Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Title Poem from Figured Dark


I’m walking the iron bridge,
ascending through pitch pines and loblollies,
my right arm counting the beat
in a half-forgotten poem,
a man marking time on a summer night.
My stars are the many stars.
My song is “Moon and Sand,” the moment
Chet Baker finally pulls the trumpet from his lips
and begs, in that sweet morphined drone,
“Oh, when shall we meet again?”
I think of Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold ––
the shiny black of it,
the cobalt green and indigo blue,
the fireworks pop-popping over the river
and sputtering down across Cremorne Gardens.
The silvery white must be a bit of skyline
caught in the rockets' flash.

I come to the great field, fireflies
rising from the black grass. I say to no one:
The sway of her breasts as she crossed the room,
as if to decipher a small archaeology––
glass beads, a needle carved out of bone.
I know that Whistler sold his easel
to cover his debts.
And Chet Baker––I saw the film––
did he jump, or was he thrown
from that open window?
Even he was puzzled as he fell.
I am alone in the great field,
accounting for loss under the many,
many stars; I am amazed by fireflies.
I could round this down to a million tiny bodies,
blazing the midnight trees.

-Greg Rappleye

Monday, July 30, 2007

Yeat's Paradox & A Note on Process

In any case, the idea of art as a difficult task for the artist, who must contrive to make the difficulties look easy, not only dates from antiquity but is precisely exemplified by Yeat's handling of his couplets [in "Adam's Curse"]. Indeed, his doctrine leads to a further paradox, which is that his audience of inexperienced laymen, the bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen he speaks of, cherishing their worldly and practical values, and mistaking his art for something easy, dismiss it as frivolous and nothing more than the diversions of an idler. He is secretly, when not overtly, despised by the very people he is seeking to please.

-Anthony Hecht, "The Contrariness of Impulses," in On the Laws of the Poetic Art (Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 145.

I managed to get down a longish draft of an imaginary letter from Martin Johnson Heade to an American woman he was certainly attracted to, and with whom he may have had an affair while he was in Brazil. I seem to be able to carry these longer poems around in my head while working on the shorter lyrics, imagining and re-imagining the longer piece as I go, then getting the body of the poem down at length and in one draft, over the course of several hours.

I then go back and work through them over the course of a couple of weeks, let them rest for a while and come back again and again, trying to make the poem, somehow, right.

I am having a bit of luck here and don't want to break it; don't want to walk away from the work and lose the thread of the poem.

I don't much care right now if these poems are seen as the "diversions of an idler."

Thought(s) for the Day

Seventh-century Chinese Chan Bhuddist master Hongren advised: "Work, work!...Work! Don't waste a moment...Calm yourself, quiet yourself, master your senses. Work, work! Just dress in old clothes, eat simple food...feign ignorance, appear inarticulate. This is most economical with energy, yet effective."

"All that is really worthwhile is action," Teilhard wrote. "Personal success or personal satisfaction are not worth another thought."

-Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, (Vintage Books, 2000), p. 105

Sorry. Couldn't sleep.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Almost Random Notes, Part 15

So I went to the store, mowed the lawn (two hours--and untold quarts of water--lost in the blazing sun), cleaned up my work-space in a semi-major way, made dinner and played a curious version of baseball with the kids. They are so creative--free-verse baseball.

I will begin work again tomorrow.

I do have several almost random notes:

1. I was troubled by David Orr's essay on Zbigniew Herbert's Collected Poems: 1956-1998 (Ecco / HarperCollins, 2007) in today's New York Times Book Review. Orr takes Alissa Valles (the volume's primary translator), to task, covering some of the same ground recently trod by Michael Hofmann in Poetry. In so doing, Orr does note that some of Hofmann's points are not well-taken, but Orr also fails to point out that a good deal of "the Valles translations" (more than a quarter of the book) is actually the work of Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, since the entire text of the Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert (Ecco Press, 1968), translated by Milosz and Scott, has been incorporated into the Valles' text, almost verbatim. (Valles notes in her introduction that she changed one word in one poem, and explains, cogently, why she did it.)

If the biggest complaint of David Orr and Michael Hofmann is that the translations of John and Bagdana Carpenter are superior to those of Alissa Valles, perhaps they could use their influence in the poetry world to have the Carpenters' translations reissued; as Orr notes, they are largely out of print. Until that happens, we will have the Valles translations--and the work of Milosz and Scott contained therein.

I still say that the Collected Poems is a very good, and important, book.

2. I was also annoyed by Julia Reed's review in the NYTBR--best characterized as a "non-review"––of Annie Dillard's new novel, The Maytrees (HarperCollins, 2007). Reed doesn't have that much to say about the novel; she basically takes snippets from an thirty year-old review by Eudora Welty of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and phrases drawn at near random from Dillard's The Writing Life (A book I, admittedly, go on and on about) and beats Dillard over the head with them. The curious reader will find not-so-much in Reed's review about the novel itself. Instead, we are repeatedly reminded that Annie Dillard writes like...well, Annie Dillard.

Who would have guessed?

