Sunday, October 6, 2019

At 50, there's a little less shame in my poetry game

At this point, I’ve been writing seriously for almost three decades, and one part of my process has  changed very little in all that time.

It’s the shame.

Nearly every poem I’ve ever written has started like a train wreck, but not a small one — one dainty wheel off the track. Instead it’s been a chemical spill in a cypress swamp, the poison of foolishness spreading up roots and into trunks and limbs and bleeding across the landscape.

I draft by hand — it’s something about that flow of blood from the heart down the brachial artery and into my hand and fingers; this seems significant as the words spill onto the page. I revise on the computer; it’s just easier to see how the lines are setting up — the places where they jut way out, the places where they stop too soon.

The first lines I write are almost always a report about my immediate situation — what I’m seeing or hearing, what’s bugging me. I just wrote a draft of a poem, in fact, and it begins with the line “I’m always anonymous here.” I was in a coffee shop and feeling completely invisible in the good leather chair in the center of the room. That line didn’t make the cut — my first line almost never makes the cut; it’s just a way for me to mosey in to the real start of the poem, which may come on line two or line twenty or line never-ever, give up, take a nap, try again tomorrow.

This poem turned out to be about the death of a loved one. It had almost nothing to do with me, except the fact that it broke me. That original first line reflects how I almost always feel when I’m out and about in my city. I’m accustomed to small towns — places where you always run into someone you know, and you dare not go out without sprucing yourself up a little. Here, I may as well be wrapped in a blanket with my hair on fire. I don’t know anyone, and none of the strangers around me seem to see me. (Turn 50. You’ll see what I’m talking about.) So I’m a little lonely, a little invisible, a little blue. That’s the song that’s playing on my spiritual sound system, and I’ll be honest — it’s not a bad track to write by. I just have to find the pulse of the pain, to return to that arterial notion.

When I started out with poetry, I used to write this first line or two (or ten) and then furiously obliterate them. I felt ashamed of that raw, unartful honesty. It didn’t rise to the level of poetry; it was a diary entry, and if I didn’t blacken it out, someone might see it. I wouldn’t want that.

I seldom had people over to my house when I was growing up, partly because I lived out of the way in the woods and partly because my house was always messy and chaotic. But one day I did, and I remember the four friends in my bedroom with their heads bent together over my journal. I recall that I had some pretty personal thoughts in there. One entry was about my butt and how flat it was, and how I wished I had a nice, round butt like my friend S., who was present and read every word. I was suffused with shame. One doesn’t write about one’s friend’s butt.

My false starts used to make me feel that way — like I was caught imagining a more callipygian self, constructed from the better spare parts of my friends. I wouldn’t just cross through these lines; I’d go over them again and again, scribbling Xs and angles and curlicues so that there was no chance anyone could make out the letters beneath. I guess the Xing motion was a contemplative process for me, because eventually I’d make my way to the real poem on the page, and sometimes I’d end up with something deeply satisfying, or at least promising.

I guess I came to feel that truth and maybe beauty lie just past the shame. The trick is to get to them.

These days, I write with a little more abandon. My shame is drying up — it’s like an emotional perimenopause, and the eggs of embarrassment are few and far between, and the ones that do drop defy fertilization. Love me, love my board-straight arse, along with all of my complicated feelings about it.

If I could time-travel, I might want to visit that girl on her bed, her friends gone silent around her with the weight of her revelation. I might try to tell her to give up her shame — no one in that circle was satisfied with her cushions; everyone there understood.

But I wonder if taking away my shame would take away my power. Just as in comic books and on TV, anger turned the Hulk green and unstoppable, my shame made me rose red and transcendent. Maybe shame was exactly what I needed to reach my full poetic potency — and now that I’m a grownup poet, I can skip the shame, or at least nod to it in greeting like an old friend.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Poetry world reels at loss of poet and editor Jon Tribble

“Team Jallison” — the late Jon Tribble and his wife, Allison Joseph

When we’re baby poets, undergrads and just beyond, we often find ourselves looking for mentors or exemplars — writers of stature we can emulate to help us reach our writing goals.

