November 2009

At Read Write Poem, Dana Guthrie Martin has interviewed Beth Adams and me about our experiences publishing a chapbook — check it out. As with our live podcasts at qarrtsiluni, we seem to fall naturally into roles quite analogous to those of sports commentators on the radio: Beth calls the plays, and I provide the color commentary.

Speaking of Dana Guthrie Martin, last night I stayed up much too late reading the final, “curated” version of the inaugural issue of Mutating the Signature, a new and very innovative online literary magazine spun off from a qarrtsiluni issue of the same name. The inaugural issue is the work of Dana and her usual writing partner (and qarrtsiluni co-editor) Nathan Moore, writing in collaboration as described on the About page:

Mutating the Signature is a place for two poets — or one poet and one artist of any type — to work and write to, for and with one another as creators and curators of an issue of the journal.

Curators will select a theme to work with for the duration of their issue. Each issue will unfold over the course of one to three months, depending on how long it takes for the curators to fully explore their topic and the issue they are creating.

Curators are encouraged to “talk” to one another not only with poetry but with prose, artwork, music, photography, and other means of communication and expression, and to explore fully the possibilities of the online journal space. Each piece shared will contribute to illustrating, furthering and even complicating their issue’s theme, whatever that may be, wherever that may go.

Since this is kind of a new concept in literary periodical publishing — to put it mildly — Dana and Nathan decided to go first and show what was possible. The result is Untelling Stories, a very satisfying, nicely designed PDF book of 86 pages. It is by turns earthy and cerebral, and despite watching it unfold in draft form on the website, in many cases I had trouble telling who wrote what — that’s how well-matched their styles are. I was surprised to find a quote from yours truly as an epigraph at the front of the book, but that was minor compared to my surprise and pleasure at how well all the disparate parts fit together: paintings, diagrams, lists, B.S., and of course poetry, ranging from the lyrical to the postmodern.

Perhaps my favorite thing about it is how many incantations it includes — artful repetition can make even the driest of material come alive. And there is plenty of material here that could’ve become dry as dust in the wrong hands: as the title suggests, Untelling Stories confronts the human preoccupation with narrative head-on, kind of like the Talking Heads with Stop Making Sense, but employing less obvious rhythms. The writing process included exercises in which the same words and phrases were reused in different forms, which provides refrain-like motifs and helps knit the book together. There are a few parts I don’t get, but they are vastly outnumbered by images that astonish and lines that delight. Overall, Untelling Stories tastes like a small cosmic soup, wholesome and warming and full of strangeness:

  • A delicate rumor of dust coagulates on the table.
  • Love is acoustic tile where there should be sky.
  • His beliefs can be reduced to a single gesture.
  • The dog forgets/ our tension and the dead don’t believe we exist.
  • Shoelaces untied, you stumble through the exit./ You haven’t spoken to yourself in weeks.
  • Every mistaken month needs a sudden exit
  • Thou, in whose fields I dangle origami birds.
  • Who holds a lover like a can of Crisco.
  • What grows three heads then decides which will live.
  • They brought an exit wound. They brought an evolving gill slit. They brought the early morning raid.
  • Infiltrated by tiny legs of printed letters.

Can you see why I was flattered to have some words of my own added to this highly quotable mix? It’s amazing that Dana and Nathan managed to write this entire collection in just two months. I worry that they may have set the bar too high for those who will follow, but the next two authors, Emily Van Duyne and W.F. Roby, should be up to the challenge. Their theme is Ante/Anti, and they start tomorrow. I’ll be reading.

The other day while I was rummaging around in the archives looking for something else, I happened on a post from February 27, 2007 called “Warning label for a cathedral.” Written in response to a comment on an earlier post, it spawned one of the most varied and interesting comment threads here that I can remember, with a discussion about doves versus pigeons and Missouri geology somehow leading to a lengthy and thoroughly engrossing story by Nathan Horowitz about eating peyote in Mexico. This was of course back before we all got on Facebook. I don’t know if that kind of discussion would happen on a blog today.

There is no satisfaction quite like the satisfaction that comes from destroying a misbegotten poem — especially when it can be done with the click of a mouse. Removing a tick, by contrast, is much more difficult: grasping it firmly and pulling just hard enough so the skin stretches into a tent around its buried head, this paper-thin creature, trying to get it to withdraw on its own. And when that fails, sterilizing the tip of a sewing needle with a cigarette lighter and digging for the severed mouthparts. I was once almost that thin, I think, as I work the needle into my abdomen’s soft gibbous moon.

