Forthcoming Song Lyrics…

Thanks to J.K. Shawhan and the other editors at The Basil O’Flaherty for accepting “The New Wine,” a song I wrote.  “The New Wine” will appear in their November 2016 issue.

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On the Novel: The Continuing Adventures…

I have been meaning to write something on my progress here for a few months, but for some reason I’m having a difficult time formulating what it is exactly I want to say.  Not that I usually know what I’m going to say before I sit down to write one of these blog posts, but usually I have an urge to say something or, more precisely, a question that rises to consciousness and requires answering.  When and if I start to write it’s because I know the question and suspect I have an answer somewhere in this old trunk which just needs fishing out.  I’m not sure what the trouble is this time, whether it’s that I don’t know the question yet or whether I know the question but can’t find the right trunk.  Anyway, the point of this, and maybe all my posts on novel writing, is to, if nothing else, find a language to describe the experience of the novel.

The novel itself is going well.  I’ve written many more pages than I can use, and I’ve got a working draft of about 115 finished pages, which means they are in order, more or less as I want them, with few significant problems.  The rest is like swiss cheese: it’s there, but there are holes, too.  Likely, I’ll have to revise or completely re-write a good portion of what remains to be written.  But it’s a different process now.  Now I know where I’m going and I’m not just generating material.  I’m no longer learning what the novel wants to be.  There are surprises still.  Many.  But the work I’ve done so far has provided answers to some of the biggest questions, things like: voice, structure, themes, character, etc.  I’m happy with the result, and have learned at least this about the novel.  I prefer revising long narrative fiction to revising lyric poems.

Here’s the difference.

When writing a lyric poem (at least, this is true for me), even a lyric poem part of a longer sequence, the discovery process, that is, the process of revision, happens in the act of composition.  That is, I learn the answer to the question in the act of writing.  Harold Bloom talks about overhearing yourself, when he talks about Shakespeare’s genius.  You don’t have to be highfalutin about it, though, and sketch out a theory of poetry to know what therapists and analysts have known since Freud.  Talk long enough and you’ll hear the source of your problem.  Poetry, which isn’t therapy, works in a similar way.  The revision that takes place, when it is truly a re-seeing, then, is a revision of the thing speaking and, finally, listening.  A poem, too, when it is good, offers an opportunity to do the same kind of listening the poet has done.  When Rilke says, “You must change your life,” he’s talking to himself, to you and to me.  A poet can fiddle and futz with a poem if she likes, and as long as it doesn’t fundamentally alter the original discovery, she’s doing no harm, but far more fruitful a practice, I’ve found, when revising a poem is to begin again.  Ask the question again, listen for the answer, which this time might be clearer or, ideally, more eloquently put.  Eloquence, finally, is the mastery of the art of poetry, where the discoveries are done, the theory of poetry made law, and what remains is, as Wallace Stevens puts it, plainly to propound.

Fiction, as far as I can tell, is different, or has been different for me, so far.  There are the same or similar kinds of discoveries while composing a chapter, a section, a scene, a line, but more often than not I find myself having to correct myself.  In a poem, this kind of second guessing would be death.  Poetry relies on the nerves, but with fiction the nerves are borrowed.  Memory is a liar, the imagination a coconspirator.  Therefore, it is in the revising process where the major discoveries are made.  It is in a more traditional understanding of revision, where I find the answers to the questions I want to ask and find answers for.

What I’m describing here may be a byproduct of narrative forms.  Tell a story and, to make reality more friendly to the storytelling, you fib, stretch the truth, lie.  The hope is that that lie serves some higher purpose.  This is why arguments about genre, whether a writer’s work should be sold as a novel, a memoir, an autobiographical novel are silly to any serious writer.  Each of these genres, or sub-genres depending on how you classify them, offer certain expectations to the readers and certain freedoms and restrictions to the writer.  Still the best works remain unclassifiable.  Some of the tug I feel while composing is toward genre expectations and away from originality.  That is to be expected, I guess.  The far more troubling pull, however, is the one which is the danger with any retelling.  Again, I’ll go back to the therapeutic model, where the truth is kept from the speaker until he overhears it.  Perhaps this is why the theater, especially Shakespeare’s plays, offer a vision of reality very close to the one we experience, maybe too close.  There the characters find themselves in the same predicament as us.  They act and speak and think in one world, while the real world, the fact of it, the truth, witnesses in horror.  Or maybe she laughs.  The hope for the speaker is that he discovers the truth.  Too often that truth comes too late, too often it breaks his heart.

