Okay, I’ve had some setbacks in the area of publishing recently. But–another chapbook is in the works, and here is the cover reveal, a graphic throwback to the early 1980s when photocopied zines were abundant and eccentric, which suits the eccentricity of the collection.
Many thanks to the folks at Moonstone Press in Philadelphia, especially to Larry Robin, who has been the resident angel of poetry events, books, and publishing in Philadelphia for decades (and I do mean decades). I almost referred to him as a poetry maven, but he’s more of a guide and stalwart in many ways. (However, I love this definition from Vocabulary.com’s dictionary: The word maven comes from the Yiddish meyvn, meaning “one who understands.” But to be a maven you have to more than just understand a topic, you have to know its ins and outs… You don’t become a maven overnight. That kind of expertise comes with an accumulation of knowledge over the years.) At any rate, after closing Robin’s Bookstore–an indie-publishing-supportive bookstore he operated for many years–Larry started the Moonstone Poetry reading series, the Moonstone Arts Center, and has been behind many other benefits to the poetry-loving community, including virtual and in-person readings and a press that publishes anthologies and single-author collections.
More about the publication date, where to reserve copies, readings, and about the book’s theme and histories will come later. In the meantime, excitement and gratitude.
In a recent post, I mentioned that one of the challenges of writing a speaker in lyric or lyric narrative poetry is that readers assume the voice, experience, or perspective of the speaker completely aligns with that of the poet. It’s especially confusing if the writer reveals that one poem does arise from or act as memoir/lived experience when other poems by the same author–that seem like memoir–are fictions.
I admit to being among said poets: my collection Barefoot Girls contains poems based on memories of my teen years in the 1970s, yet the stories therein are invented. Sometimes a poem starts as something that “really happened” but does not work well as a poem when I stick to the truth as I recall it. Journalism is not poetry (usually). Thus, in the revision process, the so-called truth gets reimagined…in order to craft lines that are better as poetry. I know that people who don’t write poems find this fact difficult to grasp.
I keep a journal–have done so for decades–and I tend to start poems one of two ways, either from image-based phrases I jot down or from prose entries. The latter approach, from prose, may indeed have a basis in lived experience. Here, I offer a concrete example.
The draft below started as prose but may evolve into a prose poem, may evolve into free verse, or may end up as metrical or formal, blank verse or pantoum. Or it may end up in the “Dead Poems” folder of forgotten drafts. Right now it consists mostly of lived experience, though I’ve already begun to fictionalize a few moments, blur a few lines about the ride in the car (there was another passenger), what he may really have said (heck, my memory’s not that accurate) and where my thought process went. I’ve also played around with line breaks and indents to help me visualize phrasing and rhythm. This is the way I often work.
I believe models and examples of creative working methods help to clarify what artists do. Yet some of it–especially among geniuses–is inspired, mysterious, and cannot be described. I wish I felt that inspiration more often. But I do not mind doing the work of rethinking, reimagining, revising.
My Son Drives Me from West LA to Pasadena
…talking the whole way about the job he loves,
new friends, old friends, how he spends
his leisure time; where we can eat,
what he thinks about social movements and
government policies, whether it’s worth buying
patio furniture, what we should do
next time I visit
and I’m listening, honest I am, but I’m also observing—
I can’t call it a landscape, really, as the view’s
a swath of highway many lanes wide and
city blocks for untold acres dotted by walls of vivid
bougainvillea, beige buildings, tall palms under a sky
perfectly cloudless, flat.
Then, a shift of geographic formation leads into
scrub brush, spotty suburbs, highway narrowing to
a mere six lanes, and he says I’ll notice
real change once we get into the hills; the weather’s
usually predictable here, it’ll be a fine day. I’m listening,
but I’m also recalling times—many times—I sat
behind the wheel when he was far too young to drive,
watching the road through the windshield
of the family car and listened to him tell me the thoughts
that flashed through his mind like a summer field of fireflies.
Those trips I was privy to a newly-forming
perspective on the world, it was as though I listened to his
young mind crackling with ideas,
listened, and listening, with a joy I’ve never abandoned.
