Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Poet on the Poem: Jan Beatty

I had the pleasure of hearing Jan Beatty read at the 2008 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. I was captivated by the sound of her voice and the contrast between the softness of her voice and the tough subject matter she deals with in her poems. After reading her book, Red Sugar, I contacted her and am happy to say that she agreed to discuss one of her poems here.

Jan Beatty’s third book, Red Sugar, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in Spring, 2008. Red Sugar was named a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. Jan is also the author of Boneshaker (2002) and Mad River, winner of the 1994 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, both from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her chapbook, Ravenous, won the 1995 State Street Chapbook Prize. She has worked in maximum-security prisons, was a welfare caseworker and an abortion counselor, and waitressed in jazz clubs and dive bars for fifteen years. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Quarterly West, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, and Court Green, and in anthologies published by Oxford University Press, University of Illinois Press, and University of Iowa Press. Awards include the $15,000 Creative Achievement Award in Literature from the Heinz Foundation, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. For the past fifteen years, she has hosted and produced Prosody, a public radio show on NPR-affiliate WYEP-FM featuring the work of national writers. Beatty directs the creative writing program at Carlow University, where she runs the Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops and teaches in the MFA program.

Today's poem comes from Red Sugar.

(click cover for Amazon)


a guy in a john deere hat tells the reporter: he was quiet,
a good neighbor. he took good care of his yard.
then we see his body,
sunken in on itself. hair hanging down. feet lurching inches at a time

in shackles. sometimes I look at people and think: I can feel the blade
of your little machinery. turning inside you from some generator.
cutting you off from yourself.
no trace of the older couple down the street,

their bodies he sliced to bits. up the cement ramp to the county jail,
he looks down. pieces of skin still under his fingernails but nothing
we can see. I think: look at his undiscovered cities. the buildings rising

in him and their fierce armies.
you can't tell how he packaged them
in 6-inch squares, to be sent through the mail. christmas presents
to the family. now the woman next door: he made good potato salad.

brought it to church functions.
standing in her yard, she looks down.
imagines his big hands in the dark blades of her grass/sees him cutting
the vegetables next to her daughter in the social hall. newly afraid,

she looks out into the camera: this is a good neighborhood. nothing
like this ever happens here.
if someone strays from themselves,
does it turn the good in them to dust? here's what I know: we don't want

any trouble. what if he was split off from all kindness from the beginning?
I think: you are all little frankensteins: all little broken-down machines.
you put your head down. one foot in front of the other. lurching.

DL: There's a grisly story in this poem, a neighborhood shattered by an act of violence. There are also some odd moments of something like tenderness—the potato salad and "his undiscovered cities. the buildings rising in him. . ." How much is fact? how much invention?

JB: That's a hard question to answer. The entire poem is sort of a composite of real things that happened over time, but not as one event. So—the events did happen, in a sense, but not in any logical, grounded way. And yes, there is some invention in the making of the composite, and I have taken some liberties with some details. The reference to the "potato salad" was a sarcastic moment in the poem, referring to the moment on the news when the neighbor seems to be clueless, offering proof of goodness based on someone's cooking ability. The "undiscovered cities" is a moment of compassion and wondering in the poem.

DL: This poem reminds me of a braid. The way you weave together voices and perspectives both complicates and enriches the poem. The reader has to pay careful attention and do some work to keep track of who's speaking or whose thoughts we're hearing. How do you strike the balance between clarity and complication?

JB: I do intend for the reader to have to keep track of these voices and thoughts. I think that there are enough connections in the poem to do that, and in that connecting, I was hoping to spark moments of unexpected misunderstandings and wanderings of thought. It's not so essential to me that the reader "get" what I was intending, in terms of meaning, but that he/she is moved or affected by the poem. I do, though, want enough clarity to find a reading, to arrive at a kind of sense. I'm not interested in creating a poem that is intentionally opaque or misleading.

