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?

“and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses” (Poetry as subversive expansion)

I hate to be that guy, but ah what the hell…

Last semester I took a course on James Joyce with Dr. Doggett, and it blew my mind, since we read Ulysses. It’s impossible to quickly the form and content of the whole book, but you can pretty much understand it as Joyce’s attempt to construct an epic out of an ordinary day of ordinary in Dublin in 1904.

Ulysses shows us, among many things, that every person is infinitely complex, elusive, sensitive. The novel illustrates, criticizes, and deconstructs modernity, and ideologies like Irish nationalism, masculinity, sexuality, marriage, British imperialism, romanticism, the growth of modern capitalism, masochism and victorian pornographic novels…it’s about everything. Beyond the various complex explorations of political and ideological structures throughout the book’s 700+ pages, Ulysses also makes a beautiful and subversive political point too–that nobody can truly be categorized or understood as one thing. That point finds its expression on the formal level too, by blurring the lines between prose and poetry. The novel begins in a somewhat regular realistic fiction mode, and descends through a number of modes (parodies of newspapers, parodies of nationalist rhetoric, etc), into a forty page eight sentence stream of consciousness at the end, from one of the only female voices in the book, where the difference between poetry and prose seems to break down completely.

Here’s the end of the book (no spoilers, I promise, but sorry for the huge block quote (not really sorry though because it’s beautiful)):

…and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

So this comes after 650 or so pages of tightly controlled form, lifting off of the page from the protagonist’s (Leopold Bloom) wife’s (Molly) point of view, when she can’t sleep after he returns home from his travels around Dublin during the day. From the outside (Leo’s view) in the scene before this, she’s silent. From inside Molly’s mind, poetry breaks out of the novel’s form, and lifts off of the page in this last sentence, expanding to encompass multiple landscapes and people, ending in an affirmation of life in all its sensuous detail. Notice how image-based this is, how particular they are to this narrator (Andalusia, the seedcake, the straw hat), but how you can see the world extending out from this singular point of view, becoming almost infinite. I think this is a good goal for which to strive with poetry–expanding out to show life in its beauty and complexity.

More than anything, Ulysses changed the way I think about writing and poetry, how we can use language to illustrate our complexities, and to subvert the structures that would categorize us.

Life, Art, Image

I’ve been thinking (and talking) a lot about the image recently, so I thought I might as well write a post to get us started on talking about it outside of workshop.

I’ll start with this big ol’ block quote from Aleksandr Voronsky:

“First of all, art is the cognition of life. Art is not the free play of fantasy, feelings, and moods: art is not the expression of merely the subjective sensations and experiences of the poet; art is not assigned the goal of primarily awakening in the reader―good feelings. Like science, art cognizes life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality. But sciences analyzes, art synthesizes; science is abstract, art is concrete; science turns to the mind of man, art to his sensual [i.e., sensory] nature. Science cognizes life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation.”

Voronsky was a Marxist critic who participated in the Russian Revolution (and was later executed in 1937 under Stalin). What he’s saying, essentially, is that art cognizes reality (life), and therefore it serves an objective social purpose. I think, in this quote, is a statement about the ethics of art too: that art ought to think about life through images corresponding to reality, in order to communicate with society (consequently, bad art fails to do all these things).

Agree or disagree with this (I really want to see what everyone thinks about this quote!), I think it’s an important argument to consider, especially since we’re meeting weekly to evaluate and and improve our own art. So that quote is my way of prefacing this two part question for us:

1) What is art’s function? Why do we write poems in the first place?

2) How can art most effectively communicate?

To put it another way, why do we create art, what should we create, how do we create it?

These are large questions that artists have been debating for quite a long time, but they’re important, and I think we should all be working with these, since we’re in a class about creating art.

I don’t want to preach necessarily, but I do think it’s very important for all of us poets to learn to write through images that correspond to the real, lived, observed world. If a poem consists of images that come from the lived world, and if the artist is thinking through these images to examine or constitute abstract concepts that relate to the real world–to humanity–I think a poem is on its way toward being good, evocative, thoughtful piece of art.

What do you think? Is art a means of cognizing life? Is image the way? Is all good art social?

Form as Movement

In my poetry, I usually focus on form at the level of the line, especially while writing and first revising. I focus on the line level first (after coming up with a basic focus for the content that I want to somehow communicate), because it helps me think in clear and defined images, and the line allows me to focus on how those images that I’m stacking up in a stanza intertwine and carry the content of the language I’m putting down across the space of the line break. I use line lengths to control both the amount of imagery and information that the reader comes upon at a given time, and to control the speed, the breath, with which the poem unfolds.

