The Marvellous Marshes of Glynn (Well Ok, the Nice Enough Streets of Historic Downtown Macon)

Last Saturday was the Quarterly Meeting of GPS, held down in Macon at the Sidney Lanier Cottage.  I had never been to Macon before, though I had driven through once, and though I didn’t get a chance to explore the town much, the homes surrounding the Cottage were old-timey and pretty.

What was surprising to me about the Cottage, though, was how austerely appointed it was–I think was expecting a house with tons of antiques and personal possessions he’d owned in his life, but the only thing of real interest was a wedding dress that his wife Mary had worn (and I think she had an 18 inch waist!), and a copy of a letter he had written to his mother that you could read which was sitting out on a secretary.

I didn’t know much about Sidney Lanier prior to visiting–other than a lake that was named for him.  But apparently he was quite the Renaissance man–besides being a poet, he had served in the Confederacy, was something of a mathematician, worked as a lawyer, was a self-taught flautist, taught at Johns Hopkins, and spent seven years playing the flute in a symphony.

The day started with a Sidney Lanier impersonator talking about his language.  And I’m sorry, but the only kind of “impersonator” I can bear watching is someone like Will Ferrell playing George Bush.  I just find impersonators unwatchable, so it was torture sitting there and listening to the Sidney Lanier character.  I was very interested in finding out about Lanier’s life, and it was quite extraordinary (and the Cottage is on the National Historic Register both for his music and his poetry).  If it had just been a lecture about his life, I would have enjoyed it so much more.

Maybe I just didn’t think the guy was very good–not that I have any experience of Sidney Lanier in which to compare the performance, obviously.  But what really annoyed me was that except for a little quotation from some famous Cantata that Lanier wrote, there was no recitation of his poetry.  Really?  Really???  We’re there for a day of poetry, and we get next to none of it in a performance “by” Sidney Lanier?  That seems a bit counter-intuitive to me.

And later in the afternoon, after Alice Friman’s excellent (but way too soft-spoken) reading (and I was sitting in the front–so I feel really bad for those sitting towards the back), we hear more poetry, but instead of Sidney Lanier’s poems (I would have liked to hear his famous  “The Marshes of Glynn,” for instance, which several of the Members’ Sidney Lanier-inspired poems referred to in the morning), we hear work from Andrew Hudgins’ 1988 book, After the Lost War, a book long series of persona poems based on Lanier’s life.  I enjoyed hearing them, certainly, because Ron Self is a wonderful reader (as well as writer), but come on.  I think we should have heard Lanier’s actual words.  But maybe that’s just me being a curmudgeon and a purist.

It was, of course, good to see all my friends; I never get tired of that.

Other than that, not much going on with me in poetry, except I’m still working periodically on the Sibley Sisters.  I thought I might have a full book of them by now (and maybe if I had written about them with more regularity last year, I’d be further along, but then everyone who knows me knows 2010 was The Year from Hell, and writing poems was hardly a priority), but I’ll get there eventually.

Sometimes, things just take longer than you’d like.

If Not Talking Back to the Muse, At Least Listening to Her a Little More

I’ve  been reading a lot lately, and realizing how much in the last year since Chris and I have lived together that that hasn’t been the case.  When I was single, I read about hour before bed every night–it could be poetry, it could be history or some other non-fiction, it could be memoir, or a murder mystery.  Sometimes I’d read all day on a Saturday, and even if I hadn’t gotten the laundry done, I’d feel like I had accomplished something valuable.  But especially before bed, it was good to do because it has a sedative effect–and the lack of reading plus the incessant snoring (I’m sorry, honey, but you snore really bad) this past year has really frazzled me.  I’m stressed out a lot.

So I’ve been making a concerted effort to read.  And this is also helpful, because in my last post, I mentioned I was starting to stagnate and needed some fresh inspiration.  I’ve read some articles on Shreveport history, including the State Fair and Holiday-in-Dixie, and I also read Goodloe Stuck’s really fantastic (but unfortunately, not academically documented) biography of Annie McCune, who was an Irish immigrant who followed the Confederate soldiers from New Orleans up north to Shreveport, settled, and opened her own bordello.  He writes with humor, and a lot of the research is anonymous quotations from the men who used to go down to the Red Light District and see her or her girls, and some of it’s really funny.

McCune was a real entrepreneur as far as building business; she sold beer for instance, and was in good with the cops so never got harrassed, and she was quite the philanthropist, giving all kinds of monies to charities.  Her house on 900 Fannin Street was one of the three most elegant/ top tier places in the District, and she regularly got her girls checked for “venereal disease.”  Their health was McCune’s priority; men knew they could go there without worry of carrying something home to their wives.

Apparently Shreveport’s District was the largest in the country for a city its size–it was several blocks, and contained all manner of vice, from shotgun shack quickie whorehouses, to saloons, to places to get cocaine and other drugs, to the more palatial bordellos.  It was huge tourist attraction, with people coming in from all over the Ark-La-Tex–kind of, I suppose, the way the riverboats are now, which I wholeheartedly disapprove of.  (Of course, what does it say about me that I feel affection for a Red Light District where women are selling themselves for $3/ trick?  That seems very counter my women’s studies background…)

Shreveport Madam came out in 1981, and it was kind of fun to read the acknowledgments, especially because I knew several of the people in the LSUS Archives Stuck thanked for help.  As I said, I enjoyed it–it was really engaging and interesting, and I could tell that Stuck had a real affinity for McCune.  I just wish that it had demonstrated academic rigor, beyond a few mentions, in passing, of newspaper articles–although it did have some maps and photographs.  Of course, one of Stuck’s points was that there really isn’t much known about her, so he had to rely on eye-witness accounts.  But when there’s no name attached to a quote, it kind of mitigates the authority and veracity of the account.  At least, it does for me.

I actually think we have a copy of Shreveport Madam at our house back home; I want to say that I’ve seen it in my sister’s bedroom, although I can’t imagine how it got there.  I’m sure she’s never read it, and I wouldn’t have either, except that the Archives had multiple copies and sent it (and other books, like Chronicles of Shreveport [which had a print run in the 1890’s of 500, and mine is #470ish], Glimpses of Shreveport, Caddo 1000, and Caddo Was…) to assist me in my Sibley Sisters poems.  Anyway, I’m not sure how I will work Annie McCune or the Shreveport’s Red Light District into the poems, but it’s definitely good background.

And speaking (round-aboutly) of inspiration, tonight is PoetryAtlanta’s program, Talking Back to the Muse, in which poets are invited to read a favorite poem, and then read a response/ answer/ reflection/ something else poem we’ve written so the two, in proximity, can “dialogue.”  There will be a ton of poets there tonight–Karen, Bob, Collin Kelley, Christine Swint, Rupert Fike, Robin Kemp, Megan Volpert, Dan Veech,  Cleo Creech, Kodac Harrison, Ginger Murchison, many others.  And me, of course.  I’ll be reading a poem that was sparked by Jane Kenyon, who has always been one of my favorite poets.

I like to read Jane Kenyon because she is reflective and sees beauty in the smallest things; even though I have no point of reference for the farm life of New England, something about that way of life, as she presents it, comforts me and resonates with me…  I’ve also been reading good ol’ Anne Sexton, whose poems are the antithesis of Jane Kenyon–they burn me, skin me alive.  But I don’t read a lot of her work at one time–she wears me out.

Anyway… if you need something to do tonight at 8 p.m., come out to the Composition Gallery and enjoy poetry, wine, and good company:  1388 McClendon Avenue, Atlanta, 30307, not far from L5P.   Call them for details:  678 982-9764.

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.


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.