So I have been plugging away on my upcoming book project and meanwhile an unexpected work-life reorganization happened. It caused a definite shift in work-life and became an occasion to send to some colleagues the following poem I found around the same time written by Greek poet C.P. Cavafy:
And if you cannot make your life as you want it,
at least try this
as much as you can: do not disgrace it
in the crowding contact with the world,
in the many movements and all the talk.
Do not disgrace it by taking it,
dragging it around often and exposing it
to the daily folly
of relationship and associations,
till it becomes like an alien burdensome life.
But here's my official book description:
It's the late 1870s and Silas Cole is a heartbroken journalist who joins a cattle drive in order to learn how to be a real cowboy. He meets a cattle company traveling up the Goodnight Loving Trail in New Mexico Territory. Not only do the cowboys give Silas a very real western adventure, they offer him a spiritual journey as well.
This book has been in progress over ten years. I started it shortly before I met Monsieur Big Bang while we were both still living in Los Angeles. The project started as an amalgamation of family history and the reading of (literally) 40 books on Zen Buddhism. Surprisingly, the family stories fell completely away and the set of poems became a fictional account of a cattle trail ride up the Goodnight Loving Trail, a few years after Charles Goodnight had stopped using it.
You probably know the trail and its cowboys, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, from the famous miniseries, Lonesome Dove, based on the Larry McMurtry novel fictionalizing their experiences in the late 1860s after the Civil War.
I've discovered there are no good maps of the Goodnight Loving Trail, especially as it travels through the state of New Mexico. I've even gone to the Charles Goodnight museum in Texas and various museums of cattle history to try to find a better one. No dice. These two maps attached are the best I can find online.
The well-known portion of the route started in Texas and traveled to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, then up the mountain route of the Santa Fe Trail through Trinidad in Colorado and stopped initially in Pueblo and later went on to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
In the book he collaborated on with J. Evetts Haley, Charles Goodnight talks about an alternate route he used in order to avoid Uncle Dick Woottons pretty steep Raton Pass toll. Goodnight's alternate route veers off from Fort Sumner to the ghost town of Cuervo, New Mexico, up through what is now Conchas Lake and the famous Bell Ranch, up the mesa near Mosquero, New Mexico, and then up to the grassy plains around Capulin Volcano and through another mountain pass north of Folsom, New Mexico, (which is famous for prehistoric Folsom man and a famous flood where the switchboard operator died trying to save all the village people.)
My poems follow this alternate trail and swerve back to meet the original trail in Trinidad, Colorado. I'm not sure that's what really happened (Trinidad specifically). Goodnight's story is vague on that detail. But he does mention specifically the New Mexico locations of Fort Sumner, Cuervo, Fort Bascom, Capulin Volcano and Folsom. There's also a historical marker in Mosquero confirming the trail came through their town. In his book, Goodnight also talks about a hill that is probably located along the mesa that rises up from Bell Ranch to Mosquero, that particular hill having been named "Goodnight Hill" in his honor, but no local histories or local people I've asked have ever heard of a hill by that name.
Along with stories of the Goodnight Loving Trail, these books also contributed a great deal to the new poems:
"The Prairie Traveler" by Randolph Macy, which was an official rewrite of the highly misleading and inaccurate book "Emigrants Guide to Oregon & California" by Lansford Hastings, more famously known as "The Hastings Guide."
"The Log of a Cowboy" by Andy Adams which was the personal story of one of the cowboys who allegedly traveled with Charles Goodnight.
The book's permissions are sorted out, the book has an ISBN number. The editor has come back with edits and the layout is pretty much finished, which always forces some pretty tough choices to be made around orphan, window and longer lines.
I'm waiting for the proofs to be sent out for blurbs and we're also working on the cover design and photos.
If all goes well, I'm hoping for a September publication.
I'm taking lots of deep breaths in the meantime, deep breaths at home, at work, probably in my sleep...
I've started a project of 33 poems based on girl friends and relatives I've known who were an influence on me in some way.
