Reading brings the target closer.

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?

dreaming: harper lee, truman capote, ernest hemingway

Last night I had a dream that Harper Lee was in love with Ernest Hemingway, but he was not reciprocating. Harper Lee was losing it to Truman Capote over the situation… and Truman Capote appeared as a woman in the dream. Most odd was that he was fumbling with an armful of arrows. And I remember thinking how upset Ernest Hemingway was going to be when he discovered Truman Capote being so careless with his arrows. 

I never dream about writers. I admit some envy of the writers who do get regular visits from other writers. (Kelli Russell Agodon comes to mind… I’d love a whole blog devoted to collecting dream encounters with writers! Imagine the bizarre wisdom we could uncover.) 

So it was a nice change to see writers in my dream, although none of them were talking to me. None of them had anything profound to say in general. But it was nice to be in the company of writers, at least in sleep. (And the idea of Harper Lee falling for Ernest Hemingway was especially funny once I woke up.)

poetry news and giveaway winners

Well, National Poetry Month rocked — I did a few readings, participated in the first Grand Rapids’ Poets Conference, met some new poets, and was invited to share some of my work on WYCE’s Electric Poetry (will post the link when it’s archived online). Big steps for a poet who spent the last six or seven years writing mostly in secret. And in all the hubbub, I forgot to announce winners for the poetry giveaway! Eep! Sorry for the delay, and many thanks to all who entered. Here are the winners at long last, and I will also email you for more details:

And in other fun poetry news, I found out that two of my poems have been accepted to be published in the next issue of Big Scream, which is published by David Cope. It is only the third time that some of my work will show up in print out in the wild, and it gives me another vote of confidence to keep pressing on. Although I admit that I have returned to some of my pre-Poetry Month hermit tendencies, but you know, small steps.

the making of an ekphrastic poem

I’m excited to share that I’m one of 10 poets who will read as part of Poetry on Demand at the Grand Rapids Art Museum on April 6. I’m participating in part because I didn’t take enough time to talk myself out of it — I’ve wanted a challenge to put myself out there more with my poetry, and this opportunity fits in many ways. 

The event itself is unique and more intimate than a typical poetry reading. Each poet will write a new poem that engages with a piece in the GRAM’s new Rauschenberg exhibit (hence an ekphrastic poem, for those who don’t know, is a poem that responds to art). At the event, the poet will stand near the piece they chose, and attendees will approach and ask to hear the poem. So, the event format alone is a good challenge — it’s humbling when people take time out for a poetry reading, but to share poetry in such a direct way will be especially meaningful (hopefully for everyone involved, not just the poets).

And then of course there is the issue of creating a new poem, in response to someone else’s inspired piece of work, and revealing that poem within a matter of weeks. The challenge here does not need much explanation. Especially if you know that I am a happily patient and intentional editor. This will be good practice for me in just “shipping” a poem (a concept worth borrowing from my entrepreneur side). 

The piece I chose is Blue Line Swinger. I have a longstanding attraction to dichotomy (it was the bread and butter of my English degree) and curiosity about the relationship between parallel or seemingly disconnected things, so the line running through the piece was pretty seductive to me. I want to know why it’s there, what it means, how it creates worlds on either side, and so on. And with the reading I’ve done on Rauschenberg, I’ve gathered that he had a thing for chance and serendipity, which only further spurs my interest in the line. 

I don’t want to say much more than that, because over-explaining poems is bad juju — especially when they aren’t even fully written. 

So far a handful of lines have come to me. I thought I’d take cues from Rauschenberg and separate them onto individual index cards to mix them up, similar to his Synapsis Shuffle. The only thing this has shown me so far is that I’m stuck on certain lines going a certain way — to the detriment to the flow of the rest of the poem.

So I’m backing off for today. The poem is still at work in the back of my brain, but the more my conscious hands touch it, the more stubborn I become about certain parts. Here’s to chance and the possibility of more lines presenting themselves as the poem rolls around. 

four steps to a great Monday night

1. Make the perfect cup of cocoa in a mug that sets the mood for a creative evening. (See this important piece of writing if you don’t know why such a mug exists.)

2. Enjoy said cocoa while reading in front of the fireplace. Watch Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards and feel incredibly grateful for the language and minds of poets, who carve out space we might not otherwise find. 

