January 26, 2015

Seasoning the Pan

"We were just a couple of short-order cooks
who kept trying to pass themselves off as poets."
~Charles Simic

Juan Sanchez Cortan, "Still Life With Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," 1602-1603
In 2006, I attended a benefit dinner where Charles Simic was the guest of honor. Comparing notes with someone afterwards, we both noted that the man seemed preternaturally occupied by food: what could be on the menu, what was on the menu, and when the plates were going to be served. The observation might have been petty, had Simic's fixation not been so thoroughly entertaining. Of course, the symbolism of a metaphor paled in comparison to the ripe flesh of melon. Why talk about styles of line break, when one could be weighing the comparative geometries of pasta?

Little did we know, it was all part of a larger plan: 

"We started a new poetry movement that we hoped would make us famous. Every other poet was starting one forty years ago, so we thought, Why not us? Ours was to be called Gastronomic Poetry. Both Mark and I had noticed at poetry readings that whenever food was mentioned in a poem—and that didn’t happen very often—blissful smiles would break out on the faces of people in the audience. Thus, we reasoned, in a country where most people hate poetry and everyone is eating and snacking constantly, poems ought to mention food more frequently." 

If those in the poetry community weren't already missing Mark Strand, Simic's tribute to his friend, "Living Gorgeously," posted on January 24 at the New York Review of Books, would render us bereft all over again. You can read the full text here. 

Jan Davidszoon de Heem, "Still Life with Fruit and Ham," 1648-49
Simic assures us that it wasn't all prosciutto and pinot noir. "We talked about how writing a poem is no different from taking out a frying pan and concocting a dish out of the ingredients available in the house," he says. "[H]ow in poetry, as in cooking, it’s all a matter of subtle little touches that come from long experience or are the result of sudden inspiration." This is exactly right--there are things we know to do, on the page, using instincts that cannot be created through anything other than time. 

This is one of the absurdities embedded into teaching creative writing to graduate students. We can explain technical skills; we can edit or proof individual drafts; we can grant a degree; but we can't instill "long experience." We can sell you the wok, but only you can season the pan. 

I am just back from an eight-day residency at the University of Tampa. Every trip down there becomes a little more fun, as I get a little better organized. Every trip enriches my understanding of what I can do for these students. So far I attend everything that I can, which is my way of making it feel less like a job and more like a literary conference. 

Whenever possible, I bridge from the program-wide craft seminars to the close readings I lead with students in workshop. (I meet with my five students for two hours a day, eight days straight, to both talk craft and look at their drafts.) The frustration of surrendering a syllabus to the whim of other peoples' seminars is that I can't plan in advance. The gratifying thing is that I turn our attention to texts that aren't fully safe or familiar; I'm jolted from my teaching go-tos. One faculty member's discussion of vocabulary and word choice led to looking at this nimble, challenging poem by Harryette Mullen:


as horses as for
as purple as we go
as heartbeat as if
as silverware as it were
as onion as I can
as cherries as feared
as combustion as want
as dog collar as expected
as oboes as anyone
as umbrella as catch can
as penmanship as it gets
as narcosis as could be
as hit parade as all that
as icebox as far as I know
as fax machine as one can imagine
as cyclones as hoped
as dictionary as you like
as shadow as promised
as drinking fountain as well
as grassfire as myself
as mirror as is
as never as this

~Harryette Mullin, from Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002) 

A poem like this is like cumin. It doesn't have to be your favorite taste, but you should be able to parse it out with your tongue. When you let it stew, the flavor intensifies. (If you're struggling to read it, take a step back. Enjoy the title's sly play on "Wipe that smile off your face," and consider the respective connotations of "simile" and "aphasia." Try reading each line as two syntactical halves, rather than one whole.)

Other readings I shared that I had never used before included Patricia Smith's "Prologue--and Then She Owns You" from Blood Dazzler, Mary Karr's "Obscenity Prayer," "Andrew Hudgins's "Air View of an Industrial Scene," Thomas Sayers Ellis's "Atomic Bride," excerpts from Maggie Nelson's Bluets, excerpts from Tarfia Faizullah's Seam, several of Mathias Svalina's "Creation Myths," "I Can't Swim" by Heather Christle, a section from Erin Belieu's "In the Red Dress I wear to Your Funeral," and Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." 

