Sunday, June 12, 2011

Control and intention

Yesterday Kathleen asked me what part control and intention play in the trajectory of my writing as I "move from piece to piece or book to book." The short annoying answer is nothing and everything.

The title of my upcoming collection is Same Old Story, and its theme is that I can't seem to stop writing about or worrying about the same handful of subjects: books, place, lovers, children. In Boy Land, I was, as often as not, in the child's mind; in Crimes I allowed myself to invent other characters and lying versions of myself who worried over these things; in Same Old Story I loosely borrow the plan of Shakespeare's sonnets: to ring changes on these preoccupations that I can't relinquish.

When I spent a season copying out all of Shakespeare's sonnets, I realized that, in many ways, poets are the dumbest people on earth. We fret and fret and fret; we write down the fret and it sounds ridiculous; we retry the fret in another pattern; then we choose a word from the new fret and use it as the first word in yet another fret; then before long we have a hundred poems about the same damn thing. That's exactly what Shakespeare does, and isn't it both a comfort and a shock to think of him fretting right alongside the rest of us?

To tell the truth, however, last fall I didn't even know I had a third collection of poems that was unified enough to submit to a publisher. What I thought I had was a sheaf of disconnected pieces that someday might fit into something. It was a shock to lay them all out onto a table and realize that the individual pieces were talking to one another. And here's where the writer's task changes: instead of writing and revising poems, one now must pull together disparate pieces into a collection. In a way, the manuscript becomes analogous to a poem, and each poem becomes analogous to a line. The job is to frame and refine with a broader hand and eye. Weaker poems suddenly become stronger; strong poems suddenly become ridiculous overstatements; sonnets intersperse with vers libre; narrative speaks to lyric.

In the case of this most recent manuscript, the poems fell into five sections, each of which centered around a theme that I decided to introduce in an epigraph. (I love epigraphs because they are a way to pay homage to the writers I find myself accidentally reading when I find myself accidentally writing: I've never been able to do one without the other.) Here are the five epigraphs for the five sections of Same Old Story:

"It is sometimes curiously difficult to name the emotion from which one suffers." (Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince)

"But half the sorrows of women would be averted if they could repress the speech they know to be useless; nay, the speech they have resolved not to utter." (George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical)

"I know, of course, that she once had a half-baked affair with a poet--but, Heaven deliver us, what's a poet? Something that can't go to bed without a making a song about it." (Dorothy Sayers, Busman's Honeymoon)

"'Tis strange that they should so depart from home, and not send back my messenger." (William Shakespeare, King Lear)

"Hell, everyone keeps a light on in the front hall until they go to bed." (Eugene O'Neill, A Long Day's Journey into Night)

These five sections are themselves framed by a prologue and an epilogue: two poems that retell scenes from Ovid's "The Story of Phaeton"--a classic tale of parent-child heartbreak that I have always, both as child and adult, found very difficult to read . . . but have read anyway.

So now let's go back to the question of control and intention. I think when I'm writing poems, I have to shape them to follow their own dramatic needs; I need to stay in the present-tense of making the poem; I need to forget that in the big picture I'm repeating myself. That's true even in regards to this new project I'm working on: these historical persona poems about western Pennsylvania. I'm reading lots of history, and I'm aware that I need to account for chronology; but when I fall into a voice, I have to stay with that narrowed vision, that emotional expansion or reduction, that diction. Otherwise, I risk a false sympathy.

Tomorrow I'll try to talk about how the prose writing fits into this. But possibly this is already more than you wanted to know. . . .


Maureen said...

I enjoyed reading this post, Dawn, and will look forward to publication of your new collection. Love the Sayers quote.

Carol Willette Bachofner said...

I too was surprised when I realized my latest collection, I Write in the Greenhouse, was a collection. I think we are obsessed creatures who get on "tacks" and keep doing and doing. One day, maybe when we are thinking of submitting a single poem, or maybe three or more, we realize, "hey, I have 50 dealing with that!" and there you are: a collection in the making ready for organizing, weeding, trimming, arcing. Sometimes we actually "set out" on a trajectory and work toward a place or a feeling of being done. It depends on where our obsessions lead us. Perhaps this is all some bizarre form of mental illness. I'm cool with that! LOL

Kathleen said...

I like that the new book is called Same Old Story when I read that you are “ringing changes on preoccupations that you can’t relinquish,” and how Shakespeare did the same! It’s okay to accept that there are subjects we don’t or can’t relinquish--and it’s okay to let that kind of repetitiousness happen--because there are an infinite number of ways to explore the same preoccupations, and there is a kind of relief (and a challenge) in that. I think you spoke to my fear about controlling the writing and revising, too, in a helpful way--when it comes to each poem, being sure that you are true to that narrower trajectory. Thanks for your thoughts about my question. I’ll look forward to a post re: your prose. ☺

jen revved said...

A wonderful, noteworthy and fascinating essay on your process, Dawn. It helps me see what I'm up to as I pull a book together for Chris Howell to edit-- always hard to let go at the right time.

We see many poems that turn on false sympathy and I think I've written them. I look forward to your next essay. xxxj