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!