Friday, December 31, 2010

Janice N. Harrington on "Why, Oh Why, the Doily?"


“Why, Oh Why, the Doily?” was triggered by re-discovering a collection of doilies, family keepsakes. So began a meditation on the meaning of doilies and the devalued artistry of women. My early attempts in 2004 sounded elegiac—here’s a lost time and here’s what doilies meant. Despite continual revision, drafts never moved beyond the small container of personal history.

In 2007 I began working on a series of poems about the African American folk artist Horace Pippin. Pippin fought and was wounded in World War I. After the war, he drew memories of the war, still-life paintings, memory pictures of his childhood, portraits, and landscapes. He also painted, with meticulous deliberation, an amazing array of doilies. I didn’t see the connection, however, between Pippin’s work and my own early efforts to write about doilies until I read Selden Rodman’s Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America. Rodman’s words describing Pippin’s obsession with doilies gave me a springboard that led to the doily series. I knew I wanted a poem that enacted obsession, wanted to crochet a poem (links, chains, intertwining, dropped stitches) that moved from the specifics of family history and memory toward more abstract representations.

Section One
This section draws on my first attempts to write about doilies. It begins with memory: a woman crocheting beside the front window of her living room. I then join this memory to other threads. I wanted to ground readers with a clear, understandable image before moving forward.

Sections Two to Six
If readers think of the themes that the poem engages as threads, then it is possible to see weavings and interweavings. The poem is growing from a specific memory to the ways doilies trigger memory and, more broadly, to cultural memory (ring games, Little Sally Walker, childhood), always expanding: doilies as works of art, architecture, mathematical expressions, etc. While I wrote, I continually asked myself, what are doilies? What do they do? Why do we make them? Why am I captivated by a construction of tangled thread? Those questions drove and built each section.

Section Seven
Like doilies, catalog cards (in the predominantly female world of libraries) are made by women. Like doilies, catalog cards are anonymous. No one recalls the art that assigned a book’s location or captured a book’s content with a snapshot of language. I saw a sympathy between the art of making doilies and the art of making catalog cards. The poem describes the doily in the condensed, objective language of a library card and presents the rhizomatic connections that place doilies in larger contexts, including an allusion to Bishop’s “Filling Station.”

Section Eight
What are doilies trying to say to us? The poem suggests this large biblical word: Behold! The word of angels and old testament prophets. Doilies are baroque and ornate. The word “look” didn’t have the weight that I wanted readers to consider. I also saw this sentence as a way to clean the reader’s palate before the longer and more expansive meditation of Section Nine.

Section Nine
Readers might see a contradiction between section eight and section nine. Doilies know only one word, yet later a doily asks questions. Does this mean that the questions that doilies ask don’t require language? That form and the relationship of their threads shape the questions that doilies ask?

If they ask questions, then can they also generate narrative? Perhaps some doilies can only speak one word, but others have a larger vocabulary? The poem never settles those questions.

Section Nine builds on the visual format of a Bernard Tschumi essay and adapts it for its own purposes. It was probably the most challenging part of the poem. I had to formulate the abstract queries that I hoped would defamiliarize the doily. If section nine succeeds, then a reader can no longer look at any doily as “just a doily” or as “handiwork—women.”

Section Ten
This section completes the poem’s arc from personal memory to an ekphrastic poem that weighs the artistic obsessions of Horace Pippin. Pippin’s doilies look like the barbed wire fences of No Man’s Land. They speak to the eye, and the hand can almost lift them from the canvas.

The last section also alludes to Frost’s bitter “The Road Not Taken.” Although Frost’s poem defies easy sentimentalism, when I study Pippin’s doilies I see converging trails. I see the doily as a vehicle of expression and as a way of seeking. Pippin was searching. Artists search. And so, metaphorically, the doily grew into a labyrinth, a maze of lace that completed the poem.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Elizabeth Langemak on "Expectation" and "Illinois Cornfield as Nude Descending Staircase"

I wrote “Expectation” after visiting Walt Whitman’s tomb in Camden, New Jersey. I suppose this isn’t surprising. But the thing that surprises me, looking back on it, is that I started writing the poem even before I arrived at the cemetery. As I was getting into the car twenty miles away, I already understood how everything would turn out: I knew that I would expect—or hope—to feel moved at the tomb. I also knew that I wouldn’t be.

And that’s how it went. I left the cemetery sensing—as I knew I would—that I’d somehow failed to comprehend something spelled out very clearly in front of me. I spent a long time afterward struggling to write a very different poem about Whitman but then realized that the more interesting poem, for me, was about this failure to connect with what I objectively understood to be an important or interesting moment.

