Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dayum, no wonder Statius was ranked with Ovid and Virgil.

Of course it's so hard to tell what of this is due to Statius and what is due to the translator; so much hinges on a good translation. This translation, by Charles Stanely Ross, is really excellent. It's iambic pentameter; no strict rhyme scheme but there is some effort to rhyme or have near-rhymes on occasion.

This is very good.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Having to turn in my portfolio made me realize that I've actually produced a fair amount of writing; I've been overwhelmed class-wise, and feeling that I didn't have as much time to write as I wanted.

Another issue is that I've been writing a lot of prose, which is all well and good except that I can't workshop it.

Today was the last day of my Chaucer class, which was excellent; I still have to finish my poem for that class.

I am starting the Thebaid, by Statius (translated by Charles Stanely Ross).

Monday, September 25, 2006


Did I mention that I started my MFA program? Because I did. Anyway. I wrote a long (like 5 pages in Word, but of course as poets we generally don't go all the way to the edge of the page with each line) thing in response to a prompt. And felt good about it. And went back over it again and didn't feel so good about it. It goes both ways. Sometimes you're like "meh" and stuff is just sort of pouring out of you in that altered writer state and you pretty much type it up just as it was in your notebook and it turns out to be awesome and in need of little revision. And sometimes you think it's awesome and you read it over and it's not quite so awesome. But I still see it as sort of the raw ore that contains what I need, what I'll work with and refine. It's there, hewn up from whatever state I was in, the raw ideas and connections I need to work on and figure out. There is stuff in there you don't even realize until someone else points it out.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What else it can do

Another thing I want to get into a bit is that I think these days we both expect too much and too little of poetry.

Consider this: for centuries, for as long as we have had written records, really, the primary form of "fiction," of tale-telling in the so-called western world, was in verse. There were chronicles and such, but the first prose fiction you really get in Western Europe is at about the turn of the millenium. From Iceland. Other than that, the tales are all in verse. Poetry is the medium for storytelling, for keeping the stories alive. It is the thing done in halls when it is dark and cold outside. It is the thing that gains you entrance to a king's court, it is the thing that passes down all your lore and stories, all the things that keep your culture's soul alive. It is a primary form of entertainment. It, verse, is the primary form, I repeat, in which stories are communicated. Not prose, which is now the ubiquitous "respectable" form of storytelling it seems.

The long epics, the names after names of who came from whom and did what, the sacred histories of a people, were in verse. They're much easier to remember that way, for one thing. They are compact, tightly packed.

Now poetry is seen as marginal, frivolous. More on that, maybe, some other time. It is expected to be personal, not public. To be temporal, not timeless. To capture some moment, some feeling, some epiphany--not to contain a history and a people, the life of a hero or of big characters, characters as real to you or more as your family

But poetry now is also expected to perform significant duties, heavy duties for small words. A poem, if it is good, is now expected to change you. To hit you in the head, make your heart skip a beat, provide some revelation, take the cover off some corner of the world. And that's well and good, and poetry can do that. But frankly I don't always like that, because it's hard to feel so much. There are poets (Sharon Olds comes to mind) whose work is so good, but hard for me to read, because it is like my flesh is being torn open. You can't have that all the time, or I can't, because I'm busy enough trying to keep myself together without a poem coming in and fucking with me all the time.

Maybe also poetry can change you subtly, poem by poem. Because they are good and just because they are works of language, stories. Change you, become part of you, the way that everything you eat does. Giving you fuel to keep living, knitting into your flesh and bones gradually, so you wouldn't even notice hardly. Instead of transforming you drastically like Alice's cake, so that the world is a different shape, so that your body is reeling and uncertain of where it is or ought to be now. Poems that build in you and build on themselves, the true treasure-hoard of any people.

I want poems like that, I want poems that tell me a story. It was foolish, wasn't it, to think that I can't tell stories any more, being a poet. That that is a job for the "fiction" people, who are like some separate breed I don't have the attention span to keep up with. And it is not that such poems don't challenge you, make you laugh or make you sad. They just don't need to, and aren't meant to, fuck with you, you know? They're doing something else, they're telling a story.

