Monday, July 24, 2006

Martha Rhodes

This week at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, I am in a workshop with the poet Martha Rhodes, who is the author of Mother Quiet, Perfect Disappearance, and At the Gate. She is encouraging us to experiment with the way we revise our poetry by playing with tenses, structure, line breaks, and sequencing.

According to Rhodes, there are four aspects that feed into the creation of a poem: music, imagination, narrative, and structure. They are not mutually exclusive, but it is helpful to know which, as a poet, is one's dominant way into a poem, or way of reading a poem. It is clear to me, after working with Vijay Seshadri and now with Rhodes, how much my poetry is informed by my musical ear.

This poem by Rhodes is posted online at AGNI Magazine:

The Hose

A hose ran through our house, used
to wash our windows down; to keep
us teenagers in line; to dilute Father’s
martoonis; “to make life a little more
exciting,” Mother said.

When Mother turned 70 and renamed us
“Enormous One,” and
“One Who Walks Bare on Rug,”
and “One Who Hideously Shares My Bed,”
and “Which One”

we hosed her into the corner of her dressing room—
Strong Medicine.
Clean out the cobwebs.
Cold showers are a cure-all.
Shock therapy.

Mother would giggle herself silly when we’d towel her dry,
dust her with powder, pull the bedrails up.

Martha Rhodes

The mother in this poem, although claiming that the hose makes life "a little more / exciting," actually uses the hose to control her family: it keeps the windows clean, monitors the kids' behavior, and prevents the father from getting drunk. Her family has learned this; so when illness leaves their mother in a frenetic, uncontrolled state, they hose her "into the corner of her dressing room" to regain order. Even then, she "giggles" when washed with cold water, and rails are needed to pen her in.

This is a very sad and powerful poem, and what I admire about it is how an extensive, emotional story is compacted into 17 lines. We get a sense of the entire family dynamic very quickly (nobody says martoonis unless they drink a lot of them), and the inevitable fall of the mother into an uncontrolled state, despite her attempts to always control her environment. Maybe that is the unltimate conflict here: that she could gain control over her environment, but not over her internal self.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Jean Valentine

The artist Danny Sillada and I have been discussing short poems and what is uniquely challenging about writing a poem that is complete in its language and emotional arc, but brief in its number of lines. Yesterday, the poet Vijay Seshadri suggested I look up the poet Jean Valentine, who is a writer of short poems. I found this poem on her site:


Once there was a woodcutter,
when he asked me to marry him
the woman in the grocery store said
You look like you lost your last friend.
First love!
When we broke up
it was as if the last egg in the house
got dropped on the broken floor.
This world is everywhere! The woman said,
You won’t go unsampled!

Jean Valentine

This poem is replete with the energy of love and despair and, finally, hope. The interaction between the two women--one young and dealing with the loss of her first love, and one older and wiser and knowledgable in the world--is sweet and totally believable. My favorite lines are the last two: "This world is everywhere! The woman said, / You won't go unsampled!" She assures the young woman, in the most joyful, encouraging, way, that "there are more fish in the sea," and that, like the morsels of food in her grcoery store, the young women will surely be "tasted" by others.

I cannot escape, however, the older woman's characterization of the younger woman as object in the sentence, that she will "be sampled" by others rather than "sample" others herself. It is a complicated ending to me, as I'm not sure that the young woman has gained any power through her experience. I would prefer that she go out and discover the "everywhere-ness" of the world and taste it through her own will; but perhaps that ending would be too easy. Perhaps there is a prescience in the grocer's words about the younger woman's fate.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Kay Ryan

In my workshop this week, there are a few of us who tend to fashion shorter, more compact poems. Someone brought up the poet Kay Ryan as a wonderful model to study for short, powerful poems, so I took some time to look her up. I found this poem by her on the site for Blue Flower Arts:


Extreme exertion
isolates a person
from help,
discovered Atlas.
Once a certain
ratio collapses,
there is so little
others can do:
they can't
lend a hand
with Brazil
and not stand
on Peru.

Kay Ryan

Ryan catches our attention with what appears to be a simple assertion; but the "discovered Atlas" grounds this found knowledge in a particular character. Atlas supporting the earth is an effective image here, because we can all identify with the feeling of burden; how cares can pile up on us until we reach a breaking point. The speaker implies that taking all of our burdens on ourselves actually alienates us from those who might offer relief; to wait too long is to risk collapsing into a crisis, when it may be too late for help.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

P-town: Day 3

Last night I attended a reading with the poets Vijay Seshadri and Rebecca Seiferle. I recommend the work of both of these poets, because of their mastery of language coupled with their unflinching observations of self and environment. Both of them produce work that is accessible yet complex. The following poem is one Rebecca Seiferle read, and can also be found on the Ploughshares site:

Fire in a Jar

Some plucked from flight by sweep of net
or grasp of hand, immediately darken
and flicker out. A drift of stars becomes
mere green beetles scraping the glass bottom
of a jar. Other kinds go on flashing, ardent
no matter how captive they are, lighting
up even the smallest heaven. And still
others make a haze of their own longing,
dispersing themselves into a diffuse haze,
becoming a drop of sexual sunlight falling
upon the transparent world. Glass eye,
glass heart, glass jar, in which we try and keep
our flickering selves, all the light in us is sexual,
a luminous persistence—a heaven or a hell.

Rebecca Seiferle

Remember catching fireflies as a kid? Do kids still do that? They were magic to me when I was a little girl. I didn't know how they created that light, and I never thought to ask. I loved it.

