Sandra Alcosser on Brevity

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The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

-Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”

It was worth flying back and getting a short night of sleep last night to hear Sandra Alcosser speak about brevity in poetry this morning. I am no stranger to shortness — my most recently published poem (Askew, Issue 3) is eight lines long, the longest line being eleven syllables.

But Sandra really spoke to what makes a poem compelling, independent of length, focusing in particular on the technique of diaphoric metaphor. She explained that diaphoric metaphor was taken up in American letters after the opening up of Eastern culture to the West, when Asian literature became available for translation. This method creates energy in a poem through juxtaposition of dissimilar lines to create new meaning. In a sense such associations strike me as the essence of creative thought. In its modern presentation, however, the approach comes unburdened with the conceits (“is” or “is like” or “as”) of its sibling, epiphoric metaphor.

In my own work, I started out — as I learned today that apparently the ancient Chinese poet Li Ho did as well — collecting individual lines to stitch together. This technique seems to naturally focus itself around compelling imagery (though the music can often be just as important). Alcosser also pointed out that if post-modernism is a kind of “random-access literature,” this technique of stitching together diaphoric juxtapositions represents “random-access observations for a random-access world.” Depending, therefore, upon the intensity of the leap — and whether the valence of the line tends more toward imagery/music/rhetoric or language itself as an elemental tool — this technique seems to me to be well-suited to both the personal lyric and the bold avant garde.

Sandra’s is a voracious creative intelligence that is always a pleasure to behold. I am looking forward to having her be my faculty advisor in the coming semester.

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Why Publish?

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Christopher Howell of Eastern Washington University Press gave an excellent overview of publishing options this afternoon — including vanity presses, self-publishing, cooperatives, small, independent, university and corporate publishers. Above all he encouraged right motivation: to publish [He put forward the idea of publishing] as means to enter the larger literary conversation, and encouraged the practice of detachment in both acceptance and rejection.

Strangely, I have sometimes heard that academic programs can be adverse to talking about the nuts-and-bolts realities of modern literary publication. Yet with the explosion of MFA programs in this country, one’s publications become a kind of secondary credentialing — not to mention, as Howell remarked, the means to have a larger and more lasting conversation with — and effect upon — the literary world. So, I was grateful for yet another straightforward and level-headed look at publication, and see it as enrichment to a program that is nonetheless fundamentally about writing, no matter what becomes of the work.

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Not Quite Paris

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On the flight over, a family of three was seated in front of me. Actually, the father was assigned a seat a few rows up, so when the rightful occupant came down the aisle, he politely asked if they could switch so he could stay with his family. No dice. The woman specifically booked that seat so she could be across the aisle from her friend. The purpose? So they could pass People magazine back and forth, making catty comments on, for example, how quickly Britney Spears’ hair has grown (“Do you think it’s a wig?!”). The one bit of knowledge I acquired from this sterling journal of contemporary culture that is now ironically applicable to my own life is that apparently Paris Hilton’s jail cell measures 12′ x 15′.

By my reckoning, my own dorm room here at Pacific University measures about 10′ x 8′. Even counting the 1′ extension by the window and the 2′ extension by the door that makes for an uncovered closet space, that still makes my place of educational residence nearly half the square footage of Ms. Hilton’s place of incarceration.

Still, the simplicity and beautiful surroundings appeal to my monastic side (I did, after all, live in a seminary for nearly four years) — and there is an incredible moss-covered tree right outside my window. Plus, a space this size in the center of Paris (the city) would probably cost hundreds of euros per night — and you’d still have to go down the hall to the toilet.

Joking aside, I’m here for the workshops and lectures. We kick off our time before lunch with a bit of a general welcome, then go right into a craft talk by Marvin Bell. Not a bad way to spend a morning, indeed.

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