Archive for July 2014
Here’s the thing when you get exposed to so many different styles of poetry when you’re in a work shop setting: If you’re dead set on growing as a poet, you start to stash away the elements of craft you see in so many diverse styles, like spices and seasonings in your Lazy Susan. Before you know it, you’re throwing things into your plain old stew and perking it up to the point where you’re cooking something different, and even you are surprised at the flavors you’re conjuring. That’s pretty much what’s been going on out here with me this summer. It’s been worth the time and effort and the annoyances of the major shift that comes with being away from the homestead for so long this far along in life.
Despite my complaints about what some of us choose to write, very little of it has been completely lost on me. I’ve mostly appreciated the absurd and whacked-out elements some of my fellow poets have put into their work, and it has encouraged me be more experimental or even plain weird with my work. And I’ve made immediate application of some of these things, too—I set a goal to write a new poem each week for workshop so that I’m not trying to breathe new life into old work or find new angles with it but instead making that new life on the move; actually, putting some heat on myself to produce actively rather than observe passively and try to recall and apply these new insights later. What’s more, I’ve not tried to make myself equal to others. I’ve only worried about pushing myself and continuing to develop my own voice.
So, when I say “The Jumps,” I’m talking about the jumps in ability I feel myself making with each poem. Seems that every week for the last six weeks when I’ve sat down to start my newest poem, I can only get a little ways into it before I start running through my expanded schema regarding what needs to happen to make the poem better or have more impact, or where I can apply an quantum of vagueness to “make” the reader think while he’s reading the poem. This has been like inching across thin ice at points. Too vague, and I’ll fall through. The meaning will be lost or unfathomable, and I’ll be no better off than some of the stuff I’ve decried from previous weeks in the workshop.
Thing is now that I’m getting tired of writing poetry. Work shop ends in six days, and between now and then I’ve got enough poetic energy to get myself through, but I really want to work on some other things. I haven’t generated a fresh story for a few months, and even though I don’t have any “fresh” ideas, I know how to get started on things. I’m eager to get back into some fiction or whatever else comes down the pipe. I guess even if it’s poetry, I’ll still pursue it. I’m rediscovering what a luxury it is to work across genres rather than within a genre, and am still having trouble reckoning with writers in my own work shop who profess “Poetry Only.” It’s been difficult to get any of them to look at a short story I wrote last spring and have been wanting to get back to after somebody else looked at it. I can finally do that because one of my workshop members was receptive to looking at the story, but damn it took a while to find somebody.
Juxtaposition! One can’t scratch one’s ass out here without elbowing two or three people who just uttered the word, or who are writing the word in their journal, or who are debating the relative merits of it in whatever genre in which they work. It’s the word I’ve heard the most out here this summer, discounting articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the,” of course. The work shop leader quipped the other day that the University of Iowa mascot should be the Fighting Juxtapositions. I qualified that by pointing out that they’d actually have to be passive. Haha…
Juxtaposition: the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect.
It’s an important concept, actually. Actually, it’s critical. It can be the basis by which a poet or other writer makes incisive commentary on whatever he is writing. Take two things and put them side by side and see what happens. What observations do you make? What things do you see that you didn’t see before? What unexpected things come up? Bingo… you got yourself something to write about, and it might be fresh and original or at least amusing.
I rarely have set out as a writer to intentionally juxtapose two things. Never have I sat down and said to myself, “Hmmm… what can I do with juxtaposition today…???” Nonetheless, I have done it. Heck, the first poem I submitted to workshop was about a two-for-one prostate exam I inadvertently received a few years back. True story. How the hell does one bring an uncomfortable and even disgusting (albeit necessary) medical experience to the elevated and insightful realms of verse? Well, that’s the poets job. And I did it. But truth is I set out to be an irreverent wiseass when I started writing it. Most of my writing starts that way. Turns out I was also using juxtaposition.
