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.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Poetry Thought o' the Day

“From the beginning, some of the most exciting, overwhelming moments in the modernist tradition have come when a poet breaks through into the kind of prose freedom and prose inclusiveness which I have tried to suggest.” Robert Pinsky, from The Situation of Poetry.

This interests me because my own poetry definitely has some qualities of prose, for better or worse. I tend to write long poems with long lines and long convoluted sentences chock full of detail, and reading them may require some of the patience you need to sit down and read a novel (even though they’re not that long!). Hopefully they also offer some of the pleasures and richnesses and intricacies of a novel.

My sense is that people have very different tastes on the prose/poetry issue. People who don’t like my poems (yes, there are some!) may prefer poetry that’s at the far end of the spectrum from prose, while I like poetry that’s very lyrical but still has something in common with Anna Karenina and The Maltese Falcon and even Winnie-the-Pooh. I suspect everyone could rate the poetry they most love on a scale of 1 to 10 depending on how far it is from prose.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

True Confessions

Well, I really would love suggestions/ideas/challenges from those who know me and those who do not about what I should do now that my hideous but cosy job at IBM as a technical writer is a thing of the past. No pity! Just possibilities.

So in order to hopefully draw more people here, I'm going to post some things people don't know about me, following Deb's challenge. Don't know if it will be all that interesting, but here goes, in no special order:

1. I worked as an associate editor of pulp fiction magazines--first True Detective, then Stag Magazine. The latter was a sort of low-class Penthouse or Hustler. Our readership sent us letters from prison written in red crayon.... I also wrote confessions for romance magazines.

2. When I was 21, I met John Lennon, talked with him, he gave me a coconut. Also met Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, his then-wife Maureen, Phil Spector and others that same weekend. I still have the coconut.

3. When I was 28, I almost died of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.

4. In the Seventies, John (later, my husband) and I worked on a Public Access TV show in NYC. It was a talk show. The talk show host interviewed his guests while he was tripping out on acid.

5. I won first prize for fifth-grade girls in the city of Yonkers for my science project. I think it was 1960. My mother told me not to talk about it because my brother hadn't won for his. The project tested variables in method for baking muffins as to illustrate the scientific method.

6. As a teen, I worked in doctors' offices. It was our job to open the mail. We stole the sample diet pills, spent the summer speeding...

7. I was in high school when M.L. King was killed. I took up a collection to send to the striking sanitation workers he was supportiing when they shot him.

8. Which reminds me. I was class Idealist and class Dove in my high school yearbook, categories invented for me.

9. There was nearly 300 points difference in my verbal and math SAT scores. Guess which was higher.

10. In kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, I was considered very cute, selected to appear in cute newspaper pictures of first graders doing cute things, and so forth. In second grade, they cut off my long red braids, I got braces and glasses. End of story.

11. I have been fired um, numerous times (including from Sears for not wearing a slip under either of the two skirts I owned), laid off numerous times. Dear Reb, I always cry.

12. Except for crying, everything from this list relates to my life before I was thirty.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Good News, Bad News/Ends and Beginnings

First the good news: I am in San Luis Obispo for my son's graduation from Cal Poly. Actually, the graduation was this morning, at 9:00. We were way early in order to get a good seat for my 86-year-old mother-in-law who has a bum knee. The fog was in, and I sat there in my cool little black linen dress and bare legs and pretty but useless green shrug and just froze. Some time around 9:45, the fog burned off and instantly it was warm as toast. As a consequence, I'm now sporting a pretty good sunburn. Who thinks about sunscreen when you're freezing.

The graduation was in two parts, the first, what I call the Moonie graduation, where they make speeches and then they confer a degree on the masses, the second at the individual colleges, like my son's for Electrical Engineering, where they call the students individually and give them a paper. It's not actually a diploma. It says "Congratulations on participating in commencement exercises." Many, my son included, still have a teensy bit to go, despite having "walked." But it was a milestone nonetheless, a happy occasion, one he has worked hard to make happen. And we are confident that the real degree will happen.

Afterwards, we toasted champagne with him and his friends at his place and tonight we'll all go to dinner. I could go on, say more, though possibly I should say less. My son is a musician as well as a engineer geek, and his friends, many of them musicians, are great kids, embarking on their lives in so many different ways....

