Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Denise Levertov wrote "Olga Poems" between May and August 1964. The series of vignettes memorialized her sister, Olga Levertoff, who had died that year, at the age of fifty. I do not know how Olga died, but clearly she was desperately unhappy, and she made those around her desperately unhappy as well. She was nine years older than Denise, a powerful and demanding presence, yet also a partner, a fellow traveler.

I finished copying out "Olga Poems" yesterday morning. It had taken me weeks to finish this project, though the series is only eight pages long. Partly I was distracted by work and travel, but partly I needed to advance incrementally through these pieces. The elegy weighed heavily on my thoughts: the sadness, the loss, the details of childhood. But the stylistic shifts also drew me into slowness . . . short lines shifting to long lines; wild indentations shifting to formal stanzas. Something about the structure required my patience. I could not simply rush into these poems and absorb them.

And also, I have been aware of a synchronicity. Olga died in 1964 at the age of fifty. I was born in 1964. One week from today I will turn fifty. It is hard for me to avoid suspecting that a ghost has pressed me to read these poems, and to take them seriously as a message.

I don't know what the message is. I don't know who the ghost is. I don't think this matters.

Monday, September 29, 2014

In the past, early autumn has been my writing time--boys back to school; garden and yard retreating into quietude. That has not been this case this year, however. Among the demands of travel, teaching, and editing, I've had almost no unstructured time to think about my own work. So this morning, after I ship the files I'm editing to the author (and pitchfork the associated detritus off my desk and solidify a few details concerning my next editing job), I'm going to return to poetry: which is to say, I'm going to resume my study of Levertov's work, tinker with some revisions, think about manuscript organization, possibly even submit a few poems to journals. I've also started rereading, for the third or fourth time, David Reynold's wonderful cultural biography, Walt Whitman's America, which is a dense, beautifully plotted clutter of details (in the best possible way) about the way in which Walt's relationship to the everyday stuff of nineteenth-century America was also his apprenticeship in poetry.

And when I look up from my desk, I will see the golden light of the maples, the overgrown grass, the new woodpiles, late lettuce billowing in the garden, Ruckus the White stalking among the lavender asters.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I received the following lovely note from my friend Carlene, who knew how much this would matter to me:

I was reading an excerpt from Virginia Woolf, "Shakespeare's Sister," and I was struck by the comparisons I was making between her discussion about the role of women writers in the sense of being marginalized and the lovely essay you posted on Sept. 15 re: the "Response to Trolls." I felt like I was hearing your voice when I was reading Woolf:
And one gathers from this enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. And so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement. A curse, a cry of agony, rises from those books of analysis and confession. "Mighty poets in their misery dead"— that is the burden of their song. if anything comes through in spite of all this, it is a miracle, and probably no book is born entire and uncrippled as it was conceived. 
But for women, I thought, looking at the empty shelves, these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since her pin money, which depended on the goodwill of her father, was only enough to keep her clothed, she was debarred from such alleviations as came even to Keats or Tennyson or Carlyle, all poor men, from a walking tour, a little journey to France, from the separate lodging which, even if it were miserable enough, sheltered them from the claims and tyrannies of their families. Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, "Write? What’s the good of your writing?"

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My body is still on New York City time, but my life is back on Harmony time, and the upshot is: I am bleary. Today--bright, warm, color-laden--would be a lovely day to climb a mountain or go canoeing. But unless this coffee works better than it's worked so far, I will be blinking like a lizard on a warm rock.

At least I am thinking about poems. Since my reading this week, I have been pondering Jeffrey Harrison's "Encounter with John Malkovich," which he read that evening. I was already familiar with the poem, but hearing it in the air changed it for me. That so often happens, for better or worse, with poems. Some curl up and die in the air. Some unfold like lilies, which was the case with "Encounter with John Malkovich."

Jeff tells me that he originally wrote the poem in past tense but during revision changed it into present tense. That certainly must have contributed to the way in which this piece began to gather itself tonally and dramatically. It may seem like a minor switch, this tense thing, but the same thing has happened to me during revision: a poem will become new with a new verbal structure. Not only does the sense of time change; the sound of the poem changes because the alternate verb form requires different numbers of words and syllables, which in turn shifts the stresses of the lines and requires adjustments in word choice elsewhere.

Bur for me, the listener, all that verb information was an after-the-fact curiosity. The poem itself, which is long and meandering, held me--and continues to hold me, days later, like the tag-end of a song in my head.

