Sunday, February 26, 2006

Air Guitar

It was an NPR day here. All week it was beautiful and sunny, daffodils blooming, springtime in February--perfect weather for our visitors from Boston, John's sister (and my old high school chum) and her youngest daughter, a high school junior, here to check out the California colleges. As soon as they left, the weather turned cold and gray, rainy and blustery. We listened to NPR on the radio in the car while we caught up on our errands and at home while we made dinner.

We listened to the Adam Gopnik and Daniel Handler talk from the Hearst Auditorium here in SF, about the New Yorker, about writing, about children's books, and eventually and inevitably through the Q and A about Harry Potter. Gopnik said one aspect of the HP books bothered him, how Harry's heroism was because of the nobility of blood and breeding (if I got that wrong, forgive--I have not read the HP books). This bothers me too--it's also a theme in the Tolkien books. It's not so much my unalloyed democratic spirit that is offended as the fact that for me reading and writing is an escape from family and background and "inheritance." I hate the idea that what we are is somehow "in our blood." I'd rather think that we invent ourselves and our fate.

This segues into the second talk we heard, a very interesting talk on the art of bullshit, including a radio performance (!) by the defending champion of air guitar. Yeah, well I used to think I was a great actress because I felt I could take on any persona someone expected of me. Okay, that was when I was a teenager. Still, my master's thesis book of poems (my true first book) was very wrapped up in aspects of this idea. I'm very interested in BS and art, not lying, but faking it, and the 360 degrees between creation and reality. How much (now don't throw things, please) of John Ashbery or Jorie Graham is art and how much is air guitar?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Crossing my fingers

I got an email this evening telling me that my manuscript Demimonde is one of the 20 or so finalists for the Dorset Prize. This is about the 16th time it's been a finalist. Still, I'm fairly gulping for air.

Linda Gregerson will be judge.

Friends, oh, cross your fingers and toes for me.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I like you a lot, but...

Note on adverbs: I've been taking a French class at Alliance Francaise in Berkeley and our teacher showed us an interesting point on using adverbs with the verb "aimer." If you say "Je t'aime," it's simple: you love her/him. But if you say "Je t'aime bien" you've altered it to "I like you." And if you say "Je t'aime beaucoup," well, the relationship's over and your lover might as well pack her/his bags: it carries the sense of "I like you a lot, but..." The more adverbs you throw on love the weaker it gets. No wonder poets hate adverbs.

Figure Skating and Poetry

I probably disagree with Ron Silliman about most things, but I couldn't agree more with his eloquent post today about the Olympics:

This year watching Coatesville’s Johnny Weir skate himself out of medal contention in the Olympics was hard to do, because you could see him fighting himself all the way. With Evgeny Plushenko, easily the best male skater now going, so far ahead, Weir committed the same blunder that has cost Michelle Kwan more than one Olympic medal – he skated “safely” which then meant that he skated poorly as well. Trying only not to make mistakes, he made more than ever.

There is a lesson in this for poetry. When I say, as I have more than once, that there are more good poets now writing than ever before in our history, I don’t necessarily mean that more great poems a la ”The Waste Land” or “Howl” (or whatever your iconic preference might be) are being written at this moment, tho that’s not inconceivable. What I mean is this: there are more poets who are not making Johnny Weir’s mistake – they are putting everything they have into the poem, not at all holding back. That to me is the test of a poet, regardless of which school they aspire to. Do they give everything to the poem? If the answer is yes, then I don’t see how you or I could ever ask anything more of them. Let’s just marvel at the effort.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Will You Be Mine?

For Valentine’s Day it’s hard to beat this anonymous 15th century poem:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Or if you prefer it in the original (I especially like westron and rayne):

O westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne downe can rayne
Cryst yf my love wer in my arms
and I yn my bed agayne

I confess I think of this poem whenever I feel discouraged about my work. Do my poems mean anything to anyone? Who would ever want to read them or remember them? I imagine this 15th century poet who may have spent their (his—or her?) whole life writing and their name is forgotten and their life’s work is forgotten except for four lines, but what does it matter? It encourages me to think that’s all it takes—just four good lines! Maybe even four words would be enough: “small rain . . . my love.”

Friday, February 10, 2006

No Such Luck

On Thursday morning around 8:30, I was walking my pooch, Greta Garbo, around Pine Lake, the miniscule pond west of Stern Grove and its meadow. It's a popular place for dogs and their owners, in a pocket valley like Stern Grove itself, very quiet, hidden from the street. A blue heron lives there now, and lately, an egret, though it's not yet certain the egret is taking up residence. There are crayfish (crawdaddies) in the lake, probably tasty to the heron and egret. By the way, don't ask me how I know, but a crayfish's pincers hurt like hell, they do.

Anyway, at 8:30, there were few walkers around, human or canine. It was starting to warm up, but it was still damp and shadowed. I looked down at one point, looking for the right kind of stick to toss for Greta, and there was a lottery ticket. I thought it would be an old one--it wasn't. It was for the Megalottery drawing on February 10, and Thursday was the 9th. It was a multiple ticket, ten chances at winning 102 million.

A lovely reverie. I was going to start a poetry / arts foundation, provide jobs for all my friends. A four-day week, month long vacations. A gorgeous magazine. Competitions with huge prizes for the deserving.

I just checked the ticket. Ten tickets, 6 numbers apiece, and we got two (out of 60!) numbers. Oh well. It was a nice dream while it lasted.

