different editor. I KNOW these are not the best poems published last year. Or am I wrong? (Could it just be envy?) What happens with these anthologies?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Of Sundials and Sunshades

I began reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time before reading Jane Smiley’s recent article in Salon, but Smiley encouraged me. I recommend the new translation linked to above, even though I am even less qualified to judge a French translation than Michael Brown is to run FEMA.

In fact I’m not qualified to comment on Proust at all, as I’m only 800 pages through the 4,000+ pages of these books, but I think you should read them before you die. Here are the concluding lines of “At Mme Swann’s”:

So it is that the average life expectancy, the relative longevity, of memories being much greater for those that commemorate poetic sensation than for those left by the pains of love, the heartbreak I suffered at that time because of Gilberte has faded forever, and has been outlived by the pleasure I derive, whenever I want to read off from a sundial of remembrance the minutes between a quarter past twelve and one o’clock on a fine day in May, from a glimpse of myself chatting with Mme Swann, sharing her sunshade as though standing with her in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.
As I see it at the moment, the book is a storehouse of memories (e.g., the famous madeleine) combined with a series of relentlessly disastrous love stories. The tension between these two aspects of the book is its central conflict. In the passage above, the narrator is struggling to get over the pain of his unrequited love for Gilberte, Mme Swann’s daughter, and he does this through his friendship with the still beautiful Mme Swann, who herself was the source of untold pain—actually, told at tremendous length—in the previous volume, Swann in Love.

The point is that the vivid memory of a simple walk in Paris with Gilberte’s mother (the “poetic sensation”) ultimately trumps all the jealousy and heartbreak of the love affair with Gilberte, if (and it’s a big if) the memory can be re-created vividly enough. It’s as if the entire 4,000-page novel comes down to a few haikuesque moments of imagistic intensity (the madeleine, the wisteria).

What seems so Proustian about the passage above is that it’s not an arbor of wisteria; it’s “as though in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.” It’s “just” a metaphor, like the earlier metaphor of the sundial. I mean, Proust could have made it real. There’s no reason they couldn’t have been strolling through a park in Paris with an arbor of wisteria, but he chose to make it unreal. And yet . . . what is more real, reality or the metaphor? These two unrelated metaphors (time = sundial, sunshade = wisteria) seem to have sketched, with two light touches, an imagined “memory”—a spring walk through a arbor with a sundial—so vivid that it eclipses forever the narrator’s very real memory of his first seeing Gilberte walk down the street with another man.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Texas Hold 'em

I'm not going to even try to put this in a poetic context, but I wanted to blog about the three days I just spent in Texas. No, this had nothing to do with the mess in Louisiana, but then it did, too, as nothing any of us ever says or does happens in isolation (see Robert Thomas and John Donne, below). We were in Texas (Austin vicinity...stayed in San Marcos, the wedding was on a ranch near a town called Buda), but everywhere we went, in airports and most especially in the lobbies of the motels we stayed in where the televisions were on autopilot, you could not forget the news. Some people had found haven in one of the motels we were in, even as far away from Louisiana as this part of Texas is.

Tragedy haunted the happy occasion in another way. The Irish cousins did not make it, could not come. The tourist who was killed in a freak fall in Yosemite last week was the son of a sister--related not by blood to my husband's family, but close, close enough. My God, how do you deal...

Still, it was a gorgeous wedding--outside and steamroom hot, but beautiful. Just as the minister invoked the names of the bride's mother and maternal grandmother who had died when the young woman (who was the bride) was a child, the cicadas did their loud cicada thing. It was so very spiritual, even for those of us who are not believers in any way.

The bride was the first of the younger generation to marry, but all of them--all except the youngest, anyway--were there with their significant others. Even my recently widowed mother-in-law (87) had an escort. It just seemed like people were finding some place. It was like a Shakespearian comedy, with all the ends tied up neatly (temporarily, at least), and the multiple story lines resolved.

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I cry, um, very easily. It doesn't take a wedding. I could cry at much dumber stuff. But on Sunday, I started as the wedding party walked out. Cosmo, the Border Collie was ring bearer! The tears would not stop. Okay, the bride cried, the groom cried, the bride's father cried. Cosmo looked at Lauren (the bride) like she was the Virgin Mary. Unfathomable devotion.

Enough mush. There was a lot of drinking, good music, barbecue for the meat eaters, and so forth. There were those of us who came to Texas from the West Coast and those who came from the East Coast (Boston and New York). There were Red Sox haters and Red Sox lovers. Later that night/next morning there was a big game of Tesas Hold' em and both John (my husband) and our son lost their shirts. Ah, but at least John did not lose his hat! Then there was more drinking. Did I mention there was drinking?

