Between 5 Degrees N & S Latitude

With registration going on, my creative impulses have gone right out the window.  You might think the reverse would be true:  that the tedium and minutia of my job that currently preoccupies my lower-functioning mind would allow the higher-functioning part to be working overtime on things creative.  But alas, that is not the case.  I’ve hit the doldrums–though hopefully it won’t go past April 23rd (when registration suspends).

Part of the problem, of course, is the DYPS hasn’t met for several weeks–first it was Spring Break; and then it was the week after Spring Break, but no one but Bob could come; and then this week was AWP.  So three Thursdays have passed and I haven’t been “required” to produce, which is bad–I need that discipline or I’m a slug.  To be fair, I’ve been kicking around a Sibley Sister poem, but I just don’t know about the ending–and I’m not talking about “Best Served Cold,” the poem that’s been futzed with and “tweaked” to death, and still no one likes the end. (Because it’s crappy.)

Everyone knows ending poems (with, if not a transcendent “ah” experience, at least a resolute “yes”) is hard, but they seem especially hard with the Sibley poems.  I’ve mentioned before how I want these poems to do alot, but it’s hard to get it on one page.

But at this point, it’s hard to get anything on a page.  I’m in a rut–and it’s not just the poems (but I don’t want to go into it.)  Maybe it’s just time to do some more reading–I’ve got a ton I could read, that might inspire me.  Maybe I should take a break and write something else.  Or maybe I just need to “put on my Big Girl panties and deal with it”–“write through the pain”– “embrace the struggle”… or whatever other hackney phrase people say when they have to deal with annoying, whiny-ass, self-pitying, self-indulgent, poor-me-I-have-writer’s-block-my-life-is-so-tragic brats like me.

*Sob.*

April is Poetry Month… & I Haven’t Made a Single Post (Horrors!)

Tuesday the 6th was Chris’s b-day, and instead of traditional birthday things, I dragged him to the DYPS’ reading at the Oglethorpe Museum (he was very amenable, all things considered).  The reading was in tandem with their exhibit, Henri Matisse: a Celebration of French Poets and Poetry. (As opposed to French poets and what, hotdogs???  Like, duh, of course poetry).

I really enjoyed myself, even if the poems that Blake, Bob, and Karen read were mostly ekphrastic–and both Bob and Blake brought handouts to accompany their poems too, which was thoughtful.  I knew that we, as a group, had discussed the appropriateness of this venue for ekphrastic poetry, and as you know, I’m not a) a huge fan of it, and b) worth a damn when it comes to writing it.  So I had initially tried to get out of the reading, figuring that the few ekphrastic poems I’ve written (and they’re only pseudo-ek, because I think the convention of just describing what’s in the painting is kind of… well… dry) really ought not to be read–or hell, acknowledged–but my demurring went over like the proverbial lead balloon.

So, making my apologies to the audience (which was, surprisingly, not just the DYPS and their significant others), I read poems from La Petite Mort, and from my as-yet-unnamed collection about the Sibley Sisters.  Here’s the set list:

  • Dystopic Love Poem
  • Besame Mucho
  • It Took You Half an Hour to Remember the Words “Wine Cooler”
  • Low Sunday
  • Valediction
  • Ex Somnium
  • Bee
  • They Say
  • Supplication
  • Tallulah Brings Home News

Afterwards, there was an impromptu star party, as the director(?) of the Oglethorpe Museum invited us up on the roof to look at Venus and Mercury.  Sirius was out, as was Orion, and I think I saw the Big Dipper.  It was neat to be up there, although it went on a little longer than I would have liked, and Karen reminded me of the time we were at the observatory at the Sewanee Writers Conference (in 2002), and we saw the shooting star.  (How can that be 8 years ago???)

Anyway… April is a busy month, poetry-wise, for me.  There is PoetryAtlanta’s Talking Back to the Muse program on the 17th, a poetry workshop on the 24th, a reading on the 28th, and possibly another reading sometime at the end of the month.  Well, I hope I can finagle some book orders out of all of this!

Oh, and buy my book already! 😉

Paging Dr. Reilly…’s Poems

I have been neglecting you, my Faithful Five blog readers.  I’m so sorry about that.

Writing-wise, I’m in a good space these days, busy working on this collection about the Sibley sisters that I’ve set at the turn of the 20th Century.  I don’t have many poems yet, and a few of the ones I have are struggling with problematic last stanzas or are trying to do too much on a single page–which is to say, sometimes you can be too ambitious for one poor piece of paper, and you can’t fit it all.  Neither of these issues is keeping me down though, and it’s not like I’m up against a deadline–though I’d be pretty happy if I was near-to-done by the end of the year, so I could enter it in the 2011 contest cycle.

