It’s Probably a Metaphor but…

The great evil rears it ugly head once more.

One of the few memories from high school that stands out to me is a substitute teacher struggling to teach twenty bored teenagers about William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow.” He asked the class, “What does the color white represent?” Students would answer goodness, purity, innocence. By the end of the class, “The Red Wheel Barrow” had become an epic poem about the struggle between the good and innocent white chickens and the satanic red wheelbarrow. I may have actually sprained my eye muscles from rolling them so often.

Over a decade later, I now stand in front of a room full of college Freshman and am tasked with teaching them about poetry—well, about analyzing texts, I’m just lucky to have a little freedom with my curriculum and get to select those texts. Most of the students groan with dread when I tell them that for a portion of the class we’re going to read poems. The idea of not loving poetry, for me, is like not loving music, but I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t like music if all they know of it is “My Achy Breaky Heart” and “Hey Macarena” and had been forced to write 1000 words on their deeper philosophical meaning. Ideally, the best way to introduce students to poetry is to show them its breadth of styles and subjects and let them find what works for them. You don’t like the stilted forms and elitist attitudes of Victorian poetry, lets listen to spoken word instead. Eventually, I believe I could find a poem for everyone. Still I must teach analysis, which has the potential to reinforce the idea of a poem as a purely symbolic puzzle.

When I read “The Red Wheelbarrow” to my classes and ask, “What is happening in this poem?” students sigh, admit that they don’t get poetry, or roll their eyes. Once a student trying to shock and show his disdain said, “Someone is going to have to shovel chicken shit.”

“Yes!” I yelled, “You understand the poem!”

I’ve always found the literal meanings of poems just as important as any symbolic ones. A reader of Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose” does not need to interpret the titular flower as the representation of the chivalric view of love to enjoy the poem. Not that I want to discourage students from those deeper readings, I just want them to be aware that they don’t always have to try to find the “Truth” (note the capital “T”) in the poem to enjoy or understand it.

Sometimes trying to find a symbolic meaning for an image can hurt one’s reading of a poem. In one class, we read Adrienne Rich’s, “Living in Sin.” Many of the students discussed the lines, “That on the kitchen shelf among the saucers/ a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—/ envoy from some village in the moldings.” Most of the students assumed that this line was an ambiguous metaphor for the mental state of the woman. When I inquired what the metaphor was, once again many confessed their own ignorance to poetry, some saying that they could never ever understand it. “What if we read that image as literal, as something that’s actually there? What’s in her cabinet?” I inquired. The class agreed—it was a bug of some sort and gross. Once they started looking at the poem for the literal, much of what seemed unsolvable riddles became interesting descriptions of everyday life. As one student wrote while reflecting on her work in the class, she now understood that “sometimes a ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ is just a red wheelbarrow.”

This approach to reading poetry has made my first reading of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil interesting to say the least. I was even tempted to ignore my own lessons. First of all I neither speak French, and therefore must rely on translations, nor am I particularly familiar with the French tradition, so there is probably a lot of things that I’m missing. The particular poems that stood out to me were “The Dance of Death” and “The Martyr.”

Danse Macabre by Ernest Christophe

Even the title “The Dance of Death” suggests a symbolic reading, as it is a reference to the Medieval idea that no matter our position in life we all will succumb to death. A myriad of Medieval and Renaissance pictures show images of kings, popes, knights, and peasants dancing with a fearful skeleton. Since the poem is also dedicated to an artist, Ernest Christophe, who made a sculpture of death as a beautiful woman dressed for a ball, we can see that Baudelaire is placing himself firmly in that allegorical tradition. However, as a reader I can’t just jump straight to the meaning of the allegory—which is usually the most boring part—I need to imagine the scene as the poet presents it. I like the image of death as “Proud, as a living person, of her height,/ Her scarf and gloves and huge bouquet of roses,/ She shows such nonchalance and ease as might / A thin coquette excessive in poses.” Baudelaire does a good job rendering the appeal that death can have. However, the poem takes an uncomfortable turn in the lines, “Yet who’s not squeezed a skeleton with passion?/ Nor ravened with his kisses on the meat/ Of charnels.” This image is not one that anyone would want to dwell on—I suspect that the immediate reaction is to jump to the symbolic. With the symbolic, we can talk about the romanticism of death and the association between poets and suicide, all more pleasant than imaging the speaker with necrophilic intent. Yet, it’s that image that surprises and is remembered by the reader.

