Archive for June, 2009

Mid year break


(reading is sexy)

I’ve tried to do some different things to keep me going over the break, like watching some of the Lannan videos and listening to podcasts. I’ve also just spent a fab long weekend away with Emma, Meg, Francie and Mel from Damien’s class (and my mate Tina) for a bit of intensive reading and writing with a workshop atmosphere. It’s worked so far, I haven’t had time to miss class.

I’m glad I handed my reading packet out before the break so I wasn’t wasting time fretting about it. I’m feeling good about my portfolio so far, I have about 60 pages of poems in three sections with a sequence of Ghazals in the middle section, hopefully to be the gem that the book hangs on. This takes the pressure off for the second half. I like to spend plenty of time revising my work and there’s still time to come up with some better poems so some of the weaker ones can drop out. I dropped them off to my lovely supervisor today and we meet on Friday to discuss.

A couple of my poems have been accepted for online journals Swamp 4 and soon to be released 4th Floor, which is encouraging and I’ve got a couple of readings lined up for later in the year – Writers on Mondays (which is part of the class requirements) and Stand Up Poets at the Palmerston North library both in September.

Exciting news is that Helen Rickerby asked to publish a chapbook of my work through her publishing house Seraph Press and we are at page proof stage with that. Thanks Helen!

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Jorie Graham

Lannan Foundation Video

The Dream of the Unified Field: selected poems 1974-1994

Bill mentioned Jorie Graham on his blog and I looked her up, her style took my fancy so I thought I’d watch her interview (IIML has a video library but you can also download podcasts here).

She has a reputation for being difficult to read, in response she said that an apprenticeship to the work of the poet is often required to gain understanding. You need to become acquainted with their collected work, their obsessions, language etc. Things unfold after in-depth reading, try reading all their work in chronological order as fragments will be more difficult. This did make sense to me, especially in light of my experience with Louise Glück.

She also discussed difficulty of subject “If people don’t have the knowledge (eg classical Greek myths) to understand my poetry that’s not my problem”.  Ha!! I do angst about the scientific content of my work and if readers will comprehend it. It’s quite liberating to hear poets say things like that. It is quite an elitist attitude and one that I have some problems with, yet when she said that I couldn’t help thinking “YES!”

On language she said something like – understanding the complexity of language leads to an understanding of the complexity of your inner world. She wants to challenge people to extend themselves and surely that can only be a good thing?

She also said “abstracting emotion doesn’t work, rehearse your vocabulary on the concrete first before you approach the ‘invisible’ – internal or abstract. Approach the invisible via the senses, read Hopkins, for example.” I think this is probably good advice for me to follow. With my Elemental sequence they only started working once I added concrete, sensual connections.

After watching the video I trotted over to the library and got out her selected poems for a read.

The title immediately appealed as it harked back to the Field Theory of poetry that Phyllis Webb talked about. The blurb reads:

Jorie Graham’s poetry insists that ‘the visible world’ exists: but what is its existence? Beyond the subjective, the merely lyric, she ventures with philosophical rigour into an area ‘saturated with phenomena’, in Helen Vendler’s phrase, a place of shifting perspectives, vertiginous reversals, but always moving towards possible celebration. Those who argue that poetry and science are at each other’s throats find here a poetry which brings into tense equilibrium science philosophy and history.

Well, I’d love someone to say that about my work.

It’s interesting to see her form change over time, her lines grow longer and longer. Couplets and stanzas disappear, poems grow longer.

In the late 90’s her lines get so long and the last word or words of the line tab out to the end, or sometimes she tabs and then goes on, then breaks a stanza mid way – en dashes too. I like it; in fact I tried it out on some new poems this weekend.

Her poem I watched a snake is interesting, each stanza introduces a notion of sewing, stanza 2 – thread, stanza 4 – knot, stanza 5 – stitch, stanza 6 – pattern, final stanza: stitches, pattern, fastens.

