What I’m Reading

I am reading about five different books at the moment. Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison, The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired by Francine Prose, Bonk by Mary Roach, The Art of Fiction by David Lodge, and The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young. My current reading is primarily influenced by the courses I am teaching, though I tend to read a lot of literary journalism in combination with poetry. As soon as I finish the Prose book, I’ll be diving into Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Writing by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz. Also, I am preparing for a course I’ll be teaching this summer at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, so I have been studying the surrealist poets: Andre Breton, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Federico Garcia Lorca. In between the writers and books above, I have been rereading T.S. Eliot, Jane Kenyon, Charles Wright, Louise Gluck, Carl Phillips, and many other poets. I read quite a bit.

On Influences

One of the poets that I encourage my students to read is Brigit Pegeen Kelly, especially her book Song. I often teach her poem “Dead Doe,” which addresses the complexity of seeing and processing and the experience of trying to resolve the more chaotic and complex realities of life. She starts off the poem with contradiction and question as though what she sees (the dead doe) needs to be refined and better situated in order to make it more tangible, in order for her to be able to consider it. In these few opening lines, she reveals the open process of contradiction and interpretation in a way that we, as readers, are better able to comprehend the importance of the vision.

The doe lay dead on her back in a field of asters: no.
The doe lay dead on her back beside the school bus stop: yes.
Where we waited.
Her belly white as a cut pear. Where we waited: no: off
from where we waited: yes
at a distance: making a distance
we kept,

There’s a sense that she is trying to reveal a certain process of revision, the process of trying to situate the experience of memory, within the context of the poem as something open for exploration rather than something we must accept. The poem’s richness stems from the speaker’s need to revise the body in death, as well as the speaker’s need to confront transformation through death from the distance of a revisionist point of view, so that more metamorphosis, and consequently beauty can be found in death rather than horror and pity. So finally, the dead doe is “two swans” and they are so alive in their transformation that they are “fighting.”

I’m also drawn to Lucille Clifton and her experience of animal. Many poets today use the animal as a vehicle to explore brutality and death, and to enter the space of the body. One poem I am particularly found of is “telling our stories,” the first poem in her collection The Terrible Stories—the first book she wrote after being diagnosed with breast cancer—in which a fox sits outside the poet’s door all night, trapping her inside. The poem ends:

child, i tell you now it was not
the animal blood i was hiding from,
it was the poet in her, the poet and
the terrible stories she could tell.

There’s something profound and interesting about the experience within Lucille Clifton’s work, about the animal as poet that I haven’t reconciled in my own poetry. I still sit and I think about the animal as poet, being the creator that allows us the access to our terrible, difficult stories.

On Inspiration

I started writing when I was very young. Part of what prompted me to begin my journey toward being a writer, being a poet, had to do with the fact that my father published a book of poetry when I was 12 years old. It was self-published, but it was something he’d been working on my entire childhood. He was an avid reader of poetry, biblical texts, and anything to do with spirituality, and this ended up translating into poetry for him. When I was 10, my parents divorced and the intensity of that emotional experience finally pushed him to the point where he was able to put together a manuscript of poems, which he self-published. Self-publishing was pretty common in the Berkeley community back in the early ’80s, and he had plenty of friends to market his book to. But there was something about the pride and joy of seeing my father complete his book, to see him hold it, for him to hand it to me, and to read from it that just made me envious and also made me realize that I really wanted that more than anything else.

We were a very artistic family. My mother is a painter who mostly paints abstract landscapes. My father, throughout my childhood, was a sculptor and very obsessively worked on a series of head sculptures that he repeated over and over again. I was surrounded by art—art and creativity were as important, if not more so, than basic necessities like food and shelter. My parents made compromises in the decisions between parenting and being artists. This, of course, affected me a great deal and I think that’s why I am a writer. It was such an accepted and encouraged frame of reference to be creative and to explore creativity in my home.

On Writing

What keeps me writing is what I’ve learned about the poem. The poem, for me, represents this very structured lens for life; it is has the ability to house the chaos and complexity of life. I know that’s not an unusual point of view, but for me it has something to do with seeing. I know that there are many different ways to come at image in poetry, but as I move into my third book of poems, I’m realizing that seeing—more so than hearing or touching or smelling or tasting—is very much the root of what draws me to poetry. In an effort to solidify the visual world of this moment, I am drawn into the space of memory where all levels of experience co-mingle and the poem expands into a kind of timelessness, I hope. In the space of the poem, I am reminded that time is on a continuum, rather than fixed in ideas of past, present, and future. This sounds a little too ‘new-age,’ yet the best poems present experience that speaks to generation after generation. I aspire to this poetry. One of the things I tell my students about imagery is that the image can carry meaning completely if it’s handled correctly.

On Continuing to Write

I still have so much writing to do. I’m very aware that I’ve hardly scratched the surface. One of the things that I mentioned earlier, and which still is very relevant to me, has to do with splintering—the splintering of associations in my immediate environment or in what I see happening now, what I feel now, and then also the complexity of memory coming into that.

I had a therapist a number of years ago who requested to see my poetry. He was attempting to understand me better as a patient through my writing, and one of the things he observed in my poetry was that it would be difficult for people to understand many of the leaps in my work because of this splintering in time through the image. What happens for me oftentimes in the space of a poem is that the past enters the present through the vehicle of the image. As I mentioned earlier, time becomes enmeshed. So this complexity with time, which I felt my therapist articulated very well and helped me understand, is really what is central to me in the space of poem, and it keeps me writing. I am still working on finding the best body and form to bring all of my experiences in the now, and in the past, forward into the space of the poem in a way that the reader is able to understand where I’m coming from and how those transitions function and how they are worked out in the space of my poem.

Every day I get braver. Every day I feel freer to write what I need to write.

Poetry On Hand

I get into different moods and want poetry for every mood. I tend to keep Carl Phillips Rock Harbor on hand, as well as Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise. I like to flip open Wallace Stevens collected poems at least once a month. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems is an important work for me. If I had to choose one book that has made a huge impact in recent months, I would say that Breton’s Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares is very important to my current work. It should be noted that this is the only collection of Andre Breton’s poetry that Edouard Roditi translated, so I am perhaps most taken with Roditi’s interpretation of Breton’s poetry through this one collection. My favorites change as I read further into contemporary poetry.

Favorite Line of Poetry—Ever.

These lines from Louise Gluck’s poem, “Trillium” from The Wild Iris:

I woke up ignorant in a forest,
only a moment ago; I didn’t know my voice
if one were given to me
would be so full of grief, my sentences
like cries strung together.
I didn’t even know I felt grief
until that word came, until I felt
rain streaming from me.