Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Poet on the Poem: Chana Bloch

I'm delighted to have Chana Bloch as the featured poet for The Poet on the Poem.

Chana Bloch, the author of award-winning books of poetry, translation and scholarship, is Professor Emerita of English at Mills College, where she taught for over thirty years and directed the Creative Writing Program. Her latest book is Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015 (Autumn House Press, 2015). Her earlier poetry collections are The Secrets of the TribeThe Past Keeps ChangingMrs. Dumpty, and Blood Honey. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New Republic, and elsewhere, as well as in the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Her book awards include the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for Blood Honey, selected by Jane Hirshfield, and the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for Mrs. Dumpty, selected by Donald Hall. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, in poetry and in translation, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Writers Exchange Award of Poets & Writers, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Discovery Award of the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center.

Today's poem comes from Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015.

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Happiness Research

Rain over Berkeley! The birds are all out
delivering the news.                                                                                   
The evening is wet and happy tonight.               
“Is there more to happiness than feeling happy?”
the moral philosophers inquire.

Research has shown                                                        
if you spot a dime on the sidewalk
you're more likely to tell the professor your life 
is fine, thank you. The effect                                             
generally lasts about twenty minutes.    
Scientists are closing in on                                                               
the crowded quarter of the brain                                                 
where happiness lives. They like to think                                              
it's hunkered down
in the left prefrontal cortex.

“Even in the slums of Calcutta
people on the street describe themselves
as reasonably happy.” Why not be
reasonable? why not in Berkeley? why not                     
right now, sweetheart, while the rain                                         
is stroking the roof?                                   

The split-leaf philodendron is happy            
to be watered and fed. 
The dress I unbuttoned is more than glad
to be draped on the chair. 

DL: Research is clearly an important motif in your poem. How much actual research went into the writing of the poem? Which came first, the science or the love poem?   

CB: Research on happiness by social scientists, neuroscientists and psycho-pharmacologists has grown at a phenomenal rate over the past two decades. I must admit that I can’t help reading the stuff. So it’s not by chance that I clipped and saved a review-article by Thomas Nagle in the New York Review of Books, “Who is Happy and When?” The moral philosopher Sissela Bok, who wrote the book under review, Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (Yale UP), wants to know: What is happiness? How much should we value it? Questions I’ve often thought about. 

I almost said that science came before love in writing this poem, but when I looked at the article again, I saw the illustration that first caught my attention—Rubens’ captivating portrait of himself and his young wife, “In the Honeysuckle Bower,” painted the year of their marriage. In both faces, the lineaments of gratified desire.  

DL: What do you see as the function of the two quotations you’ve woven into the poem?

CB: I hope the quotes will draw the reader into the poem, just as they drew me into the review. They made me ask myself: How am I doing “on a scale of one to ten”? Contented, elated, exhilarated? Which suggests that I was ready to appear in the poem long before I made my appearance.
 In the version of “Happiness Research” I'd drafted a few years earlier, the scientists and the dime were already present, though not the inquiring professor. Sharing the page was “a Norwegian philosopher, 82, who recommends / daily swigs of cod liver oil / for despair:/ ‘It’s almost as good as garlic.’” That draft of the poem remained parked in a desk drawer until science and love revved up its engine.

DL: In stanza 4 you suddenly switch from third person point of view to a first person direct address to “sweetheart.” This and the rain “stroking the roof” move the poem from scientific to personal and intimate. At what point in your drafting did this risky shift enter the poem? How did you know it would work?

CB: Once I disposed of the cod liver oil and added the two quotes, the direction of the poem became clear. I knew I had the setting and the dramatis personae—our house (rain on the roof, a chair, and a split-leaf philodendron) and the two of us. I even had a come-hither line, which turns on the two senses of “reasonable”: the people in Calcutta are passably happy; let’s you and I be sensible. “Why not be reasonable?” might conceivably sound irritated, even reproachful, but the context makes clear that it’s playful, teasing, inviting. At that point I was more than glad to work on the poem. I was elated, exhilarated.

DL: You end the poem with a stunning sensual image. Tell us about your use of personification there, the dress that is “more than glad.”

