Monday, January 28, 2008

A Note About Genre

Tonight, I'd like to say a little something about genre. I consider myself a poetess, albeit a poetess-in-progress. Today, though, I'm thinking about my forays into other genres.

I have tried to write fiction, and I have the start and outline of a nifty fantasy novel. The reason it's not finished? Oh, there are lots. I'm lazy and don't like to stick to one story for too long. the thought of a whole novel is completely daunting to me. I have bits and pieces of a story, but not anything I can say is finished in my head. I'd love to write my mother's memoirs, since she has led such a fascinating life. But these are neither here nor there. They don't have deadlines, and they live, happily splintered and half-alive, in my head.

On the other, deadline side, I volunteered to submit some pieces to Milestones for American Women: Our Defining Passages, an anthology scheduled to come out in late 2008 or early 2009. I figured, hey, I've got some important passages. Folks might be interested in reading about them. the editors sent me an enthusiastic "yea," and told me to get the articles in by January 30th.

And here I sit, on January 29th, wondering why I thought that writing was writing, and that if it was my own life, I could probably write it pretty well. Ernk. (That is a buzzer sound, right there.) I feel like it comes off as flat an unimaginative. Perhaps it's just that my life isn't as exciting as I think it is. Maybe I need a ghostwriter. or a few drinks - I hear that worked for Hemingway...

Anyway, my realization for the day is that a writer is not a writer is not a writer. This is probably patently obvious to everyone else, but I'm a little late. Now, I knew I didn't prefer to write fiction or non-fiction, but I figured if you write in one genre, certainly you could tackle the rest with ease. Mea culpa. A mistake I won't make again! Not that i won't attempt to write in another genre, but I'll be sure to have lots of lead time for rewriting, deleting, and revision.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Writing of a Poem: Stumbling Blocks and Words

Have you ever had the most brilliant idea for a poem, or the most poignant image trapped in your head, and find that when you write it down it just doesn't live up to the grandeur you know you want to convey? You write the poem (or essay, or whatever you write), and it simply doesn't have the shine you know it should. It doesn't speak to you, or hit you in the gut the way it did before you had to wrap it into words. Most writers with lofty goals will know what I'm talking about here...if you don't, write some more. You'll get to this place eventually.

I have been in this place for the better part of two weeks. I catch snippets of images, and when I write them down, they seem stale and empty. I also find, the more I examine my own work from a semi-unbiased position, that I think I am trying to do too many things within a single poem. My better poems (according to both my own preferences and those of my current MFA mentor) are very succinct, focus on a few stark, striking images and wording, and have very short, powerful lines. On the other hand, most of my poetry uses a mid-page lines and have a veritable avalanche of imagery in them. And, much like I just threw in the word "veritable" in the last sentence, when I let the images run away with me and just write, I have a tendency to forget about standardizing my diction, and I just run with the flow of the words. Randomly throwing in elevated diction was one of the big critiques I received on my last packet of MFA work. It's a result of my casting about to find just the right word...and I do love words. I devour them. I savor the good ones. I have the very bad habit of occasionally being struck by a word that is seldom-used, considered high-diction, and tossing it whole into a poem that it likely doesn't sound right in. The problem, I find, is that to me, it does sound right, until someone points out that it probably doesn't belong.

My bad habit of tending to get too verbose is my poetry is one I can relatively easily go back and edit; grading essays and research papers has given me the skill to at least go back and identify where I got carried away, to go back and tauten where I left the poem loose and saggy. Words, on the other hand...I have a harder time with this. I'm going to have to make a conscious effort to beware of random elevated diction, and i often find it difficult to identify in my own work.

Which leads me to the lesson of the day: having outside readers, whether they be related to a writing program, a workshop, or even just a group of friends who are willing to read your work and provide thoughtful critique, is an invaluable resource. They will find meanings you didn't realize were in your work, they will identify weaknesses you are too close to see, and that will make you a better writer, painful as it may be.

In my case, I have decided to restrain myself by focusing on keeping my lines short and my poems tight. I am also consciously working on keeping the verbosity to a minimum, painful as it may be. Interestingly enough, the poems that have resulted are better, as first drafts, than my usual. Working this way also slows my brain, which is usually in a rather fricative state, much the way I imagine meditation does, allowing me to concentrate on minute details, and marinating in a thought until I can tease out exactly what I want to say. A few of my pieces, "Recovery," "Mistress," "A Walk at Dawn," and "A Visit with My Mother After the Divorce," are all poems that I've tried this with, have met with great approval from mentors and readers, and are the ones I hope to place in a well-respected print journal in the coming months.

