Sunday, October 25, 2009

Novel Writing

"And now it’s time for novel writing, which today comes from the West Country, from Dorset."

Narrative is so fundamentally different from lyric. This is kind of obvious, but writing both of them, I'm amazed by the different muscles they employ, and the different satisfactions they produce.

The pleasures of poetry are the pleasures of simultaneity. I read a line of verse, and it's like a chain reaction of little detonations: the sound play, the layers of reference (in the line's structure, diction, proper names, etc.), the manifestation of images, and the instantaneous revisions of the preceding lines created by the double-jointed syntax made possible by line breaks. It's an intensely vertical experience, though this feels less the verticality of the words themselves (most poems, of course, are narrower than the page they're printed on, unless they're very long-lined) than the vertical layering of a palimpsest or of one of those old biology textbooks with overlays for the skin, musculature, circulatory system, and skeleton (often these depths are presented unequally and with simultaneity, so that even on the first page you can see the bones of the hand, the red fist of the heart, the striations of the quadriceps, etc.).

With narrative it truly is one damn thing after another. Words and details accumulate like grains of sand in an hourglass; though you'll never remember all of them, though many of these details are all but designed to be forgotten, they nevertheless heap up into the foundations of characters, places, plots, themes, weathers, worlds. Right now I'm working on a chapter (though I hesitate to call my units of composition chapters—they're more like sections, or threads) in which one of my narrators (I have several) is about to meet the woman who will change his life. That's the moment: if I were writing a poem, I might present it directly, or even more likely ellipsize it and present the aftermath through a few coordinated details.

But because it's a narrative I write toward this event, filling in the moments of my character's lonely life in an overheated studio apartment in Washington Heights in 1971, conscious of growing suspense as this woman's presence is intimated without her actually manifesting. Every night I sit down to write thinking Now, now she will appear, and yet she never quite appears. And yet none of what I'm writing is filler: the words are grains of salt or sand for the event to stand on, but also I hope savory in themselves, and they work to evoke what I find most attractive about novels (and rare in poems), the feeling of immersion in a world.

But I no longer seek complete immersion; the "vivid, continuous dream" that John Gardner said it was a novelist's duty to conjure. I don't want the words to disappear as easily as they once did. But neither do I want them, as I usually do with poems, to remain primarily words, striking upon the eardrum and memory, vivid morsels like Proust's madeleine, which must lose its present-tense existence in the moment of recollection. Instead I seek a kind of flicker effect, a sense of the grain of the form, as might a filmmaker who simulates scratches on the emulsion or chooses black-and-white so as to make the film's filmness part of its content. I want my readers sweltering in that room full of fug and flaking leaded paint, high above February streets dusted with the dry, fine snow that real cold can bring; but I also want them caught in the coils of my sentences (my narrator's sentences), feeling in their unfolding syntax his characteristic mix of melancholia, hopefulness, and delirium.

And so with any luck narrative ceases to be a single line and becomes dual, parallel, multiple, a train track the reader straddles or hops between on her ride toward some sort of resolution of the story and of the languages it gets told in.

Next time, I hope to think through the seductions of realism, and why it is that I've been unable to resist them, in spite of a healthy suspicion of the claims usually made on realism's behalf.

Friday, October 16, 2009

After Form Fails

That's one of my own lines. From an untitled (they're all untitled) severance song:
After form fails a furling, reports dying

away, look away. The panicle sprouts from the clavicle,

from spinal grimace, ribs fasicled by the itch of a glance
that struts the struck organ feeling out a musty

boom, branching beneath a witch’s hands,
stone melody, capillary cracks reach the trunk,
sink rootward, birth a sneer—burnt leaves

swirling, surling in a downstreamed capacity
for the history of planks, knit brows, wrung
fingers letting loose the bloody handkerchief

to be found. And after all this force evolution
still has its job to do, mentoring the soil or honoring

the split sky, though irradiated, defining a pair of eyes

as the interrupted light they bridge by raising.
Very late revelation or discovery that what these poems are about, if they're about anything other than what each is individually about (love, war, rage, impotence), is form. The form of the sonnet, which each poem evokes by being fourteen lines long; and form's capacity or incapacity to deal with, adapt, respond adequately to the postmodern life of their author, circa 2001 - 2008, aka The Bush Years. The Odyssey frame I tried building around the poems was a crude attempt at narrativizing what's already implicit in the poems' struggles with the sonnet form: form as a refuge as necessary as it is corrupt and imperfect.

