Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

I haven’t forgotten you, I’ve just been really busy – you know – writing a book and all that.

By the way I have finally loaded the darling little chapbook onto Etsy (here’s hoping it doesn’t find it’s way onto Regretsy!)

Thanks again to the most lovely Helen Rickerby, who has hand crafted each of these little works of art.

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You’re invited

Seraph Press invites you to celebrate the launch of

Watching for Smoke

by Helen Heath

on Sunday 18th October at 3.30 pm
in St Peter’s Hall, Beach Road, Paekakariki

This hand-bound poetry chapbook will be launched by Dinah Hawken, and will be available for sale at $15 (RRP $20)

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The Home Stretch

So we finished classes yesterday and now have just over 3 weeks of editing before we hand in our books. Everyone is a bit nervous.

I guess because the MA is nine months long there are inevitable analogies of pregnancy and childbirth connected to the process. A couple of months ago I started feeling like I was in labour with this book. I was pushing and huffing and hurting. I don’t know what’s going to come out, or if it will have any birth defects.

There’s a point in labour called transition, you can tell you’re in it when you start whinging “I can’t do it, I caaaaan’t!!! I never want to do this ever, ever again!” It’s the most intense part of labour; some women vomit or shake all over. Midwives like this point because they know it means any minute a head will be making its way out.

I wonder if Chris (our teacher) sees herself as a midwife of books? Either way I felt like I was in transition with my manuscript, I’m tired, I caaaaaan’t!

Right now I think the head must be crowning because it hurts, I’m tired and I don’t know what I’m doing but the end is very close.

To get me through I tried to remember how the post-birth adrenalin felt, a massive surge invulnerability and awesome, death defying prowess. ‘I made this!’ And you are looking down at your ugly purple squished up crying bundle covered in cheesy looking vernix, thinking it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. You forget the pain and decide they need a sibling.

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Well, how did those weeks fly by so quickly? Next week we are back to our safe little cluster in class. Kay has sent out her next batch of poems for us to read (lovely) before we discuss in class and I’m getting reading to lead a discussion on how poets have been influenced by science, incorporated it into their use of form and language.
I hope I can pull off two hours worth, gulp!

In three weeks I need to hand out my last bunch of work for class discussion, nothing like a deadline to get you going!

Here are some quotes from my reading packet to tease you:

“Only fables present the world as it should be and as if it had meaning,” – Kurt Gödel (Austrian-American logician, mathematician and philosopher)

“The original Muses might be imaged now as little Apples, home-computers wired into the great mother memory bank of the world, promiscuously fingered by the swift digits of the global villagers. But a computer does not a muse or music make.” – Phyllis Webb

“We have to break down poetry into its elements just as the chemists and physicists are doing in order to reform the elements.” – William Carlos Williams

“Sir: In your otherwise beautiful poem ‘The Vision of Sin’ there is a verse which reads – ‘Every moment dies a man, Every moment one is born.’ It must be manifest that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill… I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read – ‘Every moment dies a man, Every moment 1 1/16 is born.’… The actual figure is so long I cannot get it onto a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry. I am, Sir, yours, etc., Charles Babbage”

– Charles Babbage to Tennyson, 1851

And a poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind—

– Emily Dickinson

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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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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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