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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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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12 Books: A Poetry Nerd’s Poetics Reading List

I recently finished up leading a poetry workshop at a writers’ retreat at Rosemont College near Philadelphia. During one of the classes, populated mostly by MFA graduate students, I brought in a pile of craft/theory/poetics/rant books. I’m a nerd for books about poetry and interviews with poets (I always turn to the interview section first when a new issue of Rattle arrives). Aside from reading lots and lots of poetry, one of the best ways for me to learn more about poetry is through reading poets talk about their own processes and ideas. Here’s a partial list of books I think should be on every poet’s shelf. I’m offering this list here for the retreat students who didn’t get to write down the names of all the titles they were interested in.

Please add more books in the comments section if you think I’ve left out something important or interesting. There’s no particular order of importance in the way I’ve assembled this list, and I may add more as I find things on my shelves.

Writing Poems by Robert Wallace. Harper Collins.
I came to this, as I do with a lot of craft books, first as a fan of Wallace’s own poetry. This book is an excellent hardcore treatise in the basic principles and how they work within poems. Lots of samples and some writing prompts.

Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry by Louise Gluck. Ecco.
Here’s a book I love to argue with, which makes the process of reading it fun (and why my copy is so full of scribbled notations). Gluck’s book mixes essays on composition theory with comments of specific poets (Eliot, Oppen, Kunitz). The essay I marked up most is “Against Sincerity.”

Poetry in Person, Twenty-five Years of Conversation with American Poets Edited by Alexander Neubauer. Knopf.
This book is mesmerizing. In it you find 23 transcripts of poets talking with teacher Pearl London and her creative writing classes. These aren’t just any poets though—we get to eavesdrop on Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Charles Simic…

The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. Norton.
This is a very practical and easy to love book on craft. It’s designed more for people who are new to writing poetry, but it also has plenty of insights for established writers. It would make a great textbook for a creative writing class. Lots of prompts and examples are provided. Engagingly written.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry Essays by Jane Hirshfield. Harper Perennial.
I first came to this book, 1) as a fan of Jane Hirshfield’s poems and 2) because I was looking for new ways to think about nature poetry, and Hirshfield suggest I read her essay Two Secrets which is collected here. This book is a mix of theory, craft and philosophy—particularly zen.

The Sound of Poetry by Robert Pinsky. FSG.
Here’s a book that really tries to bring back respect for sound and texture in poetry. Good information, but ironically it’s a bit of a flat read.

Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. St. Martins Press.
This should be required on every new MFA student’s shelf. I particularly like chapter 5: Pacing: The Way a Poem Moves.

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. Norton.
Any fan of Richard Hugo’s poems probably already knows about this book. On one level it’s a guide on how to write like Richard Hugo, but it’s much more than that. For the beginning poet, he makes poetry less intimidating and more personal, but for the mature writer, there will also be a lot of shared “ah ha” moments. Get this book.

Lofty Dogmas: Poets of Poetics. edited by Deborah Brown, Annie Finch and Maxine Kumin.
This is one of my favorites, and I’ve love to teach a class with this as the text book. It compiles essays from ancient times (Horace) to contemporary poets, discussing issues of inspiration, craft and poetry culture. Many of the most important essays on poetry are all wedged in here.

Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry Essays by Stephen Burt. Graywolf.
This collection, all republished from literary journals, attempts to explain and support the work of what Burt calls the elliptical poets—poets like Rae Armantrout, CD Wright, John Ashbery, Lorine Niedecker and others. Often, for me, the support Burt uses doesn’t hold up, but I appreciate it nonetheless. If you’re a fan on this kind of poetry, you’ll find a lot to like here. If you’re not a fan, this book will at least help you understand what they’re trying to do.

The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Ellen Bryant Voight. Graywolf.
There are (I think) seven volumes in The Art of series. Of the five I have, this one is my favorite. It offers clear explanations of how sound and texture affect poetry. My other favorite in the series it Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness.

