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.

Today’s Poetry Rules

When writing, I keep to a handful of rules, something to guide my work, like a handrail on a woods trail. I also have a tendency to change my rules when they no longer suite me. Here are today’s, which may be different from tomorrow’s:

  1. Don’t be boring. This is a big deal for me, but I assume I don’t live up to it on many occasions. I attend a fair amount of poetry readings and read a couple hours worth of poetry almost every day, so I know something about boring poems. Subject matter can be boring, language can be boring, titles can be boring. Today I’ll try use a lot of “t”s in my poems, because I think “t” is an unboring letter. We had a big storm earlier this week, you may have heard of it. Storms are not boring. The opposite of boring isn’t interesting, it’s just unboring. Mysterious, engaging, sympathetic, sentimental, dangerous, threatening, disturbing… are all unboring.
  1. Be trustworthy. A poem is an invitation to the reader—you want the reader to enter your world, point-of-view, sick mind or private delirium. If you don’t create a sense of trust, the reader won’t be engaged.
  1. Have a reader in mind. My first reader is my imaginary friend, and he’s a lot like me (but thinner and with more money and friends). Keeping a reader in mind leads to writing that is more trustworthy and has a clearer voice. Voice is purpose, and purpose implies audience. If you shout “piss off” into the air, it just floats away without purpose. If you shout “piss off” at your boss, it has purpose and voice. It also gets you fired, so have a backup plan for that.
  1. Always be nice to dogs.
  1. Don’t fear sentimentality. I’m a sap. I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every December and will until my eyes are donated to science. People love that movie because they’re spineless and easily moved (me too). Work with it.
  1. Don’t try to teach something. You’ll be annoying, and people will think you think you’re smarter than them. Try to learn something instead. I believe poems, the good ones, are not for expressing something; they’re for sorting something(s) out.
  1. Shoot for clarity, but figure you’ll miss a good part of the time. When I’m fly fishing, I always have a spot on the water I try to hit with my casts. I usually miss, but often still catch fish. I also get snagged in a lot of trees. That’s the difference between almost clarity and complete abandonment.
  1. Sleep experts tell us that even complex dreams only last seconds—so poems shouldn’t be long.
  1. Don’t write dream poems. They’re boring, unless Richard Hugo is writing them, and since he isn’t writing them anymore, neither should you. Fiction writer Tana French agrees with me.
  1. If all else fails, throw it away and write another. Poems are cheap.

Why Does Pushcart Hate the Internet?

About a week ago (maybe longer, I’ve been busy) the Fox Chase Review posted on its blog an item about the Pushcart Prize. Specifically about the Pushcart’s editor’s (Bill Henderson) statements regarding online publications.  In his 2012 editorial he described internet publishing as “barfing into the electronic void.”

Actually he may have written more than that, and to be fair, I admit I haven’t read the entire editorial because I haven’t purchased the book. I often do pick up the annual anthology, but now I’m reconsidering it.

In past years Henderson has written similar thoughts concerning internet publishing. In the 2010 edition he wrote “Because you can burp up a poem or short story online, you will not immediately join the ranks of the immortals. Indeed you will be embraced in the Pantheon of Twitter. Or maybe The Kingdom of Kindle will admit you. Fast books, no binding needed. Toss when done. Another electronic absurdity.”

So, if I’m reading this correctly, Henderson sees web publications as either an electronic absurdity or barf in the void.

Without knowing much about Henderson, I’m left thinking that he’s just incredibly under informed or stubborn (in 2010 he described the Pushcart offices as “a computerless shack in the backyard). Oh, the good ol’ days when you could smell the ink on the paper.

The number of quality online poetry publications in 2012 probably equals, and maybe even surpasses the number of paper pubs. I’m guessing he doesn’t know about them. In fact, looking at the list of publications represented in the book, it’s clear he doesn’t read them.

Why? Henderson seems to equate electronic publishing with rush, even rash publishing. Does he confuse people posting poems on their own blogs or Facebook with legitimate poetry outlets such as Cortland Review, Foundling Review, Fox Chase Review or Wild River Review? I think the answer is yes?

The online pubs I know, including the ones I’ve been honored to appear in, apply as much editorial rigor, process and judgment to the work they promote as does any notable paper publication. The difference is in the delivery method, not the creative product.

Are there some lousy online pubs? Pubs that will post anything that rises just above greeting card level? Of course there are, but there are and have been bad paper journals too. Just as the best paper pubs have risen and made names for themselves, so too are the best online pubs.

Will the Pushcart eventually look at a calendar and realize that maybe it’s time to catch up? I don’t know, but I do support the position of the Fox Chase editors and hope other online editors don’t let a slap from an institution like Pushcart slow them down a bit.

In my next post, Why Do Online Pubs Still Act Like Print Pubs?

Musehouse Featured on WHYY Friday Arts

Musehouse, the new writing/literary center in Philadelphia, is being featured this month on WHYY (public television) Friday Arts show. In it director Kathleen Bonanno talks about why she started the center and importance of writing in the community. She shares some of her poems from Slamming Open the Door. You’ll also see cameos from Leonard Gontarek, David Bananno, Amy Small-McKinney and Joanne Leva.

By the way, I teach a class in poetry writing at Musehouse. You can check it out and sign up here.

You can watch the Friday Arts program on TV or check out the video here.