Is Truth in Poetry Important?

poet_sake (2)

A very good bottle of sake I recently enjoyed with some friends. It has nothing to do with this post.

About a week ago the website Change Seven published an interview with me, conducted by writer Curtis Smith. The interview mostly focused on my book of poems, The Magician’s Handbook, that was released by PS Book in October. One question, however, asked about my writing process, and one part of my answer concerns a topic that’s important to me, so I’m going to elaborate here.

I stated in the interview that I often make up or exaggerate situations or events in my poems. I don’t think that’s a revolutionary concept, but sometimes it still leads to raised questions and sometimes raised eyebrows.

Truth, in poetry, is a complicated issue. I cringe when I hear poets talk about how they’re writing the truth or getting at the truth or whatever truthiness idea they go on about. Maybe that’s because I equate truth with facts, and in world where anything a person doesn’t agree with is branded as fake news, truth can be difficult.

Rather than aiming for truth in my poems, I aim for real or authentic (again, a vague and unhelpful word, sorry). Do the situations in the poem feel real, does it move or affect the way real feels move or affect. There’s a sort of truth, I suppose, in all my poems, and many of them do include autobiographical references, but rarely are they completely loyal to the events or people referenced. Because a poem is written in the first person doesn’t mean that it’s naturally about my experience or that the experience happened the way it’s depicted in the poem. It’s always bothered me that a short story is assumed to be fiction (in part because that’s how we’ve come to compartmentalize the genres) while poems are not. The fact that “creative non-fiction” is its own genre kind of baffles me.

Rather than sticking to the facts, my loyalty in writing is to the language—the way it sounds, the response it makes in my gut, the pictures it draws in the head and the places it steers me.

I raise this point because I think it’s important that poets feel free to create, not report. I’ve had students resist following the language out of fear of not properly reporting the facts.

I’ve had people ask me, usually after readings, about specific things in poems, and sometimes they’re disappointed if I tell them part of it was made up. I’ve burned down buildings, broken up with girlfriends, lived in towns, and killed off family members, all that didn’t exist. Every time I publish a book I’ve had to explain to my parents (who are still alive, despite what one of my poems says) not to take it too seriously.

Of course I’m guilty of the fallacy of autobiography too. In being moved by every Philip Levine poem about a factory, I have to remind myself that he didn’t, in fact, work for 40 years in every auto plant in Detroit, however it might seem that way.

Anyway, this is at the top of my mind now because my next book (which is due out this month) includes a section drawn on a group of people who are incredibly close to my heart, yet, out of necessity, are semi-fictional. It’s a series of poems set in the 1980s and describes my sort-of reckless teenage years. Names are changed, events are changed, though there’s a realness to it all that’s important. The three or four recurring characters in those poems are mash ups of about ten different people, as are the stories they act in. It’s easier for me to write that way, and allows me to be loyal to the language, which is what’s really more important for the poetry.

 

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Sharjah Book Fair Day 3, 4 and 5

book fair entrance

I’ve been back from Sharjah three days, and still haven’t updated my blog. There’s no good excuse. I caught myself up on missed episodes of The Walking Dead (I knew he was a fake) and Doctor Who (I didn’t understand any of that last episode), so now my evening schedule is clear for this. (Links to day One and day Two posts)

So, where did I leave off…

The evening of day two of my visit to Sharjah (UAE) I sent emails to several Emirati poets who were attending the book fair, and asked if they’d grant me interviews.  I came to the country with an idea to write about poetry from this region, but “this region” is a big vague chunk. Narrowing the goal down to Emirati (go here to learn what being an Emirati means) poets made the most sense since their poetry culture seemed so rich here (one of the most popular TV shows in the country is a poetry contest show called Millions Poet). Within two hours after sending the emails, three of the poets had replied, and the fourth replied by morning.

The next day, after breakfast in the hotel (they serve beef bacon, which looks like pastrami, instead of pork bacon, and tastes nothing like bacon) I asked my driver (each of the guest writers was assigned a driver) to take me back to the book fair so I could track down those poets.  I felt like a bit of a stalker, walking around the convention center to blindly interrogate writers, but this is one of the main reasons I was here.

Ali Al Shaali 2First I met with Ali Al Shaali. Al Shaali studied engineering and is also a publisher himself, mostly of books for young adults. We spoke about poetry’s place in the Arabic world in general, and in the Emirates specifically. While explaining that poetry is very deeply rooted in the culture “we decorate our homes with it,” he said, he also noted that novels, TV and other media have replaced poetry for a lot of people.  “This has been the case for poetry since the dawn of history, and I’m not worried about it.”  However, he pointed out that poetry has a particularly strong supporter in the country—the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE is a poet and has published books (I bought one while at the fair).

Me andGhanem 2Next I was lucky enough to meet with Shihab Ghanem, who happens to also be an engineer with degrees from the UK. Ghanem is a well-known poet in the UAE, and knows most of the other significant poets. In addition to his own poems, he’s translated several English language poets (Frost and Auden are two he mentioned to me) into Arabic. He’s also a key person in an annual poetry festival held in Dubai called The Poetic Heart.