In addition the snake has duel meaning of biblical lust versus work

and then: “Desire / is the honest work of the body”, Passion is work / that retrieves us,” This is overlapped with an Elizabeth Bishop style of observancy. In the Lannan interview she talked about “Self” and separation, body / spirit / mind. In this poem she seems to be trying to stitch them all together – very clever.

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On libraries I have known

How old was I when I got my first library card? I’m not sure, maybe six? It was the 1970’s, everything was burnt orange and chocolate brown. I remember being very pissed off that I couldn’t borrow adult’s books with my junior library card. I remember reading all the Cricket magazines and scores of fiction. I would usually read a book a day.

Mum worked her way through the entire Crime Fiction section; they all had yellow hard covers with a red stripe. I don’t remember what Dad got out but he had stacks of science books by his side of the bed, Richard Dawkins and the like. My older brother liked Science Fiction and my younger sister had new readers like Hop on Pop. She was quite precocious and memorized Dr Seuss books from an early age, in fact we all learnt to read before we started school, thanks to Mum.

We were members of the Lower Hutt war memorial library, opened in 1953. The main entrance of the library has two huge murals, the first

– “Their Sacrifice” – with service men and women looking bereft under a tree branch with barely a leaf and the second

– “Preserved Freedom” – with happy children and respectful, prayerful adults, some harvesting fruit (presumably the fruit of the servicemen’s labours). “It was theirs to make but not to share the morrow” carved in stone underneath.

Oh! The Waspy guilt I felt each time I passed it. Was it disrespectful to look at it for too long? Was it disrespectful to not look at all? Of course it was fitting to have such a serious, massive piece of art in such a serious, massive (to a child) public building.

The legacy was one of knowledge, guilt, duty, humility, things my parents also felt were important, things they would have been taught in their formative years.

My father has an old brochure calling for financial support for the new library and attached Little Theatre. Titled A Call to Sacrifice, it begins thus:

“This brochure is a naked and unashamed call upon you, in the name of the City, to make a sacrifice, and its purpose is to inform you why. It makes no appeal to your personal self-interest, does not offer you something for nothing and asks you to give not necessarily that you may receive.”

Can you imagine that kind of appeal now? What a joke. Why not let the rates pay for it? Because:

“a cultural centre such as is proposed will serve to remind us that they that have left us “shall never grow old,” for culture, like the spirit of man’ is of abiding value.”

And why should they make this sacrifice?

“In memory of others who gave up to six years of previous life, in the heyday of youth, toiling in the hot and arid deserts or in the bitter cold of stormy mountains, and enduring the suffering and dangers of the battlefield that you might enjoy bountiful prosperity and the comforts of home.”

Whoa! I don’t think I remember reading a brochure with that kind of language printed in my life time. Finally some of the weirdest sentences that came from my parent’s lips began to make sense.

What has this got to do with reading or libraries? I guess we should be grateful that we have access to these kinds of cultural havens, acknowledge that knowledge is power and also be grateful that this knowledge is available to all members of the community no matter what their income. Mind you the kind of knowledge available in 1977 or 1987 in the Lower Hutt library seemed, even from a child’s perspective, to be limited. What did they want us to know? What was safe for us to know? What was missing?

Still libraries have always been a special revered place, a family outing; a church for atheists like me perhaps? Maybe that’s why it seemed appropriate to me to have such mixed feelings of lust (for knowledge), guilt, pleasure and worship all mixed up together.

There was also a secret code to learn when you joined the club – the Dewey Decimal System from 000 – Generalities to 900 – Geography & History (821 – Poetry in English).

And index cards filed in wooden drawers, you could flick through all the books with the tips of your fingers and find what you wanted. I still love index cards.