CB: The dress, c’est moi. The truth is, I usually wore pants in those days, but a poem needn’t be true to fact so long as it is true to experience. In The Cortland Review and two beautiful broadsides, framed on my wall—the poem ended with the philodendron “doing its new green thing.” Once something is in print, I often can’t help wanting to change it. Working on Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015 gave me my chance. I decided that the happy plant was too nature-club-wholesome an ending for a seduction scene, so I revised and changed the order of the lines in order to end with the dress.

DL: Your first three stanzas each have five lines. Then you alter this pattern and give stanza 4 six lines and stanza 5 four lines. Why not stick to the established pattern?

CB: My poems often have an irregular number of lines in each stanza. Although I do write in couplets, triplets, or quatrains, I like to break the form depending on the demands of the poem. In stanza 4 I lay out my argument, so I need a little more room. And there’s a reason, too, for the quick denouement in stanza 5: so the couple can get down to business.

Readers, please listen to Chana reading her poem.

Please also visit Chana's poem, "The Joins," featured on Verse Daily on Tuesday, January 27, 2015.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tidbits of This and That
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I am very fortunate to have received two new reviews for The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. Both reviews are beautiful. And both came in December, like gifts. The first is by Christine Swint, posted at her site, Balanced on the Edge. Included in the review is this lovely comment:
Because there are so many poems by innovative, contemporary poets, The Crafty Poet is more than a portable workshop; it is an anthology of poems written in the kind of fresh, rich, and lively language we writers want to emulate. . . Read the full review HERE.

I was also tickled to see that Christine subsequently made good on her vow to get using the prompts for her own poetry and posted about her experience with the Sonnenizio, a form covered in my book. Read about it HERE.

The second review is by Christina Veladota and is posted at her site, maybesopoetry. She says, among other things:
The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop is an essential text for any poet. Diane Lockward has curated for us an abundant collection of inspirations and advice, and together with her many noteworthy contributors she succeeds in “making the day with nothing to say a thing of the past.” Read the full review HERE.

In publication news I have a poem, “Shopping at the Short Hills Malls,” in the December issue of The Cortland Review, one of the oldest online poetry journals and I think the first to include audios of each poet reading the poems. I’m particularly pleased to be in this issue as each editor was invited to solicit work from one poet. Editors were each asked to invite a poet whose poems they liked and who they felt was making some kind of contribution to the larger poetry community. My appreciation goes to editor Amy MacLennan, the Managing Editor.

I also have a new poem in the current issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review. While my publication in The Cortland Review was my debut there, VPR editor Ed Byrne has kindly included my work several times. The poem in the current issue is called “Sweet Images,” and is a form poem, a form I really liked working with.

Finally, I have a new poem, “And Life Goes On As It Has Always Gone On,” in the latest issue of the print journal, burntdistrict. Like most print journals, this one pays only with a contributor’s copy. But editor Jen Lambert also offered contributors with new books the opportunity to send a full-page ad. That was, to me, worth more than the minimal fee that a handful of journals are able to offer.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Harvest Time

Poet David Kirby contributed a Craft Tip to my January 1 Poetry Newsletter. In his piece, “One Brick at a Time,” Kirby advocates the use of a journal. That’s not a new concept for most poets, but Kirby calls his a “bits journal,” and he advocates writing in it daily if possible, including lines, images, bits of conversation, song lyrics, etc.

He says, “If you don’t keep a bits journal, start today, and if you do, go back and have a look and see what you can use and what you might add. How you handle your bits journal is up to you, but I know I get antsy if my bits journal grows beyond twenty pages or so.”

Sounds like my pages of yellow-lined legal pads.

Kirby adds, “When that happens, it’s harvest time: I’ll look for bits that speak to each other, maybe three or four that might coalesce into a poem. It’s said that Walt Whitman had a box of a certain size that he filled with scraps of paper on which he’d written, and when the box filled, he’d pull out the scraps and look to see which ones would become a sequence and which he might use in another poem or return to the box.”

At this time of year, many poets count up the number of poems they wrote in 2014. I see their statistics on blogs and on Facebook. I don’t particularly like this bean-counting, especially when I’ve been bemoaning my lack of productivity and counting up the number of legal pads growing on my bookshelf.

