Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Shameless Plug

For any Juneau folks out there...come hang out with us on Friday night or Saturday morning.  I'd love to see your work!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

When In Doubt, Consult Billy

One of the things we talk about in my workshops is writing poems about poetry.  I typically discourage this as the poems often don't have much chance of lift-off--they tend to be fallback poems when students can't think of anything to write about.  My argument is usually that the topic of poetry isn't going to result in a fabulous poem that's going to ignite us, or help us see the world in a fresh way.

But, of course, my little theory was put to the test by the fabulous Billy Collins.  I had written this comment on a student's paper a few weeks back, and on a whim thought I better surf to see if any great poems about poetry had lately come to light.  My first hit was this poem by our former poet laureate, which immediately made me eat my words.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for the light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

-        Billy Collins

Just fabulous, isn't it?  I love the way his mind makes these perfect leaps and as we land on each stepping stone we recognize it immediately, as some part of our world--something we haven't yet named, but know intimately.  I love moments like this between reader and writer and poem.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

If I Were

Last week in workshop we studied Michael Ondaatje's poem "The Cinnamon Peeler."  Here it is:


If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulder would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you.  The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.

Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back.  This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

I could hardly glance at you
before marriage
never touch you
   --your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…

When we swam once
I touched you in water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
You climbed the bank and said

                        this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume

                                    and knew

                        what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.

You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife.  Smell me.

                        - Michael Ondaatje, The Cinnamon Peeler, Selected Poems

I love this poem, of course, and my students did too. I've tried to teach this off and on for years, in various classes, and usually without much success--it's a complex poem.  This time we talked about the imaged narrative--starting a poem with "If I were--" and going from there.  We had the idea that starting this way would force some freedom into our work.  We also mapped the verb tense use in the poem, noting the four tenses Ondaatje moves through, and how he's able to crescendo the poem in part through this verb work.

So I assigned the students an "If I were" poem and last night they read the results.  They were fantastic!  What we noticed, after they had read their poems, is how almost all of them felt like performance poems.  They had the cadence and rhythm of spoken-word poetry and so many of them were very unlike the work those writers normally do.  It was interesting to think about imagined narratives turning to persona poems, which then called up performance voices for these writers.  Many of the poems were hilarious ("If I were a dark lord...") and not a few were pretty deep and intense emotional poems.

I'm so inspired by their work I'm going to spend this week working on my own "If I were" poem.  What a magical teaching experience--I love it when my students teach me, and help shape my own work.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Room of My Own

It's been many years since I've had my own writing room.  Years ago, when we first moved into our little blue house, I had this sweet room with a window looking out over the water and mountains.  I wrote my first book in that room.  When my first child was born, I turned that into her nursery.  I was happy to do it, but missed having a space of my own.

My second book was written at the kitchen table.  And while that has its pleasures, it's so sweet to have my own room again.  

We recently moved into a new house, and I finally have a room, with a door I can close, and a window.  This new window again looks over the ocean and the mountains.  I've filled it with most of my poetry collection, and a mug of my favorite pens.  And my daughter, now five, has decorated the walls with colorful portraits of the two of us together.   

Nothing could be finer than this space.  I'm so filled with gratitude.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thanks, Robert Hass

It's summer, so I think that's a pretty good excuse to take a hiatus from the blog...but it's maybe not the only reason I've been away.  I haven't been writing or blogging since school got out.  It's been a tough summer--some big family issues and not much free time.  But also stressful on the writing front.  Yesterday someone posted a great quote by Robert Hass (one of my favorite poets) that got my attention though.  Here it is:

“It's hell writing and it's hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” 
 Robert Hass

That is so absolutely true, and it sort of woke me up, I think, to my poetry slump.  Hass is a former US Poet Laureate and his work is amazing. I especially love it because he's the antithesis of a language poet.  Anyone can read his work.  It's not about language or craft or showing off or anything else I despise in some poetry.  It's absolutely straight from the shared human heart.  I teach one of his poems in my intro lit class every semester and that poem is singlehandedly responsible for convincing hundreds of students that poetry is not as horrific as they had assumed.  Here it is:

A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week.  She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her.  He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions.  One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me.  I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.”  The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity—like music—withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry.  I don’t think I could.”  He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door.  It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl—she must have swept them from the corners of her studio—was full of dead bees.