The bad news happened last Thursday, to me. Some of my closest friends know, but many do not. On Thursday morning, while my mother-in-law, staying in our home, was congratulating us on how well life is going for us, I was laid off from my technical writing job at IBM. It's true I never really liked the job, that I was incredibly stressed, and often complained about it. But it really was our bread and butter--John's photography business was just the dessert. Now we have to reevaluate, make decisions.

It seems that rationally there is no way for us to proceed with the house stuff we were hoping to do--the dry rot work, replacing the rotten deck, and so forth. It also seems that I cannot rationally contemplate starting a literary magazine now. It would be like pouring money into a hole, wouldn't it?

I want to brainstorm and really think about what to make of my life at this point. We had, since my dad died last Fall, gotten out of debt for the first time in our lives, and I'm terrified to get back in debt. I've never had an easy time spending money on myself, but enjoy being free enough to be generous. After the graduation, I went out and bought one of those party platters of meat and cheese and another of cookies, also soda, melon and grapes--and there was the champagne, of course--for the whole crowd. I realized, as I took out my plastic, that I better not do this sort of thing too often now. (Of course, your only child doesn't graduate every day.)

Sorry this post is so personal, maybe not appropriate for a group blog. But I wanted to be open about it because I welcome suggestions from people. I want to hear ideas, however crazy. Maybe I'll just get another job and nothing will have changed and I will continue doing my poetry in my other life. Maybe, though, this is an opportunity to put it all together. On the other hand, maybe I should chuck it all and go live in Paris (just kidding--I think). Or should I go back to school?

So if you have a suggestion, even if it's nuts, let me hear it. I am not good at this change stuff, but I'm trying.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Raging Pit

Yes, folks, the resemblance is striking, isn't it? If only I had red hair, we could be twins, Sylvia and I. Actually when I took this quiz, it was a close call. I was almost the love child of Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens, and that's probably not a bad description of my poetry.

You are Sylvia Plath
You are Sylvia Plath. People think you are sweet
and pretty, but inside you are raging pit of
ambition and despair. Darkness is your friend,
and you would do well to avoid being alone.

Which Famous Modern American Poet Are You?
brought to you by

Thursday, June 02, 2005

SWEET TO BURN wins Lambda prize!

Announcement: Beverly Burch's Sweet to Burn, which won the Gival Poetry Prize for 2004, has just won the Lambda Literary Foundation prize for 2005.

Congratulations Beverly!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Stravinsky and the Right Note

A few years ago Dustin Hoffman gave a moving speech when he accepted a Golden Globes lifetime achievement award, and it stuck with me. He talked about an interview he’d seen with Igor Stravinsky, and the interviewer asked Stravinsky what the most satisfying aspect was of being a composer. Was it when he finished a great piece like Le Sacre du Printemps? Was it when he was on stage conducting it? Was it when he heard the applause or received an award? Stravinsky kept answering no, no, no, and finally said that the moment he lived for was the moment when he’d been struggling with a particular passage and suddenly found the right note.

It’s a good insight, I think, into the life of an artist, and Hoffman went on to talk about an actor’s struggle to find the right note for a performance, just the right inflection for a word or phrase. Of course poets are all too familiar with the frustrating struggle to find the right word.

Anyway, this all comes to mind right now because I’m getting ready to send the final final version of my manuscript (the final revision of the galleys) to the publisher before the book is printed, and I’ve become obsessed with one line in one poem that just doesn’t feel right. It’s driving me crazy! I keep coming up with one version after another, some of them radically different from one another. I guess I could post a dozen versions here and have people vote on their favorite, but no, I think I’ll drop that idea before it catches on.

The hard part is figuring out how to forget the poem. I figure if I could just read each version as if it were the first time in my life I was reading the poem, I’d know what to do. But when it’s really the thousandth time I’m reading the poem, that’s not so easy. I find myself printing out the maddening page and taking it for a walk around the block. I very carefully don’t look at it and try not to think about it, and then after I’ve walked for a while I sneak a quick glance—hoping to catch that precious glimpse of how it would look if I’d never seen it before. I’m praying I have “a Stravinsky moment” before the printer's deadline!