17 November 2010

Smart Things Selah Saterstrom Said in an Interview with Christian Peet

Since we're reading The Pink Institution, which forces us to think about form, and since I'm forcing you to blog about revision, which also forces you to consider form, I now present these excepts from Selah Saterstrom, interviewed by Christian Peet in Tarpaulin Sky.

SS: …I would identify that “narrative” as a collection of images that have intersected and conjoined through time in such a way that feels right—inexhaustible, non negotiable. I am interested in the articulations that erupt as a result of these images being in relation. This is a process I would call “narrative.” Like a weed growing between two concrete blocks of an interstate overpass. Despite smog and lack of nourishment, certain conditions are present so that a manifestation arises from the space between the edges of those blocks. I feel narrative as inevitable, evolutionary, like interstate weeds. Where there are things and conditions, there is narrative.

The trick is breaking the images until they yield the most poignant set of articulations. . . then arranging those articulations into a larger pattern that feels honest, is not exclusive, and has a poignancy that deserves visibility [enter self doubt]. The trick of waiting, seeing, risking, failing.

Is this work fiction? Trans-genre? I don’t know. I recently went through a period in which I was so hung up on what genre I was writing in that it became debilitating. During this time the election was going on and I dealt with it by reading loser’s points of view through history. I started to read Japanese accounts of Hiroshima, which re-triggered years of previous Holocaust readings.

After atrocities forms emerge, often called avant-garde forms. Looking at avant-garde as a literal translation, these forms may be “forward looking” but they feel more to me like forms of present moment witness. How does one speak after a violence that literally reconfigures the cellular structure of things, that, in its erasure, records the shadow of what is no longer present? Out of necessity forms arise to speak a language that must also speak these losses and transfigurations.

Thinking about these things, I realized it would be more productive and better for me to switch from the question: “What genre am I writing in?” to: “How can I be a more pure filter through which language can pattern the mystery of my concerns?” At this point I’ve chosen a sense of urgency over a sense of knowing.

I’ve been thinking about the space of the page as an installation space, the text as installation. Some of the pieces express this more visually than others. But even when form is not working in this overtly visual way, every line, be it a recognizable sentence or not, is broken intentionally as I write. I experience form both as a way of seeing and the thing seen because it is simultaneously process and artifact.

CP: I once heard you say—and I may be paraphrasing incorrectly—that revision is a process of learning to see more clearly. Would you explain this? Also, what is the importance of negative space, of what is not seen in your work? In The Pink Institution, God took the form of an eraser. Is revision an act of God?

SS: Ha hahaaaa . . . hell yes sometimes it feels like revision is an act of God because it feels like it would take an act of God to make a piece work. But seriously, in terms of revision as a phenomena that is act of God. . . I don’t know. Because genocide, for example, is a form of revision. In turn this revision can lead to re-visioned forms to speak about the experience itself. The process of remembering, also revision. Pollution: a process of planetary revision. Life, death, nature: revision. And so on. It could be that revision is a non negotiable character in the existential drama. This doesn’t disinvite God into the scenario, but it doesn’t place God as The Force causing the scenario. It’s a big subject. . . does God exist outside one’s own accountability?

We invoke revision in good and terrible ways, but it is a mode of surviving. Acquiring language as a child is a kind of revision process—one revises a semiotic understanding of self and world and the “I” is born, subject placement established. One is less likely to be eaten by wolves if one can distinguish one’s self from the wolves. Being food doesn’t have to imply your connections are rooted in dichotomy (you v/s wolves). It just suggests ways those connections might be expressed.

In terms of my own writing process, editing/revision is a space where I have encountered something I personally consider holy, but really it is very ordinary. It feels holy because it’s rare. Again, Grace Paley’s idea of getting the lies out comes to mind. When I’m at a place with a piece and I’m able to, if only for a moment, live with my own contradictions without somehow medicating myself, that can feel like grace.

03 November 2010

If on a winter's night a traveler is not the easiest book ever assigned

Nor is it the hardest, once you get into the rhythm of it, the weaving in and out of story, to and fro with the anti-author's narration. The story of a narrator who is a reader.
I don't write to defend it, but I do urge you to laugh.