In the end, Reed suggests that she actually liked The Maytrees. After three long columns of snark and semi-snark, I suppose that is good news.

3. There is an interesting and useful review by Brad Leithauser in the August 16, 2007, issue of The New York Review of Books of three volumes on the poet Louis MacNeice (including the Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, Faber and Faber, 2007?). I know MacNeice only through anthologies and Leithauser's thoughtful discussion made me want to order, and carefully read, all three of these books.

I am often put off by Leithauser as a critic, particularly when he writes about his contemporaries. He is evidently kinder--and for my money far more astute--when writing about the dead.

Or perhaps I am still suffering the effects of dehydration.

Happy Birthday, Stanley Kunitz

Yes, we must celebrate the birthday of one of my favorite poets, Stanley Kunitz, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on July 29, 1905. Kunitz effectively serve three years as Poet Laureate of the United States, (the first two--1974-1976--as "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress," the former name of the position) and then as "Poet Laureate" in 2000.

He founded the Provincetown Fine Arts Center and Poets House in NYC. I have many of his books, including this one.

It's just that I have to go to the store and get the papers and mow the grass and...

If Stanley Kunitz, the famous gardner, saw my yard, the inside of my car, my bookshelves, desk... What would he say?

Get to work, I suppose.

Stanley Kunitz died on May 14, 2006. I miss him.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Another Note On Orpheus and Eurydice

[W]hen you choose to work with the Orpheus myth, ...you are searching, in the dark, with your breath and your fingertips, for an art so powerful that, like the art of Orpheus himself, it can suspend or, as it may be, reverse the laws of nature.


[P]erhaps a ghost is not something dead, but something not yet born: not something hidden, but something that we hope is about to be seen. We want to go to the underworld, back into the darkness of our own nature, to bring back some object of impossible beauty: we know it probably won't work, but what matters is that we keep trying. The consolation lies in the attempt itself, the mercy that's granted to the hand that dares to stretch out into the dark: well, we say, I am only human, I've gone to the brink, I have done all that I can. As the last lines of the opera [Monteverdi's L'Orfeo] tell us: "Those who sow in sorrow shall reap the harvest of grace."

-Hilary Mantel, "Ghost Writing"
in The Guardian, July 28, 2007

Because another of my ongoing projects is a series of poems on Orpheus (imagine the task of making that one "new"!), I am always interested in essays about the enduring importance of the myth. I found this one referenced on Maud Newton's blog.

My thanks.

Find the complete article here:

Hilary Mantel

Happy Birthday, Malcolm Lowry

Happy Birthday to Malcolm Lowry, born in Wallesey, Cheshire, in Great Britain, on July 28, 1909. Lowry is best-known as the author of Under the Volcano (1947) his semi-autobiographical novel of alcoholic misbehavior and tragedy set in Mexico, where Lowry lived in the late 1930's. His happiest, most productive period as a writer was spent with his second wife, the actress and writer Margerie Bonner. They lived for several years in a shack on the beach near Dollarton, British Columbia, and it was there that Lowry wrote Under the Volcano, one of the most important novels of the 20th Century. A great deal of Lowry's work was published posthumously, including a collection of short stories, Hear Us, O Lord, from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961), and the novels Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968) and October Ferry to Gabriola (1970).

Lowry died under mysterious circumstances from an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills on June 26, 1957, in Ripe, East Sussex. The coroner characterized Lowry's passing as "death by misadventure," and that might be taken as a summary comment on Lowry's sad drink-fueled life, had he not, in one magnificent novel, told it all so artfully and truly.

Gordon Bowker's Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry (St. Martin's Press, 1995) is a wonderfully written (if harrowing) chronicle of Lowry's life, work and contribution to literature.

Lowry's writing means a great deal to me. I used a quotation from Under the Volcano as an epigraph for my second book, A Path Between Houses. Here it is:

"Do you know, Quincy, I've often wondered whether there isn't more in the old legend of the Garden of Eden, and so on, than meets the eye. What if Adam wasn't really banished from the place after all? That is, in the sense we used to understand it--" The walnut grower had looked up and was fixing him with a steady gaze that seemed, however, directed at a point rather below the Consul's midriff––"What if his punishment really consisted," the Consul continued with warmth, "in his having to go on living there, alone, of course––suffering, unseen, cut off from God...Or perhaps, " he added, in a more cheerful vein, "perhaps Adam was the first property owner and God, the first agrarian, a kind of Cardenas, in fact---tee hee!--kicked him out. Eh? Yes," the Consul chuckled, aware, moreover, that all this was possibly not so amusing under the existing historical circumstances, "for it is obvious to everyone these days––don't you think so, Quincy?--that the original sin was to be an owner of property..."

Friday, July 27, 2007

Progress Notes

As sometimes happens when I spend time on a long, complex poem, I also began to write a shorter piece--an 18-liner that came readily. This is another in the series based upon the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade. The small size of his hummingbird canvasses, and I suppose the tiny hummers themselves, encourage short lyrics and meditations--sonnet-length and slightly longer.

The one I worked on last night and again this morning looks like a keeper.

