William F. Stockton (yesway) Wed 12 Oct 11 17:08
... and, and, and I wanted to know about line breals and spacing and such. Do y'all get to hand them something that they just go with, or do they have an editor reconcile it against a set of conventions? Does your control increase with success?
William F. Stockton (yesway) Wed 12 Oct 11 17:09
Um, line breaKs. Don't know what a breal is.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Wed 12 Oct 11 18:12
I wanted the Georgian mafia story too! I'm still letting the order question hang because I still want to know what Cindy saw... Mary though could take that one if she likes. Line breaks--rarely, rarely, the editor of a magazine will question something, but I can't recall anyone ever questioning a line break decision. There are so many different conventions, I think poets just get to choose which one they want to follow. Editors in general, in my experience, take poems or don't, but it's quite unusual for them to make any kind of request. If they truly hated your line breaks, they'd just turn down the poem, and not tell you why. (I'm speaking of magazine editors here--book editors vary, but can be much more engaged... I still can't think of anyone ever talking about line breaks though.) In a poetry workshop, people will occasionally suggest that a different line break would be perhaps more effective--but I myself am one of the last to say that; it would have to leap out very visibly as actively working against the poem, or against the reader. My first mind-set on meeting any poem is "believe the poem," and as a corollary to that, believe the poet knows what he or she is doing, and is doing what he or she wants to do. In other words, try to go with what is there, until/unless it bucks you off. It is probably true that as a poet "finds their voice," line breaks grow more confident of themselves along with everything else. A poem is an orchestra in which every instrument wants to be in tune with every other--in whatever way "in tune" serves best. Some orchestras are tuned to the cacaphonous--on hearing this, my first question will be, is that what was intended? I try that on first. I may like it, I may not like it, but I want to assume it's what was intended, and then see if it's achieving that on its own best terms. There are of course other things to be said about line breaks, and how the different kinds work to give different musics, meanings, hints... but that wasn't the question.
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 12 Oct 11 18:13
From email@example.com: Thank you for the very enriching conversation during these past two weeks. Safe travels, may your muses continue to be benevolent and your quiet time plentiful. Peace.
Cindy Smith (clsmith) Wed 12 Oct 11 18:44
Ah, Jane, I'm sorry! Things have been busy at home with Bob and so I'm afraid I'm not going to be very articulate. What I was struck by was a strong sense of movement, of an arc of conversation about aspects of a particular kind of human experience and knowledge. In contrast to, say, a format often used in collections -- what I jokingly sometimes think of as slabs o'poems. That form seems almost geologic: here are these poems. And now here are these others. etc... OK, not very clear, I know! But I thought it was quite elegant. Like a breeze through a window.
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Wed 12 Oct 11 18:55
What a lovely description, Cindy! That was more than articulate -- it was elegant, and thank you for taking the time to respond when you are so busy. Best wishes to you and Bob.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Wed 12 Oct 11 21:34
And I thank you as well, Cindy-- I hope I didn't make you feel put on the spot--not my intention! I just assumed you were busy and would meander back when you could... And that was indeed quite articulately described, and makes me happy... I do try to shape my books as best I can. How it works has varied over time. I write one poem at a time, not "a book of poems." A book's coherence, for me thus far anyhow, is simply the coherence of what I have thought about and lived and felt for the six or so years that are in its pages. My own life's history, concerns, questions, bemusements, ponderings, desperations... a small epiphany on seeing a cottage cheese container's expiration date and wondering about my own; noticing how disruptive any invitation is, even if it's eventually turned down; having a cat move in and come purring by my ear in the middle of the night. (The poem "The Dark Hour" was originally "The Dark Cat," I will here confess... I went back and forth a surprisingly long time before settling on "hour.") When I have a book's worth of poems, two things go into shaping it. One--because I give readings pretty regularly, I usually have poems I have come to like beginning and ending readings with, and those often take the same slots in the finished book. In the case of this one, though, for a long time I thought "The Supple Deer" would be the opening poem. It turned into the last one, instead. Then I thought "First Light Edging Cirrus" would be first--but "French Horn" stepped forward in front of it--Why? I liked the opening note being one of "sumptuous disturbance," and of