Ken Craft

690 posts

My Poem in the Sunday Paper (Or: “Extra, Extra, Read All About It!”)

Although poetry is a familiar sight in small literary and university-based journals, it is increasingly rare to find it in larger, more mainstream magazines and newspapers. Meaning? When you do see poems in such widely-distributed periodicals, you cheer its editors and their priorities, which include getting more eyes on more poetry!

Perhaps the most famous example comes each Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, which features a regular column dedicated to poetry. 

Another, just up the coast a few miles, comes from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald’s Sunday paper, the Maine Sunday Telegram, where the poet Megan Grumbling edits and introduces the “Deep Water” poetry column each week. In the June 13, 2021, paper, she writes a gracious introduction to my poem, “Core Body Temperature,” which will appear in my third poetry collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, due out in a matter of weeks.

Like many of my poems, the idea stems from a few simple words — in this case, a man who once knelt in a Maine lake, water neck-high, on a scorching hot day and told us he wasn’t coming out until he “lowered his core body temperature.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but both the words and the example surely impressed me, leading to this poem.

 

Talking With George Saunders: Part 2

In his most recent book, George Saunders quotes “movie producer and all-around mensch,” Stuart Cornfield, to make a point not only about movies but about writing – – “…every structural unit needs to do two things: (1) be entertaining in its own right and (2) advance the story in a non-trivial way.”

Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But for writers, the twosome may be more challenging than you think. To entertain should not be taken lightly. And you cannot do it randomly, either. At the same time it must advance your story, meaning “randomness” is the enemy!

Often this calls for variety in your story, but again, you face the danger of variety for the sake of variety. Chekhov, Saunders’ hero in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a natural at this. Says George: “Chekhov’s instinct seems to be toward variation, against stasis. One of his gifts is an ability to naturally impose variety on a situation that a lesser writer would leave static.”

(OK, static sorts. Take a step forward and admit it. Or watch as Chekhov takes a step backwards, leaving you exposed.)

This brings us to these famous dictums for writers:

  1. “Don’t make things happen for no reason.”
  2. “Having made something happen, make it matter.”

You see, again, the relentless campaign against the random? A particularly contrary writer might wail, “But, hold on! Life is random, so why can’t I write random?”

Because, Saunders seems to be saying, writing is a controlled random – an exquisite, oxymoronic dance of sorts.

Thus, he writes, “In workshop we sometimes say that what makes a piece of writing a story is that something happens within it that changes the character forever.”

Tall, meet order.

To quote Chekhov (and Saunders does so, early and often): “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.”

Happy formulating, then. It’s what make writing such an enjoying challenge!

 

 

Diane Seuss & the Sonnet Renaissance

Diane Seuss, whose element is poetry, has found a more refined element still. Sonnets. Or at least something sonnet-like. In her new book, frank: sonnets, she delivers a generous serving of poetry stretching 130 pages long. Not something Petrarch or Shakespeare would recognize, but sonnets nonetheless, at least by modern standards, where poetic licenses can be had with a quick visit to town hall (bring your driver’s license).

What makes a Seussian sonnet? Fourteen lines, mostly. In an interview, Seuss says she holds somewhat to the meter and rhythm clause, too, which is visually evident on each page, what with the line breaks staying close like sled dogs under the command, “Mush!” Voltas can be found, too. It’s Italian for “turn,” and signals a change in the poem’s direction.

Beyond that, though, the sonnets show little resemblance to what we were force-marched through in school. But boy, do they go down easy. Voice in spades. An easy style. A way with words. Each sonnet is double-spaced. Each shows a special knack for naming things – choosing the right specific nouns to help readers visualize just so. Sound devices, too, like alliteration, assonance, consonance. And yes, everyone’s favorite: metaphor in abundance, like roadside daisies.

The design is memoir-like. Seuss mines her past, her childhood, the death of her father. It moves on to her own coming of age, a relationship with a man named Kev, the birth of a child named Dylan. And the man on the cover – Mikel Lindzy – a friend of Seuss’s who would be lost to AIDS during the 80s, plays a role in some poems, as does a man named Frank makes cameos, too.

