December 27, 2006

For Dad's Stocking: Lump of Coal Stout

Usually, the day after Christmas involved staying in my pajamas, reading, writing cards, and seeing some Big Holiday Movie with my family.

But this year, damn it, the holiday fell on a by Tuesday my family was in Minnesota, I was back at work, and I finished the day by eating corn chips out of a bag and watching the original Rocky on cable.

O Santa, thou hast forsaken me!


Last week I workshopped with a friend who has an amazing poem set at a monster truck rally (don't you wish you'd thought of that?). The poem is packed with visual detail and narrative stunts--so much that it is still a little unwieldy, even after 30 or so (!) revisions. Her struggle of drafting and redrafting has me thinking about the challenges of longer poems, especially ones that take us into a "foreign" setting.

My way of circumventing this challenge has been to, well, wimp out: I write shorter poems, often invoking recognizable formulas of domestic and romantic life in order to cut down on exposition.

But I admire the Dantes of the world, the poets determined to take us to an unknown depth. The big question may be, once we get there, how far the poet should lead us out again. In a lot of contemporary epic poems, the poet acclimates us to a new world, takes us to a moment of immersion/epiphany...and then feels compelled to walk us back up the path using analysis, a rhetorical guiderope. As a reader, I resist that. Leave me at the precipice: let me find my own way to the safety of the known.


A few of you know that I was a finalist for the Tupelo Open Reading process. I wasn't one of those chosen--and the four selected all had more prestigious publication records, so that wasn't a huge disappointment. I was sorry that my letter from the editors had no constructive feedback, though, since the intent of the original $35 reading fee was to obtain not only consideration but advice. The compliment that my MS is "ready" for publication is nice--but it doesn't move me any closer to actual publication. It's been a strange month for feedback: I was thrilled to hear my MS was one of 25 finalists for Carnegie Mellon, but I found out unsigned form letter. I had to reread it five times in order to believe my eyes.

Back to the salt mines of stuffing envelopes...

December 20, 2006

Everybody Knows, Everybody Cares

Just back from a long road trip to Kingsport, Tennessee, where I went to the wedding of a friend in college. Lovely and exhausting. One advantage to writing poems about sex, drinking, and family tension: no one ever asks you to write a poem for their wedding.

Thanks, Jessica, for tagging me—-and sorry for the delay!

The first poem I remember reading first collection of poetry was an anthology called Piping Down the Valleys Wild, edited by Nancy Larrick. God bless the Scholastic Book Fair; the $10 bill my mother gave me seemed like a fortune. I loved poems by Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, and one by Karla Kuskin that declared “I’m a lean dog, a mean dog, / a wild dog, and lone…”

I was forced to memorize numerous poems in school and...I voluntarily learned Emily Dickinson’s “[My life closed twice before its close]” while wandering up and down my grandparents’ house. I was a moody little third grader.

I was never forced to memorize poems for school. I kind of regret that, because it develops a skill that is lost otherwise. When I was translating the poems of Miklos Radnoti, I worked with a Hungarian woman who noted that in her childhood, they recited Radnoti’s poems every morning the same way that American kids recite the pledge of allegiance.

Oh, I also learned Dorothy Parker’s “If [I don’t drive around the park]” in college. I was a moody little third-year at UVA.

I read poetry because...This is a cheesy thing to admit, but rereading a poetry collection I love is like a conversation with an old friend. Literally: I’ll talk aloud to the poet when turning to certain pages. I also read poetry for selfish gain, because reading makes me want to write.

A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem...”When you are old [and grey and full of sleep…]” by W.B. Yeats. There’s a tonality in that one that just sticks with me. But I find it odd that no one ever notes that this is Yeats responding to a French poem by Ronsard (from Sonnets for Helen), and not a fully original work. Great poets openly steal. I envy them.

I write poetry, but...I worry at the end of every poem that it will be the last one. The happier I am in whatever romance holds me at the time, the more I worry.

My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature...I never regret having spent time with a book of poetry—even if it turns out I don’t care for the style. Weak fiction, on the other hand, is like a bad date with a guy who still makes you pay for dinner at the end of the night. I will reread poetry, but never prose.

I find The New Yorker to be dry as hell. I only know this because my boss keeps showing me poems from each issue and asking “what do you think?” It bothers me deeply that there is a substantial portion of smart, accomplished intellectuals (the same ones who give a lot of money to the arts, ahem) who judge trends in contemporary poetry entirely based on The New Yorker.

The last time I heard poetry...Carolyn Forche at the Folger last week, and it knocked my socks off.

I think poetry is like…a spoonful of peanut butter chased with a mouthful of scotch. The association may be based purely on the fact that both typically occur for me after midnight.

I tag Deborah, Paul, Steve, Carly and Angela.

December 13, 2006

Tiptoeing Toward the Mistletoe

First, a little bit of inspiring news--one of DC's own, J.D. Smith, just won a NEA Fellowship for Poetry. Find out more about his work here. Congratulations John!

While I'm playing cheerleader, a heads-up for NY folks on what will be a great reading: BROOKLYN READING WORKS presents AN EVENING WITH 32 POEMS with Deborah Ager and poets Daniel Nester and Terese Coe at the Old Stone House on Thursday December 14th at 8 p.m . Fifth Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets..."Refreshments. Books and Magazines for Sale. A raffle. Fun."

Ethelbert Miller was kind enough to host me on his Sunday E-Notes, so for an extension of my Milosz rambling look here (scroll down a bit).

I came to the blog today to rave about Carolyn Forche's reading at the Folger on Monday, which was for the annual Emily Dickinson tribute. But I find myself long on awe, short on words. So I will just quote from The Blue Hour, part of a 42 PAGE-long poetic sequence alphabetized by line...

"half-tracks and yellow-eyed transports, and behind them a long road
happens when you say yes
happiness without fulfillment

having made herself stands she was at rest
hayloft, hillock, hoarfrost, hush"

...and note, in another poem, I'd never heard a more nuanced placement of the word "scapula." The little things are what stick with me.

December 04, 2006

Who could resist those eyebrows?

...what follows after the poem is an excerpt from one of my four essays on the outstanding poet Czeslaw Milosz, forthcoming in the Companion to Twentieth Century World Poetry (ed. R. Victoria Arana, Facts on File). I could faint from happiness simply to have them done...

On his poem, "Dedication":


You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is the valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city,
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Czeslaw Milosz

“You whom I could not save,” Czeslaw MIŁOSZ implores, “Listen to me” (ll. 1-2). In classical tradition, a “dedication” is a formal act, a delineation of space in response of loss. The poet offers up Warsaw to the memory of the dead: “Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers … the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave” (ll. 10,12). ...But the speaker is not pure in his “dedication,” either to the dead or poetic principle. Miłosz subtly complicates the poem by resisting the siren’s call to self-sacrificing devotion, which is the secondary meaning of “dedication.” The speaker is haunted not by the ghosts of idealized ancestors, but instead by peers whom he knew in all their human compromises. He cannot help but remark “What strengthened me, for you was lethal” (ln. 6). The elegant closing gesture is one of appeasement, not of martyrdom: “They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds / To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds. / I put this book here for you, who once lived / So that you should visit us no more” (ll. 22-25). The poet knows that holocaust has, paradoxically, given life to these poems, and he feels the burden of having survived. He can only pray that the hungry dead will be content to consume the art—and not the artist.