I’m reading Margaret Renkl’s book of brief essays, Late Migrations, which evokes in me a revival of memories not too dissimilar from hers. We are near in age, and though she writes from Tennessee and Alabama, her unsupervised childhood running barefooted through peanut fields and along creek banks at her grandparents’ house feels parallel to my unsupervised childhood running barefoot along creek banks surrounded by small towns and cornfields. I too slept on the screen porch at my great-grandmother’s house, fan running, insects humming, heat lightning brightening the humid summer nights.
Renkl writes about watching Walter Cronkite on television and seeing the Viet Nam War, vivid to us in spite of the screen’s small size and black and white images. As teenagers in the mid-1970s, Renkl and I benefited from fairly liberal sex education classes in high school. I also benefited from a brief era of integrated junior highs and high schools, however; not the case in Birmingham, Alabama. Like hers, my parents scraped by in suburbs close to the city in houses with cement stoops and no porch. Though they eventually made their way into the solid middle class, my folks attained financial stability long after I had left home.
The essays note the change in climate, both cultural and natural, that has occurred over the past six decades. Renkl observes the increasing brevity of Southern winters and wonders how the temperature will affect the migratory birds–will they wait too long to head south? Will their food sources also change, or will the migrants find less to eat to sustain them, especially on the return trip north when they need to power up their bodies for mating and nesting? How will the birds navigate an increasingly human-altered globe-scape, a world of all-night lights and glass towers, wind turbines and redirected rivers? And will native birds survive the aggression or overpopulation of invading species?
I see that last concern in my Pennsylvania back yard, where the number of European house sparrows has probably quadrupled in the past three or four years. A passionate birder friend of mine has told me, flatly, “Kill them.” That seems harsh; in Renkl’s book, she gets the same advice about squirrels in her attic! There are, however, compelling reasons to find a way to discourage these aggressive and noisy little birds (see Todd Holden’s article here). My spouse and I have not yet gotten the heart to destroy birds, though they are enlarging woodpecker holes made in our cedar siding corner-boards and then nesting in the openings. We have had no bluebirds, except the occasional one just passing through, for four or five years. A coincidence? I think not!
The memoir aspects of Late Migrations resonate with me, and so do the essays in which she reflects on what we are losing (on earth and among our Beloveds). The author decides to let the chipmunks continue to reside in tunnels under her house and to leave the squirrels in her attic in peace. I’ve come to terms with our hungry, marauding whitetail deer population, our groundhogs, and the Asian stinkbugs, among other creatures. The house sparrows, though, are as bad as the mugwort, knotweed, and wintercreeper in our perennial gardens and hedgerows. I may have to take more meticulous precautionary steps before next spring arrives.
Meanwhile, I use Cornell University’s Merlin app early in the morning and late in the evening (when the house wrens are less vocal) in an effort to determine which birds are hanging out in our little ecosystem–the birds I can’t see, or that I can’t identify by sight (like the blackpoll warbler). Two evenings ago: a bluebird.
When a poem uses a lyric approach, readers tend to assume initially that the poet is the speaker of the poem; in this respect, a reader might think of the poem as a personal revelation or–if the circumstances of the poem seem to warrant it–as a kind of memoir. People who have more experience with reading poetry (or who have been assigned to write a literary criticism of the work) may change their assumptions once they read more closely. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy poetry. It challenges my assumptions, surprises me, informs me of new facts and perspectives.
Prose memoirs, most of us assume, are less metaphorical and more “truthful,” at least from the writer’s perspective. Though there’s room for the unreliable narrator in memoirs, readers tend to feel betrayed if they determine the memoir writer hasn’t been honest with them (then we end up with controversies like James Frey’s). I find the blurring of genres rather fascinating, but generally, the folks I know who read memoirs want a mostly-unvarnished truth.
What about taking the memoir in a different direction: instead of blending or blurring toward fiction, into poetry? There are poetic memoirs in print, but they tend to be writers’ experiences expressed in poetry they’ve written themselves. Lesley Wheeler has opted for something different in her book Poetry’s Possible Worlds. Here, she uses the idea of “literary transportation” as a reader of poems, demonstrating how close reading can evolve into a form of reflection on, well, everything. She chooses 12 poems to examine, works that were not only resonant for her but that drew her into some understanding of why and how poetry manages to infect our gut feelings, exert its magic on the reader’s mind. She makes an interesting decision, too, in presenting 12 contemporary poems and avoiding the classic canonical works, a choice that focuses the reader on the newness of the text rather than on its famous backgrounding. It’s fascinating to me how this approach shook up my expectations. In this way, too, she does the readers and the poets whose work she’s curated a great favor: we get introduced to one another through a sensitive, penetrating interlocutor: Lesley Wheeler.
