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.)

Esoteric Joy

Full disclosure: I am a detail junky, a fact addict. I keep a fat black notebook full of potentially useless information. Like if you plant an orange seed you may grow a lemon tree. That the okapi–a mammal that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a horse–is a six million year old species. That the last passenger pigeon died in 1914. That the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. I graze like a goat in the flower beds and pick up all sorts of weird information, some of which I cannot possibly digest. Like knowing that a thing called CRISPR-Cas 9 is a sort of “molecular scissors” that can help modify genes.

Of what use can I make of these facts? Writers need a diet that includes tiny bits of information, like the body needs to ingest minute amounts of some minerals. You never can tell when a datum will go from frivolous to rich fodder. When I was writing Providence, I read a lot about water, tides, surge lines and such. I learned more than I needed to build a plausible story, but I learned what I needed. Marge Piercy, in writing her bestselling novel Gone to Soldiers, had her local library borrow on interlibrary loan “well over a thousand books.” She had to rely on technology to keep track of all that data. Now, while technology annoys and distracts me (Yeah, I look at cute cats on FB.) it also serves up a vast menu of data and prevents my local library staff from dying from exhaustion.

What we know and what we need to know is not always obvious. Far better, in my view, to store up extra knowledge. And then engage in what might be called “alien phenomenology.” This is an “[attempt] to understand the experience and interiority of objects, no matter how incomprehensible or speculative an act this may be” (M. R. O’Connor, Resurrection Science, 225). Hmm, and all along I thought that was called creative writing. See, you never know what’s out there to nibble on.

When Writing Isn’t Key

Usually, I post a blog on Saturday morning, but yesterday the world intruded and I chose to commit to the living instead of the virtual. It’s a choice writers rarely talk about. More often we brag about or bemoan the need to be at our desks, a diagonal way of saying how dedicated we are to this art form.

But Stephen King (a fellow Mainer)  in On Writing, says to put the writing desk in the corner of the room, put life out front. So when my dog, who has two major illnesses going on in the same 21 LB body, had a GI problem first thing in the morning, all thoughts of writing vanished. No blog, no critique group. We headed for the vet clinic and I waited till 1:00 pm to hear the welcome words that this was not the day I’m dreading when we decide there’s nothing more we can do for the dog. This kind of day not only puts the desk in the corner but puts all thoughts of writing almost out of sight. Yes, I sat with my journal, scribbling while I waited, but the words were all about the angst of making decisions about treatment, expenses and eventually the need to let him go.

Duncan the Dog

Duncan the Dog

He’s home, he’s eating and napping and cheerfully taking his two additional meds. His belly looks bloated and he licks it like he’s soothing it, but otherwise, we are having our usual morning. I’m still a writer, but I’m also a person with a strong attachment to other living beings.

Woman on the Move

Unknown

The Maine Coast

I’ve wrapped up many of the things on my to-do list and on Wednesday I fly east for three weeks. My luggage is packed with the usual things–clothes, books, a couple of writing projects. What will be left behind in Colorado? My Colorado family and friends, my dog, computer, car, reading chair and favorite coffee cup. Important things that spell home, although I still say that going back to Maine is going home. I am, as I’ve always been, a woman on the move.

What goes with me as I travel are my five senses, my ability to move through space, my voice and my attention to language. I travel with the habit of writing every morning to clear away dead leaves and try to see clearly to the watery bottom of my mind. As I write I travel down the page, an early stroll from sleep to awareness. To noticing what I notice, as Ginsberg put it.

I’ll notice people in airports, on buses, on the sidewalks of Portland. I’ll pay close attention to my son, my daughter-in-law, grand dogs, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. I’ll inhale the sweet smell of horses and I’ll taste the best seafood in the world right next to the water it comes from. My ears will relish the accents of New England and hope we never lose them. If I seem distant from this blog, it will be that I’m recharging that awareness, rebuilding myself from the roots up. I’ll certainly be back here in July. Until then, be safe, be well, know joy.

Architecture Matters

Slide1 You’ll notice on the back cover of Accidental Child that the story takes place, in large part, in a futuristic setting called Durlan Mall. Mall? Really, in the far future? People ask me where I got the idea for this and I remember distinctly where. I was sitting in the food court in the Maine Mall in Portland, sipping coffee and wondering how long that old mall would remain useful. And what if (a writer’s most urgent question) people lived in that huge covered area? Mainers like things to last and are both creative and conservative in architecture. Well, from that point on I was on a slow ride to finishing the novel, and part of the pleasure in that ride was building a world where it made sense to house a whole community in an old mall where the fierce climate kept them inside most of the time.

All novelists to some extent build a fictional world. Even the most realistic story needs limits and logic to the setting. In speculative fiction the logic is rigged up from pieces of the writer’s experience. Durlan Mall came from my musing about the Maine Mall and its potential for enduring beyond the foreseeable future. I looked at that future, and it looked bleak. It still does. Because here’s where art and life collide: we are all world builders and the world we are building at this moment is fragile and we will perhaps need creative shelters to hold us in a precarious world of inhospitable weather patterns, insufficient water and a severe curtailing of the high-tech life we have in 2015. So mine is a cautionary tale. Be careful or we may end up living where we never expected and it might not be as comfortable as what we have right now.