Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Something Old, But New for Me

I read this last Friday with a great group of poets and tried something new. I memorized a poem. Now, this is such a been-around-the-block idea that I’m surprised I haven’t tried it before, especially considering that some of my favorite readers have been Marilyn Kallet and Yusef Komunyakaa who both recite some of their work. And that’s partially what’s striking to me. Although I’ve been told for years that I should memorize at least one poem and love it when others do, I resisted. Some of my foot-dragging thoughts were: “I almost have them memorized anyway;” “I don’t have the time;” and the more honest one of “It might be a little better to have one memorized, but it could be a whole lot worse forgetting the thing.”

Well, I didn’t forget the lines, and what I found is it changed how I read all the poems that night, including the ones on the page in ways I don’t entirely understand. I focused on the delivery of all of my poems a bit more, seeing myself that night as more of a conduit between the poem and the audience rather than the writer of the work. Those weren’t my poems. They were poems I was sharing. And that’s an important distinction standing on a stage. My ego took a step back, and my focus shifted to how well I was communicating the poems rather than if the audience liked the poems.

The key for me was choosing a poem that didn’t require exact precision with the memorized lines. What I worked on memorizing was the turns in the poem and where I wanted my stressed beats. I also found that as I practiced, I improved the poem, cutting anything extraneous since I would have the added bonus of not having to memorize what I cut. Also, I practiced with a group first to perform a bit of exorcism on the nerves. To Kali Meister, our reading couch, many thanks for giving us your time. And to everyone who came, many thanks for letting us share our work with you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I Heart Abrams

This week I have been restructuring my first poetry manuscript. Or rather, I’ve taken a bomb to my manuscript and am seeing where the pieces fall. Sandy Longhorn’s blog recently turned me on to something that Victoria Chang posted on problems she sees as a contest judge for first books. This blog is worth a read to any one wondering how to organize their first books. You can check it out at: http://victoriamchang.blogspot.com/2009/10/poetry-book-screening-observations.html

It is number eight on Chang’s list that is the most interesting to me, and that is Chang’s point that sometimes writers don’t consider the reader. This phrase is often said to a lot of aggressive head-nods, and I would agree with those aggressive head-nods, but the issue is more complicated than what it might seem. Not considering the reader is actually part of what contemporary poetry does so well. I should back up a bit and explain myself.

If you have ever been unlucky enough to find me in a bar talking about poetry, I will invariably start yapping on about M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp. In short, Abrams claims that we have undergone about four major modes of examining poetry: mimetic, pragmatic, expressivist, and objective. It is the expressivist mode that is the one that most affects contemporary poetry. Essentially, this mode came about around the Romantic period and emphasizes a focus on expressing what is within oneself. If you happen to read any writers like Wordsworth talking about their writing, it’s brimming with these metaphors of something being contained and the poet unleashing it such as with that famous Wordsworthian line that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...". Frankly, this mode has become so dominant a poet could not even understand the point of a poem if it’s not to express oneself. Mimetic, for instance, privileged the writer objectively describing the world (writer as mirror), and pragmatic privileged the writer viewing his work as a way to inspire a reader to act, feel, or think a certain way (writer as teacher).

With this expressivist mode, a few things happen. The author becomes central to his work since it is the author’s experiences, feelings, and thoughts that he wants to express. Also, sincerity becomes valued over truth. (Whatever is truth anyway?) A consequence of the writer becoming more important in his work is that the reader becomes less important—which leads to other effects. Readers may be confused since this type of writing is more about the writer. Also, more reader confusion leads to a greater reliance on criticism—written by the author or schools or critics—to explain what is being said. Any of this sound familiar? It’s contemporary poetry. Now, just to be clear before I’m called out on this: nothing with literature fits within these tidy boxes, and I can think of many exceptions. Still, the boxes are quite helpful in lugging around ideas I couldn’t hold otherwise.

