There’s always a book

Many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for giving my chapbook Strange Ladies a mention on her blog! Given the circumstances of the past month or so, I have not been on the ball about promoting the publication. Word of mouth and social media platforms have helped the sales, but I have been remiss about scheduling readings, book signings, etc. These days, even well-known mid-list authors often have to be self-reliant about promoting their books. Agents for poetry are few and costly, so while getting the book into the readers’ hands may more easily happen thanks to online bookstores, finding an audience of interested readers takes effort and imagination on the part of the poet. Effort and imagination that, at present, I lack.

But–as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us in Slaughterhouse 5–so it goes. (106 times.) At the close of this quick post, I’ll try to remind myself to add the link to Strange Ladies.

As life has afforded few spare moments of uncluttered mind-time in which to write, I’m back to scribbling notes, phrases, and ideas on random pieces of paper and in my journal. This fallback method works well for me, an old-school pen & paper poet. Quite a few colleagues-in-poetry use various smart phones and electronic devices to write notes-to-self and even to draft poems, but when I resort to that–on the rare occasion that I have my cell phone but not a writing implement or bit of paper–I forget about my ideas, which are filed somewhere “in there” (on Samsung Notes’ app). It’s a good thing I am not considered a significant author whose work is worthy of preserving, because my poet-life drafts and mementos would be challenging to archive.

For the moment, my writing has a work-centered locus: curriculum, to-do lists, meeting schedules and agendas, orientation and presentation scripts, group emails to announce this or that Important Thing that likely 80% of the recipients will ignore. I get home, eat dinner, pick beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and zinnias. And I read. The one thing I always seem to have time for!

While I didn’t purposely take up the Sealey Challenge, I have continued reading poetry books more than once weekly, mixed in with creative non-fiction of various sorts, histories, and a novel or two (recently re-read Our Mutual Friend, by Dickens, to cheer myself up). Here’s a list of the recent poetry books I’ve perused: Linda Hogan’s A History of Kindness, Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Would-Land, and Sumita Omaya’s The Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda, tr. William Scott Wilson.

The least exciting was Smith’s book–I liked her previous collections Good Bones and The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison better (this is not to say Goldenrod was “bad.”) The most exciting was Alexander Essbaum’s book, which I devoured and have already read a second time. I find Hogan’s work meditative and calming, even when she writes of trauma and disturbance; it’s her style, I believe, that creates that mood in me. And I knew very little about Taneda or his standing in literary Japan, so that’s been interesting.

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~ And, as promised, there’s always a book! Here’s my latest:

available here: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/michael-ann-e-strange-ladies/370

Memoir-ish

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.

More reading, more poems

Here’s my second post on what new or new-ish or new-to-me books of poetry I am reading during 2020 National Poetry Month. This time, newly-released from Tinderbox Editions, Lesley Wheeler‘s collection The State She’s In.

wheeler-state

First, a little background about Wheeler, a poet, novelist, and educator who has been extremely supportive of contemporary poets and poetry in her classes at Washington & Lee University, in her administrative positions and presentations at AWP, and on her blog and other social media platforms. The state she’s in is metaphorical, but it is also Virginia, with its fraught history, and it’s also the body: female, white, mid-life.

What I want to write are responses to, not reviews of, the books I have been enjoying. And there is much here to enjoy! Each of the book’s sections carries the same title: “Ambitions;” and after I read these poems (almost in one go, the way I’d read a novel), I returned to the table of contents and considered how each set of poems made a list of ambitions, and also, what it means to have ambitions. Particularly for a woman in a 21st-c Western capitalist society, sometimes ambitions read like anger. Are met with anger. Require rage to confront, even though rage alone will not solve the problem. (Appropriate to insert here how I love her poem “Spring Rage”? Yes, appropriate.)

Wheeler’s use of haibun forms to explore state’s-rights racism or workplace harassment is something I found startling. I keep returning to these and other poems to appreciate, on each subsequent reading, the surprises in the craft as well as the barely-contained frenzy expressed, and also the keen observations of the world that act to calm the speaker down. A tough balance, that.

On the whole, The State She’s In feels like a fierce call to pay attention, not just to the reader but to the speaker in these poems–she’s finding her route toward sagacity but kicking away at what we take for granted, not wanting to find personal equanimity if it means hiding what she knows to be true. These poems oppose ignorance in all its forms, including the privilege of choosing not to learn (or not to act, or not to act fairly and justly) that gets practiced at the highest levels of the academy, the government, and in any form of society. Wow!

