That’s why they call it a practice (NaPoWriMo Day 29)

malaThreads

Meditation pisses me off. All that non-striving
time on the floor, therapist-prescribed, noticing
the rope of my breath swinging up and down,
ringing me like a shivered bell, adds up to another
chore I must perform and I have a lot of them—
twisted muscles to lengthen, children who need
the brushed-hand of a long-distance text or a note
for school, packed with the peanut-butter sandwich.
And after I unwind the trail with my spouse and find
clean trousers and deliver the visiting poet to campus—
why is every poem I write a list?—my students face me
with skeptical looks and I know I must hand over every
spool in my basket, every kindness and needle and tangle
of literary lore. I unwind sentences with them
and we watch them catch light, catch shadow, too.
Later, caught in the net of a computer screen, an email
reminds me to be mindful, to mind the mindfulness
competition beginning now: log-in to record for my employer
the minutes I turned off the phone to follow my breath.
Complete two weeks and earn an emotional wellness token.
Turns out meditation capitalized also pisses me off.
Instead I resolve to scatter any mystical currency my clean
trousers pick up accidentally. Spirit-lint. This is my log-in.
Breathe. What is the thread-count of anger? How soft,
how durable? Can I knot rages into a ladder and escape
myself? A chime sounds. List and day unravel but the bright
skein of breathing keeps slipping along, connecting me
to feeling, to tomorrow, to you, whether or not I mind it.

That was Day 24 of National Poetry Writing Month. I haven’t drafted a poem every single day, but I’ve still done a fair amount of work, some of which might last, all of which did me good anyway. Meditation isn’t going as well–a kind friend sent me the mala pictured above, but I tried so hard to race through the beads and get on with my day that I kept hyperventilating. I notice I like writing poems about failed meditation better than I like meditating about failed poems…

News flash: in April, poet feels moody

Spring’s been happening in fits and starts–blossoms one minute, wind-strewn petals the next. I walk a nearby trail most mornings, and on Tuesday, Woods Creek churned and roared from heavy rains; parts of the path were massive puddles, and the lowest bridge was half-underwater. The next day was frigid; others have been balmy and still. National Poetry Month basically occurs during the year’s moody adolescence.

I’ve been just as inconsistent. Every April since 2013 I’ve tried to have some kind of daily poetry-related practice. In 2013, I was pent-up and just exploded in daily drafts. In 2014, I wrote a section of a long poem every day according to Vladimir Propp’s numbered phases of folk tales, and that became last year’s chapbook, Propagation. In 2015 I worked on poems in response to images by Carolyn Capps, and that collaboration became an exhibit. In the Aprils since then, I haven’t been as focused, but tried at least to work on poetry every day, often by drafting something new, sometimes by revising or submitting work. This year, it’s been really, really hard, and I’m not sure why.

I do know my monkey mind has been up to serious mischief, in part because I had a very intense winter term, working round the clock just to stay afloat (around here, the twelve-week “winter” term ends the last week of April, and the four-week intensive spring term begins tomorrow–oy). I don’t know if this is a symptom or a driver of my stress, but I have noticed my reading patterns changing dramatically. I’m normally a hungry novel-reader, averaging one a week on top of classwork, and that’s supplemented by fairly heavy poetry reading and a lot of journalism and magazines. I keep a list of the books I finish, in part so I don’t draw a total blank if asked to write a year-end column somewhere. There’s usually a balance among genres in my novel consumption, depending on time of year and state of mind, including challenging literary stuff, pulpy mysteries, and a good share of speculative fiction.

2018-02-22-igloria-final-250pxThis year, since January 1, I’ve finished just three novels. That seems demented to me. I’ve been sustained by partial residence in fictional universes since early childhood, because this world kind of sucks, even for a person like me whose life has been pretty lucky. I can and do read lots of short-form stuff, including many poetry books, some by our first Glasgow Writer in Residence, Luisa Igloria, who’s settling in now to teach an advanced seminar on hybrid genres. Right now I’m in the middle of Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro-memoir collection Heating and Cooling. I also watch various novelistic TV series. But my lifelong drive towards narrative immersion in long fiction just seems broken. I’m not sure whether to nudge myself back into the old reading patterns, which I’ve always found calming, or just let the monkey mind swing how it wants to.

So far, I’ve been doing the latter, both in my reading and my NaPoWriMo practice. I sent a bunch of work out, and received a quick acceptance and a quick rejection; the other poems wait for editors to have opinions about them. I think I’ve drafted a couple of poems that will be keepers. I’ve also written poems about being too discouraged to write poems. I’ve been collaborating with my spouse on some visual poems here and there, and I also spent much of this week, our spring break, revising my own novel, because I received some helpful feedback and that’s what I wanted to do. Perverse, but so be it. The very best thing I did for myself, poetry-wise, was join a group of women poets just sending their daily drafts to each other for the month of April, with no apologies and no judgments. It’s felt like everything I love about poetry, with none of the striving–what a blessing.

On a probably related note: last weekend was the first time I  completely broke my commitment to blog something poetry-related weekly in 2018. This vow was in response to a challenge Kelli Russell Agodon and Donna Vorreyer leveled in December–see Donna’s awesome list of participants here–and has been facilitated by the great gift of Dave Bonta’s weekly roundups (most recent one here). I realized Monday morning I hadn’t posted anything and thought, well, damn. Then I decided I’d rather spend a few more hours on poetry subs, then work on the novel. It was good to prove to myself that I could focus immersively on something.

