Sunday, February 27, 2011

Confessional Poetry: Can We Move On?

Don't misunderstand me...I love reading all the confessional poets.

And I do love the intimacy of reading a poem--any poem--and feeling like the poet of the poem--not just the speaker of the poem--is sitting down with me at my kitchen table, having a cup of coffee with me when suddenly, the poet--much to my surprise and delight-- positively bursts into what can only be described as secular public prayer.  A literary aria.

It's compelling, for sure. A private "theatre of the mind," for sure.  And a spurious connection, for sure. And--oh-- it feels so real, so comforting.

I am saying there is a place for that "Ear-Against-the-Door...Yes, Reader-I'm-Talking-to-You" kind of poetry. And that it can be a glorious experience. And it can be the stuff of great poetry.

But--and let's be honest now, ok?---let's not have any hurt feelings or whining about this, ok?--haven't we just about had enough of the particular kind of poetry which is the product of what I have termed --and I'm being nice with this--"literary hemophiliacs"?

Isn't anyone else kind of tired of the poets who bleed onto the page with endless interior monologues and intimate details and wicked stories that make you cringe? The "Poor-Me-Little-Match-Book-Girl--No-One-Has-(Or-For-That-Matter-Ever-Will)-Suffer-Like-Me" kind of poetry. Which would be considered, in almost any other venue--well let's just come right out and say it, shall we?--uninteresting.  Except for its  tabloid gossip quality, that is.

It would appear the "Shock-Jock" poetry of our times replaced a former age's excess of poetic sentimentality.

Look, all I'm saying is that there is a line that no one seems to want to draw--poet, reader or publisher.  As far as I can tell, the line between genuinely intimate poetry and "look-at-me! look-at-me!" narcissistic poetry doesn't get discussed.

In fact, in professional criticism of contemporary poetry, that there may be a line at all is rarely--if ever--discussed.

The poetry workshop taught us that "telling us everything there is to tell" does not automatically qualify a piece of writing as "a poem." That the best confessional poets did edit. And they knew what not to say as well as what to say.

I have not read discussions which explore the kind of Come Hither poetry, the sole purpose of which is literary exhibitionism. 

The craft of poetry embraces many different ways to a make a poem live.

Perhaps  poetry for the 21st century should come out of--come back to--the imagination.

Perhaps we should move on and--as Ezra Pound once told us--try something new.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ten American Contemporary Poetry Books For Which I Am Grateful

There are poetry books that teach me. Others that comfort me. Some books which bring me elsewhere.

And then there are the poetry books for which I am profoundly grateful.  Those are the books I read over and over because I simply love them .

Every time I finish one of these book, I am thankful for the poets who gave me these books. It has been one of the purest pleasures of my life that I have, on occasion, been able to say thank you to a few of these poets in person.

Here's a short list of a few of these books.

Maggie Anderson, Windfall
Lucille Clifton, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir
Martha Collins, Blue Front
Carolyn Forche, The Country Between Us
Jack Gilbert, The Great Fires
Patricia Hampl, Woman Before the Aquarium
Dorianne Laux, What We Carry
Denise Levertov, The Jacob's Ladder
Frannie Lindsay, Mayweed
Bruce Weigl, What Saves Us

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ezra Pound and You

We know that Ezra Pound--to lift a phrase from T.S. Eliot in his essay on Hamlet--"had his problems."

All that is well-known and much discussed. No need to get into the Nazi-Fascist-Crazy thing. We all know about that. We know, as well, how he set to course for American poetry in the 20th century and, one could argue, well into the 21st century.

What fascinates me are the ways in which his generosity--and one can not use another word except that one-- helped poets, writers and artists to publish their works and, in some cases, survive their lives.

I know it is difficult to separate out Pound's pro-Hilter, pro-Mussolini words and actions from the man who is said to have brought James Joyce a "good pair of shoes". It is hard to imagine the kind of imaginative generosity of such a man who--I want to say almost single-handedly-- brought to the forefront of American consciousness writers whose work is now considered the very foundation of our literature.

So here are my questions to you.

Who is this century's Ezra Pound? Where do we find that kind of literary and personal generosity today? What value does this kind of generosity have in our times?