If enough of us could get together and recite Lesley Wheeler’s “All-Purpose Spell for Banishment” (p. 57), maybe we could make “The Nasties” vanish.

The woodpeckers

More of April itself appears in today’s National Poetry Month poem-a-day challenge, which I suppose is apropos.

I’m now aware that Lesley Wheeler has also been challenging herself to compose a poem a day this month, per this post on her blog. Quite a few poets have committed one way or another to adding poetry to the world each April! Those of us with full-time careers often need some kind of nudge to remind ourselves to take time to do what we love.

And those of us employed in academia are currently facing end-of-Spring-term grading, upcoming commencement ceremonies, graduation and award banquets, and other time-consuming responsibilities as the academic year draws to a close. So: keep writing, Self!

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All the Little Aches

The small woodpecker’s repetitious tock tock tock
against an old mulberry tree, at dawn,
unlocks the little aches and bids them go
into the wakened body. If only, after sleep,

like the old mulberry tree at dawn,
the body would awaken into frantic buds
and not a weakened body only sleep
half-heals until it settles, somewhat twisted,

like a bough. Awake, the frantic buds
of April burst, unfurl. Tick of the bedside clock
as woodpecker’s repetitions–tock tock tock–
unlock the little aches and let them go.

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bird in hand

On revision (again)

iceimageI am going to go out on  a limb here and make a blanket statement: Revision should be every writer’s middle name.

I tell this to my Comp-Rhet introduction to academic writing students all the time, but they have difficulty figuring out how to revise effectively. There are good tactics out there, but they do not work for everyone; how a person thinks and learns and processes information varies considerably. Lately, I have been using a strategy I teach to students writing essays to revise my poems. I ask myself: how is this poem organized? Is the structure working with or against the poem? Too predictable, or not predictable enough?

Just as in a well-wrought prose piece, a poem’s obvious and underlying structures matter a great deal in how well it “works” for a reader. It’s also an aspect of writing that people tend to overlook, so analysis of structure in the revision stage can be useful.

Another revision strategy I have been mulling over recently coincides closely with what Grant Clauser describes in this post, The Poem Is the Question. He writes:

I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems… Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader.

I have found myself going back to a draft and asking, “What got me going on this poem? Do I even recall? Is the impetus an interesting one? If not, can I change it?” Clauser suggests a more specific kind of investigation, and it’s one I have been employing today (snow and ice out there and the roads are lousy, so the campus is closed–hooray for a half day of unexpected free time).

Lesley Wheeler has also recently blogged about revising. She observes that the word revision, which places “emphasis on ‘looking anew’ doesn’t entirely capture” the process of late-project revision. She’s listening to her own words aloud as she revises…another approach that has worked for me.

Maybe the month of February calls to us as a quiet time of yin creativity, which is a way of looking at revision as an inwardly-focused energy–as opposed to marvelous bursts of creativity from inspiration or the much-vaunted Muse. The lunisolar calendar used for centuries in Asia calls February the first month of spring (立春  lìchūn)! I had better keep at the revising, therefore. Before I know it, yan energy will return with the start of the gardening season in eastern Pennsylvania.

 

 

Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

Wow. I found this post by Lesley Wheeler worth re-blogging. It hurts my heart that she found so many of her students had experienced this kind of fear and violence in their schools. But it makes me pleased to be a writer if I can be in the company of people like Lesley and her students, facing what is horrible and difficult and discussing and writing about it. And reading, too–reading poems that face the “dark” in human beings can be as liberating and enlightening as reading poems that offer “hope” or balance. The heart does need rest now and then; thoughtful reflection offers more rest than many folks realize. Thank you, Lesley, for being a teacher.

LESLEY WHEELER

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a…

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Seemingly small stuff

Things to view, things to think about.

Sub Rosa’s post on floral aesthetica here.

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Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, thanks to Harvard (it takes a few seconds to load) here.

qalace ed

William Bartram‘s 18th-century drawings of American flora.

bartramx

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Lovely words from Lesley Wheeler, and so true for me, too: “…reading and writing puts me in an honest place. Plus, while poems contain struggle of all kinds, they also constitute separate worlds it can be a great relief to enter, because good poems are not unjust or disruptive of bodily integrity.”

