Poetry to the Rescue

Last post, I wrote about being flooded with old memories as a result of nonfiction pieces I am writing. Fortunately, I know one remedy to feeling overwhelmed by a project: Write on something different for a bit. It won’t fix everything, but it helps.

So I took advantage of a little writers’ gathering to focus solely on writing poetry; specifically, the kind of writing that strives to be uninhibited and often leads to brand new drafts of something. Very raw drafts, but a thing exists that did not exist before.

A short project to rest from a long-term project. A project done for simple joy of creativity instead of the more purpose-driven work. And two brand new poems, hurray!

A change, a breath, an infusion of fresh energy. Checking in with the poetry part of myself that has felt a bit neglected for the past month or so.

I don’t know what the difference between a writer and a poet is. Maybe there really is none. But my psyche relates differently to what I think of as my poetry from the way  it does to my prose. Both are vital; neither appreciate neglect.

There’s more work for me to do. I still feel shaky and vulnerable and craving. But I did one positive thing, used one positive coping mechanism. Go me.

Fighting Fire With Poetry

Readers who don’t live in California may still already know this, but just in case–we’re on fire. Worse than ever before. Hundreds are dead and more hundreds missing. Ash and smoke have rendered the air bad enough to close schools and other things; masks are being worn for hundreds of square miles.

What do poets do at a time like this? We write, of course. We write about what’s going on–and sometimes, for our own survival, we go on writing about other things too.

Or we write about what’s going on, but indirectly. We write things that come from ourselves after we strain current events through the cloth of our psyche. Odd inspirations that come to us, or characters inspired by people we met or heard about.

I had an experience like this a couple of nights ago when I read a wildfire-related poem at an open mic. It was a strange one–for some reason, what came from my psyche was a poem about visiting a friend in the psych ward while the fires were burning, and about the way his mental illness was severe enough to cut him off from being able to feel or care about them.

But strange can be good sometimes–as I know I’ve said before, writing about the same basic things from a million perspectives is what poets do, because you never know which angle will touch somebody.

 

Spaghetti Brain

I’m finally feeling creative again after a days-long crash following my exciting reading. Creative–but wildly unfocused.

My brain is trying to think of the following things simultaneously:

  1. The status of my fellowship application to a writers’ community
  2. What to enter in a Bay Area poetry contest coming up
  3. Plans for compiling my first full-length poetry manuscript, and whether I could get it together in time to submit to a certain press by their annual deadline
  4. Which memoir-style piece to tackle next for my nonfiction project
  5. Two different ideas brought up recently for collaborative pieces with poets I know
  6. Bits and pieces from pretty much all of my old poems, thanks to recent work of pasting them into a new format
  7. Submission to a women’s magazine whose reading period just began
  8. A community chapbook I have been thinking of getting together and whether I should go ahead and send out calls for submissions.

And…Hamilton lyrics, which are awesome poetry but an immense distraction when they keep popping up during any of the above.

You Gave Me Money For This?

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For the first time, I have exchanged poems I wrote for money. What a trip.

When I was the featured poet at a reading on Friday night, I brought copies of my first chapbook with me. Chapbooks are simple, low-budget productions, usually containing between 10 and 15 poems. I didn’t think I would get it done in time, because my date for the reading had been moved up, but with the help of my spouse I did.

I was looking forward to the feature, and determined to focus on enjoying myself at the mic and not worry about whether anyone would want a copy. Realistically, I expected to sell 5 or less to the modestly sized audience. I sold ten, so I’m very happy.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog, or my old one, knows that me writing and then beginning to join the writing community has been quite a process of change. You might have read an entry two years ago describing my first attendance at a poetry open mic. or my first submissions.

So if you write, and long to develop your writing more, I hope you will take encouragement from the things I share. I’m a messed up person, but I took one step at a time and I did these things. I think you can too.

Eight Days

This morning, I had thirty-five days to get ready for the feature I’m doing. Now I have eight.

Long story, but due to some unavoidable circumstances I’ve just been asked to feature on October 12 instead of November 9 as originally scheduled. So now I have eight days. The chapbook I was going to make for the reading doesn’t exist, unless I want to do a quick and dirty job within a week. While working on a couple of special poems I really wanted to have ready.

The little kid in me is throwing a tiny tantrum because she wanted everything to be perfect. It’s only the second actual feature I’ve ever done, so the novelty has not worn off.   I really want to be amazing, and I need to understand that’s not how all of this works.

It’s not. If I bring my desire for everything to be perfect and impressive, I’ll be distracted from being authentic.

More Than Words

I feel as if I somehow gave birth to two beautiful aliens.

The gallery opening was amazing. The work of sixteen artists on display, along with the ten poems that served as inspiration for them. There were two paintings that used my poem as their source.

How do I describe the way seeing them felt? To say I was touched is ridiculously inadequate. Especially since the subject of my poem was so personal (it’s about my daughter) it was overwhelming to see works that artists made with so much time and care.

I got to meet both artists and talk to one of them in more depth about her process. It was clear that the artists put their hearts into the pieces; that my poem resonated with them strongly enough to bring forth this kind of dedication on their part.

Staring at one of the paintings, I felt my mind journey into the depths of the abstract scene portrayed. I felt the world in it take on a life of its own. I had a visceral experience of the fact that a poem can be more than words, more than a set of ideas. That a poem, or any other creative work, can be a spark that ignites an unknown universe.

On Display

I can’t describe how hard it was to start sharing my poetry with others a couple of years ago. It has become easier and far more enjoyable with experience, but there are still times when stepping up to that mic or podium feels like opening the book of myself and inviting hordes of savage critics to have a go.

