Alison Townsend in Mudlark: Demeter and Persephone

One of my favorite myths. From Demeter Faces Facts (second poem down)

Without even meaning to, she’s gone underground,

the face whose curve you shaped with your own hand,
fugitive, a sullen stranger’s you’ll never touch the same way

again. Still, you keep brushing and braiding, separating
the strands and binding them together again, as if they were

a rope by which you could hold her, tethering her to your body
as she was once anchored and fed, your blood hers. Before

she got big enough to cross the street without looking back
to catch your eye. When you were still everything she needed.

— Alison Townsend

The poems here don’t always inspire me with tight, bright language, but lately I’ve been inspired by writers whose work is less than perfect. Some deep inner critic, some just-sprouting bulb of defiance inside me says “if they can do it, why can’t I?”

Seeing a feminine moniker in the masthead also soothes the woman-shaped ire within.

The Work, the Meaningful Work

I haven’t been writing as much poetry. In January, I had a flood of it. And then, gone.

The work, the meaningful work. When I am not writing, I worry. It feels as though a part of me is missing. I know that the idea of the muse–well, it’s true. The muse is there. Especially with poetry. With other kinds of writing, other kinds of writing, you can force yourself, you can sit yourself down in small increments, sweat it out, give yourself small rewards for small steps forward.

But poetry isn’t like that for me. It comes or it doesn’t.

There is more, of course, to the meaningful work than simply the generative act. There is the revision. The compilation. The submission. Hah. Submission is not something I am good at. But it must be done. Dancing Girl Press is taking submissions through the summer. I should submit. To some women in Chicago whom I’ve never met, but whose work I admire.

I am afraid of being told no, of course.

I’d rather wallow in my fantasies of the perfect collection of my work than do the real work, the meaningful work, of tightening it, revising it.

Writing is hard work. And not rewarded as lavishly as some other kinds of work.

But you don’t write for the rewards. Or, rather, I can’t. I write because there is a thing inside of me that needs to get free. I write because the gift goes sour if I don’t pass it on.

Invocation of the Goddess

Great Mother Goddess, help me through this day
Great Mother Goddess, keep my eyes on the task before me
Great Mother Goddess, let me release the nonessential
Great Mother Goddess, teach me love and compassion
Great Mother Goddess, open my heart to your abundance
Great Mother Goddess, I am your child and your companion
Great Mother Goddess, remind me I am being taken care of
Great Mother Goddess, I am a lily in your eyes
Great Mother Goddess, I am a rose before you
Great Mother Goddess, I am an oak, I am ironwood
Great Mother Goddess, I am all the creatures of the forest
Great Mother Goddess, I am the bugs crunching within the soil
Great Mother Goddess, I am the slime mold that dismantles the dead
Great Mother Goddess, I am the silence of the frozen winter
Great Mother Goddess, I am the secret germ in the seed
Great Mother Goddess, I am the silence of a swan gliding over still water
Great Mother Goddess, I am a cherry tree in blossom
Great Mother Goddess, I am an apple tree bearing fruit
Great Mother Goddess, I am a hive of bees making honey
Great Mother Goddess, I am a bear moving deliberate through the trees
Great Mother Goddess, I am a wild mustang in the desert
Great Mother Goddess, I am a cow grazing in a green paddock,
Great Mother Goddess, I am a hen laying eggs in the barn
Great Mother Goddess, I am a tadpole wriggling in a pool
Great Mother Goddess, I am a serpent flying through the endless sea
Great Mother Goddess, I am your child, I am your child, rocked to sleep in your lap
I am blessed, I am blessed, I am blessed

After shamanic invocations of the Celts before battle and the work of the bard Taliesin.

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”

DIY Poetry, Micropresses, Kristy Bowen

In the past couple of months, I finally got hip to a phenomenon that’s been blooming in the poetry world: micropresses. While I was busy doing things like developing my own small business, filing quarterly taxes, and shivering in my shared flat in Cambridge, a whole new flock of poets were flipping a big middle finger at the poetry establishment and publishing their own damn books.

Some folks are publishing in print, some are publishing in electronic form. It’s bizarre: the very thing that first motivated me to learn web development, back in the dark ages of Textpad + FTP + $150 domain names and annual webhosting fees, has apparently caught the attention of a whole slew of indy poets. I can’t help but feel simultaneously like a dinosaur and an early pioneer.

My own career as a poet has been full of twists and turns. I suppose I’m not unique in this way. Most writers–and poets in particular–are solitary creatures. I’m no exception. There’s a part of me that’s very comfortable with being on the edge of things. But in the past decade or so, that alienation turned to bitterness. I never found my niche in the Boston writers’ community. I never stopped writing, but I did stop reading; my own work and others’.

