Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Think Positively

How beautiful! The following quote appeared in my inbox this morning, in Rob Bresney's Astrology & Pronoia Newsletter. (If you're not familiar with his Free Will Astrology, you should check it out.) Diane Ackerman is one of those authors whom, even though I haven't actually read an entire book of hers, I like because of the places where she is mentioned or quoted, the titles of her books, and the topics she embraces. It's like she's a friend of a friend. Here's the quote:

"I guess it shouldn't surprise us to find ourselves linked with the stars. Every atom of gold or silver jewelry was created in supernovas. The water we drink, the air we breathe, the ground we walk, the complicated pouch of fluids and salts and minerals and bones we are -- all forged in some early chaos of our sun. I think it was the astrophysicist John Wheeler who remarked that we are the sun's way of thinking about itself."

-Diane Ackerman, A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

So Much for Objectivity

Today's Writer's Almanac quotes former New Yorker poetry editor Howard Moss as saying a good poem is "one I like." Although I would disagree with him on quite a few of those poems (I rarely like the poems printed in the New Yorker), I have to admire such a bald statement on the impossibility of objectivity.

True, one can strive towards objectivity - like my current MFA advisor, who recommended I read and learn from Jean Valentine's work even though she doesn't like it. (We'll see what she thinks of what I do when inspired by a poet she doesn't care for!)

It's also true that one's opinion will carry more weight when it's backed by the experience and breadth of knowledge that comes from years of work and study, as one would presume in the case of Howard Moss - but the fact remains that value judgements are always subjective, and there's no objective criteria for evaluating art.

I'm aware that this is a philosophical position and that some may disagree. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years the so-called "objective" standards for evaluating art have gradually evolved, but usually come down to the consensus of a large enough group of influential people.

An article published by the Poetry Foundation about high school students' reactions to canonical poems gives a refreshing take on the old standards. "Herbert sucks. Donne is a pimp." The high school students did trash my beloved Elizabeth Bishop, but at least they did it in an entertaining way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Revising

The time has come. I’m in the final semester of my MFA program, which means that by mid April I need to complete my book-length poetry manuscript. I have to send in the latest draft of it on January 31st. Hopefully this will be the first time of many that I have a book due (the poetry world doesn’t often work that way, but I will be publishing in many genres, and poetry contests have due dates). In any case, there’s nothing like a deadline for motivation. I have a list of the poems that need work and a schedule for doing the rewrites. One poem per day, and about three a day on Saturday and Sunday.

During my latest Goddard residency, I attended a workshop by Bhanu Kapil called “The Art of Failure,” in which she gave three methods for revising (in essence – 1, rewrite your piece by starting over on a blank page – 2, rewrite your piece by taking one image or word and using that as a seed, or – 3, find a site in the work that seems blank & ready to be transformed and rewrite it as its opposite). I am summarizing here because I don’t want to steal all her brilliant ideas and I could never recreate her inspired words anyway.

The particular quote that she spoke and I wrote down word for word (it’s now posted above my desk) is this: “In revision, make a decision and then fearlessly commit to that decision. This does not have to be comfortable.”

Chris Abani, our amazing visiting writer, reminded us students that writing is 20% writing and 80% rewriting. He recommended approaching rewriting on a blank sheet of paper. “Often what you like in the piece may be what’s holding you back,” he said. Thank you, Chris.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


Right now I am experiencing the magic of my MFA residency at Goddard College, an intensive week of workshops, readings, and seminars. I'll be in touch soon. For now, I leave you with this:

"For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences."
—Rainer Maria Rilke