Yes, laugh.

It's a book that's frustrating to read, sure, but its main topic is frustration, after all. The book is therefore a joke book. At the same time it's a mystery, and as I read (and not for the first time) I can't help but remember my long-past afternoons with Nancy Drew mysteries. How desperate I was to know it was all going to be solved, that the criminal would pay, that there was justice. I was so desperate that I couldn't wait till the end of the book but had to read ahead, usually skimming the last three or four pages to find the answer. Afterward, satisfied, I would return to the middle to enjoy the ride. Every book I would promise myself that I wouldn't cheat, wouldn't look ahead, but I couldn't ever resist. That's the feeling I have with Calvino--what's the truth about this story? Will these people ever get their book? And will they ever have sex? I want to look ahead. But I've read the end, and I know what I always suspected, and what you must suspect, too.....

21 October 2010

Whither Vito Acconci? Notes on Conceptual Poetry

A bunch of years ago, the late, great Jerry Cox brought me to a Houston museum to hear a disembodied voice (actually a stereo buried in the floorboards) asking over and over:

“How bad is it going to smell when it starts to smell?”

This got my attention.

The voice belonged to Vito Acconci, an artist who made his name using audio and video to often salacious effect. Most famously, Acconci once masturbated under the floorboards of Ileanna Sonnabend’s new Soho gallery while announcing into a mike his fantasies about the people walking above him. (When he told Sonnabend of his plans, the vivid Romanian art dealer said, "Do what you have to do, Vito.")

That was 1971. Since then Vito’s settled down a bit, studied architecture. He now works on large installations, or architectural interventions, and calls himself a landscape architect. But before all this, in the very, very beginning, he was a poet. Which is why I'm writing this blog today.

And what a poet. As a young man writing in the sixties, he was not the only one questioning the fact of poetry, of writing at all. But he took it to a heady extreme. A risqué performance piece is one thing, but Vito’s conceptual poetry still shocks this parochial school gal. (VA, by the bye, as also a parochial school kid—from the Bronx.) He began writing poems like READ THIS WORD:


It goes on. And here is a fine, and slightly further out, example from 1969. (I'd love to upload it but cannot.) Check the link for semiotics in the purest sense, the awareness that words are mere metaphors, theatrical artifice, not real at all—even as he mocks the reader with the artifice, too. He explains the process quite clearly here:

Because I was so interested in the page as a field for movement, eventually the choice of words became a problem. It seemed to be impossible to use on a page a word like “tree,” a word like “chair,” because this referred to another space. Whereas I could use on a page a word like “there.” Or phrases such as “at that time” or “at that place.” In other words, words that directly referred to my act of writing on the page, your act of reading the page. In short, I was writing myself into a corner, writing myself into a position where in order to preserve the literalness of the page, the only thing I could put on the page were periods, commas, punctuation marks. 

The only things he could put on the page were periods, commas and punctuation marks?

Now, such conceptual questioning makes no appearance in my work and really never has. (Though it has occurred to me that only a parochial school kid could be so angry about the hollow symbols that are words that he'd write poems made of punctuation marks.) Yet I torture students with it year after year. Why do I do this, when it's so clear that you want to write stories about real life, about family and love and murder and the occasional vampire?

I do it so you can set off on your own explorations, and to remind you (and myself) of the made-up-ness of the enterprise of writing, the constriction of the rules that we don’t even know we’re following because they are the air we – dash into headlong.

What prompted me to write to you today, and not last week or next week? A book review from The Constant Critic, always full of smart reminders of what’s new and coming. (You can sign up for their notices of new reviews yourself.) Here, in a piece called "No Content," the hilarious Vanessa Place (a conceptual poet, editor and lawyer who has been tweeting Gone With the Wind in its entirety) focuses on three new-ish conceptual poetry books. (As it happens, Vito Acconci did not exhaust the page as he thought. He just got bored with it. His heirs continue--and some of his heirs came before him. (See my post from last February.))