It's good to have familiar subject matter and to have done a fair amount of research on Heade's life and art. I know enough about Heade to find a passageway into each poem; not so much that I've lost my curiosity, that I cease making small discoveries.

A Moment with Russell Banks

I met Russell Banks after I wrote a long letter to the editors of The Nation, responding to a poorly reasoned, incredibly negative review of his novel Rule of the Bone (1995). My letter was never published in the magazine, but I had also sent a copy to Banks' publisher, and was astonished several weeks later to receive a thank-you note from Banks himself. The next winter, he happened to be reading with his wife, the poet Chase Twichell, in the Hope College Visiting Writers Series. I had nothing to do with bringing him to the college; this was long before I taught there. I was surprised that Banks remembered me. I had never followed up on his letter. Frankly, I didn't want to be a pest. Anyway, he proved to be a wonderful man--generous, funny, intelligent. I still have his letter, of course; framed, hanging on the wall of my studio.

That night at Hope he read from Rule of the Bone , his harrowing novel about the exploits of a teen-aged American doper running loose in the hills of Jamaica. H also read from the manuscript of what became Cloudsplitter (1999), his novel about the life of the American abolitionist John Brown, told in the voice of Brown's son. What seemed most remarkable to me was the shift in voice between Banks' characters as he put down one manuscript and picked up another; how perfectly each narrator's voice was pitched, separated (as the speakers were) by more than 100 years of American history, but by only several years in the work of the author.

I am interested in the topic of voice for many reasons, not least because I am writing a series of poems in the voice of the American artist Martin Johnson Heade, attempting to integrate those with poems (in my own voice) on Heade's work and with a series of poems that are not about Heade at all.

Anyway, here's what Russell Banks had to say about voice in an interview published in The Paris Review*:

INTERVIEWER: At the risk of seeming too mysterious, where do the voices come from?

BANKS: It is sort of mysterious. But I think we all at times have buzzing in our heads a whole range of voices, some of them heard early on and retained, some of them taken from the ether, the broadcast ether. I mean it literally. I can hear John F. Kennedy's voice in a second. I can hear my father's voice; I can hear the voices of people I have met only once on the street. So I think the voices are buzzing around in an aural memory bank, and you tap into them the way you can tap into forgotten visual memories. It's analogous to the way in a dream someone who is long dead or from way back in your childhood, someone whose face and voice you can't really call up, suddenly comes back with great clarity and vividness, as if the dreaming self has a more powerful memory than the conscious self. I think writers, to a greater or lesser degree, have the ability to tap into their aural memories more effectively, more directly, than the average citizen. I probably overheard the voice of a kid like Bone somewhere along the line, and, in a sense, recorded it. Maybe it's a mix of several tracks, I don't know.


* "The Art of Fiction CLII, An Interview with Russell Banks," The Paris Review, No. 147, Summer, 1998, pp.74-75.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad (left) and Andrew Marvell (below).

Separated at birth?

Progress Notes Redux

Finished, I think. Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) is now implicit.

The speaker of the poem is clueless.


I am ready to resume normal broadcasts.

I guess the Tigers finally beat the White Sox last night, 13-9.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Progress Notes

Sixty-two lines and not bad. Full of barbecue and Andrew Marvell.

My desk is a mess. Everything is a mess.

I must clean this up.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What Work Is, Part 14

1. I feel like I am banging my head against a more-than proverbial wall with this poem.

2. I am resisting ruthlessless because I am tired, and the poem needs a ruthless hand.

Perhaps tomorrow morning.

3. I am writing the same poem over and over, or I am writing something new. I can't tell yet.

4. I've decided I no longer mind being sneered at as a "mainstream poet." What river am I fishing in? Am I strong enough to stand against the current?

"It's not where you live, it's how you live there."

-Paul Theroux

Thought for the Day

The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience. He is careful what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

The writer knows his field––what has been done, what could be done, the limits––the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that expert, he, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. He hits it up the line. In writing, he can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now, courageously and carefully can he enlarge it, can he nudge the bounds? And enclose what wild power?

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (HarperPerennial, 1989), p. 68-69


I spent a couple of hours this morning pushing and reworking the new poem. I have something good and real and alive here and Yes, I am grateful for that. The poem is out over sixty lines, mostly because after cutting some dross I've built the story back by suggesting several alternative directions in the narrative. I have decisions to make and suspect that this one will edit back down toward fifty lines.

I have another busy day at work. Meetings all morning, meetings all afternoon. Through most of which, I will be expected to extravagantly tap-dance.

I just opened the door to let the cat out and two deer were coming down our driveway as if to say, Good morning! The deer were big and red, walking serenely, then went leaping into the wood lot after they saw me. I suppose one shouldn't be so full of doubt, so early on a summer day.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Progress Notes Redux

I've been thinking for years about an incident that I thought might make a good poem and yesterday sat down and wrote it, 50 lines, straight through. The problem with rushing a poem out is my resulting over-enthusiasm; the risk of settling for easy closure. Aside from lineation and the ticky-tacky stuff ( that yes, I actually think is the essence of writing) I see two places in the poem that need closer attention, more cautious deliberation, perhaps an opening-out.