So, while we often complain that some poems don’t consider the reader, that principle is engrained in our current principle of expressivism. That does not mean it is without problems, but it is intricately linked to what is good about poetry. What does have to happen is each writer has to teach the reader how to read the poem. And perhaps that is what we are saying when we say the writer doesn’t think about the reader: the writer isn’t teaching the reader how to understand a particular poem.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good News

I have some good news to share. I heard over the weekend that the University Press of Mississippi received final approval to publish a book that I will edit on the poetics of song lyrics.  This has been a project in the making for a few years, and I can’t say how happy I am to see it come into being. As I had mentioned in an earlier blog, this book idea began when I started a literature class at Belmont University on song lyrics. Essentially, when Johnny Cash died, Tennessee’s Senator, Lamar Alexander, asked on the Senate floor why English departments didn’t study songwriters alongside poets—and I thought his question was a good one. “Why not?” for me turned into “We should.”  The question then became how to discuss song lyrics as literature which this collection of essays will address, directly and indirectly. The focus will be on discussing points of synthesis and separation between poetry and songs.  I’ve solicited essays from a range of folks—literary critics to music bizmen—and I’m excited about the essays we have in this collection. David Caplan will be talking about how rhyme has changed in the hands of hip-hop artists, Dave Marsh (Springsteen’s unofficial biographer) will be talking about how lit professors shouldn’t talk about songs without the music, Tony Tost will be talking about Cash’s persona, John Paul Hampstead will discuss connections between heroic poetry and gangsta rap, I’ll be talking about the sonnet structure within pop country songs, and so on. Other contributors will include the awesome Keith Flynn who has written his own book on songs and poems titled The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz, and Memory, critic Ben Yagoda, Senator Lamar Alexander, Pulitzer winner Claudia Emerson, founder and director of WAMFEST (The Words and Music Festival) David Daniel, and many other great folks. Simply put, I’m thrilled.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hearing Richard Buckner

Adam surprised me with a trip to Asheville this past weekend to hear singer-songwriter Richard Buckner. From his first album Bloomed to his latest one Meadow, his style has changed from alt-country to this more husky, slurred, indie-rock thing. The album The Hill, which is Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology set to music, is a pivotal album change for him. That album moved him from writing songs to writing songs with a lot more poem-like qualities such as doing away with choruses and de-emphasizing clarity.

One thing that struck me about his show was something that Adam said: “He’s just not going to give you what you want.”  True.  Buckner attempted no warm-n-fuzzy rapport. In fact, he didn’t say a single thing between songs, and at the end of the show we got a “thank you for coming,” and he up and left. Also, Buckner keeps reworking a lot of the old favorites so that if you happened to have loved a melody, too bad. And if you want that bit of clarity, you ain’t going to get it. All of this leads me to why I like—no—love him. I’ve often been struck with how not getting what I want has led to something better. 


Something happened right before we left for the show that reinforced this idea. We were eating dinner at my mother’s, and I notice on this side table full of framed photos some vaguely familiar color underneath two pictures as a way to raise them above the others. It’s my first book and the first journal that ever published me. (And, yes, those are her only copies.) Now, at one point in my life, I thought my writing would earn me my family’s respect. Once I started publishing, I was pissed at how little they seemed to care. Example: my books used as scaffolding devices. I later realized how it was actually a benefit that my family does not fawn over what I do one bit. That realization took away any sense of trying to accomplish something with my writing to impress them or prove myself. And that ended up taking some pressure off of writing and looking at the poem as simply what it is: a poem. And that’s the point with Buckner: it’s about the song and not what I want from it as a listener.  Now, I realize that saying “it’s about the song” is a bit idealistic and no guarantee that what follows is a good song. But the odds are in favor for it turning out that way.

Anyway, if you haven't heard him, here is a link to him singing "Blue and Wonder." It has some of my favorite lines of his: “What's that word? I forget sometimes. It's the one that means love has left your eyes....”