Quotables: Philip Levine

Curious what this “Quotables” thing is all about? Check out the first post here.

Photo courtesy of www.poets.org

Photo courtesy of http://www.poets.org

“You don’t need permission to write about life on Mars. You can do whatever the hell your imagination is gifted with.” —Philip Levine

In 2012, I attended the Dodge Poetry Festival. While I saw a bunch of incredibly talented writers speak, this particular quote from Philip Levine has stayed with me to this day. Perhaps it’s because I shared this quote with my first composition class. Perhaps it is because I included this quote in a prior blog post. However, I think the main reason this quote has stayed in the forefront of my mind for the past few years is because it hits the core of a construct I have struggled with nearly all my life—the need for permission.

As kids, we all need permission to do certain things, like go to a friend’s house or eat a cookie. It wasn’t until around 2009 or 2010 (while in my MFA program), however, that I realized I was holding back when writing. There were delicate subjects I wasn’t writing about. There were certain things I wasn’t allowing myself to feel. And all this because I felt I didn’t have permission. I had a wealth of emotion, but I told myself, “Who am I to feel it?”

Many people and events have helped break down the crud to get my “dam of creativity” flowing, but permission remains a funny thing. I feel free to write, but what about to live a life with a flexible work schedule? What about feeling anger?

What I love about Levine’s quote is that it’s sort of a “catch-all” permission slip to do “whatever the hell” you want. Indeed, it’s a permission slip to do, perhaps, what you must.

And those last words. To do what “your imagination is gifted with.” Yes! The feelings, daydreams, talents—all that we feel is a waste, not practical, or what others won’t accept or may dismiss as silly—is actually a gift. Share it!

What do you feel you need permission for? What would you do if you used this quote as your permission slip? Do you have any moments that acted as a sort of “permission slip” for you to do something you wanted?

 

Poetry Still Has Teeth

During my first day in the Drew MFA program in 2009, students gathered to hear the faculty talk about a current favorite poem of theirs.  I’ll never forget when Alicia Ostriker, my first mentor, read Jane Mead’s poem “Concerning that Prayer I Cannot Make.”  At the time, I was fresh out of college, living with my mother whose mental illness was, unfortunately, getting the best of her, and wondering how and why my relationship with God was changing…and frightened by it all.

That first stanza unexpectedly hit me, as Florence + the Machine would say, like a train on a track:

Jesus, I am cruelly lonely
and I do not know what I have done
nor do I suspect that you will answer me.

Those three lines felt like I had written them. I was disillusioned with silence from God, yet I desperately wanted to love Him, but didn’t quite know what that looked like anymore.  I was rapidly being asked to grow up in many ways by taking care of my mother and shouldering a full-time job while going back to school. I was also the youngest in the MFA program at the time and felt completely inadequate as a writer. And yet I felt I had to swallow all of my insecurities and carry on like a good little soldier.  I certainly did not think of acknowledging my loneliness, anger, and questions.

This poem changed that.  It showed me that it was ok to question and be bold about it.  To this day, I still think of the last line of that Jane Mead poem where, after addressing Jesus, the poet addresses nature and all that is around her, saying, “Listen, I am holy.”

That last line broke me open.  Though permission is not required to write or to feel or to question, I needed it.  I needed that gateway to open so that I could remember my worth as a person.  I later wrote to my mentor that it was in that poem that I saw pieces of the writer I wanted to become.  I realize now that my connection to the piece was deeper than that.  I saw pieces of the woman I wanted to become–thoughtful, observant, full of questions, and, when need be, brazen. Four years later, these are all qualities I now possess.

Last week, a writer at the Washington Post posted an article asserting that poetry is dead. The main question posed in this article is “Can a poem still change anything?”  Here, in part, is the writer’s answer:

I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk, and for a while I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven MFA programs explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that year. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit. One of the poems, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices. I am not saying that it was a bad poem. It was a good poem, within the constraints of what poetry means now. But I think what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.

This response to poetry both saddened and angered me.  I was angered that someone would flippantly say that a medium I love so much is “a limp and fangless thing.”  And I was saddened that someone could misunderstand such a powerful literary genre so completely. To only look at the numbers is to miss the point.  The author’s perspective is one I would expect from someone who has not been affected by poetry.

And I know that not everyone will be.  Poetry is not for everyone. But to make such a sweeping statement about a genre one is not familiar with is ill-informed.  I hoped that the writer would at least include some tidbits about speaking with lovers of poetry, but she did not.

Poet Daniel Nathan Terry wrote a response to the Washington Post article as well (and after reading it, I wondered if I should enter the conversation because his response is so articulate).  I do not have a story that brings together politics, love, and words so eloquently as he does. But, as seen earlier in this piece, I do have a story of how poetry changed me.  And I’m not the only one.

