Tag Archives: MFA

I No Longer Say I’m a Writer

47cdbc1e7d2aa37dac054a2258d6a939Back when Big Chief tablets reigned, I only had to make my pencil rise and fall between the blue horizontal lines to call myself a writer, and what letters described hardly mattered—a boy, a girl, a dog, a hat, some short verbs. Words were unsure of themselves. They carried little inherent meaning. They sat slack-jawed, evidential.

At each stage of education, however, I burdened words more and more. When they started to disappear beneath their loads of thoughts, my teachers called me a “writer.” At first, the label must have been aspirational, designed to puff up my ambition and flatter my “potential.” But what passed for thought was still often evidential, the mental equivalent of “See?”

There’s no defining what happened next because some of it—like the poetry and hand-wringing prose of middle and high school “journals”—happened during. Along the way, words asserted themselves again, insisting on their beauty, crying to be arranged. I began to call myself a writer, and thoughts became my thoughts, which only the right words could describe. Compositions meant to evidence the voice and mind behind them. Foolishly or selfishly or both, I needed to write and, intermittently, believed the world needed to read me.

You write, writers are told, because you can’t not. It’s a compulsion to be heard, and you go on shouting, speaking, or whispering because you must. You wouldn’t be yourself without something auxiliary to yourself, an outrigger of words built just so. The siren of art calls you onto the rocks, and you give yourself to a doom worth embracing. You get an MFA.

But I wonder lately if I’m over that vision of writing. Like walking or breathing, writing is something we do, and, like walking and breathing, the quality of the act appears only at extremes. For writers like me who reside between failure and success, as much energy goes into convincing ourselves we’re special as goes into craft. Reading others’ work, I see some craft is clearly virtuous, is clearly real. And some writers’ faith is redeemed whether the craft is real or not. Outside those two states, though, writers endure. My endurance has run down.

John Berryman famously said no writer will ever know if he or she is any good or not. It’s true you’ll never be certain because you occupy only your own mind, but not-knowing seems more critical now than good or bad. Ambitious writers cling to hope, dreaming of wordless poems or a finally ideal expression of personal truths. “Who knows?” they think.

Not-knowing is a talent I’ve never possessed for long. Because, most of the time now, whether I’m accurate or not, I think I do know. At least, I’ve read enough great writing that pausing between conception and execution usually assures execution never occurs. Generally, I’m okay with that. I’m working on not-caring. Let others want to be authors.

The urge remains—I’m here now, after all—but it’s an urge, not a compulsion. The reason I write, when I write at all, is that I like to. I’m more at peace with putting my pencil down.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Desire, Education, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, life, Memory, MFA, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

It’s Okay If You’re Not Listening

imagesA fellow blogger once told me, “Don’t expect too much from summer.” She meant visitors, not summer in general.

She’s right about visitors. Something happens in June, and those WordPress bar graphs flatten to foothills. My first two years of blogging, I worried I’d said something so heinous no one liked me anymore. Now the summer lull is a familiar pattern, and, being a grizzled veteran of the sport of blogging, I accept readers’ attention wanes when the weather encourages healthier alternatives to reading angsty, self-doubting prose.

You can hardly look at an overcoat when it’s boiling out. I get that.

In fact, I more than accept the quiet. I relish it as a resort town must sigh through October or the babysitter must claim the whole couch between lights out and parents’ return. It’s not that I relax so much as I don’t worry about relaxing.

Blogging and publishing offer very different companionship. Real writers must imagine readers. In contrast, bloggers can usually guess how crowded the room is and adjust their volume and tempo, maybe even whisper because more intimate speech is okay right now.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve sent some writing away, and all of it has returned with “No thanks.” So perhaps I’m telling myself summer’s drought shouldn’t be ego-killing the way those rejections are. The alternative is believing I have nothing to say. Maybe I have nothing valuable to say sometimes, but I do desire speech. I want to say something.

And a strange relief arises when less is at stake. The less important the end, the more enjoyable the means. Why not be experimental or confessional or meta-conditional or plainspoken?

Writing is like swimming. It’s strange imagining someone inventing a way to cross a river, but someone must have. Conventional strokes—freestyle and breaststroke and butterfly—have well polished efficiencies, and they work. They aren’t the only means to reach another shore, however. Trying other methods might be embarrassing, but you could dream up something if you didn’t worry about looking like a fool. Plenty of brilliant writers master conventional syntax to compose lovely prose, but others revise the rules. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce all swim oddly.

Probably because they didn’t care and worried little about readers—who readers might be or how they might react to their beautiful fumbling.

