Category: reading

Writing takes so many forms. Sometimes it’s a joyful and personal practice. Sometimes it’s a letter to a loved one. Sometimes it’s a story that cracks open a new world. And sometimes writing is a tool for change. I’m thinking about that last one in the wake of another police shooting.

I haven’t always been sure about my relationship to writing as advocacy, even though I worked in social change for a long time. When you’re at the table with people trading money, influence, and political strategies to end homelessness or fight childhood hunger or get equal pay for women, one poem starts to feel small. But I’ve been rethinking that as I move into a different space in my life and creative process, and as the times prove again and again that money, influence, and political strategies aren’t enough. There is a gap in empathy, connection, and awareness that maybe only art can fill.

Maybe this is the advocacy of writing: the poetry of waking people up. Over at Voice & Vessel, I posted more about this and shared some of the writers who are asking me to wake up.

identity reading writing

It’s funny how kicks from the past can arrive at the right moment. Lynn Melnick has written an excellent, close read of Diane Wakoski’s work in the Los Angeles Review of Books. As a former student of Diane’s, much of Melnick’s essay resonates with my experience of Diane, her poetry, and her “enduring badassery.” No one could make me think twice about a “lazy image” like she could.

The essay has shown up at a time when I’m noticing that my poetry has gone surfacey, lost touch with its raw parts, started to shy from honesty. (Curiously, this has overlapped with a severe sore throat, something that tends to happen when I’m squelching my voice. The body has a way of telling the truth, even if I won’t.)

So I especially appreciate the reminder about Diane’s use of personal mythology:

“Her assertion is that poets are never writing autobiography in the strict sense…but are creating a myth of self in which to tell their most personal stories.”

I’ve been thinking about exposure and sharing lately. About how the speaker shows up in writing… mostly how that damn word “I” has become a vacuum of attention in my poems. (Who is the “I” anyway? Why is she standing in the doorway, just in front of the guts of the poem?) I’ve been attempting to write “I” out of my poetry entirely, until it feels like it’s earning its keep.

I’ve also been struggling with how our online lives are not really our art, although they are full of expression. There are days when Twitter feels like a bad networking event of people vying to leave an impression. So many “think pieces” and blog posts that are less about making something new and more about people making an artifact of themselves. I don’t say this to attempt to be judge and jury… rather, I think it makes the concept of personal mythology — and how Diane applies it — all the more pertinent today.

With personal mythology, there’s still truth in the mix. There’s still a raw voice; the presence of a speaker, an orchestration of characters. It’s an artful construction that works like story, rather than merely aiming to leave an impression or persuade the reader (like so much of our online narratives). In my view, truth-telling is not about persuasion… and maybe that’s the distinction I’m hunting for in all of this. Honest art is voice laid bare, without apology.

Despite what myth-making entails, I don’t find an artificial “I” in the doorway, especially in Diane’s approach. The truth might be dressed as George Washington, the motorcycle betrayer, or an imagined twin… but the “I” itself is not a managed impression that keeps us from seeing the characters/mythology directly.

To make this more plain: I wrote line after line about family (and still do). The “I” was (and still is) standing in the way of those poems like a nervous gatekeeper. It says: “You can see this story, but please put these sunglasses on first, and listen as I explain what you’re about to witness.”

Then I learned about Diane’s use of George Washington as a stand-in for a father. Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed that I had never attempted anything like this in my work. That same day, a poem fell out of me that was a truth I’d been rumbling over for a few years. There was no “I” in the poem. There was a trope, a mythology, and truth that I could feel — my ears grew hot when the words began to show up. It was my first taste of a badass poem.

As I try to write my way to the next one, I’m grateful to be reminded of Diane’s mythology and her exacting sense of what poetry can and should do. And I’m grateful to Lynn Melnick for her suggestion that Diane should be on more poetry reading lists… I know I’ll be revisiting her poems with fresh eyes over the coming days.

poetry reading writing

A couple days ago I finished reading a novel that I’d been eager to get my hands on and had heard a lot of raving about on Twitter and whatnot. I’m trying to stretch beyond poetry writing and understand what makes fiction tick, so I’m reading more novels.

This particular book threw me for a loop. The first half was beautifully paced and threaded together. I was enjoying it as a reader and taking notes as a writer. But then, in a matter of about 10 pages (in a 300-ish page book), the climax arrived, was delivered via hasty dialogue, and dissolved without any real revelations or conclusions.

My first reaction was, So what? And that was quickly followed by, Wait, this counts? This counts as a finished book?

This tends to be my struggle with literary fiction. Poetry – and story for that matter – doesn’t have to resolve itself or present neat conclusions, but I do feel that strong writing has a revelatory quality. While literary fiction is often symbolic, that doesn’t always come together as meaningful, satisfying revelation.

Carl was next to me as I sighed through the last few frustrating pages of the book. When I explained myself, he offered his own revelation:

Every book a writer reads brings the target closer.

Before I read this book, I was sure this author must have some magical quality, some secret knowledge of fiction that must be an ocean away from me. Reading the reviews and blurbs certainly gave me that impression. This is where fiction always intimidates me.

But Carl is right — despite the disappointment in the end, when I looked up from reading the book, I saw a target instead of a vast ocean with no shoreline in sight. I saw a place to aim.

It’s always said that writers should read, read, read. And that is true, true, true. But the image of bringing the target closer is one that helps me a lot. I wonder how many books I need to read before I can push the arrow in the target like a pin?

fiction reading writing