Sunday, July 31, 2005

"Minimal Sound"

I'm headed back to the FAWC today, this time for a week-long poetry workshop with Mark Wunderlich. And a little beach time.

Generally, I don't like poems about poems. Barbara Guest's newest book, The Red Gaze, is an exception; each poem continues a reflection on the poet's art. It is full of little glimpses of detail, memory, and color. The following poem is on page 29:

Minimal Sound

What we are becomes a memory, the hand may open a secret lock.

The poem enters on tiptoe, climbs the terrain,
weary, it listens to minimal sound, the slowed
tree branches are drawn on purpose, part of the same program.

Here, the poem's world is fragile; the poem itself must tread very carefully, and it has become "weary," perhaps of trying so many times to capture the truth of the world. The poem's talent is it's ability to hear "minimal sound," the smallest bit of detail or movement or color, the qualities that would be scared off by a loud entrance. Then, the writing: "the slowed / tree brances are drawn on purpose," the poem listens carefully to the world it inhabits, but eventually must stop and put down on paper what it finds.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Tom Sleigh

While I was at the FAWC, I heard Tom Sleigh read several of his new poems. He is a great reader; his tone, expression, and manner add energy to the work, and he has a subtle way of bringing the listeners into the world of each poem with him. Very enjoyable.

I picked up a copy of his book The Dreamhouse, published in 1999 by the University of Chicago press. Here is one of the poems from that book I really like (pp. 50-51):

The Hammock

Your hand pushes me away
so that I float into the night,
then swing back, back from the nebulae
to our drifting conversation.

Among the race of star demons
what I saw out there--
golden chains, the spindle, sirens
chanting the music of the spheres--

blurs and streaks across star-flung
distances the chain-link fences
can't fence out. Between
your hand and the hammock's

slow rocking the Void
expands, twisting threads
tautening, slackening, stretched
almost to breaking:

Do you feel that wobble
of earth's axis, space
whirling past the ice-capped pole?
The pines like judges stare down at us:

What should we recant, here,
tonight, as if we'd only just begun:
Off-center already, losing
equilibrium? The world-soul moving

through the strung-out stars moves
in threads that creak and moan,
breathes between your mouth and mine.
Pushing me away, you bring

me home, your attraction drawing
down the alchemical sign:
Love draws the soul
the way a magnet draws iron.

This is a beautiful depiction of an inherent connectedness of all life, of "golden chains" which bond us all together, transcending even the boundaries of "chain-link fences:" divisions of politics, religion, culture, race, etc. As the speaker glimpses the "nebulae," s/he understands the illusory nature of these divisions; it is one "world soul" which exists, expanding and contracting, connecting life through "threads that creak and moan," and living in the space between people, not inside them. These tenuous threads, often stretched to near breaking, pull us inevitably together.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Back from P-town

Yesterday I returned from an intensive memoir writing workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown on Cape Cod. The weather was stunning, and despite the work, I did manage an afternoon on the beach. Fabulous.

The workshop was led by Marcie Hershman, and if you enjoy reading memoir, check out her book entitled Speak to Me , an account of her dealing with grief after the death of her brother. Marcie is also the author of several novels and a wonderful workshop leader. She is teaching a week long memoir workshop in the fall at FAWC, so check it out if you have something important from your life experience that you want to get down on paper.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Fine Arts Work Center

This weekend, I am attending a memoir writing workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. In August, I'll be doing a week long poetry workshop there with Mark Wunderlich--my second workshop with him.

If you ever have the chance, check out the summer and fall workshop offerings at FAWC. The instructors are accomplished artists and writers, and many, if not most of the classes are open to artists of all levels. I came away from last year's workshop feeling quite inspired. Of the three poems I wrote that will be in the next issue of eratio, two were generated during that time.

Plus, if you go in the summer, you get to hang out at the beach in the afternoons, which is exremely important for artistic inspiration. :-)

I'm hopping on the ferry later today--I'll see you on Monday!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Little Box

A while back, I wrote a post about being claustrophobically surrounded by boxes, because I had just moved, and had not yet unpacked. Robin suggested that Vasko Popa had some good poems about boxes. I found one at the ezine pith:

The Little Box

The little box gets her first teeth
And her little length
Little width little emptiness
And all the rest she has

The little box continues growing
The cupboard that she was inside
Is now inside her

And she grows bigger bigger bigger
Now the room is inside her
And the house and the city and the earth
And the world she was in before

The little box remembers her childhood
And by a great longing
She becomes a little box again

Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put in a pocket
Easily steal it lose it

Take care of the little box

Vasko Popa, from Homage to the Lame Wolf
Oberlin College Press

She, the little box, is born into the large cupboard of the world. As she grows and gets her "teeth"--her experiences, her sense of self and purpose, her gumption--the world is born inside her, into the empty place reserved for it. After a time, she longs for childhood when the world was big and magical and outside; so she is once again born into it. Now we have the "whole world in miniature," where the sense of self and purpose has intimately tied to the world, but small and easily lost or stolen. Therefore, self, purpose, and the relationship to the world must be protected and cherished.

One can also read that the child herself must be protected and cherished. I read both.