Whelmed

The other day, I mentioned to a friend that I anticipate a busy May, what with sundry beloveds graduating and having birthdays, and visitors from far places, and the end of the academic year at my place of employ, and prime planting-out-the-vegetable-garden season upon me…

She said perhaps I am overwhelmed.

All of the above events are wonderful things. And I have considerable help in accomplishing them, so there are no great burdens on my shoulders. Overwhelmed sounds, well, overstated. That got me thinking about the words overwhelmed and its opposite, underwhelmed–is there a “whelmed,” just on its own?

Turns out there is (archaic, notes Merriam-Webster):

WHELM transitive verb
1. to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something; cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2. to overcome in thought or feeling
intransitive verb to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it

And its source is Middle English (thank you, Online Etymology Dictionary):

early 14c., Middle English whelmen “to turn upside down”… Figurative sense of overwhelm as “to bring to ruin” is attested from 1520s.

Maybe I am whelmed, then, as per definition 2 above; the feeling I have doesn’t jive with the connotation of “to bring ruin.”

At any rate, I herewith offer some diversions by writers of other blogs and sites instead of my own work–with the exception of the first link on “Say It Today.” Read and explore and allow what’s delightful to wash over you without disastrous effect.  🙂

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From Haverfordwest Library, accessed through Casgliad y Werin Cymru

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Brothers & Storytellers, a brief essay of gratitude at Say It Today

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Lesley Wheeler’s delightful, on-the-spur-of-the-moment, Day 29 of National Poetry Month poem should amuse those who write poetry and those who meditate and…well, just fun.

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Donna Vorreyer on writing “a whole lotta poems.

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Kelli Russell Agodon on writing a poem a day (and forgetting about quality).

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Finally, Theodora Goss on love, home, and work–priorities that feel pretty “right” to me.

Smalls

This week in the blog tour, both Kelli Russell Agodon and Lesley Wheeler (poets) blogged about smallness, small things, smaller lives.

And a lovely (small) erasure poem by Dave Bonta got me thinking about ‘little things’:

in the night bog
I part with my road
curious about other things

I lack philosophy enough
to understand bread
or the question of touch                                            —Dave Bonta

~~                                             ~~                                                     ~~                                             ~~

iris reticulata

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Just yesterday, these tiny iris reticulata bloomed along the woodlot’s edge. This evening’s forecast is for a nor’easter and up to 8 inches of snow. So long, for now, little irises. During the brief time I observed you, beauty entered my day.

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Can we even understand such small and usual things as bread? As touch? As the winter’s blossoms? Could we entertain an aesthetics of small things?

Or do I lack the philosophy for that?

 

Pruning, weeding, & poetry manuscripts

Gardening has been a dismal endeavor this past summer; I just did not devote my usual energies to the landscape, the perennials, or even to the vegetable patch. For a number of reasons I will not enumerate here, I did not even get to the weeding. I wish I could say I spent my energy on writing, revising, and submitting my poems–alas, no.

Tangle of weeds & blossoms

Tangle of weeds & blossoms

After a weekend of trying to catch up (in two days) on two months of garden neglect, I caught up on my reading a bit and found this delightful and appropriate post on Lesley Wheeler’s blog: “Restlessly pruning the overstuffed closet of a poetry manuscript.” Her analogy is to a closet and wardrobe, but the underlying concept of assessing and culling works for perennial beds and poetry manuscripts (and attics, and basements, and garages, and…)

This post appeals to me because, in addition to rallying myself to the cause of deadheading and pruning and weeding in the great outdoors, I have also been working on cleaning up two manuscripts. Wheeler asks of her work:

 

  • Is the book telling the most involving, interesting story I can pull off right now? Is the narrative arc complex yet clear enough to satisfy an involved reader?
  • And yet this is a collection of wayward fragments, not a wholly coherent narrative. Do the poems have some spiky independence from each other? Are they various?
  • Am I making the same moves not too often, but just often enough to keep the poems working in relationship to each other? This means reading for repeated words, ideas, stanza shapes, and other devices.
  • Who will be my readers, and how do I hope they’ll feel and think about this project?

Wise questions to ask of a book of poems; also see Jeffrey Levine’s Tupelo Press blog for his exhaustive take on the process.

Clearly, reorganizing and evaluating my collections are not the kind of work I could accomplish in two days.

In that way, weeding and pruning the gardens offers more immediate satisfaction, though it left me with some scratches, rashes, and a sore back!