Yesterday, my brother-in-law and s.o. toured us through San Antonio. The Alamo, of course. My brain does not understand wars; I just don't get people shooting at one another for noble causes. I don't get glory. But! It was so nice and cool inside those thick stone walls. And then we did the Riverwalk and sat people-watching and drinking margaritas. My brain had no problem with that.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Like many people, I am at a loss for words after the hurricane. I almost said “in the aftermath,” but this is only the beginning. I am full of sadness—and anger. I can’t imagine a more abysmal failure of the “Department of Homeland Security.” Whatever the plan was for dealing with a disaster like this, it clearly did not include poor people, people without cars, people without relatives in other states who could afford to take them in, and people who were unwilling to leave behind loved ones who were too sick or poor or weak to leave.

It’s frightening to think it could have been worse. If a terrorist instead of a hurricane had blown a couple holes in the levees, there would not have been the days of warning that allowed 80% of the population to evacuate. In that case, however—if more white middle-class people had been standing on their roofs begging for help—perhaps the government would have responded with a sense of urgency.

This morning Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, said “I’m asking Congress, please investigate this now. Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot.” As far as I can tell, “the same idiot” is George W. Bush. The hypocrisy of the Bush Administration in clothing their lack of compassion in a covering of religion is appalling. I think at a time like this one could do worse than remember John Donne’s original words:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

On a purely selfish note, I am incredibly saddened that all my life I allowed one thing after another to postpone my visiting New Orleans, and I’ve never been there. I swear to God I’m going to Mardi Gras next year and dance down the street even if it’s under water.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Mediterranean Fantasy

Maybe this explains everything that’s wrong with my writing, but I love love love this quote from James Hillman’s Inter Views:

“For me to write from a Mediterranean fantasy means to let aesthetic considerations play a big part; I don’t care so much if I make mistakes like being sentimental or cloudy or decorative or overcomplicated and baroque or trapped by traditional forms and words—let’s call these ‘Italian’ mistakes. They are anyway better than German, Northern mistakes, or that French foolishness about clarity and their semantic obsessions. . . . America has the ‘French disease’—structuralism, Lacanism, Derrida, and when they don’t have that they get German measles: Heidegger, Hesse, to say nothing of Germanic depth psychology . . . .”

Friday, August 26, 2005

Risky Business

This follows up Diane’s post on workshops and the comments there, but I thought I’d start a new topic. What do we mean when we talk about poetry and “risk”? I agree with what Anne says about the importance of feeling “safe enough to take big risks.” (I suppose one might question whether a risk is real if you can feel safe when you take it, but that may or may not be a separate issue.)

Risk can be a risky word to use. I’ve been in workshops where a charismatic teacher encourages people to take risks in their writing, and the next day 12 people bring in 12 confessional poems about their sex life, 12 poems that are arguably almost identical to one another. If people really felt free to take risks, you’d think you’d get 12 widely diverse poems: one confessional poem about sex, one utterly abstract poem with shattered syntax, one old-fashioned ballad like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and maybe nine poems in styles we don’t even have words to describe.

I think a separate but related issue is how to create an atmosphere where people not only feel free to take risks, but feel free to take the risk of writing a poem that may not at first sight appear risky. People sometimes use the concept of “risk” as a club to criticize one another: “What a spineless poem—it doesn’t take any risks.” How do we not let “risk” become one more way of inhibiting people? Well, I’m probably thinking this because … I’m going to Paris in a couple of weeks! So I’m thinking of Monet’s waterlilies and Cezanne’s apples and Matisse’s amazing goldfish. Waterlilies and apples and goldfish are risky? Well, yes, they are, but what kind of risk is that?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Then We Were Ten

Yesterday was our workshop's monthly meeting. The group now numbers ten, and guess what, yesterday ten people showed up! We met at a home in Kensington, and we were all glad (especially me) to see the sun. That may have been the only thing we all agreed on. Well, we also agreed that it was exhausting and overwhelming to workshop ten poems (many of them long) in one afternoon. We timed it, but we could not keep to our timing. We took short breaks, then sat down quickly. I kept on hoping for haiku.

Various people had been talking about trying to improve or retool our meetings so that we all saw the big picture instead of concentrating on this word or that line break. There were a few attempts at going big picture and some dismal failures, such as when my own poem was hijacked by someone's interpretation and everyone got on that plane. Grrr. Mostly (I thought) there wasn't time to do big anything. If each of us spoke for one minute, the total time for that poem would be two-thirds gone.