When I was just getting started, I would drive anywhere to see an important poet read, and I stood in countless lines just to exchange a few words and get a scrawled signature in a skinny book. I wouldn’t trade any part of that experience, because it really was a master class in poetry, albeit in bits and spurts.

These exchanges weren’t always the dream experience I’d hoped them to be. Once, in Missoula, Montana, I’d finagled an invitation to an afterparty to meet one of the most anthologized and lionized writers of our time. I happened to come across him alone there, in a dining room where a table had a huge spread of food. I tentatively approached, so glad to have a chance to tell him what his work meant to me — and it did. I had several of his poems memorized, and his words often leapt to mind to define the pinnacle (or nadir) moments of my life.

So I spilled my rambling, nervous sentence to the great man, and his response was a deep “harumph” before he turned his back on me and walked away.

Our heroes aren’t always the people we would hope they would be.

Another time, a little later in my life, I had the good fortune to host a favorite poet for a reading. Her work was astonishing in its depth, its truth and its heart. While it was often arch or damning, there was a great love underpinning it, and I couldn’t wait to spend some time with her.

This poet was a nightmare guest. She refused to carry out some of her commitments as a contracted visiting writer, and in the small city where I lived at the time, no available restaurant was suitable for her palate. My staff and I worked hard to get her the meal she wanted at 10 p.m. on a weeknight (she hadn’t wanted anything at 6 p.m., when food was actually available), and after lots of effort, she didn’t touch the Midwestern miracle we had managed to pull together for her. If you have ever lived in a small town in the heartland, you understand the challenge.

Both of these writers have names you would know, if you follow poetry at all. But yesterday, the poetry world lost a beloved figure whose work you may not have had a chance to hear of.

Jon Tribble was a prominent editor, both of the literary journal Crab Orchard Review and its corresponding Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, which operates through the Southern Illinois University Press.

Upon learning on social media of his death, dozens upon dozens of poets responded with expressions of shock and sorrow. It was astonishing to see how many people Jon had touched within the poetry world — people he encouraged at key times, people he mentored, people whose work he edited and made stronger in the process.

One person, my friend Michael Meyerhofer, posted about an instance where he told Jon about difficulty he was having with a manuscript, and Jon volunteered to look at the loose poems and see what he could do. What he did, it turned out, was to organize the poems “into a proper manuscript,” as Michael told it — “The ordering he came up with was fantastic and ended up being my fourth book.” It was a lot of work, but, Michael writes, “He did all this with humor and nonchalance, like he was just holding the door open for me.” It’s a gesture poets saw again and again from this good man.

As an editor and publisher, Jon Tribble spent many years focusing on the work of others, while his own astonishing poems languished on the back burner. In recent years, I believe at the urging of his brilliant wife, the poet Allison Joseph, Jon sought publishers for his poetry, and the result was three deliciously strong books in three years: Natural State (Glass Lyre, 2016), And There Is Many a Good Thing (Salmon Poetry, 2017), and God of the Kitchen (Glass Lyre, 2018). If you didn’t get a chance to experience the keen sensibility of this rare talent during his lifetime, you still can. Though Jon has left us, his poetry lives on forever.

There are a lot of curmudgeons and brats and lechers and opportunists in poetry, and sometimes you drive miles just to have them scribble on your page. But there aren’t a lot like Jon Tribble, who is remembered today as a generous soul, a talented poet and a kind, kind man. I hope you will give his work a try.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Why poetry? It's how we deal with the blob

This morning my son asked me why I write poetry.

I wasn’t actually aware that Keats (yes, I named my son after the Romantic poet) even knew I wrote poetry, or had much of a sense of what poetry is. He’s six, so he’s exposed to more poetry than he will be as he grows older — Dr. Seuss and other picture books, the little songs we sing.

