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Sandra Beasley
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We spend so much time talking about the frustrations of poetry--from the perils of revision to the difficulties of publication--and so little time talking about how lucky we are to be poets. Once, during a fight with a lover, he snapped, You don't know what it's like, to not know what you want to do. And he had a point. For better or for worse, for twenty years I have known what I wanted to do: write poetry. It hasn't always been easy, and it's certainly never been financially viable, but it's been a steady priority. And that (along with a good scotch) brings some comfort at the end of the day. Have you ever been reading about some historical figure, found some passing reference to that person's love of poetry, and--no matter the political, nationality, or eccentricity--felt a spark of kinship? Yep. Have you ever arrived at an art colony, heard the painters and the sculptors talk about unpacking and prep work and UPS delivery, and thought happily of the simplicity of the your supplies? A pen and a pad. A laptop and an outlet. Yep. Have you ever had a decent walk--maybe 10 blocks, maybe from the subway to home--and been able to use that time to draft the opening of a poem? Yep. Face it: we're lucky bastards. I thought it appropriate to close this week with a poem by Rose MacMurray. Thanks to the opportunity to share Sunday's essay in this venue I am now in contact with Adelaide, Rose's daughter, who has done heroic work to keep her mother's legacy alive by continuing to promote Rose's novel (Afternoons With Emily), her poems, and her ideas for working with younger writers. On the eve of Mother's Day, I have to say: Lolly, as proud as you are of your mother--she would be even more proud of you. This poem is from Trips, Journeys Voyages, the first single-author volume of poetry I ever bought. COZUMEL (for Jessica, age nine) In Cozumel, the white gulls skim the sea (Yes, and the white terns too.) Their breasts reflect the Caribbean then, and the intricate understructure of their wings repeats that blue, that blue. We saw this once, we saw it once again and then no more--so twice will have to do. Jessica, you can keep these things. Long after Cozumel, long after me, you will have that blue, that blue. -Rose MacMurray Thanks to the folks at Best American Poetry for giving me this space. Thank you for following along. If you want to continue our conversations, come find me at my blog, Chicks Dig Poetry. Continue reading
Posted May 8, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Tonight I attended a ceremony for the 27th Annual Larry Neal Writers' Awards, a wonderful program the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities uses to honor Washington's child, teenage, and adult writers in the genres of fiction, essays, dramatic writing, and poetry. The guest speaker was Sherman Alexie, winner of the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel War Dances. He told a charming story about overhearing a couple break up in a bookstore, sentencing the (ex-)boyfriend to a lifetime of nauseous association with bookstores. Or (here the storyteller in him was kicking into gear, he warned), perhaps the distaste would extend to all books. Heck, all words. And how would one then navigate this world, where even the buses have words on them? To live a life dodging language, Alexie suggested, would be as maddening as living a life--as he does--seeking language out. Reading the backs of cereal boxes to the point of memorization, if cereal boxes are the only thing handy. Alexie was a perfect choice in part because of his gregariousness (the little kids loved him), and in part because of his versatility in so many genres. Some people know him as a writer for young adults, some as a fictioneer, and some (like me) will always consider him a poet. The title poem of his first book, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, which was published by Hanging Loose Press in 1992, is one of my favorite sestinas: THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING After driving all night, trying to reach Arlee in time for the fancydance finals, a case of empty beer bottles shaking our foundations, we stop at a liquor store, count out money, and would believe in the promise of any man with a twenty, a promise thin and wrinkled in his hand, reach- ing into the window of our car. Money is an Indian Boy who can fancydance from powwow to powwow. We got our boy, Vernon WildShoe, to fill our empty wallets and stomachs, to fill our empty cooler. Vernon is like some promise to pay the light bill, a credit card we Indians get to use. When he reach- es his hands up, feathers held high, in a dance that makes old women speak English, the money for first place belongs to us, all in cash, money we tuck in our shoes, leaving our wallets empty in case we pass out. At the modern dance, where Indians dance white, a twenty is a promise that can last all night long, a promise reach- ing into the back pocket of unfamiliar Levis. We get Vernon there in time for the finals and we watch him like he was dancing on money, which he is, watch the young girls reach- ing for him like he was Elvis in braids and an empty tipi, like Vernon could make a promise with every step he took, like a fancydance could change their lives. We watch him dance and he never talks. It’s all a business... Continue reading
