Great Balls of Fire; or, A Spillage of Essays

I’ve been reading to expansive anthologies of essays, How We Speak to One Another, edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold, and Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, edited by Marcia Aldrich. I pick them up, open them at random, and read the essay that appears, with varying degrees of interest. I keep wearying of all the essays and putting the books aside, determined to take them back to the library. But then I’ll find something particularly intriguing and keep them a while longer. This is the challenge, I find, of anthologies — they’re often too much of a good thing, interlaced with other stuff, and too much of that too.

I admire the impulse behind anthologies, and from far off, admire the many ways writers creatively tackle a subject and form. But just like department stores, fabric stores, bookstores, and library shelves, I get easily overwhelmed. A collection of essays by one person, or a book of poems, has that authorial eye/voice to connect them all. An anthology is a flower collection, one of those massive English gardens, or the gardens at Versailles where we finally flung ourselves to the ground near the little lake and watched, slack-mouthed from overstimulation, the clouds pass by.

Many essays in How We Speak are essays written in response to other essays. These can fall short if the reader isn’t familiar with the originating essay, or if the response essay insufficiently captures it. But often the dissection of how the originating essay worked on the writer is worth the read. Other essays in that anthology consider the essay itself, the nature of time, memory, “truth,” in the form.

Waveform represents the ways in which women are exploring the form. It too contains a graphic essay (by the same author/illustrator as the one in How We Speak, which suggest that, no offense intended to her, but maybe there are others out there, or it’s a form asking for more people to jump in), as well as braided things, meanderings.

My biggest mistake was probably to take both volumes out of the library at the same time. Piggish. But I wanted to get a sense of what essays were doing these days. And that I accomplished: graphic essays, lists, analyses, weavings of memory and fact, almost-random delineations, litanies, rants, letters, real and imagined. I am drunk with essay, and staggering under a list of new writers whose work I need to explore. (The other problem with anthologies — so much more to read.)

What can’t an essay do? Even an arcane topic that should only interest a few can be engrossing with a captivating narrative voice, an intriguing through-line of narrative, or a clever device that keeps things snappy. One essay in Waveform illustrates through fake letters a variety of rejections in the author’s life. Brenda Miller manages, in “We Regret to Inform You,” to show-without-telling her young ambitions as an artist, her attempts to find a boy to go to the junior high dance with, her experience dropping out of college, miscarriage — and does so with both poignance and hilarity.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan has this to say in her essay “On Collage, Chris Kraus, and Misremembered Didion,” in How We Speak: “Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I like essays that remind me of traveling. They lie low. They don’t try quite so hard to prevent me from being bored. They are confident enough to admit that they are nothing more than a rug, and in doing so, have the ability to take it out from under me.”

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What’s Love Got To Do With It?; or, Art and the Question

I’m in the middle of an interesting writing experience. I have yet another new batch of poems (Ugh! MORE? When I already have one full length and two chapbook length manuscripts that I can’t get published? Damn me and my productivity. I depress myself.) that I’m revising through. As I questioned the logic behind one of them, forgetting the reading I was doing that inspired it, I began researching the topic more — which was the origin of life on earth.

Yeah, I know.

So anyway, I found this incredibly fascinating article on BBC.com that summarizes the research thus far and how dead ends in previous research often actually contained useful thinking that informed later research, once someone took a look back on the old stuff with a new eye.

This is the revision process in a nutshell — everything old can be new again. (But again, emphasis on “old,” that is, the necessity of the passage of time to allow one to re-see, re-view, to see afresh, with new eyes.)

I’ve now traveled miles away from whatever I was trying to say in that original poem, and am aswamp with new information that astounds and intrigues me. What it asks in me that I may turn into a poem I have no idea yet. It may never be a poem. But what a fun rabbit hole it has turned out to be. And this question about the question is key.

Research is always about a question, sometimes posed in different ways or approached from various routes. And this too is poetry. Some of the poems I’m editing are interesting but lack a central question. This is what can come of writing from the middle of research — one feels briefly as if one knows something! But to reach back into the central question is essential to make art. Art comes out of the not-knowing, the search. Otherwise, you’re just presenting an academic theory.

There’s a local man who makes hundreds of paintings of local landmarks. They’re okay, in that they have some personality to them and a signature style. But there is no mystery, somehow, no way in which the artist is admitting he doesn’t know something about his subject matter. I’m not even sure what I mean by that. I just know there’s a blandness to the presentation such that I’m fine with looking at it once, but it’s not something I’ll bother to look at again. In contrast, I have a landscape hanging on my wall that I look at often. I’ll find a new streak of color I haven’t noticed before, or haven’t admired in a while. I’ll enjoy anew the shadowed trees, a smear of light on the pond edge.