If you must know what it’s about, then, I’d say “life,” which translates to “pretty much everything.” To quote Traci Brimhall’s blurbed list: “poverty, death, parenthood, addiction, AIDS, and the ‘dangerous business’ of literature.”

Raw? At times. Bittersweet? That, too. Wry and funny? Yes. In short, the narratives and the voice in these sonnets win readers over and make of the them a willing confidant. What’s more, as is true with all good poetry books, once you finish you need not feel lonely (another theme, by the way). You can dive right back in. There are a lot of pearls on the ocean floor, after all, and sometimes you see new and better ones the more you dive.

You don’t have to be from the Show Me state to crave examples, so I’ll offer two no matter what your state of mind. They will give you the gist, I think, and if you’re like me, you’ll like what you see. For that matter, if you’re like me, you’ll say this is one of the stronger poetry collections you’ve read in 2021. And finally, if you’re like me, you’ll rejoice at the rumor that Seuss plans to write another collection of sonnets in the near future.

Like I said: Diane Seuss, whose element is poetry, has found a more refined element still. Sonnets.

 

 

 

All things now remind me of what love used to be. Swollen cattails in lonely

places. Gluey conditioner in my hair. Firm books. Their variegated spines.

Swirl of words like a stirred cocktail, whirled umbilicus, pulsing asterisk.

The past is this: to have been young and desirous and to be those things

no more. In the future the cattails will explode without me. I pray they will

not go unseen. Who will ride the cemetery horse? Incorrigible blond forelocks

blowing in their eyes. The present tense: to take a loveless path is to court

a purple-blue emptiness, like a disco or a grotto. Or the cave where dead bodies

are stored in the winter, when a shovel can’t break through frozen ground.

I have seen such spaces. I have been alone in them. Sound of water lapping.

Animals calling to each other. Echo of my own breath. Smoke pouring

from my mouth in the cold. Memory, interloper in the corner who means to kill,

heavy rock in its hand. And poetry. This poem right now. This one-night stand.

 

 

I fell in love with death, he isn’t mean, his kisses wet and sweet.

Broken pocket watch, strange chain, like an extra in a Western

who appears at the edge of the screen perched atop a lame horse.

Thinness at the hips, the incubator of is breath. Mother tongue

in his mouth. Kinky, but in the most earnest, heartfelt way: he

sucked my fingers while I read him Peter Pan, itself a children’s book

about dead children. His only perversion is innocence, doesn’t try

to ruin Christmas but ruins it anyway, young uncle in the disturbing

T-shirt who just can’t get into the spirit of the holiday. Try, some

female relative whispers in his ear through her lipstick, just try.

He wipes away her kisses, disingenuousness not in his repertoire.

Can’t fake it. If his eyes are hollow it’s because he’s feeling hollow.

If he’s in the mood he calls me at twilight from some meadow,

Describes how the sun digs its own grave, the copper afterglow.

Old Books’ Fountain of Youth? TikTok.

When opportunity knocks, you say “TikTok” and open the door.  The New York Times reports that books released years ago have come on like Lazarus and his pet Phoenix thanks to teenage girls.

“Huh?” you say. The answer (like most, as in “Dr. Oz.” after “Who was Jeopardy‘s most ill-advised guest host?”) lies in cultural happenings of the moment. In a symbol, it’s #BookTok, wherein girls read excerpts from any old book (and books grow old quickly), then cry with the beautiful sadness of it all.

As any husband or boyfriend will tell you, crying is powerful stuff. Teen criers (a modern version of Ye Olde Towne Criers) have taken such books as We Were Liars (published 2014), The Song of Achilles (2012), and The Cruel Prince (2018), returning them to release-date sales status.

For authors with books gathering dust under their beds, this can only mean one thing. (Hint: It does not involve sending review copies to magazines and newspapers or doing readings in front of three socially-distanced mask wearers who left their wallets home.)

That’s right: send copies of your books to the teary girls mentioned in the Times article. Or to your nieces and granddaughters on TikTok. Instructions: Read, cry, record.

Why? Because TikTok, previously the province of teen dance moves, is now the latest publishers’ marketing plan no matter when your book came out.