Now while I’ve just said I’m not down about the “too much poem for one page” bit, I realize that’s totally disingenuous.   The fact is, it is difficult sometimes to write narrative poetry because you have a lot of the issues that you’d have in writing a novel–I mean, you have to have scene, character, setting, plot, and Aristotelian dramatic structure–but you need to do it in a confined space.  This ain’t easy.  I’m sure I’m taking liberties here, but Blake Leland (who, frankly, knows more about poetry than God) has a theory that if you have to turn the page to continue reading a poem, anything on the second page is doomed and/ or no damn good, and I tend to agree with him.  I gotta love a poem a whole lot if I have to turn the page to continue reading it–otherwise the “tldr phenomenon” response kicks in.  So, with that caveat in mind, I’ve been trying to keep each poem on a single manuscript page.

The truth is, though, an 8×11 sheet of paper is not the same as a book page–so probably most of these poems are going to take up more than one page anyway, if only by a few lines, which is unfortunate–there’s nothing worse to me, aesthetically, than a page in a book with only 2 lines on it.  Which brings up another point–is this artificial one-page requirement serving the best interest of the poems overall?  Can the demands of narrative poetry be served by the single page, or does that curtail creativity and the full exploration of what the poem wants to present?  In other words, is fitting everything into one page unnecesarily acrobatic?

I have no doubt that I will, at some point, have to write a multi-page poem–possibly, a very long central poem, and maybe the titular one (though I don’t have a title yet)–so I don’t want to lessen the impact of that poem by having a lot of longish other poems in the collection.  I don’t want people–especially the Pulitzer Prize committee ;-)–tossing my book across the room in disgust because their eyes are tired of long poems, and they want a damn lyric already, you know?

It’s a weird tension, because at the core of this issue really is the reader’s attention span.  I’ll you what, when we were reading Brightwood in class, I did get a little irritated with how long some of R.T. Smith’s poems were.  I like shortness–that’s why I’m a poet and not a novelist–and I tend to think most readers’ expectation is that they’ll get in and out of a poem pretty fast.  That’s part of the pleasure of poetry–it’s that crystallized moment of literary purity–and then it’s done.

I don’t know that I can resolve this concern about ideal page length and reader’s aesthetics, other than to remind myself that it is my book, and I can kind of do what I want (as long as the DYPS think the poems are working at whatever length the poems turn out to be).  It’s early yet in the collection–who’s to say I won’t write a lot of short ones in the upcoming months?

I suppose I’ve been dithering over something less important than what actually IS the main concern–and that is, I don’t really have an arc yet.  I don’t really know where these poems are going, other than a kind of nebulous pseudo Southern Gothic end in mind.  I’m not writing the poems in chronological order–which is quite liberating in some ways, and troublesome in others.  And the main characters haven’t totally revealed themselves to me; I’m sort of learning about them as I write poems about their lives.

But, it’s breakfast time, and I’m too hungry to worry about the Grand Scheme of Things, at least as they pertain to the Sibley sisters, right now.

But You Can’t Take the South Out of the Girl

Ok, so “tomorrow” came a few days later.  Sue me.

It’s weird.  My head is full of ideas–places I want to go in these poems, lives I want to explore.  I’ve been reading Southern history and articles about Northwest Louisiana, and I just joined the North Louisiana Historical Association and am looking forward to receiving their journal and reading things about where I’ve come from.

And I feel all of it’s enriching me, giving me insight into a place that’s always been home, but that is also “unknown country” as it were.  What do I really know about my home state?  What do I know about Shreveport?  I mean, in the 8th grade, everyone takes Louisiana History, but a) that was 100 years ago, and b) I was a kid, and didn’t give a crap.  (And c) everyone cheated like murder in that class, so I’m not even sure how much I actually wound up reading.  I might just have copied answers–I know, it’s a scandal.)  I don’t know why, but I just feel poetically rejuvenated.  Like I’ve been looking for something to inspire me, and something about poetry and Louisiana and now… well, it’s all clicking.  Of course, at some point I need to put the books aside and do some writing… I’ve been reading too much lately.  (Not like that’s a terrible thing.)

Something that just occurred to me:   Karen and I once talked about needing to be out of the South in order to see it properly.  Being in Nebraska was that lens for us.  And I think that’s really true, because until this recent kick, all of the “Southern” poems I wrote were when I was away from Louisiana.  It’s as if being in the milieu, I’m just too close to really have any kind of poetic vision about it.  Now plenty of Southern writers might not have that issue, but I did.  (And maybe do… we’ll have to see what the DYPS think of the poems I’m writing before I can see if my Southern myopia is corrected.)