But the book does more than critique 12 poems; if anything, that’s the least part of Wheeler’s purpose. The book “qualifies” as memoir, in its genre-mixing way, because Wheeler explores her response to the poems through the lens of a difficult few years in her own life–here’s the memoir part. But instead of a prose memoir in chapters, each section acts as an independent essay centered around the poem she is reading and, as she revels in and puzzles through each poem, we learn about the challenges in her life. In this book, those challenges come largely from her unreliable, difficult father, whose betrayal(s) of the family snowball into messy misfortune. For Wheeler, poetry offered–still offers–transportation through the grief and anger and ways to navigate the gaps that all lives contain. I couldn’t agree more, and this book reminds me once again of poetry’s necessity.
When I was about 12 years old, I found John Christopher’s YA Tripods books in the library. In this series, the humans on Earth have reverted to an agricultural, village-based society dominated by aliens who stalk the planet as giant “tripods,” three-legged metal vehicles in which the domineering hierarchy scans the population to make certain there are no outliers plotting to overthrow them. The aliens use technology to place a “cap” hard-wired into people’s heads when they are 12 or 13, and there’s a ritual ceremony surrounding it. The cap keeps humans docile and obedient to the overlords and contains a tracking technology so the aliens can locate where people are going, making sure there are no gatherings that might lead to revolution.
I found this idea terrifying. Somebody is in my brain, tracking my movement, forming my opinions, making my decisions, removing my imagination. It seemed like the worst thing that could happen to a 12-year-old.
I loved the books but had nightmares for years. And now, as one often feels when reading an older apocalyptic-fiction or sci-fi tale, I recognize a prescience in Christopher’s ideas. Instead of aliens implanting tech into our brains, we humans have found ways to implant ideas and sway the populace through entertainment and communication device use without wiring up the gray matter. Clearly, people can influence other people, “change their minds,” without actually entering the brain itself…though earbuds get awfully close to that vital organ. The cell phone/smartphone/tablet/watch (Google glasses, anyone?) seems a voluntary purchase to its users, but I’m old enough and observant enough to recognize a societal game-changer when I see one, and this has been coming for decades. The smart phone with its millions of possible apps has also become more necessary over the years, less of an entertainment purchase and more of a social need. I found this out when traveling by plane last week. I also discovered how pathetic my app-IQ is and that I barely know how to use my phone for anything but pictures, calls, and text messages. And yet it can follow me around, track my interests and movements, show me consumer items to tempt me to part with my money. Yo! Get outta my head!
Sometimes I do resent the way things have changed. Change, though, keeps us going. How can you have life without change? What is experience but change? I don’t see a need to waste my energy grousing about it, even if I have trouble embracing all of the changes I see or using the new tools. I still possess the “old” tools: I know how to cook from scratch, garden, build a fire, type on a keyboard, write in script, change a tire, wrap a sprain, navigate using a map, use a paper dictionary, read a book, preserve fruits and vegetables, bake bread. I can sleep without a sleep app, meditate without a meditation app, make a meal without a recipe app…I think independently. That hasn’t changed much since I was 12.
Here’s my curmudgeonly moment: We are not hard-wired into our technology, yet. It would be useful if we remembered that, however, while technology still has an off switch.
[I’ll be back to blogging about poetry matters soon…next post. Whenever that may be!]
The bristletails (order thysanura) are a group of wingless insects that includes Lepisma saccharina, the silverfish–one of the most common “bookworms,” although they are not worms! They nestle between pages, covers, and bindings of books, though books are certainly not all they eat. I must confess they are not among my favorite arthropods. Nonetheless, I class myself as a bookworm, though I’m far less voracious than some folks I know.
Therefore, I ought to note that my office on campus has been moved to my favorite place: the library! As I noted in some long-ago posts, libraries have been among my comfortable places ever since I was almost too young to read, and my maternal grandmother volunteered at her local library (notably as “The Story Lady.”) I still recall the jingle–from the 1960s–that accompanied a PSA for the library I loved as a 5-to-7-year-old.
