Busy Week

It’s been a busy week around here, what with trying to get lots of details wrapped up for the Eudora Welty Writer’s Symposium. Our press release is now out, flyers are printed and distributed around town, the last of the authors’ travel arrangements are taken care of, and I”m nearly done ordering books.

Oh yes, and then there is the food (check!), the arrangements of tables and chairs at our location (next week), the online program (check!), and the printed program (nearly complete). Then there’s the little detail of a retrospective issue of the Dilettanti, Ephemera and Oh Lady!–student literary magazines MUW has produced over the past 102 years. Thanks to the scanning marathon conducted by Bridget Pieschel, we have plenty of text to work with. My job this week (extending well into the weekend) is to enter that text in our publishing program (InDesign) and get it to our printer in time to have it back by Oct. 23. Should be fun…

I shouldn’t forget those pesky classes and grading. Keeping up can be a challenge that makes you sympathize with your students around midterm time. In Poetry Workshop we were talking about personal poems and whether a poem should be about the poet. Not surprisingly, most of my students felt it should be. Maybe I’ve convinced some of them that it doesn’t have to be and that when it is, the choice is not so simple as it seems. There are so many ways a poet can include him or herself in a poem — as the subject, as the mind behind the poem, as a ‘persona’-like character in his or her own work, as a barely present observer whose personality is hardly important, though it informs the way the observed world is portrayed. Undoubtedly there are more ways to do it or there are combinations of the above. I don’t mind how students write, as long as they are conscious of their choices and struggle with them somewhat.

Our son, Aidan, has also been busy, working on the National Anthem, which a group from his school will sing at the high school football game soon, auditioning for a play, and going to 3 soccer practices (thank goodness the rain finally stopped!), violin lesson, fiddle lesson (the first one of the fall), and orchestra. Thursday we were dashing to three activities in one afternoon. From what we understand, it will only get worse as he grows up…

Muscadines and Peanuts

It’s another Farmer’s Market Saturday. I was glad not to get wet, as we’re still in the deluge cycle, and I walked without an umbrella (too much to carry with one). It was fine on the way down, then poured cats and dogs while I was there — glad they have a roof over ours — but let up after awhile, and I made it home in a drizzle.

I bought a gallon of muscadines for $5.00 — now I have to figure out what to do with them all. It may be more than we can just eat! This morning I made some muscadine, quince syrup for our pancakes. This is the kind of fresh fruit syrup I try to make whenever we run out of real maple syrup (another gallon is on its way, but wasn’t delivered in time for our weekly pancakes). This is a ‘recipe’ I’ve adapted from my Mom’s:

1 cup or so of water (depending on how much you want to make)
1 table spoon or so of corn starch (depending on how much water)
1 cup or so of sugar (to taste)
Fruit — I used two generous handfuls of muscadine grapes (seeds removed) and two small quince from our quince bush (cored and seeds removed)

Boil the water and sugar. Mix the corn starch in a little cold water before mixing with boiling water. Cut up fruit and add to boiling water. Boil until syrupy. If the fruit doesn’t break down enough for your tastes, puree in the blender for a few seconds. Serve piping hot on pancakes. Leftovers make good cold syrup for over ice cream.

The pancakes and syrup turned out great. My trip to the market also yielded red and green peppers, Thai eggplant, honey, and eggs. Earlier in the week, I had picked up 2 lbs of raw peanuts in the shell, which Kim is now boiling in the crock pot with 3 tbsp of salt, water to cover, and a jalepeno. You could use other hot peppers — we hope this doesn’t get too hot! We made these last week with cajun spice, and they were great, but not quite hot enough. So we’ll see how this goes.

All the rain we’ve gotten in the past two weeks hasn’t helped our farmers much, but we’re thankful they can still bring some things in to the market. It sure beats mass-produced food from the grocery store, though we’re glad to have Kroger for the things we can’t get at the market. We’re glad to get organic produce there, and to have one farmer who’s certified organic at our market, too!

