25 April 2011

Don't call it a comeback

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything here. For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how I want to use this space. It occurs to me that I’ve done what I too often do: overthinking, doing nothing. So, at least for now, I’m going to be more active around here and see what happens.

So, a quick highlight reel from the past three months.

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Trying to catch up on some reading. Most recently: The Day Underneath the Day by C. Dale Young, Underlife by January Gill O’Neil, News of the World by Philip Levine, The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson, Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone by Janice M. Harrington, Holding Company by Major Jackson.

I also reread One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and was surprised to discover how much the film version had taken over my memories of the novel. In my mind, the film is a Jack Nicholson movie, but the novel is far more interesting—and moving—because it’s really more concerned with the first-person narrator Chief Bromden. Anyhow, it got me thinking a lot about the (unfortunate? necessary?) changes that literature undergoes when it’s adapted for the screen. It also got me thinking about how literature changes over time, how our memories of texts can replace the texts themselves, how our reception of a text changes every time we come back to it.

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A good friend received some amazing news. Lory Bedikian, an MFA classmate at Oregon, won the 2010 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry for her manuscript, The Book of Lamenting. Check out the announcement and find more information here.

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I had the chance to see The Low Anthem at the Old South Church in Boston. Strange as it felt to sit in a pew on a Friday night, I can’t think of a cooler place to see a show. Also: they were awesome. They played most of the new album (Smart Flesh) and lots of earlier stuff as well. My favorites: “This God Damn House” (featuring a chorus of feedback from what seemed like every cell phone in the audience), “To the Ghosts Who Write History Books,” and an astounding cover of “Sally Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?”

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My manuscript was named a semi-finalist in two contests. I have two manuscripts looking for a home, so I’m keeping fingers permanently crossed. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I very much believe in jinxes, so that’s all I’m going to say about that.

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We’ve been spending a lot of time at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. My two-year-old daughter is obsessed with Copley’s Watson and the Shark. Sometimes for thirty minutes at a time, we just sit on the bench in front of the painting while she studies it closely. She asks lots of questions. She tells strangers about it when they walk into the gallery. She demands that I tell her the story of the painting at bedtime. She’s very excited that I’m trying to work on a poem about the whole experience.

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I’ve been very fortunate in the past couple months to publish a few poems and to have a few more accepted by journals.

“To the Guy Who Stole My Bike” appeared in Two Weeks: A Digital Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, a fantastic collection put together by the editors of Linebreak. The e-book includes audio recordings of each poem, including my reading of Margaret Walther’s poem and Angie Macri’s reading of mine.

I’m also thrilled to have a new poem in the April issue of The Collagist and one in the current issue of Waccamaw. And I’m excited to have poems forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and North American Review.

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I’m currently addicted to playoff hockey. My dad got me hooked on the Bruins when I was a kid. Again, because of the possibility of jinxes, I’ll say nothing more.

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Last week I had the chance to meet Major Jackson when he came to my school to read and to meet with students. It was great to meet him, to hear him read some of his work, and to talk about writing with him over lunch in the cafeteria. The best part, however, was that my daughter came with me. She was too sick for daycare, and I didn’t want to miss the day. So she and I sat on the floor and listened to his poems. She drew a picture of him and gave it to him as a present. He let her play with his iPad while he and I talked. And later, when we came home, she asked me to read his poem about jump rope and monkey bars: “Urban Renewal XVII” from Hoops. That’s about as good as a day can be.

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Music at the moment: Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, Dear Companion

22 January 2011

Filling in the blanks

Lately I've been trying to read books that I feel like I should have read by now, the books I've bought over the years that I never got around to reading, the books recommended by friends that I never found the time to find.

In recent weeks, I've read Some Ether by Nick Flynn, Shake by Joshua Beckman, and Nervous Systems by William Stobb. In the next few weeks, I'm planning to read Paper Anniversary by Bobby C. Rogers, Underlife by January Gill O’Neil, Phantom Noise by Brian Turner, Prairie Fever by Mary Biddinger, and After the Ark by Luke Johnson. And that doesn't even cut the pile on my desk in half—a pile which includes For the Sake of the Light by Tom Sexton, Words for Empty and Words for Full by Bob Hicok, The Cloud Corporation by Tim Donnelly, and a bunch of journals.

Great list, you might say, so get to work.