The first ten so far are a combination of relatives and friends from grade school.
NaPoWriMo will be upon us in just about a week. I probably won’t post much on Big Bang Poetry during that month as I’ll be furiously writing disposable poems. I did the prompts last year and it was a bit unsatisfying due to the fact that everyone is now creating their own prompts. So this year I decided to return to a project, one based on a poem I did many years ago for my friend Michelle Sawdey after hearing she passed away and while I was on a writing retreat and found a notebook she had given me and being moved by her inscription.
My NaPoWriMo project is called “32 women” and I’ll be writing each day about a woman who has been a part of my life, plus 2: one intro poem I’ve already finished for March 31 and the original Michelle poem for May 1. As we progress, you can find them here: https://hellopoetry.com/mary-mccray/
Then I have another project lined up to start maybe in June called "52 Haiku." I’ll be posting a prompt each week for a year. Each prompt will initiate a meditation, a haiku, and a small sumi-e ink drawing. I so suck at drawing, this should be interesting. As a guide I’m starting with some of the prompts in Zen by the Brush and I'll be using an ink kit I found online.
What I love about haiku is that if feels like the opposite of eLit: offline, quiet, single minded.
And yesterday I came across this interesting page surveying Shambhala Publications haiku catalog. Food for thought while we prepare for 52 Haiku in June.
So there’s the quiet, formal, contemplative haiku and then there's the rambunctious, genre-bending, boundary-pushing area of experimental and eLit poetry. On experimental poetries, I found some interesting things:
Monsieur Big Bang recently sent me this link to Marie Osmond from the show Ripley's Believe it or Not. She's in a yellow robe doing a dramatic reading of Dada poems, specifically reading Hugo Ball’s sound poem “Karawane.” All I can say is "Wow Marie, we hardly knew ye."
My friend Maryanne sent me this link to a whole carousel of poetry readings on The New York Times “Read T a Poem" page. It's got a a very clunky user interface. Here’s another list that includes some, but not all the readers, which include Amy Adams, Brian Hutchison, Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Matt Bomer, Michael Benjamin Washington, Lauren Ridloff, Joe Mantello, Charlie Carver and more.
“A metaphorical and poetic journey about finding hope against all odds, Thanner Kuhai transports the reader/player into an immersive cave environment where language becomes intertwined with natural surfaces in a glimmering subterranean world. Navigate a labyrinthine network of flooded tunnels and passageways teeming with strange life and shadows of words. Submerge deeper. Or seek escape to the surface.”
See a preview at http://www.dreamingmethods.com/thanner-kuhai/.
And I know I’ve been insisting here that lyrics and poetry have more in common than not, (since Bob-Dylan-Nobel-Prize-gate last year), and I recently had a very unfortunate hard drive accident, (coupled with a miraculous file recovery), that scared me into backing up all my old files. As I recreate a lot of them into newer formats, I’m finding that (a) I had no idea how lame my early ideas were and (b) I had no idea how appallingly shrill and cocky I sounded in old college essays. It’s been painful. I now wonder if this hard drive accident was the universe kindly trying to delete my old self on my behalf.
And lo and behold, I see I felt the same way about what was and was not poetry back when I was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence. In one paper, our professor, poet David Rivard, asked us to write about our favorite poems and the majority of mine were not poems. They were a hodge-podge of poems, song lyrics and found quotes.
I even had this to say before I launched into my list:
“Since we have consistently failed in poetry to at least come up with a working definition of what it is, no one's going to tell me what it isn't.”
Holy crap I was smugly confident! That was a real circle snap. And the whole essay is like that. Painful.
That said, I'm happy to see I included Joni Mitchell's “Last Time I Saw Richard” (which I once memorized and would read aloud as a poem) and I often think about this prose poem I made from a Grary Shandling joke:
that's a problem that's plagued me
throughout my life.
I did not know that there was a picture
on the other side
of the drive-in screen.
I thought all the cars were wrong
who were on the other side.
It was a very philosophical approach.
I thought they were wrong,
I was so convinced of it.