What I appreciate most about this process is what happens over the long haul.  The more I engage the process of writing, the more willing I am to re-see what I’ve done, the closer I get to the truth.  It feels like the focusing of a lens, the cooking of a sauce.  The experience of the art object leads to a judgement.  Yes or no.  This is or is not the truth.  Maybe it’s more like that game we used to play as children.  What we seek is hidden.  We move around, at first blindly, searching, guided only by a friendly third party, who can only tell you whether you’re hot or cold.  The closer you get, the hotter.  The further away, the colder.  I feel hot right now.  But this is where the real work begins.  My ears must be pricked, my steps more careful, more deliberate.  When the game began, it didn’t matter which direction I moved as long as I moved.  Now that same attitude would bring me further from the prize.  Go slowly, pay attention, be calm, it’s near.  This is the best advice, the only advice.

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Upcoming Reading

I will be a featured reader (reading poems) Friday, May 6th at 7 PM at The Hampton Coffee Company, 749 County Rd. 39A (next to the BMW dealer), Southampton, NY 11968.  Thank you, Maggie Bloomfield for inviting me to read.

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Oh, Where, Oh, Where?

It’s been a while since I last reflected on my progress with the novel, so I thought I’d check in.  It’s a very different process, novel writing, from even writing long sequential poems with an implied narrative, which I’ve done before.  That’s what I’ve concluded, but maybe it shouldn’t be.  What makes the writing of fiction tedious for me (and what makes even reading fiction tedious for me) are those parts of narrative which are merely functional, that is, the parts which link, say, one scene to another, or carry a character from one place to another.  This is where there is the highest degrees of artificiality, and I find myself rolling my eyes when I read it but more especially when I write it.  And yet I appreciate, too, the reader’ predicament, when she is forced to stop and ask, “Wait?  Where are we now?”

It’s for this reason that I find a novel like As I Lay Dying so wonderful, and I’ve always been partial to Pessoa’s Book of Disquietude.  Even Knausgaard, who in many ways, especially compared to the two writers just mentioned, is a writer of traditional narrative, avoids its effects.  Mostly, he does this by inviting us to focus on personality rather than story.  But story can be intoxicating.  The Road and Disgrace, for instance, are examples of novels whose narratives are very traditional but also compelling.  These are the kinds of books which, when you read them, you don’t want to put them down, and not because they are curiosities, but because they are, well, good tales.  We root for the characters.  We feel for them.  The risk, then, of experimentation is, if it’s not done well, this doesn’t happen.  Our intellects may be engaged, but what about our hearts?

Voice, and therefore personality–because what is voice but a personality made manifest in language, that is, diction and syntax, but also intention, attitude–can engage our hearts, but how far is the question.  Berryman’s Dream Songs, which I’ve always read as a long dramatic poem, rather than a narrative one, fails to engage most of it’s readers beyond the effects of voice.  But what an interesting array of dictions and syntaxes!  Still, the poem tries us, and this leads people to call it a failure.  (I’m thinking particularly of one young person at AWP a few years back who announced to the audience during the Q&A that Dreams Songs was a failure.  It was this that led me to propose a panel the next year on the long poem.)  Obviously, Berryman’s masterpiece is a poem, a long poem, but it’s important to remember that his best work was influenced by Bellow’s The Adventure’s of Augie March.  What attracted Berryman to the novel was, among other things, personality, not story.

So what is story?  I keep thinking about this.  When I teach intro classes in literature, we talk about the elements of fiction, plot, image, character, setting, etc.  These, we say, are what make the story.  Plot alone, I have to point out more often than not, isn’t story.  What happens is not as important as to whom it all happens.  But is this true?  Can you divorce plot from it’s other elements and still make a compelling novel.  I mention As I Lay Dying above as an example of a novel which avoids the pitfalls of traditional narrative, but how can we separate what happens, that is, plot, from the book’s overall effect?  It can’t be done.  The narrative eye must focus on these people during this specific time, doing these precise things.  The plot runs through the spine of the tale, holding all these voices together, changing them even.  Cash is made different from what happens, even if what happens happened off stage.  So too with the other characters.  So too with all characters.

I’m writing all this because I’m at the point in the writing of the novel, where I have to begin to be concerned with some of these questions.  I’ve been writing the scenes out of order, attacking whichever parts interests me at the time, and finding my way to the story that way.  In some ways, I’ve done this because my aim is to make it possible for readers to open the book at any page and read without feeling like they’ve missed too much.  I want the book to be a personality.  When we meet a person, we don’t have the luxury to know everything about her beginning to end, and I don’t think we’d want to.  Even our children live a mysterious life floating in the womb wondered by who knows which dreams, and our very DNA composes so much of who we are that starting from the beginning, as a strategy, can only highlight how artificial such a strategy is.  No.  All stories must, of necessity, start in the middle of things.  We are always in the middle of things.

