A few quotes + links (please click through!) from the Poet Bloggers Revival Tour, plus occasional other poetry bloggers in my feed reader. If you’ve missed earlier editions of the digest, here’s the archive.
This week’s topics: the uses of poetry, the usefulness of external validation, the usefulness of blogging and other creative practices, the uselessness of consistency of style, the usefulness of having consistent topics to write around, the usefulness of group submittathons, the potential usefulness of self-doubt, the pleasures of community poetry festivals, the pleasures of Fatimah Asghar’s poetry, the pleasures of Christopher’s North’s poetry, the dubious utility of writing within constraints, the difficulty of assessing one’s own face, and the existential crisis of living and writing during a planet-wide extinction.
I like poems that do little useful things for you
like telling a friend you’ve been such a jerk,
keeping one company when bored in a long queue,
or teaching some manners to a misanthropic, rude clerk.
Magda Kapa, Once More, Thoughts on Poetry
It is so very much easier to “act” like a poet or writer once you feel like a poet or writer — i.e. when you have the external validation of publication. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is. Of course, in some ways, it’s the easy way, the “lazy man’s way” of writing. The external validation is a shortcut in the path to self-esteem that’s large enough to incorporate a regular writing practice. Honestly — I’m beginning to think that I resisted setting up a regular writing practice — these morning writing sessions — because I didn’t feel like I deserved them. Sometimes I still don’t. But lately I tell that part of myself to fuck off and I go back to the page.
Sarah Kain Gutowski, Writing Practices, Processes, and Productivity
Once I started blogging I discovered that–for whatever reason–I don’t get all uptight and perfection-y about writing blogposts. I just type stuff and go over it a couple times for errors and post. It reminds me of showing up to teach at the college–ready or not, here it is.
Bethany Reid, Why do I blog?
This morning, I wrote a poem–and with that poem, I’ve written a poem every day in November. I’m not sure I’ve ever been successful at writing a poem a day for a month. There have been several Aprils that I have tried.
I’ve also been very active in my online journaling course which started Nov. 4, and in addition to writing a poem a day, I’ve done at least one sketch a day. I’ve been interested in how they feed each other.
The blogging feeds the work too.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott, From Blog Post to Sketch to Poem
When I was working on my MFA, I had to compile a poetry manuscript for my final thesis. I gave my thesis advisor (who was usually very supportive) about 100 pages of poetry. She read around 40 pages of it, gave it back to me, and said, rather miffed, “I can’t read this! Make it sound like one person wrote the whole manuscript.”
I remember thinking, why? (I should have asked her why but was too flummoxed to say anything.) Why is it necessary for a book of poems to be uniform in voice, or for a writer to have a consistency of style? Perhaps for marketability—though poetry is so nonlucrative, marketability seems like an absurd concern.
Eventually some of the poems in this thesis manuscript wound up in other collections that were published. I edited my other collections of poetry, memoir, and fiction based on theme and intuition; they were more consistent than the one I gave my advisor back in 2005. I do consistently want my work to be sensual and honest, and for there to be a sense of humility in the narrative voice. Still, I don’t see the value in consistency, not in a poetry book. I like surprises when I read.
In Her Famous Fur-Lined Skirt / an interview with poet Colleen McKee (Bekah Steimel’s blog)
Someone noted in a post I talked about writing “on a project” and “outside of a project,” and asked me to talk a little bit about writing on poetry projects. I don’t usually start a book project knowing in advance what the book is going to be about. Usually I start by getting interested in a certain topic, then more interested, then research that topic, writing a bunch of poems around it, and then later noticing that the poems seem to cluster around a certain subject, and exploring that topic in different ways. Usually I decide I have a book project when I get about fifty poems that hang together, and then I work on arranging, filling gaps, and maybe examining the subject in a different way or in different forms.
In fact, I can feel a little un-moored when I don’t have a subject or topic I’m working on, but it’s a necessary part of the process, because I don’t think anyone’s book should start out over-determined, and we need some creative open spaces – just like it’s good to get out of the house, even in this kind of cold and rainy season, to remind ourselves of the beauties and possibilities of the larger world. It’s especially important, when you’ve maybe reached the end of a large project, you’ve sort of exhausted a subject, and you want to start to explore again. It’s a good time to try a different type of poetry and to read more widely and even to use poetry prompts to get your brain working in a new way. I like to read novels and books of literary biography and writers’ letters in between projects, to give my mind something new to work on. Different voices that can help me develop my own writing in a different way – this seems especially true for me when I read books in translation. I hope this was helpful!
Jeannine Hall Gailey, A New Poem in Scoundrel Time, Talking About Poetry Projects, Giving Tuesday and Women-Run-or-Owned Lit Mags and Presses
Today after a long hiatus, I submitted poems from a Submittathon at SSU. MP Carver set up for 9 a.m.-1 p.m. MP describes it as “a community event designed to get Salem State voices and creative works out into the publishing world. We’ll have people there to help first timers learn the ins and outs of submitting (including cover letters, finding journals, etc). For those with experience submitting work for publication, it’s a dedicated time to focus on sending out your work. There will be snacks and prizes as well!” Jill McDonough is the first poet I know to do this. We’re just following in her literary footsteps.
I was on the early side, but 12 people showed up with laptops and poems to send their poems into the world. This is the second time I’ve participated. The first time (in May, or was it last December?), I didn’t have anything to submit. I’m coming off of one of the worst writing droughts I’ve ever had. As someone who likes to grind it out, I think I’ve written maybe 20 poems in two years. My math may be off, however. When I look at my Poetry 2018 file, there are at least 50 poems. I have enough for a terrible manuscript. But I do have a few gems that need a little polish. Just getting them into the light is a big step.
