Thursday, January 29, 2009

An issue or two; a poem or two


This is for my follower(s) (there is the hope that one day, there will be more. While I'm at it, I'd like to note a problem with the terminology. If I'm going to have "followers," why not just call them "minions"? I mean, if we are going to make the first pedagogical-semantic choice, why not the second? If I have followers, does that make me a demagogue? If this were a composition blog, would that make me a pedagogue? Can't "followers" just be "readers"? Does it have to be cute or clever?) in the hope that I can get some help. In a recent interview published in American Poetry Review, Jack Gilbert made the most precise indictment of the MFA workshop system I've yet seen. His problem, or his main problem, is that the workshop generally focuses on making the poem more publishable than when it was submitted. To make the poem, essentially, more marketable. This involves concessions to fashion, and fails, as Gilbert points out, to address larger issues of whether the poem is actually good. We rarely say to a young poet, "What you are doing is wrong. The idea of it is wrong." I can't conceive of the number of times I've wanted to say to a workshop companion, in fiction or poetry, that I didn't think they way they chose to write was worth pursuing. And it has to do, as Gilbert points out later in the interview, with a general lack of emotion, either embedded in the poem, or ellicited from the reader. "If it's not emotional," he says, "what does it offer?" What can it offer? I am about to merge into traffic with another blog, so I'll just let you read that one. Anyway, I don't have the gravitas, couch credentials, or really anything else that Jack Gilbert has, but as Wilco says (at least with my poetry), "I'm trying to break your heart."

All of this as a long way of saying, if you have an issue with the bedrock of what I'm doing, of my approach to writing poetry, tell me that too. Unless you're a L=A=N...I can't even bring myself to do it. Unless you consider yourself a language poet (for God's sake, what other kind of poet is there, you pompous a-holes? Aren't we all using language? Didn't Stein and cummings already cover this ground?).


Breathing the Suffer

There is no river to see,
no burial mound, no shroud
on the yellow earth.
When you reach the mountain pass,
you see only a thin trail.
You change your name
to I don't know, and lose
every argument you've ever had.

This is the top of the world
and once, there were glaciers—
now, just stone.

The wander, the want—
this hollow life,
a shallow lake far below.
You have two choices—
follow the trail—after miles

there is a valley—food,
shelter, the long suffer
of your forever and ever—
follow the trail, or don't.

Shooting Light

Crouched cold. The sun won’t rise
for another hour. I imagine the shot—
smooth squeeze of trigger—

punctured heart or lung—
then the quartering—hard-won elk
steak, braised elk back-strap,
elk jerky and stew all winter.
But light does what it must.
The bare ridge I imagined
as I scaled down the mountain
in the dark is crowded
by the morning ghosts of tamaracks.
No shooting alleys, no elk
sky-lined on the ridge. No ridge.

Isn’t this love? still heart
ready to leap, but denied
once more by what
it always knew to be true.

For discussion:

There is an issue between the stanzas in the second poem that I am having a hard time resolving. I'm pretty sure something needs to go there, or something more needs to happen in the final stanza. But I can't figure out what. So, dear follower(s), what do I do?

Friday, January 23, 2009


I have an office in a house adjacent to Gonzaga's main campus. I share it with two other people, people I've never met. That my office is in a house isn't necessarily strange. I feel a little bit like a reality show resident, and sometimes pretend that me and my "housemates" are on camera. It wouldn't be a very interesting show. But there's a steamroller parked in the back. In contrast to the economic struggles many people, public universities, and companies face today, Gonzaga is flourishing. New dorms are being built all the time, and as soon as they are done, they are full. The campus has long since exceded the bounds that orignially contained it, and to accomodate all of this expansion, the univerity has, for years, been buying up all the homes in the surrounding neighborhoods and converting them to university buildings, or tearing them down and building new buildings. This too, isn't necessarily strange. On Sharp, across the street from where my office house is, there was an old building, a Catholic seminary. This was a beautiful old brick building called the Huetter Mansion. Beautiful and old enough that it couldn't be torn down (also, the Catholic Diocese which donated the building to the university said they couldn't). But Gonzaga wanted to build a new seminary. Here's what would've made sense: On the corner adjacent to the Huetter Mansion, build the new seminary. Here's what they did instead: Tear down one old house on the adjacent corner, move the corner house down to the site of the torn-down house, and move the Huetter Mansion across the street onto the foundation of the just moved other house (coincidentally, my office house). Then build the new seminary where the Huetter Mansion hed been. Catholic money.

So they moved the Huetter Mansion across the street, and from my window on the second floor of the office house, I can see the work progress. The mansion is on jacks, and the foundation is being poured under it, things are being secured inside, and soon, the mansion will be inhabited again.

But here's what I like: there's a steamroller parked behind my house. I imagine it was used to steamroll things, make things flatter, and more uniform. That's what it does. But it also sits behind my office house, a reminder perhaps only to me, of temporality. What we make will be remade, will be torn down, forgotten likely, and something else, better and newer will replace it. But if we make a thing well, someone might go far out of their way to keep it. I think of reclaimed writers, literature that survives, well-made poems and stories too beautiful to forget or tear down. I think of the way Michiko is preserved in the work of her husband, Jack Gilbert. Of the lathe-shops B.H. Fairchild grew up in, made living and memorable in his poems. Sometimes I want to drive the steamroller, and sometimes I want to be the thing that the steamroller doesn't get to make flatter and more uniform, the thing that can't, for whatever reason, be made to go away.