December 20, 2014
(At least, at the time of this posting, I’m working on the penultimate poem of the year and, with one more week to go, I think it’s safe to say I’ll complete it.)
Why? Why the heck did I take on something like this? Why would anyone take on such a task?
Last year I spent the month of April writing a poem a day. That was 30 poems, most of which were quick reflections on what was happening in my life, the world around me or in my mind.
This was different. 52 poems. One per week. And at someone else’s bidding.
That someone else was poet Jo Bell. A year ago, Jo offered a challenge to some of her friends and followers: join a closed group on Facebook wherein poets would be given weekly prompts and asked to write and post their poem to the group. We were also asked to read, comment on, and critique each others work.
The idea was, as Jo herself put it, part of “a range of crowd-sourced projects to raise the standards of, and promote the pleasures of contemporary poetry…52 uses social media to connect writers and to raise their standard of writing through creative friction.”
Every week, Jo posted “a new exercise to help you write a new poem. You write it your way – to the very best of your ability. You improve, you expand, you develop.”
Along with over 540 other members, I took up that challenge. Each Thursday morning (UK time), we were given a new prompt and some examples of how other poets may have tackled the subject. (You can see all the prompts here: 52.)
The prompts were one word or a phrase or just an idea. Some of the challenges were excruciatingly hard, especially those that asked the poet to get out of his or her own skin, style or comfort zone. Others fit nicely into a familiar pattern, yet encouraged the poets take their own style to a new level.
The first observation I have about this group is what a wonderful collection of people Jo attracted. As the year went on, many of us grew close and supportive of each other’s work and struggles. Some of us have became friends outside the group.
The second is how gratifying to get almost instant feedback on a new poem or idea of a poem. 52 was like a private workshop that helped flag lazy writing, praise winning phrases, and challenge each other to improve our work.
The third observation is how HARD this challenge was to accomplish. Some weeks came easier than others — being on vacation, honeymoon, or holiday certainly helped — other times, when the week was particularly busy at work or something else was going on (my wedding!), it was more difficult.
But I did it. I wrote a poem every week. How many of the poems will actually survive is another issue. At least one, “Weather,” from the sixth week of the year, has been accepted for publication. Others I’ve read at readings to some applause.
One poem, “Blended Family,” written in response to the week eleven prompt, “Songs of Praise,” was read at our wedding by Samantha’s eldest daughter. (You can read it here.)
Writing a poem each week was certainly worth doing, but I don’t think I’ll try it again. I don’t write well this way, with the pressure of a looming deadline (poems had to be posted before the following week’s prompt), I prefer to let the poem come to me and steep, and work on it as I see fit.
And yet, this challenge has had a positive impact on my work. It has freed my work somewhat — many of the challenges were not the subject of my past poetry; some forced me to write about things I never thought to tackle in poetry.
I’m grateful to Jo for the challenge and to those who read my work and shared thoughtful comments on my posts — or called me out when I wasn’t hitting the mark.
There’s a handful of members with whom I’ll stay in touch and perhaps even continue to share poems. Most of them I would not have met were it not for Jo’s group and the platform of Facebook.
As for the poems, I plan to spend the next year going over them with a sharp pencil and a sharper eye, finding the gems, excising the fakes, and possibly building this group of 52 poems into something worthy of the group and this very special experience.
June 13, 2014
Jonathan Hobratsch, writing in the Huffington Post, celebrated National Poetry Month by posing “5 Questions for Poets” by readers of poetry.
I’ve tried to answer each of his questions (this is the 5th and final). You can find my answers to other sets of questions, here, here, here, and here. Here’s a link to Jonathan’s original Part 5 post and the other poets’ answers: 5 Questions for Poets.
And here are my answers:
1. How hard should you work at a poem?
As hard as it takes to get the poem where it wants to go and get the author out of the way.
2. According to The Atlantic, over 50 percent of people think computers will be able to write great works of literature in 50 years. Do you hold with the majority prognostication?
Great works of literature? I doubt it. But then, when artificial intelligence takes over, great will be defined by a different standard.
3. What would poets like for undergrads to know about poetry?
Poems are pleasure, as Donald Hall wrote in “The Unsayable Said: an essay,” “Poems are pleasure first, bodily pleasure, a deliciousness of the senses. Mostly, poems end by saying something (even the unsayable) but they start as the body’s joy, like making love.” I think if students had this in mind — maybe a few teachers too — poetry would be better taught and more widely read.
4. What interests outside of literature work well with writing poetry?
Many and various interests outside literature work well with poetry, sports, romance, hiking, travel, even work. I found my work with The Nature Conservancy exposed me to so many of nature’s wonders and details that it proved a storehouse of inspiration for my poetry. But even now, when I work for a Big Four firm’s cleantech practice, I’m in one of my most productive periods. It’s all about paying attention.
5. If you were poet during a different era, when/where would you want to exist?
In a workshop long ago Gary Snyder accused me of having a 17th or 18th century sensibility as a poet. So, maybe that’s where I’d find a home. But I’m very happy where I am right here and now.
