Yearly Archives: 2020

129 posts

“I Cut Off My Head and Threw It in the Sky”

war of foxes

Poets point the way to poets point the way to poets. This is a corollary of Gertrude Stein’s famous “Rose is a rose is a rose,” a.k.a. “Three ways to hit readers over the head with a dictionary.”

Anyway, while reading Victoria Chang’s Obit, I noted in her acknowledgments that one poem was inspired by a poem in Richard Siken’s collection, War of the Foxes. On Victoria’s recommendation, I found the book and started reading.

Still early on, but let’s look at a Siken poem that looks at painting in an interesting way. What if a man walks through a landscape? And what if we blur the line between artwork and life? We get something like this, which I offer as your “thought of the day.”

Oh. And don’t forget to tell people that you read this via Chang to Siken to Craft.

Landscape with Fruit Rot and Millipede

Richard Siken

I cut off my head and threw it in the sky. It turned
into birds. I called it thinking. The view from above—
untethered scrutiny. It helps to have an anchor
but your head is going somewhere anyway. It’s a matter
of willpower. O little birds, you flap around and

make a mess of the milk-blue sky—all these ghosts
come streaming down and sometimes I wish I had
something else. A redemptive imagination, for
example. The life of the mind is a disappointment,
but remember what stands for what. We deduce

backward into first causes—stone in the pond of things,
splash splash—or we throw ourselves into the future.
We all move forward anyway. Ripples in all directions.
What is a ghost? Something dead that seems to be
alive. Something dead that doesn’t know it’s dead.

A painting, for instance. An abstraction. Cut off your
head, kid. For all the good it’ll do ya
. I glued my head back
on. All thoughts finish themselves eventually. I wish
it were true. Paint all the men you want but sooner or
later they go to ground and rot. The mind fights the

body and the body fights the land. It wants our bodies,
the landscape does, and everyone runs the risk of
being swallowed up. Can we love nature for what it
really is: predatory? We do not walk through a passive
landscape. The paint dries eventually. The bodies

decompose eventually. We collide with place, which
is another name for God, and limp away with a
permanent injury. Ask for a blessing? You can try,
but we will not remain unscathed. Flex your will
or abandon your will and let the world have its way

with you, or disappear and save everyone the bother
of a dark suit. Why live a life? Well, why are you
asking? I put on my best shirt because the painting
looked so bad. Color bleeds, so make it work for you.
Gravity pulls, so make it work for you. Rubbing

your feet at night or clutching your stomach in the
morning. It was illegible—no single line of sight,
too many angles of approach, smoke in the distance.
It made no sense. When you have nothing to say,
set something on fire. A blurry landscape is useless.

“I Love So Many Things I Have Never Touched”

grave

This week I read, then reread (a habit I’ve developed when I discover a particularly effective poetry collection), Victoria Chang’s 2020 outing, Obit. I love it when a writer strikes on a good idea, takes it, and runs with it. Chang does exactly that in this book. Below I share the review I wrote for it.

***********************************************************************

In her collection Obit, Victoria Chang takes the journalistic standard we call an obituary and puts it through some poetic paces. For most of the book, each poem looks like a column in a newspaper, forgoing stanzas for one tall rectangular block. And while the starting point may be the stroke and death of her father followed by the death of her mother, her poems take matters a step further.

How? The Table of Contents foreshadows how: Title-less poems commemorate her father’s frontal lobe, voice mail, language, the future, civility, privacy, her mother’s lungs, her mother’s teeth, friendships, gait, optimism, ambition, memory, tears, etc. Some of the poems are repeat-obits, including ones for Victoria Chang, the author herself, who feels beleaguered and fundamentally transformed by grief and its effects on who she is.

To give the reader occasional breathers, Chang includes a series of tankas throughout. Then there is Section II: “I Am a Miner. The Light Burns Blue,” where she forsakes the middle tower spaces of the page used for obits and writes poems that expand to the entire page, using white spaces between single words or small clumps of words, forcing the reader to slow down and carefully pick through the wreckage death scatters like so much flotsam and jetsam.

