Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Speaking of Chinese Poets

Poets from across time and civilizations speak to us. Some feel like they are right here beside us.  We feel like we know them. And, more importantly, we feel like they know us.

Here are a few more international poets for you to consider.

Wang Wei, from the eighth century, has a moving poem, "Lament for Yin Yao" which ends with these lines:

All your old friends have brought you gifts
But for your life these too are late.
I've failed you in more ways than one.
Weeping, I walk back to my gate.
translated by Vikram Seth

Of course, there is the famous Li Po who lived in the Tang Dynasty (700's).  His poem, "Alone and Drinking Under the Moon," has a contemporary quality which is almost unnerving. He writes:

still not drunk, I am glad
to make the moon and my shadow 
into friends..."

Clearly, this is a sentiment which would have been much appreciated by French poet Charles Baudelaire (19th century)  who wrote the famous prose poem "Drunk" which declares, mid-poem:

"....ask what time
it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: 'It's time to be drunk! So as not to be the
martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry, or on virtue as you

Then there a contemporary Chinese woman poet Zhai Yongming who, in her poem "In this Instant" has this to say about  on time and timelessness --and our responsibility to both:

"....only I 
heard the tip tap tune of breaking dawn
The flash of ecstasy had no equal, the aloofness 
was like a distrust of air, or the dew
or the night...."


Friday, March 25, 2011

Yevtushenko, Paz and Szmborska: 3 International Poets You Should Read

There are some poets in the world who speak to us even when we don't understand their language.

The power of such a voice--even in translation--transcends  boundaries,both time and space. We feel less alone in the world when we encounter them on the page. 

Three such poets who have changed my poetic world are: Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russia), Octavio Paz (Mexico) and Wislawa Szmborska (Poland).

I first saw Yevtushenko on a public TV  when I was 15-years-old.  It was a Sunday night and I was flipping around the dial looking for something interesting. By chance, I happened to land on a channel which showed a bare stage and a man dressed in a gray turtle neck. The man was prowling the stage and speaking in Russian. I didn't know what the words meant, I only knew that what the man was speaking was poetry and that I was deeply moved. Soon after he finished his piece, some translators spoke the words in English.  I was only 15 but I knew these English words were not--could not-- be as powerful as the Russian words the man just spoke.

I don't remember how I bought Yevtushenko's book. I came from a neighborhood that barely had a library. My town was filled with working class folk, mostly, and building a library was a costly endeavor for them. So, eventually, a library building got built but--well...let's just say there were a lot of bare shelves and not a lot of books when I was growing up.

So it must have been when I went into New York City with my school for various trips that I was able to buy his book. I should say books--because I loved his poetry so much I kept buying books and giving them away.  I still have one copy from those days. It is old and yellow and I still love the poems.  Among my favorites are "The City of Yes and The City of No," "Babii Yar," "Lies" and  "Colours," ("When your face came rising/above my crumpled life,/the only thing I understood at first/was how meager were all my possessions.")

I encountered  Paz and Szmborska much later in life but my reaction was similar to these poets as to when I met Yevtushenko.

When I first read Paz--especially his poem "Between What I see and What I Say"--I, literally, could not breathe. My chest felt as if all the air was being squeezed out of it. ("Between what I see and what I say; between what I say and what I keep silent,/between what I keep silent and what I dream,/between what I dream and what I forget:/ " 'poetry.' ")http://www.wisdomportal.com/PoetryAnthology/OctavioPaz-Anthology.html)

Reading Szmborska still makes me want to cry, laugh and dance in crazy high heel shoes.

Take a look at the first few stanza of "A Few Words on the Soul" and see if you don't feel the same way.

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

(translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


Monday, March 21, 2011

Ten Statements You Won't Read In a Contemporary Poetry Book Review

#1    This is boring.

#2.   These poems are derivative.
(otherwise known as the "Been-There, Done-That" School of Poetry).

#3.    The poems are confessional/experimental/formal/narrative/lyric etc. etc. and nothing more.  (Brought to you by the "Why-Should-I Care-About-This-Besides-the-Fact-that-You-Wrote-It?" School of Criticism)

#4.     In terms of content/style/tone/structure: this poet repeats himself/herself over and over, again and again--in this book and the poet's last 10 books.
(otherwise known as "This Super Famous Poet Should Have His/Her Own Reality TV Show Titled "Too Famous for You").

#5.     No surprises here. Not one.

#6.    This poetry book is better/worse than the last one by this (famous or somewhat famous or wanna-be famous) poet.

#7.    Some of these poems are splendid.

#8.    Some of these poems are not splendid.

#9.    The poems make the reader work really hard but in that really delicious way.

#10.   This is prose and not poetry.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Between Land and Sky: The Poetics of Geography

We are all the consequence of history. And here history lives as an echo on the face of strangers lounging in city parks; children riding bikes down a mountain road; a woman hanging wash on a line threaded between two iron poles; two voices whispering in the dark. Here experience and landscape converge. The urban world of freeway cars and tract houses and billboards strung with a dozen neon lights which almost casually draws a line across the throat of wilderness; and we must simultaneously remember and forget who we are and where we have come from.

