Sunday, January 19, 2014

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Poetry and... Idle Time

If "Character is what (we) are in the dark" (as has been proposed by Dwight Moody and Lord John Whorfin), then it is also what we are when no one is looking and we are completely free to manage our own time.

Are you reading this from the northeastern United States? If so (and my statistics say it's highly likely that you are), you have likely spent some portion of the past 24 hours pinned to your house due to Stormystorm* Nemo.

Are you a writer, either professional or hobbyist? If so (and my statistics say it's highly likely you are, unless you're my mother. Hi there, Mom!), you have therefore had an opportunity spend some time with your craft. How you used that time may be a good indication of where you are in your current project, in your writing process, or even in your progression (career?) as a writer. How did you make use of this bonus time?

Did you write? Though it may be the choice for many people, it may not be as obvious as you might think. There are writers who insist that inspiration has to strike to make writing time productive in the least; pinned to your house, wondering if you were stocked up enough on milk and eggs to last you through the weekend, may not be conducive to inspiration. Other folks are regimented in their writing to the point where it is difficult to make ready quickly enough to use unplanned time productively. If you are able to open the spigot on demand, this could have been a great opportunity for you.

Was this prime editing time for you? Editing is traditionally the third-least favorite activity** for a writer. Are you the kind who sees bonus time as a "sign" to get to this distasteful task? The kind to gird yourself with a grunt of "Well, now I have no excuse not to..." and break out the red pen? Interestingly, I find people are very generous applying energy to editing other people's work, but are reluctant to spend it on their own. Partly, I suppose, this is because the task feels like looking backwards, when we tend to want to put the "finished" work behind us and move on to new work. But it's also that the task is much, much harder for us to do ourselves (Faulkner warned us we must delete what we like most in our writings). So how can we use this time to improve our work?

Technology + time = connection. As long as you had power, did you reach out into the great online poetry community to find kindred writers to commiserate with and support you in your efforts? Post to some poets' Facebook Timelines? Respond to some overdue correspondence tasks? Writing is an isolating experience - it's just you and the words - and sometimes we need a reminder that our poems mean nothing in a drawer on on a thumb drive, and that we need the context of other artists to bring out the best in ourselves (and if you're lucky, to find a good proofreader and an honest mentor).

Research comes more naturally to some of us, especially in a rare bit of unstrcutured time. With the plethora of places and ways to publish available today, I think some poets have gotten a little spoiled (careless?) in their submission practice. It wasn't all that long ago that finding and sibmitting to a new publisher was a week's-long process and a long wait for response - find a journal, order a sample copy by postal mail, wait for it, study it when it arrives, craft and send a submission by postal mail, wait 6 months, repeat. With Submittable and such, there's a tendency to rush a submission in because it's so easy, and feedback is so quick from newer journals. Not surprisingly, this is where my energy drifted (pardon the snow-pun***). I searched my twitter feed for journals new to me, read some online archives , ordered a couple of copies, and prepped a submission.

Of course, for so many of us the greatest luxury in found time is to use it to read. I don't know a poet who doesn't have a stack of journals and books awaiting an opportunity to dig into them. If you're like me, you have a book on your nightstand, one in your briefcase, two on the coffee table, one by the television, and two in your "in case of emergency" overnight bag. And three in the cloud. With this extra time, did you invest in an unknown author? Crack the spine on a new book you've been aching to read? Revisit an old classic? You can file this activity under any of the above, by the way.

So what did you do with this time? Ask yourself this: Was the activity you gravitated to someplace you needed to spend some time? Or was it where you were comfortable working? If it was both, well, God bless. But if it didn't serve your needs as a writer, well.... think about what that's trying to tell you.

While these unexpected pauses are great and let us (if we are disciplined enough!) capitalize with a little bolus of output, they usually ends in a rapid ramp-up in the work we have been freed from by the distraction. As for me, I'm off to shovel.

I hope you enjoy your time this weekend.