DL: The elegant form of the poem seems at odds with the chaos of the narrative. I love that irony and tension. Tell us how you arrived at the form. How many drafts until you arrived at the final form?

JB: This poem lived through many drafts—I don't remember how many, but more than ten. It initially was not in tercets, was not lower case, had a different title, was more traditionally narrative. The poets Judith Vollmer and Peter Oresick worked with me on an early draft of the poem. The poem needed to get tougher and less compassionate than it originally was—it needed more of an edge. I was formerly a social worker, and I worked and taught in prisons. Some of that experience goes into this poem as the poem straddles moments of toughness and tenderness.

DL: You use four stylistic devices that intrigue me. Could you comment on each of the following:

. . . . . a. the absence of capital letters

JB: I think because of the "stray" voice speaking the poem, the stray voices that respond as neighbors, the stray voices inside all of us, I wanted to have the lower-case throughout the poem to support that feeling of a floating voice. Also, the lower case supports the movement of the poem through open stanzas, and prevents any visual distractions during that movement.

. . . . . b. the use of colons (I've counted 8 of them)

I used the colons to support the reporting voice in the poem, to move abruptly from voice to voice, as in, " the woman next door: ..." The colon allows me to announce her appearance and to have her speak quickly in the poem. It is a bit rougher than a comma, which is want I wanted, to go along with the tone of the poem.

. . . . . c. the use of italics

I used the italics to denote speech and internal thought. Usually, I would make a distinction in a poem between how those two are handled—for example, using quotes for speech, italics for unspoken thought. But, in this poem, I wanted the unspoken and spoken to meet, to sort of speak to each other. The poem is
addressing what is said and isn't said, and for that reason, I wanted them to appear with the same notation.

. . . . . d. the slash mark in stanza 5 (grass/sees), a device you use only once in this poem but more liberally elsewhere

I used the slash at that place because it's a pivotal moment in the poem. Prior to that, we see a "blade" in stanza 2, a "sliced" in stanza 3, and by the time we get to that moment in stanza 5 when the woman envisions this man's hands in "blades of grass," the emotional weight of those words has grown. It's at that moment that we as readers witness her uncomfortable realization that rushes on her: she knows this man, she starts to panic, to imagine his hands in the "blades," and then she jumps quickly to "him cutting the vegetables next to her daughter." It's at that moment when the terror sets in, when it gets personal, and she starts to question her position. So, the slash between the "grass/sees" enables that jump, that shift, and vaults the reader and the language ahead to the moment of change.

DL: I'm also intrigued by the voice and tone of this poem. What is the speaker's relationship to the other characters? Is she one of them or separate from them? Why does she conclude "you are all little frankensteins: all little broken-down machines"?

JB: She is one of them, and she is separate from them. She understands them, yet she reports on them. She witnesses the walk and the talk, and at the end, she is still all of them, raising questions and making statements. She is asking for compassion in, "what if he was split off from all kindness from the beginning?" She is splitting off from "them" as she says: "you are all little frankensteins..." I guess that's the point of the poem—how and where do we locate ourselves in relation to the "other"? Don't we all stray? How does that process of locating shift? Then who are we, really? The questions are posed, not answered.

Readers, Jan has given us much to think about here. I know I'll be thinking more deeply about punctuation and how its careful use can convey information and emotion.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Trailer or Poem Video?

As I continue my research into the subject of book trailers for poetry books, I've also been looking at a number of videos which feature a single poem. Sandra Beasley and I are on somewhat similar paths, i.e., both delving into how to make videos, but she's pursuing the individual poem video while I'm pursuing the video that introduces the viewer / reader to the book. I don't, however, see these as opposing paths. I don't think you have to choose one or the other. Why not do both?

