The Refinery: joseph harker(??)

Tomorrow evening the vacation begins! It is much needed, and I am hoping that it will be the appropriate balance of relaxing and productive. Donna is doing a summer residency, and I thought, I wish I could do one of those too; but then I took a page from Peter Murphy‘s book and thought, I’ll do a retreat on my own time. A writing staycation, if you will. So, it’s down to the homestead for several days, and I’m committing myself to writing time each day. Then back up to NYC for the last evening of poetry workshop on Monday. I had kicked around spending next week in Canada or New England, but the logistics ran away from me, so I think I’ll stick to the Hudson Valley if I go anywhere at all. Perhaps some city exploration and finding new venues to write will do some good for the old muse as well.

But meanwhile, I’m doing the thing I’ve threatened to do for a while, and carving myself up on the Refinery altar. I do want to spend some time editing and revising some older pieces, so I ought to get in the habit of doing it. Workshop is nice because it’s an opportunity to hear feedback on the poems you know aren’t quite right yet, but can’t put your finger on what the problem is. (I don’t habitually bring poems that I know are terrible, out of embarrassment, nor the ones that I love, for fear that they are actually terrible, too.) When you have those middle-of-the-road poems, particularly the ones that grow out of prompts, I think workshop is good practice for external critique, and a lot of the strategies people use in them can be adapted for internal as well. This one that I’m going to tear apart is one that I put down a couple weeks ago with the hunch I’d use it for this purpose, so it may look familiar:

“Heart’s Thaw”

After such a long time heartsick,
to see the birds’ northward line
and the archery of homecoming–
from the bone to the flesh grown thick
moans a green sound, the rhyme
of the body with the sky hums
vowel on drowned vowel– the signs
meaning spring and rain running
will fill each part and cavity– the sun
paints bird backs as a flame the wick,
gravity claims their upward climb–
and the flock tacks right, lowly divine
with the sleepless heart caught undone
in its wake– knotted by the quick
turn, by the art of so many dimensions
and leaves who burn with becoming.

I’m going to break from usual Refinery practice and not introduce the author because it’s, you know, me. And because it’s me, I can flesh out some of the rationale and resistance a bit more thoroughly. But otherwise, what’s bothering me about this poem is:
– In workshop, we often talk about the cry of the occasion as an essential ingredient for a poem, that is, the event/thought/image that demands a poem be sculpted around it. And I tend to get Socratic when I look for that cry, continually building question on question: why did I choose to write about this? But is it really worth writing about? Is there some element I can nail down as the compelling part? Is it really compelling? Why? And so on. I know that this was done to a WWP prompt, asking for a “body-soul Zen moment”, but the danger of prompts is that it’s a forced choice. The event in question here is seeing a flock of birds returning in the spring; is it compelling? Am I looking for something deeper than what’s there? This isn’t to say that simple observational poetry, nature poems, or basic emotional poems don’t have the value of others and shouldn’t be written, but there ought to be something damn compelling to make them pop. I’m not convincing myself that this momentary event, which (to be honest) didn’t actually impact me enough to be called a body-soul Zen moment, so the poem feels a little bit fake and lacking in depth.
– But part of that good be chalked up to the prompt itself. Remember: prompts can be cages as much as they can be foundations, and it’s good to break free of them if the poem demands it. I think I did toss aside some elements of the prompt — it was part of a longer series that I haven’t been taking part in — but not enough. If you’re going to let the poem spread its wings enough to cast off whatever prompt-egg it came from, you have to flap them hard to get those little bits of eggshell off. In workshop, we also talk about the second subject of the poem, where you have the other “what is the poem about” underneath the surface interpretation. I think that I got caught up in trying to create this mood around a one-dimensional image, and though I wanted to dig a little bit deeper, I didn’t do enough work in that regard to give the poem depth. (I was also distracted by other elements, though, which I’ll get to.) Not to toot my own horn, but this is another reason I try to give multi-faceted prompts: they force the mind to do more than one level of work, and give the poems richness. It’s a skill I’m still trying to master too, though I suspect it’s easier to be effortless about it.
– I think I was too cryptic at certain points, too. The title and the poem’s events may give some context to the emotional information in the poem, but there’s not a lot of reflection, just a raw sense of feeling X, Y, Z. Again, not to say that’s not a valuable impulse to share, but it wasn’t what I set out to write, and it feels clunky in the trappings I tried to place it in. Never leave the readers confused; tantalize, mystify, and entrance them, but don’t perplex them. How many people can honestly read the poem above and say they understood every single word and the work it was doing among the others? Because I can’t, so if you can, do fill me in!