Friday, September 26, 2014

When I visited the Frick Collection earlier this week, I think I was the only art gawker who did not have the audio-tour guide pressed to the side of my head. I kind of hate listening into teeny-tiny electronic devices and I kind of hate tours, so at art museums I tend to wander around among the pictures and sculptures and gilt couches while learning no facts about anything. At the Frick, however, my free ears and random progression through the galleries seemed to attract the attention of the guards, who kept talking to me. One even brought me over to look at his favorite paintings: "Look! These Veronese! This man that the artist paints, you see? He is Strength! And the lady, she is Beauty! Ah! Look! You see?" His delight was delightful.

I spent a long time standing in front of Rembrandt's The Polish Rider, writing down the idle thoughts that came into my head: what thoughts the colors and shapes were triggering, why the emaciation of the horse disturbed me, what was going on in the paintings in other parts of the enormous room. And at the same time I could not stop thinking, "All of this was purchased by a boy from Scottdale, Pennsylvania."

H. C. Frick Coke Company mines, c. 1936

Thursday, September 25, 2014

I first read this poem when I was 15, and I had no idea what Donne was trying to tell me. I think I have a better idea now.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

John Donne

As virtuous men passe mildly away,
            And whisper to their soules, to goe,
Whilst some of their sad friends doe say,
            The breath goes now, and some say, no:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
            No teare-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
T’were prophanation of our joyes
            To tell the layetie our love.

Moving of th’earth brings harmes and feares,
            Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheares,
            Though greater farre, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers love
            (Whose soule is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
            Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love, so much refin’d,
            That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
            Care lesse, eyes, lips, and hands to misse.

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
            Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
            Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

If they be two, they are two so
            As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
            To move, but doth, if th’other doe.

And though it in the center sit,
            Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
            And growes erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
            Like th’other foot, obliquely runne;
Thy firmnes drawes my circle just,
           And makes me end, where I begunne.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yesterday's reading went well. The bank was packed: there were no chairs left to sit on, and that never happens at poetry readings. People were kind listeners, and responsive. But reading poems about central Maine while standing in bank on the Upper West Side just made me feel so bizarre, like I was performing in a freak show or something. The world of "Ugly Town" was so far away from these listeners. I felt, as I read, that rural poverty was weirdly one-dimensional to them . . . a vision of Tea Party Republicans and fundamentalist preachers and deer rifles and four-wheelers and smelt fishing and clear-cutting: a world of redneck paper dolls. But I live in that place. And they live in a place where Yoko Ono has an apartment around the corner.

Update: I just got an email from one of the other poets at last night's reading, who told me he was worried that his poems weren't dark enough and that people could tell his mouth was dry . . . at which point I started laughing and decided not to delete this silly post. It seems that poets come out of their holes just long enough to feel like idiots, and then dive in again. It's good for you to see us in all our glory.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

You may be surprised to learn that last night I was on the winning team at Trivia Night in a bar in Jersey City. I was not the power hitter on our three-person team. I was more like the guy that management brings in during the playoffs to steal some bases and who then gets traded in the off season. However, I did my best in the clutch and thus was a contributor to victory. My friends Ray and Steve might recognize the first three measures of every Scottish pop song that's hit the charts since 1990, but they are never going to ever be able to answer questions about canning. (Also, I was instrumental in the subtle comma arrangements of our team name: Tony, Orlando, and Dawn.)

This morning I am going for a walk in search of coffee and French pastry, and then I am coming to back to the apartment to work on the uranium book. Later this afternoon, before my reading, Ray and I are going to the Frick Museum. I have only been to Frick's New York house once before, but I have written several poems about him for the western Pennsylvania project, and none of them are very good. I'd like to figure out why. Also I'd like to take another look at Rembrandt's The Polish Rider, a painting that I dearly love.