                                                            -- Robert Hass, Human Wishes

Amazing, right?

This week my friend and writer Heather Lende and I have been talking online about writing and teaching too.  We've been talking about the pressure of being a writing teacher and how that can make it hard to write.  I realized I've been thinking about this, unconsciously, all wrong.  I'm thinking too big.  Maybe it's having a book come out this year, but I've been really focused on the huge plateaus--I'm thinking about book projects and tenure and all the giant stuff.  What I need to be thinking about is a single poem.  

One day Hass just got up and wrote "A Story about the Body." At least the early draft.  Who knows what he was going through when he wrote it.  But I bet it was "hell" before he wrote it.  And probably while he was revising it too. But I bet the morning he sat down and wrote that poem, it was a euphoric moment.  I like to think when he wrote that last line ("was full of dead bees") he got that little poetry rush--that oh yeah moment.  And he's right--that's the only tolerable moment of writing.  

I need to remember the rest of it is hell.  And start putting my feet to the fire.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Inevitability and Surprise

I read a great article this week in the NYT by poet Charles Simic.  I've admired his work since I studied it in college so was interested what he had to say about poetry these days.  It was a good article but one sentence in particular really stood out to me.  He was talking about poem endings, and he said "endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate."  That combination of inevitability and surprise struck me as exactly right.  

Endings feel so incredibly important--the climax of a poem, and getting them exactly right feels like so much of the work of a poem.  I learned early on from poets like Charles Simic, James Wright, and Jane Kenyon that endings can absolutely make or break a poem.

What I love about his quote is that it describes the exact feeling a reader gets at the ending, when we realize the writer has gotten it exactly right.  It feels like what we've been heading toward, or what we intuitively felt ourselves about something but hadn't yet articulated.  And then the surprise.  The surprise wakes us up to ourselves and our world in a fresh way.  It avoids any sense of the cliched or overworked and manages to open us up even before we realized we needed to open up.  I think few poems can truly do both, and when they do it gives us such a rush.

I think if I had to choose one thing to love most about poetry (at least today) it would be that rush--both as a  reader when I read a poem that does that--and as a writer, when I sometimes (not often enough) manage to create the sweet, addictive rush myself.

So here's a sweet little Simic poem.  Thanks Charles.

Eyes Fastened With Pins
by Charles Simic

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death's supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can't figure it out
Among all the locked doors... 
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.

The NYT article:  http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/15/why-i-still-write-poetry/

Photo Credit: Haggard & Halloo Publications

Poem Citation:  http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15259

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Writing Exercise: Obsessions

My friend James Engelhardt and I sometimes swap poems to get a little advice and help from each other.  I feel very lucky to have him as a poetry buddy.  He gave me a really great idea for an exercise a few months ago.  I thought I'd post this as it might be something you might want to play with too.

I sent him a poem that started with the lines How will I love/without another birth?  James' idea was that I try a whole series of poems that begin with that same question.  I love this exercise as it's really helped me explore a current obsession in my writing.  I find that I (and a lot of poets I know) tend to have obsessions about certain topics and we have to write until we get those out.  Ideas and topics show up in poems over and over.  It's one of the things I love best about poetry books--being able to see a particular question or theme explored in multiple ways.  I've never before tried to directly address that idea by writing multiple poems starting with the same lines. It's been so much fun to do it.  

Here are a few openings I'm working on:

My Beautiful Eggs

How will I live
without another birth?

Without this sure sign,
that I am loved by one

greater than myself?

Apologies to the Body

How will I live without another birth?
By losing weight
by cutting my hair
by piercing my ears, again.

I’m considering a tattoo, although I don’t
tell anyone yet.

After Lucy

How will I live
without another birth?

I watch the fall wind
shake the alder tree

and even that looks like
a contraction, leaves spiraling

I'm not sure if any of these will turn out to be "keepers" but it's fun to play with, and useful to have a set place to start.  Hope this is something that might help you too.  And thanks to James for the idea!