“The Scars Left by Water” is Published

I just wanted to share some good news: the anthology La Llorona has just come out, which features my poem “The Scars Left by Water.”  The poems and stories in this anthology all deal with the legend of La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunts the water ways of the American South West and Mexico.  The anthology also features other great writers such as Jennifer Givhan, Richard Vargas, Jules Nyquist.  If you like folklore and good writing you should check it out.

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Rediscovering Plath

In my last post, I mentioned that Wilfred Owen is one of the three poets who brought me to poetry—who without which I would’ve probably gone down a sensible career path.  In the year following my high school graduation, I discovered all three of these poets—though my memory remains foggy on the order in which I did so.  However, one of the poets I had read before and dismissed, so it was more of a rediscovery, really.  The poet was Sylvia Plath.

While I love her poetry, I dread talking about Plath.  She is one of those poets who everyone—including those who never read her work—have a strong opinion of.  Her suicide loams over her poems—it is the lens through which many people read her work, which is mistake.

In high school, I picked up The Bell Jar not knowing anything about Plath.  And had I read the book in that state of ignorance, I would have probably enjoyed it.  Unfortunately,  I read the introduction, which was plumb full of biographical details, and how they connected to plot points in the novel.  Instead of reading this book as I would other books, with my focus on the characters as they exist in the book and the themes as they relate to me, I read as though the book was way to understand this woman who had been dead for over thirty years.  The introduction changed my focus in such a way as to narrow the meaning of the work to the point that it no longer had any relevance to me.  I did not like the protagonist, and I thought that meant I did not like the author.  Novels should be read to better understand ourselves, the world in which we live, or at the very least for entertainment.  They should not be read to understand the author unless you are scholar or related to said author.  By focusing on Plath’s biography, the editor limited the scoop of her work and framed in such a way that made it easy to dismiss.

Similarly, the first poem of Plath’s that I read was “Daddy,” unfortunately it was in a class discussion framed by biographical details.  Other students denounced Plath as bitch for speaking so cruelly of her dead father (they all loved and respected their own fathers); the poem was dismissed as a crazy rant (one student reading it breathless and at a fast pace to great effect).  I’ve heard people dismiss her work because she suffered mental illness and committed suicide, who in the same breath would sing the praises of Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, and John Berryman.  It seems that people read her poetry (or at least a couple of anthologized poems) as though they were suicide notes, and they’re angry at her for committing suicide.  And I am sad to say that for few years, when I needed her poetry the most, I believed her detractors.

Back to that year after my high school graduation, I had ended up with a faux-leather bound book titled The Treasury of American Poetry.  I tried to read it straight through, but somewhere around the beginning of the nineteenth century I gave up.  I started to flip to pages at random.  One day I flipped to Plath’s poem “Cut.”  As I read the first two stanza

What a thrill—

My thumb instead of an onion.

The top quite gone

Except for a sort of hinge

 

Of skin,

A flap like a hat,

Dead white.

Then that red plush

I was reminded of the time that I had cut of the tip of my finger with sewing scissors.  The strangeness of staring at bit of flesh that was once a part of you but suddenly is something else is described perfectly in “Cut.”  Also, the poem contained an objective, surprised, and even curious tone, not the hysterical one that I had been taught to expect. After I finished that poem, wondering how far I’d been mislead, I read the next poem in the book: “Lady Lazarus.”

“Lady Lazarus” has been cited as proof that Plath’s suicide was really a cry for attention.  By framing her death this way, people dismiss both her writing and her suicide (as though there is hierarchy of suicides with “cries for attention” at the bottom and gunshots to the head at the top). The only relation that the poems in her book Ariel and her suicide have for us, the reading public, is their author and the proximity in the time which they occurred.  These poems like all works of art should be judged on their own merit not by the life which the artist lived.

For me I found a lot of strength in “Lady Lazarus,” here the speaker of the poem is sarcastic—“Peel off the napkin/ O my enemy./ Do I terrify?”—sexy—“Shoves in to see// Them unwrap me hand and foot—/ The big striptease.”  By the end of the poem the speaker has been objectified and reduced to ashes, but, like a phoenix, she is reborn: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.” Even when society has reduced her to nothing, the speaker still has the power and the ability to come back.  At that time I needed to see that when one is seemingly powerless, there is still the opportunity to come back and make sure your anger is felt.