 

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A Bill Knott Poetry Exercise

In an interview on the site Memorious Bill Knott (who passed away this week) describes a poetry exercise he’d given to students. I don’t know for for a fact if he actually did this, or what the results were, but I find the exercise fascinating. If you reading this were ever a student of Knott’s and did this exercise, please comment on what it was like and how effective it was. I offer it here:

“I often recommend to my students that they take their two favorite poets and try to combine them as an exercise. To do a quantitative line-by-line analysis of a template poem by poet X, and the same with poet Y. (All successful poets have a template poem.) How many verbs per line? Adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, concrete nouns, abstract nouns, etc. Count them up. Take the number-totals from the two models and add them together, and then divide those in half. And then use that final amount to write your own poem. Split the difference. Combine the quantitative habits of your two faves to create your own constant. (What the successful poet knows that you don’t, I tell the students, is how to quantitatively distribute the elements of language (verbs, nouns, etc.) down the page in an effective and commensurate ratio.)”

I wonder how many poets are as conscious of their “template?” Do we even recognize our own styles? Sometimes I think so, and sometimes not. One of my favorite poets, Richard Hugo, clearly had a template and in fact wrote a whole book about it. A practice a friend and I used to do on our own in graduate school was to take poems we admired and rewrite them but using different words–replace each noun with a new noun, each verb with a new verb, etc. (a poplar tree might be replaced with a blueberry bush, for instance). We’d mimic the line and stanza forms, maybe even the metaphor styles. The idea was to study by imitation the craft of another poet. Afterword, if we liked the new poems we created, we’d feel free to write them further away from the original to ensure it was our own. I haven’t done that in a long time, but it was a useful exercise in understanding how a particular poem worked, seeing the inside workings, the machinery of the thing, rather than just the emotional jolt you get from the experience of reading a poem.

By the way, I have recognized a sort-of template in some of my poems (the nature/woodsy poems seem to follow a bit of a construction pattern). I even wrote the template out as a prompt and offered it to a class. It was surprisingly successful for the group.

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The Great MFA Debate Continues

” Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. ”

 

From Get a Real Degree by Elif Batuman at The London Review of Books.

Poets on Poetry: Quotes, Mostly

What would we get if accountants and waiters and bowling alley attendants talked about their occupations the way poets do? 

Anyway…

This…

“The realm of conventionally articulate speech is not sufficient for saying what needs to be said.”

Nathaniel Mackey

“Yet the very incapacity of language to match the world allows it to do service as a medium of differentiation.”

Lyn Hejinian

“A poem’s task is to seduce—its readers or listeners must find in it something irresistible, something to which they want to surrender.”

Jane Hirshfield

“For me a poem must go beyond its setting or its particular to say outright or by subtle suggestion something about the human condition. If the gift without the giver is bare, the poem without the concept is emaciated…”

Maxine Kumin

“A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poem itself to, all the way to the reader. The poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.”

Charles Olson

but…

“Concentration on technique can absorb the attention while unacknowledged material enters the language; so technique can facilitate inspiration.”

Donald Hall

and…

“One has to know his tools, so he doesn’t work against himself. Tools make the job easier. More accuracy.”

Yusef Komunyakaa

“For it is not the greatness, the intensity, of the emotion, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.”

T.S. Eliot

“I caution against communication, because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”

Richard Hugo

Ah…

“Whatever else we may think of this world—it is astonishing.”

Wislawa Szymborska

Yes…

“Every good poem asks a question, and every good poet asks every question.”

Kim Addonizio

Finally:

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth… patience is everything.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Most poets write the same poem over and over.

Richard Hugo

Q & A on Writing with Lee Upton

Photo by CeCe Ziolkowsk

Photo by CeCe Ziolkowsk

In May I was invited to read poems at an art gallery in Hunterton NJ with Lee Upton, Warren Cooper and Upton’s daughter, Theodora Ziolkowski. The reading and venue were both wonderful and I hope to get back there again. I’d read Upton’s poetry before, particularly her book Civilian Histories (University of Georgia Press), but we’d never met. MaryAnn Miller, who curates the reading series, as well as publishes limited edition art & poetry books (Lucia Press), introduced us.

After the reading we chatted and exchanged books. I received a copy of her book Swallowing the Sea (Tupelo Press), a collection of essays about writing and the writing life. The issues discussed in this Q & A are based on that book.

Lee Upton is the author of twelve books, including five collections of poetry, a novella, and four books of literary criticism. Her short stories have also appeared widely. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, two awards from the Poetry Society of America, and the Miami University Novella Award. She is Writer-in-Residence and a professor of English at Lafayette College in Easton Pennsylvania.