In what ways are you willing to be generous to other writers?

And, if you know of writers and editors who follow in the tradition of extraordinary personal and professional generosity, I call on you to post your story here.

Maybe we should see who's out there.... and say our "thank-yous" in advance.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Of Poetry and Noble Lives

We don't much talk about living noble lives. And, in our time, we certainly don't connect the word "poet" with the word "noble."

It all seems so old-fashioned.

Which is to say uninteresting. Which is to say unsurprising. Which is to say boring.

It appears our age doesn't mind heroes--as long as they give us long as they make us feel lucky or blessed or excited or uplifted or just downright special.

Please understand, I'm not taking issue with real heroes. We have plenty and I am grateful to them. The intern who saves his Congresswoman. The airplane pilot who lands that craft perfectly in the middle of the river, thus saving scores of lives. The fireman who saves the infant. The soldier who sacrifices for her buddies.

I am suggesting, however, that heroes reflect onto us a certain specialness.  And we are happy to be distinguished by that light.

However,  if  we define "noble" as "possessing outstanding qualities" then those who live these kinds of lives seem to me to exemplify what it means to be truly human.

Moreover, these noble lives ask something of us. These noble lives cast a big question mark over our heads.

When we read of Rosa Parks, we can't help but wonder about our own courage. When we think of Nelson Mandela  we have to  ask ourselves if we could survive 27 years in a prison without being broken. We look at the list of names on a wall--any wall--in Europe which honors those who resisted the Nazis and we have to wonder if we could have done the same.

In terms of poetry, the metaphorical Rockers and Stoners--the "bad boys" and "shocking girls" of literature seem to take center stage in our minds. To say that certain aspects of our poetry world are so very different from our popular culture--the Lady Ga Ga's and such--is to be either dishonest, cloistered or clueless.

Yet there are other stories in our poetic collective narrative. Of those  who write--or wrote--wonderful poems--sometimes even eternal poems-- and who live or have lived a noble life as well.

The story of John Keats is well known.  He was a young man; he was a dedicated writer; he wrote great poetry; he died in his early twenties.

As I am fairly certain John Keats did not plan to die young, from a horrible, painful, lingering disease, in a foreign country, broke, in the presence of one kind and good acquaintance, without the comfort of his own true love,  without any real recognition for the poems he had already written, with the knowledge that the poems he could have written will never, ever find their way onto the I am certain this ending was not scripted by the John Keats to insure his place among the great poets,  the well-known and famous story of this person makes me wonder.

The people of his  time might not have known what caused the disease, but they did know it was catching and deadly. Which is why they would burn the clothes and even the houses of those who died from the disease.

So I have to assume John knew what he was doing when he took on the care of Tom --which translates into John putting his dreams for his own life, for his own poetry on the line.

And then I have to wonder if I could have given up my own dreams for a full life and all the hopes for my own poetry so knowingly and so completely.

But John Keats did.

And, in doing so, not only is the way in which he lived his life the stuff of poetry--it is the very definition of the word "noble."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

No More "Mother May I"--part 2--What Emily Dickinson Knew

Much was made of our "half-cracked" Emily Dickinson by feminist poets in the 1970's and 1980's. The essays and poems are familiar to those of us who were so grateful to encounter new perspectives about this genius of American poetry.

For example, I remember finding Adrienne Rich's "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" in the collection of essays, titled On Lies, Secrets and Silence (1979). Truly, after reading that essay,  my life was changed forever.

In that piece, Rich writes:
"I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.

"....Poets, even, are not always acquainted with the full dimensions of her work, or the sense one gets...of a mind capable of describing psychological states more accurately than any poet except Shakespeare. I have been surprised at how narrowly her work, still, is known by women who are writing poetry, how much legend has gotten in the way of her being repossessed as a source and a fore mother."

That piece--and others like it--posited an Emily who had power...a women poet who created a life which maximized her power and who did so consciously, deliberately and strategically. 

When I visited the home of Emily Dickinson in Amherst a few years back,  the idea that Emily Dickinson was a self-determined woman poet --and not a "too-fragile-for-this-world" writer-- was brought home to me in visceral ways. How I understood her life as well as her work itself became essential to me.