P.S. If you are a #BookTok reviewer in search of some sad (as in the emotion, not quality) poetry, please hashtag contact me #ASAP for free review copies of my first two collections. I will make your job easier by pre-sticky noting the especially teary ones while supplies (and attached dust bunnies) last.

Don’t look in your rearview mirror now, Amanda Gorman, but here come my new sales numbers now.

Yours, too, if you calibrate your TikTok correctly. Good luck!

Talking With George Saunders: Part 1

In many ways, George Saunders’ new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, hits all my buttons. Chief among them is its use of short stories by four Russians — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol – to illustrate key points on the making and enjoyment of literature. I’ve been reading the Russkies since being knee-high to a praying mantis. Thus, being a Russophile (literary-wise, anyway) and a writer as well, I found myself doing something I seldom do with my books: annotating it as I went along.

Talking to Saunders, is what it amounted to, even though the odds of me ever attending his distant Syracuse writing class lie somewhere between slim and none.

I decided to share a bit here with other readers interested in writing and reading. First, I’ll provide the Saunders remarks that gave rise to some questions and thoughts. Then I’ll offer what I’d say if I were in Saunders class (if my classmates and professor kindy allowed, that is).

For Part 1 of who knows how many, here’s Saunders on one of the simpler “laws” of fiction. You know how laws get one’s ire up. Can you break them? Are they good laws? And what about the caveats, both mentioned and un-?

Saunders:

 

“Earlier, we asked if there might exist certain ‘laws’ in fiction. Are there things that our reading mind just responds to? Physical descriptions seem to be one such thing. Who knows why? We like hearing our world described. And we like hearing it described specifically (‘Two men in green sweaters were playing catch beside a wrecked car’ is better than ‘I drove through this area that was sort of bland and didn’t notice much.’) A specific description, like a prop in a play, helps us believe more fully in that which is entirely invented. It’s sort of a cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick. If I am trying to put you in a certain (invented) house, I might invoke ‘a large white cat, stretching itself out to what seemed like twice its normal length’ on a couch in that house. If you see the cat, the house becomes real.

“But that’s only part of the move. That cat, having been placed in that particular story, is now, also, a metaphorical cat, in relation to all of the other dozens (hundreds) of metaphorical elements floating around in the story.

“And that cat now has to do some story-specific work. Or, we might say, it’s going to be doing some story-specific work, whether it chooses to or not, by its very presence in the story; the question is what work it’s going to be asked to do and how well it will do it.”  (pp. 27-28)

 

On the surface, there seems little to debate here. Of course a more detailed description makes a scene more believable. The writer’s skill of naming things alone counts for much in his ability to create a sustainable dream for readers.

The catch lies in how much description. It might be “easy,” as Saunders allows, to deploy spellbinding description, but the difficulty lies in when to stop describing. Readers, though they may love description, don’t have infinite patience with it. Ditto editors.

I recall, for instance, my first attempt at a novel umpteen years ago. One editor, kind enough to provide a handwritten response, lauded the description throughout but said there might have been too much (for one) and that it often came at the expense of plot, which she found weak.

Then there’s the famous rule of Chekhov’s gun (rifle, what have you). Once mentioned as hanging on the wall over the hearth, it best be used before story’s end. Which brings us to another tricky concept: which details must play a role in the story and which may not?

A gun is fairly obvious. Why bring it up in passing? But the white cat mentioned by Saunders above? Is it equal to the green sweaters also mentioned above? Almost any detail from a setting can be integrated into a future plot development, but I daresay this will hold true for only a few.

Bottom line: the writer has a problem. Two problems, actually. Yes, your writing is richer through description, but when is enough enough? Salt lends flavor, no one will deny, but too much salt can kill a dish. Put description in a shaker next to pepper, and there you have it.

Additionally, it seems a case of overthinking matters to wonder which objects in any given description must do some “story-specific work,” as Saunders states, merely by dint of their presence. What if the description is implying something about a character, for instance? Does that count, or must it be woven into plot?

All of which brings me back to my own writing precept: Nothing is as simple as it seems. Even if George Saunders calls it a “cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick.”

Unfurling Ferlinghetti’s Finest

Filling in another hole in the poetry sock, I add Ferlinghetti to the list. Cheating, maybe, by reaching for his “Greatest Poems,” but who’s to say this editor’s (Nancy J. Peters’) choices for “greatest” are actually the greatest? On the savanna of literature, Subjectivity is King of the Beasts (and I ain’t lion).