Two weeks into workshop, the “j” word was echoing through my mind when I was doing a cross-out poetry exercise with a fine dining article I found in a local publication. It sounded like the writer was using a lot sexually suggestive language in his writing, so I was crossing out the rest to focus my attention on what wasn’t crossed out. Then, later that night, I heard someone at a bar make an off-handed and dirty comment about his dating life, and for the first time perhaps ever in my life, my juxtaposition bell was rung. I worked on putting the statement with the language from the recipe article. Don’t know how well I did it, and I haven’t gone back to redraft it since it’s been workshopped, but in the least the practice was enough.
This all sounds well and good but that I’m on a college campus—one renowned for its MFA writing program. Thus we’re running the risk of “juxtaposition” becoming part of what a writing acquaintance of mine terms “MFAspeak.” That’s a type jargon that evolves when a group of writers or others in the same discipline start throwing around fancy-sounding terms without necessarily backing up the usage with solid evidence. All too often, speaking above one’s head is a cover for not fully understanding something or not having done enough work on it. One good example of this is the term “agency,” as in “Who has agency in this poem?” or “What can be done do increase the narrator’s sense of agency in this story?” or “I couldn’t really decide who has agency in this narrative.” Those are such general and vague questions that they can lead most anywhere, but they sound clever and insightful.
So “juxtaposition” is cool and all that, and I’m glad it’s fully on my radar as both a writer and reviewer, but it’s also on my bullshit radar. Hopefully the former will overpower the latter.
The question continues to dog me. What the hell are some of my classmates writing, and why are they writing it? I can’t be the only one of the ten of us to be asking this. We continue to face poems in which there is no place to “put your feet down,” as was mentioned in our second week of work shopping.
One remedy to this, rather than tell those poets to write something more readily understandable, was to refer us to an article about approaching poems that seem almost impenetrable. I read the article, and am going to go back to it and take more notes, and it helped quite a it. Something I needed to understand is why someone would write a poem that needs to be “solved.” The person who wrote the article suggested looking for a “persona” and a “world,” instead of an argument or a plot. Right there are two major ways in which my poems differ from some of these “new” ones. That’s actually what the author called it: New Poetry. Actually, Very New Poetry. Like it needs time to prove itself and see if anybody takes the bait and declares it is “worthy.” I’m not sold.
The author, Stephen Burt, also nailed the issue I’m struggling with: some of these poems tease or demand or frustrate; they’re hard or impossible to paraphrase; and they try not to tell stories. Bingo! So why the hell would someone write a poem like that? What’s the point in communicating if those are the precepts? Seems that some of this is a reaction to the conservative and staid academia who preached what quality verse was until students and others were tired of it being forced on them and reacted. So, it’s backlash against the establishment and it’s been dropped in my lap for me to deal with. Thanks, white dudes with the elbow patches on your blazers.
I’m not sure how much of the “new” poetry I’ve dealt with is reactionary. I keep getting the feeling that some of it was scrabbled together the night before workshop, and some of it is a turd sprayed not with perfume but with something else distracting and not necessarily sweet. I also tried to handle a poem recently in which I had to break the code in order to even read it correctly–that was made apparent when the poet read it in workshop. The poet had the “key” and read it as it should have been read. I reverted to my old habit, and once I got lost in it, I put it aside. Ain’t got time for it.
This hasn’t all been frustrations, though. Handling some of this “new” poetry has expanded my schema, and I’ve even worked in some vague ways that are new to me as I’ve composed my own poems. I’ve also become much better at handling the stuff. So despite my protestations, I’ve learned! I’m going to cling to my philosophy of dumping stuff that doesn’t engage me, or that I can’t put my feet down in. It’s just that now there won’t be so much of that stuff.
This is Mayflower Hall:
It’s under construction right now, but you can see that it’s a typical utilitarian dormitory. Not much flash or substance, but certainly functional.