At her homestead, I did not encounter the Emily Dickinson I had been taught in school--too scared to live, too delicate even to hold a conversation with "normal" people, a women whose very gift left her lonely and unloved, who substituted "little" poems for an unrealized life--in other words--a women and a poet who was weak, nutty, unhappy and, ultimately, powerless.

At her beautiful Amherst home, situated on several acres of lush Northeastern greenery and surrounded by the garden Dickinson, herself, planted, I saw a different Emily.

In her corner bedroom of the two story house, I saw the chest of drawers which held her folios.
And her single bed which faced the bureau--above which were two portraits--George Sand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The faces of women writers who must have given her courage and comfort. And, then, I just knew these portraits must have been selected by Dickinson for that very reason. 

At that moment I knew those were the faces she saw every day of her adult life. They were her companions, her role models, her friends...the writers who "got her."

I asked myself: How was this different from the portrait of Shakespeare that Keats hung above his desk when he wrote the great odes.

It wasn't, I said to myself.

Except in the retelling of the story. Except in the framing of the story. Except in what that framing had to tell me about my life and writing as a woman poet.

Then I took the narrow walkway connecting Emily Dickinson's house with her sister-in-law's home. There, in the unreconstructed parlor, I saw the lovely large windows where sunlight touched the sitting chairs and sofa.  I heard the guide say how the great poet would often attend artistic gatherings held in this room.

And so I began to see a different woman poet then the one I had been taught in school and even the one who needed "defending" in various essays and poems.

I began to see a woman poet who defined her life on her own terms. And one, who, quite possibly, didn't speak to or engage with her larger community because just she didn't want to.

Maybe Emily Dickinson wrote the exact kind of poems she wanted to write, lived the exact  kind of life she wanted to live and talked to the exact kind of people she wanted to engage with--or ignore.

Maybe she absolutely knew that saying "Mother May I" would get her absolutely no where.

But it didn't stop her from writing, from thinking, from owning her own mind.

She wrote--and famously only published a few poems in her lifetime--but she wrote. 

She wrote into what one can only assume must have felt like a poetic void. But she wrote and lived with courage and conviction regardless of who or what gave--or withheld-- permission.

And if that's not a morality tale for our poetic age, I don't know what is.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

No More "Mother May I"--Women Writers/Women Editors

In a recent article, published in Slate, Katha Pollitt ("The Lack of Female Byline in Magazines Is Old News: If You Really Want More Women Writers, Get More Women Editors" underscores the point I was trying to make at the Women's Caucus meeting at AWP this past February.

Pollitt begins her piece by addressing the VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts organization's concern about gender publishing disparities.

After making the observation that the publishing gap between men and women writers is certainly not news to women writers, Pollitt writes:

"As Meghan O'Rourke reported here last week, VIDA, an organization for women writers, has released a tally of male and female bylines for the 2010 run of 14 high-end, literary-oriented magazines. Despite a couple of relatively bright spots (the New York Times Book Review surprisingly being one), the numbers they found were just as dismally skewed as you might have expected, or even worse. None of this will come as news to the many women who've been keeping score at home...

So why so little change? One reason is that only women are having the conversation, which too quickly, given the temper of the times, turns into gloomy brooding on female psychology. Do women lack self-esteem? Are they too mannerly to put themselves forward? Perhaps, as O'Rourke suggested, they've avoided the subjects the male gatekeepers want to cover? .... There is probably a bit of truth in all these points: Women do often doubt their knowledge and abilities, and their diffidence probably explains why the pool of writers sending in pitches and proposals and unsolicited manuscripts is, at most magazines, disproportionately male. "

Which brings me to the point I made in the Women's Caucus--and one echoed by several other women writers/editors in the group--that women writers must stop "asking permission" and start taking action.

Virginia Woolf told us in "A Room of One's Own" that, in order to write, women must have space and money. This was not a metaphor.

However, let's take one giant step back and look into what  having "space" means. To me, having a physical space which is completely my own allows me to have psychological space. And having that kind of "safe haven" for my mind, in turn, gives my imagination room to simply be--a "ground of being" from which I can create. In other words, having my own space precludes any "asking permission"--intellectually, emotionally, imaginatively.