* - I'm fed up with Megastorm! Superstorm! Snowmageddon! How about you?
** - just ahead of multiple molar extraction and appearing before the IRS.
*** - I promised myself no more than one in any communication I make today.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Poetry and.... Change

By now you've of course read Washington Post writer Alexandra Petri's column "Is Poetry Dead?" There has already been sufficient vitriolic response to that column (as there always is when the question is asked - which I find is just about biennially, timed perfectly out of phase with the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival). David Bespiel's response was the best I've read, other than Petri's own excellent follow-up column.  I trust (hope?*) the flap is behind us, but now that our adrenaline has subsided and our patella tendons returned to their rest state, we have an an opportunity to look again at what Ms. Petri was saying. And as is usually the case when someone raises this prickly question, she makes some excellent observations. Fellow poetry practitioners, let's take a look at what she had to say.

Petri posits that "You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?" That seems pretty reasonable to me. She acknowledges her own medium - print journalism - has a suspect future, saying that "(if) poetry is dead, we are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily, with our family gathered around looking concerned and asking about our stereos." In the past few months, we've seen Newsweek give up its print edition, and here in NJ the largest daily newspaper just announced another prince increase/content decrease combination. If print journalism is losing out to online journalism, it's not unreasonable to speculate poetry should be feeling the same pain.

But there is a key flaw in the comparison: Newsweek lost its traditional audience to other sources of similar content. People who had been turning to the magazine for news commentary were turning other places, and Newsweek decided, sensibly, to focus its energy on competing more directly with those other places. But has poetry been losing its audience? Actually, technology has done just the opposite for poetry: online publication has created more opportunity to read poetry and enabled innovations like the Motion Poem. Additionally, the performance poetry scene continues to thrive and attract investment from nontraditional places (for example, the New York Knicks Poetry Slam Program).

Now, I'm not saying all these poetry interactions are necessarily good poetry, but I think it proves the audience is there, even growing into places it wasn't reaching (or didn't exist) 30 years ago, so the analogy to print media doesn't work. Petri continues, proposing that a plethora of bad poetry (or a low percentage of meaningful poetry) might also suggest the death of the form. She says "I think what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing. Poetry has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and generally Shake Things Up to a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read."

Well, yes. I think she has a good point here, one that has been debated for at least as long as I've been writing and collecting my poems. Much of what people pass off as poetry is weakly constructed, confessional fluff, and most credible poets agree on that. And there is a fairly well known divide between those who think an academic credential is necessary to poetry and those who think that same credential is a creativity-killing assimilation process. Both are right. In poetry (or biology, or economics), extra years of study and vetting by those skilled in the art provides peer review, practica, and understanding you could not get on your own. And that is likely to homogenize the field, exposing more poets to more "recognized" poets, creating more poems which call upon similar theory history - in a completely self-aware way, if the process has worked. But the alternative is more poets continuing to explore the same space that other poets have explored before; you risk eliminating the infrequent outlier genius but raise the overall quality of output. My analogy is this: If we didn't teach physics in college, at least one scientist a day would attempt to publish Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation. People would work hard and to great personal satisfaction and the flow of the science would dry up. Teaching the science to all who practice means we're free to explore other spaces within it - if we are creative enough to do so.

One of the arguments made against Petri (and whenever this topic is debated) is that with so many people writing poetry, how can it be dead? During the aftermath of the column, she quite rationally tweeted "Look, I love poetry, I've inhaled, I was an English major, the works. And I know Is It Dead Yet? essays are, er, not un-hack, shall we say./But I do want to hear a better case for poetry than "I do it! And mine's great!"." Again, she's right, and credible poets don't disagree. I think it's wonderful that so many people write poetry and want to share it. But those who write it without reading it are only stoking "poetry is obsolete" fire. Listen: Twitter will begin to die the day people stop retweeting, because it means people have stopped reading other people's tweets. Until then, it may be overused and largely vacuous, but it's still contributing something that cannot be found anywhere else.