For this to work (and it does), the poet has to be both confident (check) and accomplished (check) with personification. Let’s look, for instance, at Chang’s obituary for Approval:

Approval – died on August 3, 2015
at the age of 44. It died at 7:07 a.m.
How much money will you get was my
mother’s response to everything. She
used to wrap muffins in a napkin at
the buffet and put them in her purse.
I never saw the muffins again. What I
would do to see those muffins again,
the thin moist thread as she pulled the
muffin apart. A photo shows my mother
holding my hand. I was nine. I never
touched her hand again. Until the day
before she died. I love so many things I
have never touched: the moon, a shiver,
my mother’s heart. Her fingers felt like
rough branches covered with plastic. I
trimmed her nails one by one while the
morphine kept her asleep. Her nails
weren’t small moons or golden doors
to somewhere, but ten last words I was
cutting off.

As Chang writes obituaries for abstract things like approval, it gives her time to explore all the feelings that overwhelm her, first while her parents are ill and then while they die, not to mention her grief in the days and months after they die. In that sense, this collection is one long obituary for both her parents and the familiar way of life she had grown accustomed to, only broken down into the form of obituaries.

The form suits Chang’s talents well. It also challenges the reader to consider all the little “deaths” we experience in life, how they change us in big and small ways, and what we notice about them if we take a moment to try. People change, that’s well understood. But seen through this lens, we come to realize that change in life is nothing but a series of little deaths, some planned or expected, many more spontaneous and surprising. Like this book!

Annotations of a Chapter on Revision: Part II

dobyns

As a follow-up to the post before this, here are the remaining annotations I made in the “Revision” chapter of Stephen Dobyns’ estimable book, Next Word, Better Word.

  • “Rilke said in a letter, during the writing of New Poems, that subject matter is always pretext.”
  • “A different sort of change of perspective is to write in other forms, especially sonnets, but also villanelles.”
  • “…in one’s readings, one should also seek out different perspectives, and read for contrast: contemporary, modern, nineteenth-century poems and before, and poems in translation from any language. To read only contemporary American poetry limits one’s sense of possibility.”
  • “When one changes from first to third [point of view], it puts emphasis on details that might have gotten short shrift when the poem was in first person.”
  • “…the poem may have a vague you who might be lover, mother, father, or friend. Such a usage only confuses the reader. Putting the poem in third person can clarify the nature of that you and help to show where necessary information is missing.”
  • “The Belgian novelist Georges Simenon once described his revision process as going through the manuscript and cutting out everything he thought beautiful, by which he meant anything self-indulgent. Be suspicious of what you consider the most successful parts of the poem. Just because a line is well written doesn’t mean it’s necessary.”
  • “The poem, among other things, is a piece of theater. That, too, needs to be reflected in the writing. Lines should have interesting words.”
  • “One’s use of small words — conjunctions, prepositions, articles, pronouns, and so on — may be necessary to form unaccented syllables to set against accented syllables, but a line made up mostly of small uninteresting words saps the poem’s energy. In addition, each line has to contain within it a reason to read the next line.”
  • “One must constantly go over one’s word choices to see if they connote or suggest a meaning one doesn’t intend.”
  • “In a classical sentence the most important words are the final words. This also creates energy as we try to anticipate what will happen. Are important words revealed too early in the sentence?”
  • “Likewise, the writer should restate his or her sentence in its simplest form — See Spot run. –and then compare it to the original. Are those extra words necessary?”
  • “The tone of the poem should be established at the beginning. If it changes later, it must be by design. Likewise, the range of diction — the word choice, or vocabulary — used in the poem must be established in the beginning. If some other sort of diction appears later, it can change the tone.”
  • “Generally, what we get in the first lines is the poem’s range in diction and tone. Any poem teaches us how to read it. This is how that teaching begins.”
  • “The line and the sentence can have a slightly different rhythm. The contrasting sound of both together is called counterpoint. Where the sentence begins on the line affects this rhythm. Some writers, such as Charles Simic, begin most of their sentences at the head of the line, which creates a sense of control. Many inexperienced writers begin their sentences at any available point, which creates a sense of the gratuitous.”
  • “To bury an important word in the middle of a line weakens the sentence. Emphasizing an unimportant word at the beginning or end of a line does likewise.”
  • “An enjambed line creates tension; an end-stopped line creates rest. A long sentence creates tension; a short sentence creates rest. Obscurity creates tension; clarity creates rest.”
  • “…any sound or rhythm within the poem can be repeated to create the expectation of a reappearance.”
  • “If tension keeps building without a rest — for instance, using one enjambed line after another — the reader may grow weary and turn away from the page.”
  • “If we come upon a double stress or a spondee, we assume the writer is trying to tell us something. Otherwise, why would he or she insert the emphasis? The same is true with a trochaic substitution. In fact any departure from the rhythmic norm can be used to create nuance.”
  • “A line made up of long-duration syllables and soft consonants will move slowly and seem long even if it is short.”
  • “Many synonyms of small words have the same meaning: someone, somebody; just, only; start, begin; seem, appear; out of, from; another, each other, etc.  These words are interchangeable, as are many others, and the addition or subtraction of a single syllable or noise can affect the rhythm.”