I was surprised to be asked this question, and gratified, too. He sees me living and moving through a slightly separate world than his own. I’m not sure if I thought of my own mother in terms outside of myself at this age, even though I saw her in her nurse’s uniform every night as she walked out the door to care for patients in the cardiac unit.

It’s good to be seen by the people who love us.

It’s hard to answer this question for someone so young, and I had to take a moment to think of what I wanted to say.

“Remember that dream you had the other day?” I asked him.

He had told me about a dream where he was in a building and a big blob was taking it over, inflating into the hallways and bulging out of doors and windows.

“You thought about that for a long time,” I reminded him. “You wondered what the blob was and how it got there.”

He remembered. The dream both scared and fascinated him, and it clearly stuck with him. He asked me about it more than once. Where did the blob come from? Would it come back to another dream?

My poetry is just a written version of his thoughts about the blob, I explained. Sometimes our thoughts take over, and we work hard to make sense of them. For me, the words that I attach to this process are not rooted in regular syntax. I don’t think about big truths in grammatical sentences, and neither does he. Instead, words and images come, and I find myself trying to make connections.

What I said to him simplified this idea a bit.

“I write poetry because my thoughts are too big for regular words,” I said.

He nodded. He knew just what I meant and was satisfied.

Monday, January 7, 2019

When the poem writes back

Last week, something wonderful happened: My second full-length collection, Passing Through Humansville, published at the very end of 2018 by Sundress Publications, reached the hands of those readers who had pre-ordered it.

One by one, friends started writing me notes of congratulations and posting photos on social media of my book in their hands. It’s a beautiful thing to see the work that began in my notebook beautifully produced and present in places all over the country. My poems are, generally speaking, the best of me, and these poems are the best of the best of what I had to offer.

But is the best of me good? That’s the question, and it gives me pause when I see my loved ones holding my work. The question is not even a writerly one; any of us might take a moment to look around at the life and work we create and wonder if we’re reaching our potential or contributing something meaningful to the world. I hope we all do wonder this, just as I hope we all put forth some effort to make our one life mean something.

Poetry usually isn’t much fun. For me, the drafting begins with something like shame. I write out a word, a sentence, a set of connections, and then I can’t believe my foolishness. It’s my habit to obliterate those first words — just scribble-scribble-scribble over them until not a single letter can be picked out. That blacking-out (or bluing-out, more accurately — I have a thing for blue pens) seems to be part of my process. I approach what’s hard to approach, and then I back away from it in a very forceful way, and then I approach again by a more deliberate path.

After the drafting and its weird embarrassment, I begin revising, a process that is less shameful and more tedious. There’s not a lot of joy in sweating out each word and casting and recasting each line, and there is a fair amount of second-guessing in the process. Ultimately, I make a decision, and then I question that decision for a bit, and then I say the hell with it and call the issue settled.

Then comes submitting. I generally like this process — after all, I’m giving my poems a real, live audience, even if it’s just an audience of one harried editor. It’s kind of fun to see if they sink or swim on their own, and so much about the process is instructive. Editors always seem to go first for the poems I include as filler in a submission, for instance, and poems I love sometimes take longer than the others to find a home. I do not like sorting through submission guidelines and coughing up reading fees, but the human contact is nice, even when that human says no.

Putting together a book is another difficult task. Readers seem to like the relief that sections provide, so I spend a lot of time figuring out what goes where. (With my first book, I labored over this section issue pretty hard, but my editor, the brilliant Erin Elizabeth Smith, suggested I eliminate sections altogether, and that was the right decision — but wow, I spent a lot of time taping and retaping those pages around on a bare wall.) There are things in the editing process that we argue for and things that we let go of along the way, and that’s an invigorating set of exchanges, but again, it’s a lot of work.

One of the final parts of the writing process is that weird angst of having my actual book in the hands of actual readers, and I won’t go into that again. I notice, though, that I’ve not mentioned any real delight along the way, and a reader may well wonder — was there any?