Oh, and I came down really hard on the art of shaping a critical thesis. Because I'm a stickler for that, and I have three poets who must write a 25-page paper by the end of the term. Poet Donald Morrill gave an eloquent, distilled explanation of all that the literary essay can do; if you want inspiration to experiment, he is your man. I am the potatoes to his vodka. I wanna see your outline. 

Every residency includes three gatherings according to genre. For the Genre Workshops we riffed on the theme of Contemporary Ambition. I opened things up by working with the assigned reading from Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense, sharing his essays about "The Elliptical Poets" and "How to Read Very New Poetry." (If I'd had time, I would have passed out his sestina, "Six Kinds of Noodles.") Then it was my turn to be in the audience, listening to Steve Kistulentz explain what makes  Ultra-talk a bright, necessary part of today's poetics. In the closing session, Alan Michael Parker elegantly explained how to read  both "Thrteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," by Wallace Stevens, and Vasko Popa's "Little Box" sequence. 

Even on AMP's most fevered and flu-ish day (he actually flew home right after), I would pay good money to hear my colleague talk about poetry. I wasn't familiar with Popa's work. When I looked him up later, I was not surprised to find this appreciation from Charles Simic: "Encountering in Popa an exotic blend of avant-garde poetry and popular folklore, the foreign reader tends to think that this is what all poets from that part of the world must be like. In fact, no other Serbian poet sounds like Popa. He was both the product of his time and place and the inventor of his own world."

I'm offering notes on all of this here because I believe there is some mystery about what a "low-residency" MFA looks like, and I think it's important that we devote as much time to the mentorship of critical minds as we do to mending poems on the page. In an ideal world, immediately on the heels of being exposed to all these ideas, I would go hide away at a residency. I felt like that kid in The Far Side cartoon, "Can I be excused? My brain is full."  

One pleasure of teaching in Florida twice a year is the proximity to St. Petersburg, specifically The Dali Museum. Visit for the building alone--a phenomenal new space, all glass and concrete, with a rich backstory of the collection's assembly by Dali's devoted patrons A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse.  One of my favorite Salvador Dali paintings is a quiet still life from when he was only 22, determined to demonstrate his mastery of Old World technique in the style of Vermeer.  

Salvador Dali, "Basket of Bread," 1926
Later in life, Dali would paint bread charged with the energy of eros and thanatos. But sometimes a bread basket is just a bread basket. For a while now I have been working on poems that celebrate flavor and sustenance--a good way to turn from the focus of Count the Waves, which pays more attention to the heart than the belly. The next round will be in Gravy, the journal of the Southern Foodways Alliance, this spring.

January 06, 2015


I have certain beloved New Year traditions, all centering on sloth. 

Ideally, December 31 involves a good movie, new pajamas, and maybe the snap-pop of a single party cracker; January 1 involves a spicy Bloody Mary (horseradish is key), updating my address book as I write holiday cards to friends, and browsing the unread literary journals accumulated in the previous year. But the reality of teaching in a low-residency graduate program is that early January is your gathering time. Which means my post-holiday is now fraught with student emails and seminar prep. 

Which means: all-nighters. 

Which means: snacks. 

My personal indulgence is tinned, smoked oysters, locating me somewhere aesthetically between Walt Whitman and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not a bad place to be. 

Wasabi peas run a close second. 

The classic Triscuit / raw almond combo is a distant third.

Salmon roe stirred into rice and sprinkled with sesame seeds is good, but pricey. Anything sweet is too distracting, whether coconut sorbet or teriyaki seaweed. Folks mention popcorn as a favorite, and I can recognize the caloric motivation (volume without guilt), but there's no idea in something that leaves grease on the fingertips. I take this very seriously! There's an art to tactical snacking. 

The above illustration by Wendy MacNaughton appeared in a 2011 New York Times Book Review as "Snacks of the Great Scribblers." I was reminded of it by Leslie Pietrzyk, a fellow low-res teacher, DC-area writer, and blogger. Check out "Works-in-Progress," if you have not already--her latest post is a great discussion of strategies for revision. Leslie also edits Redux ("Work worth a second run"), an online literary journal devoted to posting things that originally appeared in print only. 

2015 holds the promise of all kinds of adventures. For now, just gotta keep working. So this is my quick, reasonably happy, utterly salty hello in the New Year. More to come.