I will probably find more.

I have a busy schedule at my day job. I really would prefer to stay home and work on my poem.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Progress Notes

I returned the galleys for the Martin Johnson Heade poems to Arts & Letters. The poems look good and fill nine pages. I love the journal's format and page design.

Getting the galleys off in the mail was my assigned task-for-the-day. I have another poem I could work on, but right now a nap sounds good, too.*


* It was! (4:50 P.M.)

Happy Birthday, Mr. Hemingway

Happy Birthday to Ernest Hemingway, the short-story writer, novelist, and journalist. Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Cicero, Illinois––a part of which became Oak Park in 1902, where his family lived. Hemingway was part of the 1920's American expatriate community in Paris known as "the Lost Generation," as described in his memoir A Moveable Feast (1964). He had a turbulent romantic life, and was married four times. He also lived (rather famously) in Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. In 1953, Hemingway received the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea (1952). He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

Hemingway commited suicide on July 2, 1961, near Ketchum, Idaho.

Here's something from the short story "Up in Michigan," which is set in Horton's Bay, not too far north of here. Hemingway's family had a house on Walloon Lake, where some of his relatives still live. When driving north on U.S. 31 along the Lake Michigan shoreline, it is still possible to see a bit of what Hemingway wrote about in the so-called "Nick Adams Stories." But the magnificent elms are gone; long-lost to disease, and time and development have taken a toll on what is locally called "Hemingway Country":

Horton's Bay, the town, was only five houses on the main road between Boyne City and Charlevoix. There was a general store and post office with a high false front and maybe a wagon hitched out in front. Smith's house, Stroud's house, Dillworth's house, Horton's house and Van Hoosen's house. The houses were in a big grove of elm trees and the road was very sandy. There was farming country and timber each way up the road. Up the road a ways was the Methodist church and down the road the other direction was the township school. The blacksmith's shop was painted red and faced the school.

A steep sandy road ran down the hill to the bay through the timber. From Smith's back door you could look out across the woods that ran down to the lake and across the bay. It was very beautiful in the spring and summer, the bay blue and bright and usually whitecaps on the lake out beyond the point from the breeze blowing from Charlevoix and Lake Michigan. From Smith's back door Liz could see ore barges way out in the lake going toward Boyne City. When she looked at them they didn't seem to be moving at all but if she went in and dried more dishes and then came out again they would be out of sight beyond the point.


From "Up in Michigan," reprinted in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987), p. 59.

Mr. Potter, Redux

On the whole "is Harry Potter great literature?" debate, here's an interesting article--made more interesting, of course, by the fact that the author seems to agree with me.

Those readers who do not will be interested in the author's links, and in the comments in response to McLemee's original article (just follow his links):

Scott McLemee

Friday, July 20, 2007

Startling True Confession

When I see college students or people at work carrying around a Harry Potter book, I become almost apoplectic.

The truth is that I have never read a Harry Potter book and do not care to. I have no resentments against J.K. Rowling and wish her every success in the world--which she seems to have had. I simply think that adults should read adult books (so many great books, so little time), unless they are reading children's books aloud to children. Yes, I have seen the movies because I watched them with my kids. Yes, we have the books so that the boys can read them, when they get around to them. But for adults? With so many good books to read, so much great poetry? Please. There aren't enough hours to read all of Tolstoy. Don't waste what time there is reading Harry Potter.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Announcement: Reading with Dan Gerber

I am pleased to announce that poet and novelist Dan Gerber and I will be reading together at the Grand Haven Area Arts Council on Friday, September 28, 2007 at 7:00 P.M. Dan, who now lives in Santa Ynez, California, will be back in Michigan in September on a reading tour, promoting his new collection of poems, A Primer on Parallel Lives (Copper Canyon Press, 2007). The reading will also mark the debut* of my new collection, Figured Dark (University of Arkansas Press, 2007).

Dan and I have been friends for close to 20 years, and as I have said before on this blog (and often elsewhere) I probably would not be writing today were it not for the sheer luck of meeting Dan and reading his work.

The Grand Haven Area Arts Council is located at 1045 Columbus Street (Corner of Ferry Street & Columbus Street), Grand Haven, Michigan 49417.

I will have much more to say about this as we get closer to September 28.


*Based upon the anticipated publication schedule. Please keep your fingers crossed!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Happy Birthday, Dr. Gonzo

Where is Hunter S. Thompson when we need him? I hope his ashes--blasted into the sky at his post-suicide memorial service--are still circulating among us. One of his famous tag lines was "It never got weird enough for me," but I wonder if he would say the same today--two years after his death, deep into the second term of the Bush Administration.

So let's all yell "Happy Birthday!" at the Doctor as the Great American Dust Storm whirls by. If we shout loud enough, maybe we'll also breathe in a bit of his awareness; a quality so acute, so finely honed, it often had to be heavily medicated.

Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18, 1937.

Here are the classic opening paragraphs of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971):

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"

Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.

A Book is Coming...Soon!

It seems that Figured Dark: Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 2007) will be out in the world in as little as six or seven weeks.

