NaNoWriMo

Yesterday, I tweeted about NaNoWriMo to the effect that I thought I might give it a shot if I could untangle a plot by November 1, though I was a little embarrassed by the urge to do so. I’m usually pretty shy about saying anything at all about writing, but this was in reply to a twitter contact of mine who had said she was participating, and I thought I’d just hang it out there for once, partially, I suppose, for the sake of making some small kind of connection with somebody rather than just tweeting about my ham sandwich and going about my day with my fingers stuck in my ears. She later replied to encourage me and to ask why I was embarrassed, to which I replied that I wasn’t entirely sure why I was embarrassed.

I’ve thought about it a bit now, and there are a few of tiers of embarrassment.

The first is that I’m very private about any writing in which I have any real personal investment. My college degree is in English literature and poetry writing. A whole lot of people I’ve met who write poetry are proud of it, boast about it, and ask you to read their stuff and wait for you to shower them with praise because surely that metaphor they thought up all on their own about a dying leaf representing a dying relationship and which they wrote about in free verse with weird punctuation merits at least praise if not a Pulitzer. But I’ve never been that way (discounting the teenage years). At times, it’s due to a lack of confidence, I guess; it’s that I don’t want to put myself out there and face rejection. At other times, I think it’s because I’m being something of a hoarder, a jealous keeper of the words I’ve worked to smash together into something I think is good. I think that with poetry in particular, people don’t appreciate it or really even know how to appreciate it. I include myself among those who don’t really know how, by the way. For all that I used to fancy myself a writer of poetry, I don’t know that I’ve ever thought myself a good reader of it. I haven’t done much justice to the poets I’ve read. So if I’ve spent hours or days polishing a poem, I’m sometimes reluctant to make a gift of it to somebody who I think won’t appreciate it. That sounds so arrogant, but that’s not at all how I mean it. It’s more of a selfish impulse than an arrogant one. It’s not that I think it’s a thing of great value to anyone else; it’s that it’s a thing of great value to me that I’m reluctant to share because it’ll be a real let-down if the person I’m sharing it with doesn’t value it too (the more so if it’s because they didn’t really try). And but of course they won’t value it, because it’s just a trifling thing, a dozen or two lines of something possibly well-said about something quite probably inconsequential. So I don’t blame people for not valuing poems, but I’d rather keep them to myself. Which is all really kind of embarrassing to wring my hands over, so I don’t talk about it much.

Another tier of embarrassment is that I tend to suspect that people view writing — and especially writing poetry — as sort of effeminate. I don’t know why I care about that, but I do. (It also happens to just be stupid; you can name more famous male writers than female, I’ll bet.) I generally would prefer that some people not know I have this interest in writing because I fear that then they’ll think I’m like some weak, hysterical little Victorian schoolgirl who cries at the drop of a hat and writes weepy emotional poetry about stupid things. It’s a weird hangup, I know.

Yet another tier of embarrassment about being open about writing is that I don’t want to seem like that person who expects praise even though what I’m writing may be spectacularly bad or banal. Some people parade around with their moleskines (I have one, incidentally, but I kind of hide it) looking up at the trees and making a show of writing so that you’ll know they fancy themselves writers. And they irritate me. Probably most of them are just trying to write and not really trying to make a show of any sort, but I tend to interpret it as a show, and I don’t want to be the guy making a show of anything, so I keep my efforts under my hat. I’m embarrassed to be seen jotting things down on the rare occasions that I do it. Heck, I’m even embarrassed to carry around books I’m reading. Because I usually read things that are considered literary, I worry that by carrying my books around, I risk seeming as if I’m inviting compliments or conversation or even just speculation as to how smart I must be if I’m taking some big tome with me to the barber shop of all places. So I’m even a little embarrassed about my reading, and I’m usually careful to hide the cover of my book against my body when out in public so that it’s not obvious what I’m reading. In a nutshell, I don’t want to be or to seem like a poser, and this translates into a sort of embarrassment about public reading and writing endeavors.

My embarrassment about NaNoWriMo in particular sort of encompasses a lot of these other embarrassments (I’m cataloging an embarrassment of embarrassments here, it seems). It’s a public thing, for example; you’re putting yourself out there, and you’re doing it before the work is anywhere near ready for public consumption. And the whole community that has sprung up around NaNoWriMo seems to be one of encouragement and flattery and fawning and congratulations for what ultimately stands to be a very mundane achievement, for how hard is it really to pump out 50,000 words of garbage in a month? I’ve written a 1,300 words (of arguably garbage) in one quick sitting here. NaNoWriMo praises mediocrity, it seems to me, and — what’s worse — something like public, mass mediocrity. And I guess that’s part of what’s embarrassing about it to me, that I’m considering joining this community that rewards quantity over quality, that encourages just the sort of thing that I find irritating about people who blog their crummy fanfic and want you to applaud their trite doggerel. To join them is to admit that you’re one of them is to admit to a sort of failure.