Our MFA age is more homogenous, full of MacPoems, MacShort Stories, and MacNovels acceptably well structured, thoughtful, and forgettable. Hell, you might be reading a MacEssay right now. The “focus group” and “workshop” sometimes seem oddly named, as they often center on acceptability instead of vision or idiosyncrasy.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” I hear a classmate criticizing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “but aren’t these opening pages just a lot of throat-clearing?”

Fumbling isn’t always beautiful, but it’s more human than self-consciousness generally permits. I realize all my efforts to “get myself out there” and “learn what editors want” may improve my work because I’ll learn to appraise and revise what’s invisible to me now. But solitude—or an intimate gathering of friends—can be helpful too, especially if I can become comfortable with throat-clearing as I learn to sing.

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Filed under Ambition, Blogging, Desire, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, MFA, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Summer, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Walker Percy, Work

Cold Mountain

hanshan.jpeg It’s been some years since I’ve attended a poetry reading. I enjoy them, but I also struggle with my cynical side. I’ve been to too many readings that ape religious rites—the priest or priestess intones prayer-poems until the final moment when the audience ohs like a flock of smiling pilgrims, their eyes half-lidded in ecstasy.

Okay, I exaggerate—and maybe I shouldn’t be so flippant—but I wonder if our reverence for poetry can sometimes trap us into expecting enlightenment, elevation, and disclosure of deep truths approaching revelation. Sometimes simple statements on the human condition would go a long way.

Poetry can be whimsical and still revealing. One of my favorite poets is Han-shan of eighth-century T’ang Dynasty. Called “Cold Mountain,” Han-shan was a Buddhist struggling to cut himself off from craving. Still, even in commonplace moments, the magnitude of his longing is palpable… and so is his awareness of that state. The poems have a strangely impish pride and defiance:

As long as I was living in the village
They said I was the finest man around,
But yesterday I went to the city
And even the dogs eyed me askance.
Some people jeered at my skimpy trousers,
Others said my jacket was too long.
If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks
We sparrows could dance wherever we please!

Deep poetry it is not, but human. Han-shan’s voice does not come from on high. A reader can readily see he can’t help being pleased with himself, can’t help wanting to be paid the proper respect, can’t help knowing all of that, can’t help, even in his dejection, seeing humor in failing to impress dogs. For me, the logic of the last two lines is simultaneously ominous and funny, ludicrous and self-deprecating but also bitter. Those hawks had better watch out.

Here’s another:

A crowd of girls playing in the dusk,
And a wind-blown fragrance that fills the road!
Golden butterflies are sewn into the hems of their skirts;
Their chignons are pinned with mandarin ducks of jade.
Their maids wear cloaks of sheer crimson silk;
Purple brocade for the eunuchs who attend them.
Will they give a glance to one who’s lost the way,
With hair turned white and a restless hear
t?

Largely descriptive—and, at times, seemingly gratuitously so, almost wedding page so—this poem doesn’t demonize these girls but engages in the devoted attention that accounts for its final moments. Their finery is genuinely fine, and his meticulous observation of particulars suggests a sort of reverence for youthful innocence—the girls are playing, though servants attend them—and the butterflies, the ducks are the playthings of a child. The sincere longing erupts in the final question, and it seems important it is a question. A statement might turn all that preceded it into ammunition for resentment. Instead, the speaker asks, and in asking, might set off some spark in a reader. Oh to be young…oh to be noticed…

I picture Han-shan at a poetry reading and wonder what the crowd might do at the end of this poem. They could “oh,” but Han-Shan’s poems don’t aim for that response. Walt Whitman said he was “No stander above men.” Though I love Walt Whitman, his phrasing belies its sentiment. In Han-shan, the sentiment is never too grave or ponderous and nearly always fundamentally amused. Instead of a priest, he presents a person.

When I read Han-shan I think about a poet I heard read once in MFA school. He would stop periodically and say “Did you catch that?” and reread the phrase. Sometimes he would even read the poem again…more than once.

The most dangerous temptation in poetry is making meaning instead of embodying it. Han-Shan tells you to pause and listen to how silly you sound.

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Filed under Buddhism, Ego, Essays, Han-shan, MFA, Poetry, Thoughts, Writing

Pencils and Poems

pencils.gif A reprise from my old blog…

At the bidding of one of my MFA teachers, I once read a 400 plus page book on pencils, Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. I remember writing a snarky introduction when I responded to the book. It amounted to, “What the hell was that for?”

