Drafting: “Kennedy”

I have written at least a poem every week for the last fourteen weeks, and that’s pretty amazing. I’ve gotten so used to doing it that even though the rough draft for my thesis is nearly through, I’ve submitted all the poems I need to for my workshop class, and I could be relaxing, I still got up this morning and had an idea for one.

Richard Tillinghast talks about keeping an “avenue for inspiration” in his interview in The Pinch coming out in Spring 2012. If we regularly keep in touch with our own poetry or at least read a little poetry every day, we open up that avenue to get inspired. That’s part of the reason why I schedule writing time for myself. I’m just there, hanging out, and I can either read or write, but I gotta do something related to craft. I find that I’m more inspired to write in these times. I seem to have clearer ideas, and I can get them on the page succinctly.

Today’s draft actually got inspired by my mother. I was born on Thanksgiving and the day of JFK’s assassination, both details that have always amused me. My mother told me last night that the day I was born she was watching replays of JFK’s fateful drive on television since it was the twenty-first anniversary of his death.

I recently read a creative nonfiction piece in Gulf Coast by Lorraine Doran (which is now up on their website! Read it read it!). It begins with describing how the author was born and how her family doctor happened to be the son of William Carlos Williams. It’s a wonderful opening. What writer doesn’t wish they were birthed by William Carlos Williams or his progeny?

It got me thinking about creative nonfiction as a genre. I’ve shied away from it for a long time, choosing fiction and fictionalized poetry instead, but there’s something so evocative and fun in the experimental CNF we published in The Pinch and what others are now publishing.

Because I was already thinking about birth, when my mother told me that little snippet of what she was watching on TV the day I was born, I started thinking about how strange it would be to have a child and then be holding it while watching a president get shot and bob around while his wife panics.

The poem begins:

“Kennedy has been dead twenty-one years.
My mother, a younger semblance of herself,
holds me, a cocoon of pink.”

Robert Lowell has a poem with the line, “These are the tranquilized Fifties and I am forty.”  In that line, he situates himself in a larger world and time period and then makes it personal by relating his own age. I plan on playing in a similar way with this poem. The president being shot is a much larger issue, but it affected so many people personally. My own father told me he knows exactly where he was when he heard, and he was just 9 years old. JFK’s death has shadowed my birthday since I can remember. It’s always been strange to see the commemorations to him and the replay of his fateful drive every year. The important thing about political poetry (and all its forms) that Tillinghast discusses is that it must be personal to be effective; we must find a way to connect on an individual level, so it doesn’t remain in abstract.

What happened on the day you were born? What about it was political or poetic or tragic?

Adding a sense of place to your poetry

I, like probably most writers today, fail to include a sense of place in a lot of my work, yet contests call, specifically, for “place” entries. The Zocalo Public Square Poetry Contest (no entry fee and the deadline is Nov 5th!) defines place as  “a place of historical, cultural, political or personal importance; it may be a literal, imaginary or metaphorical landscape.”

Today, I see place as something really important to a story or poem, even if it’s on the periphery. Many of the stories that won the Pen/O. Henry Prize do have a sense of place: a region, a specific city or country, or just a general feeling. These “places” do contribute to the story, sometimes in a big way. “Pole, Pole” is set in Kenya. For the most part, the place is on the periphery. The different things particular to Kenya are mentioned, but really only in passing. The main focus is on the relationship that unfolds. But, at the very end, when the main character gets a look of pity from the married-man-she-just-slept-with’s servant, there’s more mileage there. The main character is higher in both status and class: she’s white, American, and employed as a documentary filmmaker. Hence when this servant looks at her with pity, it is surely a sign that the main character has done something worthy of quite a lot of it.

Many stories I read for The Pinch slush pile miss this context. They may have some interesting premise or an evocative relationship, yet without a sense of place, it seems too generalized. There’s no description of the landscape, no keywords in the dialogue (lightning bugs vs. fireflies; pop vs. soda), no restaurant chains or stores referenced. Sometimes, having a story that could happen in any place can work. In  my experience though, more often than not, it’s not something particularly chosen to exclude, but, instead, chosen not to include.

Sometimes, a place can be a home or just a room. In my poem, “The Widow’s Attic,” (which I talked about drafting here) the place is in the title and the whole poem describes that place and what items might be found there.

Today, I am trying more avidly to include a sense of place in my own work. I moved several times as a child, and though I’ve lived in Memphis for nearly 14 years now, I’ve never really owned Memphis as being my home. For the longest time, I really thought I just needed to get the hell out and then I’d find my “place,” but I’m realizing more that regardless of how I feel about a particular place or how I may still be far from “settled” in a particular place, I can still use it in my work.

