Poetry and Poetics

The second night assignment

Disclaimer: I won’t be doing most of the assignments, but I thought I would do this one if I had some down time. I had some down time.

In the Department Store

T. S. Eliot

The lady of the porcelain department

smiles at the world through a set of false teeth.

She is business-like and keeps a pencil in her hair.

 

But behind her sharpened eyes take flight

the summer evenings in the park

and heated nights in second story dance halls.

 

Man’s life is powerless and brief and dark.

It is not possible for me to make her happy.

The above is a little known poem by T.S. Eliot (I know, I feel like I should be writing about a female poet, too, considering T.S. Eliot is one of the “great, dead, white men” we often read about) that I took the time to keep to memory. I confess I am not a huge Eliot fan, though I do appreciate his work and find some of his imagery fascinating. In this poem, however, I love his simplicity. I love the ending.

Here is a woman, who one assumes is unremarkable, who works in retail. She looks just like any other person, or woman, if you will. She smiles when appropriate. She welcomes customers. She probably appears ordinary. But this is all deceiving, of course, as it is whenever we encounter anyone like her. As Eliot reminds us, “behind her sharpened eyes take flight” a listing of memories. As readers we wonder about those summer evenings in the park and perhaps remember our own experiences. Eliot also tells us the nights in second story dance halls are “heated” with sexuality and intrique, or so we presume as readers often do.

But then we don’t know for certain. We just fill in the blanks.

The ending is what gets me each time. [My life] is powerless and brief and dark / it is not possible [to make someone] happy. I love the realization. I love the charge you get as a reader when you finally get to the end of that and realize, oh. Yeah. No one can do that. He cannot. I cannot. No one. It is sudden and powerful and in some wonderful way a relief.

And we leave the poem. We go about our day. The memory of that final line stays with us, though, or at least it did for me because if there is anything I remember best about this poem, it occurs in those final lines.

It is not possible for me to make her [or anyone] happy.

I remember that. I keep going.

P.S. There is an interesting article about this poem that can be found here. It is a JSTOR link, so you know what you have to do if you want to read it.

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The first day of the workshop, or why I am here

For my dissertation research, I’m looking at issues of authorship in creative writing, namely how creative writing students view revision (some creative writers are notorious in choosing to not revise) and invention (where the heck does my creative work come from?). I started out thinking about voice in writing, but decided that was complicated and also figured that I couldn’t begin to talk about that unless I understood invention and revision. And those two things have really become my focus in authorship theory and studies. With all this in mind, last night I attended the first class of the semester which was obviously a lot of introductory material for the course.

What I found most relevant from this first day was the views of invention we were given during class. The first video was from Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert who spoke about “the elusive creative genius”. During her talk, I kept thinking back to my undergraduate creative writing days and how inspired I would have felt after hearing her discussion about creativity and genius. I probably would have wanted to leave class immediately and start writing, which I recall feeling quite a bit during creative writing classes. And, of all the TED talks we viewed, I felt this was the most interesting in terms of her conceptions of invention and authorship.

The way the workshop will be run is also going to be extremely useful in what I am studying. If you know anything about the traditional writing workshop, which honestly has not changed dramatically since the late 19th century, the workshop is primarily peer review. It is critique. It is about teaching yourself how to correctly write a poem or any piece of creative writing. It is about fitting in, you could say. This workshop is different in a number of ways. This workshop is far more generative, for one, since it commits students to writing as much work as they can during a given semester. The workshop is also focused more on the writer. For instance, in a traditional workshop, the writer has to be quiet, not say anything, and listen to what each person has to say about his or her writing. When I was telling Dr. Strand about this process yesterday during our meeting about my research, he looked at me as if that was the worst possible and craziest idea for creativity he had ever heard, and I think he is probably correct in that assessment. But this workshop gets away from that. Instead, the writer has time to talk about what he or she wanted to do in the poem, about problems he or she is having in writing the poem, about how inspired the poem, and other questions regarding the writing process. Other students listen to this and instead giving a “cold reading” of the poem in class, they get five minutes to ask further questions of the writer, of which the writer can choose to answer or not answer. Then, within five days, the other writers respond to the work via a blog and let the writer know how they can further work on the poem.

Will this work, you might ask, especially if students are so used to and comfortable with the traditional workshop? I don’t know, but I don’t see anything wrong with making students uncomfortable since people tend to learn a lot when they become less comfortable in a situation. You learn a lot from doing old things in new ways. I think the time in class will definitely be useful where I, and other students, get to hear about the actual process of invention, revision, and creativity. That part is the most exciting element of this, at least for me as a creative writer and a researcher in this class. I confess that as a creative writing student I wanted nothing more than to explain what I wanted to do with my work, why I wanted to do that, and how it even got to this point. I wanted to say something during the workshop process. And with that in mind, I think this whole idea is liberating.

I also confess that it is liberating to sit in a class and be able to participate and not have to be evaluated on my participation. As a researcher, my participation will most likely be minimal, but I think this is an exciting idea, and so I do want to participate on some level. Plus, as the researcher, I think it will only benefit my work if I do take part in these activities. That way, I have a first hand experience with it and can better articulate how to better the process and/or discuss why it works or doesn’t.