At least whoever lost the ticket didn't lose anything.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Getting Lost

Some time ago, I read an essay in a Harper's that Robert lent me. I don't remember if this essay, by Rebecca Solnit on "The Blue of Distance," was what he had recommended or whether it was something else, but the writing stunned me. I sought out and bought her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. It went on the pile of books beside my bed, I lent it to someone who kept it for months and "couldn't get into it." It got back-burnered as I started my alphabetical trek through my poetry shelves. (It's February and I'm at Bishop.)

But I picked it up and read it obsessively the last few days, the way I used to read everything but, distracted by one responsibility or another, I scarcely can read any more. This book... this book... I don't know what to say, what can do it justice or encompass all my thoughts about it. Just. Read. It.

The book is prose but has the effect of poetry, of the best poetry. It stuns, it sits there in me. I want to steal its words and have them come out of my mouth. The book is composed of chapter essays that inter-relate and tie together. One follows the stream of her consciousness, but the stream is always interesting and relevant and even when it is most personal seems to focus out at the reader as much as it comes from the self. It's also about nature and the land, love and death, art and other ways of thinking. So I've probably made it sound boring as all getout, but it's not ever boring.

I could quote from anywhere in this book to show you what I mean. Here are the opening sentences of the section called, "Two Arrowheads:"
Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn't particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert's invitation...."


I better get going if I'm going to get to Robert's reading (details here under news ---->).

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Some thoughts...

This post is going to be an attempt to gather my thoughts on reading Emily Lloyd's recent post (and the subsequent comments) that started with poetry's accessibility and progressed through how to teach poetry to high school students. I'm going to start at the end, as is my fashion, at what and how we teach. (As an aside, let me state that I'm about as equally annoyed with those who run the accessibility theme up the flagpole and salute it constantly--folks, instructions to operate your VCR: those, should be accessible--as I am annoyed with those who don't want to admit to the fact that words do, in fact, have meaning.)

But I was thinking about high school students. My experience with teaching one starts and ends with my own son, who survived (that is, graduated) high school six years ago. He started out liking poetry, I think. At one point, as a child, he'd asked to hear Frost's Stopping by the Woods so many times that he inadvertently memorized it. (I believe it was the combination of snow falling, which he'd never seen, and a horse sleigh that he found magical.) But despite or because he went to the best public high school in our city, his English teachers drummed the love of poetry right out of him. They, with their mandatory five-sentence paragraphs, were as determined to extract meaning from those poems as someone cooking stones for soup. What symbolized death? What symbolized sex? Discuss the blinkin' metaphors. Though I would tell him there wasn't any right or wrong about these things, that all he had to do was back it up, they were fond of the triple underlined all-cap multiply exclaimed WRONG.

But I was a high school student once too. I remember clearly the moment I fell in love--with Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence," followed by a tumble for everything written by Dylan Thomas. Neither the romantic abstractions of the Millay nor the convoluted metaphors of the Thomas were easily accessible (to me). I clearly fell in love with sound first, and to this day sound is most likely to be the way I enter into a poem.

I don't remember assignments connected with poetry. Well, wait, yes. As seniors, we had to talk for five minutes minimum about a poem or poet, and I brought in Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas from the library and my little phonograph. I talked for a half hour, maybe more. Clearly, teaching poetry is one way to learn to love it.

[So these are all disconnected thoughts at this point. I hope, but don't promise, to successfully connect them.]

I was interested in the comment on the post from the art teacher(?) who said that students need to learn to appreciate art and literature a lot less literally. I so agree with that, and yet, from my studies of Picasso's era, I know his contemporaries had a hard time seeing what he was doing. It takes time, distance, and education--an education of taste--to learn to see art and sometimes to read poetry.

So how do we get kids--and adults--to put in the time to pay attention? Well, I don't think there is ONE way. It doesn't come down to sound, to accessibility, to charm, to searing reality or incredible fantasy--or it does come down to ALL these things and more. The reason is: I'm not like you, and you're not like the next person, and high school students do not come in one flavor. So we need a diversity of approaches, not diverse as in one part your background and two parts mine, but diverse as in a little bit of everything, because we don't know what the next student is going to respond to.

We need to keep 'em awake, we need to keep 'em listening and we need to keep 'em reading. I don't think, despite the fact that many of my good friends make their living teaching poetry writing in the elementary schools, that teaching kids how to write at an early age is key. I do think memorization is wonderful. How else to make a poem truly yours, from your ears to your entrails?

Okay, a lot more went through my head when I tossed and turned last night, but I'll offer this up for now....

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

10 Days to Go! (BFD)

Only ten days until February 10, the publication date of my book, Dragging the Lake. The question is: what the hell does that mean? Not only do I have no idea, but the publisher seems to have no idea either. Does it mean that on February 10 you’ll magically find the book at your favorite bookstore? No way! (Unless your favorite bookstore happens to be the one in Chula Vista where my sister-in-law works.) Does it mean your favorite bookstore will be able to order it for you? Well, yes, but they've been able to do that for over a month already. For that matter, you can already order it yourself just by calling the publisher. Does it mean the book will suddenly burst into existence in ten days? That can't be, because I've had a box of books on my living room floor for a month. Does the publication date mean anything? I guess it just means, "If you want to have a party with your friends, this might be as good a time as any." If it means something else, I wish someone would let me know now, before I go out to Trader Joe’s and buy a case of champagne.