Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Truth: Writers Don't Write

Via Wil Wheaton:

Ask a writer what she values most in her creative life, and she is likely to respond, "Time to write." Not many of us have the luxury of writing full- time; we have spouses, families, day jobs. To the people closest to the writer, "writing time" may seem like so much self-indulgence: Why should we get to sit around thinking all day? Normal people don't require hour after continuous hour of solitude and silence. Normal people can be flexible.

And yet, we writers tell our friends and children, there is nothing more sacrosanct, more vital to our intellectual and emotional well-being, than writing time. But we writers have a secret.

We don't spend much time writing."

In his article at the Los Angeles Times, J. Robert Lennon goes on to talk at some length about his writing routine, with great precision and great humor. His basic point is that it focused writing time rarely is, although any moment of any day can turn into a writing moment (hence those T-shirts that read "I'm blogging this"). I think most poets have the added complication that our "routines" are more likely to be crammed in among other priorities closer to the base of Maslow's hierarchy than poetry. I don't really have a routine - I'm more of a streak-writer* - but if I did, it would be close to this:
  • Complete the workday, begin drive home
  • Dictate ideas into recorder OR refine idea from previous session.
  • Get home, spend a couple hours with the family (dinner, homework, Disney Sorry)
  • (after lullabies) Turn on the Mets, begin transcribing recordings
  • move the laundry to the drier, reread last few transcriptions
  • Bring some Tostitos upstairs, extract something from the transcripts to work on
  • Iterate Mets - extraction loop until awakening to Twilight Zone reruns.

There are variants depending on whether I'm a submitting mode or a project/manuscript cycle, but this is the basic idea - writing time is after the "making a living" and blended with the "keeping the house". that's not a complaint, it's just an observation, and one which you'd think would make me want to focus more during the time I have available to write.

Operative phrase there is "want to". This post has so far taken me about 45 minutes to draft. Since I started, I looked up three games at BoardGame Geek, scanned the TV listings for M*A*S*H episodes, changed positions on the couch twice, located a journal I'm debating submitting to in Poet's Market, gotten a big glass of seltzer, and written these 331 words. Such is the life.

But in the end, I think adherence to a routine, or even having a routine, is less important than just committing to doing something with your writing every day. Just sorting my portfolio on the new computed had value, in that as I looked at each poem, I had a chance to decide if I still felt it was "done". That reminder of what was good in my own writing became a great filter for newer works in progress.

It's good to laugh at ourselves and the quirks of our "process". And essential to keep working while we laugh.

* - in the baseball sense, not the nude sense.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Poets and Fathers and Kids, oh my!

On days designated for nostalgia, poets (and omphaloskeptics) tend to dig a little deeper into our own navels for things to say that convey The Great Truths (tm) with Great Meaning. Of course, that's usually when we are at our pedantic worst - sentimental and craftless, caring more for what we have to say than how we have to say it.

Edward Byrne has avoided this trap with his poem "Florida Drought: A Remembrance" in which he tackles Father's Day in the forward-looking direction with a recollected moment with his son. While it's always difficult to deal with a sentimental moment in a poem, Byrne remembers to focus on the moment and let the meaning come on its own. My favorite lines are the last:

Somehow, I will always remember that night
how palm trees already were slipping to silver

under a cast of pale moonlight as a few full
sails still labored across the windswept bay.

I think the reverse direction - considering our own fathers - is even harder to treat successfully in a poem. Partially, that's because so many poets have had terrible relationships with their fathers and try every year to rewrite "Daddy" (please stop it, by the way), but more because so many of us seem to think that our regrets of incomplete relationships with the men we came to tolerate so late in their lives are unique (hint: they're not). When my father died I, like everyone else with a pen and a Norton Anthology, wrote my way through understanding his loss. Most of what came out of that was dreck, though some was passable. More interesting was discovering that I knew my father better than I thought, that the Venn diagram I carried in my mind actually had more than gender and golf in the center. So much so that I felt comfortable trying to create a portrait of sorts:

Of course, the mere fact of spending a few minutes on my father's memory is a discredit to it, as anyone who knew him will confirm. So while there is still time to go bowl a couple lines with my girls today and grab a nice sushi dinner, I will leave you, my six loyal readers, to your own remembrances and observations. But if you are fans of poetry or the late Ernie Vincenti, make sure to connect those observations to the present, and make sure you add a little value to today.

