When does bereavement permit the writer to get back to the writing process? I have had quite a few conversations about this topic in the past few decades, and the answer’s pretty obviously “It depends.” I think of Donald Hall writing during Jane Kenyon’s illness and death and afterward–the stunning poems of Without. When my friend David Dunn died, I wrote immediately and often, sorrow emerging through elegies and remembrance. But I was younger then, and less experienced in the arena of bereavement.
During my mother-in-law’s two-year decline toward dying, I found myself writing about the challenges we faced–physical, emotional, communicational (that’s not a word, but I’m leaving it here all the same). Afterward, I could not/did not write. What interferes?
Why my thoughts turn this way: because, lately, my dad keeps turning up in my poem drafts.
I did not write much last year and did not submit any work.* For some reason, though I blogged and wrote long emails to friends and read many inspiring books, I did not feel particularly creative. But I wouldn’t have associated that semi-arid year with my father’s death; I figured my creative void was more about covid and an increase in chronic fatigue symptoms.
To jump start myself this year, I signed up for an online workshop (see this post). It has helped–I’ve drafted more poems in five weeks than I wrote in five months last year. But there’s been a peculiar outcome to these poems: despite widely differing prompts, source poems, and initial processes, my dad or something I connect with him appears in almost a third of the new drafts. I wonder what my subconscious is doing behind my day to day routine. Is this a response to bereavement, or a sign that I’ve accepted his death, or a reminder to self of what a huge loss it has been to me?
Not that I have a definitive answer to any of those questions. I do feel grateful for his appearance, though. He had a good sense of humor and loved to sing–nice things to have in a poem.
*Well, almost no work. Thanks to Marilyn Hazelton, editor of red lights tanka journal, I did submit tanka poems in 2021; and she accepted a few for this season’s edition (print only).
Despite pandemic restrictions, or perhaps because of them, I have been blessed with poetry the past few weeks. I have attended workshops and readings remotely/virtually, and I’ve participated in a few of those as well as giving one in-real-life poetry reading. I signed up to get the Dodge Poetry Festival’s poetry packet & prompts, and those appear daily in my email. Best of all, poems have been showing up in my mind–I started quite a few drafts in April.
Up to my ears in potential manuscripts (I have at least two books I am trying to organize), I’m also waiting rather anxiously to see whether my collection The Red Queen Hypothesis will indeed be published this year as planned. The virus and resulting lockdowns have interfered with so much. The publication of another of my books matters to me, but it remains a small thing in a global perspective, so I try to be patient.
Meanwhile, I thank poet Carol Dorf of Berkeley CA, who has been kind enough to read through one of my manuscripts and offer suggestions. It’s such a necessary step, getting a reader. I recently enjoyed this essay by Alan Shapiro in TriQuarterly, in which the author reflects on his many years of poetry-exchanges (he calls it dialogues) with C.K. Williams. His words reminded me of my friend-in-poetry David Dunn, who was, for close to 20 years, my poetry sounding board, epistolary critic, and nonjudgmental pal who often recognized what I was going for in a poem better than I did. Shapiro says he feels Williams looking over his shoulder as he writes, even after Williams’ death (in 2015). In a section of the essay Shapiro has an imagined (possibly?) conversation with a post-death Williams, conjuring the remarks his friend might have made in life, or after. I have had such dialogues with David, but not recently. It may be time to try again. Or, as Williams told Shapiro before he died, “Find a younger reader.”
As if that were easy.
Anyway, I continue to learn new things, even things I did not feel particularly curious about, such as Zoom teaching [blech!] and Zoom poetry readings and remote workshops and online discourse. Hooray, new skills to practice! Here’s a taped reading in which I read a few poems from Barefoot Girls, The Red Queen Hypothesis, and a couple of newer pieces. I appear at 31:48 on this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFfeoTOVahQ
Though I think you should also give a listen to the other poets, who are worth hearing.
Time to weed the lettuce and spinach rows, time to stoop to smell the lily-of-the-valley. And time to have imagined discourses with my Beloveds.
