Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ignorance and Wonder

The One Pause Poetry mp3 Project is a national digital resource for teachers, students, readers, and listeners. Each poet is asked to record and submit three mp3 files to the site: one poem of his or her own, one by another poet, and one poem for kids.

If you're not familiar with One Pause Poetry, you should check out the website. You'll find excellent recordings of Charles Jensen, Malena Morling, Alfred Corn, Mark Cox, Keetje Kuipers, and many others. They're spreading and celebrating poetry in some truly wonderful ways. The link above takes you to my recording, which includes my poem "After the Ark," A.R. Ammons' wild and whirling "Coon Song," and Shel Silverstein's extra-sticky "Peanut Butter Sandwich."


What I was getting at was the most important thing: originality, which might also be construed as character. We can't judge Rilke by the standards of Neruda. The greatest poets write from a necessity that forms style and carries from book to book, but their new poems fail to be the old poems. The poems that I'm writing now are to a large degree fictive and in third person, so I am working out of ignorance and wonder, and I hope to always do that.

-An interview with Rodney Jones at Poetry Daily


In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma and putting the comma back in.

-Francince Prose at The Atlantic


Sometimes, when I am feeling high-strung or cross-eyed about something, I call Jess Walter. Forget, for a moment, that he drives a sports car and shops at the GAP: I like to think of him as a literary Gandalf, holed up in a cave in Spokane, wearing ragged gray robes and leaning on a warped staff. I trust him. Because he’s good-hearted. Because he works hard and writes enviously well. Because we grew up in similar circumstances. Because he has carved out a life for himself as a full-time writer. And because, over the past few years, he’s become a pal who knows how to share a whiskey and tell filthy stories and give good wizardly advice. On almost every occasion I have asked Jess what he thinks, his response has been, “Don’t be in such a rush.”

-Benjamin Percy at The Rumpus


Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Complexity and Terror

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.

-Flannery O'Connor writes to a Professor teaching her stories.


Imagine your audience. I may not know what reviews are for, but I know who they are for: their readers. And it behooves reviewers to keep those readers in mind. One reason I’ve enjoyed reviewing for Poetry is that I picture its audience to be pretty much my ideal one, knowledgeable enough that I can assume familiarity with poetic concepts and history, but broad enough to keep me on guard against the excessively technical or clannish. But not every reviewer for Poetry has imagined its audience in the same way, and it’s fascinating to hear how many different pitches echo through the archives.

-"100 Years of Poetry: Re-reading Reviews" from The Poetry Foundation


I am in an extremely frustrated phase with poetry...what do I want out of it? I am feverishly tearing through stacks of books and not finding whatever that is, so I go back to what has stuck with me: Lisa Robertson, Juliana Spahr, Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Erin Moure, because the thinking is so well formed with these poets. Because I believe the thoughts. There is writing that knocks me out: Vanessa Place, many of the women in the Conceptual Writing anthology, but there is something I am longing for that I’m not finding either, and I guess I want to acknowledge that. It’s a longing for the world, the body, the emotive, the quotidian, intellect, play...and an expansive canvas, but also a sense of place, and an accurate representation of the moment. The complexity and terror of our moment. I may be identifying for myself a frustration of nostalgia. 

-"Women Who Write Poetry Criticism (Roundtable)" from the BAP Blog 


The idea behind the veil of ignorance is relatively simple: to force us to think outside of our parochial personal concerns in order that we consider others. What Rawls saw clearly is that it is not easy for us to put ourselves in the position of others. We tend to think about others always from our own personal vantage; we tend to equate another person’s predicament with our own. Imagining what it must be like to be poor, for instance, we import presumptions about available resources, talents and opportunities — encouraging, say, the homeless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to just get a job, any job, as if getting a job is as simple as filling out an application. Meanwhile, we give little thought to how challenging this can be for those who suffer from chronic illnesses or disabling conditions. What Rawls also saw clearly was that other classic principles of justice, like the golden rule or mutual benevolence, are subject to distortion precisely because we tend to do this.