Thoughts on narrative poetry

I taught a class on narrative versus non-narrative, associative or dissociative poetry today, and had the joyous realization that most of the class prefers narrative poems. That’s great. I love narrative as well, and often find myself writing poems that tell stories in one way or another. I’ve taught other essays that argue any poem with a sentence structure is inherently narrative because language is. The non-narrative poems try not to make sense with language, to challenge our belief in the sense language can make.

The reason I’m happy my class privileges narrative isn’t because I prefer it, too, though. I’ve had classes that preferred nonsense poems because they felt they could write anything in that mode and it would have to be ‘good.’ It’s hard to argue for narrative in that situation. Famous poets write nonsense poems, why can’t students? (Sometimes I’ve had to resort to the lame excuse: if you can explain it using literary theory, then you can write it.)

It’s much more fun to work with a group of students who essentially believe in narrative and to get them to loosen up a bit. There are narratives, and then there are narratives, after all. And in poetry we can get too hung up on telling the story. There’s something to be said for a lyrical, non-(or minimalist)-narrative mode. There’s something to be said for associative, irrational, intuitive thinking. In fact, a lot of what underlies my favorite poems relies on this kind of thinking, even if the surface has something to do with a minimal story.

Where do I come down on this, then? Is there meaning? Yes, though there are multiple ways of interpreting it. Does language and narrative involve power relationships? Yes, but that’s not always a bad thing. Is communication possible? I hope so. Can communication happen using associative thinking? I hope so. Should poets try every trick in the book (and then some) before deciding whether they want to write narrative poetry (or what kind)? You bet. Will I have fun with our exercises this week? Will they? I hope so.

Today’s essay, for those who are curious and aren’t in my class, was Tony Hoagland’s “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poems of Our Moment.” We read it after several essays on the more formal aspects of poetry, so it may have come as a relief to some in the class.

Apologies to Chicago or ‘Truth’ in Poetry

As I wrote awhile back, we visited Chicago this summer. I got to read at the Uptown Poetry Slam and see old friends. We also drove around the city (driving the Loop on Sunday morning was delightful!), took the dog to the Montrose dog park, had Leona’s pizza in my old neighborhood, and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

That all got me thinking about a poem I wrote several years ago that is in my new book Time Capsules. The poem is “Travelogue,” and it was written on a cross-country trip as an experiment in writing very autobiographical poetry about what was happening as it happened. Mind you, this could be dangerous to do while driving, but never fear, I did stop to write most of the time. Occasionally, I jotted a line or a few words on a scrap of paper, but mostly composed in my head or waited until I could take a break to write. Everything in the poem happened in one way or another, though I quickly found that memory became a theme even though I had planned to write about the present. Past memories and present experiences merged, which should probably not come as a surprise, since I was driving for days by myself with just a cassette player and my dog to keep me company.

Though my goal was to write the truth, I also realized quickly that the truth is a slippery concept in a poem. Hence my need to apologize to Chicago or to my friends who stayed there, at any rate. While driving the interstate in heavy traffic, I was caught in a long traffic jam. This reminded me of some of the reasons I left the city — the traffic, the concrete, the heat in summer, the crowds of people — all of which could be exciting and oppressive, especially to a kid from a small town.That section of the poem ends:

             …Now I
remember why I left Chicago.
It was not the traffic really,
but all that concrete and so
many people going nowhere.

Though true for me, and certainly true of the traffic jam I was in as I drove I-80, I felt even as I wrote it that the last line both was and wasn’t true. There are so many people in Chicago, but many are going places, even though at the time I left, I felt I needed to move on to go where I wanted to go. So for my friends who have gone many places while staying in Chicago, and even for myself, now that I see where I might have gone had I stayed there, the last line isn’t true. And yet in the moment of composition it was the truest line I could write. To say more would have overburdened the poem.

Of course, this is the case in any poem, and it’s not just a matter of poetic license. The demands of the form you are working with or the demands of the thematic choices you have decided on (to write the truth as you see it at the moment of the writing, for instance), affect what you can or should say. The sound of a word or the length of a sentence can demand that you need to tell it ‘false’ in order to reveal the ‘truth.’ The truth of any situation is complicated and has many facets; a poem often can only hold some of the many ways of looking at it.