I was looking in my archive files for something I didn’t locate, and I happened upon this.
In 1981, I was a typographer; actually, I was a typographical proofreader who often stepped in when we needed another typographer (or, in a real pinch, typesetter) during rush times. This is one of the many style guide pamphlets the type designer-producers gave out to sell their fonts and as demos for set style and sizing.
When I was working in that field, I loved experimenting with the way words looked in different fonts. Sometimes I’d typeset my poems, or other people’s poems, to get a sense of how they would read on a “real” page (rather than as typewritten text; this predates word-processing and desktop publishing software). Those experiments led me and David Dunn to establish–briefly–LiMbo bar&grill books as an independent arts small press in 1982. I designed and typeset the books with help from my coworkers at various typography companies, and David did the editing.
I still love print text for the feel and look of how different printing and design choices affect the holistic environment of the page. Paper texture. Type size and choice. Gutter width. Titling. Binding, covers, front matter.
At present, I’m not yet a significant consumer of ebooks, so I can’t say whether similar design choices affect the reading experience. Surely there are differences, subtle and obvious. For the experience of reading poetry, from what I’ve seen on ebooks, I prefer print when reading poems. Technology may eventually change my point of view–I’m aware of that and open to it.
Poetry and publishing: two topics that seem diametrically opposed, if you look at them under the perspective that’s the norm in the USA—that of business, capitalism, popular culture. Shake off that norm, however, and publishing can be re-imagined as aural/oral, visual, textual, cinematic, digital, interactive…who knows?
When a reader begins to deepen her understanding of creative literature, she will also find it necessary to widen the concept of publishing. Some folks say this is a new world. Or they’ll claim things were better in the old days. Curmudgeons and prejudices abound.
In my lifetime, I have observed and been part of significant and constant changes in what constitutes publishing, from Linotype to Huffpost. Recently, I participated on a panel of poets talking to students who have just begun an MFA program. The panel was a discussion, but it jogged reflections on the process of getting poetry to an audience. So here’s a compressed version of getting poems published, as I experienced it.
I began to submit my work in the very early 1980s to the indie-publishing journals which were extant at the time: photocopied, stapled zines with print runs of 300, or maybe just 150. I was new at writing and aware that my work wasn’t ready for Ploughshares or Poetry and the so-called top-tier journals I purchased and read carefully and tried to learn from.
As a 20-year-old woman, I was not exactly full of self-esteem. Why did I submit at all, when I knew my poems were juvenilia? Well, I know that now…at the time, let’s say I knew they weren’t up to the work of Elizabeth Bishop or Audre Lorde. The reason was mentorship. I had two good friends who encouraged me to send work out but to be realistic. To read the journal first and analyze my work in comparison to what appeared in the magazine. Good advice—and let me tell you how much harder that was in the years before the internet! As I lived in New York and Brooklyn and Philadelphia, however, and it was the 80s, there were good independent bookstores to browse, and good libraries. And there was Dustbooks.
So analysis was crucial, not just for deciding where to submit but to learn how to be a better writer. It was important to compare, to take apart, to hear meter, to recognize rhythm and consonance and the fabulous image and the fresh metaphor, to say how does that writer achieve what she does and can I learn it? Without slavish copying?
Damned difficult. But thanks to publishers, at least the materials were available. If we hadn’t had poetry publishers, it would have been even harder to learn the craft; and I’m not the sort of sui generis writer who just creates out of genius. I had to study, practice, revise, and learn the hard way. Alas.
In the later 80s, I started doing some editing and publishing of other people’s work. My dear friend, David Dunn, and I had a small press that put out two broadsides and four chapbooks. Taught me a great deal. I helped to edit a Xerox-zine in Philadelphia in the 80s. Meanwhile, I kept getting work into small press journals nationwide, mostly these photocopied deals with tiny readerships; but the minor successes kept me going. After awhile I had enough hubris to try the better-recognized journals, with some success. This is how it works: persistence, but not bull-headed, blind persistence. One persists through the learning process; revises, practices, finds trustworthy people for feedback.
