Reading Robert Haas A Little Book of Form
A teacher. The line, haiku, the two line form.
Smoky sunset: marshmallow, chocolate, easy sleep.
Sense memories squeeze between the sleeping bag of time.
I finally graduated with a mixed genre, poetry and creative nonfiction MFA from Ashland University. My thesis was accepted and during the final residency I had my thesis defense, two readings and received my diploma in the mail.
Reading Robert Haas A Little Book of Form
How to get back to work after a break?
A teacher. The line, haiku, the two line form.
Smoky sunset: marshmallow, chocolate, easy sleep.
Sense memories squeeze between the sleeping bag of time.
Photograph of swampy area near Huntsville, Alabama
The most notable things I liked about Sheryl St. Germain’s “Let it Be a Dark Roux” starts with the title, and then continues on to let us know by details about place, family life, that she is rooted in Louisiana culture. Roux is explained in the poem, “Making Roux”. One especially noteworthy poem, “The Lake” describes Lake Pontchartrain, and its evocative details, “rotten smell”, fish … open-eyed to the surface, dark waters and gray-peppered foam, remind me of some of the swampy places around Orlando and really paint the differences parts of the south have compared to many other environments. I like it that this element, the Cajun culture, is used as an outer theme, although other themes also exist such as that of family addiction problems, desire, and her need to become somebody she wanted to be.
Her use of repeated elements, there are many open mouths for instance, also food, pepper, fish, water which connect the poems and resonates between them. Many times her use of her Catholic upbringing shows up in small details. For me, the open mouth reminds me of being fed the Eucharist instead of receiving it in hand, and suggests to me, the poet’s ability to receive in an open fashion and also as an expression of desire.
Some of the poems have distinctly feminine points of view that I think are quite original; such as the need to find solace in making love after a funeral, while memories compete seen in “Deathbed”. Another good example is in the poem, “Thinking About Being a Woman as I Drive from Louisiana to New Mexico” which mixes in some of the less appealing cultural practices like the wearing of girdles or the binding of women’s feet in China.
Photograph from New Orleans area from my time in Alabama
So structure wise, I read this collection as primarily linear in time although in certain places the poems return again and again to different stages in her brother’s heroin addiction (link takes you to some unpleasant images of how addicts live) or her own use. Even though the first line of “Flambeau Carriers” is “Red-eyed and sweating whiskey”, the repeated “I loved” has an enticement into a different milieu and then the next poems reinforce it. It also ends with “Joy” and the sense that the author has come away from a previous life into a new one.
Here's Sheryl St. Germain Reading "A French Mosquito Defends Itself"
Well, I envy Robert Hass’ relaxed contemplative style of introspection in Sun Under Wood, but I fear that I will never match his style—I think his voice is quite unique. I also like his sense of humor, for example, the title My Mother’s Nipples and various asides and incongruous images like the yellow panties.
Why do I fear I will never match his style? In some ways because his style, a sort of free write flow of thoughts are often based on knowledge about something that he uniquely has studied. Two poems are like this, Jatun Sacha and Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer. I especially like it when his details are more fantasy or emotion driven than exact such as in Seventh Night’s Hi dreamer, Hi mortal splendor. And from Jatun Sacha, “It was a gold thing, her singing.”
I am not free writing at the moment. I am collecting evidence around situations I have experienced. It is very time consuming and frenetic. There is nothing frenetic or insistent in Robert Hass’ writing, except perhaps a persistence of thinking around his mother’s alcoholism.
The photograph above is taken in Munich, Germany where my husband and I visited the Hofbrauhaus, a very well known restaurant where we went to sample German beer, since my family is German.
Since I am writing on alcoholism and drug abuse, I have to say that Robert Hass is somewhat like me in writing situation, here is an observed moment—an example is after being told that she never loved him, and thinking “It is May. Also pines, lawn, the bay, a blossoming apricot” in Interrupted Meditation. He writes about his mother or his divorce in a detached way. With his mother, his detachment reveals that he had personal difficulties with knowing what to do about his mother and how to relate to her. Families that deal with addicted persons often have a stunned reaction when witnessing them—why would they do this when it is so uncomfortable and awful?
Part of his detached voice comes from a clear look at a situation without having any preconceived ideas about what he should or should not say, such as the variations on English and on his mother’s nipples. He shows a willingness to go where his mind leads, instead of directing it down a path. Some of how he phrases words seem to reveal meditation or the idea of the ideal separate from the instance, “before there was a bell there was a bell.” It reminded me of the Jain temple with their ribbons of bells that we saw in India (see photograph below).
