Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My Poem Enters Analysis

On Monday, October 13, I posted a link to my poem, "My Husband Discovers Poetry," which was featured at the Ars Poetica site. Thanks to everyone who read it and sent me a nice note! I was happy to see yesterday that fellow blogger and poet Elizabeth Kate Switaj had posted the link at her blog and done an analysis of the poem. Is there anything cooler than someone looking really carefully at your poem?

Elizabeth does me the honor of comparing my poem to James Joyce's short story, "The Dead." She ends her discussion by saying, "Now, I have no evidence that reading Joyce directly influenced the writing of Lockward’s poem. Joyce was hardly the first, last, or only one to depict the man as the artist in a couple. Comparing these specific pieces of literature, however, helps to throw light on how narratives change when women do the writing."

I'll shed some light on this. I've never read "The Dead." So I definitely was not influenced by that work. Nevertheless, as Elizabeth suggests, the couple in my poem does include an artist, a poet, but it's the woman who takes that role. And it's a woman who knows how to get even. Even though I can't claim Joyce as an influence, Elizabeth's comments have had me thinking all day about Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Kurtz and his Intended. And I remembered that Kurtz was once a poet before he became hollow at the core. Still I don't think of myself or that poem as following in any particular tradition. But then I wonder if we ever consciously follow in a tradition? Or if that's something that critics uncover? Certainly, the same issues and thus themes persist over time.

I don't usually like to talk about the personal details that went into a poem, but because I'm so often asked about this poem and because I think of it as an ars poetica, this is one poem I've been happy to talk about.

But the question I'm most often asked is "How does your husband respond to this poem?" People assume that the man in the poem is my real husband. They feel sorry for him. If he's in the room when I read the poem (which isn't very often), people turn to look at him, to gauge his reaction. Or they think he must be a creep and I'm well rid of him; they assume that I divorced him. One woman, I've been told, said to a group of people talking about the poem that I, me the poet, had to be a "mean-spirited" person to have written that poem. Now that's a woman who's never met me. Maybe I am mean-spirited, but she'll need better evidence than my poem. I have poems in which "I" am really quite nice.

This question was asked in an interview that appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review. I'll excerpt that part:

I love the irony of "My Husband Discovers Poetry," the way it combines humor with gravitas. The wife has been spurned; now she spurns her husband. In the act of discovering poetry, the husband is tortured. Many have wondered if this happened or if it is part of your metaphorical life. Can you talk a bit about how the poem came about? 

What touched off the poem was a conversation with a group of women poets I had just met. They were talking about husbands and boyfriends reading and responding to their poetry, and I stupidly said that my husband never read my poetry. There was an intake of breath and the women, one by one, expressed their disapproval of my husband. They thought it was terrible that he wasn't interested in my poetry, so then I felt I needed to defend him, but they weren't having any of it — they insisted he wasn't interested in my soul. As I thought about the conversation throughout the day, I found myself getting annoyed at my husband for putting me in that awkward situation, and I started asking myself why the heck he wasn't reading my poetry; at the same time, I had to acknowledge that I liked that he didn't read my work because I could write anything and not worry about his reactions. Then I started thinking I could say anything about him and he'd never know. I asked myself how such a wife might get even with such a husband, and the poem began to take shape. So to some extent, this is a kind of revenge poem. I also think of it as an ars poetica. It seems to be autobiographical, as first person poems often do, but by the time the reader gets to the end of the poem, hopefully he or she realizes that there has been some fabrication going on. That's what the wife does; that's what the poet does. But you're right — readers often assume that the poem is entirely autobiographical, and they are embarrassed and sorry for my poor husband. Actually, it's his favorite of my poems. Or should I say his favorite of the ones he's read?

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

What's in a Name?

There's a new print journal that is currently seeking submissions. It's called The New Anonymous. What makes this journal unusual is that its anonymous editors intend to remain that way and they plan to publish all work anonymously. Now you'd think that your return address or your email might reveal your name, but there's someone identified as "The Mediator" who will remove all identifying matter before passing your work on to the editors. Should your work be accepted, you will receive a document prepared by the journal's attorney. (I didn't know that new journals had attorneys—or old ones for that matter.) This document apparently will bind you to secrecy. Your work will be published, but your name will go into the ether.

The purpose is apparently to assert the primacy of the work and the insignificance of the author. The editors describe their intention: "By freeing the prose and poetry from their nominal ties, we free writers from their own generative forms and creative dispositions. The New Anonymous is, in effect, a safehouse where writers can not only question the creative process, but also, in the words of Freud, 'play.'"

I can't help wondering if this is some kind of joke, similar to the online anthology that recently usurped so many of our names and attached them to fictitious poems. Why would any poet want to send out work anonymously? Am I an egomaniac if I want my name attached to the work that I've labored over? If I've spent years learning and practicing the craft, why wouldn't I want a few people to know my name? I can understand blind submission and selection, but blind publication just doesn't make sense to me. If my work were accepted, would I later be unable to include my anonymous poem in a collection of my own work?