For “Travelogue” this was even more the case than usual, since I was weaving together the surreal experiences of memory and a long drive. And as with any autobiography, experience became subjective even when ‘recorded’ as it was happening, since it was filtered through my experience of it and my thoughts and memories. This became a theme for the book as a whole, or at least for parts of it, as the working title of the collection remained “Travelogue and Other Poems” for quite awhile.

Spider Lilies

Spider Lilies
Spider Lilies
My favorite late summer flower has started to bloom. Soon they’ll be everywhere in Columbus — at least everywhere that people don’t mow them. They are also known as Hurricane Lilies or Surprise Lilies. They are the Suprise Lilies in the poem of that title in Time Capsules, though I opted for the more general term for the poem. There are other kinds of Surprise Lilies in the South, including a more lily-like pink one that usually shows up in our yard in early August.

I like Spider Lilies best, though, in part because they always start blooming around my birthday, and in part because they are so alien looking. I had never seen them before moving to Mississippi, and I’m always fascinated with plants that are endemic to a region. This interest probably started when I lived in Austin, Texas, and learned about Bluebonnets. Lady Bird Johnson’s Wildflower Center was a big influence at the time, as well.

This Spider Lily (I see there are other flowers with that name as well) sprouts a single stalk that then puts out the very fringed petals from several sepals that radiate from the central stem. Only later, after the blossom has died back does the bulb sprout green leaves. I try to mow around these to encourage new growth, so we usually have quite a few in our yard. It is always fun to see where they will come up and how many we’ll have each year.

Spider Lily from above
Spider Lily from above

The Spider Lily is a sign of cooler weather to come, and they usually sprout after a rain, like the thunderstorms we’ve had this week. I took these pictures this morning out by the pond beside our back patio. There are a few more coming up in the side yard, and I hope in week or two there will be many more in the front yard as well. One house on our street usually has a whole row of them all along their property between the sidewalk and the street. Can you tell I’m a little jealous? But theirs haven’t started to bloom yet, so at least we have some of ours first!

Literary Influence

More fun with computers and grading have kept me quiet this week. (Back up your data! I was glad I had when trouble hit.) I am figuring out the new book ordering procedures and getting caught up on my grading, too. I also experienced some of the fun of directing a literary event when one of last year’s authors, Hillary Jordan (her novel is Mudbound), wrote with some questions about Columbus for the new novel she’s working on. A character passes through our town, and she wanted to know the color of our grass, what flowers bloom in winter, and a few other fact-checking details. I wonder how many other Welty Symposium authors have been influenced by their visit to Columbus to include it in their work?

I remember when I was a grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, there were many Dutch and German visiting writers who lived in town. It was fun to learn what a big influence this had on Dutch literature, especially. Many more stories or poems were set in Texas than ever would have been the case without the program. Besides New York and Berkeley, Austin may be the best-known American city in the Dutch -speaking world.

You never know what will bring a place literary fame or how far the influence of one good program will spread. At the very least this literary exchange brightened up my week, and for that I was grateful.

A Look Behind the Curtain

Or why I haven’t written much this week!

One of my many hats is Director of the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at Mississippi University for Women, an annual event at which a dozen or so authors appear and read from their work. For the audience, everything seems to go seamlessly–I hope! MUW faculty give introductions, authors read and answer questions, students and faculty sell books: it’s a successful event in its 21st season. What the audience doesn’t see is what goes on before and after a cultural event like this, with which as director, I’ve become intimately familiar, making me feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz at times.

This week, I was busily teaching classes, updating the Welty Symposium website, working on the schedule and press release, and ordering the first books. Then a little crisis hit. Someone decided we could no longer sell books the way we had in the past, due to sales tax regulations. Several phone calls later, and I was in the process of rearranging our book account so that so that the right side of the university would be in charge of sales. It will still be me, but the money goes through a more appropriate fund. This means different rules for purchasing, one of which is that I can’t pay in advance for books to sell, which is what I needed to do that caused me to be alerted to the new rules! Several more emails and calls later, and I am close to resolving the issue for this order, buying myself time to figure out the next.