It was disconcerting to some that that there was so little agreement--and yet--I thought of Little Emerson. As many know, the editors of Little Emerson have yet to agree on one submission. With that in mind, is it so strange that some of our number should think this line is perfect while others think it is too much, some see satire where others see stereotype, some like seeing the bones of the thought process and others are horrified that is "non-organic"?

Meantime, Robert said, "I know this sounds hopelessly corny, but I really don't think people ever learn anything unless they feel loved (for lack of a better word) by the person they're learning from." I think this is an interesting theory... I personally wish that we could separate our feelings (about each other?) from our thoughts about the poems. I know I am fiercely competitive, have an ugly, ugly green streak of envy. I hope to improve, some day, to be more detached....

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Poems Talking to Themselves

A lot of people talk about music as conversation—the “argument” between the piano and the violin, the “dialogue” between the saxophone and the bass—and I think poems are the same. In some sense every poem seems to be in a conversation with itself, like the old ballads:

Oh where have ye been, Lord Randall my son? …
I’ve been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon

Even poems like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

or Basho’s haiku:

The leeks newly washed white—
how cold it is!

seem like dialogues, the second lines a response to the first. And I think we judge poems on whether the responses seem adequate, like we judge people. If someone is sad, it may be an adequate response to say, “Bummer—let’s go out for Thai food,” but if they’re suicidal, it’s not.

Conversations often drift, and we enjoy the drift, but part of being a good listener is also remembering where they drifted from. It’s like a session between Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi. Remember when he tells her he wishes he could live a carefree life like “the Happy Wanderer” and, when they’re talking about something very different weeks later, she nails him by reminding him of the Happy Wanderer and he asks, “How do you remember that shit?”

That remembering is one thing that makes a good listener, and also what makes a good poem. The last line of a poem has to remember the first. Chekhov said, “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” The play can’t forget the gun. In a poem the effect is usually subtler, but the idea is the same. Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough” remember the faces in the Metro.

If poems are conversations, different parts of the mind talking to one another, then what makes a poem great is our sense that the different parts are really listening to one another as well as talking, the way the musicians in a great jazz ensemble listen to one another when they play. When Robert Hass in “Meditation at Lagunitas” talks about the woodpecker “probing the dead trunk,” it’s a response to the comment that opens the conversation: “All the new thinking is about loss.” The “woman I made love to” responds to the idea that “everything dissolves,” and the “little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed” respond to the idea that “a word is elegy.”

A lot of poems are full of great images like “the little orange-silver fish” but the images don’t speak to one another. What makes “Meditation at Lagunitas” great is our sense of how closely the lines listen to one another and, like friends, remember what’s been said in the ongoing conversation, that “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” is a genuine response to the sense of loss that began the poem.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Beauty by Mistake

I’ve been rereading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and was struck by one passage. Franz and Sabina are comparing European and American ideas of beauty, in particular the beauty of European cities and the beauty of New York, and Sabina says: “Unintentional beauty. Yes. Another way of putting it might be ‘beauty by mistake.’ Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake.”

Probably the cool thing for me to say at this point is that I like “beauty by mistake,” but I think the truth is I like what Franz likes in Unbearable Lightness—what he calls “premeditated” beauty. The first section of my new book is called “Engulfed Cathedral” after Debussy’s prelude. I probably love more than anything the sort of heartbreaking beauty I find in some classical music and nowhere else.

What does it mean that I can easily imagine finding a soul-mate who has no interest in poetry, but not one who has no love for classical music? It’s not that I don’t like rock and jazz. Someone who likes Chopin but not Elvis Presley or Fountains of Wayne would seem like a snobbish hypocrite, or at least a sad person who doesn’t know what they’re missing. But I can’t help feeling that someone who’s never really listened to Beethoven’s quartets is missing a depth and richness and complexity of feeling that I’m not sure can be found anywhere else.

The sound track for the film of Unbearable Lightness is the chamber music of the Czech composer Janacek, and the longest poem in my book is also about Janacek. Like a lot of people, I took piano lessons as a child. Sometimes it was exciting, sometimes torture, but a few years ago when I felt unable to write, I found myself going back to take piano lessons for a couple of years, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It didn’t take long for me to realize how little talent I had, but that didn’t matter: it was so amazing to get inside the music, maybe a sonata by Janacek, the way you have to when you’re painstakingly struggling to work out the notes with your own hands.

