Sunday, November 23, 2008

My poem inspired by Keats' poem

Finding the link for the Keats poem I mentioned in the post below meant reading the Keats poem, to make sure I'd found a good website. That reading, in turn, made me think of an earlier poem I wrote. It's not a Thanksgiving poem, but it's my attempt at an Autumn poem that doesn't use the traditional images.

It's autobiographical--those of you who are old enough to remember will realize that I'm writing about the autumns of 1983, 1984, and 1986.

This poem first appeared in The Powhatan Review Winter 2004-2005.

October Songs

“Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,“
John Keats, “To Autumn”

I know the first thing I must buy, stocking
up on supplies as I return from the outback
of my college campus, where my radio
only receives country twanging and peppy pop songs.
I buy as many record albums as my arms can hold.

The days darken early. I play U2’s War,
and news filters in from Lebanon, soldiers exploding,
terrorists kidnapping tourists, forces invading Grenada.
I worry about violence, nuclear holocaust, and those five
pounds that seem all too comfortable on my frame.

Later, I must severely budget back to school dollars:
running shoes, an oscillating fan, Bruce Springsteen’s Born
in the USA
. Russell and I train for a marathon
to the beat of this music; I miss Carl
with the keening intensity of a train whistle.

As I prepare graduate school applications and fret
about the GRE, Kevin gives me a Suzanne Vega
tape. I listen to these strange songs
as I, too, pare down my life to simpler
lyrics, a spare poetry of simplicity.


And now, I suppose I can procrastinate by blogging no longer--I must go do a bit more Thanksgiving prep.

Writing Prompt #1

I've always enjoyed John Keats' "To Autumn," perhaps the only autumn poem with no leaves that have changed color.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, here's a similar prompt: write a Thanksgiving poem that stays away from the usual cliches. When I was younger, and wrote "Daughterless Women," I probably thought I was doing that. But as I typed it in, some part of me was horrified at the Thanksgiving cliches (see entry below). But a larger part of me felt fondness for my younger poet self, and so the poem gets to stay on this blog.

But as I prepare for Thanksgiving, I'll be thinking about the kind of Thanksgiving poem I'd write now. Can one write a Thanksgiving poem that isn't trite and traditional?

Thanksgiving Poem

Here is a Thanksgiving poem. It appeared in Caprice in 2000, but of course, I wrote it several years before that.

I've often been accused of writing poetry that's "prose-y," and this poem does seem to fall into that category. Still, it's the only Thanksgiving poem I have that's been published, and I want to be careful about putting unpublished work on this blog, since I'd like for poems to appear somewhere else before they appear here (and then, ideally, the best of them would appear later, in a book with a spine--I'm old-fashioned that way).

This poem is so old that I don't even have it typed into my current computer. So, as I type it in, I'm going to resist the urge to revise.

And yes, this poem represents Thanksgiving as I perceived it as a young woman visiting my rural relatives. I wrote it my first Thanksgiving in south Florida, when I was desperately homesick for them.

Anyway, enough prelude. Here it is:

Daughterless Women

Surely, they've all earned a rest.
But they're a daughterless bunch,
so they'll put together the annual feast,
even though the youngest is fifty-eight.

They've already chosen the turkey, slaughtered
and plucked it, plopped it in the fridge
as if it defrosted like a normal grocery
store turkey. They've planned the menu,
delegated the tasks, prepared as much in advance
as possible.

Still, they roll out of bed at 4:30 in the morning,
pad to the cold kitchen, turn on the oven
and burners (something to be thankful
for right there--they all remember
when part of the task involved hauling
kindling and logs to the cast-iron stove).
They set the dough to warm and rise,
roll out rounds of pastry,
keep the bubbling pots controlled.

They meet at Mae Mae's house.
She has the biggest kichen
and two television sets so the men won't argue
about which game to watch. The women reheat,
arrange spectacular presentations,
and set out all necessary utensils.
The family gathers in the dust-free dining
room for the blessing.

The oldest male blesses
the food and just like every year, forgets
to bless the hands that made the meal,
gives thanks for a good growing season
and forgets to give thanks for the growers.

The men, drunk on sweet tea and football hormones,
keep the glasses filled.
Occasionally an outside male--
always younger, always well-intentioned--
tries to help in the kitchen.
Like pecking hens, the women drive him away.

Everyone eats enough to keep a third world child
alive for a year; between all the family appetites,
they consume food that could have kept a whole village
from starvation.

Finally the clean up begins, food wrapped
in plastic, tucked away in corners
of the fridge and freezer, divided
between the families. The heirloom china
and silver receive their ritual washing.
The older children help put the pots and pans
away. The women restore order
to the kitchen.