 I live in this Arizona desert landscape, bordered on three sides by the wide sky and on the other  by a ridge of biting sunlight.  I am a woman born on the edges of the Atlantic, whose blood runs at odd moments, all the way back to Spain, then Italy; then the New World.
The poems I bring to my creative writing and literature students are ones that speak to them of their own sense of place in the world. The poems my students seem to crave are ones that help them to survive in the landscape of their lives and which articulate the geography of their present.  Sometimes these are the poems that are famous and fall into the classical cannon, such as the works of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Browning, and Eliot.

Sometimes the works of contemporary poets--writers who are firmly fixed in this place--are what my students want and need. They understand the poetry of paradoxical landscape: the urban world in which most of us find ourselves is a "place" in which we are aware that we live as part of nature as well as being a force that is against nature.

For those of us living in the American southwest, this dual sensation is like standing in the desert and hearing the voices of those who may have crossed this barren track of land thousands of years ago while imagining those who, if the extravagance of "for sale" signs are to be believed, will inhabit the land within the next six months. We must be aware of two sets of distinct realities, the end product of which, oftentimes, becomes an odd sense of displacement. 

Perhaps our own history has--if we dared be honest with ourselves--dislocated our imagination. And if we were really brave, the questions we might ask of ourselves are these:  When will we re-enter the landscape of our imagination? What drove us from it in the first place? How does our sense of physical place influence our perception of the world? Does gender affect one's imagination? Does race? Class? If so, how? In what ways?

Who or what will guide us back to our own imaginations?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lessons for Serious Writers Or "What They Didn't Tell Me in Grad School"

Well...maybe they did tell teach me  these things when I was a graduate student pursuing my Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry.

And maybe, like so many students, I was too busy reading, writing,  working, teaching classes, taking classes, raising a family, voting, cleaning, shopping, flossing, connecting and disconnecting etc., etc., etc.,  that I somehow missed these lessons. Or learned them and then had to re-learn them.

Regardless. If you are a serious poet pursuing the craft on your own or in a formal setting or simply a writer who has "been at it" for a while but needs to be reminded of some essentials...here are some lessons to visit and re-visit from time to time.

1) Read outside your comfort zone. 

2) Create and maintain a habit of writing. Be nice to your Creative Process Muse. Take her--or him--out to lunch once in a while. Buy flowers. Tell your Muse how much you appreciate all his--or her--efforts. Give hugs.

3) Write against yourself. Watch out for those linguistic "ticks" that we fall into--turns of phrases, images, syntactic patterns that you repeat over and again. Think of these repetitive "safe havens" as mere place holders for what you really want to write about.

4)  Respect what you can not yet do in your writing but are attempting to accomplish. You will get there. Keep trying. (Just look at the early work of some of the great poets.  They were not all perfect all the time. But they kept working and their vision was eventually realized.)

A corollary to #4: No matter how accomplished you become, do not become derivative of yourself. Keep it new.

5) Figure out what kind of relationship you want to have to the public relations side of writing, publishing and pubic readings. Do not conflate "famous" with "good poetry."

6) As importantly, understand that you will have to promote yourself, your books, your readings and your publishing house. Learn how to write a press releases. Learn how to write copy for your book. Learn how to set up readings. Once you learn these skills, keep polishing them.

7) If you want to get published for the first time and hoping to go with a small press, make sure you communicate to the publisher what you are willing to do to promote your book and the press it represents.

8) When giving a reading, practice beforehand. Time yourself.

9) If you are given a time limit for a reading, stick to it. Look at your audience. Smile every now and then. Give them a little bit of time between poems to let your words sink in. 

10) Be generous.  To other writers. To community organizers.  To anyone who loves poetry. It's a big world out there and people do not have to show up for your readings; they do not have to publish your work; they do not have to buy your books. And if people love poetry, let's be really really nice to them and congratulate them on contributing to the making of a vibrant literary culture.

11) If another writer does something nice for you--gives you information, networks for you, sets up a reading for you, introduces you to an editor...whatever...try to recognize it as a gift. And reciprocate in some way.

 12) Be kind. And be courteous.  Be polite.  People have long memories.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How to Read Poetry by Sydney James, Guest Blog

This is a piece I use in many of my classes. I reprint it here with permission of the author. It's a good teaching tool but also a gentle reminder to those of us who write poetry as well. --LRD
How to Read Poetry
By:    Sydney James

1)    When first approaching a poem, put your intellect away.  Good poems are trying to express things at the intuitive, imaginative and emotional level.  Most contemporary poems can’t be reduced to a logical statement.

2)    Meanings are often contained inside visual images.  For instance, if you read “an apple in a bowl, with gold light pouring off the sides,” you sense of home, of beauty, perhaps of strength or hope – but the poet has not given you the words “beauty” or “home.”  On the other hand, if you read “an apple withering in a tarnished bowl”, you have sense of decay, perhaps of sadness or despair.  LOOK FOR THE IMAGES, and FEEL THE EMOTIONS that the images might give you.  Poets rarely say something straight on; they come at it indirectly.  If this makes you impatient, sit down sometime and try to describe how it feels to hold a baby, or your first kiss, or a fight with your mother.