I am thankful for pine needles.
I am thankful for uncivil engineering.
I am thankful for rapture-ready Christians.
I am thankful for my balls.
I am thankful for synergistic competencies across solution implementation, product/platform technologies and selling channels.
I am thankful for Potted Meat Product.
I am thankful for like, whatever.
I am thankful for standards-based curriculum mapping.
I am thankful for palpable resentments on a stick.
I am thankful for Thursday.
I am thankful for fresh pink pencil erasers.
I am thankful for leveraging on-demand business intelligence solutions.
I am thankful for the Incredible Hulk of dogs, Wendy the whippet.
I am thankful for the hypertext transfer protocol and to the republic for which it stands, except where otherwise noted.
I am thankful for “88” sounding like “fortune fortune” in Cantonese.
I am thankful for habeas corpus, Corpus Christi, and corpus delicti with special sauce.
I am thankful for gratitude.
I am thankful for two-headed snakes blinking in sync.
I am thankful for latent-trajectory and latent-growth-curve models for a dependent variable having ordered categories.
I am thankful for every serviceable device.
I am thankful for sand.

One with the head of a crocodile, one wearing the fresh skin of a newborn just beginning to lose its glow, one in a trench coat and shoes black and shiny enough to confuse the moon into setting an hour early, one who sniffs and shuffles papers, one with the wings of small bats neatly folded into the clean and green coffin of his pocket, one who claps loudly at inappropriate junctures, one with an extruded plastic handshake and a business card printed with the wrong email, one who seeks absolution in the polite smiles of his opponents the birdwatchers and trout fishermen, one who used to be the most powerful senator in the state and now turns his back on the public hearing — the assembled citizenry with their ignorant concerns — to bark into a clam shell too narrow for the sound of surf.

For more objective accounts of the hearing (at which I testified on behalf of Juniata Valley Audubon) see the Altoona Mirror and Centre Daily Times.

We like to think of poets as being a bit like shamans. The Greek word poetes means “maker,” and I gather it had thaumaturgic overtones at one time. True shamans, of course, almost never seek the role, but have it thrust upon them as the result of an extreme spiritual or existential crisis. In her recent “Considering the Other” column at Read Write Poem, Ren Powell noted that some people harbor a similar notion about poets. “They feel that the title of poet is something they should not take upon themselves, but rather something that should be conferred by others.”

Well, maybe. But writing poetry is actually a pretty ordinary thing, not at all comparable to faith-healing or traveling to the spirit world. To me, it’s a craft just like woodworking, maybe slightly more advanced than hanging drywall, but not much. Poetry may be necessary to maintain the vitality of a language and may help keep the mind limber, but that doesn’t make it the special province of elites — quite the opposite. As the Nicaraguan poet Roque Dalton once wrote, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” It doesn’t require any special kind of intelligence to write it. Anyone who uses language — any human being — can, and probably should, learn to play with language in an artful manner. It might have to take the form of rap or rock lyrics to gain true mass acceptance, and its evil twin the slogan may threaten to erase the boundary between truth and lies, but in one form or another, poetry is virtually inescapable.

If anything distinguishes a poet from any other language-user, it’s her extreme sensitivity to nuance. Shouldn’t we worry, then, that so many poets find the label “poet” more than a little uncomfortable? Ren’s column was titled, “I Hereby Confer on You the Title of Poet,” and her conclusion was: stop acting ashamed about the title. If you write poetry, you’re a poet. But the discomfort is perhaps not so easily exorcised. In my case, I’m wary of reinforcing the misconception that being a poet is what matters. I don’t want to be anything. I just want to write.

And then there’s the problem that my prose and poetry are constantly shape-shifting into one another to the point where I can barely tell them apart anymore. I could just call myself a writer, but that word too has somehow gained a ridiculous mystique. So I’m happy instead to call myself a blogger or an editor — maligned occupations barely more respectable than a garbage collector. Then again, in my ideal society, garbage collectors would be among the most revered citizens, entrusted with the training of all corporate managers and public servants. My neighbor pumps septic tanks for a living, and he is, I’ve come to learn, a very wise man.

