Guest Post, Emma DePanise: Poeming the Poetry Book

Guest Post, Emma DePanise: Poeming the Poetry Book

Recently, while chatting with an author about their book of poems, I asked them about the ordering of their collection. I was particularly curious about the placing of a few poems about half-way through the book that focused on personal experience.

Reading these personal poems in the context of the prior poems, which were primarily concerned with the world outside the self, was incredibly striking. The author responded by first noting that he is always unsure how people will engage his books—whether they will pick up the book and read one or two poems and set it down, or if they will read the book in larger chunks or even in one sitting.

Poems are individual units of possibility. They enchant us and surprise us. We delight in their layers upon layers of meaning. But poems do not only contain layers of meaning—they contain layers of experiencing.

We can experience a poem through its visual appearance on the page, through its sounds and rhythms, through the way it feels leaving our mouths. We feel and come to understand all at once the tensions and releases found in reading both lines and sentences and seeing a poem as well as hearing it. These multiplicities are at the core of the lyric poem—they allow us to engage with the poem in a present moment and to return to its music often.

While we can experience the many facets of a poem all at once, often to gain a deeper understanding of the poem or an understanding of the ways in which the poem is crafted, we must isolate its particular components—such as solely examining a poem’s use of sound or whitespace. We often engage a poem not only in multiple readings, but in different readings.

I think this concept of engaging in multiple and different readings can apply to the poetry book. I also like the idea of applying some of Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric to poetry books. These books are rather different from other books we often read, such as novels. A poem within a poetry book is self-sufficient, yet is always altered by its existence within the larger text. And the text, the whole, exists as its own entity that at the same time cannot exist without the individual poems in their particular form and order. And in addition to the poem, there are other units within the poetry book that create complexity, such as series of poems and larger sections.

The complex dynamic between parts and wholes allows some poetry books to function much like poems. Through reading a poetry book, the reader is creating a web of connections and tensions that can be experienced in a present moment. This ‘web’ separates narrative forms, like the novel, from other forms, like the poetry book, which can be much more lyric.

While we can read narrative forms like the novel from beginning to end, we often read poetry books circularly—constantly referring to previous poems and ideas to consider the relationships between the many parts and wholes. When reading the last poem in a collection, we often return to prior poems in thought—the context of experiencing the whole changes the parts we have already experienced. We are continuously re-experiencing units of the poetry book in a ritualistic way, similarly to how we return to reconsider lines or stanzas or the title of a poem after reaching its end.

Just as there are multiple ways of reading a poem to yield new understandings or experiences, there are multiple ways of reading a poetry book. Sometimes, when poems expect a lot of us as readers, we must absorb them in smaller chunks. Other times, we may be able to read a collection straight through. After reading a poetry book in smaller chunks, we might consider re- reading it continuously. I think a continuous reading sensitizes us to the ebb and flow of a poetry book—to the various turns or climaxes within series or sections or the larger whole.

We can have a different experience through reading the last poem of a book back into the first poem. We could also isolate poems written about a particular subject or in a particular form and read them continuously rather than reading them in the order they appear within the collection. We could read a poem specifically in the context of another poem within the collection. These different readings will illuminate new aspects of both the poems and the book, providing us a way to experience the complexities of the poetry book as a form.

I am not advocating for a particular way we should be reading poetry books, but rather that many readings exist as possibilities for us to explore. Just as we delight in whole poems as well as in their lines, stanzas, sounds and rhythms, we can delight in whole books as well as in their individual poems, series and sections. We not only delight in these parts, but in the various tensions and connections present—the spaces that exist between these parts and their larger wholes. Regardless of how we read a poetry book, we should consider more often these spaces between—the wondrous web of meanings and experiences that draws us to encounter a poetry book again and again.

Contributor Update, Sarah Vap

Join us in congratulating past SR poetry contributor, Sarah Vap, on the recent publication of her newest book, Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, a work of literary nonfiction.

Within the book, Sarah contemplates her work on a single poem over a twelve year period and the obstacles she faced on the creative journey. As the author of seven books, she is an experienced, award-winning writer.

Winter vap

To learn more about Sarah and her work you can visit her website. You can also read an interview with her, featured in Issue 13 of Superstition Review.

Congratulations, Sarah!

