Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

All About Poets #4

Michael Macklin was a good friend and a fine poet. We both had MFAs from Vermont College and for several years we were both on the editorial board (that sounds far more formal than it was) of the long-lived poetry magazine, The Cafe Review, out of Portland, Maine. We both had chapbooks published by Moon Pie Press.

Thanks to Michael I learned the pleasure of drinking Tullamore Dew, part of our shared Irish-American heritage, straight up, no ice. When I decided to feature Michael on this blog, I thought that I should again read his poems. Having recently culled my collection of poetry books, I confidently went to the M shelf and … what? No copy of Driftland? That made no sense. I would never have discarded that beloved book.

Well, if idiocy was the inevitable diagnosis, I’d work around that. I went online, found Moon Pie Press, ordered a copy, hit PayPal and send. Whew! Waiting for the book would delay the blog post, but I had no choice. However, I’m not the sort to lose a treasured book, so I went again to the shelf and what? There, nestled beside Montale was Macklin, where he belonged.

I’m not often mystically minded, but I swear that I heard Michael’s laugh. Hide the book until I’d bought another, a wee prank, eh? Of course, Michael was a true son of the Emerald Isle despite his birth in Michigan. When I left Maine to relocate to Colorado, he gave me a teddy bear, two bird feathers—one from a flicker and one from a crow—and said that he had commissioned three crows to attend me in my travels. To this day, a decade after we parted, I often see a trio of crows nearby.

Fate generously allowed me to have Michael in my life for years, but fate is also a mean trickster. Michael died in his sleep when he was volunteering at a residency at our alma mater, VCFA. How awful and how appropriate that he would die in that community of poets. People loved him and he loved people. He taught poetry at the private school where he was also the main carpenter. He left behind his wife, his son, his beloved dog—Murph—and his love for the coast of Maine. Yet, in truth, he’s never far away.

 

 

 

You can find Michael’s book on the website for Moon Pie Press and a copy of The Café Review dedicated to him here: www.thecafereview.com.

Persistence & Politics

Regular readers here will recall that from time to time I urge them to READ FOR EQUALITY. In our fractured, limping-along democracy this continues to be a responsibility, although some days I wonder why I bother.

Then I read something like Tracy K. Smith’s new book, Wade in the Water, and I’m reawakened to the power of creative writing. Smith uses as some of her poems verbattem letters written by black soldiers in the War Between the States. (It was anything but civil.) That we have a black female Poet Laureate of the US matters too.

Now I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston’s  Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,”  written in 1927 about Cudjo, an African who entered the US as a slave in 1859. The book was just published in 2018. Why it took so long to have this on my library shelves, I cannot fathom, but thanks to an astute librarian and Alice Walker, it’s finally available.

I remind myself, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by “the little woman who started this big war” in President Lincoln’s words, more or less.

And there’s Nellie Bly, who, in Ten Days in A Mad-House, wrote about the  rotten mental health care in this land of the free and helped bring about reforms in that milieu.  And lest we forget, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought about change in the meat-packing industry and led to our Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Both of these two matter to us all, an issue of equality between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.

When you think that what we do as writers doesn’t matter, read these books and others like them and again give your gifts to a sore and tired world. Even if you provide respite from worry, it’s important. Just do it, persist–please.

All About Poets #3

Diane Wakoski has long been one of my favorite poets. Initially, her book titles drew me in: The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, Waiting for the King of Spain, Emerald City of Las Vegas. Who could resist? Certainly not a woman trying to find her own assertive voice in life as in poetry. Her only title that ever disappointed was Diamond Dog, and that one is not on the Wikipedia list. It was, however, on the availability list of the buyer for a local poetry book club, and I had suggested we read something by Wakoski. That book did not go over well, too difficult, too esoteric, too everything that the group rebelled against. Well, so much for their poetic taste. Then again, one book is not sufficient in appreciating a huge oeuvre like hers.

If only the buyer had selected Wakoski’s compilation volume, The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems [Black Sparrow Press, 2000]. My copy is nicely worn and better yet, signed. One primo reason that I attended the AWP Convention in Denver (2010) was to hear Wakoski read. And I did. What’s more, I had a brief conversation with her on the convention floor, where she signed the book and asked for a signed copy of one of my books. That year The Great Hunger was on display at the convention and I snagged one for her. We emailed a few times after that meeting and when I issued a second edition of Red Goddess Poems, Diane graciously wrote a blurb for the back cover.