Best of luck with your writing. If you do happen to be in a rut, I highly recommend setting some uncomfortable rules for yourself, to see how discipline affects your writing. You may not be pleased with the result, and you will have learned something from that, as well, but if it works for you, all the better.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Good Poetry / Bad Poetry

I go into each new book of poetry wanting very much to hear what the author has to say, and wanting to enjoy how they say it. Because of this conscious open-mindedness, I am extremely disappointed if the poetry doesn't "work" for me. I have to admit I'm a bit low-brow in my tastes, by which I mean I prefer poetry I can understand. I don't mind working for it, so long as the author is genuine, but snobbery for snobbery's sake just pisses me off as a reader. Be warned!

The impetus for this particular post comes as I read the review in the November 2007 issue of Library Journal panning Sandra McPherson's Expectation Days. (No snickers about how behind I am in my mag reading from the peanut gallery, please.) Having just read The Spaces Between Birds for my last MFA packet, I have to land on the side of the reviewer. While she has the occasional combination of lines that make me sit up and say, "Wow! I hadn't thought of putting those things together into that image - fantastic!", more often she strikes me as somewhat cold and impersonal, even about the most personal of issues like motherhood and death. Some of this has to do with her odd use of too-strange words that interrupt the flow of a poem, some of it with her unoriginal use of nature imagery. She's not a bad poet, by any means - her images are disjointed in such a way that every reading gives you something new to work with...I just prefer a little more feel to come though, if you understand my meaning. (Other people have other opinions, obviously, since she's published more than one book.) But McPherson doesn't leave me breathless, and I don't find that certain lines or phrases of hers haunt me in my sleep, or at odd waking hours. This is how I judge how much I enjoy poetry: does it come a-haunting me when my mind strays? Do certain liens take up residence and simply stay, squatters in my mindspace?

Everyone has their own tastes, but it leaves me wondering this: what is that spark that captures a reader? And should we worry about whether or not we have it, since there are so many tastes out there, that we're bound to fit someone's idea of good work? Not that we shouldn't constantly be trying to develop and improve, since we should. But should we worry about whether or not we have the spark, or do we let the editors decide? (Remember, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 121 publishers before it was finally put into print...) All thoughts welcome.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Poetry Prompt: Two Starting Lines

I am currently enamored of prompts, since lately when i sit down, it is as through my brain is a dessicated lump of clay with nary a writerly thought in it. After the success I felt with that last prompt, "The Seventh," I decided to complete both of the prompts offered by my workshop professor, even though we only needed to finish one. (Truly, it's not that I'm an's just that I've also got work due to another program and a personal commitment to write a little every day, and a prompt is a good way to get my brain casting the line.) It was a good brain-jump exercise, since they weren't lines I would ever start a poem with, and had me working in different directions than my writing path has been this week (which is just as well, because I'm bored with the subjects that keep popping into my head.)

Now, if you're terribly successful, you will be able to either use the prompt as your first line or leave it out completely (for my purposes, I think leaving it out completely is the better bet. They seem a bit clunky, and I'm working on not starting my poetry with exposition, as I am wont to do. I know, surprise, surprise, right? See if you can write a poem that works both with and without the prompt as the first line.

Anyway, here they are. Go forth and write like the wind!

Prompt #1:There wasn’t anything else I could do

Prompt #2: More people came, but I didn't notice

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Results of Prompt "The Seven"

As promised, my results from the prompt I last posted. My 7th place was a small town in Idaho, the 7th thing I remembered was the extremely wide roads running through town.

Exploratory Essay: The Wide Roads of Soda Springs, Idaho

The roads in Soda Springs are strangely wide. I do not know the exact historical reason for this, though I can make a few educated guesses. Mining occurs not too far out of town – you can see the red glow of slag running down a high point in the distance, if a local points in the right direction for your eye to follow. Likely the roads had to be wide enough for the trucks and equipment required for mining. This makes sense to me, but in the four days I spent in town I didn’t see a single large vehicle other than the all-American SUVs we brought with us on the drive from the airport in Utah. A good thing we chose SUVs instead of something more environmentally friendly – those gaping dirt roads would have been impossible to maneuver had it rained.

Those wide dirt roads haloed everything in dust, including the two worn-looking diners in town. I wonder if anyone had ever considered paving them (the roads, not the diners); certainly it had to be difficult to deal with dirt roads in the rain or other inconvenient weather. The roads contribute to the entire town looking like an inconvenience, since the space they require only serves to highlight how little else there is in the town. Diner one or diner two, a single hardware store (there might be more, but the rest of the buildings are all shabbily clothed and appear to be shut down for good). Paving them would make the town look more industrial than it really was, I suppose, but it would be less depressing than that empty span of soil trampled to concrete hardness. I have never lived in a town without properly paved streets, providing definition and a reassuringly firm foundation under daily life.