Guest Post, Clinton Crockett Peters: Rejection as Sustenance

Guest Post, Clinton Crockett Peters: Rejection as Sustenance

Yesterday I concluded a workshop by discussing publication and its always maligned cousin, rejection. My students were stupefied when I told them I had an average of nineteen rejections per submission and that at least one essay had 71 before it was finally picked up. A short story racked up 79. Which is nothing compared to the 107 that my friend amassed for her book or the 80 or 90 rejections many of my poet friends get per poem.

I was caught off guard by their surprise because I forgot how fond I’ve gotten of those confirming notes of No. The same ones I deliver by the dozens when I sign onto the journal I work for, Pleiades. But it’s not that I have a thick skin. I bristle when someone argues more cleverly than I or skips over my baked goods at a potluck. But I’ve grown to see how vital and invigorating rejection can be to one’s ego.

Acceptance is fickle and uncertain. It’s undependable, can change. Once, I won a literary journal contest, judged by a guest of the journal, only to have the never-been-published grad student shred the essay and demand obedience before publication. Rejection is a trusty cohort. It’s dependable, a firm shelter. A yes can turn into a no (as my poet friend went through at The New Yorker when her publisher first displayed the accepted poem on the book’s website). Rejection will always be around. Rejection stays by your side and says you are doing your job.

To be honest, I didn’t have rejection ardor until a handful of writers and I formed a so-so friendly game. Whichever one of us got stymied, spurned, scrubbed, or rebuffed more than the others—this person got plied with food and booze at the grad student dive bar the end of a year. I came in second. But how good it felt to be in the running, to be the near-rejection reigning champ.

To be sure, “no” means nothing if you don’t revise, rinse. If you don’t listen to criticism, the writer’s own included. But surely it is the most dependable element of the writing process? And let us thank rejection for its role as a weeder-outer of the less serious, of the tourists and
stockbrokers and dermatologists who think they can write because they’ve mastered success and people tell them they’re brilliant and their teeth gleam like cut diamonds. Or the half-witty sophomores who believe themselves to be savants. Or the racists and misogynists (my record for quickest rejection given opened thus: “She was a leggy Jew”).

A little note, no matter how formal, how ridiculous, how unnecessary (“Just in case you thought we could send out personalized rejections, we don’t”), rejection keeps me going because it’s a gauntlet each time. It is one that weeds out the would-bes, making the rest of us can-bes.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it near impossible to separate environment from creativity. Much of who I am, I think, traces back to childhood in West Texas. What you’ve heard about it is probably half right. I was an awkward bookish but sensitive nerd, prone to lashing out at minor infractions in a macho, gun-slinging, boys-don’t-weep culture. And my same-aged tormentors were not the prepubescent mobsters of G-rated movies, just angsty and broken-down by older brothers and dust. But they shaped me. It seemed that no matter what I tried, I still got rejected.

One of the things that galled at this age, other than the stray shin kicks and the two times I was stabbed with a pencil, was Valentine’s Day. As fellow students overturned their handmade, colorful piñatas of envelopes, we watched as the candies fell, from mine only the handful of mass-market cards from the students whose parents made them write to everybody.

I think there’s something to that kind of ostracism that creates a healthy slanted gaze and distrust of middle-America. I grew inside a ball of anxiety that set my energies to search mood. It was a desire to self-empower, to acquire a community on my terms, to express myself because no one, I thought, was listening. Luckily, in my adulthood, the beginnings of recognition and a remembrance of how I bullied too, even those weaker, would taper my coldness. To say I didn’t take my anxieties out on others, like my little brother and other kids in school, would be to self- exonerating and misinformation.

Flash forward to where I went all-in on writing when I was 25 and teaching English in Japan. I’d gotten the job straight out of college on a whim. My life until that point had prepared me for writing: lonely hours reading, scribbling, introversion. Because my job granted me self-directed moments, I began taking notes, penning essays. But I felt cut-off. I longed for conversations with voices enraptured by sentences. So an obvious choice was an MFA. But something happened I couldn’t have prepared for: at a words Mecca inside fly-over cornfields, I was shunned, the community I craved (I thought) standoffish. Looking back, I see how desperate I was, probably setting off healthy social alarms. If I’m honest, I was confronted by writers who were publishing, some who had agents and book deals, and I was simmering with envy.

I also didn’t have the language for workshop. I opined that writers I loved were “beautiful” and that certain sentences of my colleagues were “boring.” This was the extent I could analyze words as well as the extent of my tact. I was bewildered when colleagues disagreed, even critiqued my critiques. Unaccustomed to dissecting writing, I took this as personally as I could.

