Tillinghast Came; Abstract poetry?

The events with Richard Tillinghast went swimmingly.

His reading had a really good turn out (though Tillinghast did say that half of the attendees were his relatives, since he’s from Memphis, but I imagine he was being hyperbolic.), and he read very well. Tillinghast doesn’t have an Irish brogue from his years spent living there; he still has a very mild-mannered Southern drawl. He read a few poems specifically about his father since he was thinking of him here, as well as one of the translations he and his daughter did of Edip Cansever’s poetry.

It is always good for any writer who wants to get into the field to attend readings and see other professionals in the field. Tillinghast read, kindly answered a few questions, and then was done.

The next morning, the University of Memphis hosted an interview with him by one of our MFA students. These interviews are also open to the public. Sometimes they go very well, like when a group of students jointly interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin (which will actually be showcased in the Fall 2011 issue of The Pinch). Sometimes they go badly, like when two students tried to interview one poet and he simply refused to answer any questions (which he’s done for years. He just hates interviews for some reason.). Every writer is different and some are more interview-able than others. Tillinghast fared well. He didn’t always stay on point, but he has so many interesting experiences to call from that I don’t know how he could ever bore an interviewer.

Finally comes the real blessing of attending the University of Memphis MFA program: the guest writers then host a workshop with the students in their particular genre. It’s a great opportunity to get to know a writer a bit more and experience how other writers run workshops, since Tillinghast has taught workshops at Sewanee, Harvard, and the University of Michigan. We’ve had some different experiences with these workshops: one poet talked about balancing plates and compared our poems to one another’s, which none of us understood too much; another poet did a great job at workshopping each line and talking about specifics. Tillinghast was kind, thoughtful. He had each poet read his or her work and then Tillinghast made some opening comments about it, then he’d open it to the class. If someone said something that he agreed with, he’d point that out and they’d talk about it.

He did point out something I said that he didn’t agree with. A poem we were workshopping included the line, “prime snatch lined up like fresh fish.” My comment was that it was disgusting and then I moved on to other comments. Tillinghast told me that my comment sounded like a moral judgment and that moral judgments don’t matter in poetry; what matters is the sound and the freshness of an image. I argued that comparing women’s genitals to fish was a cliché and did little for musicality. I said the author’s use of “poozwack” earlier in the poem was actually interesting and fresh. He was right though, using “disgusting” as a workshop comment doesn’t help at all. Sometimes the most disgusting things in a poem might be the most evocative.

What I took away from the workshop is that poetry can push the line of abstraction. I’m a very rational poet. I want each of my images to be very clear. I may push the space of reality vs. surreality, but my goal is not to go too abstract to lose my audience. Tillinghast made the point that sometimes regardless of whether he understands a line, it sticks for him and makes him want to understand the line. I don’t know where that goes in thinking about my own poetry, but it might help me be more empathetic for other poets who do choose to go more abstract. My response is always to make those abstract lines clearer, more in reality. I think the best poems are those that take reality and shape it to be clear in a new way. I always see abstraction as laziness, as a way for a writer to get out of being precise. Maybe it’s not so much that. Maybe there’s a playfulness to it that I just don’t get yet.

How do you deal with the line of abstraction? Do you play with it? Stay on one side of the extreme?

Richard Tillinghast will also be at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN on Sat, October 15th. SFB is free and open to the public, so see him and stop by The Pinch table if you get the chance!

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10 thoughts on “Tillinghast Came; Abstract poetry?

    1. What does that mean? I have no clue.

      Night whispers shadows, I can get. Why you would need the causal of the “if” is unclear. Night will only whisper shadows if broken wings (why are they broken?) brush words of smoke (how can something broken brush?). So, the wings brush words of smoke on silence, so covering the silence so someone can call the name of someone else. So, is the name “the words on smoke”?

      I could probably keep going…

  1. I attended the reading and am not a relative! (Or a student) Actually, I found your site through a Google search on Tillinghast.

    I’m reading his selected poems now and love that he includes cats in several of his poems. I’m a total cat person, so those lines have much meaning for me. I’ve often been a bit hesitant to talk much about cats in poetry for fear of being read as a crazy cat lady. I suppose it all depends on how you do it.

    1. Fantastic!

      You know, I’m really the same way. My dog and cat are so special to me, yet I don’t include them in any of my poetry. I know for me that not including them seems like giving some distance from my personal life. Tillinghast does a great job at just talking about the little things in his life, like losing a button, and it has so much more meaning. That’s something I’d like to learn to do and reading his poetry helps. Maybe he’ll help you write about cats too?

      (Speaking of cat writers, I interviewed Marge Piercy for The Pinch recently and she is a huge cat lover. It’s all throughout her poetry, even her nonfiction book is called Sleeping with Cats and she even sent in a writer’s photo with her holding one of her cats!

      1. Yes, I think Tillinghast just might inspire me to include cats.

        Thanks for the tip on Piercy! I’m putting her memoir on my reading list.

        I’m wondering why you feel you have to give some distance from your personal life in your work. Is this because you want to be published and retain some privacy?

      2. 🙂

        That’s a good question.

        One big reason that I keep my distance is that I’m not a creative nonfiction writer. I applaud those who can publish memoirs, but I enjoy the safety of fictions. There is such ambiguity when it comes to figuring out what is the “truth.” My mother and I might have completely different memories of the same event, but if I stick to my emotional truth, I don’t have to worry about did this happen at this time, etc. because I’m owning all that I can own: my feelings. I usually forget what I did or said in a particular situation, but I usually don’t forget the emotions attached to that particular situation.

        For me in a way, my work is intensely personal because I do stick to those emotional truths, but I apply them to different situations, characters, even when I use the pronoun “I.” I also write about worlds that are interesting for me to inhabit. It is obvious from reading my work what my obsessions and loves are, what are the things I am most trying to work out or most interested in.

        In Natalie Goldberg’s An Old Friend from Far Away, she says that if there is anything in our personal life that we think we will never be able to write about it, to write about it. Throw it away, burn it, whatever. Then write it again. And again. And again. Until it’s no longer so painful. I think that’s also part of my process. I once wrote a lot of confessional poetry, but had to stop because I couldn’t take the criticism in stride. It hurt too much because I was too close to the pieces. So, I write and re-write some of the same stories in my poems and, each time, those things get easier to deal with.

        Though I’m a poet, I really employ a lot of the same tactics of fiction writers. I take from my own life and give it to my characters. I am not a creative nonfiction writer today, but that may change. Marge Piercy is a prolific poet and novelist and then went ahead and added memoirist to her CV. It’s all possible.

        How much of a distance do you take from your poems?

  2. In the past I probably haven’t had enough distance, which is why rejections felt so personal. I’ve been working on getting tougher about rejections, and I think distance could be part of that.

    Your comments on memory lead me to believe you’d really like the book, The Invisible Gorilla. It’s written by a couple of psychology professors and is packed with research on how our memories deceive us.

    1. I get that. Submitting more helped me too, and getting those rare publications/nice rejection letters. Those ease it a bit more.

      I’ll look that book up. It sounds really interesting! Thanks for the suggestion!

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