In fact, there was. Writing poetry brings one distinct pleasure, and that is the satisfaction of having written. This is a feeling that only comes when the work is viable, as there is no pleasure in “having written” garbage. When we’ve written something we like, it feels very nice.

Beyond this satisfaction, though, is a feeling that’s downright exhilarating, and these are the moments when you’ve written the poem and the poem writes back. You scan the piece and, improbably, you discover something — some insight you didn’t plant there (or at least not intentionally). I’ve even found dense layers of imagery in a poem that I didn’t calculate; they just sort of showed themselves upon later inspection. My own poems kind of floor me sometimes, not because they’re amazing poems (although there are some I’m very proud of), but because they seem to operate independently of my consciousness. They have their own consciousness — and that’s a weird and breathtaking discovery on a printed page.

Sometimes we think we’re writing a question, and we’re actually writing the answer to that question. Sometimes we write out our fury or frustration and peace peeks through. Sometimes we’re just writing along the best we can when the poem says, “Let’s show her what we can do.” This is the thrill of it — when a poem is a horse that can take us into astonishing wilderness but then knows exactly how to bring itself home.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A toast to the NEA hopeful

I don’t know what’s going to poke up through the centers of the bright green bunches of leaves that line my front walkway. I know what’s there—hyacinths, crocuses, daffodils, tulips. Until they come to flower, I’m not sure what it is I’m looking at. I anticipate beauty.

Spring means flowers, but it also means the deadline to apply for a Creative Writing Fellowship through the National Endowment for the Arts. These applications happen on a rolling basis—every even year, poets can apply, and every odd year, prose writers (fiction or nonfiction) get their chance. I write in all of these genres, although I identify most readily as a poet, so I never miss a chance to be considered.

And why would it? The fellowships are for $25,000, and applying is free. A lot of writers complain about the multi-step application process, which includes verification of eligibility and a description of the project, among other odds and ends, and some throw up their hands partway through and opt out.

Not me. Maybe it’s because I’m an experienced grant-writer, but I see the NEA application as straightforward and simple—and $25,000 is totally worth an hour or two of effort. 

It’s like those bulbs that pop up where and when I’m not suspecting them. They wait underground, completely self-contained, until roots nose out from the basal plate, and deep within the tunic of the bulb, a lily makes ready to emerge and surprise me with its richness.

I wouldn’t mind being surprised with a little richness.

This past weekend, some of my poet friends had scheduled a toast to celebrate the completion of their grant applications. It was an idea of my friend Anna Leahy, who is a remarkable poet and thinker, well worth Endowment support. The toast was on my calendar, too—but as a part-time instructor and a freelancer, I’m constantly booked, and my personal projects, like applying for grants, often get put off until the very last minute. Because of this, I wasn’t ready to raise my glass, though I clinked for my friends in my imagination.

Writers are like that, I’ve found. There’s some competition, as anyone would expect, but there’s so much more. We help each other out. We inform each other of opportunities. We remind each other of deadlines (like the NEA fellowship application, due March 7, 11:59 p.m. Eastern time …). There’s sometimes a tinge, or more than a tinge, of envy when the grant recipients are announced in November—but for now, we toast. We’ve made the effort; we’ve put ourselves out there, planted our bulb, and now we wait.

Who knows what the current Congress and administration will do with the NEA? More than ever, sending off that application feels like shouting into a well. But I really believe in a nation that backs the arts—an investment that time and time again has proven to pay real dividends. The arts make up more than 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product ($704 billion in 2013, according to the NEA). And every practicing artist I know gives back in some way—through service, through mentorship, through meaning, and through beauty.

Artists are a good bet—no, a good investment. And all along the side of my lawn, I see green shoots, reminding me of how our hopes in one season sometimes manifest beautifully in another.


Me, with some of my spring flowers

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Making the most of pockets of time

I’m finding myself pressed for time these days—and “pressed” is a perfect word for it. When you press down hard on something, something has to give. Something goops out the side. When the hours of my day are packed full, what goops out for me is my writing.