Now I get to take another step out of my comfort zone, thanks to a gallery show that accepted one of my poems. One or more artists did a piece about it, and my poem will be on the wall of the gallery with the pieces for nearly a month. On display. With my name on it. When I go to a gallery reception tomorrow, I’ll be introducing myself to people as my name and work are displayed on the wall.

This is such an honor (and it’s interesting to note how much I have been minimizing it when I talk about it to others, emphasizing that it’s a small show, etc.) While I work on overcoming my inertia and submitting more writing to publications, I get to have the experience of standing by my work in public.

It’s excruciating to have that one piece be the representation of me as a poet. It’s like sweating over which poem to read at an open mic, times a hundred.

It’s a wonderful problem to have.

How to Take a Compliment

I know I am not the only one who has trouble with this concept. I’ve actually worked pretty hard to learn to respond to a compliment with a simple “thank you” and put a period at the end of it. Just say “thank you” instead of making some self-deprecating remark, or some remark about how it’s no big deal, or some remark about how I could or should have done it better and this is why that didn’t happen.

I am getting a refresher course in this skill as I continue to get positive feedback about my poetry from people. I went to a reading last night and had several people respond positively to my recent work. Also, I recently had a poem accepted for a gallery show in June that is going to feature artwork inspired by local poets’ work about women’s issues. Right now, as I write this, some Bay Area artist is working on a piece that is inspired by my poem. My poem is going to be on the wall of the gallery for several weeks along with the artwork. I’m going to be reading at the gallery opening. How crazy is that?

I noticed that after learning my poem was in, I had a tendency to minimize it when telling people. I emphasize that it’s just a small gallery or just a local thing. Why do I do this? The truth is, this is awesome and I feel honored to be a part of it. It doesn’t matter that I’m a relative newbie in the poetry community. It doesn’t matter who else is in the show. I sent in work and somebody thought one of them was a good fit for their vision of the show. I’m allowed to feel good about that.

So are you, poets out there. You’re allowed to send your work out if that’s something you enjoy. You’re allowed to read at open mics. And when you get a compliment about your work, you’re allowed to accept it.

Why to Go to a Poetry Reading

So I recently gave tips on how to attend a poetry reading, but why should you? What about them makes it worth your time and effort? Why leave your comfort zone for it? Here are some reasons I find apply to me.

  1. It gives me perspective. As I hear different styles of poetry read in different ways by  different poets, I maintain a realistic opinion of my own work. I’m reminded of how subjective it is; I am left feeling neither inflated nor deflated about it.
  2. It gives me ideas. When at a poetry reading, I am listening without distractions and my mind wanders in a specific way that promotes new connections. It’s common for me to get a flash of inspiration for a new poem I’d like to write. I keep paper and pen handy during a reading and jot things down between poems. By the end, I have a bizarre mishmash of seemingly random words and phrases that carry the seeds of multiple new works. I may or may not follow up on each of them, but the seeds exist.
  3. It gives me a sense of community. I find groups of people very challenging because of my odd fluctuations of energy–I’m always waiting for people to write me off as they find out more about me or hang out with me long enough to get a feeling for the inconsistencies in the way I present myself. My bipolar disorder and the depressive phases come with it can make me feel “other” more often than not–yet, with all that, going to readings helps me affirm my identity as part of a creative community. It lets me see poets of all ages and backgrounds and realize that no idiosyncrasies have the power to un-poet us.
  4. It changes the way I write and revise poems. When I expect to be reading a new poem out loud, I end up paying more attention to its sound and rhythm. It’s important not to get carried away by this; the way the poem looks on the page is still just as important. However, thinking about sound adds a layer to the process of refining a draft.
  5. It re-connects me with the part of myself responsible for poetry. Daily stresses make it easy to lose touch with this, but after a good reading I feel stronger and more centered. Toxic people, the news, pervasive fears–all of these have lost some of their power when faced with the power of creative thought and the love that drives it.

How to Go to a Poetry Reading

If you are anything like I was, you might be very intimidated by the idea of one of these events. Maybe you don’t know what to expect, or maybe you expect the atmosphere to be uncomfortable. Maybe you think it will be a roomful of snooty intellectuals who will dismiss you as not hip enough, not educated enough, not artsy enough…not something enough.

Maybe the idea of actually reading your poetry to an audience of strangers feels so exposing that you cringe at the thought. Why not just pass around the contents of your underwear drawer, or strip naked and do a Charleston at the microphone?

As someone who started going less than two years ago, I’d encourage you to go to one. It’ll open up new aspects of your writing. Here are some tips that might help:

  1. Get there early. Find out where it is and allow plenty of time to get lost, find parking, etc. The reason to get there early is that many of these places are on the small side and you want to get a seat close enough to hear clearly.
  2. Introduce yourself to people and admit you are new to this event.
  3. If anyone asks whether you’re a poet, you say YES.
  4. Bring your poetry, even if you don’t think you want to read this time. Bring at least several different pieces, because what you want to read might change depending on what you have heard. There is often a break during which you can sign up if you didn’t before.
  5. Allow yourself to notice that you don’t adore every poem that is read at the open mic, or even every poem read by a featured poet. Notice how subjective it all is.
  6. If you choose to read, respect the time limits.
  7. Don’t forget to silence your phone.

I predict you’ll find yourself hearing some poems you don’t think are all that great; poems that make you think “Hey, I brought poems I think are better that that. Or certainly no worse.” Whether on that day or a subsequent occasion, you’ll step up to that mic and read something. After it’s over, you’ll see that no one snorted in derision. No tomatoes were thrown. You did it, and the world did not come to an end.

