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Sarah Arvio
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VALENTINE’S & WORTHY SUBJECTS I’m blogging on Valentine’s week without the merest nod to the Valentine. But here is something about poetry and the heart. * * * I think I may have failed to write a book I was meant to write. The man I live with was in a dark, angry mood--this happens to some people in life--and I wrote a set of poems while that was going on. One was “Neck,” one was “Wood”--they were expressions of the dark experience I was living through. They were about bad love. Very unusual for me, I sent them out instantly, and they were all published in the following months. There are about ten. Someone who often read my poems--a distinguished poet and scholar--I will not say who--told me over tea that he wondered if that--he meant bad love--was a worthwhile subject for poetry. I’m not sure the word was “worthwhile,” but it was in that meaning range. I understood that, in his view, I should not be exploiting such darkly specific thoughts. I didn’t think I agreed, but I wasn’t sure I could gauge what he was saying. Maybe he thought the poems weren’t good enough. I felt worried, I felt swayed, and I stopped. Though I tried to go on writing them, there was nothing more there. Or, what I found there seemed brittle and forced. Worthy, worthwhile subject. Oh lord. I never expect to reach that pitch of emotion again, even though some of those poems also flirt with hilarity. I vividly regretted the silence that followed. Maybe there was no further to go in that direction; maybe I had gone as far as I could. Any more about that topic--bad love--might be repetitive, redundant--were there no change in the tenor of life. For me, this is a true problem: life has to change for art to go on. Or is this a worn-out idea? There’s Rilke’s famous old plea: Du mußt dein Leben ändern. You must change your life. There’s Valery: Il faut tenter de vivre. You must try to live. There’s Yeats: no art without change of heart. Yes, Valery’s is a little different. Maybe even the opposite. He knew that poems were not enough; life also had to be lived. His poem (Le cimitière marin) exhorts us to live--so both poem and life are surely necessary. Oh lord, are poems meant to be cheery homilies? Must they take you to blissy heights? There are many great darkhearted poems. Hay golpes tan fuertes en la vida, yo no se. That’s Vallejo’s great “The Black Horsemen.” Life deals such hard blows... I don’t know. Blows from the hatred of God; as if, taking them, the backwash of all that was ever endured puddled in the soul... I don’t know. [my translation] * Maybe the problem--in his eyes--was my revelation, to the world, of dark emotional circumstances. This is another obstacle to writing. I used to feel that anything anecdotal or factual must be carefully hidden. Now... Continue reading
Posted Feb 15, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
SELF-INTERVIEW IV WRITING “NIGHT THOUGHTS” (night thoughts: 70 dreams & notes from an analysis was published last month by Knopf.) I’ve always told myself that, as a poet, I’m only waiting and listening. However, making night thoughts wasn’t like that. I did a long analysis, studying my dreams--it lasted ten years. The dreamwork, the practice of free-associating from dreams, fascinated me. It was both anguishing and liberating. Urged by an agent, I set out to write a book about the experience. I studied my notebooks and journals; I selected the important dreams; I began to write. I planned to describe the dreams and then explicate the process of using them to uncover and understand lost and troubling experiences. The agent wanted me to write the book differently: it should be about my life in New York, my life as a single blond poet suffering over love in artsy downtown New York, while in psychoanalysis. A memoir of a sexy life in New York--but my life, despite all the cocktail parties and art openings, was not all that action-packed or sexy. I tried alternating discussions of the analytic sessions with accounts of meeting my boyfriend; it didn’t work. Finally the agent and I couldn’t agree, and I gave up. Almost a year passed. One afternoon I sat down aimlessly and began to write out the dreams as poems. This was not a decision; it was an impulse without forethought. Once I had begun, my mind rifled through all the dreams I had chosen and pondered for the prose book; I made a list of them and tackled them one by one. This was not like writing on request or choosing a topic; here was something that was burbling or burning inside me, longing for expression (I don’t know which it is, water or fire). These were narrative poems, narrating a story