I’m not sure why I’m thinking about this, except that it’s strange that music can mean so much to people. If I’m at a concert listening to Chopin, I could be sitting next to someone who loves the music as much as I do and we might not even know what to say to each other if we had dinner together. But if there’s one chord I particularly love that they love too, it feels for that moment as if we’re not only feeling the same emotion, but feeling an emotion that many people in the world may never have felt, as if we’re seeing a shade of green no one else has ever seen and that I don’t want to disappear from the earth.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Tuesday, Walking

Tuesday morning, out walking Greta, I discovered a lovely little park only a few blocks from my house. Yes, I have been living here almost 19 years, and yes, we always wished there was some place close by to take the pooch, especially if one only had time for a short walk and didn't want to jump in the car. (Our usual routine on weekday mornings is some version of a two-mile walk.) And yes, I feel dumb that it took me so long to go here. All one has to do is turn west on Grafton/Garfield at the bottom of my block and go a few short blocks to Victoria or Ramsell, and then go uphill. At the top there is a large garden of native plants, seating, views (well, if there's not fog), a large fenced-in community vegetable garden, an area where people apparently do Tai Chi and so on, and, behind a rock wall, a large running area where dogs can be off leash. I'm shaking my head in awe, still, a day later.

We are talking about process in our poetry group. We are not in crisis, but talking is good. As with my discovery of the little garden, one can be walking the same path for years and not see what is right under one's nose. Interestingly, it seems, a few people have come up with similar ideas to try, independent of the others. This is a good sign, I think, of our being able to work together, of being on the same page, as they say in corporate-speak. (Ideas include having someone other than the poet read the poem a second time, modeling the kind of criticism one would like to receive when one is talking about another's poem, bending over backwards to approach the poem on its own terms...)

Speaking of corporate-speak, I have an interview on Thursday--3 1/2 hours. I don't even know if I want the job. I'd love to be able to work in publishing with a garnish perhaps of academia (part-time college teaching). Oh well. we'll see. My dear sister was visiting last week and helped me buy a very convincing interview suit. That alone could get me a job.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Toot Toot

I’m back from Gualala and the cats were happy to see us last night even if we weren’t so happy to be back from vacation. I read the wonderful opening “Combray” section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and also Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Ruth Rendell’s A Sight for Sore Eyes, and also managed a few walks along the bluffs overlooking the ocean. I was surprised that so many wildflowers were still in bloom! It made me think of the sometimes strained relationship between poetry and nature—maybe more on that later.

Meanwhile, my poem “Complaint of the Muse: Take This Job and Shove It” is featured on Slate today. They accepted it way back in February 2003, so I’m pretty excited to finally see it.

Also, big congratulations to C. Dale on having his new book accepted by Four Way Books, and congrats to us all that we’ll finally be able to read it!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Blogging in the Wee Hours

Warning: insomniac post!

Well, Robert and his wife are off in vacation mode, but I'm stuck in the fog. Today I had an excuse to go downtown, and it was blissfully sunny. You have no idea how much that can mean unless you are stuck in this relentless gray grayness day after day all summer. Wait! It did clear last Saturday, but that was almost wasted, for me, 'cause with John (and our car) around, I can go in any direction and join the sunny world. It's only here, within view (hah!) of the ocean that summer does not exist.

I had thought to go up to Napa for some of the winery readings, which are open to the public--C. Dale's or Brigit Kelley's. But the logistics were too complicated, and I decided not to. I'll probably regret it. But it would have meant rescheduling two appointments tomorrow and working all day from John's San Rafael studio--not a terrible idea, re the above, but I don't want to be in the way while he is working. Then we would probably want to eat someplace nice in Napa and that would dent our budget. And there was Greta (dog), who really likes poetry but doesn't like sitting in the car. All these excuses seem pretty lame as I type them, though, I admit.

Tomorrow I'm going to get my manuscript printed and off to Tupelo in time to make their July open submission deadline. Oh ye poets out there, wish me luck. Damn manuscript has been close but no cigar lotsa times...and then not even close more times, and really, it's just as good as a lot of 'em out there, but at this rate it's going to be published posthumously. Seriously, I really want to get beyond book one, I am beyond book one. Well, maybe this is it. When I gave my radio reading on J.P. Dancing Bear's show, he said (unprompted) that he thought he could see Tupelo publishing my work; it seemed to fit their line. (Those weren't his words, but his meaning. Do publishers have a "line"? I can't think, at 2:00 in the morning.)

Maybe I should attempt to get some sleep.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Temporary Ceasefire Declared in Poetry Wars

Cheryl and I are heading up the coast today for a week in Gualala, a town we consider heaven even though in Already Dead Denis Johnson says it was “once named among the California coast’s top ten ugliest communities.” I will probably be incommunicado for a while, and hopefully taking a break from the poetry wars. I suspect that poetic preferences are deeply rooted in one’s personal history in any case, and converting from post-avant to mainstream or vice-versa is about as likely as changing one’s sexual preference, no matter how politically correct it might be to be poetically bisexual.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Poetry Reading: Feature Film or TV Sitcom

I was very interested in Ron Silliman’s recent comments on the format of poetry readings: “the two recordings reminded me of one of the basic truths about poetry—the one-hour reading, or something relatively close to it, is always preferable to the 20-minute one. As an experience, the differences between the two are not unlike the differences between the major motion picture and a 30-minute sitcom on TV.” He also says, “With a longer reading, you can almost year the moment at which the audience relaxes into the text—it always occurs somewhere after the 15-minute mark, sometimes after the 30 .... At 40 minutes or thereabouts, I’m so tuned into a reader’s sense of time & the formal scope of the text that it is as if a vista opened up.”