It’s not quite that, of course. I’m told that lots of fanfic is actually quite good, for example, and I’m sure that lots of good writing comes out of NaNoWriMo. Still. Would Steinbeck have done NaNoWriMo? What about Gaddis? Do you suppose Pynchon has a NaNoWriMo profile (wonder what he’d use for an avatar)? Or McCarthy? To do NaNoWriMo, for me, is to admit these things I already know but am sad to articulate: That I’m not anything at all like the people whose writing I admire. That I can churn out 50,000 words in a month but they won’t be any good. That people will want to pat me on the back and send me a tote bag or a mug or a sticker for that failure. That the positive feedback will probably be addictive and ultimately fuel continued mediocrity. That I’m not as smart as I thought I was or wish I could be. That I lack talent and creativity. That I need help — that I can’t do on my own this most solitary and almost sacred of acts, the putting of pen to paper to capture what I think and know and want and hope.

NaPoWriMo progress

Nine days into April, I’ve written 12 poems. In my last NaPo post, I flouted the rules of NaPoWriMo by admitting that I had no intention of blogging my poems but was using the activity as a motivation to actually write some every day. One of my three loyal blog readers responded to by shaming me into posting my poems, even if anonymously. So somewhere out there, I’m posting, and it seems that a couple of people are even reading me, though few comment. Which is fine, as I don’t often comment on the things I’m reading lately, even if I like them very much. I always feel a little presumptuous offering comments, because who am I to think my opinion of somebody’s work counts for much? And yet if I do try to comment, I get carried away, teleported back to my time in school, when I think I probably was a tolerably decent reader and critic, and I wind up pronouncing all sorts of things that are probably stupid. So I try to make myself keep quiet for the most part.

Of my 12 poems, five are very short, and three are really probably smaller parts of one slightly larger sequence (which still puts me at the nine poems required by today to not be a NaPoWriMo outlaw). Counting the three sequence pieces as one, I’d say that six of the poems are ones that I think I could do something really decent with. There are a couple that I think might actually be pretty good in their current form, though I find it really hard to decide what of my work rises above dismal. It could always be wishful thinking or a difficulty distancing myself enough from what I’m writing to judge it with anything approaching objectivity.

Reading aloud

I’ve been reading the Poetry Foundation blog lately. I wish dearly that they had an RSS feed of the postings so that I could have them delivered to my feed reader rather than having to remember to go out and fetch them, but the posts have been engaging enough so far that I’m remembering to fetch. One that struck a particular chord with me today with the reading I attended this weekend in mind is The Reading, by Kwame Dawes. It describes very well some of what I experienced as an audience member at the reading this weekend and is a good piece for anybody interested in reading his or her own work to take in.

NaPoWriMo

Well, by golly, I went and did it. Having not had much of a chance to try writing anything today, I thought I was going to have to either consider myself a failure or cheat at NaPoWriMo on the very first day by writing some lame midnight couplet just to scrape by. But an hour ago, I sat down and wrote something that’s not as crappy as I might have expected it to be. And then I did a (minor) second draft. I’m one thirtieth of the way there.

I am going to cheat at NaPoWriMo, I should warn you in advance. The usual drill with these things is that you showcase your work in some forum or on your blog. I’m too embarrassingly shy about the particulars of my interest in poetry to do any such thing. So you’ll be reading none of my stuff here (consider yourself spared the feeling of some obligation to compliment me whether you mean it or not). I rather doubt I’ll open up an anonymous blog to post the stuff at either. For me, this is about doing an exercise that’ll encourage me to write every day whether I feel like it or not and whether I have much to say or not. I should call this MyPoWriMo.

Context

A problem I often run into when trying to write a poem is providing adequate context. There’s not much that irritates me more when reading a poem than feeling as if there’s some back story I need to know in order to get the poem at its most basic level. Sure, references that dress up a poem and add additional layers of meaning are ok, but sometimes I read poems that feel like inside jokes. How am I supposed to appreciate these things?