I urge you to read the review, if not the books, but will recap just in case you don't. The first book Place takes up is a collection of poems from marginalia—that's right, poems from the little notes left by strangers in books and forgotten. Liam Agrani, the poet/editor and librarian (naturally) who pulled it together, has been working on Volume One: Selected Anonymous Marginalia for ten years. That's devotion to the god in the details. Then, Ryan Haley’s Autobiography: Volume One is a series of lists of words—and yes, a list can be a poem--or fiction, for that matter—that appeared in our language, or rather in the venerated OED, from 1975 to 1993.

My favorite? Servants of Dust by Gary Barwin. The book is published in Calgary by some folks who call themselves No Press, with the byline: “No press: no promotions, no advance, no problem.” Indeed, they are so no-promoting that I couldn’t find them or the book. (I’ve written Barwin to learn how to get a copy and am eagerly awaiting response.) Barwin offers literal transcriptions of the punctuation marks on Shakespeare’s sonnets. (Very Vito.) I urge you to check out Vanessa’s review to see her transcription of Barwin’s transcription of Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? The famous first line becomes:

              inverted comma              question mark

Barwin's The Punctuation of Thieves, which Place doesn't review, contains far more traditional poems, each dedicated to punctuation marks, lovingly and merrily illustrated. They remind me a little of Neruda's Elemental Odes. Available for download here, take it! Enjoy!

Fittingly, I’ll excerpt the one to the period and sign off for now:

.At the end of a sentence a period, a full stop. Peer into its
darkness, a celestial sky so dark nothing is visible save
the darkness itself.

07 October 2010

Apropos Jane

Just found this hilarious web service that outputs random dialogue from Pride and Prejudice. Input the number of sentences you want, and you'll get lines from Jane Austen herself.


It was engineered by Canadian software designer Jon Aquino, who blogs here. He's quite a character, also running poetry podcasts and other blogs on topics like "Cool Tools for Catholics."

Viva technology.

24 September 2010

About Revision

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

--Anton Chekhov

I don't remember seeing this quote before but it's a good one for thinking about the--about your--project this semester. Chekhov illuminates and gives us a good example of all my teacherly repetitions of Show Don't Tell. (Show Don't Tell: not simply a policy for hook-ups in the military.)

This Chekhovian tidbit is a good way to think about revision, which word derives obviously from seeing (vision) again (re). I'm definitely asking you to take another look at the poems and make sure that you are showing the reader as much as possible. We discussed this a lot last night in class and previously.

I also want to suggest that you have some respect for your poem. Imagine, if you can, that your poem had something to say that you are not fully in control of, as if your lines were half-written by a poltergeist or (better!) inspired by an ancient Greek muse. How can you let that part shine, that mysterious part that might not seem totally relevant to you at first glance? I'm suggesting that before you start scratching out lackluster words and pulling out the thesaurus and re-writing according to your teacher's suggestions, you listen to the poem.

Though, by all means, do pull out the thesaurus.

23 September 2010

Why Art?

One answer to this excellent question:

...works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living. Civilization is uncivil because human beings are divided into non-communicating sects, races, nations, classes and cliques....

--John Dewey

(With thanks to Evan Baer, who blogs here.)

21 September 2010

A fab YouTube lesson on Iambic Pentameter

I know that you are working hard on your sonnet and on placing your best insights and ideas into iambic pentameter. I can't wait to see what you come up with. I did a little research on iambic pentameter myself tonight and found the google to be very full of help. Or at least able to give me plenty of links.

For the record, the words "iambic pentameter how to" yielded a scary 229,000 results.

This 2-minute quickie youtube video is from the Kennedy Center and pretty helpful.

Fortunately I found a still better work of strange genius by a high school senior out there somewhere in America. Its 5 minutes will not waste your precious time. In fact, I can pretty much promise you will enjoy.

As for tomorrow's handouts, I have emailed them to your addresses. My attempt at blackboard failed.

15 September 2010

Why Sonnets?

This is a good question.

