Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Writing Life

I'm up early, walking the dogs in the dark and struggling through several different versions of a poem. The latest is on my laptop, but my eyes focus so poorly in the morning, I finally switched to the desktop, with its larger screen. It does feel good to get lost in the work again; to get away from whining, side issues and my own ego.

The sky is starless and the weather is changing--I can tell by the wind in the trees.

One of my favorite books is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (Harper Perennial, 1989). Every MFA program should give a class on "The Spiritual Life of the Writer" and use Dillard's book as a text. She writes, "After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: 'Draw Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.'"

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A (Scheduled) Visit to the Hospital

As the final installment of a complete mid-life physical, I went to the hospital this morning for a routine medical procedure that shall remain nameless. It's enough to say that after 36 or-so hours of fasting and after drinking a peculiarly obnoxious concoction (twice) it's good to be out of the bathroom and eating food again. Everything is fine and, but for my eyes, I'm good for another 50,000 miles.

The sedatives I was given (Demerol and something else, I forget what) left me with a sweet, stupid, happy glow.

I've been reading The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (New Directions, 2006) by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. The translation is by Robin Fulton and it's a good one, or seems to be––I don't know Swedish so my basis for judging the quality of the translation is the simple fact that I like the poems as rendered in English. Anyway, here are a couple nice lines from the poem "Allegro":

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

Note: Yes, I know that Transtromer's last name has an umlaut over the "o", and I know my computer can make that umlaut appear onscreen, but (i) I don't know how to make that happen and (ii) I am too sweet, stupid and happy right now to figure it out.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Switching Genres

Last night, I asked Marcia what she thought of this blog. She said, "I like the blog. It's smart and you make us sound almost normal."

So now I am a fiction writer.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

November Leaves

We spent the past two days raking leaves and putting away our children's outside toys (Big Wheels, a plastic kiddie pool, a fleet of Tonka trucks). These are things we should have done in October, but we have a big yard with many trees--mostly oaks and maples, along with four good-sized white pines, a couple of hemlocks and a long row of cedars. The yard looks...well, as if we did our weekend-best to be useful citizens, though I am not sure the neighbors would agree.

Tomorrow, back to my day job and then off to class. I have four more sessions with my poetry students. I've enjoyed the chance to teach poetry, though what I'm teaching is actually a "poetry for non-majors" class that is intended to fulfill an arts-before-you-graduate requirement. Next semester, I go back to teaching English 113, the Hope College version of Freshman Composition. The Department lets us design our own course, and my students will be writing on creativity. We'll be using The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life by Twyla Tharp as a text, and will also be reading The Habit of Being, Flannery O'Connor's letters. I picked two books that I wanted to read again, and between now and mid-January must actually design a course that uses the books and gives the students something sensible to write about.

That should make for a busy Christmas.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Almost Random Notes, Part 2

We had a good Thanksgiving and I am grateful for many things. The past week has been so busy that I haven't had an opportunity to keep the blog updated. I thought it might be easiest to make a few notes to bring things current.

1. My daughter Hannah is a Junior at Eugene Lang College in New York City. The College is a part (a small part; about 700 students) of The New School. It's been a good to see Hannah mature as a student (she has quite a brilliant intellect) and to see her writing talents emerge. She's taking a poetry class this term and has been working on a poem about my vision problems. The poem, "What Cannot Be Seen", is really a strong one; sad and wise and sentimental and hard-edged, too. I wish it were my privilege to publish the poem on this website, but I think the poem is strong enough (along with several others she's written) to be published in a good journal, and I think she should submit the poem somewhere.

I hope she keeps writing. I am encouraging her as much as I can, but am also trying not to run her life. Of course, she is so independent--and always has been--it isn't possible for me to run her life.

And if I published the poem on this website, no one would see it!

2. Last Monday I spent an hour on the phone with Enid Shomer, going over the title poem of my soon-to-be-publisher-bound manuscript, "Figured Dark." Enid (as I think I explained earlier) is the editor of the University of Arkansas Press Poetry Series. She had a lot of good ideas for "Figured Dark" and some real insight into the poem--things I simply hadn't seen. If you get the chance to work with her in a workshop--or any other setting--pay attention and be grateful.

I am working on revisions and hope to have the manuscript off to the Press in another week. I am also working on making contacts for blurbs, etc.

