Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"A Certain Slant of Light"

In case you missed it, my latest publication came out last week at Cheek Teeth, a site for flash fiction, literary thoughts, and artisan culture at large. As a poet it was cool to be solicited for fiction (thanks again, Katey Schultz). I couldn't help dropping poetry a line, however (thanks to you to, Emily Dickinson).

"A Certain Slant of Light" was inspired by this past summer's lunar eclipse, which I believe occurred in July. The fam and I were out on the sidewalk, diligently watching the swallowing occur on the inner wall of our box projector.

Here's the opening. Please find the rest at Cheekteeth. Drop a comment while your at it. Share.

Layla, with the warm sun at her back, focused on the small white circle inside her cardboard box projector. A perfect, dark bite had been taken from its upper-right corner. If the moon had progressed further through the eclipse in this last second, last minute, hour, such progress remained unremarkable.

“Lemmee see, lemmee see,” Maia chanted, tugging at the underside of the box. “Mom, lemmee see.”

Layla shifted the box over the head of her daughter. She tipped it until, on the distant end, an incomplete sun wavered on the white paper they had taped there.

Continue to read "A Certain Slant of Light" here.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

"Poetry, U.S.A." - My latest Feature at Cheek Teeth

Damon McLaughlin
Please drop by Cheek Teeth, the mouthpiece of Trachodon magazine, for my latest blog feature, "Poetry U.S.A":

Someone actually had the nerve to say to me once “Poetry comes from a place: if you want to write poetry, go there.” This “Poet” was well-written, respected, and (more significantly) responsible for my grade, so I drove halfway across the States and back looking for “Poetry,” searching for it in the deep canyons of Utah, sacrificing my Celica for it with a deer in the Sierras, reading the deer hair stuck in my Celica’s grill for signs of a new direction. I drank forties of Mickey’s malt liquor on Mission Beach, hoping for a vision. Considering the advice of the “Poet” was metaphorical, I searched inward via Buddhist mysticism, solitude, veganism—each method as fruitless as the last. But all the while I was searching, I was writing and reading poems like my life depended on it, just as it depends on sex and breathing.

...continue reading "Poetry U.S.A" at Cheek Teeth.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Brilliance, Brick by Brick

In the latest issue of The Writer's Chronicle, while discussing with interviewer Heather Sappenfield the difficulty of recording her thoughts on the fly, Bonnie Jo Campbell comments, "Generally, though, I've trained my body and mind to bring me insights in the morning, when I'm sitting down and writing, seven days a week. Other people, poets especially, get brilliant ideas continually, and they write them into their lovely little Moleskines. Maybe that's the difference between poets and fiction writers. Maybe a lot of us fiction writers have our creative lives more regimented. Of course that's a gross generalization, and I disapprove of such a broad claim, even as I stand by it."

First and foremost, how wonderful to think of myself as receiving "brilliant ideas continually"—a truer statement there never was!

I say this in jest, of course. Certainly poets and fiction writers alike—arguably all people—receive brilliant ideas only to have them fall by the wayside. This occurs for folks while in the shower, perhaps, or on the treadmill, or while gazing longingly at the mountains while on their way to work at seven a.m. The mind is a terrible mishmash of thought, and for every million quotidian ideas passing through, there must be at least one cerebral stroke of brilliance. Maybe I'm an optimist. I don't know. As a poet, and per Ms. Campbell's comment, I'm probably biased.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Imaginary Toads, Real Gardens

Since I've been writing mostly prose for the last few months, it's a pleasure to have a few poems appear recently in the journals cant and The Potomac--the former a cool, slimline journal to which I was introduced last year and the latter a terrific web mag I’ve been reading for several year’s due to its keen sense of attitude. My poems in these journals' current issues (thanks again, editors!) are out of my Aphrodite's Son MS, which I hope to place here someday, pending the never ending series of revisions it undergoes--a process of intense scrutiny followed by weeks of looking away, looking away. I feel like wind slowly eroding a stone. Hopefully there’s something left when I’m all finished.

Be that as it may, it's been fun to be a prose writer for awhile, specifically a fiction writer, which is not my natural inclination. The thing about a story is that one typically has to pay attention to a certain physical reality in order to write it. That is to say, one must create through the legerdemain of language the illusion of a physical reality--you know, setting and stuff. Plot takes time, and time requires that things (characters) move through a physical space. So right there you've got the rudiments of fiction: plot, setting, character. A story isn't often as simple as that, but generally speaking each of these pieces has a role to play. It's sort of like building a house: the studs and insulation aren't what it's all about, but they are nevertheless important for holding the thing together with any kind of efficiency.