Either way, I am excited for this opportunity and I am glad I took it, even though I am going to be busy and exhausted, but I am sure I will learn quite a lot through this process. And I hope to learn a number of things: 1. I’d like to learn how we can combine, or at least build a bridge, between CW and Composition pedagogies and 2. I’d like to learn how we can improve CW pedagogy through the workshop process. Really, I think this is a promising start.

Where I read poetry

When I started writing poetry regularly, I also started to submit my poems. This started in the mid-1990s. At first I sent them out to mainly print publications, but a few months after doing this I started sending out poems to online publications, commonly referred to as ‘zines. It was in ‘zines that I first started to get my poems published. One of the places I was published was Stirring: A Literary Collection. I also submitted to other ‘zines at Sundress. I somehow–and to be honest, I am not sure how, but I think it started with the online poetry slams–got to know some of the editors at Sundress. I also did a little editing while there.

Today I still read the published material at Sundress publications. I also read other online ‘zines. I read Poetry Magazine. But a lot of my poetry reading is done online and maybe that is because I don’t study poetry as I am in a composition and rhetoric program. But that is probably just an excuse.

Really, the last book of poetry I read was from the Best American Poetry series, which I have heard from my MFA friends garners a lot of flack. I have always liked these collections because of their variety of voices. I confess I don’t like to read a book of poems by a singular author in one sitting. I’ll often read a few poems, put the collection down, and read another. So If I do go to the library to get some poetry, I will grab a few collections by different authors.

The last book I recall reading by one author is Ted Kooser’s Flying at Night. Even though his poems are metaphorical and I don’t tend to write poems in a metaphorical style, I enjoyed his collection. What I liked was the rural nature of the poetry, the quiet small town feel, and the elation of being alone. If you read Kooser, you can tell he is a private person and enjoys his time in solitude. His poems demonstrate this tendency well. In that sense, I could relate to his poems. And I suppose we all want to read something we can relate to because when we read something personally familiar to us, it is almost as if we are touching or caught in an embrace with that writer. It becomes tangible, even though there is miles of space between ourselves and the writer. But that is the power of art, proximal and full.

First poem

I can remember the first time I wrote a poem.

Actually, I have written a first poem twice. That may sound weird, I know, but I consider it to be factual. I say this because I remember being in the later years of elementary school during the time I was really into Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King books. I remember I had just finished reading a Poe story and it made me think that I should try to write a poem. So I did. I wrote my first poem sitting on my parents couch in our trailer house with the TV on and thinking about the Poe story I had just read. The poem was about a man about to die at the guillotine. Yes, Poe was an influence for that topic. No, I am sure i had no idea of how to really show that kind of horror or personal torment. I also had the decency to quickly realize the poem was bad. All I remember from writing this poem, was that i was focused on the blade slowly reaching toward the neck of the man. After writing that poem, and feeling that it was terrible, I figured I would make a terrible poet.

I went back to my short stories.

This short story writing continued (and actually still does) until I was 16, slightly bored, and staying at my grandparent’s farm for a few days during the summer. In this moment, I was sitting alone in what we called “the cold room” because the room always seemed cold, even on the warmest days. It had been my mother’s bedroom and all her things were still in it, though mostly destroyed by this time because of my sister and I playing up there and treating it as our own. Out of boredom or curiosity, I decided to write a poem. It was about a tree. I am sure it was sentimental as hell. I am sure it involved a girl talking about love. That girl may or may not have been sitting under a tree. Either way, I felt the poem did what a poem should do. It had a metaphor. It had assonance. It had a couple instances of alliteration. And it had a rhyme scheme.

After this, I thought I could maybe write poems. I felt I should rethink previously made considerations. I thought I should switch in my stories for poems.

While I didn’t necessarily trash my stories for poems, I became more focused on poetry. I even thought about going to school for poetry, and as an undergraduate I sort of did, though I did a lot of creative writing as an undergraduate. For a while I thought I would go to graduate school for poetry, but didn’t. I opted for literature instead. Later I ended up in a composition and rhetoric PhD program where my dissertation, strangely enough, will focus on how we teach creative writing. I am also at the same university now that I started out in over ten years ago.

What I am trying to say here, perhaps badly, is that our lives are not just about one instance. Many instances make up our choices and the way we work. Instances help define what we choose to do, and in some cases, instances help define what happens to us. In those feelings I had of curiosity and boredom, I started writing poems. I wrote a poem every day for most of my high school years. While i cannot say I still write a poem every day, I try to write a poem or two as much as possible. And this is really what I aim to do in this class: write as many poems and write as much as possible.

Introductory post

I created this blog for MFA 688: Poetry Workshop. Here you will find poetry I write for the workshop as well as reflections on poetics and the writing process. While I am not “officially” in the MFA 688 class, I am conducting research for my dissertation in this class. The research involves studying creative writing pedagogy in the form of the creative writing workshop. My research also aims to examine creative writing students’ perceptions of authorship. Even though I am primarily here for research-related reasons, I plan to also participate in the workshop and this blog is part of the requirements for the workshop.

For more information, and for a link to the blog that will have discussions about the research I am conducting, please see the “In Brief” page.