Poetry at last!

It’s been months if not years since I last posted a poem. Partly because I haven’t written any new ones, and partly because I was still hoping to get some of the older ones published (and most journals won’t take previously published poems etc. etc.)

However, I am cautiously optimistic that my love of writing has returned and that more poems (as well as prose) will get written. So here is an older poem, which has been edited and freshened up, and will hopefully lead to newer and better things. The idea is that you can read it horizontally from left to right or in columns. Just a little bit of playing with appearance on the page!

After the Appeal

You have been sifted                                      cleaned out and weighed

each grain examined                                      you were found wanting

your feet too shuffling                                    your teeth too evolved

slow rip and hide                                            under your mantle

poked and shushed over                                tut-tut rejected.

Bernini’s Medusa

And, because I am feeling super generous and energetic (at least until further notice or rejection), here is another, more personal one. In which it becomes clear that my poetic subconscious is a better judge of character than my rational everyday self.

Medusa

You could not bear my questioning gaze

so you called me Medusa

and coiled nasty creatures

above my head

powerless to stun

yet mocked at by all.

Is there ever a time –

perhaps in your deep slumber at night –

that you startle and run

to escape the unflinching eyes?

Maxine Kumin on Poetry

At first sight, Maxine Kumin is not the obvious poet that would appeal to me. Calm, contained, not really confessional or overtly feminist, she writes lovingly observed nature poems, depicting life in New England, her horses, her garden. Yet there is something there, in that deliberate simplicity, a real warmth beneath the coolness, that makes me feel like I am drinking delicious fresh spring water when I read her. In the Poets on Poetry series that I am currently slightly obsessed with, she has some brilliant insights into her own poetic work and that of others (she was famously great friends with Anne Sexton, who’s a very different type of poet).

I often go in search of one thing and come back with another. Yes, there is a definite spin-off from one poem to another, because in the process of narrowing in on a subject a lot of peripheral i deas occur which then struggle to announce themselves. Some of them insist on becoming poems.

Writing a poem, she insists, is ‘at least to some extent a mysical process’. When a poem is ready to be written, she gets ‘a real prickle at the base of my neck’. She doesn’t think things through before writing, just scribbles things down, because she is often startled and perplexed at what is building. ‘The whole process of writing the poem is a process of elucidation’.

You begin with the chaos of impressions and feelings, this aura that overtakes you, that forces you to write. And, in the process of writing, as you marshal your arguments… your metaphors really, as you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form, the order – the marvellous infomring order emerges from it… You feel, to that degree, reborn.

Of course, there are a lot of things that fall by the wayside in the process, what she calls the ‘bone pile – all the little snippets that failed and the aborted poems and stuff’. She tells poets to never throw any of that away, because later in life you might come back to it and find something that you couldn’t deal with earlier.

There’s a line from a Sexton poem: ‘The writer is essentially a crook./Out of used furniture he makes a tree.’… That is what art should do: create something natural out of all the used-up sticks and bureaus of our lives, the detritus of our lives.

She admits to being somewhat scared of free verse, that she prefers to have some constraint in poetic form, which gives you permission to be more honest with your feelings.

When I’m writing free verse, I feel as though I am in Indiana, where it’s absolutely flat and you can see the horizon 360 degrees around. You feel as if you have no eyelids, you can’t blink. I lose, I have no sense of the line.

She is surprisingly upbeat about the effect that teaching has on her poetry:

It’s very good for me. I think of it as a discipline… I feel I get as much as I give… It keeps me on my toes, probably stimulates me to write more poems than I otherwise would. I’m really very lazy by nature…. I find more ways to evade getting down to business than a centipede has legs. It’s just astonishing the things that I can suddenly decide need doing that have nothing to do with writing.

She finds her family, her community, with other writers, because it is such a solitary job that writers like to get together and moan about how terrible and lonely and difficult writing is. That aspect of the writing life certainly seems to be timeless!

But there are some interesting historical observations as well: even back then in the 1970s, she said she would not recommend poetry as a career, because it is ‘a thin living at best’. Only do it if it’s ‘an obsession, the scratching of a divine itch… nothing to do with money.’ She remembers back in the 1950s, early 1960s when editors would write to her that they could not accept any poems from her for 6 months or so, because they had already published a woman poet in the preceding month.