Monday, July 18, 2005

Knowing when it works.

Last week I wrote two poems. I mananaged, with each of them, to cut to the raw of some truth, and I knew it when I did it. Now, when I reread them, I still feel it.

Since then, I have written two more, and although I worked harder on them, they don't have the same quality of pointed honesty that the others do. I think. I need to sit on them little--then we'll see.

That's how it happens with me: write it out, cut away the dross, take down the on-ramp (often my first stanza just turn out to be something to get me going), don't skimp on the end. Now, what's there? Is it honest?

I can't describe this sense of truth I strive for in my poetry. I just know it when I get it, and it doesn't happen every time. It's not entirely, but it is partially, emotional, psychological, physical, logical, and the result of experience.

Do you know when you get something right in your art, whether writing, sculpting, painting, etc.? How do you know it? How does truth hit you?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

..but the moon is lovely.

Check out the NASA photo gallery.

I was responding to a comment, and I thought the questions involved might interest other poets and artists, so I'm posting my response here. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Hi Silver Moon,

You're right to choose whatever name you want. And a poet should write about the moon, if that's what the poem requires.

What makes Brehm's poem so complex is its commentary on this very topic. He has begun this perfectly lovely poem involving the moon, but he is distracted by a critical voice that tells him he can't write about the moon. It's not only a statement about trying to avoid cliche, but an illustration of how that persistent, critical voice--worrying about how our art will be judged--affects the art itself.

How do we find that balance, as poets--writing what we need to write, what we are compelled to write, but trying to create quality, literary work, which requires learning what works and what doesn't, evaluating the work that precedes our own, but not surrending our own voice to it--etc., etc., etc. I find it's best to think about it a little, but not too much. The best way is to keep writing, do workshops, and read a lot of poetry.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Cortland Review

False color image of the moon
NASA photo gallery.

Found this over at The Cortland Review online:


Caught sight of the moon
caught in its
net of

and thought-
I've got to get free of that.

John Brehm

I sense a blending of speaker and poet here. The speaker spots the moon, visually entangled in tree branches, and identifies with it; perhaps he feels his own life is tangled up and sees that manifested in the moon's "plight."

On the other hand, there is a concensus among poets that the moon is an overused image. I imagine the poet's attention turning toward the moon, findng inspiration, crafting some words, then thinking: wait. Can't write about the moon. Need to think of something else.

Monday, July 11, 2005


From the Vernal Equinox issue of Bonfire, p. 75:


Clusters of pinecones against winter green,
backdropped by cloudless blue sky.
Silently, afternoon passes between
the moment and eternity.

Captain, this absence of monsters and rocks--
sailor, shut up. Let it be.
The voyage from nowhere to nothing and back
beaten by drunk, brawling seas,

sometimes will toss up a treasure like this:
just hold to the stillness and see
shadows of what, on the island of peace,
waits with your name in her sigh.


Although I am always interested in poems that deal with awareness, particularly its transient nature, my mind gets a little dulled by overused vocabularly such as "stillness," "moment," "journey," etc. What I like about this poem is the introduction of the sailor's and captian's voices in the second stanza; their interchange stands as a conversation between a young, energetic, easily bored go-getter looking for promised excitement on the "voyage," and the older, wiser, more experienced person who knows that excitement isn't all its cracked up to be, and that "the island of peace" is the ultimate goal.

I also like that the presence on the island whose shadow sighs the sailor's name is a feminine presence. It brings to my mind both the archetypal goddess image and the tradition of sailors viewing their ship as a protective, feminine companion.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Sylvia Plath

Why have I not read Sylvia Plath before? I rented the movie "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and the next day I ordered both The Bell Jar, her novel, and Ariel, a collection of poems.

The Bell Jar took me right off guard. The narrative is deceptively simple, almost childlike; devastating similes such as "to the person in The Bell Jar, black and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream" added up to create an atmosphere of suffocation and morbid distortion. It's very disturbing and highly relevant. I loved it.

Here's a poem from Ariel:

Poppies in October

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly--

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

Sylvia Plath

This poem reflects the mixture of beauty, morbidity, and suffocation that I see over and over in Plath's work. The speaker is awed by the gorgeous red poppies that have sprung up so late in the year, and even refers to this phenomenon as "a love gift." She finds this more beautiful than the colors of the morning sky or the blood seeping through the coat of an injured woman. That is how Plath gets me; from sky to bleeding to death in one brief stanza. In the third stanza, the sky is described as "igniting its carbon monoxides," creating that trapped, suffocating, poisoned-air feeling that exists in the bell jar. Finally, the speaker can't help but compare her own sense of insignificance to the poppies: "O my God, what am I," she asks.

Perhaps it is too glib to suggest that this question was the fundmamental question posed in Plath's work--the "what am I" juxtaposed with all the goodness or beauty she felt separate from--but in the context of the poem, it does illustrate her persistent feeling of separation from her environment, her sometimes distorted view of herself and her surroundings, and frustration at finding a wall between herself and her world that she could never knock down. The speaker can't properly enjoy the poppies, because even that ends up being about her own insignificance; not in a big/small way, or a nature/human way, but in a worthy/worthless way.