Porn for Poets

If the main purpose of porn is to inspire and facilitate fantasy, the poetry equivalent for me would have to be ads for workshops and retreats. Magazines such as Poets & Writers contain multiple listings that render me dreamy-eyed and wistful, imagining myself scribbling away under a linden tree on a remote estate or perched, bright-eyed, on a chair as a teaching poet reads my work.

Some workshops are priced lower than others, but aside from the rare scholarship offers   they are all out of my reach.  Alas, just as in porn, sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, there do exist some good, free online resources and opportunities for writers–certainly a cut above the internet’s jungle of free porn options.

It’s important for me to be aware of these and understand that when I feel isolated as a poet, it isn’t because I lack money. Sure, workshops are fantastic, exciting, sexy. I’m getting excited right now just thinking about a couple of notices I read this month. However, a poet can form ties and get criticism in other ways. My most important barriers are emotional and psychological, not financial. My level of connection and my development as a poet are my responsibility. “But I had no disposable income,” is not a suitable epitaph to rest above a grave filled with unwritten truths.

I’m Broke, but Here’s a Poem

I want to contribute, and sometimes what I have to offer seems meager. I recently started taking a tai chi class with a group of people who regularly support some charitable causes, and there are usually various solicitations going on. They’re good causes, but I cringe internally at every speech because I am barely scraping together the basic fee for the class I am taking there.

After a recent workshop, I was inspired to write a poem dealing with the subject. It occurred to me that I could send the poem to the visiting teacher who gave the workshop; that he might enjoy it. It might please him to know that his teaching provoked such thought, or he might like it in and of itself.

Sometimes it seems like a lovely idea. Sometimes it seems lame.

I think I am going to do it, though, because sending it clearly fits in with one of my basic values: the idea that I should present myself to the world as I am, offering what I have to offer, and let others decide whether they want it.

Laureate

Last night I went to a reading by California’s current Poet Laureate, Dana Giola. It was interesting to hear from someone who has had such a long and varied career–he’s a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, with an MBA and a PhD in literature. He has taught and promoted poetry education all over the state for years.

The contrast between seeing his poetry-as-my-career persona and the more intimate experience of hearing his poetry was fascinating. He, like many poets, writes of love, grief, communion with nature, and all of his human experiences. However polished and goal-oriented he may be in his endeavors, when it comes to his poems he is naked. And thank the gods for it–how else could I feel connected to him and keep any feelings of envy and inadequacy to a minimum?

Because (and this will be no shock to those who have read any of my writing) I do have these feelings. A career such as his is not achievable for me unless I invent a time machine and manage to get started writing well before my late forties. I must focus on what I can do in the time I have, and I must keep my eye on that which makes me want to write whether it leads anywhere or not.

Shapeshifting

What form does the piece of creative writing you’re incubating want to take?

I’m beginning to understand why so many poetry exercises want you to tear apart a poem and experiment with writing it in different forms.

I already knew that changing the voice of a poem can be a powerful tool–if it feels awkward in the first person, try third or second, etc. I already knew that trying out a specific form like a pantoum or sonnet can be a fun way to experiment with one.

What’s really making me see it, however, is comparing works of mine that deal with the same idea or image in prose versus poetry. As I go through old essays, some of them cry out to be used in a poem. At least one of them already has been.

I realize that when an idea or image is potent enough for me, it could give birth to several pieces, each in a different form, each powerful in a unique way.

Knowing this helps me feel more cheerful about revision…the old saying that “a poem is never done” brings a sense of hope and mystery rather than paralysis.

An Honest Poet

As I approach my first experience of featuring at a reading, I need to remember the importance of honesty. To be an honest poet is to present myself and my poems in a way that reflects who I really am as a poet, not what I think my audience might admire the most.

I’ve noticed that I am nervous about my reading taking place the Monday after the presidential inauguration. Emotions may be running high, and it is not unlikely that the open mic will reflect this. My insecurity tells me that I should try to generate some work that would address current events.

I worry that people won’t want to hear a bunch of work that has nothing to do with any of the topics so present in our minds and hearts right now. But that’s not for me to decide: I think being asked to feature means being asked to let people see a broader picture of my work. Presenting a hurried and forced set of work, out of fear or out of a desire to be accepted, would be dishonest. Holding back my most authentic works out of fear that they’ll be seen as self-indulgent would also be dishonest.

Denial, Anger, Poetry

The poets have been getting to work about the latest catastrophe, each on their own timeline and in their own way. Working through shock, outrage, despair and fear as well as they can…and, when they are ready, they’re starting to pour it out into poetry.

I am a coward in many ways when it comes to horrible things happening in the world around me. Sometimes I shut down, terrified that these feelings will catapult me over the thin edge I walk into an irreversible act of self-destruction.

When I went to one of my regular poetry readings on the Sunday after the election, I knew what I was going to hear during the open mic. A part of me wanted to stay home, afraid that it would be too much for me. But I went, and I’m very glad. I’m glad I found enough courage to show up and be present with everyone’s pain and anger and fear.

A few years ago I might have been impatient with it somehow, wanting the poetry to give me a break instead of drawing me deeper into the emotions of the time. Now it seems perfectly natural that we all (yes, me too) tended to have poems reflecting what was going on. A baby cries with the voice that’s available.

What Do We Want?

“What do we want?
Immortality!
When do we want it?
Now!”

