Uncanny paneling

When you write a poem that resembles a spell, prayer, charm, curse, or blessing, are you trying to make something happen, and if so, what or how?

That’s what we talked about on the Uncanny Activisms panel I organized for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference last weekend (the conference as a whole was wonderful, especially the keynote by Camille Dungy). “We” from left includes Hyejung Kook, Jane Satterfield, Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Anna Maria Hong, Ashley M. Jones, and yours truly, talking with her hands again. Some brilliant tidbits I scribbled down from this brilliant cohort: Ashley remarking that all poems are spells; Anna Lena responding that spell-poems are the poemiest kind of poem, and speaking about how poems help us focus attention; Jane musing about shape-shifting through reading and writing, and how poetry can be a means to power, sometimes as an alternative when legal recourse isn’t working; Hyejung talking about poetry as an act of transformation (and about Icelandic fart curses, which I have yet to look up). I LOVED this conversation and it seems as if others did, too, which made me happy, as if we might be a small band of spellcasters setting out to fix the world through verse. If you want to join the effort, check out the amazing prompts I gathered from these writers for a pretty handout (less prettily listed below). We will be soliciting uncanny activist work for a future issue of Shenandoah, but for the moment, note that poetry subs open today (11/15-12/15), and there’s a special prize for Virginia poets: $1000 for the Graybeal-Gowan award, no entry fee, judged by Beth and me. Everything submitted will be considered for general publication as well as the prize. I’m excited to start reading but also a little worried about managing the deluge. My novel galleys just came in, and my students need lots of conferences this time of year, and I’m trying to squeeze in time to apply for book promotion opportunities…oy.

In other news, my review of Franny Choi’s amazing collection Soft Science is up on Strange Horizons, and my poem “Spring Rage” has been posted by storySouth. Thanks to the kind and careful editors at both magazines.

I’ve been down despite all the good things happening, at least partly because I’m not finding enough time to rest and read and think and play. I didn’t bring my laptop to the conference and that gave me respite, but Monday morning I was neck-deep again as soon as I walked into the office. I’m trying to take better care of myself, and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t start with one of these prompts. Writing poetry tend to channel the simple magic, at least, of temporary self-transformation: I feel calmer when I’m immersed in the work, possibly BECAUSE there’s so little money or prestige involved. Hope you get some drafting time, too.

Counting-Out Rhyme, from Anna Lena Phillips Bell
a. Choose a category of being- or thing-in-the-world—plants local to or new to your region; particularities of the way your family or community speaks; geologic formations or soil types near you; songs from a specific tradition; birds or small mammals or insects. List as many beings or things in this category as you can think of.
 
b. Optionally, write a paragraph describing what you’ve chosen, as well as any threats to it that exist. Save this text as a plain-text file, and feed it into the n-gram generator available at http://bit-player.org/extras/drivel/drivel.html, created by Brian Hayes. Copy the resulting text into another file, print out the pages, and mine the text for new words that speak to what you’re writing about. You may wish to search for rhyme-words within the text; or you may simply highlight words you like.
 
c. Write a counting-out rhyme using the words and phrases from your list. If you’ve used the n-gram generator to create new words, incorporate some of these as well. Write in lines of trochaic tetrameter (or choose another meter and stick to it); optionally, end each stanza with a line of trochaic dimeter. Where pronunciation of a neologism is unclear, use the meter to help guide readers toward how you hear it. Employ a rhyme scheme (aaa, bbb, ccc; abab cc, dede ff, ghgh ii; or similar), however slant your rhymes may be.
 
d. Your poem will evoke one layer of the landscape or community its elements are part of. For each being or thing you include, imagine how it helps make a portrait of that layer in the time during which you’ve experienced it. Read your completed poem to the beings or things it includes. Read it to other people. Revise based on these readings and imaginings.
 
e. Memorize your revised poem: make it part of your body and mind.
 