Did no one expect the place to last long enough to need the roads paved? It’s not a new place, by any means, nor decent enough to die out and let the buildings fall and let the roadspace win, since families have lived there for years without branching to other parts of the country, so that can’t be it. Unless the people told themselves they would leave – next week, next month, next year, after the baby is school-aged, perhaps. I didn’t meet enough people to ask about it. Even when there was traffic on the road (which was mostly us, in town for the wedding and wondering what sort of a place had spawned our girl Mazie), the road dwarfed the cars, making them seem small and inadequate for whatever task they were scurrying about. In light of the broad western sky and the mountains in the distance, perhaps this was an intentional reminder that our concerns and daily struggles are small. But I do not think so.

I always thought possibilities were ‘wide open,’ as the phrase goes, but those wide hard-packed roads in Soda Springs make me wonder if wide-open isn’t also the way a small town dies out, with too much room and not enough to fill it and make it habitable. I grew up in a city where everything was cramped: the buildings, the people, and the streets. There is a difference even in the word: street versus road. A street is citified, shrunken, and always paved. Civilized, somehow, and oft-traversed. A road, on the other hand, is a country thing, paved or not, with machinery just as likely to appear on its span as a passenger vehicle, or even the occasional cow.

Thinking about them, I found these roads disturbing, though I didn’t dwell on it during my visit. It was just a strange part of an already-strange landscape to me. Knowing that as a road, a facilitator of travel, things other than cars are implicitly invited to use them…what other massive things might take those roads as an invitation to walk through town? What thing that might have a footprint large enough to justify that girth? The country there is beautiful, with the mountains and no building taller than two stories to challenge the view…perhaps the roads in Soda Springs are large enough for God’s feet to pass. I imagine he visits mountains and forgotten people on a fairly regular basis.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Prompt: The Seventh

Hello all, and merry Friday evening, for those of you who read this.

1)Make a list of seven places you've visited in the last seven years. Rank them, with #1 as your favorite, and #7 as your least favorite. (If you have to go back 8 years, that's fine, but no more than 8 or 9).

2) Take place #7 from the above list, and write down 7 things you remember about that place. (These will naturally come out in order of most vivid to least).

3) Pick something about that last to write about. If it can be broken down into multiple parts, pick the one that you think will be most difficult to write about.

4) Write a one-page exploratory essay on that topic.

Making certain that you are working with themes and images that don't pop straight into your head (the point of picking the 7th items on the list) means that you actually have to work at pulling themes, images and words from your head. Don't cheat on the listing just to make it easier, since that negates the power of the entire exercise. I found this experience very interesting and useful, as I returned to a place I barely visited the first time. This is an exercise that, if you let it, takes you places you hadn't expected to go, which is most productive for a writer. My essay is available for any interested; I may consider posting it later. I think it's pretty interesting. *grin*

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Mellow Evening

I should be reading Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" tonight, or the parts of it that are assigned for my next meeting of my weekly poetry workshop. Or the Nikki Giovanni selections for the same MA class. Or going over Anne Sexton's All My Pretty Ones or Pico Iyer's Sun After Dark for the essays that are coming due for my MFA program. (I am stubbornly NOT linking Ayer's book because I think it is not worth your money. Go look for it on Amazon yourself, if you must. Yes, meet the Peripatetic Poetess after a glass too many of wine!) I should also be reading Hugo's The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, which is a good book, but requires a bit of concentration.

In a fit of selfishness, laziness, and pure, unadulterated bourgeois taste (ha! Note the second use of 'bourgeois' in my last 4 posts. My good friend PinkandChocolateBrown will be thrilled!), I will be reading Morrigan's Cross by Nora Roberts. (Indeed, I nicked the whole trilogy from our library's new "Free paperbacks to Encourage Reading for Fun" stand.) How could I resist? Come, read the blurb on the back of the first book of the trilogy:

As a storm rages, the tale begins...of a powerful vampire's lust for destruction - and of the circle of six charged by the goddess Morrigan to stop her.

Blame it on my tastes in fiction (I love Roberts as J.D. Robb when she's writing her In Death series with heroine Eve Dallas). Blame it on my lifelong addiction to anything having to do with vampires. Blame it on the fact that the Morrigan occupies the majority of the space on my back in my half-done backpiece tattoo. Blame it on the glass of wine I consumed with dinner. It doesn't much matter. I have just as many paperbacks featuring snarky half-naked women baiting the Commodore (or any other variation on paperback romances) as I do tomes by revered dead white men.

Tonight I haven't the patience or the attention span for anything deeper than some good trash fiction with lots of violence, strong heroines and villainess-es, and maybe some frantic, fulfilling sex. (In the book, that is. I'm currently completely unprepared for company. Unless he looks battleworn and in need of some lovin', like this.) I've been gifted a thunderstorm - no better time to read some vampirish powerlust novels. Delish!

