The Head-Space of Revision

One more day in NaPoWriMo. I’m wondering: could May be NaPoRe(vision)Mo, and June NaPoSub(mission)Mo? Not sure I’m capable of it—the next few weeks are about as busy with teaching, domestic stuff, committee work, and miscellaneous deadlines as they could possibly be—but I’ll try. One potential snag: drafting is about openness and dreaming, restorative activities when your life is too busy. Revision, though, while it can be about receptive listening, also requires intellectual focus and decisive ruthlessness. The needle might be hovering around empty on those tanks, given this month’s grading, administrative, and report-writing obligations.

Whatever happens next, I’m shocked by the sheer amount and intensity of what I’ve written. Not one poem from the inventory below is ready for prime-time yet, but most of them contain interesting ideas, juxtapositions, and bits of language. It’s as if I squeezed in a writing retreat through random 30-60 minute blocks. The numbers refer to dates; I started storing drafts in an “april12poems” folder about three days in, when I realized I really was committed and would lose track of process otherwise.

1 He Likes Road Runner Best (sonnet treating Merrie Melodies, my son, Afghanistan)

2 The Opposite of Elegy (drafted outside Lee Chapel thinking about recent memorial services)

3 Acoustic Niche (terza rima about birdsong and creative writing workshops)

4 In Praise of Slogging (haiku expressing frustration about slacker students through an apple blossom metaphor)

5 OLD, Petersburg Virginia, by Gordon Stettinius (ekphrastic and syllabic, from a photograph in Staniar Gallery that made me think of my daughter’s recent birthday)

6 Past Meridian (fourteen word sonnet about middle age)

7 How Study Abroad Transforms You (couplet-sonnet depicting the Notorious New Zealand Paintball Outing)

8 Distractible (cruel and sexy April)

9 Semi-colons (extended sentence about teenage romantic drama)

10 Art Film (talked about that one in the last blog)

11 The Size of It (ditto; also 1989 cross-country trip)

12 Photoautotrophic (getting a little ecstatic, one of this month’s many long-lined free verse poems)

13 Working Assumptions (how I thought life operated when I was nineteen)

14 Powder Burn (remembering the guy who told me, “if you had long hair and a southern accent you’d be the perfect woman”)

15 Zut, Zut, et Zut (more melodramatic teenagers)

16 Earth, Air, Fire, But Mostly Water (looking at Deborah Miranda’s mountain, then pretty much on fire)

17 Chorophobia (look it up)

18 Reverberation Room (double sonnet that begins with the friendship between Liz and Jack on 30 Rock and ends up rhyming “obscene” with “feeling”)

19 Anti-Dinosaur Haiku (commissioned)

20 Enter the Wormhole (based on Janet McAdams’ rock-paper-scissors prompt from BookBalloon, though I broke the rules)

21 Science Fiction (I am definitely not done with this as a poetry topic)

22 The Sun Went Down Then I Felt Sad (response to a dare)

23 The End of Talk (using “talk” in epistrophe—does one say “in” epistrophe?)

24 Werewolf Arm (a sonnet referring to Chris’ birthmark)

25 That Small Item You Forgot Was In There (litany based on phrase “my first home,” the beginning of Robert Sullivan’s “Boyle”)

26 Lessons/ Reflecting Water (swimming pool haiku series, watching Cam splash after Sullivan glossed “waiata” in class)

27Aubade (playing with a three-step line)

28 Uncanny Valley (you know that theory about how too-lifelike robots inspire revulsion?)

29 Falling (lame title, but the poem uses trochees and dactyls to talk about marijuana)

30 ? (but what I’d like to pull off is a response to Craig Pleasants’ gallery exhibition)

Suggestions for tomorrow are very welcome, but you have about 11 hours until I’m at risk of starting to write without you.

Birds of Aotearoa New Zealand

The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations

Couldn’t give it away.

And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle

The magpies say.

Bill Manhire and Harry Ricketts characterize Denis Glover’s 1941 ballad “The Magpies,” quoted above, as the best-known poem of New Zealand. Glover briefly tells a story of “Tom and Elizabeth” and their failed farm; the second half of each stanza consists of that peculiar refrain in magpie-language, nonsense words “said” rather than sung. Manhire attributes “doggedness” and “reticence” to the “stubborn, impure music” of the magpies, qualities he discovers throughout New Zealand verse. Ricketts also reads this recitation classic within a larger tradition, linking it to the traditional ballad “The Twa Corbies.” Glover’s rural matter-of-factness, the way he juxtaposes human catastrophe with nature’s persistence, makes me think of Robert Frost’s phoebes in “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”—my poetic reference points are relentlessly American—but Glover and Frost are both talking back to those Romantic skylarks and nightingales and a flock of other bird-bard correlations. Since I’m concerned in this blog with contemporary poetic conversations, though, here’s a quick look at two twenty-first century counterpoints to Glover: Mary Cresswell’s “Travel Notes (Island Bay)” from Millionaire’s Shortbread (2003) and Robert Sullivan’s “Took: A Preface to ‘The Magpies’” from Shout Ha! to the Sky (2010).  