Ambitious poem, from Lesley Wheeler: Think about something you desperately want to achieve, an aspiration you may be embarrassed to admit. Imagine how you would achieve this goal and imagine taking those steps; consider who might have the power to help and imagine them giving that help. Write a fourteen-line poem in the future tense describing this process. The first word should be “let” and you should repeat the first line exactly, or almost exactly, at the poem’s close. Weave in references to: a so-called weed or wild plant you noticed recently; a scent that makes you feel good; and something other-than-human that produces a humming sound. (adapted from a prompt by Oliver de la Paz)

Self-invocation Poem, from Hyejung Kook: In this poem, we are going to name, invoke, and invent our most expansive self. Start by doing some research into your given name–how it was chosen, etymology, other people who share it, etc. If you prefer, do this work with a different name that calls to you. From your research, choose the three words that resonate most powerfully and incorporate these words, a color, an animal, and a scientific/historical fact that fascinates you. Use “In my wildest dreams, I” at least three times and allow yourself all the possibility the phrase grants you. Once your draft is complete, remove the phrase “In my wildest dreams,” from the poem.  

Another possibility is to turn the naming-invocation outward, using the phrase “In my wildest dreams, you” while writing.

Po Go, from Anna Maria Hong: This exercise can be harnessed to jumpstart a new project, clear the deck, meditate on a question, or find a new question to guide your writing now.
 
1.   Designate 15 minutes of your day to this exercise for 40 days. Ideally, do this exercise before you speak to or interact with another human being each day (dogs and cats, OK), but if this is not possible, allocate another time free of distractions.
2.   Ideally, also designate a place for this exercise.
3.   Begin each session with an invocation to the “gods” of poetry—whichever spirits might be enlisted to help you—household objects, ancient deities, your ancestors, etc.
4.   Begin writing this invocation as a list: “I call on the bedside lamp, Jupiter’s moons, and the turnips in the fridge to assist me in my writing today.”
5.   Then, free-write for the rest of the session and/or pick up threads from previous sessions (without looking at the previous entries).
6.   Stop writing after 15 minutes.
7.   Repeat for 40 days, and then and only then, review your writings.
 
from Ashley M. Jones: Think of an experience you’ve had that you wish others could experience to empathize with you—maybe it’s a struggle or a pain, or, maybe, even, more surprisingly, a joy that’s unique to your life. Try to think of something that, if experienced, would change the reader/spell recipient’s view or prejudice or oppressive mindset against you. Write a poem commanding them to feel that thing, focusing primarily on specific image. Take photographs with your words. Find the feeling, down to the hair. Your poem might be 10 lines, and it might include each sense (that is, The Five…or Six if you’d like). 
 
from Jane Satterfield: Select a natural organism that you’ve admired or overlooked. Learn more about its species and life cycle; appearance, texture, smell. What are its beneficial or dangerous properties? Associations and attributes? What role has it played in legend, lore, and in myth?  
 
Use tercets to weave your new knowledge of this organism into a poem that purges anger against someone or something that has hurt you, or that serves as a means of countering some injustice in your life or in the larger culture. Consider the way a curse can voice an appeal for restitution: a poem that begin as a curse can banish the harm you’ve experienced. Alternately, consider the way a curse can release the harm of the experience and turn the poem toward forgiveness and healing.              

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.

Twitter as commonplace book

I’ve done just enough archival work to be fascinated by poets’ commonplace books. It’s been more than a decade since I worked among Marianne Moore’s papers at the Rosenbach, but I was impressed by her fantastically crabbed hand in a series of tiny notebooks, recording quotations she liked. At the Library of Congress, you can leaf through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sparser notes, mixing drafts, travel plans, and lists of poems that might go together in her next collection. And how I wish Anne Spencer had kept notebooks! Instead, I learned last summer how hard it is to date any of her drafts, many of which must be lost in any case, because she penciled ideas on any scrap of paper or cardboard within reach.

I’m more organized that Spencer, but not by much (you can see one physical notebook

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Some notes by Spencer on a pantyhose box

I kept here, and read a reflection about it here). If the internet ever disappears, much of my “archive” will go with it, not that I really expect anyone to care. This blog is the closest I come to an intellectual/ artistic journal, supplemented by Facebook posts. They’re all personal, although I’m performing and curating a version of myself: in these media, I’m honest, but not always intimate. My poetry and creative nonfiction feel much closer to the bone–riskier.