Censorship and the Power of Words for a Nation

Last night I attended the first sessions on ENGL 552-002, which happens to be a poetry workshop led by Earl Braggs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Soft-spoken and extraordinarily compelling, he captured us immediately. Half of the 25-person class are repeat customers who loved his course the first time around. I find this reassuring, particularly since I hadn't expected the class to be so large. (My only other workshop, at Spalding University, had 5 students and two leaders.) Braggs appears soft-spoken but intense, and had some lovely and intriguing things to say about writing and art, including that all art is a lie and that an artist is a conduit for spirits greater than ourselves. I'm intrigued.

I am not quite ready to post on the class, yet. What inspired me to write was the film we viewed about the life of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poetess. (I believe the title was Fear and the Muse.) The film was a wonderful exploration of Akhmatova's life, and I have made a note to pick up some of her work and Pushkin's, but that was not what struck me most about the film. I have been more familiar with the politics of Russia than its authors, so this was eye opening for me. I was aware that the intelligentsia was split in the Russian Revolution, and that many were persecuted. What I never understood from the history books was how deeply ingrained poetry is in the Russian soul, how it is common for people to memorize and recite poetry. The Russians fill entire soccer stadiums for poetry readings! Have you ever heard of such a thing in the United States?

I never have, and I have lived in a good number of cities. it left me pondering something, which lies where my personal crossroads of librarianship and poethood: censorship. As a librarian, I am fully committed to intellectual freedom. I believe in the right of any person, regardless of race, creed, or any other identifying characteristic, to access information. My personal beliefs with regard to whatever topic or work they are seeking is unimportant. I am a curator of information, dedicated to preserving it and organizing it in such a fashion that the human record survives. As a reference and instruction librarian, it is my pleasure and privilege to aid people in forming their questions and locating the information they need, as well as tot each them the skills they need to become self-sufficient information gatherers. In its nature, it is one of the most democratic of careers: providing access for all.

As a writer, of course I believe everyone should have access. I also believe everyone should read, though this is hardly the case today. I struggle to make words powerful enough that people want to hear them, and are touched by them. And while censorship is anathema to my very existence (on either plane, really), as a writer I also agree with the quote (no idea who to attribute this to; I couldn't find the source): "Better to be hated than ignored." There is a terrible truth to this. If a book is banned, how many people will procure black market copies to read it by flashlight in the safety of their beds? Likely more than would willingly buy the book in public for a good read. A word suppressed is a word yearning to break free...and it will. History has proven this time and again: there is no better recommendation for a book than for it to be banned or burned. Good ideas, new ideas are often dangerous ones.

In the context of having seen this film, and living in the U.S., where people seem to be generally apathetic about poetry, i am left to wonder: does it take a people suffering under a tyrant, who squelches intellectual freedom and tells them they cannot read to make them love to do so? Do we not value our words until they have been chained and caged, and stripped from our tongues? In the past few years, I thought that the overly-politically-correct bent of the nation was stifling enough, but does it take out and out cruelty and barbarism to remind people to enjoy their freedoms? If true and deep appreciation for art, as a national pastime, can only be germinated through suffering and tyranny, I fear for us.

There will always be writers, so long as a man or woman has a stray thought they feel is important, or a story they need to tell. There will always be small pockets of appreciation for the arts - artists themselves, their benefactors, and the small portion of the general public who realizes how enriching art can be for life. This is a comfort, but a small one. What would it take for poetry to be always on the tongues of the people? Perhaps we could ask Oprah to do a segment and recommend starting poetry circles and readings. I am not too proud to beg a wider audience.

Think about it. Is political repression a precondition for national embrace of poetry? And is ours so far in our past, and so un-severe as to leave us without the need to flaunt it at readings, with memorization and recitation, not as a school assignment, but for pure pleasure?

I have to admit that the sight of stadiums filled with an audience silent for a poetry reading shocked me more than the recounting of Stalin's terror. And while those rough faces looked half-starved and frozen with the Russian cold, I couldn't help but think that perhaps we were the poorer nation.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

On Immortality, and Submitting Work

We write for pleasure, despite the pain of it. We write as a hobby (some people grow gardens, we grow our words). Many of us write because we're simply hard-wired to do so, whether we're good at it or not. And some of us write for glory. I will admit, I decided at a very young age that I didn't want physical immortality. Even as a kid, I had been sick, seen enough health problems of the old, and had seen enough B-movies on the subject to understand that it's probably not all it's cracked up to be. Now, I'm talking about physical immortality, of course. I did, however, figure out the best way to live forever.