natural and cultural worlds and passion all jumbled together... and I also liked that the young people in love in that poem are opening a book that is so much about time... The second thing that goes into shaping is a book is taking all the poems that will potentially be in it and laying them out on a large open floor space. (I think many people do this when they go to order poems into a book. Though I've heard the old story of someone throwing the manuscript down a flight of stairs and then just picking it up, voila! ordered! I would guess that person had children about to come home from school.) For Come, Thief, I did that floor-laying-out on the third floor of a big house in Key West, where I'd gone to do the Literary Seminars, and stayed on a few days afterward, thanks to the hospitality of the house's owner... There'd been an extraordinary cold snap, manatees huddling by power plant outflows for warmth, iguanas tumbling from trees... but that house had a bit of heat, and the third floor was warm. What I look for is exactly what you described, an arc. In general in this book-assembling time, what I'm looking at is what poems go together, and seem to address a certain theme, and what poems are different notes, that will need to find a place, and how they all move from one to the other... (Also, what poems seem weaker than their companions, and don't in the end find a place at all.) Sometimes, doing this, you put like with like, sometimes you put some distance between them. This stage is often the first time I really make conscious, for a few moments at least, what themes *are* in a book. But sometimes it isn't themes, it's types of poems. So, for instance, many (but not all) of the rhyme-driven poems in this book are together, near the end, but not they are not the very last note struck in it. I knew that "When Your Life Looks Back" would be late in the book, simply because it is so retrospective--but then "The Supple Deer" slipped behind it, so the book ends with permeability and a bit of open-ended mystery instead of with death... There's a group of poems nearer the beginning that draw on having fallen in love fairly late in my life--those tell a story. Not so directly, but it's there. The short "pebbles" again are grouped together, as they were in the last book, After; the even shorter "Sentencings" is near them. There's a group of poems that emerged from distress over war, and particularly over the Abu Ghraib and waterboarding revelations. Those are near one another, too, but not all in a row. What order these things come in is part of the arc... and none of this is done by coloring strictly inside the lines--a theme is sounded, then disappears, then returns... one poem follows from the one before it, then there's a shift to another subject and mood. I do this with an awareness that is partly made of conscious considerations, partly intuitions I could not explain--as an abstract painter will suddenly want a different color just *here* in a painting, or an improvisational dancer will shift posture, pace, mood. My description here sounds far more informed by self-awareness than it felt at the time--I've had time now to acclimate myself to the book as it stands. At the time, it was more like a hand moving pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into place--an intelligence that isn't purely cognition in the verbal sense is at work. Meanwhile--to return to the process--there the poems are, on the floor. I walk between them, reading each time from the start to the end, feeling how it feels. Then lift one from one place and set it into another, or move perhaps a whole group, or shift the order within a group. In the end, a book is offering a journey. We all know that few read books of poetry from cover to cover, in order. Certainly not on first look. But a book is linear and has an arrangement, so you have to take care of that somehow--and when I love a book fully, I will often read it in order, front to back. (Though as "Happiness is Harder," a poem from an earlier books, says, sometimes I read them back to front as well, as a "cure for certain kinds of sadness.") The slab o'poems (great phrase, that) organization, I did use that in my earlier books. All the natural world poems were together, then all the love poems, then the political/cultural poems, then the Big Idea Poems in a fourth section--death and praise and such. That organization governs the first three books. When I went to assemble my fourth book, The Lives of the Heart, it just didn't fall into those groupings anymore, and so I had to find a different way. That was the most difficult book I've ever ordered. Now it seems fine, but when I was doing it, I kept literally having to run out of the big room, feeling ill. I didn't know how I was going to do it. But you know, as with line breaks--people tend to accept the book they're given. Especially when it's all stitched together and wrapped in boards and a jacket. (Oddly, of all the books I've signed so far at readings, three of them have been bound upside down, and one was a total scramble--it opened on page 57. The upside down ones, I've just said, "ah, a collector's item!", and signed. The scrambled one, I had the bookstore return as defective.)