—from “The Poets March on Washington” by James Cummins

But seriously…what do we want for our poetry? What do we want it to do? Not that it has to do anything, of course. It can be only for ourselves if that’s what we want—Emily Dickinson ordered that all of her poems be destroyed after her death. We only have them because someone ignored her wishes.

I’m running into this question more and more since I’ve begun sharing my work at readings and preparing actual submissions. I find that my process of revision feels different when I am anticipating reading the poem out loud to a group, as opposed to thinking only about submitting it in written form.

Beyond this, I want to think about how I’d like my poetry to affect other people. Do I want it to help someone understand something? Do I want to make someone feel less alone? Or do I want, in the end, just to give others bits of the oh-yes-I-don’t-know-why-but-yes feeling I get when a poem speaks to me?

If I am sharing my poetry only to get fortune (ha!) or fame (slightly less vehement ha!) or even just to get appreciation and positive ego stroking, I’ll set myself up for disappointment.

What is your fantasy about your poetry’s role?

Not the Time for Poetry?

Where does poetry fit into a life of practical considerations?

The other day, having put some ground turkey on the stove to brown, I made a quick trip to the restroom. Bad mistake, because I had the latest issue of a poetry magazine in there. “Glancing” at it led eventually to me wondering what that burning smell was before dashing out to rescue my carbonized lunch.

I believe, in a part of me I wish to give more power, that any and all times are good times to be a poet. The above anecdote, however, illustrates the principle that there are less than ideal times to manifest certain parts of this identity.

I live in this world, or try to. I don’t exist as an observer on some other plane.
Incubating poems is something I can do no matter where I am or what my hands and feet are up to, but I need balance. Sometimes I need to be fully present to the practical. For as long as I can be, anyway.

There Are Spiders

“There…there are spiders.”
“Enormous spiders, yes. The size of houses, they tell me.”
“And they eat men?”
“Poets, I am told. Twice a year a number of spiders come from the forests into the square of the one town and they must be fed a poet or they will not leave. There is a ceremony.”
“…A reason not to write poetry?”
“I am told they make prisoners compose a verse in order to receive their meals.”
“How cruel. And that qualifies them as poets?”
“The spiders are not critical, I understand.”

–from “River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay

Something about this makes me smile every time I recall it. Maybe it’s the idea of poets as a unique food; desired by spiders the way virgins were legendarily desired by dragons. Maybe it’s the image of forcing a hapless prisoner to become just enough of a poet to be appetizing to an arachnid.

Are poets really different from other people? Of course not…or if we are, it varies from poet to poet as it does with all humans. However, any differences are more marked in societies that don’t see poetry as a part of mainstream life. The book above takes place in a world inspired by certain Chinese dynasties; a world in which poetry was the province of every educated man…the knowledge, analysis, and even writing of various styles of poetry a part of the civil service exams.

The society I live in is far removed from this. My sense of identity seems to have been altered by beginning to think of myself as a poet…is this evolution, or just a delusion catering to one’s natural desire to feel like a special snowflake of some kind?

Does it feed my ego to think of myself as especially delicious Spider Chow?

Hurt You Into Poetry

Lines from Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” keep going through my head, after referencing it the other day. Here’s the verse that is resounding the most:

…Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Hurt you into poetry. Something hurts us into poetry. I’ve written about the role of pain in art, and the different kinds of pain that carry power, but this phrase is talking to me. It’s pushing an image at me, an image of our lives pressing and pressing on us until we start to bleed words.

I once read somewhere that a writer writes when they’re forced to admit they are useless at anything else. I thought it was a vast and inaccurate oversimplification at the time, and I still do. However, I can see the spirit behind the comment. Certainly, many of us have tried to live lives for which the contents of our psyche make us less than suitable–and we hurt, floundered and failed ourselves into writing.

We flee into the valley of its making, where executives would never want to tamper.

Unicorn Evils

Right now, literature students somewhere are probably writing a paper about what “unicorn evils” means.

They are probably not the first.

It comes from “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas. I ran across the poem in the library the other day, and I was blown away by how wonderfully weird it is. People think of it as romantic or inspirational, because of the theme of overcoming death and the most quoted couplet:

“Though lovers be lost love shall not, 
And death shall have no dominion.”

But when I read the whole poem, I fell in love with some very different phrases.

“Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through…”

This is what can be so wonderful for me about knowing nothing sometimes. The aforementioned graduate students probably have an idea about what Thomas meant when he wrote this. They’ve got mythological references, or information about the poet’s life and how it’s really a reference to some actual person, or they’ve linked it to some other writing somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong–if I won the lottery, you’d find me in those classrooms in a heartbeat. But because I know nothing, I’m free to put my own interpretations on the phrases. Even if I knew a lot, I think I’d try to preserve the ability to do this for my personal pleasure.

Also, “Unicorn Evils” would be a great band name.

Ink Runs From My Mouth

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry…
–Mark Strand

 

That’s what it’s like for me when things are going well.

When the veil between me and the fire of my self is thin.

Poetry, then, is more satisfying than food; more life-giving than rain.

The boundaries of my skull contain all that I require.

I need not fear boredom, or loneliness, or abandonment.

And when the veil is very, very thin–I need not even fear dying.

I want more days like that.

I want to remember the truth about how much I want that.

So Let it Be Written

What’s the deal with me hand-copying poems from books, anyway? Why am I doing it, and what do I get out of it?