I’ll also say that the experience of writing this poem—and of visiting the tomb in the first place—was colored by the weird understanding that I was going to write a poem about whatever happened there. I have this feeling a lot, and the feeling is, I’ll admit, dirty. I visit tombs, talk to my students, look at art, think about movies and deer and breakfast and conversations with the people I love most in this sort of mindset. There isn’t much escape from it, and I understand that this isn’t an original feeling. Stephen Dunn has a great poem called “The Routine Things Around the House” where he confesses that “When Mother died / I thought: now I’ll have a death poem. / That was unforgiveable.” Perhaps it is unforgiveable, but I’ve forgiven him because I’ve come to believe that this constant scheming is an unavoidable symptom of the poem-writing condition. We expect a little better of ourselves, and yet.

While “Expectation” tries to deal with these abstract ideas in a concrete way, “Illinois Cornfield as Nude Descending Staircase” is a comparison between an abstract painting and the concrete image of a cornfield. I wrote the poem last fall after returning from a run along some Illinois country roads. Looking at the cornstalks, I had the nagging sense that they reminded me of something and was surprised to realize, when I returned, that I was thinking of Marcel Duchamp’s painting. Hitting on this identification was exhilarating; it was like believing I saw the face of someone I knew in a crowd, deciding it couldn’t be that person, and then realizing that it was.

The most interesting realizations I’ve had about this poem, however, have occurred in the process of writing this essay. As I wrote, I showed drafts to two readers I trust; both times this has resulted in conversations about the appearance of the word “woman” in the poems’ last lines. To my surprise, both readers argued that the “woman still unshucked” in “Illinois Cornfield” suggests a feminist reading for the poem as a whole. In the first conversation, my reader was interested in the multiple connotations of the word “shuck”; she suggested that shucking might be something that is done to a woman, perhaps with a sexual connotation. In the second, my reader and I discussed the poem’s genesis in Duchamp’s painting; he reminded me of the implied power of a male artist’s gaze on a nude female figure.

I understand and like these readings but, quite honestly, I wasn’t thinking of either when I wrote the poem. I suspect, for example, that I simply assumed the female figure’s autonomy: the shucking, as I originally imagined it, is not done to the woman but is something that the woman does for herself as part of an evolution made visual by the painting. Nor did I think about the male artist’s gaze on the female body. In fact, one of my favorite stories about Duchamp’s painting concerns the controversy it originally created because the “nude” doesn’t really resemble a woman, naked or otherwise. My most immediate concern in writing the poem was how I might convincingly reproduce my excitement in sensing a visual connection between a cornfield and an abstract painting not known for its resemblance to any part of Illinois.

I see, however, that the woman’s appearance at the end of this poem and of “Expectation” is suggestive, especially when the poems are read together. In answer to the questions this might raise, I’d like to suggest that both poems use the word “woman” in similar ways: in each, I have purposefully used it rather than “person” or “man” in order to avoid vagueness or inaccuracy. From my perspective, both poems spend most of their time approaching ungendered notions such as disappointment or change. Perhaps this privileging of verbal specificity and universal experience over gender issues is ultimately the happy product of feminism, if not the outright feminist gesture that my readers saw; in these poems, I assume the right to speak as or about a woman without consistently monitoring what the final product claims about that woman’s relationship to men. Or perhaps not. I’m also willing to imagine that I’ll revisit this essay in a few years and wonder how I could have ignored my obvious impulses to address feminist issues.

At any rate, in writing this essay I’ve been reminded of how exciting it is to discover things I didn’t originally know about my own work. I’ve also been reminded of how easy—and tempting—it is to ordain poems with meanings that I didn’t originally intend. That said, there is a sizeable part of me that wishes I had aimed for the meanings other readers have ascribed to my poems, which enrich them in compelling ways. And, of course, there is also the part of me that knows it doesn’t matter what I intended. The poems live in the world now, and as they find their readers they find their meanings.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Christopher Howell on "Edvard Munch" and "The Circular Saw Children"

Shortly before writing “Edvard” I had been thinking about Munch, of how he had said that, as a painter, he did not need to know what he was doing, but only that he was doing it in order to find out. I had been thinking that this is kind of the way I write, in response to some compulsion or sound, shapeless except for the urgency it excites. And I just follow it, kind of dowsing toward satisfaction. I did not have Munch specifically in mind when the poem began; but as the female figure revealed herself and the context broadened, something like the feeling his paintings stir in me came out of the wall behind me and looked over my shoulder.

I didn’t look back, of course, I just kept writing, listening for its approval, letting World War One (the defining event of Munch’s generation) come in there, letting the lost child of the poem, all the lost children, become death itself, maybe.

