Sunday, April 24, 2011

On Easter Sunday, a poem might also be....

This is a story about a poem.

For the past few years, I have taught 7th grade CCD (religious education) in my church. I began teaching it for the reason I think many intellectual smorgasbordists* would: I wanted to get to know my own faith and beliefs better. Part of that is self-interest, being at the time in my life when one tends to do a lot of recursive examination; part is practical, as my kids are approaching the ages when their questioning (well, more their insistence upon answers) will begin to strip my ability to answer unless I maintain myself better than I'd been.

With a very few exceptions, I've found my students' questions to be relentless, unembarrassedly personal, and ruthlessly fair and honest. One of the more common questions I get from the kids is whether or not I believe the particular miracle we just discussed actually happened (surrounded by 3 minutes of what they would do if confronted by such unbelieveability). The subject of miracles is a tough one to broach with a 12/13-year old - their world is complicated and indefinable enough without the burden of believing in an otherworldly power. But -- unlike the persona I adopt in my poems -- I always tell them the truth. Which starts with my grandmother.

What faith have comes, ultimately, from my grandmother. In the whole of my life, hers was the strongest faith I have ever encountered. Not the loudest, not the most obvious, but the strongest. I was well into my 20s before I started to learn about the hardships Nana had faced in her life, hardships which might have caused another person to adjust their disposition toward the cynical. But Nana's was definitely an Easter faith; she believed that no one would ever be burdened with more than they could handle, and that renewal and restoration was waiting for you if you could manage your burden just a little longer.

Which is why Nana continues to show up in my poems, and why I feel pretty strongly about those poems. I'm not objective about them and I don't pretend to be. But there was one particular disappointing episode in her life that I've always felt was perfect for a recollective poem, one that ought to be presented in sepia tones, it's so much a peek at the past. I've been writing and rewriting it for years, never quite sure what to do next with it, or whether to call it done. But I've thought for a while I had handled it well enough to let my peers have a look.

A short while ago, I learned of John Newmark's online journal Generations of Poetry, a new (this year) literary effort in support of the geneablogging (online genealogy) community. It seemed a logical place for this poem I've wanted so much to take out of the folio and expose to the light. It takes place (mostly) in 1937, and it has a lot to do with the records we keep about our families. I won't tell you more; you can read it for yourself.

Today. Easter Sunday.

Now I don't know if that means anything. It's presumptuous to think that the cascade of coincidences that led to the appearance of Grand Canyon, 1937 on Easter is anything more than just that. And don't mistake me for anything other than a (slightly sentimental) realist. I know enough about statistics to know that if you flip a coin 50 times every day, one day you'll get TAILS 50 flips in a row. I know enough about people and their faith to know that a divine hand is frequently and perhaps foolishly seen in things those people are desperate to make sense of.


I will have a new group of 7th graders in September. And sometime before Halloween they will ask me if I believe in miracles. As I do every year, I'll tell them I don't know. Then maybe I'll tell them this story and ask what they believe.

If you are celebrating it today, I wish you a joyful Easter.

* relentlessly curious on a surprisingly far-flung set of areas of interest.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Truth Is Not the Caramel Center

Pulled again this week into the old conversation: Truth in poetry. Answering the question "Wow, did that really happen?" Whether to show my mother what I write*.

It's that same question again and again: whether it's reasonable to expect a person reading a poem not to place the poet into the person of the speaker, or just to assume it's all true. I haven't found a way to convince people that it's really not, and I'm not just talking about novices or non-poets, but also about people who have a reasonable claim at being writing hobbyists.

I usually try to bring the visual arts into this discussion, ask whether people look at paintings and ask if the scene really happened. It usually doesn't work, but I think I finally hit on the way to connect this comparison. I think it's probably true that visual artists prepare a sketch or use (pencil/light) guidelines when producing a piece of art suitable for hanging; these are the equivalent of truth to the poet. They may get you into the piece, but they're not there when you're done, though their shape may be visible.

The problem, I think, is the old opinion of poetry as therapy, not as craft. I'm not saying there isn't therapeutic or cathartic poetry, or music, or painting, but that it's silly to think it all is catharsis. Even established writers talk to me about poems "needing to be written". Do we think of screenplays in that light? Novels? Some, to be sure, but we don't start with their truthfulness as the assumption. I don't think we do, anyway.

And that, I'm afraid, goes back to how poetry is taught. It's either dry and dead or first-person pathos. That's one reason I like to follow the Poetry Out Loud competition; giving voice to other's work breaks wide open the idea that the poem must be a confessional or observational moment.

Truth is not the element that makes the poem essential or beautiful; it is not the reward. It's not even essential to the poem. It's just another way into the moment. No, I don't think the conversation's over, or that I'm winning many people over, but I intend to keep trying.

* - Not all of it. Sorry, Mom.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A night out with words

Had an unexpected opportunity to catch Lyn Lifshin (prolific poet and teacher) and Michael Mirolla (writer and editor of Guernica Editions) at the Montclair Public Library tonight - a delightful reading. Michael opened and read poems from several books, then closed with a story that was twice a gift. The first gift was his discovery that he'd brought the piece at all. It turns out he was unable to bring his books with him for reasons I'll leave him to work out with the folks responsible, and he happened to have a hardcopy of the story from his files. The second manifestation of gift happened when I approached him after the reading and mentioned I'd enjoyed the story and thought I could find an eager audience for it at home, and he opened his briefcase and handed me the story - proving to me again that the rule is true talent generally shows true generosity.

I hadn't seen Lifshin read in about 15 years and she was exactly the same as I remember her. Picked up her new book, All the Poets Who Have Touched Me, which she read a bit from. It's a fun collection in which she addresses her relationships with many other poets and she insists that some of it is true! As is the rule (at least with me; don't know about you), I tried out something new in the open, which forced me to put the pen to paper. My iGoogle counter has been yelling at me again - 89 days since I completed a poem - and it was great to finally click the reset button. \

And.... just heard tonight that Generations of Poetry, an online journal with a genealogy focus, has accepted a poem; more on that when it appears.

Hope your tax season is going well!