That being said, there are some things that when I look at, I’m proud of:
– This was an image I’ve tried to get down for years without success. Although it may not be as profound as I make it out to be/felt I needed to portray, and though there’s not a lot of specifics given, I’m glad I finally wrote something about it. It was a day in spring when one of the trees outside my house was just completely chock-full of birds. They all rose at once at one point, and formed this flock that dipped and turned as one, hundreds of them, sounding like thunder. And there was nothing transformative or enlightening about it beyond the simple wonder of the power of nature. The challenge with writing about that in verse is to keep the core of the idea from being so cloaked in poetry’s devices that it gets lost.
– There really are a couple of phrases I’m really proud of, which were the genesis of the poem to begin with. I think the archery of homecoming came first, and looking back, I almost feel I wasted it on this poem; though after revising it, maybe it will become a more solid piece that I’ll be more comfortable with as a box for such phrases. And the rhyme of the body with the sky was another one I liked, though I must have re-written it twenty times trying to get the mouthfeel of it just right. The idea of tangible, primal things being vowels, and then the unexpected rhyme between them, was something that occurred to me and filled me with delight. Lastly, that knotted by the quick / turn, I knew it had to enjamb. That sudden curve of the flock was what I wanted to capture, though I’m not sure it worked out. Don’t get me wrong, there are other phrases that I think fell kind of flat, but I think those three I feel happy with.
– And of course I was trying to do kooky things with sound. In workshop, they call me a sound poet because, perhaps due to my linguistics background/day-job, I love experimenting with rhyme and meter, throwing lyrical flourishes in, creating nonce forms around internal sounds, etc. But as with all things, all poetry is a balancing act between what the poem needs and what you want the poem to have. The sound got in the way, probably, of a lot of explanation — or at least suggestion to, again, entice and entrance — that would have better served the lyric. Now, there are plenty of poems (e.e. cummings, anyone?) and songs (Sigur Ros, anyone?) that play with sound and language, and don’t concern themselves with much else, all well and good. For me, though, I like to keep that intentional, structured sonic richness in poems that have a heartbeat when I can, and it’s very delicate to get right. That being said, I do like the sounds in this one, too.

And the little nitpicks that make these Refineries so much fun:
– The middle of the poem is the weakest. I feel confident saying this.
– There seems to be some ego-deletion in the poem, on another read, which is surprising but not unwelcome.
Aunt Emily, with her hyphens and penchant for deleting function words, may have made too heavy a mark.
– I do think the poem is exactly the right length. Not too long, not too short. A haiku wouldn’t have done it justice, a sestina would have been interminable (as they often are, let’s admit).
– What was I thinking with the title? I can’t tell if it helps or harms.

Well, I have generated for myself at least some food for thought. And if the fact that I’m doing one of my own poems was too subtle a hint: send me poems! Email is best (linksfreude) (gmail) (com) (fill in the blanks), but links in the Comments box are always fine, too. If you don’t feel like sending one for revision, and would rather have a prompt, try this one on for size:

Choose a memory of yours based in sound, and write a list of beautiful, bizarre phrases to describe it: then pick your favorite. Examine the rhythm and sound of that phrase. Is it iambic, dactylic, trochaic, some mix of meters? Does it repeat consonants or vowels? Try to create some specific sound and meter rules for yourself and invent a nonce form just for this poem, based off that line. Describe the memory and what you learned from it, no more, no less; use at least one body part, one color, and no verbs with more than one syllable.

Complicated enough for you? I certainly hope so. ^_^

reading: jane hirshfield, “nine gates”

Cripes, have I really been silent for a week? Sorry about that.

I am in a weird place today. First of all, I spent five hours in line starting at 7 this morning (which those of you who pay attention to my Twitter may have seen) waiting for Shakespeare in the Park tickets, successfully acquired; as a result, I am Really Very Tired. Then, because I had been away from the Web for almost 24 hours, I came back to find out that the mother of a friend passed away yesterday afternoon. And a few hours later, the child of two other friends was born. It was just strange to see that mix of extreme sorrow and joy while sleep deprived, I guess, but it constructed this weird place around me, so that’s that. I suppose there’s no better time to write a book review thing, is there?

I’ve made much ado about Jane Hirshfield‘s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry lately, and I’d like to share some thoughts about it. First, if you haven’t read Jane Hirshfield’s poetry, please do so; good places to start might be “This Was Once a Love Poem” and “Seawater Stiffens Cloth“. I’d hazard to say these are longer than typical pieces of hers, but they maintain her same sensibility that smacks strongly of traditional Japanese poetry, Taoist and Buddhist sensibility, a keen observational eye for nature and a gift for surprising metaphor. If you want to know how to do haiku or tanka in English “correctly”, Hirshfield, along with traditional luminaries like Sandburg, Snyder, and Williams, is an excellent resource, not only because of her poetic skills, but also because she is trained in Zen Buddhism, and is a prolific translator of Japanese poetry. (Nine Gates features several haiku that are nice to keep in your pocket.)

A brief anecdote: Hirshfield reminds me a little bit of my high school creative writing teacher: they have (in my opinion) similar features, are close in age, and share interests in both Zen and women’s poetry. (OK, so maybe the similarities end there.) Recently, I was chatting at dinner with that teacher (who is also a Life-Mentor for me) about Natalie Goldberg’s philosophical and imaginative Writing Down the Bones, our “textbook” from that class, and mentioned that Nine Gates might serve as an equivalent for poetry. It turns out that is not quite the case: Hirshfield’s book does not contain exercises for writing individual poems, or strategies to get yourself to write more. But I do think that it could be considered the next step, if you feel that you’re ready, and it’s a book rich enough to be read and digested again and again. A lot of the terminology, history, philosophy, and vocabulary in it are not for the faint of heart. Heaps of care are put into every sentence, making the book fantastically rich, but not suited for a quick skim or piecemeal adoption of methods. More than anything, it’s a primer that gives training on how to write: the mindsets and thoughtful considerations a poet must take on to get into their own work.