Then I was astonished to find that, through the agency of the war weary soldiers, the speaker himself comes into the poem, in the act of writing this very poem, drinking the very tea I am drinking now (Barry’s Gold, by the way), the soldiers not so very happy to find him there, again, probing, constant as the rain:

. . . always the withered
flowers and haunted look of a girl
going nowhere and a road that stops
while seeming to go on. Always someone
lifting tea through its own steam
as he writes on a yellow pad.
Always the disgrace of his probing
and then the rain…

It is, I hope, as though the scene of desolation imagines the speaker, that accepting this is the price the speaker must pay for imagining it. I loved that, and the birds that cannot be anything but black. Nearly everything in the poem has this darkness, except the nameless red bird (line seven) that is not there, is perhaps a figment of the girl’s hysteria that is, in fact, the hysteria of defeat—and not simply that of an army, but of everyone, really, in the face of war’s seeming inevitability and its uniformly horrific results.

And what would the Kaiser say, having set all this in motion and seeing it now, seeing death in a lost girl, the soldier’s bottomless indifference? Listening to this question literally cools the tea; and perhaps the speaker wakes, more or less, vaguely ashamed, and the girl is alone and there is no one left in the poem to name the flowers, if the flowers are really there.

And that is Edvard Munch, that is the kind of psychological landscape into which his work can bring you. So his name seemed to me a good title for the poem, though the poem is not about him. Whatever it was looking over my shoulder noted this, took a deep breath and went home.


“The Circular Saw Children,” is not as ghostly, has a different sort of narrative drive. And, of course, use of the first person plural has the contradictory effect of removing the reader grammatically while at the same time drawing him or her closer rhetorically to both the action and the narrator’s tone. It is a tone and manner with which most of us are familiar from having spent much of childhood in the menacing and enchanted forest of the fairy tale.

I have written a number of poems in this manner, and I trace my impulse (or freedom) to do so to Andre Breton, who said, in the First Manifesto, “There are fairy tales to be written for adults, fairy tales still almost blue.” He was speaking, more broadly, of childhood’s freedom from the kinds of psychic constraints that lead, in adulthood, to dreariness, rage, conformity, and nameless and unnecessary terrors. In childhood we are free, he felt, to confront these matters with a psychic purity unoppressed by reason, personal and cultural guilt, or the mindless dray horse of strict believability. Therefore the path to the Marvelous, he believed, lead through that zone of the mind where childhood’s powers and creatures remained in tact, that is in the unconscious. If in childhood we are free to confront imposed restraints or explore the outrageous liberation that may result from banishing such restraints in the relative safety of the tale that can go anywhere, plumb any depth or vault over any barrier, then such tales (or poems), composed in later life, may open the secret doors leading to the monumental intelligence of dreams.

While I don’t really buy this entirely (and there are flies in the ointment: actual children seem to have left Breton more or less unmoved), it is certainly true that the tale leading away from reason, into the Greenworld or the dark, may bring back to us knowledge that is both ancient and entirely new. “Circular Saw” wants to establish itself as this kind of journey right away, with “We waited, of course, to become disks.” I think it is the “of course” that brings forth the chill that suggests an alternate world. And as the poem moves along, what emerges is an alternate moral vision, one in which shape trumps all ethical considerations, flattening and unifying them in a perfectly closed system of action and regard.

. . . We thought
it would be perfect to be endless
edges gliding, perhaps flung
and cutting things off at the knees.

The cruelty of such circumstance
would not belong to us
but to the shape of us
merely, an accident of science…

In a way the poem slips back through Breton to Lautreamont and De Sade, their argument that moral perfection must permit complete freedom of thought and action, including the cruel and bestial. But what I hope the poem discovers during its fairy tale like descent into the unconscious, is that perfect systems lack passion, which means they also lack remorse. I honor the surrealists for their devotion to the mind’s release from bondage (no pun intended), but there are reasons why we grow out of childhood, and not all of them have to do with securing gainful employment. There is also the matter of growing into a capacity to integrate the range of human feeling, of not becoming monsters of perfection who coolly drown our neighbors.

I guess in that sense “Circular Saw” is a political poem. This is another result of the first person plural point of view, the poem has a social component, as a fairy tale must: it opposes systems that worship the pathology of perfection—which the poem expresses in terms of the circular. By negative example, it comes down on the side of messy, passionate, angular, beautiful human life. I didn’t know I was going to write about this when I started; I simply followed that first line, the voice of it, to see where it wanted to go. Then again, maybe this is what I’m always writing about, one way or another, and I’m happy with that.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kirun Kapur on "Light" and "Melon Cleaver"

“Light” and “Melon Cleaver” (and the other poems in this sequence) are based on stories I’ve known my whole life, stories central to my family’s history and identity. So, when I began writing them, I knew (more or less) the narrative I’d follow. This had never happened to me before. Usually, I write like a character from Grimm’s: I fumble in the forest, intent on a path that’s been eaten by birds. For once, my path should have been clear brick, not bread crumbs—but I felt even more lost than usual.

