Jennifer Simon (fingers) Sat 8 Oct 11 17:00
What a lovely comment, Sara, thank you again, and thanks to Ed for posting it. I am particularly taken with the idea that one has to let go of control when approaching poetry. I wonder if that is part of what throws some for a loop about it. Also, although I can be as giddy as any consumer when I'm in a bookstore, I still think this line is fundamentally true as well as beautiful: 'This isn't the "more" of consumerism it is the more of a yet unfolding story.'
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Sun 9 Oct 11 12:12
Sara, those thoughts are so true and words so breathtakingly well chosen, all I want to do is savor them, not speak. As one does after reading a poem. Certain thoughts remind us of ways of being that are unretainable by the practical mind of purpose and tasks. Those are the ways of being held by poems--and by your comments. I will say only briefly, then, in response to Jennifer's question from my own last post, that why I feel unread poems matter is part of that mystery Sara speaks of. It is the same reason, utterly unjustifiable in any practical way, that I like the fact that there are Benedictine monks, or Buddhist hermits, or birds and whales whose songs I will never hear. This is not a matter of "belief." I simply feel that these existences matter whether or not I know about them. That we are connected in ways beyond knowledge. There is a fabric of being we share, and each of its threads is held in unaccountable ways by every other.
didn't practice being married in class (thansen) Sun 9 Oct 11 21:28
Enjoying this conversation and the deep wisdoms shared. I only want to say that I am still thinking, stunned, of your fevered couplets Mary. No idea what they mean but they remind me to be in awe of the human creature.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 10 Oct 11 09:59
I realized that both Mary and I have thus far left unanswered Jennifer's excellent question about poems that have changed us... it's for me a question almost too vast to answer in any adequate way. I have been a sponge all my life, absorbing poets and poems from every possible time and place--classical China and Japan, 20th century and classical Greece, Russia, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, the Western classics from Horace and Catullus and Virgil to Donne and Keats, Whitman and Dickinson, Auden, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Jack Gilbert, W.S. Merwin... to name any set of names is to leave a hundred others out. And some are quite unlikely--Bertolt Brecht, for instance. A small subset of his poems lies in no small part behind my own pebbles. There is one poem that I often do think of, though, as a central example of a poem that changed my life. This one I translated, in 1985, with Mariko Aratani, from the classical Japanese while we were working on our book THE INK DARK MOON: POEMS BY KOMACHI AND SHIKIBU, WOMEN OF THE ANCIENT JAPANESE COURT. I had the English words, I had the grammar, but I couldn't translate it until I understand what it meant. I struggled with it for quite a few days. Then something fell into place, and I understood: Although the wind blows terribly here, the moonlight also leaks between the roofplanks of this ruined house. Izumi Shikibu Once I understood--this is a poem about being permeable in every direction, to the difficult as well as to the desired, pointing out that you cannot shield yourself from one without also forbidding entrance to the other--my life was different. And many of the poems I have written since then reflect that. So for me, this was a poem that altered the compass. Of feeling, of thought, of action.
William F. Stockton (yesway) Mon 10 Oct 11 10:05
I loved that poem when I first read it in Ink Dark Moon. It does stand out, even to an undisciplined reader. I've been reading Wendell Berry's latest collection of essays *Imagination in Place*. In an essay entitled Speech After Long Silence, he makes some cogent observations about the nature of poetry. He begins by discussing his own experience of hearing John Haines reading at Stanford in 1969. I think this paragraph belongs in this discussion. >>> The explainers of the language of poetry will be forever embarrassed, I hope, by the experience of the readers of poetry: Poems tell more than they say. They convey, as if mutely, the condition of the mind that made them, and this is a large part of their meaning and their worth. Mr. Haines poems, as I heard them that evening, told that they were the work of a mind that had taught itself to be quiet for a long time. His lines were qualified unremittingly by a silence that they came from and were going toward, that they for a moment broke. One felt that the words had come down onto the page one at a time, like slow drops from a dripping eave, making their assured small sounds, the sounds accumulating. The poems seemed to have been made with a patience like that with which rivers freeze or lichens cover stones. Within the condition of long accepted silence, each line had been acutely listened for, and then acutely listened to.<<< There are also essays about the effect of place on a writer that reveal much about "the condition of the mind that made them". Berry has thought long(and quietly) about his art, and I recommend the book to anyone interested in how good writing happens, and why it is important.