The fact that poets may not have the most followers on Twitter or that they don’t sell out stadiums does not mean the genre is dead.  Poetry may not make headlines, but I have been in small New York bars and witnessed the audience sigh as one when a poem knocked the breath out of their lungs.  I have seen a poet cry when reading her own poem because the words brought back the memory so vividly.  I have sat at countless tables in cafeterias, cafes, and living rooms talking about the power of the exact right word.  And every one of those people has a story about a line of poetry that sticks with them to this day because it’s power knocked something loose in their souls.  It was that knocking that spurred them to action.

Poetry still has teeth.

And in that sense, yes, I think poetry can change a hell of a lot.  Indeed, that may be the only way anything has ever been changed in a lasting manner–one person, one adversity at a time.

Something Like Hope: Thoughts on Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco reads his poem at the 57th Pres...

Richard Blanco reads his poem at the 57th Presidential Inauguration, January 21, 2013 (Photo credit: Photo Phiend)

I have never been glued to the coverage of a presidential inauguration before, but yesterday, as poet Richard Blanco read his poem “One Today,” I was entranced by my computer screen (my mouth may have been hanging open slightly).  And after reading the poem and watching the footage again, I am just as enrapt.

You know how many people have this one moment that inspired them to pursue a certain life path or someone they really look up to?  Typically, this happens as a child.  I really think that moment took place yesterday for me.

As can be seen in some of my past posts, I have quite a few ambitions.  But something felt different in me as I watched Richard Blanco read.  As the first Latino and openly gay inaugural poet, his reading was ground-breaking.  What better person to form a poem when the nation needs unity more than ever?

On a personal level, as a Latina myself, I think the reason his reading struck me was because it was the first time I really felt as if there are no limits to what I can accomplish.  I can be published, go to the moon, teach, travel, read in front of a national audience, and, most importantly, have my art taken seriously.

Blanco’s poem was expansive and inspiring.  It had nods to national tragedy and national scenery, yet it also got very specific with it’s mention of “pencil-yellow school buses” and fruit “arrayed like rainbows/begging our praise.”  I especially liked the ending:

“…all of us —
facing the stars
hope — a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it — together”

What I love about these lines, and the poem in general, is that it focuses on the unity of this country despite our differences or, perhaps, because of them.  And isn’t that the point, not just of inauguration day, but also of this nation?

Maybe I’m being dewey-eyed and cheesy, but the inaugural poem felt a lot like truth in its remembrance of where this nation came from.  It felt a lot like hope.

What I Learned at the Dodge Festival

courtesy of newsworks.org

Exactly two weeks ago, I attended the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ. For those of you who may not be familiar with the festival, it is a four-day extravaganza for lovers of poetry complete with readings and panels led by some of today’s most outstanding poets.  For the past two festivals (it is held biannually), it has been held in the NJPAC center (and surrounding buildings) in Newark.

A few days after the festival, my friend, Lynne, posted a lovely article about what she took away from all of the panels and readings she attended.  This inspired me to write a similar post.  There were so many events I wish I could have triplicated (two of me would not have been enough!) myself.  But the events I did attend were stunning. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Jane Hirshfield from her poem “Vinegar and Oil:”  “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it.”
  • Taylor Mali from his poem “Undivided Attention:”  “Let me teach like the first snow, falling.”
  • Dan Bellm, speaking of reading poetry aloud: “[The poem is] not done, in a way, before it’s spoken, given away.”
  • Thomas Lux, speaking of those who write hard to understand poems on purpose: “[Writing obscure poems on purpose] is a kind of pre-suicide, a kind of not wanting to be.”
  • Phil Levine on permission to write about any subject you want: “You don’t need permission to write about life on Mars. You can do whatever the hell your imagination is gifted with.”
  • Eavan Boland: “The art of self-expression is not hard…There is no art without self expression.”
  • Dorianne Laux: “This form, this genre, was made for working people.”

Lots of little gems here!  I hope you find some inspiration among them.

What about you? Are there any quotes from authors you admire that have stuck with you?

Poetry, Cobblestone, and My Orange Shirt: A Weekend in Massachusetts

Poetry can be a solitary task what with all the writing and revising and talking to your raven.  So two weekends ago, I decided to volunteer at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem, MA.  The festival was headed by a friend of mine and I was happy to help out.  The weekend started with the nearly 5 hour drive up after work on Friday.  The drive was actually pretty relaxing and I saw some really great scenery.

On Saturday, I spent the early part of the day directing volunteers and poets to check in and get their shirts, like this one!

I did get to spend some time volunteering outside in the beautiful weather.  After my shift was over, I walked around Salem and took some pictures of the scenery.

It’s funny what you’ll see around town.  This is probably the most uplifting (and literary based) “graffiti” I’ve ever seen in a bathroom stall.