Of course, Petri comes to all these conclusions herself, and one realizes she must have started with them in mind. She adds

"And whenever people say this about journalism, they note that people have an insatiable hunger for news. Journalism in its present form may not continue, but journalism will. It will have to. Otherwise where will the news come from?

And this might be the silver lining for poets. The kind of news you get from poems, as William Carlos Williams has it, must come from somewhere. And there is a similar hunger for poetry that persists. We get it in diluted doses in song lyrics. Song lyrics are incomplete poems, as Sondheim notes in the book of his own. If it is complete on the page, it makes a shoddy lyric. But there is still wonderful music to be found in those words. We get it in rap. If we really want to read it, it is everywhere. Poetry, taken back to its roots, is just the process of making — and making you listen."

Which is the rub. The "process of making" requires craft (taken as a knowledge of what works and what doesn't, who you're trying to reach, and knowing what you want to say... which can be acquired through either education or practice as long as either is applied with the diligent and sincere collection of feedback) and content (whether narrative or lyric, topical or ethereal, formal or conversational, personal or persona). If the poem - or the poet - has nothing interesting to say, there is no art. And where there is neither art not interest, no one can be reached... or changed.

Back, then, to the original question: "Can it change anything?" Ask this about the poems you love. Have they affected the way you think in some way? Are you more aware of something now than before you first read them? When you share them, do they raise a response in people who are reading them for the first time? When you discuss them, do they provide something meaningful to talk about, leading you in directions that sometimes surprise you? When you write them, do they end in places that challenge you to find your way back to where you started? Good poems will do these things. And it is these poems that will (continue to) keep poetry alive.

* - Petri herself tweeted: "remind me the next time I criticize a thing that it should be a thing whose practitioners are not noted for their wordcraft." People who pride themselves on their speaking are not wont to shut up.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Poetry and Process Redux: (Some) Rules for Writing... a Book of Poems

In my last post, I cited some "rules" I find interesting and helpful in the writing of poems, all of which are good to keep creative juices brimming, muses engaged, and words flowing. These are primarily tips for producing individual poems, for staying in the zone and wanting to create, and if you're pursuing and trying to capitalize on moments of inspiration, this is good enough. But if you're looking to produce something larger than an individual poem, the rules only get you as far as raw material. There are more and different rules when you're writing a book.

Or so it seems to me. When I was compiling my chapbook To The Ones Who Must Be Loved, I was arranging poems that, though organized around a consistent thematic element, were all written as individuals. In the first draft of the manuscript, three problems emerged almost immediately:
  • Sameness in look on the page
  • too-frequent use of faborite words
  • repeated presentation of particular images
A number of the poems in To The Ones appeared in journals before joining others in the book, but never more than two at a time, so these issues didn't present themselves before the completed manuscript. Since all the poems are in a voice very close to my own, they obviously reflected my speech habits, which isn't a handicap until you're 12 pages into a 24 page book and are not interested in the next poem because the last three have somehow blended together. I was fortunate to have great feedback from poet friends to point these things out to me and to suggest ways to work through them, but it was clear that a no time in their writing was I thinking about "the book", even though I was writing poems for "the book" for years. That's a mistake I'm trying to make with my current project.

Again here, I had a few poems before I had the idea for the book, but this time I started thinking about 6 poems in about what the final project should look like, and to apply some tools to refine the collection as it develops rather than discover its shortcomings later. To that end, I had do develop  some rules and be firm about applying them.

First, I created an outline. Is that common for poetry collections? It didn't seem obvious to me, but there was a particular story arc I wanted to present and a list of images and incidents I wanted to make sure were included; this made outlining essential - and had the effect of ejecting some individual poems if they tread on space charted out elsewhere in the collection. After the 50% complete point, it seemed that for every two poems I added, I had to remove one to avoid the "repeated used of particular images" trap. Might be a little frustrating that the last pages of the collection are coming together so slowly, but I'm so much more confident in the final product - it's worth it.

