Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Exquisite Beauty of Truly Awful Poetry

I love trolling for bad poetry. I search for it, dropping in on community house poetry nights, writers' groups open-mike nights, the culminating ceremony at creative writing night classes. Once, when I was in college, I attended a poetry slam in downtown Asheville. It was a first date, we were fellow counselors at a summer camp for gifted middle-schoolers, and it was pouring down rain. We were umbrella-less, and I was wearing my cutest, littlest top--the kind of handkerchief-for-a-shirt-thing I got away with back then--and torn-up jeans. My date was wearing what my date was wearing--who cares? I don't even remember his name. But I remember the beauty of the event, a hideous naked man hopping around a plywood stage, yelping out his lines, injustices in this world, a hiccup in the outer reaches of space, the outrageous audacity of our comfortable silence. We had better speak, man.

I love really bad rhymes. Milkshake/heartbreak. Tug of war/out the door. Tears in my eyes/it's you I despise. Democracy/We're blind, you see. The girl I love most/choking on charred toast (extra points for alliteration).

Prose writers have a more difficult time pulling off this beautiful awful. In prose, the weak story is made weaker for speaking it aloud, but in poetry, there's the beat. The line and verse. The heady importance of words that rhyme.

Which is not to say that good poetry and bad is indistinguishable. In fact, I think this distinction is painfully obvious. Yet I think there is more than one way to enjoy a poetry reading. There are poems that are so exquisite, you enter into them rather than simply listen to them. The kind that really have to be read aloud to free them from the physical confinements of paper and ink. The kind whose beauty settles into the room like smoke, or like something a person could dine on. Poetry whose technical feats I know nothing of, except that these precisions are translated into something unspeakable, something that transcends the tangible, the worldly. Something so beautiful and pure and true that you can't believe its made out of such a common medium. Words, those things even I use.

And then, there's the poetry that is what it is. The leaping about a plywood stage all skinny and hideous and so very naked, one wants to avert one's eyes. What's happening now is both intensely personal and crucial in its public-ness. Our barbaric yelp. Yes. Here it is, the Thing of It: There's something more beautiful than the work itself--any work. What I'm speaking of, what is often easier to see when the work is awful, what is more breath-taking and startling and lovely. It's the impulse to create. Our humanness, our connecting instinct. We had better speak, man.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

John Gardner's Psychic Distance

Directly linked to the function of point of view in fiction is the concept of psychic distance: the distance between the narrative and mind, heart, and body of the pov character. I first encountered this concept in the classic book of fiction-writing exercises, What If?, but the concept is originally from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. Here's the example Gardner gives:

1.It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2.Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3.Henry hated snowstorms.
4.God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5.Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

Here, from 1 to 5, we get the whole spectrum, from bird's eye to the way it feels to be inside the character's body. I just love this. Don't you?

Try this: Use Gardner's five sentences as a template and go from 1 to 5. Here, I'll go first: (I'm switching to present tense, adding more details, just because I want to.)

1. It is summer, 1988. An adolescent girl, thin and wispy and bikini-clad, steps onto a heat-soaked driveway.
2. Sarah Emily Thornbird has always had pale, un-tannable skin.
3. Sarah hates her paleness.
4. She yearns for a golden, beach-perfect tan.
5. She can see it: a coppery, buttery tan that will cast a softening glow over her bony limbs and create the illusion of sexy.

Now, your turn. Feel free to share in comments. (I'd love to see what you come up with.)

Oh, and I found a really great post on psychic distance on novelist Emma Darwin's blog, This Itch of Writing. You should check it out--she explains not only what psychic distance is, but also, how to use it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Few Words on Point of View

A student emails me: she's just joined a writing group who believes you can tell the difference between professional-quality fiction and the amateur stuff by how consistent the point of view is. This is what they’ve told her at her first meeting, critiquing her first piece. Imagine.

I want to back up and first say that my one-week writing class was her first venture into creative writing. My class's main objectives were to encourage and inspire. We read Ann Lamott and applauded each other’s shitty first drafts. We literally played with language: arranged and rearranged scraps of paper with words printed on them. I encouraged them to seek out a writing group when they returned home--for support--and she did. I'm trying to imagine me sitting down to try my hand at, say, watercolor painting--my student's a gifted visual artist, a professional who teaches art, who has her own work up in galleries--and have somebody point out the many differences between my first tentative brushstrokes and Winslow Homer's light-dappled rowboats.

Which is not to say that her writing group was altogether wrong. There does need to be a reliable point of view system at work in any piece of fiction. This means that a writer must respect the limitations of the point of view he or she has chosen. A first person narrative, for example, cannot suddenly morph into third. Nor can the first person narrator know more than he knows.

But, then again, think for a moment about everything you know. I know, for example, that my daughter’s favorite color is red. Now, she’s not here, and I’m not in her head, but if I were the first-person narrator in a work of fiction, I could tell you straight-out: Abby loves the color red. She will choose the red soda, the red sandals (especially if they’re sparkly), the red notebook. I don’t have to say, “Abby once told me that she likes red.” I can skip all that: “Abby likes red.”

