The exquisite hush I require, being a sensitive artist

“So how’s it going at your writer’s resort?” my son keeps asking, and you should definitely hear pre-teen sarcasm in those italics. I packed skepticism in my suitcase, actually, nested in there with books I didn’t use and tea I would brew in enormous quantities. What’s so special about writing over there instead of at home? I wondered, even though others kept assuring me that residencies are magically productive times. Today I’m participating in an Ecopoetry Anthology reading at 2 pm in Givens Bookstore in Lynchburg, Virginia, and head home after the reception—so here’s a fellowship report.

Pros:

  • I can see how making an occasion during which you have no excuse NOT to get it done can be a really useful thing. I was here to revise and compile work I’d been doing in snatches for years and I did, in fact, arrive at a good draft of a poetry manuscript called Radioland. The idea was a two-week poetry-only extravaganza arranged to begin the moment winter term ended, because I wasn’t scheduled to teach in W&L’s May term, and because I have a lot of critical writing to pull together later in the summer. I could have found a book in this messy pile of drafts by laboring in my regular office but I’m not sure I would have, at least not so efficiently. It’s easy for me to back-burner poetry but the guilty sense of privilege this fellowship inspired made the work feel urgent.
  • The company was pretty great. I absolutely loved visiting other artists’ studios, hearing them read, listening to their music. Just the most recent example: a concert last night by Jeff Harms, accompanied by James Berman on the violin, was fantastic. There are some people here I’d like to keep track of for the long haul.
  • The mountains here aren’t prettier than the mountains in Lexington, really, but here I’m closer to the quiet places. It’s been restorative to take long walks through ridges of oak and dogwood and not meet a soul (except for those naked women photographing each other in a sunny meadow, and that was interesting in its own way).
  • A related point: I have a noisy head and here things slowed down enough for me to listen to it. Following paths in an unfamiliar wood is a lot like following the language that scurries around in my mental underbrush, or launches from some inner branch, or wells up in the wetlands. I composed a lot of new poems and I have no idea if they’ll weather. They do feel strange in a good way, though.

Cons:

  • Like I said, I could do this at home with a LOT less inconvenience to kith and kin. Unlike many people, I have a supportive spouse, good space, a job that allows summer writing-time and rewards me for publishing. I’ve had spells when it was tough going, but mostly I’m capable of setting myself deadlines and sticking to them, putting other tasks on hold if I have to. A VCCA regular was telling me the other night that she has all her breakthroughs here, and it’s possible I’ll recognize later that the new work has some special quality I hadn’t yet attained. The verdict’s out, though. Maybe it’s a genre thing—maybe residencies are less vital for poets. You can draft new prose for 10 hours a day, maybe, but poems don’t work that way, and I don’t need a big well-ventilated studio or a borrowed baby grand.
  • I had a friend once who said that everyone should have to do their own scut work. At the time I protested vehemently. I don’t know any middle-class U.S. residents who don’t farm out some chores by eating meals at restaurants, hiring someone to do their taxes or re-shingle the roof, handing clothes over to the dry-cleaner, whatever. I mean, where would that ideological maxim take me? I don’t want to thresh my own wheat and spin my own cotton. Still, I get it. Chopping an occasional zucchini is good for an egghead. I think it’s probably better, in the end, for artists to clean toilets, wipe up cat vomit, live with other people to whom they have profound obligations. A break’s okay, but three meals a day with no effort probably isn’t good for anyone’s poetry over the long haul.

I guess what I feel is, introvert though I am (I spent lots of time reading in my studio while other fellows stayed up late talking), the connections here will probably have a bigger effect on me than the silences. And I’m feeling cheerful at the prospect of slapping up last-minute peanut butter sandwiches because my sarcastic twelve-year-old forgot to pack his lunch again. It’s good to be reminded that lots of people, quite rightly, don’t take my craft and erudition all that seriously.

I’m sorry I’m abandoning you all

All it takes is a wobble
of ankle or attention—
the other racers fly ahead
and I’ll never catch up.

This is a stupid way
to approach a cherry
blossom. With fear,
I mean. What if,

I ask my spouse, I waste
this gift of two weeks?
I will have betrayed
my family. Counting

games and recitals
at which I will not
cheer, mushrooms
I will not fry. This

week I helped my son
imagine how to draw rain.
I mailed my daughter’s
lopped ponytail to a cancer

charity. All that honey.
Now she runs light.
And I pack the car
with tea bags, soft clothes,

books about other books
because who knows what
a mother of teenagers
will do with solitude?

My spouse laughs.
His first gift to me,
a quarter century ago,
was news that my terror

is funny. We keep walking
past a drowned young
green snake, curled
in a spiral, along the brown

creek, all roiled up
by last night’s rackety
storms. Surprised, he admits,
I slept through the thunder.

