What is a poem?

I believe that poetry is music. I believe that poetry is medicine.

A poem is a naked man, a pair of red shoes, a broken spine, a duck. It’s a raised eyebrow and a shout. A whisper against fear. A manicure. A sharpening.

It’s something language does when it’s left alone to brood. At its best, it’s a rifle and a revolution, blood pooling below a punched eye. An assassin’s blade. A newscaster’s voice breaking at the roll call of the dead. The truth we can’t stand. At its worst, it’s a shibboleth of class. A vase of white flowers in a white room. An airless room. An airlock.

You have a pair of lips. Two hands. Fury, despair, an appreciation for beauty. Build a poem. You have a left ventricle and a right to freedom of beseech. Like a person, a poem is an oddity. A machine that operates like nothing else. Poetry is breaking its own engine. Poetry is seeing which gears roll out.

 

“Tomas, get to work”

Susan Scheid, within a post on Tranströmer’s hadynpockets:

In 1990, Tranströmer suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body and affected his speech. In 2007, The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry awarded Tranströmer its second Lifetime Recognition Award. Robert Hass, in his tribute to Tranströmer at the event, related that “when he had the stroke, his wife Monika . . . who is a nurse, drove into Stockholm and bought, because Tomas loved playing the piano, the entire Western literature for piano for the left hand, I’m told, and brought it back and said, ‘Tomas, get to work.’”

(via http://paper.li/WeLoveToRead/1309499372)

the tree that bears the fruit / is not the one that was planted

Today’s conundrum subject line comes from W. S. Merwin’s “Place,” which I saw this morning both in an e-mail from Poetry Daily and in the April issue of Oprah’s magazine. (Yeah, still making my way through it.)

Also in O: an interview with Maya Angelou.

Q: How do you write?

MA: I keep a hotel room in my town, although I have a large house. And I go there at about 5:30 in the morning, and I start working. And I don’t allow anybody to come in that room. I work on yellow pads and with ballpoint pens. I keep a Bible, a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a bottle of sherry. I stay there until midday.

###

I keep meaning to mention that Mary and I have a collaboration up at Blue Print Review. This delights me.

Also, I will be reading with Jane Ormerod and Ice Gayle Johnson at Nashville’s Global Education Center on Friday, May 13, at 7:30 pm. Admission is $8. Jane and Ice Gayle are co-editors of an Uphook Press anthology that will include one of my poems.

###

Some of the poems on the tabs I’ve had open:

Life is a long song

The glory of words

New fruit

a blade into his heart

not broken, but rearranged

I’m liking what I’ve read so far of Lauren Kizi-Ann Alleyne’s poetry:

  • Reb reprinted On the day of your favorite color: at the BAP blog
  • A selection at the Drunken Boat (including “It is not impossible to survive,” from which today’s subject line is taken)
  • Five poems in the No Tell Motel archives. Mmm. I’ve printed “Bend, Bend, Break” to put in my re-read binder.

  • As for me, there’s The Silence of Too Much To Say at unFold, and a packet almost ready to mail out. According to my submissions log, it’s the first snail mail batch I’ve prepared this year. Oy and oof. Maybe I’ll declare October to be la grande PegPoSubMo. (Maybe I should get back to the Must Dos currently in the way of my Wanna Writes. Yeah.)

    Robin Morgan’s “Monster”

    I have been struggling to find all of Robin Morgan’s poem “Monster” since I read an excerpt of it on Feminist SF – The Blog.

    It’s an angry poem and I adore it. I would love to quote you the entirety of the piece, all 6 pages of its glory, but I would also like to respect Morgan‘s creative ownership of the piece.

    I admire its bravery, I admire the descent to violence but not the submission to violence. I need it because it reminds me that there are ways of writing that align with my ways of being and that most of the written word and the spoken word are not written and spoken in those ways. It reminds me that there is nothing wrong or despicable about who I am.

    Here is an excerpt:

    And you, men. Lovers, brothers, fathers, sons.
    I have loved you and love you still, if for no other reason
    than that you came wailing from the monster
    while the monster hunched in pain to give you the power
    to break her spell.
    Well, we must break it ourselves, at last.
    And I will speak less and less and less to you
    and more and more in crazy gibberish you cannot understand:
    witches’ incantations, poetry, old women’s mutterings,
    schizophrenic code, accents, keening, firebombs,
    poison, knives, bullets, and whatever else will invent
    this freedom.

    This is adult, end-of-the-day Poetry Friday.