My suspicion that this is a joke is enhanced by a visit to the front page of the website, which is identified as Buckbee, A Writer, Inc., a publicly traded company. Shares of stock are offered, but there doesn't appear to be any product. The Chief Executive Officer is identified as Brian Christopher, aka Buckbee. The website looks like a business site with a professional design, but has pages that raise doubts, e.g., a page about Buckbee's latest physical examination, an exam which took place in his backyard and consisted of jumping on a trampoline as well as picking up small objects.

I won't be submitting. How about you? And what do you think—a joke or for real?

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nifty New Venue—The Blue Grotto

This past Tuesday I traveled from New Jersey to Philadelphia for a reading with J.C. Todd and Sally Bliumis-Dunn, all three of us published by Wind Publications. Sally came in by train from Westchester, NY. J.C. lives in Philadelphia. We met in the parking lot behind the venue, then walked to The White Dog, a casual restaurant, where we had dinner. Then we returned to the venue for the reading.

The Blue Grotto is the newest series being run by Mad Poets Society. This is one of the coolest venues I've ever read in. It's the basement room of the Community Center. When we first headed downstairs I could smell the typical musty basement odor, but that quickly dissipated and I was charmed by the room. The entire room is an art installation designed by Randy Dalton.

As you can see, the room is entirely blue. It consists of dozens of blue lights and all kinds of blue statues, buttons, chairs, hangings, and so on.

We were just the third reading held in this venue. We read in the area where you see the chairs and one guest. We ended up with just 13 people (and that's counting the poets!), but it was a warm reading. Those blue lights certainly added to the atmosphere. Hopefully, as the word spreads, the venue will attract more people. It should as it's within shouting distance of both Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Ars Poetica Poem Feature

My poem "My Husband Discovers Poetry" is featured today at Dan Waber's Ars Poetica site. The poem is part of an ongoing project on poems that express some philosophy about poetry. Here's Dan's description of the project:

"This is a themed blog (poems about poetry) that will lead to a print anthology. Dan Waber invited five of his favorite poets to send him an ars poetica they'd written along with the names and email addresses of five other poets. He then invited those twenty-five poets to do the same. He then invited those hundred and twenty-five poets to do the same. He then invited...you get the picture."

I was invited to submit I think about two years ago. I had a quick acceptance, but when so much time passed, I concluded that I'd been cast aside. So Dan's note this morning came as a lovely surprise.

The culmination of Dan's plan will be an anthology published by Paper Kite Press, a small press in Kingston, Pennsylvania. The press is run by Dan and his partner, Jennifer-Hill Kaucher. They also run an art gallery and a reading series.

(Image borrowed from Live Journal.)

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Award for My Publisher

Sherry Chandler recently let me know that my publisher, Charlie Hughes, of Wind Publications in Nicholasville, Kentucky, has received one of the 2007-2008 Governor's Awards in the Arts. He received the award for his contributions to the arts in Kentucky. I was already happy to be one of Charlie's poets; now I'm even more so. (That's him on the right.) As is true of most, maybe all, small presses, his is a labor of love.

In addition to running his press, Charlie compiles the Kentucky Literary Newsletter, an online newsletter available for free for subscribers. It's a wealth of information and a wonderful service for those interested in the literary arts.

By profession an analytical chemist, Charlie also served for many years as the editor of Wind Magazine. When he moved into book publication, he turned the journal over to a different editor. Now retired, he devotes his full attention to Wind Publications.

Here's a short video of Charlie that was made after he received his award. It provides a behind-the-scenes look at how a small press works. I've never met Charlie in person—all of our communications have been via email—so I really enjoyed seeing his work area. I remember when he was building it. How nice to be surrounded by all those books! Look closely and behind Charlie you'll see my book, Eve's Red Dress, standing on the shelf. Towards the end of the video, you'll see Charlie taking a copy of my book, What Feeds Us, out of a box. I'll confess that those two scenes gave me a nice little thrill.

Congratulations to Charlie for this well-deserved honor.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Writer's Digest Interview

I'm delighted to be the subject of an interview with Robert Lee Brewer at Poetic Asides, the Writer's Digest blog. The interview is part of an ongoing series of interviews that Robert does with poets and editors.

The interview is preceded by a brief introduction and a sample poem from my book, What Feeds Us. Robert's choice of sample poem both surprised and pleased me. Then there are eight questions. I don't ramble on too long, so check it out.

While there, you can sign up for Robert's email list. He'll let you know when a new interview is posted. He also posts regular prompts for poets who are looking for ideas.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dodge Festival—Sunday

I had no assignments on the last day so was free to pick and choose. My plan was to go to "Conversation: The Poet As Citizen" with Chris Abani, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hass, and Ted Kooser. But that turned out to be the plan of a lot of people. By the time I arrived at the tent, it was packed. I had to stand at the periphery of the tent, outside and subject to the rain that was starting to fall. So I decided to just head for the nearest tent and take whatever was there as long as there was a roof overhead and a chair below . I landed at "Conversation: Going Public with Private Feelings" with Franz Wright, Linda Pastan, and Martin Espada.