If you cringed at that pun, you might cringe at a few of Ferlinghetti’s, too, because he wasn’t above dropping them into his poems. Not that he loses points with me for using them. I am a fan. Every time the groaners start acting superior about them, I point to the Bard, who was a master of puns himself, only in his case, said puns were labeled “great literature.”

I would say it’s a funny world, but let’s just say it’s a funny savanna.

If this collection of “greatest hits” was a hamburger, I would be a carb guy. Meaning, the early poems and late poems (buns, if you’re still with me) seemed more entertaining than all the middle protein (burger, medium rare). I would even lean toward the earliest as the better.

Some enjoyable turns of phrases I wrote down in my journal from the early stuff (as is my habit) are the following:

loud dark winter
burnt places of that almond world
poet’s plangent dream
algebra of lyricism
leaf in a pool…lay like an eye winking circles
silence hung like a lost idea
groaning with babies and bayonets under cement skies

No, not show stoppers, but still, enough to snag the eye before the stream of lyricism pulls them loose and continues them on their way.

As for the middle of the sandwich, I was a bit underwhelmed at times. Not much special in the way of metaphor or imagery. Ferlinghetti’s go-to’s seem to be alliteration and assonance, but he was happy to ignore those, too, once he becomes popular (popularity being the Get Out of Jail Free card in Poetry World, that most strange and wonderful and insulated world).

Here, for example, is LF riffing casually (it certainly seems) on underwear, a subject every poet should write about:

Underwear
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I didn’t get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract
When you really dig into it
some shocking problems are raised
Underwear is something
we all have to deal with
Everyone wears
some kind of underwear
The Pope wears underwear I hope
The Governor of Louisiana
wears underwear
I saw him on TV
He must have had tight underwear
He squirmed a lot
Underwear can really get you in a bind
You have seen the underwear ads
for men and women
so alike but so different
Women’s underwear holds things up
Men’s underwear holds things down
Underwear is one thing
men and women have in common
Underwear is all we have between us
You have seen the three-color pictures
with crotches encircled
to show the areas of extra strength
and three-way stretch
promising full freedom of action
Don’t be deceived
It’s all based on the two-party system
which doesn’t allow much freedom of choice
the way things are set up
America in its Underwear
struggles thru the night
Underwear controls everything in the end
Take foundation garments for instance
They are really fascist forms
of underground government
making people believe
something but the truth
telling you what you can or can’t do
Did you ever try to get around a girdle
Perhaps Non-Violent Action
is the only answer
Did Gandhi wear a girdle?
Did Lady Macbeth wear a girdle?
Was that why Macbeth murdered sleep?
And that spot she was always rubbing—
Was it really in her underwear?
Modern anglosaxon ladies
must have huge guilt complexes
always washing and washing and washing
Out damned spot
Underwear with spots very suspicious
Underwear with bulges very shocking
Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom
Someone has escaped his Underwear
May be naked somewhere
Help!
But don’t worry
Everybody’s still hung up in it
There won’t be no real revolution
And poetry still the underwear of the soul
And underwear still covering
a multitude of faults
in the geological sense—
strange sedimentary stones, inscrutable cracks!
If I were you I’d keep aside
an oversize pair of winter underwear
Do not go naked into that good night
And in the meantime
keep calm and warm and dry
No use stirring ourselves up prematurely
‘over Nothing’
Move forward with dignity
hand in vest
Don’t get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There’s plenty of time my darling
Are we not still young and easy
Don’t shout

As you can see, Ferlinghetti forgoes periods and commas, though he does employ capitalization, which is more than some modern poets do, and other punctuation marks make cameos, too. Getting edgy, in other words, but not going over the edge.

Overall, a fun poet but, like Frank O’Hara, probably not one to imitate (unless you truly understand the meaning of that sign at the edge of a dark wood, “Imitate at Your Own Risk”).

