I was reading Robert Lee Brewer's "Poetic Asides" interview in Writers Digest with H_NGM_N Press impresario Nate Pritts while revising my ms. this week. One paragraph stood out. Pritts, one of the golden boys of the Warren Wilson MFA program, who's since become a Doctor, was describing how he used comic books as "ekphrastic" triggers for his book Sensational/Spectacular. (Throwing around words like "ekphrastic" is how we know Dr. Pritts might qualify for a tenure-track job some day; pairing"ekphrastic" with comic books, smart aleck that this young Doctor is, is how we know he's STILL SO COOL). Anyway, this is what he said:
First, the project was a reaction to the fact that there seemed to be an accepted language for poetry, or at least an accepted diction, that I found stifling. In some ways, I was developing a voice in my poems that was coming from the poems I was reading and not coming from me. At the time I was reading a lot of poems that were incredibly reverential and too serious, pious poems that seemed to be simultaneously thrilled with and in awe of their precious ability to turn the quotidian into something messianic. There’s a teenage version of me inside me still that calls bullshit on my poems sometimes – why is Nate writing about arias or “a cacophony of larkspur” or, in short, relying on images and experiences that are not him to tell things that are?
Ouch. That tiresome turn from the quotidian to the messianic. Eeek. Oh how many times have I slid messily down that inviting mossy rock? And now Pritts has me picking at another hangnail (h_ngn__l?) the notion, that the "accepted language for poetry, or at least an accepted diction" might be stifling. Oh jeez. Especially since I've never written a poem from a comic book, now I feel all old and, well, rusted. But that's not really what I wanted to say.
What I want to say is that I'm newly examining how my love of the language I see as available to me means that I'm limiting myself and my poems' vivifications. I started my professional writing life as a journalist, and I've always doggedly sought clarity, coherence, what I think of as architectural or structural integrity. My poems have a beginning, a middle and an end. As I've looked at the poems in my current ms., they seemed designed, like a sequence of yoga poses that should be executed in a particular order, or a dance designed to fill a particular stage, or a piece of music that I can follow, like Miles Davis's "Blues for Pablo" or Lyle Lovett's grand collage "I will rise up/Ain't No More Cane" with swoops and transitions that on repeated listening, I've learned to cherish and anticipate. I wonder if I should bust them up -- the poems, that is. And I think it's likely I should.
I'm thinking of Pritts's poem "Endless Summer" in which his repeated use of the "f-bomb" propels the poem's exaggerated anger and hyperbolized regret, and in which the syntax begins to drop off, twist and fall apart. Or Pritts' buddy Matt Hart's poem "Broken Foot Effusion," in the latest H_ngm_n, in which he writes,
"I use the word flamingo,
my one leg gleaming as I stand for something
resonant: beauty in the face as the sun cracks
up. Truly, I have used the word flamingo
maybe ninety-five hundred times in an attempt
to achieve some kind of devastating balance"
and then he throws the poem open into an exuberant, stream-of-consciousness list of all the people who love him. I heard Pritts perform "Endless Summer" and Hart perform "Broken Foot" a month or so ago at the Court Street Gallery in Saginaw, and they were riveting; the effect these two poems had on me, spoken aloud, was to wake me up from a lugubrious rut. I drove home as fast as I could. I couldn't wait to write some more myself. Anyway...
In another interview, on Elizabeth Hildreth's raucous blog "Bookslut," Pritts said, "...maybe I’m worried about the word “narrative” as it implies a starting point, a stopping point & that, in between, something happens."
And that's exactly what's bothering me about my poems these days, and so I'm looking to these young scalawags of verse for triggering and transformative energy. Maybe their audacity will help me pry apart the resolving declarations that seem to conclude almost every damn poem in my manuscript. Here are a couple examples:
from "Missiles, October 1962"
There was going to be
plenty of time for me, to revel in
my vivid hurts, my lucky changes,
my charmed survival after
my mother and father were history.
from "The Blissfield Parsonage," (this is really embarrassing)
"Something grew, spring came."
from "Begonias Then and Now":
To my relief
I see that they are just begonias –
they stand for nothing.
Okay, and there are a lot more where those came from. I'm not sure what else I want to be reaching for, but it'ssomething -- something more: surprise, uncertainty -- or something less, ending before it's over...whatever. I'm looking forward...to different endings. Now that's damn existential, ain't it, for a Saturday night?
And for the next post, comes the question, what is the function of the poem? For me, as I'm free associating and/or balancing on at least one leg of my reflections, I think the poem is for comfort. Damn, I can't believe I just said that. Well, it's a complicated matter. I want my poem to be, as I wrote in one of my explicitly architectural poems, "Message to my Neighbors on Seventh Street," (look it up in MQR about a million years ago), a "fist of order thrusting up between your opulent oaks." Yikes. Put away that Freud, asshole.