on making a manuscript

Here’s a great post from my friend and co-student Michelle Ovalle on creating her manuscript. She’s inspired me to try to describe what I’ve been up to, so look for a new post on that soon. Right now, I’m still recovering from the process and waiting to hear back from my mentor so I can send the manuscript to my second reader.

More opinions that one can shake a stick at, and a big part of the MFA process is learning how to build and trust your own opinion….

Poetry as protection from earthquakes, chaos, and disorder

from Gregory Orr’s amazing essay collection Poetry as Survival:

The shape of a doorframe also represents a powerful architecture—during earthquakes, people are advised to stand in doorways because they are stronger and safer than anyplace else in a house. It’s possible to imagine the rectangle of a doorway as the rectangular shape of the page where a poem appears. When we are at an existential or psychological edge, the instability of subjectivity is potentially as dangerous as the chaos of a minor earthquake, and the rectangular shape of the page with its poem can be as reassuring as the doorframe in which we seek shelter.

In our daily lives, the image of the threshold can be useful, too. The threshold is that place where we become aware that we are on the borderline between disorder and order. It can be like standing at the brink of a cliff, or the edge of an ocean, or the beginning of a love affair. In other words, it can be threat or thrill (or, perhaps most accurately, it is both at once).

On a day-to-day basis our threshold is constantly shifting and disappearing and being repressed out of anxiety, whereas in poetry we seek out poems that can take us to our threshold (or one of our thresholds). It is just such a place where we feel most alive, where both exchange of energy and change itself can happen. It is on a threshold, at the edge, where we are most able to alter our understanding of the world and of our own lives in it.

consider what must be happening when we set out to produce a poem

There are no more two distinct brain sides than there are two distinct genders. Why would that surprise anyone who’s ever created anything?

from “A Moment’s Thought” by Ellen Bryant Voigt in her excellent collection The Flexible Lyric

The recent bicameral (and thoroughly Nietzschean) model—right brain for intuition, emotion, art, and music; left brain for logic, rational thought, and language—is already outdated; such neat divisions were never verified except in pathology. In its place has come the concept of “modularity,” of a lifetime of data not stored on labeled shelves in the closet but processed multiply by distinct networks of differing functions: this very sentence as you read it is dismantled by your brain into its component parts—one set of ganglions taking care of the nouns, another the verbs; another flashing up your own shelf, in your own closet at home, from the image depot; a separate hardwired board parsing out the syntax you may have been born to; the brain’s musicians tuning up to the lexical and syntactical repetitions I’m using; and a brand new neural pathway extending itself like algae shot with Rapid-Gro to accommodate this new word “modularity” and its baggage, “modules” and “modern” and “insularity” and “modular housing” and even, from the rhyming crew, “nodules,’ even “noodles.” Thought, it seems, is not the linear storage and retrieval system we know from computers. [So] consider what must be happening when we set out to produce a poem, a complex construct made from intuition, observation, experience, erudition, music, memory, and feeling—what Coleridge called “the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, motions, language.”

Practical Writing Advice: Write HOW you know about what you DON’T know

Write what you know, write what you know, write what you know.

Egads, the worst writing advice ever. This is exactly why I could never make through a PhD program—by the time I’d finished all the research I’d answered my question and the process of all that writing after I had the answer was unbearable.

Writing is part of thinking, not just a way to record thoughts. We think in language, and the process of connecting new words also makes new connections between ideas. So for gods’ sake please don’t write what you know. Write towards something you want to know. Write what you wish you knew. Write what no one has ever known. And if we do that by writing HOW we know, in our own voices from our own experiences and thoughts, we’ll create something new and interesting. Really. Really truly. With sugar or diabetic-friendly sugar substitute on top.

Or, in the words of the Reginald Gibbons in his essay “Poetry and Self-Making:”

Take the hoary advice “Write about what you know.” It only trivializes a deep truth about all artistic expression, which is this: although any subject totally foreign to the writer isn’t part of his or her daily struggle to be and therefore isn’t likely to be a rich ground on which to play out the struggle to write, nonetheless no voyage into the known is worth making if there is not some unknown toward which we are sailing.

Revising as writing, not revising as editing

Crashing headlong into the deadline for the 1st packet of my 4th semester, when all this writing and reading is supposed to gel into a manuscript, I’m deep into reading and thinking about the purpose of revision. What are we doing when we revise, as opposed to all the endless fine-tuning of word choice or meter or line breaks? What role does revision play in how we live in language and strive to express that?

What is revising when it is part of writing, not part of editing?

I’ll be doing a lot of reading, and talking with other writers, about these questions, and trying to make sense of the various answers by writing about them. Stay tuned.

some thoughts on sonnets, but first on breaking silence

I’ve been reading through The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and loving it so much more than even I thought I might. In part, of course, because I’ve quite fallen for this form, although I’m still no where having even one come together for me in my own writing life. And in part because the book has women. Contemporary women, sure, but not only—women who published sonnets and sonnet sequences hundreds of years ago. Women who seemed to not exist when I was an English major in college in the early 1980’s. And who certainly didn’t exist when I was at UC Irvine in 1985-86 and was told I couldn’t write about women writers in the 1700s because there were no women writers then—a statement made even more sexist-piggish because, in fact, all the male writers we were studying said that one particular woman was the best poet of their time. Odd how there was a best poet yet she didn’t exist? And the professor who proclaimed this was a scholar of exactly that group of male writers. Had he not read them? Or did he just have some awful brain disorder that couldn’t process female pronouns?