Above all, I appreciate her ‘kick-in-the-backside’ advice for wannabe poets and writers:

I thin there’s a real value to forcing [yourself to write]/ I do not think it hurst at all to write to assignment… Get in the habit of jotting down states of mind or weather reports. It’s habit forming and it’s good. Also, I do not think anybody becomes a writer who is not a juge reader, omnivorous and wide-ranging. You have to love words, and you have to be willing to take lots of risks with words, and be willing to write really bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. You only grow by doing…

Poetic Exercises to Loosen the Joints

One of the most useful lessons I learnt on the writing retreat was to use all sorts of ridiculous rules and constraints to exercise the poetic brain. It’s like using an elastic band to exercise your muscles, making them stretch just a little further than they might normally do. Here are some examples:

Quick Riddle

Flashes of remembrance
your friendly pings
your bossy tone
sole guide and friend on country lanes
until you die

(Mobile phone)

Cinquain – 2-4-6-8-2 syllable lines

It’s May.
Nests are feathered,
Twiglets picked, earth clods primed,
with hasty visitors in mind.
Cuckoo!

Measure
Careful trickle
Weighing, counting, tasting…
Beat and simmer, don’t stir and pour…
Too late!

Invent a list of ten words and give them to the next person to write a short text with it (a poem, prose, textbook, whatever the words inspire).  Here is my text, see if you can spot the made-up words.

The plupracy had already decided to sputify all private property. First, they demoked the fusils (Mairstone, 2082: pp.15-16), but, when this took far longer than expected, they had to add propylate to the mix. The late-Nematic propylate, however, was full of brimstone (Johnson, 2011; Rheinhart, 2059), so the olzeous metaphycitate they had in their makeshift laboratories exploded. The sputified masses tried to caffer, but it was too late. Contemporary eye-witnesses agree that the instare was complete and irrevocable (Mairstone, 2082: pg. 562).

Journey of a Poem: Part 2

At the beginning of October, I share the first draft of a poem which, in all fairness, was more of a rant. In the meantime, I’ve shared it with my beloved poetry mentor in Provence, Karen McDermott, and also read it out at my local writing group, so I’ve had some feedback and made some changes.

editing2

One major area of reader concern was that I need to make it clearer from the outset that there are two people involved in the poem: a couple quarrelling. The other suggestion was to include more ‘out’ words, like outshine, outrun, outdo. I took both of those onboard.

I also decided that one whole stanza, the one with the invalid in bed expecting to be waited upon hand and foot, didn’t work very well (although it was what triggered the furious poem initially). So that came out and I reworked some of the other ideas, extending them into stanzas of their own.  The passwords and apps in the first stanza became much more about a certain type of masculinity which uses technology as a weapon and rolls his eyes when women are not interested in constantly playing with gadgets. The scientific depth became more of a weapon of derision in its own ‘mansplaining’ stanza. The Facebook foxiness and offshore squirreling references became more obviously financial with the introduction of a game of Monopoly.

monopoly

So here’s the second/third draft. The fourth stanza is deliberately longer than the others, which are all composed of four lines. It’s the break in patterns which makes things interesting. As Laura Kasischke said during her masterclass: ‘If I were in the hands of a poet who obviously has no idea where line breaks occur, just chops up a piece of prose into shorter lines, then a break in pattern is random, but if it’s a poet you can trust then you can see it’s deliberate and it adds to the meaning.’ That longer stanza marks how endless the Christmas season can seem when you are trapped in the house with someone lacking empathy and determined to always be in the right.

Outwit with passwords
you outgun me
fat on apps, encrypted accounts,
grin at attempts to follow your technology

Outrun me in the gym
keep yourself trim
belly sucked in and crow superior
while flab won’t cease to haunt me

Facebook foxiness masks
offshore squirreling
in a Monopoly game where
you outdo my every move

Holiday season and you outfrown
my anxious hiccups
drowning out conversational gambits
with incontrovertible evidence
well-placed asides
oh that scientific depth

Outmother me, won’t you,
all laughter and mad tickling
masking the many hours of boredom
which you refused to partake

Soon you will outsource me
but still keep allure of long-distance parenting
Swiss chocolate vs. squished pies
drowned in bitter custard.

piecustard

I’ve not added much punctuation to the original, but am wondering if it might be more effective to have a large first letter for each stanza, especially if it’s all O, like in an illuminated medieval manuscript. Or is that too artificial? I’d have to change stanzas 3 and 4 to start with O, but can leave the last one as is, for more of a contrast and resolution.

Now for the most difficult thing: the title. I vaguely thought of ‘Outnumbered’, or ‘Outfoxed’, but other possibilities include ‘Outlier’ or ‘On the Way Out’ or ‘Getting Out’. But I am not sure that insisting on the repetition of ‘out’ in the title isn’t overkill. What do you think?