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A. Van Jordan
Ann Arbor, MI
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ERRATA: So, a few days ago I quoted a part of Gwendolyn Brooks' Annie Allen, from "the children of the poor" poem. I said it was in the "Anniad" section of the book, but it's actually in the last section, "Womanhood." Why didn't anyone write in to correct that? :-) Anyway, I just wanted to set the record straight before I signed off. Thanks! ~AVJ Continue reading
Posted Aug 23, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
So, for my last blog, I spoke to some poets to get an idea of what I should do, and I think I’m going to take a cue from poet John Murillo (Up Jump the Boogie), who suggested that I talk about “soul music,” or possibly about “poetic mentors,” but I’m taking a bit of a slant approach to this, and I’m using both of his suggestions: I want to talk about the blues as a form from which we can learn how to close a poem. In fact, the Blues Stanza, for the longest, was the only American poetic form—and still is the only “traditional” American form, which simply is to say it has a long tradition that we can extend, vary, and translate into the 21st Century. And I also want to talk about poets and thinkers who influenced my thoughts on this subject. My real understanding of the blues as a poetic form came while I was in my MFA program at Warren Wilson College. In our penultimate semester at Warren Wilson, we have to do a craft essay. I chose the Blues as a Poetic Form by looking at the work of Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, and Cornelius Eady. My supervisor was the poet Eleanor Wilner—a great poet, a great spirit, and a blues woman at heart—who guided me and indulged me through thinking about the blues stanza. What place does this stanza hold in contemporary poetics? What can we learn from it? Who were its masters? Etc. This was back in 1997, and I’m still learning from this exploration. I recently heard Chase Twichell give a wonderful talk on form in which she mentioned how we can’t do form just for form’s sake. We have to push the form to be more flexible. “Amen, sista,” I said in my head, sitting in my seat. I loved the fact that she also pointed out how form, in itself, can be easy to do; it’s making it bend to your will to say something about the human condition that’s hard, making it your own language. When I think about the blues stanza, it’s a form that really forces this need to speak beyond the form. The blues stanza is largely unsuccessful without transcendence. Transcendence is really what we take from this form into our muscle memory as we write free verse. We need to push the form toward a turn, much like the sonnet, but at the end as opposed to toward the middle. The turn often takes the shape of one or more of the following: 1. Reversal of Fortune 2. Higher Knowledge 3. Stoic Acceptance as a coping mechanism 4. Humor 5. Luck or Supernatural intervention When you look at this list of ways in which the blues stanza can be resolved—and, to be clear, this is NOT a complete list of possibilities--we find that we can apply these to most free verse poems. But I came to understand this not only through listening to... Continue reading
Posted Aug 23, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Okay, so, today I’m cheating a bit. If you’re a student of mine out there in the world, and you’re reading this blog today, you will have heard much of what will follow. Or, possibly, you weren’t listening to me the day I talked about sequencing the manuscript, and what follows will be new and fresh to you. In an earlier blog, I talked about the importance of reading full collections of poems, in sequence, cover to cover. Most people will tell you that it’s just good for you to read a lot of poetry; indeed, they’re right. As I said earlier this week, I would only add that it’s good to read with an annotating mind. Part of that annotating mind should pay attention to how the book of poems is sequenced, and you should ask why: Why does this poem open the collection? Why does this poem close the collection? Why does this poem open or close this section of the collection? Those poems usually tell us something about the arc—emotionally, psychologically, even structurally--of the book. When most people read novels that have been recommended by friends, even if they’re 700-page tomes, the reader will take her time going from page 1 to page 700, in order. If I hand a collection of poems to a friend and say, Check out this great collection of poems!, they will invariably flip through the book, find a title that intrigues them, and they’ll begin reading—possibly on page 37 of a slim 50-page collection. Why is that? Well, first of all, (not to answer my question), there’s nothing inherently wrong with this behavior. I just find it curious. I find it particularly curious when I’m talking to an MFA student working on her thesis and she reads a collection in this way and then tells me she’s having a hard time sequencing her own manuscript. Again, there’s no law against this, and no one will slap the back of your hand with a ruler for doing it. It’s just strange, particularly if the goal is to learn how to sequence a book. Most people don’t read poetry collections. I’m sorry to report this to you, dear American poet, but it’s true. Sadly, more people are watching reality TV than reading our books. As a result, unlike ballerinas or filmmakers or cellists or sculptors, most of our audience is made of practitioners of our craft. We may be the only artists who suffer this level of insularity. (If you can think of others, let me know. I think we should form an encounter group or something.) Our narrative IQ’s are higher than our lyric IQ’s because we read and watch a lot of narrative arcs in our lives. It’s pretty hard to escape. Whether we’re watching good cable TV, taking in a good drama on stage, reading a page-turner of a novel, reading a brilliant comic book, or watching the NBA finals, we’re locked into a sequenced narrative. As a result, we... Continue reading
Posted Aug 22, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
