Dora handed out two chapters from The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. I google the unfamiliar name and there it is, referenced in 170,000 places. As I read the chapters, I see why Hugo is name-dropped all over the Internet. He says in straightforward language that it’s okay to make up stuff if the poem benefits. ‘The words should not serve the subject. The subject should serve the words. This may mean violating the facts.’ That goes against my instincts about how to validate an experience I am writing about. It’s going to take time to drown out the voices of my news editors and journalism teachers who stressed the importance of accuracy.
I want to know more about Hugo’s take on truth, so I add his slender book to my shopping list. Fortunately I can draw upon a going away gift from my old employer — credit in an Amazon account. The past eight years living in a city (Tokyo) in another language (Japanese) meant that I often resorted to buying, rather than borrowing, the books I wanted to read. In Wellington, I am rediscovering the wonder of libraries that speak fluently in my own tongue.
Moving back to New Zealand to write poetry for nine months probably shows some commitment to the craft. But what of Marissa, who flies up from Christchurch for Tuesday classes and flies back after Wednesday classes? For today’s biography exercise she submitted this remarkable image in her opening lines:
my toes are lumps
of newborn rats
I know Alistair Paterson as editor of Poetry NZ and from his feedback on the handful of poems I have submitted to the journal. He has published one of my poems and returned another with a promise that if I submitted it again, he would publish it. In short, I like him. But I know little about his work, so it was a nice surprise to see his poem ‘Jennie Roache Love All the Boys in the World’ included in Dora’s handout for our second workshop exercise, alongside the likes of Yeats, O’Hara, and Neruda. I enjoyed the poem … with relief. It makes the evaluation that somebody gives of your own work easier to digest if they write well.
The reward, the punchline even, in ‘Jennie Roache Love All the Boys in the World’ is in the final 14 words when, after 31 lines of relentless speculation, we discover who Jennie is to Paterson and what the title means:
and what was the impulse prompted you
to write your declaration on my fence?
The title is quoting graffiti. Paterson is a victim and has exacted some revenge by placing Jennie in a poem and giving her a bigger audience than just pedestrians and the people in passing cars, though the small audience for poetry probably means Jennie doesn’t know she headlines a poem. (Can it be called ‘infamy’ if nobody is around to spread it?)
Curious that Paterson doesn’t suggest another possibility: the graffitist isn’t Jennie. Why not a bashful admirer of Jennie? A jealous rival? A nutty friend? The addressee, Jennie, might then be doubly slighted (on the fence and in the poem). I’m assuming that Jennie Roache is a real name. Perhaps Paterson altered the name to protect the innocent, or the guilty. Is the poem even autobiographical? When once I would have assumed it must be, now I pause. Two weeks into the course my head is buzzing with the notion that poetry need not conform to facts. To repeat: ‘The subject should serve the words.’
This idea is troubling, but it’s also liberating. It lets poet James Brown off the hook. I like his poems — the way he plays with words and is expert at setting up the unexpected. But I had come to like them less after discovering that some of his deeply felt poems weren’t based on the writer’s actual experience. Instead, he used his imagination (!). In ‘The Ideal Present’, for example, the opening lines suggest the poet is an orphan:
The last time I saw my brother
was at my other brother’s funeral.
We were the only two present
I now feel better equipped to approach, and appreciate, such a poem. The poet is not necessarily the same as the speaker; if the writing is good, the poem is valid. This isn’t journalism. The facts shouldn’t get in the way of the truth or the feeling the poet is trying to convey. As if to soothe my lingering belief in the importance of getting the facts straight, I come across lines in ‘Thank You, Fog’ by W. H. Auden (in the same handout as Paterson’s poem) that echo the idea that flat prose is the writer’s enemy:
No summer sun will ever
dismantle the global gloom
cast by the Daily papers …
I drop Hana off at school. She tells her teacher that I am ‘busy writing sentences’. This sentence for example. And this.