My NaPoWriMo poem drafting frenzy continues. One of the most fun projects I’ve started is a collaboration with visual artist Carolyn Capps–she sent me an image, I wrote a poem by way of reply, she’s going to create another image and send it to me, and we’ll see where it goes from there. More on that later, I hope.

This morning’s poem, posted above, had several triggers. My daughter is now on the track team. I read an ominously beautiful poem by Jack Ridl in the new Poet Lore called “Within the Moment of Indefinite Suffering” that begins, “All it takes is a tick.” And, obviously, I took a walk with Chris. He’s just back from Pittsburgh, where he’s settling his mother into assisted living. I’m off tomorrow to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ll have a studio, three effortless meals a day, and woods to walk in while I think poetic thoughts. I’m obviously feeling guilty and panicked. I’m wondering if I’m the only person who’s dumb enough to approach the amazing privilege of a 2 week fellowship, no strings attached, with this level of fear, or whether this is a totally normal angsty writer way to siphon off the joy from an amazing spring adventure.

Pretty books, messy drafts

photo (1)“No,” she said (I’m paraphrasing), “you have to post your daily poem. That’s how you learn to stop worrying about what other people think. It frees you.” Luisa Igloria, who gave a great reading here a few days ago, has published a poem a day at Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa since November 20th, 2010, so she should know. I’m still resisting, although like many other crazy versifiers, I’m drafting a poem a day this April for NaPoWriMo. Part of my resistance to posting them all is just plain ego and ambition: what if I write something brilliant, self-publish it in my blog, and then it’s not eligible for a starring role in some luminous magazine venue? (I do realize I could profitably let that reservation go.) Another part is skepticism that people really want to read my first drafts: I read students’ unpolished lines for a living and while helping people become better writers is an awesome job, I am not hungry to read more drafts in my spare time. I believe in and regularly practice radical revision, brooding over pieces for months or years. Many of my favorite poems convey hard thinking about knotty problems. I know their authors banged their heads against walls for a long time to figure out what’s really at stake in each of those babies. The flipside to that Bishopian sense of caution is that some great poems do pop, Athena-like, out of writers’ heads fully-grown, and you’re much more likely to receive those gifts if you hold yourself accountable to a daily practice.

My last reason for not posting my daily poems is the most artistically urgent, I think. I tried this regimen for the first time last April and the constant drafting did free me, in a way. I was writing so much it removed the pressure on each poem to be serious or even good. I started tackling subjects I’d never dared address before. I wouldn’t have been willing to take those risks on a public stage (if you can call a poetry blog “public”).

But, because Luisa has earned the right to recommend it, I’m going to post a few of my April poems here this year. The one below was occasioned by a gift she brought, and also by my recent reading of Trilogy with the talented students in my seminar on British and Irish poetry.

For another pretty book, this one full of less pretty drafts, see my exhibit in the wonderful Tapa Notebooks archive at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre coordinated by Michele Leggott and Brian Flaherty. The first of the pages in the digital archive is a brainstorming exercise on terza rima I did with a group of poets in Wellington in June, 2011 (they called it “torture rima”). In the subsequent pages you can see lists of possible rhymes, a recipe for farro risotto, a blog draft, and notes from a wonderful conference on African-American poetry held at UT Austin. While I kept the first half of the journal as a commonplace book, I eventually called on other poets to fill up the back: I asked the writers I met to put down a few lines of poetry by another writer that had been haunting them lately. You can see some of those pages, too: Leslie Marmon Silko from Deborah Miranda, Terrance Hayes from Roger Reeves, Myung Mi Kim from Dawn Lundy Martin, Wallace Stevens from Dean Young, and more. Having excerpts of my writing journal online makes me feel a little naked, but it’s a terrific project and being involved is an honor. Another American whose Tapa Notebook just got archived: Joy Harjo.

She Must Have Been Pleased With Us

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new
H.D., “Tribute to the Angels”

She gave me a journal as small as a camel
cricket. I don’t have visions like other
poets, just an occasional auditory or
olfactory hallucination, but Maria Luisa’s
gift reminded me of Lowndes Square
in wartime. Bryher thought to raise chickens
there—Belgravia!—but they ate their own eggs.
The Lady with the Book came to Hilda in May
1944. Those interminable blackouts, long
confinements in the flat, began to shorten;
one might keep the window open late,
imagining the scent of apple blossom
from a charred tree. Perdita’s darning needle
limned by the dim glow from a clock-face.
Waiting for the zrr-hiss. I can’t see it.

My book whirs along a fine bronze chain
around my neck. A lady gave it to me
in an egg-shell. I would need a camel-
hair brush, a single fiber, to paint a poem
there. Each syllable a sensillum.
H.D. thought, she was satisfied
with our purpose, and heard campanili
call the names of angels. I hear
the sky creak with cold: no cricket music
yet. I smell candlelight, a long-ago
poet toasting bread over a little blue jet.

April 3, 2013