One of the brilliant things this article is doing with the history of the research of the origin of life is presenting it as an unfolding, of stalls and restarts, of conflicts and alliances, certainties and doubts. The subject and the researchers are alive and wondering, just as the artist of my landscape shows herself.

In these poems I’m editing, I have to reach back to find my wondering self, if it’s there. If there’s no wonder, there’s no poem. Life, as it’s turning out, probably began in a shallow, soupy mess of chemicals and metals with some light thrown on it.

Hey, I’m a mess of chemicals and metals! Maybe I can create some stuff that has some life in it…

 

Sweet Confusion Under the Moonlight; or, The kingdom of God is within you; or, Making the Better World

I had read the news as usual that morning and fell into the now-usual doom gloom. Then the radio reminded me that another of my music pantheon died recently. Dr. John has ascended.

And the station played a tribute to him for a few hours, but I was vacuuming and stuff so heard a bit here and bit there, nodding to the beat when I could hear it, otherwise swept in my own to-and-fro, but they closed with “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” and I thought, Right, Mac? Right?

But then I opened up Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights.

The Book of Delights is Ross Gay’s almost-daily, always-exuberant, sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant record of his days’ delights. Which are often found in not so obvious places.

Although that groovy dude — and here I’m talking about Dr. John, although Ross Gay is indeed also one groovy dude — Dr. John’s oddball let’s-face-it-a-bit-whiny sly if-I-don’t-do-it-somebody-else-will devil on his angelic shoulder (have you HEARD the “Boogie Woogie Twins” with Jools Holland? Shut. Up.) makes it almost impossible for me to not leap up and boogie around the kitchen, there’s often a dark undercurrent in his music, that undeniable blue note, a hint of wrong-place-right-time. Some might call it duende.

And just as you might tire, thinking, all right, enough, you perky sonofabitch — and here I’m talking about Ross Gay — I don’t know that anyone would call Dr. John a perky sonofabitch — Gay will slip in an essayette that reminds us ever so subtly of that yin to yang, the old no-joy-without-sorrow note that sometimes being a black man in this world causes him to stumble over even in the midst of this practice of delight, or even just being a human in the world, and doing the hard work of loving in the face of losing.

And so Gay corrected me: No, Timothy Johnson and Shane Minor voiced by the good doctor were incorrect — there is not necessarily a better world someplace; the better world is right here, if we only notice it.

And we ourselves, with paean and call, hum and curve, laughter and the invention of a good can opener, are what can make it the better world. And old Mac Rebennack did that too, bringing us all into his funkin’ boogie woogie, his bluesy praise, his daily delights.

And I too, even my sometimes-crabby, impatient self can participate in this making. It only takes a moment’s notice.

Little Red Corvette; or, In Praise of the Chapbook

“Cheap” book or “chap”ter-sized, whatever the origin of the word “chapbook,” it requires some ‘splainin’ to the non-poetry world, during which I invariably feel apologetic and defensive. “It is a book…sort of…I mean, it’s short, shorter than…well…it’s like….”

But I lament the short shrift given the chapbook, poor spineless thing with a funny name, shunned by bookstores, its pale staples lost on a shelf amid its bulkier brethren shouldering each other with their fancy colors and sideways words.

Not infrequently I find myself reading through a full length collection and think, hm, this one is filler, that one seems like it wandered in from another author, these aren’t half as good as the half dozen before, and other musings that take me away from the collection as a whole, and conclude that the volume I have in my hand would have made a damn fine chapbook.

A good chapbook packs a punch. It’s tidy, compelling, digestible. A good chapbook is a joy and inspiration, and leaves one wanting more…but just as happy not to have it. A good chapbook invites a second read.

Look at Nickole Brown’s fantastic To Those Who Were Our First Gods. When I say it’s a page-turner, I don’t mean I was eager to turn the page, but rather, I was eager to linger, and then to find out what the next page had to offer.

A chapbook by Frank Bidart was a finalist for the Pulitzer. But that was back in the early 2000s. I’m not sure any other chapbooks have received that much industry love.

In fact, calls for manuscripts are specifying longer and longer page counts. What a mistake! Maybe that’s for discerning editors to have some leeway to fling some poems out, which seems a wrong-headed, backwards way to find a good collection of poems to print. I cannot imagine any other reason for such a crazy notion, except that the poetry world seems intent on shooting itself in its own foot.

When barely comprehensible poems and poets are touted as the next big thing, it narrows and narrows the number of people who actually want to open a book of poetry, much less pay an increasing sum of money to buy a volume. (On the other hand, witness the rise of heart-on-the-sleeve stuff of slam and Instagram.)

