Most of the time

October 13th, 2011

Most of the time, I feel like giving up. Most of the time, the rejection email makes me want to stop submitting. Most of the time, the latest blindingly good book of poetry I’ve been reading makes me want to stop writing. Most of the time, I feel like it’s too late, that I missed my chance, made all the wrong decisions in my 20s, will never write the kind of poetry I want to write. Most of the time, I can’t see the way forward. I recognize good poetry when I see it, but I don’t know how to get there from here. I don’t know if I can get there from here, or if I’ve already reached the far limit of my modest ability. Most of the time, I am consumed by ifs: if I had followed through in college, when more than one teacher thought I had talent; if I had taken chances when I had them; if I hadn’t opted for the practical path; if I had been braver. Most of the time, I think about the classes I could take if we lived in the US. Most of the time, I know I need teachers if I’m to have a hope of getting any better and most of the time I think I could get better. Most of the time, it kills me that this is not really possible. Most of the time, I do not have enough time to work. Most of the time, I do not work well enough, the work is not good enough nor is there enough of it in terms of sheer output. Most of the time I am wracking my brains trying to figure out how to claw more minutes out of the day. Most of the time, I read some new poet’s first book and despair. Most of the time, I wonder why I bother. Most of the time, I feel like giving up.

Reading like a writer

May 31st, 2011

I haven’t tried to write fiction in years. I’m trying to remember the last time I actually completed a work of short fiction – was I still in the States? I know back in DC I wrote some stories when I should have been writing my dissertation; I’ve sketched ideas for stories here in Switzerland, but I don’t think I’ve completed any. Let’s just say it’s probably been close to a decade since I considered myself an aspiring fiction writer, and I still don’t see myself turning to fiction any time soon, but a strange thing has been happening lately when I read certain novels, intricately constructed novels like A Visit From the Goon Squad or The Children’s Book.

I read these novels and find that a part of my mind is trying to work out how the author did it, how she kept all those balls in the air at one time, how she mapped the story, how she plotted out all the twists and turns so that on page 61 she knew to drop the hint that would make the reader say “Oh!” on page 149. I picture a novelist floating above her work, able to see the whole thing below her like a map, already knowing at the outset how the thing was going to work; or standing in a closet like Charlie Crews mapping out all the connections between her characters. I’m almost finished with A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I feel a part of myself wondering with each page how Jennifer Egan plotted it all out.

What does it look like for an author to hold such a complicated thing in her head? How much did she know before she started writing, and how much did she discover along the way? I have read interviews with authors in which they say the writing of the novel was an act of discovery, that they wrote the story to find out how it would end, but novels like A Visit From the Goon Squad or The Known World by Edward P. Jones are so complex the author must have known a great deal going in. How did they build the scaffolding? When did they go back and add all the multiple layers? How did they keep track of everything? I find a part of my brain working on this level more and more frequently – how was this built as a piece of fiction? – even while the rest of me is reading for pleasure.

And I wonder if some part of my brain is making the long walk back to fiction.

Reading Wallace

January 29th, 2011

My poetic education has been spotty. As a reader, but above all as an American poet writing as part of a tradition of American poets, I have some appalling gaps. One of the poets of whom I am far too ignorant is Wallace Stevens. I am familiar with his most familiar poems, the ones that might have been anthologized or taught in a survey course, but the vast body of his work is unfamiliar to me. Unforgivable, really, for an American poet, and so my project for this year is to read a Wallace Stevens poem each day. I’m currently making my way through Wallace Stevens Selected Poems – I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t just start with Collected Poems and be done with it, because the selected poems will not get me to the end of the year, other than that I had the Selected Poems on my shelf already and international Amazon orders are reliably slow to arrive.

By reading a poem a day, rather than trying to swallow the book whole, I find I’m able to reflect a little about each poem – I’m even keeping a journal of sorts. I hope this slow emersion in his work will allow me to really get to know it rather than just be able to say I have read it. And I’ve noticed in the past week or so that after finishing my poem for the day I want to read more. One poem is not enough. But rather than jumping ahead, gulping down the poems and perhaps losing this reflective approach to them, I move backwards to re-reading.

Today’s poem, “Farewell to Florida,” was the first taken from Stevens’ second collection, Ideas of Order. This is from my reading notes:

The brief chronology included in Selected Poems notes that from 1925 to 1933 Stevens “virtually stopped writing poetry.” I’m curious if there will be some sort of recognizable shift, a change in his voice and style.

Curious because I am definitely recognizing things now. His cadence. The use of rhyme. Repetition. And the colors. The Harmonium poems, at any rate, are bursting with colors: “rosy chocolate” “gilt umbrellas” “Paradisial green” “swimming green” “brilliant iris” “glistening blue.” And those are all just from section I of “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”

The colors are there in this poem, the first included from Ideas of Order, and the use of rhyme. Clever internal rhyme. And the curling back of repetition, the almost-repetitions, the repetitions-with-a-twist. The assertive I voice in section III – “I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools/Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness/Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms” – feels new. Stevens didn’t avoid the I voice entirely in the Harmonium poems, but it appeared rarely (at least in the ones in Selected Poems). It feels like possibly a new experiment on Stevens’ part. I shall have to read more of the Ideas of Order poems to see if it appears again.