(Start with Goldberg. Then go Hirshfield. That’s my advice.)

And once you do wade in, there are some wonderful topics that are covered. Each chapter is one of the “gates”, ranging from how rituals and spaces affect or strengthen a poet with the sureness of any religion, to keeping the delicate balance between the self and the self-destructive, from the origins of poetry as a cultural necessity, to the difficulties of translating from one language to another. There’s something for everyone in here, and though the author guides with a firm hand, all she does is get you through the gate itself: you are the discoverer and recorder of what lies on the other side. What is helpful is the way that she names and categorizes aspects of writing, the self, and the interaction between the two, in ways that you hadn’t thought of before. For example, she discusses the three “modes” she labels subjective, reflective, and objective: those poems that have an “I”, those where the “I” is present but not front-and-center, and those rare ones that are (almost) entirely divorced from the “I”. At another point, she also discusses the six “energies through which poetry moves forward into the world it creates”: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. My favorite might be when she draws on two Greek myth-figures, Mnemosyne (the Titaness of Memory) and Hermes, to discuss the oral versus the written traditions, and the nuances poetry takes on in/from each.

For all of these terms and more, Hirshfield helpfully provides examples that range from ancient Egyptian love poems found on papyri to Whitman and Dickinson. She quotes the opening of a 12th-century Japanese Noh play and Allen Ginsberg with equal ease. I always appreciate the showcasing of such encyclopedic knowledge because it truly demonstrates the universality of poetry; the Egyptian poems from 3500 years ago are just as coy and colorful as a similar verse written today might be. Every series of words put together in the right order has its proper time and place, which could be anywhere, anywhen. I guarantee you won’t care for every single poem in the book. This is an advantage, because you are then drawn closer to authors you admire. The book reinforced my suspicions that while haiku are delectable for me, I don’t think I will ever be satisfied only with that aesthetic of negative space: I appreciate it and can admire it nonstop, but in my own writing, I feel more confident that the reflective mode, the energies of music and emotion, are more important to my work.

At least, I think so. Which brings me to the final, most important point I’d like to make. The book has made me seriously question, again and again, my own writing. Today, especially: my friend added a poem of Li-Young Lee’s to his mother’s eulogy that was heartbreaking, and I thought, I will never write anything like that. It might not be true, but I think Hirshfield’s book has made me more self-aware. However, it’s the kind of reality check that does more good than harm. Rather than having the editor-voice which just spits and says “this sucks” for what you write, you get more of a philosopher-voice that gently points out the wavering thought-space you were in as you drafted your peace, a geomancer-voice that shows you the bad feng shui blocking your poem’s energy, the muse-voice that brightly suggests you reinforce X Y or Z aspects of your style, etc. If you have the same reaction that I did, you’ll find yourself writing less, but writing much more mindfully, and feeling better about what you actually struggle through. Not everything needs to be a throwaway piece to keep your hand moving (though of course, you should never give up that valuable practice entirely either).

Overall, I think this is a book that will be at my side for a long time. Read it when you’re ready; then immediately read it again. Then keep it with you, ready for some kind of divination, when you need a key to unlock a thing that has no name. It’s a remarkable way to train your writing and to get it into a place where you are comfortable with it. I feel assured of this, even if I haven’t yet gotten to that place myself. But yes: it’s a climbing rope, a blunt knife, and a microscope of a book, all at once. Consider this my hearty recommendation!

The Refinery: guy traiber

Well, first and foremost, happy fourth birthday, blog. I suppose I should start looking at blog-kindergartens and whatnot. The official day is actually, I think, tomorrow, but since I know I won’t have time to post, might as well mention it now. My blog is a Taurus-cusp-Gemini.

It’s been a pretty hectic week, but I’ve let the weekend just kind of happen as it will, which is refreshing. But as I may have mentioned before, I am worried that work has drained so much out of me already (calmness, rest, low blood pressure, relationship stability) that now it’s starting in on my creativity. The silver lining is that, for example, a bunch of us coworkers got together yesterday for a brunch that turned into a seven-hour event. If I do have occasion to plan an exit strategy, I will miss them.

It’s raining here in New York. I want to feel like this is a good day. The Refinery could use some warmth in the gears and grinders:

There is No Rain Tonight” by Guy Traiber

Guy Traiber is one of the blogger-poets I’ve known longest (why, almost four years, in fact!) online, and I am constantly envious of his travel stories, his propensity for meditative thought, and the easy simplicity he seems to cultivate. On top of that, he writes poetry in a couple different languages, which I always appreciate. He also has a book coming out (although the current byline on his blog is “this is not a poetry book — in fact I am not sure what kind of book it is”) called the Pocket Zen Book of Irrelevant Answers. Looking forward to it! But in the meantime, please see the verse below, which I think is a good representative of Guy’s writing style…

There is no rain tonight.
The meteorologist foresees rain during the weekend
but this is not a tropical land;
no rain falls to extinguish
the summer,
no rain to interrupt the sleepless
mosquitoes.
The only falling things are the piano’s
hammers: a melody in a diminished scale
with bass notes;

the right hand is left
free to scratch and there is much of that
tonight: fingers groping lonesome bodies,
children strolling grownups’ valleys,
thirsty mosquitoes fluttering in the drying puddle
under my window,
words fumbling lines
that would’ve never been written
if the rain was coming
to play Dvořák’s romantic larghetto.