My third poet/engineer of the day was Talal Salim. That pattern is actually pretty common. In the UAE, and in the rest of the Arab world, the path to being a writer doesn’t involve creative writing classes and MFAs. That’s mostly an American phenomenon. People come to poetry writing more organically here. Sometimes through university study of Arabic literature, but mostly by just its infusion in life. All of the writers I spoke to that week became hooked on poetry as school children, and continued to immerse themselves in it alongside their other careers and studies. Why don’t we have more poet-engineers in the US?

* * *

Sheikha Al-MutairiThe next day I had two women Emirati poets on my list. Back to the book fair I went. The first was Sheikha Al-Mutairi (photo on the right). Unlike the previous day’s interviewees, Al-Mutairi specialized in Arabic literature in college.

Next was a meeting with Salha Ghabish, who in addition to being a poet, has been a magazine editor, has published plays, a novel and done radio and TV. Ghabish’s English was a little rusty, so Noura Al Noman, an Arabic sci-fi novelist, helped with translation.

These interviews, in case you’re wondering, are all for an article that will be published later in a US poetry magazine. I’m not including details from the interviews here, because I want to save them for the article.

The next day, Thursday, was my last full day in Sharjah, and a free day. I spent the afternoon visiting museums, walking around the city and being a tourist. In the evening, Hamza Qenawy, a journalist for the arts and culture magazine Dubai Al Thakafiya, met me in the hotel lobby for an interview about my own poetry. Unfortunately for me, the magazine is published only in Arabic, so I won’t be able to read the piece when it comes out.P1020582

In addition to the local writers already mentioned, the book fair introduced me to other guest writers from around the world. Altogether, it was a pretty amazing week.

I’m very grateful to the Sharjah Book Fair for inviting and hosting me for this event, and for the time and attention the writers I met there granted me.

 

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Sharjah Book Fair Day 1: Arrival, Form Panel, Dinner

Form poetry panel group 1This week I’m particularly thrilled to be a guest author of the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Book fairs are a big attraction in the UAE, and the annual event in Sharjah is the biggest of them. Throughout the week I’ll post updates on my experiences here.

Day one started with my arrival at the Dubai airport early in the morning after 13 or so hours of flying (with very little sleep, though I did watch about 8 hours of season 2 of Vikings). When I finally arrived at the hotel (and found a welcome package with dates and flowers waiting for me) I went right to bed.

My first and only Book Fair event of the day was an evening panel discussion on the relationship of form and content in poetry. I shared the panel with Gaza-born poet Na’ima Hasan  and Yousef Abolouz, winner of the Arab Literary Award from the Jordan Writers’ Union. The session was moderated by poet Hamza Qannawi.

I’m afraid to admit, that even with a translator speaking the English words into my wireless earphones, I had difficulty following the other presentations. A big problem is that literary translation can’t be done on the fly, so at one point the translator simply stopped trying. In my own presentation, I discussed the approach to form in two different ways. The first was about form in the classical sense of the word (meter, lineation, stanza structure) and how making those structural choice early in the poem is an important aid to the poet during composition because it takes some of the decision-making element out of the process and can influence, or even force, language choice.

The other kind of form I referred to is more of what I call the purpose-built poem—from as function. Poems that are purpose built to perform a specific function (odes, elegies, letter poems, praise poems…) also aid the writer by restricting choices. Those kinds of forms have built-in goals (though they can be vague goals), audiences, and voices, which all contribute to the content/meaning layer of the poems.

Based on the questions from the audience, and the conversations I had with listeners afterword, I think the talk went over fairly well. I hope jetlag didn’t make me incoherent.

After the panel I went out to dinner with my old college friends Farid and Omer and the writer Saba Imtiaz at the best Thai restaurant in the UAE.

There will be more to report on tomorrow as I plan to spend more time at the book fair and hope to do some interviews with poets I meet.

 

Finally, I Can Buy a Two-headed Calf

I used to love farmers’ fairs and carnivals when I was a kid. My cousins lived on a farm in Pennsylvania (sometimes a working farm, sometimes not), and I loved hanging out in the barns, roaming the fields looking quartz chunks, catching fish in the pond, but especially going to the Blue Valley Farm Showtwo headed calf at the farm show pic. There I’d look for the record-breaking bull, the tractor pull (which my cousin won one year, I think) and gorge myself on fried things.

Sometimes you see weird stuff at fairs, and one such encounter (somewhat fictionalized, I admit) I put into the poem Two-headed Calf at the Farm Show (which is in the book Necessary Mythsbuy here). Anyway, I just happened to notice, via the Facebook page of The Evolution Store, a listing for an actual two-headed calf for sale. The auction house Bonhams is offering both the full mount and an articulated skeleton.  Would someone please buy this for my birthday present? I know just the place I’d put it.

 

Two-headed Calf at the Farm Show

 

We came for sights and smells,

distractions of giant beets

and blue-ribbon goats,

but at the taxidermy tent we find

a body mounted, badly stitched and

held into a suckling pose

by wires hidden in the neck,

a calf that may or may not

have been more than we expected,

and who expects these things?