From Sara Schier-Hanson (captward) Mon 10 Oct 11 11:19
listened to the video-recordings of several of your poems last night, Jane. I have been out of the NPR, poetry journal loop over- long and am hearing your poetry and Mary's for the first time because of this conference. Given the links provided, I clearly have been missing many internet poetry sites and am glad to have new avenues to search. It was earlier said that poetry passes hand to hand-- that is only how I made the aquaintence of poet Denise Levertov two years ago. I will seek out Mary's links tonight. Jane --the "Button" poem is still making me smile this morning. So many things and so many people have earlier lives. I am thinking of the many people I have met in nursing homes or were homebound in congregations that I have served who sometimes have settled, sometimes have acquiesced,or sometimes with almost zen-like peace grown content with the simplicity of their present life. While I would be patiently listening to these people, as I did to the button tied with cotton, a word would suddenly drop like "horn" dropped in the poem causing me to lean in more deeply. Unfolded before me have come wondrous tellings of adventures taken, lives survived, days of challenge and roaming, which were enough to carry both of us beyond the places where we sat to see something larger. Sometimes the memories brought tears, but many of the stories were told with peace as if to say that was then and this is now. Your "Birthday" poem was so brief, but full. When there is a moment, could you comment on how you know a poem is finished and you to stop? Mary, the question is to you as well. Thank you.
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 10 Oct 11 11:28
I find that I actually have trouble talking about poetry as an abstract concept. Fortunately Jane isn't afflicted with this, and I'm enjoying her comments a great deal. Poetry does not come to me as an abstact reasoning about poetry. It comes to me as song comes to a bird. Every poem is part of all the poems I've ever read infused with everything I've ever felt or experienced. I often feel that in trying to take poetry a part and explain it, we miss the central essence of the poems themselves. Explain, please, what love it. Explain, please what a sense of divine presence is. Explain, please why you get a certain feeling when you see a white crane fishing in the shallows. I think a poem might tackle all the above questions and move toward some sort of explanation that transcends rational thought. But if you roll that poem backwards and delve around for a way to put what the poem is doing into prose, you no longer have a poem. A poem contains the most precise language human beings use. Change one word or even the placement of one word, and you change everything.
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Mon 10 Oct 11 12:05
Mary, your post reminds me of a story someone once told me about Robert Frost (which may be apocryphal, as I haven't found confirmation of it elsewhere, but it's too good to pass up the chance to put it here). He was asked to explain what one of his poems meant. He replied, "You want me to say it over again in *worse* English?"
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 10 Oct 11 15:36
If Frost didn't say that, he should have. It's perfect. Meanwhile: Andy Ross has posted an interview with me in which I speak frankly about a number of things including the spiritual dimensions of passion and the role poetry plays in resisting dictatorships. I also talk about the ways in which writing a novel and writing poetry are different (but equally enjoyable). You can read the entire interview at: http://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/mary-mackey-on-writing- poetry-and-fiction/
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Mon 10 Oct 11 16:51
Excellent, Mary, thanks for the link! Once again, those are marvelous answers, Jane. I found myself nodding when I read "I simply feel that these existences matter whether or not I know about them. That we are connected in ways beyond knowledge. There is a fabric of being we share, and each of its threads is held in unaccountable ways by every other." That is in accord with my own perceptions, so of course even poems unread, even poems unwritten, must still make a difference. That is a great list of authors, too. It is hard to choose. Many of my own favorites are there, and as I look it over, with Mary's last comment and Wendell Berry's description of words "making their assured small sounds" in mind (I love that quote -- thanks for posting it, Bill!), it occurs to me that these are people who trust words to do their work without demanding explanations from them. In addition to sharing Sara's curiosity about how you know a poem is finished, I wonder how you know it's good. I can't ask that without thinking of Merwin's "Berryman" -- "if you have to be sure don't write" -- but still, while letting go of certainty, you must choose what to put in and what to leave out or a book, as well as how to arrange them. The arranging also something I'd like to learn about.