Anyway, it has longed seemed logical that the campus writing center be located where research takes place; we just had to find room. The library staff generously donated one quite spacious office room for the college writing center, and I couldn’t be more pleased!
My colleagues in academic support–my university department–are still housed in the basement of the main classroom building. I miss them, and they envy the fact that I now have a window (and that it’s not freezing up here). But while I would never knock the value of a window after 15 years under the frost line, I’m happiest about having my work office located in my favorite building on campus: the library. Books make me comfortable. When I need a break from my computer screen or from meetings, I can take a deep breath and walk around the stacks in silence. It’s perfectly acceptable to be rather introverted in a library. And the people who surround me are as enthusiastic about books as I am.
I plan to take a short breather from blogging and work-related stuff to visit a far-away Best Beloved and am already plotting which paperbacks to pack for the tedious flights. I hope to avoid silverfish and viral stowaways. Wish me luck.
Words fail. And I work in a classroom setting, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and my children’s friends and colleagues (now in their 30s and willing to be teachers–bless them!). These events are not things we can ignore by staying in our own little bubbles of “it can’t happen here.”
Words have failed so profoundly that I’m out in the garden instead, or indoors cleaning my bathrooms or reading books. Books–always my solace when my own words fail.
My latest good read is David Crystal‘s 2004 The Stories of English, already out of date in its last chapter–a fact I’m sure he gleefully acknowledges. I adore his love of how language evolves and find his non-prescriptivist approach refreshing and necessary if we are to keep literacy and communication alive. This book gave me so much information, enriched the knowledge I already have about our language, and made me laugh, too. Granted, it is word-geek humor…but that’s how I roll.
And I needed a few laughs this past week or so. My heart aches; I am sore afflicted for more reasons than I care to explain at present, though the headline news certainly has much to do with my mood. Crystal’s book got me thinking about the course I teach (come fall) and how I’ve already toned down the prescriptiveness in order to convince my students they can write and can be successful with written communication; that they are not “wrong,” just that their audience for written work differs, in college, from high school and from text messaging and other forms of writing. Crystal says we who teach English need to get over the concern about split infinitives and pronoun antecedent agreement and focus on clarity and genuine expression. I have no argument with him there–but many people I know would quibble and complain. And the English lexicon offers us so many options for how to say we disagree!
A book about words–but no, a book about human communication through the mediation of words, spoken and written, and how we got to the forms (plural!) of English we now use to express ourselves. There’s a kind of splendid optimism in Crystal’s thinking about language that somehow made me feel a little less low in spirit. Ah, yes. The solace of books.
Many years back–let’s say decades–my friend David Dunn and I briefly became small press chapbook publishers. It was not an easy task at the time, and expensive; but I worked at a type shop and could get the type set for free and a discount on the printing. We dubbed our concern LiMbo bar&grill Books. It was decidedly a labor of love, but we published four chapbooks and two broadsides before packing it in. The name emerged from David’s postcards and letters to me, in which he’d sometimes begin “Greetings from the Limbo Bar & Grill.” We were poets in our early 20s, underemployed during a recession, without any network to universities or well-connected writers. It felt like limbo.
Forty years later, dear David is dead; I have had modest success as a published poet since then–not enough to move me past avocation status–and the entire globe spins in limbo as pandemic, climate crisis, war, and oligarchies combine to keep things as interesting and unsteady as ever they were. It feels like limbo.
Feels like limbo on the publication side, too. Because my poetry collection that was supposed to be in print by 2020 seems to be indefinitely on hold. Covid interfered, the contract never arrived, and I’m beginning to wonder whether my emails are ending up in the publisher’s SPAM filter. It’s not surprising that a small independent press–in most cases underfunded and understaffed–might lose track of, say, a manuscript or two during the hassles of the pandemic protocols and all that has wrought.
Or perhaps the press has decided not to publish my book after all. The oft-rejected writer who lives inside my head supposes that could be the case and mourns, assuming the worst.
Now, I’m in a quandary. I wonder whether to resubmit the manuscript elsewhere. Is that okay to do, since there hasn’t been a written contract? Clearly the book is publishable, since it was accepted in the first place. I have a much newer manuscript I’ve been re-compiling and re-ordering (and revising). Do I focus on that, instead? I don’t quite know how to proceed. Yep: limbo all over again.
