I Second That…; or, Considering the Emotional Gravitas in Poems

Nothing like yet another rejection to get me thinking about emotion again. No, not the attendant screaming, crying, rending of garment. I mean emotion in the poems. This is a recurring theme for me as I grapple with my own work.

This time it’s not just one poem. I’m staring down a bunch of poems. Make that a chapbook-length collection of poems. I’ve been sending them out individually and as a chapbook. With no luck. But I’ve long had this little hmm of concern about them. So I keep revisiting them, and having an argument with Me and Other Me:

– I read these poems and get a little glurgling in my gut. What is wrong, what is wrong?

– Is it the burrito we had for lunch?

– No. It is not the burrito we had for lunch. I’m sorry, I have to, again, come to the conclusion that the emotions of the poems are obscured. Or overly intellectualized. Or not well realized. Or, frankly, nonexistent. Too many of the poems feel like intellectual exercises.

– But we’ve been working on these for almost two years!!!  There are some very interesting parts of many of these poems. There is emotion in some of them.

– But the sum? No. we just have to face the fact.

– But wait, two years worth of work? Must we chuck it?

– Quite possibly. In economics that time and effort is called a sunk cost. You can’t worry about it. It’s done and gone. The product just doesn’t work. It’s the clunker of chapbooks. A lemon.

– But, wait, let’s be reasonable. What about the parts that work? Can’t we start there?

– Yes. We can, clear-eyed and with renewed energy, start there. But there are no guarantees. Isn’t there a column in some magazine: “Can this relationship be saved?” That’s where we are. The answer could possibly be “no.” It’s also quite possible that we have not a chapbook-length collection but just a few good poems. They can be used toward some other as-yet-to-be-realized collection. The rest can go in the chuck-it bucket.

– Eesh. Okay, I might be able to live with that.

– Frankly, remember, all of these poems started out as imitations. So to some degree, they ARE intellectual exercises. We were trying on other poets’ rhythms and thought processes.

– Yeah, but we were inserting our own thoughts, our own nouns and verbs and clauses, so they did arise out of our own concerns. And then we edited them toward our authentic voice.

– But I can still detect that disconnection, that roundabout route to the poem. We have not shown what is at stake in these thoughts, situations, these descriptions, flights of fancy. We have not truly plumbed what these poems are “about” for us.

– This question, “what is at stake,” annoys me. What is ever at stake in a mere poem? No lives are lost or saved here.

– No? We are an uttering animal. We cry out in words. We jubilate in words. A poem can be a little cannon of power. What’s at stake? If I, the reader, don’t feel that something vital is at hand, some deep energy impelled the poem to being, then the poem misses the mark. I can indulge in memory and fantasy and philosophical meanderings. I can tell you my dream. But if I have not conveyed the deep “why” of what turned those into utterance, then I am wasting the reader’s time.

– Gaaaaah.

– Calm down. Let’s just go back and look at them, one poem at a time to, without sentiment, dig deep into the impetus of the choices of these poems. Toss what’s ornamental. See what’s left.






Art for Art’s Sake; or How Other Artistic Media Can Generate New Writing

Reading, writing, talking, and thinking about poetry at MASSMoCA is creating a feedback loop as I absorb the visual and audio riches of the museum, whose grounds sprawl with both formal-feeling gallery rooms, vast expanses, and unexpected corners of surprise: voices speaking into an empty back lot, strange clanging from an old building open to the elements, the two-tone hum of a 3D printer; even the smell of bacon from the cafe is charged. (Baaaconnn….)

As I walk around with words whispering just unheard in my head, I’m engaged in the ritualized act of seeing that is museum-going. As I spent time in one small gallery, I noticed the rapid coming and going of five or six people, who were in the what’s-this-what’s-that mode that I too get into often when I’m visiting a museum. Some of that has to do with the sheer volume of work to absorb in a day’s visit. You have to measure time and energy in such a situation, and I appreciate that. I wish museums offered multiple-day passes to allow this kind of focused attention absent the anxiety of time and what-am-I-missing. As an artist in residence here, I have the leisure to return again and again.

Because I’m here on a mission of art-making, everything is more alive to my eye, ear, nose. I feel the rubble of metal plates underfoot or the knobs of gravel, the yield of damp grass. Being here I feel art begetting art, and I want to crumple my page of poem into some shadow-casting form to attach to a wall, or mutter my words into the tunnel of an old air duct.

I begin to experience “ostranenie,” a term meaning to defamiliarize, to make the familiar strange. And in that state I can relook at my own work, my usual turns of phrase and modes of expression and come to embrace it, clarify it, discard it as too limited, pile on it, twist it, shatter it open, hone it to a knife-edge. Ideas of new work I might make emerge as bright possibilities just beyond the edges of these buildings, skittering leaves glimpsed through a window, a stalking crow, and I can’t wait to give myself over to what might happen.

I am giddy with the world, the mind, imagination.


Singing the Body Electric; or, Thoughts on Death

“But there is something about time. The sun rises and sets. The stars swing slowly across the sky and fade.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

And someone is born, fumbles around for a lifetime, then dies. It’s no wonder so many of us assume time is linear, that there was a beginning, will be an end. But other worldviews understand time as something other than linear; circular, perhaps, or inextricable from situation, from place. I am interested in place, in our connection to place, how we find ourselves connected to a place or places. Stephen Muecke, who explores this in a book called Ancient and Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy, writes: “Many indigenous accounts of the death of an individual are not so much about bodily death as about a return of energy to the place of emanation with which it re-identifies.”

