Archive for February, 2013

Poetry Reading

Sunrise over Luxor, Egypt

Sunrise over Luxor, Egypt

Hot air balloons over the Valley of the Kings

Hot air balloons over the Valley of the Kings

I am doing a poetry reading for ten minutes on Sunday March 3rd along with five other poets.  I have been preoccupied with which poems to read, writing a new one to fit the theme, “What’s Cooking?” and now I am practicing reading:  slowly, breathe, articulate.

I attended as many of the six previous readings as I could and I made a few observations.

First, print the poems in large enough font so you can read them without squinting or stopping to find reading glasses.

Second, don’t read poems you wrote ten years ago, even if they are good.  I don’t know why but it seems lame to read something old, as though you’ve written nothing since.

Third, pick out the poems in advance.  Don’t stand there flipping through a chapbook, muttering, “Oh, this one is good…or I could read this one about when I was in chemo or that one I wrote when dad died…”

And finally:  a journal entry is not a poem.  It appears that many people write about life changing events, especially death or illness, love and loss.  Of course, those are great sources of feeling.  But to simply spill feelings and never look at the piece again is not writing poetry.  Well, not good poetry.

I recall an entry in the Best American Poetry of 2011in which the poet’s biography indicated that she had written a great deal about a painful divorce prior to being admitted to a MFA program.  Her professor insisted she use form to write poems.  He said what she wrote was a puddle and form would help her contain and express her feelings.  She did as instructed and wrote beautiful sonnets about her experiences.

After listening to a lot of poems, I started a list of Don’t Write This topics for poetry:  poems about the poet’s health or the health of loved ones or their deaths or suicides; poems about divorce; poems about politics, environment or religion; didactic poems; poems about things the poet has done, like take a trip somewhere.

However, I realize these life changing events are actually grist for a good poem.  It’s just that the words put down on paper must be an actual poem and not just a rant or a spilling of the guts.  It is unlikely the poet is the first person to experience these kinds of events.  The trick is for the poet to express the feelings in a fresh way that helps the listener or reader understand or resolve the pain, rather than wallow in it.

I also made a list of things to write about that are perhaps not life changing events, but would make a good topic for a poem:  music, literature, art, cosmology, science, foreign places, ordinary people, animals, spirituality, friendship, love, history, trains, horses, cars, hope, legends, myths, nature, food, language.

Well, perhaps this is more about me than any other poet.  I avoid writing about the life changing events of my life because it always comes out as drivel.  Here’s to the poets who can write good poems about bad events.

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Best American Poetry 2012

103 dino

Dinosaurs at the San Antonio Botanical Garden

Last year I reviewed many of the poems in The Best American Poetry 2011.  This year I am just going to make a few observations.

First, I was grateful for the explanations the poets provided.  In most cases their comments added a lot to understanding the poem and appreciating its nuances.  In a few cases, the explanations were as bizarre or obtuse as the poem.  There were very few poems like that, however.  The majority are thoughtful, dense and layered, and very personal in the sense that these poems are from deep inside the poet, the result of a great deal of thinking, remembering, studying, and toying with an idea or image.

Many poets commented that they had been working on the BAM poem for years, either to wait to be able to finish it or to subtract from it or to add to it.  Many used historical and literary sources as their muse; some poems just came from tapping a hidden memory or from a close observation.  A couple of poets self-referentially selected lines from their own, older, poems to trigger a new one.

However, using my newly found ModPo knowledge, I do not think any of these poets are in the chance or unoriginal camps.  There are a couple that are definitely Language Poets, but even then, when you read the poet’s comments on the poem, you realize these are not just randomly constructed sentences strung together.  Rae Armantrout’s Accounts, for instance is so much more accessible when you understand that she’s writing about a conversation she had with a physicist about the origin of matter.

All of the poets – with one exception – are academics with long or at least established positions and many publications.  One exception is Spencer Reece who is chaplain to the Bishop of Spain.  Reginald Betts is an author and spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice; Stephanie Brown is a librarian;; a Canadian, Steven Heighton, is a novelist;  Sarah Lindsey is a copy editor; Amit Majmudar is a radiologist; Fady Joudah is a physician.

Franz Wright says he “…cannot say I have an occupation…”  There are several other full time writers, usually novelists.

There are no plumbers, carpenters or secretaries; no clerks or street sweepers.  These are careerist poets, not dilatants.  That could be a function of the guest editor, Mark Doty, who freely admits that the anthology could be called, “Seventy-Five Poems Mark Likes.”  But, as a well-established poet and professor himself, Doty no doubt is also responding to his tribe.

Finally, two last comments.  A couple of women, actively mothering, I believe, mentioned their children in their bios.  Only one man did, the physician Fady Joudah.

Mary Ruefle is an artist as well as a poet.  She erases words from books to create new text.  Her website is www.maryruefle.com and well worth checking out.

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