The people who stuffed my shelves with their pages pretty much lived forever, didn't they? I mean, I mightn't have liked Shakespeare at all as a person, but it doesn't much matter - I love his poetry, and it has lasted hundreds of years. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Donne, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Stephen's pretty sad. Most of my favorite people, I've never even met but on the page. A lot of them happen to be dead, and it doesn't much matter. What a nifty trick! Yep. I'll admit it. The librarian in me and the poetess in me converge in complete agreement on at least this one point: I covet my own ISBN number. I want to be immortalized in (preferably acid-free) paper, safely nestled in various libraries with my contemporaries and forebears. I mean really - do you think that Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Marx would have ever gotten along at a dinner table? Likely not, but they sit peaceful as lambs together on the library shelf, and we can dig for their likely dinner conversations by placing their words side by side and examining them. What a legacy!

I am in no way comparing my talent to the folks above. I mean, I enjoy what I write, about more than half of the time, and I hope others do. But that's not the point. The point is that in addition to my impulse to write (a power under which I am powerless), I have a maddening urge to grab that immortality if I can. Which leads us, of course, to the subject of submitting work, and editors, and the various other nightmare beasties that plague the sleep of a writer.

Let me direct you to one of the best sites that lists writing markets in detail: Duotrope. Better than Writer's market, if only because it's easier and faster to use, and they update the markets and let you know who's closed regularly. What I like is that they also let you run a search so you can limit your results to only print or only electronic publications. Since I have been published only by the online folks so far, my goal is to break into the print journals. After all, who knows how long a website will last? And there are a lot of venerable, respected (well-read!) journals out there that I'd like to leave my dirty fingerprint on, in the hopes someone will stumble across me and enjoy my work. And (selfish, I know) remember my name.

In the pursuit of publication, I have entered a number of contests, but those get expensive in a hurry if you're a poetess on a budget. I'm also pretty good about sending actual mailed (the SASE kind) submissions, as well as the email submissions that are becoming more popular. Last night I sent submissions to fourteen print journals. That's right. FOURTEEN. I am a submitting rock star *grin* I figure if I can do that twice a month, I'll get a steady stream of rejections that will keep my head from getting too big and remind me to revise, with the occasional acceptance thrown in just to make me keep trying.

Take a look at Duotrope, if you've got the stomach for rejection (unless of course you don't get rejected, which is fabulous and rare). Best of luck with your submitting. Perhaps we'll meet in the slush pile!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Weekend in Review: Productivity check

It has been a pretty productive weekend, poetry-wise. (Let's not discuss how every football team I root for loses. Apparently, I have the bad juju. For a small fee, i will cheer for your enemy's team.) In all, I've managed to read Hugo's The Triggering Town twice, Sexton's All My Pretty Ones once through, and I've started Hugo's The Woman in Kicking Horse Reservoir.

Not bad for a single weekend. I've already posted on Hugo's book on craft, and there will be a post on Sexton shortly (if you haven't read her, you must). I'm still reeling from shock at the emotional response I had to her slim volume. It's crushing. I'm devastated. She is someone to read if you're interested to see how a poet can work with rhyme and not be hokey. Hugo's poetry is slower going for me at the moment.

I also managed to bang out a few pieces: "Alzheimers," "In Bed," "The Puertorriqueno," "The Courtesan," and "Lovely Desert" are all pieces I am mostly happy with, and there are a few fragments that will come in handy the longer I stare at them. Not bad for two days work - especially considering that there were 4 NFL playoff games that caught my attention for more than a few hours.

I've also been Twittering too much. As though people care what I'm up to from moment to moment. Ah, well. I'll be more productive this week. Packet 2 of 5 for my MFA semester is due on Wednesday, and there is a good deal of library-related work to be done at...well, at work. Here's to being busy, and birthing beauty from the chaos, when we can.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Required Reading: Richard Hugo's 'The Triggering Town'

In a timely side-reading, I have found a book that answers many of the questions I have about writing (and which may have prevented my previous posts, had I read it a week ago). The book addresses the importance of language for language's sake, how much you should think about whether the audience understands, and the relationship between the "triggering subject" you write on, and the words you write. (More about this in a moment.)

This little gem is Richard Hugo's slim volume The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. I happened to buy it used to save money; I can already tell that in a few months it will be dog-eared with copious notes scribbled in the margins. (Yes, a terrible habit for a librarian to have, but a useful one for a writer.) There are far too many pearls in the book for me to detail them all here, so let me bring just one or two into the blogosphere to discuss. The primary focus of the book, and what I found most interesting, most useful for my future writing, and most liberating was this:

"Somehow you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words." (p.12)

I have lately been working with poems that have very specific triggers, dealing with people, places and feelings, and have struggled with when to let go of that solid-ness, that comfortable space, and that damned same-ness that weighs me like an anchor after the first few lines. Have you ever been there? You are writing about your mother, and while the first few lines please your eye and ear, after line four if you write another thing that is actually related to your mother, you feel suffocated, robbed of your colorful vocabulary and a traitor to the shine on the water tower you want to include but don't, because though you feel it needs to be there, you are concerned. It belongs, you know it in your gut. But what would the reader think about this random throw-in? Will they understand why it needs to be there? Are you a traitor to your original subject if you drop it and keep writing?

