Flawed Landscape

In each of the books listed at the bottom of this post, a poet serves as our witness to the world in ways that conventional news does not, cannot. The list is far from inclusive, but each book is especially meaningful to me. Most timely this summer is Sharif S. Elmusa’s Flawed Landscape: Poems 1987-2008. Now an American citizen, he was born in Palestine and brings us news that only he can. We need to know that he could “go around,/like an ancient Chinese poet,/ watching moons and donkeys.” And that he has trouble going around freely because “Gaza is a cage.” And that he wants “to cross borders/unseen/like salmon/like contaminated wind” (from “Moons and Donkeys”). Here is a real person in a real life seeing his birth country torn apart.

We won’t get such a complex, first person point of view as this from the news agencies, and yet, we need to hear his experience in his words. And to thank poets who brings us news, not only of battles and beheadings, but of daily life lived in a war zone, whether it’s Iraq or Appalachia. Auden said that “poetry makes nothing happen.” But I stand with William Carlos Williams who said in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

When Sharif read his poems in a bookstore in Maine, he seeded into the world a truth we sorely need. Poetry is an enzyme in the body politic, a vital stimulant and we could die miserably for lack of it.

Elmusa reads at Gulf of Maine Books, August 2014Elmusa reads at Gulf of Maine Books, August 2014

Brian Turner, Here, Bullet

Jack Hirschman, Front Lines

Martin Espada, ed., Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press

Betsy Sholl, Otherwise Unseeable

David Mason, Ludlow

 

Hope & Serendipity

Last week I wrote about the commercial context in which we hear awful news about Palestine, ebola, and now again about ISIS, the news worse each day. Hope, however, keeps strange company.

On Monday I headed for the local library. Turns out it’s closed on Mondays. Hungry for books, I drove into Brunswick, Maine, to Gulf of Maine Books, where I overheard the owner, Gary Lawless, say that there would be a poetry reading in the store that afternoon. I bought a grand anthology, Poetry Like Bread, edited by Martin Espada, perfect for my interest in poetry of witness and I went back in time for the reading.

The featured poet was Sharif Elmusa, born and raised in Palestine, now a part-year resident of Maine. He read mostly gentle poems about his childhood in a place now ruptured by violence. (His book, Flawed Landscape, sold out and I have to wait until next week to review it.) What an amazing line of causality, bright as neon–closed library, bookstore, Palestinian poet–suggesting order in a world of chaos, hope despite the death and destruction in the Middle East. If I see a movie with a happy ending or read a novel in which the hero survives atrocities and hatred,  or I hear poems like Elmusa’s and hope for peace, kindness, equality, and justice, not revenge. I don’t know what to do because I don’t have an active role in world affairs.

For many years my role was to help people survive the effects of mental illness. Eventually, I took Lao Tzu’s advice: “Do your work; then step back.” I worked hard until fatigue and stress signaled time to step back. Still I fret and dither over my job in a whole word gone mad, a madness born not of neurological defect but of greed and deadly dogma. Maybe my job now is to pour hope into the world, to be generous and open minded, to witness suffering and to speak out. Multiplied by millions such attentive hope might save us.

Context Matters

At home I don’t watch much TV. For now I am a houseguest so the television is on and I see things differently. Admittedly I watch far more HGTV than is healthy, one of my guilty vacation pleasures. But I also watch news, and this week Ebola and Gaza are the big stories. The coverage is extensive and a very fine grind. That’s understandable. What upsets me almost as much as the hair splitting and violence is the context in which the news nestled: the sales pitches that urge me to hurry and buy a fast car before the model-year ends. Or buy a memory foam mattress and new flooring. Would that people in Gaza had a floor to stand on, a bed to sleep in, and a fast car to escape from the war. Would that they had clean water and bandages for the wounded children.

What ever medium delivers the news, the context shades the message. Can we hold onto the horror if our culture belies the truth by distracting  us with inane ads that highlight our mundane and commercial preoccupations? I don’t think so.

If I-Search, I’ll Find Something

As many of you know, I’m about to fly off for a month on the east coast visiting family, friends and former classmates. Traveling, though, does something to my creativity, something unpleasant. I still write, can’t do without that, but I don’t often come up with much worth continuing. So–I heard about I-Search and assigned myself to do one while I’m on a break from creative writing. It will be a lot of “left-brain” work and I think I can maintain that. It might even feel good after a long seclusion in the creative cabinet where I live.