For one thing, I had a commitment to the literal truth—never a good situation for poets. I don’t believe a poet is any more obligated to tell the literal truth than a novelist. The lyric “I” is a work of fiction; if bread crumbs lead away from facts, she must follow. However, these stories didn’t belong wholly to me. They’d been lived and retold by my father, uncles and aunts. I wanted to tell them the way I’d heard them.

Context posed another problem. The poems revolve around the dissolution of British India. Many Westerners are unaware that India and Pakistan were once one country, let alone that their 1947 partition induced an enormous migration (the largest in modern history), notable not only for its size, but for its brutal communal clashes. I felt the need to provide background information, a sure way to strangle the life of a poem.

I also had in mind an admonition: a poet I admire once advised me to avoid direct depictions of violence in poems; he found them manipulative, an assault on the sensibilities of the reader. He admired (as I do) poems where a single bird in the town square can evoke the horrors of 20th Century European history. In the stories I wanted to tell, a direct experience of violence within a close community was the single most crucial issue. Could I address that kind of violence explicitly?

I thought the answer might lie in a broader framework. I spent months researching the major events of 1947: the Truman doctrine was proclaimed; Kalashnikov designed the AK-47. The partition of India and Pakistan was just one thread in a chaotic, bloody blanket. By weaving the events of 1947 into my family stories, I’d hoped to slip in the necessary background information, blunt the violence and use historical material to provide contrasts and surprises. This grand idea resulted in a glib, list-laden bit of verse, reminiscent of a pop song: “We Didn’t Start the Fire. . . .” I shelved the project for almost a year.

Then, I happened to be at a reading where a poet read several sestinas. I came away thinking about repetition: a word or phrase paced and repeated becomes an incantation, a ritual, a structure. Isn’t that exactly how the telling of these stories had worked in my family? And what about variation, the breaking of expected repetitions? Might it enact retelling, misremembering, the rupture of family structures and rituals?

I began to sense the path, the shape of a poem: a pantoum, with its circular structure and its spell of repeated lines. The repetition and variation of whole lines gave me a way to build up information organically, to create an intimate world and then break it. As I worked, I found the form providing a second voice, locked in conversation with the old, immutable stories.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Karen Lepri on "Root" and "Wave"

The poems “Root” and “Wave” come from a short series, "Meso Cantos," which belongs to a longer body of work made up of groups of these cantos. The label “cantos” is not only a response to The Canon (I was reading Pound, thinking of Ovid) but also a descriptor of how I view these short, lyrical works—I want the poems to sing, to combine rhythms, sounds, and images to produce lyric beauty. The different groups of cantos (Nano, Micro, Meso, Magna), organized by scale, mostly respond to scientific or natural phenomena; however, to borrow from Forrest Gander's writing on George Oppen, they also attempt a “meditative investigation into intersubjectivity,” a consideration of world through the body, through the human eye, through the observer's awe. They are poems of perception that struggle with the question of how and what to perceive in our surroundings: at what scale, according to what theory, in which world?

The "Meso Cantos" derive from what I consider middle forces—somewhere between universe and bacteria—currents, winds, atmosphere, waves, root systems. The elements vary in terms of global reach but are connected by their roles as carriers (of force, water, life) and the wide-scale effects of what they carry. When I write one of the cantos, I begin with two types of material, my own preconceptions and scientific research—though I used the Latin terms in “Root” less for their scientific meanings (which are quite bland) and more for their acoustic zing—the i's, s's, r's. This music elevated what for me is already a wonder—the roots themselves. In the moment of writing, I am often drawn to scenarios opposite to the ideal I initially imagined. I begin to incorporate vulnerability or subtle violence. I feel it is necessary to interfere with flat beauty or my own naïve awe.

The titles are important starting points, but they must transform in order for the poem to work. One of my colleagues once described this type of transformation as “self-revision,” a term I find interesting: the poem revising itself, not the poet revising the poem. In “Wave,” I began with the “real” world and moved into the imaginary. I live on the coast and spend a lot of time watching the waves arrive. I was thinking about where the force that forms the wave originates, if there even is such a place to pinpoint. The unpredictability of waves compared to the very predictable rise and fall of the tide in the harbors and beaches, as well as their unseen forces, led the poem to the incalculable consequences of war and the deep seas’ historic use as nuclear test sites.

