Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Royal Baby, a Good Poem, and a Rough Draft

Most people I know couldn't care less about a royal baby being born this Monday. And I basically feel the same. My uninformed opinion is that the royal family is whatever the media would like them to be, mostly a glamorous-celebrity / charity-spokesperson hybrid. They seem like nice people, but I'm not interested in what they're wearing or whose party they've attended. I would have forgotten a royal baby was being grown if I hadn't been working out in a gym with TVs dangling from the ceiling, or eating in diners with the local soft rock station tuned in above the tables. All I know is, the Duchess is really pretty, the Queen says funny things now and then, William has manners, and Harry has red hair.

I woke up yesterday a little earlier than usual and read the news. Every other article proclaimed the royal birth. (I had the same reaction as many people, especially Americans, I think: "Oh, they had a kid. That's so nice! Good for them. Will I be home in time for dinner tonight? Did I save that Excel spreadsheet I was working on? I wish I had a coffee pot on my nightstand.") All the other news, however, was the kind that reaches for your throat, squeezes your gut. A man had ridden a donkey loaded with explosives toward an Afghan security post, then detonated it himself.

Then I checked my email. I subscribe to Poem-a-Day, a service maintained by that drops a poem in your inbox every day of the year, and Karyna McGlynn, this gorgeous blonde I graduated from Seattle University with, was the author of that day's featured work. Here's a link to it. The poem was fresh and weird and that perfect combination of surreal yet completely sensible. I also loved how, in the blurb Poem-a-Day offers at the foot of the email, Karyna mentions that it's a poem she'd been "trying and failing to write" for some time. It reminded me that every poem is a draft, that no poem is permanent, poems are not people, and aren't we so much better off that way? Shouldn't we be able to play and say something serious at the same time?

I got out of bed and made it to campus a little over an hour before I had to teach my first class, and I decided to write a poem, any poem, that wasn't quite real but not quite unreal either. And the royal family seemed like the perfect subject. This morning, I realized that I so rarely post rough drafts on my blog anymore, and wouldn't it be nice if I threw a poem online, one that wasn't necessarily something I wanted to pursue, send to journals or magazines, but something to remind myself that I still write.


When the duchess gave birth
to a small donkey, the Queen had lemonade
brought up to the delivery suite. The nurses
marveled at her sense of humor.
Like God! they said, licking sugar
from their chilled glasses.
The foal weighed as much as a large sack
of flour and was just as easy to handle,
didn’t cry, took to the breast almost immediately.
The country rejoiced. We all did.
We shook our dinner-napkin flags,
poured champagne into mugs with painted donkeys
trotting around and around Buckingham
on a trail of red and white stars.
When the next morning’s news announced
some other donkey had been loaded
with explosives and detonated
near an Afghan security post, all of us
remembered how far we were from the desert.
We prayed for the soul of the far-away donkey,
his noble character, a cross burned down
with a man still living on top of it.
Then we waited by the television
for the hospital doors to swing open,
for the unnamed prince to wobble out
with the duke and duchess balanced on his back,
waving westward into the black eyes
of a thousand cameras.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

In Which I Have Opinions About Poetry

A couple days ago, I read an article with the balls to say most contemporary writers working their way ‘up the ladder’ of establishment have been conditioned not to voice opinions in their work, to offend none, to always be thinking of how they might impress and flatter their masters. This statement alone set the tone for the rest of the article, which seems to call out the gravely disappointing mistakes committed by today’s most popular, well-respected and well-paid poets.

Mark Edmundson’s article, titled “Poetry Slam: Or, the Decline of American Verse,” makes no attempt to veil his disappointment in the most popular contemporary American poets, their reliance upon obscurity, their irresponsibility as community leaders, and the ease with which they “shut out the common reader” (62).  He takes aim at poets I have always been taught were off-limits: Adrienne Rich, Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, Robert Hass. My palms get hot and shaky when Edmundson claims, “I mean no severe criticism of Hass…” He then proceeds to explain why the narrowed, shrinking focus of American poetry (from Lowell and Whitman’s technique of addressing the American public at large to the new, more self-conscious method of ‘writing a moment’ in the poet’s personal life in hopes the reader will relate it to something meaningful and unmentioned) is to blame for Hass’ poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” seeming ‘timid’ and ‘small’.

Thing is, I agree with a lot of Edmundson’s complaints about contemporary American poetry. For the past few years (and I haven’t been at this for long), I’ve been underwhelmed by Poetry magazine and the ‘big wigs’ whose work I continue to pay money to read. I don’t adore a lot of poets the way I sometimes feel I should, and I see Edmundson’s point when he highlights poems that begin with clear, provocative images that lead into obscure, cerebral philosophizing or melody-making.  

Edmundson points out that poets shouldn’t be ‘down the hall’ from literary theorists, those intellectuals in charge of establishing boundaries and limitations based on gender, race, and background for creative writers past and present. Again, he has a point. Theory, to me, is essential to exploration for some so I can’t write it off. I can say, however, that my creative work doesn’t seem to benefit much from theoretical study, so I’m simply not spending a hell of a lot of time on it during my time as a PhD student. For me, theory is a sort of fence-work I want to understand somehow without absorbing fully.

I agree with Edmundson’s claim that although Eliot may have been a ‘superb analytical critic’, good poems ‘don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain.’ He mentions the heart. I like that, even though I know by ‘heart’ he means ‘lower, more primitive brain functions’. (Read: we are all poets by nature.)

