Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Jessica Goodfellow on Roofs and Repetition

Roofs appear rather frequently in the poems I write, even though I am quite uninformed and even rather uninterested in the mechanics and terminology of roofing. Wondering about this, I got an oversized index card and wrote on it “roofs.” Then I went looking through my old poems, searching for other recurring themes and images, jotting them down on my card. I could find motifs and patterns, but as with roofs, I couldn’t imagine why these words had appealed to me on multiple occasions. So I recalled the mathematician George Pólya who famously said, “If there is a problem you can’t solve, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.”

Since I couldn’t solve the problem of unconscious repetition, I decided an easier problem was to push the use of repeated images to the limit: conscious repetition. My plan was to write a series of poems experimenting with this idea, to see what would happen, what I might learn. I made rules to encourage redundancy. They included: forming the title of each poem from two words, the first being the second word of the title of the previous poem, and the second being the first word of the subsequent poem’s title; consciously repeating the words I had noted plus other potent words that appeared as I went along; and judiciously using poetic form.

Here is what I thought might happen: use of repetition would illustrate the impossibility, in the long term, of unselfing the self. It’s a banal problem, a small idea, but what better way to express its dullness and insistence than through repetition?

Here is what did happen: my poems ran away from me as they often do. In only the second poem of the series, a voice emerged that was not mine. I thought it an aberration, but the unmistakable voice showed up again in the third poem. This persona is hijacking my series, I thought, and indeed it did. Then a second voice showed up, in a relationship with the first one (a second marriage—I soothed myself with the knowledge that some repetition was going on here). Suddenly an entire unbidden narrative sprang up behind the poems, a suggested story not about self but about two selves.

This is the first time I’ve ever written something in which form was not merely the vehicle, but also the content. William Matthews wrote, “. . . form and content . . . want to be each other.” In that case, they probably didn’t need my help. Maybe through conscious repetition I bound form and content up so tightly that there wasn’t anywhere for the unconscious to spin its mystery. Maybe that’s why the voices appeared, to form two sloping planes of a roof from under which the unconscious could peek out while remaining concealed.

Maybe I need to find an easier problem.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

John M. Anderson, Old Masters: Iraq War Edition

It is such a pleasure to see these poems coming into visibility just as the administration that compelled them into being is vanishing! I have not written much political poetry in my life, but these poems (part of a collection I’m going to call either Old Masters: Iraq War Edition or Blackwater Driveby) reflect something I have often noticed about my political consciousness: When I am looking at a piece of art in a museum or watching an artfully made film, I do not lose my sense of the wars and injustices outside the museum or the theater. Such turmoil does not seem to me at all to remain outside the art I am looking at but to invade and reshape that art.

It works the other way, too. In fact, this series of poems began when I realized that my mental image of Osama bin Laden brooding in his cave seemed to have been painted by Caravaggio. What, I asked myself, would Caravaggio have made of this subject? What would any of the old masters do with the crimes and absurdities of our moment?

I did not do much research into the news stories that went into these poems because I wanted them to represent the archive my own living memory had compiled of these years—and the collage my own knowledge of art history might make of that archive. Some of the art I refer to in the book would be obscure to anyone who might have missed an exhibit I might have caught. Some would seem silly or irrelevant to an art student more serious or more methodical than I am. I must admit that I was myself surprised when a great mime entered the catalogue.

“Guantanamo Officers' Club : Marcel Marceau, 1963” took shape as I contemplated such matters as the enforced silence surrounding Guantanamo, the clowning that accompanied torture at Abu Ghraib, the creative complicity a mime requires of his viewers, and the delicate but often desperate situations in which Marceau’s imaginary characters found themselves.

“The Baghdad Zoo : Albrecht Dürer, 1515” again involves a mute response to a deafening reality. The zoo animals incidentally released during the bombing of Baghdad float through my head like illustrations in an old book. Their fate, victims of advanced warfare in the center of that ancient city, feels to me like something out of Blake—and Dürer’s rhinoceros looks like a living tank.

“Manhunt for Osama : Book of Kells, AD 800” arises out of my sense that Osama’s status and stature are by now mythical, that he’s become both labyrinth and clue, both the chicken and the egg. No doubt I was quicker to associate that terrorist monster with the glorious Irish illuminated manuscript because I teach at Boston College where the Book of Kells is nearly as ubiquitous as Osama is elusive.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Muriel Nelson, With a Big Simile

These poems are made of things over- and underheard, stolen, mis-taken, and sometimes spelled by ear—disparate bits and odd God-thoughts; i.e., my imperfect observations, fascinations, and shortcomings along with some I’ve borrowed. If the poems hold together for you, language and line breaks must be playing with your ears, too.