With their short stanzas and frequent enjambment, these poems' broken, riddled forms allow space, I hope, for the reader to meditate on an image or to read multiple meanings. I want the poems to move beyond the page, as Barbara Guest has said, as opposed to resting in it. Their success depends wholly on the reader's terrifying leap from page into ___________.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Karl Elder on "Ode in the Key of O"

To the One of Fictive Music

Grant me this: a modicum of intrapersonal intelligence allows for speculation regarding undercurrents in the etiology of a poem: canonical verse whose title this analysis borrows as its own, for example, or winning as a teenager an argument with one’s father, proving there is no perfect circle, yet subsequently understanding that, while absolutely accurate measurement is impossible in the physical world, perfection exists in and as approximation, one apparatus of reasonably seasoned consciousness—unlike Plato’s horse, his mystical illustration of pre-existing ideal forms or ideas, the claim that identification is the soul remembering a thing from heaven wholly horseshit. Only after experience is perfection manifest and only in the imagination, imagination being the empiricist’s and poet’s generator of miracles.

I sometimes think of poems as possessing both an ecto- and an endo- skeleton—the latter metaphysical—poetry then seemingly a phenomenon as much like sculpture as painting. Oh, it’s two-dimensional on paper, all right, but multi-dimensional in the formulation and in its readers’ apprehension of that latent energy before them. In making “Ode in the Key of O,” a habit of counting syllables re-emerged in me, thumb to four fingers and every fifth note thumbed, only this time I sensed the hand morphing from abacas to rosary.

So, ought I wince over the rogue syllable my student and friend Rob pointed out in stanza four? Nah, when the most quoted line of pentameter on the planet (“To be . . .”) owns eleven syllables? Now, am I rationalizing? Oh yeah. While of course content must dominate, the strictest adherence to superstructure in this piece is part of the art.

“Ode . . .” was born in the shadow of the title poem of my volume Gilgamesh at the Bellagio, in which each of its 27 stanzas ends with an “O” rime—aural, visual, or conceptual. Both poems were composed under fluorescent light on top of an up-turned cardboard box, itself atop a pool table and elbow-high, cue ball wearing blue smudges where it last rolled at an angle of about one o’clock. Opposite the box on a concrete wall, a round electric clock still clicks.

Probing for a construct, I settled on a period at the close of the first, and nine progressively smaller stanzas, doubtful I could maintain the form when, around the fifth stanza, I prematurely landed upon—after maybe two weeks of three hours per day—the final line of the poem. “Whoa. Is this negative Negative Capability or what?” I thought, confounded and elated at once, mind’s eye on something like a photo of a funnel cloud, the “endo-“ abstract but with a picture of the “ecto-“ as concentric rings or a tightly wound spring tapering to the point of the pen in my dangling forearm and hand. As to the remainder of the poem—as well as its predetermined form—I’d not known a vortex quite like this: absorbingly, alluringly laborious, as if a mason were laying block with the I-beam levitating, miraculously, above.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Susan Tichy's "A Ghost"

On The Mountain

Those who climb mountains make a special claim to knowledge: that their step-by-step (or hand-over-hand) experience is the truth of a mountain, unavailable to those who merely look. In Simon Schama’s words, a climber’s perception is akin to collage: “an additively constructed assembly of details, each one discretely verifiable.” As a walker in high mountains (though never much of a climber) I consider this truth to be obvious, and fundamental. I hold it in tension with other ways of knowing—especially, of course, what I’ve learned from poets—but am interested in the fact that I have been walking rocky trails longer than I have been writing poems.

Some days, I say the one-two line structure, the open and open-ended syntax, and the asymmetrical rhythms of “A Ghost” mimic walking on rocky ground—“a stumbler stumbling / uphill,” assembling an experience that can’t be reduced to sentences with more orderly, hierarchal organization. Other days, this form seems merely literary, a line evolved from earlier poems . . . which in turn devolved from Oppen and other poets, not from my feet. Moore’s “An Octopus” also stands in the background—a very tall ridge, though behind that, taller still, stands Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.”

The poem has a setting—a ridge in the Colorado Sangre de Cristo—and a not-quite-absent beloved, lost in and to that landscape. It also carries, in the tension between its images and its thoughts, a long conversation among those who think on their feet and those who think with pencil in hand—a debate in which I can’t help but take both sides.

In the 1850s, John Ruskin, a lover of mountains and of J.M.W. Turner, criticized climbers in the Alps for their focus on the summit and on what Leslie Stephen described as “hours of labour, divided into minutes—each separately felt." While such muscular sensation might be good preparation, Ruskin argued, it could never be the truth of painting, which for him included a more omniscient eye. That eye was not merely Romantic, however: it was geological. Of Mountain Beauty, the 4th volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, is largely devoted to the structure of mountains, from their wave-like crests to the microcosmic topography of a stone in the hand—both of which make visible the ghostly landscape of living rock conjured by our knowledge of geology as not-quite-arrested motion. In Ruskin’s own drawings are no human figures: the artist himself is the traveler and his eyes are our eyes. In this I find a parallel to the grammatical absence of the poet in Taoist mountain poems of T’ang and pre-T’ang China—an absence I have emulated in “A Ghost.”

