Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet

Creating my very first packet for the Lesley low-residency MFA program was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s difficult to get over that voice of self-doubt in the back of my head, the one that says both “your work must be perfect” and “your work will never be perfect.” In one of her seminars, Erin Belieu observed that the voice of self-doubt is just as much ego as the voice of complacency and overconfidence. And it’s impossible to get into the flow state so necessary for writing when the ego is up.

Listening to the program’s professors reflect on their own practices as writers was a tremendous help to me. In a getting-to-know-you session with our mentors, I asked “what was the most difficult poem you wrote?” Their thoughtful answers led to some wonderfully deep discussions about the very reasons for writing. My mentor Sharon Bryan made a comment about a poem’s emotional truth that resonated with me. Even though poetry is a powerful tool that uses words in semi-rational ways to appeal to that emotional mind, it’s not something I’d ever heard talked about in previous workshops.

I came to Lesley with a certain amount of emotional baggage.  Continue reading “Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet”

How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott

Veteran poet Penelope Schott’s latest offering,  How I Became an Historian, traces a spiral from innocence into an abusive marriage, and out again into wisdom and forgiveness. Three slug poems serve as markers on this switchback trail. In “Pestering the Slug,” the first poem of the book, she recounts something almost all of us remember: the small child’s delight in harassing bugs. “I briefly understood / the unblameable charm of evil,” she writes.

That evil coalesces but also turns to remorse in “Glory is Reached by Many Routes,” when the speaker spends “a whole morning trying / to press a brown slug through a wire sieve / and all afternoon apologizing to the slug.” That remorse turns to redemption in “Keeper.” Here, the speaker keeps the slug for a week, feeding it

Continue reading “How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott”

Speaking Out About Sexism and Harassment is a Way for Feminist Writers to Find One Another

The Hairpin recently published a piece by Emma Healy about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways men ignore, negate, and harass women in the world of writing and publishing. Stories like the ones she and her colleagues recount make me feel so much less crazy as I contemplate returning to the world of writing and publishing, an industry I ran from years ago when New Media was the big idea. The Web seemed like an easier alternative to the hermetically sealed world of NYC publishing houses and academic presses. I started publishing my work on my own website in 1996 and haven’t looked back since. On a few occasions, it’s even resulted in literary journals soliciting my work — something unheard of in the more traditional literary world.

Like just about any industry on earth, web development (or web design, or web application development, or interactive design, or UI/UX design, or whatever the kids are calling it these days) is also a boys’ club. In the 1990s, I was a member of an organization called Webgrrls that brought women in the field together, but sometime around the turn of the century its founder Aliza Sherman sold it to a man (!) and it faded into obscurity. That heralded the end of the golden days of the web, a world that’s been co-opted by Silicon Valley startup capital and an increasingly crowded and complex Internet (or the Intarwebs, or the Tubes, or the blagosphere, or whatever the kids are calling it these days).  The gender discrimination I’ve faced has been subtle and difficult to name. On the whole, my experience has been less creeptastic dudebro trying to get in my pants and more male coworkers bonding over football and beer and then passing me over for promotions.

Continue reading “Speaking Out About Sexism and Harassment is a Way for Feminist Writers to Find One Another”

The Poet According to Harper's

This poet, first arrested by the implied promise of this passage (Buzzfeed headline: “How to become a Great Poet (TM) in three easy steps”), is struck by the subtle gendered irony contained therein.

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous: one gets Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” or Plath’s “Daddy,” or Lowell’s “Sunday Morning” (or Wallace Stevens’s). But without that last ingredient, ambition, nothing great will come.

— “Poetry Slam: Or, the decline of American verse,” by Mark Edmundson, in Harper’s July 2013, p. 64. Full text behind a paywall here: http://harpers.org/archive/2013/07/poetry-slam/

Some relevant pieces of information about the text:

  1. A few years ago, Harper’s was one of the worst offenders on the VIDA list. It’s still not doing so well.
  2. The author uses the feminine pronoun to refer to the hypothetical Great Poet.
  3. Three out of four of the examples of Great Poetry are by male authors.
  4. The author of the article is a man.

Since I’d rather be a Great Poet (TM) than a Women’s Studies professor, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about these facts and whether or not they indicate that Harper’s Magazine has a long way to go before its head will be completely removed from its own posterior.

Then — Poem by Lesley Wheeler

Then

If my son is a lantern spilling light and warmth
throug the rose panes of his skin

if combustion is a chemical reaction involving oxygen
and if its byproducts are heat and carbon dioxide

if we also exhale heat and carbon dioxide
if we are fire, converting the molecules around us

if the flames banked all day leap in me at night
and if I am too tired to rise and write

if I carry the spark in me, conserving it,
but its bright engine keeps changing the fuel of my life

into ashes, ashes–if the first conflagration is over
and the long deep burn is underway

if I feed with my breath, if I burn hotter,
if I smother it, if I keep changing air into spirit

— Lesley Wheeler
from Heathen

Note: Interview with the poet coming soon.

Robyn Art: Here at Last the Body, Window Cracked Open at the Helm

In recognition of National Poetry month (April) and belated recognition of Women’s History Month and Small Press Month (March), I’ll be posting notices for the rest of the month about (and, wherever possible, links to) women poets from small presses.

From Wicked Alice Poetry Journal, Winter 2008, Robyn Art:

And here at long last the body, its window cracked open at the helm
[…]
stay here all you broke-down
visions, supernumerary impulse-buys and over glutted infomercials of love, stay here
betwixt and between Restless Leg Syndrome, TMJ, discretionary income and the oft-extolled pleasures of the drug-free life, O boggy and efflorescent self, self of root cellars and forgotten tinctures, of mud and excrement and loam, but still at long last
the body, the non-body nearly arrived, relentless, full-throttle toward the irreparable
becoming […]

See full text here (second item on page)

Rita Dove

Rita Dove may have been one of the first published poets I saw as a real human being rather than a sort of mythical demi-god. Sure, Adrienne Rich is still alive, but I’ve always seen her as much more removed and unattainable — in that regard, she’s in the same category as Eliot and Pound and Bishop and Millay. But Rita Dove, for some reason, seems like a real person, someone I might actually be able to meet and talk to one day. Perhaps it’s because she was poet laureate of something or another when I was in college (the U.S. maybe?). Perhaps it’s because I always associate her with a joint project I did with another student, and I still vividly remember that woman’s frustration with me for not being as on-the-ball as her. She also introduced me to those little sticky flag things from Post-It. They cured me of my archivist-horrifying habit of dogearing pages — plus, it’s easier to find a yellow flag than a dog-eared page. I have a package of them in my desk right now.

So. Rita Dove. In an interview in some literary journal, probably conducted because she was the poet laureate of something or another, she talked about learning to leave the end of a poem open, rather than sewing it up with a final sewing-up type line. I think about that a lot when I’m writing poetry. I try to leave room for the poem to breathe at the end, rather than making it a self-contained little jewel. A stale cream puff. Some poems lend themselves to open-endedness more than other poems.

Continue reading “Rita Dove”