Riverwalking: The Story of “North”

The impetus for my poem “North” came from an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “The Moose.”  The premise of Bishop’s poem is that the speaker is riding a bus, leaving a familiar town, and a moose blocks the road in the countryside.  The poem is memorable for the description of the moose, but the angle I was after was the description of the journey leaving town.  I attended the Bear River Writer’s Conference a couple years ago, and writing a “departure” poem was one of the assignments in the workshop I attended with Richard Tillinghast. He handed out Bishop’s poem for us to get in the mindset of description.

List of sub-national animals

The poem I wrote at the time didn’t work out, but I kept the idea, writing about a departure, and later came back to it, with the idea of writing a poem about leaving Big Rapids on foot.  There is a river trail (the Riverwalk) that I can walk to from my house that meets up with the White Pine Trail.  The impetus for a poem is important to me: one question I continually ask as a poet is what are poems about? Because each time I sit down to write, I swear I don’t know.

Walking is also important to me.  It helps clear the mind, which is important, since I have adult ADD.  When life gets too overwhelming, I walk (because I’m usually too out of shape to run).  Lots of poems occur to me on walks and bike rides or while running. I think the exercise helps focus the mind, and some vague notions I might have floating around crystallize.  The excursions themselves often become the subjects of poems, and I’ve been known to dictate lines into my iPod Touch while walking.

In this case, after a particularly bad day, I went for a long walk, about four miles round trip.  I decided to walk until I felt better and then turned around, but I kind of waited too long and my legs let me know it on the way back.  At some point later on, I thought I wanted to write about that feeling, about feeling closed in, wanting to escape, not getting relief for a long while, realizing I went too far. In the writing, I wanted to recreate that feeling as reflected in the landscape going by during the walk.

I wrote the first draft of the poem longhand in a Moleskine notebook with my horrible, all-caps handwriting. I’m kind of a notebook snob: Moleskines are expensive, but have fantastic paper and binding.  I don’t have to have a Moleskine to write, but I like them a lot.  (If you want to buy me a Christmas present . . .) I was also writing with a fountain pen at the time,  but I usually can’t keep ink in it and so will write with whatever cheap stick pen I have around.

After a couple of days I typed it, making edits as I worked.  And I put it away for awhile and revisited it later.  Other than changing it to couplets and tweaking word choices and line breaks, there weren’t any major rewrites on this poem.

I chose the form of couplets with somewhat regular line lengths because I like the opportunities such a form creates.  The line breaks help emphasize certain words, and the frequent stanza breaks also emphasize the beginnings and endings of stanzas and each stanza can be seen as a “step” on this journey.  I realized, sometime after this poem, that my overall basic line unit was being dictated by how many words I can fit on a line in my notebook, so I often use different sized notebooks or double up the lines when I type to get out of that rut now.

I also like using second person, “you,” to write about myself.  Using “I” can seem too much like complaining sometimes, too confessional in a bad way, and talking about yourself in third person is just weird (and is currently the territory of Herman Cain).

Now, it’s important to note that if you walk away from my house for two miles, you will find the places I describe but not in the order I describe them.  To me, a poem is art with words that expresses some truth.  The goal I am after in an autobiographical poem is to render the “truth” of an internal state of being  through the emotional colorings of words on the page.  In order to do that, I don’t have to be 100% accurate in the factual details.  In some way, what actually happened doesn’t matter so much as what I do with what happened. There is a relationship between the events, my memory, and the poem; I’m not writing about walking on Mars or something.  But I don’t have to burden myself with being totally accurate in the external details if it doesn’t dramatize the internal state I’m after.  Plus, I have a poor memory for certain details anyway (ADD, remember?).  I remember images strongly, but not the order of them or names attached to them.  In fact, when I read someone else’s poem in a journal or in a workshop, I am often not that interested in the actual story of an autobiographical poem than in what the poet does with it.  If the language and sentiment and form are interesting, I don’t care so much about the plot.  You could write about Spongebob and it would be interesting to me if it were fresh and full of insight.

SpongeBob's Truth or Square

I was pretty happy with the result, and thought I could submit it to journals.  I submitted it to three different journals over time and it was rejected without comment from each.

In February of 2009, on a really snowy Michigan day, I met Foster Neil at a reading.  As part of the Festival of the Arts in Big Rapids, Phillip Sterling, one of my colleagues at Ferris State University had organized a faculty reading.  It was a great event, held at the Comstock House, a bed and breakfast in town.  Upwards of twenty faculty members from all disciplines brought their own writing to read, and we had a great time.

