Videopoems and problems of choice

IMG_0142If you’d asked me in early August whether I could carve out three full days at the end of the month for a digital storytelling workshop, I probably would have responded profanely. Too many other projects! But I had signed up months before–that was choice number one. I was committed.

Choice number two, what kind of text to bring to the workshop, was part of my decision to enroll. I’ve been keeping an eye on the very cool art form of the videopoem–Moving Poems is a good place to learn about it–and I wanted to experiment. So I knew I’d select a poem, and it made sense to pick one from the chapbook Propagation coming out this fall. Since this chapbook is a narrative in fragments, the first piece, “Absentation,” was a no-brainer for the script.

Babayaga_lubokChoice number three was really a months-long suite of choices, sometimes panic-inducing. What images and sounds should I be collecting towards this project? “Absentation” features a woman standing at the edge of a wood on an early spring morning, in crisis, about to go for a hike and think through her options. I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to stockpile literal images I might not use, so last April, I photographed and recorded woods scenes. Imagining other kinds of source material was harder. Propagation was inspired in part by Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, so I searched for public-domain Russian woodcuts and fairy-tale illustrations, as well as books from the library on folklore and wildflowers. I even organized a backpack resembling the one my main character is later revealed to be carrying, in case I wanted to film myself packing or unpacking it. I put books in it, snacks, and random items, like a single high-heeled shoe (why?). As “Absentation” hints and later sections of Propagation make clear, my protagonist thinks she might be pregnant and is carrying an EPT into the forest. Should I buy one for my hypothetical backpack shoot? If so, what if I bump into a colleague or friend in the store? On the Tuesday night before the workshop began, I wondered whether I could talk my husband or daughter into buying a pregnancy test for me. Didn’t seem likely.

It’s especially hard to make these choices the first time you try a form, because you just don’t know how the medium works. I did end up taking woods-edge video at dawn on Thursday morning, just before the second day of the workshop, although I only used five seconds of the twenty minutes I shot. The backpack stuffed with weirdness remains untouched in my dining room. I didn’t use any of the books or Russian pictures, except for photographing the relevant page from Propp and superimposing it over other images. I was going for a sense of old fairy tale structures hovering over the character’s adventures, but the poet Carol Dorf posted on Facebook that the superimposition suggested entering a forest of words. That’s cool.IMG_0163

The funny thing about how the video came together: I ended up selecting images from the pool available to me quickly, almost intuitively, sketching the sequence fast. I was actively avoiding simple illustration, on the principle that visual and verbal images shouldn’t be redundant. But mostly my process was like the process of drafting poems, in that you’re following associations, unsure where they’ll lead. Oh, I realized, those bloodroot flowers against the mulch look starry–let’s try them against the “ruminating stars” line. Later I went back and adjusted color and contrast to heighten the resemblance, and in fact adjusted colors all the way through my piece, so that the video moves from dark, cool tones to warmer ones. But the basic visual structure preceded conscious deliberation. I think I was trying to evoke an introspective mood–that very alive, slow-motion feeling one has during a crisis–but really, I’m rationalizing after the fact. I felt my way through it.

Making my first videopoem involved other decisions I didn’t know enough to anticipate. Crosscut, blurry dissolve, or fade to black? How should I manage ambient noise in relation to voice? What kind of music, among pieces one can use without royalties, would work best over the closing credits? What should titles and credits look like? I practiced reading the poem but in retrospect, I think I could have done better with certain intonations. I didn’t fully understand how hard it is to alter the audio once you have everything else in place, the beats and durations lined up.

It would be interesting to do this again with a very different kind of piece, perhaps even writing towards assembled visuals instead of the other way around. I fell back here on my basic taste in art: I’m attracted to a certain balance of lucidity and mystery, concreteness and abstraction, that I suspect this video reflects. But there are so many other approaches I could try! I’d also like time to digest this manifesto on videopoems by Tom Konyves, which I discovered after my venture. I feel perched on the edge of a world of possibilities.

But fall term is basically here, so my next venture is teaching digital storytelling (with help on the technical aspects!–an expert will teach iMovie and help us troubleshoot). My first-year composition course is on “Other Worlds” and in November and December, students will create videos on the theme of borders and boundary crossing. I don’t know if I’ll have time to make another video alongside them, but I hope so. My warm thanks go out to the Digital Humanities and IT staff at W&L and to our talented visitors from Story Center–without them, I wouldn’t even have set out on the path.

My video is also on Vimeo in case that’s easier: https://vimeo.com/231143331.

