Ecstatic about Ekphrastic!

First, apologies for the cheesy title, but it was far too tempting. Second, this semester we haven’t spoken much on ekphrastic poetry, which happens to be one of my favorites. I like the idea of linking the written and visual arts, much as I like the idea of linking forms and manifestations of writing. So here, if you’re interested, is a prompt:
I’ve provided a few of artists that I enjoy and find provoking and hopefully they will lead you down a road in your poetry that you wouldn’t otherwise have ventured! 

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Paintings (in order):

Beethoven Frieze -Gustav Klimt

Houses of Parliament Ablaze -J.M.W. Turner

Dancer -Joan Miró

Japanese Scroll Paintings- Unknown

Poetics of Trauma

It might be a little late in the semester to be wondering about where to generate poetry from, but in a quick move to generate a few more points in the positive, I’ve been wondering about the transformation of trauma into poetry.

It is my guess that this stems from my recent experience at a Trump Rally.  While I was allotted more than double the magazine’s word limit, I still don’t feel all right.  The reader needn’t worry, though, this will not be a post about Trump.

Gregory Orr, a poet and critic who is largely influential to my understanding of poetry wrote Poetry as Survival this has interested me ever since, but has taken a backseat in composition in the frantic heat of trying to produce what I think a workshop will dig.

Maybe this is all wrong.

Orr accidentally killed his brother in a hunting accident when they were boys, and uses poetry as a stay against that misery.  If that’s not ripe grounds for poetry, I don’t know what is.  The problem is, where then do I get my material when the most vaguely traumatic thing I’ve beheld is a blonde lunatic moan about Mexico?

I am not unattuned to strife in this world, but I frankly hesitate to write “worldly” poetry or something that envisions another people’s trauma.  It’s not my story to write, and if I were to write it there’s a higher chance that I’d like to gamble on that I’d be writing it from the entity causing the trauma, since historically, my demographic has seen the least and dealt the most.

It’s going to bug me, and I’m willing to wager that there will be at least one poem in my portfolio that deals with traumatic affairs, but its level of success remains to be seen.

Notes from AWP (pt. 1)

I returned from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in LA a few weeks ago, but I haven’t had much time to set down my thoughts about it until now. I’m planning on posting my thoughts in a few parts: the first (this one) will be on a panel on poetry, the second will be on two panels on writing and place, and the third will be some brief thoughts on AWP as a whole.

AWP was held in the Los Angeles Convention Center, in Downtown LA. The Convention Center is huge, as Oliver mentioned, about the size and feel of an airport, except with more writers running between the small conference rooms, and a massive book fair in a warehouse-type room in the center of the building. In total we attended seven hour-and-fifteen-minute-long panels. During the panels, writers would sit at a table in the front of the room, present their talks on the topic at hand, and then take questions at the end. I took notes as best I could, so I could bring back this information and share it, and these blog posts are adapted from those notes.

I first attended a panel called: “Poets on Craft: The Furious Burning Duende.” The discussion surrounded the malign spirit that Spanish poet Fredrico García Lorca named the duende in his 1933 lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende.” Essentially, to Lorca, the duende is the spirit of poetry itself, a spirit that rests deep in the heart of the poet. In the lecture, he says, “…the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’”

According to panelist Mahogany Brown (a poet, musician and journalist, and a contributor to the BreakBeat Poets anthology), the duende is a spirit summoned from within by fighting death or fighting battles that can never be finished, like racism and oppression. Jaqueline Jones LaMon (a prolific poet and president of the Cave Canem foundation for black poetry), citing Lorca’s lecture, said that the duende “serenades death’s house.” She continued, citing a Luther Vandross interview where he was asked why he orchestrated his live performances in great detail, and he responded that it was preparing (paraphrasing) “for the initial moment when the arena goes black and silent…we as the audience hold our breath and gasp because our breath, our very connection to life–has been taken away.” She concluded that the duende arises from the silences between death and life, and it’s what makes us write. She then read the poem “Far Memory” from Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light, and her own poem “The Present Song of Seagulls on the San Francisco Bay” to illustrate this principle of poetry arising from the spaces and silences between life and death.