And I never went around to look.
And then there was the Rupert Holmes song “Studio Musician” on the list, a song I once loved from Barry Manilow’s 1977 live album. Barry Manilow even adds his jingle for State Farm at the end of it, reminding us he was a studio musician of sorts, a jingle writer.
All the discomfort of encountering my less-than-charming former self was somewhat alleviated by being reminded of this very lovely thing.
For Christmas I got a subscription to Birchbox, which is basically a monthly package of of beauty product samples for items you otherwise couldn't afford. I get overly excited when the box comes. I'm even charmed by the boxes themselves.
Anyway, one of the products that came this month had a poem printed on it. It’s a limp plimper, (don’t ask me; I just blindly use this stuff), and the packaging contains a haiku:
Sink some ships with those
Dangerously plumped up lips
Can you say luscious?
It’s a pretty rickety haiku with questionable punctuation but maintains a perfectly good syllable count.
It’s also a haiku that worries me about its possible dangers...with the actual word danger in it! So this would make it both a poem and marketing fail.
I’m really excited about the latest essays I’ve been reading. At the end of last year I concentrated on books by Louise Glück, starting with American Originality: Essays on Poetry (2017). I was prepared to not like it because of one reviewer claimed it was a defense of American Narcissism. The reviewer turned out to have read only the first short essay, (lame reviewer), and Glück was not even defending narcissism, but explaining how America got hooked on it.
In any case, I was forced into a crash course on reading Glück prose, which is difficult and abstract and even though her essays are often short and tiny, they always required slow, concentrated reading. She reminded me of C.K. Wright in that way, their dense, packed gems of thinkings.
There’s also a big of sexism in me that prickles when women write like word-tangled academics, as if being complicated is an attempt to keep up with "Professor Guy," who throws his weight around with unnecessarily big words and complicated sentences, doing little to communicate anything but intimidation to his readers. I said the word obtuse earlier incorrectly but I was searching for willfully obscure and esoteric. Inaccessible.
Stupid me, this is not what Louise Gluck is doing at all. She is just very precise and particular. In fact, I came away thinking Glück prose is probably the smartest, most perceptive writing on poetry I’ve yet come across. And I fully appreciated her willingness to write about modern poetic realities instead of the same ole easy targets, like lamenting the state of current readerships. Her ability to parse modern conundrums might just take the top off your head.
Well, at least half of it will. The other half contains introductions to book contests Glück has judged over the years. Although including them in these essays feels like a generous impulse, book introductions are hard to like. They’re not journal or magazine reviews, which tend to be more holistic about a writers life or themes. Introductions are also not fully satisfying out of context and if you haven’t read the book’s they refer to, the quotes leave you feeling more disoriented than enlightened. They also don’t quite whet your appetite for the book the way book reviews do. That said, in many of these introductions Glück presents a formal or stylistic challenge each writer has overcome and you get a few paragraphs on the drawbacks of each style or form, including some good conversation around things like nonsense writing and irony, (“Irony has become less part of a whole tonal range than a scrupulous inhibiting armor, the disguise by which one modern soul recognizes another…characterized by acute self-consciousness without analytical detachment, a frozen position as opposed to a means of inquiry”). See what I mean? It’s tough chewing but worth slowing down for that.
Other big topics she tackles: American ideas of originality and self-creation and how ironically the “triumphs of self-creation (and uniqueness) require confirmation, corroboration,” confessional poetry and self-absorption and what is narcissistic and not narcissistic: “the sense that no one else is necessary, that the self is of limitless interest, makes American writers particularly prone to any version of the narcissistic. Our journals are full of these poems…a net of associations and memories, in which the poet’s learning and humanity are offered up like prize essays in grade school.”
She talks about what being really smart means and the thirst to be perceived as a smart poet: “Central to this art is appearance: less crucial to think than to appear to think, to be beheld thinking.” And later she says, “This means that certain brilliantly intellectual writers are not treated as intellectual writers because they don’t observe the correct forms…it does not conform to established definitions of intellectual daring.” In this, she includes poems that are “too lively” or “grammatically clear” or “not on the surface difficult.” This reminded me of the New York Times Magazine’s essay on “thirst.”