Heh, there was a time, really not very long ago at all, when I thought that good poetry was about making some amazing line that would cave your head in with its mind-blowing aptness. About refiguring some little piece of the world some way in words so that you gasped at its simultaneous freshness and rightness. That is just one trick. A good trick but maybe a cheap one, flashy, like a bang and lights, that does startle your heart, admit it, make you aah inside. But there are lots of other tricks, that may be older, that may take more craft.

What about the trick of making a whole world live? About making a man, a woman, live? About making them live for centuries before the waking eyes of the people? About giving that gift, to a people? That's a grand gift, and will nourish for a long long time. It may be like the magic table in fairy tales, that you feast from and is still laden for you, always.

Those who can trap the world in apt lines do have my admiration, envy sometimes maybe. Those who make a world and make it live, have my abiding love and honor.

I shall probably clean this up; I'm tired and my head is fuzzy and usually when I read these things over they seem foolish and young and brash, my points too ill-defined or too sweeping and dismissive.

Second Person

Haven't updated for a while, obviously. I recently began my MFA program, though, so I will have a lot to think and write about. When I am not busy.

I realized recently that I have been writing a fair amount of stuff in the second person. That was an assignment once, in an undergraduate poetry class. We explored some of the things that a second-person point of view gives you. Uh, the poem. Reader. Whatever.

Firstly, an "I" as a narrator is potentially unreliable. Why are they speaking to us, what do they have to hide? Plus the whole personal/confessional poetry thing is done quite often enough, and even if the 1st person narrator != the author, that's the expectation readers may come into the poem with. I'm really not much into the personal confessional sort of thing myself. I'm more interested in the external than the internal, maybe. (Even when the external is an embodiment of the internal, or vice versa.) I'm more interested in birds than I am in some stranger's emotions.

Secondly, with "you," the reader is immediately placed in an intimate position: they're being asked or invited (commanded maybe?) to represent a certain perspective, to experience it perhaps. "You do this," you are told, "You are like this." You are put into the position of that person.

Third, it can establish a relationship between the author and the reader; it is as though the author is addressing the reader. So long as this is not didactic, this may give a refreshing sense of involvement. It's a "giving," in a way, to the reader. You ask or require that "they" be included. Because it's a lot to ask, really, to write all about yourself and expect perfect strangers to really care.

Fourth, in my experience... this is not a case of putting the reader in the subject's place. It is about speaking for and to a subject directly, a subject who is not the reader. The conversation, then, is between myself (the author) and the subject; the reader may look on at our communication.

Er, I could go on about this but I really want to keep going with the 2nd person thing as I think it's potentially very rich. :)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fresh Feedback

In a lot of ways getting feedback on your poems from "laymen" is far more useful than getting it from fellow poets. I don't mean "laymen" in some sort of condescending way. As a writer, your audience isn't just fellow poets. At least mine isn't. That would be an awfully small audience, and poetry has a pretty small audience as it is, relative to other genres. People shouldn't need to be "experts" in order to appreciate, enjoy, and "get" poetry, any more than they ought to be a book reviewer, literary agent, or English professor, in order to enjoy fiction. And if you're writing with the expectation that the common people just aren't going to get your poetry, then I wonder who the hell you're writing for.

As a reader, I'm not automatically so intrigued by your shit that I want to solve a bunch of puzzles in order to get anything from it. I already have my puzzle-books. If your stuff has some sort of meaning on some higher, intellectual meta-level, awesome. But it has to be good and interesting in the first place, or else I don't care. Absurdist plays are like that. Waiting for Godot or The Bald Soprano are interesting and entertaining in their own right, not just because they were doing something different with the genre itself. Impress me, make me like your work, and then maybe I'll grant you the favor of paying attention to your work on that level. Life is short and there are things I can enjoy immediately, without having to slave over it, like leaves and the smells of things, and good writing.

