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

14 October 2010

A good day

I teach English at an independent school. Which means I also coach two teams, advise a group of students, and moderate several clubs and extracurricular activities. So maybe opening up this space just a few days before starting a new academic year was a bad idea. I mean, I knew there’d be times I’d let this place slide, but man-alive that was fast.

It’s easy to be frustrated as a high school teacher. As a poet who has always loved to read, it’s very easy to be frustrated as a high school teacher. Disillusioned. Disgruntled. Too often, students seem motivated only by grades, test scores, college admissions. Too often, students seemed bored, jaded, cynical. Too often, it seems the things that are important to me are silly to them. Outdated. Worthless.

But today, about twenty students showed up to an after-school meeting of our fledgling creative writing workshop. We spent a few minutes talking about the relationship between William Carlos Williams’s “The Great Figure” and Charles Demuth’s “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold.” Then they started to write their own poems in response to an Edward Hopper painting. They scribbled and scrawled, heads popping up so that wide eyes could absorb the image before their shoulders hunched back over their little desks.

After fifteen minutes, with soccer practice and a student council meeting demanding their attention, students began to trickle out of the room. But most of them lingered for a moment to talk about what they’d just done. With excitement in their voices, they compared what they’d written, traded their impressions of the painting, shared their plans to keep working on their poems. One of them asked if I’d email the image so they could keep writing about it. Others asked if they could share their poems at next week’s meeting. A few seemed not to want to leave.

It’s easy to be frustrated, but not today. Today, I was reminded of the boy in Albert Goldbarth’s poem “Shawl”: “he was discovering himself / to be among the tribe that reads.” Today, there was nothing practical on the line: no grades, no letters of recommendation, no prizes. Instead, these kids put themselves on the line by putting something on the page, and they seemed to discover the exhilaration that comes with finding yourself in a community of others who have chosen to do the same. 

Music at the moment: Old 97's, The Grand Theatre Volume One 

07 September 2010

Something I Like: Mid-American Review's 30th Anniversary Issue

I'd planned to write this mini-review of Mid-American Review Volume XXX, Numbers 1 & 2, last week, but it took me longer than I thought it would to finish reading it. Most of the time, I finish a journal in a day or two, but this one hung around for over a week. First, it's really long: including the contributors' notes, the 30th Anniversary Issue comes in at 432 pages. Second, I found myself reading almost every piece from beginning to end. Unlike with many issues of many magazines--even the really good ones, even the really prestigious ones--I found myself pulled in by just about every poem and story the editors chose to include. Yes, there was a story or two I skimmed, even one I skipped after reading its first few lines. But, for the most part, this issue is filled with compelling poems and stories (not to mention W. Scott Olsen's entertaining personal essay about flying and world records and North Dakota and ego and humility). While there is nothing experimental here, nothing that really pushes against literary boundaries, almost every one of the seventy-something writers represented here takes some risks. On the whole, the volume amply rewards a week of reading. I started at the beginning and just kept going when I had the time; whether or not the editors intended it to be, the issue feels arranged to accommodate just such an experience: read a couple of poems and a story, go to the post office, come back to a story and a few poems, cook some dinner, read a section of translations, take a nap. With the heft (physical and literary) of a novel, the journal fits easily into the chunks of time you find on the subway, in the bathroom, at the dentist's office, in bed. Compelling (and sometimes disquieting) work by good writers: not a bad way to fill the little moments of a week. Plus, many of the pieces published here sent me searching for more work by their authors. In my book, that's always a good thing.

Five things I especially like (alphabetically by author):
  • "No, Thank You," a poem by Becca Barniskis
  • "Having a Diet Coke With You," a poem by Denise Duhamel
  • "Cowboy Up, Sugar," a story by Rebecca Rasmussen
  • "What We Own," a poem by Philip Terman
  • "I'm Going to Bust This Case Wide Open," the featured poetry chapbook by Tony Trigilio

Music at the moment: Mississippi John Hurt, Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings

01 September 2010

Always late to the party

That’s me, late to the party. Very late, as in: I have a hard time squeezing through the door for all of the people rushing out. I don’t know if they’re going home or to some awesome after-party that I don’t know about. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because I’ll only end up late to whatever comes next, so I’ll just sit here and hope there’s still someone hanging around.

Part of the reason I’m so late to this particular party is my suspicion of the whole thing. By which I mean poetry blogs in general, though it’s not necessarily the poetry part I’m suspicious of. No matter how over-the-top dramatic—or how obliviously self-important, or how minutely contentious—these online discussions of poetry and the writing life have become over the past few years, I’ve been following along, reading and thinking. No, what’s bothered me is a good deal more simple: the word itself is just awful. Blog. It’s bad enough for a writer to use blog as a noun for the format, the venue, the thing itself. But when poets—writers capable of doing simply beautiful things with syllables and sentences—begin to describe themselves as bloggers or lament with no sense of shame or irony that they haven’t blogged in a while? Well, that was almost enough to keep me away forever. Of course, I’ve also stayed away because of a deeply felt fear of being uninvited or unwelcome or whatever.

That worry is not gone, of course, but I’ve been reading and writing all summer, trying to find my poems a place in the world, trying to figure out what exactly my place might be in a larger community of poets and writers. With the summer winding down and another academic year about to begin, I decided to crash this party and see what happens. In any case, I’m here and hoping not to be standing in the corner of an empty room talking to myself for too long.

I’ve stolen my title from this well-known passage from Paul Celan: "A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward something."

I don’t know if this space is heartland or not, and I sure can’t promise to contribute much to any larger conversations. I don’t really plan to argue about schools and movements or MFA rankings or paying for electronic submissions or which famous-poets are overrated. Instead, what I see myself doing here: writing about poems and poets and literature in general. Posting the occasional draft. Writing about music and television and sports. Writing about being a father and a teacher. Spreading the word about books and journals and poems I like (including, sometimes, my own). Beyond that, I don’t really know where this space is heading or what it’s making toward.

Music at the moment: The Avett Brothers, Four Thieves Gone