I am really curious what people think about this (even though it’s a safe bet that Silliman would not want to listen to my poems for five minutes). What format do you like? I think it’s true that the 20-minute reading has become the “standard.” It’s hard for me even to know what I prefer because I’ve heard so few “long” readings recently. Tonight I’m looking forward to the annual blockbuster benefit for the Squaw Valley workshop—Lucille Clifton, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and Kevin Young—but in this kind of setting, each poet will probably read for considerably less than 20 minutes.

I do think the typical short-reading format is almost more like a book review than a reading, in the sense that I don’t fully experience the poetry. I just get a taste of it, sometimes enough to know I’d like to read the poet’s book so I can really get into it. But usually I don’t get into it at the reading itself. As I’ve written some long poems recently, this interests me a lot. If I read my longest poem in full, it would probably take 40 minutes, and a couple others would take 20 or 30 minutes. Typically I read an excerpt from longer poems (they’re in sections that can be read independently), but it would certainly be “interesting” to do a reading of nothing but one 40-minute poem. I think Silliman may be right that an audience can’t really hear the poetry at a reading until they’re 15 or 30 minutes into it. What do you think?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Picasso and Matisse look at Pollock

It seems to be important for most of us to align ourselves one way or another for or against a kind of poem with, if not a narrative structure, at least some kind of semantic framework or, conversely, with the kind of poem termed Language or Avant Garde, where meaning is disbanded in favor of surprise, novelty, or texture. (Please forgive me if these descriptions are inadequate and feel free to correct my definitions.)

Often comparisons are made between poetry and music or poetry and the visual arts, as both these other fields have had their own controversies concerning what can loosely be termed abstraction. I thought it would be interesting to talk a little about Picasso and Matisse, both giants in the field of painting and both pioneers, in the early years of Modernism, in turning painting away from purely representational art. (I have done a lot of research on Picasso in recent years for a work on the women in Picasso's life.)

I find it interesting that although both Picasso and Matisse were abstract painters--Picasso and Bracque can be said to have invented Cubism, and Matisse had complicated theories about the language of color--neither Picasso nor Matisse was able to embrace abstract expressionism (for instance, the paintings of Jackson Pollock).

There is a discussion of each of their attitudes toward Pollock in Francoise Gilot's book Life With Picasso. Picasso and Matisse were rivals and sort of friends and often paid each other a visit. During one of these visits, Matisse pulled out a catalog containing reproductions of Pollock's paintings. Neither artist could stand Pollock's work, but for very different reasons.

Matisse pronounced himself incapable of understanding the work, "for the simple reason that one is always unable to judge fairly what follows one's own work... It's completely over my head." He related a story of Renoir's reaction to his own painting, when Matisse, in his youth, had approached Renoir. Renoir didn't like what he did but recognized that what he was doing was not inconsequential.

Picasso, however, dismissed Pollock's work out of hand. He said, "I'm against that sort of stuff... I think it is a mistake to let oneself go completely and lose oneself in the gesture... there's something in that which displeases me enormously... Whatever the source of the emotion that drives me to create, I want to give it a form which has some connection with the visible world, even if it is only to wage war on that world."

I wanted to share this story because I think it is very telling--though I don't exactly know what it's telling. I think I'm more inclined to take Matisse's stance when it comes to Language poetry. (Though part of me does think that the Emperor has no clothes.)

Friday, July 15, 2005

After Reading Crush

I read Richard Siken’s Crush a couple days ago, and I was going to write a little review, but after reading Emily’s comments, I realized I was about to duplicate much of what she said, even (amazingly) down to her particular picks of great lines (“every time we kissed there was another apple / to slice into pieces”), not-so-great lines (“You will be alone always and then you will die”), and her choice of the poem “Saying Your Names” as the “greatest hit.”

So I thought I’d talk instead about something else. I absolutely agree with Louise Glück in her introduction to Crush when she says, “In poetry, art seems, at one extreme, rhymed good manners, and at the other, chaos. The great task has been to infuse clarity with the passionate ferment of the inchoate, the chaotic.” She goes on to say (and I’m not sure I’d agree with this) that “Crush is the best example I can presently give of profound wildness that is also completely intelligible.” She compares Crush to Plath’s Ariel in its urgency and obsession.

