Where I’ve been staying, most days in the early evening I hear a strange soft clatter, and look out the door to find a relatively orderly herd of goats walking down the road, kept moving along by a relatively polite and very efficient border collie. Sometimes a goat will pause to nibble at a tasty vine, but in short order the collie urges it along, and they all disappear around the corner of the stone barn next door. Often soon thereafter I’ll hear some bellowing, and I know the man down the street is calling the cows back to the barn from the field across the road, and they’ll shamble along slowly to his “Allors,” as if reluctant attendees to an obligatory meeting. Early mornings I wake to what sounds like a strangled cry which, after he clears his throat, will turn out to be a rooster’s call, soon to be joined by the dove’s ooo-ooo-er, over and over and over and over. And it occurs to me that these are my main modes of thought. And I can’t predict from one situation to the next, one impulse to the next, which of the modes will kick in. I can only hope they ultimately serve whatever the purpose: to move me along, to gather myself together, to wake me up, or get me out of the house to escape the incessant repetitions of thought. Allors.
I am traveling, which is fun, surprising, frustrating, pleasant, extremely unpleasant, invigorating, exhausting, a privilege, a self-inflicted curse, the whole gamut. While I’ve been gadding about, through the miracle of modern communication systems, I’ve received word that although not a winner, I was a finalist in a contest, and also received two more outright rejections for my work. And so it goes, says the narrator watching the journey of Billy Pilgrim. I often, in the grim thick of it, wonder why I travel, and why I try to get my work published. I can’t explain either, except for some complex cocktail of ego, hubris, drive, curiosity, and this need to connect, perhaps. We sat by a tidal river in a funky little place that was playing Steely Dan, BB King, Supertramp, and ate crustaceans that we don’t usually eat, bristling with claws and exoskeleton, toasting Anthony Bourdain’s memory. We left hungry but feeling like we’d accomplished a small thing, as I felt when I heard of my finalist spot. Staying home is nice too. Not doing the research required to send work out, not girding the loins for the inevitable rejections, just either doing the writing or doing something else entirely — that’s nice too. But before long I start listening keenly to others’ tales, pore over maps, surf the Poets &Writers deadline pages, pack my bags and set out. Again and again. That’s the only Way.
Paris’s Pantheon is devoted to honoring the Republic’s “great men”…and Marie Curie. By now there are some other women, finally. In the crypt lie the remains of defenders of the Republic; soldiers many, and statesmen, but also scientists, and, of great interest to me, writers. The Pantheon in some ways is devoted to the power of words, words that roused the citizenry, words that safeguard laws and rights and philosophical ideas of how to be citizens, words too that rendered by imagination tell stories and orate poems that stir us and remind us of the best, and the potential worst, that lies within us. In 100 years, if we’re still here, we humans, whose words will we still be quoting? Who will be our great writers who by their ideas and imagination will safeguard our humanity?
I was looking over a newish poem, and, of an image I used, I thought, Oh, no, I can’t use that. I used it already in another poem. But as I was exploring an exhibit about Picasso’s creation of “Guernica,” I found out how often he recycled images. I don’t mean, for example, his various drawings and paintings using the image of the Minotaur — he was obviously exploring various mythological and psychological aspects of that character. I mean, oh, there’s a variation of that screaming horse. And there it is again. And there’s a disembodied arm. There’s another arm. In “Guernica,” the screaming horse became a central image, but he had used it previously sort of beside other things. It grew into its ultimate place in “Guernica,” even moving upward in the composition even as Picasso was working it out over the short period in which he generated the piece. So if I want to reuse the image of, oh, I don’t know, the often cloudy fish tank in my mother’s old folks’ home, well, I can, dammit. It’s my screaming horse.
There are many facets of the writing life. I thought it might be useful to log some of the major ones. Living the examined life, you know. Here are some aspects of the writing life:
– There’s the “get a job so you can pay the rent” part.
– The “find the time and psychic space to do it” part.
– The “have absolutely nothing in your head and wander around the house aimlessly” part.
– The self-recriminating “how can I be a writer if I don’t write” part.
– The “have ideas but can’t quite seem to figure out how to get them on the page” part.
– There’s the “write a bunch of stuff” part.
– The “what is all this crap?” part.
– There’s the tinkering, the taking out and putting back in and moving things around part, which sometimes happens only in the head; sometimes you manage to do it on the page, and it’s fun. That part.
– There’s the “this is brilliant” part.
– The “oh, wait, no, this is dreadful” part.
– There’s the “hm, I like this” part.
– There’s the research into what literary magazines and publishers might like the work part.
– The sending out and sending out and paying fees for the privilege of getting someone’s attention to your work for five freaking minutes part.
– The looking back at what you sent out to which lit mag/publisher and the “why on earth would I send them THIS” part.