Of course, having money becomes the agent by which I can own my freedom. What good is having "freedom of mind" is one does not have the wherewith all to act on that freedom?

 Which brings me back to "asking permission," publishing and contemporary women writers.

Perhaps we have gotten it all backwards--thinking we need space, our own money, the very real approval and acknowledge of editors which comes in the form of actual publications, etc. etc., before we can take action.

In other words, if they like us--I mean really, really like us--we must be okay enough writers. And if we are "okay enough" writers, well, maybe what we have to say and how we want to say it will get heard. And if it gets heard, well, maybe it's significant in some way. 

But maybe we need to start from the premise that we already are okay enough writers, take action now and then the space, money and publication will follow.

Or the space/money/publication won't.

We need to come to terms with this.

Then maybe we will have to accept the possibility that the room/income/poems/stories/essays/books and articles --in the ways we have come to believe how these things should unfold--how we want them to happen--won't happen in ways we expect. Perhaps we need to begin with the idea that the "safe haven" is a kind of necessary luxury--but a luxury nonetheless.  If we wait for the "right conditions" to happen for us, to us--well, maybe we will be waiting a long, long time.

Perhaps we need to think in terms of creating change. And with that change will come a "room of our own" that we have built with our own efforts.

I hear you are asking: How do we do this?

Take an active part in the literary community. Become an editor. Write book reviews. You can write a small review on Amazon for writers you admire. It's a small thing but it counts.  Network with--and for--other women writers. Support--with money--small presses that support women writers you admire. Write literary criticism which helps to shape the literary conversation.  Become a critic --a close reader--with standards you can articulate and defend. Facilitate a book discussion. Teach a class. Create reading lists which include some of your favorite women writers. Give a lecture. Join an organization which supports women writers. Start an organization which articulates your literary point of view. Go to readings of women writers. Create your own reading series. Buy books from women writers. Write more poems, stories, essays, books of your own. Then write some more.

We must define the literary conversation on our own terms. Stop waiting for wholesale approval and admit the possibility that very likely we may never get it.

Be bold. 

And, most of all, don't give up.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thoughts on AWP, 2011, Washington D.C.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference has been called "the great national conversation about literature."

And so it is.

More than 8,000 writers attended the 2011 conference held in Washington D.C. There would have been more attendees, no doubt, but so many could not make it out of their hometowns because of bad weather.

Walking into the lobby of one of the two main conference hotels, I see groups of writers--2 or 3--sometimes a few more--sitting in circles, talking over wine or cups of coffee. Conference bags hanging over their shoulders. Old and young faces looking relaxed, or, more often, looking intense. There is a certain sound--a kind of electric buzz that is peculiar to this conference.  As if the crowd has saved up all their thoughts, observations, musings and irritations since the last conference and--only now--will let it go.

Everyone is talking, talking, talking.

About books. About writing. About ideas. About private lives and secret griefs. About politics and publishing and odd but interesting things that happened during the year, on the plane trip to here, at last night's reading or simply inside the writer's imagination.

One overhears in the hallways, conference rooms, elevators and coffee shops language used with precision and used with the mind fullness that comes with the certainty that how something gets said is as important as what gets said. Sometimes it feels like everyone is talking in paragraphs--not sentences, not phrases. One word responses in any conversation is not something I have ever witnessed.

But I have noticed that when the writers gather --when we gather-- we know we are among our own kind.  I do not mean to suggest that the "gathering of the tribes"--as one keynote speaker put it--is not without discordant notes. However, there seems to be this shared belief: that the use of language and its ultimate place in our culture is kind of sacred.

That what we do as writers actually matters.

Monday, February 7, 2011

"A Writer Is One On Whom Nothing Is Lost" Part 2

I am fortunate.

I am the grandchild of Italian immigrants, the daughter of a truck driver, the sister to two brothers:  a retired high school teacher and a professional wood worker.

I grew up with an extended family. My grandmother, who lived with us, spoke little English and could not read or write--English or Italian. She came to the United States when she was just 12. She wanted to learn so, sneaking off  to night school, she would sit outside the door of an English Language classroom, crocheting and listening to the lessons going on inside. She was hoping to learn something, anything.