I’m entranced with the idea of a “place of emanation with which an energy re-identifies.” When my body stops and the energy that resides within it wanders off, where is my place of emanation, where is the place with which my energy identifies?

That energy was embodied on the Atlantic coastal plain, near where silt-covered bedrock is exposed by flowing waters, a low-land, humid zone of hardwoods and laurel. But the consciousness that is me has long identified with a landscape of glacial forms, eskers and cirques, bouldered outwash and till, white pine, maple. Who knows what that pesky energy will have in mind. I swear I’ve also left pieces of myself like breadcrumbs on the beaches of Oregon, wind-whipped and wave spew-strewn, and tangled in the carpet juniper of Newfoundland, and Seine-side on a cement quay with the fallen linden leaves. What will my energy make of this? Can it collect itself or am I forever scattered, ghostly traveler, fractured energy brooding on deluge and erosion and the growth of new seeds and old mushrooms?

I’m reminded again of Olivia Laing’s lovely book To the River. She wrote this: “The tenacity of our physical remains, their unwillingness to fully disappear, is at odds with whatever spark provides our animation, for the whereabouts of that after death is a mystery yet to be unpicked. What is this world, really?”

And this, from Ruth L. Schwartz’s “Ode and Elegy in One Flesh”:
Body, you hold us like a lit match
to the skin of life.
Yet when all we’ve been and done and lost
comes home to rest in us,
then rises, moves like ragged herds
grazing every inch of field,

you are what we love.

No Straight Lines; or, What’s a Human For?

Forty years ago I proposed a research project to answer this question: Do chipmunks follow set paths as they go about their nut gathering? This was high school senior year research bio class. I have no recollection of trying to justify the significance of that research question. I have no idea how I’d answer that. But Monsieurs Rehm and Cederstrom (R.I.P., lovely man) okayed the project.

I then spent very little time actually gathering data — which required sitting endlessly, motionlessly, in the park noting the movements of chipmunks I could in no way tell apart. I then, unsurprisingly with such little data, wrote a paper concluding there were no set patterns.

Now I find myself sitting in this chair (with the pleasure of having little else to do at the moment) almost every morning for the past two weeks out in this yard, with, as it happens, this chipmunk going about its business. From the hole in the brush behind me, it generally moves roughly south, pauses at a chair in front of the house, then disappears into the brush in front of that. Eventually, it returns, roughly from that direction, crosses the yard generally from the south, sometimes right along the edge of the house, or at least within five feet of it. It has many other paths, I know, as I’ve seen it rustling around across the road, or slipping into the outdoor shower and into the hole under that. But its return to this particular hole seems to follow a particular path. So lo and behold, I do think it has a general set pattern. Hunh.

I don’t know that I have much point here. Except that, you know, isn’t life funny?

In spite of my lazy approach to gathering data for that project, I have always been an observer. I had wanted to be a detective when I was a kid. Then a research biologist. Then I studied anthropology. Then public policy, which in a way is, if policy is well thought out, a combination of all those things. Then I studied poetry, which also, at least the poetry I write, is a combination of all those things: whodunit, and why, and what do we as a culture understand about it, how do we talk about it, and what can we make of it all.

If the chipmunk has a pattern then, as a predator, I could catch it. Or as a rival for its acorns, I could follow the chipmunk to its source and plunder. Or I can just notice. Maybe that’s what my role is here.

If human beings could be said to have some kind of unique role in life, maybe this is all it is — observe, note patterns, make art. And try not to kill too many things while we’re here.

Why I Hate George Saunders

For several years I’ve been hearing about George Saunders George Saunders George Saunders blah blah blah. I don’t read much fiction so I had not encountered his work nor did I want to seek it out and the more I heard about freaking George Saunders the less I wanted to read this darling of the literati. Then Lincoln in the Bardo Lincoln in the Bardo blah blah blah, big book award, yeah yeah yeah. Sounded weird, I had no interest. Then two friends whose taste I respect both chimed in, and I thought, oh, all RIGHT, for crying out loud.

So I started it and for the first third I was all yeah yeah right please give me a break. Then bam. I loved it. I loved that freaking book. Dammit.

But I moved on and settled back into my nonfiction and poetry reading mode and ignored the existence of George freaking Saunders. And then boom there he is in the new AWP Writer’s Chronicle. I paged past it, read other articles, looked at ads, the classifieds. Oh for crying out loud, all RIGHT, I’ll read whatever it is he’s going on about. Geesh.

And I loved it. And I laughed out loud. And I found it useful, and thoughtful. Crap. I love this George freaking Saunders. Which is why I hate George Saunders.

Stuff he wrote:
First, he quotes Gerald Stern with this fantastic bit: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking, then…you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Exactly the problem.

Then he writes this: “The individual writer’s ‘craft,’ might be understood, then, as the process of conspiring to work oneself into the necessary state of mystification, such that one is deferring to the innate energy of the story, rather than overriding it.”

He talks about “the goal of establishing an intimate, frank, and respectful relationship with our imaginary reader.”

And this: “…when we write, we ritually remind ourselves that everybody in this world is on a continuum with us and is therefore somewhat knowable to us.”

And: “It is the essential thing that human beings do: we story-tell in order to locate ourselves in the universe, to concoct a viable stance for ourselves here amid the chaos, and forge a less-insane connection with other beings.”