Annotations from a Chapter on Revision

dobyns book

As I read Stephen Dobyns’ Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, I annotated the margins and occasionally talked back to Dobyns (not that he was listening).

Here, for posterity, are a few of the quotes of note from that chapter:

  • “…the first axiom for being a writer is to forgive yourself for writing badly, I learned that no matter how badly I had written, I could make it better.”
  • “…the poem exists not in that first burst of creativity, but in revision.”
  • “The shift between composition and revision is the shift from the imaginative to the analytic, the nondiscursive to the discursive, the expansive to the controlled, from freedom to restraint, license to judgment.”
  • “In letters Rilke condemned his early poetry, meaning poetry he wrote before 1900, saying the poems didn’t have enough patience in them.”
  • “Rilke’s impatience sprang from a worry about how the poem would end. Most of us do the same. I’ve got it rolling, I think, but where is it going? This is where Rilke said he didn’t wait long enough. He would force an ending that sounded good, but it didn’t resolve the poem. Many poets do this.”
  • “A common revision tool is to rewrite the poem using that last line as the first line to see what might happen.”
  • “Don’t let the critical mind interfere with the creative; make it wait.”
  • “After the poet has spent a fair amount of time with the poem, things begin to seem obvious that perhaps would not be obvious to the reader, or things may seem strident that are really only in the middle range of emotion.”
  • “All poets hate to be called ‘too obvious,’ and so they may erase necessary material. Th poet may also begin to mute his or her voice. This is usually destructive. Try to read from the reader’s point of view to see whether you are muting your voice or you’ve cut out necessary bits and pieces.”
  • “A wide variety of interior forces also affect one’s writings, such as emotions, physical well-being or the lack of it, and the complicated effects of the unconscious. All can diminish free will.”
  • “If there is a discrepancy between what one wants and what is on the page, it can be helpful to write out a prose description of one’s intention and then compare the results to the draft of the poem.”
  • “…a reader comes to understand a poem by asking questions of it, and one question is: ‘Why does this poem have this shape rather than another?'”
  • “Stanzas of equal length can create a sense of orderliness; stanzas of unequal length can create a sense of an organic development; one long unbroken stanza can create a sense of unrelenting thought and/or narrative. The shape of the poem creates certain expectations that are useful to its understanding. The poet needs to make use of this, or at least give the poem a shape that doesn’t distract.”
  • “…for instance, if the title is several words drawn from an important part of the poem, then when the reader reaches that part of the poem, those words take on special emphasis.”
  • “Labels are often the weakest titles because they don’t do enough work.”
  • “But if, after a number of readings, nothing is clarified by the title, then the reader will be frustrated, not to say irritated.”
  • “…in looking at the beginning of one’s poem, one has to ask why it starts where it starts. What if it began with the third line, or the tenth, or the last? Sometimes the first few lines serve as a runway into the important part of the poem. They were useful once, but are useful no more.”
  • “You need to question your use of chronological sequence. Start with the action, start with something that takes the reader’s attention. Editors are swamped with submissions, and when they read, they mostly are looking for a reason to stop reading.”

More to follow later this week! If this piques your interest, give Dobyns’ book a look.