It was not just books either, this was the place I discovered The Face magazine, Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls alongside Mervyn Peake and Elizabeth Smither (once I’d graduated to an adult’s card in the 80’s). All these things seemed so far removed from my everyday reality. I couldn’t afford to dress like the cool things in The Face, I couldn’t find any cool records in the local record stores, I’d never be Fuchsia in Gormenghast and I’d never be a published poet. Not while I was still here anyway.

It was inevitable; I moved to the Wellington Central Library and never looked back. It was an old classically styled building near the old town hall; surely the classical styling would transmit knowledge by osmosis? The steps echoed as I walked up to the fresh index files. There were notices on the wall for Spanish language teachers, guitar teachers, you name it. I felt smarter just being there. Then, glorious! I discovered you could borrow art prints, I was cultured!

Then the library got cultured, or rather modernised and moved to a new designer premises. Style seemed to rule over substance, it seemed they’d blown the budget and couldn’t afford any new books. Lucky for me I had a card for the Vic Uni library.

Non-fiction ruled; anthropology, feminism, literary criticism, theory, theory and more theory, until I was ready for real life.

I didn’t belong to even one library while I travelled, I was doing my practical. I still read of course but my unsettled state didn’t allow for the ties of membership. Finally I arrived back home and settled in a small seaside village. I was ready for membership but all previous memberships had lapsed. I began with the Paekakariki village library (about 3M x 4M in size) I got out picture books, that’s all I read for several years.

I joined the Paraparaumu library too, it wasn’t much bigger, I moved onto parenting books. Paraparaumu library was relocated into much larger premises, the extent of their collection was revealed. I started comfort reading; YA fiction, DIY, recipes and craft books. I was almost ready for adult fiction again.

Multiple memberships became addictive, I got an out-of-town membership back at Wellington Central, and the catalogues were now all on-line. I was inter-loaning, reserving, you name it, I was click-happy on the internet. I was really in the zone again, from feminism to craft to poetry to self-help to fiction to YA fiction to DIY to zines to DVDs to CDs. Maybe I was ready for theory again?

My multiple memberships extended to include one more, back to Vic, where the juicy ‘Lit Crit’ awaits. On the same campus a small but perfectly formed graduate’s library at the Institute of Modern Letters delights me. I recently returned to the Lower Hutt library to check out their revamp after visiting my father. The index files were gone, the children’s section was moved to a mezzanine, even one of the large murals was moved from behind the issues desk to a far wall. I’ll be betting they don’t use a date stamp now. But the huge murals in the formal foyer still totally overwhelmed me.

I took a photograph. Was it disrespectful to photograph it? Was it disrespectful to not remember? Familiar feelings of guilt came over me, I was ready to be told off by a librarian but they were too busy being nice to little kids. The rest of the building had, of course, shrunk with age, like my father has lost inches in height. It’s a suburban library, nothing more, nothing less. I walked out through the back entrance and wandered through the historical graveyard, kicking up leaves. It was time to go.

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Phyllis Webb is this year’s happy find for me. Several people suggested I read her and then repeated the suggestion when I started writing Ghazals. I started with her selected poems – The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, Talonbooks, 1982, as that was the only thing available at VUW library, WPL or the MA library. Webb is Canadian, born in the 20’s, writer, broadcaster and creative writing teacher at Victoria (BC). Sharon Thesen in her introduction to The Vision Tree wrote:

What we are often most grateful for are the poem’s open completions, which do not stop the poem, but which cast their strange felicity back over the other lines, so that the whole poem is gathered into a unity without proposing a closure.

I read and re-read this volume. You just can’t read her work once, it is dense and surprising and multi-layered. I kept coming back to one of her earlier poems “Patience”:

Patience is the wideness of the night

the simple pain of stars

the muffled explosion of velvet

it moves itself generally

through particulars

accepts the telling of time

without day’s relativity.         (stanza 1)

These metaphors are startling for me. Then the last four lines. Patience isn’t concerned with details or comparison, Patience is vast, thick and heavy, sharp and piercing. What else is vast? The wide night sky is vast. What are in the night sky? Stars. What goes on for eons? Starlight.