Function: Suite-style dormitory rooms for graduate students at the University of Iowa; until at least 2004, it also housed adults attending the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. This is where I stayed when I attended the festival in 2004.
Set-up: You have your own room adjoined with another room by a kitchenette and a bathroom. Mine was on the 4th floor; room 403b.
Substance policy: None allowed. No alcohol, no tobacco, no other substances.
The situation: I had been in Iowa City for two days and was eager to make some new friends. My weekend class was over, and I was riding the CamBus back to Mayflower along with 30 other festival attendees, all of whom were waiting for their week-long workshop to begin. I spotted my suite mate Ashley, and we decided to invite a few people over for some drinks and conversation. By “a few people,” we meant the entire bus.
We didn’t realize that the entire bus would actually show up. Plus more. The only “rule” was to bring your own beverage, though Ashley and I knew we’d kindly sling whatever drink we could for anybody who asked. By ten o’clock, music was streaming through my laptop, cocktails were being mixed with abandon, and the social aspect of campus life was in full swing with a few dozen strangers brought together through their interest in writing. A few people were smoking cigarettes in the kitchenette and politely blowing the smoke out the windows, a few people were dancing to Stevie Wonder’s “Misstra Know-it-All,” and eight or ten people were milling around outside the 403 suite, mindless to the chaos inside. There was absolutely no hiding of what was going on—the noise, the fun, the loads of cans and bottle scattered throughout the room—and nobody really felt the need to hide it. U of I can’t be serious when they place such a far-reaching ban on adults, can they?
Nobody thought to close the doors to Ashley’s room or mine, so it became de regueur to keep things wide open to everybody. A guy named Jim from Ocean City, New Jersey, brought down an acoustic guitar, and before long there was a jam session happening in my sleeping area. I mixed my fourth cocktail of the evening and rejoined a group I was socializing with in the hallway. Amongst them was Marilyn, a psychologist taking the same personal essay class I was taking, along with a substance abuse counselor named Steve who was taking the same fiction writing class as Ashley. Inside my room was a woman named Brooke who had adopted a stray kitten she found on campus and was nursing it in her room, and another guy named Mike who was a college professor in Florida and a Vietnam veteran. They mingled with a few women enamored of Guitar Jim who had decided to show up, along with a bookish woman from Boston. Another woman named Cecelia, from Utah, sat on my bed and conducted a deep conversation about which I knew nothing. She, too, was in the same workshop as I.
Somehow, this eclectic group kept the party going until 2AM. Nobody called the residence hall staff to report anything, and nobody in the neighboring rooms complained. For all we knew, the neighbors were in attendance.
It was a great start to the week-long writing festival workshops, but it wasn’t destined to be merely a start. The same episode replayed itself the next two nights. Each night between 2 and 3 AM, Ashley and I dumped watery drinks down the drain, extinguished old cigarette butts, and threw our windows open wide to release all the party smells. I told Ashley after Monday night that I thought we had more people than we had the first night. He told me Wednesday morning at 2AM that at one point he had counted 35 people in our two rooms. Perhaps oddest of all was the fact that Ashley and I both retired to our respective rooms each morning and managed to write from 3-5AM. I write about this now, still with no indication of how I managed to do that other than the process was still braided into my DNA from undergrad. We were up at ten or eleven, and on to class in time each day. What’s more, I was really liking what I was writing. I hadn’t come out to IC with anything to workshop, so I was kind of putting the screws to myself to produce something.
Ashley and I stumbled to class Wednesday afternoon through the thick July heat of Iowa City. We reached the top of the hill on Dubuque Street and heard a man call out to us from across the street. We looked to him as he waved and shouted, “Great party last night!” Ash and I looked at each other with no clue who the guy was. I confided to Ashley that at one time I had been president of my residence hall at Ball State University, and it was a good feeling to know that I hadn’t lost much of my touch over the previous twelve years in regard to socializing on a college campus.