My sister, my spouse, and I all have worked in the publishing business-as-business, in how-to and B2B magazines; I was a typographer, proofreader, copyeditor, writer, indexer. All of that background was valuable in its way and never kept me from pursuing creative work. So I did eventually go for my MFA, in my 40s, and I got chapbooks and a collection published at long last in spite of—oh, you know—life.
Because I feel that poetry needs audience, I was early to jump on the online publishing wagon, despite colleagues who warned that it wasn’t really as acceptable a venue as academically-affiliated print journals. Nonetheless I’ve found myself enthralled by online journals, by audio-poems, moving-poems (video), podcasts, blogs. I’ve watched well-respected magazines migrate to the internet. And there are problems with online publishing. I know about them, wrestle with them, yeah—keeps life interesting.
My route has not been the academic route, although I work at a college today; I am more of an outlier. Poets and writers can be nurses, doctors, mechanics, or landscapers, grandparents, people with disabilities, insurance industry managers, post office workers, tutors. Each of us discovers her own process for writing and for getting the poems into the world. Mine is pokey and slow and frequently interrupted, and my next long collection won’t appear until 2021, nine years after Water-Rites, my first. But I feel satisfied with my publishing record, such as it is. People do read my work, which is kind of the entire point of writing, no?
When everything is easy and there’s no chance of failure, life is boring. Writing creatively means taking risks, creating tension. Publishing creatively requires the same things. Risks, imagination, persistence, curiosity, analysis and a willingness to be open-minded. Fun pursuits, but not always easy ones.
Outside my window every morning…conference of the birds.
The Conference of the Birds (or The Speech of Birds, or The Bird Parliament) is a Persian (Sufi) poem by Attar of Nishapur, an allegory of sorts in which the hoopoe instructs the other birds on how to find their king, which they can do by following the path of the right way to live. Here is an excerpt from the 1888 FitzGerald translation:
Behold the Grace of Allah comes and goes
As to Itself is good: and no one knows
Which way it turns: in that mysterious Court
Not he most finds who furthest travels for’t.
For one may crawl upon his knees Life-long,
And yet may never reach, or all go wrong:
Another just arriving at the Place
He toil’d for, and—the Door shut in his Face:
Whereas Another, scarcely gone a Stride,
And suddenly—Behold he is Inside!—
There are more adept, contemporary translations such as those by Dick Davis, Sholeh Wolpe, or others. This one’s copyright free and thus available here.
The poem inspired the title composition of one of my favorite jazz albums of all time, this one by The Dave Holland Quartet, recorded in 1972. A college friend who loved Anthony Braxton’s music introduced me to this record, and it was one of the things I had in common with my dear David Dunn–early in our friendship, we learned that we loved some of the same poets and some of the same music.
Nesting season. The earliest fledglings have begun to leave their temporary homes. Some birds seem to return to their house sites–or perhaps their offspring do so. There are ledges here that shelter robins’ nests every year; there are certain trees the orioles seem to favor over and over again.
My children “fledged” some time ago. One’s returning to the house soon, but only for a visit. All homes, no matter how long loved and lived in, are only temporary shelters.
…it seems like all i do is work…i’m feeling abit friendless of late. working weekends didn’t help my social life either. anyway there are still some bugs in the system.i’ve got to get used to working again and i’ve got to learn how to right again, right. i mean write. i’ve been away from my muse too long or at least not on speaking terms with her.
things to do
make friends (with others and with myself)
get out of here!!!
write some more
i don’t think that i ever knew how to write…it was (is) something that i just did (do) akin to breathing or my heart beating
and here’s to poetry and learning how to walk again. and here’s to jazz and here’s to you again and here’s to life and here’s to love and here’s to all that we hold dear and here’s to everything else and here’s to me: my return to the ball game.
“What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.”
This quote is attributed to Giorgio de Chirico, favorite artist of my poetry mentor & best pal, the late David Dunn. I like the way this idea is phrased (it may be the translator, it may be de Chirico): to live as in a museum; for a museum’s purpose–behind its collection, curation, and presentation–is simply to offer up items for the community to observe.
