Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Taking the Orchid with Me

The graceful purple orchid on the small table in the Artist in Resident's Office that I've called mine for the past nine weeks has no idea that it's about to change environments. It has become accustomed to the diffuse northern light bouncing off the ocean, the glittering sand, and the floor-to-ceiling windows of the handsome condos next door. The orchid doesn't know that its situation has been only temporary—but I do, which has allowed me to appreciate my precious time here all the more.

I leave this beautiful place with tremendous gratitude, a sense of accomplishment—not to mention love and wonder—and an even deeper commitment to poetry. Part of my agreement in accepting this residency was "to complete or make significant progress" on a chapbook of poems, tentatively titled "Fugue for a New Life," a project that I had only just begun in the spring of 2016. I wasn't sure I could actually compile an entire manuscript of 20 poems during my tenure as writer in residence, but I was confident that within this bright and solitary office with the ocean in constant eye shot, I could at least make significant progress toward it.

Once I arrived at the Beach House I began drafting new poems immediately, yet the thought that I could actually compile enough work to constitute a chapbook (typically 20–32 pages) seemed daunting, since I tend to work fairly slowly, revising quite a bit before being able to say a poem is finished. Then, when I began to organize my solo reading to be held at the Beach House February 21, my perspective began to shift. "Fugue for a New Life" is a collection of love poems as seen through the various lenses of art, music, science, and "the art of listening." Recognizing these interwoven themes allowed me to look at how some of my earlier, published poems related to others. It also gave me new ideas for substantially revising some unpublished work. Becoming aware of the various resonances within and between poems allowed me to organize the reading, as well as the manuscript itself, in a more organic way, irrespective of when each poem was written.

I still thought I might fall short of my goal of completing the chapbook, but I just kept going anyway, without being concerned about how many poems I had, since I was clearly making "significant progress." Then, in the last two weeks, as the poems began to come more easily and I was able to see how they fit with the whole, I decided to count them, and Voila!, I had the requisite twenty.

So it is with great delight and gratitude that I can hold up my manuscript, "Fugue to a New Life," as the product of one of the most fruitful periods of writing I have ever experienced. Thank you, Annenberg Community Beach House, and thank you deep blue sea of poetry, for giving me this extraordinary opportunity! And yes, I'm taking the orchid with me.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In the Company of Poetry

Spring is approaching at the Beach House, and along with warmer weather comes the appearance of open umbrellas on the patio, more cyclists and walkers on the shared bike path, and the promise of longer days. I live only about five miles away, so what's the value of having had a separate space over the past nearly nine weeks? It's like night and day, actually!

To spend my days immersed in poetry has been nothing less than transformative. It has, in effect, set my brain on a new path. These days, even when I'm not actually sitting at my desk, my most recent poem tends to be stirring around in my brain. I might get a thought about changing a word, phrase, or title, or even an idea for a new poem during lunch, while I'm driving home, or just before falling asleep. Rather than letting such thoughts sink into oblivion, as I might have done in the past, I now keep a notebook and pen or a recording device close at hand to capture each fleeting phrase. In addition, I'm choosing to read more poems by others, which is central to writing, as well as reading books on poetry. My favorite volume at the moment, which I've been savoring bit by bit over lunch since I got here, is Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll (BOA Editions, 1986), a selection of interviews with one of my favorite contemporary poets. It's the sort of book that invites underlining and committing to memory; as, for example, Lee's comment on the sentence as a fundamental structure within the poem: "The sentence must be a unit of consciousness. When you're reading it, you're inhabiting that unit of consciousness."

My task now is to keep that consciousness awake after the residency, to find spaces either in my own environment or elsewhere that can allow this time of immersion to extend into my daily life. This is very much the same as my experience spending time at a silent meditation retreat, which can deepen and extend the daily sitting practice that comes later. As coincidences go, I just happened to be thinking about the value of residencies and retreats when I received the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, which happens to feature in-depth articles and helpful pointers on writers' retreats, self-styled or sponsored, plus listings and deadlines for applying those away from home.

In my next blog posting, which I hope to complete before I close the door to the Artist in Resident's Office for the last time this coming Tuesday, I'll talk more about the outcome of the precious time that seems to have gone so quickly here at the Beach House, as happy as can be in the incomparable company of poetry.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Not Counting

Today I enter the Artist in Resident's Office fully aware of the fact that only eight days remain in my writer's residency, which ends next Tuesday, March 14. Each day, the ocean outside my window greets me in a slightly different mood—steely and brash with mounting surf in the rain, aqua green and tranquil under scattered clouds, twinkling with energy in the sun and wind. At late morning today it is the dark, solid blue of a twilight sky with tiny whitecaps, like scraps of white paper, rising and falling out of sight. I will miss it.