3. I read a number of blogs written by poets and writers. Once I have a track record (and an opportunity to read "Blogging for Dummies" so I know how this is supposed to work), I hope to link up with a few of them so that I can make this blog part of a larger writing community. Lord knows, trying to be a part of a local community of writers hasn't worked for me! Anyway, one blog I go to on a regular basis is "Awfully Serious" by Alison Stine. Recently Alison has featured on her masthead a quotation from L. M. Montgomery (author of Ann of Green Gables):

"My future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don't know what lies around the bend, but I am going to believe that the best does."

On my better days, (and honestly, I am not having that many bad days--only a few rough moments) that's how I am trying to think about my life right now. I can "see" my eyesight declining. Even over the past month, I can tell a difference in my vision. Colors are fading--sometimes the Michigan landscape looks like a cheap, overexposed biker movie from the early '70's--and it takes a while in the morning for my eyes to "snap on." My vision suggests a theater marquee in which sections of tiny lightbulbs are burnt out while others are fizzing away. A few of the missing lights seem to snap on each day, just before noon. In the afternoons, then, things are better. By 8 p.m., my eyes are exhausted.

I am trying to do a few things to make my life easier and (gulp) more organized. These are no small tasks. I am far more organizationally impaired than I am vision-impaired. Until now, disorganization has been a luxury, perhaps even an endearing character-defect. No longer.

I finally have all of my books in the house and on bookshelves. I finally have the internet at home. I've set up a wireless network in the house with an AirPort Express (that's pretty cool--for someone as technologically impaired as I am) and I figured out how to enlarge the print-size on my monitor. Thank God for Apple and OS X and for my new computers--all of this was easy to do and everything seems to have been designed to assist the vision-impaired. I understand that there is voice-recognition capability built into the OS X software, so I will be making work of finding where that is and figuring out how to use it.

I am also trying to become more technology-oriented at work, hoping to stave off the impact of my eye problems on my job performance.

4. I wish I remembered which blog I read referred me to "The Art of Finding," an essay by Linda Gregg which appears on the Academy of American Poets website. She writes:

"I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes...[S]eeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing. The art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human."

5. I've also been reading "Bad Ideas" by the critic D.H. Tracy, which appears in the November, 2006 Poetry and which is also the featured essay this week on Poetry Daily. Tracy is trying to distinguish between "serious" poets and those who are not "serious." I am not sure I completely understand his distinctions, (they do not, for example, appear to be based upon a qualitative distinction between "good" and "bad" poets). Anyway, the essay is an interesting one. I think of myself as a "serious" poet, (who doesn't?) but am not sure that I measure up under Tracy's criteria.

Who does? Any serious poets out there?

6. Not all of the editing tools for Blogger popped up on my screen when I went to the "edit" function this afternoon. For example, no italics, no bold, etc. I looked into this and apparently not all of these tools are available in Apple's OS X. I've made all my previous entries on a PC.

Score one for Bill Gates, I guess.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Brief Poem for a Fall Day

There is an Ojibway cemetery in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, along a cliff above the southern shore of Lake Superior. Many of the graves there are little wooden structures--like tiny cedar houses--raised just slightly above the ground. I don't know what the story or tradition is; it may be that the ground is simply too rocky to be dug. The land is heavily forested and the roar of the lake is always in the air.

The following poem appeared in The Legal Studies Forum, a law review published at West Virginia University Law School. The poem is not included in the Figured Dark manuscript, but does appear in The Afterlight (WVU / Legal Studies Forum, 2006) a chapbook reprint of work that first appeared in The Legal Studies Forum. My thanks to Professor James R. Elkins, the editor of The Legal Studies Forum, for his interest in publishing the work of that strange breed, the "lawyer-poet."


In a Snow Squall on the South Shore of Lake Superior,
At the Ojibway Cemetery Near L'Anse, After Being Excluded From
a Special Issue on Exile on the Grounds that,
As an American-born Poet, My Experience is Insufficiently Authentic


I walk out among these cedar-shingled houses
of the dead, close my eyes against the cold
and dream of another country.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sanding the Last Poem

I sent an e-mail to Enid Shomer, who edits the University of Arkansas Press Poetry Series, and asked if she wanted a final look at my manuscript before I send it to Arkansas. Enid lives in Florida, the Press is in...well, you know where the Press is. I sent along a revision of the title poem "Figured Dark" which isn't a revision at all--it's a complete rewrite I've been working on.