He also uses understatement to reveal deep emotion, such as in Faint Music, “And he, he would play that scene / once only, once and a half, and tell himself / that he was going to carry it for a very long time / and there was nothing he could do about it.”
I could relate to Forty Something, I’ve been there.
This volume, I think, is part prose and part poetry – the prose shows up in notes about the poem twice, and in his long lines and the sense of a story being told. He has collected poems about his divorce and his mother and I think perhaps all of the poems have an element of betrayal that he has a hard time understanding because it conflicts with his emotions about the events. From this point of view, these poems are tightly woven together. His very detailed use of descriptive elements, the magnolia warbler and other birds, for instance, also tie it together. I like that he started with Happiness, and ended with “I want this poem to end singing” in Interrupted Meditation because it frames the poems in the context of three years that he thought about his divorce in an appealing fashion—it invited readers into the experience and then let them know that he would be okay in the end.
So, I suppose I should free write more again. I haven’t done so for a long time. But I feel like I am on a deadline to complete the memoir and have it done so it knots me up into some plan instead of the freedom to write as if my thoughts flowed. With novels, I had an easier time because I had the scene to write for a day, then a freedom to go do what I wished.
What I found especially attractive about Thomas Centolella’s poems in “Lights and Mysteries” is the strong sense of emotion leading to a more analytical, detached view of some ideal, be it love, relationship, God, or reaction to an earthquake.
I didn’t mind the wordiness of the poems in the collection because they were rich with detail, enough so to keep me reading on to the next line and next. Some examples I particularly liked are the rich details about being at the race track in “Perfecta” since I’ve gone to the race track many times and the opening line to Mountain Town, “Sometimes hell looks beautiful.”
I have a harder time with some of the longer selections such as the poem “Lights and Mysteries” where I have to show patience to find the connections between sets, often because when I read poetry, I want to be able to take a quick read of one poem and set it down and walk away, while the longer poems require a deeper, longer immersion. I am attracted to the idea of how some of these poems work and using them in my own work. I’ve noticed that there are different ways that poem series are made, i.e. connected times as in the poem “Light and Mysteries”, or with a personal connection as in “Sister”, or associated ideas like in “On My Street” where each stanza addresses a different aspect of life on the street.
The photo above is the beautiful Seattle harbor with a view of the street from the sculpture garden. Seattle for me could be hell anytime I needed to commute but most the time the beauty paid for all the trouble to get there.
Most of Thomas Centolella’s poems do tell a story, all with a reflective moment that said, what I am doing here, and how I’m reacting are larger than the immediate sensing and why. The twists often come related to that why, by this I mean the poem changes with this understanding of how emotional state relates to an ideal state. A good example of this is The Orders which has two turns, first when two buddies are talking together in a car when God “put a gun to the head of my friend” and then a second time when their neighbor’s arrival saves them and between there, the poet realizes “Suddenly time was nothing.”
The first poems all relate to a love relationship where the narrator and a woman seem to share a sense of love and experience but they don’t quite know where it will go. As It Was in the Beginning seems to show the narrator and his lover mid love making as a form of prayer. Toward the end of the section, it is clear that the relationship ended, but the narrator is still in touch with the poetry inside himself. So this section seems to be linearly arranged in time, i.e. this happened, then that.
Two poems I found I liked to use as emulations include Addis Abada, and In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love; here's a link to Thomas Centolella's readings of these poems.
The next section opens with the poem that titles the collection and it is one of the longer poems series narrative tales where the poet seems to be going back in time to his childhood experiences via maybe a visit to his former school. In this poem, Lights and Mysteries, the narrator is reflecting on the question of what makes life matter, if we’re all going to die anyway, as seen through various a series of incidents that occurred, perhaps linearly in time.
I think here, the meaning of the title becomes clearer. Where the poet is mystified about some aspect of life, he delves deeper into the question, either by sharing what he learned from an incident or discovered along the way. The first section appears to be the mystery of what makes a relationship work and how do you let go once a relationship doesn’t work or ends. The second section appears to be linear, with a gradual progression in life leading to interest in spiritual matters. A key turning point occurs with the poem, Gentleman of the Century which concludes, “… so I’ve become human again.” I think these words seem to signify the poet is able to connect his desire to connect experience to feelings to a search for more meaning found in poetry or meditation.
Kim Addonizio’s poetry in “Tell Me” reads more like prose than poetry. This is not a fault or a benefit, it serves more to establish her voice, for me. Many of the pieces seem stream of consciousness—she doesn’t seem to edit out the unpleasant from her thoughts, such as a poem titled “Garbage”, a very unique look at humanity and what we value and do not that has a political edge to it rather than ecological. She in fact seems to specialize in the nitty gritty of everyday life, those details stood out as different from say, a nature poem and they add the richness of experience and reality to the content.