Last Friday I was interviewed by Fionn Davenport, a travel and culture writer for RTÉ Radio 1 from Dublin. I had been told that Fionn wanted to ask me how working in the Marion Davies Guest House had influenced my work. In thinking about this question, my first thought was of the ocean, which has been my constant companion from the beginning. In the first week, I must have taken snapshots of the riotous sunset every single day from the upstairs veranda, and I am still working on a poem called "The Ocean Next Door," which is how it feels to have the sea as my neighbor.

When thinking about this question more broadly, however, I was drawn to consider the history of the house and site itself and how it feels to work here—how the entire property was originally built by William Randolph Hearst, the adventurous publishing magnate, for his beloved Marion Davies, the beautiful young actress, and how the couple made this place into a site of love and play. Is it mere coincidence that I am writing a chapbook of love poems and that poetry itself emerges out of the "will to play" as Octavio Paz once put it? It all fits.

As the radio interview came to a close, I decided to read aloud the following poem, which mentions both the house and the ocean. It's a poem that reminds me not to count my remaining days here as fleeting but rather as precious, and to know that I will always have them by virtue of what I have seen, felt, and written here.

Not Counting
We’ve been apart for two months now,
      with one month and two days to go,
But you told me not to count, so here I am
      not counting the skinny palm trees
On my way to the beach house—a short trip,
      not counting stoplights.

I am not counting the steps on the staircase
      or squares in the gray tartan carpet—
Not counting the choppy waves slamming
      into the sand, which I could count all day.

I am surely not counting the size of the crowd
      at the president’s inauguration or 
How many more of us marched against him
      in next day’s demonstration.

Not counting on the dollars in my wallet,
      dollars in the bank, gallons of gas in my gas tank.
Count on me not to count syllables in this line
      or this one, or lines on the page,
Or the 2,461 miles between us at this stage.

I am relying on the revolution of the planet
      to bring us that long-anticipated sunrise
When the whole length of your body
      is stretched out next to mine—
But who’s counting? Certainly not I.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What Is Voice in Poetry?

Next Tuesday evening, March 7, the Annenberg Community Beach House will roll out the red carpet for the Camera Obscura Poets—the first group reading by members of the workshop I've been leading as Writer in Residence at the Beach House. And what a marvelous group of poets it is!

Five of the twelve Camera Obscura Poets, with yours truly, from left to right: 
Rosie Freed, Maria Pavone, Mary Daily, Dinah Berland,Veronica Chavira, and Sheri Johnson

When you hear the work of these twelve poets, you will hear twelve very distinct voices—including those of two members who are out of town and whose work I will read in their absence. How can it be that you might be able to hear a writer's voice through another reader? And what is "voice" in poetry anyway?

In doing a little research on this often slippery question, I found that "voice" tends to be used in two quite different ways: (1) in the obvious sense of the identification of the author or the speaker of the poem (e.g., the writer as a child, another person, or even inanimate object); and (2) in the more subtle sense of the distinctive use of language, cadence, tone, rhythm, grammar, syntax, form, repetition, rhyme, or a range of other poetic elements that, together, are recognizable as the work of a particular poet. It is the second of these definitions that constitutes what most poets and knowledgable readers mean when they talk about voice. 

We might easily recognize the work of a number of famous poets, from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson to Billy Collins, by their unique voices, or their particular way with language—even in translation (and isn't that interesting?). Yet developing an authentic poetic voice oneself may take a while; indeed, it may even take a while for the poet to be able to identify it in their own work. It takes writing, lots of writing, before a poet can look at a particular poem and say, Yes, that sounds like me. But once such a poem is written, then the poet's distinctive voice becomes not only identifiable but also even second nature, even as it evolves over time.

That has certainly been true for me. I received my MFA in poetry in1995 and wrote poems for some years before that, yet only in the past year or so have I started to see that certain elements are necessary for me to be able to acknowledge that a poem sounds like my own. It's important to me, for example, that a poem is "dimensional," or exists on more than one level of meaning, before I can embrace its voice as my own. 

The hopeful thing to know is that most of the elements that constitute voice are no doubt present in every poet's work from the very start—in the same way as every child has natural dance moves from the first time they hear music, or how we can recognize a friend's speaking voice on the telephone the moment we hear it. So, in short, everything we need to have a "voice" is already within us, right here, right now. May you discover it with the next poem you write.