Friday, December 24, 2010

In This Season of Possibility

In this season devoted to miracle, I am wishing you the following:

a curious mind;
the company of words well-said and ideas deeply considered;
eyes that look up;
hands that open;
a clear heart;

and, of course, the poet's spirit of wonder.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Write What You Want to Get Remembered"

One of the best pieces of advice anyone could give a writer--especially writers who feel "blocked" or simply intimated by the blank page-- can be found in the coming-of-age memoir The Virgin Of Bennington, by Kathleen Norris.

As I remember it, the line is reoccurring throughout the book and is spoken by Norris friend and mentor, Elizabeth (Betty) Kray, former director of the Academy of American Poets and developer of poetry audiences extraordinaire.

So as we approach the new year, what do you want to "get remembered?"

Remember, it doesn't matter when you start your remembering (and writing), it just matters that you start.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What Would Emily Dickinson Do? (WWEDD?)

If the great visionary poets were alive today, what would they be doing?

No doubt, William Blake would have his own website. It would be filled with lots of drawings of scary looking beings. You wouldn't be able to contact William because he doesn't want email from any one of this world.

John Keats would have an iPad, a Twitter account, be active on Linkedin and contribute to Kiva.  And his Facebook postings would rant against the "Prim Rose" poets... those who insist we dote upon them and who try to convince us that their really, really bad behavior is creative genius.

Emily Dickinson would surly blog. It would be called: My Amherst Slant.  She would read all the great newspapers on line and would write every day.  My bet is you would not be able to post a comment.

But if you backchanneled her--and if you were sincere and not a fool--she just might email you back.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great Audiences + Great Poetry = Great Culture

To have great poets, there must be great audiences ~ Walt Whitman

Okay,  doesn't this quote by Uncle Walt seem to make perfect sense? Doesn't it seem like one of our most important cultural endeavors --to become an active participant in "The Great Audience" of our time?

And don't we, as a participant in this making of culture, "vote" every day on how that culture gets created and how it grows--by what films, plays, concerts, readings we attend or don't attend. By what music and books we purchase or don't. By what educational classes we take or, in some case, what courses we teach. Or don't.  By what websites we visit and by what social media we use? Or don't.

And isn't it all kind of obvious?

The vibrancy of our culture is determined by us.

Does that mean then, that we--as the makers of culture--as "Cultural Citizens,"  if you will--have a lot more power than we realize?  And, if so, does that mean we have a cultural responsibility as well?

Monday, December 20, 2010

10 Great Poetry Lines to Memorize List

There are certain  lines of poetry that come to me--come at me--stay with are just 10 of them.

10  Great Poetry Lines to Memorize

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear; 
                                                          --William Wordsworth from The Prelude

Here's a riddle for Our Age: when the sky's the limit,
how can you tell you've gone too far?
                                                       --Rita Dove, from "And Counting"

What kind of beast would turn its life into words? 
                                                   --Adrienne Rich from "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Just as you felt when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.
                                                      --Walt Whitman from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

...and God was there like an island I had not rowed to
                                                      --Anne Sexton from "Rowing"

"That is not what I meant,
That is not what I meant at all."
                              --T.S Eliot from"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"    

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
                                               --William Carlos Williams from "Danse Russe"

Nothing's a gift, all's on loan.
                                             --Wislawa Szmborska form"Nothing's a Gift"


I am not wrong. Wrong is not my name
                                                    --June Jordan from "Poem About My Rights”

And whatever it is that watches,
It has kept you from loneliness like a mob.
                                                   --Norman Dubie from "Confession"

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). []

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.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Shelf Recomends: Letters to the World

If you are a writer and a serious reader of literature, there are some books worth adding to your hands-on  library collection. I will be recommending various "take-a-look" and "must-have" books from time to time.

For those of you who missed  Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-PO Listserv (Red Hen Press, 2008) when it was first published, you might want to consider it now.

This is a truly innovative book with a compelling organic structure. The mini-essays form a kind of bridge among the various poems.  Think of their use and purpose in this book as being similar to the prose sections in Paterson by William Carlos Williams. As with the structuring of Williams' epic poetry classic, the mini-essays in Letters serve to create a holistic "story." In both books, the prose pieces are like stepping stones set in a lyric river which help us navigate swiftly moving water. In addition, the creation of this anthology is fascinating. The synopsis on the back cover says:

"Letters to the World is the first anthology of its kind—a feminist collaboration born from The Discussion of Women’s Poetry Listserv (Wom-po), a vibrant, inclusive electronic community founded in 1997 by Annie Finch. With an introduction by D’Arcy Randall and brief essays by the poets themselves reflecting on the history and spirit of the listserv, the book presents a rich array of viewpoints, and poems ranging from sonnets to innovative forms."