I attended a reading here in Knoxville at Carpe Librum booksellers yesterday that I enjoyed very much. The poet was Asheville Poetry Review editor Keith Flynn, with whom I was unfamiliar but who felt sort of like a distant n-times-removed cousin because of ties he has to some poets and critics with whom I have remote anonymous ties through people I know from my time at UNC. He’s a great reader with a sonorous voice. His pacing is good and his patter between poems entertaining, if verbose (not always a bad thing, though I guess it depends on your perspective). There were only five or six of us in the audience, including his publisher and one of the book store owners, and he read with the enthusiasm he’d have given an audience of hundreds when he could have figured we weren’t worth his bother for the number of books he’d sell. For something like an hour and a half, I sat and listened to him talking and reading (and singing), and it was mostly very enjoyable. I found myself thinking as he spoke and read that there’s a reason we have oral art (whether poems or music or tall tales) and that even poems not designed with their pronunciation particularly in mind probably benefit from a fine reading aloud.

I haven’t had a chance yet to go back and reread any of the poems he read to us, but I was thinking today about his often lengthy patter and how he gave a detailed back story including personal anecdotes for pretty much everything he read. It’s fun to get the back story, of course, because it makes you feel like you’ve got a sort of privileged access to the thought process behind the poem, but I wonder if the poems stand up on their own without the back story, and I’m eager to read them myself and see.

It’s not that I want every little thing spelled out to me, and in fact, I sometimes like things that don’t make sense. My favorite fiction is the sort that you have to piece together over multiple treacherous readings, and I enjoy a good poetic turn of phrase without regard to its meaning. Some poems I find pleasing even if I don’t understand them, but others — the ones that I’m getting at here — make me feel excluded. They demand context without providing it and are thoroughly unsatisfying.

I’ve been tempted of late to provide a lot of exposition in the things I write. Or it’s not that I’m tempted to do so (because I don’t want to, and you’re usually tempted by things you want), but I know that doing so will make what I’m writing very bad, and I don’t know how to get around it. Perhaps, given the many things I’ve read that seem to expect you to read without adequate context, it’s ok just to leave readers hanging. But I have a nagging sense that this isn’t really fair to readers, and I (as if I had readers) wonder if there might not really be a question of audience here. That is, perhaps some art is meant to be private, an expression of something that needs to get out of you but that may not be so meaningful to others and that thus should maybe remain private. Arguably, given that the art is flawed, this sort of thing can’t be really considered art. Or let’s not conflate art and artifice: perhaps because it’s flawed, it lacks artifice along one dimension, however artful it remains along others. In any case, they’re not a sort of art I generally appreciate, and I’m all the more frustrated with this type of poem of late because I’m struggling with the issue in my own work.

So, I put the question to my two loyal readers who might have any interest in this topic at all. If, in order to really get a poem, you have to know that the poet’s aunt was missing a ring finger (a dumb example I just made up), but that detail doesn’t appear in the poem itself, is the poem really fair to the reader?

NaPoWriMo

I’ve known for a few years about NaNoWriMo, which is an initiative would-be fiction authors participate in to provoke a creative burst. The idea is that over the course of a month, you spew out 50,000 words of what is probably drivel in hopes that you can eventually find some kernel of decent fiction to build on. I’ve already got 90,000 words of drivel striving from the bottom of a drawer somewhere to be the first quarter of a novel, and though I once thought about doing NaNoWriMo and even committed 5,000 words or so to disk, I never bothered to finish.

Via a newfound acquaintance’s blog, I learned this week of NaPoWriMo, a rather less organized and ubiquitous gesture in the same direction. Except that in this case, the medium is poetry. April is National Poetry month (the six people in the world interested in poetry suggest as much, at least), and so April is the month designated for this little endeavor. The project? Write a poem a day each day in April.

On the surface, this seems simple. Roses are red, violets are blue, here’s number one, next, number two. At the very real risk of sounding like an ass, I’m going to suggest that writing poems as something like art tends to take a bit more time and mental investment than it took me to come up with that example. When I was studying this stuff formally in college and liked to puff myself up and feel important about my work, I’d think about Yeats’s quotation to the effect that “a line will take us hours maybe.” If it takes a guy hours to write a single line of poetry, then a poem of more than a few lines must be quite an achievement indeed, right? Therefore my work must be pretty impressive. I guess that’s how it went. I’m sure I was all hand to brow when I thought about Yeats’s line (wonder how many hours he spent on it?) and my contribution to letters. That big digression ventured in order to not seem so pompous now as I probably did when I was younger, I’ll nevertheless propose that writing really tolerably decent poems does take some time. So while a poem a day sounds trivial, for anybody who’s interested in real craft and doesn’t just have a really astounding natural gift for it, writing a poem a day is really pretty darned impressive.