You write “Our store of happiness is always in danger of being depleted.” Is a fear of running out of happiness, or running out of places to discover it, a debilitating or an energizing force for the writer? Do writers create in order to find more happiness or does that fear of running out freeze them into inactivity?

I can’t speak for other writers, but I do know that writing—for me—is a source of happiness, even though that happiness is sometimes mixed with frustration and a form of extreme yearning that can’t exactly be called happiness-inducing. The happiness I find in writing has something to do with the heightened state of concentration that writing creates.  Happiness in writing also has to do with the fact that I’m compelled to write; if I weren’t writing regularly unhappiness would be guaranteed for me.  Writing beats back despair, but because writing opens up formerly closed areas of consciousness, the act of writing can prove painful and exhausting. I’m aware of how fortunate any of us are to have writing as not only an exhilarating activity but as a kind of steady companion.  As you can see, I’m struggling here—perhaps because it is a great privilege to be able to write, and yet writing also goes beyond happiness for me.  Writing is larger than happiness and sometimes makes me face what I’d rather not face, and so the happiness writing affords comes with thistles.

I’m fascinated by the section on purity, but I’m still a little confused on what exactly you mean by the word. Can we envision purity and make it impactful on our writing, without a reference standard, something to compare everything else to? What would that standard be? I’m disposed to believe it may be something other than poetry, which of course is a particular problem for the poet.

I think you’re right to be confused by any notion of purity.  Purity is a fantasy, a phantom, a form of extreme and powerful subjectivity that changes form depending on the aspirant. (When talking about purity I’m not talking about food safety of course.)  Absolute purity in ideological terms tends to be colonizing and aggressive, and those who attempt to impose on others their own ideals of purity and its sibling, perfection, prove oppressive. The discussion of purity in Swallowing the Sea attempts to trace some of the difficulties of allowing purity to be one’s guide in writing. At the same time, I tried to give purity its due as an alluring imaginative construct that’s not easily dismissed.  Purity as a conception of the human imagination for some of us determines at least in part the way we revise our work—toward greater compression, toward elimination of anything that interrupts the culminating tensions in the poem, toward an ideal.  Our standards, which may seem instinctive even if they’re learned, threaten to purify the poem out of existence.  But if we simply dismiss the ideal of purity we fail to recognize that the conception has a hold on many of us. Our struggle with purity can be bracing and creative.  The fact that some writers have assailed purity (Neruda, for instance) testifies to the conception’s powerful grip.

In the section Poetry, Defended, Briefly, you write “in poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring in an expectation …”   Do you also believe readers have a responsibility to the poet/poetry? If so, then what? And are readers today properly prepared to fulfill that responsibility? Let me make that question more practical—contemporary poets (and poetry) get criticized a lot today, by poets and non-poets alike, for being obscure, difficult, out of touch … as if the state of poetry today is all the poets’ fault. Does the reader share any of that blame?  

swallowingthesea225As a reader I can share that blame—but that’s true in any genre.  As a reader I can be too impatient, giving up on a poem before allowing even the rhythm of the lines to begin to do their work. I try to make allowances for my own impatience by eventually giving some books second and even third chances; it takes a while to know how to appreciate an aesthetic.  Often enough though, some poetry is simply not engaging or illuminating—whether it’s a difficult poem or a seemingly simple and transparent poem.  Then again, there are so many different sorts of poetries available that I tend to find plenty of work that I can respond to immediately. As you mention, it’s true that there are many poems that are difficult and obscure, and sometimes those poems fail (then again, many poems of any sort are doomed to failure).  But some poems that are difficult are haunting and even valiant and perversely lovable and even poignant because they’re so resistant to common ways of perceiving and thinking.  You mention poems that are “out of touch,” and I have to admit a special affection for poems that may be referred to as “out of touch”; those poems speak for realms of experience that are denied in our experience, reaching beyond our lived reality toward something we could never have imagined otherwise.   Then again, I think I know what you mean in certain instances: sometimes the poem that is described as “out of touch” leaves us numb; it’s untouchable not just because it’s treading air out of reach but because the poem doesn’t tug us in any direction whatsoever.  Poetry never should condescend to readers, and so a poet never needs to settle ultimately for possibilities that aren’t exciting, whether those possibilities appear superficially simple or superficially complex.

You can find many of Upton’s books here.