A Sip

I stuffed some peppermint tea bags into the percolator, along with a single-pot coffee pouch, and stirred chocolate instant breakfast into the result. Armed with this variant of mint mocha, and the esoteric knowledge passed on by a friendly maintenance guy, I have bypassed the timer on the fireplace, and am watching the waves from my window, slowly imbibing the choco-minty warmth. Fine sand is still whispering over the dunes, despite some drizzle. The soundtrack to the film “Once” is playing through my laptop speakers, extolling transitory love. Soon I will be navigating security checkpoints, on my way back to the hustle of a high-tech job. What I have experienced at this residency seems all the more profound for its fleeting nature. Like poetry, it is a place I can not fully inhabit, but still am loathe to leave.

The Yoda of Poetry

After his craft talk this morning, I am convinced that, if he wanted to, Marvin Bell could levitate a space ship with his mind. He used the alphabet (why not?) as a framework for rattling off his abecedarian thoughts on poetry, nugget after nugget of invigorating advice interspersed with his own quirky humor. He read two poems that had nothing to do with the basics of successful lyric poetry — image, language, attention to specific detail and scene — and everything to do with transmitting poignant sentiment through casual tone and nuanced observation. He described them as “poems which don’t care if you think that they are poems.” By that time, we had reached the letter “B.” What followed were twenty-four equally subversive, insightful forays — all told with a twinkle in the eye. Having him act as my faculty advisor in the coming semester is nothing short of a privilege.

Thank Heavens for the Iconoclast

“You just go on your nerve.”

-Frank O’Hara, “Personism”

Dorianne Laux took a pin to our significant, pastoral, first-person confessional, lyrical, serious, West-coast bubble with a great talk on Frank O’Hara. She read several of his poems and traced the influence of finding universality in absurdity through to such contemporary poets as Tony Hoagland and Charles Simic. The progression from the whimsical to the profound, through a conversational, person-to-person address, has had a significant influence on contemporary poetry. More importantly, it refreshes the language and encourages us writers to begin with a vital aspect of the creative process: not taking ourselves so seriously. It reminds me of the liberated-yet-practical turn of mind expressed by Marvin Bell, that, “on the one hand, it’s poetry! On the other, it’s just poetry.” Thanks heavens for the iconoclast.

An MFA Is Also Not…

An MFA is also not about impressing one’s fellow students, or even the faculty.

Cut off from daily life, thrust into long hours in close quarters with other artists, many of them strangers, others new acquaintances — the temptation to impress, or at least win acceptance, is all too human. The same insecurities of grade-school children searching for a seat in the cafeteria also manifests, in only slightly more rarified ways, come lunchtime during residency.

In the end, however, there is a single thought which I use to steady myself in this tide: I am not here to impress any of these people; I am here to become a better writer. Because in becoming a better writer, I will be more likely to impress some people who do matter — editors. That process, however, has nothing to do with lunchtime chat, and everything to do with what comes across on the page.

I do my best to adhere to this thought, even if it is wrong — even if it is, in fact, a brutal, careerist world out there, where attending the right parties is everything. I want to inhabit a world where good writing is paramount, even if that world represents a small, undervalued subsection of contemporary poetry. I have seen the power and significance of a receptive audience of one.

It is important to be generous, kind, and respectful in life — because human beings are precious, no matter how well they write. But whenever I have faced a decision to try to further my career or follow my heart, the latter has always propelled me further faster than any of my petty scheming would allow. So, whatever ambition I have, I try to direct it inward — toward writing rather than networking, toward equanimity rather than allegiances, toward actually getting better rather than simply looking good.

It is about as easy as anything else that involves cutting against the grain of cultural conditioning. But my commitment to getting better is ultimately what got me here, to Oregon, to freeze my butt off and learn.

Discovering How to Discover

Ellen Bass gave an excellent talk today on the importance of discovery in both the creation and development of narrative poetry. She pointed out that as much as detail matters on the tactical level, strategically, it is discovery that can answer the “so what?” of a narrative poem. She offered a number of useful, practical suggestions on how to move a poem from simple recount into the realm of discovery, including:

  • Shift the time frame, vantage point, or speaker.
  • Explore the opposite of the “expected” viewpoint or tone.
  • Take wild associative leaps.
  • Link the story to other stories, or a “story behind the story.”
  • Ask why this is being told now; why it is necessary?

During the question and answer portion, she admitted that, in her own process, she will often not resist the temptation to become heavy-handed or draw too-neat conclusions in her poems; instead, she writes them down as a kind of platform on which to rest momentarily, knowing that in the final version the line must go. I found her candor, practicality, and commitment to craft both refreshing and inspirational.