My first meeting tomorrow with Andrew Johnston, my supervisor. It’s fortunate his one-year sabbatical from living in Paris coincides with my year on the course. Still, I’m mindful of former MA student Therese Lloyd’s point that she was disappointed when she wasn’t paired with one of her favourite poets (Bernadette Hall) but was later glad that she didn’t have to deal with any testiness that might have arisen between them about the direction of Therese’s work.
I must pin down what theme/s I’m going to develop. It seems clear the ‘hub’ of my folio will be airports/planes/flight. I want to talk this over with Andrew. I don’t know yet how golden that thread will shine (how tightly it will bind!). It’s satisfying to think the notes I scribbled while stacking bags in aircraft lockers and passing time between flights in the loaders’ lunchroom might come to something. Kathleen Jamie is helpful: ‘More often than not, I think that if the question is beginning to formulate itself, the direction is beginning to be mapped, the permission is ready to be granted.’ (From Holding Fast — Truth and Change in Poetry, an essay handed out by Dora.)
Some of my poems will borrow from my father’s story; others will tell a shared story — working alongside him at Christchurch airport during school and university holidays. The trick is to not make my father uncomfortable. Playwright Dave Armstrong spoke to a combined session of the two classes today. He maintains that if what you write makes people close to you ‘queasy’ then you are probably onto a good thing. I’ll pocket that for now and see how it settles.
I pay $25 to Unity Books to take home Airports by Kevin Ireland. That’s more than I want to pay for poetry, but it could be months before the book lands in the secondhand shops (inevitably as a reviewer’s copy). The title echoes the planned theme of my folio and I pick up the book to see how much of my territory Ireland has staked out. Not much, it turns out. The 11-poem sequence at the start is a meditation on airports as places to pass through, not places to linger. Only the first poem, ‘The Inconsolability of Airports’, really fires for me:
as the names of great cities clatter
across the walls and our hearts must once more
talk themselves down from the skies.
Ireland mostly ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’, though he does this well. His meaning is clear, buttering lines with a tad more sentiment than I like. Andrew Johnston ‘shows’, rather than ‘tells’. He demands our attention by placing the reader amid the action. Look at Andrew’s take on airports in his poem ‘Terminal’:
As one voice asks you for
your expiry date, another
Tambourine, and then
later the attendants
who’ve been angels
summon to the gate
over and over
someone by the name
I let the quote unspool because of that last line: Experience Ryan. American names are fodder for wordplay. I took Hana to the library today and we got out Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. At the end of the book, another great American name: Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea. Say it again, and again:
Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea
Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea
Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea
The way words sound. Sometimes that’s enough.
I hope to visit Napier this week. Two nights away while the sun still shines and Hana and I are still on school holidays. To help justify the trip amid my regime of writing, and meditating on writing, and not always writing, and fretting that I’m not writing, I plan to stop at the used-book shops that must line Highway 2, to hunt slender volumes of New Zealand poetry in their natural habitat. At dinner before the Lloyd Cole concert last night, Justine recommended that if I visit only one winery in Hawkes Bay, make it the Te Mata estate. I probably won’t, though some of the poets I admire have been laureates sponsored by Te Mata. Wine is entwined with poetry in New Zealand. The nation’s book awards, afterall, are sponsored by Montana. ‘Wine is bottled poetry’, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, c/o Google. That makes me wonder: Which wines with what poems? Chardonnay with limericks? Riesling with sonnets? Presumably we will properly address that topic after classes wind down in October.
Before last evening I hadn’t seen Lloyd Cole in concert. I’m not so much a fan as an admirer. His lyrics (along with those of Billy Bragg, and Matt Johnson of the group The The) introduced me to wordplay in my late teens as a legitimate vehicle for expression:
It took a lost weekend in Amsterdam
and double pneumonia in a single room …
— ‘Lost Weekend’
You can hardly stand.
Lean over on the bookcase
if you really want to get straight
read Norman Mailer
or get a new tailor …
— ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’
Those last two lines tip into the corny, but they are sung tongue-in-cheek. Mindful of the risk of losing the reader’s attention, I often try to write poems that relish double meanings and wordplay. Sometimes this undermines the intended message. My poems for the workshop exercises have been called ‘clever’, but not as a compliment. It suggests a lack of soul.
