The Plumbline School

Henry Gould has started a new discussion blog about contemporary poetic practice. If you’re a working poet, check it out & if you think it’s interesting drop Henry a line to see about becoming a contributor. Here is the text of my first post:

I’ll begin by thanking Henry for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I hope we can attract others to the conversations as well. Especially those who, for whatever reasons, have found the currently available maps and charts of poetic practice inadequate to their needs. (There are also those pure souls who find no need of maps.)

Henry has chosen the metaphor of the plumb line around which to organize this discussion. I have also been reading poet / blogger Seth Abramson’s discussions of poetic taxonomies recently. In passing, Abramson uses the metaphor of the baseline in one of his discussions (thus the picture of the spirit level above), which seem to me the most lucid map-making I have encountered. (Abramson also offers an admirable model of reasonable discourse around a cluster of contentious issues.) What I have found salutary about Abramson’s proposed taxonomy is that it avoids the binary division of Ron Silliman’s School of Quietude versus Post-Avant boxing match, which is my its nature polemical rather than descriptive. (In any binary pair, one term will have a positive valence, the other a negative, though these can reverse depending upon context / perspective.)

Silliman’s division of the poetic landscape has long troubled me at the level of personal practice. It is embarrassing to admit, but I have longed to be able to fit into a known aesthetic type & in addition my strong personal preference generally has been to identify with the most progressive trends in politics & arts. But I haven’t been able, in my practice as a poet, to find much use for the Language poets & their progeny. I own a shelf full of books & it is not for lack of trying; rather, of trying & being rebuffed. There have been times over the last decade when I have simply not been able to find my way as a poet, long periods of silence. It would be absurd, obviously, to blame the SoQ / Post-Avant division. I am of course responsible for my own practice, but this particular binary division has made it difficult for me to find an aesthetic location, to chart my position on the map. I’ve accepted Henry’s invitation to post here at least in part because I hope to be able to find common ground across the territorial boundaries of contemporary American poetry.

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W.D. Snodgrass 1926 – 2009

I had lunch with Snodgrass & some other students in 1980 after he gave a reading at Iowa, and though I was operating in a haze of self-involvement at the time, I recognized in Dee Snodgrass a kindrid spirit, if that’s not claiming too much. My own earliest poems were influenced by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, James Wright, John Berryman, and (the somewhat younger) Bill Knott (who, I’m happy to say, is still out there making trouble) — Snodgrass coming a little later, along with Robert Lowell — so my work begins right in the heart of the confessional movement. Oddly, perhaps, I came to appreciate WCW only in my later undergraduate years & in particular through one class I took with Ronald Johnson (surely the odd man out in this collection of influences), who showed me the later poems of WCW, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “For Daphne and Virginia,” etc. & how they objectified the personal material they contained & it would be that combination of the confessional & the objective that would carry my work right through to the present, though my poems have become increasingly impersonal in recent years. In any case, that lunch with Snodgrass gave me heart at a difficult time in my life & I’m sorry to hear that he is gone.

On Taking Up Fiction

The novelist Stewart O’Nan came to Clarkson last fall to give the Convocation address & while he was here I had a couple of chances to talk to him, once at dinner, once the next day. He amazed me by reading my book, which I gave him at dinner, by the time we talked the following afternoon. He took notes. And since I’d read some of his fiction, we were able to have one of those good nuts & bolts kind of conversations writers like to enjoy when there is nobody else around to bore. Over the course of that conversation, Stewart suggested I try writing fiction. I really hadn’t written a story since I was an undergraduate & even then I tended to write poetic prose rather than stories. But after Stewart left I began reading his stories, then Chekhov, then everything I could get my hands on, trying to absorb the genre into my creative genome.

A month or so into this reading, I began toying with an idea for a story, taking notes and turning it over in my mind, and was on the verge of sitting down to write when another idea struck me — an image, really, & then an event. Over the next couple of weeks I wrote that story straight through and then did a quick revision. It ran to 5000 words, much longer than I had expected when I began. I sent that story, called “Bye Bye Blackbird” (after the Mel Tormé song that figures in the plot) to my mentor & to another fiction writer I know, neither of whom dismissed it as worthless. In fact, both were encouraging & very kind to my initial effort.I made some revisions & sent the piece off to a magazine that has previously published my poetry & as of this writing I await their response.

That first story concerns a boy, age 9, told in the third person; I began another story about the same boy about a dozen years later, also in third person point of view, but got hung up about half-way through the arc of the plot. (In both stories, I knew in general what was going to happen, but I didn’t know until I was actually writing how it was going to happen.) I set the half-finished story aside & focused on reading as many stories as I could.

In the meantime, I saw an ad in one of the writer’s magazines for a “short-short” story competition: under 1000 words. I had been taking notes for stories and characters in my notebook for several weeks & thought it would be a good exercise to try something very short. Most of the story ideas I had jotted down had something to do with the later life of the boy in the first story & this short-short turned out to be in the voice of his friend, a few years older, when they are both in their twenties. The friend is a bartender and speaks in the first person about a seemingly trivial  incident that occurred in the bar where he was working, but that has stuck with him — he is looking back on the experience several years later. What I didn’t expect is that this same character had another, longer story to tell, in which the boy from the first story is a college student.

On autobiography: I would be lying if I claimed that the central character of the first story was not “me” in some sense, but the events in the story did not happen to the actual me when I was a child. Actually, I took more of the setting than the action from my own experience. The same goes for the later stories — the boy is certainly some version of myself, but combined with aspects of people I knew or know, but the actual events did not happen to me & are in that sense entirely fictional. The very short story, titled “Faith,” doesn’t not feature the boy at all, the speaker being a combination of three different people I knew when I was young; the second bartender story, titled “Charity,” is told from the point of view of the boy’s friend and thus gives an external view of his character.

I have now returned to the story I’d gotten stuck on, moving it slowly forward — in all these pieces I have written straight through, not composing in pieces the way I do with poetry, & only making a few notes about pieces of specific language that I think will be needed later in the piece. This working straight through keeps me in suspense & keeps the action open. As I said, I know in general where the story is headed, but I don’t know how it is going to arrive there, which path will rise from the details to create a structure.

In both of the longer third person stories about the boy, first as a child then as a young man, I am including bits and pieces of actual times & places — in the first, some details about pop music and JFK, in the second, news reports of the fall of Saigon occur at intervals throughout the story. I am attracted to this sort of nailing down the narrative to historical facts & cultural details, which I guess makes me some kind of later day realist. In any case, that’s where I am now, feeling excited & happy about this new direction my work has taken. I was feeling as if my poetry had become narrower & narrower in its concerns & techniques & for whatever reason was no longer an appropriate place to deal with certain psychological states; but I feel free in fiction to play with a whole new set of ideas & techniques. I haven’t felt this engaged in my own creative work for several years — I only hope the results, the stories themselves, are as worthwhile as the experience of producing them.