Paolo Baldacci makes an argument for de Chirico as “the first conceptual artist” that I find intriguing if ultimately unconvincing. There is merit, however, in considering the artist’s “surrealist era” paintings as conceptual in the sense that experiencing the work unsettles the viewer, distorts her sense of the real and requires her to enter the world of the painting with its enigmatic strangeness. And to observe without knowing, exactly, what it is she can see.
Artist Deborah Barlow, on her blog Slow Muse, has some words worth reading on the subject of “not knowing” that visitors to museums and galleries, and those who can view the world as an immense museum of strange things, may recognize. Barlow suggests that there may be an “essential incomprehensibility” in the acts of art-making and path-making as the human being moves from the known to the not-known. The enigma, as de Chirico terms it. The ambiguous and uncertain, the experiment, the unanswered question.
David Dunn often wrote letters to me in which he expressed his occasional discomfort with words, with sentences and language; he wished he could paint or play a musical instrument–felt that jazz might have enabled him to enter the enigma more fearlessly, as his jazz heroes did when they jammed and improvised.
“L’enigma della Oro” (1910)
We wrote about writing, often. Poetry–and the problem of saying the unsayable. Lately, I feel almost ready to retrieve his letters from the box where I’ve kept them for 20 years. My personal museum, those old letters. My immense museum, this strange, strange world.
How do we get from language to poetry? However we do that, consciously or not, it must be as fluid and natural as it is damned difficult! I sometimes wonder whether paradox may be the basis of art. At least, if there exists a “something” that inspires me to compose a poem, paradox–and the way it requires effort to explore contradictions and ambiguities–could stand in as my motivating flame.
Paradox, randomness, juxtapositions and contradictions evoke imagery, dream, the realms beyond the rational consciousness we humans claim to possess. Poet and fellow poetry blogger Susan Rich recently posted about the surrealist painter Remedios Varo, an artist whose name and art I had never before encountered; and I felt an urgent pull to introduce her work to my friend David Dunn–he loved surrealism and appreciated it more than I ever have, and such paintings (particularly early de Chirico) exerted a large influence on his poems.
David, however, died in 1999. I share my memory of him here, by writing it on a blog, the same as I share the names of Varo and de Chirico and of the many poets and philosophers I have mentioned during my years of posting to this forum. It’s a form of immortality, if only a temporary immortality (another paradox…)
Here is Menand again, who wrote poetry in his youth but moved into journalism and critical reviews in prose later on: “… I got the same painful pleasure out of writing prose that I did out of writing poetry—the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order.” Painful pleasure. That mysterious technology, language, rises to the occasion of inherent contradiction.
“And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”
Do you know what you have to say before you write a poem? Or does what you have to say appear in the process of writing? Or after the poem seems complete? Or once someone else has read it and decided what it is you had to say?
When I mentioned to an acquaintance that I am reading Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, the look on her face pretty much summed up how most people feel about the topic–why would I want to read about something so upsetting?
A few sections of Solomon’s book are hard to read but, surprisingly, some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Humor definitely acts as a leveler for the challenges life brings us; Solomon admits to “being afraid of a lamb chop” and other anecdotes that are not merely self-deprecating–they are somehow universal, at least they are if you are a person who has had a relationship with the Noonday Demon. His descriptions of how his friends bore with him and supported him through his deepest katabasis are hilarious, humiliating, sad, and unbelievably moving.
Simultaneously, I’m reading The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski. Obviously, that text is on the reading list of “the morbid book group.” The approach is mostly Buddhist, but Ostaseski does a good job of gently suggesting that bringing more moment-by-moment, alert compassion into our lives daily can ease many of the burdens of human suffering by making us aware that all of us suffer and that suffering, shared, becomes less of a weight or stressor in our lives.
Friendship keeps us sane. It does so partly through that sense of community in which many hands make light work. And it brings us back to sanity, sometimes (not always–there is no “always” in the human sphere). For many persons, relatives are friends. Other people have no friendships within their families but have friend-relationships that act as similar, or even more powerful, support. The luckiest people have both.