    “And since we’ll devote all our years / To making things that disappear”

    So, my home phone/internet’s been out of commission since Friday, and there was an airline clusterfuck on Sunday that ended up costing me two cab fares, 50% of my too-late-to-cancel guest-house reservation for yesterday night, and several hours of my life that I don’t get back. Grr, grr, grr.
    That said, I was glad to end up with more time to herd a few more things into order… including completing the “Wishes At Time of Death” form my pastor keeps on file, which includes specifying any readings desired. For what it’s worth, I want Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment” and Jane Hirshfield’s “The Heart’s Counting Knows Only One” either in the program or read aloud. I’m betting there will be an Emily Dickinson in there as well – though how I will collect if the reader in question chooses as expected, I haven’t quite worked out. (Maybe a dram of Edradour poured over my ashes? But that would be a waste of good whisky…)
    I also treated myself to a glass of Canton ginger liqueur , a long hot soak in the tub, and some visiting with my poetry books. Of particular note:

  • “Dock Ellis Pitches a No Hitter While on LSD” – in Jilly Dybka’s Trouble and Honey. A fun sonnet.
  • Lights, Camera, Poetry! American Movie Poems, the First Hundred Years, edited by Jason Shinder (Harcourt 1996). A book I’ve browsed through in the bath before, judging from the water damage and dog-ears. What disconcerted me this time was seeing how many people have passed away since the anthology was compiled: Shinder included birth- and death-dates in the table of contents, with the youngest poet (Tom Andrews) born in 1961, and quite a few of the living-at-the-time poets are no longer (including Andrews, as well as Shinder himself). I’m used to encountering this in much older collections (e.g., Pockets and Penguins from before 1960), where it’s unsettling in a more expected way (akin to seeing photographs of older relatives and colleagues when they were teenagers). Seeing it in a book I received as uncorrected page proofs has me in the mood to revisit various laments for makaris and makers (cf. Scanlan (source of today’s subject line); Dunbar; W.S. Merwin (anthologized in The River Sound and Lament for the Makers: A Memorial Anthology; I own the former and am now wishing I’d checked it before I left, because I can almost remember his couplet about Nemerov (“sadder than…”) but not quite). And for any Washington DC folks reading this, there’s a gathering on November 11…)
    Anyhow, I un-dogeared some older favorites, and marked some newly noteworthy to me. Current standouts include:
    • Paul Goodman’s “Documentary Film of Churchill” (“What is it with this race that does not learn? / I am weary for meaning and they tire / my soul with great deeds. Yet I cannot turn / my eyes from the stupid story in despair: / since I have undertaken to be born.”)
    • Michael Warr’s “Die Again Black Hero: Version II (Chicago, March 1990)” (“Predictable. / So same-old-shit predictable. / The Marine whose skin / Matches the surface color / Of an Uzi has to die first. /Even on another planet / This dogma cannot be escaped…”)
    • Thylia Moss’s “Hattie and the Power of Biscuits” (“What a wonder she didn’t use strychinine dough.”)
    From The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel: Second Floor, Michael Meyerhofer’s “Shame as Proof of True Love”:

    …real love, I’ve decided, is when
    you see your lover at their most
    awkward, wretched moments
    and still want to fuck them later.

    There are a couple upcoming deadlines I’ve been working toward, and I’m hopeful about meeting them, albeit not at the expense of time with friends and improving my Hebrew and other being-here-in-the-present priorities. That said, there’s a part of my brain that’s ruthless about testing words with and against each other until they fit just so, and when it’s in gear, there’s no getting any sleep until it’s gotten its due. (In other words, this is why I spent a good chunk of early Monday morning working on two new cinquains instead of sinking back into sleep. At this point, it shouldn’t surprise that me that putting together forty-four syllables = as complicated as shaping water. (Think of fountains. Think of ice. Think of how some faucets gurgle and some whine like tired teakettles. Some poems are downpours that clog up gutters and destroy posters; others strike as lightly as a flutter of drops on a lemon tree. And I seem to be writing a poem in spite of myself, so I’d best wrap this up and pour the rest of my words into something eventually submittable (it’s 1:15 am here, and where I’m staying, the only creatures still awake besides me are a cat in heat and the occasional palmetto bug scuttling across the stones).

  • Lured into a Line

    I have been bitten by Marissa’s meme (even if I have just now had time to copy):

    Give me the title of a poem I’ve never written, and feedback telling me what you liked best about it, and I will tell you any of: the first line, the last line, the thing that made me want to write it, the biggest problem I had while writing it, why it almost never got offered to magazines, the scene that hit the cutting room floor but that I wish I’d been able to salvage, or something else that I want readers to know.

    Also, like Marissa, I ask that you don’t comment with stuff you wouldn’t want me to run with. Because I will run.

    Ready? Set?

    PAD 18 and 19

    My weekend went off its rails in a spectacular but mostly enjoyable way, and I blame movies: Friday night’s excursion to see Sita Sings the Blues was followed by a nice dinner, during which one of my companions confessed she had never tasted a sazerac before, which then resulted in cocktails, port, and whisky back at our house (and her eventually staying the night).

    Then, on Saturday, I saw My Neighbor Totoro, and spent the rest of the day resisting the urge write futurefic about its characters and to splurge on plushie slippers.

    I resorted to concentrating on a difficult section in one of my existing fics-in-progress to help get my brain back into gear, but then I got engrossed in what the characters weren’t managing to say to each other, and what was supposed to have been a 500-word write-it-out-and-fix-it-later pre-supper indulgence turned into most of my weekend wrangling with multiple variations of three lines of dialogue (because the second line turned out to be a darling that needed killin’, only I didn’t get around to admitting that until after supper tonight). For a fic in a rare fandom that maybe five people will read. I have the stupidest compulsions this side of the Cumberland.