On another note, I believe that I have posted the handout for today's class on Blackboard, and that you will be able to print it out before class. The handout is called Sonnethandout.doc.

We will be discussing one poem that didn't make it onto the Blackboard handout. The Shakespeare is on the first page of your first day handout.

Please do print all three pages if possible. We will read and discuss.

09 September 2010


And a poem by Carl Phillips, mentioned below for his smart discussion of Oppen, called, Hymn.

While You Are Writing Odes of Praise: Considerations

I was thinking about the conversation last night about the Oppen poem, "Psalm," particularly about how we came to no conclusion. Good! Humanities teachers like that! And this morning, while looking for a few more poetry blogs to post for your reference, I came upon this one, Poetry & Popular Culture, in which blogger Mike Chasar discusses movies and poetry and nicely expresses the meat of our discussion:

"...the idea that perhaps, as often as not, we remember poetry because we don't understand it, not because we do understand it. That is, maybe what makes a poem memorable is the fact that it's to some extent indecipherable. Like the Sphinx's riddle, like Eliot's quotation of Shakespeare, like gnomic sound bites from Kipling or radio hosts, perhaps we remember poetry because it gives us something to chew on and think about, not because it answers our questions and solves our riddles."

I also found an excellent post by poet Carl Phillips that discusses the Oppen poem and comes to a few smart and helpful conclusions while not collapsing the poem into a neat algebra solution. Not to give it all away, but Phillips' subtitle reads, "How Oppen's broken syntax praises God."

Among other insights, Phillips examines the line breaks and wording that we found so interesting and says, "Syntax is the chief tool that language has for conveying meaning. And it is at the level of syntax that Oppen puts forward his concerns about praise, our obligation to give praise, and the limits to our ability to do so."

None of which is meant to incite bouts of incoherence in your assignments....

01 September 2010

Begin English 332: Open Mic Thursday Night

Shea Center for Performing Arts is hosting an OPEN MIC
Thursday 9/2 at 7:30 p.m.
Signup begins 6 p.m. in the Shea Lobby.

Now that would be something to blog about.

As you begin, I do suggest glancing at the blogroll to your left. The bloggers might give you more ideas about what you'd like to do with your masterpiece.

19 August 2010

What Constitutes "Poetry du Jour," via Fence Mag's Constant Critic

I couldn't resist posting this excerpt from the Constant Critic's revue of Christian Hawkeye's new book, Ventrakl. The reviewer, Karla Kelsey, lays out a list of elements of "poetry du jour." Good to know.

In fact, a list of Ventrakl’s tactics and concerns will read as a description for what it is to be a book of poetry du jour:

Interest in translation, both as overtly stated theme and as mode of composition

Collaboration and a problematizing of monological authorship

Use of ekphrasis, both as an occasion and as a tool for prying into the nature of representation

Use and problematizing of biography, of how to represent a life

Interest in overtly exploring intertextuality

Explicit articulations of a poetics, while, at the same time enacting this poetics figuratively (or by rejection of figure), formally, extra-lexically

Recognizing the necessarily political implications of language, a weariness and despair of facile articulation

The hybrid (the book, part of UDP’s Dossier Series, includes lineated poems, prose poems, invented conversations, biographical sketches, photographs, and quotations)

Documentary poetics

Procedural poetry

The poetic project

The entire review is available here.

12 May 2010

Last Words, Not Mine

This came in an email from Crazyhorse today:

“What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.”
—Logan Pearsall Smith

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
—Ernest Hemingway

“The poet: would rather eat a heart than a hambone.”
—Theodore Roethke

“If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works.”
—John Dos Passos

“I only write when I feel the inspiration. Fortunately, inspiration strikes at 10:00 o’clock every day.”
—William Faulkner

“If you’re going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you’re going to be locked up.”
—Hunter S. Thompson

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”
—Flannery O’Connor

“I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.”
—Isak Dinesen

“Write, damn you! What else are you good for?”
—James Joyce

“If I don’t write to empty my mind I go mad.”
—Lord Byron

“I could claim any number of high-flown reasons for writing, just as you can explain certain dogs behavior... But maybe, it’s that they’re dog, and that’s what dogs do.”
—Amy Hempel

“Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”
—Red Smith

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant.”
—Winston Churchill

“Always pull back—and see how silly we must look to God.”
—Jack Kerouac

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive when we started and know the place for the first time.”
—T.S. Eliot

“If you’re a good writer, these days, you pay attention to the way that people don’t pay attention.”
—Charles Baxter

"There are three rules to writing a novel and nobody knows what they are."
—Wm. Somerset Maugham

"Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To leap. To fly. To fail."
—Susan Sontag

“We put on our stories before our clothes….”
—William Wenthe

“All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath."
—F. Scott Fitzgerald

"All I am is the trick of words writing themselves."
—Anne Sexton

"You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything."
—Richard Hugo

“Perhaps there is another kind of writing, I only know this one: in the night, when fear does not let me sleep.”
—Franz Kafka

"Once your life is organized so beautifully that there's a table, and a chair, and a typewriter, that already is an incredible triumph."
—Leonard Cohen

"The poet: would rather eat a heart than a hambone."
—Theodore Roethke

"Why not say what happened?"
—Robert Lowell

"When one is highly alert to language, then nearly everything begs to be a poem..."
—James Tate

"Remember the old adage about how an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually type something beautiful? Well, the Internet disproves that."
—Kurt Vonnegut

“The poet is he that hath fat enough, like bears and marmots, to suck his claws all winter. He hibernates in this world, and feeds on his own marrow.”
—Henry David Thoreau

"A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it."
—Roald Dahl

"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you."
—Ray Bradbury

"If you can bring nothing to this place but your carcass, keep out."
—William Carlos Williams

"Why do I write? To discover the Gods I don't believe in"
—Bruce Pratt

"Substitute 'damn' every time you are inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
—Mark Twain

"The process of writing will always be trying to repair something that doesn't exist with tools you have to invent on the spot."
—George Saunders

"Any writer who knows what he's doing isn't doing very much."
—Nelson Algren

"Write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after."
—Ernest Hemingway

"The job of the writer is to win the battle against loneliness."
—Barry Hannah

"An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way."
—Charles Bukowski

"Confront the dark parts of yourself.... Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing."
—August Wilson

"Truth is not an unveiling which destroys the secret, but a revelation that does it justice."
—Walter Benjamin

"Writing isn't about applause. It's about humiliation."
—Steve Almond

“A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country. And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

"Energy within the poet goes into the poem, but then must go from the poem to a reader or listener. There has to be this transfer of energy."
—Muriel Rukeyser

"Before I start writing I feel affectionate, interested, and frustrated. In that order. Afterwards I feel relieved, disgusted, and confused. Sometimes I don't think it's worth it."
—Joy Williams

"A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.”
—James Dickey

"I believe in words. I believe that words are little gods. I believe that books are bibles."
—Marcel Pomerlo

"Poets think they are pitchers, but they are really catchers."
—Jack Spicer

"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."
—Isaac Asimov

“Everything I learned about human nature I learned from me.”

"The author's task is to synchronize thoughts, images, raw creative material in a meaningful way, a task as difficult and frantic and joyful as herding cats."
—Brandon Dorn

"I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences."
—Gertrude Stein

"As if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose."

"Imaginative work is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground; it is like a spider web attached ever so lightly, but attached to all four corners of the earth."
—Virginia Woolf

"My weakness and my absurdity is I must write at all costs and express myself."
— Antonin Artaud

"Poetry is mostly hunches."
—John Ashberry

“You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.”
—Richard Hugo in The Triggering Town

“…you can kill characters only once, but you can hurt them everyday.”
—Neil LaBute

"Always pull back—and see how silly we must look to God."
—Jack Kerouac

"I always write from my own experiences whether I've had them or not."
—Ron Carlson

"This autonomy crap? That means you're off working alone. If you want autonomy, be a poet."
—Michael Eisner (CEO Disney)

