Saturday, December 3, 2011

Embodied Poetry: Lessons from Typesetting

The writing process, like many things, has its seasons. When I’m in a dry season in which no new ideas or images spontaneously generate within me, I often take time to go through the ever-accumulating pile of notebooks in my study and type up first drafts that have not yet made it out of those spiral bound pages. Here is an essay I found on one of those discovery missions, which speaks to another potential dry-season activity.

For a time, before I found a full-time job and Gian moved to Connecticut, I worked one day per week as an editorial and production assistant at Quale Press. I spent Fridays in Gian’s small basement office while his experimental music droned or plunked in the background. The majority of my work involved typesetting; not setting physical type in a printing press, but using design software to format our books and the texts of our clients: contemporary literary journals and publishers of poetry.

A perk of this gig was that I got to read poems, stories, and essays more deeply than usual since I was literally, as well as mentally, interacting with them. I got as close as digitally possible to manipulating letters with my hands. This work complemented what I did during the four workdays at my other job, which involved either writing articles someone else would format or proofreading text someone else had written.

After flowing the text into the template (a fancy term for copy & paste), I’d review the piece and make decisions about how the words would best be read, perhaps changing the spacing of a line to avoid awkward hyphenation, or choosing which style of section break to employ. Then I would send a proof to the editor, and make subsequent changes based on the editor’s notes.

Throughout this process, I might read a story or poem five times, as I initially laid it out and then returned to it with the author’s and editor’s corrections. I often read the stories in a nonlinear, fragmentary way, since the prose formatting took place at the level of paragraph, not sentence. Once, months into the process, I was surprised and distraught to learn that a story's main character had died.

But the poems I read in their entirety, because the formatting happened at the level of the line, sometimes of the word. I worked with each poem until I had shaped it into the form the author intended (and with certain poems, this took several rounds of email exchanges between editor and author). Any poetry lover will tell you that a poem needs to be read more than once, but I do not always make time for this. There are so many poems in the world.

The poems that fought back—and consequently got my attention—were the more unwieldy or unusual ones. They would come to me in a Word document typed in Times New Roman 12 pt font, but when copied into the journal’s template, the new font’s characteristics would reformat the text so that I needed to go in line by line to recreate the author’s word arrangements.

Sometimes a poem had very long lines that did not fit on a narrower page and I had to decide where to break the line. Or a poem had staggered lines. I learned that tabs & spaces come in different sizes. Or they had some other way of occupying space that I'm unable to recreate here.

Impatient person that I am, I tended to get aggravated by the unwieldy poems, but in that aggravation there was attention. There was, “why is this necessary?” and then I might come up with an answer, or at least an interpretation. Typesetting, or simply retyping (the easier approach you can take in the comfort of your own home), is a great way to read. Impractical in everyday practice, but a great way to learn about writing.

Some skills, like plumbing or sewing, can be learned by taking things apart. With a poem, the putting it together again is also key: the arranging is part of the creating. So, if you’re bored with your own work or you’re at a loss for what to do next, I suggest retyping and formatting a few contemporary poems from current literary journals. See what happens in your experience of embodied poetry.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Come to the Greenfield Annual Word Festival

Please join me, and lots of friends and favorites,
Saturday, October 15

Poetry everywhere!

Diana Gordon emcees at 6:30 at The Ten Miles Collaborative, with Lori Derosiers, Kat Good-Shiff, Mary Clare Powell, Laura Rodley, Kim Rogers, and Maria Williams at 10 Miles Street (Just off of Federal).

Lots of readers in many different locations in downtown Greenfield: some of your local favorites and some surprise out-of-towners.

Enjoy the word! Spread the word! GAWF is a benefit for the literacy project.

Here’s the facebook page for those of you on Facebook to invite your friends.

Updates are also available here.

A full program and schedule will be available at the Greenfield Grille on Saturday.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Wedding Poem

My partner's uncle recently married a wonderful woman, and they asked me to write a poem to read during the ceremony. I was excited and honored, and immediately intimidated. I didn't know the bride very well yet, but one thing I knew about them as a couple was that they had taken two trips to Italy. One of the highlights they described to me was taking part in the olive harvest and seeing how olive oil is made. So I went there for metaphors — as well as looking up some ancient Roman mythology. My poetry group helped me pare down a long and emotional poem into something tighter and more symbolic, and this is what I read at Ben & Laura's wedding.


Great wine starts with the grapes.
A little hardship makes them sweet.

Olive oil comes from ancient trees.
Spread your net and shake the harvest.

Pleasure is a vineyard with a view of the sea
planted by the generous god of wine.

Patience is a gnarled tree with silver leaves
given as a gift by the goddess of wisdom.

In soil and sweat, with pruning and care,
you’ll discover the secret of plenty.