This year I am trying to pay more attention to the message. Andrew recently read the folio I submitted to get into the course and picked up on the tendency of my poems to observe, and not show what I think (though he said it more diplomatically). In trying to say what I want to say using understatement, my poems threaten to tip into vapidity. The reader would like a point of view.
The workshop exercises are behind us and I am trying to write poems without the handrail the exercises provided. The time for the appraisal of my partial portfolio is approaching. That’s when my classmates spend half of the three-hour workshop digging around for weeds in the poems that I have written outside of the exercises. There aren’t many poems (seven) in my packet, but I have paid them a lot of attention. Maybe too much attention.
I’ve been struggling to capture the right tone in one of the poems — an anecdotal piece about my father. How do I say what I want to say, without saying it directly? Helping to unclog some of the gunk on my page was reading the poem ‘Makara’ that Joan included in her partial folio. It’s filled with details that sustain the writing for over two pages. It’s strongly attached to place (Makara), and it’s strangely and delicately detached from the character/person to whom the writing is addressed. It reaches out for the universal while managing to stay personal. Which echoes a point made by Andrew about some of Jenny Bornholdt’s work, particularly the poem: ‘One day you wake to find your best friend has gone to Australia’. Bornholdt focuses on a small detail — the way her friend chops parsley — that is insightful but not overtly personal. The poem conveys the sadness of distance between friends, but without Bornholdt having to say what’s said between the lines: ‘I miss you’. Here are the superb final lines:
and the way she used
to say that if you could find
a piece one piece in a
dish, what it meant was
it just wasn’t chopped fine
I know what I want to write about, but which of the myriad ways something can be written should I choose?
One method of approaching a poem is not to approach it at all. Simply write and let the lines emerge as they may; treat an idea as the leaping off point for wherever your mind takes the poem. I’m doing more of that lately. Another way of freeing the mind and the pen is to rely, paradoxically, on the restriction of form. I tried that with some success in an exercise poem we had to write about an animal. Using Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’ as a model, I restricted my poem (about tadpoles!) to three-line stanzas of five syllables per line. Here are the final stanzas of Plath’s poem:
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
Putting those kinds of shackles on a poem results in a directness that otherwise might not have been achieved. This week I’m trying to write a sonnet, because the boundaries of the line-count afford a kind of freedom to explore an idea. If my impulse is to write only eight lines, the sonnet says I must write six more, and in those six lines may be gems rather than filler. I took the cue from David Beach, whose book of sonnets Abandoned Novel I breezed through on the cable car and on the bus coming home after this week’s workshop. Beach’s sonnets are uncomplicated and humourous mini-essays that are not straitjacketed by iambic pentameter. Enjambment is intrinsic to his style. He is master of the ‘What if’ poem. In the sonnet ‘Windy Day’ he wonders what if a wind were strong enough to blow people about like paper (‘You can’t hear the wind for the screams of the incoming’), while each line of his poem ‘The Museum of Sleep’ considers a museum devoted to sleep:
There are couches everywhere and the staff
all wear pyjamas. And a surprising
number of visitors do actually
nod off. It is perhaps one experience
you needn’t feel embarrassed to have slept
As Beach shows, humour has a place in poetry, and it needn’t be facile. A Scottish comedian (I don’t remember his name, but it’s not Billy Connolly) interviewed on National radio said he often writes funny stories by starting at the punchline and working his way back. I sometimes write poems like that. I jot notes then pick out the lines I like. But before I put those lines in order I’ve got to know where the poem is going to end up.
Sometimes it helps to write the last line, first.
Essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger holds court at the IIML for two hours. He’s a highly moral writer who believes in the truth of details. ‘Things are strange enough. You don’t have to make it up.’ It’s in the arranging of facts that the writer presents a viewpoint. So suggests Weinberger, most famously in his essay/prose poem What I Heard About Iraq — an unrelenting roll-call of facts and true statements about the war that lynches the US president and other key and minor participants by their own words.