You could also say all the same things about comedy writing and the false hierarchy of value in all forms of writing and thinking.
She also covers language poetry and fragments: “in the absence of context, fragments, no matter how independently beautiful, grow rapidly tedious: they do not automatically constitute an insight regarding the arbitrary….[they are] a strange hopefulness…born of a profound despair, the hope that, in another mind if not one’s own, these images will indeed cohere…the hope that if one has enough memories, enough responses, one exists….the longer the gesture fails, the more determined the poet becomes.”
She even lists out the tactics of language projects: incompleteness, focusing on the what-is-missing in human communication, aborted attempts, gaps, the unspoken. She tracks how quickly those strategies “turn rote, how little there is to explore here.” She says, “the problem is that though the void is great the effect of its being invoked is narrow.” She says, “the paradox is that the named generates far more complex and powerful associations than does the unnamed.”
This is particularly good: “The unfinished alludes to the infinite…the sense of the perpetually becoming is conceived as a source of energy, also a fit subject for intellectual speculation. The problem is that there is nothing to say once the subject has been raised.” At the end of the day, “the experience of reading a stanza is not different from the experience of reading forty stanzas.”
It’s sort of shocking to me how old these essays are (late 90s) and how we’re still being asked to read forty more stanzas of the same language experiments year after year.
She also covers myths, personas, narrative, image poetry, fear of closure and the embrace of chaos. And her comment here jives with what David Foster Wallace once said in defense of sentiment: “Distance for sentiment, anxiety at the limitations of the self, create contempt for feeling, as though feeling were what was left over after the great work of the mind was finished.” Yes! Thank you!
She talks about political poetry, too often compared, she says, to the lyric and she feels these “distinctions are a matter of degree.” She talks about the cult of beauty’s lack of insights versus projects that explore puzzles and arguments.
Probably the most moving section covered why we write: the idea of personal growth and healing compared to reflections on loss and suffering, unhappiness in art, true risks of happiness, authenticity, the creative being and suppression of all other selves. Contrary to the idea of the troubled artist, Glück says the happy spirit, “fortified, can afford to go more profoundly, more resourcefully, into the material, being less imperiled.” “Well-being,” she says, “seeks out the world, a place likely to be more varied than the self.”
Wow. All this in a 200 page book!
My favorite quote from this book: “Poems do not endure as objects but as presences. When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice; you release into the world again a companion spirit. I read poems to hear that voice. And I write to speak to those I have heard.”
I’m kind of ambivalent on self-help gurus these days. There are just so many. And we're so self-absorbed already. The fact that they work as click bait only reinforces the issue that we're obsessed with our own improvement. That said, I'm a total child of the 80s and inbreed to have a hard time resisting self-helping myself. It's also the beginning of a new year, the time when you try a little harder on new resolutions. Medium.com keeps serving me up self-help headlines, appealing to my weakness. But here are three particularly good ones that have surfaced recently.
This list is all about small habits that can help you in big ways. The first item on this list is great. And although hard to learn to do consistently, it pays off. Setting expectations with others and yourself is a big deal, in relationships and personal goals. There are
And the only items I’d quibble with are: #2, I don’t think journaling is really all that. Some people send emails instead, or do other writing projects or blog.
And #3: to say I never lie is to say another lie. But that said, making every attempt not to lie is a good idea, because as Mark Twain says, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” It’s not just an issue of bad karma, it’s just more efficient thinking.
And #10, never eat alone. That sounds a bit extreme. I would change that to “don’t be afraid to eat alone but look forward to eating with people too.”
This was an awesome list and explores not just why you need recovery from things like work, technology, people, food, fitness and being awake, but how to take these breaks. Even poets can overwork!