It’s always good to have a poem about not-raining on a day when it is raining (and vice versa), in my opinion. Without further ado, some further opinions:
– Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates, but I’ve been very set on this idea of how internal and personal to make a poem, and the subtle effect of an implied voice within an otherwise ego-less poem. I’m centering on a single word here: that “my” in the sixth line of the second stanza, which I want gone. I was perfectly enchanted right up until that moment, and I’m making a big deal out of such a small thing to make a point about the presence of the poet. If you’ll notice, there are no other pronouns in the entire poem: it’s a piece that brings in a constant, easy flow of new and specific images. But as in haiku and some other types of waka, there is an implied presence in the images. The piano does not play itself (and don’t say “it could be a player piano”, bear with me), someone needs to watch/interpret the meteorologist, it takes a human consciousness to assign adjectives like “lonesome” and “romantic”. That kind of subtle reflection is very powerful, and I feel that “my” disrupts it; why not just “the”, or even “a”? Conversely, if this is meant to make plain the speaker, the poem might benefit from even just a couple more hints of “I”, “my”, or “you”/”your”, but I suspect it’s not meant to be that kind of a poem (and in fact, would lose some of its power ).
– I think the poem needs to figure out where it wants to land. In workshop, we talk very often about the microscope versus the telescope, and how each poem ought to end by either zooming out from its contents to carry the reader’s thoughts outward, or by zooming in to a very specific moment which sums up the poem into a microcosm. The poem ends on its most specific image of Dvořák’s larghetto, the meaning of which we can sort of get from the poem (it’s a piano piece; it’s romantic/Romantic), but not all (the quality of Dvořák’s music, unless we’ve heard it before; what a larghetto is). Assume that your reader has no background in the details you’re tossing in (in this case, Romantic music), and can’t be bothered to find out. Mosquitoes, meteorologists, children, hands, and pianos are all pretty universal, but you take a chance when you introduce a proper noun. I do like the concept of rain coming to play the piece in the poem, which would then make the poem itself needless — it’s a complex and whimsical combination that works, I think — but the larghetto could be introduced more delicately earlier. In the grander scheme, though, the poem starts with a very general statement, and then follows with a succession of details that don’t seem to strike at something deeper. I feel as though there’s a larger point to be made, which the elements of the poem could lead to or at least demonstrate, which is not coming across as well as it should.
– And following from that, while I like the complicated images, they do take time to figure out, which might distract the careless reader. For example, the “tropical land” and extinguishing summer: doesn’t rain often extinguish summer in non-tropical lands? What is all this “scratching” that is being alluded to? What are grownups’ valleys and “words fumbling lines”? They seem to fit into the poem when I read it, and I can glean some kind of meaning by digging deep into the phrases, but they can be impenetrable (still beautiful, though!) when read quickly. The reader’s intention skips off their surface as light would from a jewel. I’d recommend making each link in this chain of events an images more defined and clearer: are the children roaming around because there’s no rain? Does the poet feel that lines are being fumbled because the absence of rain is less lyrical than rain itself? The number, type, and quality of images seem to be correct here; I’m just not convinced that they’re described in the way they need to be.

And the fineries that don’t need a re-:
– As mentioned, I love the concept and images of the poem, which stand out the more times you read the thing. “The only falling things”: gorgeous! It reminds me of Li-Young Lee’s “One Heart”, which has been one of my favorite poems since I heard Dorianne Laux read it at the Dodge Festival. I almost want to see less motion in the poem (no scratching or groping), just those hammers falling. A sweeping statement of setting and connection with nature in the first line, followed by such an amusingly specific second line, creates a great contrast and sense of space in the piece. The story as I read it, overall, is this: poet is playing piano (possibly with one hand) on a quiet, rainless summer night, with all of these small things of the world happening around him and reflecting the easy feel of the larghetto, but he is contemplating how rain would alter the world, and his poem. This is pulled off masterfully.
– In addition to the theme, and with the few exceptions I noted above, the word choice is well done, I think. Those verbs are music themselves: extinguish, interrupt, grope, flutter. And although I take some issue with bringing in Dvořak’s name, at least the position of it, the central nouns that are the cores of the imagery are well-picked: like I said, they’re universal, and straightforward, elegant things to pick. That first line rings like a meditation bell, and that second line with meteorologist and foresee and weekend is just so steeped in the chaos of daily modern life; if that wasn’t intentional, my compliments to Guy for his instinct on the structure of that opening.
– The character of rain is not quite personified here, though giving it the capacity to play a larghetto is certainly dancing around the idea. I do like how the title echoes the first line, and then the word “rain” appears over and over like a lover’s name in the first stanza; the suggestion is that even though rain is not here, it is still a presence that will make itself known. It disappears for a while in the middle of the poem, and then comes back right at the end, surprising with its return as rain often is. (Although this rain seems to just want to make some music, not necessarily refresh the mosquitoes or extinguish the summer.) The meteorological aspects of the poem were almost more attractive to me than the human ones, though I suspect both are essential to the poem. I would suggest that Guy dig deeper into why both of these halves are in the poem, and what work they are doing to create the mood he wants: then, figure out whether one or both need more or less detail/description, and do some fleshing out or stripping down.

