Spending the day putting together some poems to read for the upcoming “Hat Trick” reading in Victoria, with Garth and Anne-Marie (The other two finalists from the Bronwen Wallace Award/ my new gang?) It is sort of a celebration of the fact of all of us finalists being from British Columbia. Open Space, a non-profit artist-run centre, is putting it on, and they seem to be good people. I’m looking forward to check out what they’re all about. Part of what is making this exciting is that they are selling broadsheets of a poem by each of us, that a local artist, Chelsea Rushton, has illustrated. I have seen what Chelsea has drawn for mine, and it is totally awesome.
They’re giving a generous 20 minutes for each of us to read, which is something I haven’t prepared for in a long time. I’m nervous, but hoping to make the best of it by showing a range of my work, in different styles/forms. (This make s me realize that I should try more different forms. Right now it seems like it’s mostly a lot of free-verse, some list-poems, some haiku. I should have some villanelles under my belt? ghazals? Even rhyming poems?)
I got into writing haiku in a sort of odd way. I was enjoying seeing some of my poems getting smaller and more compressed. Being a very fragmented writer, if I could figure out a way of turning a single sharp observation into a small but complete poem, I’d go for it. I hadn’t really read much haiku though, but one night at the bookstore at the old Virgin Music downtown, I picked up a copy of this book called The Haiku Year. It was a project where a bunch of friends decided to write a haiku every day and mail them to each other. The book complied them all together. One of the writers was Michael Stipe of R.E.M., which helped with the appeal, at the time.
They were lovely little things, that didn’t always followed the rules. One of the “rules” that many people associate with haiku, the 5-7-5 syllable structure, was thrown out the window. I learned later that this rule has been justifiably discarded by most ‘serious’ contemporary English haiku writers, despite it continuing to be taught in schools, and adhered to, generally, by a lot of people when they sit down to write haiku. (More on this, later.)
Anyway, inspired by the book, I started writing a lot of 3-liners that also didn’t bother with the 5-7-5 either (maybe it was too much like math) but concentrated on compression and the ‘surprise’ of a sharp turn. I started sending a few out to some contemporary haiku or short-form journals, one of them being Tundra, edited by Michael Dylan Welch. I don’t have a copy of what he wrote back, but I remember it being gracious and taught me at least one common mistake people make with haiku:
The plural of haiku is haiku. Not haikus. (I still, perhaps somewhat irritatingly, continue to point this out to people at any chance I get.)
For a while I was obsessed with writing them, very much like a boy with his first camera. Going for walks I would filter everything I saw through that lens. I also found them a lot easier to send out because of their brevity and lack of any personal/emotional mucking around. So I did, and got a handful accepted in some journals. Michael also got me in touch with a local haiku group that helped me a lot with my development.
Here’s one I got accepted in a magazine called Acorn in 2002
power failure –
the kitchen sink
fills with moonlight
I had come here to talk about the rules or guidelines I have learned that make haiku such a beautiful mode of expression, but I’ve already taken a while getting here. I’ll save it for the next post, but in the meantime, I recommend you read this essay Becoming A Haiku Poet by Michael Dylan Welch, and if you want to get into the nitty-gritty about the form, there’s this essay by Keiko Imaoka.
Or an even better idea – for the people reading this in Vancouver, you could come down to theCross-Border Pollination Reading tomorrow at 5pm at SFU where Michael Dylan Welch will be reading among some other great writers, including Catherine Owen and Jericho Brown. p.s. (Jericho Brown and Michael will also each be doing a workshop the following day at the Joy Kogawa House. More info on that here.)
“I think that in the same way that we are too often guilty of the misuse of language, or of the wilful loss of language, we are, some of us, also sometimes guilty of failing to contemplate the physical world. This is partly because we don’t need to contemplate objects for survival to the same degree that we once did (I’m thinking here about dangerous landscapes, animals, poisonous versus edible plants etc) but also because we have so many shorthand conventions to direct us (for example: signs that yell DO NOT ENTER in huge font, a seemingly infinite number of labels, and patterned contexts – maybe aisle 2 in your supermarket is always breakfast cereal – etc) and partly because we live in the hyper-drive of a sign and image-laden world. Visual literacy is a kind of seeing but in the modern urban world it rarely affords for a leisurely read. It’s also possible that as we get older some of us lose the child’s wonder at how things work. We sometimes forget that objects, if studied, can open up, reveal secrets, tell stories and take us places. We forget that the alarm clock was once a village rooster.”
