September 19, 2018

Still Digging After All These Years


On Friday (September 14), I was gathered with a whole lot of DC-area folks at the downtown arena to hear Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" farewell tour. He was great. The opening reworking of "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" had a haphazard rhythm that had me a little worried, but it turned out to just be a huge spread of musicians--including a self-contained chamber group, yMusic--getting used to the stage and to each other. Their collaboration on a reworking of "Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War," which is on the new In the Blue Light album, was a highlight, as was all the Graceland material. Simon's vocals were by turns jaunty and weightless. We were on the floor, and it took real effort to train my eyes on the actual person versus the projected scene (compare the concert pic tableau on the left, above, to the detail of the actual Paul Simon below). 


In high school, I listened to "American Tune" over and over again--hitting the rewind button on my Walkman--but I never expected to hear Paul Simon sing it live. When he began, "Many's the time I've been mistaken, / and many times confused..." we had already been on our feet for the encore, and with eyes closed I didn't realize everyone around us had sat down. My husband had to tug on the back of my shirt. I'd be tempted to use a line from that song as an epigraph--for this very poetry collection in hand--but Stephen King got there first; he quotes "American Tune" at a section break in The Stand. 

All of which is to say that a month has passed since the last post. I'm weaning myself off daily listenings to the Hamilton soundtrack (which we saw on August 9; this was a good summer for tickets). I've left VCCA to return to our sweet little two-bedroom and the kitty, who is scowling at me lovingly as I type this. Whisky has discovered the glories of shredded chicken, and now expects to be fed a packet of it each morning and evening, which is going turn into an expensive habit. But given that only a couple of years ago I was agonizing over the very real possibility that she'd starve to death, I'll take it. 

Looming, humid skies and Flo-influenced rain have mostly kept the lid on any dramatic transition to autumn. But I'm working with U of Tampa MFA students on their thesis projects, and I've introduced American University undergrads to the first two of the six authors they'll get to meet this fall. Tonight we'll talk about Fatimah Ashgar's work in tandem with her visit to AU. So I suppose it's officially back-to-school time. I bought new pens (Pilot G2, .38 "fine" point). I changed out umbrellas. 


I'll miss out on going back to high school, though; my 20-year reunion for TJHSST is in October, but I'll be down in Oxford, Mississippi to launch Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. That's a fair trade--the symposium is chock-full of amazing programming, and I'm so excited for this book to come into the world--but I'm sorry to miss seeing folks. Two decades out is when you kind of forget whatever boundary lines existed before. You're just happy to see anyone and everyone in their current incarnations. 

Early this morning, I was thinking about how the utility of blogging has changed a little bit since we first began this process. If I want to tell you about my upcoming reading with Emily Jungmin Yoon and Lindsay Bernal (this Saturday! East City Book Shop, 9/22, 5 PM) or share my excitement about receiving a 2018 "Best of the Net" nomination from Split This Rock for "Customer Service Is," I'll probably use other forms of social media to do so. If I want to blunder my way through a draft of a poem or essay, I'll keep it offline to preserve the publishing options. So this space becomes a space for...what, exactly? But this blog can host thoughts that fill larger spaces than 200-odd characters or a link + hashtag, for sure. Maybe open-ended grist for discussion, like Iggy Pop (circa 1980) telling Tom Snyder about the difference between "Dionysian" and "Apollonian" art. I got to this snippet via thinking about Paul Simon--who a commenter argued was of the "Apollonian" school. I suspect I am too, though I'd like to think I'm capable of raising a little hell on stage now and again. 





August 19, 2018

Back to VCCA


I'm happy to hide out at Virginia Center for Creative Arts in these waning days of summer. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was how green it smells--I love DC, but you don't get layers of flower, grass, and pine, nor so many butterflies. A frog that lurks outside my studio. There's a magnificent spider that I'm pretty sure is a brown widow, not a black one. I'm staying clear just in case. 


Because this is my fourth time here, it's easier to slip into a rhythm: I enjoy being social at breakfast or at lunch but not both. I knew to bring my own orange juice, my own blanket, and a bottle of scotch. I'm trying to spend only an hour a day on email, isolated to the leather couch in the living room. I've got a stack of books and lit mags to devour, and W8 has a comfy reclining chair. I'm happy to see a number of friends listed as past occupants. 






