Thursday, May 31, 2007

the poetry reading

After a department meeting, my friend Emily and I made the sluggish journey to Uptown, where Eireann was giving a reading at an adorable tea shop called the Tea Garden.

As I drove home afterwards I jotted a few things down on the notebook in my lap (I have taken to carrying my bulky camera with me, and I've always carried a notebook, but now I've begun to have it out, at the ready, these words slipping in and out so rapidly--in fact, what I wrote was not even what I thought, and I liked what I had thought, but I am not fast enough while driving at seventy miles an hour):

The sound of the espresso grinder loud and percussive. I would have been easily distracted, fallen into disappointment at the smothering, but Eireann remained solid, confident in her stance, her words lifting above the usual din of coffeeshop. Outside, the world of Minneapolis went on, but here, within, we listened to poems woven, made of muslin, of calico, of grosgrain ribbon. Tonight, we are the beneficiaries of words, good poetry.

Eireann read both from her book and poems printed out, recent, and near-recent. There was one, and I wish I could remember which, but it made me gasp because a moment was so startling, and I thought to myself, "This is what good writing does. It surprises the reader and gives us something that begins like a warm stone in the heart, radiates, feels as if you want to keep it there forever." It's so hard to do that, especially if you are the person who feels everything has already been said.

This is what Zachary from the Tuesday writing group said two days ago: that we live in a culture where everything feels as if it has already been done, been said, that there are so many options, and our generation struggles against this. Of the eight people in the room in Minneapolis, Eireann and Zachary exuded the most knowledge and authority, but didn't seem too put off by the bumblers (and I really am mostly referencing me here) who are earnest but not as learned. (I always feel like such a failure in the gathering of knowledge department, always a little behind the storm, just trying to catch the lightning before the best fireworks are gone.) Later, I discovered that Zachary is of Gendun Editions, which explains why he was interested in what font I had used in the poems I distributed on accidental salmon paper.

I think to myself, today, as I see Scott King, owner of Red Dragonfly Press and husband of a colleague, and as I think back to Zachary with his thick poem and reams of poets to recommend, his memorized Hugo poem (in French, no less), his recognition of the stylings of language poets, his poise and confidence that he was meant to be writing poetry, and his description from the prompt, of broken wrist bones and fierceness, his startling women in his workshopped poem--I think of these people, and I wonder: How do they get these jobs? How is it that I am trying to keep students from whacking each other and leaving gum under their desks and these folks are writing poems and sliding them through antique machines, creating these gorgeous pieces of art and bringing words into the lives of others?

I think a lot of it is knowing what you want and taking risks. And so much more is about talent. And of course, maybe even just being in the right place at the right time, knowing people. For now, I will bask in the glory of others, know that I am truly enjoying myself, and continue to scribble myself. I am returning to myself. Hello, poet. Hello, poetry.

Oh, and I ran into an old classmate from the U at the reading. We took an advanced poetry workshop with Ray Gonzalez. She spoke of the MFA program there and coming out with disappointment, that she went in with expectations, and is afraid there aren't many female mentors and isn't a lot of funding to replace a poet who is phasing out. She also said she went for one specific professor, who she had taken a brief course with in Iowa, but it turns out she'd essentially learned all she needed to know from him in that brief course, that this person taught the same things again and again. I'd had this professor as well and enjoyed him, but I forget easily and needed to hear the same thing; at the time, I essentially needed that environment to begin to grow. We go into these things with different needs and expectations, and I guess a big part of what I need to consider now is what do I want, what do I need (beyond the big question: am I talented enough? but I won't even touch that one now, so late on a school night).

Scenes from a poetry reading aftermath.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

still lingering

I've continued thinking about last night's writing group. I think any good class will linger in your mind, will turn over like a ball of pizza dough, and allow you to linger on the good bits and the bits that inspire you to take action, improve. These are some things for me to remember, things I've learned before, but last night reminded me of them:

- Be surprising. Don't be ordinary. There was a stanza in my poem that I knew wasn't right, but I left it there, just to see what people said. And it was true--this information may have been helpful, but not enough for a stanza, and certainly not told in a way that was cliche. Truth needs to be altered. Tweedy coats are commonplace. What is unique to being an aging retired professor?

- Sink into the persona. There was another woman who wrote a poem from a forester's point of view with some very lovely moments in it, some striking images. One of the other poets said she ought to consider what discovery would be like, what new eyes would be like, and try to avoid what was (again) easy. Surprise your reader and become the other.

- Line breaks can be adventurous. I think we have the tendency to break at phrases, particularly of the prepositional variety. It's easy, like breathing, but can be boring. This was something that first struck me about one of my favorite poets, Sharon Olds: she would break just after conjunctions, just after the verb, in mid-tale. It kept me awake, brought new meaning to each line, each jagged breath. Her words flow juicy; the line breaks make it a little sticky. Like summer. I love, love her poetry.