Why writing? I think it may be because it’s something I’m not rewarded for, and no one is depending on it. There’s no paycheck linked to my completion of a sonnet. My short stories don’t need homework help. I’m not married to my essays.

And there’s another, bigger reason, too: Writing is hard. It has its technical challenges, obviously, but I’m talking about something a little different here. Good writing, even if it’s the wildest, most impersonal fiction, gets down into our messy inner places. If it’s good, it digs into us, and that’s uncomfortable—even painful at times.

It becomes easy to avoid our writing when our time is limited. We may continue to make time for social media or TV shows, but isn’t it true that writing well requires more time than that? We can passively poke around the digital world while doing other things, but writing requires our whole selves, and it’s not something we can easily hop in and out of.

In most days, I find that I have brief windows of time that no one has a claim on. I’m talking about the ten minutes in the school pickup line or the five minutes on hold with the cable company. As an instructor, maybe it’s the fifteen minutes of in-class writing time I assign my students, or five minutes in the parking lot after work.

These windows aren’t enough for me to write something. Even a small poem requires time for reflection; I’m not just putting down words. But they are useful for keeping the pump primed, the flow going. Lately, I’ve been trying to make the most of my pockets of time, so that when I do have an hour or more of writing time, I’m not empty. There’s something right there at the surface I can draw on to begin.

For those in the same position I am, here are a few five-minute jump-starts I’ve found useful:

Listing. Listing is such a powerful creative technique. A quickly generated list is weird and associative, and it’s practically self-propelling. One item flows into the next. When our inner censor is turned off, we can make surprising connections—the same kinds of connections I love to make in poetry. A journaling type of list is one possibility (“Ways to make more of my time”), but we can also go in a more creative direction (“Ten things I didn’t expect to find on Mars,” or “Reasons I choke on water”). The more fanciful, the more I like them.

Character sketches. This seems like a fiction exercise, but writers in any genre can stay limber by writing a character sketch, or even a description of a real person. I wrote a poem not long ago about my junior high government teacher, who sexually harassed me and treated me very cruelly (#MeToo). Before I wrote about him, I worked to remember him—the sheen of sweat on his upper lip, his nipple-high trousers. My character sketch didn’t end up in my poem, but the vivid memory of this man prepared me to tell my (tardy) truth.

Word associations. This is just what it sounds like. I start with a word, and then I write a new word that the first word calls to mind. I try to avoid forming any kind of narrative; writing in columns down the page instead of in paragraph form is a helpful strategy. I think it must be a characteristic of our minds that we try to make meaning and build associations. What looks like a list of words often tells a secret story, usually about ourselves.

Haiku. If we wanted to write a worthy haiku, we would need much more than a brief window of time in which to do it. This is far from a throwaway form, and I have a great deal of respect for it. But when we’ve pulled forward at the fast-food drive-thru to wait for our fries, we can bust out a quick three lines based on whatever is visible through our windshield. Not everything we write is for posterity, or even for publication, and a pocket-of-time haiku keeps our observational powers honed.

Create a prompt. This idea comes from fiction writer Michael Czyzniejewski, who says he often uses moments when he’s on the run, walking from here to there or standing in the grocery line, to think of a way he can be creative later. When writing time becomes available and we hit the page with a prompt in mind, we save some time that we might otherwise spend trying to decide what to write about.

Envision a revision. I suspect all writers have memories of good ideas that didn’t take off, or any number of failed drafts. Why not take five minutes to apply a new perspective to those pieces? I’ve always found time and distance useful to solving my composition problems.

Read. We can always benefit by sticking a book in our bag to provide inspiration. I also love reading short pieces online. A great place to read the best flash fiction around is SmokeLong Quarterly, and for nonfiction, I love the essays and brief craft pieces in Brevity. I also like to read a poem and noodle over it for a bit, just to see where it might transport me.