All the work ethic items in these lists are great. Even the love advise is sound. Self-knowledge is the holy grail, and Dolly Parton is a big proponent of item #5, an idea which is also gets ink in item #7 of the first list above. I’m still struggling with some of these myself. Especially #6 and particularly #7, to which I retort, "What if your tiny voice is a crazy person?"
What a year so far. I came back online January 2nd to a tonnage of things to finish. ArtBrawl is in full swing, the Difficult Book Club is still kickin' it. Work has been crazy busy at CNM. Family trips are happening. I'm already exhausted in month two.
In fact, the group I started last year, ArtBrawl, has grown by a few folks and last year we designed a poster that we unveiled at our local Women’s March last month. The posters are free to download in many sizes in red or blue. You can visit artbrawl.org to snag some!
What a cool flag shelf I found today (see above) from the site rebloggy while looking for an image about American poetry. The quote on the page says, "(To all my American book friends) Let's all take a minute to appreciate that we live in a country where we have the freedom to read whatever we want. Because not everybody gets to do that." Awesome image and very well said.
Apparently University of Illinois has a class coming in Contemporary poetry. Stay tuned for that. I’m also signed up for “Reading Literature in the Digital Age” this spring with the University of Basel in Switzerland (6 weeks).
You may come across some annoying technical issues with these platforms. Coursera crashed twice on my iPad. My Udemy classes crash a lot too. Often the transcripts don’t match the video, which is tragic for poetry discussions with words like iambic and trochee. Nobody seems to proof them or take into consideration accessibility issues. At University of Illinois, this was stupefying since all the lectures were basically teachers reading essays. They could have simply uploaded their essays as video transcript text. In some cases with U of I, the assignment pages were duplicated incorrectly and there was no way to alert anybody.
Just remember, these are free classes but they’re also challenging. Only a true poetry nerd will enjoy them.
This year in the New York Times Book Review I read about a book that combines my interests in haiku and electronic poetry. It's called Comes the Fiery Night by David H. Cope. The author compiled 2,000 haiku (yes, two thousand), some of which were written by human haiku masters, (Issa, Basho, Buson), and some which were composed by a machine.
The challenge, according to Cope, was to figure out which haiku had meaning and which were "worth while." In the preface, he directed you to look for humor, pith, happiness, sadness, and history. He also warned you that his computer made typographical mistakes.
So I looked for all that and also decided to look for connective tissue between the three lines, an overarching story or lesson across three lines (preferable a Buddhist or Zen lesson), cohesion in grammar, tenses, repetition or sense, what might seem too abstract for ancient haiku writers, indefinite pronouns, and common subjects of haiku (like nature). I felt I had a pretty strong rubric going for me. Although some days of reading were easier than others, I must say I felt pretty confident that I could track the real McCoys.
I went the extra electronic step and purchased the book for my Kindle. This made the process extra challenging because Cope's eBook kept crashing my Kindle after poem 200. So I stopped after getting 500 done and emailed the author with my guesses. Cope won't give you the exact answers, but he will tell you how many you got right or wrong.
I got 21 out of 221 right! Can you hear my heart breaking? That's a pretty intense brain whopping I just got from a machine. If it's any consolation, the proceeds of the book go to Greenpeace, saving the environment and not poetry machines.
This is a great article for any struggling writer: "7 Things You must Give Up to Become a Successful Writer." I have friends who produce all the excuses listed in this article all the time. And I have my own personal theory that I've believed in for many years: if you don't do it, you don't want to do it. It's not a fail safe theory (in relationships, for example) but it's pretty accurate prediction around vocations and avocations. I actually learned it from the parents of my boyfriend in college. They were commenting about me. It wasn't pleasant but they were right. And it helped me give up something I wasn't all that interested in for something I was very interested in.
People who want to write, they write. People who don’t want to write make excuses.
There's one thing you can say about tough love...it's tough.
Similarly, here is a blog post from earlier this year about feel-good good habits that don't amount to much under the shadow of long, hard work.
A year or so ago we talked about how challenging it is to start and maintain a poetry (or any) podcast, many moons ago Robert sent me a more current guide for setting up a podcast. Just because it's tough doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.