Poets have generally had more practice reading, analyzing, and critiquing poetry. In a lot of ways, I think this means that when we hear or read a poem, we approach it less freshly. We know how it works behind the scenes, we've been seasoned and maybe jaded by numerous workshops and seminars, by reading other people's horrible, mediocre, and good poetry, and we've become accustomed to approaching poetry as a critiquer, and a fellow creator. It would be a bit like a professional chef going to a restaurant. They'd notice things about the food's preparation, presentation, and so forth, that most people might not pay attention to. Does that mean they appreciate food more deeply? I don't know, perhaps in some ways. They've been trained to notice subtleties. But that also means that whenever they experience it, part of their mind is consumed with analyzing the experience itself, which can distract from a direct and open-minded perception of the food. It's not as though non-chefs are incapable of subtle, intense appreciation of food.

So I admit, when I hear someone else's poem, part of me is in critique mode. This may be because most of the time I've heard poetry recently, it's been in a workshop setting. What would my impressions be, without that, without a part of my mind calculating what effect the poem has on me? Just experiencing and not trying to judge how good a job they did, to figure out what they were doing there and how they were doing it?

Which brings it down to last night, when I read some of my poems for people I knew, friends of my mother's. My friends too--I knew them, I'd grown up with them, and I usually did feel more comfortable around adults than with someone my own age. When I asked for responses, what I got wasn't "Yeah, I liked that part, you should do something else with this line." What I got was, "Here is what your poem did to me." In a direct, frank, and visceral way. And that is what I want to know.

That is the entire point of what I am doing. That is the point of poetry and probably of most writing. I am trying to do something to you. I am not describing what I feel, I am trying to make you feel something, to experience something. To duplicate in you something that I experienced. The feedback of professionals is extremely useful in some ways; the feedback of amateurs is extremely useful in others. And in ways I don't often get. When you take too many workshops, you don't get that feedback any more. You have to use your own judgment to determine what the poem is going to do to someone.

I don't know, maybe you have to get to a certain point in your craft before that sort of feedback is useful. To go through a period where people told you to cut a line, and you didn't already know you ought to. But you rarely hear anymore, "This is what it stirred up in me."

And I guess what I was doing worked. That one poem, where the protagonist was sickened by anxiety, they felt ill. They felt coldness at the back of their neck, they saw the air shimmer. "Like a subway ride," someone said.

At the end of the other poem--I was trying to read those, then move on to other poems, so I wouldn't be left with those as the last--she just said, softly, almost as a surprise, a revelation: "You loved him."

I did.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling

Now I know where I'm going to go for grad school, and I'm happy about that, and happy about the program. I can't believe people are going to pay me so much money to study and write poetry. So much for it being a totally devalued art form, I guess. Go patrons.

I also got a scholarship that will allow me to go back to Rome next summer, I think. That will be really good. I miss Rome so much.

This summer I think I'll spend a lot of time on the beach, in order to make up for the lack of Rome. (This involves poking about in mud and sand and looking at invertebrates, not lying in the sand working on my melanoma. Italy involved beach observations too, except it was a different beach, and the water was pretty warm. There was black and gold sand, and smooth rocks that clattered, and I let the waves wash me up on them like a mermaid.

In Nice the rocks were so much larger, and clattered louder. Sucked backwards and forwards, falling off steeply at the tide's edge. Made me think of Matthew Arnold's poem, Dover Beach. But the first couple of stanzas aren't the best part of the poem. I've tried to memorize it a couple of times. The last stanza is the one that punches you in the chest, and the one that he wrote first. I first read it in Fahrenheit 451, when I was what, eleven? It hurt me then like it hurt them all, the women whose upper soul-layers were evaporated like steam under the heat, hurt in the good way that good poetry does. A few years later, having reread the book maybe, I asked my English teacher what the poem was (it was unaccredited in the book). Recently, I don't remember how or where, I found out that Arnold wrote that last stanza first. I'm not sure why he bothered to add the first couple of stanzas. It would have been great with just those last two:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Maybe it was too much, that stanza alone, like a bolt out of the dark. He wanted to ease you into it, wavelets before the crash. Maybe "The Sea of Faith/Was once, too," without an explicit reference, would have bothered him, or grated against the prevailing styles.