Just in case you think I’ve always had my head up my butt, I would like to point out that I used to run the circuit of open mics. I must have read at every venue in the mid-Hudson Valley and made some great friends that way. I was a featured reader at the sketchy poetry night at the Cosmic Bean in Hartford, until I realized that the guy running the series just wanted to get into my pants. Oh, and the owner’s sleazy comments about how great it was to hear my poem about a girl sleeping between my breasts: priceless. I’ve read in queer settings and straight settings. I’ve read in private homes, in bars, in the basements of churches, in bookstores. I was on the editorial board of my college’s first student-run literary magazine and later served as the managing editor. I sat in a candle-lit attic room with a bunch of beatniks. I was responsible for the creation of the literary section of Chronogram, based in New Paltz, NY. I’ve worked professionally as a writer and copy editor. I’ve designed shit in Quark and Pagemaker and Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve shopped around for printers and chosen Pantone colors. I know the pros and cons of digital versus offset versus letterpress printing. I know how to do this. I just got tired of it.

A confluence of events has led to a renaissance of my interest in poetry. There’s a cycle of percussion that happens with creativity; someone else’s creative expression inspires your own. And something like that has been happening for me since January. I’ve been sort of lurking around the edges of these micropresses and the online communities that surround them. I’m a bit afraid of making myself known to others, afraid that I’ll make some faux pas that will alienate me from this new community (or these new communities) I’ve just discovered. I’m easing into it, commenting on blogs, posting a lot more poetry on my own. I attended an open mic in February. I’m mulling over how to start my own press, what I want to call it, how I want to design the books, how to print them. I’ve realized I have enough material for at least three chapbooks of my own. And I’m also acutely aware of something else: that poetry is a gift economy.

This realization is like a light bulb going off. I finally get it. I was never destined to win the nobel prize or live in the groves of academe. I was supposed to live my life, and to write. I was supposed to make a contribution to a different sort of world. A world of people who live outside the rarefied atmosphere of the literary establishment, but who still care about words. Hells, if William Carlos Williams could be a doctor and Wallace Stevens could be an insurance executive and still kick ass with their poetry, why the hell can’t I be a web developer and do the same?

A lot of things that annoyed me about the literary establishment appear to exist in this other DIY community of poets, but I’ll get into that later. I feel like I need to create actual relationships and enter the community itself before I start trashing it. I need to do more research. And perhaps instead of bitching about things, I should just roll up my sleeves and pitch in. After 24 years of writing poetry, I finally get that it’s about making a contribution, not waiting for applause and a laurel wreath. You really do write because you have no other option. You write because of the fire in the belly. You write because the muse grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you if you don’t.

One book that really blew me away recently was Brief History of Girl as Match, by Kristy Bowen. Brief history of how I found this book:

1. Aaron Tieger sends me the link to the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative. I add it to my RSS aggregator.

2. DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative posts an announcement about the Dusie Kolletiv chapbook exchange

3. I click randomly and find this.

Bowen’s work really speaks to me, as a woman, a sexual being, in a world that gives us conflicting messages about what constitutes a good girl, a powerful woman, a feminist.

notes to self on the female body:

1. girls who like to be tied up make terrible feminists. Also Mailer.

2. When dancing, do an awkward shuffle to the left, then vague hand
movements resembling the mating sway of swans. When he dips you,
meet the eyes of other men indifferently. Hold, then release.

3. dishabille: adjective. 1.a. archaic : negligee. b: the state of being
dressed
in a casual or careless style 2: a deliberately careless or casual manner.

4. French doors do not, under most circumstances, induce the female
orgasm.

5. ligature: noun. 1 a: something that is used to bind; specifically : a
filament (as a thread) used in surgery b: something that unites or connects
: 2: the action of binding or tying

6. Also thigh highs. Soap operas.

With a light touch, Bowen manages to convey the simultaneous desire to be an empowered feminist and a sexual being, both a subject and an object of sexual desire. She evokes this dichotomy through random association, through choosing words that associate and elide with each other on various levels: the level of meaning, the level of sound, and the level of connotation. That do thigh highs and soap operas have to do with the female body? Or Normal Mailer’s work? Nothing. Everything.

I greatly admire this ability to evoke meaning — to say something without saying everything. As Aaron Tieger put it, “work that invites some kind of participation from the reader in order to complete the experience of the poem.” It’s something I strive for in my own work, which I do not consider minimalist. It’s a constant tension: saying enough to make my meaning clear, but not so much that I’m banging the reader over the head with it.