Posted May 7, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Sestina: six six-line stanzas that use a common set of endwords, culminating in a tercet incorporating those same six endwords, with the endwords appearing in a prescribed order. Sestina: a 12th-century form invented the the troubadours, particularly Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel. A form whose acrobatics declare Look at me. If I weren't a Real Poet--worthy of patronage--could I write this? Sestina: jigsaw puzzle. Obsession. Bee in the bonnet. Bugaboo. I first came to the sestina form in college, at the order of an advanced seminar that cycled us through every major poetic form. Faced with that Soduku-like pattern of endwords, I did what any undergraduate would do. I cheated. Using found language from a newspaper article, completely ignoring rhythm and line length, enjambing like a madwoman, I jiggered that poem into existence with chewing gum and duct-tape. A few years later, I would come to the form again thanks to poet Henry Taylor, my mentor while in the MFA program at American University. If I didn't respect the sestina (yet), well, hell, I respected Henry. He refused to read sestinas that were anything other than iambic pentameter. He made me slow down and respect a form that is more self-conscious of its repetition than any other, except perhaps the villanelle; and, unlike the villanelle, cannot be sustained by grief alone. I like sestinas because of the challenge. I like them because their guaranteed length forces me to give myself permission to unfold a narrative that I might not make time for otherwise: the rant of a cranky mother platypus, or the regrets of the first editor of Encyclopedia Britannica. I like that it's possible to "know" the oeuvre of published sestinas, because of their inherent complexity and rarity, in a way that's difficult with any other form. As someone who has written a few sestinas--perhaps not masterful ones, but a few--I thought I would share one of the canonical ones of the genre, and point out a few aspects from a crafts-woman's point of view. So without further ado, Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina": SESTINA September rain falls on the house. In the failing light, the old grandmother sits in the kitchen with the child beside the Little Marvel Stove, reading the jokes from the almanac, laughing and talking to hide her tears. She thinks that her equinoctial tears and the rain that beats on the roof of the house were both foretold by the almanac, but only known to a grandmother. The iron kettle sings on the stove. She cuts some bread and says to the child, It's time for tea now; but the child is watching the teakettle's small hard tears dance like mad on the hot black stove, the way the rain must dance on the house. Tidying up, the old grandmother hangs up the clever almanac on its string. Birdlike, the almanac hovers half open above the child, hovers above the old grandmother and her teacup full of dark brown tears. She shivers and says she thinks the... Continue reading
Posted May 6, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Once, a friend was giving me feedback on a poem that would appear in my first collection, Theories of Falling. He had concerns about the leaps of narrative that my draft was making, the wild associations between image and intent. "Look," he said, "to write a poem is to build a wall. Every image is a brick in that wall." He made a gesture of wedging a brick in place, then troweling the cement around it, then shaving off the excess. Methodical. Neat. "When you lay your last image down, there's your story." As much as I respected this poet, in that moment I knew I would be leaving this workshop group. I didn't want to build poem like walls. I wanted poems that could jump nimbly from idea to idea. I wanted, as Piet Mondrian termed one of his great, jazz-inspired geometric works, a little more Broadway Boogie-Woogie. In the years since then, I've realized that the poet was not trying to be didactic. He was just sharing his own metaphor of craft--the shorthand every writer uses to describe his process. Whether it's a matter of weaving a basket, jump-starting a gyroscope, or letting a horse out of the gate, each of us develops a mental model that describes our journey from source inspiration to finished product. This model helps us understand when we're ready to start a new poem, and when to know when a draft is done; when to push, when to rest. Some writers are able to articulate models as an explicit mantra. In Writing the Bones, Natalie Goldberg compares writing to baking a cake: "You have all these ingredients, the details of your life," she says, "but to just list them is not enough." For most of us the model remains nothing but a flicker, a gut guide. So what's my model? My brain, I've come to realize, is an oyster. It captures some bit of grit (a notion, a face, a sound) and then worries at it, over and over, coating it with language, until the grit grows into a pearl. That's when a poem is waiting to meet the page. This model helps me grasp why I start drafts after midnight: for me, writing is a process of (semi-)conscious accretion that reaches critical mass, inclined toward lyric intensity rather than narrative structure. I still dislike prompts--but then, I dislike cultured pearls too. And it's my responsibility to give this oyster a healthy bed, which means a reading diet that pumps nutrients in the water. (Goodbye, Us Weekly. Hello, Threepenny Review.) Not too long ago, a reporter asked me to contrast being a poet and an essayist. I thought back to a recent visits to the Jentel Artist Residency and Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where for the first time I was working in prose (primarily memoir) rather than poetry. At each meal, artists would chat about the their progress. I realized the language I used with them had not been the language of... Continue reading