Next, I had to set boundaries on voice. One big difference in the new collection is that I'm speaking in the voice of a historical figure, which made it easy to avoid my own cadence in language, but harder to achieve consistency without repetition of "favorite words". I tried to fill my head with this figure's writings - through translation, since he didn't write in English - so I could make intelligent word choices. There are some words that I've avoided religiously and some I've deliberately seeded throughout the book, but consciously, considering spacing in the book, link to the repeating themes. It may come across the same way to a reader, but it will be the result of something I'm actively trying, and therefore will have a better (and earlier) idea how to change.

The outline puts me in much better position to anticipate the page-sameness issue. Instead of following inspiration to create a poem and trying to find a place for it in the sequence later, I'm writing specifically to fill a need in the story arc or character development, which means I have an idea of the context for the poem long before it is complete. While this doesn't mean I don't reorder later (not by a long shot), it does direct me to consider choices on for, rhyme, length, etc. from outside the poem, anticipating and avoiding "sameness... on the page."

Now my collection is a narrative with a distinct story arc, and there are good models to follow (such as the novels in verse of Meg Kearney), but the outlining technique is adaptable to other forms as well if you can have a model for the final product in mind (like BJ Ward's Seventeen Love Poems with No Despair, a riff on Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair).

So here are are my rules for writing a book of poems (as opposed to collecting a book out of previously-written poems):
  1. Explore the subject - write a few individual poems to see if the concept holds up in quantity and quality of ideas well enough to support a book,
  2. Design the final manuscript - for a narrative, outline the story from beginning to end. For other kinds of collections, define the "takeaway" of the book - either a model you'll follow or an impression you're trying to create.
  3. Write the last poem - this establishes the point you're working toward. You can change it later, but you can't program the GPS without a starting destination.
  4. Write regularly, targeting specific places in the manuscript when you're writing. Be aware of the poems you've already placed in these sections.
  5. Weed regularly, look for unintended repetition and especially for important elements of your outline that are less powerfully included than you like.
  6. Repeat 4-5 until you are satisfied with the draft
This launches us into the gathering and use of feedback, a task for another day.

Are these rules any good? I don't know, I'm completing my second manuscript right now, and this is how I approached it. We'll find out next year if it worked.

Up next: There's no place like poem for the holidays.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Poetry and Process: Rules for Writing

The northeastern United States continues to recover from the incredible impact Hurricane Sandy has delivered to us. It's hard to imagine the long path so many people have in front of them to recover from this storm. For those of us who were blessed to be mildly impacted, the issue in front of is a simple one: restore a little order to things: get the kids back to school, get back to work, figure out a routine for keeping the gas tank full in the car. With that in mind, I'm considering order in the writing process - how do we get ourselves writing when it's so easy - even easier than usual - to do something else instead.

As practiced writers know, it's not really hard to find advice on how to write. And as those writers also know, it's exceptionally hard to find good advice on how to write. But if you're well-read across and within the writing industry, you can assemble for yourself some guideposts, some tracks to follow, some tips for maintaining quality and progress, that can come in handy when you're sitting down at the keyboard*, determined to just write something, and you want that something to have a chance to be good. Here are some tips from among the writers I follow:

Poet and columnist Grant Clauser admits he has "a tendency to change ... rules when they no longer suit" him, but his current rule set seems pretty good to me. Two from his most recent set are "Have a reader in mind" (something I've made a case for many times in this space - if you're writing for "no one", you're really writing for "people like you") and "Always be nice to dogs." OK, not entirely sure about that one, but then I've always been more of a cat person.

Children's writer Irene Latham has posted helpful maps for writing press releases and speaking in public as well as crafting poems, and offered up one of my favorite rules: "Engage at least two senses". This evokes the terrific imagery of cooking to me - blending multiple textures, multiple extremes on the sweet-savory continuum seems perfect for writing - blenging multiple elements of lanugage and craft and creating surprising combinatinos along the poetry spectrum. The rest of her rules are pretty good, too.