Patrick Rosal (a poet, author of My American Kundiman and many other collections) was the next panelist to speak. He opened with Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass”, as evidence for the fact that the duende as inspiration arises from a place between life and death. He also reminded us that Lorca’s project was nationalist, and that his use of the duende was nationalistic, appropriated from gypsies. Nevertheless, he derived lessons from the idea of the duende, and showed us by reading a non-fiction piece he wrote about his uncle, who was poor and worked in a plastics factory in the Philippines, and sang beautiful sorrowful songs. The duende, to Rosal, is the location of deep sorrow within the body, a sorrow he felt in mourning death in his family as well–a sorrow he did not need nationalism to feel. The last speaker, Sandra Beasley, (a poet and a professor at the University of Tampa MFA program), read Sandra Cisneros’s “Night Madness Poem”, which she said claimed duende as a force. Beasley turned our attention to the fact that the duende can also manifest in a poet’s language, with spontaneous verb tenses or multiple expanding metaphors. She then turned our attention to spaces that can hold death, and used the example of a household with family in the military as a place that exists in the “unresolved narrative of death.”

I wanted to spend time outlining this conversation because I think the idea of the duende is something to be aware of while writing. I’ve noticed that this class writes a lot about death, so maybe we’re all already aware of this force, but I think keeping the duende in mind, either as a material product of the writer fighting for life, or as a spirit that lurks within the writer, can help inform all the creative writing you do. Recently while writing and revising I’ve been asking myself if or how my poetry confronts death or inhabits the liminal spaces between life and death, and I think it has been helping me clarify my poetry’s stakes. The idea of the duende has also prompted me to ask myself what my stakes are, where my writing comes from in the first place, and what it might be helping me to fight for. What do you think about the duende? Can you see it in your own writing?

Shakespeare, Anyone?

Disclaimer: this is less a discussion about poetry and more about language. Due to a specialized and, therefore, biased past, I fail to see the displeasure and struggle that surround the works of William Shakespeare amongst students. Throughout my academic career, most students I have spoken to dread reading his plays and/or analyzing his sonnets. They argue that the language doesn’t make sense to them, that the syntax is complicated, even that the stories are irrelevant. Perhaps it is because of extensive study and involvement in productions of Shakespeare that I find the language easily comprehensible and beautiful. For example, in Act I, scene ii of The Winter’s Tale, the character Hermione says:

“You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say, Sir, no going. Verily,
You shall not go; a lady’s verily’s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner or my guest? by your dread verily,
One of them you shall be.”

Not only is there the obvious “unsphere the stars” that is beautiful to both the eye and the ear, but there is a repetition of sounds that makes this line a fun experience for reader and actor. Following this, the “e” in “yet” and “verily,” then in “guest” and “fees” lets that sound linger on the tongue. This is not simply a mastery of the English language, but also one in comedy. I would argue that the actor portraying Hermione enjoys this wordplay using “verily.”
I suppose the question I am posing here is whether or not you find Shakespeare an arduous experience, and whether or not you enjoy his poetics (this including both his sonnets and plays)? What is it that puts students off from reading or watching Shakespeare?

Examining “Intrigue in the Trees,” by John Brehm

Cecily Parks’ collection stirred in me great interest in the way that poetry allows us to explore the relationship between humans and the earth. I read this poem in The Sun, a magazine of photographs, poems, and prose. “Intrigue in the Trees” shares some similarities with Cecily Parks work, as it focuses on the tension between humans and non-human nature, but Brehm seems to “side with” the earth rather than humans. He begins the poem by implying that if the earth were to extinguish humans, this act would be with good reason.  This is an interesting technique: the speaker in the poem retains a strong voice though the content suggests that his voice does not matter. The speaker assigns positive character to the trees and then admits that he cannot know what the trees are thinking, or if they’re thinking at all.

The same issue of the magazine featured an interview with Robin Wall Kimmer, a Native American botanist. Kimmer is confidant that plants have intelligence, and that if humans dismiss the notions of emotional and intellectual vitality that we see in ourselves, we can observe and learn from that intelligence. She also suggests that humans refuse to see plant intelligence because that refusal gives us ethical license to control or harm them. It seems that Brehm, a poet, is attempting to do what Kimmer, a scientist, encourages: to step outside of ideas about value or intelligence that apply only to his human form, and consider the trees as equal or superior to him.