It was worse when it came to my own work, which, while it had moments, was jumbled and directionless. I didn’t know what it meant to “front-load” something, nor how to “unpack.” Honest to God, I didn’t know what an “essay” was. I wrote intuitively, with no analytical nor historical appreciation for what I was doing. When my work was cut down, I grew combative and was repaid in kind. My pieces were dismissed as “artless.” I was left off of party invites.

In Japan, I had been confronted by a culture that required me to study its mannerisms and language if I wanted to make any sense of it. The same was true for Iowa, though I was shocked by that fact and resented the effort. These were my people! But workshop, after all, has its own language. Like a lot of young writers, I had staked my identity on writing, fancying myself an untested protege, gearing up for a meteoric launch. That our culture prepares its young people for
unearned fame didn’t help.

Absurdly, a fellow MFA student began sending around Valentine’s cards. I found out only because she slipped one into my office box addressed to another colleague. It was a cute note, ironic, with a joke of encouragement and taped candy. I should have taken this nostalgically, but I couldn’t. I was on the outside looking in, as if I were ten-years-old.

But! As it was when I was a kid, this tumult of emotions kindled a small cigarette coil of anger, which is now simply a yearning to never be the same ignorant, jealous, plebeian dabbler.

I had thoughts of dropping out. But I’m lucky that West Texas sometimes instills in its males (along with a lot of macho crap) a stubbornness that can bode well. Or maybe that was genetics. TLDR: I was invested, tested, rejected, so I dove in. I don’t think I would have been so hungry to do well at Iowa had I been accepted like an old friend.

In my MFA’s second year, I began pouring through craft texts (which for prideful reasons I’d resisted), attending all the readings I could (which I’d also resisted for impostor syndrome reasons), plying my profs with questions (who’d I’d before left unbothered). I began to treat my colleagues like the luminaries that they were. Gradually, my writing began to cohere. I tabulated what an essay could be. I absorbed workshop-speak and the hints from my cohort (immersion,
they say, is the best way to learn a language). So much about workshop is about how the workshoppers know you and root for you, which I only slowly began to understand.

My MFA’s final year was more convivial, and I am now in contact with many of these towering figures. Perhaps, I might have had the same experience without that first year of utter stagnation, but I doubt it. Skating through, I wouldn’t have stored those memories of embarrassment and failure that follow me like a shadow. In trying to outrun them, I plowed harder into my work, into what humble successes I’ve had.

When I applied to PhD programs, I was surprised when, again, I was met with a cloud of rejections. Of the two schools that accepted me out of fourteen, the University of North Texas was the best but seemed like a step backward. Back to Texas, back to my roots, back to, I must admit vanity, a lower-ranking graduate program.

How could I have known that the missing piece was a move back to Texas, a chance to make me reflect on the me that I was? That after three years in Japan and three years at Iowa, moving to my home state allowed my anxious muscles to flex and build, my mind to fill out the space once occupied by isolation. I learned to appreciate, I guess, the space provided, to accept the “no” that had left me with at least one “yes.” To make a home in the backfield.

Surprisingly to me, the writers at the University of North Texas are a productive bunch. I would call them hardscrabble. They know no one cares about their pedigree. Many of them win contests, get book deals and agents, tour. The difference between them and Iowa, I think, is that theirs is not a rank they feel they have to measure up to.

Which is to say this is a “me” thing, not an Iowa thing. I had to rise with Iowa and fall with UNT to find that black pit of myself, my insecurities and weaknesses, from which emanates all my thoughts and creativity and drive. Also, the state politics drive me inward (I spent months in Iowa campaigning for Obama and seethed in Texas). Pampered again, I think I would wither.

And now in Georgia, rejection, mostly, is what fuels my process (and, again, the politics). Every time I get a rejection, this is my cue to send a submission (on good days, I send two—a submissions hydra). The tiny notes from journals, which I keep, remind me that what I was doing is right. I store them in a file like one of my mentors did. Sometimes I open the folder and scroll through them and feel a thrill. I stoke and kindle not a meteoric launch but a modest, modest, modest, more sustaining, more mudbound headspace where I can call myself a writer.

