Archive for November, 2011

Pretending to Be a Poet, II

I found an online interview with Ben Lerner on the website for Believer, “a monthly magazine where length is no object.”  In the interview, published in August 2011, Lerner says that his novel, Leaving the Atocha Station* celebrates poetry but savages poems.  Then Lerner quotes from the book:

I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.

Italics added to poetic possibility.  Lerner goes on to say that what his character tends to find beautiful in poems is an abstract potential that is betrayed by actual poems.

Isn’t it just like humans to anticipate something and then be disappointed by the real event?  In some way, life can never live up to its potential.

I had thought of poetic possibilities, as a blog name, as a place to explore the possibilities of poetry, not as a place to just drift.  Poems can always be noodled with and edited…and as long as they stay unfinished, there will be no disillusionment.  But how can you move on unless you declare the poem finished and … but of course, it is not, because it can always be noodled with.

There’s a terrific interview with Elizabeth Bishop in the Paris Review from the Summer of 1981 where she talks about starting a poem about whales many years previously and that she can’t publish it now because whales are trendy and the interviewer, oddly, asks, but it’s finished now? and Bishops says, no, but I think I could finish it easily.

Maybe poets are just stuck, finding it easier to move backward than forward.

*See my blog post, Pretending to Be a Poet, Nov. 23, 2011.


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Pretending to Be a Poet

I enjoyed James Wood’s review of Leaving the Atocha Station in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  The book, written by Ben Lerner, a published poet, is about a young man, Adam, who goes to Spain to spend a year doing research so he can write a long poem about the Spanish Civil War. But it’s really about what’s on his mind, which loops continuously.  The reviews I read – Wood’s and one on the NPR website –suggest the book is reminiscent of my July 30th post, So Many Questions, about Matthew Yaeger for whom one question led to another and another until he’d written a poem of more than a thousand questions.  Or perhaps it’s akin to my favorite quote from John Asbury:   “Writing poetry is like watching TV.  There’s always something on.”

Here’s what caught my eye in Wood’s review.  Wood says, “But if Adam stopped pretending that he was only pretending to be a poet, he would have to write some poems, and confront the questions of talent and of vocation.”  But Adam says, “If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality….”  Wood takes issue with this, but it is hard to say that poetry is not a marginal activity.

For instance, I am trying to find a library copy of poems by a woman, A. E. Stallings.  I saw a reference in a WFOP* Museletter to her poem, “Jigsaw Puzzle.”  It is delightfully inventive and…it rhymes!  Ms. Stallings is a 2011 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, but her books Hapax and Archaic Smile are not available from the South Central Library System.  I can get them from the UW-Madison Library… but I can’t, which is another story.

When I looked up Lerner’s book, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” (Atocha Station is the Madrid train station which was bombed in 2004, killing 190 people), the LINK cat system offered the helpful suggestion that perhaps I meant the attach station or the attaché station or the aitch station or the Attica station or the Arch station.

Wood’s comment that if you stop pretending to be pretending to be a poet you’d have to write some poems, also hit home.  Some people say you are a poet if you write a poem.  Is that enough?  What about Vocation?  The world is full of dilatants like me and then there are some people who work not just on poems, but on the industry that makes it go:  the readings, the meetings, the workshops, the newsletters, chapbooks, reviews, editing, etc., etc., that go into making “making poems” a business or at least a community activity.  As I read local poetry publications like the WFOP Museletter and Verse Wisconsin I am blown away by the labor of love that is producing poetry for the community.  That commitment is a large part of Poetry as Vocation.

*Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets

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What I Do When I Want to Give Up

I had a poem accepted in the WFOP (Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets) Spring 2012 Museletter, and that is pretty exciting for me.  However.  Yes, however.  I am truly a minion in the poetic world and I should really just stop and go to my rocker or something.  However, the urge to write and to create is sometimes strong enough for me to simply say, hey, I can do this; I can even get better at this.

Still, sometimes when I look at older stuff I’ve written, I think, I was much more creative then.  Why?  More spontaneous?  Am I trying too hard to learn form and fit my thoughts into a mold?  Did I know less then about poetry – what’s good, famous, important or simply what’s being written and published today?  Am I trying too hard?  Not hard enough or, more reasonably, often enough?  Yes!  All of the above.

I have been too busy lately with things necessary and desired to drift and dream and let my subconscious have its way, so what have I done instead?  Organize.  When in angst, I organize.  So I now have folders for the WFOP Museletters, Verse Wisconsin, Woodland Pattern Book Center, Rosebud, and Wisconsin People and Ideas (the magazine of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters).  I have a large accordian folder for poems that I have enjoyed, plus a collection of articles about poems, poets and writing poetry; one large accordian folder for poems I have written and… the piece de resistance, a very slim three ring binder for poems I have written that have been published.  Yea.  I hope to keep adding to it, even as I know that the exercise is hopeless.  As Emily Dickenson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”  Perhaps someday my poems will fly, too.

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Last Leaf

One red leaf still clings,

stubbornly, to a branch.

Let go.  It’s over.


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You can see from the photo that I am slowly but surely converting bats of wool into yarn.  The white ball on the left was my first effort.  It’s big and lumpy.  The grey to the right was next, followed by the spool in back, which was most consistently spun.  The orange and green ball in the middle is actually plied:  I spun orange yarn and green yarn separately and then twisted them together into two plies.  That ball is ready for knitting but you could knit with the other yarns as well.

The small camel-colored ball in front is… camel hair.  It’s from the camel hair on the right in back.  It’s what we will use to knit the amulet bag.  I get a pretty good grade in spinning, but knitting is another matter entirely.  I am a very poor knitter and even though I understand it, and I know the stitches, my hands do the wrong thing.  Well, I will try.  I have to finish spinning the camel hair first.  I only have four days to spin, knit and full it (wash it to make it somewhat fluffed up).  Better get busy!

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Emma and Dorthea Consider Rejection

The girls are back!   And I have more rejected poems.  The theme was “masks.”  One problem is that I do not interpret the theme to the satisfaction of the editors who are looking to publish something coherent.   I do not seem to cohere properly.  Here’s one of the misfits, including what “inspired” me.

The inspiration for my poem, “The Truth is Not in the Mirror,” is an exhibition brochure I received from the Haggerty Museum of Art atMarquette University in Milwaukee.  The brochure contained sample photographs from an upcoming exhibit entitled, The Truth is Not in the Mirror:  Photography and a Constructed Identity.  One photo is of a woman positioned on a deck overlooking Monument Valley.  She looks over her shoulder at the viewer. The photo is titled, “Nicole, Monument Valley, 2010.”


The Truth is Not in the Mirror

You find yourself somewhere

and you ask, “Who am I? Who shall I be?”

So you construct an identity.

You are already tough: hard and guarded.

You decide to be something else.

Open.  As open as the plain

that stretches beyond the horizon.

Even flat land is shot with obstacles

that say, “Halt, you cannot go there.”

The pain of ‘no’ shows in the circles

beneath tired eyes, in tangled hair;

but your guard dissolves like shadows

fading in the glare of the sun.

You open your heart to the wind and rain,

and lie on your back to wait for the dawn.

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