Give a lecture. This is embarrassing, OK, but I’m going to put it out there. Sometimes I like to give little lectures to imaginary classrooms about some aspect of writing. It’s just a thing I do when I’m by myself, maybe driving a long distance. The thing about lecturing is that the lecturer is forced to clarify her own thoughts before communicating them with others. The faux lecture, an apparent act of foolishness, can actually be very instructive.

Even the busiest person can eventually carve out an hour or two. These five-minute exercises can keep us limber enough to make the most of our time when our lives allow it.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Sometimes an exercise is just an exercise

I was reading submissions for a publication recently, and I came across a poem with a distinctive and unusual title. Below it, in the epigraph position, was the attribution line—something along the lines of “After Pablo Neruda,” only a different poet was named.

On a hunch, I looked up the poet and the title together, and what I suspected proved to be true: One word of the title had been replaced with another, and the poem itself enacted this Mad Libs substitution strategy throughout.

Imagine, as an example of this, if we were to start with a widely anthologized contemporary poem, maybe Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons,” and change each persimmon to a kumquat. That poem is based on confusion between the words “persimmon” and “precision,” so I suppose we’d need a comparable word to stumble upon, like, I dunno, “ketchup.” 

When the speaker is punished for confusing “kumquat” and “ketchup” by a teacher—not Mrs. Walker, of course, but Mrs. Stalker or Caulker or something—what we find is not a poem that grows more and more original with each substitution; instead, it’s a poem that is increasingly beholden to the original.

The important question is this: Whose poem is our new “Kumquat”? And the answer should be obvious: It is Lee’s.

Imitations provide important lessons for any artist, and not just literary ones. Whenever I visit a major art museum, I see students sketching important works into their notebooks with their pencils. There is much we can learn from our creative forebears.

In almost any creative writing classroom, the imitation poem or story is a standard exercise, and such a transformative one. I don’t recommend eliminating this exercise any time soon. 

But students do need to know the difference between an exercise and an original creative work. I wish more writers would embrace the notion that it’s OK to do exercises, and that not everything we commit to the page needs an expanded life in a literary magazine.

Musicians understand this idea. They might begin their practice session with scales and arpeggios, but these are intended as warm-ups. Mere finger exercises don’t merit a trip to the recording studio. They’re just a precursor for what comes next.

Likewise, visual artists and designers often start with sketches. These might go somewhere and they might not, but they serve as a way to keep the fingers limber and the ideas coming.

Playing around with scales might suggest a pleasing progression of notes, and sketches might suggest a viable work of art—that’s often the hope. The exercises are an important step in the process, but the actual artifacts—pages of initial sketches, perhaps—are not usually seen as work that requires saving.

We writers are a different story. When we put effort into a piece, we tend to want it to go somewhere. We’ve worked hard and made some discoveries—writing always seems to lead to insight; that’s just the nature of it. Sometimes there’s an idea, an image, a turn of phrase that isn’t easy to re-house in a new piece, so we’re left with scraps. Often, our scraps remain scraps; an occasion to use our discards may never arise, and we’re left holding the most brilliant unattached sentence or phrase the world has never seen.

That imitation poem I encountered in a submission file had some nice moves in it, and many of these were the poet’s own. While it had a copied structure—both formal and rhetorical—it had some original flourishes. I get why the writer wanted it to find an audience, and the attribution line shows an admirable desire to honor the original writer. (By the way, I do believe a poem can start as an imitation and rise to the level of original art, but it has to involve much more than substitution to do so.)

I just wish we writers were more willing to let exercises be exercises. It feels important to publish, but there have been many occasions when I’ve gone off half-cocked, publishing a poem before its time, or publishing a poem that, in a more sober mindset, would never have come into its time—a poem that was meant to start and end its life as an exercise.

In writing this, I may seem elitist or stodgy. What I’m really trying to do is to make a case for play. What would the state of poetry look like if we writers let ourselves goof off more? Taking off the pressure to publish—taking away those expectations and stakes—gives us freedom to have fun. 

There’s no reason an office can’t be a playroom from time to time.