The toughest question I get after a poetry reading is what are my favorite books. It’s tough for me because my list of favorites is a living entity that changes year by year. I also feel guilty sometimes because often my favorite books that inspire my poems have nothing to do with poetry. People glare at me with betrayal in their eyes when I start talking about non-fiction or fiction. But, the truth of the matter is that there are too many good books to name just a few. There’s also the expectation that a favorite book is also on your personal “Best Of” list. For me, this simply isn’t so. This is not always the case with me. There are books that I read during a specific time in my life, and that book, as a result, holds a special place in my heart. That doesn’t mean I think it’s the best collection of poems or the best novel I ever read. It does mean that it had the power to touch me at a time in my life when I needed it, though. This is an ambition that I don’t get to talk about much. When I’m teaching a workshop or doing a Q & A with an audience, they want to get to the heart of it all by finding the Holy Grail of books that will take their writing to the next level. I’m much more interested in a book that changes my thinking. If I can write that book, then I think I’m really doing my job. So, at the very least, I try to keep it as my ambition. It’s such a subjective experience, though—the reading of a book, the experience of the read—that you can’t expect it to be the same for all people, which is what the Affective Fallacy is all about. Whatever we bring to the read that informs our experience of reading will help shape how we feel about the book once we turn that last page—if we make it that far into it. In his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov advises that we really only need to “know” five or six books intimately in order to write one. He goes on to annotate several novels, and, once you’re done reading his take on Madame Bovary or even Dr Jekyl & Mr Hyde, you realize, ‘Yeah. There’s a lot to learn even from one book.’ I stopped telling young writers that the best advice I can give them is to read a lot. I tell them to read a few books they love with an annotating mind. I’ve met too many writers who either don’t know the books that changed my life, who haven’t read them, or who simply didn’t like them and those writers seem to be doing just fine. Similarly, I meet writers all the time who tell me of a book I should read or should have read. Sometimes I have read the book, and I didn’t think... Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but it was just in the last two years that I actually read the Pulitzer Prize winning collection Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks. Of course, I had read a good deal of Brooks’ poetry, including A Street in Bronzeville and The Bean Eaters, but I had only read the Annie Allen poems in her selected. In the past eight years or so, I started a new commitment to read old collections of poems in their original sequence. As a result, I spend a lot of time online looking for reasonably priced (cheap) copies of 1st editions. If you haven’t been on abebooks.com, check it out. You can shop guilt-free because the service connects hundreds of independent bookstores in the U.S. and Great Britain to this online service. Good stuff. Anyway, I got a copy of Annie Allen after hearing Elizabeth Alexander deliver a Hopwood Lecture at the University of Michigan a couple of years ago. (And, I have to say: it was easily in the top five best lectures I’ve heard in my life. It’s published now, and if you can find it, read it. It was the kind of lecture that you walk out of thinking, ‘I’m going to go out into the world now and be a better human being.’) And part of my mission to be a better human being was to find Annie Allen. Elizabeth made reference to the book a few times in her lecture, and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, I know those poems; I know that book…wait a minute.’ And it dawned on me that I had read many of the poems, but I had never read the original sequence of the poems in their entirety. Shame. One thing that I try to teach in the workshop is that we have to read collections in their original sequence, not in anthologies as I was taught to read poems in my crappy public school education in Akron, OH…and even in undergrad, really. The scholars at my college thought it was fine to teach poetry from The Western Wind and the Norton, exclusively. As a result, I never really knew how the poet conceived the experience of the read. Once you read Geography III or The Far Field or For the Union Dead, it gives you a better sense, respectively, of how Bishop or Roethke or Lowell conceptualized their work. The experience of the read is what I really love about the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. When I read a collection of hers in her original sequence, I get a better sense of the conversation she was having with the world. And I like this. What I mean is that it’s poetry that makes me want to be a better human being, and I like how it makes me feel. It’s as simple as that. The craft is high but the emotional resonance drapes over every line. It’s like reading a formalist on ecstasy. (Yeah..I know: Either you as... Continue reading
Posted Aug 20, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I’ve been teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Postgraduate Conference for the past week, and while there I had a few moments when my vision of poetry expanded. I don’t mean this in any kind of New Age, epiphanic way, but in a real world utilitarian way. As a poet practicing the craft in the 21st Century, have you ever pondered what poetry is really doing—how it applies to life, how it affects people, how far is its reach?—in the age of the internet, streaming video, the rebirth of 3D in theaters, and the advent of Netflix in homes? Well, I think about it all the time, and I thought about it with a hyper-awareness this week in Montpelier, VT. I’ll try to recall a few of these moments this week for this blog. The structure of VCFA is that, as a participant, you attend workshops daily (I taught a manuscript workshop); you attend readings throughout the week by all participants and faculty; and you attend craft talks by each of the faculty members. It’s intense but generous in its offerings. I condensed into an hour a craft class that I teach over the course of a semester at the University of Michigan called Cinematic Movement. Like I said, it’s intense but generous. An hour before the class my mother called me from Ohio. She was just checking in to see how things were going; I told her I was preparing to go teach a class. She asked me what I was teaching. I had to pause for a second to take all the varnish off of it. The problem is that I was still, just an hour before, pondering what, exactly, I really had to say. I told her, I was teaching a class on what poets can learn from watching film. She then followed up her question with a statement: “Oh, so this is about the book you just wrote.” I had to think about that, too, for a second…Yes, I thought, it kind of is. In fact, though, the class I taught was about the book I wanted to write; it was about the ambition I had for the book I just wrote. I wanted to write a book in which people could engage as easily as one might engage watching a good film. In the class, I talked about the ability for the filmmaker to ground and orient a viewer both spatially and temporally in the scene—scene after scene. I talk about the ways in which matching action and shot sequences work to place us in a scene and to place us in a situation. If a film is even remotely competent, we, at least, know what’s going on, where we are, and who is creating the action. And I compared the need for standardized shot sequences—things like standard coverage and the 180-degree rule—to keep viewers situated in the scene, to the need for associative patterns and logical transitions in a poem to... Continue reading
Posted Aug 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 19, 2013