First Day came out of material developed during that Key West workshop with Jane Hirshfield I mentioned in my last post. I had never done anything like what we did at that workshop. Jane would give us a prompt to write from and we would return in half an hour or so and read our poems to the group, for me a very scary situation with all the talent that was in the room.
The first day I was astounded by what people brought back, I couldn’t believe the quality of what I was hearing. I felt totally inadequate. But Jane also said that what we were producing were not supposed to be finished poems, that the hope would be some of them would eventually turn into something we liked, a hope I hung on to as everyone else’s sounded very complete already.
In January 2015, during that time many of us here in the mid-continent first heard the term “polar vortex”, I was down in Key West for the Key West Literary Seminar, specifically for a workshop I got into at the last minute with the poet Jane Hirshfield. The weather was warm and sultry, and I was staying in the old town area of a place soaked in the past of literary giants like Hemingway and Elizabeth Bishop. That was my first time at a US literary event and I feel like that was a good prelude to the California adventure that started later that year.
I also got to attend the Literary Seminar part of the event, which meant listening to a wide variety of great writers discuss many things on that year’s theme on panels as well as readings. Jane was great, so well prepared for every discussion and her reading was also top notch. There was another standout, who I didn’t know before, the poet Marie Howe. She and Jane were the ones with the best insights, always prepared and their readings also stood out.
In the workshop with Jane we learned many things. One key one was, ironically, that she felt people workshopped too much, “that they sanded the finish right off their poems” often leaving dull wood. The other was that she felt one of the best poets writing dialogue in poems was Marie Howe. Jane noted that the book What the Living Do was a spectacular example of that, the collection Marie wrote about her brother dying of AIDS.
At one of Marie’s readings I was also struck by a poem full of dialogue, After the Movie. Afterwards I decided to use that poem as a model to try and write a poem using similar moves. The poem I wrote is meant as an homage to that poem and the choices Marie makes. So there is some similarity in the engine of the poem. But different topic, characters, lines etc.
I’m currently in a Zoom poetry study run by the poets Hoa Nguyen and Kristin Prevallet on the poetry of Bob Kaufman, the San Francisco based Beat and Black Surrealist poet. The discussion over the last two weeks has been around how Kaufman’s poetry has a spiralling quality to it. A lot of repetitions, especially unusual phrases, in the poems we read were phrases like “blue crackling” or “ancient water” that are repeated, and how he sometimes turns away and comes back to a subject many times.
It got me thinking about about what poem to choose to do this week as well as how to construct the video. I choose the poem “while apple picking iv”. It is a partly manufactured poem that does spiral with plenty of repetitions, relatively few words that are repeated often and juxtaposed in different combinations while there are also moments of clear syntax.
I was reading Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry and I had just finished the chapter called “Dream Meaning” where Matthew talks about the use of associative leaps in poetry and how they are fundamental to writing poetry back all the way to Aristotle’s phrase that poets have “an eye for resemblances.” Matthew observes that associative movement is described in “different ways throughout time and across different cultures.” and he discusses this using a number of poets. One of which is Robert Hass and in particular Hass’ “Meditation at Lagunitas“.
If you you know that poem already or just clicked that link you know it is a poem with many shifting modes, that makes leaps from the philosophical to the personal to the natural world and more. In the discussion in that book those modes are discussed particularly with regard to how the mind works and the fact the title of the poem uses the word “Meditation. So I set out to write something that attempted movements similar to that, trying to mix the personal, the natural and a bit of philosophizing through associative movements.
Back in May 2016 a group of Saint Mary’s College of California MFA students were led by Brenda Hillman on a micro protest to go read poetry to the local oil refineries in the Bay Area, refineries that run some of the worst crude in the world (and surprise, it’s California heavy crude). I was there and I’m working on a documentary short that discusses Brenda’s thinking about micro protests as well as how I, as a person who worked in the industry, ended up at Saint Mary’s and at that protest and others with my fellow students. The longer piece is in process. This video of my poem is from that action as is Kelly Egan’s dance that opens and closes the video.
In preparation for this action future mon amour Sara Burant and I, as the two key organizers, went on the weekend before to suss out potential places to do such a thing in Benicia and Martinez. One of the places we found was this space overlooking the Carquinez Strait where the I680’s two bridges cross between Martinez and Benecia. To get to the space you drive on a road that pretty well runs through the Valero refinery. I wrote a poem when I got back to where I was living in Lafayette and read it on the day of the protest at the site the poem describes. It was very fresh so perhaps a bit chancy to read.