The space that feels most like a commonplace book for me is, of all places, Twitter. Like many other writers, some of whom the future will actually care about, I occasionally jot lines there from whatever I’m reading, or tweet links or photographs of pages. I like following what other poets are reading, too. I suspect if you peruse a year’s worth of some authors’ tweets, you’d only get a partial sense of the media they’re consuming, but that’s true of my 2017 list of books below, too (kept in Word). I can’t keep similar track, after all, of the vast number of posts and essays and magazines and portions of anthologies I read, much less the Netflix series and SNL clips I watch or the paintings I gaze at. It’s just too much. I’m a hungry art-consumer!

terracotta soldier
Art survives empires–terracotta soldiers at VMFA

So, belatedly, here is my very partial new year’s account of myself as a book-reader. I gave the sf highlights in a Strange Horizons’ summary review. In addition to those, I liked Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s first book, Ornament, enough to teach it in a poetry and music class this winter. I was excited by and admiring of all the poetry collections that made the most prestigious year-end lists, but I’d add that David Wojahn’s 2017 collection, For the Scribe, was just as strong as the ones receiving fizzier receptions. Among slightly older collections, Majmudar’s Dothead and Miller’s The Cartographer Maps a Way to Zion were new to me last year, and I loved them. Among nonfiction books, Tisserand’s Krazy probably had the biggest influence on me, and aside the more sf-y novels by Saunders, Hamid, Jones, and others I mention in Strange Horizons, I greatly enjoyed the latest mystery from Livesey, Mercury. Between submitting the review and New Year’s Day, I also finally read Alderman’s The Power, which both riveted and irritated me. It’s definitely a book to talk about. “Chewy,” as reviewers keep writing.

For future record, or for naught (if I remain obscure, or if 45 presses his really big nuclear button and civilization collapses, taking the internet down with it):

POETRY

1/3 Kaufman, Krawiec, Levin, Parker, eds, Intimacy* (teaching possibility)

1/15 Briante, The Market Wonders* (reread for class)

1/22 Blanco, Looking for the Gulf Motel (reread for class)

1/24 Sexton, Transformations (reread for class)

2/5 Camille Rankine, Incorrect Merciful Impulses* (micro-review)

2/7 Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (reread for class)

2/12 Etter, Scar (reread for class)

2/19 Hankla, Great Bear (by local author I admire)

2/21 Evans, Superheroes and Villanelles* (traded books at AWP)

2/25 Shire, Our Men Do Not Belong to Us (reread for class)

2/26 Smith, Life on Mars (reread for class)

3/3 Carson, Autobiography of Red (reread for class)

3/3 Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama (scouting for teaching)*

3/20 Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec (reread for class)

3/24 Vuong, Night Sky as Exit Wound (reread for class)*

4/3 Michelson, Swimming Through Fire (by friend; reread 12/4 for teaching)*

4/8 Hogue, In June the Labyrinth (by friend)*

4/? Satterfield, Apocalypse Mix (by friend)*

4/? Brown, The Virginia State Colony for the Feebleminded (recommended by friends)*

4/30 Sevick, Lion Brothers (local author)*

5/? Campbell, First Nights* (for review; reread 12/3 for teaching)

5/18 Borzutsky, Performance of Becoming Human (Prize winner)*

5/29 Friman, The View From Saturn (bought at conference)

7/6 Dwarf Stars Anthology 2017 (to vote on winners)

7/18 Rauk, Buried Choirs* (comp copy from press I ended up reviewing)

7/19 Willoughby, Beautiful Zero (gift)

7/20 Anderson, Rough (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/29 Wojahn, For the Scribe* (poet I admire)

7/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament* (by a friend)

7/30 Majmudar, Dothead* (heard NPR piece & bought book ages before)

7/31 Campana, The Book of Faces (research)

8/1 Campana, Natural Selections (research)

8/20 Stewart, Cinder* (research)

9/4 Bashir, Field Theories* (research)

9/29 Taesali, Sourcing Siapo* (review)

10/13 H.D., Trilogy (reread for class)

10/24 Pollard, Outsiders* (by a friend)

11/5 Forche, The Country Between Us (for class)

11/7 Michelson, ed, Dreaming America* (by friend and colleague)

11/21 Cooley, Girl after Girl after Girl* (review)