Another useful distinction Edmundson makes is the complete ‘package’ a good poet embodies: a talent for making music with words (or a talent for manipulating them), experience (or something to say), and ambition. That said, Edmundson ironically describes ambition as a kind of ‘courage’, a need to say what must be said, which isn’t quite what came into my mind right away. The less beautiful kind of ambition I’m usually exposed to, the kind that fuels a very loud internal engine screaming nothing but anythingtogetajobanythingtogetajobanythingtogetajob – it’s not as poetic as ‘courage’, but I agree with the way Edmundson identifies these qualities as necessary talents.

Like many academics though, Edmundson complains about the ‘MFA business,’ the greediness of universities and failure of American higher education which have produced to a glut of non-writers entering the field as professionals. I don’t mind that Edmundson essentially calls myself and all those writers I studied with wannabes, hacks, or flops, simply because we pursued an MFA at the wrong time and maybe some of us (I’m raising my hand) went on to chase PhDs. We need to hear that every now and then. I do, however, find it ironic when college professors make this claim, likely just minutes before rushing to class to share their thoughts on writing with so many of us who are eager to learn.

Also, and this is what I consider Edmundson’s most passionately argued point here, the personal ‘poem of the moment’ has lost all worth. He compares poems that address our nation in times of war and call us to action as citizens to pieces that reveal a poet remembering a past lover, seemingly for the sake of detail and remembrance. I can’t entirely agree with Edmundson and say these ‘smaller’ poems ‘don’t deliver’. Yes, they fail to literally instruct me on the moral navigation of our perilous times, but they also show me a window I didn’t know existed on a house I live in too. I believe the poet is the common reader, and to dismiss the ‘smaller scale’ poems would mean losing the beauty of Denise Duhamel, say, and the way we read her detailed, humorous, specific scene-centered poems and know we have somehow been in the exact same place and situation as her speaker. I would lose Maria Gillan’s humble, simply-crafted poems that make sure I know what it might have been like to grow up rattled by poverty in the 1940s.

I think I have to call a truce with this main claim of Edmundson’s. I get it – he’s sick of poets writing poems that are personal with a narrow focus and rely on obscurity. I learn nothing, feel nothing when poems devolve into seemingly spontaneous incomprehensibility. But I just turn the page. There are plenty of poets out there who make sense, who value the common reader and aren’t ashamed to say so in their work and in their lectures. Edmundson cries foul on many poets for giving up on the reader, but I’m still not convinced that poetry is quite as wicked and hopeless as he makes it out to be. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day!

Near the end of March, when I saw my writing pals' posts on Facebook regarding National Poetry Month and their upcoming endeavors to write poems every day during the month of April, I'm pretty sure my face turned greenish-white. And I'm pretty sure I shut my laptop quickly, hoping that would help me un-see how so many other people are sticking to this rigorous tradition known as NaPoWriMo.

The "bad" news is, I'm exhausted. I'm nearly finished with my first year at Binghamton University and I can tell you earnestly that the Ph.D. program I have selected not only sets no bounds on how intensely you'd like to write or study literature and theory, it also cures insomnia (which is the good news). Almost every night, I've been falling into bed giggling deliriously because I'm so glad to be able to rest. Between teaching, reading, taking courses, editing, running, writing, workshopping, attending readings, grading, and taking care of my pets, and the occasional break for trying out a new recipe, I feel as if I'm light years beyond having to schedule time for meals.

Right now, technically, I'm using a few minutes from my scheduled office hours to type this. And I need to get back to work. But I thought I'd post a poem I wrote this morning (and no, I am not doing NaPoWriMo this year - instead, I'm taking a workshop class with Maria Gillan, which uses a more tried-and-true method of pumping poems out eight at a time) because it's in my pocket waiting to be revised.

I'm posting this mostly because my friend Lish McBride just put something up on her Facebook page about my blog, and I said to myself, "self, when was the last time you posted on that thing?" So, enjoy. And I hope, if any of the kids I grew up with read this poem, they realize that this was my experience of the events going on around us when we were small, and that I loved all of them.

Happy Poetry Month,


We called ourselves the Lost Boys
even though Frankie, Dylan, and Nick
knew they were running around the neighborhood
with girls: me, Tina, and Lisa, Michelle,
Angie, Amanda, and the twins, Erin and Leila.
We scooped a hole under the chain link fence
around a sewage swamp we called The Pond,
stripped the bronze fuzz off cattails and dubbed it wool,
collected tadpoles and named them
as they sunk to the bottom
            of the coffee mugs we caught them in.
We understood every body of water
concealed a large animal in its depths, and The Pond
contained a bullfrog the size of a cantaloupe. 
When Angie dove beneath the surface
where the reeds were thinnest and the sun
sprawled like oil under a net of crane flies,
everyone standing in the mud remembered
how her father had been caught
below an overturned fishing boat in Alaska
only five years earlier and never came up.
Dylan, her brother, still four years away
from dying on a freeway off ramp,
put his fists in the air and screamed
and so did we, calling for Angie in the underworld,
where we knew she kept her eyes open.
The Pond belched her up
like a lotus flower,
the white of her t-shirt only muted by strings of algae
and thick water running off a muddy stone
she held above her head, its four distinct legs
slapping at her wrists. When she dropped it
it bounced off her shoulder into the water.
We saw ripples moving toward the drainpipe.
Everyone wanted to touch Angie on the walk home,
help brush the slime off her back
or pull weeds from her hair,
our throats rubbed soft as frayed rope
in the scrawny hollows of our necks.