“For the Night People” originally followed “Sun and Migraine,” which was published earlier in BPJ. In the title, you may hear a bow to Ed Hirsch. If you’re a fellow migraine sufferer, you’ll also recognize the joy of waking up not sick and reveling in lights and noises which don’t hurt. But maybe they should. Of course, in Judeo-Christian-Muslim thought, God is odd. So are Adam’s ribs either before or after one is removed, if you take the story both literally (that is, poetically) and (quoting one of my students) “with a big simile on [your] face.” Biblical creation stories are also at odds with each other, each of them carefully saved. Underlying the Apple computer image at the poem’s end is the ancient phrase, “Keep me as the apple of thine eye,” and my envy of the Russian word yabloko, which keeps that apple-eye image in a single word.

“Feeding the Venus Flytrap” probably doesn’t need much commentary if memory is still fresh of the siege of Sarajevo and Vedran Smailović, the cellist who honored the dead and made a bit of peace at the center of war horror. You may know what I learned after our little Venus Flytrap died of starvation: its food needs to be moving in order to stimulate the plant to close its “mouth” and eat. No bottles for that baby. But maybe the accumulation of long e sounds feeds the poem and allows Easter to cohabitate with Venus.

I hope “To Wit, To Dote” will grow up to be a book someday because I love the sharp sounds and rich meanings of these old words, and their Lego-like possibilities for play. It seems that the twenty-first century could use ways to put witting and doting into relationship in order to enact that ancient phrase, “to know in one’s heart.” I confess, this poem carried on even more in its first few versions. Perhaps in my dotage, I’ll know when to end.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gary Fincke on "Things that Fall from the Sky"

Books of Lists—I own a shelf full, and I read them the way some people watch afternoon talk shows, fascinated by the wry humor of oddity and chance. In one of those books is a long list of “Things that Fell from the Sky,” including, as it turns out, seeds, powder, documents, and meat.

But I’ve never been interested in “found poems.” The happenstance of the things that have fallen are details I’ve come to know like those from my life and the lives of those close to me. They’re triggers, if the writing of the poem goes well, for something larger.

It’s like the difference, in fiction, between anecdotes and stories. Anecdotes can be as oddly charming as items in those documented lists, but it’s the deepening of character and place and event—what the great short story writer Andre Dubus calls vertical writing—that creates a story. I’ve written a number of stories that I hope have succeeded in accomplishing this, but it’s also how I feel about writing poems. Who are these people and their circumstances? How do these strange things matter? Because everything is available. Because the fantastic sometimes visits us and leaves the indelible mark of circumstance.

In this sequence and others like it, I work with the mysteries that have befallen others until I discover how those stories might somehow illuminate some small part of who we are. This sequence began with how the sections were arranged. How one built on another like scenes in a story until, as a writer, I made a discovery that I believed made the sequence about something more than “the weird.”

Last week I drove through a sudden summer storm, traffic slowing, hazard lights blinking, cars pulling, at last, onto the shoulder of the interstate. And then, less than half a mile from those waiting out the storm, I drove out of it into clear skies. It was so stunning a change that I pulled off and looked back, half-expecting to see those rubber strips that slap your car clean at the car wash, traffic emerging from something like a fogged-in automated door.

A few hundred yards behind me were drivers who believed the storm huge and unmanageable. It wasn’t meat or seeds pouring down, but that rain had been so intensely heavy that I had nearly given in to paralysis. Likewise, when, on that list of odd things falling, I read about the body from a small airplane accident that crashed onto the hood of a woman’s car, it conjured the memory of 9/11 and those minutes of looking up toward the intermittent shower of people choosing to jump from the towers rather than burn. There was an “I” in the poem now, all of those oddities culminating in that strange hail of desperation, surprising those of us who watched, filling us with terrified wonder.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Molly Tenenbaum on ventriloquism

My grandparents were ventriloquists, and so were their two sons, my father and uncle. By the time I came around, my grandparents’ show days were done, but my grandfather often made birds rustle in a paper bag which he would open at the window, releasing the birds to chirp away into the distance, and my grandmother, when she wasn’t dancing around the living room singing “Hello Dolly,” would sometimes take out her old figure, John Henry, and practice her now completely unacceptable caricatured black dialect. On my childhood birthdays, my father would open the old checked suitcase and pull out Joe, the black-haired, apple-cheeked figure he’d used as a boy.