We are reading R.T. Smith’s Brightwood in class.  Initially I wasn’t too keen on it–it seemed a little too deliberate.  Karen’s Colin’s word for it was “mannered.”  To me, there is just a bit of him trying to be overly studied in “down homeness.”  (Speaking of a put-on.)  This is not to take away from some fine poems and the very wonderful interconnections between poems (including the repetition of words/ ideas that operate as leitmotifs), or to discredit the craft that’s gone into them.  But the problem is the craft is obvious, when it should be invisible and organic.  You don’t want to feel, as a reader, that you’re being manipulated, especially not by a poet.

But the book has grown on me, the further I got into it.  I think what I do like is that Smith is a good story teller, as Southern writers ought to be.   You see these people he’s writing about, and the language that he uses to describe them, the scene, the time, the place, etc., is always on target.

I don’t like that most of the poems are too long–for someone who’s an editor, he shows a surprising lack of judiciousness when it comes to editing his own work (isn’t that always the way?)–his poems are routinely more than a page, when a page would suffice.  That’s what I mean about the issue of craft; it’s as if the attitude is, “Well, my words and technique are so good, I’m going to beat you over the head with them, and write 60 line poems when only 42 of them are great.  (But you won’t notice, because I’m so good at it.)”  Ok, ok, maybe that is being unfair.  I like the book more than I dislike it, but it has problems.  We are looking at Brightwood again on Thursday.  It will be interesting to see how my feelings about the book evolve as the class discusses it more.

Bye for now.

She on Honey-dew Hath Fed

Because of the hard freeze after the snow last night, there is a good bit of ice on the roads, and Georgia Tech, in its infinite wisdom (and, as a great morale booster after the obnoxious furloughs last month), decided to delay opening campus until noon.

That was very nice, but I was planning on staying home to work today anyway because my office, with its one 100% busted heater and its other 87% busted heater, has been like Superman’s frozen Fortress of Solitude this past week.  (I suppose, to be more poetic, I might have compared it to Coleridge’s “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” but my office is neither a pleasure-dome, nor sunny, though the caves of ice bit is real enough.  Anyway, the week before school, my office is pretty solitudinous.)  Then, I just happened to go back to the GT website, and lo and behold, they’ve closed the campus for the day.  So, ta-da!  We have a genuine snow day.

Despite a rejection I just received, I’m feeling especially inspired to write today.  Chris just said of the snow on the ivy, “It looks like tiny little white flowers, doesn’t it?”  And it does.  When I lived in Nebraska, an inch of snow would be de rigueur, and people would practically walk around in shorts.   Here, an inch of snow closes down the city, and I find myself looking out the window in my sunroom at the “tiny little white flowers” and the sun through the kudzu-covered pines and feeling a lightness in my heart that I haven’t felt in a while–and a desire to write about the wind, and the black birds thronging the trees in the distance…

Speaking of “Kubla Khan,” I just read the last few lines (which I love, love, love) out to Chris and commented that they (meaning the Romantics) really knew how to use sound.  And he said something that was really insightful (don’t be so shocked, Bob!)–“That’s because they didn’t have the white noise that we do.”  And I think that’s absolutely right.  I don’t think poets use sound to its best effect any more–the musicality of poems just doesn’t seem to be there.  And I am as guilty as my other poet peers.

I’m not saying we need to go back to rhyme, although I’ve been noticing a trend lately where rhyme is becoming retro-cool, but where is the music in poems these days?  Why aren’t poems as sonorous as they used to be?  Why have alliteration and consonance and repetition fallen from favor?  (Assonance is perhaps the last hold-out of sound–I know, for instance, with the DYPS, Blake is always looking for ways to repeat vowel sounds in his poems and ours, and I appreciate it.)

I think, in some ways, white noise really has dulled our ears.  We are inundated with the sounds of “progress” and technology, and so maybe we don’t want to have to hear anything else.  As a culture, maybe we’re all a bit ADD.

Anyway, the approach to poetry has shifted.  Because it’s become a reading activity, as opposed to a hearing activity, writers place less emphasis on how a poem sounds, and more on how it looks on the page.  The only time we ever hear poetry out loud is at a “reading”–a formal space where the Poet (TM) delivers a set of her poems to a passive audience, and who then offers her books for sale, so the poems might be read silently, in the privacy of the audience member’s own home.  It’s not really a communal activity any more…  Maybe I’m waxing nostalgic for the pre-industrial days (you know, like 200+years ago, when none of us were around) when families and friends sat in their drawing rooms or libraries and read poetry to each other.  (Although, perhaps that is an idealized image, brought on by watching too many Jane Austen movies.)