Sandra has written four excellent blog posts about her experiences in making her videos. Excellent! I learned so much from her, nitty gritty stuff plus some very useful links. In her posts she takes us step by step through the creation of two poem videos. Both poems are from her forthcoming collection, I Was the Jukebox, scheduled for release on April 5 but available for pre-order at the link. Take a look at Sandra's first video:

Certainly very appealing. Great pace. Great images. Sandra clued me into istockphotos, an online site where you can get good-quality photos and animated clips. You can see that Sandra uses both. Of course, there's cost involved, though the site does appear to offer some photos for free. For this video Sandra used a plug-in mic. The background music is a bit overwhelming and suddenly bursts into loud volume at the end. For her second video she used her Mac's built-in mic and adjusted the volume of the background music. I think she's achieved perfection:

Both videos have wonderful music, both supplied by Kevin MacLeod at his royalty-free site. This is another of those sites that Sandra directed me to. I love it. All kinds of music. For no cost at all, you can download an mp3 of any soundtrack you want. (In another post I'll tell you what I learned about how to convert other file types in mp3's.) In this newer video you can hear that the background music is muted so that it supports but does not intrude on the reading of the poem. I also like how Sandra coordinates the text on the screen with her voiceover. Looks easy but isn't. Well, it's not hard, but it takes some fine-tuning and some time. Both of these videos weigh in at just over a minute. As I've been viewing lots of videos, it's become clear that the most successful ones avoid going on too long. If you're making a poem video or a trailer, don't go over two minutes or you risk losing your viewers.

Now the big question: Do the videos make you want to run out and buy the book? I say Yes! I already have Sandra's first book, Theories of Falling, and am looking forward to soon owning I Was the Jukebox.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Who Needs a Good Laugh?

We all need a good laugh. I found one the other day while continuing my research into book trailers. I again visited the Book Screening site and checked out several of the poetry offerings. This one by Robert Sward, poet, novelist, editor, and workshop provider, made me laugh out loud. This is a poem from his collection, The Collected Poems of Robert Sward 1957-2004. Take a look, and if you know how this was made, please let me know. Enjoy.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

More on Book Trailers

I'm continuing my research into the subject of movie trailers. I continue to find quite a few for prose books but very few for poetry books. I found one site, Book Screening, which hosts book trailers in many categories. I found 184 in the Mystery/Thriller category and 251 in the Non-Fiction category but only 17 in Poetry. In the Poetry group, several were videos of readings of individual poems but not really book trailers. We poets need to learn something from the writers in other genres. Let's all make book trailers! They seem like a great way to reach potential readers.

Book Screening has stopped accepting additional trailers—due to "time constraints." Hopefully, their constraints will soon become unconstrained.

Poet Collin Kelley has done a wonderful trailer for his novel, Conquering Venus. Take a look at it:

Collin is fortunate enough to have a friend who did the trailer for him. The professional touches are obvious, but Janna did her own (with some guidance) and it's also a beauty. Collin is also lucky to know the musician who allowed him to use her work for the sound track.

Here are some thoughts about what we can learn from Collin's trailer:

1. Keep it simple but varied enough to hold the viewer's interest. With all that can be done with videos, it's a huge temptation to go overboard with various effects. You want to tempt but not overwhelm. Collin's trailer strikes a good balance between simplicity and sophistication.

2. Limit the amount of text. Readers have to read quickly, so don't put too much text on a single clip. Not all clips need text. Again, Collin's video strikes a good balance; images, text, and audio all work together rather than at odds with each other.

3. Use a font large enough that readers will be able to read it clearly. Remember, too, that some clarity may be lost when you upload to YouTube. Keep font styles simple.

4. Keep it brief. Tempt; don't overwhelm. The average viewer, I've been told, won't hang in for more than two minutes. I read one minute somewhere. You will be surprised how many clips you can get in in under two minutes. Janna's trailer of The Motion of the Ocean (posted on Feb. 4) takes only 2.03 minutes but includes 43 clips by my count. Collin's takes 1.33 minutes and includes, I think, 10 clips. I say "I think" because some of the clips are animated and it's hard to figure out if I'm seeing one or more. In any case, the animation is wonderful. You can inexpensively purchase photos and animated images at istockphoto.