All those years of feminist scholarship have made this huge difference, and even such a mainstream anthology now includes women writers, and talks about their work seriously. Yes, the legacy of male writers is still far greater, or perhaps just far less suppressed, but that utter silence is gone.

Or is it just that this amazing anthology is edited by a woman writer?

In any case, the editor, Phillis Levin, has written a great introduction, with pretty much anything you’d need to know about the sonnet in English. A few highlights I am writing so I will remember:

The easiest thing to say about a sonnet is that it is a fourteen-line poem with a particular rhyme scheme and a particular mode of organizing and amplifying patterns of image and thought; and that, if written in English, the meter of each line usually will be iambic pentameter. Taken as a whole, these fourteen lines compose a single stanza, called a quatorzain, the name given to any fourteen-line form. But though a sonnet typically has fourteen lines, fourteen lines do not guarantee a sonnet: it is the behavior of those lines in relation to each other—their choreography—that identifies the form.

Whatever its outward appearance, by virtue of its infrastructure the sonnet is asymmetrical. The dynamic property of its structure depends on an uneven distribution of lines, of the weight they carry. It is top-heavy, fundamentally. Opposition resides in its form the way load and support contend in a great building.

In Italian, volta (a feminine noun) can refer to a change that is temporal, as in prossima volta, “next time,” or spatial, as in “a bend.” In architecture, it is the term for a vault, which forms the supporting structure for a roof or ceiling—an apt metaphor, as the volta supports and defines the structure of the sonnet. Turning marks time and its passage: in an Italian sonnet, the poet has less time before the turn arrives, but more space in which to make the turn, more time to amplify the aftermath.

Shakespeare is clearing the stage for a new way of thinking and speaking about love and time, death and the power of rhyme. He begins with the assumption that love is like nothing else but itself: it is beyond compare, beyond comparison. Yet this reflection beyond reflection mirrors the self-reflexive nature of the sonnet, its tendency to implode in its solitary cell. The unrepeatable instant is suspended and refracted in verbal and acoustical repetition; the unreproducible being produces an echo of everlasting absence.

Tackling Metrics #5 – Variation and The Meaningful Beat

Ciardi – big surprise, huh?

Vital to understanding the metrics of a poem is the balance between the regular meter, the mechanical beat, and the natural stresses of spoken English, the meaningful beat.

The stress of the mechanical beat often works against both the natural stresses of spoken English and stresses created by the poem’s syntax, structure, or meaning (all parts of the meaningful beat). Three points vital to understanding these natural, and necessary, variations:

-A line may have more or fewer meaningful than mechanical stresses.

-The stresses of the mechanical and of the meaningful scansions do not always coincide. The grammatical context, determining as it does the voice emphases of the spoken language (meaningful stress) is never entirely separable from metrics.

-The mechanical and the meaningful stresses may coincide precisely. When this happens in a poem, it is considered a smooth line or a rest line. These lines set the overall beat of the poem, and are often used to create a moment of rest or calm in a poem driven by variations in pace.

Tackling Metrics #4 – Controlling Line Speed

again, from Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?

Common Metrical Ways to Control the Speed of the Line

1. the more unstressed syllables are brought together between accents, the faster the line will tend to move

2. the more caesuras and the more stressed syllables that occur in a given passage, the slower the pace will tend to be

3. using anapestic instead of iambic unstressed syllables will speed up the line, because, in some ways, the iamb is like an eighth note, while the anapest is like a sixteenth note (Hopkins stretched this even further, setting no limits on the number of unstressed syllables in a foot, thus speeding up his lines to create his often dizzying effect)

Common Non-metric Ways to Control the Speed of the Line

1. sound patterns:
alliteration, vowel and consonant sequences, consonantal clusters, rhyme, internal rhyme, repetition of the same word or phrase
a. using all open vowels slows down a line
b. lines of equal monosyllables slow down a line
c. consonantal clusters slow down a line
d. in general the heavier and more complicated the rhymes, whether internal or at the end of the line, the more they will accelerate the pace
e. monosyllabic feet slow down a line

2. visual patterns:
the isolation of words as single lines, the separation of words from one another by unusual spacings in the line, the breaking off of lines for special effect

3. punctuation:
in one sense punctuation is a special case of visual pattern. Punctuation must be taken to include the capitalization of whole words or of their first letters, and the use of italics

4. grammatical structure:
particularly parallel constructions and balanced antitheses as devices for controlling the voice emphases of the speech rhythms.

Tackling Metrics #3 – Pattern and Variation

culled, quoted, inspired by, and paraphrased from John Ciardi’s classic How Does a Poem Mean?

The mechanical pattern of a poem is the exact, standard, normal beat, as if a metronome were counting out the beats. But poems written in strict mechanical pattern are boring and flat, as is music played strictly by the metronome. The ways the mechanical patterns is stretched, broken, surprised, are all ways that the performance of music and of poetry take on personality, emotion, and meaning.

It is useful to think of the pattern of mechanical iambic pentameter as roughly corresponding to the squares on graph paper: the variations of the drawn graph are meaningful only as they work against the fixed norm of the squares. In poetry the mechanical pattern may be thought of as an expectation. The metric performance of any line happens in the way it works its variations against the established expectation. Ciardi page 923

Common Ways to Work Against the Pattern

1. slipping in extra unaccented syllables

2. displacing an expected accent, as in the reversed foot

3. by increasing the number of stresses, primarily by the use of spondees and monosyllabic feet

4. by grouping stressed or unstressed syllables

5. by the manipulation of internal pauses (caesura), end-stops, and run-ons