Crush is a reminder that while there are thousands of Plath imitators, no one has really taken her place. I think there’s a longing for poetry of her urgency and obsession, and Siken has tapped into it whether or not his poems are at the level of Ariel (whose are?).

Seriously, if you want to read poems with that urgency, who would you read? Uh, Ted Kooser? John Ashbery? Glück herself? It’s not that that’s the only kind of strong poetry, but isn’t there a big void in contemporary poetry if that’s what you’re looking for? I can hardly think of anyone who even approaches that particular sort of intensity. I think of Ai, who most people would agree wrote her best poems 30 years ago, and in a strange way I also think of Frank Bidart, even though both he and Ai do what they do primarily through persona poems. Also Lynda Hull, who may be the closest “partner” I can think of for Richard Siken. But who else? I must be forgetting dozens of people, right? Or am I?

Siken’s book takes a lot of risks, in the best sense. For example, take the poem “Boot Theory.” Let’s not even mention the fact that it starts with the old “Take my wife—please” joke. Just go straight to the ending:

A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river
but then he’s still left
with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away
but then he’s still left with his hands.

Are these great lines or awful lines? I think … they’re both! I can imagine myself reading them in a certain mood and thinking they’re shallow, rehashed Merwinesque surrealism. But in another mood: they’re unbelievably powerful, original, heartbreaking, devastating.

Siken’s poems are defiant, too. I kept thinking of this James Wright passage:

If you do not care one way or another about
The preceding lines,
Please do not go on listening
On any account of mine.
Please leave the poem.

Siken’s poems have a similar tone. I love how they seem to say, “I know there are people who will hate these poems, and they are welcome to go to hell.” I think Siken needs to watch out to avoid the melodrama that Ai sometimes falls into her poems, but that doesn’t mean to avoid the extremity, the passion, the chaos. When it works (“My applejack, my silent night, just mash your lips against me”), it’s electrifying.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

“My” Side of the Bed?

Most of the books on “my” side of the bed are Cheryl’s, and she has even larger stacks on her side of the bed, so this will have to be a very partial list:

1. Anna’s Book, Barbara Vine (stolen from vacation house we stayed in a couple years ago at Sea Ranch, to be returned when we stay there again later this month)
2. The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made
3. Crush, Richard Siken (more on this in a future post)
4. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
5. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie (I’ve been trying to finish this for years)
6. Runaway, Alice Munro (Munro is one of my favorite authors but I’ve been trying to finish this book for, well, months at least)
7. Already Dead: A California Gothic, Denis Johnson (as Cheryl says, “pretty bad but in an interesting creative way”)
8. Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson (oops, did I borrow this from you ages ago, Diane?)
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
10. The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (no relation to the Tom Cruise movie; experimental and very interesting novel if you can get through the first 50 pages)
11. Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson (everyone should have this at their bedside)
12. Dude, Where’s My Country?, Michael Moore
13. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
14. Dancer, Colum McCann (I love love love this book! I liked The Kite Runner but why it’s on the bestseller list and this amazing novel about Rudolf Nureyev is not, I don’t know)
15. Here There Was Once a Country: Poems, Venus Khoury-Ghata, translated by Marilyn Hacker
16. New York Times, last Sunday’s edition
17. New England Review, current issue
18. Harper’s, many, many old issues that need to be recycled
19. Granta, special issue of essays on music (highly recommended!)
20. Selected Poems, Galway Kinnell (autographed by Kinnell: Before my Aunt Marcy’s death, she went to a book signing just to get this book autographed for me, her poet nephew. Kinnell asked her if I was a romantic or a purist, and she said she didn’t know but guessed a purist. Kinnell said in that case he’d just sign his name because a purist probably wouldn’t want a personal note.)
21. A Sight for Sore Eyes, Ruth Rendell
22. Access Guide: California Wine Country
23. Jacqueline du Pré: A Biography, Carol Easton (research for poem in forthcoming book)
24. The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe 1500-1800, Olwen Hufton (research for book after forthcoming book, full of fascinating facts like did you know that women who died in childbirth used to be buried with a good set of walking shoes so they could make the trek back from eternity to check on their child?)
25. Man in the Holocene, Max Frisch (I know a lot of people think this is one of the 20th Century’s masterpieces, but I couldn’t get into it)
26. The Second Assistant: A Tale from the Bottom of the Hollywood Ladder, Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare (I have no idea)
27. One Advair diskus inhaler (for Cheryl’s asthma)
28. One pen (nothing to write on)


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

My side of the bed / What's on yours?