Anyway, I blame academic poets for this shift.  Since poetry on the page is more important than poetry out loud, poetic musicality is passe.  I think my fellow academic poets (and me, to an extent) are afraid to use some of those literary/ sound devices for fear of being thought quaint or, Goddess forbid, Longfellow- or Poe-esque.  (Eep!  Can’t have that.  Our collective response to that thought–it must be said–is “Nevermore.”)

About the only place where I consistently hear poetry that pays attention to the way the words sound is at the quarterly Georgia Poetry Society meetings–and these aren’t academic poets by a long shot.  Now, many, many of those poems sound bad–they use rhyme, meter, and repetition criminally.   I won’t lie.  But for the ones that are well done, the attention to sound really elevates the work in a way that I always find surprising–which tells you how infrequently I hear poems that are written to please the ears.  Those are the poems you want to hear out loud, could listen to more of.

We academic poets could learn from that, but we fear, we fear, we fear.

Revision? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Revision!

Actually, that’s not true.

I’ve been writing a bit lately, doing my usual 10 or so drafts before I show the DYPS (our writing group), and then when I show it to them, they offer about 4000 changes I need to make–actually, I think it’s become a kind of game to them–and so I abandon the poem altogether.  Which, it must be said, smacks of “crabby little baby who doesn’t get what she wants.”

I have several that are in this pile, which I haven’t gone back to look at since the sharing of them, and they’re starting to stink, the way all those Thanksgiving leftovers that are still in our fridge are starting to stink.  (I know, TMI–and yes, in case you’re worried, the cleaning the fridge is on my list of things to do ASAP.)

There is one exception–“December in Atlanta.”  This was a poem I wrote a week or so ago that I really liked the way it was.  On Revision 7 I thought, “Hey, that’s a pretty good poem.”  So I showed it to Bob who did not like it.  (You know you didn’t.)  His point, I admit grudgingly, was that the snow fantasy didn’t last the whole poem–and that was true, although that wasn’t exactly the point I was going for.  He suggested that I stick Atlanta landmarks beyond Midtown and Spaghetti Junction in it (which were already in there)–the Fox theater, Grant Field, the zoo, etc.

So I did it to please him–how’s that for being true to one’s art?

What was a short poem morphed into this whole-page-long poem, with lines 3/4 of the way across the page.  It’s really this giant, gangly poem that offends my sense of page aesthetics.  The poem doesn’t seem me-ish at all, and I think that must be why I don’t feel loving toward it.  I liked the compactness of the original, the tercets, and the four main images it contained.  I feel like this poem’s stepmother, as opposed to author–and we all know, if my past experience is anything to go by–that stepmothers hate what they are stepmothers to.

… Except, the revision is not without its charms, which I also grudgingly admit.  It is very Atlanta-y, and there are some fun images in it.  And Bob liked it, and that’s important.  I think I’m just having a hard time letting go of a poem that I really liked, but that maybe didn’t work as well as I wanted it to.   I’m not abandoning the  new version–just  setting it aside, to “age,” and to grow on me.

As for the other poems-in-process (a.k.a. currently abandoned), I’m hoping that I can come back to them over the break, when I’m fresher, and unimpeded by piddly things like work.  At least, that’s the plan.  It’s always astonishing to me how days will go by over winter break, and I’ll have accomplished nothing…

Favors, & Anguish, & Blurbs, Oh My!

It is extremely hard for me to ask favors of people.  I’m not talking about the “Hey, Chris, can you please replace the toilet paper?” kind of favor.  I mean the kind where I ask someone to do something for me that requires a considerable investment in his or her time or energy (even when the person is my friend and probably wouldn’t say no).  Or, that has anything to do with reading my writing who isn’t the DYPS.  My hang-up is that I never want to inconvenience anyone.  It’s actually quite paralyzing sometimes.

All of this is by way of saying, a few weeks ago, when I was lamenting to Karen that I don’t personally know any awesome poets (who aren’t my good friends or former professors) to blurb my book, she suggested Marilyn Kallet and Julie Kane–both of whom are poets I admire, but neither of whom I know.

I was being my usual leery, bleah-y, doubting self, sure that they would be a) too busy, b) too annoyed to be asked by a stranger to do such a favor, and c) too unimpressed by what they read to blurb it.  But Karen, ever patient, said she didn’t think that was the case, and she reminded me that I had worked as the editorial assistant on Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:  Critical and Creative Responses to Everette Maddox, that Julie Kane and Grace Bauer (my diss. director) had edited, so maybe Julie would be more inclined to blurb my chapbook.  And I think she suggested Marilyn because she knew that Marilyn would blurb my book as a favor to Karen, since they are friends.

So, the long and short of it is, I asked both of them, and they said yes!  So now I’m just awaiting their kind words… (I hope they will be kind…)