Ruskin was not an artist, per se, but one who used drawing as a way of seeing, attaining by hand his own muscular knowledge of mountains. Many of his drawings from the Alps remain unfinished—one part a colorist’s dense or delicate tapestry, one part a skeleton of penciled rock forms, their contours and ridgelines extending over inches of raw paper. Critics have chided him for a short attention span, but unfinished sentences don’t trouble me: those drawings are eerily moving, records of a process that halted at the exact moment a sought-for knowledge was reached.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Jessica Goodfellow on Clocks and Chronospecies

“species: empty:” is the 18th of 30 poems in a cycle about a marriage. Both it and “clock: rules:” describe a period in the marriage when one partner has left temporarily and is incommunicado, and the other partner is in the unenviable state of waiting, but not sure for what.

One constraint I imposed on the cycle was that the title of each poem be two words: the first word being the second word of the previous poem’s title, and the second word being the first word of the title of the subsequent poem. This constraint had some unintended consequences. In particular, I reached the 18th poem and found that I had run out of things to write about species, having paid scant attention during biology courses in school. Consequently, I wrote a clumsy poem and moved on, ignoring the problem as much as possible.

When I had nearly completed the cycle and could no longer avoid the 18th poem, I was still flummoxed. I considered going through the 17th poem and finding a different keyword to put in its title, thus releasing myself from the necessity of thinking any further about species. But remembering the Paul Valery quote (as attributed by Reginald Gibbons), “poets are those to whom the difficulty of writing gives ideas, not those from whom it takes them away,” I started researching the meaning of species (with a heavy sigh, I might add).

When I found the definition of chronospecies, I saw that it fit into the cycle on at least two levels. First, since “clock: rules:”, the 22nd poem, was written chronologically before “species: empty:” due to the problems mentioned above, I knew the cycle was headed towards a consideration of timepieces. A clock is an instrument that measures the passing of time, and so a species is a clock, but really, I can’t think of many things that aren’t. Second, the missing marital partner has returned to the ancestral home in what feels to the left-behind partner like a turf war between allegiances and families, between the eras of childhood and adulthood, between hometown and current home, a schism strong enough to suggest even a difference in species across inhabitants of those times and places, even when one inhabitant is the same being.

It is easy to connect the dots between clocks and rules, between the calculations of time and the laws of nature. But since “clock: rules:” is more about waiting than about timepieces, I began to wonder about the rules of waiting: who makes them, and can they be broken, and if so, to whose advantage. The suspended state of waiting seems both continuous and endless, and yet the concurrent passage of time, as measured in hours and minutes, seems to be disjointed, ruptured. The list-like form of these poems I hope captures that tension.

My sincere thanks to the Beloit Poetry Journal for publishing these poems.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Nan Watkins on Translating Yvan Goll

The two poems of Yvan Goll’s that appear in the Spring 2010 issue of the BPJ are from his last manuscript, in German, called Traumkraut or Dreamweed. They are the inventions of a patient lying in European hospital wards, fighting the incurable leukemia that was diagnosed in New York in 1945 but would not take his life until 1950, in the American Hospital in Neuilly, near Paris.

I first came across Goll’s work when a friend showed me English translations of a few poems. Then I read Galway Kinnell's very beautiful translation, from the French, of Goll's Lackawanna Elegy. Goll was Alsatian and bilingual in French and German. I see translation as an act of liberation: freeing a work from the box, the prison, of one language and giving it life in another. Hence my desire to liberate Goll's work into English.

Goll specifically chose to write the fifty poems that comprise the volume Traumkraut in German rather than in French. The poems inhabit a world of fever, pain, lament, and finally tenderness and love. Goll becomes obsessed with a "Traumkraut," a strange hallucinatory plant that gives him a kind of "new birth" to confront his fatal illness. Immediately from the neologism of the title, the translator is confronted with finding an equivalent expression in English. "Traum" means "dream," and "Kraut" can mean "cabbage," "herb," "plant," "weed." The German word for weed is "Unkraut," so I decide to couple the English "dream" with "weed," thus preserving the rhythm and assonance of the German title as well as the paradoxical sense of the undesireable, the unwanted, linked with dream. Curiously, some earlier writers had used the term "Dream Grass," but since Goll refers to his Traumkraut's bloom and flower in various poems, I have rejected that translation.

