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Alan Michael Parker
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Cool beans! Thanks for the tip 'n leads, Mike!
Poems I Will Never Write I recently taught a terrific student who loathed titling poems. Her resistance was neither principled nor practical; instead, as a fanatical rewriter, she had difficulty calling a poem finished, and so titling a piece felt, as she once reported, “Like stamping DEAD on a deer’s forehead.” I provided poor solace. I tried to help, nonetheless. I gave her leads, notions, poems with titles I admire: the Table of Contents from Wallace Stevens's Harmonium, a copy of Alice Fulton’s Sensual Math, and links to the websites of Matthea Harvey and Ross Gay. I offered to buy her a Titleist ball cap (a joke she knew wasn’t funny, but she laughed a student laugh). Nothing mattered. She remained desperate, and often when handing me a new poem, she would say bitterly, “You title it.” One day, I asked her class what titles do, and students generated the following list: Begin the incantation, by offering a line repeated in the poem’s first line; Begin the poem, by being the poem’s first line; Foreshadow; Introduce the speaker; Establish setting; Offer counterpoint to what follows; Introduce wordplay (dynamics internal to the diction to follow); Introduce a motif; Allude; Name the dramatis personae; Establish a tone; Ask a question; Answer a question; Highlight a symbol; Exclaim; Employ a “pull quote”; Enlarge upon the text to follow; Specify an audience; Alienate (shock, irk, or annoy); Introduce an auditory device; Historicize; Identify the poem’s place in a series; Introduce a structural principle; Name the form; Introduce a stylistic device; Apostrophize; Identify comedic principles; Converse with/quote from another text; Frame, by offering the poem’s final line. It’s a good list. It’s an even better list when we remember, generally, that a good title performs a few of these operations at once, and that a bad title performs too few or too many, and that some of these operations don't play well together. As a follow-up, at the beginning of each term, I now require early poets to come up with a list of ten titles for future poems. Quite a few of these titles will eventually be slapped onto poems, but not all. Fascinated by the results, inspired, I have taken to composing titles for poems I will never write. Cartoons © Felicia van Bork, 2016. Continue reading
Posted Oct 6, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
More fantabulous answers by superb poets, including some scary responses... Part III of III... Find Part II here. Question 9: List five events in your life that mattered to you during the writing of your book. Max Ritvo: I read the book Ardor by Roberto Calasso, which is about the Indian Vedic tradition. This religious tradition encouraged its devotees to spend their entire lives in ritual dance to commune with the gods, to the extent there was no time left over to build permanent buildings of worship. Which feels to me like a life writing poems. The Vedas spent much of their time addressing the creation of the world and the fundamental ecstasy of desire. They do so using hallucinatory Freud-like myths in which a god has sex with his interior monologue, Speech, only to have the child rip out the womb of Speech itself and force it on his father's head as a turban so he may never impregnate such a potent womb again. This is all I could ever aspire to have my imagination create. It also is a religion that focuses around the guilt and complication of eating meat, and I am a vegetarian. So Ardor's blood runs strong through this book. Grazzi, Roberto! On a less literary note: I got dumped during cancer. I got married to the most wonderful woman in the world. My illness is now terminal. I am in great pain and on many drugs. All of these things made me feel very strong feelings, and so I wrote poems about them. Since my mentation has certain very idiosyncratic features, the poems cohered into a meaningful whole with kind of a narrative around them. And this, my friends, is Four Reincarnations! Chris Santiago: Akita. I wrote the first draft of the long title poem as I was graduating from Oberlin and moving to Akita, Japan, to teach English. It was a relatively isolated part of the country, with even more snow than my home state of Minnesota. That experience of isolation— living in another language, one I could hardly read or understand—was a gift. It gave me solitude, distance, and perspective. Manila. From Japan, I was able to backpack around Southeast Asia. At least a few poems came out of this, including “Photograph: Loggers at Kuala Tahan,” which is about getting drunk with some loggers we befriended in the Malaysian rainforest. I also traveled to the Philippines a few times. My uncle Flu put me up and showed me around. He took me on some adventures, introduced me to his network, and regaled me with stories, many of them harrowing. Los Angeles. After Japan, I lived in LA for fifteen years and worked several odd jobs: I worked in a call center; I read scripts and rolled calls at Miramax; I was a substitute teacher in South LA and Long Beach, and a graveyard shift editor for a wire service. I also dealt with mild depression, and would go one or two years... Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