The narrator in this poem observes the various ways caught fireflies respond. Some become "mere green beetles," others "go on flashing," and others "make a haze of their own longing." She compares the variations of this captive energy to human sexual energy, and observes that "we try and keep / our flickering selves" inside glass--to contain it, perhaps, to control it, to have it be seen and recognized but still protected. How we respond to our "caught" sexuality can create in us either "a heaven or a hell." Either way, this sexuality is an energy of light, an energy that insists on being seen and dealt with.

Monday, July 17, 2006

P-town: Day 2 at FAWC

Today was our first day of workshopping with the poet Vijay Seshadri. Read his work here and here. A few points Seshadri brought about about poetry:

--A poem is not a represenation of an idea; it is a "dramatic act"
--The meter, rhythm, and voice of a poem is determined by a poet's own physiology
--The tension inherent in a poem's structure is created by the horizontal nature of the line, since the experience of prose text is primarily vertical

I am not stating these as truisms, only as ideas Seshadri brought up. I find them fascinating and wonderful starting places for discussions about the quality and funtion of poetry. What do you think?

Although I have generally viewed poetry as artifice, as a medium through which to communicate emotion, ideas, and experience, I also, in the process of writing, have been greatly moved; so I must admit that there is a "dramatic act" going on. I cannot, however, pass on that experience unfiltered to the reader. I can only offer the poem, and the poem itself is not the experience.

Let's remember that this kind of discussion is abstract, although fascinating. The most important thing is that we read and write poetry, no matter how we define those processes.

Before I go: a plug for Cicchetti's Espresso bar at 353 Commercial Street in P-town. The best espresso in town, easily. Yummy treats, friendly service, consistently great espresso.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

In P-town

This is how I know I'm in P-town and not in Boston: when I got my henna tattoos at the West End Salon, the artist asked if I "would like some glitter on those." I said, "hell yeah I want some glitter." Now I have a long, gorgeous snake on my left arm and a sun with curly rays on my right hand, both sprinkled with the prettiest purple glitter I ever saw. It makes me happy.

I have wireless access not only at the Fine Arts Work Center, not only at the lovely P-town libary across the street from me, but also in my little studio rental on Commercial St. It's great--I can get so much done just by hanging out.

Tonight we have our first mini-session with the poet Vijay Seshadri. I'll be in a workshop with him all week. I included his poem "Survivor" in my previous post; do yourself a favor and read three of his poems over at three candles press. They are wonderful.

I brought a picture of Cleo with me to put by my bed. I brought two poems about her to workshop, if I can gather my courage to do so. I miss her.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Fine Arts Work Center

I cannot properly express how grateful I am for all of your kind, thoughtful responses to the loss of my dog, Cleo. I can see that I am not the only person who is familiar with this experience, and who has felt it so keenly. I am genuinely moved by how much kindness can be found in the world.

I wasn't sure for a while if I would be able to make my yearly trek to Provincetown because Cleo was so ill; and after she died, I wasn't sure I wanted to. But I have decided to forge on. Tomorrow I take the ferry to P-town for two weeks of poetry and beach time. I am taking two workshops this year, one with Vijay Seshadri and the other with Martha Rhodes.

Here is one of Vijay Seshadri's poems, entitled "Survivor," which can be found at the Academy of American Poets site:


We hold it against you that you survived.
People better than you are dead,
but you still punch the clock.
Your body has wizened but has not bled

its substance out on the killing floor
or flatlined in intensive care
or vanished after school
or stepped off the ledge in despair.

Of all those you started with,
only you are still around;
only you have not been listed with
the defeated and the drowned.

So how could you ever win our respect?--
you, who had the sense to duck,
you, with your strength almost intact
and all your good luck.

Vijay Seshadri

This is the other side of survivor's guilt, the point of view of those who observe and judge. The speaker resents the subject's survival because he reminds everyone of their losses. His presence brings to mind everyone who "bled" or "flatlined" or "vanished" or "stepped off the ledge." Regardless of if he had "sense" or "strength" or just plain "good luck"--qualities that are normally admired, but are derided here--the speaker believes he does not deserve to still be "punch[ing] the clock."

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Goodbye, Cleo

Have you ever read A Prayer for Owen Meany? At the end, John is giving an elegy at a funeral for his great friend whom he dearly loved. During his elegy, in the midst of his grief, he calls to god, "Give him back."

That has always struck me as the truest response to the death of a loved one, and it is more true now than ever. On Thursday, at about 1:30 pm, my dog Cleo died. That's Cleo in the picture being walked by my husband in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

She had been battling hepatitis for a few weeks, and was severely underweight. Her spirit never wavered, and we had hopes she would have some time left; but during the night, she began having pain in her leg and couldn't stand. We took her to the emergency vet, and it turned out she had developed a blood clot in her leg. She had already lost circulation in that leg by the time we brought her there. It was evident after a few hours that only the most painful and invasive treatment might bring her relief, and it was quite likely she wouldn't survive it given her already critically ill state.

We decided, agreeing with the vet, that her time had come. She was in a lot of pain despite a great deal of pain meds. We were present as she passed, and it was very quick. The experience was much, much more difficult than I anticipated, despite knowing it would be tough. I found it almost impossible to grasp her death, even though her body was right in front of me.

In my still raw state, I find it tremedously unfair that she had to die when she so clearly wanted to live; but her body had taken as much as it could take.

I love Cleo and I miss her so much. I want her back.