A solace for pained thought that it insulates, poetic form is like the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain from infection but also severs it from the chaotic life of the body, which is "out there" while the brain hunkers down in its carapace. Attempts to break that barrier are suicidal: the results are encephalitis (swelled head), epilepsy (ecstasy), MS (short circuit), and Alzheimer's (disappearance).

Form attacks form. In the rupture, the space between, fleeting possibilities of action--of the subject--might appear. Or else the subject might be, like a replicant fleeing its incept date, dead before it leaves the table.

Body questions body: uneasy in possession of and by it, these poems like ungainly dancers (like Berryman's dancer at Henry's bier, let some thing fall out well) collide limbs, torsos, reach up searchingly, contract into defensive crouches, clownlike, stumbling, or else self-consciously graceful, gracile, pursued by the lagging spotlight of the reader's attention between densities of logo-, melo-, phanopoeia.

The sonnet is dead; long live the death of the sonnet.

After form fails, more form.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Leap

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

In my intro to creative writing class this past Tuesday, a student asked a crucial question. Roughly paraphrased, she said something like, Okay, I see the value of paratactic and dissociative writing. But how can we learn to write that way?

I think maybe what she meant was, How do you know, when you break the rules, that you're doing it right?

I think of Dylan's, "to live outside the law, you must be honest."

And I think of the leap I ask my students to make from texts centered on the writer—writing for yourself, expression—to texts propelled toward a reader—direct presentation of the thing, machines made of words, construction, all that good Modernist stuff.

And these lines from Marinetti's Zang Tumb Tuuum:
We must destroy syntax by placing nouns at random as they are born. And:

We must abolish the adjective so that the naked noun can retain its essential color. And:

(GREEDY SALTY PURPLE FANTASTIC INEVITABLE SLOPING IMPONDERABLE FRA-GILE DANCING MAGNETIC) I will explain these words I mean the sky sea mountains are greedy salty purple etc. and that I am greedy salty purple etc. all that outside me as well as in me absolute totality simultaneity synthesis = the superiority of my poetry over all others stop
Marinetti was a Fascist, of course, like Pound. But at least it can be said of Marinetti that his work got less interesting the more Fascist he became.

The moment, the leap comes when you learn to materialize the signifier. When words are visible in their essential colors. Then even adverbs (which I ban) are okay, because they are no longer dead circuits but curious arcs of electricity that cause verbs to bristle differently, like a dog's fur stroked the wrong way.

How to teach this beside procedure.

I don't think much of Robert Bly these days, but I remember my mother's yellow yellowing copy of Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations that I took down from the shelf one day as a teenager and it did lead me deeper into what I mean. And he helped me to articulate why Stevens was my favorite poet.

Bly: "a poet who is leaping makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance."

I'm less interested in these days in psychic substances. My preferred term for the leap in modern poetry, parataxis, stays on the surface, leapfrogging unlike elements from a mix of materials social, psychic, mediated, gathered, scattered, and overheard. As Wilde said, "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

It's difficult to keep students on the surface. Often I ask the question, What's the difference between poems and prose? I get various right answers: it's rhythmic, it's compressed, etc. I point at the page: Look at all that white space! Look at that ragged margin! Weird, right?

They agree with me that it's weird.

I show them all kinds of paratactic stuff. I ask them to write poems that repeat phrases, that braid associations, list poems. Today we'll try some Google-sculpting. They like it, they get it. They don't get it, they don't like it. I persevere.

I believe this is valuable for writers and for non-writers. Seeing what's in front of our noses. Ringing the coin on the table for its true note. Biting, like the book says, the error. I persevere.

I was born and raised into a sense of distance from language, a distance that bred affection and longing. Wordplay is literally my mother tongue. We amused each other endlessly with rare birds of speech.

Now I put that experience, that inheritance, into each semester, shoulder queerly to the wheel. I persevere.

One day I will give their adverbs back to them. Today, even.

Can you push someone into leaping. Can you pull.