When I was nine or ten, I took ventriloquist lessons from my grandfather—that’s him on the BPJ cover, Ted Tenny, an early stage name. He’d made his living on the vaudeville circuit from about 1913 to 1924, with breaks for the army and for getting married to Grandmother Minnie and teaching her the trade, after which they toured together. My first lesson was all about breathing from my diaphragm, which I couldn’t find. I never got over that first frustration, took only one or two more lessons, and never practiced. I wasn’t ready to explore ventriloquism again until I became a poet, and even then I had no idea how to approach it.

It was easier to know what not to do: I did not want to say what people always say, that the dummy is the alter ego of the ventriloquist and can say what the ventriloquist won’t. If it’s true, no need to belabor it, but it may not be true; maybe that particular dynamic between the vent and the figure evolved because audiences laughed at it. Besides, I wanted to get at something else, though I wasn’t sure what. Along the way of working on these poems, and many other ventriloquism poems, I’ve tried to get at some of the mystery of making other voices from one’s own breath. And I’ve been reminded that ventriloquism is a human craft with a long history, that it comes from the human body, all its parts practicing and working together, and is a creation of individual genius and the broader culture.

It turns out that you can’t get away from the traditions—the figure is the smart-aleck who always one-ups the vent, and certain tricks and skits are continuous, from age to age, act to act. My more successful poems embraced this instead of fighting it—hey, it’s entertainment, if you don’t wow ’em in your twelve minutes, you’re out. I wanted the poems to be “deep,” but you can’t be deep by trying. I still feel bad that I never learned the actual art from my grandfather, and suspect these poems are not enough to make up for that failure.

Before you read “Difficult Speech” and “Easy Oration” on the page, read them aloud in front of a mirror, trying not to move your lips.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

John Hodgen on "Poem to Be Read at 30,000 Feet"

The genesis for “Poem to Be Read at 30,000 Feet” came as I was quite literally aboard a plane approaching Logan Airport over the water at night. I write a lot of poems during flights. There’s something about being loosed and lifted like that that frees up the capacity to drift and dream a poem into being. I was literally reading a poetry journal (let’s say the Beloit Poetry Journal) in the dim light of a late night flight, and suddenly had one of those anxious moments wondering, if perhaps something might go wrong and the plane might crash. We all go there. We all find ways to manage that fear. Sometimes as writers though, it’s worthwhile to let the fear play out into the imagination, to receive even the gift of fear that way. I found myself looking around at the passengers, drawing mini-portraits of any and all of us in those unguarded moments that could be our last, all of us trusting our virtual horizons, all of us headed for our permanent fatal error. We all seemed so innocent, so trusting, so vulnerable in that moment. And so rich in the luxury of our lives. I wanted some sense of mythology, the Golden Fleece, to show that, and to evoke the myth we all live by, that we will somehow live forever.

I originally found rhymes very present, tried to build the poem that way, that “Argo” and “ergo,” “light” and “night,” but then again the poem seemed to argue for a randomness, a fragmented internal rhyme, as if to show the interior lives and the fragile exterior. So there is rhyme hidden within, the rhyme and reason of our lives, perhaps, but a poem about sudden impact seemed to speak against any neatness, so the end rhymes slipped away. The poem took over. And that’s when I realized it was my moment, my poem too, and that I had to include myself in that scene. I realized it wouldn’t have been an entirely bad thing to go like that, holding a poem up in the light close to my face.

And then came the real gift. The act of holding up a poem in a journal is not unlike the way you hold with both hands the face of the one you love, the way you read into that face, that bright page of the story of your life. I thought suddenly of the traditional Dear Reader, the tenderness of that, and realized our imagined reader is pretty much someone we could love as well. And I thought of the ones we love, how we don’t always get to tell them we were thinking of them right at the very end. But poems can do that. That’s what poems are for. Finally, I wanted the reader to end up in that same moment, holding a poem in their hands and seeing the life in the poem, the face of what a poem tries to be. Love, what else? That gift.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Paul Gibbons on "Fugue: In Medias Res"

“Fugue: In Medias Res” is my attempt at hearing hope as much as seeing it. There are the two Isabellas’ hopes and the man whose hope is presumably to quit his pain. The poem even begins with the “wish” of crickets.