June 8, 2014
Isabel Rogers featured this fascinating interview between two of my favorite contemporary poets, john Glenday and Don Paterson. The two speak about the process of editing a manuscript into a book. In this case, John Glenday’s GRAIN, which is a wonder, and which Don published in his editor role at Picador.
Originally posted on isabelrogers.org:
There’s a lot of talk about editing prose: a writer can employ a professional editor for a novel before querying an agent, then it may be edited again by their agent before it lands on a publishing house editor’s desk for another go.
I was recently asked if there is a similar process for poetry. The road between laptop and published page is often shorter and straighter with a poem. You don’t need an agent, to start with. I’ve had poet friends suggest changes as a poem evolved. My work has been published in magazines, the majority with no tweaks at all from the final draft I sent.
Publishing an entire poetry collection is different. Because I haven’t yet reached that stage, I questioned two far more experienced people (ok, a bit older) to illuminate the process:
Don Paterson is head honcho of the Picador poetry list, as well as…
View original 1,458 more words
June 4, 2014
I’m going to continue to answer these questions (this is Part 3 for me, but out of sequence with the original; you can find my answers to other sets of questions, here, here, and here). Here’s a link to Jonathan’s original Part 4 post and the other poets’ answers: 5 Questions for Poets.
And here are my answers:
1. April 23 was Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary. If you went back in time and could ask him one question, what would that question be?
How the hell did you do it?
2. What bothers you most in your literature community?
That I don’t get to spend more time in it – whether it’s my virtual community “52” or the one where I live in Brooklyn. There are some wonderful poets – wonderful people! – in those communities and I really wish I had more time to hang out with them. In the larger poetry community: careerism, cronysism, and churlishness.
3. Which poets, alive or dead, are overrated/underrated?
I’m sure I’ll offend with this comment but I find Charles Bukowski completely overrated and over-read. And his influence is dreadfully felt. Among contemporaries, I also can’t see what all the fuss is about Dorothea Lasky, there doesn’t seem to be much there there. (I can see the email daggers massing in my in-box or, for that one.)
4. Are prizes like Pulitzer, NBA, NBCC are good for poetry. Is there discrimination against women poets, non-white poets, gay poets?
Prizes are for poets, not poetry. It seems like a popularity contest more than anything. I’m sure there is discrimination; you find that wherever there are human beings, cliques, factions, and dominant cultural hierarchies. Others have VIDA stats and ratios to prove it.
5. Is poetry useful?
Poetry is neither as useful as a tool nor as useless as a whim. Of course, I couldn’t live without it.
May 22, 2014
This week’s prompt at 52, the poetry group I joined this year to challenge me to write a poem each week during the year, is about insects.
As Jo Bell writes in her introduction to the prompt, “Insects buzz and flutter and sting the air around us.
“They have us outnumbered, and they will outlast us. Insects thrive in every evolutionary niche – from the bluebottle, living on excrement and unpopular in the kitchen, to the Wandering Violin Mantis (yes, really – watch this to see it and its curious friends).”
As readers of my poetry know, observations in nature are a major subject of mine, especially birds. Whether the moths and butterflies featured in my poem, “The Postlude, or How I Became a Poet,” or the mining bees that open, “Redbud & Pitbull,” or the cecropia moth that is or isn’t the subject of my poem, “Summer Love,” insects are also not strangers to my poetry lens.
“Opportunity,” which appears in my book FALLOW FIELD, was originally published in the journal Blueline. It was prompted by a scene I witnessed in The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondacks office in Keene, New York, in the 1990s.
The poem centers around an interaction between an insect (wasp) and an arachnid (spider). Spiders are among the most remarkable predators on the planet. The spider featured in the poem was a web-hunting spider, a form of hunting that requires delicacy, building skills, and not a small amount of patience. (For more on how such spiders catch their prey, check out this illustrated description.)
Here is my poem, “Opportunity”:
A wasp wrestles all day
with the false freedom
of a window pane.
Scaling the glass, then slipping
down, buzzing the cracked paint
of the old window frame.
As if thrumming wings faster
will pull it closer to the blossom,
just beyond its reach.
So determined in its struggle
to get in, to wrest pollen from
the exotic flower on the other side.
A spider sets its dinner table
in the corner of the pane—
–Scott Edward Anderson
May 15, 2014
I’m going to continue to answer these questions (this is Part 3 for me, but out of sequence with the original; you can find my answers to other sets of questions, here and here). Here’s a link to Jonathan’s original Part 2 post and the other poets’ answers: 5 Questions for Poets.
And here are my answers:
1. What qualities or subject matter do you feel is missing in contemporary poetry?
In my humble opinion, there are four things lacking in contemporary (American) poetry: 1.) a sense of the history of poetry before Bukowski and the Beats; 2.) a belief that there are ANY universal truths; 3.) faith in the power of love; and 4.) thinking, deep and critical. Individual poets fill this void, to be sure, but generally speaking, the poetry that gets attention these days seems lacking in many ways.
2. What is your writing and editing process like? How long does it generally take you to finish a poem?
If asked that a year or two ago I would have said, I work late at night, usually while walking, and work on poems a lot in my head before I get anything on paper. When I do get a poem on paper it is long-hand first, then I type it up. Then I revise, revise, revise, until the poem goes where it wants to go.