It’s become a pattern lately: I go to the library. I walk immediately to the poetry section, find an anthology of twentieth century poetry (because I am working on modern poets) and take it to a table. I scan, being a lazy reader and waiting for poems to catch my attention. When one does, I read it thoroughly. Then, perhaps, I read it again. If, after I’ve moved on, a phrase is stuck in my head, I return to the poem: it just might have made the cut. I think about it; about how it makes me feel–and if I feel that way about it, I get out my pen and paper.

I have favorite paper, and favorite pens. Copying a poem is a sensual experience as much as an intellectual one. I have a notebook where I place the written copies, handy for later rereading. I fantasize that one day it might be useful to my daughter to know what poems spoke to her mom.

I write in cursive; less legible but it feels right. In writing each line of the poem I have to hear it in my head. Because I fear getting a word wrong, I have to look back at the phrases and repeat them. By the time I’m done, I know the poem far better.

That’s the obvious benefit, but it’s more than that. It’s a ritual; a process of making something more real to me. The phrase “it is written” used to imply destiny or fate–by choosing to write this author’s words down with my own hand, I take them into my world and my fate.

Today’s poem: “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford.

(Don’t) Tell Me You Love Me

Love: one of the most universal subjects for a poem. A poet can expound, at great length, upon the reasons the beloved is loved. Metaphor and simile are showered upon the admired object.

But my favorite love poems are those that never mention love.

They might not even seem to like the person they’re talking about; or they might come across as ambivalent.

Yet I am left with an impression of love; love that is felt and not described.

A few days ago, I “discovered” the work of Billy Collins in an anthology. His poem “Litany” spoke to me this way, so strongly that I added it to my handcopied collection. He begins a series of metaphors describing his subject:

You are the bread and the knife, 
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are…

But then he changes gears and starts with:

However, you are not… and writes some of these;

…and you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

He also writes some I am metaphors in contrast; but ends with

…But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife…

I was astonished to find that not everyone feels the love soaking this poem. Look it up; read it; what do you think? Can you see love in a poem that is not full of compliments; that points out what the object of love is not?

Welcome, Sister

Last week, Anne Sexton showed up and informed me that she is part of my family now.

Some educated readers may be saying “How can you not have read Anne Sexton before?”

But remember, I am new to the more avid pursuit of poetry. I have had no courses, no structure; no homework to guide me. I don’t read poetry to educate myself, although I want and need to learn more about the art of poetry. Educating myself is not a strong enough yearning to keep me reading when intense depression makes learning feel pointless.

I read it because it brings people like Anne Sexton into my life in a way that time, death, or dysfunction cannot take away.

Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and took her own life in 1974. She had a long history of psychiatric hospitalizations, and credited the practice of poetry with extending her life by many years. She wrote about everything you might imagine, with occasional emphases on themes such as fairy tales and God. She was a confessional poet, shocking people at the time, and an important force in feminist psychology.

I don’t like everything of hers that I’ve read so far. As with many poets, it’s a case of little gems popping up here and there.

But she is one of my circle now; her words belong to me and live in the house of my imagination. She joins all of my sisters and brothers, created by words and shaped into my council of meaning.

T.S. Eliot is pouring her a cup of tea. Sharon Olds hangs up her wet raincoat and offers her a towel. John Donne bows and kisses her hand as Emily Dickinson moves over to make space on the sofa.

Welcome, Anne, and thanks for coming.

What We Think About That

On the topic of what’s poetry and what’s just therapy or self-expression–in the library today, I found myself sensitive to how many poems do in fact tell stories about the poet’s childhood, or relationships, or an incident (unusual or mundane) in their lives.

I found a thick tome claiming to be a collection of Pushcart Prize-winning poems and flipped through it (it’s one of my guilty secrets, that I’ll flip through an anthology and only finish reading the poems that catch my eye quickly.) Among those few that caught me today were two that most definitely tell personal stories.

“Penumbra” by Betty Adcock creates an image of a six-year-old girl out on a backyard swing the day of her mother’s funeral. “Sequence” by Marilyn Nelson is a series of ten slices of a woman’s life, ranging from childhood through relationships and back again. One person’s story, in each case, but they had phrases that speak to me.

Yes, we overcomplicate the idea of subjects for poetry. In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams describes a fictional most-beloved-poet:

He wrote about the light in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the darkness in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the girl who had left him and precisely what he thought about that.

Here’s a Poem, Now Sleep With Me

Romantic poetry is–well–romantic. But some of it stands out to me as a more blatant bid not only for a partner’s affections but for very specific acts. These poems often reflect the times and culture of the poet, especially when they are a plea by a male poet for the female object of his affections to “come across.”

John Donne’s “The Flea” is one of the examples I remember strongly. In it, Donne argues with a female companion who is resistant to getting physical. He uses the image of a flea that’s just bitten both of them to claim that their blood is now mingled in this creature and that wasn’t a sin, so what does it matter what their bodies do? “Thou know’st that this cannot be said
a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead…”

Another commonly taught example is Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” In this one, the male character uses time and mortality as an argument, spinning images of history and eternity to convince the object of his desire that it’s folly to waste time on this whole getting-to-know-you business. He warns that if she is obstinate time will snatch away all chance of joy:
“then worms shall try
that long-preserved virginity,
and your quaint honour turn to dust,
and into ashes all my lust.”

When I look at poems like this, I remember the cultures these women lived in. Sex is complicated in my current culture, but the stakes were higher back then. Sometimes I feel anger on behalf of a woman like this, being cajoled into a decision that involved far more risk for her than for the man. An irrevocable decision, one that, according to current beliefs, imperiled not only her future prospects but her immortal soul. Hey, Donne, flea or not there’ll be plenty of shame for that girl if she’s found out. Hey, Marvell, notions of honour aren’t “quaint.”