Perhaps that is the largest resistance to Plath’s poetry—the anger directed at some very traditional roles.  She is not afraid to show the ugliness of the world around her, and she tears down some of society’s sacred cows.  To say that she was hysterical is an easy way to dismiss her without actually listening to what she has to say.

 

Up All Night With Wilfred Owen

As I mentioned before, I love horror movies, but I also have an overactive imagination.  To say the least, this combination often leads to disaster.  Growing up my bedroom overlooked a ditch, and I was convinced that La Llorona was going to get me.  I can’t stand to leave my blinds open at night, because of all those horror movie scenes shot from the point of view of the killer looking into the victim’s house (I’m convinced that half of all the victims in slasher films would still be alive if they had good thick drapes).

Right after I graduated from high school, my grandparents had me house-sit for them.  Now mind you this was the house I had grew up in, and my mother and I had only moved out a few months before.  Still, it was a creepy house, and somehow having my old bedroom empty made it all the worse.  I sat in the den, the TV on to keep my imagination engaged on something other than the half-human monster I suspected was waiting outside for me to open the curtains.

After midnight, cable fails to entertain.  I was stuck between infomercials, bad reality TV, and some forgettable old movies.  I ended up watching Behind the LinesBehind the Lines is a fictionalized account of the time that Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent in a military hospital.  At the time, I didn’t know who those two poets were.  I just started watching because I was interested in World War I (All’s Quiet on the Western Front was a very important text for me during my teens).

Wilfred Owen

At the end of the film, when the Doctor learns about the death of Wilfred Owen, the poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” is read:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him, Behold!

A Ram! caught in a thicket by its horns,

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

and half the seed of Europe, one by one.

As soon as I finished listening to this poem, I ran around trying to find a piece of paper and pen.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find them until I’d forgotten most of the poem.

This poem, I thought, was lost to me forever.  I didn’t know the name of the poet, the poem, or even the film.  Mind you this was before I really started reading poetry.  I felt that I should—I’d been writing it for years—but nothing I read caught my attention.  Yet when I’d finally heard a poem whose very words cut through me, reverberated from my head to my finger tips and toes, it was lost to film credits, only chance would allow me to find it again.

Or the fact that the channel that showed the film, replayed it two more times that night.  I always feel that when a television channel shows the same movie repeatedly that they are being cheap and lazy, but that night I was thankful to the television executives.  I watched the film again, pen and paper in hand, so that I could record a few lines of the poem, enabling me to find it with a quick internet search.

There are three poets that I consider responsible for getting me interested in the craft; Wilfred Owen is one.

Often poetry is presented as this elevated art that contains only the highest emotions, the best people, the most beautiful scenery, and the deepest thoughts.  It is something that only us mortals can aspire to, but never hope to, truly understand, which, as any one who has read a lot of poetry can tell you, is bullshit.  However, this poem was a revelation.  In the last two lines when Abram slew his son, I heard the anger and bitterness that Owen must have felt, that thousands of young men felt, as they were sent to die in a war they did not understand.  This poem wasn’t some grand denouncement by some figure of mythic proportions, but real anger that a flesh and blood man felt.  At that moment, I discovered that poems could be about ugly truths.

Take the poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which has one of the best descriptions of both the exhausted tedium and the sudden chaos of war:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

This poem does not relent, making sure that you understand the horror this moment holds.  Then Owen finish it with the lines “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.”  The Latin lines are from Horace and mean “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”  Owen is calling bullshit on the perception that war is honorable and beautiful.

When morning came, I left the house that I grew up in changed, not yet understanding that one small poem had changed the world, well mine at least.

Epiphany in a Secondhand Bookstore

Whenever I enter a bookstore, I, like many gamblers entering a casino, must set a dollar limit that once I exceed I must leave.  I could easily bankrupt myself in a secondhand bookstore.  Because of this biblio-addiction, I’m often seen with two books in each hand as I try to decide which I cannot live without.  There are many books I regret leaving behind that I hope will still be on the shelves when I return.  However, sometimes the decision is obvious.

