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 ?