Well, I suppose poetry is a more ethical weapon than alcohol or drugs for a would-be Casanova. Seduction poetry can be amazing, too; I just prefer it a bit more subtle. I like it to be sensual and evocative–but not directive. Make me have interesting thoughts–but don’t tell me what to do, and why I should do it! I can make my own decisions.

Without Ever Saying It

Several days ago, I read Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts” from his longer work “Lessons of War.” “Naming of Parts” is, justly, the most famous excerpt of this work, and I cannot get it out of my head.

Take a look. It’s online. Maybe you can tell me why it touches me so. What I know is that it’s a poem that creates a mood and a feeling in an organic way; it brings you into it without ever saying anything about how it wants you to feel.

A lecture, outdoors, on a spring day, about how to assemble a rifle. Imagery of the beauty of flowers and the flight of bees, interspersed with instructions about the rifle parts.

Images of color, of stillness. Images that parody what will come later. But never obvious.

The poet never, even remotely, says, “How ironic that we are assembling instruments of death in a beautiful, living garden.”

The poet never writes, “This serene garden will soon be replaced by a bloody battlefield.”

The poet never says to us, “These young men, attending to these practical lessons, will die far away from this peaceful place, and that is sad.”

If you examine the poem in detail, you can draw the metaphors and parallels from each phrase, and admire the subtlety of the word choices. But, today, I am responding to the poem as a whole.

It did what I would like to get better at doing. It made me feel something and have no idea why; it carved a niche in my brain and made itself at home.

Poe-etry

It belonged to my husband’s paternal great-grandfather, I think. There are several inscriptions, all with the same surname, inside the cover. A thin book, number 199 of the Riverside Literature Series, it proclaims itself to hold “The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher and other Poems and Tales by Edgar Allan Poe.”

It was published in 1897, forty-eight years after Poe’s death. Forty-eight years is a long time, but there must have been people still alive who remembered Poe the man, or learned from those who did. The introduction discusses Poe’s life in far greater detail than I have usually seen, and the tone is more personal. Poe is portrayed as a figure of great controversy, rather than the staple of literature he now seems more to be.

He had his admirers and his detractors; he made friends and enemies. His life was punctuated by brilliant successes inevitably followed by excesses or derelictions that brought things tumbling down. He tried again, and again, painting the familiar tapestry of an addict’s struggles as he danced with alcohol and opium throughout the years. Today, doctors would probably also have pegged him as having bipolar qualities.

I’ve written about seeing and judging the poet in the poem. Here, in this fragile old booklet, I see how much it happens. The editor, himself, seemed to think of this when he wrote:

“…it is perhaps equally idle at present to try to bridge over the chasm that separates his lovers from his detractors. Men will long continue to dispute about his life, and they will not cease to assert or to deny his greatness…but it is equally true that it is of the essence of sound criticism that, as the years go by, we should be able to judge more and more dispassionately the men and works of the past; and we may at least hope that our grandsons will be more agreed as to Poe’s merits and demerits than we are.”

Wisely written. But I wonder if he would have predicted the development of Poe’s place in the world of literature? Would he be surprised to see him in school textbooks, or to know that “Annabel Lee” may be the first love poem many of us ever learned?

Poe was only forty when he died from the effects of his addictions. Those of us who read him now may know that he was a troubled person, or even have studied biographies, but the thousand small failures and offenses are blurred by time. His poems stand more on their own, ready for us to project meaning onto them.

“Who am I to write poems?” we might think. Well, who was Poe to do so?

The Whisper

Do you get lines from a poem stuck in your head?

I do, just as often as I get lyrics from a song in there. But lines from a poem linger in a different way; they seem to be trying to tell me something. The choice of lines is diagnostic.

Poets through the centuries have furnished us with a marvelous dictionary of terms describing grief, depression, infatuation, anger, fear and every other emotion. When I’m in a certain emotional state, my subconscious dredges up an appropriate fragment.

“Oh,” I might say to myself, “I’m depressed, so these lines fit.” But I’m cheating myself if I do that, because it’s more subtle than that. There are a thousand nuances to despair, and looking deeper at the choice of lines might give me clues to what lies beneath.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is one of my favorite somber and despairing poems. It rings with love, and pain, and twisted hope that seems to ebb with the waves.

But that’s not my whisperer today, or for the last week. What’s whispering to me is from “Bereft” by Robert Frost. Specifically, the end:

“Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known,
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.”

If I welcome the whisperer, and consider its words, and apply their shades to my view of what’s going on with me, I get bits of insight. I find there’s a reason for this particular whisper. In this case, I needed a way of painting that cold, bleak feeling that comes when I know it’s up to me; that no human agency is going to have mercy on my soul. I needed to see that I really have been thinking about God a lot, and thinking about my need for God. Frost’s lines beat in my head with a gentle but implacable rhythm, wanting me to stay with this cold and this emptiness until I find the right remedy.

The Poet in the Poem

I have always been someone who likes to let a story or poem or painting speak for itself. When I like a television show or movie character, I sometimes don’t even want to know too much about the actor who plays him or her.

When I take a poem to my heart, I make it my own. Its language is translated into my personal archetypal code and drawn on the cave wall of my mind, and that’s as it should be for me.

That being said, it’s interesting to learn more about the lives of my favorite poets. It’s inspiring to learn about how, when or even why they wrote what they wrote, or see world events through their eyes. It’s touching and motivating to see some of the sources of their personal pain and notice how they’ve given it unique voice and used it as a creative force.

