Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

A post from Ann Bogle's blog, Ana Verse, caught my eye this morning. The post, dated October 2, 2008, features what look to me like journal entries from 1994. Some of the journal entries refer to the journalist's writings from 1985. Here is an excerpt:

January 28, 1994
Ideas are unspeakable only if they are seen to impinge on the fantasies of others. Meaning is in the making, but we also make meaning a habit. I am not thinking here of commonplace meaning: a car equals a car. I am thinking of what happens when language ropes a life. We attribute metaphor to language, yet among writers, some writers, life is lived by the book. A representational word (car, wind, drink) gets carried away into life. It refers to you, your mother, your mania, your sex. In its broader manifestations, meaning leads to a dangerous wholeness that some writers check with fragmentation and polity. The writer may want to protect or change the world but is confined to an acquiescent resistance to fascism. Resisting fascism, the whole of it, requires acknowledging that part that is in us.

Read the full entry at Ann's blog.
Ann's post is titled "Conditions of a Narrator" and takes up consideration of life as it is lived and life as it is imagined in writing. It may seem like an elaborate intellectual exercise, but the post returns again and again to the notions of assertiveness, self, aggression, violence, possibility and community. These are notions any reader may benefit from (including readers of poetry) and that is why I wanted to share this here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Advice to Beginning Writers

At Facebook, I joined a group called Poetry Factions Are Stupid. Within that group, Joanne Limburg began a discussion. From London, Ms. Limburg wrote (on Oct 20, 2007)

In a month or so, I'll be delivering a talk to an audience mostly of secondary school pupils and their parents, on the subjects of poetry, doing poetry, being a poet, how I became a poet etc. etc. What would you say to a young would-be poet, apart from 'Try accountancy.'? All contributions welcome. Thanks.

Another Facebook user, Marc Zegans, had also joined the Poetry Factions Are Stupid group. He saw Joanne's question and answered with what I regard as alacrity. From Boston, Mr. Zegans wrote (on Nov 5, 2007)

Hi Joanne, there's much advice one could offer to young poets, but here are three pieces riffing on [W.H.] Auden:

  • write from a place of "imaginative awe";
  • allow yourself to be a young poet, and don't try to be otherwise--hence, write from encounter with what you have known;
  • you're only a poet when you're writing a poem, so there's plenty of time left over for other things that fuel your social self and pay the rent.
Best of luck, Marc

For more about Joanne Limburg, go to the Poetry Magazines website.

For more about Marc Zegans, visit his MySpace page.

You may be able to interact with Joanne and Marc if you join Facebook and send them a Friend Request.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Helen Vendler

In December of 2006 the New York Times published an article about poetry critic and teacher Helen Vendler. Here are some excerpts:
. . . Vendler was born Helen Hennessy in Boston in 1933. Although she was encouraged to read poetry — her mother, a former schoolteacher, had memorized many poems, and her father taught Romance languages at a high school — her parents forbade her to attend the prestigious Boston Latin School for Girls, and later Radcliffe, because, like many devout Roman Catholics at the time, they accepted the church’s strong disapproval of secular education. Instead she enrolled in Boston’s all-female Emmanuel College, hoping to study literature, but “literature, I discovered with disgust, was taught as a branch of faith and morals,” she recalled in a 2001 lecture. That experience “inoculated me forever against adopting any ism as a single lens through which to interpret literature.”
Vendler switched to the sciences, and after graduation was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study mathematics in Belgium. “I loved math and I loved organic chemistry because they have structures and I love structures,” she said. But on the stormy trans-Atlantic voyage, Vendler had a reckoning with herself. “And I decided, now that I was free, I would do English, because that’s what I had always wanted to do.” With the Fulbright commission’s blessing, she switched to literature.
. . . Today Vendler seldom reviews poets under 50, since their “frames of reference,” she says, are alien to her. “They’re writing about the television cartoons they saw when they were growing up. And that’s fine. It’s as good a resource of imagery as orchards. Only I’ve seen orchards and I didn’t watch these cartoons,” she said. “So I don’t feel I’m the best reader for most of the young ones.”
These days Vendler is more focused on late style. In April, she will deliver the prestigious Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Her topic will be the final books of Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, and how each wrestled with what Yeats called “death-in-life and life-in-death”: writing about life facing impending death, and writing about death while still immersed in the world. “It used to be easier to deal with when you had heaven to believe in, when there was another place to go at the end of your poem,” Vendler said, as the late afternoon sun came through her office window. Death without heaven “produces more stylistic problems.” Vendler has recently finished the book on Yeats’s poems that she first wanted to write as a dissertation, but abandoned, she said, because at 23, “I didn’t have the life experience to penetrate them or resonate with them.” Life and life’s work, seamlessly intertwined.
Read the full article at the NY Times site.
Links to several of Ms. Vendler's articles can be found at the NY Books site. The site allows access only with paid subscription.
Here she is in a brief (~2min) video at You Tube:

Creativity: A Study

Jilly Dybka has once again faithfully updated her Poetry Hut blog with Fresh Poetry News Hand Picked Daily. This bit of news I want to share here as well:

. . . A recent study, led by Harvard professor Wendy Berry Mendes, is the first to examine how biological predisposition and negative situations work in tandem to influence creativity, in fields such as art.
. . . She and her team then asked 96 participants to prepare a short speech designed to sell themselves in a mock-job interview setting. One group received a neutral response from a panel of reviewers, another got encouraging smiles and nods of approval and the third faced crossed arms, grimaces and furrowed brows.
Afterwards, the researchers asked the volunteers to create an artistic collage using a variety of craft supplies, and a panel of professional artists critiqued the results. With a remarkable degree of unanimity, the collages that earned the best reviews were those produced by people predisposed to dark moods who had received a nasty response in the mock interview.
. . . "We showed it's a combination of the person and the situation and that, ironically, it appears negative moods can have functions," Mendes says. "We have negative moods for a reason and they serve to make people more focused and in this case, more creative."

Read the full article at the Canadian News website where it was published December 16, 2008.

I'm not surprised by these research findings. I think it's reasonable and in agreement with the notion that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to what happens to you.

In 2005, scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine found that
"Children Of Bipolar Parents Score Higher On Creativity Test".

In their book Manic Depression and Creativity, D.J. Hershman and J. Lieb report, among other things, that suffering is NOT essential to creativity. The same authors wrote about people who suffered from bipolar disorder and who nevertheless rose to political power: Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin. See their book A Brotherhood of Tyrants for the rest of the story.

Occasionally one hears of the National Institute for Mental Health as having reported that more than one-third (some sources say 38%) of Pulitzer Prize-winning poets have either had symptoms of or been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as in this article at the Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. If anyone can find the actual reference made by the NIMH, I'd be ever so grateful.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Flying, Imagination and Writing

Earlier this month, Sue Williams wrote in her blog about flying, imagination and writing poetry. It's a delightful ten-minute lovely addition to anyone's day. Here is an excerpt:

I'm sure, at one point or another, we've all read about fliers.
Flight can be associated with childhood imagination, or superpowers, or other liberations. The birth of the aeroplane came from a human obsession with flight, and angels, fairies and other enlightened beings have access to higher worlds. As for poor old Icarus, he gets a bad press. Many of us, as writers, know what it's like to aim too high, but it's when we depend on the outcome that [means] we need to think again. It's hard to try for the high place and then get burnt or melted; but as long as we can pick ourselves up, I reckon it makes us stronger.

Birthdays of Poets: Focused on the landing, who can think of flying?

Read the full article at Sue's blog, Wet Ink.

The Smoking Poet

In November (2008), Kelly Bacon - a student who attends Western Michigan University - interviewed Zinta Aistars, editor of the online magazine The Smoking Poet, for the Western Herald - Western Michigan University's school newspaper. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Zinta Aistars: . . . what I see as differentiating us from most online publications is that we go out of our way to publish work from all corners of the globe. Not only American writers and artists, but we have also published work coming to us from Latvia, Ireland, France, India, China, Australia, England, South Africa, Japan, and many other intriguing and wonderful places. We consciously resist tunnel vision in our literary tastes. Every culture expresses itself in its own way, and we want that to be reflected on our pages.

Read the full interview at Zinta's blog.