And now it’s back to running at top speed, with a seminar on African American poetry starting tomorrow. On the creative community front, I’m also also looking forward to a reading at 7 pm this Friday, April 27th, in Staunton, at the Black Swan. And I’m SO grateful to Gettysburg Review for including my poem “L” in its pages–that’s my poem about turning 50, in 50 50-character lines, which I drafted at 47 because I like to plan my crises in advance. An ambitious poem about the problems with ambition, it felt like a turning point for me and I’m so glad it found a good home–confirmation that springs of moody weather can, in the long run, bear fruit.

poetry reading poster

How poetry approaches music (and dances away again)

magnoliaThat’s the little magnolia in our side yard, intensely pink but browned from last night’s ice. A very intense winter term is just ending, one that included lots of grief and good news for the people around me, and that struggling tree, planted by the previous owners, seems a reasonably good emblem for it all. A little scraggly, but in persistence, beautiful.

I’ve been meaning for a while to post some reflections about my winter term courses. One of them, a general-education level seminar, focused on poetry and music. We started with prosody and moved through a series of mini-lessons on poetry riffing on various musical genres: spirituals, blues, jazz, punk, hip hop. Anna Lena Phillips Bell visited and talked about old-time music in relation to her book Ornament. A student composer stopped in, and two other visitors analyzed song lyrics poetically, focusing on Kendrick Lamar and Bob Dylan. It was all tremendously fun, not least because my students were smart and game. I’m not sure I feel much closer to answering my big question: what possible relations exist between poetry and song? But I did write up the thoughts below for my students and they seem worth sharing.

First: while there are pieces about which I’d say with perfect confidence, “That strongly fits my definition of poetry,” or “that’s absolutely a song,” there’s a gray area where the genres lean strongly towards each other–a cappella singing, rap, poems recited rhythmically or over music. If music means “sound organized in time,” performed poetry fits the bill, whether or not the words are set to melody or there’s instrumental accompaniment. Rhythm is latent in words; voices have pitch, timbre, dynamics.

Conversely, song lyrics can be printed out and analyzed poetically, and singer-composers in various eras have had a very strong influence on what page-poets try to accomplish. I’m still bothered when people conflate the genres or put them in competition with each other, because the differences in media feel profound to me, yet lyric poetry and songs with lyrics share a strong sisterhood.

But given my own devotion to patterned words on a page, a medium I find powerful in its own right, I wanted to systematize the ways a printed poem can engage music. My provisional answers:

  1. Through allusion: by referencing a song or a type of music, the poet can sketch a time & place or hint at a speaker’s frame of reference, as epigraphs in Ornament help connect the poems to Appalachia. If the reader knows the song, the allusion can even function as sensory detail does—the poet transfers an ear-worm so that scraps of music play in the reader’s memory while reading. This helps conjure a literary world the way reference to a taste, scent, or texture can.
  2. Through rhythm and sound effects: readers can perceive meter, alliteration, rhyme, and other “sound” effects without actually voicing a poem. These patterns or discords shape tone and can help imprint lines in memory; they engage us in making predictions about when the refrain will come or what the rhyme will be. Sometimes intensely patterned poems are contagious: you want to voice them, as if humming along.
  3. Through imitation/ adaptation: sometimes a poet is trying to achieve what a song or a musical form achieves—to stir or move readers—so that a poem includes, in some metaphorical sense, its own music. Certain Langston Hughes poems ARE blues or jazz, at least as far as print can simulate them. Rhythmical effects and rhyme, as in #2, contribute to the “music.” Typographic and other visual effects may come into play.
  4. Through response or criticism: a poem can, in a more expository way, explain what a song or musical element means, giving us a new and better-informed way to hear it. I’d put Yusef Komunyakaa’s “February in Sydney” in this category.

Scraggly list, or beautiful, or both? I’d be happy to hear about angles I’ve underplayed or overlooked. I really liked this topic for a course and plan to come back to it.

Poetry and presence

brushy4

Tess Taylor just gave a great reading here, and either there or during my class afterwards, she described poetry as “a dance with absence.” I know what she means–all that white space, evocation, closing in on loss and other big subjects through image and fragment–but when I’m finding my way towards a poem I tend to feel, instead, like I’m dancing with presence. There are stories written everywhere. I’m just not very skilled at reading them.

So I ended March, the cruelest month no matter what Tom Eliot claimed, with a walk through nearby woods–Brushy Hills–guided by geologist Chris Connors and archaeologist Don Gaylord. These hillsides, I learned, were likely sites of Monocan winter camps, then, during the colonial era, woodlots for settlers, before Lexington bought them to protect its watershed and preservationists prevented them from being sold for development. Don told us the trail may have once been a native road and then become a way for Scots-Irish settlers to drive hogs upslope for early spring grazing; later, enslaved people were hired out each year to expand paths for logging, before spring made their labor more valuable agriculturally. Chris told us Rockbridge County had once been a shallow, salty sea, then showed us examples of outcropping and floaters from various formations: Conococheague dolostone fluted and scored by the soil’s acids, hunks of more resistant chert. Someone from the Friends of Brushy Hills, meanwhile, identified a weird cry bouncing around the ridges as a raven’s. I recognized a retired biology professor among the group, so I peppered him with questions and he identified trees not yet in leaf: hornbeam, cedar, tulip poplar, ash, plus all of those American beeches shaking parchment-colored leaves still hanging around from fall. The sun shining through them was way lovelier than a cathedral’s stained glass. Presence.

So I begin another National Poetry Month with my head full of names and histories, partial as they are. I wish life were all walks in the woods then, afterwards, shaping fragments into poems. It won’t be! But I will be spending some time on poetry each day: writing new work, revising poems or expanding notes jotted this winter, working on submissions. Early spring, for me, is poetry season.