I also know that my younger sister would never get a tattoo and that my older sister would (has). I know that fifty years ago, in this part of North Carolina, furniture was king. I know that, in the spring of 1992, (almost) everyone in my high school graduating class knew at least the chorus to “Hard to Handle” by the Black Crowes. I’m willing to bet most of them still know it. I do.

Of course, I don’t know-know all of these things, or any of them. But, I think it just shows that point of view is a bit trickier than my student’s writing group made it out to be. Little inconsistencies--what I imagine they were talking about--are usually pretty easy to point out. Sometimes, it’s a pronoun slip, sometimes it’s a problem of perspective: it just would not sound natural for me to describe how my own blue eyes are widening at the sight of my younger sister’s brand-new tattoo. And, these little inconsistencies are pretty easy to fix.

But these are the mere mechanics of point of view; point of view is about space and humanity and art and the language with which the story is told. I think one should save most point of view worries for the second or third draft. Most stories simply lean towards a point of view in the early drafts. It’s organic. Pliant, too, at this stage: If you hear a character speaking to you, I say go ahead and write it in first, and if later, you sense a need to put a little space between the narrative and the protagonist, switch to third.

I think sometimes we try to make too many decisions too quickly. We have to be calm and ride out the small and large identity crises our stories suffer through. Uncertainty, in life and in writing, is uncomfortable. But, in both writing and life, uncertainty is a given. It's part of the process. Relax; you're supposed to feel this way.

In any case, I think it’s short-sighted to say that point of view alone determines a story’s worth. Also, I think the real trick is not in avoiding slip-ups but rather in fully realizing the dimensions of a particular point of view. The loss comes not in mis-use, but in under-use.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Seat of Artistic Delight

Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame.

Vladimir Nabokov

I love this quote. Love it, love it. It reminds me what I'm doing here. Why if I skip my writing time, if I'm not reading something I absolutely love, I go jittery and stupid and more than a little blue.

It buoys me, reminds me that worry has no place in this process. Don't allow it to settle in. Don't try be too clever; try not to apologize. Don't fidget. This writing-thing doesn't happen in our intellectual selves nearly as much as we think it does, and I don't think it's a matter of heart so much either. This is instinct. It's gut. Writing is tough, absolutely, and just because there shouldn't be any worry doesn't mean there shouldn't be struggle and hard work. But the worry is counterfeit. It's ego. The struggle, though, the wrestling the story onto the page, the fight to find that spot--the place where art, not mere smartness, comes from--is real.

I don't know who I am if I'm not writing, and especially if I'm not writing from that space--the spot between my shoulder-blades. Any time I try to use any other part of me to do the work, it comes out something else. I don't know what it is, but it's not writing. It's the stuff you skim off jam. It's an overly practiced smile. It's plastic and it smells funny and it's gumming up the works.

This practice of writing from the spine, it is an act of worship. It's soul-habit; writers (and readers) are, more than anything, seekers.

Oh, I guess I'm a little dreamy this evening, thinking through all these things. Drifting away from what Nabokov was trying to say. I'm just so blessed, you know? I love to write. There, how simple.

Day 7: Mona

From Aimee Bender's An Invisible Sign of My Own:

On Saturday, I spend the whole day cleaning the apartment. I make the kitchen floor so white it's a dentist's dream; I vacuum; I scrub the shower grout. I shine the kitchen faucet until I can see my eye on the nozzle. I fill the trash can with a bouquet of dirty paper towels from dusting. I throw out magazines. He shows up at eight...I get [him] a glass of water he hasn't asked for, and he stands up to take it and I know I have to make the first move so I do it fast--he's swirling the water, clear liquid inside hard glass, it reminds me of the hospital, and I step closer, halve the space, and I just spend some time with the inside of his elbows, the burn marks from the science class. He watches me closely. I don't kiss his mouth right away, I kiss instead his neck and the side of his cheek and the inside of his elbow.

PS: Aimee Bender has a new book out: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Day 7 (and a half): Goliath

Because it's my blog and I can do what I want. :)

From my forthcoming novel:

Beyond, at Christmas field, the air was so cold, it turned the trees to brittle sticks and stiffened the grass. The stars above were crystal. The onlookers clasped arms and felt their lungs constricting against the frigid air. They swayed and watched the expanse of black sky, the frozen stars. Ray put his bare hands to the sky, praying, and the people fell silent. They dipped their noses into their scarves, seeking warmth. Those first shepherds had been merely bored, fighting sleep before the angels arrived. The people of Goliath likewise did not know what was coming, what, if anything, they might hope for.

Across town, Rosamond was asleep now, already dreaming. It was the day she first met Hatley Rogers, salesman, and she dreamed it exactly as it had happened. She was in her parents’ house, the same one she was living in now, and she could even feel the thick gold light of the living room that afternoon, a warm fall day, the curtains drawn. The salesman swept his hat off when she answered the door, bowed, and took her hand, warm and moist from stirring gravy in the kitchen. He had eyes so deeply blue that at first they appeared almost purple. The late afternoon sunshine made his oiled black hair gleam. She was dreaming it all away while the others gathered in the stead of the sidewalk preacher. They stood out in the dark, watching the sky for a certain bright star, and Rosamond watched the salesman take her warm hand and, incredibly, pull her towards him until she was close enough for their lips to touch. “There,” he said. “I’ve kissed you now. What about that?”

