Small Demon
Jun 272009
 

Human beings seem to be inveterate makers of pattern, whether musical, visual, or verbal. The people who hollowed out the bird bones and cut holes at regular intervals were also making stunning pictures on the walls of caves and, I have no doubt, singing songs to their children and telling each other stories. All of these activities have pattern making at the heart. Other animals can recognize patterns in the world around them; human animals seem to be the only ones compelled to consciously create patterns — in the air, on the walls, with their voices.

I’ve just been reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s delightful little book, The Art of Syntax – another in Graywolf’s really excellent The Art of series* — in which she makes explicit the patterns and variations in several poems serving as exempla.After all these years of writing poetry, Voigt’s little book excites me about what originally excited me — making shapes with words. With James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, Voigt’s book would serve the intermediate student of poetry as a fine introduction to the art.

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*Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, another entry in this series, is a rich source of insight about the textures of literary fiction.

Jun 222009
 

I had three poems appear recently in the Beloit Poetry Journal and Verse Daily picked one up for today’s feature. It’s one of my favorite poems and about fifteen editors turned it down over the years until BPJ took it. (Thanks to David Graham for mentioning the Verse Daily feature on the New Poetry list.)

May 082009
 

Lots happening here in HCMC. Toady my friend Lan and I met with two different publishers and we now have two book projects in hand, a collection of short stories by Son Lam and an anthology of younger women poets from the souther half of Vietnam. I couldn’t be more pleased. Tomorrow morning I meet with some of the women who will have poems in the anthology.

Update: This was an odd meeting. I showed up at nine and waited around for half an hour, but no one came. I was just going back to the hotel when Lan arrived and asked if anybody else was there. Nope, I said. So we sat and had coffee for another forty five minutes and were getting ready to leave when the first poet arrived. Now, this had been a casual invitation delivered by email to meet for coffee, but it certainly pushed the usual southern Vietnamese disregard for time about as far as it would go. After another half an hour and a couple of text messages, another poet arrived. Apparently, Lan told me later, they organize via text message and for a meeting to occur, one or two people have to show up and text their friends, We’re here; then others begin arriving. It’s an odd effect of cell phones being utterly ubiqutous in Vietnam — so much so that it appears to be changing the way people organize their social lived. But it’s only people in their thirties or younger: the poets I met with the day before were there waiting for me, though a few showed up later. Most of these were older guys, some my age. My own students probably organize their lives this way and I’m just not aware of it.

So that’s one social principle that was new to me. There was another that come out of this meeting that I didn’t pick up on until Lan explained it to me. Lan had used email to “introduce” me to several poets online, asking them to send me work for translation. (This was before the meeting described above.) I followed up with an email of my own and a few of the poets responded. Apparently, because I did not respond immediately when people wrote me (I’m traveling, with sketchy internet), that was taken as a sign that I was not interested. I find this baffling, especially given the experiences outlined in the previous paragraph. I chalk it up to an ambivilent post-colonial posture on the part of Vietnamese poets. If you don’t like me then to hell with you. It’s understandable, but something I have to internalize for the work I’m doing. I’d be defensive too, I guess. It just occurs to me as I write that the line between the personal and the professional is much more blurry in Vietnamese letters than in the US. So that when I respond in a “professional” mode it is taken as a lack of friendship. It bothers me, I want to work within the social structures of the people whose poems I’m reading, but these experiences demonstrate the perils of even the best-willed attempts at cross-cultural understanding.

Apr 292009
 

Following a link from A Practical Policy, I read this story, “Segundo’s Revenge,” by Joe Emersberger, a writer unknown to me. I had read some other things at Liberation Lit, but nothing that carried out the LL  mission to combine the political and the artistic quite so deftly. It’s a terrific story, though I wish it were not quite reticent — I could do with a bit more characterization and description, but I kind of see why Emersberger keeps it simple, with a powerful through-line. I’ll be keeping this piece in mind as I work out how to make poems and stories of my own out of “political” material. When I was beginning as a writer many hears ago there was a strong bias in the classroom against the didactic and the political in literature and I absorbed that vibe even while having strong political convictions. I mean, I’ve already written plenty of political poems, but I don’t really know how to do it — I have no systematic understanding, though the frank admission in the Liberation Lit writers’ guidelines that there is some strongly perceived division between the political and the aesthetic is a healthy admission, I think. Perhaps at this moment in the West we are without a synthesis of the political and the aesthetic with the result that we have to make up a new method for each piece of work.

I’m trying to gather material impressions while I’m here in Vietnam that I’ll be able to turn into poems and stories — the story ideas I’ve had so far each take on the political situation of the sympathetic foreigner encountering the people and places and institutions of Vietnam. Nothing has gelled, but then I haven’t taken time to sit down and fill out my brief notes, which is how things usually begin for me.

Apr 162009
 

The poet Deborah Digges has died, an apparent suicide. I met her once at a conference and have admired her work. She was just my age — a year older — and I remember envying her when she won the Tufts Award. She was successful and loved animals, though I heard that her husband had recently died of cancer. She had previously been married to the poet Stanley Plumly. Is it unseemly to wonder whether perhaps she had come to a point where she had nothing left to prove with her art and at the same time was overcome by loneliness? It’s dangerous, I suppose, to impute motives to the dead, but this just seems so untoward. Just goes to show that success doesn’t insure happiness and that suicide has its own awful logic. [More from the NY Times here.]