In a poem, however, at least as I write one, such components have very little to do with anything. While a story requires that aforementioned physical reality, a poem does not--much too lofty for such pedestrian items. It really could care less about time and space and the laws of physics. Those laws are irrelevant in poetry. Poems are spaceless, timeless aliens that place reality forcibly in the realm of the imagination. As Marianne Moore famously put it, they drop real toads into imaginary gardens. It is this contradictory, paradoxical nature that can make a good poem click--assuming, that is, the reader is willing to leap into such a vacuum.

Fiction seems to me to work in the opposite manner, placing imaginary toads in very real gardens. This is the trick that allows readers to identify with fictional characters (imaginary toads) and to imagine themselves in whatever environments through which the action moves, be it NYC or the Starship Enterprise, which flies according to the laws of physics, not the imagination. That sense of grounding is important. Not only does it allow readers to invest in characters, it allows characters to do unbelievable things readers notwithstandingly will find believeable via their suspension of disbelief. It's quite a remarkable achievement when you think about it.

On the other hand, because poetry's setting is the imagination, readers are left to connect the pieces on their own. Real toads, yes. We all know what a toad is, how it feels, how it's shaped, the fact it's likely to pee in your palm if you pick it up. But where to put the thing? It's your imagination, after all, as well as the poet's. The poet just gives you some odds and ends bought at a garage sale and asks that you, the reader, ultimately organize the poetic diorama.

I don’t really know where this is going save to say it’s nice to be thinking poetry in these times of fiction. Check out the above journals—they are, regardless of my work's inclusion in them, worth the read.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A.E. Stallings' "Epic Simile"

AchillesIt’s been months since I last blogged about a poem, save for an article at Cheekteeth and a few tidbits here-and-there right here at Present Everywhere. Been busy.... But, between projects, I happily return with a bit about A.E. Stallings’ “Epic Simile,” which appeared in the January 2012 issue of Poetry magazine. Stallings is one of our foremost contemporary poets and without question one of our stellar formal—er, ah—ists. Recently she won a MacArthur fellowship due to said stellarness.

“Epic Simile” is a 22 line, largely narrative piece whose overt subject is the classical hero--someone akin to Achilles or to Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator comes to mind. The story is straightforward: our hero has been battling it out all day and, out of exhaustion perhaps, he spaces out, momentarily escaping into the outer and inner distances where he observes his death in the image of a deer. Upon the deer’s exit, our hero is suddenly back in scene, returned from that out-of-body, lyrical moment into his story.

From beginning to end, Stallings’ battle imagery is pretty clear. I like it best in the middle of the poem when she writes “of the wind / Brushing through stands of spears like conifers” (10-11). Seems the obvious image would be the other way around—conifers like spears—and I appreciate this reversal right down to its very mix-up of “stands of spears” instead of stands of conifers (I’d be curious to know how that image was originally drafted, if “stands of spears” was the first to come). Similar uses of battle imagery appear lines later when the deer’s “gaze / Beads on him like a sniper’s sites” and at the end in which blood isn’t clouding the hero’s eyes but such is “streaming into your eyes” (17-18, 22). Such use of imagery keeps this poem all of a concise piece—thus, the narrative in its little box—while simultaneously layering it, thereby asking readers to view the hero’s battle in a series of planes: the literal field, that of the deer/dream that Stallings refers to as “A blankness [that] swoons upon him,” and that of the present, of the reader’s present, whenever and wherever she may be (9).

Stallings’ diction is nice, too, for its visuals and acoustics. Consider the first line of “Epic Simile”: “Right shoulder aching with day-long butchery”. How can you go wrong with that? It’s precise and provocative, and I love the visual and aural play of the sh in shoulder with the ch in aching and butchery. I like ending the line with “butchery” for that matter. The image it provokes isn’t pleasant, but I love how the word falls out of my mouth: butchery. Yeah. The abundance of stresses in this line, falling in nature, adds to the punch of that last word. The second line is equally gifted in that it parallels the nature of the first. Now it’s the “Left shoulder numb with dints clanged on the shield”; the syntax mirrors the opening rhythm right down to the spondee at “dints clanged.”

Of particular interest to me are the gestures "Epic Simile" makes to poetry and to form. Sure, there’s that stereotype that poets write poems about poems for other poets to read, but I think that notion fits here, as evidenced immediately by the title. Much of the piece, right down to the warrior’s daydreaming, parallels the writing process and the trials and tribulations one undergoes when working with form and formlessness.

So, the hero battles his enemy; the poet battles the poem. Grrrr! Clash! Clang! Crackle goes the paper wadded and tossed into the trash as the fierce, persistent poet begins anew. It’s all kind of over the top and silly when considered so literally like this. I don’t think any among us really feels like a hero after all, at least not admittedly. And I think it a stretch to make such a direct comparison throughout such that the “hero’s death, / The prize, elusive quarry of his life” is like this POEM the poet is trying to accomplish, some grandiose, epic poem-of-all-poems, she writes toward all her life (13-14). But who knows? There is something to be said about the artist and the restless seeking of some truth or who-knows-what as pursued through the war one wages with his or her art. There is an “elusive quarry” out there, and art is one indicative way by which humans seek it.