“Attica! Attica!” (Or, “Please Don’t Tell Me What to Write”)

viet

For most, the year 2020 couldn’t end soon enough. It finished on more than one sour note, two of them being Covid’s sprawling gains and Donald Trump’s all-consuming narcissism, which rendered itself both in his pouting refusal to accept defeat and in his willingness to burn down the country as retribution for that defeat.

Less seen but equally disturbing is a trend that popped up in the literary scene: critics who have decided what writers should and should not be writing about under circumstances such as these. Two good examples appeared in The New York Times just as the year 2020 fizzled out.

Let’s start with the lesser of the two: Times critic Dwight Garner’s review of Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn. Garner panned the book in a big way, which is his right. It’s what critics do, after all.

What struck me as odd, though, was Garner’s reasoning. He lifted a Salman Rushdie quote on what a poet’s work is: “to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep,” and used it as  both beginning and end — as propped-up Gospel and reason to rip the majority of the book’s poems:

“Much of the tepid free verse is about flowers. Or birds. Or trees. Harold Ross, when he edited The New Yorker, was wise to rage against tree poems.

“Three poems talk about senior hours at the supermarket. Others consider Netflix, pesto, almond tarts, tidying up the pantry, going for a drive, owning six boxes of penne that is gluten-free. ‘Free the Glutens’ was Tom Waits’s memorable chant. ‘They’ve never had a country of their own.’

“A few of these poems evoke the realities of blue-collar life, but mostly they’ve been written as if by comfortable indoor cats.”

It’s snarky fun and makes for splashy press, but it all sounds rather imperious, as if definitions of poetry are the province of Salman Rushdie (and his pawns) or, for that matter, Salman Rushdie alone. Yes, that’d be a Salman Rushdie who does not write poetry — or, if he does, certainly doesn’t specialize in it.

Bigger transgressions occurred on The Times front page, where novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen penned an op-ed piece called “The Post-Trump Future of Literature: What Will Writers Do When the Outrage Is Over? Will They Go Back to Writing About Flowers and Moons?”

It’s a rhetorical question, obviously. Yes, they will, Nguyen complains, but no, they should not. His argument is that writers should be dealing in politics by writing against colonialism, war, white privilege, and similar riders of the apocalypse.

In Nguyen’s opinion, at present, only marginalized writers are holding up their end of the deal:

“Mr. Trump destroyed the ability of white writers to dwell in the apolitical. Everyone had to make a choice, especially in the face of a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, both of which brought the life-or-death costs of systemic racism and economic inequality into painful focus.

“But in 2021, will writers, especially white writers, take a deep breath of relief and retreat back to the politics of the apolitical, which is to say a retreat back to white privilege?

“Explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.”

It is a call to arms against arms, and a noble one in spirit, but there’s one small problem with its packaging. As was true with Garner’s criticisms, Nguyen is not so much suggesting as demanding that writers dive into blue collar slash political slash social justice issues. Ironically, his op-ed piece is a type of colonialism unto itself — occupying and suppressing, as it does, writers’ choice and free will. Instead of the ignominious “Build a wall, because I said so!” we get an equally ignominious “Write political outrage, because I said so!”

It all reminds me of high school, where writing topics were dictated by the indisputable arbiter and iron rule of the teacher. If a student was moved by, say, nature, his or her topic was forbidden or frowned upon. Robert Frost, you can take this note to the office while the rest of us write about the assigned topic, and all that.

The poet Jericho Brown, in an interview, says that all love poems are about politics and all political poems are about love. His is a wider, more generous scope, allowing writers to write what they know best and / or what moves them, allowing readers to not only choose their own subject matter but to interpret their readings in more metaphorical ways.

If we as readers are not happy about moon or flower or tree poems, we are free to use our ultimate power and not read books about such frivolous topics. And if we are more invested in crows circling over a pond on a windy fall day than the whims of Mitch McConnell’s power plays in Washington, so be it.

Both of these come from the same basic rights that make us free — at least in a democratic society — to define poetry or any other genre for others, and to say what should or should not be written and judge writers not by how they write, but by what they write. That is, I disagree with Rushdie, Garner, and Nguyen, but in the spirit of Voltaire. I defend their right to rant about it, even while I question their logic.

After all, these words themselves are political. They are my choice — a word I happen to like more than Garner or Nguyen do, I think.

“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.”