Happy Father's Day to all.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Opening Up About Opens

Though my six loyal readers are split nealty into three groups who won't be able to use this advice (accomplished poets who know better; non-poet poetry fans who don't need it, my mother), I want to capture a few thoughts on approaching open mic readings that might be useful to someone when this page turns up in a Google search*.

First, credentials and disclaimer: I've been participating in open mic readings for more than 15 years, and regularly hosting them since 2002. I have seen opens ranging from surprisingly good to unreportably bad, and received enough feedback from our featured poets in the Spoken Word Series to believe that some of this is applicable everywhere. Also, we have a small open with a number of regulars who've been with us for 5+ years, and some of my comments come from comparing the good habits of my long-timers to some other poets I've come across over the years.

Assumptions: venue is general-audience, 2 short poems or 1 long (5 minute max),
  • Pick your poems before you set foot in the venue. You should have decided what you're going to read before the event begins. Experienced amateurs can narrow down to a handful and make the final call based on the setting, the mood, and the readers that precede, but even in that case you should be picking from no more than 5 poems.
  • Start with the title plus 10 words. All poems have a history. Many poems, especially by amateurs, have the same history. Most poems don't benefit from having their history recited immediately before they're presented. Aside: I know many people like to hear a little about a poem before the poem. I do, too, to an extent. But when the length of the intro approaches the length of the poem, you've presented too much. Far too much.
  • Avoid research projects. It's very easy to get caught up on the significance of our special projects, especially when longpoems or poems sequences are in progress. And you shouldn't be bashful or embarrassed about talking about those projects if asked, but until you're asked a simple "this is from a series of poems about yakkity yak yak" is adequate. If it's an obscure subject, leave it obscure, don't use an open mic for a history lesson.
  • Don't give a geometry lesson. If your poem has a structure on the page that is essential to its understanding, think very hard about presenting it at all; but if you really feel the need, please don't, don't, DON'T explain the shapes and spacings on the page before you present the poem.
  • Respect the other readers. This has a lot of other rules rolled up into it: don't fiddle with your papers while others are reading, pay attention with eyes and body to other readers, stay to the end of the open no matter where on the list your turn falls.... if you want to understand poet etiquette, pay attention to how a featured reader behaves when he or she is not reading.

Yes, there's a story behind each of these rules, and some other rules that I'm sitting on for volume 2. While you're waiting for that, here's another remnant from a defunct journal; today it's The Ogalala Review, and the excerpt is from Michael Foster's "Seven Love Poems"


Between the peachtrees,
out of a ruined sleep,
wild strawberries grow.


This morning I watched you beside the fish pond
until you stood. Your reflection was riddled
with golden arrows.

* and here are some keywords to make that search a bit more interesting: fission, pineapple, shortstop, antidisestablishmentarianism, Wyoming.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Is that an echo? (an echo?) (an echo?)

Seems every time I accumulate a little material and a plan for a series of postings, my schedule comes and piddles all over my plans. Ah well; let's try this again.

Received a lovely email from an artist I've mentioned a number of times in this space. I'll withhold names (I figure if she wanted her reply to be public, she'd have replied publicly), but I will say that it's someone I have a ton of respect for, so seeing her name at the top of my inbox was a boost to say the least. And it's someone important not only to me, but to my kids as well, so not only do I get a little validation of this space and a chance to correspond with someone I admire, but I get a couple "cool dad" points, besides.

Writer's Digest has released its annual 101 Best Website for Writers. One of them is a Flash stopwatch. Please, WD, you've got to do better than this. I accept that the poetry forums that also made the list are appropriate for most of WD's readers (though they're not really useful for anyone who has read much contemporary poetry from non-vanity publishers or taken even one serious class), but a stopwatch and a tagline like "Have trouble getting motivated? Use this free online countdown clock to get your rear in gear"? Ugh.

By contrast, AAP has launched a Poetry Resources for Teens page, with writing resources, "Poems Teens Like" etc. Not surprisingly, when AAP says "teen", they seem to be thinking about the the 6 months leading up to the 20th birthday; the references are pretty sophisticated (most seem to be links to content already on the site for adults), but I'll happily share this with my daughter with the expectation that she'll be looking for help in understanding. Better to stretch her than to expose her to online fluff that lacks an awareness of the art.

A stopwatch? Really?