Weinberger’s uncompromising regard for accuracy, and his utterances like: ‘Write what you don’t know (and find out about it)’, make him a model for any aspiring journalist. But what guidance does he provide for writing poems? Perhaps this … the mind is a field filled with information. A poem, like the Weinberger essay, brings together facts from all over the field. The poet’s job is to arrange the information, whether it’s personal or public, in a way that the reader hasn’t seen before. To make the reader’s passage through the poem worthwhile. Though that should be the intention of all creative endeavours that are mindful of an audience other than the artist.
Three days after Weinberger, Richard Ford hosts a masterclass. I first read his stories in my undergraduate American literature classes at Canterbury University. Ford is a surprisingly tall and angular man, and he’s a refreshing voice who cites another voice that has resonated for me this year: Richard Hugo. Though Ford didn’t cite the following passage from The Triggering Town, it stands out in the reading we were asked to digest before his class: ‘You will find that you may rewrite and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second. If you just sit around waiting for the easy ones, nothing wild will come.’
I can see why Ford, the fiction writer, admires Hugo, the poet. They share a solid work ethic and their credo is: ‘Get on with it’. They both believe that one’s experiences are woven into the fabric of a story or poem whether we recognise it or not. The writing needn’t depend on what you remember; it should rely on where your imagination takes you. A memory may be the beginning (the trigger) but it needn’t be the whole. If I have learned anything this year, it is that.
In that earlier passage by Hugo, he might as well have written: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ That’s just the kind of aphorism Ford might have come up with if it hadn’t already been invented a hundred times before (I first heard it attributed to golfer Jack Nicklaus). Probably the best line from Ford this morning: ‘Faith is the evidence of things unseen.’
Ford also said something bold that probably trampled on the instincts of most everyone in the room: ‘Getting things published is not very important. You shouldn’t try to get published until you’re writing as well as you can. [Otherwise] you live with that crap forever. Other people will read it and think, ‘Uuurgh’.’ (Transcription care of LeafSalon.co.nz). Ford shares this idea of craft with Weinberger. They both come from a background of having imposed rigorous apprenticeships on themselves before stepping into the low-wattage spotlights of early publication. Though Ford commands the room and Weinberger does not, both writers are worth the attention they garner.
Some in the class have suggested my poems are akin to haiku. It’s a commentary on the spareness of the language and not necessarily flattering. My poems are informed by the years I have lived in Japan amid an artistic sensibility that favours what’s honed and what’s simple, and the years I have worked as a journalist trying to rid sentences of unnecessary words. The tightly constructed poems that caught my eye when I started paying attention to poetry written by other New Zealanders (especially Jenny Bornholdt and Andrew Johnston) must also have had an influence. For my reading programme today, dubbed Their Knowing Glances — The Power of Short Poems, I wanted to look at poetry that suggests a lot in only a few lines. Of the 66 short pieces compiled for my reading packet, many are poems I’ve always wanted to bring together and the rest are new to me. In selecting examples of effective short poems, I didn’t have to read every poem in all the books of likely candidates. It was merely a matter of skimming through pages for poems with the most white space around them. This course has invited a wealth of new poets into my life, yet 40 of the 66 poems in my packet are by New Zealanders (short poems because we’re a small country?). It was while skimming, that I have belatedly discovered Dinah Hawken. This poem is one of my favourites in the packet:
if her hemline is too long
her skirt too light
her colours too lovely
a lyric is like water and water
is walked alongside, and loved.
Hawken seems to be summing up the sublime. An impossible task. But all those soft sounds (long, light, lovely, lyric, hemline) and the simplicity of the image are a commentary on perfection — the subject of the poem and the poem itself. I hope ‘Lyric’ took Hawken months to get right. I hope the poem was all that was left after she pruned line after line, ala Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’. I might be annoyed to discover it trickled from her pen almost exactly as read. More so, if she wrote it directly onto a screen. If I ever meet her, I’ll try not to ask.