I already knew; I hadn’t done this before. I didn’t cry or laugh as I wrote them. I was skeptical of this working method but carried on. I thought at first that the poems were too formulaic; I believe I thought this because I knew the narrative of the dreams before I began to write the poems. And yet, the narrative of a dream by nature is lyrical, surreal, hopping over space and constraints. I began to see that often, writing the poem as a dream, I was working out its meaning. I had understood the dream--from my free associations of years before. But here was a new level of meaning that contained a surprise. So the poem was a further free association from the matter of the dream. Many of these sprang fully formed; others I had to try again and again until I got the right tone and angle. I couldn’t leave out a dream because the poem didn’t work; I needed it for the evolution of the story, so I had to try. Trying and not trying at the same time is a curious exercise. More than... Continue reading
Posted Feb 14, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
SELF-INTERVIEW (Interviewing myself) WEDNESDAY CRYING & LAUGHING; HOW I WROTE SONO For a year or so after I wrote Visits from the Seventh I tried to write the same book again in other words. The poems came out as polite imitations of the ones I had already written. I was trying too hard, for one thing. Then I had a handful of pieces I began to write over and over again, moving the words around on the page and trying again. They seemed stiff and pompous, and not much like Visits. By now I was in Rome and for months I wrote nothing new. Or just a few words, heavy-handedly. I started to notice Roman words popping into my writing: “centaur.” I was reading everything Roman or Italian, old and new. I read Moravia and Pavese, with a fat dictionary and a pencil, making marks in the margins--this was still well before iphone dictionaries (a great innovation for linguists). I even read Morante. I read Calvino’s Cities; I saw them in my mind, they weren’t quite “invisible.” And everything English (I mean the language, not the country) about Rome and Romans, like Henry James, Robert Graves, Elizabeth Bowen. I also “read” the sites--I mean that I visited the real, historical places. I kept trying to hear something that wasn’t coming. Then, in a sudden rush, I began writing poems that used the images of Rome. Weirdly, I wrote “Grotesque” the morning before I went to Nero’s palace and saw the vestiges of those first famous grotesques. None of the poems are about Rome. Colosseum, for instance, is the setting for a thought: I made a colossal mess of my life. I began to let my mind tumble fast; I was rushing through word patterns, letter patterns, to end with a surprise. To me a surprise. Sometimes--often--I saw connections between words and ideas and memories I had never consciously noticed before. At some point I stopped writing in pencil or pen on a piece of paper. I noticed that when I typed on my laptop, I could keep up with the pace of my thoughts better. I didn’t need the channeling tool anymore--I discarded it. This was a wonderful thing, a rapture. I felt that I was bursting, free-falling. I was summarizing my emotional life; summing up, to date. I cried as I wrote. I also thought I was funny; I laughed out loud. On two mornings, I was surprised to find a poem that had spilled out the night before. There was a lot of wine flowing in Rome. Sometimes I made cultural references I wasn’t sure of. I looked them up: they were accurate. How could they be accurate? I am not accurate. My working title was “I Am”; which I knew belonged to John Clare. I decided on the same in Italian: “Sono.” By sheer luck, it also meant sound. Writing is so much about luck. The jacket designer used a face: an engraving of a smooth-faced young... Continue reading
Posted Feb 13, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
MUSE, MUSES & CHANNELING HOW I WROTE “VISITS FROM THE SEVENTH" During the years that I was writing Visits from the Seventh I experienced myself as channeling. I said this in an interview at the time it was published: I’m channeling voices. I met Timothy Donnelly at a party in Soho, and he said he enjoyed the notion of “visits” as a conceit, but he was not prepared to accept that as a record of reality. These are my words but his gist. I wrote with pencil or pen on a sheet of lined paper, letting my hand go. It moved in unexpected, swirling ways, giving me words. I transcribed the words quickly; otherwise I couldn’t make sense of them later. There is no way for me to know whether my experience of channeling is one thing or another. Those who invoked the muses hoped they were bringing in Calliope, Erato and Polyhymnia. Do we