    All that said, the 541 words I came up with delight me: a major reason I write fanfic is because it pushes me to engage more deeply with canon, and I end up surprising myself with dialogue and plot twists that weren’t anywhere in my consciousness when I started the story in question. That’s true of poetry as well: my piece for yesterday’s Poetic Asides prompt, “interactions,” was originally going to be something about William Shakespeare and Michael Jordan — I’d parked in space #23 in the Belcourt lot when I went to see Totoro, so that got me thinking about soaring and mastery and how neither Renaissance dramas nor NBA games are solo efforts (Shakespeare’s birthday/deathday is April 23, and Jordan’s jersey number in Chicago was #23).

    But is that what I ended up with? No….

    Practicing Jump Shots With William Shakespeare

    Considering that I’m near-sighted, with
    next-to-zero hand-eye coordination,
    we’re definitely not in heaven, but
    considering how many commandments I’ve trashed
    and how he probably didn’t love his wife enough,
    we’re in awfully good shape for the damned, and it helps
    that we don’t actually get to talk, what with chasing
    the eight out of ten balls we don’t quite manage
    to catch from the shadows on the sidelines, and
    then more chasing after the nine out of ten
    that miss the hoop. The bounce and clunk of the balls
    supply a rhythm — DAH-dah, DAH-dah-dah,
    dah, dah-DAH, dah-DAH-dah-dah-DAH —
    I ought to turn into a song, and on
    the other side of the paint, I can tell
    Mr. Shakespeare’s shooting to miss
    different parts of the backboard, so he can see
    for himself which parts actually shake
    and which remain mute and unmoved.
    If this were a different playground, I’d ride
    his ass about his rot about “ever-fixed marks”
    but no one’s keeping score, and when he lobs
    a beautiful iamb my way — dah-DAH —
    I fling it straight through the hoop, all net.

    # # #

    As for Sunday’s prompt, “anger,” I was originally stumped — not for lack of things to say on the topic, but “things to say” isn’t the same as “things I’m ready to say,” never mind “things sayable in lyric form.” There’s a page in my planner across which I scrawled a couple dozen ideas during lunchtime. When I finally sat down to do more with the tulips, my working title was “Remains” — but halfway through my original second stanza, I changed the title to “Aftermath,” and then I went back to the top of the poem and rewrote every line I’d typed in so far. (Today’s word for the writing process is definitely Sisyphean.)

    Aftermath

    This morning, the tulips were fresh
    in a florist’s vase: four were candy pink,
    four were butter yellow,
    four were milk white,
    and one was licorice purple-black.

    Now they are confetti on the driveway.
    The glass has been swept up, but I cannot
    repair how the water blurred the “3”
    on your daughter’s hopscotch trail.

    I have been making a point
    of preparing meals
    that will keep for several days.

    Even so, after you both
    left the table before dessert,
    I had to count to ten
    while I rinsed the dishes.

    – pld

    [N.b. Not an autobiographical poem, but with friends whose marriages are breaking up, the topic has not been far from my mind.]

    the blood already running there

    Today’s PAD challenge: take a favorite poem, change its title, and then write a poem in response to the new title.

    [Source poem: A Poem for Painters by John Wieners]

    A Drink for Dabblers

    To start, there is no defense.

    My kitchen contains no wild
    fruit, no
    flapping of guardian
    wings, no cherished chants,

    yet, when petitioned
    to brew up a blessing,
    I leave the drawbridge down,

    so eager my fire
    to be more than a brown shadow
    lining a wall within the ruins
    of other people’s memories.

    I serve you this tea,
    knowing the thirst, leaving

    what will last
    up to your hands and their restless
    roaming. My pitcher pours
    its psalms upon palms
    no longer outstretched
    by the time the ale foams
    its promises along
    the cracks of your gloves.

    – pld

    [Some poems are like “Greensleeves” — they become the song that slides without a second thought out of one’s fingertips during sound checks, at unattended pianos, and within collabs and improvs. I’ve riffed on “A Poem for Painters” before, and if you peeked at yesterday’s handwritten drafts, you’ll have noticed that I’d started out by picking yet another fight with Shakespeare Sonnet 116…]

    one from the weekend

    I did see Friday’s PAD prompt before catching my flight to New Orleans: it was “Friday.” I flirted with a number of possibilities over the following twenty-odd hours, but I eventually sketched out the start of this early Saturday morning (I habitually fade away to bed before the rest of the Saz-Erac household. While it doesn’t always translate into my rising before the others the next day, I woke up eager to write about a statue I’d seen the previous afternoon…):

    Shabbat

    Five days of the week, and sometimes six,
    Stanley is at his desk before sunrise.
    Four days of the week, and sometimes five,
    he’s still crunching numbers
    after the sun disappears

    but Friday night, no matter who tries
    to chain him to their columns of demands,
    Stanley leaves the office before sundown

    and as the candles glow
    and the wine wakens his tongue,
    shining psalms unfurl from Stanley’s shoulderblades,
    floating him into his day of rest.

    -pld