I was suspicious of my reading of the poem. At first, I assumed that it was simply being colored by the translation.  I had read Roy Campbell’s 1952 translation. William Aggler’s 1954 translation, “Yet who has not clasped a skeleton in his arms/ Who has not fed upon what belongs to the grave?” makes the speaker not as overtly necrophilic (though he’s still snuggling up to a corpse), but a bit more cannibalistic. Still this image is equally asdisturbing as the other. Lewis Piaget Shank’s 1931 translation, “Yet, who has not embraced a skeleton?/ Who on the thought of the tombs has never fed?” is by far the least interesting, but I suspect the translation most likely to make it into a high school textbook. By making the speaker snack on “thoughts of the tomb” instead of its actual contents, Shanks tells the reader that they should be focused on some deep emotional truth and not dwelling on those unsavory images. It reassures the reader that the images are just allegory, just symbolism. It takes away all the images’ shock and impact. Which of these three translation is the closest to the meaning of Baudelaire’s original lines is unclear to me, ignorant monolingual person that I am, though I suspect Campbell and Aggler are the ones closest to the mark. When I put “Pourtant, qui n’a serré dans ses bras un squelette,/ Et qui ne s’est nourri des choses du tombeau?” in Google translate I got “But who has hugged a skeleton,/ And who has fed things the tomb?” Obviously, Google translate missed something, but I do like this new befuddled speaker who seems to be saying “Why do you always have to be so dark, Baudelaire?”

I still distrusted my own reading of the text. A speaker alone in a tomb making out with a dead body: surely I was being obtuse, morbid and missing the point made by this well-respected and lauded poet. Yes, he was considered scandalous and had his work banned in his day, but he lived and wrote in the 19th century where everything was considered scandalous and lewd. Here he was saying something important about humans’ relationship to death, and I was imagining his speaker as a degenerate ghoul. Then I read “The Martyr.” In the first two stanzas, Baudelaire describes a sumptuous room, but in the third stanza, “A headless corpse, cascading in a flood/ Hot, living blood, that soaks, with crimson stain.” Later in the poem he writes “The vengeful man, whose lust you could not sate,/ (In spite of much love) nor quench his fire—/ Did he on your dead flesh then consummate/ His monstrous, last desire?” Let’s just say that after reading this poem, I felt more secure in my earlier reading of “The Dance of Death.”

Reading Baudelaire for the first time reminded me of how culturally (in the U.S. at least) we expect poetry to be about lofty ideals—since my first reaction to those grotesque images was to think that surely I was misreading the poems. Certainly, there may be cultural reference that I’m not getting, and there are deeper symbolic ways to read these poems. But their symbolic meaning doesn’t make these two poems any less about men (hopefully fictional) whose tastes lean towards the funerary and violent. In the race to find the “deeper” meaning of a poem, it is easy to ignore the story or the image that is presented on the surface. The surface of a lake may obscure what is underneath, but we lose something if we ignore what we see on the surface. Even if it’s only a reflection. Ultimately, I did not enjoy most of Baudelaire’s poems, but I appreciate how he used images to shock the reader. Yes, these images can be read as symbolic, emotional, abstract, but the reason they work so well is that they are grounded in the concrete. Sometimes it is necessary to let a cigar be a cigar, a red wheel barrow be a red wheel barrow, and a man with romantic inclination toward the dead be—well, you get idea.

“Hey Macarena!”

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Time to Brag About Myself and My Friends

I’m excited to announce that I got two more poems published in the sixth issue of the wonderful magazine The Mas Tequila Review. You can find a copy on amazon.  The two poems are “Rescued from Carmilla,” a reinterpretation of Sheridan Le Fanu‘s famous vampire tale, and “Three Texts: a Girl and a Wolf” an exploration of the difference between the Grimm’s “Little Red Cap,” Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Story of the Grandmother.”

Illustration by D. H. Friston to Carmilla

I’m excited to be published alongside other poets such as Linda Hogan,  Pam Uschuk, Tony Mares, Merimée Moffitt, Julie SuZaNNe BröKKeN,  Rich Boucher, and Jennifer Givhan.

I wanted to highlight my friend Casandra Lopez who is also included in this issue.  She is the co-editor, along with another friend Tanaya Winder, of the new online magazine AS/US: A Space for Women of the World.  Particularly I want to to share their V-day issue featuring great poetry, fiction, essay, and even dancing dealing with the issues of violence against women.  You should follow this link and check out their magazine.  Or you could always buy their fist issue as as well.

Not Bad Advice Per Se

The problem with submitting to a plethora of places is that you tend to get a plethora of rejection letters—all at the same time. For writers, it is an universal truth that the number of rejections one receives will far out weigh the number of acceptances—in some ways it joins death and taxes in its dependability.