I use stanza breaks and stanzas themselves as forms of movement between tones or ideas, breaks for deep breath, or breaks for space and resonance (allowing an echo). I’ve always loved the idea of the stanza as a room (thanks Italy), though sometimes it can be a hoarder’s room or a crowded one room house–it’s a helpful metaphor for working through how I want each movement of the poem to feel, and whether that feeling lines up with what I’m trying to say.

I’ve thought about form on the level of meter, to the extent of trying to speed up or slow down poem by changing syllable stresses in the line, but I haven’t gotten to the level of picking a form to extend and enforce a particular poem that needs that particular form. I feel as though that’s the next step, the big step, toward controlling movement and pacing in the poem–putting it in a particular form that has been handed down, a sonnet, or terza rima, when appropriate, in order to really put my language under pressure, make it jump through hoops and perform the feats that will get across the ideas, problems, and particular descriptions I’m looking to communicate.

What Now?

So after submitting my portfolio, I became a little afraid for the summer, as I usually taper down with the writing as I start sleeping later and later and let the heat take me, etc. I really want to try to keep a different kind of journal this summer, more poetry than “I did this today,” so hopefully I’ll better remember the details of the experiences I have, even if it’s just the way the guy at my deli (Will) cuts bagels. A while ago, I picked up this book of Kerouac’s poetry from Goodwill (believe it or not, a better poetry selection than some Barnes & Nobles), called “Book of Sketches,” and I just wanted to share an exercise from the book that I think might help y’all carry on writing into the summer.

Essentially, once a day, when you think you should, stop and make a sketch! Kerouac carried a little notebook around with him and he filled it with scribbled down scenes or feelings, proving, as he scribbled on the cover, “that sketches ain’t verse But Only What Is.” So once a day during the summer, find something worthy of sketching, and sketch what is, no matter how small or large. Don’t stop writing!


Geneseo Writing Community & the Poet-tree


Anybody see the Greek Tree today? It was covered with poems! I’ll call the poem-covered Greek Tree the “Poet-tree,” also it’s a fun play on words. Anyway, the tree was “painted” with poems by a group / collective of students called Guerrilla. They aim to foster a closer and more open writing community, and to publicize student art all around campus. Their mission made me curious to ask you guys: what would you like to see happen in Geneseo’s writing community that isn’t already happening? We have a lot going on–a popular slam scene, open mics, a strong writing program, but do you think we need more avenues for publish work and getting together to talk about it?

Getting in the Mood… (for Writing)

So I’ve been having trouble finding the right time/place/mindset in order to write, and I thought I’d bring my thoughts about my troubles here so we can talk about it. I’ll preface my post with a question, which I hope will send you guys to the comments to answer:

How do you start writing, at what time of day, where, in what mindset?

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Quick Poetry Exercise!

Hi all, just a quick exercise a friend and I came across when messing around in InDesign yesterday:

Write your poem with the text aligned to the right margin, not the left. Pay attention to how odd it feels to break the line, and to how your words look when they’re crawling left instead of reaching right. Enjoy!

Just a Line to Share

Are you ever reading and you come across something and you say “well damn, that’s just it, isn’t it”? I think that’s the mark of good, tuned writing–somehow it resonates with a truth of emotion, reality, what have you. I was reading some William Carlos Williams just now (his book/manifesto “Spring and All,” featuring many fantastic pieces of writing and pieces about writing), and I just read this line (in the poem “IX”), put the book down, and had to tell y’all:

“In my life the furniture eats me”

Isn’t that great? It might have to do with the context, and it might have to do with the zoom function of life > furniture (similar to Eliot’s life > coffee spoons),  but I think you can admire the line itself for the fact that that’s just it, isn’t it?
A bit of context for that line, an excerpt leading up to and following it:

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Notes from Our Class with Erika Meitner

Here’s my interpretation of the question and answer session we had with Erika Meitner in class. I say interpretation, because my notes are definitely not exact, and I tried to capture the essence of what she said, instead of full quotes.

Q: How did Copia come to be a book?

A: Some of her poet friends had been working on project books focusing a particular subject, but her poems weren’t intended to fit together. In order to get a book together, she’d look at poems on the wall for connections, get friends to read and connect them, and look for particular obsessions to track what she’d put together. She ended up with a collection of poems about her Jewish Grandma, poems about Detroit, infertility, desire, documentary photos, etc, grouped in certain ways, but with common threads running through all. 

Continue reading “Notes from Our Class with Erika Meitner”