Maybe I'll see you tonight at the reading?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tomorrow I hit the road again. At daybreak I'll be heading south to Augusta to catch the bus to Boston and from there the bus to New York City, and as twilight falls I'll be gliding down the island of Manhattan, listening to the driver mutter epithets about the traffic, watching the insouciant jay walkers and the insouciant pigeons and the flat-footed ladies pushing their groceries in hand trucks and the teenagers shrieking on stoops and the taxis cruising around corners and the fat men smoking outside the off-track-betting storefronts and the construction workers climbing out of holes and the signs blinking and the tourists from North Carolina taking pictures of the signs and college kids dressed up as muppets in Times Square and men in ugly suits striding toward the PATH train and hungry people lurching across packed streets and babies crying in strollers. I will write to you as soon as I can.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

I'm off to another soccer game this morning, which will have to be better than Thursday's was. But it will be cold again. We had a frost on Thursday night and then again last night. My cucumbers and tomatoes are dead. My dahlias that hadn't even bloomed yet are dead. But the riotous sunflowers are hanging on to life, and the beets and carrots are firm and beautiful, and the long-haired leeks are flowing into the grass. Soon the honey mushrooms will begin sprouting on roots and logs, and they are one of my favorite crops of the year.

This morning, the sky will be blue, and the blanket I'll be huddling under will be blue, and the trees will be tinged with gold, and no one, I hope, I hope, will get hurt during the game.

Friday, September 19, 2014

An Ugly Night on the Soccer Field

First, this is not a sour-grapes rant: The varsity boys' soccer team at my son's high school is skilled and fast, with a quick defensive line, an agile keeper, and a bevy of reliable playmakers. Four games into the season, they are still unbeaten. The final score of this game was 9 to 2, and our home team was in control from the beginning.

Second, this is not a don't-you-dare-touch-my-kid rant: My kid was sitting on the bench for most of the game, which is where he belongs because most of this team's players are much better than he is.

This is a what-the-hell? rant, as in What kind of high school soccer coach trains his players to behave like linebackers instead of teaching them to pass and dribble? What kind of high school soccer refs stand by and watch this behavior escalate throughout the first half, without issuing yellow cards (formal warnings for unsporting behavior)? What kind of high school soccer player, in the second half, puts down his shoulder and runs straight at an opponent, hitting him so hard that he is instantly knocked unconscious, has convulsions, and is bleeding from the mouth? What kind of high school soccer ref then ambles over and gives the attacker a yellow card . . . not a red card, which, according to the rules of the game, is what he should have issued the player for a dangerous tackle and excessive violence on the field? Worst of all, what kind of parents start screaming at the ref from the stands, protesting that the attacker should have received no penalty at all, while the injured player is lying on the field looking like he is DEAD?

In Maine, many of the smaller schools do not have football programs, which means that the largest male athletes often end up playing soccer. On the whole, beefy males rely on shoulder power, not foot speed, so even at the best of times they are dangerous in a game populated by light-boned sprinters who aren't wearing pads or helmets. Thus, the referees should be scrupulous in enforcing body-contact penalties. If the refs don't penalize such actions, coaches are going to continue to allow their players to do what comes easiest, and opponents are going to continue to get seriously injured. Already this season, my son's team has lost another starter, whose leg was badly broken during a tournament by a defenseman who had been dangerously slide-tackling in every game he had played that day. The refs did not even issue that player a yellow card. Now the team has lost another member to what, at the very least, is an extremely serious concussion and may, for all I know, involve neck or back damage.

I am excited that my son made the varsity team, and I don't care that he isn't a starter.  I love watching the players' crisp passes, their quick footwork. I love the way they think together and react as a team. I love the way the kids on the bench cheer them on. I don't love watching them hurt other people, and I am angry and appalled at the communal bullying I witnessed last night.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

So let me be frank: I dread literary awards season. I don't have any real expectation that I'm likely to win one of these big awards, though naturally I daydream about the possibility. But when the big day arrives, and the National Book Award longlisters are announced and the McArthur Geniuses are lauded, I do everything I can to avoid thinking about them. Please don't assume I'm cranky, jealous, and mean. I'm not. What good fortune this is for the winners! They, too, have been striving in silence and chaos; they, too, have been stumbling and falling. I am happy for them; I truly am.

Nonetheless, I have a hard time not punishing myself: not staring into the mirror and shouting, "You are not a genius!" I have a hard time not bundling my manuscripts into the woodstove. If there were no awards, I wouldn't feel this way. But because there are, I excoriate myself.