*

Much of the preceding comes from a comment I made on Ren’s column — actually one of the less interesting comments in that thread. It seemed just barely worth preserving here.

Two days ago, the small pile of qarrtsiluni’s first chapbook still sittting on the end of my desk caught my eye. We’d sent out a bunch of copies of Pamela Johnson Parker’s A Walk Through the Memory Palace to the chapbook contest entrants, and a few for lit mag review, and these were the ones left over from that initial big wholesale order. I had a sudden, fairly obvious idea: Why not try giving them away to bloggers who’d be willing to commit to writing a review of at least three paragraphs? Sure, anyone can review the contents of the book, since it’s all online, but nothing beats having the paper copy in your hands. I emailed my co-editor Beth, and she wrote back immediately to say “Sure!”

So mid-afternoon on Saturday I posted the offer to the qarrtsiluni news blog, linked to it from our Twitter account, and circulated the link via direct message to the 339 members of the qarrtsiluni Facebook group. I said that the review didn’t need to use academic language, and that we welcomed any kind of blog — we weren’t looking exclusively for book- or poetry-bloggers. We said that supplies were limited to just ten copies, though subsequent to posting the announcement I scrounged up another five and we decided to add those as well. Emails began to pour in, just as we’d hoped. We had our first ten bloggers within about six hours, and all fifteen by this morning.

The respondents were diverse in terms of location and the size and focus of their blogs (though most were literary blogs, most of the time), and it wasn’t until I was addressing the cover letters that I noticed something peculiar: 14 of the 15 were female. Why so few men?

Well, for starters, only about a third of our Facebook group members are male (I counted). That makes sense based on my own observations of how people behave on Facebook: women are more social than men, and thus, perhaps, more likely to join groups like ours (even though like most Facebook groups it’s pretty inactive except for the occasional announcements we send out). It’s harder to know the gender of Twitterers, but scanning through our 402 followers, it appears that closer to 50 percent are male.

Other possible contributing factors that occur to me:

  • Maybe the majority of literary bloggers are female (I’m guessing between 60 and 70 percent, but I could be way off).
  • Female bloggers as a rule might be more interested in reading and reviewing books (as opposed to — say — pontificating).
  • Male bloggers otherwise inclined to review poetry might not have been as interested since the book had a female author.

It’s this last possibility that disturbs me.

reading light

I can remember how it felt but I can’t remember the feeling itself.

I was living at the time between quotation marks, a perilous existence. People who lived in their cars looked down on me.

I remember running my hands over and over her bare scalp — the scandal of it.

The woods aren’t even there anymore. Someone’s sunroom occupies that very spot.

It’s true, he does. Well, O.K., he actually calls it a log — an artlog. Go visit.

What, you’re still here? Look, if you’ve been reading Via Negativa much at all this year, from the various comments he’s left you must already have some idea of the man’s generosity and way with words, not to mention his stunning artwork, as exemplified by the Tempations of Solitude paintings I wrote about. All three qualities are on display at his brand-new blog, which reproduces the contents of letters he’s been sending out to a few friends over the past eight days chronicling the progress of a major new work.

This ‘Artlog’ has been set up to provide a glimpse into my studio and the way in which I work. I’m kicking off with a day by day photographic diary of the current painting on my easel. (A bit of an experiment as I’ve never done this before, so bear with me.) The subject is Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds. The idea had been long gestating. I had a notion to conjure a more threatening mood than the usual bucolic approaches to the story. The key image that kept niggling at me was a violent maelstrom of birds with the saint at the heart of it. Almost as though he’s being mobbed. (Tippi Hedren comes to mind in Hitchcock’s The Birds.)

I’ve thought for a while that Clive should be blogging, and I’m glad he finally seems to agree. Since he was already an inveterate letter-writer, I didn’t think it would require too big a shift in his patterns, though granted, I am a shameless evangelist for this medium. It will be interesting to see how Clive uses it. Anyway, do go say hi and check out those birds!

cocktail dress ad with red-tailed hawk and poem (photo by sabeth718 on Flickr)

“Cocktail Dress” started out as a simple exercise: a poetry postcard like one of these. I missed the contest deadline by a month and a half, but that’s O.K. It’d be a cool way to link to Read Write Poem, an online community and magazine I deeply believe in. I volunteered to help judge the contest, instead.