In June, 2016, Terrance Hayes visited Florida to read and teach in the University of Tampa low-residency M.F.A. program. In the course of his presentation, he made a comment about syntax and sound that struck me as important, and worth exploring. Despite our both being distracted by the seventh game of the N.B.A. Finals later that evening—a game to ruin any Davidson College professor’s mood—we agreed to correspond via email, and this conversation ensued. Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry, including How To Be Drawn in 2015. His honors include a 2010 National Book Award, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship and a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry. His website is AMP: Welcome to the non-place of email. Let's dive in, over our heads.... If I understood correctly, sometime in your artisitic development, you began to associate the extension of syntax with the production of a different kind of music within the poem. Is that an identifiable moment? Would you care to elaborate? TH: I was drawn to syntax early in my reading life. It was the feeling something beyond words was being communicated in the bones of poems. Certainly that was my experience of Keats’ “To Autumn”— specially that first stanza. When I first read it in college, I didn’t associate its power (mellow, carnal oozing power) with the fact it was a single over brimming sentence: Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, And still more, later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease, For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells. The same feeling came in certain passages of prose. I remember a college professor beginning to sob as he read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes in Ulysses. It’s one of the longest sentences in the English language (4391 words according to Wikipedia). I must have associated the sentence’s breathless charge with his emotional reaction. There were no periods—he couldn’t take a breath to collect himself. I’m still trying to create that sense of charge and “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in my work. AMP: I love your description of the “o’er-brimm’d”: that’s a great ambition. In that passage, Keats also holds it together contrapuntally, via end-rhyme and those almost-parallel caesuras in lines 7-9, which lead us to read backwards into memory as we move forward in the sentence. Is that something you do too? Or, rather, what’s your way of managing the length and breath of such a charged sentence? TH: I see “contrapuntal” and “caesuras” and get a tad nervous. Especially when thinking about my early drafts of a poem. I mostly follow something closer to what Frost called “the sound of sense”: “Now it is... Continue reading
Posted Sep 29, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I recently spent a couple of months writing and reading as badly as possible, a practice I now recommend. During my hiatus, I worked diligently to figure out what “bad poetry” meant to me, and once I become empowered to disappoint, how I could appall myself in a poem. I felt vicious, intemperate, outrageous, sleazy, hysterical, cantankerous, willful. I made poems with unconscionable and irrelevant leaps, poems with overblown abstractions heaped upon abstractions (who will ever forget “the turpitude of forgiveness”?), poems with speakers pronouncing upon every character in sight (because “I” always knows so much better than her or his family), poems with social toxicities heightened further by specious speechifying. I made poems that clanked and thumped, beset by sneaker-in-the-dryer iambs, and conversely, poems that used non-metrical speech oblivious to all considerations of sound, the kinds of poems that deserve to be chopped up, but are too often just divided into lines and called free verse. I made poems that ended four times without beginning once, poems that left out crucial details, poems with no details. I made poems that suffered from gender whiplash, empathy deficit, emotional aphasia, and narrative ataxia. I hated every line I wrote (who will ever forget “the hounds of my heartbeat”?), and wanted nothing more than to ball up each of my poems and drown them in a bucket of my crocodile tears. And I read appalling poems, too. I searched for well-known poets I thought over-rated, bought a book by each, scoured the Amazon algorithms for like-minded horrors, and read on, McDuff. Bruising poems that attempted to meld unethical politics and self-righteousness, those bedmates always stealing the too-small blanket. Vapid poems that combine cosmetically, in the name of originality, unrelated subjects—as Lear says, “two pernicious daughters join'd” (King Lear, 3:2:22). I drank each drop of the soured milk in my summer’s failing fridge. I crawled inside the zeitgeist and curled into a ball. Oh, the ekphrasis! Oh, the Self as our One Hero! I read fourteen ekphrastic poems on the Dutch Masters by fourteen poets, and forty-seven ekphrastic poems on Frida Kahlo by forty-one poets. (Where goeth Van Gogh? Where fleeth O’Keefe?) I read eighty-eight poems in which the last two lines begin with “I...,” after not using the first-person throughout the whole poem (“Sudden I Syndrome”). I read forty-three poems that begin at dawn or at dusk, but only three that begin after lunch. I read an even two-dozen poems that are centered by Microsoft Word because the software can. I read sixteen poems that mention breasts in the first four lines metonymically. I read—and I believe this is a coincidence, but I cannot be sure—five poems in the month of May about pets running away, poems in which I began to cheer for the pets, “Run, Sparky, Run! Run from the horrid poem....” (I wondered if the pets running away in May had anything to do with April being National Poetry Month.) In one of these poems, the narrator promises to... Continue reading