That’s just one fairly big fire that needs to be be put out before October 22 — there will be others. One person asked if we make much money on books, suggesting we could just stop selling them. I assured her that we make enough, but that even if we didn’t, selling books at an author’s event is part of the atmosphere, brings in a bigger crowd, and promotes reading. As long as we don’t lose money, we’ll keep selling books somehow!

The more usual crises involve finding authors’ photos, reviews, and bios; getting everyone to turn in their forms; helping authors with travel arrangements; making time for writing the press release, creating a flyer (I’m going to try doing it in color this year), working up the program, making sure we have all the rooms, and chairs, and food, and whatever else I’m blanking out on right now! Those things and finding time to be a professor, father, and writer of poetry and this blog.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m whining or complaining. Really, I’m not! I did think, though, since it’s what has been on my mind most of the week, it would be the best thing to write about. There are many aspects of the business side of literature worth exploring. It’s not always glamorous or even fun every minute, but I do get to meet a dozen authors every year and talk with a lot of publishers, and it’s worth all the headaches and crises to make that one weekend a magical event.

Images and Ideas in Poems

Last week my poetry class was talking about images and ideas in poems, which has me thinking about how poets work with ideas. Images can be anything seen, felt, smelled, heard, tasted, or even imagined. So a subatomic particle, if visualized concretely in a poem, might be seen as an image. The airflow around the wing of a plane might become a tactile image in the right hands. Ideas and images, aren’t separate things, but are joined at the hip, to rephrase William Carlos Williams’ famous dictum: “No ideas but in things.” This makes me wonder: which comes first, the idea or the thing? The chicken or its egg? Which is the chicken, after all? And where’s the darned wheelbarrow.

I’ve also been reading my good friend Anna Leahy’s book Constituents of Matter, and one of the things that strikes me about her poetry is how often she breaks that old rule — show don’t tell.

Well, maybe she doesn’t break it, but she warps it a little. There are all kinds of abstract concepts, scientific theories, philosophy, terms like photon, particle, and wave, that to the average human are abstract concepts that can’t be visualized, yet in Anna’s poems come across as concrete, sometimes when paired with a striking image, such as Marie Curie holding a glowing test tube and doctoring her husband’s hands. We know the story well enough to need only a few brush strokes to get the picture. I’ve always bristled a little when told (or when I have to tell students) to avoid abstract language — surely any language can be used in a poem, and Anna shows this to be true, though arguably her use of terms normally considered abstract is in fact concrete.

No wonder Air and Space Magazine featured three of her poems for their website this past April. For most poets, I would guess, a poem can happen either way. You might start with an idea you want to get across and look for images that might convey it to the reader. Or you might be moved by images and attempt to discover the idea behind them. Either way, I doubt most poets know exactly where they’re headed when they begin drafting a poem. If there’s an idea at the outset, it only takes shape as the images coalesce around it. If the image starts the poem, the idea begins to form as images and language accumulate. Sometimes it is just a fascination with a word or phrase that starts the poem out, after all. Some poets may know what they want to say before they sit down to write, but I suspect many are searching for answers as they write. In this sense, the poem is like an essay: a trial, a hypothesis. As the poet refines and polishes the poem, the truth of the idea crystalizes until it is clear, at least to the poet. When finished, the poem represents a truth that can be said, at least until the next poem, which may attack the issue from another angle and try out a different aspect of that truth. Some poets search for deep truths in their poems, others are more filled with a ludic, playful quality, daring to see what they can get away with, how far they can stretch language or the truth. Sometimes it is precisely through the ludic, joking play with language that the most striking image combinations arise and the most challenging truths are revealed. What most of my favorite poems, including those in Constituents of Matter, share is this quality of discovering a truth in the process of writing and reading.

Fruits of Summer

Indian PeachesTime to leave the poetry biz aside for awhile and write a little about food. Our local farmer’s market has kept us awash in fresh local produce all summer (when we’ve been in town), but the thing we love most are the peaches — well, those and the tomatoes and thai eggplant and corn and blueberries and eggs and… you understand (I hope!). There is one farmer who keeps us supplied with our favorite summer fruit from June to August, maybe even into September, thanks to the many varieties in his orchard. We’ve had white peaches and yellow ones, cling and freestone, but the latest are blood-red Indian peaches.