11/25 Smith, Don’t’ Call Us Dead* (in response to reviews)

12/19 Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf* (good reviews)

12/21 Long Soldier, Whereas* (daughter gave it to me)

12/24 Der Vang, Afterland* (NBA list)

12/31 McCrae, The Language of my Captors* (NBA list)  

 

FICTION

1/2 Whitehead, Underground Railroad* (good critical attention/ year-end lists)

1/14 Muth, Zen Shorts (gift from a colleague)

2/4 Gonzalez, The Regional Office Is Under Attack* (Christmas present)

3/5 Goldstein, The Oven (scouting for teaching)

3/6 Gaiman, Norse Gods (for fun)

3/7 French, The Ticking (scouting for teaching)

3/11 Hamid, Exit West* (scouting for teaching)

3/26 Butler, Duffy, Jennings, graphic adaptation of Kindred (scouting for class)*

3/30 Zoboi, American Street (scouting for class)*

4/8 Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo* (fan of his work)

4/18 Livesey, Mercury* (heard at the AWP)

4/23 Kidd, Himself* (reviewed well by author I admire)

5/20 Strout, Anything Is Possible (audiobook on car trips)

5/26 Robinson, New York 2140 (always read his books)*

6/10 Gavaler, Kill the Messenger (unpublished, to give feedback)

6/16 Rash, The Cove (people had been recommending his work for a while)

7/13 Herriman, The Kat Who Walked in Beauty (research)

7/14 Yuknavich, Book of Joan* (good reviews)

7/16 Croy Barker, How To Talk to a Goddess (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/23 Perry, The Essex Serpent* (NYT Times review, I think)

7/27 Gowdy, Little Sister* (NYT review)

8/6 Atkinson, Life After Life (recent classic I’d never gotten to)

8/13 Mandel, Last Night in Montreal (for research)

8/14 Dickinson, Poison Oracle (fan of his work and Small Beer Press)

10/1 Jemisin, The Stone Sky* (for fun)

10/8 Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (for research)

10/15 Mandel, The Lola Quartet (for research)

10/21 Mandel, Station Eleven (reread for teaching/ research)

11/8 Egan, Visit from the Goon Squad (reputation)

12/1 Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God* (for fun)

12/22 Hoffman, Rules of Magic* (for fun)

12/31 Alderman, The Power* (reviews)

 

NONFICTION

1/24 Culler, Literary Theory (reread for class)

2/18 Smith, Ordinary Light* (I love her poetry)

3/10 Rekdal, Intimate (I heard her give a great AWP reading)

6/24 Tisserand, Krazy* (research project)

6/30 McDowell, O’Connell, de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman (research)

7/5 Gailey, PR for Poets (in ms, to give feedback)

7/17 Vetter, A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Modernist Prose (research)

7/28 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (reread for research)

8/09 Frank, Diary of a Young Girl (rereading because I was in Amsterdam)

8/18 Stewart, A Poet’s Freedom (research)

8/19 Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (reread for research)

9/2 Allen, Our Declaration (first-year reading program)

10/19 Bialosky, Poetry Will Save Your Life* (research)

11/2 Leahy, Tumor* (gift, also by a colleague)

12/2 Sulak and Kolosov, Family Resemblance anthology (research and teaching)

12/23 Johnston, My Life As a Border Collie (by friend)

 

 

So many mountains

I am very glad I attended “Writing the Rockies” to discuss poetry and place with Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Tom Cable, Corinna McClanahan Schroeder, and many others. Getting there and back involved three flights each way, as well as some mild altitude sickness and a chagrined recognition that I’m too bad at sleeping in the first place to manage dorm accommodations (though my suite-mates were stellar company). But the conversations that started in panels and spilled into meal-times were exciting. It’s also wonderful to have cool sunny weather and grand scenery for the always direly necessary solitary walk on Day Two. A Friday night restaurant expedition was particularly memorable: the conversation ranged from poetry to negotiating childcare with spouses, and ended with a few die-hard poet-scholars finally walking one distinguished writer back to her hotel in the dark then stopping at McD’s for iced tea and soft-serve. Scandalous carousing, I know, so I won’t name names.