Afterwards, I attended the panel “Enduring Song,” led by my friend, Monica Hand.  She and Katie Rushin spoke of African-American poets and their link to song and singers.  I didn’t take pictures there since it was a small venue and it would’ve been distracting.

After the panel, all of the volunteers and poets were invited to a reception with yummy food, live music, and great company.

After dinner came the headline poetry reading, featuring Joy Harjo, Nikky Finney, Sherwin Bitsui, Wesley McNair, and Susan Cattaneo.  Here are some shots I took from the night:

I headed home the next day after a full weekend.  All in all, it was a fun experience that melded the practice of writing poetry with action!

Want to see more shots of my time in Massachusetts?  You can check out the Flickr gallery here!

Poetry: A Spiritual Practice

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posed the question, “Is poetry a spiritual practice?”  I thought about this for a while, not because I wasn’t sure if writing was a spiritual practice, but because I couldn’t quite articulate why I believed it was.   Even though the question was posed via facebook status, I spent quite some time crafting an e-mail response…because I can’t say anything concisely.  And this is what I came up with:

Quill and ink

Image via Wikipedia

Poetry is a way for me to connect with people and nature, everything around me, which are all ways to connect with God.  I’m reminded of somethingone of my favorite authors, Don Miller, said: “We connect with God when we ask Him to defeat in us all the ways in which He cannot connect, all the untruth and games and manipulation and we come to Him finally saying, ‘Okay, I get it, you really are good, defeat in me the lack of faith, let your goodness rid me of the stuff that doesn’t connect with you or the world around me.'”

Poetry is a unique form of prayer.  It is a practice that allows me to cut through all of my cluttered thoughts and feelings so that I can get to what matters, what I need to hear and what I need to share with others. It is my way of getting on my knees and crying out, it is my way of talking with God, it is my way of asking forgiveness, it is my way of asking for fire.

I’m also reminded of something the poet Matthew Dickman said in an interview.  He was asked about what sparked him to write a poem.  He told about how he’s usually moved to write while musing about something he enjoys.  Matthew went on to say: “I suppose it’s the “like” that moves me to begin writing a poem—some sort of celebration in my chest wanting some words to understand itself, some sort of grief needing a body.”  There are these urges, these pushes to write that must be followed and, in the process, feel sacred.  There is so much that goes on in one life, sometimes these occurrences beg to be written down.

Thoughts?  Is writing a spiritual practice?  Can it even be considered a spiritual discipline?

The Link Between Grief and Song

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between grief and singing.  I know these can be thought of as pretty disparate concepts; one is filled with anguish and the other is (usually) associated with beauty.  And yet I can’t help but think they are inextricably linked.

I’m reminded of a poem by Jane Hirshfield called “If the Rise of the Fish”.  In this poem she writes, “If the leaves.  If the singing fell upward.  If grief./For a moment if singing and grief.”  I love these lines.  What would happen if singing and grief existed together in the same space for a moment?  What would that look like?  Would it be a mixture of light and dark?  Would it look gray and muddled or luminous?  I’m not quite sure but I love the fact that Hirshfield plays with this concept.

As far as my own creative process is concerned, I tend to write when going through a hardship.  Tension, living in the gray and unknown is what moves me to write.  And this creative process is helped along by music.  Most of my process has been influenced by the belief that tragedy is not necessarily found in the process of enduring a rough time; the real loss would be doing nothing to turn hardship into something beautiful.

There is a song by RED that I find myself going back to.  It’s called “Hymn for the Missing.”  Although these guys are pretty hard rockers, they compose some beautiful instrumentals.  And I think this song illustrates the concept of melding grief and beauty really well.  The lyrics clearly convey loss: “Where are you now?  Are you lost?  Will I find you again?  Are you alone?  Are you afraid?  Are you searching for me?  Why did you go?  I had to stay.  Now I’m reaching for you.  Will you wait?  Will you wait?  Will I see you again?”  So many questions.  I can’t help but think of this verse as depicting the bargaining stage of grief.  The uncertainty leads to questions, but questions don’t always lead to answers.  And still, we put them out there.  In the backdrop of this song is a beautiful piano arrangement that crescendos into an absolutely gorgeous, full instrumental – a reminder that grief and song can complement each other in the most heart-breaking, stunning way.  Listen to “Hymn for the Missing” here:

Hymn For The Missing

 

As I mentioned before, Red is a rock band so I wanted to showcase what they can do.  Check out their face-melting performance on Conan back in February:

Transcribing by Hand

Patrick Rosal recently told how he asked his students to transcribe one poem by hand.  He was right there with them on this assignment and posted his written transcript of Celan’s piece “Death Fugue”.  He then invited anyone who was willing to join in on the fun to post pictures of their transcription.  Here’s my attempt.  I transcribed Jericho Brown’s poem “Again”.