Bad Words: They Creep In

word

Bad words. They lose themselves in the crowd, but they are more prevalent than you think. Some of them are obvious, like the word “closed” in the expression “closed fist.” Modifiers are always guilty until proven innocent, and a better noun or verb always trumps an unnecessary modifier, so until they prove themselves good, adjectives and adverbs are suspect.

In his book Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, Stephen Dobyns lists some so-called “bad words” to watch out for, but before we go there, know this: We all have our own personal list of bad words. These would be words we overuse without realizing it.

One way to track your word habits is to use the Search in Document function on Microsoft Word, the popular software many writers use. Or you could go to a website that will track words for you. Simply cut and paste your poem, essay, chapter, etc., and let the ghost in the machine scare up some statistical habits you have as a writer of words. Once such site is this one.

As for Dobyns, he lists the following culprits: still, even, some, yet, very, just, clearly, only, finally, quite, somewhat, rather, fairly, big, deep, loud, bright, etc.

You can highlight your poem or text and use the Search in Document function to scare these up one at a time. The deal then is to ask yourself: Can I do without this word entirely? Can I change it?

Sometimes the answer is yes. Strike, kill, and shout “Eureka! Less is more!” Sometimes the answer is no. This may be a “bad word,” you tell yourself, but if I use it infrequently and, where I do, it is key to the sentence or line’s meaning, it becomes a “good word.”

The point here is at least going through the exercise and making it part of your revision process. Add Dobyn’s bad words to your own list of unreliable go-to’s. Then search and, where appropriate, destroy.

“The Little Dooms Hiding in the Shadow”

harrison

T.S. Eliot cornered the market on April being the cruelest month, but that doesn’t mean other poets can’t weigh in. Below Jim Harrison takes up the theme in his poem “Gathering April.”

Here April’s cruelty is the cold, where succor can be found in corners or swales or even a warm cellar door. Say what you will, though, April’s violence, like all of nature’s, is still living.

In fact, reading about it, you feel very much alive and outdoors. Harrison seems to realize at much toward the end when he counts as a blessing “that an April exists,” because for it to exist, he must.

Meantime, a shout-out goes to Shigeyoshi Obata’s translations of Li-Po’s poetry. Now there’s an April thought. One you can take in during October, even.

Gathering April Jim Harrison

Stuffing a crow call in one ear
and an unknown bird's in the other,
lying on the warm cellar door out of
the cool wind which I take small sparing
bites of with three toes still wet from the pond's
edge: April is so violent up here you hide
in corners or, when in the woods, in swales
and behind beech trees. Twenty years ago
this April I offered my stupid heart up to
this bloody voyage. It was near a marsh
on a long walk. You can't get rid of those
thousand pointless bottles of whiskey
that you brought along. Last night after
the poker game I read Obata's Li Po.
He was no less a fool but adding those
twenty thousand poems you come up
with a god. There are patents on all
the forms of cancer but still we praise
god from whom or which all blessings flow:
that an April exists, that a body lays itself
down on a warm cellar door and remembers, drinks
in birds and wind, whiskey, frog songs
from the marsh, the little dooms hiding
in the shadow of each fence post.

Submittable Q & A

sub

Periodically I like to send questions to my fellow submitting Submittable Warriors, also known as “writers.” Their answers show that we all share a similar range of experiences using this technological convenience. Here’s a sampling of the Q & A’s.

What is it like waiting for RECEIVED submissions to flip over to IN PROGRESS submissions, and IN PROGRESS submissions to progress to a decision?

  • “It’s like watching water wait to wait to be boiled.”
  • “Like political ads. Excruciating and maddening.”
  • “Have you ever played fetch with a tortoise? You know. You fling the lettuce, then yell in its face: ‘Go on, boy! Go on!’ Like that.”
  • “Like looking forward to Christmas on December 26th.”
  • “Auditing a course on studying wallpaper.”
  • “The word ‘Received’ is my mantra for morning meditations, ‘In Progress’ for nightly ones. Has been for 8 months. Maybe your question’s a koan.”
  • “Like watching The Food Network. Eternal similarity. Stubborn persistence. Few payoffs.”

When is it worth paying a reading fee?

