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.)
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.
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?
No one I know proceeds through a writing project without the occasional stutter step. Sometimes I fall, not from grace, but a face plant. Dry docked, shut down, blocked. Ouch! And that’s just the day that some skeptic asks how the book is selling, or when I’m doing a public reading. All I can do is shrug and own my stalled “career.” It’s momentarily embarrassing, a suggestion that, as my inner critic sometimes reminds me, I’m not really a writer. A real writer has an agent, an editor, a PR person, and a house on a hill. So what am I doing living in a basement apartment (which I actually like) and counting my dimes and dollars?
This angst is part of creative writing, as opposed to the popular image of authorship. My “ship” is a dinghy dragged up on the shore until I push it back into the water and take up the oars again. And row, maybe with no destination but an intent to go where the tide takes me. Just see what’s there and enjoy the sun and the breeze. It’s not a lost day if all I do is journal, muse on paper. (Hmm, that sounds like a line for a poem, or a new sandwich.)
If you too get stuck, just go with it. You might need a break, but I doubt you’re broken.
The workshop at Columbine Poets of Colorado today featured poems in honor of The Year of the Bird. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a conservation measure prohibiting the “pursuit, hunt, take, capture, kill or sale” of migratory birds in the US.
It has nothing but coincidence to do with the fact that this week I started circulating a poetry manuscript titled The Gift Bird. I will, however welcome whatever synchronicity ensues. I’ve become more and more fascinated by birds and I have many, many poems that refer to birds. In honor of all this avian coincidence, I offer you a list of some of my favorite books about birds.
Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds
Barnes, Simon. How to Be a Bad Bird Watcher
Barnes, Simon. The Meaning of Birds
Cocker, Mark. Birders: Memoirs of a Tribe
Leck, David. The Life of a Robin
Lorenz, Konrad. King Soloman’s Ring
Moss, Stephen. A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Bird Watching
Nicolson, Adam. The Seabird’s Cry
Peattie, Donald Culrose, Ed. A Gathering of Birds: An Anthology of the Best Ornithological Prose
Rothenberg, David. Why Birds Sing
Tudge, Colin. The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live
Young, Jon. What the Robin Knows
Regular followers know that I sometimes list books or reminders meant to promote equality in publishing and reading. Well, here’s one that I want to highlight: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I chose to read this book because it will be featured at a book club this week in Boulder. By the time I finished reading and went to sign up, the discussion was already full. That’s a little frustrating but a good sign that adult readers have plenty to say about what is touted as a YA novel. That’s not half of it. This story takes us into the life of sixteen-year-old Starr, a black girl attending a primarily white school and managing to fit in, although at times she feels invisible and divided, her diction tailored, one vocabulary at school and another in her neighborhood. Quickly, we get in deep, as there is a white-cop-black-victim shooting, and Starr is the only witness. Add gangs, drugs, and poverty. Enough excitement yet?
From this point on the narrative tears through racial tensions, including Starr’s attachment to her white boyfriend and to her radical black father who loves her but opposes the romance. And that’s just part of the story. What I most appreciate is the view of family life, complexity of community, and character development as Starr wrestles with opposing decisions, to speak out about the shooting or to maintain a polished image in her affluent white school despite her impoverished home neighborhood. Additionally, the writing is fine, well developed and perfectly plotted. If this is YA, good for the young people who will read it. Better still for the adults who might not notice it without prompting.