3. To continue your pre-game stretch, write in a journal, preferably one that was personally selected with great care after nearly an hour of browsing at a local bookstore and that happens to be in your favorite color (green is a suggested favorite color, in case you need one). 

4. Take up your mug on its suggestion and proceed to write like a motherfucker, polishing up a few earlier drafts of poems, generating some new ideas, and all the while celebrating that the week is young and you have already done something to create within it.

reading 32 Poems & exploring perspective in poetry

I picked up a subscription to 32 Poems earlier this year and finally had the chance to spend time with the latest issue tonight. As the name suggests, there are 32 poems in each issue, with a straightforward presentation. Of those 32, I marked five for re-reading and deeper processing (heavy emphasis on processing, as my notes below are not meant to be “reviews” by any stretch):

  • Against Emptiness, by James Arthur. Something is sticky about this poem. As in I keep coming back to it, but I’m not entirely sure why. I think it may have something to do with the dichotomy of air/uncertainty/emptiness and definition/certainty/purposefulness. Or maybe it’s something about meaning and how we intend, or embed, it in the world. I don’t know.
  • Carbon, by Bruce Bond. I’ve been playing around with carbon dating in one of my poems, so I was interested in how Bond used the language. Beyond that, I’m wondering what felt incomplete about this poem for me. Something about the last stanza felt out of place, like the poem shifted its perspective — from meditative to almost instructive. 
  • Words for Words, by Taije Silverman. I’d like to keep unpacking this. I’m wondering about the specific word choices of the speaker, and if there are any consistent parallels in which word is exchanged for another. They all add up to the sort of perfectly anxious final thought: “I want to dig up streets.”
  • After the End, by Ashley Anna McHugh. Something about the voice in the poem makes me want to return and listen more. 
  • On Saturn the Sky is Blue, by Sarah Lindsay. I’m attracted to anything that borrows language from the mechanics of the universe, and there are some beautiful images here, such as: …watch a thunderstorm, thirty miles tall, / walking on stilts of lightning.

Something I’ve been wondering about, which resurfaced as I read 32 Poems, is the challenge of perspective and voice. I’ve been trying to move away from writing so much in first person, if only to use that as a constraint to spark new ideas.

I’ve been thinking about the self-consciousness of first person. When is it contributing to a narrative and when does it start to feel like a claustrophobic self-portrait? With some of the poems I’ve read recently and in some of my own work, I’m beginning to feel as though holding space for “I” and “me” gets in the way of the work the poem really needs to do. Poems weighted heavily in first person have started to feel itchy to me. 

I’m not entirely sure how to resolve this, because as I noted with “Carbon” above, other perspectives can be slippery slopes to tones or styles that may not be intended. In one stanza, the tone can shift from meditative to pedantic, from inclusive to authoritative. This seems to be an easier slip when we leave the realm of the self (I, me) and must project a bit more to get to the perspectives of others (you, we, us, them). 

Which then makes me wonder: Is excessive use of first person a bit of a crutch? I’m picturing it now like a yoga block. A steady place to put my hand while the rest of my body, or the poem as it were, plays around with other elements, such as language.

Ok, no conclusions here. But I had to capture that somewhere. I’m wondering if there is a writing exercise in this… maybe slicing the same question or concept from multiple perspectives and seeing how empathy, authority and voice play out across the resulting poems. What is more powerful? What is more inclusive, accessible, compelling, etc.?

#amwriting: in which the essence pulls me toward the original experience

Worked on three poems tonight — a very rough/bad/”free write” draft of one, the beginning threads and connected concepts of another, and finally an initial and workable draft of the third. By the third poem, I was starting to realize why I may avoid this. It’s always more emotional than I expect, and always in the spots where I don’t expect it. I’m still rummaging through personal material, and the reaction surprises me when certain ideas and moments emerge in a more crystallized state. I’m not looking to make my work highly autobiographical, but I’m finding that even when I arrive at the bigger concept or polish off the root idea, it can sting more than the original experience. 

You would think getting to the essence would create distance… the ability to see the experience as some separate, objectified thing.

Instead, it inches closer to the truth. And there sit any remains of the original experience, exposed and demanding some energy. 

Not exactly the most comfortable barometer for knowing when you’re getting somewhere… but I’m game for learning to work with it.