This poem’s title promises “lyric” and even asks – no, rather it commands – its reader to pay attention, that its speaker knows the things introduced in the beginning may seem disparate but that they will all turn out with some meaning; nothing’s been let go to simple whimsy.

Perhaps this opening gambit is its strength, that hope is always in process, always engaged with something having gone before, concerned as it is with goats’ breeding history and a name getting a rebirth, among other things.

Although I am constantly on the alert for clichés, clichés constantly alert me – I put my back into them until they turn fresh and interesting to me.

Since clichés are a risk, always, I think the best solutions, or the solutions I’ve been most satisfied with, have always centered on going right into the cliché – pull its expectations apart. I don’t mean to pull it apart linguistically so much as to understand its possible meanings (explication!) and keep weaving until there is another context in which to put the cliché.

This poem’s genesis was a series of sessions in which I listened to its elements. Each time, as I read the poem aloud, another stanza or two emerged. But I constantly had to go back and read it through aloud and then work on the next lines. In this way, writing the poem was like chopping down a tree with an axe – with each stroke I heard and saw, I could make corrections toward a general result.

After three and a half pages of typewritten tercets, and still listening, I began trimming.

The moments I was listening for were those where the thematic lines intersected or harmonized. Places where I could write, “put its back into it,” or, “was not a drill.” Places where, right out in the open, distinct meanings emerged by repetition.

I took a little advice from E.M. Forster: “Only connect.” I think Bach followed this advice before him, and lyrically, I found it useful. In many of its meanings.

As for the title, a fugue is what this poem is, voices or plot lines or stories that weave together in passing harmonies. I kept listening for that harmony on a meaningful (and somewhat musical) level.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Erin Malone on "Suspect" and "Story"

I’m up writing this at 2 a.m. on a full-moon night while my husband and son are sleeping soundly in other rooms. And since this is how my poem “Suspect” begins, I guess it’s fitting that I start my discussion here. Also, because it was the hardest poem of the three to write, I’ll admit now to that childhood trick of eating the spinach first so that I can enjoy the rest of what’s on my plate.

I’m both repelled and attracted to risk in poems. Balancing what to reveal, when, and how much is the high-wire act of poetry. Too little on the line and the audience gets distracted, goes to look for snacks; too much and it’s an accident from which they can’t look away. For me, motherhood in the beginning was a wreck. Recalling it, writing about it—a potential pile-up. But without the risk, what’s there? The more I talk or write about something I can’t explain, the more I understand my response to it. I control very little, but I can control what I put on the page, and there’s some satisfaction and sanity to be found in that.

“Suspect” started when I was looking at Paul Celan’s poem “Assisi.” His poem uses blocks of repetition, starting with the phrase “Umbrische Nacht,” or “Umbrian night.” I was experimenting with the sound of the German; I flipped the phrase to say Nacht Umbrische out loud to myself, and to me my mumblings (I don’t speak German) sounded something like “Night at my house.” (My German friend has since pronounced Celan’s line for me and it sounds nothing at all like what I thought. Shoot.)

My earliest draft begins with the repetition of this phrase:


Night at my house.
Night at my house with the curtains open,
Night with my house docked.

A few months went by and I returned to it with some new notes. The tentativeness of my subject shows, I think, in its short, broken lines making their way in the dark. Where to next? The first image of the curtains floating was the thread I pulled, and I let myself be led by the sounds of the words: "float," "docks," "clocks," "poker." Then came this idea of woman as a line drawing, and with it more anxiety in the poem’s repetitions and insistence. For me the line drawing is a turning point in the poem because I was also thinking of a chalk outline, a missing body. And that missing body troubled me most, since it represents complete disassociation, from the husband, the boy, and the self. The risk is disappearance.

“Story,” on the other hand, is much more straightforward, and instead of threat or disappearance it’s all affirmative, a genesis. An accumulation of images of life with my son, including some from time we spent in Italy—pigeons, scooters, God—I felt a lot of joy in writing this poem. My own mother’s voice is revealed in the line “too big for its britches, it takes that tone,” which made me happy in some way I can’t explain. In the end I was surprised to find that the poem also serves me well as an ars poetica.