Ok, I’ll say a little more. The particular copy of this book, checked out from the library, has the Vancouver Public Library bar code sticker on it. On the base of the book, (if you imagine the book shelved upright, the base that touches the shelf it sits upon) made up of the 103 pages bound together, it is stamped “Feb 2010.” I am certain that there must be a better way of explaining that. Unlike the image above, in my copy, the title and authors name is gently embossed in a mirrory silver. The front cover is slightly damaged (the surface peeled, probably from the removal of a sticker) at its lower left, this damage follows over the spine and onto the back, but stops before it obscures any text. The back text has a possible error – the last two sentences reads: “…Taken together these essays investigate the degree to which we can understand or know the material and obdurate world and the manner in which language, writing and writers seek to evoke and celebrate it. Language, writing and writers seek to evoke and celebrate it.” It is hard to be certain if the repetition is an error. The pages inside have a pleasant visible texture; one can make out the pages have been distressed in subtle horizontal rows. The font is Adobe Garamond. Page 46 and 47 have tiny stains, probably from coffee (probably my coffee.)
Additional note: It just popped into my mind, while observing the book – when I used to send letters or packages to people I used to have a fear of strands of my hair making its way into the fold of the letter or the envelope and would carefully check the contents before sealing it. This was more an issue of invoking a possible unpleasant hair-in-my-soup reaction than worry about my DNA getting around.
Some of my poems obviously became more public recently; significantly, to some of my family members who don’t usually read any poetry, let alone mine. My mom said they were ‘weird’ (though my brother said they were “dope”!) and I got a few glazed-eye responses from others. I realized it’s been a while since I’ve talked to people who are very much outside the poetry sphere about poetry, and I was curious to get a sense of what people think of it these days.
I could have asked friends on facebook but worried they might be too sparing – so I headed over to the AskMeFi section at the community blog Metafilter and asked a question: Why not poetry?
I got over a hundred and thirty responses. Its worth reading – a lot repeat what’s already said, but there’s some thoughtful and sobering comments in there (sobering if you’re a poet, but maybe reassuring if you’re someone who can’t stomach the stuff; you’re far from alone.)
Some of them were expected : That it requires a lot of work/attention, it lacks plot, it’s too personal or navel-gazey, the signal-to-noise ratio is too high to find the good stuff. I’ve heard a lot of these complaints from poets, too.
Actually, the ‘ personal’ thing has interested me for a bit, because I don’t think a lot of my work as very personal. I remember being asked how do you share something so personal and it was like, does an architect have doubts about designing a building because it’s too personal?
(Sincere apologies to architects for the comparison.)
One of the things that surprised me was the pining over the lack of rhyme and meter in contemporary poetry. What I’ve noticed is that unless you’re terribly good at it, most poets get laughed out the room when they do it (I must admit I roll my eyes at a lot of it.) I suspect that a lot of people exposure to poetry in highschool was a lot of Shakespeare, and it’s hard to see the kind of fragmented, stream-of-consciousness of today’s poetry as, well, poetry. This is a issue with education and I’d like to think it’s changed but I don’t know for sure.
Relatedly, there were a few people who said they get their poetry fix from lyrics in music and I can definitely relate to that. In my young years, before I actively read much poetry, I probably would have said my main poetic inspiration were Nirvana or R.E.M. A good melody with the right delivery can make the simplest of phrases feel like gospel.
I want to respond to a lot of the comments but I’d like to keep the dialogue going with the obvious questions: How can poets address these issues? Does it require sacrificing some of its qualities to be able to connect with people who don’t like the stuff? What are the cultural perceptions of poetry (that the only way to read it is to decipher it, scalpel in hand, for example) that are misguided? Should poetry try to incorporate other mediums or forms to get their work across? Why are we being cryptic and alienating; or is just that the whole idea is to distress or obfuscate meaning? What are poets that are generally liked by the masses doing differently? Should we ban the popular style of precious drawn-out-monotone readings that makes me want to stab myself with nearby dinner utensils?