But I knew. He meant to set me thinking about art and engineering, creativity and inventiveness, poetry and… pencils. Petroski’s thesis is that art desires “a sense of unity…evoking an emotional or aesthetic response,” whereas technology seeks to improve earlier forms. New pencils, Petroski notes ad nauseum, supersede old ones as literary works never do. “Ulysses” did not supplant The Odyssey, Petroski said, nor did anyone fix “On Reading Chapman’s Homer” because Keats said Cortez instead of Balboa first viewed the Pacific. Though, actually, wasn’t Balboa the first white man…?

Pencil makers do make aesthetic decisions—the book includes a long discussion of the failed attempt to replace wood with plastic in pencils, which “violated the aesthetic and psychological sensibilities of its intended users.” I just thought plastic pencils felt funny. However, no method of pencil making is ever intended to be the last statement. No poet could think he or she is writing the last poem either, but the poet might write as if this poem was the omega. It’s supposed to be complete in itself and not a stage to a better way of writing poems.

Maybe, but writing poetry isn’t always about the poem you’re presently engineering. Sometimes it’s about writing this poem so you might write a more expressive or effective one later. That later poem won’t arrive without a best effort to make this poem all it might be, but trying to write the omega seems, to me, a death wish. What if you succeeded? What would you do next?

According to Petroski, the biggest difference between poems and pencils is the motive of the maker. Artists seek self-expression in the abstract. An engineer’s job is to solve an existing problem. He or she is not a theorist endowed with “for its own sake” motivation, the way an artist might create to create. Petroski makes a careful distinction between scientists and engineers and favors engineers’ pragmatic and creative approaches. He observes that “drugs predate medicine, belief religion, conflict law, artifacts formal engineering.” “Applied science,” to Petroski, is a misnomer because it reverses what actually happens—scientists spend most of their time trying to explain why new technology works. Petroski says the reverse process—finding a way to use discoveries—is far less common. He calls science “thinking after the artifact.”

Do poems solve an existing problem? In content certainly. Personally perhaps. I suspect most poets write to resolve something, even if they are working it out subconsciously. In practice, however, poets can also be like engineers, looking for a form, style, or approach that gets them closer to what they wish to express. Sometimes artists seem to be inventing new schools or new art forms out of a perverse desire to be novel, but I wonder if, like the misnamed “applied science,” starting with something abstract is the exception or the rule. How often do artists come up with whole new ways of painting, writing, or composing they are just itching to try?

In The Shape of Content Ben Shahn writes, “Art almost always has its ingredient of impudence, its flouting of established authority, so that it may substitute its own authority, and its own enlightenment.” Novelty and art seem inextricably wed. A good measure of poetry’s authority arises from the feeling that we’ve never seen or heard this before, at least not in quite the same way. But Shahn also recognizes art may “take its form from something closer to provocation…it may not just turn to life, but . . . at certain times be compelled by life.”

An artist can respond to “provocation” in just the way an engineer does, and provocation can be to solve a problem. It could be a problem no one else recognizes yet, but in that sense too, art isn’t that different from engineering. Shahn tells the story of an art show in Paris in 1925. When officials suggested the Salon of the Independents was no longer necessary, a critic cited 25 artists in that Salon who had not won the overall show’s prize but who became major names in art—Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh among them—while prize winners had fallen into obscurity.

With this allusion, Shahn means to assert artists’ need to define themselves apart from contemporaries—to offer a vision unavailable elsewhere—but isn’t their nonconformity also a reaction to circumstances, to a perceived need?

In Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says that the usual stance for a poet is “believing you are the wrong thing in a right world.” Not all artists embrace being vanguards. Some may have an uneasy feeling about being iconoclasts or outcasts. The vision of artists as the mad fringe of society—the anti-engineer—is limited and limiting. Though artists may seem “out there,” they are a part of the world, not apart from it.

I think about an exceptionally innovative poet, John Berryman. Far from being a gift, Berryman’s creativity was a heavy burden. His innovations in form arose from a kind of “engineer’s necessity.” His primary purpose was not to revolutionize poetry so much as to stay alive. Certainly he needs the ampersand and minstrel voice and the “all problem, no solution” modified sonnet he invented in The Dream Songs to reproduce the workings his mind. His numerous, structurally uniform poems helped represent a single chaotic life, a struggle with his own suicidal thoughts.

But he distrusted other’s praise for his innovation. In “Dream Song #340” he sees that with praise, “an element of incredulity / enters and dominates.” What he really wanted was not to be known as trail blazer, but to accurately represent his agony, period. Berryman worked very hard at his idiosyncratic form. He created artifice—he used “Henry,” not John—but what made Berryman brilliant was his earnestness—granted, his humor too—but mostly the way he had of making us feel these poems were, ultimately, no game.