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On Eloquence*

I don’t subscribe entirely to the notion that there is nothing new to say under the sun.  Though the human predicament hasn’t changed much in the last ten thousand years – we suffer ourselves to be born, navigate through a world hostile both inwardly and outwardly, and face death at every turn – there is still the peculiar revolutions of an individual mind, and therefore the possibility for discovery.  Yet much of what we discover, and this is especially true for poets, has been said before and sometimes better.  And I have found the more I say the more I think, How familiar.  Then searching for the father of the newest revelation, I see that, indeed, it wasn’t some other who said it before, but that the other was me.  I know what Stevens means when he talks about a repetitiousness.  And so what troubles the poet isn’t that others have said what he has said before, but that he has said what he has said before.  And if he is to say it again, then he must say it better.

In other posts, I have touched on this subject, and at times I have thought of this repetitiousness as a failing.  My publisher and friend, Tim Miller, suggested it wasn’t a failing at all, but a kind of success.  Perhaps it is a reassurance that what Emerson called temperament does govern each of us more thoroughly than fate or happenstance, particularly when it comes to our inner lives and our reactions to the outer world.  The trouble then becomes, if you have set out, and found what you have set out to find – Jung found what he was looking for in his dreams, as he writes in his chapter on confrontations with the unconscious – then what is left to say?  The poet who has set out, come to the point, and now stands naked in the interval, must face this question.  Does he leap into the roiling or turn back for the house, which is but a little light in the trees?

Hart Crane leapt.  Berryman leapt, eventually.  Hamlet leapt, and instructed Horatio to absent himself from felicity awhile to draw his breath in this harsh world to tell Hamlet’s story.  The eloquence which follows this command every reader of Shakespeare remembers perhaps more vividly than Hamlet’s last words.  Though Hamlet, seeing into death’s heart, says, The rest is silence.  Horatio, grief stricken, pronounces that flights of angels sing Hamlet to his rest.  The noble heart that cracks is as much Horatio’s as it is Hamlet’s.  The trauma of the loss stirs in Horatio a new found sensibility.  Before he was antique Roman, a Stoic philosopher, but now, now he is a poet and his eloquence is what impresses itself upon us and not the truth of what he is saying, which after all contradicts Hamlet’s final revelation.

A similar transformation happens at the end of Joyce’s “The Dead,” when Gabriel, alone now, begins his journey westward.  The widening of his consciousness comes not from a blow coming from without, but one that comes from within and, like Elsinore’s impostume, inward breaks, but instead of sickness, what Gabriel finds is a new health.  A part of himself, which had been developing while he slept his life away, suddenly awakens.  His eyes fill with generous tears.  Finally, he is ready for a journey westward, where eyes wide open, he must conclude that this world will not be mastered and neither will those other souls which flicker into and then out of existence.  The eloquence of that last paragraph impresses itself upon us because, somewhere in the rhythms, we hear the truth and know it, as Gabriel knows it, as Horatio, former student, former philosopher knows it.

What is this truth?  No one can say it plainly and have it remembered.  A poet searches for it because he doesn’t know but when he finds it he says, Yes.  But this yes isn’t merely an affirmation of that which is.  It is instead a tension between that which is and that which is well said.  The end of McCarthy’s novel, The Road, is as inspired a piece of poetry as has been written in the last twenty years because though he talks of things which can’t be made right, can’t be put back, he also speaks of the deep glens where all things are older than man and hum of mystery.  This voice is the father’s as the son has inherited it.  McCarthy’s aim here at the end of the novel is as spiritual as it is literary.  God’s breath passes from man to man.  When Shakespeare says, “and this gives life to thee,” we are, for a moment as eloquent as the bard.  And when the boy talks to his father, or Horatio recites the lines of Hamlet’s life, he is that wind which starts the all of everything.

In most men’s souls, and in every poet’s soul, there are two voices, and each announces a piece of the truth.  It is true that that which lives dies.  If you have been born, it is a hard way.  But the truth, which tells us that and tells us so that, without lies or delusion, we say, Yes, well – that is the appropriate aim of poetry.  This poetry will help us live our lives, help us breathe in this harsh world awhile, and know there is something beyond these disappointments, beyond these failures to say what might transform, like a magic spell, our circumstances.  And if we stand on the precipice and look over the edge, this time we might say with ever-increasing eloquence not just what lies there but what we couldn’t say last time but hinted at vaguely, like a ghost.

*This post, saved as a draft, was written almost 5 years ago on March 5, 2011.

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Poem in Albatross #26

Thanks Richard Smyth for including “False Spring” in Albatross #26.