As of December 15, 2008, The Smoking Poet at its home page has Google Page Rank 0 and Alexa Traffic Rank 21,258,516. Let's keep an eye on this one. I expect the Page Rank and the Traffic Rank will both improve in the coming months.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Carol Houck Smith

Just after Thanksgiving (2008), Carol Houck Smith died. Legendary editor at W.W. Norton, she edited numerous prize-winning collections of poems. Read her full obituary at the Washington Post (Friday, December 12, 2008; Page B07) online. In 2004 her advice to beginning writers was:
The best advice to beginning writers, she said in a 2004 washingtonpost.com online chat, is "to be a reader. To become a voracious reader. And to learn to read with your ears as well as your eyes. To read your own work aloud. And even to type out a passage from a writer you love, to really get the rhythm."
The job of an editor, she continued, "is to discover what the intention of the writer is, and then to try and stand in for the general reader and assess whether the writer has fulfilled that intention. I think it's a chemical relationship between author and editor, in the same way that you're attracted to friends when you meet them, and so the editor has really joined the book."
Read the whole thing at the Washington Post online. Allow twelve minutes.
I'm sure I would have enjoyed meeting and talking with Ms. Houck Smith.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Visas for Artistic Performance

Artists traveling in the European Union need a special visa in order to show &/or perform their work(s).

This just in from Listen & Be Heard by way of Ron Silliman's blog:

[excerpt follows]
In Chanticleer Magazine (issue 21), the editor, Richard Livermore, reports “On September 16th, an American poet was arrested at Stanstead Airport, held in a holding tank, interrogated on and off (…) for 18 hours, had her mugshot (sic) taken, was finger-printed and then sent back to Italy, where she had bought her ticket. Her crime – she had come to Britain to read poetry (…) on the radio – for which she was not being paid – without a special visa to do so. When the person who was due to meet her at the airport tried to find out by phone what was happening, he was told that, under the Data Protection Act, such information could not be released. When he attempted to ask more questions the person at the other end of the line told him that if he persisted in asking questions, she would be obliged to hang up. To this day, the poet – a 64-year-old writer, musician, poet and translator – still doesn’t know why she was held. All she knows is that in coming here to read poetry she was contravening one of three new laws which stipulates that non-EU artists require a special visa to exhibit their work. Reading poetry in public falls into the category of ‘exhibiting work”.

Read the full article at http://www.listenandbeheard.net/home/2008/11/24/the-terror-of-poetry/

And now more on this from the Civitas Blog:

[excerpt follows]
According to French MEP Claire Gibault (cited by Euobserver.com as a top violinist and orchestra director) artists deserve “special social status” to be able to travel throughout the union. Gibault has identified the artists’ situation as an example of deficiencies in the Schengen Agreement (which creates a borderless zone for free travel across Europe) and claims that artists actually require further freedoms. Confused? Me too! The EU’s justification is that art and culture must be “human not elitist” and according to the EU, the only way to “humanise” art is via a new visa programme for artists to ensure greater mobility “as a condition for cultural exchange and enrichment”.

Read the full article at http://www.civitas.org.uk/blog/2008/04/the_eus_art_attack.html

Anyone who wants a special Schengen Visa to travel in Europe and give a poetry reading would be well advised to plan their trip several months in advance during which time the visa application can be processed. More info on obtaining such a visa can be found for instance at immihelp: http://www.immihelp.com/visas/pvisa/

Susana Milevska, a graduate student at Goldsmiths College, posted a piece online about the paper she prepared and presented in February 2006 at the 7th Postgraduate Conference. Here is an excerpt from that paper:

My paper deals with a contemporary art phenomenon that emerged in the countries that are not part of the European Union. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a great number of contemporary art projects are concerned with the continuously changing borders between Schengen and non-Schengen states. It is not surprising, if one takes into account that each artist coming from a non-Schengen country, in order to participate at an international project, needs at least one month to collect all the required documents for a Schengen visa. While opposing to the strict visa and passport regimes which make their life as free-lance artists impossible, artists imagine performances, objects, installations, video or photography projects that are often clandestine attempts for finding a way to trick the political system. Therefore, one can say that they use their profession and mediums in a quite different way than it has been used before.

Read the full abstract at the UCL university homepages website.