How was I to predict that rejection itself would be not an obstacle to writing, but the fuel itself, ensuring my commitment’s longevity? If I had known, I don’t think I would have taken the journey and change and the “no”s so personally.

paper ball

Guest Post, Ace Boggess: Time-Voice

During a recent literary festival at a nearby college, the usual discussion about finding one’s voice came up. All the familiar suggestions were made: figuring out a preferred medium, discovering whether to write chronologically or in segments, writing what you know versus following the elements of a story (Plato versus Aristotle, as I like to think of it), and so on. When my turn came to speak, I realized I had been giving the same advice for years but never written it down: experiment with writing at different times of day.

The human brain is a trickster god, and its greatest gag is its way of shifting its own perspective as the hours pass between waking and rest. A writer might have different voices during those different hours—a time-voice, say, or time-voices. By working at different times, a writer can figure out whether words come best at dawn or dusk, noon or 2 a.m.

That isn’t to say that any writing time isn’t valid, but that the author might have several different time-voices, as I do. Mastering them can help with creating the true big-V Voice.

Here’s how it works for me:

1) In the morning, my mind is blank. I often have no idea what will come out of my head when I start to write. The ideas come as simple epiphanies and build inside me, spilling out in an almost stream-of-consciousness style. These microbursts are often quite lovely and have their own momentum. As such, I’ve found that, for me, mornings are best spent writing poetry.

2) At night, my head is full. The day has worn on me. My anxieties have flared and exploded so many times that I wonder how I’ve survived. Throughout the day, I’ve observed, feared, been awed, and felt anger, desire, embarrassment, and dread. I’ve contemplated angles. I’ve lived and experienced everything from monotony to chaos. This is every day for me, and as night comes, my thoughts swirl around, waiting to be focused. At nighttime, therefore, I’m better equipped to take on short stories. I have to lasso these images and ideas, then herd them together. At that point, stories grow from the energetic hodgepodge of my thoughts.

3) In the afternoon, it’s easier for me to establish a routine. My head is full enough to know what I want to say, but empty enough that the process of saying it and figuring out what comes next is still interesting to me. The afternoons are often the best time for me to attempt longer works. In the past, these have been my novel-writing hours.

I know these things about myself and have been able to use them effectively in my writing. That’s not to suggest that writing at the same hours will lead to the same results for anyone else. I am saying only that there is value in testing different time-voices. My advice is the same as it would be when determining whether to write with a notebook, laptop, or voice recorder: try them all and figure out what works best for you.

road

Guest Post, Jill Talbot: Distance, A Compendium

When Superstition Review asked me to write a post for this blog, I wanted to write something related to my essay, “On Being (Lost),” which is about distance and direction and the longing to leave. I thought I’d write a craft essay about how to create distance in writing, and as a way to begin thinking through the idea, I performed a Find search in every essay I’ve written, looking for lines with one of these five words—road, distance, missing, highway, and longing—copying and pasting each one into a document. As a way to look even closer, I printed out the pages and grabbed the scissors, separating each line into a single strip of paper and then I sat down and arranged them into categories, but then, I wondered if they might turn into an essay of their own, so I started arranging again, bringing the lines into conversation, losing many of them along the way because they were redundant or weren’t engaging with the concepts in interesting—or syntactically compelling—ways. My intended craft essay gave way to this compendium, and each fragment here is a line from one of my essays. The exercise helped me to see my work from a distance, to think about how and why it’s a recurring theme in my work and to think about how I can push myself, in future essays, to find new ways to write the distance.

I.

Out here, the triple train tracks run alongside the road.

I pulled up to the hotel sun-tired and road-weary, thirsty for the booze I needed to put at least a hundred more miles between me and that brick two-lane out of Lubbock.

Deeper Into Texas, deeper into distance, deeper into the trouble I was dragging through the desert like a carcass.

Maybe I needed to know what I would choose if another reality came into view, like a gas station on a long, empty road.

Back then, a bottle of Barefoot Chardonnay cost me around ten bucks.

He was from down south, a town called Marathon, dust and tumbleweeds, rust and empty roads, store-front signs that whine in the grit of the wind.

We watched the mountains in the distance, counting the headlights of cars blurring
the curves. Those lights reminded me of something, but I couldn’t name it.

It was like sitting inside the missing.

II.

I don’t think it’s ever been about missing him at all.

I was like those tumbleweeds in Marathon, always tossing myself toward some rusty-
edged road.