At halftime, the men creep
back to the kitchen to exchange
tales of the past--the relatives a few generations
back who were so poor
they didn't even have an outhouse,
just did their business in the woods;
the great grandmother who insisted
on clean drawers before going to the emergency
room for her heart attack;
the vegetarian kook who tried to convince
them to switch to soybeans.

Gradually, the meal makes an encore
performance. The family picks and putters
amongst the leftovers as dusk descends
on another holiday,
another reunion,
another burnished bouquet of memories.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Poet's Personality

This week, a colleague at work said, "You're so outgoing and gregarious for a poet." I just smiled and said, "Thank you," even though I really wanted to know more details. Am I outgoing and gregarious for a regular person too? Am I outgoing and gregarious compared to a sullen teenager? It's like when a relative tells you, "I'm so impressed with your ability to carry on a conversation." Have you just been insulted or complimented?

I've been with my current school for almost seven years, and I occasionally get these kind of comments from people who have been there longer than I have. When I first started teaching creative writing classes, one person marvelled that I was so normal, for a writer. Another time, someone told me I was well-adjusted, for a poet. I wonder about creative writers who have been on faculty before I came--what kind of lives did these people lead, that makes my colleagues so incredulous of my ability to be personable?

As an undergraduate, I was a double major, both English and Sociology, so part of me always wants to grill people on what they mean by that word normal. Part of me always feels a bit insulted, like I've had a boring life. Part of me agrees that, yes, I've had a boring life, and contemplates taking up a dangerous habit.

And yet, I've known tempestuous writers (and non-writers) who manufacture drama, because life feels boring without it. And guess what? They don't get much done. They're too hung over or obsessed with an unobtainable love object or avoiding their muse in any number of damaging ways.

Throughout American literary history, we're burdened with the self-destructive writer (and any number of other types of artists). As far back as Edgar Allan Poe, we see people dying early because of their bad habits (those Colonial writers were probably too busy scratching out a living to drink themselves into an early grave). Some scholars might try to tell us that those alcoholic or drug abusing poets accomplished more than they ever would without the drugs and alcohol, but that's a bunch of hooey. Often their lives ended much earlier than they needed to, and I wonder about all the creative works lost to the drugs and alcohol, all the creative works lost when the writer died too young.

As writers, we need to take care of ourselves and attend to our communities, while at the same time making sure that we take time for our art. It's a delicate balancing act, to be sure. Being a tempestuous may make our lives seem more interesting, to the outsider at least, but it's unlikely to lead to art that's more interesting. I saw a quote recently (and I'll try to find it again, so I can give the famous, dead author credit): "Be well ordered in your life so that your art can be wild."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Reproachful Bookcase

Yesterday's post made me think about my grad school days, and then, later, as I sat at work, I looked at my bookcase, as I often do, when I'm between tasks. Each shelf holds books that I haven't read since graduate school, and let's be honest--I don't expect to ever read them again. I spent many years in grad school reading Victorian novels, most of them over 500 pages. It was hard to find time to read them then.

I moved those books to my office for several reasons. It's not that I expected to need them as I teach or help run our department. We have trouble getting our students to read short articles. I can't imagine how they'd react if I said we were reading Bleak House. Actually, I can imagine it. They simply wouldn't read it.

No, I moved them because I needed to free up shelves on my home bookcases. And I thought that the sight of them might be a comfort.

Instead, I find the sight of them distressing. They remind me of all the good ideas I ever had for academic papers and books, and they reproach me as I think about work I haven't yet done. I even have books from my undergraduate years in the office. Those books cause real distress. They remind me of my younger self who first discovered these poets and writers, my younger self who wandered through the days, dizzy with the joy of language and literature.

Yesterday, I took a slim volume of poems that I have on my desk and put it on the shelf in front of my school books. It fit! Now I have a vision: I can put rows of poetry volumes in front of those books that cause me grief. I'll gaze on those books and remind myself of the rich vastness of today's poetry world. When I need a break, I'll pull a volume of poems off the shelf and read. I buy all these books and rarely take time to read them. Poems are perfect for that slot of time between meetings, time that's too short to get any administrative work or grading done, but a chunk of time nonetheless. I almost always find the reading of poems to be inspiring--just the thing to encourage me to return to my own poems. Having those books collected in one place (a place where I spend so many hours a week) will hopefully help me make better use of my down time.

My poetry writing has always been more important to me than my academic writing. Having those poetry volumes there in my office will remind me of my higher calling.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Writing Process and our Various Writerly Selves

On her blog, The Word Cage, Mary Biddinger writes about a student who's exploring the intersection between creative writing and academic writing--but they haven't been able to find much research on the subject or source material.