Foster is a local poet, originally from Big Rapids, who had earned a degree in poetry from Antioch and came back home.  He’s made it his life’s work to bring poetry to the public since then.  He runs a publication, The Michigan Poet, and he prints broadsides (posters) that he distributes in local businesses and schools and anywhere else someone might hang a poster.  At the time, he just wanted to talk to other local poets.

After I knew him for a while, he asked me if I had any poems that might fit his project.  There are some limitations to what he considers for publication: the poems have to be 25 lines or less to fit on the poster and, because he gives them to local schools, they can’t have anything overtly sexual, religious, political, etc.  It’s also helpful if they reflect the season or the Michigan landscape in some way.

I prepared a few poems for submission, and “North” fit every criteria except the length.  In the version I submitted, I end with these lines:

Past the last houses and
the old gas fields and

you’ve made it to the open.
When you wish to be gone

this is the way you go.

The last line is not a couplet, so it breaks the “rules” of the poem, but a form works in part through both regularity and variation, so I don’t have a problem with that.  It gives extra emphasis to the last line, and suggests that there’s more than one meaning there.  An alternate version I have (and the version I keep on my blog) adds these lines:

this is the way you go.
Your legs tell you when it’s

far enough to make it back
unless you are too far gone

to listen. In that case,
listen to the jays

and crows and fear
their warnings instead.

I kind of like the jays in crows in there, but these extra lines may be more telling, not showing, so I’m not sure which is the best version.  If this poem ever makes it into a book collection, then I’ll have to make a choice.

In December of 2010, the poem came out.  Foster posted it around town and in schools and online.  I’ve published poems before, and they often seem like they disappear into the ether.

Not this time.  For the next two months, I got comments from all sorts of people: other faculty members, students, and acquaintances.  They often would say, “Hey, I saw your poem at Snyder’s.  Cool!”  It was very satisfying to feel like I had actual readers for awhile.

The poem still hangs on my office door and in the hallway in my building, and students and colleagues comment on it sometimes. Very recently a friend and I had a good conversation about it.  One day, when I wasn’t there, her middle school son was with her in the office and had read the poem and said, “Hey, what’s he got against middle schoolers?”  She told him that the poem was me giving advice to my own son, who is autistic.  Although that wasn’t my intent with the poem it’s not an unreasonable assumption because I write a lot of poems about raising a son with autism.

I’m not given to the idea of the correct interpretation of the poem.  There has to be some connection between the poem and the interpretation (the interpretation has to be defensible with evidence from the poem), but I’m okay with a different reading of it.  I had never thought of my poem in that way, and that’s been the best outcome of publishing this poem, the continuing conversation.

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North

Out the door and down
the hill. Past the elementary

school and across the soccer
fields. The trailhead, past

where deer graze, next
to where the river slides fast

and quiet. The warning signs
and then the tree mural,

the hidden entrance to the park,
through the park to the first

bridge, past the middle school
(do not speak to anyone)

to the second bridge
across the road, next to

a parking lot, next to
the river again. Behind houses

where children stare at
you, behind the Farm & Garden.

Past the last houses and
the old gas fields and

you’ve made it to the open.
When you wish to be gone

this is the way you go.
Your legs tell you when it’s

far enough to make it back
unless you are too far gone

to listen. In that case,
listen to the jays

and crows and fear
their warnings instead.


This poem originally appeared in The Michigan Poet.

Weakness for/from Poetry

After three weeks of banging words out for NaNoWriMo and stalling out way short of 50,000 words (with a respectable 24,000 words), and after a Thanksgiving holiday filled with headaches, low pressure systems, and an attempt to reduce my caffeine intake (all three related), instead of throwing myself back at the fiction grindstone, I instead finished the edits on my poetry collection and sent it to a book contest.  I should write “finished”; it’s never done.

When I was drafting for the novel, it felt good to have that word flow going every day.  But I don’t have the focus or stamina to finish a long piece of fiction.  Two things it takes to be a writer: talent and persistence.  I definitely struggle with the latter.  I struggle in general with anxiety in my life, but lots of it gets attached to poetry.

I’ve studied lots of books about procrastination, blocks, etc., trying to figure out why I finished an MFA and then stopped writing poetry entirely for a decade, and the short answer is a sort of anxiety about criticism and failure.