As you can guess, I’ve received a few rejections recently. Regardless of how I feel, there is nothing to do but to keep writing and keep submitting.

But, one thing that depresses me when submitting is doing the research.  Of course it is because I’m following that one piece of advice that we’ve all heard—whether  it is from other writers, the editors of the magazine, or thick manuals on how to publish work—read the literary magazine to see if they publish work like yours.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love reading literary magazines whether they’re in print or online, but reading with the question of “would they publish me?” tends to sour the experience.   I’ll come across a really amazing poem, and the first thing that jumps into my head is “Wow, this is awesome! They’ll never publish me.”  I much rather just enjoy the work in the magazine.

Recently, I’ve become suspect of that bit of advice.  In the first place, I can never identify work “like” my own.   My poem may share themes or may have similar style to a lot of poems out there, but when I compare my work to the work of others all I can see are the differences.

When I submit to places that have published work “like” my own, I get rejected—and not the nice “We did not have room for your work this time” but the “your work is not what we are looking for.”  In other word, “Don’t waste our time by submitting again.”

Now I’ve submitted to magazines whose work I not only enjoyed, but also felt that my poems would not be something that the editors would go for.  And more often than not, I was correct. But the few times I’ve been published, it has always been those long shots. (Brief note: I still follow the submission guidelines for each magazine.  Always fellow the submission guidelines).

What this whole pattern seems to suggest is that I may not be the best judge of where my poems fit aesthetically in the contemporary tradition.  Or, maybe editors get sick and tired of reading poems that deal with the same themes or are written same style over and over.  Ultimately, I think the advice should be to read literary magazines, and if you find the work exciting submit even if it seems like a long shot.

Writing Through the Block

When the term “Writer’s Block” is mentioned it usually conjures up images of a writer who has just loaded a piece of paper into a typewriter.  She takes a sip of coffee, gently place her hands over the typewriter keys, looks out of the window—faced filled with joy and hope—inhales, and before she finishes her breath all youth and hope flee her face as she realizes that she has no idea what to write about.  She will stare at that empty page, maybe writing a sentence or two. But in a moment of fury, she will rip the page from the typewriter, crumble it up, and throw it across the room.  To add insult to injury, she’ll miss the wastepaper basket.

Or maybe you’re a little more modern and imagine the writer sitting in front of a computer.  A blank screen with only the cursor blinking as a reminder of all the words that are not being written.  Whole novels that will never be written!  The writer may type a sentence then madly hit the backspace key, all the while thinking that deleting something is not nearly as satisfying as crumpling up a page.

However, this is never how writer’s block is for me. In fact, I am somewhat hesitant to use the term, but I can’t think of a better one.  In the above scenarios, there is an assumption that writers work only on one piece at time. I suspect that this may be true for some writers of larger works like novels or memoirs, but not any writer I know (who has talked about the writing process with me).  I usually have a dozen poems that are currently in a state of revision and a couple short stories too.  If I sit down to my computer and I can’t think of anything to write, I will turn to a revision.

Because of my process, writer’s block, for me, is when I don’t have anything new to start, but I also hate what I’m currently working on.  I’ll look at a poem and the very words seem to rot on the page.  I look at a title and exclaim that “I can’t stand to even read the damn thing!”  I’ll wonder why I even thought I could be a poet in the first place.

I’m tempted to say screw it and go watch the movies saved in my queue.  But when I get inspired, it’s most often when I’m already writing.  I’ll be trudging through a revision of a poem that seems to call into question my very literacy, when suddenly I know how to fix it or have a new idea and start another poem.  I find that I’m rarely inspired while watching old episodes of Farscape.

Imagine how much I could get done if it weren’t for Farscape.

The trick with writer’s block is to keep your butt in your chair and to keep putting words on the page even if you hate those words.  Here are some tricks I’ve picked up.