Feel free to use the comment section to voice your thoughts! I’ll leave you with one of the the many comments I enjoyed from the thread:
“There are individual poems that I love with a great fierceness, but poetry as a genre leaves me cold for the reasons others have already mentioned. It’s so hard for someone to do it well, and when it’s done badly it’s so much worse than bad prose. I think there’s actually a lot of amazing poetry in the world right now, but it might be in the form of song lyrics, or kids books, or advertising jingles, or, I don’t know, LOLcat captions… Basically, the more someone insists that poetry is completely different from all of those things, the more I tend to expect their poetry will be inward-focused, pretentious twaddle. Those that focus less on what their work is called and/or if it’s going to earn them the proper academic credibility, and more on describing a piece of life in an accurate, relateable way, tend to be the ones that can unexpectedly gut-punch me with laughter, or sadness, or fear, which I’ve always felt was one of poetry’s strengths as a form.”
posted by MsMolly at 1:41 PM on April 27
I’m not feeling too wordy, so ‘ll let some pictures do the talking. I want to emphasize again how generous and welcoming the Writers’ Trust was to us finalists, and how much fun and great conversation I had with Garth Martens and Anne-Marie-Turza. As surreal as the whole experience was, I felt grounded by the genuineness and support of everyone around me.
I’m going to post properly about my experience with the awards here in Toronto, but I think I’ll wait til’ I get back home, and I can share some of the pictures that Megan took on her camera. Also, I don’t have the clearest mind at this moment, re: long walk in the sun, beer, horses going by the window, etc.
In the meantime here are some questions that I answered. Local Vancouver poet Kevin Spenst put them me, as he has put to other writers, about the editing process. Thanks Kevin, for making me think about what I do (I often don’t.)
Recently attended the Denver/Vancouver reading in which a few poets from Denver, CO were paired up with a few of Vancouver’s poets (why not, right? Our cities already half-rhyme!) It was a lovely and weird reading; Ray Hsu half-drunkenly left a poem in Stephen Harper’s voicemailbox, Noah Eli Gordon used audience members as readers with on/off switches to create cacophony of voices.
The standout for me was a reading by Sommer Browning, whose first book, “Either Way I’m Celebrating” I consumed in a whirry coffee-buzz the following day.
Browning writes poems and draws little comics and seems to appreciate the relationship that jokes have with poems, how they both tilt and reinvent the world.
Her opening poem at the reading, An Officer And A Gentleman, took the voice of someone guessing in a game of Charades:
Movie. Four Words. First word. Sounds like….making a box with your hands….sculpting, shaping, sounds like shaping, caping, maping, paping, paping? That’s not a word, is it? Paping? Nevermind, go to the second word. Second word. Fingers close together. Inch worm! No. Bit, tiny , little….2001: A Space Odyssey! I don’t know why I said that…
it carries on that way, read at an appropriately frantic and choppy pace by Browning, getting more and more frustrating and absurd, until the arrival at the answer is both a surprise and somehow profound. The poem might be taken as just a clever form, but it illustrates very succinctly the difficulties of communication.
[Browning performing the poem at a different reading (around the 4:52 mark)]
I don’t always totally follow where Browning is going in her poems, but there is something so natural about the voice, one is drawn there anyway. And though often funny, its not the only note played: snappy one-liners are offset by surreal images, and darker contemplations. Sommer can go from talking about watching adult movies as a kid, to sea monkeys, to this ‘we knew our parents didn’t love each other.‘ Her ability to make this work shows a wide range and confidence of voice.
The comics in her book are simple crude illustration that are sometimes surreal, sometimes charmingly wtf, yet always feel at home amongst the poems. Here’s one:
It seems that Browning has put out a number of chapbooks, but this is her first ‘real’ book and one I was grateful to read. With the daunting prospect of putting together my own first book on the horizon, its refreshing to see one that includes a drawing of a dildo riding a bicycle – and yet still holds up as a strong collection. Check out here website and the neat things she does here.