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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rules of Hunger: Serendipity and The Sympathetic Imagination

My first collection of poems, Rules of Hunger (Star Cloud Press, 2003), was not my first completed manuscript though it is my  first published book. However, the writing of this book could be said to be the result of  my own personal journey to and from "the self."  Further, it is a journey toward, away from and then back again toward poetic form,  themes and personal, gendered, history.

Poetic form has long been an obsession with me. I studied form with  Alberto Rios when I was pursuing my MFA degree in the late 1980's. In that class, I learned, first hand, about the "magic" that can happen if a poet allows the form to take hold of the "sympathetic  imagination." When  speaking of poetic imagination and theory, one must refer to  John Ruskin  (born 1819) who wrote extensively on the subject. According to noted scholar George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History at Brown University, who writes

 ... Ruskin believes in a visual imagination. Although Ruskin's ideas of the imagination were heavily influenced by the writings of British moral philosophers, such as Dugald Stewart and Sydney Smith, who described the imagination as working with sympathies and emotional states, Ruskin believes that the imagination works with images. In The Two Paths (1859) Ruskin describes the visual nature of the imagination: "We all have a general and sufficient idea of imagination, and of its work with our  hands and in our hearts: we understand it, I suppose, as the imaging or picturing of new things in our thoughts" (16.347). In an 1883 note to the second volume of Modern Painters, which contains his longer discussions  of the various aspects of imagination, he stated: "I meant, and always do mean by it, primarily, the power of seeing anything we describe as if it were real" (4.226n). [http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/atheories/1.4.html]

For me, the study of form--a poetic technique which I, at first, rebelled against with much wailing and gnashing of teeth--was a real turning point  in my creative life. I struggled mightily with the various techniques we graduate students were required to study and use in our own work. Moreover, when Professor Rios held  up The New Book of Forms by Lewis Turco and said to the class something like: This is one of the best books you will ever need on this subject. I could hardly imagine my future would include not only that book but Professor Turco, himself.

I learned from working with form (and using Professor Turco's book) that, as Ruskin said, "the power of seeing anything we describe as if it were real" could be enhanced by using form. In essence, I learned my imagination could surprise me by creating pictures and images that I did not know existed in  my mind. This was a powerful lesson I took to the writing of Rules of Hunger.

Moreover, during the first stages of writing this book, I had attended a  writer's retreat in California. There, I listened to a lecture given by Professor Brenda Hillman. Her work is noted for its cutting edge experimentalism. Though intrigued, at the time I did not think her "take" on contemporary poetic techniques would hold much value for me as a poet. However, I could not get her work out of my mind. After the conference, I read her work and read whatever critiques I could about her work. Still,  I could not see how these new techniques would help me with my new manuscript.

Then, through a series of poetic serendipitous events, I found myself hosting Professor Lewis Turco at our college campus. He was kind enough to help launch my brand new Visiting Writer and Scholar program.  Professor Turco gave readings (and more than 100 people attended), conducted workshops and graciously allowed me to interview him. It was that interview--which was taped and is now lost due to technical recording problems--which freed me to experiment with form in new and untried ways.

In Rules of Hunger, I decided to mix various metric patterns with variegated punctuation. This was a direct result pf what I had learned from studying Turco and Hillman.  I began to see that "new images" could be created by mitigating cadences through the use of various punctuation symbols as well as using other literary techniques and devices.

Another poetic serendipitous event which contributed to the poetic themes and personal history I decided to use in Rules of Hunger, came from a simple remark made to me by my friend, the poet Jan Beatty. Though I had taught many Women Studies classes at the graduate and undergraduate levels, had sections of my PhD dissertation devoted to women literary theory and have written and published articles on the subject, somehow I  must have missed an obvious point when 'it' came to my own poetry.

In terms of form and themes, Jan Beatty's poems may be viewed by some to be the opposite of Lewis Turco's work. Yet,  Jan's comment had the same kind of effect on me that Lew's interview had had m--it was another turning point for my work. It was a chance for me to poetically open up and take risks.

What Jan said to me is interesting in that the content of her comment was something I  knew intellectually but had failed to grasp emotionally. She reminded me: "Women often think their stories are uninteresting."

Once again, I felt free to take risks. And so I began to write about "personal" stories and themes--which previously I had thought were uninteresting, unimportant and unpoetic.

I began to write about my family, my father's cancer, my husband, my youth. I wrote about being poor, lonely, depressed and desperate.  I  wrote about food and love and about being an Italian-American woman.

I wrote about wanting to run away...and I wrote about staying put. I  wrote about the price one pays for holding onto dignity in a world that would take it from you at each and every turn.

My second book, northSight, continues along these lines.  It goes deeper-- and, my early reviewer have said-- it is a book about hope. This is, to so many contemporary writers and critics, a most "unpoetic" theme for the 21st century.

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