I decided to take a two week hiatus on the Canada Council Digital Originals video production. I’ve produced one a week now for six weeks and it seemed like a good time to take a pause and re-energize creatively as well as look back at what I’ve learned from the project so far. Here are the top five lessons learned so far.
#5 A week to produce a video is a good constraint
I’ve found that it is pretty intense doing a video a week. I’ve started on Saturday night and not finished until late Friday afternoon when all the steps are taken into account. I’ve had a lot of research to do, questions like: how to make a book levitate or can I find a good font and background for the aesthetics of the Cormorants Diving video. The amount of material on YouTube (often by youngsters) on how to do some of the effects I’ve ended up using is quite mind boggling. When I have an idea and need to research I end going to a rabbit hole and then there are the frustrations of learning these techniques using the software I’m using (Final Cut Pro X) and the the satisfaction of it working. Anyhow, the good thing about the constraint is that it forces me to focus, there’s a point where I have to get producing which means stopping the research and practicing and actually make something. The constraint does that, as well sometimes means I must make what I’m doing simpler from the concept I have started with which is almost always a good thing and one of the best lessons learned.
My poem Lac-Mégantic is a good example of revision and also trying different angles at the same poetic impulse until you find the poem. I’ll take you through my Lac-Mégantic poem revision story. I went to the Community of Writers Workshop in California in the summer of 2015 where you write a new poem a day and read it the next morning to a dozen or so excellent poets and a faculty member. In the workshop only what is working is discussed, the idea being you will try new things in your work, take real chances.
I made three runs that week at the topic of the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic after doing a lot of online research of in-depth articles written about the place, the people and what happened. I had a high level of emotion as well because of my work at Imperial Oil. But I wasn’t sure how to approach it as a poem. I was very aware of the problems around writing about tragedy, topics of high emotion and big issues like our fossil fuel addiction and its impacts.
The first poetic attempt being a kind of experimental form that I read to Brenda Hillman’s workshop. Brenda seemed appreciative but nobody else in that group seemed to really understand what I was doing. Also it turned out this horrific tragedy was not well known in the US so it failed to resonate without more explanation. A poetic failure.
This poem comes from a discussion in a class I was in where we had read and then were discussing Robert Hass’ wonderful book “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa ” and we were talking about the poetics of Bashō, who Hass calls “one of the world’s greatest lyric poets”. One of the key concepts Bashō, who was a master poet and teacher in 17th century Japan, developed in his lifetime was the idea of the “poetics of scent”.
Traditionally in the linked poems of the time the mode that was used for linking verses were either “lexical”, words with classical or cultural association, or “content”, where the linked verse expanded or extended the material of the previous verse explicitly. But Bashō proposed that instead the linkage should be less direct, the linkage should be more of overtone or aesthetic. He called this linking by “scent”.
This week’s poem, 12 Dancers on 12 Tables, is material collected from watching and listening to an MFA in Dance group rehearsing out in the middle of the quad of Saint Mary’s College of California. The area was used by many students for eating and talking. And in the middle of this normal every day occurrence, dancers unexpectedly got up on the large tables and performed in the middle of the rest of us. A surreal experience where the observers were in the same space as the performers and yet also not formally an audience. In addition as the performance developed there were crows, who were always about, that seemed to become part of the performance, at least for me.
The material of the poem includes description of the scene, found dialogue, observations about the crows. But the mixture of material is attempting to provide the reader with the experience of being in that place and watching that wild mixture of something unusual happening in a usual place.
On the page the form of the poem mirrors this disorientation. It has unusual line breaks, dropped lines and some material is grouped into stanzas while others into single lines. Also the dialogue is not indicated except for “here” “we” “go”, which means it is up to the reader on whether terms like “really beautiful” is from the dance choreographer or from the speaker of the poem. This mirrors the experience, who is just an observer and who is a participant. Like as if you were at a table with one of the 12 Dancers on 12 Tables.
This week’s video and poem go all in on magical realism. I found what I think is a good definition of magical realism in a blog post by the author Neil Gaman:
“Within a work of magical realism, the world is still grounded in the real world, but fantastical elements are considered normal in this world.”
The narrator in the poem takes as normal that furniture moves and arranges itself and has some kind of motivation for doing so. So a typical Sunday afternoon early in a marriage is shaded by these fantastic happenings. If the poem had just said the “we” in the poem moved the furniture around on Sundays it loses something compared to the furniture moving itself. The magical realism in this poem functions as representing an external force that is frustrated around Sunday afternoons, that time of the week the busyness of life disappears, and the couple are just observers rather than active with respect to this force.