January Gill O’Neil, Submittathon!
I see a therapist from time to time and we had an hour this week in which we talked mostly about self-doubt. She rightly points out that I have a pretty good resume, career-wise; my loved ones, though afflicted sometimes with crises, are basically okay; that I would do well to ease up and slow down. I do not have to be so afraid, say, of never publishing a ms or writing a great poem or getting pats on the head from the prize-dispensers again. I agree with her and we talked about ways to balance my commitments better. I also argued, however, as I argue to myself sometimes, that self-doubt is a necessary part of being a decent artist, and maybe a decent human being. If you don’t stand back and say, “hey, maybe that writing sample wasn’t really good enough to ensure a grant win,” how do you grow? Isn’t a drive to keep upping the bar a necessary pressure? Shouldn’t I keep questioning myself and my work?
Well, I’m probably rationalizing, because that’s what people do. I doubt my self-doubt. Happy December, my writer friends. Put up those twinkly lights, and don’t mind the darkness encroaching.
Lesley Wheeler, Poetry and self-doubt, with footnotes
I was going to tell you about going to North Carolina for the West End Poetry Festival–where the Carrboro Poets Council partners with the town to produce four days of reading upon reading upon reading, inclusive of all styles and topics. (A 12-person council that hangs out in someone’s living room once a month, and is trusted and given the resources to organize. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could so easily facilitate the DC government’s relationship to poetry and the arts? Ahem.) I got to talk about poetry of food, I got to hear Ruth Awad, the Chief of Police volunteered to be on-site monitor so we could drink wine in the Century Center, and signs that would usually direct traffic instead directed “Slow Down for Poetry.” I was going to tell you about helping someone write an ode to barbecue, and watching that same gentleman (husband to our hosting Poets Council member) run the toy trains in the garage-loft where we’d been staying. I was going to tell you about buying hatch chiles and okra from the Farmer’s Market.
Sandra Beasley, Six Posts I Didn’t Write & Alex Guarnaschelli
Among the things I adore is the beautiful physicality found in many of these poems, in which the body is sketched out in vivid detail — and not just the pretty bits, but the full reality of a body that makes up a human being. A body is where “mosquito bites bloom” or where exist “hairs crawling out.” In “Oil,” she writes, “The walk to school makes the oil pool on my forehead / a lake spilling under my armpits.” The specifics of existing in a human body in these poems feel as though the speaker is declaring their existence in a world that doesn’t always want them. It’s a lovely way to claim space.
Andrea Blythe, Book Love: If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.
John Foggin, Well met; a Polished Gem: Christopher North
I have had spasms of trying to write in form. I still shudder to remember the crap I’ve written. Sometimes my poems do, though, begin to take the form of a form: I’ve had poems that seem to take the shape of a sonnet, have had poems begin to exhibit a rhyme scheme, or that show the kind of obsession a form like a villanelle brings out. I could be more willing and try to be more able at encouraging/allowing that, and making the best of it. But to start out with the intention to write in a form? It makes me shudder.
As for the other tricks, the only thing I do — and this only when I haven’t been writing at all — is substitution. That is, I’ll take someone else’s poem, ideally someone whose work is different from mine, so I’m off-balance to begin with, and then word by word substitute my own words. So “…while I pondered weak and weary” becomes “after we made assumptions, burly and full of ourselves,” perhaps. I do this to shake up my work, or push me into process when I’ve lapsed into lassitude.
They do feel like tricks, these constraint games. And I feel like I can feel the artifice in the final product. Which for some people is the point. My own mind, imagination, abilities, proclivities, ignorances, prejudices, blindnesses, laziness, insistence on some kind of logic…well…etcetera…are constraint enough. Aren’t they?
I want the poem to become its own organic thing, growing in bumps and spurts to whatever lumpy, limpy, or suave form it fits itself. My job is to give it some oomph and stay out of the way.
Marilyn McCabe, The Name is Bond; or, Writing Within Constraints…or Not
Editor John Wilson once told me that half my face was like that of the nice lady in line behind him at the post office, and the other half belonged to a poet or a murderer. Writers are murderers of a sort. But the look–that’s the work of The Wayward Eyebrow.
Marly Youmans, Book-and-birthday headshots…
A loss of bees leads to a loss of any plant requiring bees for pollination. A loss of beetles and dragonflies and mayflies and even the much-maligned mosquito leads to birds that starve, not to mention amphibians, reptiles, and some omnivorous or insectivorous mammals–particularly vulnerable bat and marsupial populations. The bottom of the food chain matters more than most human beings ever stop to consider.
One part of this article mentions the important, even crucial, role of people who study nature without having gotten degrees…the so-called amateur botanists, lepidopterists, and hemiptera observers. Another reason I find this article so interesting has to do with how Jarvis employs thoughtful, reflective moments in the piece, while maintaining a journalistic stance:
We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.
Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.
Maybe it’s my personal inclination towards the natural observation, but I find some resonance here. It’s what I tend to do when I write poems–to celebrate the common, or at any rate to notice it. I notice, too, the diminishment.
Some readers have told me my poems feel sorrowful, and maybe that sense of diminishment hunkers behind even the more celebratory poems I write. That’s an idea worth my consideration as I revise my work. Maybe Diminishment should be the title of my next collection.