So, once again, I have to dig myself out of the hole. I have to remember the covenant I make to myself, day after day. Dawn, I swear I will not burn those manuscripts. I swear I won't even light the stove. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Yesterday, after a cool evening spent beside a high school soccer field, Tom broke down and lit the first fire of the season. I was frying chicken, cutting ripe tomatoes and corn and cucumbers for a salad, mixing eggs and cheese and scallions for the non-chicken-eating soccer player. We were listening to the Red Sox lose to the Pirates, listening to the soccer player chatter about his team's big win, listening to the kindling crackle in the stove. A splayed paperback copy of Dombey & Son, taped and worn, lay on the table, beside a bottle of beer. Night was drawing in; the lights shone against the reflecting windows. On the radio, Joe Castiglione, Voice of the Boston Red Sox, remarked drily, "You see strange things when the pitcher's hitting." We laughed. "You need to write that down," said Tom. All of us were a little drunk on the sweetness of early autumn.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I really appreciate the comments on yesterday's post. It helps to read other people's examples and reactions. As the mother of sons, I am constantly in that Penelope-Telemachus position, even with my sweet-tempered, good-hearted boys. The repetition of "don't leave your breakfast dishes on the table put them into the dishwasher yourself" morning after morning after morning is both comic and disturbing. As a young daughter, I was constantly aware of tasks, present and future; constantly aware that childhood was somehow practice for womanhood. My sons, though they have complex inner lives as well a strong awareness of the politics of equality, have never had this shadowy female backstory of apprenticeship to a life of duty. Paul does't leave his dishes on the table because he expects me to clean up after him. He leaves them on the table because he doesn't care if the table is covered with dirty dishes. I'm the one who cares, the one who is trying to train him up to pay attention to my needs, which have been molded by my learned expectations about good housekeeping and tidy homemakers.

That's a complication, yes. And then, as Carol pointed out in her comment, there's this other frustration: the blanket urge to condemn, to sweep away the masculine referents of our language, even of our affections--as if mentioning a male chickadee in a poem makes the poet complicit in feminine subjugation.

I have no answer to the conundrums. But I am watching as we live them.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Response to "The Troll Slayer"

Perhaps you've read Rebecca Mead's long article in The New Yorker about British classics professor Mary Beard, who has been dealing with Internet trolls as well as diatribes from mainstream male journalists because she is not afraid to maintain a vivid public presence as an academic expert, even though she is a woman in her sixties who wears no makeup and doesn't dye her hair. The article is both distressing and highly entertaining: Beard's ability to embarrass these men is superseded only by her ability to make them see what idiots they have been. They apologize; they take her out to lunch; they send her supportive emails and ask for job references . . . which she writes for them. (About a university student who sent her a message saying, "You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting," she notes, "Although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don't actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.")

It is uplifting to watch a woman blithely and powerfully negotiate such barbs. At the same time, all I can think about is how exhausting this must be, how much energy she must expend overcoming one onslaught after another. I recall my own dealings with male cruelty (none of them as purely nasty as what Beard has dealt with) and I recognize how often--maybe always?--I have just taken what the man has thrown at me. When a very well known publisher telephoned me about a manuscript, and told me that he liked it a great deal and that it was beautifully written and full of fascinating insights about literature, but "Don't you think you could write something that interested people instead of just homemakers?". . . well, I think I murmured and stumbled and perhaps even apologized instead of saying what I should have said, which was "EXCUSE ME, SIR, ARE YOU DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN HOMEMAKERS AND PEOPLE?"

Still, I'm not sure I hate that interchange more than I hate the one I had with a reasonably well known feminist poet who was directing an MFA program. I had just published Tracing Paradise, my memoir about copying out Paradise Lost, and she was interested in hiring me to offer a guest workshop for her poetry students. However, in response to my class proposal, she asked if I could send her a revised version: there were just too many male pronouns in my description of Milton and his poem. In this case, I was in fact able to say, "No, I don't think I can delete any male pronouns in my description of a book written by a man." And when she canceled my workshop because, as she told me forthrightly, she had the chance to hire a famous person instead of me, I was able to be both sardonic and relieved.

The sheer stupidity of such so-called feminism does a disservice to everyone. It undercuts what I have said again and again on this blog and in essays published elsewhere: striving female writers--like striving male writers--discover power within themselves when they find a way to engage in collegial conversation with the greatest writers who have ever lived. I can talk to Shakespeare. I can talk to Homer. I need to talk to them. Mary Beard seems to have parallel expectations and curiosities: "as a scholar she does not specialize in writing about women, or about gender in the classical period." This leads me to suspect that she doesn't have a problem with using male pronouns when she discusses Cicero.