Enid does have some ideas about the poem, so we are e-mailing back and forth to set up a time to talk by telephone. After that, away with the manuscript!

Enid Shomer is quite a brilliant editor and has been extremely generous with her time and attention. She is also a wonderful poet. Her books Black Drum: Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 1997) and Stars at Noon: Poems From the Life of Jacqueline Cochran (University of Arkansas Press, 2001) are terrific. I'm looking forward to her new short fiction collection, Tourist Season: Stories (Random House, March 27, 2007). She was doing some final work on that book as she was editing mine.

It's been a lot of fun to work with her.

The Big Game is Saturday. If you don't know which game I'm talking about then you aren't from the Midwest. My prediction: Michigan 28 - Ohio State 20. No one can cover Mario Manningham and I don't think Ohio State can stop Mike Hart.

GO BLUE!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Revising, Revising

It's hard to believe that any manuscript has been more picked-over than Figured Dark. Even the title has changed at least three times. Still, I go back and find little errors that require little wrenchings. The best thing now would be to send the manuscript out the door with one last kiss. Perhaps by the end of this week.

There is a good interview with Franz Wright on the Poetry Daily website. The interview also appears in the Fall, 2006 issue of the journal Image. At the close of the interview, in which he speaks at length about the spiritual dimensions of poetry, Wright says:

"I struggle, as I get older, to accept the fact that one doesn't have to be so absolutist about everything, that one can do more than one thing at a time. I can try to be a representative of the art of poetry as well as a practicing, secret struggler with trying to write a poem. But nothing is going to stop this feeling of failure and pain at not writing what I think of as a real poem today. Nothing is going to alleviate that pain. Nothing can take it away. And that pain is all I have."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Slow Progress

I spent the weekend building bookcases and revising Figured Dark into a final form to be submitted to the University of Arkansas Press. I'm happy with the manuscript--this is the best book I can write--I mean that in the sense that I've applied all of whatever skill I possess, and everything I have to give is down on paper.

Which is not to say that the manuscript is perfect, or that I will not write a better book.

Building the bookcases has been a two-month process, the hardest part of which was hauling in the several thousand books I've been storing in an outbuilding I've always meant to make over into a studio. I have perhaps five years of good eyesight left. If the books are going to be useful, they must be useful now.

So I have a newly reorganized place to work and a new poetry project underway. No, I haven't given up the idea of a novel. But I am working against time, and the worst part is not knowing what that timeline is.

The days are stacked against what we think we are.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Stacking the Days

I have an advance reading copy of Jim Harrison's new novel, Returning to Earth (Atlantic Monthly Press, January, 2007). The novel revisits some of the characters from Harrison's remarkable True North (Grove Press, 2005). I'm about halfway through the book and will have more to say when I'm finished. So far, though, I think this is his best fiction since Dalva (Dutton, 1988).

November in Michigan always makes me think of The Theory & Practice of Rivers, a long, meditative poem Harrison wrote in the mid-1980's. "The days are stacked against what we think we are," he wrote. On my better days, I walk out into the too-cold air, look around at the bare trees, and admit that it is true.

This weekend I'll be raking leaves, building (more) bookshelves, and pulling my poetry manuscript into some final order before sending it back to The University of Arkansas Press.

We also have a birthday to celebrate. Liam, our youngest, turns 3 on Saturday. Happy Birthday, Liam! I haven't introduced the several characters (Marcia, Carlos, Elliot, Hannah, Liam, three dogs, two cats, etc.) who will be populating this blog; I will make work of this over the next few weeks.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Almost Random Notes

Over the weekend I read Twilight by Henry Grunwald (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) and Life Itself! by Elaine Dundy (Virago Books, 2002). Grunwald was formerly the editor in chief of Time Inc. publications and also served as American ambassador to Austria. Twilight concerns Grunwald's ongoing struggle with macular degeneration, the debilitating eye disease that is the leading cause of blindness in adults over the age of 55. Life Itself! is novelist Dundy's autobiography, which tells the tale (among many others) of her married life with the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Neither book is generally available. To find them, you'll need either a good book dealer (I have one, thank God) or a good public library. Both books are worth searching for.