I was on the point of uploading the above image to yesterday’s post when I thought maybe I’d change the arrangement of lines, which the constraints of the image played hob with. But then of course the poem no longer fit on the photo. So I said O.K., I’ll just link to the photo at Flickr and post the poem — less confusing anyway for readers who have come to expect that any photo posted here will be one of mine.

So I had the post all ready to go again, and literally had my little arrow on the Publish button when I thought: you know, that ending is kinda lame. I’ve done more variations on that kind of ending than I can count; it feels stale to me. Bringing in the hawk like that — it’s completely unearned. What does a red-tailed hawk really have in common with a large advertisement for a dress, aside from the color red? Well, I suppose pigeons might escape the hawk by roosting on window ledges between the ad and the building, but I couldn’t think of a way to work that in without writing a completely new poem.

Draft #2 didn’t even make it to the finger-on-the-Publish-button stage:

My window is blocked by
an enormous vinyl
advertisement
for a red
cocktail dress.
When the sun strikes it
at 3:00 in the afternoon,
the room fills
with evening

& I raise the window
to listen
to its soft flapping
over the sound of traffic.
I think I almost prefer it
to my former view
of stark & naked buildings.
Our lives are better
for these artful lies:
underwire support, pumps,
cleavage in the street.
A red flag
always ennobles hunger,
turning you wild,
O wild thing.

I mean, nice try to work in a reference to the hawk, but… “wild thing”?! The only way I could’ve made that more trite would’ve been to steal the joke from that Michelob beer ad, “Preserve the wild life!” But I liked the stuff about the truth behind the lies of advertising. Why not try for once to make explicit some of the thinking behind my choice of images? Suggesting a sameness between life under capitalism and life under communism had a certain appeal, but many people’s primary association with “red flag” would be a football game. Did I want that? Shouldn’t I go back to spelling out what it was a flag for?

I kept zeroing in on the sound that enormous poster would make, which strikes me as the aesthetic pivot of the poem. I described the ad as “vinyl” without bothering to do any actual research on such ads, but let’s assume I’m right about that. (And let’s completely ignore the likelihood that the building on which the ad appears in the photo is not an apartment building. These sorts of details are covered by poetic license.) What sort of noise would it make, assuming it was very tightly stretched? I tried verb after verb. “Rustling” would suggest a connection with the sound of a dress against the skin, which would be great, but it didn’t seem an apt description of the sound as I imagined it. “Soft crepitations”? “Crackling”? “Pulsing?” It seemed to me that a light breeze would probably yield both creaking, stretching noises and a sort of soft thumping against the building. Maybe “soft pulsing” would do the trick. Still a somewhat erotic overtone there.

My window is blocked by
an enormous vinyl
advertisement
for a red
cocktail dress — a flag
for the country of hunger.
When the sun strikes it
at 3:00 in the afternoon,
the room fills
with evening

& I raise the window
to listen
to its soft pulsing
over the sound of traffic.
I think I almost prefer it
to my former view
of stark buildings
& filthy streets.
I’ve seen much too much
of that too little.

What lies beyond
the artful lie is barely
worth notice: stretch
marks, sagging breasts,
hair growing where
it shouldn’t. A future
feeding breadcrumbs
to pigeons.
But the red dress says
get ready for
a wild ride.

I decided that this draft was good enough to publish, though at the last minute I decided to change “sagging” to “pendulous” for the assonance with “stretch” and “breasts.”

But then, as is so often the case, saying the lines over and over convinced me that I couldn’t have another -ing word so close after “evening” — and there was no way in hell I’d dispense with the latter, making as it does such a crucial connection between the wrongness of the ad and the sultry evening wear it advertised (at least in the imaginary scene I was working from; I have no idea whether the dress in the photo was in fact a cocktail dress. I know almost nothing about women’s clothing).

At about the same time, I got an email from a reader questioning my use of the phrase “pendulous breasts.” “Don’t you think that phrase is a little overused to be used in a poem?” she asked. Well, I dunno — I guess so. But saying the lines over and over, I decided that the short-e assonance is actually a bit too much there, and that for aural reasons alone I should’ve stuck with “sagging.” So I made the change and republished.

But in my email response, I admitted, “I think I ruined that poem by trying to pack too many ideas into it. It started off as a simple one-stanza poem like yesterday’s…” Once I’d admitted that, there was no way I could leave it alone. It was time to go back to the first draft and see how far I could go in the direction of a complete absence of didacticism.