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Wed 12 Oct 11 22:40
Tonight I finally made time to read this topic from the beginning. What a feast! I felt like I entered a garden of the mind with many beautiful flowers blooming many with the name "poem". Part of the conversation that caught my attention has been about the writing process. Since a veil lifted for me a couple of years ago and I started trying to write poetry, I've found inspiration in what other people write, sometimes conversationally. For example, one inspiration was Jane's posting of Novalis' aphorism here on the Well: "Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.". Not only did it inspire me to write something but it also served as an image for my discovery of poetry after decades working with computers. That line illuminated my transition from a life dedicated to hard, mechanical facts to dancing with words as part of my life's joy. Tonight, when I read the line, "Now it feels a gate into gratitude's mansion.", I found the image so compelling that I was staggered and started contemplating a so far somewhat inchoate vision, but one that I hope will in time bloom. Amongst other things, that line caused me to want to thank all the posters here in this topic and to hope for more of the same even after the scheduled run ends.
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Thu 13 Oct 11 00:38
So glad you've enjoyed it and found inspiration here, Jerry. Jane, I laughed when I read your comment about throwing the poems down the stairs! When I was assembling a manuscript a couple of years ago, I threatened to do just that, and for exactly the reason you guessed. I had poems laid out all over the floor, and as Friday afternoon approached, knowing the kids would be home soon, the temptation grew awfully strong. In the end, though, I just bundled them all in a stack, with sets turned this way and that, and tucked them away till I could spread them out again on Monday. Next time, maybe I'll try the stairs first after all, just to see how much difference it makes. Mary, Sugar Zone is divided into sections, but they are not a bit slab-like. There is clearly a relationship between them, a sense of movement and progression as one reads along (outing myself here as an oddball who does go through poetry books cover-to-cover, often at one sitting, right off the bat). Can you tell us more about how you achieved that effect?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 13 Oct 11 11:36
This has been a wonderful poetry festival/conversation. We're at the end of the two weeks today; we want to thank Jane, Mary, and Jennifer for spending time with us. The conversation can continue at their discretion. Otherwise thanks again to our guests, and to all who participated!
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Thu 13 Oct 11 11:50
Thanks, Jon, it has been wonderful. Many thanks to all the participants. Although I can't speak for Jane and Mary, who have the busiest schedules, I'll still be around and at relative leisure to discuss poetry for awhile longer, if others wish to continue.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Thu 13 Oct 11 15:51
Thank you, jmcarlin, for those words. Poems (and even poets speaking of poems) want to serve. The work of going into someone else's life, and raising something new--it's like being part of a barn-raising. I'm not sure we can ever say fully what the barn is made of, or what it's meant to hold, but whatever it is, it is important, sustaining, alive, hungry, generous with both milk and manure, and needs tending. Thank you Jennifer for your extraordinary tending of this conversation, and Mary and Gail for inviting me into it in the first place. It's been a true pleasure to think about these things together, and to be in the company of all who've wandered in here.
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Thu 13 Oct 11 18:57
Hah, "generous with both milk and manure" -- even writing extemporaneously, you have such a way with words, Jane!
Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 13 Oct 11 20:35
Thank you, Jon, Gail, Jennifer, and Jane for a fascinating chance to engage in an on-going dialogue about poems, poetry, and creativity. I'll part with a few words about arrangement, since I promised to come back to this question. I find that my poems naturally fall into groups. I have no idea why this is the case and often it takes me a long time to see what the groups are. I probably did 15 arrangements of the poems in "Sugar Zone," and then suddenly I saw how they should be arranged. A great deal of clarity came when I realized that in many ways I kept contrasting "The Cold Lands"--the northern hemisphere--with "The Hot Lands"--Brazil and the Amazon. These two points became poles which took on various symbolic meanings as the poems revolved around them. I eliminated a few poems from "Sugar Zone" that did not fit the structure. Perhaps I'll find a place for them in my next collection of poetry, perhaps not. I have a few orphan poems left over from "Breaking The Fever" that didn't find a place in "Sugar Zone." I suspect that these poems may be best read solo instead of in a collection. As for the question about control over line breaks and spacing: I control every line break and every space in my poems. They are as important to the entire poem as the words, and no editor has ever asked me to change them. As Jane said, poets generally have complete control over how their poems look on the page. Novels are another beast entirely. You have much less control over a novel than you do over a poem. Editors change the ends of novels all the time, usually for commercial reasons. One of the delights of writing poetry is that, in the end, the poem appears exactly as you created it.
Jennifer Simon (fingers) Thu 13 Oct 11 22:20
How satisfying, Mary, and that fits with my sense that poems are true in a way that is peculiar to them alone. I am very grateful to have had the chance to pepper you two with questions and read what you have to say in reply. You answers have given me so much food for thought. Thank you.
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