Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Big News

The e-mail has gone out, so now it can be told: this afternoon, I received word from the editor-in-chief of Tupelo Press that Severance Songs—yes, Severance Songs, that's the title of the manuscript that I sent them and it's the title I'm going to stick with—has won this year's Dorset Prize! I am astounded and grateful and overwhelmed. (As if the last day of classes wasn't gift enough!)

I've lived with these poems for a long time, and I can't express how pleased I am that they will finally be taking solid book form, and through the offices of such a wonderful press.

Thanks to Ilya Kaminsky, this year's judge. I hope I'll be half as effective at bringing my poetry to life and to others as he has been.

And thanks to all my readers who've rooted for me and for this project.

As Stan Lee still probably says,


Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Mighty Jungle

That's the song we sing to Sadie every night at bedtime: In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. Kind of a terrifying song, really: that's why it's good. From what I remember, all the best kid songs and stories have a kernel of terror in them.

My contribution, number ninety, to the hundred poems for Obama's first hundred days is now up at Starting Today. A riff on Whitman expressive of the sort of disappointment raised by huge hopes. But the "residual pride" I mention there is unerased. Obama means more to me than his imperfect and sometimes unjust policies—I'm not proud of this contradiction, but I feel it the same way I wake up every day with an optimism unshaken by all the evidence to the contrary my intellect's capable of gathering.

That may be my ultimate project, or at least my ultimate conundrum: reconciling what I know with what I feel. Sometimes I approach this with thoughts of Jameson's "cognitive mapping." Sometimes it's a more furtive and instinctive approach.

The work I'm doing now seems to demand the privacy of infrequent blogging; I don't want to talk about it too loudly for fear of inflating expectations. But of course I'm also just hella busy. The end of the semester is almost upon me, and then I might find myself posting here more often.

Reading a book about May '68 in Paris for my semi-secret project: Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman's When Poetry Ruled the Streets. Nice title, and as a first-hand account with documents it's invaluable, but I find myself in my bourgeois way wishing for something a little more objective. A typical sentence: "Formerly busy bureaucrats, housewives, shopkeepers, and grocery men interrupted the banal process of making a living to find out what life was all about" (29-30). It may very well be literally true, but as special pleading it sticks in my craw. And in spite of that "housewives," so far it's entirely a book about men. Where were the women in this movement? Was there a female equivalent to the book's hero, Daniel Cohn-Bendit? He's often the only named participant, as in this sentence describing a meeting between student representatives and the rector of the Sorbonne: "At midnight, finally, Roche received the representatives, among whom were Cohn-Bendit, three professors, and two members of UNEF [Union Nationale des Etudiants Francais]" (23). Well, there's lots more book left.

In the last weeks of my poetry class we're talking about "substructure," a term usefully descriptive of much of what postmodern poetry gets up to: poems that use the structure of narrative or argument or other modes of discourse without satisfying the usual ends of those structures. It sounds a bit banal when you put it that way, but structures ought to be less interesting than the poems they are capable of producing. When the structure is the most interesting part then you have conceptual poetry, which I'm not uninterested in but it doesn't grab me. There's that head/heart reconciliation project/problem again.

It's time for Sadie's nap, time to luxuriate in these half-disclosed privacies, time to stop writing and plot my return to it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Writing with the Left Hand

Emily and Sadie are in Ithaca for a week. Solitude like this is luxurious and lonely in nearly equal measure. With my normal social identity in abeyance, and not thinking too much about teaching either, a writerly comportment overtakes me that I remember from my single days. It takes the form of looking for clues: haunting bookstores, reading snippets from several books at once, paging through old notebooks. Trying to find my own secret, like money I myself have stashed between pages.

Gradually I come to believe that poetry and fiction can coexist in me, as a reader and as a writer. A kind of ambidexterity might be possible, but I think poetry will always be for my right hand, an instinctive mode of making text. With fiction I have to trick myself into thinking it's poetry--or critical writing, which through long training has come to seem the second nature to poetry's first.

Looking primarily beyond the American scene for my clues to fiction: Beckett, Borges, and of course Bolaño. At Powells this morning I added Juan Goytisolo to that list; previously I've only read his remarkable and piercing State of Siege, but I was entranced by a few minutes with a copy that I found of The Garden of Secrets and bought it. But I also picked up Lynne Tillman's American Genius: A comedy and also Lydia Davis' Varieties of Disturbance (though what I really want is Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, just for the title). I also bought an old Mark Rudman book, By Contraries, and a pristine copy of the Sun & Moon edition of Clark Coolidge's Own Face. Four prose, two poetry: that accurately represents the proportion of my own thought just now, two to one.

But that one! The steady bassline.

This morning on Sound Opinions they were talking about literary rock songs and played one of my favorites while I was browsing at Powells: Blur's "Parklife." "I get up when I want except on Wednesdays, when I get rudely awakened by the dustman."

The dustman. Those Brits. What a way with the language.

Go dogs, go.

Also yesterday picked up for the first time ever a copy of Zoetrope: All-Story, the issue devoted to Latin American fiction. There's something about the Latin American literary imagination that hugely appeals to me right now. Maybe it's just that poets are still of cultural consequence in places like Mexico and Chile. Maybe it's the magic realism thing, the open door to what Kundera calls the oneiric, a necessary component of the novel of existential investigation. I'm also looking for short stories that will upset my expectations of that genre, because that's the form in which I've most often encountered fiction in recent years in places like Harpers and The New Yorker (but also in the occasional "mainstream" lit mag, something like The Kenyon Review), which is above all the fiction that I railed against in my earlier posts. Because short stories, if they're not first and last concerned with "story" in the bourgeois sense those stories tend to be (i.e., preoccupied by the destiny of some more-or-less middle class character dealing with largely private sorrows), can be remarkable, as my reacquaintance with Borges is teaching me.

I blame Joyce, actually, for this prejudice, because his fiction seems to represent a kind of Virgilian progress from apprentice work toward epic. And Dubliners, as perfect as those stories are, have become and remain the prototype of the realistic story, a genre Joyce abandoned. In so doing, he led me into a category error, confusing the limitations of the short story with the limitations of realism. I've let myself be pent in by imaginary boundaries.

Or take this example: one of my students in the senior creative writing class includes both short fiction and poems in her portfolio-in-progress. The prose pieces are remarkable for their compression (which I can't help but think of as a primarily poetic quality), their acuity of observation, and above all for the multiple voices they include, voices with the tang of living speech (she's very adept, this student, at indirect discourse, a mode that fascinates me). Her poems, by contrast, are workmanlike, a little obvious, and rather dull. The epiphany this led me to, in class, was that her stories seem alive because they are fundamentally heteroglossic, whereas in the poems she writes with a unitary voice; it's textbook Bakhtin. Of course poems don't have to be monoglossic, but I'm starting to think that Bakhtin was correct to say that such is their tendency.

My poems don't really resist that tendency: I'm not adept at changing voices and registers mid-line the way Ashbery can. But I will write sections or poems in series that make use of multiple voices, and of course I'm always fundamentally aware of the performative nature of voicing in poems: it's never a naive "me" that's speaking. Still, there's no question but that I'm feeling myself drawn back to fiction for its richer possibilities in the manufacture and mixing of what Kundera calls "experimental selves" but which I might as well call "experimental voices."

Celebrating my temporary bachelorhood tonight with a couple of friends and a screening of Conan the Barbarian. Why ask why.

It's a rich and confusing time.

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