That is amazing.

More news to come!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Thought for the Day

There is a fine essay by C.K. Williams in the July / August 2007 American Poetry Review. In "A Letter to a Workshop," Williams is concerned with "not so much how one goes about the creation of poems, but rather what, when you're trying to write a poem, do you think with, and how?" It's the sort of writing that poets should read again and again.

It is smart and hopeful writing.

Williams writes:

Along with the right not to concentrate goes a corollary: the right to vacilate, to wobble, to shilly-shally, be indecisive in one's labors, and still not suffer from a sense of being irresponsible, indolent, or weak. Poems can take a long time to arrive, and to find their final form, so surely patience is the word here, but it's worth emphasizing that what actually happens doesn't seem to have the maturity and dignity the term patience implies. There's much more flailing about, and hesitating, and clearing the throat, and taking out the trash: we have the right to all of this. At the same time there is the obligation that comes with this circling towards patience, which is to know at some point you have to make your move, even if you don't feel completely ready, and you have to make it with energy and tenacity and––this might be the hardest––spontaneity. It might be asked how spontaneity can be willed? But isn't that one of the basic issues of art, of being an artist? Isn't that what revision is all about? Trying a thing again and again until the solution finally arrives that surprises and embodies that quality of surprise in itself?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Maytrees

I am through the first three chapters of Annie Dillard's new novel, The Maytrees (HarperCollins, 2007), which concerns the marriage of Toby Maytree and Lou Bigelow, and their life near Provincetown on Cape Cod.

The novel is spare and elegant and beautifully written. It is as if Dillard has constructed (and fully realized) a narrative based upon several old photographs, a half-remembered anecdote, a few love letters. You should read this book for its own qualities, of course, but if you have ever wondered how the skills of a poet (compression, lyricism, philosophical speculation, acute observations about the natural world) might successfully be brought to bear upon the form of a novel, this book will particularly reward your attention.

I find it impossible to read anything as a "reader" anymore. These days I read as a "writer." I am always asking "Why did the author do that?" or "What is the purpose of telling only so much--of this inclusion, or that ellipse?" I remember being pleased with myself, and also appalled, when I first understood that I was reading this way.

I do still love the word "book." The word "book" is a holy word, a beautiful word. "Text" is a word for theorists and anxious graduate students, not a word for writers.


I did manage to get all my writing-business work completed this week. The last of it went into the mail this morning. Hooray. I always find that so dreary.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thought for the Day 2

Another excellent read right now is the Summer 2007 issue of The Missouri Review.

Here's a comment by playwright-actor-director-fiction writer Sam Shepard, responding to a question at a "Master Class" in playwriting held at the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan's West Village in November, 2006. The (frankly, fascinating) presentation was transcribed and edited by Brian Bartels, and appears in this issue of TMR.

CROWD MEMBER: Is there too much craft in [the process of writing]?

SHEPARD: I don't think you can have too much craft. Maybe you can't have enough. It's a funny balance between what we like to call inspiration and what we like to call work. And you can't do without either one. If you hang around and wait for something to hit you in the head, you're not going to write anything. You've got to work. You want to work for something. And these experiences and accidents can happen anytime. Through the back door.

Thought for the Day

There is an interesting interview with Norman Mailer in the Summer 2007 Paris Review. Here's what Mailer has to say about the difficulties of being a novelist. I think the same could be said of writing poetry, but I am not sure all novelists (or poets, for that matter) would agree.

MAILER: You bring whatever powers you have to high focus. It's why very few people ever become successful novelists and are able to remain successful novelists. They have the talent, but it's also about bringing the powers to focus. It involves stuff that isn't agreeable. For instance, being a novelist means you have to be ready to live a monastic life. When you are really working on a novel there can be ten days in a row when you are just out there working and offering nothing to your mate and nothing to anyone else. You don't want to be bothered. You don't want to answer the phone, you don't want even to talk a great deal to your kids--you want to be left alone while you're working. And that is hard. And of course every morning you have to go in there and face that blank page and start up again. So this business of bringing your powers to focus is not routine. You have to believe you're going to engage in spiritual discomfort in order to get to the place where you can think. Not just to think as yourself, but to do so as the person who's fashioning the novel.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What Work Is, Part 13

In addition to my day job---where I am quite busy at the moment--I have a lot of office-administrative stuff to do for my poetry in the next couple of days––filling out some forms, getting copies of poems onto disks, writing letters and getting stuff into the mail, etc.

Writing would be easier if it were just writing.

Yes, I am glad the American League won last night.

Sorry, National Leaguers.

I must admit that I was so tired I conked out about 10 P.M., and didn't see much of the game.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Congratulations to my friend Patrick Donnelley, who has two great poems in the July / August American Poetry Review ("The Broken Abecedarius of Reasons I Gave" and "Cradle Song"). In the same issue, his words are also used as an epigraph for Margaree Little's "On Negative Capability."

Congratulations also to my friend John Rybicki, for his wonderful poem "Thought at the Parting of These Waters" in the July /August issue of Poetry.

Good stuff!