The savvy publisher (thank you, Bright Hill Press, for example) is wise to reduce the dimensions of a chapbook, thereby increasing its page count, enabling the book producer to do a perfect-binding, that is, a binding that shows on the shelf, that proudly hails the title and author and the publishing house name.

In this time of short attention spans, isn’t the chapbook just the right thing — a subway ride, a coffee cup, and, if it’s the right size, shoved into the other back pocket where the cell phone isn’t. Plus a small size would make the book feel inviting even to the poetry-shy. Such a cunning little thing, this book of poems, approachable, nibble-able, something you can cup in your hands, a butterfly, a bird.

A Cold and Lonely Hallelujah; or, Art and Vulnerability

I read recently this quote from Yo Yo Ma: “Any experience that you’ve had has to be somehow revealed in the process of making music. And I think that almost forces you to make yourself vulnerable to whatever is there to be vulnerable to. Because that, actually, is your strength.”

Surely that’s true also of writing poetry.

Vulnerable is a word that alarms me — the v tumbling into the deep well of the u, the nervousness of the ner, the complicated movement from l to n that gets stuck briefly in the mouth. It comes from the Latin vulnus, or wound, after all.

So much of surviving life is about girding oneself against vulnerability — all that thick skin growing, that growing of water-shedding feathers so stuff will roll off our backs, that creation of a strong center around which the winds can swirl, that hollowing oneself out like a reed. To deliberately pull back the tough skin, part the feathers, to probe the wounds to make art is terrifying. Also, which wounds? How deep do we scrape into the scar?

To make art fromthe wound, though, is not to make art of the wound, necessarily.

I’ve been looking at and thinking about Van Gogh’s work of late. I also just watched part of At Eternity’s Gate, where Willem Dafoe employs his incredibly vulnerable looking face and eyes to portray the wisdom/madness of Van Gogh. (I found the movie itself so arty-farty self-conscious and boring that I stopped watching it — although it must be said that I was on an airplane, which maybe lends itself better to an action film or something.) He did not so much seem to be investigating his own madness. Van Gogh’s wound seemed to be the world in all its shivering beauty against his thin skin. (Or is that the same thing?) Out of that he made his art.

I’ve been thinking too about Faith Ringgold reflecting on her experience as a black person in America, and the history of the black experience, using the venerable craft of quilting to speak of and from history, personal and cultural, those layers, the mix of colors, the many stitches like a scar. She said in an interview in Ebony: “You have to work with what you have, the history, the experience that you have, you take that and you create out of it. You create your music, you create your dance. But that is what you have to do it with. The impact of the history is real and it comes out in different ways, ways that are fascinating… [a]rt comes out of the experience. Art is a form of experience of the person, the place, the history of the people….” She is looking at “the wound,” the wound of slavery, among other things, which is both her wound and that of an entire population.

But look at the so-called confessional poets — are they not probing the personal wound, and sometimes gloriously so? Here is an Anne Sexton poem, “Woman with Girdle”:

Your midriff sags toward your knees;
your breast lie down in air,
their nipples as uninvolved
as warm starfish.
You stand in your elastic case,
still not giving up the new-born
and the old-born cycle.
Moving, you roll down the garment,
down that pink snapper and hoarder,
as your belly, soft as pudding,
slops into the empty space;
down, over the surgeon’s careful mark,
down over hips, those head cushions
and mouth cushions,
slow motion like a rolling pin,
over crisp hairs, that amazing field
that hides your genius from your patron;
over thighs, thick as young pigs,
over knees like saucers,
over calves, polished as leather,
down toward the feet.
You pause for a moment,
tying your ankles into knots.
Now you rise,
a city from the sea,
born long before Alexandria was,
straighway from God you have come
into your redeeming skin.

As we have learned and have been schooled, “the personal is political,” political, after all, meaning of citizens or the state.

And Walt Whitman, tending the wounds of the Civil War battlefields, and yet singing his pain to praise.

All this is to say I have been far from my poetry-making self, eyeing nervously the reengagement, wondering how, in the end, to transcend my sears and contusions, my world-against-skin, -against-vital-organ experiences through art-making that finds strength in vulnerability.

There’s a hole in the bucket; or, the Stories of Objects

I have been thinking about made things — a poem, a piece of visual art, a pie, a cabinet, a bolt. There’s a poignancy, I find, to the things we humans make and make, lose, throw away. Here’s a poem I wrote some time ago, the title the name of a train that travels through the US northeast.