Our alcohol supply was almost dried up by that evening. We decided to make a run. Before we left, I fashioned a sign for my door that included a list of all the guests expected to be present at that night’s party: Jose Cuervo, Ron Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Jack Daniels… the stereotypical banal list that every 18-year old thinks is clever when they discover college. We got a good chuckle out of the corniness of it and headed out in my car with a list from the frequent flyers from the suite 403 nightlife.
We returned to the Mayflower parking lot an hour later. A black and white police cruiser was parked outside the dorm; its blue lights were flashing off the building’s brick facade and first floor windows. I quipped to Ashley: “¡Un policia!” As a measure of respect, we rolled down the tops of our bags before we stepped inside.
We walked to the elevator and pushed the button. After a minute, the elevator opened. Ashley and I were standing eye-to-eye with an Iowa City police officer and the man who I recognized as director of Mayflower Hall. They were locked in a conversation, and thus were turned to each other. The only bit of their talk I heard was from the police officer: “The guy’s name is Jeff Burd, right?”
The director nodded his head. “Yep. He’s in 403b.”
“Okay,” the officer said. “Call us if there is a problem.”
Next to me, in the corner of my vision, I saw Ashley’s eyes pop wide open. We were within three feet of the cops and carrying armloads of incrimination.
The director and officer turned to face us. I offered my politest “Good evening, gentlemen,” all the while trying to restrain my bladder. They responded in kind and stepped out of the elevator. Ashley and I stepped in, and the doors closed. The stream of cuss words that flowed from both Ashley’s and my mouth would have made David Mamet proud. We thought for sure we were busted. Regardless of how freaked out we were, it paled in comparison to what we saw when the elevator doors opened.
Steve the substance abuse counselor was practically running up and down the hall. His face was red, and his eyes were crazy. He saw us and ran directly up while he launched into a monologue. “Jeff! Ashley! The cops were here! And they’re pissed! Some dude was with them… they were asking me if I knew you. I was like, ‘No,’ and they took your sign down…”
They had taken the sign down and replaced it with a list of residence hall rules. It was the same list tucked into a folder of information I had somewhere on my desk. The particular rules we were suspected of violating were highlighted in yellow. There was a lot of yellow on the paper. Ashley looked at me and said, “That’s it. We’re done.”
We retreated to Steve’s room on the third floor. Somebody said that it was the 4th floor residence supervisor who had dropped the dime on us; the same person whose suite was three doors down but who nobody ever saw and who was obviously doing a poor job given the nightly bacchanalia that unfolded practically in her lap. Somebody had seen her milling around 403 and then walking to the elevator with my sign in her hands.
Everybody pretty much agreed that we had to go the director’s office and set things right. Nobody wanted to get in trouble, or at least nobody wanted to get booted from the dorm and shack up at a hotel. I volunteered to sacrifice myself since they knew my name directly. I told everybody to sit tight, that I’d be back. I went back to 403b for a minute before heading downstairs, and again saw the yellow highlights on the list of rules. Where was my sign? Sure it was immature and juvenile and flaunted authority and was generally unnecessary, but it was MY sign! Besides, the cop and the residence hall director were within three feet of me, closer even, and didn’t know who I was. They looked right at me and spoke to me—and didn’t know who I was.
I returned to Steve’s room and announced my decision. “They don’t know who I am. If they want me, they can come and get me. Until then, we can relocate.” We did relocate that evening to Steve’s room, but couldn’t draw the crowd or stoke up the same amount of fun. It was getting late in the week anyhow, and maybe some people realized that full-on partying is more of a young person’s game. We chilled out and nobody got arrested.
The day after the ICPD visited Mayflower, Cecelia approached me in workshop with a sympathetic look on her face. “I heard you and Ashley got arrested last night.” I laughed. The rumor persisted, though. We were now the rogues, despite the wild exaggeration behind the label. Friday afternoon rolled around, and everybody had to leave. I fashioned another sign, this one twice as ridiculous as the first, and taped it to the 4th floor residence supervisor’s door along with the list of rules highlighted in yellow. I took the elevator down to the entrance, secured a few last items in my car, and drove back to Chicago with a grin so huge that it was falling off the sides of my face.