I became interested in Dundy through an article on macular degeneration she wrote for the Manchester Guardian. That article is available on the web; were I more clever, I could provide the URL for you. Because I am not, just put "Elaine Dundy" and "macular degeneration" in on Google and you should be able to find it.

My interest in macular degeneration? Well, "Keep coming back" as the twelve-steppers say. You'll find out soon enough.

Tomorrow is Election Day. Be sure to do your civic duty!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sexton and Plath

There is an interesting article by David Trinidad on the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in the November/December 2006, American Poetry Review ("Two Sweet Ladies": Sexton and Plath's Friendship and Mutual Influence). Relying upon the earlier work of Heather Cam, Trinidad shows how much Plath borrowed from Sexton's poem, "My Friend, My Friend" and bolted into her poem "Daddy". He writes:

"That Plath pilfered so heavily from one of Sexton's poems, albeit a minor one, is a bit of a revelation. Sexton believed Plath hid her 'real' influences. But Plath always wore her influences on her sleeve. Throughout her work, one can detect traces of her idols (Auden, Dylan Thomas, Roethke) as well as her friends and contemporaries (Sexton, Lowell, W.S. Merwin). And of course, quite prominently, Ted Hughes."

At least Plath's borrowing was for a worthy cause--"Daddy" is a wildly compelling piece of work.

My favorite Plath poem is the underrated "Blackberrying". The poem ends with the speaker on a sheep path that leads to a rocky orange cliff above the sea:

That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

Are there any better closing lines in modern poetry? Some as good, perhaps. None better.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

My Reading List-Book 1

Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft by Tony Hoagland (Graywolf Press, 2006)

Tony Hoagland is a fixture in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College and I seem to recall that several of these essays (sometimes in slightly different form) were delivered as lectures during my time there (January, 1998-January, 2000). Others I've read more recently in journals such as Poetry, The American Poetry Review and Writer's Chronicle.

Hoagland does not take sides in the ongoing poetry wars. He writes in his Forward:

"No program or prescription for American poetry is being argued here. Nevertheless, there are underlying orientations and affections. If a vision of poetry comes through, I expect it reflects an allegiance to experience as much as art; a love for the sinuous human voice, for elaborate sentences, and for a certain brashness of imagination."

Hoagland's lack of an agenda shouldn't be mistaken, however, for a reluctance to state an opinion. Writing in favor of that poetic bugaboo, rhetoric, in an essay entitled "Altitudes, a Homemade Taxonomy", Hoagland concludes:

"Rhetoric has been a skill in atrophy in contemorary poetry. Maybe an American cult of individuality, our obsession with identity as a sort of divinely granted personal possession, makes us suspicious of the study of writerly techniques. Yet rhetorical facility is a sort of index of relative power--the shy, the earnest, the low-to-the-ground can be distinguished from the lofty, the free, the assertive by their relation to rhetorical authority. There is a quality of boldness and freedom in some poems and poets that others seem never to attain. The instinct for rhetoric is often a defining factor."

In "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment", Hoagland both celebrates and cautions against the limits of a contemporary poetry that glorifies associative leaps and "a hip contemporary skittishness." He writes:

One can understand how dissociative poetry has become fashionable, celebrated, taught, and learned--it is a poetry equal, in its velocity, to the speed and disruptions of contemporary culture. It responds to the postmodern situation with a joyful crookedness. And one can also see why poetics that assert sensible order (which, admittedly, can be predictable and reductive) have fallen a bit from fashion: after all, the pretense of order is, in some way, laughable. Art has to play, it has to break rules, to turn against its obligations, to be irresponible, to recast convention. Some wildness is essential to its freedom. Yet every style has its shadowy limitation, its blind eye, its narcissistic cul-de-sac. There is a moment when a charming enactment of disorientation becomes an homage to dissociation. And there is a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness, inadvertently, commits itself to triviality."

Other esays, all in Hoagland's readable and witty style, argue for poetic obsession, for hyperbole and excess, and comment, poignantly, upon the work of the late William Matthews and Larry Levis.

Real Sofistikashun is a brilliant addition to the ongoing debate over the state of contemporary poetry. I hadn't planned on passing out reviewer's stars in writing about my reading list, but if I were, this book would merit a constellation's worth.