Intrigue in the Trees
by John Brehm
Often I wonder:
Is the earth trying to get
rid of us, shake us off,
drown us, scorch us
to nothingness?
To save itself and all other
creatures slated for extinction?
The trees around here
seem friendly enough —
stoic, philosophically inclined
toward nonjudgmental
awareness and giving
in their branchings
perfect examples
of one thing becoming two
and remaining one —
but who knows
what they really feel?

Just last night I was walking
to my favorite cafe,
the Laughing Goat,
when I saw a flock of crows
circling raincloudy sky,
arguing, speaking strangely,
suddenly alight on
a maple tree, dozens of them
closing down their wings
like arrogant, ill-tempered
magistrates. Some kind
of consultation
was happening there,
some plan unfolding
(animals think we’re crazy
for thinking they can’t think),
and everybody was looking up,
looking up and watching.

Taking Apart: “The Municipal Gum”

After reading “Australia, 1970” I wanted to find more Australia-themed poetry, and a coincidental Google search shows that the English first spotted it 246 years ago today, so that seemed like a sign, and I went and found poetry by Oodgeroo Noonucall, who was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse. I was particularly drawn to “Municipal Gum,” which was published in 1966 and is as follows:

Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest halls
And wild bird calls
Here you seems to me
Like that poor cart-horse
Castrated, broken, a thing wronged,
Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged,
Whose hung head and listless mien express
Its hopelessness.
Municipal gum, it is dolorous
To see you thus
Set in your black grass of bitumen–
O fellow citizen,
What have they done to us?

“Municipal Gum” deals with the out of place-ness of a gum tree in the middle of an urban environment, and that same dislocation in the poem’s speaker, who links themselves to the tree by calling the two of them “us” and addressing it as a “fellow citizen,” and that feeling is heightened significantly by the irregularity of the poem’s rhyme scheme and meter. The piece uses a rhyme scheme – AABCCBBDEEFFGGHHG – that switches once the rhyming pattern becomes expected, reintroduces rhymes from earlier in the poem, makes frequent use of near-rhymes, and at one point includes a line that rhymes with no other line in the poem, all of which coalesces so that they create an uncertain, confused tone within the poem. There is an equally offputting quality about the way that the sudden switches in meter occur – a line like “Municipal gum, it is dolorous” might be expected to be followed by a line of the same length and meter, but it is immediately succeeded by “To see you thus,” which is much shorter and uses a different meter – at the same time that it breaks a pattern, though, the poem rhymes, continuing to bolster a sense of uncomfortable continuity in the piece. Speech sounds also act as an extension of this poem’s tone, with guttural noises and consonance denoting negative elements in the poem – the section of the poem that compares the gumtree to an abused draft animal especially makes use of these techniques: Like that poor cart-horse / Castrated, broken, a thing wronged, / Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged.” The ideal world, the “cool world of leafy forest halls,” on the other hand makes more use of assonance and uses  softer and less contrasting consonants than appear in other parts of the poem. The use of sound in “Municipal Gum” seems to me like a good example of a poem conveying equal amount of emotion through form as through content, which, coupled with a physically short poem, makes this piece resonant without having to speak for long at all.

“Occult” by Joyce Carol Oates

Hey everyone, I’ve been on a Joyce Carol Oates kick, and I recently happened upon her poem “Occult,” but I’m wondering what everyone else’s readings of this poem are? It’s kind of blurry, but I really want to see what other people are reading from this poem. (the /s are my addition, the post won’t put the stanza breaks in correctly).