I'm supposed to see some people in my "home office" tomorrow, which means I have to clean up! So I thought I'd document at least one pile of books that will have to be disassembled. Okay, yes, my bedroom is not my office, but I can't have people here without showing off my garden, and the only way to the garden is through my bedroom. So anyway, here are the books on my bedside table, in no special order:

Crime and Punishment --library paperback
Pushcart book of Essays, open to Robert Hass's essay on Wallace Stevens
Arts and Letters--Journal of Contemporary Culture, Spring 2005 (free copy)
My large brown 8.5x11 journal, first entry 12/27/01, last entry 7/8/05
booklet from the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo commencement exercises
Poets & Writers, July/August 2005, unread
newish Moleskine notebook, too good to use
2 bottles of spring water, one empty
The Essential Tales of Chekhov, edited by Richard Ford
box of tissues
Search Party--collected poems of William Matthews (very well read)
printout of friend's friend's 11-page piece (unread)
New Letters "Workings of the Body" Vol 71, No2--(free copy)
Twentieth Century Pleasures--Robert Hass (many times read)
Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell translator
Road Atlas--Campbell McGrath, which I keep "forgetting" to return to Robert Thomas
Mead Composition Book for recording dreams
Gulf Coast Winter/Spring 2005
Poetry Daily printout of APR article on "The Heroics of Style" by Dana Levin
Territory Ahead clothing catalog
the coconut John Lennon gave me
a quilted bear
one pencil/ one pen
alarm clock, picture of son, driftwood, leaf from Vermont, sand dollar, mom's sewing box

Friday, July 08, 2005

Variations on a Theme

"...Not the human heart but
Brueghel turns the plowman away
for compositional reasons
and smooths the waters for a ship he made."

--William Matthews
"In Memory of W.H. Auden"

There's the poem they call ekphrastic, about another work of art, and there's the work that's epidemic, radiating out, infecting, well, affecting everyone and everything it touches, effecting a world. This is, what, I guess, is called intertextuality. How appropriate that Matthews points to the made aspect, the decisions made by the artist in the creation.

In these lines by Matthews are layered Williams' poem as well as Auden's. Another by Anne Sexton comes to mind (although that alludes as well to a poem by Yeats). In fact, here, thanks to Google, is a whole bibliography of poems that refer to Brueghal's painting--the painting, in turn refers back centuries, through Ovid's Metamorphosis, into the insubstantiality of myth--and then forward, too, to Joyce's fictional Daedalus and numerous other paintings, from those of Peter Paul Rubens to Matisse.

Add opera, ballet, film: The Man Who Fell to Earth....

I love thinking about these things. They knock me out.


Thursday, June 30, 2005

Is Originality Passé?

It seems fair to say that all poetry combines theme and variations, repetition and originality. We all have a love-hate relationship with the poetry of the past, don’t we? If we didn’t love at least some of it, we wouldn’t have been inspired to write in the first place. We’d have gotten a real estate license or started a restaurant. And if we didn’t hate it at the same time, there’d be no reason to write our own poems. We’d be content to be a teacher and pass on to others the poetry of the past.

It also seems fair to say that some people put a higher value on repetition and others on variation. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I wonder about what effect the explosion of literary magazines, MFA programs, and just the sheer number of poets has on this equation. I suspect it skews literary fashion in the direction of originality. I’m sure if I were an editor reading a thousand submissions a month, or a teacher reading a thousand student poems, I’d run screaming at the thought of one more poem about autumn leaves, a walk on the beach, or a father’s death from cancer.

I might perk up, though, if I saw a poem about a father’s death from differential equations or Krazy Kat’s death from cancer. On the other hand, the world would be missing a lot of great poems if everyone who wrote about plum blossoms had thrown their poems in the fire when they remembered “it’s been done before.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing if Emily Dickinson woke up 500 mornings in a row thinking “I’ve got an idea … I think I’ll write a poem about death today!” I love originality but I fear that the literary world may have become too obsessed with it: “Oh God, not another poem made out of words. Been there, done that.”

On another topic, I sent the final corrections of my book galleys back to Carnegie Mellon this week. They’ve really done a beautiful job designing the book. The poems may leave something to be desired, but I love that typeface. It’s funny how obsessed I can become, though. What if they print cat instead of car and my whole book is ridiculed by the universe because of one typo? I don’t want my poems to be that original!

Friday, June 24, 2005

My Favorite Things

Ever since—well, ever since May 13 when Diane posted it here—I’ve been thinking about this quote from Dean Young: “Poetry’s primary and perhaps only obligation is, through the manipulation of its materials, to express and discover forms of liberty, thereby maintaining the spirit through constantly renewed meanings.”

