Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who Listens to Poets?

Poets have long been a tiny part of our national life, no matter how we wish it to be otherwise, or tell each other how important it is. On the other hand, American poetry is booming in its own twisted way. Rap, cowboy poetry, slams, workshops, readings, and graduate programs abound. We have hundreds of on-line and print publications to keep up with. (Wow, I just ended that sentence with two prepositions, and I'm proud of it.) If you want a visual of that list, go to and look at their member list. CLMP stands for Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. In my own corner of the world I can attend four poetry readings a month, most of them small but fervent. I found four huge shelves of poetry books at my almost-local B&N this week, so many that I had to make choices about how to spend my book allowance. Yup, it's a good time to be an American poet. We are free to write sonnets or free verse, language poems or narratives, short, long, serious or light. I can go dizzy just thinking about the many sizes of poetry.

And if I'm dizzy, what happens to the newcomers? Where can a newly outed poet go for solace in this chaos? I think they go to friends, or they make friends with other poets, maybe those who have been around a while. They listen and talk, they scribble and erase, type and delete. They experiment. Experimentation is at the heart of American poetry. Since Walt Whitman and the Belle of Amherst broke the tight-fitting rules, we have each been allowed to choose our mentors and our heroes. If I tried to list the poets I hold in esteem, we'd never reach the end. An important factor in establishing such a list is, obviously, reading and listening to other poets, lots of them, to see what's available and what appeals to me. It means that I finally had the courage to face a mic and listen for whatever response I could get from a handful of people kind enough to listen to me. This dialog doesn't end. It's a life sentence with complicated cell mates and complex phrasing. Come on in, the water's fine.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Busy, Busy!

So much going on that I am, at times, befuddled. I have too many sticky notes on my desktop, too many projects that are not related to creative work, and too many domestic projects, not the least is planning for another move at the end of April. And April is poetry month! Being my own boss is lovely, giving me the option to schedule life with more flexibility than I've had in the past when students and/or patients required me to keep appointments and schedules. But the world runs on schedule, whether the trains do or not. (If you don't get that allusion, go to Wikepedia and look up Mussolini.) However, I do not get bored with such a list of things to attend to: civic responsibilities, teaching classes, taking part in poetry readings, editing contributions soon to be aired by The Cafe Review, and writing! I am still working my way through a pile of culled poems and finding what's worth saving, reworking, revising. This is deep work, challenging myself to see why a poem failed originally. Often it was laziness, haste, cowardice, little things like that. What I saw today when I dug deeper, was a pose that hid the anger over being "uncool" but loving my own life.

Here's this morning's revision, first the early version, then the latest:

Tired of Good Behavior

I want to throw away
this nodding smile,
this commerce and 
swap meet of courtesy 
for once. Be a punk.

Stop matching my socks.
Bras could go.
Tidy files could go,
rules and schedules.
Bag the day book.

Punks take pain
and ride it--
nose rings and tattoos.
Tear their clothes,
mix drab fabric.
Don't smile
or mind their mothers.
They break
windows and bones.

They don't shop around
because you can't save
what you don't have.
I'm a quarter punk now,
ready to take on
the constant chaos
that frees us.

The Uncool

How do you do? I have holes
in my earlobes, none in my tongue.
My jeans are intact. They fit at the hip.

I'm not even one quarter punk,
but descend from a tailored tribe.
We match our socks and

do not love pain, not even our own.
The family crest flaunts
a black day book on a white field.

We shop around, atavars
of the gatherers we were. We purr,
swap smile for smile, trade hello

and how-are-you, dare to open
fists and doors. We vote. We don't
enlist in the army of chaos.

We have evolved beyond the age of
mutilation. It's not all about God,
but where you left your keys,

where you left your kids and not
dragging dead bodies through dark halls.
We are the diurnal middle class.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Discovery and Poetry

For several weeks now I have been cleaning out my poetry notebook and deciding which pieces are worth revision and which ones need to be tossed, maybe gleaning a line or two to store in the journal. Throwing away poems used to feel like treason; how could I just crumple a poem that had tickled my brain and grown from a little phrase into a living piece of art? Easily when I gained enough perspective to recognize the difference between art and artifact. Artifact as in static, noise, unimportant background that masks the real message. My friend Merrell used to tell me there was a difference between a clever poem and a good poem. And he had the guts to say that to my face when I lost my edge, not an unusual event. I still take his advice, although we have not talked in years. As I ripen, I am more willing to see that some poems just don't have the guts to say what they mean. I have learned to question the cute, easy, superficial lines and images that might entertain me, but that teach me nothing. They are all pose, not poetry. There's no discovery there.

Often, the urge to make a poem comes from that ticklish phrase or image that snags my attention, and I get caught in it. So caught that I forget to take a risk, look deeper at why that particular bit of language or sensory input tugs on my sleeve and pesters me to come out and play. Impish or angelic, these sniggles want my full attention; they want to show me something I didn't know, or remind me of something I know but don't want to think about. Cleverness can be a good thing, if it leads to real insight, like an attractive sign leading to an overlook where we can see for miles. Often those miles are really years, and the view is of ourselves or those we love or thought we loved. Then, and only then, is a real poem on the page. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, described the hero's journey as dark, lonely, risky, and fruitful. We can all be poet-heroes if we dare.