I don’t believe it’s possible to write a good poem without putting something of ourselves into it. So every time I read a poem, I am taking a look into the author’s psyche. I just don’t want to overanalyze–or make assumptions about–what I am shown.

Some poems appear to invite us into a specific realm of a poet’s personal experience. For instance, when a poem’s written in the first person and involves the narrator being sexually abused, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that this particular poet has had this in his or her life. And, if we do imagine this, we might be right a good deal of the time.

But not all of the time. Poets can write in imagined voices, and although what they imagine also says something about them as a person it isn’t a simple one-to-one correlation.

I’m a woman, and I’ve written several first-person poems in which the speaker is a man. I’ve read some amazing poems written from the perspective of a character very different from the author. Some of the poems I fear to write, but know I will someday, might contain the first-person musings of abusers and perpetrators I have known or who have hurt me.

How scary it is to think a reader might be affected by one and think I did everything my poems do! I’ve done many things I regret, but my writing scours the shadows and comes up with things I hope I won’t ever encounter. So I try not to make assumptions–I am honored to be invited into a poet’s inner life by their work, but I don’t presume to think I know them because of it. They remain a juicy mystery, as are we all.

O Brave New World?

One of the next steps on my neophyte poet’s journey involves meeting some actual poets. I live about 45 minutes from Berkeley and 90 minutes from San Francisco, so there are events I can attend. I’ve been reading and researching, while trying not to let myself get overwhelmed.

There are several kinds of poetry events, and I feel as if I would belong more at some than at others. But that’s just assumptions on my part at this stage–until I check something out for real, I shouldn’t talk myself out of anything. It’s just my insecurity that pictures me surrounded by edgy urban twentysomethings who will cast me out for not being politically relevant enough.

Learning about events and readings also fuels my insecurity by showing me how many poets are out there; names upon names that are unfamiliar to me. Do I have the mental capacity to care for my family and live with my issues while also learning a whole new culture and taking in the work of hundreds of new poets?

As I’ve been doing, I broke it down into small, specific and attainable. I found a coffeehouse in Berkeley that has a reading and open mic every Monday night, and I’m planning to go. If I don’t like it, I’ll remember that there are many flavors of events out there.

Ultimately, I need to find a way to connect with fellow writers in a way that works. It’s so easy for me to get the impression that the only way to become a published poet is to dump the rest of your life and do full-time networking. Hell, nowadays it’s easy to get the impression that to succeed at anything one has to become an expert networker and social media mogul.

I can’t let that idea stop me from writing. It’s true that my mental health issues make it challenging for me to be consistently extroverted. It’s true that, while my blogging is helping me make progress on the social media thing, I have a lot to learn about self-promotion. It’s true that my family needs a great deal of my time right now. But I have to believe–I have to–that if I write poetry that speaks well enough, it’s worth doing.

Meter in the Bathroom

Ah, reading poetry…truly it seems as if the very phrase evokes an image of leather chairs, delicate teacups and classical music playing in the background. Or perhaps a bohemian-looking cafe, rich and dark with philosophy and angst. One way or the other, there’s a feeling that reading poetry is somehow a more serious and elevated activity than reading other things.

I’m not immune to this canalization, which is why I feel so sheepish about the amount of poetry I read in the bathroom. At this moment, the bathroom contains the collected works of Eliot and Yeats, a thick Penguin anthology, and two recent issues of Poetry magazine. I admit it–sometimes the bathroom is the only place I read any poetry during the day. It seems somehow disrespectful.

But is it? Naturally, it’s better to read it there than not at all. And why should there be any requirement for where, or how, we allow poetry to speak to us? Elevating and intellectualizing it too much may dissuade the neophyte from trying it out. Perhaps it’s not bad to enjoy it in such a mundane, casual way. Not all the time, of course, but kind of like the balance between the “quickie” and the longer lovemaking sessions in a sexual relationship.

All right, then, I’ll try to get over my sheepishness. When I grab a book or a magazine in that most humble of libraries, I’ll just imagine it as a hurried tryst. “Missed you too, babe, but I’ve only got a minute.” It’s still a good minute.

The Word Resound

#108 on my List of Things I Know Are Wonderful To Do And Wish I Did More Often: reading poetry out loud. Not to an audience, or even to a friend, but to myself and an empty room. Reading a poem out loud causes me to interact with it differently–I adore the way a poem that works looks on the page, and would not want to give that up. But saying it out loud does things for me.

Saying the words slows me down, for one thing…I’m a fast reader and tend to zip my eyes over something and take it in almost as a gestalt; this isn’t good when a poem has so many juicy words and phrases that can be individually savored.

But it’s more than that: reading a poem audibly creates a sense of ritual. I am invoking something with the vibrations of my voice, something that is a blend of the poet’s energy and my own. The other morning I read one of my favorite works, T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. I had never read it out loud before, and I found the parts that had moved me before to have a new poignancy and a new feeling of identification.

I go through phases of disorientation related to my mental health issues, and I’ve found that reading out loud steadies me. When I read something meaningful, I am sending a message out from a more centered and less frightened part of myself. It makes sense from a neurological point of view, but also from a spiritual one: it’s like reciting a prayer.

Try it, if you haven’t. But you have to be completely alone, so that you don’t fool yourself into thinking the message is meant for anyone but you. And no murmuring: say it loud and clear! It’s an important message, after all.

Whitmanize Me

What I love about Walt Whitman’s poetry is that he is unabashed. Whitman, to me, is a great example of being unafraid to speak.