know who those muses were or what they were? I choose Erato, though I hear not only the word “eros” but also the word “errata” in her name. It’s usual to love, and just as usual to err, to be wrong, to go astray. I like to think of writing as “erring”--straying out there where you don’t know what you’ll find. Wrong sometimes turns out to be right. This makes me think that “errand” must come from “err,” too, wandering out there to get what you need; the etymologies do not support this. I also like Polyhymnia, with her finger on her lip, and her thoughts full of praise--”many praises.” Okay breath, inspiration. Breathing in, breathing out. Do we know what we’re accessing? I heard James Merrill tell someone to stand on a mirror and shout to them; he understood (as I did) that they were on the other side of mirrors. Stand on a mirror and shout? Okay, you hear a voice in your mind and you start to write. What a rapture, hearing this voice, and writing it as fast as it comes to you. Does it matter if it’s yours or not? In any event, since no one truly knows the nature of the mind or the soul, no one knows where thoughts or words come from--study as they may. It’s interesting, also, to say “this was not me.” It liberates, doesn’t it? They are on the other side of mirrors. Since we look at ourselves in mirrors, this could also be construed, abstractly, to mean that they are in us or beyond us. I gathered the dictations into stanzas and formed the poems--writing and rewriting the lines, tweaking and testing the sound of the line. When the first jacket design arrived--by messenger to my New York apartment--it was a photograph showing a mirror reflecting a small, undecorated white room, a mattress on the floor with white sheets and one white pillow, and a steam riser also painted white--an empty East Village-type apartment. Despite the whiteness, the image was of dismal, dingy... Continue reading
Posted Feb 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Sarah Arvio is now following The Best American Poetry
Feb 11, 2013
Hello. My new book, night thoughts: 70 dream poems & notes from an analysis, has just appeared, and I’m feeling thoughtful and nostalgic. I’ve decided to write here this week about my writing life--I'll start very young, with reading-- BEING & READING Everyone else was buzzing around: did they care if I was talking or what I was talking about? Maybe I was the only one needing a book to read: I need a book! I had read all the books. Then books arrived in the mail for my age group, 7, but they were baby books, with a line or two on a page. This is what they give me when I ask for books? No one was paying attention. The real world was in the books. I read Heidi and I danced off into the Swiss mountains. Reading Heidi, I forgot that no one listened when I spoke. In the book, someone was talking to me. A voice, the voice of the narrator, talking quietly. I heard the voice as my grandmother’s. She told the story in a gentle, rolling way. I rolled along with her voice. I learned the voice of the narrator, and as I walked along, I narrated a story to myself about myself: she did this, she said this; and then “she was gazing at the snowy fields, admiring winter.” I was reading my life. I used as many grand words as possible, for a little girl: “gazing”--a word no one said. I had a special cache of words I had learned from books. In fact, they didn’t listen so I didn’t talk much. Or I talked over them, as loud as I could--needing expression. Expression being the essence. Can’t you see I’m talking?! I’m yelling this now, in my mind: I’m talking! Sometimes they made fun of my big words. I said “horizon” with the second syllable pronounced “zone.” I was looking out at Lake Michigan and I saw the very word I had just read in a book, essentialized before my eyes: a horizone. Only the grownups knew enough to laugh; the joke got out: she said horizone. Horror zone, hurry zone, harrow zone. No, not that bad. I have always loved turning words around and around. I hear them coming through my mind the way they come off the page or through the page, and the rhythm of them lulls and comforts me. I say “page” but many people have left “page” behind. They are thinking of the screen. What would it be like not to have turned thousands of pages, feeling the paper-feel in my fingers. Sometimes turning down a page edge. Though I rarely did that: I worshipped books, writing my name and the date of acquisition neatly on the endpaper, at the top right hand corner. I didn’t understand until later that life is short, and that books grow old too: may as well dog-ear them and mark them up. Use them, make them mine. BEING A WRITER... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 10, 2013