But, soon enough, her father, my great-grandfather, caught her and he beat her. He did not believe in education for women. Until the day she died--at 82--she could not read or write except for her name.  As a young girl, I used to see that long thin scar on her head. She never spoke about it.  She never complained. Every day she would stand at the picture window in my mother's living room. Her eyes would scan the street.  Her arms folded in front of her as if she knew she had to protect something, someone from a harm which she could not yet see. Her loneliness seemed like something I could actually touch. And I knew, even at a young age, the voices I had encountered in my own reading--those writers who comforted me--would not ever speak to her.

My mother and aunts were young they had to leave school and go to work. It was the depression. It was a hard time.  Then, just after Pearl Harbor was bombed, my father left high school to join the Navy. He served on a ship for the duration of the war. His rank was that of Boatswain's Mate--which I am told is like being Sergeant.

My aunts --my mother's three sisters--she was the baby of the group--were like second mothers to me.

Two of my cousins lived just three blocks away from us. They came to our house--or I went to theirs--just about every day. My aunt,  the oldest sister, was an executive secretary in an airplane manufacturing plant. She knew the value of education because, as a young working woman, she watched how the "Americans" lived. I credit her insistence that "No one is better than us." as one of the fundamental reasons as to why our family has had so many successes. Growing up, she repeatedly told us to "Beat'em with Your Brains." And it was because we took her admonition seriously that we-- the grandchildren of  immigrants and children of the working class-- have college degrees today.  In our family, we have teachers, engineers, lawyers, business owners etc. etc. We have our share of advanced degrees. We have our share of artisans. We have more than our share of extraordinary.

And I was always glad that as an adult I got to say thank-you to my aunt for pushing us. I am so grateful she told me to "Stand up straight. Have pride. Work Hard. And stop all that crying!"

Her husband, my uncle, was born on a famous man's birthday so we called him by that name instead of his given name. My uncle was a longshoreman.  He was also the biggest man I have ever seen in my life. He must have been over 6 foot something. He also loved to cook and made the most delicate homemade breads and sesame seed rolls--the best I have ever tasted.  And so I grew up thinking that's what men do--they are big and powerful and they cook and they bake. They love and they protect. It all seemed simple enough.

My cousins, their daughters, were among my first friends and teachers even though they were 5 and 6 years older than me. They had tea parties with me, cast me in the plays they put on in the backyard using the branches of their Weeping Willow tree as a stage curtain, took me for walks where we gathered blueberries growing in the "forest," showed me where and why wild ferns grow, buried me under piles and piles of dead leaves in autumn, played batminton with me in the summer, made snow men with me in the winter, anointed me with Italian bread on St. Patrick's day to make me "officially Irish." They taught me my A-B-C's. They listen to me as I struggled to read.

I have other cousins and aunts and uncles I love as much as I love these two. And then, of course, my parents who lives were the stuff of great literature and who were as devoted to creating a life centered in wisdom as they were to making a life founded on love.  Then, of course, there is my older brother who taught me how to think-- how to love poetry. But all this is something I have to write about at a later date.

            Below is part of a letter I sent this past Christmas to one of these cousins. I don't think she will mind my sharing part of it with you. It is inadequate in so many ways....but perhaps you will begin to see how fortunate I have been.

                   Dear M...,

               I hope you know—despite time and distance that separated us—I love you. And that you were so  important to me growing up—indeed shaped so much of who I am now.  I am a writer, in part, because of you. I read my first poem in your upstairs  bedroom, lying on the floor one rainy February. It was Poe’s "Annabelle Lee"….you told me it was “true” story—about Poe’s cousin etc. I know I cried but I don’t think I let you see that. Then, when you were in 8th grade—which would make me about 8--you wrote a story about a boy reaching for an apple. I thought it was a great story though you said it was not…but then you told me you wanted to be a writer and I thought to myself—“This is possible? Maybe I will be a writer too."
                You played  with me, you taught me, you loved me….thank you. From me then, from me now to you then,
                to you now-- thank you.

 Just thought I would tell you in case you didn't know. 



I hope