 

 

 

I’ve read this poem aloud a few times, but hand writing the piece was a completely different experience.  I noticed aspects of the poem I had somehow skipped over in my previous readings, such as the fact that each line begins with a capital letter.  I was also more aware of each line as its own unit, rather than rushing through the line to get to the end of the sentence.  It was in this head space that I became fascinated with the line “For my feet. In the dark/”. Here is the end of one sentence and the beginning of another. But as a unit, these two phrases are really engaging. What is for your feet in darkness? What does it matter since you cannot see your own feet in the dark? I pictured losing one’s way since the next step cannot be seen.  Or, maybe, this is freeing since there is no prescribed path; this presents the chance to carve a different path.

Perhaps the most surprising turn out of this experience was the urge to read the poem backwards, line by line. Here is one section of the poem as it is in the original poem:
Give a man a minute.
She’s asleep and I’m typing it
all over again. Everywhere
A man is shifting a bit
To make his woman comfortable
In his arms.

And here is that same section typed backwards (I’ve changed the punctuation a bit for the sake of flow):
In his arms,
To make his woman comfortable,
A man is shifting a bit
All over again. Everywhere
She’s asleep and I’m typing it.
Give a man a minute.

The backwards version has a different, almost cryptic, meaning compared to the original version. But it’s a great exercise to extract different syntaxes, explore different word arrangements. I found this to be a great prompt. I’m definitely going to start a poem with the line “Everywhere, she’s asleep.”

 

5 Writing Prompts to Get the Fire Going

My brilliant fellow poets in the MFA have their first packet of the semester due soon.  I know that the stress of a deadline sometimes creates writer’s block, so I’ve collected a few prompts from various sources to help ya’ll get un-stuck (or just for a fun exercise):

1. Write a poem answering the question: What would you find in your grandmother’s purse?

2. Think of a rule you grew up with.  Now, write a poem in which you break that rule.

3. Write about a body part without using its name or function.  For example, if you’re writing about the stomach, you cannot use the word “digest”.

These next two prompts riff off of poems by the poets featured in the last two “Poetry Monday”s: Michael and Matthew Dickman (yup, they’re brothers).

4. Write a poem answering the questions posed in Michael Dickman’s poem “Nervous System”: “When you look down/inside yourself/what is there?”

You can find the excerpt of the poem I generated this prompt from here.

5. Matthew Dickman’s poem “Grief” begins “When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla”. Use this statement as a starting point, but fill in the blanks for yourself: When _______ comes to you as a  __________   ___________ .

You can find the full text of his poem here.

Here’s to writing with plenty of fire!

Manuscripts. How do they work?

After months of hard work (not to mention a culmination of two years worth of writing and revision), the final draft of my manuscript for my MFA program is out to my mentor.  It’s a great feeling!

The process of putting together a manuscript, like the craft of poetry itself, is an art.  There is no formula, no “right” way to do it. Whittling down my pile of poems was easier than I thought.  I started with about 100 pieces.  There were quite a few that just weren’t up to par, and many that weren’t even poems only scraps of ideas.  It was a little more difficult to cut when I got down to the polished or nearly polished pieces.  There were some poems I really had affection for, but knew they wouldn’t mesh with the rest of the book.

My mentor for this semester said that piecing together a poetry collection “is the art of saying no, then yes, then no.”  The writer has to trust that they are making the right cuts, which was difficult for me because I usually feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.  But in a lot of ways, that’s the best frame of mind to approach a manuscript with.  It allows the work to take its own shape rather than having a form forced onto it.  I had to keep reminding myself that I could cut poems and decide to put them back in later.  While the process of cutting is very fluid, it must eventually solidify for the sake of not working on the same book for the rest of my life.  At a certain point, I had to trust that the poems I included in the manuscript told the story I wanted, and that the pieces left out will be better served elsewhere.

The hardest part of putting my manuscript together was figuring out which order to put the poems in.  The pictures at the top and to the right show the “system” I adopted.  I created piles of poems on similar themes (family and God, to name a couple).  Then I mixed them in an attempt to mesh all of the threads, which is how I experienced these story arcs in real life.  The green tabs on the poems indicate that those poems are “pillars,” my stronger poems that hold up the various story arcs and the manuscript as a whole.  The pink tabs indicate that a poem needs to be revised.

As of now, my manuscript weighs in at around 48 pages.  It is by no means finished.  There is still revising and tweaking to be done, but it certainly has come a long way.

So, to answer the question posed in the subject line of this post: I have no idea.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, there is no one way to string poems together.  Manuscripts are their own brand of living, breathing beasts.  You have to listen to them, feed their needs.  The process is by turns frightening, frustrating, and deeply rewarding.

Music has always been a huge part of my writing process.  The next post (quickly forthcoming!) will have the playlist of the songs I was mainly listening to while putting my manuscript in order.