So it’s harvest time for me! I’m excited about that (as evidenced by the use of an exclamation point). I have so much material to work with that surely I’ll find some gems in there and get a handful of decent poems.

That’s my writing goal for the opening weeks of 2015. I’m going to cut back on generating material for poems and start mining the already accumulated material for poems. I’ve thus far gone through two legal pads and dog-eared the pages that might lead somewhere. I’ve revised four very rough pieces into rough drafts of poems and typed up two of those.

I am a farmer of poetry.

While most advocates of journals advocate the kind you write in with pen or pencil, Kirby strongly suggests keeping yours on the computer: “That way, when one bit wants to cozy up to another, you just cut and paste.” He makes this a requirement for his students.

After I harvest what’s in the legal pads, I might make keeping a computer bits journal my next goal.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Weekend Workshop in Delaware and a Book Contest Reading

Several months ago I was invited to be one of three final judges for the 2014 annual Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, a full-length book contest open to poets living in the Mid-Atlantic states. The other two judges were Gerry LaFemina of Maryland and Larry Woiwode, Poet Laureate of North Dakota. The contest was overseen by poet Linda Blaskey of Delaware. Linda and her team of readers culled the entries down to six manuscripts, then sent those to each of the judges who made the final selection.

Linda also invited me to spend a weekend in Delaware, the weekend of December 13-14, leading a group of poets in a workshop. I happily agreed. I drove to Delaware on Friday, was kindly put up in a hotel by the group of poets, and then spent three hours each on Saturday and Sunday with the best group of poets I’ve ever worked with, sixteen of them. We met in a spacious room in one of the Rehoboth Art League buildings.
Building where we met for our workshops
Linda told me ahead of time that the group wanted some craft talk and prompts that focused on craft. So that’s what I went armed with. I did not use any material from The Crafty Poet as I’d been given to understand that most of the group already had the book. In fact, three of the poets are in the book! Many of the group members also knew me as they are subscribers to my Poetry Newsletter. We spent our time together reading some sample poems I’d brought and discussing the craft in them and then writing to prompts that zeroed in on a particular element of craft. We did some reading of the drafts with minimal critique, mostly appreciative noises.

I alternated the craft prompts with ones that work well on those days when you have nothing to write about—and who doesn’t have some of those? The writing was wonderful and the group was incredibly supportive of each other’s work. I gathered that they have been working together and cheering each other on for years.

Saturday night was the announcement of the contest winner and presentation of his book. This event was held at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. It’s a real brewery, with all kinds of craft beers, a bar, tours, and a food truck. Since it’s located about 30 minutes away, one of the group members picked me up and another one drove me back to my hotel. Apparently, the owners are big poetry fans and have supported this contest for years. They gave a nice bag of goodies to me and to Gerry who also attended. We both joined the winner in a reading. Gerry read first and then me. Then Linda announced the winner: Lucian Mattison of Norfolk, Virginia. The evening ended with a reading by Lucian, the presentation of his prize which included a check and two cases of beer, and a signing of Lucian’s book, Peregrine Nation, published by Broadkill River Press.

Part of the audience. That's the DE Poet Laureate JoAnn Balingit, with the scarf
Gerry LaFemina
Linda Blaskey introduces the winner, Lucian Mattison
Winner Lucian Mattison reads from Peregrine Nation and pauses for a sip of beer
Presentation of the Award
I returned home after our Sunday session, feeling invigorated by the weekend. It was a true pleasure and privilege to have worked with such a terrific group. I am very grateful to them for having invited me. I felt honored by the invitation. I salute this group for the support they give each other and for giving themselves the gift of a weekend of total immersion in poetry. I’m looking forward to seeing the poems that eventually emerge from the weekend. I'm sure that many of them will land in some very fine journals.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Yes, Virginia

Each Christmas I like to revisit the following essay from the The Sun. My grandmother read it to me many years ago. I've always remembered it. If you don't already know this piece, I hope you'll enjoy it. I also hope you'll have a Merry Christmas if that's what you're celebrating. And I hope you'll have a wonderful New Year. Thank you for being a Blogalicious reader.

Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's The Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial on September 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

Here's Virginia's letter:

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


Here's the reply:

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Some Thoughts on Using Poetry Prompts

I was recently delighted to come across Amorak Huey’s article, “Writing Poems from Prompts,” in the 2015 Poet’s Market. The article made me happy because I’m a poet who enjoys the challenge of prompts. I know that not all poets do and some even dismiss them and say that “real poets” don’t use prompts. I know lots of real poets who do indeed use them, and I count myself among them. I find, as does Huey, that a prompt will push me in a direction I might not otherwise have traveled. I enter new territory, sometimes strange and surprising. I’m given ideas on days when I just don’t have any. Who among doesn’t have some of those days? I also like prompts because they often compel me to focus on some aspect of craft; thus, I grow as a poet. Huey quotes professor W. Todd Kaneko who says, “. . . I think writing prompts are most useful when they are based around an element of craft.” Me too. If you subscribe to my Poetry Newsletter, you already know that I agree with this. If you have my book, The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, you know I agree that prompts are cool.

Huey’s article includes a list of five tips for using prompts effectively. My favorite tip is #3: “If one prompt is falling flat, combine it with another. The creative process benefits immensely from the friction of two disparate forces.” Read the entire article to get the other four tips.

The article ends with a “List of Six Stellar Sources of Poetry Prompts.” I was tickled silly to find The Crafty Poet included! Here’s the entire list, one blog plus five books. You might also consider this a list of suggestions for holiday gifts for your students, your pals, and yourself.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

How Much Are You Willing to Pay?

As you know, many print journals now use online submission managers such as Submittable for submissions. Many of these journals are no longer willing to accept snail mail submissions. That’s fine with me. Makes my life easier. In the past few years, several of these journals have begun to charge a submission fee, usually $2 or $3. Although some poets I know are very annoyed about this and some of them refuse to submit to any journal that charges a submission fee, I’m not particularly bothered by it. Seems like a fair trade-off to me. I don’t have to use up my paper supply, two envelopes, postage for the sending and the SASE, or gas going to the post office. At their end, the journals get a little compensation for printing out submissions or reading on screen.

However, the other day I saw the name of a print journal that was new to me, so I checked it out. I’m not going to name it but will say that this journal publishes work by women only. The journal pays $50 for fiction and non-fiction and $35 for poetry. Great. I wouldn’t mind paying a small submission fee to a journal that compensates its authors. So everything looked cool until I got to the submission part. That’s where I saw the $15 reading fee! (Yes, I put an exclamation point there to register the jolt I got at such a fee.) And that’s for just three poems. Now keep in mind that there’s a difference between a submission fee and a reading fee. I’ll pay the former but not the latter, especially when the amount is so absurdly high. It’s tantamount to paying to be published. Another irritant: they read anonymously so all identifying information must be deleted. I know that some people like that. I find it annoying as it causes me the unnecessary step of deleting the information. I think editors ought to be able to be objective with or without names.

So I’ll keep my money and they can keep theirs.

Speaking of money—Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with Erika Dreifus and her wonderful blog, Practicing Writing, which is always loaded with useful information for writers. It’s primarily geared towards prose writers, but poets will also find it useful. Every Monday, for example, Erika makes her readers aware of no-fee, paying markets. She also sends out a monthly e-newsletter, The Practicing Writer, which is similarly filled with wonderful, up-to-date information. In the current December issue, Erika includes a list of books suggested by authors who previously played some role in her newsletter. As one of those lucky authors, I recommended Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shaprio (Grove Press). Both the blog and the newsletter are terrific resources for writers. You can subscribe to Erika’s newsletter at either of the preceding two links. Just scroll down in the right sidebar.

Speaking of blogs—I have previously recommended Adele Kenny’s The Music in It, and I now reiterate that recommendation. Each Saturday Adele posts a poetry prompt. Each of her prompts contains some instruction and several model poems or links to them. Readers are invited to post their drafts in the Comments section where Adele generously comments on them. Recently Adele began occasionally inviting other poets to contribute a prompt. I’m happy to have been invited twice to do that. My second guest post, The Loveliness of Words, is currently posted at the blog. It’s excerpted from my book, The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, and includes a wonderful model poem by Rod Jellema and a prompt based on the poem. Check it out and try the prompt.

Speaking of books—It’s time to order your holiday gift books. I hope you’ll consider The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop for the poets in your life.

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