Some of these same problems of "non-existent" words and compound nouns occur in the poem "Rosedom" as well. German has the creative facility of forging words together to make strong new compounds, but English is shy of that. In my translation of the many new compounds in "Rosedom," I want to retain the idea of a single word, rather than separate words, i.e., moon rose, so I hyphenate the English words to become moon-rose, brain-rose, etc. Somehow it does not work for me without the hyphens. Flowers and roses are a favorite metaphor for Goll, so it is a stunning reversal for him to include such harsh and negative imagery in the poem ("unrose," "raves in fevered fields," "blazes for the roseless").

English is a Germanic language, so when I seek word choices for these poems, I invariably begin with those with Germanic roots: In "Rosentum," for instance, the second line reads: "Die in Tierköpfen brennt," For "Tier" I choose the word "beasts" rather than "animals," both for its alliteration with "burns" and for the stronger monosyllable. In line 4, I want to convey the meaning, but also Goll's push of language, so "Aus Schädeln geschädelt," becomes "Skinned from skulls."

"Old Men" is Goll's glimpse of the dying men around him in the hospital ward, as well as the hint that he knows he is becoming one of those men. I try to use the force of monosyllables and the crunch of consonants to convey the harshness of the scene.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jennifer Atkinson: The Genesis of the Canticles

I wrote my first canticle in Assisi, where Saints Francis, Clare, and Giotto preside everywhere—in the Cathedral and churches, the pizza joint on the corner where school kids line up after class-trip tours, the pastry shops selling Francis cakes and almond-cherry cookies called Chiaras, the five million souvenir shops, each one chock-full of crosses, wind-up toys, Assisi t-shirts and baseball caps, faux rustic planks decoupaged with Francis’s all-too-famous poem: “Canticle of Brother Sun. . . .”

It was late February, raw, and mostly rainy. I was staying at the Convent of the Suore di Brigida. No religious goal in mind, I just wanted an inexpensive, quiet place to stay near Giotto’s frescos. My bags were lost somewhere between D.C. and Rome and even once they were found, the airline refused for 4 days to deliver them. So in the hours not devoted to self-pity and waiting for my underwear to dry, I wandered around the village and olive groves or stood in the Cathedral under the frescos.

The cathedral is on two main levels—the ground floor with crypt below, and the large, open, high-windowed gallery upstairs. For two days I hardly even went upstairs. I spent my time on the ground floor of the cathedral feeding euros into the coin-operated lights that illuminate Giotto’s Mary Magdalene cycle. I love—and who doesn’t?—Giotto’s narrative panels, the mixture of realism and symbol, the sureness of line, and the straight-forward acknowledgement of the body in the spirit and the spirit in the body, but I also found myself enthralled by the story he was telling of Magdalene’s life after Easter. I didn’t know the Magdalene legends at all then and so I was reading them in his language of images. I thought about Giotto and his apprentices grinding the pigments, preparing the wall, and working quickly in the dim room. I thought about a narrative told in a series of separate panels, set side by side and end to end, each sealed off from the next and yet linked formally, compositionally.

The first canticle I didn’t call a canticle until later. “Assisi Rain,” now “Canticle of Assisi Rain,” was a ghazalish poem from the start, a moody five-couplet piece that owed its allegiance as much to music as to the Assisi saints or the desk in the convent where I wrote it. By May of that year I was back home in Virginia teaching summer school but with several more 5-line or 5-couplet poems written. Canticle, little song, now seemed an appropriate name for the form. It would be disingenuous to say nothing of St. John of the Cross’s (dark night of the soul) “Canticle” or “The Canticle of Canticles” (aka Song of Songs), both of which inform my canticles’ mixture of spiritual journey and sensuous earthly pleasure, but Giotto’s method was as influential as either. As was the winding-ever-upward architecture of the Umbrian hill town.

This past summer, a year or so after returning from Assisi, I was lucky enough this past summer to spend a month in a Provencal “perched village.” I wrote a little song every day while I was there, in the region where in legend and fresco Magdalene is said to have ended her days. The form opened a bit wider to accommodate more prose and more Magdalene, but 5 has remained the magic number even as the sequence grew to 60-some canticles, a book manuscript (I hope) with “Canticle of Assisi Rain” in second place, right after “Canticle of A.”

Many thanks to Beloit Poetry Journal for publishing this group of the Canticles!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Charles Wyatt on "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens"

I think I need to look at some history. In the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by Rembrandt drawings and this led me to many attempts to draw them again in poems. It didn’t take me long to realize that almost all of those images had narrative implications. So my question to myself became, “What comes next?”