Sometimes I start my day with the poem and sometimes it is the last thing before going to bed, but it’s becoming my practice. Some people meditate, some people jog, I read Wallace Stevens. There are worse habits to have.

Notebooks

January 12th, 2011

I try to pop in on a weekly Twitter poetry conversation Poetry Tuesday (or #poettues for you Twitter-ers out there) that’s guided by Robert Lee Brewer. He’ll kick things off with a question or a theme and whoever is around will chime in. Last week’s discussion was about productivity: what do you do to stay productive as a writer?Sage Cohen gave her list of suggestions in this guest post and a lot of people chimed in on Twitter. Deadlines are always a good motivator. Setting goals with numbers attached – fifty poems, twenty submissions, that sort of thing – was popular too. People read poetry for inspiration and listen to music. Me, I like a change of scenery: I think of my most recent 20 poems, 90% of them were written in coffee shops. I know I’m not alone. January O’Neil says she writes at Starbucks (and hey, if it’s good enough for a poet with a published full length collection, it’s good enough for me!) and Marge Piercy has written an entire poem dedicated to coffee.

One thing I do when I feel like I’m hitting a wall or, what’s more likely to happen with, when it seems like I’m writing the same poem again and again with only slightly different words, is to go back through my old notebooks and pull lines and half-baked ideas from their pages. My notebooks are a mish-mash of drafts of poems, notes on readings, daily journal, gripe session. One page will have notes for a poem on it and the next will be three paragraphs of complaining about the Boychen’s complete lack of table manners. I mean complete. hair-pulling. lack. (But I digress.) Because I use one notebook for everything, the whole crazy mess of my life, it can be a bit of a trial to find those lines and half-baked ideas,so whenever I finish a notebook I let it sit for a couple of weeks and then I read it through from start to finish with a hot-pink or lime-green pen and I circle or underline anything interesting. I’ll write little things like “pursue this” or “not a poem, but a blog post?” I try to read it the way a creative writing teacher would read a workbook her student had handed in. But the key is reading back through the whole journal one afternoon and writing the notes and circling the interesting stuff in that vivid fluorescent pen – then when I’m looking for inspiration I don’t have to read through all the bits about table manners and how much it snowed yesterday. I just look for the colors.

Often I will have completely forgotten writing something. Rarely, a really nice workable draft will be in there that I never typed up and got into my “active” system. Sometimes, if I go back to a really old journal, the things that occupied me are so far from what occupies me now that they feel fresh. When I’m in the middle of something I might write a lot, a lot, I might write the same thing over and over but I can’t make sense of it or get enough distance on it to take it out of the realm of therapy and into the realm of craft. But two years later the storm of the event is over but the words are still there in the notebooks and I’ve got the distance to do something with them.

They’re little gold mines, my notebooks. I have to shovel through a lot of dirt, but there’s always a gem in there somewhere.

The year in review, ever so vague

December 29th, 2010

2010 was a strange year in poetry for me. The highlight of the year was attending Marge’s workshop. The low water mark has to be my plummeting acceptance rate; I published a grand total of one poem in 2010. Yet I feel like my writing has really developed and deepened this year. I stumbled onto a theme at Marge’s workshop: a simple exercise in using sound in our poems opened up a whole new avenue for me. Since June I’ve written just over dozen poems that work together as part of a collection. I’m half-way to a chapbook. These poems are new territory for me both in the topic they directly or indirectly address and in the voice I’ve found myself using in them. I believe they are good. They are certainly, for me, exciting to write.

I am trying to focus on that rather than the acceptance rate for the year. It’s easy to get hung up on the publishing game. I can fritter away hours on “market research.” But prior to the publishing has to come the craft and maybe 2010 was a craft year for me. I hardly published anything but I have found all this new work, this new vein to mine, this new voice to deepen.

Cecily wrote about her word for the year; I’m hesitant to put a word on 2010. It’s been a strange year. I haven’t written about the half of it. I figured some things out, and made some decisions, and even made some changes, or tried to at least, and have pin-pointed a few more changes that need to be made. I’ve been clearing some underbrush, literally in the garden and figuratively in my life. Navigating my way towards something different, yet still grounded in the here of my life.

Maybe I’ll call 2010 my navigating year. Which means perhaps in 2011 I’ll come in to port.

2010: The Year of the Line Break

January 8th, 2010

My lines are too short.

I’m going through a revision phase again, trying to find the five poems that will get me into this workshop, (and frankly I’m about to tape my best twenty to the wall and just start throwing darts) and it’s clear to me that in many instances my lines are too short. I’ve come back to several poems that I haven’t worked with in months and have made major changes to the line breaks in all of them, in each case producing revised poems with longer (and thus fewer) lines. Longer lines create more possibilities for interesting line breaks, breaks that carry the poem forward on its own momentum; in several instances I think the poem just looks nicer on the page as well.