Posted Sep 26, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
More wonderful answers by super poets... Part II of III... a follow-up post to... Question 6: Which poem in your book arrived mostly whole? Elizabeth Colen: Quite a few of the poems in What Weaponry arrived mostly whole, in a sense. While I rarely have moments where one perfect sentence follows another perfect sentence and so on, what I do have sometimes is a few focused hours of obsessiveness. In this, I write a line, read it out loud, and rewrite and read out loud until the line is perfect, move on to the next line and repeat, until I feel something is capital-D Done. Sometimes this takes an hour, sometimes five or six or eight. But the poem is complete after this. And more than half of these poems were written like this. I wrote 90% of the first draft while traveling by train one summer several years ago. I had long stretches of time of the landscape rushing by and the sound of the train cocooning me. This combination of continuous forward motion and white noise ended up being an incredibly productive whole-poem space. “Burnside,” for example came about after I learned the word “undersound” and a poem fell nearly whole out of that idea. Carolina Ebeid: “Epithalamium for Alejandra & Wojtek” came to me in one swoop. This rarely happens to me. I want to believe other poems will arrive like that; I’d leave the porch light on for them. I usually work from the images/words/lines I collect in my notebooks, so that I am often building the poems through collage. On the golden occasion, I sit and write a full poem beginning to end. This kind of poem seems like a telepathic massage received, like I didn’t write it, I only acted as scribe. These poems tend to be short. Max Ritvo: “Poem to My Litter” arrived word-for-word as a whole. I just needed to cut a sappy line at the end, and Paul Muldoon at the New Yorker made me see the light of that very quickly. “Poem to My Litter” has so many beautiful and tragic life facts in it—it's a poem about real life mice that had my real life tumors cloned into them so that we could test different chemotherapy poisons out on them. It didn't need the rather erratic help of my image-making faculties, it just needed a calm and compassionate and loving tone, with the right dose of self-awareness, to bring out the truth of my life in it. But I must say, its initial lineation was miserable—the poem was all scattered, droopy, ragged, ugly stanzas. I needed to whip it into beauty, and I needed the help of my genius editor and best friend Elizabeth Metzger to make me understand that long couplets were the best and most merciless way to expose the world. Chris Santiago: “[Island of Fault Lines]” came about in the middle of a wicked thunderstorm. I was in a budget hotel on the island... Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
The comics of novelist and cartoonist Lydia Conklin bristle with wondrous unfillable silences, à la Samuel Beckett, and wacky pointedness worthy of Roz Chast. Conklin’s especially terrific at the stare-down. But it’s her timing most of all that I love, how funny she is... wait for it... and funnier yet. Here is a comic from her Lesbian Cattle Dogs series, expressly commissioned for this blog. Lydia Conklin is the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in fiction at Emory University. She has received a Pushcart Prize, work-study scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, the James Merrill House, the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Brush Creek, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Caldera, the Sitka Center, and Harvard University, among others, and grants and awards from the Astraea Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Alliance of Artists Communities, and the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, New Letters, The New Orleans Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. She has drawn graphic fiction for Gulf Coast, Drunken Boat, The Florida Review, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Continue reading
Posted Sep 22, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