Chapbooks, fairy tales, and spreading the word

I didn’t know, when writing the fairy-tale-inspired long poem that became my forthcoming chapbook, Propagation, that folktales and chapbooks have a long association. Here’s what Dáithí Ó hÓgáin writes for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales:

Printed little volumes for popular reading, chapbooks were common in several western European languages. These books contained a wide variety of reading material, ranging from stories about the heroes of ancient Greek and Roman literature to accounts of philosophers, saints, and noted historical personages, and to picaresque tales of rogues and entertaining rascals. The term “chapbook” first came into vogue for such publications in the early nineteenth century. It was derived from “chapman,” the usual word for the type of trader or peddler who sold them at fairs or markets and in other public places.
The publishing of small inexpensive tracts began in France near the end of the fifteenth century and soon after became common in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. The German chapbooks—Volksbücher—contained prose versions of medieval romances and other miscellaneous tales; and in Germany, the Netherlands, and France, the adventures of the entertaining trickster Till Eulenspiegel were especially popular. From the seventeenth century onward, a wide variety of chapbooks were available in England, and they spread to Ireland, America, and other places where material in English was read.”
chaps
oh, you pretty things

I’d like to think some magic was at work when I decided to mine Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale for an April’s worth of writing prompts. I knew that chapbooks had been a vehicle for popular literature in various genres for centuries, but not, consciously, that the genre I was working in was especially intertwined with the history of the medium. At any rate, there was enough magic involved that I placed Propagation with one of my dream publishers, Dancing Girl Press. It’s due in the fall and the ms is just about finalized now.

In the meantime–partly inspired by reading a draft of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent forthcoming book PR for PoetsI thought, well, what else do I need to be doing now by way of promotion? (That link, by the way, is to an especially wonderful post that gives heart to anyone who, like me, gets squeamish about the marketing thing.) I thought it might be useful to assemble a list of resources for other chapbook-writers who want to get the word out. Sure, a chapbook–called a “pamphlet” in the U.K.–is smaller and cheaper than a full-length collection, so one way to think of the marketing tasks is, well, they should be smaller and cheaper. One can post about the new arrival on social media, send out notices, give readings, seek reviews, hope it gets a few classroom adoptions–all the basic work (which is never actually small or cheap). But are there ways a chapbook is not just less than but different than?  What opportunities does the form create?

As a reader, I’m attracted to the distilled brevity of chapbooks, and how they feel in the hand. The best are tightly-focused gems you can read at a sitting, which makes them beautifully approachable. I was corresponding with a friend lately–Janet McAdams, author of the mysterious and lovely chap Seven Boxes for the Country After–who thinks that an increasing number of them seem less like baby steps towards full-length books and more like separate creatures, that is, sequences conceived especially for the compression and accessibility of the chapbook format. That’s true in my case. I don’t have any plans for Propagation to be part of a longer volume.

Yet how likely are chapbooks to have the afterlife other books can generate? Certainly there are fewer readings, reviews, class adoptions, and post-publication prizes to keep a light shining on your well-made chapbook after its debut season.

Here’s a list of resources I found–not enough, I’d say. I’d love to know about what I’m missing. Please send me notes and I’ll edit this post to include them.

  • Chapbook ReviewThis cool site includes lists of recently published chapbooks, publishers, and contests.
  • Some literary magazines do chapbook reviews in a micro- or “roundup” model. In addition to the list on the above site, including Rain Taxi and other venues, check out other venues that occasionally feature chapbook reviews: Blackbird, Kenyon Review Online (among the micro-reviews, once in a while), Pleiades, The Mom Egg, The Rumpus, So to Speak, New Pages.
  • The Eric Hoffer Awards have a post-publication prize for chapbooks.
  • Blogs: “Speaking of Marvels” is devoted to chapbooks, novellas, and other odd lengths.

Also, plenty of magazines that don’t feature chapbook reviews in any regular way would probably be open to an omnibus review, if one made a pitch. Any writer who wants attention for his or her own work should be giving back somehow, and reviewing is a great and generous way to do that.

As for Propagation, reply here, or on FB, or drop me an email if you want to be on the publicity list I really should be working on, ahem (with your email address). I’d also be happy to send galleys, eventually, and signed copies to people planning reviews or classroom adoptions–but I don’t even have a cover yet!

Intention / haplessness

As usual, I’m tripping over my own sleepy feet into National Poetry Month, knowing I should have a WRITING PLAN but instead feeling indecisive, half-awake. April is when W&L’s winter term ends in a flurry of meetings, receptions, and papers; exam week and spring break, which are relatively calm, occupy the middle; and by the last 10 days or so I may or may not be teaching one of W&L’s hyper-intense 4-week spring courses, meeting 15 undergraduate poets for a couple of hours daily and otherwise grading and planning like a demon. It’s rough to establish a writing schedule during those transitions, but on the other hand, it’s a moment when the earth is all churned up inside and out, and those are fertile poetry times for me. I get much less done during winter’s still darkness.

I began observing NaPoWriMo in 2012, drafting a poem every day that April, and it was an amazing season: I wrote some good stuff and made real progress as a writer. It was also my first spring in two years, because of a six-month stay in New Zealand where the seasons are flipped, so I went from light-starved to ecstatic sun-worshiper in the most intense attunement to spring I’ve ever experienced. In May, my father died, so I wrote furiously all summer and fall, too. Those poems form the core of my next book.

