You’re Doing It Wrong: notes to self on making poems

Here are some commandments I have heard thundering from on high at my writing desk. Don’t take them too seriously, please. Except for #10. I humbly submit that if we all took more pleasure and pride in the success of others than in our own, the poetry world would be a much happier place. (I’m not saying it is easy, mind you. I fear I may never master it.)

 

  1. First thought: worst thought.
  2. Make it you.
  3. Go where your gut keeps telling you not to go. You’ve made it to the abandoned asylum. It’s not enough to throw rocks through the windows. Step inside.
  4. The vast majority of people out there don’t give a shit about poetry. Your poems, however, should care a great deal about those people. Write for those who never intend to read you.
  5. The speaker is never you.
  6. The speaker is always you.
  7. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your pop culture references.
  8. There is more to life than Shakespeare, Greek myth, and other canon fodder– your reader will care more about the life imbued in your poems than the content of your footnotes.
  9. Why should I read your poems rather than, say, binge watch Parks and Recreation on Netflix?
  10. For your soul’s sake, endeavor to celebrate the success of others more than your own.

Lord’s Own Anointed Now Available

My first collection of poetry, Lord’s Own Anointed, is now available at www.dosmadres.com.

lords-own-anointed-cover

 

This collection encompasses over a decade of writing and revising (and rewriting, and revising, and more revising, and…)

Though many of the poems were drafted while I lived in Boston and Brazil, the collection centers on the rural Louisiana of my youth. It features drawings done in pencil and ink by Rob Fairburn, a longtime friend of mine who grew up in my hometown. Rob’s drawings represent a special collaboration that I am particularly proud of–it’s a rare gift for a writer to work with an artist, particularly one who shares an intimate knowledge of the world in the poems.

In time I’ll share news about the book as it becomes available, including upcoming readings in Louisiana, Boston, New York, and elsewhere. Stay tuned!

Harp of Shadows

This week I have been dipping a bit into the creepy stories of H.P. Lovecraft and delighting in the sensation of having the hair on the back of my neck stand up through the sheer electricity of words. I recently read a poem that had the same effect, in the current issue of The Hudson Review. I’m referring to Ernest Hilbert’s masterful “Insomnia Redux,” which aside from being beautifully wrought (the beam of a flashlight passing over a chair casts “a harp of shadows”) is genuinely eerie and unsettling. I’ll let you get to the chilling denouement on your own.

An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity

Tonight I returned to a passage that has stuck with me for years, from an introduction to the poet Chimako Tada in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (J.D. McClatchy, Ed.) The passage quotes Tada’s philosophy of poetry and expresses why poetry has such a spellbinding effect on some of us.

In poetry…all the elements work functionally, each word having a numerical value that changes constantly along with the changes of syntax. When dealing with even a short poem the reader must engage his intellectual energy to follow an equation of almost infinite complexity. How does such difficult work come to be experienced as pleasure? Because the concrete images and situations and structures presented by the poem satisfy not only the senses and the emotions but also the brain’s capacity for performing intellectually delicate work. And when to that satisfaction with decoding is added the poetic impact of glimpses of the utterly unexpected, of some other world, the resulting pleasure can approach that bliss which is among the most sublime experiences available to humans.

I do not know if the “numerical value” of words she evokes relates somehow to Japanese prosody, to some more mystical quantification, or something else entirely, but I can say that I have sensed this kind of intellectual work going on when I have become deeply engaged in reading poems. It happens after several read-throughs, when the words have begun to adhere to the mind through repetition, and new senses become apparent, or one notices felicities of sound that were missed in earlier readings. There will always be, in our enjoyment of good poems, an infinite progression of pleasures extending just beyond the reach of our ability to comprehend them.

Here is a link to a Chimako Tada poem that I particularly like. 

Exams

It’s only natural that contemporary poets would adopt the rhetoric of school exams into their work. Virtually everyone these days has a ready familiarity with the tropes of multiple choice, show your work, time’s up, etc. And there’s a dialectic of ambivalence surrounding tests and testing that’s made for poetic treatment. We are told that test scores don’t mean anything, and yet are warned that our future depends upon passing at the top. The exam is both a trifle and a trial, a measure of merit and an arbitrary milestone on a path that leads into the white glare of FUTURE the bored student has heard so damn much about.

Eve Adamson plays with this dual nature of the exam in her poem, “Being 101: Final Exam.” There’s a call-and-response feel to this most unusual of sonnets in which the student’s answers out-whimsy the perplexing questions. She answers the question, “How many stars?” with “Cylindrical obsess,” which I read as a non-sequiter with a defiantly dismissive tone, as if to say, “If I don’t like the question, I’m not going to give a direct answer.”

My favorite question/answer? “Where does the river go? Inside the heron’s footprint.”  You’ll have to read the poem (and listen to Adamson’s wonderful recitation) to find out just who this heron is.

Chandler on Writing

Raymond Chandler. Every now and again, I pick up one of his books and get lost in the fast-talking, whisky-swilling swagger of it all. Last night I was thumbing through Trouble Is My Business (probably not one of his most memorable works) and came upon the following passage in his introduction about writing for pulp magazines. In a world drenched in overly sweet platitudes about writing well, this little nugget works because of its hard-nosed matter-of-factness:

…if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

How Can I Answer the Child?

This past Sunday was Walt Whitman’s birthday. A friend sent me this review of In Walt We Trust by John Marsh, which promises to be a fascinating read that I will have to commit some time to very soon. Accompanying the review is a marvelous comic by Sabrina Jones which illustrates one of my favorite passages from “Song of Myself.” It is often said that Whitman is all ego. I’ve always felt that to be a gross mischaracterization. It would be more accurate to say that Whitman’s ego is All. After all, as he says, “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”