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

Writers’ notebooks

I returned to Wellington yesterday from Auckland where, during the wonderful “Poetry Off the Page” course she co-teaches with Helen Sword, Michele Leggott presented me with a Tapa Notebook. This practice is a part of an ongoing nzepc project: visiting writers are presented with an empty, unlined spiral notebook and asked to fill up the pages and send it back at their convenience. It then becomes part of the library archive and scanned excerpts are posted on nzepc. Tapa is a cloth made in the Pacific from pounded bark; the tapa rectangle on my book’s cover is painted with black-lined, persimmon-red petals.

The instructions suggest inscribing it with “poetry or other notations of value.” Drawings and pasted-in items are fine, although I was told anecdotally that Helen’s inclusion of a French muffin-wrapper, buttery crumbs and all, was a bit traumatic for the librarians. I just toted mine to a staff seminar on Keats’ letters. Heidi Thomson argued that Keats is never unconscious of his interlocutors, in letters or poems, but what kind of audience do notebook-keepers imagine? I have been scrawling bits and pieces in little pads all through this trip, sometimes going back to pull out and type up some information I’ve been given or a poem I began to draft in an airport, but I can’t imagine some student poring over them in an archive one day. If that ever happens: Reader, I apologize abjectly.

From my notes on Auckland:

13 May, Laureate reading in the Aotea Centre: During Manhire’s “Hotel Emergencies,” Michele’s guide dog Olive, also up on stage, puts her head down on her paws & begins to look bored.

14 May, festival panel on publishing: one of the editors says that, historically, the invention of a cheaper format (steam-powered rotary printing press, the e-book) always catalyzes an explosion in reading & publishing. Another says that traditional books will continue to be published as “beautiful objects.” There will be fewer of them & they will increase in price. All agree mass market paperbacks are out: Kindle goes to the beach instead.

Best of the Best NZ Poems reading: Emma Neale gives an electric performance of “Spark,” about a child learning how to say “light.” Throughout, a little patch of brightness bobs across her cheek, a reflection from an earring. You can’t see it on the monitors.

My father John Keats eases a scalpel between the cork and the bottle.

My father Langston Hughes gives his camel jacket to the coat-check girl.

My father Allen Ginsberg insists I must eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli

15 May, Mauri Ola reading: Tusiata Avia: “It’s a big poem & this is a small stage so I’m going to read it in a contained way so I don’t fall off or burst into flames.” A tattoo keeps flashing out from the cuff of her blazer.

Kiwi expression from Richard: “to pack a sad.”

Love-dirty and almost bald, / the animals peer down from their high shelf.

17 May, Auckland University: Chris (student-blogger) is at the front of the room discussing Chinese dissident poetry with Helen & Michele. Michele is saying something like, “Well, we don’t want this assignment to instigate a crackdown on an artist by an authoritarian government.” Beautiful Olive is sprawled across the blue-beige carpet. I imagine she wants to go outside and smell things, but maybe that’s me.