(But I feel relatively ignorant about other poets' work, the history of poetry and its criticism and so forth, compared to my peers. I'm afraid that that doesn't interest me as much as writing itself does.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Heard back from another school; I got on the waitlist. Which I don't feel too bad about, because they accept only 5 people. This also means, I think, that the wait list probably isn't humongous. After all, would they expect every one of the applicants they accepted to decline, and then the first five on the waitlist, etc.? The respondant also said that naturally, she expected a "writer of [my] caliber" would have been accepted at some program or other. That's very nice of them. But of course if every program said that, I'd be screwed. :)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Acceptance and Rejection

I've been accepted to one school, rejected from Iowa, and put on the waitlist for another, the one that was sort of my first choice.

Oh, Iowa, one day when I am acclaimed you will look back and say, "Wow, look what sensitivepoet has done! Fools that we were, to reject her from our workshop."

I didn't want to go there anyway.

No, really, I would have liked to get in, but it would have been mostly for my ego, to know that Iowa thinks I'm awesome; there were a variety of reasons why I was leaning towards not going there, even if I were accepted.

At least the one school I got into offers a full ride. If I hadn't gotten at least one acceptance I'd be in a far worse mood now.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

While dreaming the other night, I had an idea for a poem. The title, premise, and some line fragments and images. I planned to write it down, of course, but didn't get around to it. Then another morning a couple of days later I remembered that I'd dreamt of a poem, but I couldn't recall any of it. Luckily, maybe assisted by my hypnopompic state, I was able to recall more or less all of it, I think. It will be tricky because I'm not really sure where it's going, but I like it. I like the story it's based on. Not that it's a pleasant story, but it does stick in your head. I remember first reading her name, as a child, when I was searching in a baby names book, for names for a cat. Although the sound of the name wasn't really beautiful to me, I liked the meaning.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Many writers are picky about what they use to write with, i.e. writing implements and paper. I am too; luckily, I don't need anything particularly esoteric. My preference is to write with a mechanical pencil (HB lead or something medium soft, point size doesn't matter too much). If I've got to write with pen, I like a Bic ballpoint. I have a fancy pen that I received as a present, but it doesn't write very well; it has a lot of drag, the ink doesn't come easily.

I'm not sure why I prefer to write with a pencil, since I almost never erase anything. Rather, I'll cross it out if I decide not to go with it. One advantage to that is that I can see what I originally put down. Maybe it's the idea that I could erase, if I really wanted to.

A mechanical pencil writes quickly and easily, as long as the lead isn't hard and scratchy. One drawback with a pen, at least with the way I write, is that it tends to get less legible, because when writing quickly I sometimes won't take the tip all the way off the paper, and there will be a drag of ink connecting letters or words.

I like notebooks with ruled paper. Not spiral-bound; those are icky, the spirals are inconvenient, take up space and get snagged in things, and there are those little strings of torn paper that get everywhere. I've used Moleskine journals and liked those; they're a good size, and the string around it is convenient. (Cheaper journals with the same design are good too; I got a cute one with bugs on the front of it. Come to think of it, I don't know that it was any cheaper. But it wasn't a Moleskine. Moleskines have pretentious points, too, because they were supposedly used by various famous writers and artists, I can't remember who.) That way the notebook won't get stuff wedged between the pages or bent out of shape in a bag, and a pen between the pages won't slip out.

A notebook I really love is a Miquelrius "Leather-Look Pad". There are many pages, probably at least 350, but densely packed--the spine is maybe 3/4 inch thick--yet the pages aren't thin or flimsy. It has such a nice hand when you open it; it feels very nice to flip through. The cover is fake leather and sturdy, and protects it from water and such. They come in various colors, and in "squares" (graph paper style) or ruled. I just wish that the ruling was a bit more narrow, because I could write more lines per page.

Writing utensils can be a big deal, if you do a lot of writing (and are anal, neurotic, and/or just picky). My mechanical pencil ran out of lead in a cafe, and I was very upset. I started surreptitiously looking at the writing implements of people around me, in case anyone had a mechanical pencil with 0.5 lead that I could borrow. Finally I just wrote with a Bic ballpoint. :P

Okay, we've got a general word for "thing you write with;" you can say "implement" or "utensil" or something. So what do we call the paper? "Medium" or something? In any case:

What are your preferences with writing implements and... media? How important is it that you have Just The Right Pen?