Wednesday, August 8, 2012

I Am Better At Not Knowing What I Am Doing

Poems are made of words that live in bodies — bodies shaped by line breaks, and fixed forever in space, on the page. Picture a gymnast in relation to the trampoline, the invisible line between the two driven equally by unseen forces of gravity and the gymnast’s own strength. When a poem is read aloud, it is a moment of flight. Its words are released into the air, into the spaces between breaths. Many poets, like Charles Olson and the Beats, see the line as an actual unit of breath. The white space left in the wake of the words is the breath materialized. When I was pregnant with my son, I had to re-lineate all my poems to shorten the lines, so I could speak them without becoming breathless.

-Erika Meitner's "One of the Components is How Long You Are in the Air: On Poetry and Trampoline" at Los Angeles Review of Books. If you haven't been reading "We Can Be Heroes: Poetry at the Olympics," you've been missing out.


I am forever telling my students I know nothing about poetry, and they never believe me. I do not know what my poems are about, except on rare occasions, and I never know what they mean. I have met and spoken to many poets who feel the same way, and one among them once put it this way: “The difference between myself and a student is that I am better at not knowing what I am doing.” I couldn’t put it any better than that if I tried.

-The Volta, On Mary Ruefle's (Hollins grad!) new collection of lectures.


Another question poets old and young are typically asked in interviews is when and why they decided to become poets. The assumption is that there was a moment when they came to realize there can be no other destiny for them but to write poetry, followed by the announcement to their families that had their mothers exclaim: “Oh God, what did we do wrong to deserve this?” while their fathers ripped out their belts and chased them around the room. I was often tempted to tell the interviewer with a straight face that I had chosen poetry to get my hands on all that big prize money that’s lying around, since informing them that there was never any decision like that in my case inevitably disappoints them. They want to hear something heroic and poetic, and I tell them that I was just another high school kid who wrote poems in order to impress girls, but with no other ambition beyond that. Not being a native speaker of English, they also ask me why I didn’t write my poems in Serbian and wonder how I arrived at the decision to ditch my mother tongue. Again, my answer seems frivolous to them, when I explain that for poetry to be used as an instrument of seduction, the first requirement is that it be understood. No American girl was likely to fall for a guy who reads her love poems in Serbian as they sip Coke.

-Charles Simic's "Why I Still Write Poetry" at The New York Review of Books


While teaching at Hollins University for the last seven years, I’ve also been helping my wife and kids work a little Permaculture farm/homestead, where among the many food/soil building systems, we raise a Nubian goat dairy herd. We make cheeses, yogurts, kefir, and ice cream from that goat milk. We don’t get too crazy with the flavors, and I doubt we’ll get into milking gorillas anytime soon, but in every line of this poem are at least two things we grow, raise, or wild-harvest (and then process and eat) from our 18 acres and the surrounding fields, forest, streams, and rivers. Today there was basil and walnut in the pesto we mixed into a chevre spread for lunch. And the pawpaw will be ripe before too long.

-Thorpe Moeckel over at Poet Lore


-Kwame Dawes' "Memos to Poets: A Twitter Journey"


Friday, August 3, 2012


Two micro-essays on craft by two young poets to whom you should be paying attention:

Recently I heard a Slovenian poet draw a distinction between two kinds of writers: those who write facing a wall and those who write facing a window. His point being: the writer who faces a wall engages in a tête-à-tête with the imagination, whereas a window gazer performs the diligent, all too loyal office of copying down the visible world. Clearly, this poet preferred—and considered himself a member of—the wall-facing variety.

-Will Schutt at Blackbird


But. Religion, or at least the basic tenets and concepts of Judeo-Christianity, figure prominently in my writing life because, though I am not a religious person, some of my favorite poets were or are. I used to be a poet, so the writing fanning out in back of me, stretched out in a long haphazard peacock-dazed line, is largely still poetry. Some of my favorite poetry has the fire and fury of the Old Testament and some the sweet forgiveness of man’s sins the New Testament promises.

-Amber Sparks at The Rumpus


If we assume (on the basis of very incomplete evidence) that literature has in fact helped to diminish acts of injuring—not only during the Humanitarian Revolution, but also in other epochs—what attributes of literature can explain this? Three come immediately to mind: its invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.

-Elaine Scarry at Boston Review


The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine announced 29 finalists for the 2012 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. They'll announce five winners, each receiving a $15,000 award, by September 1.

I'm honored and amazed to have my name on the list of finalists. It's an astounding group of poets, and I'm thrilled to join so many young poets I admire. All we can do now is hope!