The first night I arrived (9 PM, after stopping off for dinner in Charlottesville), everything was absolutely dead quiet. I worried I'd be the only night-owl. Turned out everyone was just over at the Amherst County Fair, the first time they've had one here in over forty years. The next night, we adventured to the lake on Sweet Briar's campus to see a fellow's installation art (a prototype); another fellow read a story he'd written while here, and a third opened up her studio for an impromptu look at her paintings. 








This, I thought. I've missed this. Although I've traveled quite a bit for poetry since I was last at VCCA, there's nothing like being here. Then, last night, I headed over to the fair. 







I wish I could say this time is all about recharging creative energy. I have over 1,500 pages to evaluate (literally) of work not mine, some of which requires line edits. Yet this is also my chance to push-pin the pages of the fourth collection to the walls, and live amongst them. There's a distinct type of edit that gets done when I look at pages casually, skipping around, and compare adjacent shapes of poems. I catch redundancies of phrase I did not see before. 







I'm still deciding three sections or four, and which poem will close the manuscript. But my resolve holds: this book is a book. I'm excited to tell you more about it soon. 


August 06, 2018

Writing



I wrote a book this past week. Okay, to be precise, I finished it--what felt like a somewhat Herculean act of confronting every "TK" page in the collection (is it weird that I can sense, rhythmically, where poems will need to land? perhaps that is another discussion). I put the rest of my life on hold. I edited a handful. I rescued a poem from the abandoned archives via some drastic edits, wrote a prose-poem based on a field trip into the city, wrote a long one after a day's worth of immersive research, then wrote another short one, a kind of early-morning grace note. 

This doesn't mean that much, in the overall scheme of things. Now I second-guess myself. Now I send to a few trusted readers to second-guess for me. Three sections, fifteen poems per section, 68 pages total; all of this is negotiable, of course, though it's comforting to find measures equal to Count the Waves and I Was the Jukebox, my previous two collections. I'll want to place a few more poems in journals, and I'll need to draft a precis--a 1-2 paragraph introduction that distill's the book's thematic focus and makes a case for why people might want to read it. 

At the end of the month, I'm fortunate enough to head to Virginia Center for Creative Arts, push-pin pages to the walls, and live within the book's geometries. The time will feel stolen--departing the morning after my workshop for The Writer's Center ends, returning to DC the day before my American University class begins, and with University of Tampa work on my desk while I'm down there. But I'm going to make the best of things: hacking away on the page, reading voraciously, sleeping at odd hours, talking with other artists in the muck, wolfing down food without having to worry about the dishes (!), poeting. All that before I even think of sending to my editor in September. Who, in all honesty, might reject it. 

This book's arcs are particularly interesting to me. I knew I'd be engaging history in the American sense, but I hadn't anticipated the significant passages of personal time within the text. I wrote my own poems about Southern food traditions, not knowing I would get to edit Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. I have poems that celebrate being constantly on the road, but I also have poems that embrace hunkering down in Washington, D.C. I wrote poems that reference a grandmother in her life, then in elegy. I've included two golden shovels--both of substantial length, because I use the entirety of a Gwendolyn Brooks text--substantially different in tone, because I've witnessed a conversation evolving around what a "golden shovel" is defined as, and how it is used. 

Am I writing poems with the political awareness I had in 2015? 2016? 2017? No. That awareness is always changing. So I think about an interlinear conversation between neighboring poems, between past and present. Usually I prioritize magazine placement, and I found a wonderful, generous showcase in Waxwing (with a few others queued up), but a third of these pages haven't been published and it might stay that way; they need context.  They make me nervous. They should.

Still: I wrote a book. If there's poets out there who get deals in advance--with the comfort of meeting the deadline as a makeshift victory--I don't know them. My bank account was at $5.27 earlier this week, after rent and health insurance and groceries, and poetry probably won't change that. We venture forward based only on our inner drive, our treasured absurdity. I wrote the book I needed to write. 

July 27, 2018

"I just really all the time want to be rearranged" ~ Allison Titus

Last Wednesday, after teaching my TWC workshop at the Hill Center--a wonderful group of eleven students, sacrificing a bit of their summer for six sessions of poetry--I looked at the round-up of links I had for a blog post, and thought, "I'll just write this in the morning." Except in the morning, I found out my grandmother had died. 