Still, in her mission to instruct misguided trolls and journalists, she may also seem to be playing a very familiar role, one that women have taken on again and again throughout history: the instructive mother who lovingly dope-slaps the idiot son--"a Penelope who chastises Telemachus for being rude, then patiently teaches him the error of his ways. 'There is something deeply conservative about that reappropriation of errant teen-ager and long-suffering female parent--it is rewriting the relationship in acceptable form,' she says. 'If I said to my students, "What is going on here?" and they just came out with a happy-ending story, I would be very critical. I would say, "Haven't you thought about how the same sorts of gender hierarchies are written in different forms?"'"

Nonetheless, she recognizes and capitalizes on configurations of kindness and forgiveness. "Some of these adjectives we use, like 'maternal'--try putting 'human' in there instead. . . . If being a decent soul is being maternal, then fine. I'll call it human." I agree with this wholeheartedly, but I cannot forget that she is still, in this situation, negotiating from a position of power and prestige. She is fending attacks because she is a confident public expert. When I sit on my own much smaller and more rickety throne--as a teacher, a conference director, a mentor--I find it much easier to speak firmly but patiently to the people who say dumb shit to me. But in the situation I mentioned earlier--the publisher's telephone call--I was the weaker party. I felt I had no recourse, except to scream or to cave into silence. Because I have good manners, I caved in. I guess what I am saying is that Beard's Internet trolls might be wrestling with the same impulse, which comes down to a homely, debilitating lament: "Why are you someone? Why am I no one?" This doesn't excuse their behavior. But we have all sung that lament, in our own small, cracked voices.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

John Keats, letter to George and Georgiana Keats, March 12, 1819

I am sitting with my  back to [the fire] with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet—I am writing this on [a copy of] the Maid’s tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure.  Besides this volume of Beaumont & Fletcher—there are on the tab[le] two volumes of chaucer and a new work of Tom Moores called “Tom Cribb’s memorial to Congress”—nothing in it.  These are trifles—but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me—Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began “To be or not to be”—such thing[s] become interesting from distance of time or place.  I hope you are both now in that sweet sleep which no two beings deserve more tha[n] you do—I must fancy you so—and please myself in the fancy of speaking a prayer and a blessing over you and your lives—God bless you—I whisper good night in your ears and you will dream of me.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thanks to the exigencies of house pets, I am out of bed too early on a Saturday morning. So I am sitting here at the kitchen table, with my white cup and saucer, and my stoneware jar of yellow marigolds, and my A. S. Byatt novel with the beautiful deep-blue jacket cover, trying to pretend that I'd rather be here than there. And I am glancing over at the seven glowing jars of tomatoes on the counter, and the dish of unripe green pears next to the pale plate of golden drying chanterelles; and as I am sure you have noticed, I am attempting to convince myself that colors are worth the loss of a warm featherbed.

And while I'm thinking about worth, I want to tell you about the poem I accidentally came across the other day, a poem by my dear friend Meg Kearney, a poem that rocked me back on my heels. It's in the new issue of the Bellevue Literary Review, and it's titled "Oriole Report," and I wish I could publish it here for you, but of course I can't because of copyright reasons. So find it, or write to me privately and I will share it with you.

Words have overwhelmed me, again.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Apparently my canning predictions were wrong. Yesterday, during band practice, I acquired 15 pounds of glorious San Marzano tomatoes, along with a giant bag of Hungarian wax peppers; and this morning, after shunting the schoolboy out the door, I started boiling quart jars. I'll process the tomatoes today and leave the peppers for the weekend because they'll keep better.

Tomorrow night my reconfigured band, now known as Doughty Hill, will be playing at Pat's in Dover-Foxcroft, 7 to 10 p.m., and I'll be singing Neil Young songs, and Elvis Costello songs, and Gillian Welch songs, and spontaneously inventing fiddle leads that may or may not work, and hoping I remember all the words and all the changes. You could come keep me company.