“. . .failure is the writer's only real business. The one hope is for a better and better failure."
—John Ciardi

"Writing should be done on your knees."
—William Maxwell

"Use the right word and not its second cousin."
—Mark Twain

“If you're really listening, if you're awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly”
— Andrew Harvey

"Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard."
—Anne Sexton

“The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman…A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom.”
—Roald Dahl

“Go forth my book and help to destroy the world as it is.”
— Russell Banks

“Art is long, and life is short, and success is very far off.”
—Anton Checkov

"Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing."
—Georgia O'Keefe

“It's hell writing and it's hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”
—Robert Hass

“This morning I took out a comma, and this afternoon I put it back again.”
— Oscar Wilde

"I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is grace in territory held largely by the devil."
—Flannery O'Connor

“What crazies we writers are, our heads full of language like buckets of minnows standing in the moonlight on a dock”
—Hayden Carruth

“There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money, either.”
—Robert Graves

“When ideas fail, words come in very handy.”

“I'm a writer first and a woman after.”
—Katherine Mansfield

"I write for myself and strangers."
—Gertrude Stein

"It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."
—William Carlos Williams

“For all the words of a poem both emerge from, and finally add up to silence, whatever beauty and terror that may mean.”
—Marianne Boruch

"Not every poem can sing like a drunk man, but it sure better swing punches."
—H.D Dinken

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
—Anaïs Nin

"Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting."
—Robert Frost

“Each morning my characters greet me with misty faces willing, though chilled, to muster for another day’s progress through the dazzling quicksand, the marsh of blank paper.”
—John Updike

"If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad."
—Lord Byron

"Poetry is my love, my postmark, my hands, my kitchen, my face."
—Anne Sexton

"The author's task is to synchronize thoughts, images, raw creative material in a meaningful way, a task as difficult and frantic and joyful as herding cats."
—Brandon Dorn

"Imaginative work is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground; it is like a spider web attached ever so lightly, but attached to all four corners of the earth."
—Virginia Woolf

“The poet is he that hath fat enough, like bears and marmots, to suck his claws all winter. He hibernates in this world, and feeds on his own marrow”
—Henry david Thoreau

“Do not observe yourself too closely..."
—R.M. Rilke, "Letters to a Young Poet."

“...one doesn't become an artist overnight. You have to be carbonized and mineralized in order to work upwards from the last common denominator of the self. "
—from The Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller

“Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté.”
—Margaret Atwood

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”
—Lisa Kerr

“Perhaps I'm inventing a little, perhaps embellishing, but on the whole that's the way it was.”
—Samuel Beckett

"The more it smells, the better it sells.”
—Franz Douskey

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
—William Wordsworth

“He threw a lot of spaghetti up against the wall and developed a keen sense of what was going to stick.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

"Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To leap. To fly. To fail."
—Susan Sontag

"The depth is in the surface."
—William Matthews

01 April 2010

It's NaPoWriMo

Greetings poetry writing addicts and graphomaniacs. It is once again the cruelest month, and I and a mad cadre of my students will be joining Robin Reagler and many others in attempting a poem-like-thang every danged day.

Since this particular blog is devoted to a class called Advanced Creative Writing, I've created a new blog just for poem-a-day-ing: ab chaos poesis.

There you'll see links to Robin and several classmates, including Jacqueline, and others to be added (or dropped).

29 March 2010

Re:Vision (to see anew) (and one other thing anew, too)

“The first draft reveals the art, revision reveals the artist.”
Michael Lee

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”
Bernard Malamud

“Half my life is an act of revision.”
John Irving

My first point? I'd like to see revisions of each of your poems by the first week in April. After all, April is National Poetry Month....

In addition, Group B workshop will be held next Monday, April 5.

04 March 2010

Rules for Riting

Read them, consider them, forget them. (But if you want more, go here.)

1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

26 February 2010

Prose Poetry

Post the prose poems you found online (or in antique, outdated books) for credit today!