Whitman wasn’t afraid to be opinionated. Whitman wasn’t afraid to get up on a metaphorical tree stump and just say here’s what I think, here’s what I believe, and here, at great length, is how I feel about it. In his longer works, like Song of Myself, he also wasn’t afraid to be repetitive if he felt like it. I’m coming back to this theme, with slightly different words, and I’ll come back to it as many times as it pleases me.

When I read his longer works, my brain tunes out some parts. It can’t hold or follow the whole thing. It’s skipping in and out and latching onto passages here and there that catch my soul. I think Whitman’s poems know that. I think they don’t care–it’s another part of their nature; they invite me to shop. Here’s all my stuff, a huge selection; take what you like, take what sings to you and I’ll keep the rest for you if you ever want it.

Whitman is full of himself in his poetry. These days, being “full of yourself” implies being inflated or arrogant; but I wish that weren’t so. Full of yourself? What else should we be full of? Something else?

Whatever he was like in his personal life, in his poems Whitman made himself an oracle. He treated his pronouncements as truth, simply because they were his.

He adored himself, and scattered that adoration onto others in his poems. He makes me think of the Biblical quote: Love thy neighbor as thyself. The principle is often overlooked, but there are also many people, trying to be good, who take in a misleading version of it…it doesn’t say to love our neighbor more than ourself, it says to love ourselves and our neighbor equally. Loving ourself, exuberantly and generously, is not a selfish act–Whitman’s poems believed that.

My style may be very different from Whitman’s, but I can always learn from him. His writing has an office in one corner of my mind, where I can go for counseling any time insecurity eats at my creative joy.

Changes

Dear readers, just a quick note to explain some of the changes happening here on my site. My naive self has recently learned that sharing a poem draft in any public medium, even a blog, makes it unacceptable to a large percentage of the publications that publish poetry. Only private sites or circles are allowed. Therefore, for completely selfish reasons, I am ceasing to put up drafts of anything I am considering submitting. I’ll primarily post my thoughts about what’s happening with my poetry, thoughts about writing and thoughts about the role poetry plays in our lives.

I admit it–I want to submit poems. Why? Don’t know. I just want to. I don’t have any expectations about what will happen, and I am ready to purchase nice frames for my favorite rejection letters.

To my small, lovely pool of followers: I know it’s not what you signed up for, and I apologize. Do unfollow if you wish; my feelings won’t be bruised. On the bright side, I will probably post shorter things more often.

Poet Mode

(Originally posted on my other site, Not This Song.)

Bad Poet still makes me smile when I read it. More than that, the feelings behind it have really marked a change in my relationship to writing poetry. I’ve written several more serious poems since then, and not worried much about good or bad. They please me, and that’s enough.

What I didn’t expect is that writing poems is really different from writing prose. Now that I am doing it, I seem to have unlocked a need to do it. When I go a while without creating one, things just feel wrong. Often, I’m not consciously aware of the feeling until the next poem happens and I feel relief. It’s kind of like when you haven’t masturbated for a while–you get started and your body informs you that hey, this isn’t going to take long and by the way, where have you been?

Writing prose can have these qualities, of course, and I’m hardly the first writer to compare writing to masturbation. Heinlein said it best in the words of Lazarus Long: “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of–just do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” The connotation being that writing is personal, self-involved, and potentially not something anyone else cares to see.

After meditating on what’s special about writing in “poet mode” for me, I’ve concluded the following: Poet mode turns down the dial on my intellect and lets more of my emotions through. Poet mode allows me to write things without trying to explain them too much. Poet mode pleases the artist in me because I get to play with lines and structure. But for me, the most powerful thing about writing poetry is that poetry feels useless.

Now, you know I don’t mean that. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without poetry, and I agree with the poet Hafiz, who said “religions are the ships; poets the lifeboats.” What I mean by saying that poetry feels useless is that I can’t weasel my way into thinking that I am writing a poem to serve any immediate, practical purpose. With prose I can do that: I needed to do that in order to start Not This Song. As personal as some of the stories get, I convince myself that they are helping someone.

I’m not saying that a poem I write won’t ever inspire anyone or help anyone feel less alone. I see that there’s no real reason to assume my poetry is any more useless than my prose. I see that my psyche isn’t making a logical distinction here, but it exists. Perhaps it’s because of the emotions vs. the intellect; I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking that my only, or main, value lay in being smart.

I think this illogical feeling about uselessness or impracticality is part of what makes writing a poem so satisfying for me. You see, every word I write is already a rebellion against the critical, shaming voices trying to convince me not to write. Writing a poem is a sharper rebellion, a rebellion more overt because it’s not trying to explain or justify itself. If I dig deep, I see that part of my satisfaction of finishing a poem comes from the gleeful relief of being able to yell “Fuck you” at that inner judge (and all those who taught it to be that way.)

You see this? I wrote this. Why? Because I fucking felt like it, that’s why. No, nobody’s paying for it. Do people think it’s good? I have no idea. What am I going to do with it? None of your damn business. Don’t like it? Nobody asked you. Fuck off.

Don’t flee in terror, poetry community–I promise I would never speak to an external, human critic that way. This is only about my internal process, and once a draft of a poem exists I have no problem with constructive criticism. I hope to learn more about polishing and revising my work, and I find myself salivating at descriptions of poetry classes and workshops. I’m making an effort to read more new, modern poetry and not just my old favorites. Whatever continues to come out of this poetic Pandora’s box, I hope to keep the spirit of Bad Poet firmly in mind. Permission to be a neophyte, to be imperfect. Having the humor–and the humility–to see and accept the immature but endearing antics of my developing self.