A few years ago, I found a used copy of Horace’s poetry.  Inside it someone had inscribed “Bro, This shit is hilarious.”   I picked it up and continued to browse.  I then picked up Vice by Ai.

I had heard of Ai before.  Her poem “Child Beater” is often anthologized and used as an example of persona poetry.  I was starting to write persona poems myself.   As I always do when buying a book by a poet I’m unfamiliar with, I turned to a random poem and read.  The poem I selected was “Nothing But Color.”

When I finished that  poem, I was transported, I felt my adrenaline spike, I understood what an epiphany was.  I needed to own this book, to get out of the bookstore at that moment, to get home and read.  The best I could do to describe what happen was to say,  I had just read the poet who was my greatest influence for the first time, who always had influenced my poems even the ones written before that moment.

The volume of Horace was forgotten, and I left the bookstore without any further browsing.  I was scared that someone or something was going keep me from getting this most important book.

Some of the lines in the poem still wow me:

I sliced her open.

She was carmine inside

like a sea bass

and empty.

No Viscera, nothing but color.

I love you like that, boy.

One of Ai’s many talents is her mastery of juxtaposition.  In “Nothing but Color,” she moves from in-depth visceral description to statements of emotion.  The emotion in some lines seem collected and calm:

I undress

and put the bronze sword on my desk

beside a crumpled sheet of rice paper.

I smooth it open

and read its single sentence:

I meant to do it.

Yet in other lines, we see the violent emotions take control of the speaker:

Goddamn you, boy.

Nothing I said mattered to you;

that bullshit about Etsuko or about killing myself.

I tear the note, then burn it.

I also admired how in “Nothing But Color,” Ai was able to use juxtaposition to make horrifying imagery beautiful, “I start pulling my guts out/ those red silk chords/ spiral skyward.”

Her mastery of juxtapositions is often what makes her persona poems so powerful.  In “The Good Shepherd: Atlanta 1981,” a serial killer dumps the body of a victim, while he thinks about getting a new coat and going home for hot cocoa.  These details make the poem horrifying because they are realistic.  We want evil to be over-the-top, melodramatic, self-aware, in other words unrealistic.  Ai’s poems don’t allow us that comfort—they explore the justification that perpetrators of violence use and how there lives are often mundane.  She doesn’t need to tell the reader that the speaker of the poem is evil, for the speaker’s actions make that all too obvious.  What she shows us is how they excuse their actions, how they blend into to society, and how the rest of us fail to notice them.

While Ai’s poems often focus on perpetrators of violence, she also explores the perspective of victims and historical figures.  Of her poem about historical figures, “She Didn’t Even Wave” and “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer” are two of the best.

Ai’s use of juxtaposition also allows the reader to explore disturbing issues and evaluate his or her own actions.  In her last book, Dread, the poem “Fairy Tale,” deals with a WWII veteran reacting to 9/11 as well as reflecting on his years as a fighter pilot and on the story “Little Red Riding Hood.”  In fact, it is the fairy tale that creates the connective tissue that allows the speaker to explore the traumatic events and who he really is.

One thing that I love about Ai is that she doesn’t shy away from unpleasant events.  She explores them and doesn’t try to comfort us with easy answers, but rather holds a mirror up to the world.

The End of March and the Beginning of April

About a month ago, I mentioned that I was participating in A Writer’s March. Well, that is coming to close. While I can’t claim that I’ve met my goals to the letter, I feel that I fulfilled them.  Before March, I was stuck in a rut of writing only four days a week and for only two hours. Now, I’m writing seven days a week—often for three hours (though some days it’s an hour or less). In April, I plan to keep writing every day.

April is also National Poetry Month (and apparently National Pecan Month). I always enjoy April because there are a ton of poetry events going on in my hometown. I also plan to celebrate on this blog by writing about poets who are important to me and my relationship to their work.

I hope I introduce you to some poets or help you revisit poets you’ve already read.

Apollo and the Muses by John Singer Sargent

Writing in Different Genres

As I mentioned earlier, I’m participating in A Writer’s March, and so far I’ve been doing pretty well.  My goal was to write three hours a day everyday, and while I can’t claim that those three hours have been without interruption or even that I wrote everyday, I’m certainly writing on more days and for longer.  I’ve started a few poems and had some fruitful revision of others.  Also, I’ve been writing fiction.