Note: I will admit that I suffer from this because I dislike poetry that intentionally sets out to mystify and confuse the reader, leaving them in the dark as to the subject and emotion of a poem. When this is deliberate, I find this to be the utmost insult: snobbery wielded as a weapon against the very people you purport to 'communicate' with through your language. Snobby poetry makes me stabby. Then again, I tend to be bourgeois like that...

Hugo's wisdom, which may be obvious to some, is that the thing that triggered you to write may not be what you wanted to write about at all. It called to something deeper, that delicious author-part of you that you barely understand, and not following it is traitorous to your well-being as a writer. Will the reader understand? Perhaps (and probably) not. But if it belongs, they will understand the feel of the poem and your need to place it there, which is enough. And if they don't, what of it? Hugo admits later in the book that occasionally he goes back to an old poem he wrote years ago and doesn't understand it himself, but that he felt that overwhelming need and rightness at the time. It is this 'rightness' that counts and enlivens the poem.

This actually comes back to the subject that begins the book: should truth conform to music, or music to truth? Hugo argues for the former, both to justify creative writing, and because he notes that if truth conforms to music, "those of us who find life bewildering and who don't know what things mean, but love the sound of words enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing..." (p.4)

The importance of this for my own writing? It gives me the permission I needed to bend my truth to the music of my words, rather than forcing my words to conform to some set, preconceived notion of Truth. I feel a bit freer, as though my shackles have been loosened (though admittedly I placed them on myself). As a writer, we impose limits on ourselves - it is inevitable. What we want to do is often too large, and overwhelming, and so we assign ourselves small bites to survive that need to write. It would be a good idea for us all to make a note of what restraints we use, though. Since they are often unconscious, we will only find them when we find ourselves dissatisfied with a piece of writing, or staring at a blank page and demanding something specific of ourselves.

The entire book is worth reading, is full of dos and don'ts (along with Hugo's admission that everything he purports to teach is likely wrong for anyone but himself). But having these recommendations is quite the gift: we can shed light on how we've already been doing it, which is our unconscious construct. Constructs, by definition, are limiting, and his defining what HE uses allows us to say, "Ah, yes! I actually do X instead of Y, though..." The value? You learn your process, and there may be things you can change about it that will improve your writing.

Strive for improvement, though never perfection. Perfection is boring. Learn what your 'triggering towns' are...use them as a touchstone of comfort and to ground you. And then leave them.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Haunted by Rhyme

Have you ever had a line worm its way into your brain, and refuse to leave? It sets up residence, like a sing-song piece of hell lodged between your ears just begging to be birthed onto paper. "Type me and I'll leave you alone," it pleads, even though you know you'd be tempted to write something around it to lock it down, to give it somewhere to belong. "I know I'm no good - write me and get me out of your head," it beckons, enticing you with the promise of sweet abandonment once you've labored it into actual physical being.

This is my topic today, because I have a hell of a singsong line in my head. Right now. It's been following me around since Saturday, though I've done everything in my power to avoid it. I could type it into my hugely unwieldy poetry document in Word, and let it languish with my other fragments. But it irks me. It irks me because it rhymes. I am haunted by the small book of poetry I wrote when I was young, and have been forever scarred by my juvenile ABCB-DEFE-GHIH rhyming. I know very few poets who can pull off rhyme well. Most of them are dead, and nearly all did it well only within a formal structure like the sonnet (which which I have an ongoing love/hate relationship).

So, what's the problem? you might ask. Well, the problem is I like the sentiment behind this annoying snippet. Here, let me share:

forging something out of nothing when there's nothing to be had

as much the realm of poets as it is that of the mad.

*Sigh* I love it a little bit. It's even got a good beat to it. I bet Dido could pick it up and toss it whole-made into one of her melancholy songs on what would have been a B-side, if CDs or mp3s had 'sides.' A better poet than I would simply write it into something beautiful and haunting, an ars poetica for the ages. And all I can do is stare at it, and listen to it running in circles in my head, and wish it didn't rhyme. Rhyme undoes me, and leaves me on shaky, newborn foal-legs, afraid to stumble around and land on my ass. I will admit that I am poor at prosidy. I've never counted feet, I know what the definition of iambic pentameter is but likely wouldn't be able to identify it. And while I realize that rhyming well is a matter of skill and practice, and that I will simply have to work with it, I find myself recalcitrant. (Note: recalcitrant, adj. - Marked by stubborn resistance to and defiance of authority or guidance.)