Find out more about Schengen states at the Schengen Space website.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Recommended Reading

My local public library, the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, has New European Poets on one of its shelves where new books are kept. Published by Graywolf Press, the back cover informs us: "general editors Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer enlisted twenty-two additional regional editors to select these 290 poems, whose writing was first published after 1970." The volume contains more than 400 poems, a section 'About the Poets', another section 'About the Translators' and of course 'Permission Acknowledgments'. Nearly 200 translators worked with more than 40 languages to render these poems in English.

I see spirituality in poems from former Soviet states, and I am encouraged. Many such poems carry a world-weary tone, but stop short of cynicism and I would say even of pessimism. For example:

the men of my country
by Andriy Bondar (b. 1974)
translated from the Ukrainian by Vitaly Chernetsky

the men of my country
give up their seats on the subway
to the handicapped the aged
and to the passengers with children
but mostly they go on sitting
since these categories of citizens
have a pronounced tendency to die out
or travel by subway less and less often

the men of my country
they are saints under a heel
with trained insect jaws
with which they gnaw their way
to deserved fatherhood
and later having untied their hands
savor children's flesh
using proscribed methods
of raising the younger generation

the men of my country
are not mutants or perverts
they are products of secondary processing
of amino acids
this is all that remains of the nation
which loves and honors its heroes
youths so roly-poly or with pit bull jaws
their love for motherhood
has outgrown all discernible limiits
and become a signature style

the men of my country
wonderful specimens for an entomologist
for they are fragile like exotic butterflies
pinned to a piece of cardboard
they acknowledge the value
of every move every sound
for life is an unending crime
that has no justification

the men of my country
blow their noses simply into their hands
for the hand is the most useful organ
for such an important deed
they usually don't have any other
important deeds to consider

the men of my country
make no effort
efforts ruin the liver
and their mouths smell bad
and have they really been born
to exert efforts

the men of my country
prematurely descend into the grave
and become weightless angels
and ideal raw material
for metaphysical speculations
and superfluous argument in favor of the existence
of god or what's his name

The speaker of this poem sees much in the world that is undesirable but believes in God. Another poem from this book seems more cynical to me:

I Blow My Nose Inartistically
by Jozef Urban (1964-1999)
translated from the Slovak by James Sutherland-Smith

We who don't blow our nose nicely
offend polite company
and the routines of decent society

For not blowing our nose nicely
it is necessary to cancel us
from the list of folk who live decently
and to change good manners into laws
to exile us somewhere to an island
and there we'll blow our nose like Robinsons

For not blowing our nose nicely
we must be deprived of our inventions
of making babies
planting birch trees
and our railway track systems
and be left there on an island
so we won't blow our nose in discussions
and slobber over company
who've come to gorge upon each other, nicely,
utterly to the limits of decency.

I like both poems. And many more in this lovely volume.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Similie & Metaphor

Sharon Olds talks candidly about metaphor and similie and her autobiographical work in this video posted at the Facebook page of the Academy of American Poets by the staff at www.poets.org. The video runs approximately 3 min 15 sec.

Poetry Contests

Susan Richardson is a poet who blogs about her experiences with students, poets and the environment at Susan's Journal of Literary Things. She has some interesting things to say about poetry contests. She knows of them as a poet who is interested in creating a winning entry, and she knows of them as a judge. Here are a few of her comments dated November 4, 2008:


Spent an interesting evening last night at a meeting of Cardiff Writers' Circle, for whom I was asked to adjudicate their annual article writing competition. The group's been in existence for going-on sixty years and is made up of writers of a wide range of backgrounds and experience - last night's Chairperson, Jo Verity, for example, has a third novel coming out with Honno in January. Usually I'm on the other side of the fence, so to speak, entering poetry competitions and struggling to work out what might appeal to a particular judge (as outlined in a previous blog post and discussion). So it was fascinating to have to write a short critique on all the entries, select a winner and two runners-up, and so gain an insight into the whole adjudication process.

It's refreshing to see someone who is such a warm, kindhearted, loving human being. Visit her website and find out more about her work.

Read a review of Ms. Richardson's collection of poetry titled Creatures of the Intertidal Zone (2008) at New Hope International Review.

Read a few poems from Creatures of the Intertidal Zone online.

