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Poetry has always been a matter of courtship for me. I have often felt as if I were waiting for it to appear, hoping for something epic (in structure if not always in length) or impressive I should say, vaulted ceilings, knowing you are on your way to build a monument of sorts. But over the past few years this ritualistic aspect has not hung so heavily over my process. I actually credit its disappearance with doing more writing on poetics. When I turned thirty I seemed to be able to write about poetry in complete sentences. I have enjoyed finding a language for “giving up the game.”
My ideal essay would emerge as a slightly cleaned-up transcription of a talk, wherein the voice is definitely steering the reader. In fact I would be the most thrilled if my writings on poetry made anyone want to enter this field once or least see correspondences from this discipline to theirs. The courtship aspect has faded a bit and now it seems rather that its all already inside me waiting to be written. Then it becomes a question of whether I can access it. It has been helpful to lower my expectations considerably before I begin.
By way of introduction to the readers of this blog, I’ve tried to remember (one after another) recent techniques I have used that have resulted in poetry. Always in search of making each time feel like the first or finding new ways of reaching a familiar place. I had thanked a handful of friends on the acknowledgments page of my last book. In a new unpublished poem entitled “Ode” I went through the list beginning to end, writing two or three lines on each person, but never addressing anyone by name. It builds quickly into a litany of human characteristics that could not possibly be contained in one body, but with its constant rush of language then periodic stops and starts the reader can’t help but get them all tangled up. I felt like a mystic bent over scribbling visions faster than he knows what they say, and when he regains his senses he sees he’s uncovered a whole system.
“…sad poems tracing the the beautiful decline of Santa Cruz or any Chinatown (seriously), he found love and stopped publishing so much, the best accidental poet and beauty consultant and dealer. Believer. Pissed off Muslim, or that was the rumor. I would just drop in on him, he turned me onto Fielding Dawson, John Altoon, and Charles Olson all over again. Phoenicians, long talks on their very possible establishments heretofore unrealized, cock tease, very able writer and critic, portrait of Dorian Gray steez, impeccable evening attire, Hermes, answering the desk phone every five seconds, very generous, he gave me twenty dollars when I swept into town as a fake hustler (a thousand years), genius prose…”
I have written poems from start to finish, waiting a few days between edits. I took a look at all the trimmings and things crossed out and saw that when pieced together they were their own separate poem. I had lifted a smaller poem out of the wreck of another. Until that point of realization I felt I was having to be on two planes simultaneously. This seems more an effect one wants for the reading of the poem, rather than of its composition. The job is to recognize your way back out.
I have also used Ted Berrigan’s “Blueprint for a Spontaneous Poem.” It is made up of 20 or so rules, sort of a grid that when done with a quick mind and sense of humor actually works quite well.
6. Any line from one of your current poems. Not this one.
7. A one line critical judgment on the last line
8. Say something as if you were just proven right about something you knew to be true but that others had doubted.
How much dimension can you bring to nothing? It’s somewhat like Flarf in that at base it is a test of one’s ear. Last year I wrote a flarf poem with Alli Warren in which we agreed to flarf the same three words “Irish,” “bachelorette,” and “mantle,” and write two separate poems to be printed facing one another and handed out at a reading. I am afraid I was terribly literal, trumped the form, and came out sounding like myself. I was grateful for the experience and fell in love all over again. You are reminded of what works and where you tend to go (too often even).
“Notes On Joan Crawford” came to light when she was brought up in conversation and a man at the table began to instantly sexually objectify her. I thought then of writing a tutorial as to the queer appreciation of Crawford and again the piece felt so available with that instigation, like drawing blood. I made a translation of the medieval French criminal poet Francois Villon after finding a single section in his collected works under the heading “Poems in Slang.” This section consisted of one poem. Finding this piece under the heading of slang inspired me to attempt to update it, to go as colloquial and loose as the best rap lyrics. It seemed to be crying out to live again in any era.
“Stranger in Town” was inspired by In Service of the Waxen Moon by David Enos. A film made of brightly-colored. torn paper that moves slowly as if underwater. It is silent except for its simple soundtrack. It charts the demise of a wolfman’s romance, and in the end he rises from the grave. I often use other art forms as a lens through which to see poetry. I wanted that pull from underground that seemed to move his characters along, gliding up one current and down through another.
Lastly, in “The Emerald Tablet,” which is mostly prose, I needed to very clearly illustrate my editing process. I needed it to be out of context, and somewhat sudden for the reader, as it was to be the last section. I had remembered that after sending a magazine some poems they had solicited, I sent a new edit of one just before they were going to press and they responded that they preferred the earlier version. I couldn’t live with the idea of any other version being in print. I wrote a paragraph in defense of the latest draft and they agreed to print it my way. As I was nearing the end of “The Emerald Tablet” I remembered the strength and clarity of my defense and searched through my email to find it again. It locked together as a poem and at the same time gave a bird’s-eye view of the poet at work:
“The section after the quote needs quickening. So much as I also loved the carriage entrance where it was, it turns the section too opaque. The switch from the last line to the first matches the figure moving through the landscape, it gets him going. It was too grand as an ending but draws the reader into the movement I intend immediately. I like the ending to hinge upon the pairing of “young” and “hum” aloud. When the snow melts it makes a sound. I had to sacrifice beautiful and resplendent lines in service of the skeleton.” IE the hand sanded lens.”