‘The muffled explosion of velvet’ I imagine the night sky as a big piece of thick, heavy velvet that is shaken out with a crack / snap and once laid over you is so thick and heavy it almost suffocates.

This is clever because instead of using three un-related metaphors for Patience she has used three that are intertwined and the third is a metaphor for her first metaphor – the night sky. So it is all woven in on itself. Makes me dizzy!

Then when she expands the rest of the stanza it is as if she is talking about Einstein. She is talking about time and space. The last word of the stanza – relativity, (the theory of which describes how things stay in orbit) again going back to the night sky and space and also relationships.

This stanza is extraordinary! I wasn’t sure at first if that was what she intended or if I was just reading my own interests into it but I later read an essay of hers in which she odes say she is influenced by ‘Field Theory’ much to my satisfaction.

The second stanza goes on:

But more than these accommodations

patience is love withdrawn

into the well; immersion into

a deep place where green begins.

It is the slow beat of slanting eyes

down the hearts years,

it is the silencer

and the loving now

involves no word.

Patience is the answer

poised in grief – the knowing –

it is the prose of tears

withheld and the aging,

the history in the heart

and futures where pain

is a lucid cargo.                         (stanza 2)

This stanza is quite different from the first, it comes not only down to earth but then down a well. It becomes less abstract and more human – love withdrawn is a very human condition. Silent years of wordless, withdrawn love grieved. Tears withheld as years pass and on into the future, where pain is still a ‘lucid cargo’. You need patience to endure never-ending heart break.

So, I’m thinking stanza one, two people are in orbit – in love, then in the second stanza love is withdrawn so patience morphs, earths. The second stanza is also longer than the first, which intimates that the loss and suffering goes on for much longer than the time of being in love. The lines get shorter too. ‘pain is a lucid cargo’ – Christ!

Chris lent me her copy of Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti-Ghazals. (Coach House Press, 1984) as it is out of print and not in any of the libraries. The selected poems had some Ghazals in them but not the whole lot. I have to say that I was not as drawn to her Ghazals as I was to her earlier work. I really enjoy the way each couplet in a Ghazal is a leap, 5 or more seemingly unrelated topics each contained in a separate couplet, which then combine to create an over-reaching deeper meaning. They were helpful to read while thinking about writing Ghazals and thinking about what Ghazals may or may not be but they seemed to lack the crazy multifaceted nature of the earlier work to me.

Dinah lent me Nothing But Brush Strokes: Selected Prose by Phyllis Webb, which has some great essays. I ended up using an extract of ‘Up the Ladder: Notes on the Creative Process’ for my reading packet handout. It has in it a poem called ‘Field Guide to Snow Crystals’ and her notes say it is about the Field Theory of poetry. This got me excited. The physics of Quantum Field Theory originated in the 1920’s and influenced a poetics of connection that Muriel Rukeyser described as “not a point-to-point movement but a real flow in which everything is seen as deeply related to everything else”. William Carlos Williams said in his essay The Poem as a Field of Action that “The only reality we can know is MEASURE”. He saw structure (not subject matter) as being the poet’s contact with reality, the only way we can modify it. This has been making me think about form, because of course the Ghazal is Field Theory in action.

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SO we have 5 weeks without classes and I’ve spent the morning starting to read blogs again. Wait a minute I thought to myself. Didn’t I used to have one of these things?

Well, beloved readers I will be back on line at least for the next 5 weeks. I’ve been writing and reading my butt off and have lots to share via my reading journal and perhaps a poem or two but I’m feeling a bit shy.

One of my main goals for this year was to break through to another level with my writing and I’m not sure I’ve done that yet (ie- suffering from writer’s angst). However I do feel things brewing and I’m sure that by November 10th (deadline day) some kind of break through will have been made or something, mutter, mutter.

Lucky for me I usually work well with revisions.

Back tomorrow with some real words.


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