Maybe it’s dust from another summer, the one when he and I stood in a Colorado river, sand swirling into a cloud before setting into us so that we would always carry each other across the distance. Maybe what I carry is the distance.

Empty
downtown buildings, train tracks, Highway 82 out of Lubbock—a road
I wore out in my twenties
every time I tried to unravel myself from that town.

It’s all thunderstorms in the distance.

I don’t want to lose my capacity for longing, for missing, for wondering what might be, for yearning for what has come and gone before I had the chance to save it. I want a window to stare out of or a dark bar where I can buy my dissatisfaction another drink.

I write because I used to be someone I miss.

III.

Sometimes a direction calls us from the distance, and for me it’s always been west.

When I think of October, I think of deep ochre, a south Texas highway that traces the Davis Mountains, a fire’s shadow undulating against the limestone laccoliths of Big Bend at night.

Leaves bring back a lost season, and I keep writing, building a map so that I can spread out the pages and point to a phone call, a room, or even a breeze, and say, here.

IV.

Give me distance, and I’ll give you an essay. Here:

She once drove that truck all the way to some New Mexico road and pulled over at a gas station to wonder why the pay phone she once called him from had been ripped out, holes where there had once been bolts rusted dark.
Wind in the distance.

She had a flat highway inside her, a sign that told her she was 381 miles from some no-account town.

Her missing him was like an oversized map spread out across the floor.

V.

I understood that, understood that driving hard down one dust-soaked road after another will never make a difference.

Days and nights almost seem wasted, at least borrowed, when you’re counting down to leaving. Not knowing where you’re leaving for makes those days and nights a map of creases that have worn away entire cities.

There’s a small bus center off the highway, where a Greyhound could take me back to all the cities I’ve pulled away from so that I could climb the steps of a post office or duck into a wood-floored diner or stop by to see if the same clerk’s behind the counter.

I like these nights, when the Chardonnay climbs the rungs of memory to the roof of the building, and I can see the city the way it was then.

In my mind, those moments shimmer the way hot air on roads bends light.

The road I keep trying to lose is in South Fork, where I once stood in front of a house willing the man I had known there—the one who had long ago moved away—to step out to the front porch.

I have empty streets inside me. Streets that have built cities, maps of trouble.

I imagine pushing the pedal all the way down that flat road, the horizon a razor, the pump of oil jacks a steady lulling of the landscape.

The pull of the wrong direction, so I took off and drove west into New Mexico until my Jeep rumbled a dusty road toward a bottomless lake.

I do remember leaving town the next day, chasing the distance, the space I couldn’t see, the grit in the wind. And I can admit it now, I’ve always stayed gone.

Intern Update: Dustin Diehl

Today’s Intern Update features Dustin Diehl, who worked as a nonfiction editor on Issue 4 of Superstition Review.

With a BA in English Literature, a minor in Religious Studies, and a Certificate in LGBTQ Studies, Diehl recently started working as the Director of Strategy and Performance at Digital Current.

He has also worked as a freelance writer for both Here Media publications (including OUT Magazine) for 5 years and East Valley Tribune for 9 years, delivering both editorials, travel writing, and pop culture content.

We are so proud of you Dustin!

If you’d like to learn more, you can visit Dustin’s LinkedIn page here.

trees

Guest Post, Jessica Goodfellow: Consciousness of Humans and of Trees

A few years ago, my 80-year-old father had a bad accident and broke his neck. For a time, we did not know if he would survive; when he did, the extent of his paralysis was the next unknown. My father’s recovery, full or partial, from his traumatic brain injury depended on his grasping the
seriousness of his condition and cooperating with therapy regimes, an ability his compromised brain seemed to no longer have.

Within a year of my father’s accident, my best friend of over 30 years began having an unrelenting series of strokes, hundreds of them, with an unknown trigger. For a period of time, not so short, it was not clear if she would survive. Then, when it seemed she would, the extent of the damage done to her brain was not fully known. And then it was, but how much she will recover was, is, uncertain.

I live in Japan, far from my father and my best friend. While waiting many time zones away to hear about first their survival, then their prognoses, and later still the extent of their brain injuries, I wrote the poem “How I Know My Grief” which appeared in Issue 22 of Superstition Review. The poem begins:

Nothing green
grows faster
than bamboo.

This is how
I know
my grief’s

not green.
Pine trees,
season-

blind, are green.
This is how
I know

my grief
is green.