Below is a picture of me (left) with Annie Finch (middle) and another poet at the Letters panel discussion at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) national conference in 2008.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Platonic Apple

The poor apple has a bad rap…first, there’s the whole Eve thing. Then, there’s the good-for-nothing rotten, rotting-heart-of-evil-bottom-of-the-barrel-bunch thing. Or there’s the prissy, sissy keeping-the health-care provider-away–from-the-door thing. The apple has been baked, sliced, dried, diced and mythologized. But if you want a taste of the Platonic apple….get thee to Costco. Look in the darkest corner of the fruit and vegetable room. Look for the 10 lb bag of red organics. Solemnly prepare yourself to become addicted. Then…take a bite. I dare you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tests for Poetry or How Much Courage Do You Need? here's the deal.

Let's agree that poetry is a good and necessary force in our lives. Let us not quibble on that point or we will be here all day which will result in me getting frustrated and angry and we simply won't be able to have a decent conversation after that.

Okay then, poetry is essential. A dynamic force. Agreed? Good. Let's proceed.

Now let's agree that there are many kinds of poetry and approaches and shifting definitions etc. etc. We can all consult our Hazard Adams two-volume set of poetics if there are any doubts about that last statement. If we absolutely must we can always call on Uncle Ezra Pound as well.

I am interested in exploring what makes great poetry--words that last a hundred years;  words that people--even those who say they loathe poetry and poets-- will commit to memory and repeat to themselves the way a small child prays when he knows no one is listening; I want to talk about the kind of poetry that transforms us--the words which change our view of ourselves, our lives, our communities.

What we need is a new manifesto for the 21st century.

And I have a few ideas on that.

Stick around. We'll talk some more.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"A Writer Is One On Whom Nothing Is Lost"

Below is a piece of writing that, originally, I sent to a member of my family circle. I post it here as a kind of holiday card, wishing you all the best-- now and in the coming year

The Secret Life of Napkins

I learned from my mother to mix and match expensive and cheap table settings. She had a great attitude about setting the table with nice things and making sure we used them. So she would haunt thrift stores before it was popular to do so. She would find wonderful table cloths and take them home and bleach them sterile. So we always ate our everyday dinners on them.  Sometimes the linens were way better than the food we could afford. But the white table cloths were a wonderful touch. At holiday time she would put out the really really good crystal--the stemware that was given to her at her wedding shower. I loved how the crystal shone and the tinging sound it made when she pinged it to show us "this how you know it's good crystal." And she never --and I mean never--got upset when we broke a piece of it. Which we always did. At the end of her life, there was just one glass left out of a big--I want to say--100 piece set. I always loved my mother for that.

My mother washed the cotton napkins and ironed them wet. That's what gives the napkins that crisp look and feel. I always iron them just after I wash them so then I don't have to think about it later when I set the table.

My mother did not know how to set a formal table--that is, no one told her the precise placing of  forks, knives and spoons.  How far the plate should be from the edge. That the knife blade should always point outward. All this I had to learn from my 8th grade Home Economics teacher. And I don't know if my mother knew about fine china dinnerware--names like Rosenthal and such. This I had to learn that from my friends years after I left home.

But my mother did know that life is to be lived, that glass--and people--can break. And-even so-- it is all going to be okay--really okay. That love makes the feast. That gifts of  imagination are often the very best. That is there no one correct way to do any of this.

This is longer than I thought it would be. If my mother were here--if she could speak to you--she would tell you that it is the hand that sets the table --not the things on the table--that's important. She would say: Give love.  Receive Love.  Be joyful.

She would tell you that's all that is ever needed.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Poetics of Paying Attention

Poetry teaches us to see well.

It does not always--or necessarily--teach us to see clearly or, for that matter, to see with an understanding eye.

Poetry does, however, teach us to pay attention.

For example, say one day you are driving home from work. You look up. There, seemingly out of no where, is a building on the corner of the street which always takes you home.

You wonder how that three story, glass and chrome office building came into existence! Did leprechauns  come in the middle of the night and-- in their magically delicious way--erect the edifice using tiny hammers, saws and jackhammers. No doubt. Why did no one inform you of their whereabouts? Where is the neighborhood block watch when you need them?

The point here is obvious. If you--if I--if we could miss an actual building which was built quite literally right before our eyes, then what else are we missing? what else are we not paying attention to?

The world is as strange as it is mysterious. And we are, often, strange and mysterious in it-- as much or perhaps more so--to ourselves as we are strange and mysterious to others.

Poetry can help us see that.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Why and Now of Poetry

Writing is both mask and unveiling.  ~E.B. White

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.  ~Samuel Johnson

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.  ~Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977


I have resisted writing this.

I have resisted tweeting, texting, facebooking and, in general, chirping myself into the electronic world.  

Now I hear you thinking that I am one who resists change. That I am one who would communicate to the world--and not with it. 

Yet, nevertheless, here I am. 

So this is my New Year's risking-taking experiment  of "hurling words into the darkness." This is me sending my voice into the darkness of cyberspace.

I write--this and more--because I can sense the faint echo of you out there. 

I can hear you breathing.