Monday, October 05, 2009


Actually, that's very far from what I am, as teacher and family man. And Facebook keeps me well in touch with a wide range of peeps. That said, I have increasingly fewer impulses of the sort that lead me to blog here, leading to an endless succession of posts about how little I'm blogging here.

Still I'm not quite prepared to retire the old Cahiers. If nothing else it archives the growth of one poet's mind over more than half-a-decade, which some readers have valued. And every now and again I am moved to communicate something without the mediation of a magazine or editor, and this blog makes that possible.

What I'm not so interested in these days are the teapot-tossing tempests that for so long were the life of this blog and poetics blogging in general. Arguments about flarf or conceptual writing or the freakin' School of Quietude just aren't doing it for me these days. Having a child clarifies time, like butter, into something rich that you don't want to waste. I still absorb ephemera, as it were thoughtlessly, but I don't have to produce it.

On my mind: how to bring my teaching life in better concord with my writing life. Last semester I found something of a modus scribendi, keeping up with my classes and grading and still having something left over for at least half-an-hour every evening. Then over the summer I had acres of time to spend and misspend. Now the shock of autumn has made it hard to find my way back to daily writing, which leaves the novel tossing and turning like a fitful sleeper trying to get back to his dream. I'm not too worried about it--there's enough momentum at this point that I feel that the story, or stories, are always there. But it nags at me all the same.

At least I'm writing poems again after a considerable hiatus—poems of a different stripe than my Ithaca diary, and wilder and more shaggy than the Severance Songs, which I'll keep tinkering with right up to the moment Tupelo finally demands the manuscript. Sent a few poems out the other day after not doing that for a long while.

Somehow to bring writing and teaching into closer accord, so that one isn't stealing from the other. To be able to bring my interests of the moment into the classroom. And I've been inspired by my students too--the especially bright and ambitious ones that clustered around my door for a while last spring were instrumental in moving me to try fiction again. They helped me recapture a little of the old ingenuousness, while still being smart as hell.

I've been sick post-birthday, and today I took down off the shelf the sort of monstrous theoretical tome that I used to read for pleasure--something I'd acquired in my Ithaca days and never opened--Geoff Waite's Nietzsche's Corps/e. Published in 1996 it feels at once like the product of another era and also completely relevant to my desire to find the doorway out of postmodernism. Badiou seemed to offer one way but I'm starting to think that he's an idealist at heart, in spite of all his talk about radical secularization. That pushes me back toward Marx, and trying to understand my own anti-Marx/bourgeois/romantic impulses. Waite has written a wide-ranging and scathing polemic on what he insists on calling Nietzsche/anism; his hyperbolic claim, quoting Georges Bataille, is that "Nietzsche's position is the only one outside of communism." It's a fervent attack on left Nietzscheanism (i.e., post-structuralism) without being reactionary, as most such attacks usually constitute themselves. Probably out of date. But it's fun to re-immerse myself in such an intellectually penetrating yet wide-ranging text, stylistically reminiscent of a more serious Zizek, and more pleasurable than Badiou by a long shot. It's also hooking me up again with my Frankfurt School-formed self after a summer dawdling in the mires of mathematics.

Also reading:

- José Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the first Saramago I've read—I've been turned off by the descriptions of books like Blindness, which made them sound schematic, but this is lush and atmospheric, a treat.

- Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax, editors, Letters to Poets. The kind of refreshment I used to go to blogs for: candid, searching, often breathtakingly smart letters between older and younger poets on how to survive and perpetuate the writing life. So far I've been particularly moved by exchanges between Brenda Coultas & Victor Hernandez Cruz, Truoung Tran & Wanda Coleman, and Jennifer Firestone & Eileen Myles. Highly recommended.

I thought there was more but there ain't. No poetry to speak of except of what I get glancingly out of Poetry (which by and large continues to be dismayingly anodyne in its actual poem choices, though the prose discussions are lively) and the latest Denver Quarterly (which has the opposite problem: an exciting house style that becomes too insistently recognizable after a while).

And so ends this latest ramble. Blogging begets blogging, but in this case it may beget more silence, exile, and cunning—the powers of concentration that I need if I'm to restore writing to its rightful place in my day.

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