In the meantime, as the canner boils and the tunes flutter through my head, I will be editing the uranium book, picking cucumbers, mowing grass, laundering soccer uniforms, trimming stew meat for a Greek stifado, pondering the poems of Denise Levertov, scraping cat fur off my sweater, imagining a line a syllable a sound, listening to the wind whistle through my corn patch, copying this passage from Muriel Rukeyer's The Life of Poetry--
I see the truths of conflict and power over the land, and the truths of possibility. I think of the concrete landscapes of airfields, where every line prolongs itself straight to the horizon, and the small cabin in the Appalachians under the steep trail streaming its water down; of the dam at Shasta, that deep cleft in the hills filled with white concrete, an inverted white peak with the blue lake of held water over it, and, over that, Shasta the holy mountain with its snows; New York at night when the city seems asleep and even asleep full of its storm and its songs; the house in the desert and the pool wooden-lidded against the sand, where poems are being read to the gold miners by the woman who came there to die of tuberculosis twenty-three years ago. . . . Everywhere one learns forever that the most real is the most subtle, and that every moment may be the most real.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

It's a dark morning, cool and humid. The clouds oppress the trees; the house smells of simmering tomato sauce; an NPR reporter murmurs in the kitchen. My mind is chattering to itself . . . about apples, and phoning the dog groomer, and German fairy tales, and that book about uranium I'm editing, and those songs I need to memorize for band practice tonight. Outside my window, a small bird is chattering in exactly the same rhythm as my brain--a curious duet; also an unnerving one.

"Too late in the wrong rain," wrote Dylan Thomas, "They come together whom their love parted:"
The windows pour into their heart
And the doors burn in their brain.
. . . and though on the surface those lines have nothing to do with me this morning, they ring, and evoke a disturbance within me; they make me frown--half in puzzlement, half acknowledging their accuracy. Perhaps the morning's broader horrors and ambiguities--the beheadings, the air strikes, the politicians, what to do--perhaps they, too, have infiltrated those lines, my reading of them, my perplexed response.

Poetry is both sufferance and suffering, I suppose.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Making a Manuscript

Sheila left a comment on yesterday's post that thanked me for mentioning the way in which I am beginning to experiment with my new poetry manuscript. This made me imagine that maybe it wouldn't be boring to talk a little more about that part of the revision process . . . because compiling poems into a book requires just as much creative thought as refining individual pieces does.

Think about your favorite album: Does the order of the songs feel inevitable to you? Do the emotional currents of those songs seem uncannily linked, even if the songs are stylistically varied? Do you feel a sense of momentum as the album progresses? But what about those albums that just seem like compilations of singles?--you know, the ones in which the catchiest song is always first and the rest of the songs feel like wavering reflections; the ones in which individual song textures create an overlay of blandness rather than a swelling unity.

And yet successful albums don't follow a formula. Some are dense and atmospheric, with one song merging into the next; some include wildly varying styles, instrumentation, and tempos; some are a stack of perfectly shaped pop hooks. Likewise, there are a thousand ways to organize a poetry manuscript, and much of that decision depends on where the poet is living at this moment in the world: what sounds are in her ears, what history is behind her, what other arts she has been pondering.

So I have a problem with manuscript editors who push a poet to follow a "how to get a publisher to pay attention to your book" formula. Yes, the poet wants the reader to become absorbed and curious, to eagerly turn the page. The collection itself must be a conversation. But as she does with individual poems, a poet must initiate that conversation from a point of inner silence and need. She cannot simply slot poems into what a disengaged expert declares is a marketable order.

I need an open patience to track the themes of my work, to follow the musical shifts and swells beyond the boundaries of one poem into another. I shuffle pages, set favorite poems aside, add old forgotten ones, shuffle everything again. I create sets and sections. I wonder about pacing, comedy, subject matter. I stare at the shape of the poems on the page. Then I stare at the clouds and get up and stop thinking about poems and walk around aimlessly. My mind requires a certain vacuity. Distraction is part of the work; creation doesn't move inexorably or logically. A thought arises as I watch the lightning flutter in the distance. Perhaps that thought will matter to the book.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I had hopes of organizing my Chestnut Ridge manuscript while I was on Star Island, but that didn't happen. I had almost no unstructured time on Friday and Saturday, and I needed to use the moments I did have to (1) walk aimlessly along the shore and (2) lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. But on Sunday morning I did snag a few hours, which did not give me enough room to organize anything but did give me a chance to begin thinking about the poems as movable pieces.

So here's my idea: what if, instead of following a straight chronology, I broke these poems into sets? Within each set, the poems could be chronological, but the sets themselves would be thematic. As set titles, I'm (for now) borrowing the traditional elemental categories--earth, air, fire, water--but I hope to transpose those words into something more specific to the actual landscape.