Also, Arthur Rimbaud was a prose poet. Witness:

Gracieux fils de Pan! Autour de ton front couronné de fleurettes et de baies tes yeux, des boules précieuses, remuent. Tachées de lies brunes, tes joues se creusent. Tes crocs luisent. Ta poitrine ressemble à une cithare, des tintements circulent dans tes bras blonds. Ton coeur bat dans ce ventre òu dort le double sexe. Promène-toi la nuit, en mouvant doucement cette cuisse, cette seconde cuisse et cette jambe de gauche.

Graceful son of Pan! Around your forehead crowned with little flowers and laurel, your eyes, those precious balls, revolve. Stained with wine dregs, your cheeks grow hollow. Your fangs gleam. Your chest is like a lyre, tinklings course through your blonde arms. Your heart beats in the belly where the double sex sleeps. Walk around at night, gently moving this thigh, this second thigh and this left leg.

17 February 2010

Going Experimental

Which is to say, we have a plan, but the plan is a chance operation. You have a poem due next week, but the poem is an experiment--more of an experiment than other poems, too. So that you don't feel left in the lurch, I'm offering this list of ideas and references to supplement the prompts handed out on Tuesday. If you have further questions, which is quite fair, please leave them in the comments here so all can read my answers.

The handout that most of you got to kickstart this assignment was a random selection of poetry prompts from the brilliant poet and teacher Bernadette Mayer. The entire list is here, from the Language Is A Virus website. Enjoy!

While reviewing Language is a Virus, I found once again one of my favorite experiment tools. Known as the Cut-Up Machine, it apes William Burroughs's advice in his search for transcendence through randomness. And it makes it easy and fast. You simply paste any text onto the page and the engine will cut it up, as: will it and works randomness. the and similar through and onto along transcendence search as: through works the William and as: up, the through randomness. principles engine and will engine and page principles and.... It can be a fun way to reconfigure some of your own old, more staid writing and branching out from there.

Next, I want to put in a plug here for learning a little about John Cage, the granddaddy of the experimental poets (to Bernadette's grandmammy?) (she wouldn't like that). Cage famously said, "I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry." He believed in chance--that it was not at all chancy--and so consulted astronomical charts, the I Ching, and street maps when composing both music and poetry.

(He also said: "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones." And: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." And: "The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I feel it's not beautiful? And very shortly you discover there is no reason." And: "As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency." AND: "Whether I make them or not, there are always sounds to be heard and all of them are excellent." And (sorry, can't stop): "Syntax, like government, can only be obeyed. It is therefore of no use except when you have something particular to command such as: Go buy me a bunch of carrots.")

(Enough of that.)

There are 2 groups of "experimental" writers we'll be talking about in class, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and flarf. Both have a lot to do with the work you'll be turning in next week, whether you know it yet or not. Because it's best to know sooner rather than later, I'm including some information and links that might inspire your own work over the course of this week.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is derided as ridiculously difficult by many, but I suspect the naysayers secretly respect and fear it. It can be downright alienating, leaving readers with a sense of arbitrary incoherence and their own frustration. For an example, see this excerpt from Susan Howe's Thorow or this much clearer "Sad Boy's Sad Boy" from Charles Bernstein. Look up either of them for more excellent examples. Also, this page has still more L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E work that might stimulate.

One great page at textetc.com has a wonderful write-up of what L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is by describing what it is not. As C. John Holcombe, site owner, writes:

Aims are best grasped by what the movement opposed: {6}

1. narrative: no story or connecting tissue of viewpoint or argument: poems often incorporate random thoughts, observations and sometimes nonsense. {7}

2. personal expression: not merely detached, the poems accept Barthe's thesis that the author does not exist. {8}

3. organization: poems are based on the line, not the stanza, and often that line is discontinuous or fragmentary: the poems reject any guiding sense of purpose. {9}

4. control: poems take to extremes the open forms advocated by Williams and the Black Mountain School.

5. capitalist politics and/or bourgeoisie values. {10}

Can you imagine writing a poem that adheres to these tenets? That's basically your assignment this week. Or it could be--there are obviously many ways of "doing"--that is experimenting with--experimental writing.