In English, the word pine means both ‘the evergreen’ and the verb ‘to yearn’. The Japanese word for the pine tree, matsu, also has multiple meanings, including 松 (matsu) ‘the evergreen tree’, and 待つ (matsu) ‘to wait’. During the period when no one knew what would happen to my father or my best friend, I grieved for their futures or their lack of futures, while later I grieved for their pasts, their memories, which included memories we shared, or perhaps no longer did—I would have to wait and see. Waiting, it seemed to me, was all about yearning. Later, after each of these two patients stabilized, yearning became all about waiting, waiting for something to be different, even if only waiting for the pain of things never being different to become less unbearable. Waiting and yearning: pine and pine.

Many years ago, I read in The New Yorker about a sacred tree in Madagascar under which people leave offerings such as slaughtered goats, rum, and money, in hopes of gaining good fortune in child-bearing, business dealings, school entrance exams, love, etc. The tree is called kakazotsi fantata, which translates as ‘the tree whose name nobody knows’. That is, the name the tree is known by is, apparently unironically, ‘the tree whose name nobody knows’. Knowing is a function, chiefly, of the brain—though of course also a function of the body, the bones and muscles too—but foremost of the brain, which is itself part of the body. With brain injury or strokes, what is known becomes the unknown, becomes the thing that nobody knows—not the patient, not the people who observe the patient, and certainly not the people who love the patient. What is it for patients to not know what they don’t know? What is it to not know the person you
have always known, to not recognize them, or be recognized by them? Is this not grief?

Recent research into the social systems of trees has revealed the surprising extent of their interconnection and interdependence, in contrast to the previous notion our species had of trees as competing with one another for sunlight and other resources. For example, we now know that the roots of trees, together with underground fungi, form mycorrhizal networks through which information is passed, mainly about distress and danger. There are mother trees, with extensive fungal connections, who sense struggling younger trees and divert flows of nutrients to them. Under attack by foraging deer or insects, certain trees emit pheromones, alerting their neighbors to increase their own production of foul-tasting substances in their leaves which might help them escape a similar fate. Whether or not there is intent to warn, however, is controversial, with some scientists disputing such an interpretation.

Regardless, there is an entire complex system among trees that, until recently, we did not know about. I tend to lean against anthropomorphizing, against generalizing the sort of consciousness we have to trees, despite their signal-sending. But how I want to be wrong about that, and how wrong I could be—we honestly don’t know. Here we can find hope in what we do not know—what might be true. I want it to be true that trees communicate with intention and compassion. I want trees to know things, to remember, even while I know that this would only bring them grief. I want, in a very human way, for trees to be more like us in the few ways that we as a species are good—I want kinship with a thing that will surely outlast me. Mostly though, I want to believe communication occurs that is unobservable to me—be it communication between trees or communication with patients who have had significant brain issues.

Robert MacFarlane, in his book The Lost Words, reports that the Welsh phrase dod yn ôl at fy nghoed means “to return to a balanced state of mind”, or literally “to return to my trees”. I’m happy to report that both my father and my best friend are slowly, slowly returning to their trees, with effort and determination and often with great frustration. In the meantime, I follow The Ice Age (@Jamie_Woodward_), twitter feed of Jamie Woodward, professor of physical geography at the University of Manchester. One day in August of this year he tweeted, “There are trees in the north that remember the wolves.” Contrast that with what poet Dorianne Laux has written: “If trees could speak, they wouldn’t.” Both of these statements, it seems to me, sound about right; both have hope in the consciousness of trees, yet both are laced with notions of grief. Hope, but also grief. Ever green and yearning.

Resources:

Grant, Richard. “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” The Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-whispering-trees-180968084/

Laux, Dorianne (2005). “The Life of Trees” in Facts About the Moon. New York, New York: W. W. Norton.

MacFarlane, Robert (2017). The Lost Words. London: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House).

Shoumatoff, Alex. “Our Far Flung Correspondents (Madagascar),” The New Yorker, March 7, 1988, p. 62+. http://www.dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com/our-far-flung-correspondents-madagascar/

writing

Guest Post, Amy Stonestrom: All in the Family

All writing stems from the author’s obsessions. This is what Dani Shapiro told me and a room full of writers in a workshop held in Minneapolis this past spring. Whatever we can’t let go of, she said, whatever we keep coming back to, is most often what we end up figuring out on the page. I hadn’t thought of a writer’s subject matter in this particular way before but I nodded wildly in agreement from the front row.