Even though her poem’s format seems to imply line breaks, I feel they are superficial, not always breaking to make a point or to lend emphasis, same way for the indents, sometimes they start a sentence, sometimes they end a sentence, other times words trail off not so you’d ponder the words more, but so that maybe it fits neatly on the page.
When I mentioned this to my classmates, they disagreed, and I admit that there are many places where her use is specific and important, however, that was my initial impression.
The formats are pretty much the same throughout the collection and serve as a visual tie for the poems, without even looking at content or thought or anything else. I think this format was chosen to help prepare a prose piece into a more poetic form, allowing space into a dense passage that would keep a reader from delving into the material (many people I’ve run into say dense blocks of text are skimmed or feel unapproachable and this format works to avoid that problem).
Again, I had argument about the idea that her poems were primarily prose. I guess, that is why the exercise of looking at other poet’s work is important since it helps to identify how impressions change with different people.
I felt the collection was about her broken relationship with her husband and with addiction and what comes after it. Many of the poems feel isolated and lonely or full of pain, such as “Collapsing Poem”. The follow on poem “The Divorcee and Gin” seems to indicate there is a tie here between the two.
My emulations tended to be from less personal issue areas. I didn’t relate personally to some of her topics although I could understand them and empathsize, I can’t say I’ve ever sat looking into my glass of whatever in a bar as in “Glass” yet it finds more content than I would imagine and I have to say, the concluding line was a situation I ran into a time or two. My curiosity is sparked by the unusual topic. I found her poem “Spider” amusing and sweet, the relationship with her daughter seems wonderful.
The title poem “Tell Me” is wonderfully revealing and inviting (like a desire to step away from loneliness and reach out), and seems like a turning point in the collection. Rather than being mid center, it sits toward the end.
Many of the poems connect to bars and drinking and the problems they cause. The many poems on this topic change from relationships, to what happens, to a father’s problem with drinking, to social engagements, to addiction, to winding down after a class. They pop up throughout the collection so one is aware of it and you feel sad, but it doesn’t overwhelm the collection.
Why did I feel empathy for her poems, what happened in the poem to cause this feeling?
The emotion I felt via her imagery primarily, but I think the empathy came from the collective sense running through the pieces. It sort of says that even if we have emotion at some point, there's a greater humanity to a person than just the moment they cry, sort of like, its the sum of her experiences and willingness to dig into the world around her which feels gutsy given the pain she feels and her willingness to see people inside of people where many don't look such as the poor, the drunk, the woman on her doorstep, and how that same return look isn't guaranteed by others. So, "Tell Me", is just that demand, do you see more? given to her audience as a challenge to give back to her what she's given them.
In comparing Kim Addonizio’s work to Robert Hass’, I felt Robert Hass' work went beyond prose, to more complex contrasting imagery and thoughts. His works had emotion, but held at check, while the ideas came from many directions as if they added up to a bigger understanding. Kim Addonizio's is quite different, she's dealing in moments often, and what is at the surface at that time, very carefully examined. Not all of them are prosaic, some like Tell Me and What Women Want, are quite refined down to the nub, while others have the sharp details of capturing everything in a moment. But many, seem to fall from one idea to the next. I think I use it because much of her work seems to come in complete sentences.
More on Robert Hass' writing in another post.
I haven't worked much on LinkedIn so when the Poets and Editors group said let's do a challenge of writing a poem a day, I opted in. My poems for this exercise are found:
LinkedIn National Poetry Challenge Poems by Sheri Fresonke Harper
They'll probably disappear off the web and I'll have lost my first publication rights on them, oh, well.
Meanwhile, I'm exploring poetry writing apps including Prose, Poet's Corner, Poeemms, and just installed the Poet Tree. Will let everyone know what I think.
Meanwhile I'm finishing up for the semester at Ashland University. I've submitted my four packets, had feedback from my mentor Ruth L. Schwartz and worked on expanding my memoir with better imagery about place, time, setting, etc. We've also worked on writing poems in emulation of other poets and on using a line from their poems. The theory behind this process is to develop stronger sense of voice in others and in your own writing. When you can compare yourself line by line to another poet, you can say,
1. am I making as good of a sentence?
2. using as rich details
3. making as big of a leap
4. dig deep enough into thought and emotion
5. finding other ways to structure material
and other similar questions.
I've read poems by Ruben Dario, famous Nicaraguan poet, and some on two separate collections of French poetry in preparation for a visit to France.
I have lots of edits to do out of the material I wrote in class before they're ready to be submitted anywhere.
The above photo is of one of the Scarlet Macaws at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Alison Luterman’s collection of poems “Desire Zoo” connect associatively and sequentially at times and share many of her passions. Alison Luterman also writes prose but that hasn’t prevented her from writing narrative poems; many in this collection tend to be narrative. The stories tend to be daily occurrences where some event, image, or person caught her attention and wrapped it around a question she had.
Three prose poem pieces, “Love Shack”, “Dust”, and “What About God” are structured like prose but are tighter in presentation. They focus on the universal or ideal behind the day to day.
In “Love Shack”, the poet conveys her connection with her lover as the connection from lover to mother to child with the implication that is passes on through the generations.
In “Dust”, she is told a story by a student in her class and it impacts her so much that she can’t help but see death even in life around us. My summary is rather simplistic compared to the poem, but the metaphor of dust to dust carries through the piece.
In “What About God”, a rabbi comes to visit and they share their perceptions of God and find they all fit in a manner or not. These poems don’t use line breaks or stanza breaks or end rhyme to provide the poetic sense to the poem. Instead, she uses the ideal sense of moments or words to raise the poem into greater meanings that extend beyond her personal experience.
Other poems are also narrative, but use poetic devices such as form or line breaks or italicized words to emphasize or order.
In these poems, there is usually an immediate moment, such as noticing herself in relation to other persons, like in the poem “Arrow” where she “refuses to believe Carla’s dying” and who she places in a given moment, “the punching of a button on her wheelchair”, to deal with the eventual death of a loved one. The title and the use of the arrow are consistent with the mythic tale of Eros shooting love into someone. The conflict is stated in terms of circumstance, how will she deal with the loss and the resolution comes about out of love.
In looking at the collection, you see instances of death of a loved one showing up (death is dealt with several poems), as is the love of a child through a series of poems at the zoo, for example, as well as the love she shares with her husband(s) in varying forms. These provide additional cohesiveness to the collection.
In the case of non-narrative poems, that moment of conflict-resolution is missing and is replaced by a element of emotional growth such as occurs in the case of “Cashmere” where the poet relates to the material and "Amber” where she connects to the wearing of her mother’s earrings. What is conveyed is more a changing depth of emotion without an attempt to resolve it; the appreciation is what is mattered or the feeling at the moment. Another non-narrative poem is “Citizen’s of a Broken City” and what she is conveying is the changing of detail, in this case different people and how they all feel connected even in their disconnect.
What ties the pieces to each other is a fairly honest, uniform voice that shares her emotion as but doesn’t attempt to badger, sell, compete etc. that would imply a different tone of voice. Details are shared about body, love, people and their reactions with enough sensitivity that the reader believes that she says it occurred; there’s no sense that she is adding drama for the sake of making the story better.
In reading her poems, our task in my poetry class as part of my multi-genre option in the Creative Nonfiction program at Ashland University was to discuss narrative poems. I wasn't sure what the definition of narrative poem was but used what I knew from my coursework in fiction. On Wikipedia, which offers excellent examples of more classic narrative poems, one element is plot. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke runs the All American: Glossary of Literary Terms also has an entry for narrative poetry, but they use the more modern or post-modern definition of a story must have occurred and it explains the more common forms of narrative poetry such as ballad.
To learn more about narrative poetry, try the lesson and examples at the Education-Portal.
Well, class started quietly with a statement of intent for the semester, the assignment to read Desire Zoo by Alison Luterman, and to write a poem emulating her work.
One of the things I've learned in previous coursework about poetry is that it should be a grand conversation among all poets, a command to go shake up the world, and a meditation to calm the soul.
What have I found in Alison Luterman's Desire Zoo?
First off, I found a lot of poems I could connect with in a personal way. Subjects ranged from God, tales told by children, defeating obstacles, love, ghosts, people, marriage. So I found a rich selection that matched memories in my own life.
Well, actually, first off I found a delightful rich cover with a zoo full of wild color and birds and animals. A theme runs through the book based on life.
The poet's voice feels honest and straightforward--no attempt to gussy up or overwork language instead she relies on concrete, rich, details of everyday existence, for example, "He looks like a PoliSci professor in his softly knitted cap, carries a laptop under one arm..." from "What About God".
On the first poem I tried, I found I needed to go back and change summary, idealized language for more concrete examples.
Also worked on my class plan for my PREP class at St. Stephans Catholic Community--this week we are studying confirmation, the holy spirit and prayer.
I'm primarily working on a family mental health memoir in my MFA Program at Ashland University. Over the Christmas break I did more reading but not much writing. I did a lot of background tasks instead. The main task was to think through my book outline and augment it with thoughts based on the work we did over the semester. Form for the entire book changed and then I needed to decide how a semester studying poetry could aid my finished product. One idea I had was to use prose poetry.
My only experience with prose poetry and flash fiction or flash poems came from a class I took with Pam Castro, the link will take you to her blog where she offers her classes. I've read two recent flash/poetic fiction books:
1. Half in Shade by Judith Kitchen
2. Phantom Canyon by Kathryn Winograd
both which influence me about the poetry and prose connection.
Judith Kitchen taught at our Summer Residency. She focused her lecture on our her technique of delving into her family past via a series of photographs that she used to write Half in Shade. She mentioned that "perhapsing" loosened the choke hold that the need to speak truth had when dealing with a subject for which she had no way to find out the information since many of the family members were deceased and few left who remembered. Her use of this technique shows a lot of insight and empathy based on her knowledge of the person. The fun photograph on the cover is a good example where she finds the humor and the odd juxtaposition of the times coming into play.
I don't have many family photographs but I do have strong memories about some things such as my mom's hairstyles, and the way the houses we lived in were decorated and arranged. I'm not sure yet how much I've perhaps'ed in my writing on the memoir so far. I remember I was going to write a set of prompts for each section (note to myself go do this). Below, for example, is one of my photographs of my favorite walking trail along the Duwamish River in Tukwila, Washington.
Judith mentioned that she allowed her poetic background to help guide how she arranged the pieces relying on intuitive connections and allowing the collection to become like a quilt--you could start anywhere and dig deeper or go sequentially. She also mentioned the need to recursively go back into her memories and rework, looking for depth and connection to her current situation (Judith suffered with cancer and recently passed away). The fact that at her age she could still seek to experiment and find news ways to be creative was very inspirational.
Kathryn Winograd also taught at the Summer Residency, answering questions at one panel on writing the "postcard memoir", taking an image from the past and conversationally explaining where you are and why. Her book was fascinating to me since she tells of abuse in her younger life but does so in a way to allow the beauty of the moment in which she wrote to shine through.
I mentioned in class that I hoped to find more examples of prose poetry, especially ones that use a variety of poetic techniques and sort of crossed-over into creative nonfiction. Then, today, while going through my email, I chanced to look at a message from Omnidawn which contained a link to the PoetryFlash.org website.
One of the impressive examples I like were three poems by Judy Halebsky. What I really like about these poems was the fact that she mixed notes to herself, random thoughts on her studies, repetition, rhythm, and the poems ended up more like a notebook entry than a formal poem, but the beauty of the pieces resided in her ability to tie everything together and make them sound, think, feel like they fit together.
Another good example was Andrew Schelling's piece "Mount Blanca with Ute Creek at Dawn" that is very much prose and poetry together. His piece reads like a travel column telling us who, what, where, but does so in a matter that the reader is immersed in the moment.
I applied for and received permission to do a dual genre MFA program which allows me to focus for one semester on a second genre, in this case poetry, as part of my thesis work. To gain acceptance into the program, I submitted a set of ten poems and an explanation of why I found the study of poetry helpful for writing my thesis.
I started all of my writing studies after some introductory creative writing classes at Green River Community College by going through the University of Washington's Poetry Certificate program. Since I was working full time, I found poetry offered the ability to focus on a single item such as voice, momentary experience, emotion, interaction with someone at a key time, an object or animal, etc. The writing amounted to fifty lines or less and I could look carefully how to select better language and different point of view and what it offered to the poem.
Even though I went on to writing fiction, journalism articles and now creative nonfiction, the use of poetic techniques in writing help turn something flat into a higher form.
I have Ruth Schwartz as mentor this quarter and we'll be reading:
About Sheri Fresonke Harper
I’m somewhat of a coward about reading poetry and when I find a collection such as The Waker’s Corridor by Jonathan Thirkfield containing a series of linked poems I am intimidated. But I pressed forward, beyond the impressive thematic co...
This is an unusual collection of insightful moments, people, relationships and life throughout the day into evening. Many will find something of value just by randomly opening the pages and selecting something new, including births, deat...
These last poems by Mahmoud Darwish are contemplative and have a dislocated feeling since many deal with adjusting to life exiled to a new home. He is an Arabic writer from Palestine and the quiet of these poems almost feel shell-shocked...