So the bottom two-thirds of the poem were toast. A cocktail dress achieves its effect through elegant abbreviation; shouldn’t the poem do the same? I guess I am still an old-school imagist at heart. If I ever got a tattoo of anything, it wouldn’t say Poet, it would say Show, Don’t Tell. (Maybe “show” on the back of the left hand and “don’t tell” on the back of the right, in a simple serif font…)

I’d known at some level from the beginning that “flag from the country of hunger” had to go: it just doesn’t feel fresh to me. Not only have I probably written that exact line before — that’s the way it feels — but a flag for an imaginary, allegorical country is almost a cliché in contemporary American poetry. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from a Billy Collins or a James Tate — and good for them if they can make it new. I can’t.

Then I go back and look at the photo again. What about our perspective as outsiders trying to imagine (as I am doing) what lies behind the ad? The putative inhabitant now begins to seem as illicit as the dirty streets and sagging breasts had seemed to him or her in previous drafts. I remember an interview I heard on the radio last month with the New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex, in which he waxed poetic about the human blood fluke, which has a decades-long lifespan and remains intimately connected with its partner for the whole of that long voyage through our bloodstream. No doubt blood flukes deserve a whole poem of their own, possibly an epic. (There’s also a dalliance with snails earlier in their life-cycle.) But in the meantime, let’s at least slip in a reference. Blood is red, “fluke” is a very suggestive word… it works, I think.

But back to the central question: what’s the right way to describe that sound? Do I really need to keep the traffic-noise mention in there? Surely a long-time city resident would hardly notice such a thing, not compared to the novelty of the creaking, possibly humming sign. Then I think, what about “crackle and hum”? Immediately I realize that this is a semi-plagiarism from the title of a best-selling album by U2, Rattle and Hum. I’ve never been a fan of their music, but I love the sound those two words make together. “Crackle and hum” isn’t quite as mellifluous, but it has the great advantage — for my purposes — of suggesting an old radio, especially a shortwave radio. A-ha! The poem is really about broadcasting, isn’t it?

And that’s good enough to end on, I think. The ending of a poem should always feel like a new door or window on the world has just been thrown open. My first draft tried to do that by suggesting a relationship between dress and redtail and letting the reader ponder that, but it was too pat.

My window is blocked by
an enormous vinyl
advertisement
for a red
cocktail dress.
If you’re looking up
from the street,
I am right behind
the left breast,
shameless as a blood fluke.
When the sun strikes it
at 3:00 in the afternoon,
the room fills
with evening
& I raise the window
to listen to it
crackle & hum.

Thus it was that the fourth major draft moved into the blog post and settled in after I evicted its predecessor. It seems like a responsible, dues-paying tenant, but you never know. I’ve duplicated it here in case I do end up making further adjustments.

“Cocktail Dress” is neither the best nor the worst poem I’ve ever written. There’s a grain or two of authentic insight there, I think, and the language is O.K. The main thing that’s different here is in fact the process behind it, which I have outlined in such excruciating detail partly for my own future reference.

I’ve been writing poems since the age of seven. I’m 43 now, and up until about six years ago I did write almost every poem in just this kind of laborious manner with multiple, often quite different drafts. Learning to use a word processor and slowly weaning myself off pen and paper changed things a bit, as I’ve said before, but not nearly as much as starting this blog did. In general, I think blogging has had a very beneficial effect on my writing by forcing me to write something every day — I’ve always been an exhibitionist, albeit a sometimes shy one, so blogging was a perfect fit.

But whatever happened to revision? I’ve been telling myself that I don’t do it much anymore because I don’t have to: writing in quantity for an online audience has led to a maturation of my technique. But has it really? I’ve also been known to say that the professional poets go overboard in their perfectionism, and that while we don’t have to adopt the sloppy “first draft, best draft” approach of the Beats, obsession with unobtainable perfection seems unhealthy and counterproductive. But maybe that’s just a convenient excuse to cover my natural laziness. The fact is, it’s always more exciting to generate new content than to fuss around with something I wrote last week or last year.

What scares me is that I almost published that first draft and moved on without exploring the images and ideas in any real depth. And then when I dropped the too-easy ending, I flailed about for many hours, and even posted a draft I wasn’t terribly satisfied with. Maybe it’s time I re-think the way I write poems.