Sunday, February 3, 2013

Two Poetry Books

Over winter break, while I was away at a colony, I finally had time to sit down and read carefully two new poetry books: Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaugnessey and The Two Yvonnes by Jessica Greenbaum.

The authors are both close friends, a happenstance that always makes the experience of a book different than one by a stranger. You know the person's voice, and her concerns. You have heard about the book along the way, possibly seen drafts and covers, know the behind-the-scenes of publication, stories of excitement or disappointment. The book doesn't stand alone as a text ordered online, or picked off a shelf. It comes as part of a life, and a friendship.

This can go either way; the friendship can overwhelm the text, which often occurs in the form of a resistance to reading it. Or the friendship, or blood relation, can result in a misreading: it can be instead a form of sleuthing. Who is who? Am I one of the characters? What seems made up to strangers becomes autobiographical to those in the know. Every author has stories of being mistaken for their characters. I wrote a story about a woman who got divorced, and a person who knew me very well kept referring to my 'first husband.' "Do you mean my husband?" "No, the one from the divorce." "I have never been divorced."

Poetry works differently on me in this regard than fiction. The personal is intrinsic, yet the filter of condensed metaphor guides and glides me past a preoccupation with the autobiographical. I was more clearly able to see how metaphor worked in these books by reading them all at once--though I meted each book out over several days, a poem morning, noon and night in my own version of a daily office. The poems were my reward during a month of dedicated writing; each one is beautiful, and the books are carefully put together as whole experiences. I do not intend to review them here; look them up to read their praises, or better yet, buy them and read them yourself. What I want to say is what they did to me. They reminded me, or showed me in a new way, that when you read really good poems closely, in a relaxed and receptive state, there is a moment when they suddenly give up their essence. It's like walking by a woman on the street who's wearing an excellent perfume. Suddenly, you're shocked to be included in her scent.

In the Dark

Often writing feels like groping your way up an unfamiliar set of stairs in the pitch black. With no railing. No sense of how many stairs there are. No way to know whether or not you'll make it to the top.

It takes a lot of faith to make this climb. What does one have faith in, exactly? Is it the possibility of saying what one feels? Is it a drive to pursue a vision one has already had--a flash that may have come in a second, wholly formed? To capture these private events in writing, they must be subjected to the labor of dividing them painstakingly into words, sentences, paragraphs. This is dark, fumbling territory, at least for a while.

I am comforted in these stages of interior darkness by matching them with working surrounded by the dark sky of early, early morning. By getting up before dawn and writing when the color of night is adamantly black, and the only way to believe it will ever change is to remember that it got lighter yesterday, and the day before.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tossing and Turning

That sound again. Pages hitting the floor. Pages being thrown away, junked, rejected--by me.

How many hundreds of pages have I thrown away in the past ten years? Many. Is this madness, or have all these rejections had a purpose?

Much of the rejection has come of a restlessness with old ways of doing things. Writing and writing and writing in an effort to see a new way of going about it organic to me. There are lost of new ways out there to copy; but what feels authentic? And a new way that I also like. 

Another cause of the tossing has been the effort to write a novel, a form that doesn't come naturally to me. I wrote one before, which should be a reassurance. But it isn't. I wrote one right when I was supposed to years ago that was to be my second novel, but a similar story--yet completely different--appeared first, so mine went back in the drawer. Then what? Lots of ideas that didn't compel me enough to stick with for the years it takes. A few ideas I probably should have pursued, but I was intimidated by the research involved. Finally, a set of characters I like and plan to stick with for a while, but I made some mistakes in terms of writing long sections that didn't add up to much, and so on. All along I wrote essays, stories, and pages here and there of a memoir. The novel contract though--comes first.

This summer I had a month to really push hard, and I did. A certain number of words a day, no matter what. This has always been a method that works for me, even if everything I write under that self-imposed duress gets tossed. It makes me start to think better, and to see what I really want.

What do I want? To be in the presence of a feeling, and to communicate that feeling. I think I have said that before. I believe all books start in a feeling, a single feeling, and then comes the work of figuring out the characters, the form, the plot, and so on, that hold a place for that feeling--forever, really. A lot of writing and tossing is a way to return to the original feeling--or, if I miss the feeling and consider a character or a story instead, to excavate for the feeling that gave rise to that other apparition.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

One place I really wanted to see out here was where DH Lawrence had stayed
and worked during his time in Taos. I love DH Lawrence. When I first read him, he seemed a kindred spirit, a Druid type who believed in wanting to live in nature and in the possibilities between human beings. Sex, love, connection. Strangeness, above all. Yup.

The DH Lawrence ranch, as the place is now called, is closed to the public, but I was able to go, courtesy of The Taos Writers' Conference, where I am teaching this week. I didn't take pictures of the buildings; they were fine all by themselves, and I'd indeed steal their souls by trying to carry them off with me on my iPhone. But here's a glimpse; they were old homestead buildings, adobe and wood, and looked like the huts at Valley Forge. Utterly simple and without comfort. The wind in the trees blew cool above the hot town, and the scent of the combined saps and needles was a magic potion. He didn't stay here long, but he wrote quite a bit. No distractions. I could picture him sitting on the simple bench under the tree and looking down at his page, out over the valley, and up into the branches. Who needs more? 

Georgia O'Keefe came and sat on the same bench and painted the tree from underneath. 

The Lawrence Tree by Georgia O'Keefe

That's one powerful tree!

The picture above is of his memorial. The story I was told that several women fought over what to do with his ahes. (Ashes spark a lot more arguments than graves, don't they?) His remarried widow Frieda settled the matter by mixing them into cement that was used to make the alter in the memorial on the top of this post. His other ladies wanted to scatter his ashes over the ranch. Oh well. His books are still widely scattered.

Here's the view from the restaurant, El Meze, last night. 

And later, when it got dark.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Taos, New Mexico. 

I have spent a great deal of time alone this summer, and here I am again, alone in a motel room, thinking. Going over my teaching plans for the week, and considering what I'll do with free time. I drove down from Albuquerque yesterday (right in time for the season premiere of Breaking Bad, my favorite TV show ever, though I find it so searing it will be years before I watch it again, unlike The Wire, which I watch frequently, especially the Hamsterdam, Marlo and Snoop eps) through desert and more desert, with views to mesas and mountains. Yet at the Tourist Center and in the motel lobby, the brochures are largely for rafting, fishing, and so on. Odd.

I used to love traveling by myself, but it feels different now. My thoughts are less focused, less geared toward photographs and journal entries. I notice the space around me more, rather than the points of interest; I wish more.