Of course, the original NaNoWriMo stresses quantity over quality. It’s about germination more than about maturation. A fragment or draft a day is somewhat more attainable than a polished nugget of wisdom laid across fine images and tight metaphors a day.

Real life permitting, maybe I’ll try it. I have been more inclined of late to try to write down some little poems (and some bigger ones). I spent two hours tonight on 84 lines that suck but may be a move in a direction toward something that sucks less.

A line will take me 1.43 minutes maybe.

New and Selected

As part of a recent book-buying spree, I purchased the (recent) new and selected poems of two poets: Robert Wrigley’s Earthly Meditations and Elaine Equi’s Ripple Effect. Wrigley I had been referred to a year or two ago by a friend, and after initially being not terribly impressed with his work, I later warmed to it, at least as manifest in his book Lives of the Animals. So he was something of a known quantity. Equi I had never heard of until reading about her new collection I forget where — linked from a link off a blog I’ve recently begun following, I believe. She’s described as being influenced by the New York school, so I should have known to expect what I got (which sounds less flattering than I really mean it to sound).

I’m about halfway through Equi’s book (all the way through the new work and into the selected) now and needed a break. The poems are all very accessible, so my needing a break isn’t a matter of having trouble reading them because they’re difficult. If anything, they tend to be lighter than what I’m really aching for these days. Some of the poems are very funny. Take the following:

Perversely Patriotic

Terrorism has ruined
S & M for me.

Now it just seems
like watching
the news.

It’s a laugh-out-loud and pretty biting observation, and I like it a lot, but its lack of heft makes it hard for me to do more than read it a few times, say “oh,” and move on. The observation is memorable but the poetry is not.

Other poems use accessible language but seem neither to mean much nor to be especially artful, and I find these puzzling. For example (excerpted from “1 + 1 = 3”):

Heard
enough
of your silence

Gold
fisheyes
in aquarium glasses

Lightgeist
iceberg
blackboard and cigarette

River
runs
through a bullet

The stanzas each contain lines of one, one, and three words, so she’s imposing structure on her poem. It’s interesting as wordplay in some cases (“lightgeist”) but seems a flirtation with the cliche in others, and I just don’t understand what Equi is doing here or why she or her editors think some of this stuff should get past the editorial chopping block. She’s by her own admission influenced by the New York school and by Eastern forms, and those influences are certainly in evidence within these poems. It’s distinctly possible that my lack of particular interest in the sorts of poetry that influence her colors my reception of her work. In any case, there are enough little “oh, neat” moments that I’ll go back to her book soon, but I predict that I’ll find very little among the pages memorable as poetry. But then, I warmed to Wrigley on a second reading, so perhaps I shouldn’t write her off so quickly.

I read the new poems (about 20 of them) in Wrigley’s new book in one sitting tonight and was bummed when I flipped ahead to see that only a few were left. As I wrote in an earlier review, he writes smoothly and elegantly of rustic things, and he does so in such a way that I feel as if I’ve experienced the thing when in fact I haven’t. As someone who has trouble getting drawn into movies and TV, much less stories and poems, I think it’s quite a gift for someone to write in such an evocative way.

Almost without exception, all of the new poems in Wrigley’s work are satisfying to me. They tell me stories while helping me to think about more abstract things. He writes about the World Trade Center attacks, of forging a river, of the war, of peace, of a couple of disturbing encounters. For all of his seriousness and peacefulness and quiet philosophy, he also tells a funny joke. The poem I’ll quote in its entirety and hope the copyright police will figure is fair use within the context of a review (if not, I’ll cease and desist, etc.) particularly resonated with me, and while it’s not the richest of the poems in the book, it is I think certainly a lovely one:

For One Who Prays For Me

I do not wish to hurt her, who loves me
and who asks for me only every blossom and more,

but in fact, when I say God I mean the wind
and the clouds that are its angels;

I mean the sea and its enormous restraint,
all its fish and krill just the luster of a heavenly gown.

And while it is true there are days when I think
something more must be in the wind than air, still I believe

the afterlife is dirt, but sweet, and heaven’s coming back
in the lewd, bewhiskered tongue of an iris.

Wrigley’s assessment is a little more new-agey than I’m personally willing to go in a literal sense, but boy does he say it nicely. There’s such placidity in those lines, and understated but oddly strong imagery. The phrasing is smooth, the diction entirely within reach. It’s good writing that I can hardly wait to read more of. It’s something to aspire to.