Buy a copy of Creatures of the Intertidal Zone from the publisher, Cinnamon Press. Once you get to the page you'll scroll down to see the book.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) is a great poet worthy of study.

The following is excerpted from the Poetry Foundation's online entry regarding Robert Lowell:

Lowell said in the "Afterthought" to Notebook 1967-1968 that "in truth I seem to have felt mostly the joys of living; in remembering, in recording, thanks to the gift of the Muse, it is the pain." A poetry of scrupulous self-examination, Lowell's work, as Vereen M. Bell declares in Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero, "is identifiable by nothing so much as its chronic and eventually systematic pessimism"; indeed, says Bell, "whatever spirit of affirmation that we think we perceive in Lowell's work we must always suspect ourselves of projecting upon it." Furthermore, in Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell, Alan Williamson observes that "Lowell's vision of civilization—being a product both of the man he is and of the time he lives in—is particular, painful, and dark. It is redeemed neither by . . . faith that an adequate, if authoritarian, utopia may have existed in the past, nor by a revolutionary's faith that one can be abstractly yet accurately designed for the future. Consequently, Lowell must necessarily leave more questions of value, of cause and responsibility, of fundamental 'human nature' open to poetic inquiry than did his nearest predecessors. But it is this very appalling fundamentalness of Lowell's questions, combined with his honesty about historical terror, that make him a modern epic poet."

Lowell was an epic poet as well in the scope and greatness of his poetry. He addressed large questions, and he used a multiplicity of forms and styles in his continuing quest, which his friend Peter Taylor describes in a 1979 Ploughshares essay as a search for "a oneness in himself and a oneness in the world." "This is how he must always be remembered," Taylor says, "one moment playful to the point of violent provocation, the next in profound contemplation of the great mystery: What does life mean? What is it all about?"

Visit the Poetry Foundation's entry to read the full article. The URL is

I don't know what it's all about, but I believe it is both easier and more fruitful to consider the question "What is my life all about?" Earlier in the same article, we get the idea that "[Lowell's] art and his life were inseparably intertwined, and he believed firmly in the identity of self and language." What I take away from this is that Lowell, as a poet, was ambitious. As a poet, I believe there is value in considering the nature of that ambition. What did Lowell hope to achieve?

The notion of intertwining self and language brings to mind Harold Bloom's assertion in his Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human: "Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us." That is, after the characters Hamlet and Falstaff and others were invented, we are able to see ourselves in ways that previously we were not able to see. I think it's an interesting argument and one worth considering and talking about, but let me make a remark about Twelfth Night and then I'll get back to Lowell - by way of Shakespeare.

Few would argue that
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. But this play has no Hamlet or Falstaff. Who speaks of Viola, star of Twelfth Night, as one of Shakespeare's greatest characters? So what is it that makes the play so highly regarded?
Now, let's see if I can bring us back to Robert Lowell. Act Two, Scene Five of Twelfth Night features the following thought, voiced by minor characters playing a joke: "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." See if, after reading the following quote from Edward Byrne's essay, you don't agree with me that Lowell not only achieved greatness but was born great.

Robert Lowell was born in Boston on March 1, 1917 to a Massachusetts family well positioned in New England society and already rich in literary tradition, including two prominent authors among his ancestors—Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. Robert Lowell’s personal heritage as a writer was enhanced when upon the recommendation of Allen Tate he appeared as a young man at Kenyon College eagerly seeking to learn the poetic craft from John Crowe Ransom, Tate’s one-time teacher. Following his graduation from Kenyon in 1940, Lowell pursued graduate work at Louisiana State University under the guidance of two other highly regarded literary personalities associated with the New Critics and their notions about how a poem’s composition or its reception by readers should be discerned: Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.

Visit One Poet's Notes to read Byrne's article in full. The URL is http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2008/03/robert-lowells-legacy-life-studies.html.

Another nice article is at Slate magazine. The article focuses on Lowell's Collected Poems.

The highest praise for Lowell's poetry I've found online is at the Poets dot org website. The URL is http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/10.

Lowell's book Life Studies (1959) was awarded the National Book Award in 1960. Read a poem from that book, "Skunk Hour", at the Poets dot org website.