A few more things:
– I’m nit-picking, because this is a fine poem, but the non-pianists among the readership may not get some of the piano terms at the end of the first stanza, let alone “larghetto”.
– Very fond of the enjambment going on here. No line seems too long or too short, and no line seems to say more or less than it needs to.
– Something about the punctuation is bothering me. Try playing with it.
Listening to some Dvořak as I type this, and thinking that they work very well together, the poem and the music. I believe I know just the kind of rain Guy means.

So I hope those suggestions will be helpful to Guy on further crafting the poem; I think it needs relatively little work to achieve its goal. And for those of you who want to draw some inspiration from the piece, here is a prompt for y’all:

Put on a piece of classical music from your favorite era. (Mine’s either Renaissance or Romantic, but your call.) What natural images (landscapes, biology, weather) do the piece summon up? Write a poem that combines your everyday life with those images, and consider what different elements (like music, other people, etc.) influence how you’d react to when the natural and the daily combine or collide. Then decide whether you want those elements to be present in the poem, and how much of the natural and everyday should be too. The poem should not have more than four complete sentences, and the title should be the same as the first line.

Cheers, and see you next time!

The Refinery: pamela sayers

~dusting this thing off~  Oh, hey, Internet. How’s it hanging?

So maybe I took slightly more of an absence than I intended, but I do think it was one that I needed. There’s been an undue amount of stress, agita, drama, and other synonyms for the same complex of blah floating around, as you are probably aware from my constant griping on here. As much fun as the April challenge was, it was a great relief to just shut off a little bit for ten days. But I can’t keep away from you guys for long, so here we go again. As I said in my last post, I’m going to be focusing less on drafts on here (while I focus on revising them/working on a couple of nutty ideas offline), and doing more musings, readings, promptings, etc. I hope to take a page from Margo in this regard, whose blog is always a good indicator of the blogosphere’s pulse. If you don’t know her blog, do go visit! But for now, the triumphant return of the Refinery!

Bust the Horizon” by Pamela K. Sayers

First, my apologies again to Pamela for the delay in getting this up: her email got lost in the shuffle when it first came in, and then April was running before I found out, and then I had the nerve to take off for ten days. So this post is two months overdue, basically. And Pamela lives in the shadow of a (currently-erupting, I believe) Mexican volcano, so she has it tough enough. But aside from that, her life has the kind of arc I dream about my own taking (up and moving to another country, living as an expat, teaching English and taking it easy – except when there is a volcano erupting), and her work has a characteristic lushness to it that reflects that trajectory. So, bear that in mind as we launch into her poem today:

Cul-de-sac moon of a mother’s love
shines on the silent sun, counting pearls in
beauty’s duration.

Sun shines soul’s abundance
as the moon swallows riverbanks,
spilling into night.

Fingers touch, healing wounds, scars lift
from vision, smiles form peace,
faces reveal skylines —
bust the horizon.

Aerial seas float paper boats;
alabaster winters wave-kiss
pages – unfound embedded,
this child’s life.

Where alchemist fire melds spiritual
metal, pride-heart dies silver
on desert sand, or a carousel
riding on godbent tranquillity
suspended forever in wishes from stars.

There is no sorry in visual sensation, no
wrong walkways through rootless trees,
Mother’s cul-de-sac yields begotten;
dance hope fades in willowed song.

Appropriate for Mother’s Day tomorrow, don’t you think? Let’s have a deeper look.
– I think the overall sticking point I have with the poem is the articulation of some of the concepts and feelings. While I believe I understand the premise of the poem, its evolution and the necessity for its being, I’m getting tripped up repeatedly by some of the ways images and ideas are expressed. For example, the second-to-last stanza: there are some wonderful notions in there, like fire acting as an alchemist or the starry sky as a carousel (of fortune, perhaps, with those wishes?). But the verb “melds” confuses me a bit, the hyphenated “pride-heart” doesn’t really sing to me, and I’m not sure how something rides on godbent tranquility. I’m not in the habit of re-writing in Refineries, but here’s a general note that I think will serve Pamela well: take each stanza and separate out each image into its own piece. Write as its own complete sentence or phrase that is completely straightforward outside the context of the poem. Link them all back together — which, yes, will result in a much longer piece — and then start picking out pieces, trying to reduce phrases to synonymous words, etc.
– Similarly, and yet not at all the same, is the intention of the poem. The poem opens with a dense and cryptic image, the “cul-de-sac moon”, which immediately demands the reader’s scrutiny. (Note: consider carefully whether you want to open with such a mystic image.) But I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from that description. It may be Pamela’s desire to let the reader interpret it as s/he will, but given the clear maternal tone of the rest of the poem (unless I am misreading it entirely), she seems to want us to go in a particular direction. “Cul-de-sac” makes me think of being trapped, a limitation of perception; I’m not sure it fits with the poem’s idea. It could be a purely visual image: maybe along the lines of, A mother’s love scoops sunlight / into its cul-de-sac, or something, creating a firmer idea of refuge and physical shape. (I know, I just said I wouldn’t re-write. Poets are liars.) There are other moments the intention seems to get a bit muddled in the poem: going back to the second-to-last stanza, that dying on desert sand. Or, the last two lines of the poem, which I find very hard to interpret. Choose your words carefully, and before not putting one in, or excising one, make absolutely sure the poem doesn’t need it.
– I don’t want to prattle away the dreamlike quality of the poem, which is sometimes reason enough to write a poem. But if your poem doesn’t demand the feel of a dream — if the poem itself is the dream — you must take pains to lead your reader. That free-form imagination is a wonderful excuse to get all these feelings and visions out in almost any shape, but to share it with us, we need to be awed without being confused. Of course, every poem should make it easy, at least possible, for the reader to get into it; dream poems just require a particular effort. Remember that we are not inside your head with you, and we may not understand all of the things keyed in your mind by this or that image/feeling. It’s better to spell things out and have it click in the reader’s mind. You want them to go, “oh, wow!” rather than “that’s interesting, but what?”