Now I’m a pretty big fan of Dean Young, but I’m not sure I know what this means, and if I know what it means, I’m not sure I agree with it. When I think of liberty, I think of music. I think of John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things,” opening doors that you not only didn’t know existed, but that seem to open whole new dimensions you didn’t know existed—and you certainly didn’t suspect they existed when you heard Julie Andrews sing it in The Sound of Music!

As I talked about somewhere before, I think the best poetry combines jazz and blues: the freedom and openness of jazz with the passion and, well, the confinement of blues. It’s that sense almost of bondage that seems missing if you find only liberty in art. Obviously I’m speaking metaphorically about poetry, not just music, but blues without jazz feels claustrophobic to me, and jazz without blues feels like petals in wind instead of blossoms rooted in dirt. If “A Love Supreme” by Coltrane is an archetypal jazz song, then Big Mama Thornton’s “(Love Is Like a) Ball and Chain” must be the archetypal blues song.

Digression: I had to look through about a hundred websites to find one that acknowledged Willie Mae Thornton as the writer of “Ball and Chain,” the song made famous by Janis Joplin—and that website was in French! Joplin herself acknowledged her debt to Thornton over and over.

My point is: in so much contemporary poetry I find a lot of liberty, but I miss the “ball and chain.” There’s energy and imagination but I miss a sense of depth, gravity, blues. I think this is what Lorca probably meant by poetry inspired by an angel but lacking duende. I can imagine Big Mama Thornton singing like Lorca’s “Girl With the Combs,” who “had to mangle her voice because she knew there were discriminating folk about who asked not for form, but for the marrow of form,” and whose voice “opened up like ten fingers of a hand around the nailed feet of Christ ….”

Which Tarot Card Are You?

I couldn't resist. I got this quiz from C. Dale's blog, and the result does seem accurate. Of course, the way these quizzes work is that the result could just as easily have been "You Are Batman" or "You Are a Krispy Kreme Doughnut" and they would have seemed accurate too. Nice image, though!

The Lovers Card
You are the Lovers card. The Lovers card is about
union. Each of us carries in our DNA the
ability to be the opposite of what we think we
are. Often our romantic attachments grow out of
awe and respect as we see in another the
characteristics we repress in ourselves.
Society often presses us into molds of what it
thinks masculinity and femininity should be. As
a result, many of us associate with our gender
certain positive characteristics and call
others negative, when if these same qualities
were held by a person of the opposite sex, our
attitude towards them would be reversed.
Getting in touch with our inner animus and
anima, (Jung's terms for our inner male and
female), allows us to see the whole of our
personalities in a positive and constructive
light. When you draw The Lovers card in a
reading, you are working with balancing these
forces. Depending on where the card is, you
have either achieved balance or need to. The
Lovers could indicate a romantic or even a
platonic relationship. Ask yourself is this is
a positive relationship that contributes to
your growth as a complete human being, or if it
fills an emotional craving within you that is
actually detrimental to your personal growth.
Image from: The Iranian artist Riza.

Which Tarot Card Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Writing Groups

This Sunday is the 13 Ways monthly meeting, and as it’s been meeting for over 15(!) years, it makes me think about poetry workshops. While our group unfailingly produces an delicious array of food, I admit I have mixed feelings about the workshop process itself. In Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School, he has Hemingway give this advice to young writers: “Don’t talk about your writing. If you talk about your writing you will touch something you shouldn’t touch and it will fall apart and you will have nothing.”

That’s what the argument against workshops (and against blogs?!) boils down to. Wolff also says that a couple of years in a workshop can be valuable (in an MFA program, for example), but continuing longer than that is destructive. I’m not sure I believe that, but I do think it can be destructive to show work to others too soon. When someone says, “I wrote this last night—what do you think?” often the real message seems to be, “I wrote this last night—am I going insane?”

Going insane can be a drawback in real life, but I’m not sure it’s a problem in poetry. The problem with poems is more often that they’re not insane enough, and workshops may encourage premature sanity. It’s always a problem when you find yourself writing with an audience in mind other than yourself, or maybe some imagined other. If you imagine some real Jane or Jack looking over your shoulder when you write, it’s hard not to edit something so it’s more to Jane’s liking, or maybe add a line just because you know Jack will hate it, and that can’t be good.

At the same time, there are undeniable benefits to workshops. For one thing, they make you face the fact that you haven’t written a word for six weeks! Also, I always do get helpful editorial comments like “Leave out that stanza—no one wants to hear about your pet monkey.” Even though some people probably would like nothing more than to hear about my pet monkey, it’s probably good advice.