- Write beyond the self. I think this is something I didn't need to be reminded, but it's something I've begun talking to my students about. At this point, I just want them to write. Nothing more. But at some point, we need to pull ourselves out of the quagmire that is sappy love poetry (everybody has bad love poetry from high school).

So much of this seems so simple, so obvious, but I think getting it down and reminding myself, again, considering how to add more layers in what I already know.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

finding self

Things that are well worth a one hour commute: poetry group. The first meeting today at Eireann's house, situated in Minneapolis. Eight of us folded up, sitting on the edge of creaky chairs, lovely in the mixed texture of an old living room. Wine glasses in cabinets, bookcases with old spines facing out, our writing notebooks shapely in our laps. It felt so good, so good to be in the company of people who roll words about in their minds like balls of glue on the tips of their fingers. So good to look across the room and see an old friend, pick up to that feeling of kinship that was a part of classroom workshops. There is a kind of bond that comes between writers who trust each other to show what is most vulnerable--material we actually want to improve. That is a scary thing. It is one thing to splay ourselves about in a blog, which everyone knows is just a jotting place, a public diary, typos and all, imperfect, but to show someone a poem you want to see in a second life: this is a frightening thing indeed.

Of course, it all went so very well. Strangely, at the end of the night, one of Eireann's former students, Ian, asked, if I knew a Chelsea (yes) and my mother's name (yes), and he was one of her students, saying he wasn't so well behaved in that last year of French (and yes, she says you were not always the best, but you did write a charming song about Le Petit Prince which may have redeemed you). Small world, four and a half hours from our shared high school, something like six or seven years apart, and even now, an hour's drive from her house to my own. Another I recognized, but I can't quite place him--a former class we took together? A past life perhaps.

I had also forgotten what it was like to be up on that editing block, to be silent as your words are mulled over, are discussed and critiqued, criticized and defended; your own opinion would only get in the way. My poem survived with some excellent times and may find its way into revision. which is so good. Often I cannot do this thing others are doing: find what to keep, what to leave out. Of course, the stanza they suggested cutting was one I cringed at while reading (too easy to tell it like that, so cliche), so I suppose that would be one big sign.

I am in charge of next week's questions to pose for the group's discussion. It is so early on that this might not be weak to do, but I am wondering: What kinds of things appeal to each reader in poetry? How do we deem it "good" or "bad"? And what are all these categories about anyway? If we were to poems into boxes, how do we do that? This is too much and too broad, and I have a week, but to you, dear readers of this blog, what questions would you ask if you had the attention of seven other very poetic and smart individuals? How would you spend a rainy Tuesday evening with chocolate chip cake and glasses of cool water in your hands and poetry in your heart?

This group could not have started at a better time. I have been on this exploration of self kick lately, and have enthusiastically returned to the page. But the past few weeks have found me sluggish, hating my words, feeling as if there is no hope whatsoever of going beyond the rubbish that I jot between exhausting trips to This High School. I was pushing through, continuing miserably with morning pages, still writing here, dutifully, thinking, "I can get through this poor writing funk" and not actually believing it. But tonight, in the quiet of N Street, with the tock of her mantle clock, I remembered what it was to string words together like glass beads, each ticking against the next, making a quiet song, a bridal necklace that somehow works, brings it all together.

(I have a long way to go. But I'm happy on this journey and glad for the company I keep!)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

poetry thursday: humorous poem

I took a class in college from Garrison Keillor on comedy writing and was not terribly successful. He read one of my pieces once to the 100 or so students in the stadium seating lecture hall, which made me burn with pleasure. It was the only time I gave in to college humor though, writing about Adam and Eve and how they were caught by God in the backseat of a car after a kegger and this is how The Fall began. We were supposed to parody the Bible, so I started with Genesis, the only way I knew how.

But as a teacher of creative writing, I am always pushing my students as hard as I can, letting them know they need to do this themselves--take a challenge on. So it makes sense that the first prompt for Poetry Thursday that I will attempt is one that makes me feel slightly frustrated, pushed a little out of my comfort zone.

I tell my students, "Feel comfortable with failure. Allow this of yourself. You don't know what will come out of it that works, that will be beautiful."

So I attempted a humorous poem in my notebook, but it didn't work. Instead, I will write a first draft about the joy of laughter, which seems to fit in an odd sort of way:

We are tired, the caverns beneath our eyes wet
with sweat and we know
if we do not get this scene right, we will
meet the janitor's ugly gaze. We need
to finish, we need to get the blocking right, but too much
comes from our gut, not enough from our
heart. Laughter echoes in the halls
of the empty auditorium, for you have forgotten
your line again, you have forgotten your
entrance and the jester says, "No stopping!" but
he cannot say it without machine gun sputtering.

We are in that heady stage, just before
it gets hard. We have learned our roles,
are just now becoming a character that is not us,
are just now caught up in twining our imagination
in the script. It is the small moments that bring
the greatest joy, that remind us
of each other before we are swept into frustration
of too late nights, not enough coffee, and opening night.

See other poems with bright laughter here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007