Plant an olive tree in your heart
and the grapevine of your love will grow forever.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Oh the Chickens

Today I spent a fair amount of time daydreaming about chickens, gardens, and digging in the dirt when I was supposed to be thinking about work and databases.

My non-required lunchtime reading included this essay by Michael Mauri, in which he muses, "Someday, maybe, our insignificant micro-decision to raise laying-hens in the backyard will prove provident. Maybe it won’t seem so odd in this American neighborhood setting where maintaining mow-able lawns is a top priority, where status is measured in lack of productivity."

Here are my friend's chickens, photographed last summer. I don't have my own yet, but maybe someday.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review of "The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway"

As should be expected, much is strange and unnatural in The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, the third book of poems by Jennifer L. Knox. Murderers, opera singers, and coyotes rub shoulders across the varied, yet equally wild, psychic terrains of desert, suburbia, and silent movies... Read full review on Tarpaulin Sky.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Immersed in Poetry

The Massachusetts Poetry Festival was a great success this year. Poets and poetry-lovers filled the waterfront town of Salem, MA last weekend (including Friday the 13th). I co-led Becoming the Other: Writing the Dramatic Monologue, and the poems that were begun there were great. They included a cautionary tale narrated by a well-known doll and a few surprise visits from unsavory murderers. The workshop took place in the Hooper House at the House of Seven Gables, complete with old fireplace, ironware, and pottery crocks.

I also took a workshop in Erasure and Found Poems with Angela Voras-Hills (in that same funky room), and got some good ideas for process poems and exercises. Patricia Smith, Mark Doty, and emerging poet Elisa Gabbert gave engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking readings at the headline event. The organizers and volunteers did a fabulous job. I came home with many ideas and the perennial wish for more time to write...

There was even a "poetry train" going to the festival. The 10:15 commuter rail from Boston featured volunteers who walked through one of the cars and sat down with small groups of people for intimate poetry readings, before moving on to the next cluster of folks. My group was treated to a selection of Rilke, Cummings, and ancient Persian love poetry as the marshes and shopping centers slid by the windows.

In the Hooper House with KL Pereira. Thanks to Rachel for the photo.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"East of North" Now an E-Book

Just in time for the reading tomorrow at the Collected Poets Series, I'm excited to say that East of North is now widely available and downloadable as an e-book, with a great cover by artist Burns Maxey. Check it out when you have a few minutes to read and go on an adventure.

Friday, April 15, 2011

MA Poetry Festival

If you live in or near Massachusetts, consider attending the MA Poetry Festival this spring: May 13-14 in Salem. There are many great events and workshops planned. I'll be co-teaching a workshop with the fabulous KL Pereira called Becoming the Other: Writing the Dramatic Monologue. I'm looking forward to attending a workshop by Patricia Smith, a reading by Mark Doty, the small press fair, and more.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vita Longa Erat

"Ars longa, vita brevis," wrote ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, which can be translated as, "The art is long, life is short." Mastery of a craft takes much time and effort, and in the context of our short lives, achievement is unlikely and commendable. Hippocrates was talking about the art and technique of surgery, but the sentiment holds true for the expressive arts as well.

"Take your patience pills," my grandmother told me more than once. Easy for her to say! She had 58 years on me. "With a shorter past there's a greater hurry," as Alana Davis wrote in her fabulous song Turtle. Thankfully I had my gram to impart such wisdom to me. (My other favorite expression of hers was her eagerness to reassure anyone--particularly children--who broke a glass or stained the large dining room table's cloth, with an "It's ok, it will wash," or "It's ok, it's just a glass.")

Gram, or Sophy Margaret Toppin Koch, died on January 3, 2011 at the age of 90, passing out of the ghost town of my childhood and taking her place at the helm of the guardian-angel-ship in the heaven that all of a sudden I sort of believe in now. She was an organist, choir director, homemaker, mother of three, world traveler, catalog-shopper, thoughtful letter-writer, spitfire, Leo, independent woman, and inspiration. Lion-hearted and with a New York Times crossword puzzle mind, she lavished me with love and correct grammar. She didn't remark when I dyed my hair purple or dressed androgynously, but God forbid I say, "Me and Sarah went to the zoo."

As a pre-teen one year I decided to give Gram a poem of mine as a birthday gift (I don’t think I’ve given anyone else a poem as a birthday gift before or since then). It was a lonely, maudlin poem, but she accepted it with an affirming reverence that I still appreciate. Every young poet should have a reader like her. Though I'm not as young now as I was then, I'm still a young poet in terms of career, and Gram's voice in my head reminds me to take my patience pills and keep working hard at what I love.

I was 30 and Gram had Alzheimer’s before I thought about how she had been an accomplished, lifelong musician, and that this was notable, extraordinary. I had always taken her work for granted, because it was just part of who she always was, in my short-lived experience. But she had not only worked hard to master her craft; she was lucky to have a long life in which to practice and enjoy it.

Gram and Kat in 1995