Then I became interested in archaic words as points of departure for poems. A poem examining an antique word asks another question, “What went before?” It burrows into the word and tries to discover its possible cosmologies. Then I became interested in fairy tales (because I’m a fiction writer and I wanted to burrow into the notion of story). There’s a lot of counting in fairy tales which seems to have more to do with music than with narrative—perhaps it’s the hinge where the two parted—I still puzzling this out. Anyway, there are always fairy tale images floating around in my unconscious these days.

I tell my students that poems come out of poems and stories come out of stories. But there are lots of ways that can happen. We can take a story type as a cantus firmus and write a new melody over it. Using the musical analogy is comforting to me because I’ve made my living as a symphony musician for most of my life, and I like to think of music both as something that comes out of poems, and as something that builds them or allows them to happen.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Wallace Stevens. My grandmother gave me The Collected Poems when I graduated from college. I’ve read them in a kind of sleepy way, listening the way people listen to music while doing other things. So when I got the idea of doing a sequence of poems which use lines of Stevens as points of departure, I found myself doing something new. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking asks, “Why can’t we remember the future?” He’s led to that question by a mathematics that allows time to move in either direction. But there is something in music that is kin to this notion. Neurologists have discovered that musical memory lies in a different place in the brain and works in a different way. People who have totally lost short term memory still have musical memory. Oliver Sachs has written a lot about this issue.

When I play a Mozart flute concerto from memory, I am connected to everything which came before, but also to everything that is coming. There is a continuum which allows the musician to be connected to all of the music even though he or she is still having to plow through the present moment of life’s narrative (however long the present is).

So a line of Wallace Stevens has any number of histories, all its connections with the poem it’s in and all the other poems it lives with in that ratty old book my grandmother gave me. And if I let it fall on me like music, it connects with my own images which spring out of the future. I’m getting to burrow back and float forward at the same time.(I don’t know if it’s completely honest to say images spring out of the future, but I do know they weren’t there a moment ago. Where were they?)

Because I was thinking about “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a model, I wanted the poems to be short. I wanted to let go of them as soon as I could. Of course, they hung on as long as they wanted. Back to process. Like blowing bubbles? Some burst. Revision meant going on to another poem. First person didn’t work very well for me—I think Stevens uses it when he’s being most cerebral. This isn’t what I was after. I just wanted to let go and float away.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kerry James Evans on "Leaning in from the Sea"

I tend to remember quite a bit of what I hear. When I began writing “Leaning in from the Sea,” I started with this idea of the “heard” thing: the emotion and the physicality of an experience strained by voice. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth speaks mostly in iambic pentameter before he meets the witches. After he meets the witches, who speak in trochaic tetrameter, his speech changes, and he begins speaking in trochees and often in spondees. He loses his mind. What he hears he then speaks. His actions are then confused by his speech. Often I see this in my work: this disjointed narrative caused by what my narrator has heard. I am a young poet so it comes as no surprise that my narrator—especially in this poem—is struggling to form an identity.

The section breaks offer a shift in tone and logic. This poem is about poverty and class and race and the speaker in this poem has a difficult time understanding the words he heard as a boy. His own syntax imitates what he has heard. However, the real struggle is for him to put these pieces together and come out of the narrative with a hold on his experience. He claims responsibility in some sense I suppose, but he also looks for a way out. He in fact is leaning in from what he has heard—a protective measure—but the underbelly is much darker. His actions are influenced by what he has heard.

For me, this poem came out of a need to understand the landscape that in many ways has shaped me. As a Southern poet I am also writing from a tradition that questions the blood, the decisions and the history of a scarred agrarian society.

I just returned from a visit to Mississippi, where my mother still lives. She has adopted two foster children who are behind in school. She lives in double-wide next to a cornfield next to pine thicket next to another field. There are deer nesting in the pine thicket right now. The fields won’t be plowed for a couple of months. About two miles over, a chemical plant hums day and night. It also glows something awful.

Obviously these are images relative to the trope of this poem. Right now, in “Leaning in from the Sea,” I have yet to come to terms with this “home.” While there is beauty here, I am sure, there is no beauty in what I see, and there is nothing beautiful about this poem. Here there is an inherited blood that moves in my work. And there is a gun. There is mange on the land and there is poverty and racism and ignorance. This is where the poem comes from. As I reread this poem, I am often struck by how flat and void of music it is. I’d like to find that music in future poems. Which is to say that maybe we can broaden the discussion on this forum beyond this particular poem.

When is music necessary? Is lyricism all there is to poetry? In this poem, the narrative strangles the lyricism. These are my thoughts lately. When I wrote this poem, it was catharsis and a search for responsibility, the notion that I could end the narrative with silence. Silence must live in poetry as it must live in the poet. Often a poem wants to escape from what is heard, and in the lyric, we often find beauty and space. Here there is yelling and there is violence. I don’t know that the political can ever be comprehended in a poem, but sometimes what matters must be screamed there.