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Tigers 6, Red Sox 5!

I am not sure what I was thinking. I bought three slabs of ribs that must have come from Hogzilla.

Dinner should be around 5:30, if you are in the area.

And not a vegetarian.

P.S.: If you are a vegetarian, stop by for pie.

Almost Random Notes, Part 14

Just now--two goldfinches flying aerobatics around and around the cedar trees!

You know the drill:

1. It must be hell to be the child of a poet. It finally dawned on me why our two sons (ages 3 and 5) kept asking me to throw rocks at them so that they could hit them (um, so the boys could hit the rocks) with an old stick. So I went out yesterday and bought gloves and Tigers' hats and bats and balls (whiffle balls, of course; they're far too young to risk bonking them with the real thing) and we've been playing backyard baseball ever since. Last night, we played whiffle-ball catch in the living room (with dramatic, bounce-off-the-sofa slow-mo replays) and watched 12-innings of the Detroit-Boston game. We finally went to bed with the game still tied, 2-2.

I am pleased to report that Pudge Rodriguez drove in the winning run in the 13th.

The Tigers go for the sweep this afternoon at 1:05.

2. I should say something rhapsodic about the weather. All through June we had days in the 70's, with nights clear and cool for sleeping. Today promises to be our first truly hot and humid day (mid-90's) but every Michigan summer needs a few of those to really warm up the lakes. I can tell it is the high tourist season by the number of Illinois license plates in town attached to shiny, improbably expensive cars.

How many rich people are there in Chicago?

3. In my continuing response to the so-called serious book critics who argue so vociferously against bloggers (when their actual argument is with the editors and publishers of America's newspapers) I note the following:

a. The "Book Page" of the Grand Rapids Press this morning consists of (i) an article asking the obligatory "In the series finale, Will Harry Potter die?" question, (ii) a review of a childrens' book about a German Shepherd wonder-dog, and (iii) a review of a series of picture books about "crazy stones" and "crazy shells."

Here's a sample paragraph from that last one:

"As a reviewer and and educator, I [the reviewer] am crazy about them [the 'Crazy' books], too. The ideas and the art are so different. The small design format, illustrated with charming three-dimensional doll characters paired with simple objects, and a sparse text that tells a story make these books a satisfying reading experience. They inspire readers to ponder ideas, where the natural simplicity of a stone or a shell becomes interesting."

b. Even the New York Times (after a week in which terrorist struck in Great Britain and George Bush commuted Scooter's jail term for felony perjury), features no fewer than four opinion pieces and one cartoon--or whatever it is--about Mr. Potter on this morning's Op-Ed page.

Give me Bookslut.com or Edward Byrne's "One Poet's Notes" any day of the week.

4. Today is the promised Post-"June Poetry Surge" Rib Fest. This should be fun.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Progress Notes

I finished poem #5 last night, and then wrote one more today. It helps, I suppose, to have subject matter; I didn't spent much time wondering what to write about. When I ran out of ideas, I went back to Martin Johnson Heade and his hummingbird paintings.

I'll spend the rest of the weekend tidying up what I have.

That should pretty much complete the June Poetry Surge.

33 days, 6 poems, 205 lines.

And the Tigers beat the Red Sox tonight, 9-2.

Since Cleveland also lost, that's progress!

Eight Little Things...

Leslie at "Always Winter" tagged me with the "eight things no one knows about me" thing-ee.

Here goes:

1. I was an altar boy when I was young and thought very seriously about becoming a priest. Then I discovered girls. I am now in favor of priests being allowed to marry. And I am in favor of women being allowed to become priests. The Pope, of course, favors neither of these ideas.

2. I might recognize my brothers and sisters if I walked past them in a crowded airport. I probably would not recognize their spouses and I certainly would not know my nieces and nephews. I have never met them.

3. I cannot console myself by saying, "Well, I write better poems than anyone else in my law school class." Lawrence Joseph was in my law school class. But I secretly think it has become (at least) a push.

4. I have probably cleaned more fish--thousands of pounds of fish!--than any moderately well-published poet in America. In the Lower 48, anyway.

5. I was raised in the restaurant business. The only valuable lesson I took from that experience was that I know what work is. I wish that my family--my brothers and sisters and myself--had paid a lesser price to learn this lesson. I also learned how to cook, of course. I am a good cook, and making a nice meal is my response to any emotional crisis.

6. I am a very loyal friend. But when I'm done--when I've been shunned, mis-lead, or lit-up often enough––I am done. There are people I simply will not talk to anymore--as in, pass silently in the grocery store--others I now keep at arm's-length. Yes, it is a character defect. No, I don't think that I am likely to change.