In her prose, Towards a New Poetry [University of Michigan, 1980], Wakoski writes that she wanted to be a poet, not a teacher or editor, a poet. When I get snagged by the foolish idea that I should do something besides play with words, I think about her dedication to this art and go back to what I too love for no practical reason. From her first book in 1962, Coins and Coffins, Wakoski has been a star in my poetic firmament. Long may she shine.

All About Poets #2

In the 1980s I taught composition and intro to literature at LSU-Shreveport (Louisiana), and of course, teaching meant the occasional academic conference, often an offshoot of Modern Language Association. The one in question here might have been at Texas Christian University, but the true location is mired deep in my faulty memory.
      What stands out is the poet who was a special guest, Lucille Clifton. Ignoramus that I was, I went to her reading because it was at least poetry after a full craw of collegiate oatmeal. The thing is, and I’m now appropriately embarrassed, I had never heard of Clifton. To my credit, I still remember her reading “homage to my hips.” Well now, here was a woman with no apology about her body. One could learn something about feminism from her, and I was then devouring books by Gloria Steinam, Germaine Greer, and Adrienne Rich. And that one poem did more to awaken me than I can say.
     A call to reality in a world of cosmetics and body shapers is still one of the benefits of poetry, and I’m still cooking it up and swallowing it whole. So thank you, Lucille Clifton, for that pinprick in my angst about body image.
     You know, though, there’s a bit of grit on my tongue here: after the reading Clifton was seated in the front row of the meeting room and in passing I told her that I had liked her poems. (Liked? A watery compliment for a reading that has stayed with me for decades.) And then, I asked if she had a book out. The only excuse I can think of for my ignorance is that the introducer made hash of her remarks and why the hell were there no books in view? There, I blame my faux pas on the host institution, wherever it was.
     Just so you know, Clifton has in her resume the National Book Award, Juniper Prize and a couple of nominations for the Pulitzer. Her first book, Good Times, was one of the ten best books of 1969 according to the New York Times. In 1969 I was chasing a toddler and writing exactly zip, zero, nada.

All About Poets #1

After many years as part of a tangible community of writers, looking back I know how fortunate I’ve been to meet many fine poets (and a few not so fine). This is the first of a series of remembrances of poets I’ve known.

Robert Creeley has a prominent place in my pantheon of poets. Is his soul aramble? There’s probably a reason why he has risen first to the top of the list. If you’re there, you are welcome, Bob.

I knew of him when I enrolled in a poetry class at St. Mary’s College near Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. When the class first met the instructor, an anonymous man whom I remember not at all, except for his question: “Is this a poem?” And he read Creeley’s “I Know a Man.”  (You can see the poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/search?query=I+Know+a+Man.)And I replied with ignorant certainty, “Sure.” But then I had to defend my belief.

To this moment it’s hard to break it down, but it looks like a poem and acts like a poem, so it’s not a duck. It’s full of ironic speech–calling the man John, who is not John, the suggestion that a car might help them live through the coming dark, and the revelation that the speaker is at that moment driving, but not well.

I can read it as metaphor–the speaker knows and wants to escape the dark, which confuses him, makes him unaware of where he is and what he’s doing. But, aha, more delightful, it puts me right into the experience of The Driver and Not John. Takes me out of my floral easy chair and into the back seat of that careening car.

Bob was a good one. In Maine we claimed his as one of our own. The Preface to his Selected Poems (University of California Press, 1991) is signed “Robert Creeley, Waldoboro, Maine, August 14, 1989.” Three times I heard him read locally, once in a hollow room where he seemed far away, though I was in the front row. That time he read poems about his family. (He claims in that preface that Robert Graves considered him a “domestic poet.”) Maybe he read “I Love You.” It’s about his Aunt Beatrice. Or “Four Years Later,” about his mother’s death. I can’t say for sure. And there was a reading at the State Theater on the corner of High and Congress Streets in Portland. I was there with Patrick Murphy, the “napkin poet” of Portland and a friend of Bob’s. Creeley looked up to  our back row seats and said, “Pat, can you hear me up there?” I was proud to be at least in the penumbra of Bob’s vision.