One sort anxiety starts when I open a new issue of Poetry magazine.  In some part of my thinking, I’ve made Poetry the pedestal for what counts as “good” poetry.  A mixture of anger and jealousy starts sometimes when I read a poem and can’t for the life of me figure out why that poem is better than the several thousand they rejected for that issue (90,000 submissions a year averages 7,500 submissions a month; last month they published work by 14 poets).  The demon dogs start barking, with all the reasons not to write poetry:

  • Most people don’t care about poetry
  • There are thousands of poets writing and submitting
  • It’s too late to be someone’s protégé
  • I have a better chance of winning the lottery than being a famous poet

Yes, there’s the f-word in my list.  I’ll be honest, when I dream of the successful poet’s life, it involves literary fame: giving readings to rapt audiences, running workshops with adoring participants, being known among people in the crowd at a conference.  It’s not a part of my personality that I am proud of, but I acknowledge.  Whenever I feel good about writing I find myself having flights of fancy about what I will say during an interview: “the idea for the book first came to me in an airplane over Cincinnati . . . ” (definitely the sign of an anxious person: practicing what to say ahead of time).

The reality of my dearth of publications is a good antidote for this sort of thinking.  I’d have more of a swagger in my step if I had real publications to think of.  Publication, though requires submission, requires calling your work “done,” requires putting the work out there to be rejected, and even though when editors reject most work it is totally gone from their consciousness I still imagine that moment of rejection (who does that Jonathan Jay Taylor think he is?).  Alas, my anxiety puts blocks in the way of decisions and actions that may result in criticism.  I fight it all the time, anything from grading papers to picking out paint colors, anything that I worry won’t be good enough my brain just likes to hold off on.

And yet, I keep coming back for more.

So, my next task is to get that submission mill going again, sending poems to journals. . . tomorrow . . .

“What Work Is”

“What Work Is” is a favorite poem of mine.  It’s by Philip Levine and it appears in the book of the same name, published by Knopf in 1991, which won the National Book Award.

http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/levine/what_work_is.php

I often teach it and read it aloud to students.  Like a lot of Levine’s work, it is conversational and accessible, but rewards close reading.  One of the courses I teach is Justice in Literature, which is a course required for Criminal Justice majors where I teach.  I use it as part of a unit on distributive justice in poems about work.

But I’ve studied it for its craft as well.  I love the changes in tone and how the poem somehow is both conversational and artistic in its language.  Levine begins setting the scene:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.

I first read this book as suggested reading for a poetry workshop with Herb Scott at Western Michigan University, only later knowing that Herb was a student of Levine’s.  Anyway, as a twenty-something poet I liked the audaciousness of the opening.  Poems are always announcing what poems are, and here Levine addresses the reader directly and then tells the reader off.  For the rest of the poem the “you” is the poet addressing himself, and the reader is forgotten.

And I liked the locale too.  Feeling like a Michigan poet myself, I connected to Levine’s writing about working in Detroit, although upon reflection that was kind of a superficial connection.  I lived in Kalamazoo, worlds away from Detroit. I had worked in a factory, but only for a couple of months, and I didn’t depend on the work to live. Even today, living in Big Rapids, Detroit seems like a different universe.  But he was writing about standing in line and waiting for work, something mundane, and finding meaning there.

The tone from there on is by turns carping, melancholic, and funny.  The futility of the situation, and the melancholic tone, arises when the narrator mistakes someone ahead for his brother:

You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants.

Here Levine is using repetitions of sound and syntax to create structure and form within free verse.  The alliteration is clear in “same sad slouch.”  The phrases pile on top of one another to push the poem forward with a single sentence that stretches 11 lines.  Levine frequently uses anaphora and lists to build tension with long, rolling sentences that start building to a turn in tone or a resolution at the end of a piece.  Here the turn is toward love and then humor, both praising and then affectionately criticizing the brother who:

Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.

This bit of humor is a feint, a hesitation before Levine takes us to the end:

How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

So the final line restates the title and bookends the poem.  What “real” work is changes from the beginning to the end.  The first “work” is the sense of physical labor, and here it is also the denigration of the workers by those in power.  The second “work” is the work of the heart, the “work” of expressing affection, perhaps the difficulty of these two men to express affection for one another.

Even though I teach this as part of a unit on economics, the poem isn’t really much about that.  The subject of work is just the occasion for the poem, the springboard.  It doesn’t say much about work (hourly labor, that is), other than that work stinks.

