Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Truest Affair

I got lost on the way to the reading, wandered the deserted UMass campus, staring at cement walls in sunset light. Finally I found a security guard who walked me to the auditorium door, whistling. I found a seat, said "Is anybody sitting here?" before I realized I was surrounded by teenage boys and wondered what kind of audience they'd be. Anyway. I was there in time for the introductions.

Noy Holland read first: an unpublished story both meandering and hurtling, with beautifully wrought details and horrifying events. It was a quiet story, in which much of the violence happened offstage, or was told with a child's matter-of-factness. I wondered what the teenage boys got out of it. They doodled. I tried to read their scribbles before reminding myself again to pay adult attention to the unassuming figure on stage. Because her particular reading on this particular night would pass my ears just this once, and it was worth following.

Mark Doty read a few new poems, including "Pescadero," which had not wowed me when I read it in The New Yorker, but in the poet's voice, the words came alive with smile-inducing wonder. I was reminded of Mary Oliver's prayerful celebrations.

Then he read an essay from Granta's Spring 2010 Issue. This was the "you must change your life" (as Rilke wrote) portion of the evening. Not that one should live in a particular way but that one should write with such brutal and beautiful honesty. Doty did say that he was able to publish this essay only because its main characters are now dead-- but dead people or no, few could write of romantic misfortune and sexual awakening with more candor, pathos, and gratitude.

The essay's narrative was punctuated with reflective pauses. As good as he is at saying something, Doty is aware that some things cannot be said, and his story made room for that unknowing, admitted its own incompleteness.

The teenage boys were clearly amazed by Doty's frank, anatomically correct sex scenes. What lucky, summer-program-going kids. They'll never read something like that in high school, but now they know what's possible. It was the good kind of shocking.

Both Holland's story and Doty's memoir portrayed affairs. While it was hard to tell the role of the lover in the first, in the second, the lover was clearly a liberator. "His body was one of the doors through which I entered my actual life," were Doty's final words from behind the podium.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Time With The Poets

I am blessed with a great group of fellow poets that meets every Thursday night to critique each other's work. This spring we decided to take it a step further and go on a three-nights-four-days retreat in nearby Vermont. We rented a cabin, ate, drank, wrote, and were merry - despite an afternoon of plumbing problems (not our fault). Here's a photo essay of my reflections.

Lessons for Poets
When you're a poet, it's important to eat well. Feed the muse and all that.

Write alone, but don't drink alone.

It's important to find a nice place to work.

We're creating order (or something) from life's chaos.

In order to draft a poem, you have to let go and let things flow. Save your love of order for the editing process.

Sometimes, things flow too much ... then you must reach for a mop.

Writing poetry can be tough ... but really, if you're eating well and drinking among friends, it's not that bad.

When all else fails, quote yourself. "In the end is the beginning." When all else fails, burn your poem and start again.

"Think small." - Richard Hugo

A poet's job is to go to dark places and bring back light.

Can you spot the poet in this picture? No - she's behind the camera. So step away from your work and let it speak for itself.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

With Apologies to Keats

Keats' poem "To Autumn" has always been one of my favorites. I've never found a more evocative description of a September morning than his "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." While walking to work last month, passing apple and cherry trees laden with blossoms, I tried to think of a spring equivalent to Keats' ode. Here's what I came up with.

To Spring

Season of buds and mellow ruddiness
Close BFF of the awakening earth
Contriving with her how to gild and drape
With noisy color all the plants in town;
To grace with red wings the maple trees
And smother the lawn with violets small and bright;
To trumpet the daffodil, and raise the pansy’s face
To meet the sun; to set budding more,
And still more, purple azaleas for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease—
For you've whispered sweet nothings to them all.

Who hasn't seen you wearing your petals,
throwing hues about, carelessly trying
them all to see which part of a rainbow
suits you best? They all do, beautiful girl.
You've painted the town with weightless colors,
the air itself held between branches, caught
by sunlight, refracted sumptuously.
And your odors—sweet blanket of cherries,
sharp fume of white pear, lilac's silken scent—
lure all who breathe into the spell of your
department store collection of perfumes.

Who hasn't heard you barking from behind
the glass, or on the street as you promote
you wares? Enough for everyone to buy!
You've so much richness, but its twin, loss, lurks
within each colorful piece of jewelry.
Wind plucks petals by handfuls, tosses them
in torrents on the ground, snows white and pink.
Spring, you vixen, you’re too harsh to last long.
Summer will smooth your rough edges with green,
closing in the view of mountain and cloud
with sheltering shade, the soothe of leaf.