Lakeshore Limited

Skeletal small towns’ rebar remains,
heart of a grange hall, a church revealed, shards
pierce and work their way inwards, shattered
bones all alight. A coil of brown barbed

wire, a torqued stave, some fence rod or road tie,
the curled hand of a man blasted
by sun, rain, snow hip deep. How we unfold
across our own horizon, beautiful

waste of our made things strew,
slow destruction of our mettle.

I studied anthropology in college but took all the archaeology courses offered. I was less interested in the (oh, endless) study of different types of arrowheads than modern archaeology, what our material world now tells us about ourselves now. We are what we make, buy, and throw away, even more so than what we say we are with words.

I read an article recently about an exhibition of what remained of the refugee camp at Calais, the things carried by people who, forced to again move on, carried them no farther. Notes and small weapons and paper dolls. I think about the artwork by the children of the Terezin ghetto, now held in Prague’s Jewish Museum. In an article in the Atlantic, “Elegy for the American Century,” George Packer writes about Richard Holbrooke and the break-up of Yugoslavia, and atrocities in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. In the article, Holbrooke visits a refugee camp near Zagreb hosting Bosnian Muslums who had escaped the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The author wrote:

“As Holbrooke started to leave, the baker brought out a dirty plastic bag from under his mattress. Inside was a pair of small figures, three or four inches tall, in blond wood. Human figures, with nearly featureless faces and heads bowed and hands together behind their backs. The baker had carved them with a piece of broken glass while he was interned at the Manjača camp, where the prisoners had stood bound for hours with their heads down to avoid being beaten.”

We are makers, we people, of objects that, though mute, express the best, and the worst of us (there are at least eight torture museums in Europe alone). For all our wordiness, our flapping mouths, it’s what we make that remains to tell the tale.

Poetry too is a made thing, and I love the “poem in your pocket” day idea, although I’ve never actually taken part, love the idea of that little curled piece of paper, an artifact of a tender skinned human in the world.

Don’t Show, Tell; or, Reading the Book v Watching the Movie

I read the Game of Thrones series, and did NOT watch the TV version. I enjoyed the series for the most part, and am (somewhat) impatiently awaiting R.R.’s concluding volume(s?). And I was tempted to watch the show, given the infernal ubiquity of cultural references and endless Facebook spoilers, but I didn’t want to disturb my own inner vision of the characters and settings.

I often don’t want to see movie-ized or TV-ized versions of books I’ve read for this very reason — they are alive in Technicolor in my head, and why should I let someone else’s vision replace (as it inevitably does) my own?

I do have to say that, for example, the movie version of The World According to Garpeither so mirrored my own that I could accept it, or perhaps was superior — forever will Garp look like Robin Williams, who already in the movie sort of reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of John Irving, who is Garp in my mind, as one being. I confess I did not read the original Wizard of Oz books, so bowed always and forever to the movie, and I don’t think I want to disturb the movie’s sacred status with a reading of the original text. I actually think Disney did quite a good job with its cartoon of the Toad chapters of my sacred text, The Wind in the Willows. I can’t even remember if I read The Princess Bride, so thoroughly does the movie inhabit my brain. (And I can never forgive Mandy Patinkin, as I watch him age, for not really being Inigo Montoya, nor really ever living up to that role.)

I don’t want to have my opinions about the Game of Throne characters disturbed at all by some actor’s rendition. I want to remain thoroughly bored and irritated with tiresome Daenerys. Ugh, get over yourself. And I don’t want to see what they did with doughty Brienne of Tarth. I have my own complicated feelings toward the scoundrel Jaime. And my hating to love Jon Snow. Sansa is an idiot, and I’ll brook no doubt in that. Arya in the books has swirled into some eddy and I only hope R.R. has something better in store for her.

That brings me to the other problem — I know that the TV version veered from the books, and this would have made me crazy. No, no, I’d insist, that’s not what happens. And I didn’t want to be that person.

Why do people take books and make movies of them? What is this impulse? I guess it’s that the books live vividly in a creative person’s mind, and that person wants to show the world that vivid screen. But it’s kind of authoritarian — the imposition of one person’s vision on what is each reader’s individual right to create.

On the other hand, there’s something so tempting about being able to see into someone else’s brain this way, to see the same scenes through someone else’s eyes. This is all part of our need to connect, I think. Do we see things the same way? Is watching someone’s visual version of a book the purest form of communication, the only true way of seeing inside someone’s mind?

Of course, there’s also the money to be made from the vast audience of I’d-rather-watch-it-on-a screen people who can be extracted of money for, for example, years of HBO membership versus a one-time (well, okay, 6[?] times) for a book purchase.

I confess I would dearly have loved to see Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. But I held fast. Well…really, I was saved from my own worst impulses by not actually having HBO.