My obsession exists in the form of a rough manuscript and it is aging, I hope, like a good wine (or at the very least an okay cheese) in a document on my desktop. The obsession in question, what my brain tumbles around like sneakers banging in the dryer, is the story of how I removed myself and my son from the once beloved religion of my childhood and how I inadvertently broke my mother’s heart in the process.

Like so many writers, voicing my obsession and maintaining peace within my family are at odds with one another. I need to decide what’s more important, getting this out or keeping my mother and I intact. This seems strange since I did not, in any way, have a Glass Castle childhood. (It’s a rare thing for a memoirist to admit, but my childhood was an embarrassment of stability and fond memories.) However, I know that publicly voicing opposition to my family’s long held belief system would cause my mother to feel deeply betrayed. 

As a result I’ve kept this project a secret from Mom which feels, I must say, pretty lousy. 

I accidentally found a temporary remedy to this conundrum when I set out to write Every Bird in the Nest, an essay that was published in Superstition Review’s 22nd issue. In order to authentically record an ill-fated fishing outing with my dad when I was six, I needed to corroborate my story.

After writing the first draft I called my parents. Dad did not remember the event in question but Mom, at age 81, remembered minute details down to which coat I wore that day. I collected her memories and she handed over the phone to Dad who answered all of my fishing and geography-related questions. Between the three of us, over several days and many drafts, we recreated a factual story forty years after the event. 

And that felt pretty darn good.

I honestly don’t know what I will do with my virtually dusty manuscript that I’m quite certain my mother won’t approve of. But I do know that my obsession surrounding this subject matter won’t leave me. I may just need to open it up, let some light in and . . . dial the phone.

boxing

Guest Post, Jess Williard: On Boxing

“To look into my heart is to look into a muscle. To really look inquiringly inward as Sidney advises or as the most well-intentioned guru advises is to encounter, at least on some very honest days, my own space; it is to discover how empty I am, how much an onlooker and a gazer I have to be in order to write poems. And, if I am lucky, it is to find out how I can be filled enough by what is not me to use it, to have a subject, and, consequently, to find myself as a poet.” -Larry Levis

It would be too easy to say that I began writing and boxing at the same time. As compelled as I am to make that correlation it would, in fact, be a lie; I didn’t actually begin writing until I entered high school, several years after I took up the sport in a serious way. My start with boxing, however, was concurrent with, and, as I now understand, instigated by my desire to write, my thinking as a writer. My gazing. Or at least the recognition of the gaze, putting a name to a quality I’d always thought separated me from the world in many ways. I’d wanted to write for no other reason than the idea contained a palpable kind of energy, much the same way a fight (or the context of a fight, the preparation for it) contained energy.

I am not a violent person. I am, though, completely wound in what Joyce Carol Oates describes in her book On Boxing as the sport’s “systematic cultivation of pain in the interests of a project, a life-goal: the willed transposing of the sensation we know as pain (physical, psychological, emotional) into its polar opposite.” And while I’m hesitant to utilize boxing as a direct metaphor for writing (largely because I disagree with any necessitation of “pain” in writing or the writer’s life, at least an understanding of the writer that privileges some kind of transcendent suffering), it’s too close, particularly in my experience, not to. The thing is: I hate competition. I’m not at all interested in it. It makes me sick. It is the context of legitimate competition, however, that makes preparation as important as it is. I’m drawn here to Ezra Pound’s Canto 74:

I don’t know how humanity stands it

with a painted paradise at the end of it

without a painted paradise at the end of it

Competition is no paradise, but it’s the prospect of that “purpose” (the metaphor now extends far beyond either boxing or writing) that enables “standing it.” That spot on the horizon is, as Pound (and I think, I) understand, is manufactured. It can be there or not, and has all the power you wish to give it. “One might compare the time-bound public spectacle of the boxing match,” says Oates, “with the publication of a writer’s book. That which is ‘public’ is but the final stage in a protracted, arduous, grueling, and frequently despairing period of preparation.” And while I don’t disagree, it’s impossible for me not to acknowledge that in this and all other arenas, I believe preparation in itself is an end. Perhaps the only end. My interest in boxing spawned as an interest in the craft, one cultivated towards the very particular goal of fighting another human being, and persisted only as an interest in the craft. Oates describes the boxer’s training as the “fantastic subordination of the self in terms of a wished-for destiny,” and I’d like to take it further by defining it as the necessary subordination of the self in terms of an omnipresent and impossible destiny. Pound’s painted paradise. Oates continues that “to not only accept but to actively invite what most sane creatures avoid—pain, humiliation, loss, chaos—is to experience the present moment as already, in a sense, past.” Or, “It is to ease out of sanity’s consciousness and into another, difficult to name.” It’s a continuum I can’t even begin to understand, but one I’m constantly making myself a part of. I’d never suppose myself to be good at boxing—at really any athletic endeavor, for that matter—and the handful of matches I’ve had speak to this. I do know, though, that I can prepare like a professional, and this is what I find meaningful. I’m again explained to myself by Oates in her assertion that “if this is masochism—and I doubt that it is, or that it is simply—it is also intelligence, cunning, strategy. It is an act of consummate self-determination—the constant reestablishment of the parameters of one’s being.” Being, here, indicates both more and less than philosophical or spiritual contention. It’s literal. It’s your body.

I don’t box anymore. I still practice boxing, when I have the space and appropriate equipment, but distanced myself from the discipline of that particular craft quite some time ago. Discipline of craft, though, has remained, perhaps strengthened, and has manifested in other physical pursuits, namely weightlifting. While that’s an equally rich arena to consider, I’ll offer only this illustration as the way I think disciplined resistance training and poetry cooperate: strength is only secondary in Olympic weightlifting. It’s about technique more than anything else. The capability is in getting the heavy thing to move, and then using that kinetic energy to propel the weight and, ultimately, fall under it. It is using the dormant jewels of an object against itself, and then getting out of the way, positioning yourself to receive that energy safely. Think about words: all that latent energy, the inertia things can take on if we aggravate them in the right kind of way. And finally, just moving period is crucial. Perhaps Mark Strand said it best:

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

I’d like to invoke a final parallel between boxing and poetry, as articulated, again, by Joyce Carol Oates: “So much happens and with such heart-stopping subtly you cannot absorb it except to know that something profound is happening and it is happening in a place beyond words.’ This subtly is the devastating force. The devastating force. Thank god there are no words for it. Otherwise there’d be no poems.

Guest Post, Asa Drake: Keep a Record

Poetry

When I tell anyone about my work, I want to say that everything I have written is entirely accurate. Of course, my poems aren’t accurate. I lie for concision, and that doesn’t bother me. Ours is a language inadequate to our needs, so I think a good poem is willing to be inaccurate and still be a document of our times. I often write about current events, things in my life, things said to me — and on revision, I find that the number of people or the number of actions involved in a poem can be overwhelming. So lately, I find myself consolidating. Maybe a coworker is five coworkers. Maybe a sentence is multiple conversations. So long as the poem still reads emotionally true, this kind of lie is doing the work I need with the content I have. I think it’s the information professional in me that makes me look to cataloging as a shortcut for consolidating experiences in a way that can make for an interesting poem.

Lately, I’ve been interested in apologies. The conversations I pull from, the speakers I use, they’re unrelated except through content, and the apology in many ways provides a format for interpretation and consolidation. I transcribe these conversations with no intent to reconcile, but a poem has to do something more because, on some level, a poem is about understanding. I found it impossible to believe that what was said to me was designed to set me at ease, like in “Tonight, A Woman.” There’s a moment where another speaker enters, points to the narrator’s face and tries to set it apart from herself. This was, at some point, part of an apology, but no one says “foreign” as an act of love.

So I study the structure of these apologies. I try an experiment. I let these statements stand without my response. I leave the dinner, the breakfast, the breezeway. I read a letter and put it away. I speak to the people I love. But then, the conversations return. A colleague walks a little faster in the parking lot. At the table, someone asks if I’ve lost my tongue. I draft an email I don’t send. I cry a little. The academic vestige is lost. So I discontinue my experiment. I look back at my transcripts. I’ve lost interest in the conflict, but I know I have a poem to write because I have an obsession. I’m interested in how apology becomes performative redress. In this way, the speaker maintains their status by clarifying that I did not perceive you as one thing because you are so clearly another. So frequently, these apologies are another question. They ask me, are you from this country, and I have never lived anywhere else, except within that question. So that’s where I write from. I want to understand what people say to me, and I only have this language to answer myself with, which is difficult.