I am one of the lucky ones. Today, while thinking about consciousness and suffering and depression in the human condition, I want to acknowledge the loving, sane difference a friend made in my life: David Dunn, poet, jazz aficionado, baseball fan, Trekkie, fellow laborer in the mines of the abyss, 1955-1999.
Reading these books while navigating the recent loss of an elderly long-time friend has unleashed a reflective current that, while a bit sorrowful, does not feel like depression. There’s gratitude in this rivulet, happy memories and rueful ones–more like inspiration than desperation. That may be because the friendships are still supportive. Relationships don’t die when the friends die; a powerful relationship lasts far longer.
Depressed people feel unlovable and, unable to accept the clear evidence that they are indeed loved and valued, manage to behave in ways that make themselves and others miserable. They don’t mean to hurt others; in their pain, they think that they deserve to be abandoned and their crazy words and actions create a self-fulfilling prophecy of isolation. It takes a surprising amount of strength to be a person who undergoes depressive episodes (they are so exhausting, physically and mentally–see Solomon’s book). And it takes incredible strength to love and stand with a deeply depressed person.
David Dunn, who experienced depressions far more debilitating than my own, acted as my tether when I started to drift too far. In my younger days, that drifting often led me toward Charybdis. In turn, I helped David when he was low; we shared poems of others and poems of our own, shared books, fears, and insomnia tales. We held one another upright in the throes of some pretty miserable days.
I miss him. Though I am much, much better now, I do not think I could have survived those years unscathed without his quiet acknowledgment of my pain and the presence of his friendship. The idea that we can accept what life brings us without bitterness or anger or blame, yet without resignation or helplessness, seems a tough task for the people in my culture. David Dunn could not always attain that balance for himself, but his acceptance of me taught me more than I ever realized at the time.
“There is something brazen about depression. Most demons–those forms of anguish–rely on the cover of night. To see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun. You can know all the why and wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded in ignorance. There is almost no other mental state of which the same can be said.” ~Andrew Solomon
I frequently tell my composition students to break the task of academic essay writing into steps that work for them–very Aristotelian of me. Many educated persons were “taught to think” using this method, basically by bundling concepts together into categories. I tell my students that each person may develop a different approach. Sometimes traditional categories don’t work for a particular kind of thoughtful mind.
My own, for example. I have had to study to get to the “rational,” and it intrigues me (science mind! philosophy mind!). But the mythic and the discombobulated and the circuitous: my default consciousness heads into those places when left to wander without a focused task.
A student in my class asked me why I decided to teach college. The funny thing is that it did not feel as though it were a decision on my part. It was a series of steps that seemed unrelated at the time.
One perspective–I graduated with a Philosophy and English bachelor’s degree at the moment of the worst economic period since the Great Depression (the late 1970s). I was a good speller. I got a job proofreading. From there, a series of jobs, and periods without jobs, and marriage and children and a graduate degree and wanting to do a little part time work and teaching poetry workshops in schools…
Another perspective–I became entranced with poetry as a young adult. I read and read, and I also wrote; joined a writing critique group when David Dunn shyly invited me to the informal weekly sessions in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was not fashionable then. I had a job that paid my rent, barely. I wrote constantly, and David encouraged me to read aloud. Ariel Dawson encouraged me to submit my work to magazines. Ploddingly, and without much confidence, I followed my friends’ advice. I learned to speak in public, to groups of people who might not always be open to what I had to say. Later, I raised two children. How like teaching these things are…
I was invited to teach. I tried it. There are tasks at which I am more competent, but I get by. Some of my students thank me.
I still prefer tutoring and coaching, working one-to-one with a student, side by side in the task of urging thoughts into clarity in the form of written text. Here I am. The semester has started. Wrench those random ideas into curriculum, work on word order and concise expression. Be with the student where he or she is. Start there. Be confident. The next step will evolve.
A series of seemingly unrelated events, careers, moves, ideas, loves–those are our human foundations.