I write almost all of my first drafts by hand in Moleskine notebooks, and in most cases my lines are as long as the page is wide: when transcribed into typeface that can yield a pretty short line. (It also reminds me of the oft-told story that William Carlos Williams wrote many of his poems on prescription pads. Did he write on the pads because he wrote short poems, or did he write short poems because he wrote on prescription pads? Did his tools influence his style? Did his style dictate his tools? Did the two feed off of each other?) What’s interesting to me is that it shows me that I am not in control of my material, not on the first pass-through at any rate. I’m letting the width of the paper I’m writing on determine my line breaks; and line breaks are a poet’s most powerful tool. 

About a year ago I started paying more attention to stanzas, to controlling the pace of my poems by introducing some breathing room. I think it made for some better poems; certainly thinking more closely about form, making decisions about form, made me a better poet even in those instances when I held on to the original version. Thinking critically about the way I write has to be a step forward, it has to be a sign of something. Growth, maturity, something. So I’m going to look at my lines more closely.

If 2009 was the Year of the Stanza, then 2010 shall be The Year of the Line Break.

Morning

August 26th, 2009

Wednesday morning. The Small Boy goes off to Kindergarten with R. (Have I told you? Can you believe it? My Small Boy goes to Kindergarten four mornings a week.) I walk across the driveway with the Boychen, knock at my mother-in-law’s door. It’s Wednesday, she is taking the Boychen for the morning. I walk back to our house, come down to my studio, pour a cup of coffee into my sunshine yellow mug with the white spots. I put on some internet radio, open half-a-dozen tabs, see that Crab Orchard Review is accepting submissions for a special issue featuring Illinois writers. I’m an Illinois writer; far-flung, it is true, but I lived there for the first 21 years of my life. I think it would make an interesting line in a cover letter: “I am an Illinois native now living on a farm in Switzerland…” I think it would be enough to make somebody keep reading. I have my task for the morning, the boys are away, I have these two quiet hours in my studio, and I have a task. I close the windows, go to work.

From my notebook

July 15th, 2009

“I’m trying to force out poetic phrases in the hope that they will lead to thoughts when what I really need to do is let my thoughts run until they trip over a poetic phrase.”

Learning

February 5th, 2009

I understand in short flashes that I am a beginner. Reading sample poems from a journal I might submit to, I see suddenly the depth my poems are missing. I almost see the way there but then it is gone. It is a glimpse. Like seeing a brook trout that is long gone by the time you start your back-cast.

* * *

If the poems come back with a form letter rejection slip I might understand the rejection but I do not know how to make the poems better.

* * *

It is like holding fog.

* * *

Is there a literary journal devoted to tasteful nostalgia? It seems out of fashion, nostalgia. It is one of the things I do well.

* * *

Now and then I am very good. I do not know why that happens. Is it my effort? Is it the topic? Is it luck? Is it a gift? Is it that sometimes I take a deep enough breath to go deep and other times I do not? Will it happen more often if I climb the mountain and train at high-altitude?

* * *

How do you know when a prose-poem is a prose-poem and not a paragraph?

* * *

My 2009 calendar features pictures of doors and windows. By the time I turn the page to December, will they be open?

* * *

Read, read, read. Lay speechless on the floor for a week, the open pages of books fluttering around me like pigeon wings. Let the words fall on me like feathers. Jump up, send the pigeons swirling, the sun glinting off their oil-slick grey wings. Watch, look, listen, read, write. This is learning.

* * *

I do not know when to stop revising. I could tinker with my poems forever like a teenaged boy with his car up on blocks in the garage who instinctively knows that it is safer to keep his head tucked under the hood than to cruise the strip and call to the girls who might not call back.

* * *

Who will tell me when I am ready?

* * *

I want I want I want.

 

January wrap-up

February 2nd, 2009

My experiment with listing out my writing goals in December went so well that I’m making it a regular part of my writing practice. At the beginning of the month I type out my broad goals for the month, print them out, and tack them to the cork-board hanging above my desk. I can keep track of my progress and make notes on the page as the month rolls along.

January was a strange month; it started with a burst of energy and ended with me falling into a wordless lull. Experience has shown me that something is going on under the surface during these seemingly quiet periods, so I’m trying not to push too hard, but at the same time I don’t want to give myself over the down-turn completely. Experience has also shown me that I can use a lull as an excuse to get lazy. It’s a balance I still have trouble finding.

Nevertheless, I did meet most of January’s goals:

  • Follow up with [magazine still holding a submission]. I sent a follow-up email but haven’t received a reply. Now what do I do?
  • Write short prose and submit to this beautiful journal. Didn’t get to this one.
  • Begin piecing together a post-partum depression essay I’ve been avoiding.  I’ve started the “thinking out-loud” process on this one.
  • Revise a submission package I’ve been sitting on and write a cover letter. I even put it in the mail!
  • Write four new poems. Almost; I made it to three.
  • Continue revision work on three or four poems.

That’s a really good month! Especially for one that includes a lull and a poor poor Boychen cutting three molars and a canine at the same time. Seriously, Mother Nature, you couldn’t have tweaked the timing there?