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.