In the memory poem I talked about writing here, I did include that. I lived in North Carolina for 2 years as a child, and though my memories of it are just fragments, I did include what I remembered. What I didn’t remember, I looked up: What kind of trees do they have there? What do they look like? The flowers? What did I remember it feeling like? Where were the places I liked to go? Why did I like them?

Richard Tillinghast, in an interview that will come out in The Pinch in the Spring, talks a lot about place. He’s an avid traveler, yet he was born and raised in Memphis. His family’s home on S. Cox had been bought right after it was built and over 100 years of his family have lived there. Because he’s been able to travel so much, it’s helped him be able to see places he lives and has lived differently. I know when I travel myself, when I return, things look different, more exotic, a little less familiar. I see this and that with new eyes. After I returned from Greece over the summer, it took at least 2 days for me to adjust to the fact that every television station was in English: I was so used to either flipping through Greek channels or seeing Greek subtitles run under whatever programs were being aired in English.

Yesterday, I tried my hand at writing a “Memphis” poem. I have never found the landscape of Memphis particularly lovely. My parents and I moaned for years that Memphis, with its grass that turns brown and its overwhelming greenery, was a pale comparison to how shockingly beautiful and colorful North Carolina was. Despite that, I still tried to find the beauty in it, by remembering when I was a child and when I’d go on walks.

Here’s how it begins right now:

“Under overcup oaks and boxelders,
I skimmed tadpoles from a creek
drained from the Wolf River…”

I again looked up the types of trees, the types of nuts and other things that the trees shed: “monkey balls” are actually sweetgum fruit. When the fruits harden and drop, they spread seeds. I also discovered that the nuts that fall outside my apartment complex are not big acorns, but hazelnuts.

Tillinghast makes a suggestion of thinking about where you grew up as a child, the places you would haunt, the things you would like to do, and the people you would see. For some of us with more nomadic childhoods, that might be hard to conjure, but poetry is about emotional truth, not realistic truth. Think up an experience you had and then see how the place could help influence that or build on the objective correlative.

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!

River City Writers Series: Richard Tillinghast

The University of Memphis has a wonderful writers series that simply isn’t advertised enough.

Richard Tillinghast, a poet, will be the first to open the series Tuesday, September 27th at 8pm at the University Center, Room 350.

I and two other poets have been reading his work, samplings from his 8 published poetry books, as well as some from his 3 nonfiction books, and just tackling his amazing biography, in order to prepare for interviewing him.

A native Memphian, Richard Tillinghast last resided in Ireland, where he was awarded several grants just for his contribution to the Irish poetry/writing scene (He also wrote his latest nonfiction book, Finding Ireland, about his exploration of Irish poetry and writing). Before that, he had received grants to study conversational Turkey in Istanbul. While there and some after, he translated the Turkish poet, Edip Cansever, into English with his daughter while staying there. He wrote a beautiful essay about staying in Turkey here.

He studied under Robert Lowell at Harvard, has taught at Harvard, Sewanee, Michigan, and Iowa, and received endowments from really too many places to name. He even once recorded his poetry while the band Poignant Pleclostomus jammed in the background.

For any poet or writer interested in seeing how one gets so many amazing opportunities to get paid to write, he is the one to ask.

I’m a fiction writer. Why would I care about seeing a poet?

Great question. Poetry is about crystallizing images, about treating language in a fresh way. Tillinghast is brilliant at this. There are so many lines from his work that I want to steal, and I think fiction writers would entirely benefit from reading poetry and trying to write a poetry (even badly). Anyone’s fiction would benefit from a thorough study of how poetry employs imagery and language. Don’t be afraid because your teacher only made you read Old English poetry in class. Embrace completely accessible, contemporary poetry.

One example: 

(published online on Agni)

A Hotel in the Rain

Today this place seems chiseled out of the weather—
if you could hammer a hard edge into airy droplets
or drive a steel blade into the staticky
encroachment of the rain and hew out
these however-many square feet
of contentment and efficiency,
with two-foot-thick stone walls and infallible slates.

This hotel, this haven, your bower or burrow,
Badger’s hole from The Wind in the Willows,
where you waken layer by layer
after the best night’s sleep you ever got
like a storybook creature saved from misadventure—
half hearing finger-taps, then lashings
of rain against your windows.

Breakfast under a skylight alive with rain.
Then go out and trawl the second-hand bookstores.
Inhabit the pub till the talk gets dull
and your bad knee insists upon return
to your room up the stairs
where everything has been tucked and turned,
and a sliver of sunlight laid on your windowsill.

Just look at those words! chiseled, sliver, hew, infallible slates. So melodic! So perfectly lovely! Think of these in your fiction! Think of these in your poetry!

Come to hear more.

Tuesday, September  27th, 8pm, University of Memphis, University Center, Room 350