Like many other writers, I dabble with other genres (as this blog clearly shows).  However, I always find short stories problematic and frustrating.   Because I’ve spent so much time writing poetry, I’ve developed a sense of what works and doesn’t work for me.  Even when I run up against a wall while writing a poem—it doesn’t sound right, it’s too abstract, some mysterious thing is missing—I have methods that I fall back on to work through the problems.  With short stories, I still haven’t found the methods that work, and in a lot of ways I’m still building my foundation and learning in that area.

I feel that a writer must write X amount of bad poems or prose before they find their own voice.  It’s just part of making mistakes and learning from them.  I’ve written X amount of bad poems.  While I’m sure I still have a quite a few left in me, I know what works for me and what doesn’t.  With short stories, I haven’t written the necessary amount of bad fiction and still have mistakes to make.

Part of my problem comes from the sense that I need a different process for short stories.  When I sit down to work on a poem, I approach my writing like a sprinter.  I will usually get a draft out in one sitting.  When I revise, I usually completely retype or rewrite a poem.  Once again, this is usually done in one sitting.  Say with my own goal of three hours of writing, I may type a first draft of a poem in the first hour.  In the second hour, I will write out a long hand revision of another, and, in the third hour, I’ll read over poems that I’m currently working on making notes as I go.  To say the least, I usually have half dozen poems I working on at the same time.  Each day the process will vary some, but for the most part I don’t sit with one poem for hours at a time.   The big exception is when I’m trying to work on meter in a poem.  I usually have to work on it in sections over a period of days, and it may take me several days or weeks to complete one draft.  However, I don’t usually put in more than an hour a day on that poem, and will switch to the other poems I’m currently working on.

Due to this process, when I write fiction I prefer flash fiction.  I’m usually able to get one draft out in a sitting, even if it takes me bit longer than a poem would.  Also, I am able to focus more on the language upfront.  In a lot of ways, I tend to approach flash fiction as narrative prose poems (though I would not classify the finished product as such).

However, not all the stories I try to write lend themselves to such a short medium.  When I’m writing a short story, I can’t help but feel that I’m suddenly dealing with writing like a long distance runner.  Getting the first draft out may require several hours, and even then I still won’t get it out in one sitting.  Also, I dread the revision process.  Whereas retyping one to three pages is not all that daunting, when it comes to fifteen pages or more it seems overwhelming.  I’m also focused less on the language in the draft, because I suspect that I’m going to lose it in revisions.  I’m trying to avoid creating darlings that I must later kill.  To say the least, the first drafts are very rough.

And whenever I sit down to revise a story, I can’t help but remember all the workshops where the main criticism I received was that I needed to include more—more back story, more setting, more description.  I imagine all these pages and become terrified of the amount of writing I have to add.  Mind you, I have a single page poem that had over thirty drafts before it was finished.  It feels like I would have to write a novel worth of material to get a short story.

I remember hearing fiction writers who talk about working on one story several hours a day for several days at time.   I have poems that I’m still working on, and I don’t want to ignore them while I’m working on the story.  It all feel so overwhelming that I often get stuck after the first draft and am unsure of where to go next.

This morning I realized, that maybe I should stop viewing the process of writing a short story as different from that of a poem.  Maybe instead of focusing on providing enough details for the reader, I should focus on only the necessary details, write towards conciseness instead of inclusiveness. I need to focus on language instead of plot and character, because as poet that tends to keep me more interested.  I suspect that a lot of fiction writers will read this and say “Well duh!” or laugh and say “That won’t work at all.”  But that is the thing about writing, I have to experiment and see what works for me.

In fact this morning, I started working on a story that’s been sitting in the drawer for about eight months now.  Like I would with a poem, I’m retyping the draft, and already I’ve taken fourteen pages of melodramatic scene and reduced it to four.  I’m probably going to work on this story in short bursts, because as I stated above, I write like a sprinter.  I’m not sure this approach will work, but what’s the point of writing if you don’t risk failure.