Why? Because I have been inculcated up to this point that rhyme is predictable and hokey. Rhyme is a child's game, and not worthy of a poet(ess) who actually wants to write something good that will eventually be published, according to some. Mostly, I know that I personally find it hard to create surprising, refreshing, and meaningful rhyme, and the thought of it wearies me (am feeling a tad lazy and grumpy today).

Perhaps it's also a little bit because of the sentiment. Forging something out of nothing, indeed! Likening a poet's need to create to madness! Not at all an original sentiment of course, others have said it, and just as well or better (and within entirely finished poems instead of fragments, natch). Byron, Shelley, Poe, Dickinson, Plath...if I do go mad, at least I will be in good company, though likely less remembered. I rarely ask myself "What's the point in writing?" The point is obvious, to me. I write to improve myself and my way of communicating and my dexterity with language. I write in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will read something of mine and find a piece of themselves they hadn't been able to articulate in quite that way. I write to capture and cage my demons, as it were, to a page, where I can lay them out and conduct autopsies on my fears and passions. I could list infinite reasons, and so I am unable to simply dismiss my desire to write as 'worthless.' So why does it upset me so?! Mostly because I want others to see it as a fruitful endeavor as much as I do, and not think me loony for spending hours cramped over a legal pad or laptop; I want someone to nod wisely and attach some worth to what I do. There. I said it. I want to be valued as a writer. I want to be vindicated of this obsession!

That is unfair, of course. I have some wonderful writerly friends who not only pore over my work and offer critique, which is a depth of commitment from a friend few can claim, I also have a great mentor within my writing program, the opportunity to workshop with talented writers, and some editors have been kind enough to pick up some of my children and present them to the world - or at least, those who cared to see them. I am just occasionally overwhelmed and want to whine that it shouldn't be this difficult, why can't things just fly, golden-right and perfect, straight from my pen/keyboard/mouth? I am overwhelmed by the angles I could take on this! I could write something funny about we crazy-ass drunken poets, or I could craft some type of mournful elegy around it, and make it a dirge that self-sacrificing poets could quote to prove their outsider status. Whining, I know. And the process is what improves us as writers, after all; our work matters little if we haven't found ways to improve upon it.

Is it possible to be overwhelmed with responsibility? The responsibility that you know something could be crafted into something gorgeous and sleek, but you also know that your clumsy hands will most likely crack it, or bludgeon it into something not nearly resembling the sublime thing you had envisioned? I'll admit, this is the sort of thought that keeps those blank canvases staring at me in my kitchen, with the lids tight on my paint, and my sketchbook closed on the clumsy drawings that hold the miscarriages of what I can see so clearly in my head, but can't get onto paper. This sort of thing rarely rears its head in my writing, though. I believe in the power of revision, after all, and a mighty fix is just a keystroke or a cross-out away, isn't it?

Isn't it? Or does making a faulty stroke in the beginning leave that marring to bleed up to the surface, eventually? I believe that people do not change, but I always thought I knew that ideas were fungible and flexible, and if we are writing our own, we have all the space we need to make the sort of fundamental changes we can't effect in the physical world.

Perhaps I am mad. Of course, the admission is the first step to the nut-house, so I'll have to keep it between myself and the internet. I could always hold it as proof of my poet-hood, I suppose.

What a rambly post this has been! All of this from a snippet of a rhyme that was birthed full-formed in my head on a walk with the dog. I haven't yet decided whether I'll hide these lines in the body of a poem somewhere or actually tackle it within a form. Feel free to use it as your own prompt, as you please, and let me know how you like your product.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Craft: Writing the Body. Or, Let's Talk About Sex.

Now, for some juicy craft conversation. Let's talk about Sex. You know you want talk about it, and write about it. The good, the bad, the ugly. The slow, the fast, the languorous and the frantic. You know, deep down, you've had some experiences that you could write to bring a knowing/wry/sad/pleased smile to someone's face as they dredge up their own memory. So, what's stopping you?

I'll tell you what's stopping me, or at least frustrating me. It's the idea that when it comes to sex, there's nothing new under the sun. Despite Cosmo's monthly announcements of "Hot New Sex Positions," the Kama Sutra is an ancient text. People have been doing it for centuries. How do you make it refreshing and interesting in your writing?

Someone (I think I'll attribute this one to Jeanie Thompson, my current MFA semester mentor and executive director of the Alabama Writers' Forum) told me there are only three great subjects to write on anyway: love, death (and I have forgotten the other), so it's of little use to worry about coming up with a new topic. The key is to find a refreshing way to address the subject.