Posted May 5, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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This past Sunday, I read to about 70 people at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC. I couldn't have asked for a better audience: friends, poetry lovers, old high school English teachers, former bosses, and my grandmother (in the pink suit). I told them to "smile for the Best American Poetry blog," so here they are: Afterwards, there were books to sign. A lot of books. I took far too long with each one--as always, I find myself slipping back into the mode of signing high school yearbooks--and while there are certain phrases that come easily to me, I always approach each title page from scratch. The ritual of this had me wondering: as people tout the future of the book in electronic form, what happens to the tradition of author signings? Back when books were published in small-batch letterpress, authors accredited each copy by hand. When books became mass-produced, the author's name became typeset. So if you've ever had an author cross out that name, the notion is that it's being replaced with the "real" signature of historical tradition. With these signatures came opportunity for individualized notes. Maybe a mash note to a personal mentor, or a glib note to an unfamiliar fan ("The best way to decorate a blank wall is with another bookshelf!"). Sometimes notes have a certain edge. When Evelyn Waugh signed Men at Arms for literary critic Cyril Connolly, he knew full well that while many men had joined up with the military, Connolly, a pacifist, had stayed at home in London and served as a fireman. "To Cyril, who kept the home fires burning," he wrote. I know one author who writes "Please don't sell this on eBay." Indeed, many poets fear the day when they find their book in a used bookstore and, from the inscription, find out who their real friends are. Years after an original signing, George Bernard Shaw found a copy of one of his books, inscribed: "To [X], with esteem," for sale in a used bookstore. He bought it and sent it back to his friend, signing over the original: "To [X], with renewed esteem." (Worth noting that among collectors, the most rare copy is considered one in which the subject of the formal dedication is the same as the addressee in the handwritten note; since these copies largely belong to husbands and mothers, they rarely go on the open market.) Some would say that nowadays, signed books are far too easily obtained to have any real value. Like stale crackers and cheap chardonnay, they are just another way of guilt-tripping people into buying the book after a reading. In 2006, Margaret Atwood unveiled her "Long-Distance Pen," an e-stylus that allowed her to sign books from even a continent away. In an AP interview, she stated her inspiration came from signing off on the electronic clipboards provided by delivery companies such as FedEx and UPS. "I thought my signature was whizzing through the air and landing somewhere else, and... Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Red, green, blue horses, I wrote, ride up and down. I paused, wondering how to complete my ode to carousels. Up and down, I scribbled a second time. Repetition was poetic, right? Our third-grade teacher circulated the classroom, reading over our shoulders as we hunched over our desks. “You,” she picked. “Okay, you. You.” With a handful of others I walked down the halls of Haycock Elementary School to the classroom where, for the rest of the year, we would have a weekly poetry class. A round table nearly filled the tiny space. We sat down to wait in our orange plastic chairs. A woman threw the door open, swiftly maneuvering her generous hips through the narrow gap between table and wall to claim a roomier corner. Her honey-blond hair was a wave that crested and flipped up at the ends; her eyelids glimmered teal; her perfume bloomed with gardenias. She wasn’t a teacher. She was a force of nature. “Hello!” she said. “I am Rose MacMurray. A poet. We are here to write poetry!” Write poetry we did. From rhyme to concrete poems, e.e. cummings to Edgar Allan Poe, for the next eight months she led us on a tour of verse in all its temperaments. One day she came in with a stack of postcards, asking us to compose responses to famous work of art. “Camille at Her Window…” I wrote, pretending to be the winsome young woman in the Impressionist scene dealt to me. I had named the poem after the painter—sure the artwork was a self-portrait. She could have crushed me by pointing out “Camille” was a man’s name, but she did not. She was out to prove a greater point. Writing, she told us, expanded boundaries of understanding. Poems allowed you to think outside yourself. When I later became a college English major, encountering terms such as ekphrasis and negative capability, I would realize just how sophisticated her lessons had been. The months flew by, then summer. When we came back to school there was no poetry class. We were handed GreatBooks readers, just one more of the endless rotations of elementary school. My next turn at poetry wouldn’t be until the fifth grade, when Mrs. MacMurray swept into room saying, “Well, hello!” Her hair seemed bigger than before, her eyelashes even longer. But by sixth grade, it was time for chess class. That was that. Yet the seed had been planted. I never stopped scribbling. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered: “A poet.” If MacMurray could introduce herself that way, why couldn’t I? One Christmas holiday, home from the University of Virginia, I tried to look her up. But she didn’t seem to work in Fairfax County Schools anymore; her name wasn’t in the phone book. My mother couldn’t remember her. Mrs. MacMurray had joined the misty ranks of Janine (was it Jeannine?), my best friend for finding four-leaf clovers at recess, and Nick (was it... Continue reading
Posted May 2, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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May 2, 2010