  1. Use a random word generator to get at least five words that you then put into a poem or short story.  I find that a large part of writer’s block is that I’m unknowingly stuck in a rut. These random words force me to write about something different and often provides enough novelty to get me interested again.  One warning, if you decide to revise the piece don’t be afraid of getting rid of those five words—they were only there to get you writing again.
  2. Select a poetic form to write in.  I once claimed that “Whenever I have writer’s block, I punish myself by writing in a poetic form.”  Now I don’t want people to assume that forms are unpleasant, but I admittedly don’t turn to them unless I have no idea what else to do with a poem.  Form allows me to approach a poem from a different angle, to ignore meaning.  This often allows me to trim the fat or generate new text.  After I finish the formal draft, I have an idea of where to go.  Also, this method works for starting new poems.  I’ll use the random word generator to come up with words that I then use in forms like the sestina, villanelle, or triolet.
  3. Keep something close to your desk to read.  I keep copies of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen close.  If I’m unsure of what to write, I will read a fairy tale—usually not one I particularly familiar with—and then try to rewrite it from a view-point of one of the characters or place it in a modern setting.  This method sometimes doesn’t work at the time, but the fairy tale will often stick in my head until a few weeks later when I use it for a new poem.
  4. Keep a reading journal.   I assume that if you’re writer you’re probably a reader too.  Writing about what you read is helpful in that it allows you to think critically about writing.  Also, the nice thing about a reading journal is that you can be as petty and mean to that beloved author as you like without worrying about anyone reading it and realizing what an awful person you are.
  5. Finally just write about writer’s block.  Sometimes in exploring why you can’t write you’ll realize that the next step that a poem or a story requires is just something that you don’t want to do and have been avoiding.  For example, I’m working on poem that requires some serious research; however, instead of doing it, I’ve written a blog post.

Ultimately, just because you don’t like what you’ve written isn’t an excuse on not staying in your chair and continuing to write.

Animals in Poems

Yesterday, I started reading Wait by C.K. Williams, while it is too early for me to say whether or not I would recommend the book, for the most part I’ve enjoyed it.  However, there is one poem I going to nit-pick, “Rats.”  Perhaps what frustrated me the most was how much I liked the first section.  There the situation is set up, during a drought two river rats show up who “sallied into the garden/ to snitch the crusts/ we’d set/ out for the birds//But still, who/ knows in what filth/ and fetor and rot/ down in their dark// world they were/ before?”

The conflict between humans and nature is one of my favorite subjects to read about.   This preference maybe in part because I wanted to be a zoologist when I was a child and watched any nature documentary I could get my hands on.  Two of the best poems that deal with this subject are William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” and Maxine Kumin’s “Woodchucks.”  In these two poems you have speakers who encounter animals, and this confrontation makes the speakers realize something about themselves and their relationship to said wildlife.

In Stafford’s poem, the speaker comes across a dead deer that has been hit by a car.  The speaker points out, “It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:/ that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead,” showing that he is concerned with the welfare of wildlife.  But as he is about to roll the doe off the cliff, he discovers that “her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting/ alive, still, never to be born./ Beside that mountain road I hesitated.”  Ultimately, the speaker is able to do nothing and pushes the doe off the cliff.  While brief, “Traveling Through the Dark,” shows how even those who care about animals may not be able to save them.  It may be dark and fatalistic, but it ultimately shows the complex relationship humans have with nature.

Kumin’s poem is even darker. In the “Woodchucks” the speaker is actively trying to exterminate the animals.  We see the speakers justifications, “They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course/ and then took over the vegetable patch/ nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.// The food from our mouths, I said, righteously.”  Kumin does a wonderful job of showing the brutality of the speakers actions from the very fist line, “Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.”  She ultimately shows how people justify brutality (whether it be against animals or other human beings), and we in turn understand how we ourselves may justify violence.

As I read “Rats,” I recognized similarities to “Woodchucks.”   I was interested in seeing the conflict between the speaker and the rats develop.  In the second section Williams expands the breadth of the poem to a global scale “we’re frightened./ The planet all/ but afire, glaciers// dissolving, deserts/ on the march.”  At this point I’m still with the poem, even excited; as global warming increases animals are losing their habitats and more people will encounter them, and I’m glad that someone is writing about it. Williams mentions a president and CEOs denying global warming, and while I’m suspicious of overtly political poems (specifically when it is used to alienate those that are on the other side of issue rather than to persuade them), in this case it still seemed pertinent to the poem.  Then I read the lines “The rats// rove where they will/ now; shining and fat,/ they appropriated/ the whole lawn.”  Oh, I thought as I read this, the rats are only metaphors for politicians and CEOs.

I couldn’t help but feel that a disservice had been done to the rats, the actual animals.  As Williams establishes in the first part of the poem, the rats are river rats who show up because they’ve lost their habitat.  Humans have driven them to this confrontation.  I think that it is unfair to compare them (or any animal no matter how disgusting one finds them) to politicians. As habitats are destroyed humans are going to find themselves sharing spaces with wildlife, and some of these animals maybe repulsive to us for whatever reason.  I don’t think animals should be condemned due to our preference for other cuter or prettier species.