  • “When you’re accepted and it’s a paying market. Other than that, never.”
  • “When the journal is worthy of financial support. That way, you can look at it as a non-deductible contribution to a good cause.”
  • “When no one will read you for free.”
  • “I do it to reward audaciousness.”
  • “I haven’t done so because every time I email an editor about my writing fee, I get virtual crickets. Have you ever heard a virtual cricket?”
  • “When you want to brag about a certain magazine soliciting your stuff. Just don’t mention that your ‘stuff’ is a credit card as opposed to your poems.”

How many simultaneous submissions do you typically make for any given work?

  • “Three. Maybe I’ve been hard-wired by bad jokes, but everything comes in threes and that includes my submissions ceiling.”
  • “I don’t believe in simul-subs. This gives me plenty of time to revise my work between submissions, meaning no two submissions of the same work are ever alike.”
  • “You mean you count them?”
  • “I take it as a challenge. I once had a poem out at 53 markets over the course of two years, all eventually demurring. Would you say it needed work?”
  • “6.5.”

Is Submittable is more worthwhile for writers or for markets?

  • “Well, let’s see. I’m a marketing dunce, so it’s a godsend. Writers.”
  • “Definitely markets. Journals pay for the service, but if they charge a reading fee, they more than offset their costs. They profit handily. In some cases footily.”
  • “More and more markets use it, so I guess there’s good financial reasons to do so. Markets.”
  • “Submittable itself is a market. Markets benefit markets. It’s in the same aisle as corporations being people according to SCOTUS. Different but the same. Ka-ching!”
  • “Writers. How else would I know what I sent where three years ago? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.”

Opposites Attract Poetry

brush

Advice works best when you can apply it both specifically and universally. The dichotomy of such things is a rich vein for poets to mine: concrete and abstract, specific and universal, physical and psychological.

We get a taste of this in the directives of Jeff Coomer’s “Some Advice for Clearing Brush.” Take it literally and it works. Take it figuratively and it still works. Therefore, according to my unschooled syllogism, it works.

Read along and see. Note especially the final stanza, how it can be stated in different words, how those words can sound like wisdom being passed down through the ages, how it may work for situations you’ve faced and may yet have to face.

Yeah. Like that. Specific and universal.

Some Advice for Clearing Brush by Jeff Coomer

Walk noisily to declare your presence.
The rabbits and deer will leave
as soon as they hear you coming,
but the snakes need time
to process your intentions.

Take a moment to be certain
of what you’re cutting.
Many stems look alike
down close to the ground,
especially when they’re young.
Look up occasionally.

Don’t begrudge the wild roses
for whipping thorns across
your face and arms,
or the honeysuckle
for tangling your feet
and pulling the pruners
from your hands. You’d do
the same in their place.
Honor them with a clean cut.

Never begin when you’re angry
or you might not stop
until there’s nothing left
to hold the soil.

Always wear gloves
and keep your eye
on the blade.

Poetry as Suggestion

redleaf

Poems suggest themselves, even though they’re not there. By “poem,” I don’t mean the written product, although the suggestion may evolve to that. I mean anything that strikes you, that invites reverie, that slips some meta into your morning cognition.

This morning, the poem was the sound of rain on the roof. Ordinary, of course, but less so when it hasn’t rained for weeks — or at least not with the force needed for roof music.

Then as dawn turned black to gray outside the windows, I noticed a single red maple leaf rain-plastered to the window screen. In its minimalist way, it was like the calendar photograph for the month of October in New England.

Leaf as poem, in other words.

Sometimes even negative space can suggest poetry. How all of the songbirds of May and June have left. How the remaining birds are less musical: nuthatches scritching in circles around the tree trunks, chickadees flitting from branch to branch, the kingfishers out front with their forays over the lake.

But mostly it’s the quiet. The negative space left by nesting birds who have long forsaken us, leaving us to our fall and the coming cold.

Bird silence. A rare rain against the metal roof. A maple leaf framed by the window.

Poetry as suggestion, every one of them. No more, no less.

Random Thoughts, Election Cycle

trump

It’s been a while since I’ve given the green light to one of my occasional random thoughts posts, probably because I’ve been preoccupied by things political, and this blog is supposed to be more about writing and poetry and (insert British accent) LIT-er-a-chuh. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum, then, but if you are a fan of orange mold (as in forgotten refrigerator leftovers or tenants in the Accent-on-White House), you might want to skip on to the next blog.