Writing a good poem capturing the essence of an intimate moment, that forceful pre-hurricane lull of foreplay, the full-on bodystorm of sex, the lazy, lolling aftersex feeling...that is a decent goal to have. And then there are those in-between moments to capture, when we wonder if, as our lover ran his hand down our side to our hip, if he noticed the bulge of our spare tire, or the fact that, when on our backs, our breasts make a beeline to our armpits...of course, these are all tinged with personal (female) experience, but I have had enough intimate conversations with good girlfriends to know that these things are pretty universal.

Now, if they're universal, can't we be sure folks will know what we're getting at? I mean, nearly everyone knows what we mean if we say "throes of passion." But how do we evoke this sort of universal experience while maintaining the unique moment we have locked in our own mind, without the crutch of the 'expected?' I tell you: make up your own words. Language is organic, it evolves and grows. I used the word "bodystorm" above, because I couldn't think of another word from the dictionary I preferred at the moment. Did you understand what I was getting at? Are you upset with me because I didn't follow what's available in the Oxford English Dictionary? Let yourself run wild. Use your energy to create, not just to re-state. If you end up running too rampant with yourself, well, that's what revision is for.

This doesn't make it much easier, I'll admit. I am still working on quite a few pieces where I am trying to recapture that one delicious moment I relive over and over with my eyes closed...and getting onto paper is a pain in the hind end. But the attempt in itself is useful: I can see what cliches come to mind, I can cast and recast my mental line looking for new ways to describe age-old things. And sometimes, surprisingly, I find that there really is no way to recast certain things in a way I like, and I find that a phrase like "belly to belly" is exactly what I was looking for in the first place, and it was everything around it I needed to change.

Now, because of certain publisher rules (such as sending only unpublished material as submissions, and anything posted on the 'net, including a blog, is considered 'published' for their purposes), I won't be posting any of my current sex-works-in-progress here. But hey - extra eyes and critique are always useful, so feel free to email. I'll show you mine if you show me yours! *grin*

Peripatetic: What it Means, Why it's Important

Peripatetic: adj., walking or traveling about, itinerant. Noun, a person who walks or travels about. (Also: of or pertaining to the Aristotelian school of philosophy, but that's not the meaning we're going for here. Or perhaps it is: you decide.)

The Peripatetic Poetess - I'll admit, it was an exercise in mouth-fun, which is one of the reasons I chose it. It is also one of the descriptors in "One," the song from the Broadway hit A Chorus Line, in the section: "She's uncommonly rare, very unique, peripatetic, poetic and chic." It's also a reminder that there are underused words in our language that languish, just waiting for someone to pull them out, polish them off, and give them a good work-in to conversation.

I find that wandering is the best way to find where you really wanted to go. Oh certainly, I get lost without a map. I've been doing it for years. (It's actually a sort of specialty of mine, and gives my mother quite the fit when I tell her I made it home by following a strange truck until I reached a place I recognized.) There are overused (but still true) sayings that capture this just as well: "Life is a journey, not a destination" is one my father gave me on a plaque. "Not all who wander are lost" is a favorite Gaelic saying, available on many t-shirts, and tattooed on my arm (as I am just as apt to lose an article of clothing as to get lost). If you haven't tried it, you should: go to your local library, and instead of going to the catalog, browse the stacks and trust Serendipity to lead you to something special. Branch out from your standby authors and try something new - you may find something you like. Even better, you may find something you dislike. (Discovering why will tell you a lot about yourself and lead you in new directions for reading and writing.) Wander down new roads - you would be surprised at the amount of country you didn't know was waiting outside of your habit-formed boundaries.

You don't have to be a writer to love words. You should be a reader, if only to support those who do work with words to try to make new images from new combinations and twists, who try to capture your ear and your eye with clever prose and sublime poetry. Perhaps you'll find something that delights you. Perhaps you'll find something that enrages you, or saddens you. Whatever you find that strikes you, you really should rejoice: words still hold some power over you. What better gift than this universe of meaning, and the libraries full of eager authors that populate it for you?

This is simply a space set aside for the celebration of words. Though poetry is my preferred medium when I write, I eagerly read everything: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, autobiographies, appliance manuals, the backs of cereal boxes. I gladly label myself a bookwhore - to whom else would I give myself so freely, allow myself such liberties with, accompany to such foreign territories? Horror fiction, mysteries, political theory, econometrics, famous and obscure poets, children's books, books on faith, treatises on librarianship and new technologies, tomes on alternative health and cookbooks are all displayed with equal pride on my shelves.

For those of you who care to join my circle, I hope to share some favorite works, post some reviews, and generally use this blog as inspiration space for all of us to do our own reading and writing, as we will.