The poetry part of the conference, and of Western Colorado State University’s creative writing program generally, has a formalist bent. For example, during one paper for Anna Lena’s “Enplaced Poetics” panel, Tom Cable, medievalist prosodist extraordinaire, demonstrated how he can jog while reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets (and regularly does), but not while reciting “Sir Gawain.” Good thing we had a roomy venue. Ned Balbo took some blurry photos of the gallant galloping Texan–I’ll add them to this post when Ned gets home and sends them on. Corinna and I both discussed how and why poems immerse us in place, she by comparing her own “Instructions for Return” to Amy Clampitt’s work, and I in relation to the New Zealand poet Robert Sullivan. The always smart and generous Anna Lena closed things out by reading one of my poems–thank you!–and by talking us through an amazing handout. Check out, for example, Eric Magrane’s “Various Instructions for the Practice of Poetic Field Research.” I will definitely be returning to his prompts.

During these past few days, I’ve also been contemplating other 2015-6 conference plans. I’m likely taking on too much, but with Radioland coming out Oct.1, I’d like my work to be as visible as possible. Kim Bridgford and I hashed out panel ideas for the second annual “Poetry by the Sea”–I heard great things about #1–and my inbox was full of messages about events I’m helping to organize, including a participant reading at the Boston Modernist Studies Association meeting in November and long-term planning for a future regional AWP conference (I’m vice chair of the Mid-Atlantic region now and still figuring out what responsibilities that includes). Like half the US literary world, I’m waiting, too, to see how my 2016 AWP panel proposals fare (vice chairs can present, although chairs can’t).

Academic meetings and creative writing gatherings strain the wallet, the family, and the body, so making these choices is HARD. I therefore understand the frustrations expressed in last spring’s provocative NY Times piece by Princeton prof Christy Wampole, “The Conference Manifesto.” I have never, ever attended a meeting just to give my own paper then hang out at the pool bar, but I think her 10-point contract is good. It mystifies me that our conventional presentation mode in English is to flatly read out double-spaced pages. That would be a disaster in any classroom, and it’s a pretty lame use of time and funds, too, even when the audience is filled with patient, eager specialists. Yet Wampole’s conference skepticism also reflects greater access to informed conversation about her specialties than most of us enjoy. One published reply, “A Conference Manifesto for the Rest of Us” by Cora Fox, Andrea Kaston Tange, and Rebecca Walsh, was a relief to this professor at a rural liberal arts college. “…Academics often find themselves a party of one in their departments, working as the sole representative of a particular field, without immediate access to colleagues in their fields of expertise. Done well, an academic conference offers a chance for collegial dialogue of the sort that can lead to tangible progress.”–Yes.

These manifestos concern scholarly meetings but the creative writing ones work similarly: great presenters share the podium with unprepared, marginally coherent ones. You find soulmates in the art but also feel the disdain, sometimes, of cliques. Further, gender dynamics at most meetings of any kind range from slightly tricky to awful. Often, though not always, women are more generous in supporting each others’ work. An all-male panel draws a mixed-gender audience; an all-female one draws mostly women. I’ve never attended a wholly terrible, worthless conference, but there are some to which I would never return because of a poor sense of community.

The distance means I’m unlikely to become a regular, but there was friendly community for sure among the attendees of “Writing the Rockies.” I also appreciated how the critical and creative portions of the conference were similarly good and useful. That’s rare, and it’s what I want most–to bring both of my major writing commitments to a single, welcoming space. I’d like to put off choosing between the two sides of the hyphen in “poet-scholar,” yet so often my conference-going entails not balance as much as doubling the time, money, and effort. Even if my conference budget weren’t limited, my tolerance for sleep deprivation is.

On that note: while I’m taking a couple of days to normalize my circadian rhythms and organize receipts, it’s now that part of the summer when I need to sit down, consolidate what I’ve read and written during my travels, and establish a work rhythm. I’m finalizing Radioland, preparing to jump once again into the deep end of my critical book ms, plus I’d love to turn my attention to a few other projects now simmering on back burners. That’s a lot to do. Given the intimidating vista ahead, jet lag is joining forces with the usual pre-writing jolt of anxiety. Quiet hysteria, even. So many mountains.

rockies 3Rockies listeningRockies jogger

Rockies hand talker