the blood-smear across the knuckles:
painless, inexplicable.
once you discover it pain will begin,
in miniature.
never will you learn what caused it.
you forget it. /
the telephone answered on the twelfth ring:
silence without breath, cunning, stark.
and then he hangs up.
and you stand there, alone.
then you forget. /
and your father’s inexplicable visit:
two days’ notice, a ten-hour reckless drive.
rains, 80 mph winds, bad luck all the way,
traffic backed up, a broken windshield wiper,
and no stopping him. /
clumsy handshakes.
How are—?
You seem—!
How good to —!
How long will—?
he must leave in the morning,
must get back.
a gas station two blocks away repairs the wiper. /
did he sense death,
and so he raced to us?
did he already guess at his death
behind those nervous fond smiles,
the tumult of memories he had to bear? /
nothing we know can explain his visit,
or the new, strange way he moved among us—
touching us, squeezing our arms, smiling.
the visit was an excuse.
the words that surrounded our touching were an excuse.
inexplicable, that the language we invent may be a means
to get us closer, to allow us to touch one another,
and then to back away. /
I feel like this poem is about a son or daughter who gets an “inexplicable visit” from a father, who was either sick or dying and was acting more affectionate during this visit, as a way of saying goodbye.  I wonder why the title is “Occult” if the poem’s subject matter is so familial, but I’m also aware that I could be completely wrong in my reading.  If anyone has any other readings, I’d love to hear them!

The Anxiety to Post about Poetry

So here I am struggling for the thousandth time to write a blog post. I often start a post and then crumble under a frustrating feeling that I have no right to say anything about poetry, or should I say Poetry? I feel this way for a number of reasons including a riddling amount of anxiety that I’m just wrong. So in response I’m wondering how you all feel about being a writer and your credentials? A common theme in a few conversations and presentations I’ve heard lately is “the amateur” versus the formally educated. Do any of you feel that either is more valid and if so why? Also do any of you feel like there’s a pressure to be extensively educated before you can have an opinion worth stating in a group of writers? Do any of you feel there are biases against you in a writing community? I’m just curious and anyone who wants to share an experience or a feeling please do!

I think there is pressure on any group of specific study to be extremely educated before their opinions count or their work can be esteemed. In an article I read a while ago, sorry I can’t find the link, a successful graphic novelist urged that he felt extremely frustrated by this attitude that an artist needs to have a degree or be extremely well versed in the history of their art to start working. He felt that there should be a push for all artists to just start working as soon as they feel they want to be an artist. He got a lot of push back because other graphic artists felt that “we don’t need more bad art.” However I think he had a point. By saying there are certain credentials for being an artist, we’re taking away from what art is, don’t you think? I mean there’s always room for improvement and there are certain mechanics and techniques that improve the art, but art is an expression of oneself. Shouldn’t art just be a chill collaborative movement to share how we feel about being alive?

Writing Prompt: Song Lyrics

Alright, everyone, here’s a quick prompt that’s pretty self-explanatory: include a favorite song lyric in the first line of a poem.  I’m fighting with taking lines out of their original context, and I thought that an exercise like this might help. The longer the lyric you manage to incorporate, the more brownie points you get, in my book. Here’s my stab at a lyric-infused poem, pulled from Mother Mother’s “Bit By Bit”:

i’m gonna build my house in the wildest thickets

thighs ripped wide around a clump of nettle-beads

i’ll remember my trowel too late, my seeds sown

along the fence in a rivulet mountain rain began.

bees balmy wandering in the fuzzy sunlight and i

scream for feeling their grisly pinpricks splinter.

I hope this prompt is generative, and I hope that everyone has a fun time with it! Post your poems below, if you come up with something you want to share!

Camille Rankine’s “Symptoms of Doctrine” and Re-Working Film Content

When I attended Camille Rankine’s reading this past week, I distinctly remember her talking about watching The Avengers, and how one of the lines stuck with her, while the movie didn’t.  She used Loki’s “I am burdened with glorious purpose” line, and I remember that as she read it, I couldn’t help but smile.  The Avengers and the fans of The Avengers online have used that line and GIFs from that scene to express anything from mild pride to feelings of intense social anxiety, and while this isn’t anywhere near where Camille Rankine was going, I can’t help but let my preconceived ideas about that scene/line into her poem.  Is it worth it to use a line, such a memorable line, from some other kind of media to write a poem, or does it overshadow the poem?  If I hadn’t watched The Avengers, I wouldn’t have any idea and I probably would have applauded that line, but as it is, I can only think about the movie and the scenes it links to.

In recent workshops, we’ve seen pieces worked around song lyrics, and with zero knowledge of Bruce Springsteen, I enjoyed the poem, but it seemed to have a different affect on readers who knew the song and the story attached.  I think that Camille Rankine’s poem was similar, and while I really believe in the power of art to inspire more art, I myself am unsure whether I would take such a risk in my poetry.