Many people in the literary world has had a strange past week, where the waves of news have included the seeming implosion of an independent press, the exposure of a fraudulent agent, the revelation of a serial manipulator in our midst, and the publication of an offensively lousy poem in a prominent forum. Then we discovered water seeping through the floor of our living room. The universe, it seems, is trying every which way to keep me from taking pleasure in poetry. 

But I'm going to stay my course, in part because I'm so determined to finish my manuscript by the end of the summer. Even on the days otherwise unproductive I've tried for a bit of revising, tinkering, fussing with order. For the first time in my adult life, I've invested in plants, pots, and dirt--and belief that I can cultivate and sustain with my time, that I can grow things. And I'm thinking a lot about what makes a poem a worthwhile endeavor, why we do what we do. 


Allison Titus is a writer I've been following and appreciating for a while now, and in a recent interview with Bennington Review she says this:


When I get excited about a poem, it’s always the same way, that I respond most to poets/poems that arrest me and startle me back to attention (to the world, to life, to living) all over again, in some strange or intense manner: I’m always mostly desperate to be staggered/astonished/undone (by the world and thus by language). I just really all the time want to be rearranged; Robert Creeley is really good at doing this to me (“I heard words / and words full / of holes / aching.  Speech / is a mouth.”). When I’m working on my own poems, I like most to be surprised by something that develops/materializes in the way that feels as “true” as it feels wild, crucial, off-kilter.

This captures something really right to me, something essential. One of the things I've emphasized recently, in teaching and editing as well as my own work, is the importance of making space for the wild unknown. We often use the rhetoric of a poem's "landscape," but in this context the cartography is both science and art--we need to admit and honor elements that surprise us, that don't fit on first glance. This feels especially important as I work on a fourth collection, and gently resist my natural inclination to plot and plan as a way of easing anxiety over how little control I have over where and how this book lands. 

Our Writer's Center workshop is called "The Poem Comes Alive," which is an excellent excuse to emphasize what Titus refers to as "poems that arrest me and startle [us] back to attention." With that in mind I gave the students "Homecoming Cistern Alien Vessel," by Gabrielle Calvocoressi. To start, we considered the mainstream tropes associated with "alien" exchanges, whether entreaty to a new world or return to a "home"; this turned out to be something folks in the room were quite thoughtful about, thanks in part to the manifestation of these themes in cinema. 

`Much of what Calvocoressi does is employ the power of simple dislocations of language, such as in the description: "No more // need to make the shape of a machete / with my mouth. Pushing up up up the tired / sides that want to drop below my teeth."...which on one hand engages a familiar idea of forcing a smile, but on the other hand is so much more estranged. Or a few stanzas later, there's a quick twist from the threat of overt sentimentality to something more wry and cynical, via the enjambed sentence "And my arms open and my life / coming in and out of the “ATM."" Life, it seems, is an expensive commodity. 

All of this is ramps up to core concerns: the limitations of body as vessel; the peril of a self-congratulatory identity that wants to be liberal and generous, yet is inextricable to mechanisms of consumption and oppression; the question of how to love or welcome the self, once that admission is made: "My pink skin / a sail full of indignation. My eyes pitching // across the feed. It is so good to be home / and yet. I have a ship inside. How can / the organ welcome me? I’m not a sow // on her worst day. Which would be what? / Breaking from the barn? Eating all the acorns / and rolling in the mud? No. // Her worst would be at my hands / and on my plate for supper."

Lordy, an electric poem. If the reader juxtaposes it with another recent one, "Mayflower Cistern I Feel My Pilgrim Worry," a sense emerges of a poet wrestling with inheritance and privilege. These are not novel themes, but Calvocoressi approaches with a wonderment of language and image that is really remarkable. 

***An aside: If you're looking for an online class and you read this before August 6, I'd urge you to sign up for Calvocoressi's  "Fantastic Worlds In The Realest Poems: How Fantasy Fiction Might Help Our Hardest Realities Bloom" (the class runs 8/6 though 8/31). I've never regretted sending a student in the direction of 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown's virtual learning space. 

***Another aside: Allison Titus has a new, letter-press chapbook with the folks at Barrelhouse called Sob Story: The History of Crying, and though I haven't ordered my copy yet, I'm betting money ($10, to be exact) that it's worth your time. 

Other poems I've read or re-read this past week, ones that "rearranged" me and come to life on the page: