On Small Fires, Little Flames

Penna_Adam_Small Fires_Little Flames_Coverart

Cover art and author portrait by Max Stablein

I wrote Small Fires, Little Flames while I was writing Talk of Happiness.  In some ways, I see these two books as complementary, so it makes sense that they should come out, more or less, together.  Plus, it suits my sense of, I don’t know, parallelism that Finishing Line, who published my first book, a chapbook called The Love of a Sleeper in 2008, and S4N Books, who published my first full-length collection, the two long sequences, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji in 2010, should now be repeating that publishing schedule.

The follow-ups to my first two books are different creatures.  And they should be.  When I teach revision, I always end on the essential insight all writers must come to, that is, that ultimately, when we revise, we follow Pound’s dictum, “Make it new,” but what we make new isn’t the text.  What we must make new is ourselves.  This is why Rilke concludes his sonnet on the “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with the line, “You must change your life,” and Wright ends his “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” with the crucial and happy insight: “I have wasted my life.”

It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t taken literature seriously to know exactly what this means.  Of course, I’d like to think I take literature seriously.  It doesn’t make sense to identify as a poet and not take what you do seriously.  Poetry, as we all know, doesn’t pay except in those intangible and indirect ways, and one of its wages is wisdom.  This is why, the intimation I felt, when I began to write poetry, that poets must be better people, I’ve only amended a little over the years.  Poets aren’t better people than those who don’t write poetry, but a real, true poet must be better than she otherwise would have been without poetry.

The poems in Small Fires, Little Flames are quiet, reflective and, I hope, true.  They are as much of praying as I could then bear.  The thirty poems are meant to be read in a single sitting.  They are meant to suggest a narrative not so much of events but of the development of spiritual principles.  Because of these two characteristics, most of the poems in the collection haven’t been published in magazines or journals.  In fact, I only recall submitting one poem for submission, which then appeared in The Long Islander as “The World at 8 AM.”  That the collection is now being published seems to me an experience akin to miracle.  When I submitted the manuscript to Finishing Line’s chapbook contest, I didn’t expect to win, but I hoped that, seeing the work and recognizing its worthiness, Leah Maines and company might find value in the book and agree to publish it.

What I like about Finishing Line is just this.  They’ll take a chance on a book like Small Fires, Little Flames, that is, they’ll take a chance on a sequence of 30 untitled, very personal and intimate lyrics about God and grief and poetry.  But maybe I underestimate the publishing world.  Maybe there are plenty of other publishers out there, like S4N and Finishing Line, who are so convinced by their poets’ visions that they are prepared to lose money on the deal.  I mean, isn’t that what poets and those who love them are facing?  Poetry, as an art, has the privileged of leading all the other arts into the red, because you can’t serve Mammon and the Lord, as Kit Hathaway used to joke.

Of course, I’d like to sell a few of these books.  I’d like to sell a lot of them.  And already, prepublication sales are coming along nicely.  For those of you who’ve already ordered your copy, I want to thank you for supporting me and my work.  If you haven’t ordered yet, but you want to, you can visit the Finishing Line site here, and place your order.  Then you, too, will get your copy of Small Fires, Little Flames soon after the August 11th, 2017 publication date.   If you’re still on the fence, I offer you this sample poem from the book.  The last image in the poem alludes to Bernini’s famous statue, “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.”

Wish on a shooting star
but to an angel pray.
That prayer is easy.  Say,
I’m here, which means,

I’m ready, and readiness
prepares a heart
to inch up to the precipice
and dive.  The schemes

of scholars and rabbis
amount to this.
Saint Thomas turned
from Aristotle and learned

what reason fails to teach.
What can we do before
glory but kneel?  Or faint
in ecstasy like Saint Teresa?

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Preorder Small Fires, Little Flames TODAY!

Presales for Small Fires, Little Flames begin today.  Click here and preorder your copy, and it’ll ship hot off the presses on August 11th.  This presale period won’t last forever.  So act now!  (Presale period ends June 16th, Bloom’s Day.)

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“Another Untitled Love Story” Forthcoming in Red Earth Review

Thanks to the editors of Red Earth Review for accepting my short story “Another Untitled Love Story.”  The piece will be published in vol. 5, July 2017.

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Finishing Line Press to Publish “Small Fires, Little Flames”

Thanks to Leah Maines and everyone at Finishing Line Press for accepting “Small Fires, Little Flames” for publication.  This is my second chapbook with Finishing Line, and I look forward to the experience.

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Song Lyrics Published in Basil O’Flaherty

Thanks to J.K. Shawhan for publishing “The New Wine,” in Basil O’Flaherty‘s newest number.  Performance of song is forthcoming, as soon as I screw up the courage and find the time to do so.

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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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