But aside from that:
– I love some of the sounds happening in this poem. Particularly in the second stanza, with that relentless sibilance, there are moments when certain consonants echo around the poem like ripples in a lake. And even though there are words whose choice I would dispute for semantic reasons, like meld, they are beautifully lyrical. I do think that at certain points (like the second stanza, again), a bit of rhythm through unstressed syllables to break up the heavy beats of each word would serve the poem well. But overall, Pamela has picked these verbs and nouns and adjectives like ripe fruit, and they have a significant weight in the poem. It demands a slow, steady reading.
– And the theme is a complex one, at least, as far as I can tell. We often think of poems as a pithy, terse method to pick apart the most sweeping of ideas, but that’s often not the case. Instead, what the best short poems do is examine a seemingly insignificant aspect of a broad topic, like motherhood, and outline it completely, until by the end the reader understands how that one facet stands as a microcosm for the whole. Of course, other poems go deep and explanatory, and are much longer; that’s fine too. But with this one, I feel as though Pamela is trying to cover every aspect of mother’s love in all its forms, and also trying to keep it as tightly metaphorical as possible. My advice would be: don’t be afraid to expand such a rich topic! Or, if you want to keep it tight and metaphorical (which I prefer, from both sides of a poem), zoom in on one element — that “scars lift” makes me think of a healing mother — and use the metaphor of the moon and/or the sun to demonstrate the wide sweep of that interpretation, how it applies universally to a mother’s identity.
– To go back to some of those images I picked out before, even though I may question the reason behind using some of them, the beauty of them flies hard and fast: the paper boats, the rootless trees, etc. If the poem can find a justification for them to be in there, I hope that they’ll stay; they give the poem its feel, which is a terrible thing to sacrifice. (It is not, however, a terrible thing to mitigate if necessary when the trade-off is creating an entryway for the reader.) I can’t speak to the inspiration for the poem, but I suspect that there is a great deal of honesty in Pamela’s choice of metaphors here. Perhaps they really did come in a dream, since it certainly feels like they did. And they seem unadulterated, kept whole and undistilled, which shows a faith in the reader’s ability to accept, swallow, digest, and be nourished by them.

A couple more things:
– I’m not wild about the title. I think it’s that “bust” jumping out at me, when the poem is so smooth and weighty. If the title is to be a line from the poem, I think there are better ones.
– The first two lines of the last stanza, in concept, are probably my favorite part; a nice moral to round out the poem.
– …though I do feel they could be worded a bit better.
– The metaphor of simple, human things becoming celestial is a good one. Chase it! Hunt it down and make it work in the poem, even if you have to use a net and night-vision goggles.
– I do worry that there were actually a couple of words missed entirely in the poem. I recommend re-reading and making sure they didn’t fall by the wayside by accident (rather than on purpose).

Thanks again to Pamela for providing the sacred cow for us to, I don’t know, make steaks out of. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so I hope the Refinery hasn’t lost its sharp-but-meant-to-be-helpful edge. And for those of you who are in April withdrawal and need a prompt, here’s one:

Write about a personal relationship using a celestial metaphor: heavenly bodies, space, weather, etc. Don’t make it about two specific people, but make the interaction they have specific. Have the poem be six stanzas long, each no more than five lines; in the fifth and sixth stanzas, the reader should begin to see how this metaphorical interaction represents the whole relationship. Include the words “skyline”, “suspended”, and “paper”.

Happy writings!

Recursion Thirty: out to sea

“Words are the voice of the heart.”
~ Confucius, Chinese scholar and philosopher

As anticipated, today was pretty much a hell on Earth kind of scenario at work, but we all survived by the skin of our teeth. (Which is not a skin by which I am fond of surviving by, but it beats not surviving at all, I suppose.) I apologize once more for the delay in getting this prompt up, but at least it’s the last one, so I don’t have to freak out over doing them early in the day for a while. I hope that the exercise has been helpful to you overall; I probably should have followed them along during the month, but it was enough of a time challenge to write anything, let alone write to the madcap mayhems that were these Recursion things. If I do this again next year, I’ll probably take a page from some wiser person’s book and auto-post, so I can breathe a bit easier.