In the Spring of 2013, I taught the worst undergraduate poetry workshop ever. The students were marvelous and curious and smart; the writing distinctive; the books were scintillating; the visiting poets I brought wow, wow, wowed us; the final projects demonstrated learning and promise; and the camaraderie was memorable. Everything came together. Why then was the workshop so awful? Because all of the above assessments were mine, based on my aesthetics, to make me happy, and far too much of the learning was merely parroted. And I didn’t realize until later that summer how much I had fallen for my own image in the mirror of my pedagogy. It wasn’t a workshop, it was a self-portrait. Of course, criticism of the standard workshop method, the “workshop poem,” and the Po’ Biz remains a commonplace in higher education, low-hanging fruit. I have eaten such plums: they are not delicious. Nevertheless, I would like here to enumerate even more criticism of the workshop, in the name of teaching a better workshop. What follows is a critique of a peculiar system of learning in which I believe, and in which students prosper. I offer, then, some issues that I haven’t seen discussed as much as I’d like, and I do so trusting wholly that the internet will protect me from the spurious anti-intellectualism, ad hominen whining that runs rampant in so much of our social media. I trust, too, that many good teachers of writing have already addressed my concerns in their classes, and for these teachers, the oddments I offer will seem simplistic and self-evident. But maybe not. Contrarily, ultimately, I shall offer my optimism: I believe that the workshop, and some version of the standard workshop method, are right for the teaching and learning of poetry writing. So there. As a graduate student colleague once declared of my poems in Denis Johnson’s workshop, millennia ago, even of this compost, a pretty petunia might yet grow. (Not to dishearten, but that colleague became a powerful literary agent.) Here are a few of my concerns. Following each, I offer remedy, mostly approaches that I have begun to explore in my teaching over the past two years. My hope is that these musings inspire and incite more than dictate... the ideas, dear people, the ideas... Old New Critics The standard workshop method assumes that the poem exists in a vacuum. Sure, readers are expected to Google what they don’t know, and provide a gloss on allusions or esoterica, but mostly we’re close-reading based on the idea that the text is self-contained, all of its meanings waiting to be divined. In this procedure, the poem could be a poem written in any moment, last year, five years ago, next month, and by anyone in the room; the poem’s hiding everything we need to figure out the poem, and we’re all scientists of the poem, committed to its self-contained (yielding and un-) truths. I don’t know about you, but I gave up reading this way twenty-five... Continue reading
Posted Sep 20, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
When offered a guest appearance on the Best American Poetry blog, I decided not only to write a couple of articles that I’ve been mulling over, but also to celebrate new books of poems coming out this fall. I put out a call via Facebook and Twitter, and had such a strong response I was made to choose among submissions. I did so: I read the galleys and selected eleven poets to interview. (And I apologize to those this feature could not accommodate.) So, on July 2, eleven poets received the following charge: Please answer five of the questions below. Elaborate upon your replies—that is, please explain your thinking, and explore the examples you’re citing—and nonetheless limit each answer to a paragraph or two. Concise, substantive responses would be preferred. Which of these poems predicts your future? What two moments in the volume, or two images from the poems, would you like your reader to remember most? Which of the following twois your book about: Love, Art, Beauty, Death, God, Self, Ethics, Dreams, Mom, Dad, Ambition, The Body, Loneliness, Friendship, The Natural World, Human Failings, Sensuality, Perception? Which poem in your book should be read aloud first—that is, not the volume’s first poem? Which two or three poems might compete to be the volume’s singular ars poetica? Which poem in your book arrived mostly whole? What are you doing formally in this book that’s new for you? List five books that mattered to you during the writing of your book. List five events in your life that mattered to you during the writing of your book. Which poem in this book could begin your next book? Which poem in this book scares you the most? One sad note: as many of you know, the poet Max Ritvo died this summer at the age of twenty-five. We are fortunate to have his poems, and also fortunate that even in his decline he was able to contribute sparkling responses to the interview questions. My condolences to his family and friends. And in case you’re wondering, Eleven Questions for Eleven Poets took 143 emails. Now the poets and their answers, a sampling of some of the brilliance we find in poetry today: Elizabeth Colen, Carolina Ebeid, Dana Levin, Max Ritvo, David Rivard, Chris Santiago, Lee Sharkey, Clint Smith, Megan Snyder-Camp, Tony Trigilio, Monica Youn. Elizabeth J. Colen is most recently the author of What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems. Other books include poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition, and fiction collaboration Your Sick. She teaches at Western Washington University. Carolina Ebeid is a the author of You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior (Noemi Press, Fall 2016). She is a student in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Denver, and holds an MFA from... Continue reading
Posted Sep 18, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Sep 17, 2016