Google I-Search Report and you’ll find a handful of instructions, most from an academic point of view. The basics, however, are to choose a topic that interests you, formulate questions, write down what you already know, research the topic, keeping a search narrative going as you do, and evaluate your findings and your ideas about it. All of this is very first-person, much less formal than what we all learned about research papers.

My topic came to me, as do many of my ideas, serendipitously. I went for my weekly library fix and found a book edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2001. Reading through it I found that I wanted to know more. So I’ve ordered Czeslaw Milosz’s book, The Witness of Poetry. I set up a notebook to keep all this information in, a small one that will fit easily into my travel bag. And I went to Trident Booksellers in Boulder and bought two books of Milosz’s poetry. I’ll decide after I read his work where to look next. Given the scope of this topic, I plan to concentrate on contemporary poems. The big question for me is the relationship between political poetry and poetry of witness.  Another one is the variety of events that trigger such poems. I’ll let you know around the end of August what I’ve discovered.

Fast Pen, Sweet Story

A blank page and a fast pen, early morning, no goal but to let the ink flow. I think about the nudge I felt last evening when I bit into a piece of dark chocolate, my unique teeth marks clearly sculpted. And that observation connected to my long-standing love of mystery stories. What if I disappeared and left behind this forensic bite mark? Ah, WHAT IF? A writerly question, maybe the only one that matters. What if the police found that piece of half-eaten chocolate?

An APB goes out: Missing, a white woman, blue eyes, medium build, sandy hair, dark chocolate on her lips. Looks like she left in a hurry, didn’t finish her candy. It’s good stuff–Cadbury, an old company, started in Birmingham UK in 1831 on Crooked Lane. Note the dark overtone and the word crooked. Suspicious, no? Call Inspector Clouseau. If you find her in Mesa Verde or on the Dingle Peninsula, tell her that the folks at home miss her. They found more chocolate in the kitchen. It too was good and they thought about her as they bit into it.

Well, that was fun. Now what to do with it? Nothing! I am allowed not to set a goal for every word. That attitude is commercial and I’m not. A visual artist doodles for fun, a writer writes for fun. Go, have some fun.

Water People, Water Writing

Last weekend I wrote about fish hooks. This week I want to write about water. While I was in high school, I lived a short block from a cold, clear lake in Maine. I now live across the street from a small, shallow lake in Colorado. My son and his wife live across the road from the Saco River where it falls over the Bar Mills Damn and crashes onto the rocks below. This watery lullaby makes sleeping at their house peaceful. My sister lives a block from the Sabattus River in Lisbon, Maine.

We are water people. As a writer, I think about metaphor a lot and water in its many forms is a deep well of metaphor. (See that?) It seems to me that the many qualities we ascribe to water might also describe writing: cloudy or clear, fast moving or sluggish, still, salty or sweet, polluted, poisonous, contaminated by fear? Powerful as an ocean wave? Nasty as sewage? At times I want a riverlet of words, just deep enough to dabble my toes in. At other times I want a shower of words–warm and clean and easily controlled. An unstoppable flood of words is called logorrhea, symptomatic of a mental disorder. So I’d better stop. Drink up!

A Kinder Kind of Writing

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Yesterday at Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop I heard a lively debate on the writing technique called the hook, the concept that the story/poem/essay/memoir has to pull the reader into the text by “setting the hook” in the reader’s attention the way a fisherman sets the hook in a nibbling fish, a quick and forceful move. Isn’t this both manipulation and formula? Sounds painful and I wonder if there’s another way to lure the reader into the text. The jab/stab of the fishhook seems to me both unpleasant and emblematic of commercial fiction, like the blare of trumpets announcing the entrance of elephants under the big top. The expected spectacle. Editors and agents look for it. 

Let’s reframe this idea of the routine grab, that formulaic first sentence. How about an invitation for the reader to come in, like opening a door or gate, to step inside a created world, to join the party, walk through the fun house? Be welcomed and enticed, curious about the characters she meets. Willing to taste whatever info is on the table. Could not the aroma of good cooking tease a reader into the writer’s kitchen? Think of Tom Robbins’ wild and wonderful stories as a party. He holds the door open, “Come on in!” Smiles, let the fun begin. No barbed hook, no resistance, no mono-filament binding us to his words. We are happy to join his merry pranks.

The writer’s effort won’t change much. We still need the freshest words and the best tone, the energy of fluid text, but our attitude toward the reader could change. We could be helpful rather than adversarial.