Finally, then, out on the field, as if it was meant to be a reward for their faithful waiting, their months of spoken and unspoken sorrow, bits of white began to fall on the people’s shoulders, on their outstretched hands. It landed in their eyelashes. “Snow,” they called to each other, laughing. Ray heard them, peering up into the sky himself, still searching. “It’s snowing,” they said, their faces turned upwards to meet it.

Day 6: Reverend John Ames

Joy amid grief, from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead:

"Strange are the uses of adversity." That's a fact. When I"m up here in my study with the radio on and some old book in my hands and it's nighttime and the wind blows and the house creaks, I forget where I am, and it's as though I'm back in hard times for a minute or two, and there's a sweetness in the experience which I don't understand. But that only enhances the value of it. My point here is that you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing, "The Old Rugged Cross" while they saw to things, moving so gently as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost. In those days, no grown woman ever let herself be seen with her hair undone, but that day even the grand old women had their hair falling down their backs like schoolgirls. I was so joyful and sad. I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father's hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that's what it was.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Day 5: Clarissa

From Michael Cunningham's The Hours:

There are still flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.

It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century.

The vestibule door opens onto a June morning so fine and scrubbed Clarissa pauses at the threshold as she would at the edge of a pool, watching the turquoise water lapping at the tiles, the liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths. As if standing at the edge of a pool she delays for a moment the plunge, the quick membrane of chill, the plain shock of immersion. New York in its racket and stern brown decrepitude, its bottomless decline, always produces a few summer mornings like this; mornings invaded everywhere by an assertion of new life so determined it is almost comic, like a cartoon character that endures endless, hideous punishments and always emerges unburnt, unscarred, ready for more. This June, again, the trees along West Tenth Street have produced perfect little leaves from the squares of dog dirt and discarded wrappers in which they stand. Again the window box of the old woman next door, filled as it always is with faded red plastic geraniums pushed into the dirt, has sprouted a rogue dandelion.

What a thrill, what a shock, to be alive on a morning in June, prosperous, almost scandalously privileged, with a simple errand to run.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Day 4: Amy and Billy

This one is like an Appalachian ballad, full of loss and beauty, love and betrayal. Here, Billy has discovered his wife is pregnant by another man.

from Ron Rash's One Foot in Eden:

"What are you going to do, Billy?" she asked.

At that moment I truly did not know. I knew what many another man might do. He'd raise his hand and slap Amy stout enough to lay her flat on the floor. Some would do worse. Then they'd walk out the door and never come back.

"Do you love me?" I finally said, my eyes steady on hers. That was my last question, the one that most mattered.

Amy's blue eyes looked tired, the way they'd been a lot the last couple of months, but she looked pretty, prettier than she'd ever looked, her bosoms and hips fuller, her skin bright and glowing like she'd bathed in a tub of sunshine.

"Yes," she said.

"You swear you'll never be with him again," I said.

"I've done told you that," Amy said.

"Swear it then," I said.

"I swear it," Amy said.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Day 3: The Man and the Boy Share a Coke

This one isn't happy so much as an enormous relief. As we shuffle through Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic wasteland, we need two comforts: the love of parent for child and vice-versa--which we get throughout the story--and the occasional tiny burst of good fortune.

From Cormac McCarthy's The Road:

On the outskirts of the city they came to a supermarket. A few old cars in the trashstrewn parking lot...In the produce section in the bottom of the bins they found a few ancient runner beans and what looked to have once been apricots, long dried to wrinkled effigies of themselves...By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar. Coins everywhere in the ash. He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola.

What is it, Papa?

It's a treat. For you.

What is it?

Here. Sit down.

He slipped the boy's knapsack straps loose and set the pack on the floor behind him and he put his thumbnail under the aluminum clip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said.

The boy took the can. It's bubbly, he said.

Go ahead.

He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It's really good, he said.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Day 2: Lou is in love

From Annie Dillard's The Maytrees:

After they married she learned to feel their skin as double-sided. They felt a pause. Theirs was too much feeling to push through the crack that led down to the dim world of time and stuff. That world was gone. They held themselves alert only in those few million cells where they touched. She learned from those cells his awareness and his courtesy. Love so sprang at her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it. Where was it in literature? Someone would have written something. She must not have recognized it. Time to read everything again.

Day 1: I will go to Boston

From Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies:

So picture me, Silvaney, if you will. I want you to see me plain. It is spring and skittery sunshiny day, I stand on the river bridge already missing my sweetie whose gone to the war, the river spews and boils like Genevas coffee, the wind blows hard and a bugle call comes across the river from the Army camp. I wear a dead womans pretty locket, I am free to come and go as I please. I will go to Boston and see what there is to see. Yet always I will be bound to you my love and my heart and I will come back for you one day soon and take you back to the mountain.