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Mon 10 Oct 11 16:55
I just noticed Mary's link may not copy properly for some readers, so here it is again in brackets, to make it all stick together: <http://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/mary-mackey-on-writing-poetry-a nd-fiction/>
Joe Cottonwood (joecot) Mon 10 Oct 11 17:01
"Poetry does not come to me as an abstract reasoning about poetry. It comes to me as song comes to a bird." Mary, I'm currently reading your _The Dear Dance of Eros_. "As song comes to a bird" is how those poems seem to be written, so fresh, so unlabored, so immediate, so intimate I feel somehow I should avert my eyes (but I don't) as if I'd happened upon two lovers in a forest. Thank you for writing them.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 10 Oct 11 17:50
That's a really wonderful interview, Mary--and I have to say, I think you did a rather good job of talking about the "abstract" concepts behind and inside of "The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position #5." Now *that* is what I have trouble doing--I'll do almost anything to avoid talking directly about my own poems, though I am very happy to talk about others' poems when I teach, or talk about poetry as an activity of heart and mind that I love and am bottomlessly engaged by. I have done it--talked about a poem I've written--we all sooner or later get asked this in a way or a place where we have to answer--but I find it painfully difficult. (And maybe this was for you, too...) What I love about your relationship to talking about poems is that it's always speaking straight from the center of life, of the real matters of heart & mind in relationship to words and worlds and people. Plus, the poem is delicious-- your tongue tastes like apples your flesh is fog Those are just shivering lines, when they appear. And because it's your poem, and not mine, I can say, partly it's the parallel structure and the variations inside it, in that stanza, along with what happens to the senses in those images, and to our sense of self-in-connection-with-world as we make our way through them. And thank you, Bill, from me as well. Wendell Berry's description of John Haines's poetry is so accurate and beautiful--one master poet of the natural world paying homage to another. Reading it, I couldn't help but think that his praise could equally describe Tomas Transtromer's work. That inclusion of much silence, whose surround makes the words stand out--as black sky makes stars that are always there visible. That's how silence and time forge the words of poems. It is how poems themselves are different from chatting away about them. There are talkative poems and poets I can love--but my first heart goes to these poets whose lines include such vastnesses of silence. For Jennifer's question of how do you know something's good, I don't think we really do. I always loved that T.S. Eliot said, "You die without knowing how good you are." Loved that he, who seemed always so authoritative as a critic, and was so enormously honored as a poet during his lifetime, said that. You never know. There are moods when the work seems perhaps worth keeping, moods when it all turns to ash. I feel that ash in my mouth pretty regularly, and when I do, I try to remember: mood. Moods pass. Poets, it's known, are famously prone to depression. Someone in the psychology department there studied the poets at University of Iowa, and declared, "85% of them, depressives." The beauty of much of the world's poetry is made by pulling back against despair... Not all, but much. And poetry is made of beauty, I suppose, by letting some cross-hatching despair into it. For Sara's question, I feel that I know a poem is finished when, first, it feels like a poem--something happens in it, in me, that has not happened before, some felt shift of being, feeling, grasp, into something changed, and a little larger somehow. (If I have any working definition of "good," I suppose it is somewhere in there.) Beyond that, a poem is finished when it stops changing. After a first-draft arrives, I'll keep re-reading, with greater amounts of time between readings, and with the "revising" question in my mind--a whole set of subterranean questions-- as I feel my way through the poem. When things stop changing, the poem's done. Then if I still feel that alchemical shift in it, when I re-read it, then it's something I'll probably keep, and--moving into a quite separate world-- see if others might find in it something they're glad to have met. I know though that I can't predict what other people will be drawn to. We're all different, for one thing, and one person's favorite poem is not the same as another's. Mary, you said in that interview that you "have more ideas for novels and poems than Ill ever be able to use in one lifetime." That is amazing, for me. I have an absolutely empty cupboard, between poems-- I almost never know what the next one will be, or when it might come. Your singing bird is much closer to my experience... when the bird sings. So I am curious--how do these two descriptions mesh, for you?
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 10 Oct 11 17:56
(Just found in my email that a brief essay I wrote has just gone up on the National Writing Project website--this is a site primarily for high school teachers and students, but tangentially for anyone--and as I read it over, it sounded so much like Mary's birds, I actually laughed--we all do share the same fundamental sense of these things, it seems.) <http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3684>
Cindy Smith (clsmith) Mon 10 Oct 11 18:24
John Haines died this year at age 87, and I miss him every day. He and Wendell Barry met up in Sitka at the symposium there a few years ago now, which was a nice thing to see. Jane, in reading your book, one thing I thought striking is the arrangement of the order in which the poems are given. Can you and Mary talk about how you approach this challenge of presenting a collection?
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Tue 11 Oct 11 08:02
Cindy, this is a little unorthodox of me--but next week, I'm giving a craft session at Poets House in NYC on transitions, at the level of phrase, line, poem, and book, so I'll be talking about this issue there. I know what I think I did--but I don't know what anyone else is seeing/finding. Since this struck you, might you be willing to say what you experienced? I'd find that both interesting and possibly helpful, as I get ready for this talk. In general, I never use my own work as an example when I teach, but for this particular event (since it's the only thing I am doing in NY while the book is new), I am trying to force myself to break the internal taboo.
Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 11 Oct 11 15:14
I wish you and I were in New York at the same time, Jane. I'd love to hear what you have to say about transitions. (I'm coming the following week to do a couple of readings) Let me try to answer some of the questions that you've all raised. First, how do I know when a poem is finished. I do a great deal of revision and, like Jane, I reread the poems with a lot of time between readings. I know a poem is finished when I start making revisions that seem to make the poem less powerful instead of more powerful. I generally have to go to far in revisions to know it's time to stop. This is why, in addition to rereading the poems, I often reread earlier drafts. Joe, thank you for your wonderful description of the poems in "The Dear Dance of Eros." As to how I reconcile poems coming me to me like birdsong with the fact that I have more ideas for poems and novels than I will ever be able to use in one lifetime, the secret is that the ideas come to me like birdsong, but as I develop them I have to do triage. I keep a notebook of stray ideas for poems and novels. I have hundreds, maybe thousands, of ideas. I've never counted. Every once in a while I go back and pick one and play with it. If it's a poem, I have to get the singing in my head started again. It's an almost trance-like experience in which I take a phrase or word and them leap off into whatever decides to come next. At times whole poems do come to me, but this is not as common. When I write novels, the process is very different. I take an idea and then I start a methodical development of plot a character. I create 2 to 10 page single-spaced charts of all my characters, describing everything I can imagine about them. By the time I am finished, I know them as well as my best friends. At that point, I can usually hear one of them speaking. That voice often becomes the starting point of the novel. At the same time I am developing characters, I am doing a plot outline--or rather, I should say, plot outlines, because I keep revising and changing. The outline starts with a list of major ideas and plot points. I then start trying to put them together into a coherent, motivated plot. As if this weren't enough, I also am doing research. I read about places, historical events, scientific discoveries, fashions--whatever I need to know to create the world of the novel. If I am writing a historical novel, I create a time chart where each character is traced from birth to the end of whatever time he or she appears in the novel. With every year of a character's life, I also list important historical events that happened at that moment. For example: Sept 1831 Carrie Vinton born (one month after Nat Turner Slave Rebellion begins in Virginia) (The above is from the timeline/character chart for the heroine of my novel "The Widow's War") This post is getting so long that I think I should save my comments on how I arrange a collection of poems until tomorrow. I believe we are going to be having this conversation for one more day, right, Jennifer?
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Tue 11 Oct 11 15:59
I believe that's right. It is my understanding that we can natter on as long as we like, but I know you and Jane both have busy schedules. I appreciate your taking the time to throw a poetry festival for us in the midst of all that. These latest comments are as fascinating as your first. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the arranging of poems for books, too.
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 11 Oct 11 18:53
This has been terrific, and feels like it all just started.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Wed 12 Oct 11 07:48
Thank you, Jennifer, and Gail... (I'm still hoping Cindy comes back before I talk further about her question) Truly fascinating, Mary, about the two different processes for poems and novels--not surprising that they are different, just very interesting to hear the details of how each unfolds for you. And yes, I wish we were in NY at the same time too! And wish we were travelling there together, would that not have been grand? I'm going to spin an aside, while waiting for Cindy, and say that some of my finest times with other writers have emerged from coinciding on airplanes. A fantastic cross-country trip with South African-born, surgically precise novelist Lynn Freed, when we were both teaching at Bennington and ended up coming home on the same plane. Another with the person-of-letters and thinker/observer/conclusion-drawer beyond compare, Rebecca Solnit. I am trying, but cannot, remember which writer it was who once was up in first class, and kept bringing me treats from her meal back where I was in steerage; I do remember we'd both gone to visit our aging mothers. And an all time favorite: Linda Gregg, W.S. Merwin, and I, in a pretty small plane, left to linger for quite a long time on the tarmac before taking off. We'd all been at an event together. I have forgotten the event--but in that plane, we got to sharing loved poems from memory or notebooks. I have only a few poems memorized, myself, but William Merwin began reciting 17th-century sonnets by heart. I have no idea if this was torture for our fellow passengers, but for me, the plane fell away, the wait fell away, I could have sat there for as many hours as the fates asked, utterly aswoon. OK, one more airplane story (because we're supposed to keep talking, you know, and I am delaying a question posed). I was on an airplane bound for Newark, on my way to the Dodge Festival. For any of you who don't know it, this is the largest poetry event we have in this country--over a four day weekend, perhaps 20,000 people attend. There are big events and small events, and the first day is devoted to high school students, bussed in from hundreds of miles around; the second day is for teachers of all