7. I am 1/8 Native American. My mother (who prides herself on being Irish) is 1/4 N.A., but will not admit this.

8. I am quite shy, and in the poetry world that is often taken for arrogance or for being...well, not too bright. I am arrogant enough to be annoyed when certain people draw the second conclusion. I am smart enough to know that what certain people think doesn't matter much.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Thought, Late in the Day

I love the work of the Detroit-born poet Philip Levine. One of my favorites of his books, one you must read, is The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). Here, in the chapter "Living in Machado," Levine is speaking of his love for the work of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), and of some time spent reading and translating Machado's work while Levine was living near Barcelona:

I decided the best thing I could do was select a short poem by Machado and do my best to translate it. If I waited for permission from someone, even from myself, it would never come. I chose one that began, "La casa tan querida," because I could translate the first two lines without consulting a dictionary. Also it did not rhyme, and the lines seemed of no fixed length, so most of the usual formal considerations were irrelevant. The syntax of the first stanza––which was a single, very complex sentence, gave me fits. I wanted not to have to resort to breaking it into two or even three sentences. Hours passed, and I felt I was simply moving words around and not getting any closer to a version of the poem I'd be happy with, but a curious thing happened during these hours: I was falling in love with the taste of Spanish on my tongue.

I went for a long walk down by the sea and began quoting passages from the poem. To my great surprise, I had memorized all of it, though I no longer recalled how I had translated most of it. The poem concerns a man who goes back to view a house that was very dear to him because once a certain woman had lived there. The place is now an uninhabited wreck, and the wreck reveals its worm-eaten skeleton. The short second stanza goes:

La luna esta vertiendo
su clara luz en suenos que platea
en las venanas. Mal vestido y trise
voy cainando por la calle vieja.

We discover it's night. The moon "is shedding / its clear light of dreams / that silver the windows." Why would the windows remain in a junked house? Perhaps the speaker is remembering it as it was even though he places the experience in the present. Perhaps he is demonstrating how the past takes pre-eminence over everything. I repeated the final sentence over and over, for I was describing myself, alone, bundled in thick, coarse sweaters against the sea winds, feeling each of my thirty-seven years twice over. "Shabby and sad / I make it down the old street." The experience was utterly not mine, for there was no woman of romance anywhere in the world whose loss I regretted, but there was in me a yearning for a place of the past, a house to which I could return and be taken in, a place that had once mattered and still mattered. No such place existed. I had had the American experience of finding the old house replaced by a parking lot, and this was 1965--two years before what in Detroit would come to be known as the Great Rebellion--and much of the neighborhood of my growing up was still unburned. It would take another twenty-five years to show me how fully Machado's poem dealt with a life I could never live, for by the time I truly became the shabby old man the places of my growing up had been obliterated. The American experience is to return and discover one cannot even find the way, for the streets abruptly end, replaced by freeways, the houses have been removed for urban renewal that never takes place, and nothing remains, not even a junked skeleton "silvered by moonlight."


NOTE: I regret that I could not get the accent marks placed into the quoted Spanish.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

In Which Case...

Or I could take a nap.

Progress Notes

I finished poem No. 4 in the "June Poetry Surge" last night. If one forgets that it is already July 4 (i.e., that the great surge was held over by un-popular demand into the current month), it's still a pretty good effort--at my writing speed. I began on June 3, so that is 4 poems in thirty days; approximately a poem a week with a total line-count of 164, all while working full-time in my day job.

Of course, quantity measures nothing in poetry. But I am also happy with the quality of the poems.*

What next? It may be time to look for another hummingbird poem. I could spend the afternoon working through some materials on my friend Martin Johnson Heade.

Reading is good--

"...So things will light the lamp for other things."



*Sorry if this sounds self-involved. This blog often functions as an "open notebook," and today I feel like a worker bee who has stepped out of the hive and found the air a bit damp for a day-full of pollen. I am revving my wings; talking myself into what needs to be done.

Independence Day

A government of laws, and not of men.

-John Adams (1735-1826)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Happy UFO Day

I just received an e-mail from the Academy of American Poets, indicating that July 2 is (or rather, was) "UFO Day," commemorating the anniversary of the Roswell Incident on July 2, 1947. Here's a link to the Academy announcement:


In honor of the day, here is my only flying saucer poem. It's from my first collection, Holding Down the Earth (Skybooks, 1995). I wrote this book before getting my MFA. I think it's obvious that I had a lot to learn, but I still like the poem.