Cresswell’s answer to the magpies’ nonsense-language is a surface translation of the original’s first verse: “the magpies said,” for example, becomes “thème à gout pays s’assiède.” A mock-pedantic editorial note informs us of the poem’s provenance: this is a “schoolyard rhyme, recalled by Miss Maire McKay of Island Bay, aged eighty, who was taught it by a nun from the Home of Compassion. Miss McKay’s whole generation knew and loved this rhyme,” a “charming ephemeron” now forgotten. (Note the internal rhyme even in the prose note: Cresswell, who emigrated from southern California to New Zealand in 1970, writes highly sound-driven verse, often rhymed and metered.) Literally, she says, the French words refer to “the discomfort of sitting on a poacher’s pruning saw.”

“Travel Notes (Island Bay)” is a puzzle—to solve it you must be familiar with “The Magpies” and have a very good ear (unless, maybe, the poet emails you to let you in on the joke). It’s an expression of delight in sound for its own sake. It’s also a challenge to the masculine lineage of Important Poets that Glover refers back to and generates. Cresswell admires Glover’s poem enough to poach it, but she never mentions him. Her work, unlike the settler labor of Tom and Elizabeth, is schoolyard play. Poetry comes to her through a line of unmarried women. They are Unimportant but they remember how things really happened.

Sullivan, a poet with Maori and Irish ancestors, identifies “The Magpies” as a poem of settler culture immediately, through the title of his response. “Took: A Preface to ‘The Magpies”” appeared in Sullivan’s 2006 essay for Landfall about the dominance of Pakeha and male writers in anthologies of New Zealand verse. His essay plays through the possible meanings of “took” in Glover’s first line, “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm,” and his poem picks up that issue too by beginning with a bad treaty and displacement. The magpies themselves, Sullivan observes, are a species introduced to Aotearoa by Europeans via Australia; as nest-raiders who harry native birds and threaten their populations, they become ready emblems of colonial dominance and destruction. He rhymes the magpies, “pecking and squawking, frazzled and screwy,” with the native “tui”: both species are excellent mimics whose voices define these islands’ soundscapes. Sullivan ends by translating the tui’s wardle-doodle into Maori: “Do you mean korero, uri, arero, wairua, ruruhau perhaps sir?” Talk, descendants, tongue, spirit, shelter. Take that, Mr. Glover sir.

In his essay, Sullivan writes, “I happily admit that I ‘took’ great pleasure in the task” of writing a preface to Glover’s famous verses. Both he and Cresswell genuinely honor Glover’s resonant poem even as they fault its premises, or at least, I feel both impulses in their response-poems.

Cresswell’s strategy illuminates how Glover is also making a surface translation by converting the magpies’ sounds into human syllables; there is talk out there we can’t fully understand. I have read that the song of the tui contains passages of seeming silence because part of its range is beyond human hearing. I know I often return to a poem I read or even taught years ago and discover a whole new music in it, and sometimes I’m embarrassed at my failure to hear it sooner. This is why even the cleverest readers and writers need conversation, within and beyond poems themselves. Good mimics and critics amplify notes I hadn’t heard before and that’s a great pleasure too, even if I can never catch the whole melody, much less translate it into my own tongue.

Poems including history

I asked Robert Sullivan at a recent reading about the role of history in his poems. He replied, “I’m making a genre argument that historians are, like poets, imaginative writers; that poetry is also well equipped for these conversations; and that the historical can also be personal.” (I suspect those semicolons are all mine, but I’ll save my comments on orality for another day.) I admire his point—accounts of the past are never neutral and there’s no reason they need to be prose. The “poem containing history,” though (Ezra Pound’s phrase), is usually epic or long poetry. The brevity of lyric requires different modes of argument. Even in a lyric sequence with narrative elements, any tale is full of skips, blanks, recursions; metaphor and music have their own logic and can’t always accommodate names, dates, and other factual details.

So how can a lyric poem contain history? When in “Indian Cartography” Deborah Miranda remaps California, she embeds a narrative of colonization in her list of place names: “Tuolomne, / Salinas, Los Angeles, Paso Robles, / Ventura, Santa Barbara, Saticoy, / Tehachapi.” The displacement suffered by her family is the very ground of the poem, the landscape she assumes, and her poem constitutes an imaginative return to those waters, that earth. Words themselves, their textures and etymologies, widen a poem’s field. That’s also true in “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, with its train times and brand names. The speaker grabs “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days” and suddenly race is in the poem, many lines before Billie Holiday sings. Think even of Emily Dickinson’s “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –.” The first word sends you in one direction, chasing after the agoraphobic belle of Amherst, but this is a politically astute New Englander writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. After images of auctions and whiteness, she concludes her four quatrains with the ringing imperative: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price –.” Of course she’s thinking about abolition. It’s tricky; I say she’s condemning slavery but you could also accuse her of using that vast, terrible trauma as a metaphor for her own situation. That’s one risk of opening a newspaper inside your stanzas. Your poem can gain power, or the world can shrink absurdly.