Of course, part of the reason I being so hard on “Rats” is that I just don’t like when poems conflate humans and animals, whether it be on a psychological or spiritual level.  One of the things that I learned from all those nature documentaries is that human beings cannot know what the internal life of an animal is nor should we judge animals by human moral standards.  It is mistake to give the animal human emotions—it belittles the animal.  The rat is not a thief just because you left the bread crumbs for the birds.

I’ve heard dozens of poems about encounters with deer where the speaker has an epiphany, where that animal’s only reason or purpose for being in the forest is the spiritual enlightenment of some suburbanite on hike.  While these people may love and value the animal, they still have a paternalistic attitude towards it.  They may wish to protect them, but at the same time they feel that the wildlife is there serve them.  The writing about encounters with wild animals that I prefer is when the speakers recognizes that what they feel is not necessarily shared by the animal and questions what effect, even those who care for wildlife, they have on the animals they’re encountering.  We may love nature, but our very presence, no matter how loving or well-meaning, maybe harmful.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is mostly a nitpick and otherwise I’ve enjoyed Williams’ book so far.  I suspect that I’m being a little unfair here, but I still think rats are far superior to politicians.

Much cuter than a politician.

“On Returning to Tent Rocks with Friends” is Published.

New Mexico is different from any other place.  “But,” you may say, “that is true of all states.”  I agree, dear reader, but I doubt people from Ohio ever have to explain that Ohio is part of the United States.  Unfortunately, us New Mexicans must often explain that “No, we are part of the United States, not part of Mexico,” and really that is just tip of the iceberg.

New Mexico is currently celebrating its bicentennial.  One of the many events honoring New Mexico’s 200 years of statehood is 200 New Mexican Poems, an awesome online anthology that you should check out.

I’m honored that my poem, “On Returning to Tent Rocks with Friends,” is 1 of the 200 hundred.

Finding Poetry in the Potato Room

So far this month I’ve been talking about poets with established reputations, but I want to discuss a poet whose work I enjoy, but who only has one book out.

A couple of years ago I was able to go to the AWP conference in Denver, and the book fair was my downfall. Every time I walked through the room, I inevitably bought a book or literary magazine or several of each.  The fact that I wouldn’t have come across some of these books otherwise was the driving force in my purchases.  I would see an intriguing cover of a book on a small press’s table, and it seemed to say that this was my one chance to take it home, feel the pages between my fingers, and read its text.  I said no to many books, but I a few I could not resist.  One was Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins.  I originally walked away from it, but the cover with the scalpels and the anatomy diagrams stuck in my head.  I kept wondering what was in the in the potato room, and did people actually make houses with rooms devoted to potatoes.

Something in the Potato Room is a book length poem that has seven different parts.   This book is the winner the 2009 Kore First Book Award.  The thing that strikes me about the book is how it’s different from anything else I’ve seen.  In the narrative of the book there is a speaker who is growing disinterested with her job, but who buys a house with (spoilers!) a skeleton in the potato room.  Cousins does a wonderful job of catching the sense of malaise that an office worker feels,  “Typing. Coping. Balanc-/ ing the museum accounts./ Some days there wasn’t/ much work. I often sat/ at my desk and wished/ my fingernails would/ grow.”  In fact, this passage reaffirms why I cannot stand clerical work.

However, Cousins is also able to capture the surreal and grotesque.   Particularly when the skeleton starts to grow flesh: “Underneath the quilt, a/ red vine was growing./ Slithering.  Crawling up/ his arm…was it the sort of weed/ that needed to be uproot-/ ed dug out, its white/ heart held in my palm?”

Often with poetry there are issues of accessibility either the poems has layers upon layers of meaning, which takes the reader considerable work to get at, or it’s meaning is readily obvious to any reader.  While this is an over simplification, it does seems that poetry is often presented in this either/or fallacy.  Yet Cousins book is both accessible to any one (the plot is easy enough to follow),and has layers upon layers of meaning that rewards the careful and diligent reader.

When I first read the book, I thought that it was about depression, how it alienates you from the world.  As I look at it again, I can’t help but feel it is about the artistic process: how an artist works in solitude, starting with a discovery that they eventually flesh out, until the art goes out into the world. I’m sure the next time I read the book I will find an other level.

While my relationship with Heather Cousins’s poetry has just began, I look forward to reading her books as they come out. Before I go, I wish to leave you with my favorite lines from the book: “Life/ doesn’t stay still, and/ death doesn’t stay still ei-/ther”