Monday, April 27, 2015

The First Lesson

Hi everyone, I thought I'd try doing blog exercises for a while. Join in on the fun!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Working with Jeffrey

I spent last year working on an ekphrastic collection of poetry with a friend and former student of mine named Jeffrey. Ekphrastic poetry is poetry that discusses art. I’ve spent a long time editing other people’s work. I do that as a part-time job sometimes when I’m not teaching. I’ve never worked with someone in this way before, developing a collection with a clear end point and goal. It was a great collaboration, and I think I’m going to do more of this kind of work in the future.

It’s strange to work with someone in this way. I thought it was going to be similar to editing, but working and developing poems really gives you insight into the way another person sees the work and thinks. It helps you to understand his process and the way he sees. One of the things that I was surprised about was the way he starts a poem. I generally start with the history of the painting and work my way out making it relevant either to me or the world in general. I came to see that Jeffrey was working in a more physical way. He started with his reaction to the piece, and I think, spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why he reacted in this way, how the piece made him feel what he felt.

It was strange to edit a collection like this as well. Generally, when developing a collection, I’m concerned with each poem and how the poems interact to make a whole. I’m thinking about what message I’m trying to send out to the world. With Jeffrey, we had to work on this together developing our message. We don’t have exactly the same beliefs, so it could be a struggle, but the struggle caused me to think about what I was doing more precisely.

I would absolutely do this again. I’d need to work with someone like Jeffrey or Jeffrey himself on a collaboration, someone who is interested in the work and not in some kind of pointless outside drama. If you get a partner like that, you’re going to get the best work of your life.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Thinking about Degas

I started out my adult life as a literature major, and eventually changed to creative writing. Now I teach both. I always loved what I gained as a lit major about books from classroom discussion and serious study. I learned how to read and how to understand the classics, new and old, and I’d always go away with a more complex understanding of the novels or poems after have researched and read seriously than when I simply allowed them to wash over me.

I’m writing ekphrastic poems now, poems about art, and I find that I’m enjoying the kind of complex understanding of the literature that I had when I first was a student of literature. After all, I have gone from a person who walks through a museum and views the painting to someone who is trying to engage with the painting. I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong with either approach by the way. But I do gain something special by studying them.

I’ve also found that because I’m approaching the art from a third perspective, I’m gaining a new level of appreciating for the art. After all, when I’m done studying the art, I now engage with it, trying to make it my own by writing about it.

It’s an experience I’ve never had before, trying to get into the creative headspace of the artist. I don’t know if I accomplish that goal or not, but I do know that I see the work differently. I find that I love artists that I didn’t have much appreciation for before and that I dislike artists whom I used to love.

The biggest change was for Edward Hopper, whose work I used to absolutely love. I spent about a week with him, looking at his art and developing my understanding of what he was trying to do. Seeing all of his work together like that left me with a feeling of almost complete emptiness. The people in his paintings are universally lonely as though isolation is the natural state of a person.

I don’t say that he’s wrong, or that he’s making good and important observations about the human condition, only that I learned that I don’t like to be in his head that much. It’s an incredibly sad place, and I found myself growing depressed by the end of the week. His work is extraordinarily powerful, but that’s the problem with it for me.

At the same time, I gained an appreciation for the humanity and compassion of Degas’s work. I’d never really liked his ballerinas before, not until I really looked and saw the empathy inherent to what he was doing. I felt compassion for the ballerinas, and I felt his as well.

I wonder if this is something I should bring into my teaching. Could my literature students write poems about the novels they are reading? I wonder if maybe this is the kind of thing that can be codified into a classroom setting or if making it an assignment would remove whatever magic the exercise has.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Poets and Pleasure Seekers

Yesterday was a strange day for me, a good day too. My wife has been running Spout Hill Press, a small press specializing in novellas and poetry, for a few years now, but she recently decided to sell it to a friend and move on to other things in her life. Yesterday was the last day for her as the President and her last act was to take me to meet for lunch with the author of her final book. The author also happened to be one of my early poetry mentors, Gerry Locklin, and she was publishing a book of his dealing that was equal parts autobiographical narrative and ekphrasis, poems about art.
It will be out in a week or so, and she was bringing him the final proof. I had nothing really to do with any of it, and although I had read some of it while they were working, I hadn’t read it in its complete form. My job at that lunch was to let them talk, so I read through the work and thought about the last twenty years of my life, where both of these people have featured so prominently.
I thought about the years when I took all of those literature and creative writing classes from Gerry. He was someone who could lecture each week, the full three hours, about a novel that had come out only months earlier. He explained historical context, biography, and whatever gifts it gave to those of us who wanted to be writers. He also put it into an artistic context discussing how it fit into the art movements of the day in a way that made sense to me. When it came time for him to advise me about my thesis, the precision of his discussion was amazing, and it became clear to me the amount of focus and mental clarity the man had about all aspects of the artistic process.
All of that came back to me yesterday as I leafed through his collection, Poets and Pleasure Seekers. All of that focus and attention to detail revealed itself in his craft and I had that same feeling of being in my twenties and listening to him talk as he stripped away the illusion that life is one thing and that art is another. For him, the two things are part of one larger thing. It’s what I love about ekphrasis, how the art gains larger context because of the way it fits into the poet’s life.
And I thought about the work that Ann has done over the past few years, the discipline she’s had in developing a single unified vision for her press. She’s an artist, and like Penguin all those years ago, she’s chosen books that together have a single emotion that fit into a single movement, and they are significantly brought together by her cover art. It’s a brilliant thing she’s done, and I am happy that she’s moving on because she wants new things in her life, but I’m equally proud of the work she’s achieved.

Mostly I sat there reading one of my favorite author’s work and thinking about how good it is to be a part of an artistic community. It’s exactly where I need to be.