  • First things first, WordPress, my longtime host, has switched their software or something, and count me as a definite NO vote for the new methods of posting. Supposedly clicking CLASSIC makes it like the old set-up, but who are they kidding? It’s a different animal. A wild one. Showing signs of rabies.
  • My daughter is encouraging me to jump to my own site with my own name as the domain name. All the writers are doing it, she says. Well, then, if all of them are doing it, who am I to walk to the beat of my own drummer? (Just don’t tell Thoreau I said so.)
  • Meaning: You’ll be the first to know if I move to greener (and more self-absorbed) pastures.
  • Speaking of self-absorbed, Amazon sales statistics turn authors into so many paper towels. They can’t absorb enough of those lower-is-better numbers on the statistical sales tabulations.
  • Pitiful, no?
  • Yes.
  • Good news: my third poetry book will be out in the summer of 2021.
  • Bad news: the pandemic fall and winter will be long ones.
  • Every time I read about Trump’s campaign for “Law & Order,” I add an asterisk and the words “* Except when the laws apply to him.”
  • Writing is not for the faint of heart, true, but it’s REALLY not for the elderly of heart, as in 80- and 90-somethings. “The wait,” one octogenarian told me, “on submissions will be the death of me.”
  • That’s dark humor, by the way.
  • Wasn’t it delicious to see the Snowflake-in-Chief run away when he stepped onto the Supreme Court steps to supposedly honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg? A chorus of boos from the crowd followed by chants of “Vote him out!” sent him running for the exits ipso fasto, so used to screened audiences of adoring enablers is he.
  • Purple and pink. You might consider them a little girl’s favorite colors, but I stepped outside and noted purplish clouds with pink tinges at the edge due to a light fog and a rising sun.
  • As Ernie once said: “The Sun Also Rises.”
  • Nota Bene: He stole that from Ecclesiastes.
  • Spark Notes hint: God’s favorite colors? Sometimes purple and pink!
  • Grammar maven hint: Do NOT italicize the book title if it happens to be the Bible or any of the books within the Bible. (I should know. I just looked it up.)
  • In the last great pandemic in 1918, the second wave — so much worse than the first — came in October. It can’t be good that today is September 27th.
  • One good thing — no, two good things — about October in New England: foliage and apples.
  • Trump has announced that he will not observe the peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. I figured that would about do it for those saying they’re voting for him, but the polls haven’t reflected that.
  • So I said to a Trump supporter: “Doesn’t it alarm you when, for the first time in American history, we have a ‘man’ who says he will not follow democratic norms, but instead will seize power from the winner? What’s more important to you: your country or your party?”
  • The answer I got: “My party is my country.”
  • You see the problem. And if you once wondered how so many Germans could fall for the likes of Hitler, wonder no more.
  • When patriotic Americans tell me, “If this tinpot dictator wins re-election, I’m moving to Canada,” I have to remind them that Canada won’t have them. No country will, anymore.
  • Book idea: Sartre’s No Exit.
  • Say… isn’t that the book where Hell is other people?
  • This is why you have to lie down, breath slowly, and don earphones to listen to Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe, Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam, Benjamin Britten, or Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. (Just remember to get up in time to vote.)
  • Writerly goal for Oct. 1st: Get through the upcoming month without paying a single reading fee. If you have to pay people to read you, you’re not writing very well.
  • Readerly goals for Oct. 1st: At least two uninterrupted hours of reading daily after at least 30 minutes of exercise (walking is fine!). And keep a pen and journal by your side as you read. Good writing often gives birth to good ideas!
  • Final thought: Town police forces and national military budgets soak up a lot of taxpayer revenue. Therefore, as a taxpayer, you should never trust a draft-dodging tax evader who refuses to share his tax returns, especially when he claims to love the police and the military and the flag (but is too cheap and venal to pay the taxes required to support them). Follow his actions, not his words, and you’ll get the real story.
  • See? That wasn’t bad. Only one or two political thoughts. Or three. Or four maybe.