Another time he read at an art gallery on Munjoy Hill, poems about Helsinki and his then current wife. It was a crowded venue with wine after. Bob and I sat under a table and talked about a line of his, which I was, he said, misinterpreting. He smiled as he said that. I remember the smile, though not the line. 

My Creeley connection had actually started in the fall of 1984 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My friend and co-author Beverly Rainbolt and I went to a poetry conference at the university, star struck. We breathed the same air as Creeley, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Louis Simpson and Charles Bernstein. Our real goal, in addition to breathing along with the talent, was to put a copy of our joint chapbook, Visible Progress, into Creeley’s hands. We tracked our prey to the sidewalk between readings and scored a direct hit. He was polite and accepted the “gift” that we forced on him. And after that conference Beverly and I went back to our weird work at the arts center we had created in an old warehouse in Shreveport.

Within a couple of weeks came a brief letter from Creeley praising our work, and signing off with his customary “Onward!” I have that letter and the envelope framed and hanging on my wall. Some time afterward I left Shreveport to return to Maine and Beverly moved to New Orleans, and that was that.

(See you soon with a piece about Lucille Clifton.)

Writing w/Van Gogh

If you are not familiar with ekphrastic writing, look it up. Try it. Find a piece of visual art that inspires you and write a poem in response to it. My friend Jane Costain just published her chapbook, Small Windows, all of which is ekphrastic. Lighthouse Writers Workshop sponsors a monthly drop-in writing session led by Michael Henry at Denver Art Museum. And Lighthouse collaborates with American Museum of Western Art in another monthly ekphrastic writing event. In fact, I have a poem forthcoming in AMWA’s annual publication, Writing the West, Vol III.

Of course, you may know the famous poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams, a fine example of the genre. Last week one of my favorite libraries, Anythink Wright Farms, held an unusual event that relates. The library brought in two visual artists from Violet Hive Art Therapy. And with guidance from Amy and Bridget, we were encouraged to create a piece of visual art inspired by Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or “Sunflowers.”

Far from the comfort of words I hesitated but also remembered that many years ago I had enjoyed a drawing class. And whoa! The technique of looking at only the sunflowers and trusting my hand with the pencil, something appeared on my blank page. And here it is, a lion (sort of) from a sunflower, a poem in oil crayon.


I’m not going to give up writing, but drawing was not as scary as I thought it would be. My insistence on logic made me give it a stem so instead of a sunflower, my flower is a Dandy Lion. And those eyes, the hidden message, says Amy, is that I’m looking for something. If I find out what that is, I’ll let you know.

I, You, He/she/it/they?

Recently I attended a workshop on point of view and came away confused and overwhelmed. The teacher presented us with six versions of POV with short examples. Too much for me to absorb in one hour. And it all felt prescriptive, as if I ought to select a POV before the story or memoir begins. (Poetry never entered the room, ever the unwelcome guest in a garden party.)

So what do I think about POV? I think it grows out of the relationship between the writer and the reader. It has to do with distance. Mostly, it has to do with voice. Whose voice does the writer transcribe as the piece develops? And it makes its presence known in the language, especially the pronouns, those pesky little words that mean so much. First person–I, we–suggests but does not guarantee a closeness between the narrator and the reader. And it can be unreliable, or as a plural it can hint at connection or community. If a writer dares speak for others, well, go for it. In some cases, it can be useful. In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the whole town seems to be telling the story, and in that process revealing a common displeasure and disinterest in the history of the gentile but rebellious Emily. You might want to read this short story.

Really, there is no shortcut to finding the perfect voice to tell a story. Even in memoir we edit our language and revelations. I say, write the story as it comes, set it aside and go back when your head clears, hoping to find that the narrator keeps us reading and is somewhat consistent in telling the tale. Better still, notice how books you love (or hate) work. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who scored a Pulitzer for the novel. My inner jury is still sequestered. Greer makes some quirky turns in POV, startles me out of the flow of the story. Halfway through, I’m in no position to judge him. Besides, he has a major award, and I don’t. Does that tell you something?