– There’s the petty jealousies, the eye rolling, the “are you freaking kidding me, THIS got published” part.
– There’s the “this person’s work is so brilliant I don’t know why I even bother” part. With its corollary, the “I quit writing forever” part.
– There’s the waiting, the waiting, the wayayaiting.
– There’s the “okay, I can’t just keep checking email and mail every five minutes on the chance one of the twenty-five places that have my work will get back to me finally; I HAVE to get back to work” part.
– The acceptance! Hee hee hee! Perhaps a small dance. That part.
– The seeing it print! but can’t reread it yet another time because you’re sick to death of it just check to make sure that is in fact your name beneath it part.
– There’s the forcing yourself to the page part and starting something new part, anything, anything at all.
– The vital necessity of dealing with that dangling cobweb or smudge on the refrigerator door you’ve been ignoring for a week part, with its corollary: the vital necessity of mopping the kitchen floor right now part; with its corollary above, the wander around the house aimlessly part.
So to all of you living the writing life, huzzah. May some parts linger longer than others! As for me, I’ve got some cobweb wrangling to do.
It was time again for my task as first-round reader for a poetry book contest. Once again I approached with self-doubt and angst. Once again, I learned some things to apply to my own work.
The twenty-five or so manuscripts I looked at were uniformly pretty well-written, which tells me that people are taking the time to learn something of the craft of writing (or at least reviewing the rules of grammar) and the art of poetry.
But I found that several of these full-length manuscripts felt more like solid chapbooks with other stuff stuffed in around them. This is interesting and a useful cautionary tale. I need to examine my own current full-length ms to make sure I have truly a full group of good poems and not a core of good ones and some bubble wrap.
A corollary to this is that it seems like collections are getting longer and longer. And I’ve noted in an earlier post that contest rules are asking for mss that are of higher and higher page count. I just don’t think this is a good thing. I want a book of poems to be a small world I live in, roaming around, revisiting streets and vistas. I don’t want to wander forever in strange terrain. Too many times I’ve encountered collections that after a while make me say “Enough already.” This is not good for poetry, already fighting an uphill battle for readers. Too many poems invites too many weak poems. I favor shorter and stronger throughout. Whack ’em with some good stuff and go.
“Ahem ahem”: I found that, no lie, 80% of the manuscripts were chock full of epigraphs: epigraphs for the ms as a whole, for sections, for individual poems. And 98% of the time the epigraphs added nothing to the experience of the poem. Why why why do people do this? It seems like a lot of throat clearing and paper shuffling. Unless they provide some vital context, I just don’t see the point. I began to resent this imposition on my time. They’re unnecessary ruffles. Think of Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. If you want to use someone’s line in your work, have at it; just give them a nod in an end note. But epigraphs? Enough. Stop hiding behind someone else. Just start the poem, poet.
I also found often that I didn’t understand people’s line break decisions. I tried counting syllables or beats, in case I was missing a form or something. But an awful lot of the time the line breaks seemed suspiciously random. (I’ve written about line breaks before: Line Item) So I need to go back and stare down my line breaks, justify them to my now line-break crabby and hyper-vigilant self.
Finally I read a couple of mss that were interesting in content but in the end never transcended their own material. I talked about this a little bit last time with regard to essays. Where is the emotional center and how is my vision being shifted? The same goes for poems: experience has to launch to something beyond itself. Otherwise a cigar is just a cigar. And where’s the art in that?
I am still wrestling with an essay I mentioned several blogposts ago. I can’t seem to get comfortable with it. Every time I walk away I come up with ideas of how to change it, then when I get back to the page, the ideas seem unworkable.
The essay is a meditation on how sometimes you can feel attachment to a place you’ve never seen before. You come upon a place and know it, impossibly. It haunts you when (if) you’ve left. Not everyone knows this feeling, but enough people do that I think it’s “a thing.” It’s certainly a thing I experience.
I keep putting myself into and taking myself out of the essay in some kind of editing hokey pokey. I’ve even tried shaking it all about. I keep trying to make it strange. It keeps staying conventional. I keep trying to make it thin. It keeps staying a bit corpulent.
The personal essay/memoir form is fraught with this question of “I.” To be truly effective as art, the essay has to transcend its own I’s story. It’s not enough to say what happened, nor what “I” felt about it. The authorial consciousness has to somehow rise above itself, with empathy, with insight, wonder, and generosity.
The best stories have an ah-ha in them somehow — not a lesson taught but a moment expressed so clearly that the reader/listener feels the frisson.
I can’t seem to balance the intellectual with the emotional in this essay, the descriptive with the so-what. There is a balance in any piece of art among the elements: the what, the why, the who cares. Until I figure out my own emotional stake in the piece, it will continue to be travel without a destination.