Should hear from the chapbook contest within 3 weeks. As always, I hold back the name until the results are known. And as is typical for me, I decided to enter this one 60% based on the magazine, 40% based on the judge. More soonish.

Still waiting on one confirmation before I announce the next season at DeBaun. I really think we're again setting a new standard for diversity in style, content and experience.

And now, from the parcel o' the past as promised, here are the closing lines of Florence McGinn's "New Jersey", from the long-defunct New Jersey Review of Literature.

Ocean currents and salt marshes
raise the call of seasons as the damp sand

drag of horseshoe crabs, mating eager
and belly heavy with eggs, beckons
gray waves of sandpipers, screeching
shifts of gulls, and the hunting silence of cranes.

And always, the moving headlights
of motored commuters, glare and dim
on travel's liquid currents to curtained,
softly glowing windows of home

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Reliving Learnings

Due to furniture arrival and subsequent rearrangement of the living room, I had the opportunity (read: "spousal mandate") this week to purge the contents of a cabinet in which I had stashed, apparently, the first 15 years of my writing hobby/career, dating back to college.

Oh my. Among the debris:
  • two stacks of the Stevens literary magazine as it was under my leadership. Not terrible, if one accepts a 20-year-old worldview. We completely ignored the guidance of our faculty advisor, and it shows.
  • my journals and some poem fragments from college through 3 years after. Who the heck was I?
  • journals I collected during my early years of research. Most of which were completely inappropriate for me, but which are great reads now.

Also in that cabinet were 15 years (give or take) of Writer's Digest which, if I pile all together, will contain 206 tips to spark your creativity, 93 ways to get an agent interested in your work, 178 tips for more believable characters, 909 "best websites for writers" (and a few priceless articles on "How To Use The World Wide Web"), as many as 4 feature articles on poetry, and all that. I remember why I stopped taking the magazine; I loved the columnists for their style and their other works (Nancy Kress, J. Michael Straczynski....), but one 4-year cycle of tips is plenty to pay for. And good heavens Bob Bly is prolific - you don't appreciate it until you leaf through a couple years of magazines in an afternoon.

Some wonderful discoveries in that cabinet - I didn't even recall I owned a copy of Kenneth Rexroth's Love Poems from the Japanese. I think I'll start there and give some of my rediscoveries a victory lap:

I shall hide myself

within the moon of the spring night
after I have dared to reveal
my love to you
-- Chino Masako

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Time for Carving

A Pact

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman --
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood
now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root --
let there be commerce between us.

(Ezra Pound, Personae, 1926; from the Poetry Speaks desk calendar)

My father would have been 68 this week. As I continue to refine and resubmit (and refine and resubmit and refine and resubmit) my first manuscript, a collection of poems spoken from me to my children, I can't help from time to time being reminded of my relationship with my own father. I think our trajectory was fairly typical: From me wanting to be him, to me wanting to be anything but him, to me slowly realizing that I had become him. This poem, coincidentally appearing yesterday in the Poetry Speaks calendar, carries the same feeling that I recall having when I realized that Dad was the person in the world I was most like - however we'd come to be that way.

Our differences were fairly obvious. He never really thought much of my poetry hobby, he enjoyed hearing my play my accordion when I was competing but I don't know that he was all that interested when I stopped, he was pleased at my success as an engineer - but I think that was largely because he always regretted not becoming one himself. On the other hand, there were similarities that emerged unprompted in my adulthood, ranging from the silly similarities in our bowling styles to our shared ability to predict very early in the hand the one card that would sink our opponent in a game of pinochle. There were a couple of defining moments in our relationship as adults, and I realized at some point that we had become friends.

One of the ways that we were most similar was a (healthy) preoccupation with family and legacy, with planning and providing for the generation that would follow us. This, with its dialects of finance and probability, of complex decisions reduced to the objectivity of mathematics, was channel of communication that was always open for us, and frequently as good as a private Esperanto, as we went back and forth with terms - linguistic and statistical - that only we, among everyone in the room/house/family, really understood.

This is a very old poem; I penned it more than 15 years ago. I was tempted to neaten it up, to apply the style I've developed in those intervening years (repair those enjambments!), but I don't think that would be true to the memory of my father on his birthday. This is something we had. It was uniquely ours. It served us well at that time, and I choose to remember it today as it was, to remember the sap and root we shared, the (quite literal) commerce between us.

Sorry, this poem has been deleted.....

There will be time for carving soon enough. Happy Birthday, Dad.