But I do think that, even if you haven’t been reading along this whole time, you can always go back and do them at your own pace. The key thing about these prompts were that they were meant to flow into one another, each one borrowing from what came before. I wish I could say it was some kind of character-building exercise for me to come up with them and post them, but I think I’ll have to look long and hard and find time to think about the process before I make that kind of assessment. The river metaphor didn’t carry quite as well the whole time as it hoped, but it was nice to have some kind of driving theme for the series. And all rivers must, eventually, reach the sea. (Or a salt lake in an endorheic basin, I guess, but who’s counting?) So I wanted to meditate for a bit on releasing some work into the wide, wild world.

Although the current of river water carries far into any final body, and scientists can track the currents long past their terminus, we’re going to treat it the way we would looking from overhead: the water is blissfully lost into that bay/gulf/ocean. Like yesterday, I’d like to recommend looking back at everything that’s floated downstream from the very start of the month until now. Try to separate out all that stuff that was caught around the reefs and shores of yesterday’s prompt: since I had suggested single words/phrases that centered on images and the like, I imagine what you’ll have left are underlying feelings and vague notions, diluted into the chaotic whole. Make a list of them and see what stands out the most to you. What bit of poetic flotsam rises to the very top of the list, and how do the other elements support it, buoy it up? If you find yourself focused on ghosts, and you have fruits of the forest, grandmothers, a focus on scent running through a lot of your work, maybe there’s something about a dead grandmother’s blackberry tarts that you want to write about. The final statement of April doesn’t have to be significant, or universal, or, my pet peeve, about endings. Every ending is a beginning when you look the other way.

Allow the poem to be shapeless and free (verse), dissolving into some larger poemscape; try to keep its edges undefined. But still allow it to be powerful enough to have a bit of that feeling come through that you’ve worked all month cultivating, even if you weren’t aware of it. You can let theme fall away; now, hold on to nothing but tone as your life preserver. I won’t make a very strict requirement for the shape and structure of the poem, I only ask that you be honest, but I will add another process requirement. Release your poem into the wild, be it on a postcard tacked to the corkboard of your local coffeeshop, graven into the sand before the tide washes it away, or spray painted on somebody’s windows. Share with a friend, lover, enemy. Try singing it at an open mic, or (gadzooks!) posting it on the comments section here to share with us. The last lesson I want to thread its way out to the great oceanic gyre is that you have a voice, and you must be true to it. For poetry, more than perhaps anything else, that might be the most important unspoken lesson of all.

Recursion Twenty-Nine: barrier islands

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”
~ Jean-Baptiste “Molière” Poquelin, French playwright and actor

I keep feeling this dread on Sunday evenings before heading back to work, a physical sensation of it that starts somewhere behind the liver and slowly spreads out through the blood vessels. There’s some twitchiness and cold numbness. I guess maybe it could be adrenaline, and the feeling that I’m about to be spoiling for a fight, but however one slices it, I think it’s probably not good. A vacation is most definitely in order (as soon as I get through this mammoth project I’ve been doing). Regardless, I’m putting together this prompt now, because I don’t think I’ll have the time or wherewithal to get it together tomorrow; and it’s nice to feel prepared, one step closer to the completion of this exercise.

Down to business, then. I promise tomorrow’s prompt will be easier, with what I hope will be a sense of release. But for now, there is still an obstacle or two or six to be hurdled before the open ocean. I know that barrier islands aren’t necessarily normal for the kind of river and delta combination we’ve been going with, but bear with me. There are rivers that carry their particular water in traceable currents, far out into the general emptiness of the sea, and there are rivers interrupted by other flows or islands in their path. Let’s consider the latter option in terms of our inspirations metaphor: rather than allowing that final theme of yours, which you’ve deconstructed yesterday, to go hurtling into the sea, diminishing slowly and losing very little momentum, slow it down with some well-placed scraps of sand and reef. There’s no better roadblock which is also constructive than the sestina, as far as I’m aware. So buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy, repetitive ride.

Material first: to truly feel like we’re gathering up all the water from the last month into one place, I’d like you to look back at each poem you’ve written this month. Choose one word (well, more, if you have a mind to) from each that encapsulates or otherwise keys the poem, how it reflects the theme you (later) coalesced, or maybe just a turn of phrase you think works particularly well. Get them all together in one place, because the initial challenge is to use all of them in one sestina. Since the form has 39 lines to work with, there should be more than enough room to play around, and of course, you’re welcome to use up to six as your teleutons/endwords. And next, consider the overarching theme of the sestina: what runs headlong against your thematic drive, what is its antithesis? If you’ve been writing about friends with musical talent, maybe the antimatter of that is strangers who offend the ear; cross disappearing natural places from childhood with exploring new parks as an adult. You be the judge. This counter-theme will become the focal point of the poem, which may limit your choice of words a bit: you may find yourself using pieces from your old drafts in the sense of how they fail, are opposed, or can’t be found. But maybe you want to break through the shoals and inlets in the barrier islands, and allow your theme, ultimately, to triumph through their last wall.