Not the calf as it entered the world

watching itself watching itself

slide out onto the sharp padding

of straw, strong hands pulling

at its legs. One heart, one spine

branching like a river

with two mouths to the sea

and for a brief moment

they both gasp, breath

struggling down a pair

of clotted throats, a god’s

joke that let the gentle eyes

open long enough to see

each other’s own lovely brown eyes

slowly close, the one heart too shocked

to bring legs up for balance

and finally those hands let go.

So now under a sun hot tent

we reach out to touch it,

holding hands but looking away,

thinking of the big coffee eyes

the moment one person knows before the other

that the fight for air is over

when one heart’s not enough

for both of us.

 

Here’s another taxidermy poem by me at Painted Bride Quarterly.

And here’s another tw0-headed calf poem, this one by Laura Gilpin (thanks to Laura Orem for the tip).

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Ode Workshop at Musehouse in November

For two Saturdays in November I’ll be leading a group in the study and writing of odes. Why odes? That’s pretty simple. I love the idea of odes. While the old classic odes could be formal in purpose and structure, what passes for an ode today is much more broad. That doesn’t mean you can take any old poem and pin the title “ode” to it (well, sure you can if you want to). Odes are honorifics, but they’re also explorations. They celebrate as they deconstruct. Look at Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. At one point the speaker is rejoicing in the “happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.” But by the end of the poem his mood has taken a turn as he observes “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!”

Odes have a way of doing that—start in one place (or one thing) and follow a train of thought to another conclusion. Odes are a sort of chemical reaction, or maybe an experiment. You take X subject and add Y language; mix it up into a metaphor with insight and hope it doesn’t explode in your face.

There are some fantastic contemporary odes by Kevin Young, Dean Young, Rita Dove, and Pablo Neruda. In the first day of the workshop we’ll talk about the many ways odes can function, options for structure, use of metaphor and of course look at lots of examples, then send everyone home with an assignment. The next week we’ll look at the odes each participant brings in.

If this sounds like something you’d like to try, you can sign up here. The class meets on two Saturdays from 10AM to 12PM or so, 11/15 and 11/22. Cost for the two days is $60. You can register here or call Musehouse at 267-331-9552.

Below check out Kevin Young’s Ode to Gumbo:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/86829168″>ode to gumbo</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/aspokendish”>A Spoken Dish</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

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Writing Process Blog Tour

I need to thank Christine Brandel for inviting me to this writing process blog tour. Please check out her excellent site CLBwrites and see what she’s up to.

Now, onto the questions

What are you working on?

I recently finished up a new poetry manuscript and am starting to send that out to book contests and trying not to think about all the $25 reading fees. A few weeks ago I started a sort-of series of poems that’s sort of a metaphysical bestiary. I also hope to spend time on a long-term project with fishing illustrator Jason Borger. When it’s done, Lucia Press will produce a fine art book of Borger’s prints and my poems. His beautiful fish pictures are done, but I’m not even halfway through writing the poems to compliment the images. I’ve also been collecting and studying odes, classic and new, for a 2-day class I’m teaching in November at Musehouse (you can still sign up here). Some of my own odes will be appearing soon in Gargoyle and Superstition Review.

Also, I’m pretty excited about a trip coming up soon to the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. I’ll be on a poetry panel or two, do some readings and browse around meeting writers from all over the world.

How does your work differ from others in the genre?

On the genre level, it probably doesn’t differ a whole lot. I write poems that look like poems and can’t really get confused with clay pots or oriental rugs. However, I hope my poems distinguish themselves in voice and attitude. A reviewer not too long ago called my poetry “old fashioned and audacious,” and I like that.

Why do you write what you do?

I was initially attracted to poetry in 6th or 7th grade when I memorized The Raven. I like the rhythms, images and mystery of it. Those are characteristics I’m still drawn to, and features that I think poetry does best. Also, I have a very short attention span and can’t write long-form creatively.

How does your writing process work?

Usually I start with an image, word or phrase I like. Sometimes that phrase is in the form of a title. I keep a file of lines and titles that occur to me, and a couple of times a week I’ll go to that file and pick out something to work with. Then I just let each line tell me what to put in the next one, so hopefully the poem has a natural, self-generative feel to it. I also tinker with my new poems a lot in the first few days, and if it doesn’t keep my attention longer than that, I’ll probably forget about it. I never save separate drafts; I just save over the prior one, not really caring if I lose something in the process.

For the past year and a half I’ve been doing a lot of what you might call project poetry—poems who’s themes or situations were all planned out in advance. That’s not something I’d ever done before, but I like the results so far. We’ll see if the book gets published.

While I don’t like to use prompts (I assign them in workshops though), I do get a lot of ideas from reading other poems. I especially like response poems in which I write a response to some other poem. I also just plain steal small ideas (and credit the original of course). In fact, once I wrote a poem about finding some other poet’s line in my poem. I’m sure it was an accident.

Check out Christine Brandel’s Writing Process post, click here.

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