April 2013 was less successful, even though I spent part of the month at a writer’s retreat, perhaps because I didn’t need the release so desperately. In 2014 I shifted approach and wrote a long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale for prompts. I recently revised “Propagation” for a contest submission. It begins, as the excerpt below shows, with a middleaged woman about to walk into the woods for a solitary hike; she may or may not be accidentally pregnant, but she’s also unhappy and trying to figure out what to do next. I loved researching the local wildflowers as they bloomed on our back campus as well as experimenting with different forms and styles from day to day. The first section is below, just to give you the scent of it.

The deal I’m striking with myself now: as of tomorrow I have to spend at least 20 minutes per day working on poetry. I can write, revise, or just read and think and plan, but I have to prioritize it, including during the AWP. Even if your life is nuts in April, it’s a good discipline to remember that you can carve out little blocks of concentration for what’s important. You just need to make really living your life–as opposed to checking email or hitting snooze or whatever else gets you into trouble–non-negotiable. Wish me luck.

1

An edge will sharpen later:
  bright lot / chilled shade.
Now, at April’s front door,
  the woods begin
imperceptibly.
  Wizened sycamores
crook twig-fingers—come in, come
     in—but their kitchen
vents through a thousand
  seedy chimneys. No
green shingles yet
  divide the interior
from ruminating stars.

  Inside me another
brambled sleeping world:
  another boundary to breach.
Anger / desire. Inside
  me a felted bud may
be fattening. Embryonic
  summer. Infant
premonition of forest.

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.

Lilacs, long poems, life transformations

april dutchman's breechesI’m at one of my academic year’s four hinges, less evenly-spaced than the solstices and equinoxes: the long winter term has ended, grades are in, and I’m gearing up for our May term, four intense weeks that conclude with graduation ceremonies. It’s a crazy time of year to attempt a poetry experiment: writing every day for a month through winter term’s crescendo, exams, spring break, and the beginning of a new workshop. Somehow, though, two weeks in, I am still keeping the faith. Perhaps the longer hours of daylight help make time. I know I’m inspired by the zombie season, everything dead struggling and wheezing back to life. From my home office window, I watch the mountain change colors, lawns green up, and flowers bloom in preordained succession. Today a pair of cardinals is dancing around the branches of our broken maple, still bare but tipped with pale small leaves like folded umbrellas. There’s a magnolia across the street whose white blossoms always remind me of crumpled paper; scraps are falling already, so the yard resembles an old-time writer’s den with sheets ripped from the typewriter, balled up, and discarded all over the floor. Some tulips are up, and dark clenched knobs suggest the lilac is fit to burst.

The long poem I’m working on in half-hour stints doesn’t have a name yet, but it began with a middleaged woman standing at the edge of the woods in early April and she’s now nearly halfway through her walk. For inspiration, an orange-bound copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale sits beside my laptop. He breaks such tales into thirty-one stages such as “MISFORTUNE OR LACK IS MADE KNOWN” and “THE HERO ACQUIRES THE USE OF A MAGICAL OBJECT.” Since one of the stages, “THE SEEKER AGREES TO OR DECIDES UPON COUNTERACTION,” is something Propp himself suggests is typically skipped, the whole thing makes an interesting set of prompts for a month with thirty days. The project requires me to take frequent walks in the woods, particularly on the back campus where wildflowers are in bloom (I believe that’s Dutchman’s Breeches in the picture). I’m trying to learn their names. “I think that one’s spring beauty, a.k.a. miner’s lettuce,” I told Chris this week. He dared me to taste it and I did nibble a leaf; he then refused to try it himself, pointing out, “Someone’s got to carry you home.” It didn’t come to that, but I did discover later that I had in fact eaten a bit of Virginia bluebell. It didn’t kill me, but none of my sources describe it as edible.

On the whole, though the past seven days were exceptionally busy and tiring, last week was the best I’ve had in a while. A reading at a high school reminded me that poetry does matter. Many people have written to me—thank you!—about the videopoem of “My Dead Father Remembers My Birthday,” a piece that appeared recently in the New Ohio Review and which has just been reprinted as Shenandoah’s poem of the week. I’m writing. And I’m basking like those young garter snakes I saw by the river in our change of fate: Chris was recently hired tenure-track as W&L’s fiction professor (he’s been adjuncting here for ages), so now I can stop feeling guilty about transplanting him to Virginia twenty years ago, and our department can enjoy full-time, committed talent in a direly important field (our major is thriving generally, but fiction workshops are more in demand than any other course). I still haven’t processed this news deeply. Maybe I’ll fully relax when the cones of lilac blossoms do.

On my to-do list for “break,” in addition to writing, course prep, administrative catch-up, poetry submissions, summer travel planning, and taking my daughter down to Davidson for a college tour: sign up for various book lotteries from Kellie Russell Agodon’s Big Poetry Giveaway list. For a chance at my Heterotopia plus a signed copy of Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon’s ]Open Interval[, post a comment here.