We cover the distance from Leland to Crystal Lake
in little more than an hour, stopping once for coffee
at a weather-beaten party store. I've decided
I like driving quickly through falling snow,
but do not tell you this. It reminds me of those movies
in which the starship cruises at light speed, the stars
blowing past the windows of the capsule,
passengers safe inside,
nothing ever striking anything. On the radio,
a man says the Hubble telescope
has just photographed the farthest known galaxy,
some 15 billion light years away. Our entire universe,
he says, continues to drift, and might only be
several billion years older
than the light we are seeing now.
I am trying to arrive at a preference for coastlines,
making a game of it, pronouncing this one a tie
with the cliffs of Oregon. Perhaps Lake Michigan winning
on the grounds of the familiar. I am deciding
whether to drive all night, take you far
from this coast, stop before dawn
and press my ear to the earth, listening
for the sound of solid ground. But what,
the caller asks, of the Roswell Incident?
It was just after the war,
he says, and perhaps they'd come to save us
from the nightmare of Hiroshima. A light year here,
a light year there. The difficulty of finding our way
through time and space, even to a place
as vast as New Mexico. There are photographs.
The rancher, electric in the flash,
pointing toward the dark of the arroyo,
and a day shot of the bunkhouse
over which the saucer flamed. Some say
there were bodies, with translucent skin and almond eyes,
and hieroglyphs on the metal fragments
gathered by the soldiers.
It will take us years to understand
what has happenened before our eyes.
It was November and we were in Oregon,
walking the deserted beach, the ocean not at all pacific.
The tide was coming in or going out,
I forget which, but something was happening:
the waves rolled and rolled away and the ocean disappeared
in a roiling mist. I was drawing Tillamook Head
in oil pastels, the peninsula stretching, like a long, dark anvil,
in the distance below Seaside. You walked away,
and when I called you did not hear,
or perhaps, you pretended not to hear.
Between us, one hundred yards of tidal pools,
and a flock of sanderlings,
gray as limestone, picking their way
through the shards of razor clams.
As I watched, I thought of the word "salvage,"
not simply the word, but the process,
gathering what is left of the wreckage.
On the radio again, this same man, nearly hysterical,
says the goverment builds flying saucers
at a secret base in Nevada. These fly above radar
and below, at extraordinary speeds,
we seldom see them, they are undetectable.
He tells us they are everywhere. He is trying
to describe the distance from this place
to the nearest civilization,
a small town named after the wife of Jacob,
the Jew who first wandered into the land of Canaan.
"There are twenty miles between Dreamland and Rachel,"
he finally says. The only way in
is to cross the desert at night,
a dangerous passage through snakes and alkali,
a journey for which there are no maps,
no landmarks, and no guarantees. Ahead of us,
two taillights curve away, equidistant,
like tiny red comets.
I am trying to find a thread of music
between the static and these voices.
The car is silent, but for the turning dial,
and the low hum of the tires, making the same sound
they would make on any long drive,
whether these were the first miles, or the last.

On Politics

Am I surprised that Paris Hilton spent more time in jail than will Scooter Libby?

Pardon me?

Happy Birthday, Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in the City of Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. The Judgment (1913), In the Penal Colony (1920), the novella The Metamorphosis (1915), and the unfinished novels The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), are among the most important works of modern literature, and gave rise to the adjective "kafkaesque."

Here's something I mutter to myself from time-to-time. Kafka wrote this in a diary entry* for April 20, 1917:

"Bitter, bitter, that is the most important word. How do I intend to solder fragments together into a story that will sweep one along?"

How indeed?

Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in Kierling, near Vienna, Austria, on June 3, 1924.


* From The Diaries of Franz Kafka: 1914-1923 (Schocken Books, Inc., 1965), p. 152

Monday, July 02, 2007

Proof of Life

The New York Times is back!

Is this a great country, or what?

A Poem by Ruth Stone

Ruth Stone won the National Book Award in 2002 for In the Next Galaxy (Copper Canyon Press, 2002), the collection which contains this poem. In that same year, she won the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. She has published nine full-length collections of poetry and several chapbooks.

She was born on June 6, 1915 and lives in Vermont.


It is so hard to see where it is,
but it is there even in the morning
when the miracle of shapes
assemble and become familiar,
but not quite; and the echo
of a voice, now changed,
utterly dissociated, as though
all warmth and shared sweetness
had never been. It is this alien
space, not stark as the moon,
but lush and almost identical
to the space that was. But it is not.
It is another place and you are not
what you were but as though emerging
from the air, you slowly show yourself
as someone else, not even remembered.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Happy Canada Day

Let me echo ex-Michigander Jill Dybka in wishing our Canadian friends "Happy Canada Day."

I love Canada.

Missing the Alumni Conference

The Warren Wilson College MFA Program's Alumni Conference is now underway at St. Mary's College near San Francisco. The annual event moves around the country to make it easier for alums from various regions to attend; every five years or-so it's held back at Warren Wilson's campus in Swannanoa, North Carolina. I have attended all but one of the Conferences since I graduated in January, 2000.

I couldn't make it this summer, for a variety of reasons.

The Alumni Conference is an opportunity to workshop, to read, to teach and to attend classes taught by graduates of the Program. I have most often used the time to squirrel away in a dorm room or campus library and write--I can usually get several poems written during a Conference and still have time to socialize and attend a few classes. In my forthcoming book, for example, there are a number of poems set in St. Paul, Minnesota (written when the Conference was held at Macalester College), in South Hadley, Massachusetts (Mount Holyoke College) and back at Swannanoa. The Alumni Conference has been important to my writing, my thinking, and in my ablility to stay focused on poetry. Attending the Conference is important to me; it's why I will be thanking "the Warren Wilson community of writers" in my acknowledgements page.

That's also why I began the "June Poetry Surge," knowing that this summer I would not have the uninterrupted opportunity to write afforded by the Conference. As I think I mentioned, I'm taking off a few days this week to work on poems, so all is not lost. I will be "near San Francisco" in spirit.

The rumor at the bookstore is that the New York Times will be back in Grand Haven tomorrow. Sunday morning without the Times is...well, let's be polite and go with "annoying."