Lately, however, I’ve completely changed my way of working. In part, because of two experiences: last year I wrote a poem-a -day for National Poetry Month and posted it on my blog: raw, unedited, and “unfinished.” (I’ve since gone over them a bit, but the originals are still up for all to see.)
Then, this year, I joined a poetry group started by Jo Bell in the UK. The group is called “52” and meets virtually, in a closed group on Facebook. It’s called 52 because the challenge is to write a poem a week in response to a prompt posted each Thursday. It’s been remarkably fruitful. Will anything survive the experiment? I already have 2-3 poems I feel are worth continuing to work on, and a few others that served their purpose as occasional verse.
The result is I’m writing quickly, much more quickly than my previous, more methodical efforts, and usually on my iPhone. Is it a better way of working? Only time will tell.
3. What Poets Do You Read?
I read any and all poetry I can get my hands on. I try to buy a handful of poetry books each year – I need to contribute to the poetry economy and, if I’m going to ask others to buy my books, I should support other poets. Most recently, I’ve bought and read collections by Jo Bell, Kathleen Jamie, John Glenday, Ada Limon, Ethan Paquin, Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott, and Robert Wrigley. And I’ve been reading a lot of Tamil poetry, in translation of course, both modern and classical.
I’ve also read Alfred Corn’s last collection, Tables, and thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with his work this year. I went back to Seamus Heaney’s poetry when he died last summer; such remarkable language and imagery. Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, which my mother-in-law gave me for the holidays last year, is still on my bedside table and I dip into it as often as possible. Frederick Seidel captured my attention two years ago. It took me an entire year to get through his Selected Poems, 1959-2009, but it was worth it. He’s a trip.
And, of course, Elizabeth Bishop remains a constant for me. I turn most often to her work.
4. What is an up-and-coming poet?
An up-and-coming poet, I guess by that you mean an emerging poet? It’s funny, when I won the Nebraska Review and Aldrich Emerging Poets awards back in the late 90s, I thought, “Okay, so I’m emerging, now what?” It took 15 more years for my book, FALLOW FIELD, to come out. Am I still emerging? Have I emerged? Am I up-and-coming? I’m glad to be up at all, frankly; as they say, the alternative is much worse.
5. Who is the best living poet?
Up until he died at the end of last summer, I would have said Seamus Heaney.
If by “best” you mean “greatest living,” I’d have to say Derek Walcott, at least in terms of the scope and breadth of his work. There is a real sense of history in his poetry. It is rich and full of traditions and truths that are both global and place-based. His thinking is deep and critical, and his poetry is full of faith in love. Take his “Love After Love”:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
May 6, 2014
I’m going to continue to answer these questions (this is Part 2 for me, but out of sequence with the original; you can find my answers to Part 1, here). Here’s a link to Jonathan’s original post and the poets’ answers: 5 Questions for Poets, Part 3.
And here are my answers:
- How many of your poems do you throw away?
I believe, as Paul Valery wrote, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” I never throw them away. Sometimes I find lines that are useful elsewhere or I work on them and find a way to let them get where they need to go over a period of years.
Of course, there are many, many that will never find their way and will never see the light of day. I want only those poems that I have “finished” or “abandoned” to represent my work in the world. I’ll be lucky if even one or two survive beyond my lifetime.
- Do you still get poems rejected in poetry journals?
All the time. The ones that hurt the most are the seemingly annual rejections from The New Yorker, POETRY, Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, all places where I really want to publish someday, but others as well. I try to move on quickly and send them out again. If a poem gets rejected more than a few times, I’ll pull it out of circulation and take another look at it. I’ve been fortunate to be published in some very fine places, in print and online.
- How many poems do you have memorized?
Only one, I think. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Oh, and parts of others. I was never good at memorization. I have too much poetry working in my head and my filing system is only big enough for what I’m working on. Although, I did recite Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain,” when I was nine.
- Are creative writing programs good or bad for literature? Why?
Good and bad. At its best, a creative writing program will encourage writers to hone their craft and voice, to improve their work through revision and paying attention to what a poem needs. At worst, it is a breeding ground for poetry careerism and cronyism and mimicry of the worst sort.
Of course, when I asked Robert Hass whether I should get an MFA, he, in turn, asked me, “Do you want to teach?” I cheekily answered, “No, I don’t think you can teach writing poetry.” He told me to go out and get a real job, to experience life and have something to write about other than academic life, and that has made all the difference to me.
- Do you think the Best of American Poetry, or Best Poems of 20__ and the Pushcart annual are useful indices of the best work now being published?
Obviously not, they’ve never included any of mine – not even some of my better efforts, like “Naming” and “Fallow Field.” The latter was nominated for a Pushcart, but as the title poem of my collection published last fall, not in the year it was published in Blueline.
In all seriousness, these lists or time-sensitive anthologies represent the opinion, taste or whims of an individual or a series of individuals; the editor of the anthology, etc, and those who chose the poems for publication in the first place. Nothing more; nothing less.