“Epic Simile” instigates such meditations as this. For me, it speaks specifically to battles with poetic form, formal poetry, and the conversations poems/poets have with the poetic tradition. It’s hard not to think of epic anything, for example, without thinking of Homer. That first word of Stallings' title sets the alleged magnitude of the poem itself, evokes The Iliad, and nods to tradition pre- and post-Homer all in a single swoop.

Another nod toward tradition is the poem's blank verse. The third line is Stallings' first solid go at iambic pentameter: “The hero is fouled with blood, his own and others’ ”. It’s not perfectly metrical, and it need not be. In fact, I’d argue half the lines or fewer are written particularly strictly in verse, but that’s nevertheless enough for me to consider the poem as such overall, some of it definitely so, the ghost of blank verse ultimately present everywhere. I read blood here, too, as in—“his own and others’ ”—as a subtler nod to the past—and the present, for that matter. Contemporary poets write in the here and now, but every word we employ is steeped in history, poetic or otherwise. If the poet is a traditionalist or an experimentalist—so what? The conversation with history is no less quiet from either perspective.

An old complaint against traditional form is that form is dead, its possibilities expended. This is as old an idea as the epic is and a hindrance, quite frankly, to innovation; to the poet it’s “deadweight all around him,” as Stallings writes of her hero, as she writes of form itself. And it's true: form can kill you—but only the weakest among us. Any poet with a developed form-consciousness will tell you giving yourself over properly to convention—even by polarizing against it—is a liberating experience, not a retarding one. The sluggish, dead-weight of meter and rhyme can open windows to “glimpses [of] the mountains, the distant snow,” and it’s in these moments that the poet enters the zone, that blankness into which Stallings’ hero falls (8). It’s in this moment of release that the hero/poet hears, as though simultaneously aware and unaware: “A blankness swoons upon him, and he hears / Nothing but the white vowels of the wind” (9-10). Ahh, my favorite line of the poem-, what with its lovely Ws…”Nothing but the white vowels of the wind”… its v/f echoing, its th repetition, each one evocative of wind. Perhaps our hero/poet is hearing with his Zen-like third eye.

This moment, then, is the poem’s turn: the hero imaginatively wanders into the mountains, and the poet finally frees herself from the alleged confines of formal writing. In either case, a stepping-out-of-oneself occurs, a relinquishing of consciousness that takes hero, poet, and reader someplace other than the present. This the eureka moment: the poet officially gives herself over to the poem, and the self no longer exists. “What happens is a continual surrender of [the poet] as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality," as Eliot claimed. This may be only for the moment, but it’s nevertheless Nirvana.

In the poem, this moment is short-lived. And with what does this leave our hero? Where does it leave him? Where the poet? In the arms of the reader—you—of course, who presently remains snapped into it, viewing the scene with “sweat or blood streaming into your eyes” (22). The story ends with you, with me, those of us who can only conjecture about the hero’s death and are left to do the same with the poem's. Like the hero who may or may not have come back to reality, whose future lies at the arms of his enemies, the poem lies at the mercy of its readers. As Kunitz observed, once the poem leaves the poet's desk, it’s yours. Something like that.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mnemosyne Slumber Party Reading is up...

On February 23 I had the pleasure of reading at the Mnemosyne Slumber Party at the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco via Skype -- a cool experience with a great crowd. And the event is up now on Youtube. Mnemosyne is a relatively new mag focused on "Art, science and literature about dreams, memory and mind." Since I've been prosing it along lately, it was good to be back in the poetry saddle again. Thanks again, Andy.

So, my reading of "This City in Which I Drown" in SF from the comforts of my living room. All went well except for when the lights were dimmed. For a second I thought the connection dropped -- could no longer see the crowd. Alas!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mnemosyne Slumber Party Reading

MnemosyneWell, I may be missing out on AWP this year (as I have other years), but at least I'll be reading in San Francisco next week, 2/23, at the Mnemosyne Slumber Party event. Ahh, the wonders of Skype! I'll be reading work from my MS in waiting, Aphrodite's Son--looking forward to hearing the work of others involved with the mag.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A little Larry Levis

Been busy with other projects and have neglected the blog--alack! Have also been reading some Larry Levis and had to post this--the first three lines to his "Elegy With a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It":

Those twenty-six letters filling the blackboard
Compose the dark, compose
The illiterate summer sky & its stars as they appear