Poetry. Duh. But if only it were that simple. The permutations of the mode are incalculable, which is one thing that makes it so damn hard. And which is why your English teachers made you wander lonely as a cloud. And which is why so many people stay away from it.
But I don’t want people to stay away from poetry—especially when it’s mine! I want people to come into poetry, to be able to feel their way around inside it, enjoy their short visit, and to emerge from it with something new and worthwhile. Seems I’m in the minority at times in the workshop.
I said before that I ignore poems that don’t invite me in. As our keenly skilled workshop leader asked: Where can you put your feet down inside the poem? If I can’t put my feet down inside the poem, if I can’t feel grounded and have something to stand on while I explore the poem, I really don’t want to deal with it. But here in a workshop, my strong bias about how poetry should be written really isn’t fair to my fellow poets because I’m tempted to shelve their poems sometimes and see what others come up with during discussion. I’d be insulted if they didn’t put an appropriate effort into my poem, and I’ve kicked myself for not researching some empowerment advertising and woodland Impressionist painting, both of which came up in the same poem, so I’ve realized I need to work harder on how I deal with my bias when others are depending upon me. I’ve had to suppress my feelings about lines if not entire poems I couldn’t make sense of, suppress thoughts that the poet is trying to be elevated, avant garde, or New Yorker-istic–all to what end? What’s the point if the poem is pushing me away rather than inviting me in?
As so often is true when I’m dealing with poetry… the problem is me. At least partly. This doesn’t account for those who are writing over their heads with no clear understanding of why other than it’s en vogue to write a certain way and they saw it somewhere. And that is happening. The exalted workshop leader says to start with the discrete elements of the poem, those building blocks that we all know and that most every poem contains. Things like sound devices, structure, allusions, metaphors–that which we already can feel and know and can work with. This is sound advice (no pun intended). In fact, it’s a fundamental of pedagogy to start with that which is concrete and move to that which is abstract. So put your feet down on some solid stuff and move into less solid stuff later on. There’s no need to feel mastery of a poem from the moment of diving in. That’s an enormous thing with which to task oneself, and—my god the ego of someone to expect that of himself! So I’ve been starting with those discreet elements, and damned if I haven’t been able to “crack the code,” at least partially, on some of the more whack stuff my fellow poets have been writing. It doesn’t make some of that stuff any less whack, but it does make me a more skilled reader and editor of poetry, and (you guessed it) makes me a better poet.
Like it or not, I have to make the move toward some of the more “abstract” poems that I am currently descrying. That will signify a move towards more sophisticated poetry on my part. But damn it, I’m moving at my pace and I’m still clinging to my belief of inviting the reader into the poem. Maybe that makes me a populist poet, or a socialist poet, but so what? Every John Stockton layup counted the same as every Michael Jordan high-flying slam dunk (and Stockton wasn’t a cheater!). None of that means my poetry can’t have artistry and sophistication. It can have all that so long as it’s wrapped in my voice and is coming at my pace.
I keep coming back to this idea of inviting readers into the poem. I preach this to my students. This all comes from the best advice I ever got about writing poetry. It was in an interview with Jack Ridl in the 15th Anniversary edition of Sport Literate:
Students very often, because they are taught that poems should be difficult, try to have their reader figure out the poem. So students think that poems should be hard. But students seldom get to experience those complicated poems. They figure them out and then they move on to the next difficult poem. But they never really read them. I don’t want to figure out that a poem is about a dog. Just tell me. Now I’m in that experience with you. All kinds of things can open up because you’ve given me the bottom line. I’m not telling someone to write a dense poem. It’s that Donne didn’t write a poem thinking, “This will be hard to figure out.”