When I was in elementary school, my teachers described me as “shy.” A few of them commented that I was “creative” and “smart.” It’s strange how these adjectives for character traits came to shape how I perceived and pegged myself, and I suppose I’m not alone in this. I considered creativity to be something positive and smartness a little daunting, but I felt ambivalence around the term shy. In the 1960s, shyness could be an admired trait among girls because it meant we were not disruptive. But I didn’t think that was all so wonderful, when the children I admired were often loud and funny. While teachers might have appreciated shyness in a pupil, children tended to think me nerdy or, worse, standoffish and snobby. Shy was not much of a compliment.
shy (adj.) late Old English sceoh “timid, easily startled, shrinking from contact with others,” from Proto-Germanic *skeukh(w)az “afraid” (source also of Middle Low German schüwe, Dutch schuw, German scheu “shy;” Old High German sciuhen, German scheuchen “to scare away”).
Hence the metaphor of the shrinking violet, the wallflower. I was fond of plants, but I did not necessarily want to be one. The introverted, reflective young person is seldom socially popular in the USA, and my budding self-confidence took a hit in the public school environment. Was I really timid and easily frightened–or was I just dreamy, bookish, unconventionally funny, skinny, tall, bespectacled, and not particularly socially adept?
One trait I developed as a shy child was a capacity to listen to others. I wanted to hear their stories, their points of view, their silly songs, their big ideas. What I regret is that later on, when I gained some self-confidence and began telling my own tales or dispersing acquired knowledge and advice, I lost some of my listening ability. It took hard work and practice on my part to feel secure when speaking to groups, and I started with the hardest practice: reading my own poetry aloud to other people. Eventually the shyness wore off, for the most part.
Then I had to get the listening back. Raising children was a tough balance between saying and listening. I fault myself for not listening quite enough. As an instructor, I found it difficult to listen to a group of students: too much cacophony, too many distractions, hard to gauge where the conversation was headed. I’ve always felt more comfortable with one-to-one tutoring, which makes listening so much easier. As this semester has wrapped, I find I am already dwelling on the fall. What did covid-protocol instruction teach me? Mostly that the listening is even more important than I thought. The students still feel freaked out; overwhelmed by, more than excited about, their futures. I can’t blame them and want to make room for their stories…not to shy away from them, especially if any of them are feeling “timid, easily startled, shrinking from contact with others.”
In his recent book Singer Come from Afar, Kim Stafford suggests the difference between great poems and important poems has something to to with the occasion of their relevance. He says important poems “are utterances written as a local act of friendship or devotion, and given to a person, shared at an occasion, or performed in support of a cause.” Such a poem may later be considered a great poem, though more often would be relegated to the status of “an expendable artifact of the moment.” Framing poems as expendable artifacts does seem accurate in many regards. A page, that can be burned or shredded; an oral performance, uttered into time and lost thereafter; a digital event, that can be corrupted or invisibly archived in the “cloud”–those fragments and unfinished pieces we let languish and eventually discard. Perhaps important to us once, these poems are ephemera.
Stafford’s recent collection celebrates the local and the relevant, even the immediate, at the risk of not being lasting, whatever that may mean. Published in 2021, the book includes a selection of pandemic-related poems, many of which appeared on his Instagram feed @kimstaffordpoetry. Few of these poems are “great” in the literary sense, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean they are not worthy of publication; this reader appreciates the urgency in the pandemic poems, the need to connect with others sharing the predicament of “social distancing.” We should not ignore the value of local, person-centered poems, narratives of the everyday. Not every human interaction requires epics, and really–the majority of contemporary poems address the small important events and metaphors that sometimes resonate with larger aims. My own work tends that way, so I’m not one to talk about greatness.
Besides, there are a couple of poems in Stafford’s book that will hold up well to literary explication, poems I have already enjoyed re-reading, such as “Chores of Inspiration” and “Do You Need Anything from the Mountain” with its lines “Bring me that skein of fire/that hangs in intimate eternity, after//the dark but before the thunder, when/the bounty of yearning in one cloud/reaches for another…”
I guess each of us has the capacity to evaluate what it is we consider important and what we consider great. I happen to like the bounty of yearning in Kim Stafford’s clouds.