Robert Lee Brewer, the indefatigable source of poetry energy for Writer's Digest Magazine, expands the zone around the act of writing, listing 10 things that, done regularly, should keep your poetry fuel tank full enough that you can't help but write when the opportunity presents itself. He reminds us that "As a poet, you are an ambassador of poetry to those who are afraid to read it or think it’s something they just don’t 'get'." BTW, are you participating in the PAD Chapbook challenge? That's one way to keep yourself writing.

Anne Lamott - someone with pretty good advising credentials herself - said in an NPR interview that at one time she couldn't write if there were dishes in the sink; now she could write with a corpse in the sink. The trick is to use these - or any other bits of advice that ring true for you - to get to yourself the point where the act of writing is a trained reflex, a habit no more burdensome than breathing, so that when the real world begins to press in around you, it doesn't crowd the poems out.

Up next, the difference between writing poems for a book and writing a book comprised of poems. And how it took me way too long to learn it. Something to add to my personal rules list.

My best wishes to all in the Hurricane Sandy impact area. Be warm and safe, and know you're being prayed for all over the world.

* - or the notebook if you're stubbornly old school or still waiting for PSE&G...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Supertramp's Interest in My Health (or: Poetry and Living In The Moment)

Thirty years ago every time I opened a TV Guide I was greeted by the cover from Supertramp's Breakfast in America in the Columbia House Record Club, and invariably concluded from that cover that this was not an album I would devote a fraction of my penny* too. I never actually joined the Columbia House Record Club, but in those eager planning sessions, I never circled Supertramp as I imagined how I'd deploy my cent.

A little more than twenty years ago, I began to formulate the hypothesis that whatever music was popular when you were entering high school would somehow be popular with you later in your life, even if it wasn't your music when it was everyone's music. This theory derived from finding myself singing along with Keep on Loving You, Babe, This Is It** and a hundred other songs that had been kicking around the radio waves from the mid 70s through the time I trundled off to college, secure in my accordion and my music case full of standards and mazurkas.

During a long car ride about ten years ago, I realized that a surprising number of songs that I numbered among my favorites belonged to Supertramp, not that I ever attributed the songs to that group of performers. This in itself wasn't a great surprise, as The Cars, Styx, Three Dog Night, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac, Little River Band and so on and so on and so on had worked their way into my music collection, mostly as I acquired LPs on drastic sale as CD's became popular, then CD's as all the Sam Goody closed. But Supertramp remained out of my line of sight during the great vinyl elimination.

Every day this week, some Supertramp song seemed to be on 70s on 7 during 2 or 3 of the 75 minutes I spend in the car daily. As I had been identifying the songs to my daughters throughout the week (after recounting most of the above story on Tuesday), when the radio pumped out "intellectual, cynical" yesterday morning, they were hysterical, and I promised myself I'd put BIA on my iPod this morning. Which I did.

This brings me to a street corner a little more than a quarter-mile from my house - the corner where I typically decide whether to break my morning exercise walk off early and head home or turn the other direction and add 10 minutes to it. I had been marching in celebration to the shuffling tracks of Supertramp and as I slowed to a stop to consider my decision, a new song started down the wires of my headset. What song?

Why, "Take the Long Way Home", of course.

So what does this all have to do with poetry? Well, for starters there's the joyful notation of the moment. The ability to recognize the remarkable, but not to let it pass. Not satisfied to be aware of these moments, the poet needs to do something with them. To translate coincidence into something else. Report the moment, but not just as a purveyor of fact, but with the insight of someone aware of a great tradition of connecting this with that.

And for me in this case "this" is  a thirty-year relationship with a song that popped up with a very specific message for me. My first draft has me thinking about Roger Zelazny. I'll make the connection for you another time***. Unless you can make one yourself...

* I don't know whether I should miss those days.
** The eclectic nature of my musical taste has been previously reported...
*** (HINT: The particular story I'm thinking of is in Unicorn Variations).