    This is also known as the principle of ASSOCIATION.  Poets rely on the association of elements.  This means – if I want to write about summer, I may describe a sailboat, which will probably make you think about warm weather and sunshine.  Or I might describe grass growing very tall and green in a field – that’s a summer image.  You ASSOCIATE green grass with summer.  Connect the words in a poem with things inside your head that they are RELATED to.  The poet may not really be talking about a sailboat at all – s/he may be trying to give you a sense of motion sickness, and the sailboat may be a metaphor for emotional experiences that upset our equilibrium.  METAPHOR is another form of ASSOCIATION.

3)    FORM OFTEN REVEAL CONTENT.  A poem with long lines and little punctuation might give you a sense of hurry, whereas a poem with short line and careful, measured punctuation might provide a sense of peace – or sadness.  Look at the WAY a poem is written; that is how it appears on the page and how it progresses inside your head.

4)    SOUND.  Poets rely not only on what words MEAN but how they SOUND – the sound is part of the meaning.  If you have words that have a lot of n’s and r’s, e’s and I sounds – for example “singing”, “prayer” – those words are usually peaceful, pretty words.  On the other hand, words with b’s, k’s, t’s, and some “un’ sounds tend to be harsher and more choppy – “brutal”, “trudge”.  Poets count on the sounds to portray their meaning.

5)    Add it all together: what’s in the poem and what it’s brought up inside your head.  But keep in mind that the parts may be contradictory.  Poets are often trying to express feeling or situations that “we have no words” for – in other words, feelings and situations that are paradoxical, ambiguous or bizarre.  A poem that mixes peaceful sounds with a nervous rhythm may be a failed poem, or it may be trying to express a day at the amusement park.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lucille Clifton's Legacy To Me

Years ago when I was teaching at a major university in Arizona, I had the good fortune to to bring Lucille Clifton to campus. I was her host during the poet's 2-day stay where Clifton was to give a poetry reading  and meet with students in an informal Q & A gathering.  My editor, who was the person who first introduced me to Lucille Clifton's poetry, served as her escort as well.

As her hosts, we picked her up at the airport, took her to lunch and dinner, made sure she arrived in time for her events and generally escorted her around town.

It was a thrilling experience.

In those days, it was possible to meet visitors at the airplane gate.  I remember seeing Clifton emerge from the long tube which connects the plane to the airport terminal. She looked, at once, like someone I had always known--a family friend or the neighbor next door and, simultaneously,  she looked like a great poet walking straight out of my favorite literature book and right into my life.

After picking up her bags, we took her to lunch where the conversation ranged over many topics. Clifton was kind kind and gracious.  When we asked her if she had imagined us--her devoted readers--she looked us both in the face, laughed a bit and said: "Well, I thought you'd be black."

After that she asked about us--where could she find our work? what were our writing plans for the future? our current obsessions in literature? our favorite poets? poems?

After her poetry reading and discussion sessions, we took her to dinner.

That night, as we lingered over dinner and shared an excellent bottle of wine, Clifton spoke to us about many things, one of which was her next collection of poems.

Then, somewhere between desert and the coffee, the whole evening began to turn into a scene from a movie.

Which is to say, it turned magical for me.

At some point --and it must have been late as I seem to remember the restaurant emptying--this amazing poet whose work I had long admired--asked us: Would you like to hear a few of my new poems?

I looked at my editor who was looking straight back at me. We both nodded quickly fearing we must have heard wrongly or maybe the poet will change her mind if we actually answered her.

Then Lucille bent over her worn out leather briefcase, pulled out a sheaf of typewritten papers and proceeded to read her new poems....the work which would form her next collection.

We sat there dumbfounded--what does one say to a long admired poet who is very deliberately reading her brand new work, out loud, over dinner, in what my memory wants to say had to be a candle lit room--how do we respond to this famous poet who is reading to us? Just to us.

But I want to end this story on a different note. Sometime during the few days I spent with her, Lucille Clifton taught me something that changed me in a deep way.

Maybe it was during her lecture to my class or maybe it was over dinner or on the way to the airport...I really can't remember when this event occurred.

But I do remember what she said...because I have gone back to these words many times in my life.

She said: "You know in the Western way of thinking, we are always confronted with either/or.  In the African tradition, we have and."

For me, this was one of those freeing moments.

So, I thought to myself, I can be a writer and a mother; I can live a woman's life and have a poet's sensibility; I can work at a real job, for real pay and create. I don't have choose.

 Not too long ago, a few months before Lucille Clifton died, I was at a national conference and found myself in an elevator with her. She was in a wheelchair but, save for a bit more gray hair, looking so much as I remembered her.

I didn't want to bother her so I said nothing.

What could I have said anyway that would have made sense to her after all these years...as I am sure her words to me were words she said to many others, many times in many places.

But I have offered those same words to you, now and here in this space. It is the only way I can properly say:

Lucille, thank you, thank you.