The Dream Songs put Berryman near a waterfall, swimming hard to keep from being sucked down. “Dream Song #137” focuses on his daughter’s reluctance to fall asleep. His argument is that in sleeping she will be “Little Baby” again, “while I pursue my path of sorrow / & bodies, bodies to be carried a mile / & dropt.”

Perhaps poets should be reluctant engineers—just as Berryman was a reluctant poet—but, to me, they seem engineers nonetheless. The part of poets and artists that makes them create a new world comes from this world. No less than the engineer, they respond to life and our common destiny.

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Naming

I think every poem I write could begin with the words, “Well yes and…” and, in fact, those words may make a good title if I can ever get a book together.

They suggest that what follows will acknowledge, affirm, and supplement what a reader already knows, which seems to be all I can hope for. I rarely manage so much.

In Poetry and the Body, John Vernon says, “I think I am choosing, selecting my words, but words just as often choose me.” Sometimes I feel like a medium—at my most fluent, I don’t feel I’m doing anything special, simply condensing what’s already in the air or divining what’s just under the surface. This sense of the experience leads Vernon to call poetry “a dance of words in the mouth” and to assert writing is finally “gestural,” more revealing in pattern than content…more revealing, even, than it intends.

I know how shamanistic—or loony—these statements may sound, but they arise from a concrete observation: the words writers take such pride in choosing and arranging are ultimately limited.

According to Vernon, our consciousness “wakes up” with language and, as we’ve never really known a time without it, we grow used to words’ power to organize the world, to classify and categorize and order. We forget that language also extricates us from the world. We can come to believe words are the world when they only really describe it. We seek control through language as if it could remake what it depicts.

Vernon asserts poetry exists because the world ultimately resists naming. “Language” he says, “sifts everything through its categories and types, and the world is the deposit left over when language is finished.”

While even a poem needs some measure of rationality, I’m skeptical when I know exactly what I’m doing. It sounds eyes-rolled-into-the-back-of-my-head crazy to say so, but a rhythm often occurs to me before the words. I might write a line in blankity blanks blank blanken and then substitute actual words for my place-holding nonsense. Which makes me wonder which comes first. Are the words the real placeholders, something to fit dim music I hear? I prefer not being sure. I’m not out to write nonsense, but I’d rather suit words to a feeling than the other way around. I want to be no more clever than necessary.

Vernon says, “We need poetry because names die, because objects resist their names, because the world overflows and escapes its names.”

And if you can’t name anything—for long—wouldn’t it be nice to communicate that we share that state and still try to say what we mean anyway?

In light of Vernon’s observations, acknowledging, affirming, supplementing an unnamed and unnameable world seems a good dream. Nothing is as satisfying to a poet as a nod. It declares, “You’ve said something I almost knew. You’ve made some music audible at last.”

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Setting Out Again

Growing up across the street from an empty field, I never watched television sports long without feeling the pull to go outside and play.  I wanted to participate instead of observe, to answer instead of listen.

But I didn’t say I was good at football or baseball or whatever games were underway, and so, when I ran from the TV, I only found another sort of escape, fleeing into another fantasy world.  The color commentator kept talking in my head, praising my puny moves and replaying them moment by moment in loving analysis. He placed me very near the top of the greats, and, in my imagination, my name rung like the tolling of time immemorial.

Yet, even if I’d had the self-discipline, unassailable confidence, and drive of athletes I admired, I could never equal them physically. I had no reasonable hope of being 6’5” and 250.  My body would never cover 100 meters under nine seconds or a mile under four minutes.  No crusty coach would ever curse me to the top of the boxing world.

Some years ago, on the first day of my MFA program, the director asked us why we were there.  I answered that I was tired of listening without speaking.  My classmates nodded approvingly—they understood—but I wonder if they did really.  I wonder if, then, they knew the burden of needing to play, of drawing on a dwindling battery of patience as you leaf through collections of poetry, turn another page of a novel…or scroll through someone else’s post.

Turns out, MFA school, like all school, relies on paying attention. If you aren’t interested in watching, watch you must, for what hope do you have of being anyone’s equal if you haven’t the perseverance to listen? Without input, there is no output, and being a writer means standing on whatever parts of giants offer footholds.  It means exploiting every anxiety of influence until you find yourself in uninfluenced territory.

And the need to speak, it turns out, is more curse than blessing, an urge you’d gladly outgrow or exhaust…because no one ever promises you’ll be good at it.  You might never know if you have the skills to excel or ever hear your name outside your own imagination.

“Signals to Attend” is my fourth blog, another resolution for another year. I start it with the same familiar questions, wondering why listening is never enough, why watching even the best grows old, why silence doesn’t become me more.

I guess I can’t help thinking I have something to say.

Dear reader, I hope you’ll find I’m right.

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