There are stories inside words themselves, but collage and direct quotation are also important strategies; visual elements such as typefaces, margins, and gaps can signal temporal and spatial shifts; titles, dedications, and notes can carry some of the burden of context. Within the lines, verb tenses and pronouns also involve highly-charged decisions. The poet is always in the poem somewhere, but how far inside the frame does she stand? In one of Robert Sullivan’s sequences about Captain Cook, “For the Ocean of Kiwa” in the book Voice Carried My Family, he represents the Polynesian members of Cook’s various crews, beginning well inside the frame. Addressing one of those men, Mai, Sullivan protests, “I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” (28). Nevertheless, he keeps stepping back, out of the picture. That anxious “I” appears only once in the following poem, and by the next, the first person pronouns belong to those Polynesian crew members, speaking in the present tense.

When fictionalizing a real person’s voice in a poem, I think it’s best to acknowledge the transgression as Sullivan does. However, when I brought up that issue on Wom-po, The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List, a couple of writers, Eve Rifkah and Pat Valdata, explained why they disagreed. Valdata wrote, “if you have no personal connection to the people involved then it seems self-serving to make the poem about your own life and your own issues” (Fri, 18 Mar 2011 16:40:26). Many problems unfold from our contrasting views: what stories does a person own? Are there tales a privileged European-American like me should never presume to tell? Is there an extra burden on poetry as a genre (as opposed to, say, historical fiction)—is it inevitably personal? And anyone writing history as lyric has to decide what her goals are, what kind of experience she wants her readers and listeners to have. A poem engaging the past can provoke, evoke, give answers, or leave disturbing questions hanging in the silence.

Addressing history in a poem is one way of constructing a community. The affiliation is through time rather than, or as well as, across space. Some might say that cross-temporal community can’t exist because one side of the conversation is always already over. I talk to dead poets all the time, though, and their poems are complex enough to present new answers. And I recently heard a similar point made by digital archivists who are trying to change the ownership of history by making original documents available online—letters, maps, early printed texts, often in nineteenth-century Maori. One of them said at the end of his presentation, almost as an aside, that he often felt guided by the tupuna; his ancestors collaborate in the project. Some documents pop up just as you need them; others hide, or the computer breaks down. “You know they want you to tell the story,” he said, smiling, “because they allow you to.”

Metaphors for Community

Is there a word for this? I visualize a pale field crisscrossed by radiating lines, each representing some affiliation or influence. This web is speckled with nodes or tangled places where a great many lines converge, and of course the pattern isn’t fixed. Some nodes keep darkening, gathering power, pulling more threads through their hubs. Is that what I’m thinking of, those maps in airline magazines, full of red curves that indicate routes? In any case, the nodes in my imaginary model are people, and the busiest ones are the network-builders: editors, teachers, organizers of reading series, and also the less obviously powerful people who just persistently stay in conversation with other writers and readers.

That’s a variation on the familiar web/weaving/net metaphor, and it has become a cliché because it really is a helpful way to imagine the bonds in a social group. The tighter and denser the connections, the stronger the fabric. Images of mixture are another option: the melting pot or alloy versus the salad, quilt, choir, family, or sedimentary rock. The latter seem better figures for community because they preserve a sense of the individuals who comprise the whole. However, I was just reading an unpublished article by Victoria University scholar Heidi Thomson about Keats’ letters—how he seeks to create co-presence through his writing, an intimacy that can seem intensely physical even though it’s made of words. She highlights his portmanteau word “interassimulate.” The word suggests that as friends interact, they assimilate and simulate. Sympathies, interests, values converge.

On Monday I attended a lecture and a reading by Robert Sullivan. He discussed the figure that obsesses him: spirals in three dimensions, “two points connected in a curvilinear fashion.” He pointed out the ubiquity of spirals in far-flung artistic traditions, though Maori and Celtic versions are particularly important to him, and noted that the curves seem closer if you look down on the spiral from above. His poetry circles back spirally through the literary past and the history of his ancestors, demonstrating community with his family and teachers through time. Like my web-that-I-can’t-name-in-a-word, the spiral, too, keeps moving.

I’m puzzling over metaphors because I’m puzzling over structures. Arguments are linear, but writing about a community for an essay or book chapter, I want a way of organizing my thoughts that simulates the complicated interdependence of the elements in my case study. I don’t want to focus narrowly on one poet, or a pair of them, because communities contain multiple nodes. I could describe the network from multiple angles, but where do the actual poems come in? Communities aren’t of literary interest unless they germinate poems people want to read and hear, but individual pieces rarely encapsulate what a community is about and it can be hard to see the very fine silks of connection between them. Can an essay resemble a net or a spiral and still be a clear and useful bit of teaching/reporting/talking?