Here's the problem: instead of moving on to the next title on the pile, I keep going back to a book I read in December. In the last few years, several people recommended that I read Jon Anderson, especially his out-of-print selected poems The Milky Way: Poems 1967-1982. When I finally found a used copy, I snatched it up and started reading. At first, I couldn't quite grasp what was happening in these seemingly straightforward, almost casual-sounding poems. However, as I worked my way though the poems chronologically book by book, I started to get a dim sense of wholeness forming, of the inevitability of the later poems. I also had the not-so-dim sense that these are poems I wish I'd known much earlier, that there's something here that I've been missing all along. So far, in a little under a month, I've read the book four times. Going forward, I'm not sure exactly how these poems will change my own, but I'm pretty sure that they will.

The final lines of "The Secret of Poetry":
I'd like, please, to leave on your sill
Just one cold flower, whose beauty

Would leave you inconsolable all day.
The secret of poetry is cruelty.

And some of my favorite lines, from "Rosebud" (a poem in which the speaker visits the site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn):
                                       The place might stand for death,
Every loss rejoined in a wide place;
Or it is rest, as it was after the long drive,
Nothing for miles but grass, a long valley to the south
& living in history. Or it is just a way of living
Gone, like our own, every moment.
Because what I have to do daily & what is done to me
Are a number of small indignities, I have to trust that
Many things we all say to each other are not intentional,
That every indirect word will accumulate
Over the earth, & now, when we may be approaching
Something final, it seems important not to hurt the land.

Music at the moment: Gillian Welch, Soul Journey

30 December 2010

Something I Like: "Our Lady of the Electrical Substation"

This week's poem at Linebreak is "Our Lady of the Electrical Substation" by Jeffrey Schultz.

It's the sort of beautiful and startling poem—"the hum of it, the substation's carcinogenic / Psalm, seemed to cycle at the same rate as the soul"—that I've come to expect from Jeff since our brief time together at the University of Oregon. To make a good thing even better, Linebreak features a reading of the poem by Joshua Robbins, another poet whose days in Eugene overlapped with mine and whose poems are no less extraordinary.

There's always a lot of talk about creative writing programs, but this is all I'll say: more than ten years after arriving in Oregon, I'm still grateful for the community of writers I found there. In the past week alone, I've exchanged emails with a couple of classmates, spent an afternoon with a poet who remains one of my closest friends, and found Jeff's poem and Josh's reading of it. As the holidays wind down and I think about the start of another year, I can't help but feel grateful for all of them—for their friendship, for their support of my writing, and for their poems and stories.

Music at the moment: Iron & Wine, Walking Far from Home

09 December 2010

On writing & rejection (sort of)

Almost exactly a month since my last post. Apologies to the handful of readers who have stopped by and found me missing. Apologies also for not having very much to offer now.

The reality is: I'm only posting now so that I don't officially go more than a month without posting something. I'm not sure how it's worse to maintain silence for thirty-one days rather than thirty, but I'm pretty sure that it is. I'd planned on writing a mini-essay on writing and rejection, but that plan got lost in a month of grading, conferences, holiday stuff, toddler sickness, and revising and submitting a stack of rejected poems. Whatever I'd planned to say is long gone and likely wasn't very original in any case.

One thing I will say: last week, in one twenty-four hour stretch, I received five rejections. Now, like most writers out there, I've grown used to the rejection that comes along with sending out manuscripts. I recognize that it's part of publishing, that the process is more-or-less subjective, that it doesn't and shouldn't reflect my relative worth as a human being. I even make my lame little jokes—mostly self-deprecating—as I (over)analyze the scribbled-in-ink message (or lack thereof) on each lame little slip of paper. But five rejections in one day? That's rough. So it was nice to get a handwritten letter from an editor—in pen, on full-sized paper, with a legible signature—tucked into yesterday's SASE. Of course, it was tucked in there with the usual lame little slip, but that's not the point. It was nice.

Then there was today's form rejection, which is the real reason I finally sat down to write this post. A two-line email message from "The Editors" that begins typically enough:
Thanks for giving us the chance to read your work; unfortunately, it doesn't meet our needs at this time.  
Then, the next sentence begins with "However," which has me thinking "we enjoyed your poems and invite you to submit again" or something along those lines. Instead, the next sentence reads:
However, we promise that if you keep writing, we'll keep reading.    
I laughed out loud. I love it, though I really shouldn't. There's that conditional "if you keep writing" which basically offers the opposite of encouragement—the editors, in fact, aren't even sure that I'll continue writing poems. If I do, they'll "keep reading," but notice they don't say what they'll be reading—probably not poems by me (which, remember, I may or not keep writing). It's a brilliant rejection. What appears at first glance to be a generous little moment of encouragement is really nothing of the sort. It's an easy letdown. I'm walking away from the woman of my dreams thinking "She's awesome" when I suddenly stop and ask myself "Wait, did she just break up with me?" Yes. Yes, she did. Of course, I'm free to keep writing (or not), and they'll go on reading (poems that meet their needs in ways that mine can't), but there's no mistaking (it is, after all, a promise) that it's over between us.

