Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A friend sent me a brief note about the three Chestnut Ridge poems I posted yesterday. As he is wont to do, he zeroed in on a couple of things that, to me, seem pertinent to not only the poems in this set but to the struggles I underwent in creating the collection, and which I am reliving as I try to get this manuscript into print.

The words my friend chose were voices and harrowing. He was right in noting that voices is an important word because the collection is a composite, a chorus, of humanity over time. Only the geographical place is static. So, in my ear, there is a Sophoclean echo--an inexorable non-listening woven into the multitude of sounds. In the manuscript's most recent rejection, the publisher lamented the lack of a overarching personal story. But the Sophoclean echo is not personal. I cannot pretend otherwise.

And harrowing. That is a more subtle recognition, for the word has two definitions--"disturbing and distressing" and "breaking up soil." The voices are harrowing in both senses: they evoke, recall, predict the perpetual terror of our interactions. But these characters, whether they are individuals, organizations, human constructions, fatalistic metaphors, are also plowing their furrows into the history of the earth. Harrowing is a physical relationship with time.

As the poet, I was also harrowing and being harrowed. This is the first book I have ever written in which I have lived so intensely inside the voices of other people. I've always done it occasionally, in individual poems; but to push myself to become, in essence, a sort of maggot in the ear of history has been exhausting, daunting, thrilling, and terrible. In the meantime, I've occasionally had readers who've felt compelled to manufacture a vision of me, not as poet but as their summary of Dawn, inside the voices of these others. That, too, has been harrowing. I am not claiming, of course, that I don't exist inside my own work. But emphasizing such a reading can come to seem not only pointless but demeaning. Shakespeare exists behind and inside the character of Coriolanus, but the character of Coriolanus is not Shakespeare.

Does this letter sound pompous or arrogant? I don't mean to sound that way. Mostly I am just tired. I worked hard, in this collection, to figure out something new about the task of poetry, my task as a poet. Rereading the poems now, I reprise the nausea of falling into that unknown. This makes it difficult for me to speak objectively of the collection, so I'm grateful to my friend for giving me a couple of words to borrow.


Dawn Potter said...

From Maureen:

This is a manuscript that I am hoping finds its way into print. I have been
looking forward to holding it in my hands and reading it more than once. As
I've read some of the poems you've posted, I've been in awe of how you've
rendered these voices; they don't have to be your "personal story" to be
moving and alive again. I admire your skill tremendously.

One of the great mistakes of poetry readers (and I include publishers'
readers) is to anticipate, expect, assume that what is written has to
be "the truth" of the poet's life. That a poet can control, rein in, any
temptation to create a "personal story" and instead let others' voices come
through as you do with "Chestnut Ridge" is a laudable achievement.

Dawn Potter said...

Thanks for this, Maureen. One issue with publishers is that they often have a self-conceived identity--"we only publish narrative poets," or "we only publish formal collections," or "we only publish avant-garde work," or "we only publish uplifting poetry." When a writer shifts into a new mode, he or she may no longer fit into the press's thematic self-image. In such cases, publishers find themselves making a choice between staying true to a writer or staying true to an identity.