Flarf is a whole other ball of wax. In its initial impulse, it aimed to explore "the inappropriate" in all its incarnations. In brief, they googled strange search terms and created sometimes hilarious sometimes upsetting poems of their results. They have described their own texts as ‘a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness.’ A good article on Flarf is here.

You might enjoy this page for examples of Google search poetry. (I love the one that begins "children are." So deep.)

For a few last ideas, here is a fun exercise in randomness.

The word fun popped up a few times here. Do keep it in mind.

excerpt from an experimental poetry manifesto:


1.2 The poem is a set of topological figures or features.
1.2.1 Words are subject to disintegration, death, and other natural events that individuals of all types face.
1.2.2 The words on the page represent the page at a certain geological moment. This moment implies a history. This moment entails a future. The reader sees merely a moment captured.
1.2.3 The "level of the page" is the only level. The vertical "reader to page" and "author to page" and "author to reader"
relationships are eradicated. The horizontal journey through the page, as a hiker on a trail,
is the only way to search for meaning. As such meanings will be different for each traveler. As such meaning is made through memory.
Connections are delayed, soundings are delayed, meaning
is delayed. Meaning is put together. As such meaning is a compound impression of a physically traversed
space (the eye moves physically through the space as the mind
encounters fragmented signifiers). Each poem is a microcosm.
2. The page is a slice of geological time. It has a past and a future. It has physical features.
2.1 It could have been otherwise.
3. The poem and the page become topological at the same time; as the reader traverses their space, he or she perceives a shifting, coming-into-being topology.

From Manifest by Jessica Smith. Ubuweb

12 February 2010

If students are linking, teacher can link, too

The poet I have in mind this week -- this month -- is Arthur Rimbaud. The Frenchman wrote all of his poetry in the course of five years when he was as young as my students. At the age of nine he wrote a 700-word essay against having to learn Latin in school. At 16 Rimbaud was discovered in Paris by the poet Paul Verlaine, who left his family to become Rimbaud's lover and encourage the boy's writing. The affair was tumultuous, ending after Verlaine shot him in the hand in an argument just over a year later. Soon after that, the prodigy stopped writing for good at the age of 19 (or 21, according to Wikipedia's version).

What's certain is that his only writing after 1875 can be found in government documents -- Rimbaud often worked in French colonies in Africa -- and letters. He died of cancer at the age of 37. His former lover , gathered all his work and made sure it was published, ensuring his future fame.

Here follows an excerpt from Rimbaud's very famous "A Season in Hell."

A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.
One night, I sat Beauty down on my lap.—And I found her galling.—And I roughed her up.
I armed myself against justice.
I ran away. O witches, O misery, O hatred, my treasure's been turned over to you!
I managed to make every trace of human hope vanish from my mind. I pounced on every joy like a ferocious animal eager to strangle it.
I called for executioners so that, while dying, I could bite the butts of their rifles.

And yes, I named my dog after him.

25 January 2010

New Semester, New Class of Advanced Creative Writers

This semester I've assigned a totally new book: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. By Virginia Tufte, it was strongly recommended to me last summer, and I thought it would be a strange but fun treat for the class. Advanced writing classes are good places to examine the sentence, the basic unit of communication.

Besides ughs, grunts, and eye-rolls, that is.

And besides gerund-filled invective and hair-twirling.

So, let's call it one of our basic units of communication. Fine. Still, in a creative writing class, it's pretty crucial to truck in sentences. Better still is the ability to really manipulate them. We want to know when a short, emphatic sentence is going to give a kick to the paragraph, or if the form is just going to belabor a point already made. Will a winding, langorous Henry James-ish sentence seduce your reader into the narrative scene or will it merely make her impatient for the point (or the period)? These choices are generally unconscious for writers, at least at first, and they remain largely unconscious for me. Yet our ability to think about them surely enlarges the project here, this semester. This semester we'll take a step back from the sentence, and from our sentences in particular, to see what they are doing for our work as a whole and to learn what a few alterations and adjustments might do.