Music at the moment: Josh Ritter, So Runs the World Away

09 November 2010

Something Else I Like: Whale Sound

I've been enjoying Nic Sebastian's recordings of other people's poems at Whale Sound for the past month or so. Now I'm honored to be among the poets represented there. My poem "Landscape with Primary Colors" is posted there today—sandwiched between poems by J.P. Dancing Bear and Oliver de la Paz—and Nic's reading is beautiful. If you're reading this and have a minute or two, give it a listen. Then, check out some of the other great work, and spread the word about this awesome project.

Music at the moment: Sarah Jarosz, Song Up In Her Head

Something I Like: "Scrupulosity"

This week's poem at Linebreak is "Scrupulosity" by Dan O'Brien.

The poem includes the following lines, which I've been reading over and over.

                                   I’ll be working
for ages alone. I’m glad that he’s gone,
I breathe easier now. I work harder
now, too. On my knees, this monk whose fingers
ache for heaven.

I like how it doesn't say "working / alone for ages" and how that subtle difference shifts the meaning (or at least the emphasis). I can't help but see some elegy in that moment, a reading that leads to an ambiguity that makes me just a little bit uncomfortable at the same time that the speaker claims to "breathe easier."

I also like the word scrupulosity.

Music at the moment:  Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

31 October 2010

Something I'm thinking about: death & poetry

I finally got around to reading Creative Nonfiction 38 (Spring 2010), which includes a section of essays on "the theme of Immortality." One of the essays is "The World Without Us: A Meditation" by Carolyn Forché. She writes:
But is it possible to live without ever forgetting death? Could we endure such turbulent radiance? Isn't it necessary to forget so as to get on with remembering the past and planning the future? Death holds us in the present, a moment that spirals outward, a moment revered and treasured beyond comprehension: the last moment, the moment before we go out. In this moment, it is possible to love having lived, to hold one's life sacred and to be filled with gratitude for the gift bestowed at the explosion of our conception. If the "I" were immortal, the self continuous, unthreatened, in this body or another, from time immemorial to infinity, without interruption, if this "I" could remain conscious forever, without limit, in the prison of selfhood—what? There would be "time" for everything and everyone, for all permutations of experience, and thus all urgency would be removed, all longing and wonder, all disappointment and, with it, expectation, leaving us suspended not in an eternal present but an eternal nothingness, without the immense spiritual satisfaction of having schooled a soul.
I've been reading this passage (from a section of the essay titled "From Insomnia:") over and over again, not because it doesn't make sense to me. It does. Especially in the context of long nights lying awake thinking about my own eventual non-being, my own panic at the utter incomprehensibility of that "moment before we go out" or of the very fact that there will be such a moment at all. No, I've been rereading this moment because it seems to be addressing questions about poetry, about the long-argued lyrical self in poetry, about the "I" that inhabits a poem.

I don't know exactly how to address those questions, though, and I'm left wondering: would a similar reflection on poetry ultimately lead to a poetry in which the lyrical self is more confident, more strongly situated in the "moment" of the poem? or would it lead to a poetry that is consciously aware of the inherent subjectivity of a self that is mortal, discontinuous, and ever-threatened?

Is this the same split that Tony Hoagland tries to address in his essay ("Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness") in the September 2010 issue of Poetry? Where he seems to call for a "shape" or an "individual dramatic identity" or a "narrative frame" to mediate the sense of "disorientation" he finds in much contemporary poetry, could we instead discuss the notion of self-identity, whether the "self" is remembered and fixed-for-the-moment as a response to its eventual self-annihilation or the "self" is consciously abandoned in acceptance of its ultimate demise? Then again, isn't this one-or-the-other question another false debate with the answer lying somewhere in the middle? What would that middle-ground even look like?

No answers here, I'm afraid, but if you've read this far, you should probably check out the issue of Creative Nonfiction. Or better yet, subscribe. Seriously, it's good stuff.

Music at the moment: The Low Anthem, Oh My God Charlie Darwin