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The Newest Difference

This week started out slowly, that is, if I begin my week just after the last blog post.  Not the posting of the presentation I gave as part of the Faculty Association professional development panel, but the one called And And And.  I didn’t write anything more that day, and the day that followed found me constipated.  Two measly pages.  Still ideas were coming, and I was jotting them down.  I keep a MS Word document for just such a purpose.  Mostly it’s a list of cryptic messages only I can decipher, but it’s proven useful, especially when the well is dry.  I don’t necessarily use the prompts to get me going, but I know there’s a place where I can store my half-formed ideas, scraps of dialog, characters I’d like to explore, memories, etc.  Also, I keep there a list of notes on the writing of fiction, questions that keep arising for me which I hope to solve, eventually.

So the week started off slowly, but has since gained momentum.  I’ve written more pages this week than any other so far.  The last  two sessions yielded 8 plus pages each of good useable material.  I don’t exactly know what the change is, but it reminds me of the experience I had when I began to write poetry in earnest.  I was in therapy at the time, and I remember telling my therapist, with some surprise, that I’m a poet.  It was important for me then to identify as a poet, because to me poetry is a way of looking at the world.  It would be the same if you were a philosopher or a religious.  Saying, I’m a poet, declares a certain perspective on experience, that is, reality, which is different especially from those who take what is given to them without question.  It’s a more difficult route, one Frost questions in “The Road Not Taken,” wondering, I think ruefully but certainly ironically, is this “all” the difference?

For me the newest difference happened a couple of days into last week, when I wrote three separate chapters, each equaling about 3 or 4 pages.  Now, I began writing this novel about 20 years ago.  I don’t have any pages from that early draft, thank God, but I was in grad school then and thought I was going to be a novelist.  A bad experience with a mentor/workshop instructor and other personal matters led me in another direction, and I became a poet, both on paper and in action.  I’ve written about that false choice elsewhere, but suffice to say that while I wrote some short stories and a few longer pieces over the years, nothing quite approached a novel, and further, I didn’t work on fiction.  I worked on poetry, poems, and writing about poetry.  This blog is a testament to that life, the life of a poet.

But somewhere along the way, as I approached 40 (I’m 43 now) and after reading Marc McGurl’s book on fiction in the program era, I began to think about my earliest ambition to be a novelist.  That summer, 2013, I wrote about 90 pages.  I couldn’t even call it a novel then.  Instead, when I labeled the folder on my hard drive, I called it “Fiction Experiment.”  Only one other person has read those pages, Shannon, and she is the one who encouraged me to continue working on the book, when she read it in late 2013, early 2014.  It is worthwhile, she said, and I knew she meant it because given the choice to read anything else from a rather large library of books–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, philosophy, etc.–she picked up instead the half-complete, less-than-half complete manuscript which was then untitled.  Before this the only notion I got that the endeavor was successful was when I showed just one paragraph to another person I won’t name here, and she, who hadn’t ever shown much interest in my life as a novelist, who indeed flat out didn’t like my earliest attempts, started when she heard those sentences.  It was like she hadn’t seen me in forever and now, come upon me in some unfamiliar setting, perhaps bearded, older, she couldn’t believe the change, the difference.  She liked it.

My plan when contemplating this post was to examine a paragraph or two from the pages I mention above, but now it occurs to me the difference, if there is one, is likely to be imperceptible and to illustrate my point I’d have to examine many many pages, most of which are bad.  Like with so many changes, great and small, this one happened incrementally, and it’s likely I’m the last one to fathom the consequences, not the first.  So it dawned on me, even though I’ve already committed myself during this sabbatical to write a draft of a novel and I’ve taken workshops on the novel and read from the pages I’ve already written and the rest, it dawned on me that, yes, I am a novelist.  I am a novelist engaged in the writing of a novel, and it doesn’t feel like I am wearing my daddy’s shoes, shirt and tie, wielding his briefcase like I did when I was small, pretending to be an office manager.  I am not pretending to be a novelist.  I am a novelist.  This has nothing to do with the end product.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with writing pages or publishing manuscripts.  This has to do with a way of seeing the world.  The shift, then, hasn’t been away from poetry so much as it’s been an integration of what I am, what I was and what I still might be.  Joseph Campbell, when he talks about Jungian therapy, talks about this integration.  I used to think it was a flowering, but that metaphor seems not quite to fit anymore.  Who can talk about flowering when his hair is thinning, his middle expanding, and his eyes creasing, sprouting feet?

Next week will be a whole new story.  This feeling will pass, and then I’ll be left struggling again with the more concrete aspects of the problem.  I will be struggling with the actual writing, the putting of one word after another.  But I’ve been there before.  That is familiar territory.  I’ve disciplined myself to do that work.

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