Bowen always has an ability to slide her language into surprising directions, to the same sort of disorienting effect as Sexton’s work. For instance, from autobiography:

In which I am carnelian, carnal. All carnage all the time.
In which I am curator to a museum of clarinets.
[…]
In which I am Anne Boleyn or a B-movie bride.
In which my hands are like a box with two birds.

Bowen runs Dancing Girl Press, founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of women poets through chapbooks, journals, and anthologies. Atelier Women Writers’ Studio in Chicago is the home of Dancing Girl Press.

Poetry is a Gift Economy

And so is spirituality. That’s why I quit my gig as the About.com Guide to Pagan/Wiccan Religion. It started to be about the money instead of about the service.

From What to Wear During an Orange Alert’s interview of poet Reb Livingston, via the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative

Poetry is a gift economy, nobody is making much/any money off her work. Some make livings teaching or editing at mid-sized to large publishing houses, sometimes poets get paid to speak, most make their living (or the bulk of it) doing something completely unrelated to poetry. Almost nobody is surviving on royalties and poetry book sales. So one must remember that every publication, every invitation to read, every review — those are all gifts. Do you want to be the asshole who shows up to every Christmas empty-handed and leaves with a bag full of presents? I don’t. I pride myself in being a completely different kind of asshole. You don’t need much or any money to support other poets. […] One can discuss and promote other poets and books on her blog, speaking at conferences, during her own readings — there’s all kinds of ways to contribute back to the general poetry community. One’s greatest gift is her time, energy and passion.

(DIY Publishing Linky)
(Whole interview with poet linky)

Where were these people when I was getting my B.A. and whingeing about not being selected for Senior Comp?

Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The last of the rock star poets, and my hero. She was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Millay was one of the last of the formalists, who wrote in rhyme and meter. Some of her earliest poems date from around 1917, a time when women still did not have the right to vote in the United States.

The women’s movement of the late 1800s had made some gains for women; a certain class of young, professional women worked outside the home–at least until marriage. Even as late as the 1960s, it was generally expected that women who married would give up their public, professional lives in favor of the more “feminine”, interior duties of wifeing and mothering. The tailored look of the Gibson Girl, with her buttoned-up shirtwaists, long skirts, and corsets, might appear oppressive to modern women who gladly don all manner of jeans, pantsuits, miniskirts, and other clothing that allow great freedom of movement. For the time, however, the look was considered forward-thinking and, among certain circles, even radical and “unsexing.”

In this pre-flapper era, Millay pushed ahead of all social conventions. She was an unabashed bisexual and carried on affairs with men and women in Greenwich Village. She had at least one threesome. She also went to my school, Vassar College, where she chafed at the rules and fucked had affairs with lots of women. She went by Vincent.

There’s a legend that she once tried to jump off the top of Jewett, which at nine (or is it seven? Fifteen years plays hell on the memory) stories is the tallest building on campus, and that that’s why they have enclosed the tallest fire escapes in metal cages. I have no idea how true this is.

Nor do I know how true this story is, but I still like telling it:

Once at a party during her wild and crazy Greenwich Village days, she complained of headaches. In response, some amateur analyst asked her, “Have you considered the possibility that you might be attracted to women?”

She replied, “Of course I’m attracted to women. And to men too. But what does that have to do with my headaches?”

Alas, Vincent never learned about Alcoholics Anonymous. After her husband died, she descended deeper and deeper into addiction to alcohol and morphine. She died in 1950 at her home, Steepletop, in upstate New York.

Her most often-quoted poem:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

— First Fig, from A Few Figs From Thistles

Three Songs of Shattering

I.
The first rose on my rose-tree
Budded, bloomed, and shattered
During sad days when to me
Nothing mattered.

Grief of grief has drained me clean;
Still it seems a pity
No one saw,–it must have been
Very pretty.

II.
Let the little birds sing;
Let the little lambs play;
Spring is here; and so ’tis spring–
But not in the old way!

I recall a place
Where a plum-tree grew;
There you lifted up your face,
And blossoms covered you.

If the little birds sing,
And the little lambs play,
Spring is here; and so ’tis spring–
But not in the old way!

III.
All the dog-wood blossoms are underneath the tree!
Ere spring was going–ah, spring is gone!
And there comes no summer to the like of you and me,–
Blossom time is early, but no fruit sets on.

All the dog-wood blossoms are underneath the tree,
Browned at the edges, turned in a day;
And I would with all my heart they trimmed a mound for me,
And weeds were tall on all the paths that led that way!

“Renascence” was the poem that brought her her first fame and an education at Vassar — she was not a woman of means.

I screamed, and–lo!–Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back the scream into my chest;
Bent back my arm upon my breast;
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sounds
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.

–From “Renascence,” fourth stanza

All excerpts from Edna St. Vincent Millay: Collected Lyrics. Harper & Row. New York: 1981.