But I do use it to teach about tone, to help students see how words and syntax and line create feeling.  It’s also an easy poem to get into, not a lot of language barriers, and my mostly-Michigan students like the local connection.

I’ve also used Levine’s poetics in my own work: seemingly mundane moments, long, driving sentences, dry humor that turns serious, everyday language, and the strong ending.  It was very useful to me to mimic Levine to learn how form evolves in a free-verse poem, and how language devices work to create tone.  However, like most affectations, I had to leave Levine behind.  The best observation I had recently was from the poet Fred Marchant: “you’re very committed to the sentence.”  He advised me to try some less well constructed sentences in my work.  I’ve come to not worry so much about being accessible either, but like any other phase of work, my time reading and imitating Levine taught me much.

Headed to Colrain

I’m leaving in a few days for the Colrain Poetry Manuscript conference in rural Massachusetts.  I’ll be attending for the second time.  At the conference, poets with manuscripts meet with other poets and editors to talk about putting together and publishing a book, so it’s unlike any other conference I’ve encountered.

Last time I went, I was on sabbatical and I went with the idea my book was pretty much finished and I just needed to know how to get it out there.  However, after the conference, my book fell apart, in a good way.  That is, I realized that my book never hung together in the first place, that it was a patchwork collection of poems of varied quality, many of which I was hanging on to just because I had them.  I also found my subject.

My older son, who is 9 now, has autism.  I had only just begun writing about my experience as a parent, and people at the conference responded most strongly to those poems.  To get ready for the conference, Joan Houlihan asks that you prepare some exercises, one of which is to collect your top five and worst five poems from the collection and prepare copies for the workshop group, without labeling which is which.  My selections met with confusion, because I put the new autism poems in the bottom five, and they liked those the most.  They disliked the whiny, entitled, self-conscious MFA-era poems which I had been hanging on to for a decade, and which I had put at the top.

During the last day, book editors meet with workshop groups.  We give them our complete mss. along with a cover letter, and they respond to them as if they were submissions.  I thought things were going well with my group; the editor and I had chatted the night before and we had a lot of similarities in both life circumstances and our poetics.  The reading was a disaster, though.  He didn’t get the first two poems, and after the third said, “Honestly, I would stop reading this manuscript at this point and reject it.” Ouch.  He did page through the rest of it, though, and picked out some things he liked, which were the poems I was least confident about.

That was a hard day, but it proved really valuable to my writing.  I realized the world was not in love with my writing as much as I was, so I should stop being in love with my writing and stop worrying about the world.  I also know poets will often, ironically, dislike poems that are close to their own work, because they seem off in some way. I also know that I go to creative writing conferences for an ego stroke, and that real criticism is hard to find. I also realized I was holding on to a certain image of a poem and a poet that hadn’t grown up at all in a decade.

So although I realize that the critique of my work was from essentially two people (the poet and the editor I worked with), and that those two people have their own biases, and that you should never write to please anyone but yourself, I took the criticism to heart, and it’s been a very productive eighteen months since then.

I’m going back with what I call my “autism collection” next week, less confident than last time, but much wiser.  Last time I made some good friends that I’ve kept in contact with, so I’m looking forward to new connections too.

Frost

1.

all the maples finally shed
their brittle ears
ready for muting snows
a storm’s falling white eyeblinks
raise fears of
a sudden snap

being left out by the world
being sent to wait in the hall
hearing only reflections
of what’s going on
or worse
nothing at all
no breath rhythm to count time
no body noise
but somehow still being able to see
to want

I worry what we’re doing to our sons

2.

twenty-two below
eyelashes freeze together
college students wear snowpants
blankets or cardboard cover radiators
frost on my dashboard
tiny knives in the wind
my son has a note:
“It is very cold today
so Owen waits inside.”
my student says
“Man, it’s cold today!”
but no jacket
too cold for worry

3.

another gray day
snow banks oozing onto sidewalks
great icicles growing
and shrinking on the same day
snow and sky the same color
lines of salt-rashed cars worry
themselves at intersections
while my choices are just the
footsteps on the damp concrete

4.

I cannot generate quiet
any more than I can chew
my teeth
later I lie
on the floor and stare
at the landscape
in the ceiling tiles
and spook myself
thinking about the curious nature
of before I die wishes
until the terror of it
makes me focus
on the simple correspondences
thirsty–drink
hungry–eat
tired–sleep
living–breathing
my sons are in the present


A portion of this poem originally appeared in The Battered Suitcase:

http://vagabondagepress.com/90401/V1I11PT4.html