Though they are typically used for pickling, canning, or baking, we love to eat them raw. They are very fuzzy outside and a little firm and tart like a nectarine, but as long as you don’t think they ought to look and taste like a regular old grocery-store peach (often firm and flavorless if they’re shipped in from California), then they are absolutely delicious. And after months of sweeter, juicier fare, we revel in the dark red meat and the tangy flavor. We don’t even mind that they are a cling variety, having gotten a little bored with peaches that come right off the pit.

Growing up in Iowa, I never ate peaches like this. We had a peach tree in our back yard for awhile, though I don’t remember it ever producing very much. Our apricot tree did better for awhile, then died a noble death. Iowa winters were much better suited to apples, pears, and tart pie cherries. My parents also grew grapes, raspberries, and rhubarb–a fruit that’s hard to find in the South–so I’m used to a sweet summer bounty in the yard. Something was in season from June to October, and we always had enough to eat, freeze, and give to the neighbors.

We used to have a peach tree in our yard in Mississippi that did pretty well, until Katrina uprooted it. It produced one more harvest the next year, then died. It took us another year to give up hope entirely, and awhile longer to decide what and where to plant next. Now we have two peach trees that should bear in another year or two. We also have blueberries, quince, and figs, along with our garden full of tomatoes and peppers that don’t get enough sun to really do too well, but supply us with a little home grown produce now and then. And of course we have a forest of basil for the pesto we couldn’t live without.

And we’re very happy to have access to so many local varieties of heirloom peaches and other fruit. We’ve found a good farm for blueberries and picked a freezer full. We’ve bought blackberries and pears. Last year we even bought persimmons at the market and may try to pick some this year. And compared to grocery-store prices, the peaches and other produce we’ve bought at our local market have been dirt cheap — $3 – $5 depending on the size of the basket we choose, and a basket will easily last us a week, unless we decide to freeze some. And the flavor of locally grown, tree ripened fruit can’t be beat. So, if you’re near a local market and you see a strange-looking summer fruit, give it a try! It might be the best thing you’ve eaten in ages.

Poetry Contests

Since I wrote about slams and haiku contests in my last posts, I thought I should add a little about poetry contests. I think competition is great in poetry, but poets need to beware when they enter one!

The Iowa Poetry Association (for whom I have judged) is a member of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, which has members in 35 states. Literary magazines and other organizations also conduct legitimate contests, but there are also more dubious contests to watch out for. Wind Publications maintains a list of some of the worst offenders, contests that will award publication to anything remotely resembling a poem and sell leather bound copies of books with thousands of ‘poems’ to unsuspecting ‘winners.’ Offers to attend conferences or for other merchandise usually follow. Their goal is clearly to make as much money off amateur poets as possible before they learn their lesson.

Even some of the legitimate contests have been plagued with ethical issues. Though most magazines aren’t trying to scam your money, judging has been criticized as unfair. So the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses developed a code of ethics for literary contests. Look for member magazines or for contests that follow this code, or where the judges are announced in advance and are known writers. Also consider the cost of the contest (free contests often are after your money once you are ‘awarded a prize,’ but relatively small reading fees are normal for contests). When weighing the cost, consider what your contest fee buys: a copy of the winning book or a past winner? a subscription to the magazine? Consider the prestige of the contest and the final product that is produced. If you wouldn’t want to be in the anthology or magazine, or if you wouldn’t want your book to look like the others the contest has produced, then it’s not worth entering. Consider the distribution of the product. Are their books or magazines readily available?

Search the web to see if others have had a good or bad experience with a contest, but remember the shady ones are good at changing their name frequently! Search on their website or submission information as well as their name. Often that isn’t changed. If the same website is used for 10 different contests, there’s a good chance it isn’t legit.

I have a love/hate relationship with all contests. They are part of what makes poetry publishing possible in the United States, and they can legitimately bring new poets broader recognition. I wish, though, that more people bought poetry and we didn’t have to rely on contests to subsidize the poetry industry. That’s wishful thinking, though, and as I said in my last post, the idea of poetry competitions has been around for a long time. Just be careful when you tread in those waters!