For years, I've been collecting books where authors talk about their writing process, so I thought that surely I would have something. I found lots of books on my shelves of interviews with writers--no surprise, since that's one of my favorite formats. I found many books of essays, where authors wrestle with what it is they mean to do in their creative writing. I even found an essay or two where authors wrestle with which genre is the most natural for them, for example, how to integrate their poet self with their novelist self.

I didn't find anything which talked about writers who feel torn between academic writing and creative writing, much less anything that explored authors who work in both worlds.

When I think back to my own graduate school days in the late 80's and early 90's, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The MFA world was fairly separate from the PhD world. The MFA folks had to take one class in theory, and they complained bitterly. The theorists would say, "Creative writing is the dirt from which theory flowers." Those of us who went to graduate school because we love poetry, both the writing of it and the reading of it, felt a bit lost.

And the academic job world still seems stratified in this way. If I want a job where I teach British Literature of the 19th Century, I really need to have some articles, preferably a book, analyzing the work of those writers. If I publish my own book of elegiac poems that find a model in Tennyson's "In Memoriam A.H.H.," that's unlikely to win me a teaching job where I can talk about Tennyson--unless I have a PhD and some academic articles that analyze the work of Tennyson.

I've spent much of my creative life writing poems, because they're more portable (I started dabbling with the novel form long before laptops were lightweight and affordable). I decided not to focus on research and academic writing once I finally finished my dissertation and could write whatever I wanted. But occasionally, I wonder if I should beef up my CV, in case I ever want a job elsewhere, and I return to academic writing.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford for a book of essays about narratives of community in linked short stories written by women. It went through several revisions, and I thought, oh yes, I remember why I didn't want to do this. But when I held the final book in my hand, I felt such a rush, and I thought, why don't I do this more often?

I know I'm not the only writer who wrestles with various writing identities and wonders how much time to devote to each. I find it interesting that those of us who write in a variety of genres (such as feminist criticism or theology or cookbook writing) outside of the standard Creative Writing genres of Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction, don't write more about that part of the writing process.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Of Literary Journals, Poem Publications, and Reading Responsibilities

A few days ago, my contributor copies of The South Carolina Review arrived. I've had a few poems published in there before, and I'm always impressed with that journal.

As I was reading it and enjoying the creative works, the book reviews, and the interviews, I wondered if I should subscribe. I believe in supporting literary journals and small presses with my money, not with just my creative offerings.

But I'm also always aware of the stacks of books that I haven't read yet and the stacks of journals that I'm beginning to suspect I will never read. I tell myself that I could try a new approach: I could take a quick look through each journal as it arrives in the mail. I'd read whatever grabbed me in that brief opportunity, and then pass the journal along. Would I still feel guilty over unread material if I had sent the journal on to someone else?

I suspect that I'll continue to wrestle with this issue for much of the rest of my life--unless the publishing industry collapses completely in the face of electronic challenges.

In the meantime, here's my poem that appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of The South Carolina Review:

Lying in State

On the day that Ronald Reagan dies,
in the shadow of the Interstate, I offer
a homeless man a loaf of banana bread
which he grabs, as if afraid
I’ll rescind my offer.

Reagan’s body flies across the continent
to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda,
that branch of government which made policies
he tried to evade.
I report to work, teach English to the children
of families who fled Reagan’s foreign
policies, Cold War containment and interference.

On the day of Reagan’s funeral, I plant
a tree and remember his claim
that creatures of this leafy clan cause pollution.
I think of ICBMs fertilizing far away fields
and Adam dead of AIDS these twenty years,
his bones blending into the earth.

Monday, November 17, 2008

First Posting

I've been interested in blogs for a long time, but I've hesitated to start one. I've had the usual worries: one more account/password in my life, sounding stupid, attracting unwanted attention, ruining my future.

But I've noticed that many blogs help their writers to be part of a wider community. And I know that some bloggers have opportunities they'd have never gotten if they didn't keep a blog.

Still, I've read enough blogs to know what I do and don't like. I like a blog that's organized around a theme. This blog will document my life as a poet, and as someone with other creative interests that wrestles with how to fit all my creative pursuits into a life that's already crammed full of other commitments.

I teach English and Creative Writing at a local college, and I also serve as the Assistant Chair of my department. Since so many creative writers face a similar employment situation, I want to talk about work and its impact on my creative life. But I'll try to talk about it in a general way, so as not to jeopardize future employment potential or to risk being fired.

In addition to talking about me, I'll review books that have been useful and/or inspiring, as well as noting useful websites or blog postings.