I sat in the grass in the Star Island graveyard, and I began marking each poem air or fire or earth or water or sometimes noted more than one possible category because everyone knows that labels are fluid. It was interesting to begin to imagine the sorts of collisions and patterns that might arise with this organizational shift. It was interesting to see that, yes, a new approach might eventually solve what is a giant problem with the ms as it now exists: it has no overarching dramatic movement; all it does it chronicle the inexorable advance of time. That's important, but it's not sufficient for drama.

Anyway, I didn't get far into this task: birds whistled, people talked, the clouds shifted, I was distracted. But I made a start, and the start felt useful.

Monday, September 8, 2014

I spent four days on a 30-acre pile of rocks off the coast of New Hampshire. From the front porch of the Oceanic Hotel we watched a lightning storm circle the island. A flock of cedar waxwings rose from one of the few trees. Musicians, tucked into corners and side rooms, murmured the words of poets. In other corners and side rooms, poets sang the tunes of musicians. Collaborations buzzed and hummed. Meanwhile, the thunder growled and the lightning flashed.

Not everything was perfect, of course. I sat in on a songwriting workshop and wrote the worst lyrics ever written: a humbling experience and medicine I deserved to taste. She who gives out writing prompts ought to struggle with one herself. On the other hand, I did barter a book of poetry for a massage.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I'm likely to be incommunicado for a few days: poetry retreats and internet service don't always overlap. But the birds will be migrating, and the sea will be lapping at the stones, and I will be reading Whitman and playing backup fiddle leads. And perhaps, in the interstices, I will be able to spend some time with my western Pennsylvania poems and begin to glimpse an overarching organization beyond simple chronological order. I have a sense that some sort of landscape structure is also necessary--perhaps a series of such sections, each with an internal chronology. The considerations of book structure give me a great deal of creative pleasure, yet they require a state of mind that is very different from writing and revision. I discovered Same Old Story during a slow, empty afternoon by the sea. I hope that I'll find Chestnut Ridge on another such day.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

* Tomorrow I embark on my four-day visit to Star Island, New Hampshire. I'll be teaching poetry at the Writers in the Round Retreat, using prompts that arise from work by Whitman, Levertov, Sexton, and Rilke. There are also songwriting classes; and I'm told that someone is bringing a viola, which I'm anxious to get my hands on. It's been a long time since I've held a viola, and I've never played one with my good bow.  And my good bow is the cat's meow.

* Here's the press release for my September 23 reading with Howard Levy and Jeffrey Harrison at the Verdi Square Arts Festival. You should come: this may be your only chance to attend a poetry reading at a bank. I'm fairly sure it will be my only chance.

* I'm so proud that Weslea Sidon, one of my dearest friends in the world, has just released her first full-length poetry collection: The Fool Sings

* Want to see a funny selfie of Elder Son and the Poodle, photobombed by a Civil War-era ancestor? [Enjoy the boldface while you can because you will never again see those horrible words on this blog.]

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

From a draft in progress:  possibly another western Pennsylvania poem, possibly set in the early 1980s, possibly dealing with schizophrenia, certainly dealing with isolation 

A bridge is wet with river water, wet with tears.
The cherries bend low to listen.

Their branches strain against the small
wind of your thoughts, the jumbled

meaningless words, the old scents and computations.
Once again, nothing known as love understands you—

Monday, September 1, 2014

It's one of those intensely humid mornings when I can feel the bread molding in the breadbox and the living-room rug emits the ghostly fragrance of everything that has ever been spilled on it. But now here comes a glint of sunshine, striving to penetrate the fog.

Shall I go to the Labor Day parade or not? It is always exactly the same: clowns, politicians, snowmobile-club floats, Shriners, fire engines, antique cars. Predictability is not bad, but do I want to sit on a wet sidewalk for it? I'm thinking that I don't.

Yesterday I worked on a poem, and it's conceivable I might work on it again today. Choosing words for myself felt good. There hasn't been much of that lately: just lots and lots of choosing words for other people. And I'm definitely going to harvest, blanch, and freeze chard, and make a batch of dill pickles, and listen to afternoon baseball on the radio. Come visit, and I'll put you to work, in the nicest possible way. You'll enjoy it. Some of the most intelligent, thoughtful, hilarious conversations arise while stripping chard and packing pickle jars.

This is one of the secrets women have been keeping from men. As Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote in the 1600s,
As women, what wisdom may be ours if not the philosophies of the kitchen? Lupercio Leonardo spoke well when he said: how well one may philosophize when preparing dinner. And I often say, when observing these trivial details: had Aristotle prepared victuals, he would have written more.