kinds. People fly in to this festival from all over--I once met a woman who lived an eighth mile below me on a hill... I was walking by her house, which I've always loved, and said hello--and she looked at me and said, "I just heard you read, a couple weeks ago, at the Dodge." (I live, should anyone not know this, in California.) Back to the plane, a 747 flying to Newark. I was in the aisle seat one row back from the big opening for the door. Three extraordinarily beautiful women (in the real way, not the way of models), two perhaps in their 40s, one a generation older, came up to stand together in the big open area. They had an anthology of Native American poetry they were looking at together. So, because I was en route to the Dodge, and so it seemed likely there were too, I did something unusual. I talked to one as she was going back to her seat, and asked, were they also en route to the Dodge? No, she replied. She, her cousin, and her aunt, were on their way to a memorial at St. John the Divine, in NYC, for another cousin, who had died, way too young, falling off a ladder in his orchard. They were looking for a poem to read at his service. They weren't finding one. There was one they were all trying to think of, though they could not remember who it was by. Their cousin had so loved the natural world. The poem, well, all she could remember was that it had a lake in it. I have, as I said above, very few poems memorized. But one of them is Yeats's, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." I began to say it to her--yes, that was the one. I offered to copy it out. I felt as a doctor must, when asked, "Is there a doctor on the plane?" Except whoever hears, "Is there a poet on the plane?" Later, the woman brought me a copy of her cousin's Times obituary. It mentioned not only that he'd founded a wild horse sanctuary but also that he had been one of the main supports of the Tibetan Buddhist community in exile in this country. Not everyone reading this may know that both these--wild horses, Tibetan Buddhists in exile--are rather close to my heart. It was the strangest feeling, reading that obituary, and having that chance to offer my gratitude for his life in such a particular and unlikely way. OK, Mary--your turn--tell us a story or two? I know you have the most amazing ones, far wilder than anything I can offer. It only has to be related to writing somehow... by a thread or a river. Russia? Brazil? Arthropods and army ants? An event that lies behind one of the Portuguese-hybrid poems?
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Wed 12 Oct 11 08:12
Way to delay, Jane! Mary is a marvelous spinner of tales, too, impromptu as well as in novels, so I second Jane's question. There are certainly some interesting stories behind the poems in Sugar Zone, as evidenced in Mary's interview with Denny Smithson that I posted a link to earlier, and there's another excellent online interview with her here (part two is at the top of the page; part one is directly beneath it, and part three is apparently still to come): http://thestoryriver.com/
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 12 Oct 11 14:45
I do have a lot of stories, but instead of telling one specific one, I'll just list some of the possibilities. Should I tell about the time I almost stpped on a 9 foot pit viper? The time I was swarmed by army ants as I slept? The time I was nearly trampled by a huge crowd that had gathered to see the priestess of the Brazilian religion Candomble pray for world peace at the outbreak of the First Gulf War? The time (well two times, actually) I was under machine gun fire? The time a rabid bat tried to crawl in my sleeping bag? The time I swam with a 15 foot boa constrictor? The time the termites swarmed out of the dresser in my hotel room when I had a high fever and covered me all over causing me to curse them and remind them that I was not made of wood? The time the very small jungle hopping airplane I was in ran out of gas and we glided down onto the runway? The Russian airplane that had broken seat belts (you had to tie them around your waist)? The Bulgarian airplane that had rivet holes that let clouds stream and hover above us as we sat eating our airplane-food lunches? The time I was the (unwitting) guest of the Georgian Mafia (something I did not realize until long after the fact)? Jane meets Merwin on a plane and he recites poetry to her. If I start to tell a story about a plane, you might want to fasten your seat belts and get out your rosaries.
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Wed 12 Oct 11 15:00
I suppose "Yes!" is not just the answer you were looking for, but it would be the truest, from my point of view. Um, um, um, OK, let's see, perhaps the Georgian Mafia first. Then, if we're very, very good, maybe you'll tell us another. (This is reminding me of my childhood: "Just one more story, and then I'll go to bed, I promise," followed shortly by "Just one more..." Forewarned is forearmed.)
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 12 Oct 11 15:47
I'm actually being a tease here. A lot of these stories end up in my poems. Some day I'll tell them, but right now they are still living in that not quite born place where stories live before you write them down. On the other hand, if you see a poem in Sugar Zone and want to know if there is a story behind it, feel free to ask. EAch poem comes trailing its own history.
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Wed 12 Oct 11 16:37
Ah, yes, I know how that is. I've got a bunch of stories like that myself. Let me see if I can't whittle my curiosity about the stories behind the poems in Sugar Zone down to something manageable, and while I'm doing that, if you would care to talk about the process of picking and arranging poems for a book, that is one question that has been left hanging.
Members: Enter the conference to participate