September 14, 2006

In the Soup

Last week one of the fellows made a pot of chicken soup. Not a pot--a vat. We'd had two roast chickens the night before and in they went, bones and all. The resultant broth threatened to flood the main house. When a woman makes that much soup you know her emotions are doing the cooking. If you ever find yourself bombarded with soup, pies, and brownies you might want to ask the cook what's going on. Odds are that someone's heart is about to be broken.

A draft a day, damn it. Titles: The Fish, Of Mothers, The Birches, The Field, Holiday, The Angels, My Los Alamos, The Ring, The Green Flash, Theories of Falling. There was an eleventh, but it was a poor stillborn thing...what seemed rich with rural detail turned out to be smug. But overall there are patterns and cohesions, sparks in the lines; I'm having fun. I finally used the phrase "the reveal" in a poem--that is the title my book has had for months--but immediately realized the poem was not Title Poem material. So the search for a platonic form of the book continues.

A big thing I'm trying to do is give myself permission to leave certain poems out. Not because they are lacking, but because they don't fit. They'll go in the next book, whatever that is. This is harder than it sounds--the poems that have appeared in high-profile magazines or anthologies are a kind of security blanket that I want to wrap around the manuscript, as if to prove "this is your worth your time--just look at all these other editors who said so."

Okay, back to work. Neruda calls, and I never resist a Chilean man.

September 08, 2006

Of Monarchs and Men

Now that the the sun has decided to visit for a while, we discover that monarch butterflies are drawn to the fields of golden rod by the barn. They flutter by constantly. Lest I lose credibility, we've also been tracking the appearances of bats and mice. If you leave an apple on your desk, they will come. One nice thing about such a small group is that each evening's dinner at the table settles into one coherent discussion, often about philosophical and pragmatic aspects of the arts--you know, the kind of gossip your non-artist friends *really* tire of. Our roundtable of 6 did go astray the other night on rather pedestrian topics, leaving Robert to observe that all three courses of food had been accompanied by talk of "taxes and vermin," as he good-naturedly retreated to his studio.

A few of you know that I have a side project while I'm here--a biographical entry for Pablo Neruda (and seven brief critiques of individual poems) for a forthcoming compendium of 20th C. World Poetry. Part of me regrets taking on anything that competes with my time for poetry here--I don't think it will keep me from drafting, but it does guilt trip me out of any of the "fun" prose reading I brought. (Dennis Lehane, I hardly knew ye.)

Neruda's life story is an exceedingly interesting one. He struggled for his entire life on how to define himself in terms of politics versus poetry. No, that's a lie--Neruda himself embraced BOTH definitions, politican and poet, (he also embraced a lot of wine, and three overlapping wives) and it was all around him who were left to struggle to reconcile the two. For all his bravery, Neruda's unwillingness to use his heft within the Communist Party to speak out against the persecution of Russian writers under Stalin (his great hero, later his "great mistake") may be unforgivable. But oh, the poems! I love some of the poems, and I sympathize with his disdain for critical dogma. He revised word by word, sound by sound; the antithesis, some said, of his close friend Lorca. But unlike Lorca, his long life yields a chronology of his philosophical and moral development as expressed in his body of work--his sentimental days, his polemics, his epics, his odes--a reader can literally track his values in poetry as they shift, and I find that deeply satisfying.

I may end up posting one or two drafts over the month. We'll see. So far, I have four, one for each full day here, and theoretically I'll write another tonight. They are going hand-in-hand with a strategic redesign of the first book MS; I'm not sure the book NEEDED a strategic redesign, but I have all these push pins and blank walls and hey, nothing better to do but shuffle and ponder. One slap-my-forehead moment: "The Fish"? Isn't that title already very much taken? Does this mean it has to be "The Goldfish"? Argh.

September 05, 2006

All's Fair in Love and Austerlitz

Hello from Millay. It’s taken me a few days to write, and it’ll be days and days before I write again; but I thought at least one report would be fair.

The drive to Austerlitz, New York, after 11 hours flying from Hawaii and a set of storm delays, was a bit harrowing. 8 hours that took me into the heart of New York City (navigating the upper versus lower levels of the GW bridge had NOT been part of my plan), encountering head-on a car speeding the wrong way down the Taconic State Parkway (I went from a clipping 65 mph to a slothlike 30 mph after that), and arriving on the grounds of the colony at 11 PM—which were modest, dark, and seemingly deserted. I walked around for 20 minutes and found no people, only an empty kitchen and a set of claw marks in the pavement, with a chalk identifier: “BEAR.”

Wandering down to an equally tomblike barn, I finally stumbled across a door to an open bedroom, with a piece of paper thumbtacked up that read SANDRA. I fell asleep, exhausted and a bit demoralized, in a bed I assumed was meant for me. I woke up, looked around at the neatly pined-and-linened room and beyond, out the window into a rural hill covered with goldenrod. My nose was sunburned and peeling from Hawaii, and my head ached. It was dead quiet, and thought: don’t know if I’ll stay here. Don’t know at all.

Two hours later was an immeasurable improvement. Calliope, our director, found me and shared a strong pot of coffee and a tour of the grounds. I found the odd room to go for an internet signal, the odd bend in the road to walk to for a cellphone connection. Hopping into my car, restless to see the countryside in actual daylight, I found…the Chatham County State Fair. So my first day at the Millay Colony included a tractor pull, a sheep auction, riding the Trapeze of Flying Chairs, buying a baked potato and fresh apple cider, enjoying the 4H display “How to Keep Your Amphibian Hoppy” and the music of the Squeeze Accordion Band, and winning three goldfish with the toss of a pingpong ball. At dinner I finally met my Colony-mates—five kind, funny, creative people. Wine flowed. We named the fish Edna, Norma and Kathleen, after the Millay sisters. After dinner, the true test: going back to my studio, turning up the track lights and the space heater, and trying to actually write.

And today, pinned to me door, a first draft: “The Fish.” So I’ll stay. Once the sun comes out, I'll go find that rumored Poetry Walk and get to know the woman of the house, Ms. Millay.