And the mechanics: if you’re unfamiliar with the sestina, and don’t have time to look on Wikipedia, here is the crash course. You’ll have six words (like yarn, glue, massacre, fell, try, finding) that will each end one line in a six-line stanza. Then (pretend they are numbered 1 through 6) you repeat them in the following stanzas, using this pattern: 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531. This results in thirty-six lines in six stanzas, with a different order of endwords each time. Finally, use all six words in any position in a three-line tercet at the end, for a grand total of 39. Meter is up to you, though iambic pentameter is not uncommon for English sestinas. You can decide how the repetition-variation complex resonates with you: does it affect your theme, your sound, your voice? I find it to be a wonderfully Recursive kind of form.

Once you have crafted all the pieces of the sestina, you may wish to run through it more than once, revising along the way, scanning to make sure it works. This is a sizable undertaking, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking a while to get it right. But even though the flow is being blocked, and new passages must be found, water is still water: it moves where it needs to, and overcomes what it must. I encourage you to find creative ways to bend the rules without breaking them entirely, if it serves the purpose of the poem. (And ultimately, that should be your Golden Rule for writing, of any kind: does it serve the purpose of the piece?) Allow this to be your last hurrah for the exploration of theme this month, keeping it bound together with the different voices and shapes you’ve allowed to sing it for four weeks. Then, sieve it through sandbars and sounds, grind it between coral and underwater shelf, until it has diffused like medicine within us. (Of course, it can’t dissolve within us, instead of just you, unless you come back to share…)

Recursion Twenty-Eight: deltas

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
~ Orson Welles, American actor, writer, and director

I’ve noticed that maybe the primary physiological effect New York has had on me is my sensitivity to morning light. At home, my bedroom has an east-facing window, skewed very slightly to the north, so I grew up as an early riser. College and my other city apartments have had windows of various sorts, but living in a basement for the last (almost) two years, I’ve noticed a distinct difference in how I deal with the sun when I’m at home. Being okay with waking up to sunlight a 7 am changed to a slight grumpiness when I lived in Philadelphia, and DC; now that I have hardly any sunlight at all in my home, this morning (and other mornings at the old homestead), I just pull the covers further over my head and start weeping. (There was this bird singing right outside the window today, I wanted to just throw the sash open and throttle it. Dammit, bird, I need my sleep!)

(But at least they are better than those city birds that sing at 1 in the morning due to light pollution.)

We’re so close to the end, everyone. I have two more specific prompts in mind for the last two days (which I know I wanted to do from the start: the first may be a tad difficult, but I have confidence in you), so today will be the last one for that “central theme” idea I’ve been touting. Of course, you can keep revolving around one thick theme, but the river is now splitting into its final distributaries and spilling onto the shore. With that metropolis of ideas floating in channeled water and people gathering around to partake sitting on the horizon, at last we begin to taste the brackish water of the sea. Think of the Nile, the Rhine, the Rhône, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Mississippi: too much thought and action to be contained by just one path, in the end.

Not to make it seem like you’re going to undo the last week’s work of gathering a theme together into one firm but flexible cylinder of riverine inspiration, but we are now going to shave down that accumulation of ideas and themes again. Take your theme and separate it into six pieces at least. You may wish to have each of the ideas behind poems you wrote over the last six days make an appearance, but also try to get more abstract, dissecting the Main Idea into several Subordinate Ideas. See which ones have enough life of their own to find their own groove and thalweg down to the bay, or which ones will be devoured by the tide. I’ll take my biological process in the world one (I promise this will be the last time I bring it up) and chop away: evolution, the food chain, humanity as animals, symbiotic relationships (like those figs + wasps), measuring time through life cycle, and the physical sensations of being alive. So, if those are my pieces, what I want to do is devote attention to each, just a little bit: it could be the phrase itself, or it could be an image, but expose it. Make it concrete.

You then want to choose what kind of a delta you’ll have. Will it be a birdfoot like the Mississippi, building new land as it rushes to sea? Will it be massive like the Amazon, with each chunk of theme getting its own stanza? Will it be holy like the Brahmaputra, holy to vacationers like the Rhône, or choked with mangroves like… I don’t know, some other river? Think about the coastline you want to cross at last, and whether it will be straight or wavy, pushing out to sea with sediment or caving in, riddled with tree roots and flamingo legs, or empty except for dunes and beachgrass. Allow your themes to interact with the landscape in the way the delta’s distributaries cross mud flats and bob with fishing boats. Maybe you want to extend a thought the way sediment extends spits of land, or obscure a thought as wetlands muddy the boundary of water and land, or make a thought marvelously clear, as when the river reaches through desert. I leave it to you to interpret how this goes, but in the end, all the delta’s fingers reach the sea. This does not necessarily mean that they are lost — currents are far deeper and stronger than we often suspect — but the ending should perhaps be surrounded on all sides by other, different, saltwater thoughts. Threaten your themes, but don’t let them be interrupted/drowned/vanished completely yet; the reward will be greater.

We still have two more days to go, though. What better way to celebrate than to come back and share?