This picture came to me courtesy of Anthony Buccino. My move from one tent to another turned out to be fortuitous. This was a terrific session. As I arrived, Martin was saying that as a lawyer he values privacy, but as a poet his responsibility is not to his particular family but to the human spirit. It was obvious from the audience's questions that there's excessive concern about offending people. One of the panelists pointed out that most of the people you worry about offending won't ever read your poems.

Wright spoke about the struggle with self-consciousness and our desire for attention. He spoke of his unique position as the son of a famous poet. He shared his recollection of wondering if his father's poems were about him, and he acknowledged feeling some pain about that.

Pastan said there are no poems that she won't write. All agreed that the standard for going public is the poem itself. The final decisions are more technical than personal. I agree completely with this observation.

Someone asked if more things happen to poets than to other people. Pastan replied that she's lived a very ordinary life. She claimed to be more daring in her poetry than in her life. That resonated with me. I've said very much the same thing about my own life and poetry.

Someone who had previously met Pastan and been disappointed to learn that the facts in her poems are not always real facts said that she now understands more fully that poems aren't autobiographies. Martin added that poets make up stuff in the service of truth. I loved that as a closing point. This is an ongoing subject of debate among poets. I always get annoyed by the people who assume that the poem is and must be full of facts. Seems to me that's not their business. Their business is the poem.

I then ended with a reading with Mark Doty

and Thomas Sayers Ellis

and Franz Wright. A terrific reading!

Had my last lunch in the Meeting House and headed on home with a long list of books to buy.

Dodge has now posted a number of videos at YouTube. These are readings from past festivals. This video library will grow. It's an amazing resource for teachers, poets, poetry fans. And everyone else. Here's a sample:

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dodge Poetry Festival—Saturday

Saturday morning I arrived in time to catch the final minutes of Conversation: Poetry As Disruptive Seed, Poetry As Centering Force. Poets above are Chris Abani, Robin Robertson, Martin Espada, and Patricia Smith. The poets were asked, "How do you deal with poetry when there is evil?" Martin replied, "I don't." He said the evil produces the poems, creates the tension that fuels the poetry. Patricia added that poetry brings peace, is at least a start. It helps us and others confront what's bothering us.

Then I remained in the same tent for a real powerhouse of a reading with Jan Beatty, Patricia Smith, and Joe Weil. With each one I thought that I sure wouldn't want to go next. But each of these poets completely held the stage. Jan's poetry is delivered in a fairly soft voice but is hard-edged, tough stuff. I liked the contrast between delivery and subject.

Patricia Smith is a past National Slam champion. She recites entirely from memory and is like a stick of dynamite! She read several persona poems, each in a different voice. Very convincing.

Joe Weil was the final reader. Thanks to Anthony Buccino. You can find photos of many other poets as well in Anthony Buccino's album. These three poets received a standing ovation from what looked like several hundred people in the audience.

One thing I don't get is why anyone would go to an open reading and miss the readings by the poets who are part of the festival. And yet I heard that most of the opens had more readers than could be accommodated.

My first assignment of the day was introducing Dovie Thomason, a storyteller. Then after lunch I went to the Main Tent to hear Linda Pastan, Chris Abani, and Sharon Olds.

Then off to introduce Billy Collins in another of the Conversations on Craft. He delivered a well-organized list of tips on what makes a good poem. He qualified that: "That is, if you want to write poems like mine." Here are some of Collins' tips:

1. For a lyric poem the maximum number of occupants is two—"me and the reader." This creates intimacy.
2. Begin with something any reader can accept. Then he's willing to accept something more challenging later. Start at the shallow end and lead the reader in.
3. The wastebasket is your friend. The saved line won't be useful elsewhere. Start fresh. (Do I hear voices of disagreement?)
4. The idea is not to be emotional but to cause emotion in the reader. (Can you have one without the other? I think he means the poet must restrain, control the emotion.)
5. Begin a poem by backing it up to its impetus. (And yet how often is that the very thing I, and perhaps you, cut out of subsequent drafts?)
6. Keep titles simple.
7. Let a noun speak for itself. ("The road to Hell is paved with adjectives.")
8. Think in stanzas. Think in lines. (Not this poet, not until numerous drafts in.)
9. Let surprise enter the poem. (Yes! yes!)

I probably missed something along the way, but the above gives you something to think about. Collins also advised front-loading contest manuscripts. (Aren't judges onto that strategy?)

I was interested to hear Collins say that he writes a poem in one sitting. He gets the next line before he moves on. He revises as he goes along. This is definitely not me. My first drafts are all over the place. And there are many drafts. I don't look for form until I'm pretty well along. But in spite of several points on which I disagreed, this was an interesting conversation and gave me much to think about.

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