Another favourite in the packet is by Paul Muldoon:
The Volkswagen parked in the gap,
But gently ticking over.
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.
Each word counts beneath a title that explains everything. An image that sums up the anxieties of a nation without sounding pithy. Still, ‘pithy’ did have a place in my reading programme. For a warm-up exercise I asked the class to write a haiku that sums up Moby Dick. The exercise required participants to put down the essence of the story in three short lines. I used as a model the haiku written by David Bader in his book 100 Great Books in Haiku. He sums up some of the most important works in literature (e.g. The Odyssey, War and Peace) in not very meaningful but witty ways. For example:
‘What have I become?’
Uncertain, Gregor Samsa
puts out some feelers.
Our results were fun and inventive. Each haiku reflected the writing style of the poet, despite the restrictions of the form. My compulsion for making puns, for example: ‘Blinded by the white / the captain can’t help himself. / Whale-1, Ahab-nil.’ The other haiku were better than that. I regret not collecting the results.
Since the course started I have been trying to write one decent poem a week. One poem that I won’t leave out of my final folio. To achieve this I write a lot of notes towards poems to see what paths they lead me down. This is not an unusual process for me in recent years. What is unusual is that I am stepping off the plank so soon after writing my notes and plunging into completing the poem, by which I mean a shape that won’t embarrass me when I workshop the poem. Someone said at the beginning of the year, perhaps Dora, that this course teaches you how to become a writer. It’s true. I’m learning how to discipline myself to produce the work I want to make.
Three weeks since my last entry, though I have done some tweaking and pruning of earlier entries. I don’t feel guilty for having let the diary slide (despite having few other pressures during this long mid-year break). A curious development has occurred. When once I would write in these pages to procrastinate while working on a poem, lately I have been writing poems to avoid having to set down words here. That’s to the benefit of my folio — the point, afterall, of why I am in Wellington.
A poet must ‘interrogate the image’. That’s the message Lavinia Greenlaw brought to her master class. Only when ambiguity has a function does it seep into her poems, which walk a direct route to the final stanzas with no visible slumping of shoulders or stuttering of step. Such clarity allows the reader to feel secure in the image and to focus freely on the meaning; to focus on why one image is placed beside another seemingly disparate image; to focus on why a poem starts out with monks making perfume, say, and ends with a stag swimming round a headland (in Greenlaw’s ‘Monks on a Tractor’).
Greenlaw’s call for clarity echoes the words of Ted Kerr, my former news editor and boss. The reader doesn’t care for the mood you’re trying to create; they just want to know the facts in descending order of importance. That’s what Ted meant when he said of my news stories: ‘Try to be more precise’. If Ted likes poetry, I suspect he would adore Greenlaw’s poems. Not only are they vivid, they impart knowledge. In ‘Thanksgiving on Ghost Ranch’, for example, she mentions an obscure plant called a ‘chimaja’. Before we get any further into the poem, she tells the reader it’s a desert herb the antelope eat. Other poets might have made me go to the dictionary, or just delight in the sound.
It was no coincidence that I contributed an anecdotal poem when Greenlaw asked us to bring a poem-in-progress to discuss with the class. She is masterful at culling a story from her past and molding it into a poem driven to poignancy. Here’s the final stanzas of ‘The Man Whose Smile Made Medical History’:
All I can find in my grandfather’s face
to record the birth of plastic surgery
is the tight shyness he pulls into a grin,
unaware that scientific progress
which had saved his reflection could do nothing
to save his life. A doctor, aged thirty-four,
he died of viral pneumonia
having recently heard of antibiotics.
When Greenlaw says ‘The editing of the poem seems to be the writing of the poem’, or ‘The reader is not interested in you but what the poem says to them’, or ‘You don’t say what you mean by telling’, the insights apply to all types of creative writing. She is talking basic concepts — what Dora and Andrew have been saying this year and what is instinctive. But it’s still nice to have it reinforced. When it comes to advice on writing, I find the choir more convincing than the soloist.