5. Images should support and coordinate with the text. Notice how beautifully both Collin's and Janna's trailers do just that.

6. Add a soundtrack. Coordinate it with the images. Choose something appropriate to your subject. No grim reaper music for a collection about how jolly life is. Again, notice in both Janna's and Collin's trailers how the music adds to the video, how well-suited it is. Be sure you adjust the volume so that it does not overwhelm. Make the volume consistent throughout. If you're on a Mac, there are many soundtracks that come with iMovie, of varying duration and all free. And don't forget Kevin MacLeod's Royalty Free Music site.

7. Include the book cover. Essential! I've also read it suggested elsewhere that you include some close-up details.

8. Include your own image. Viewers like to see the author.

9. Establish your credibility as an author (briefly, of course). This can be a few endorsements or blurbs and / or prize your work has received.

Now I sound like I know what I'm talking about. I don't. I'm just beginning to learn how to make poetry videos. But these are tips I've jotted down as I've been researching. This is some of what I've learned. You might find it useful too. More coming. More learning to do.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Who Needs a Love Poem?

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I visited the high school where I used to teach English. The ESL had teacher invited me to work with her students. Each day I visited two classes, both small and with kids from a variety of countries, such as Russia, China, Iran, Korea, and El Salvador. We wrote poems and had a great time.

I also visited the International Club after school. The teacher had asked me to read some love poems to them since Valentine's Day is close. I read six poems and then took the group through a quick activity to produce a love poem of their own. We had around 20 kids at this meeting and 3 teachers. The activity took under 10 minutes and produced some really amazing poems. I patterned it loosely after Cecilia Woloch's "Blazon," so it employs anaphora and lots of metaphors. Perhaps you'd like to try it yourself.

Begin 8 lines with “You are my . . . "

Now add the metaphors to complete each line:

1. a dessert (e.g., You are my crème brûlée.)

2. beverage

3. bird

4. jewel

5. tree

6. flower

7. body of water

8. Now repeat line #1 but with an addition (e.g., You are my crème brûlée, my jiggly pudding, my sweet sugar topping).

Add details as you like.

Rearrange lines if you like.

Send to your sweetheart.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Motion of the Ocean

(click for Amazon)

I love memoirs. And I've been getting interested in book trailers. They strike me as a great way to get people interested in your book. I've also been wondering why poets don't seem to make use of book trailers. After all, poetry is the oral art, right? With a new poetry book coming out soon, I've been considering the possibility of making a trailer. I've found lots of poetry videos, but none that specifically features a book. There are, however, lots of prose book trailers, so I've been using those for ideas.

Here's one by Janna Cawrse Esarey for her memoir, The Motion of the Ocean. Take a look.

Now for me the real test of the effectiveness of a trailer is whether or not it makes me want to read the book. This trailer did. In fact, I ordered the book the same day I watched the trailer. I've just finished the book and really enjoyed it. It's about a young couple's decision to begin their marriage by chucking their jobs, buying a sailboat, and taking a long ocean trip. There's lots of romance, times with no romance, some nautical mishaps, new friendships, parties, visits to islands, boat upkeep, writing. This memoir took me into a totally new world, something I value in a memoir. I have never gone sailing, never visited islands, never fished, never spent an extended period of time with any one person let alone my husband. I doubt I will ever do any of those things, but I loved the vicarious experience of joining Janna and Graeme on their long honeymoon journey.

After watching the video, I emailed some questions to the author to find out how she made her trailer. Then I learned that she'd also created a second trailer, this one geared towards book clubs. Take a look.

Here's some of the information Esarey provided about making a book trailer.

1. A friend at Pacific Lutheran University provided the students for the book discussion. Although the discussion was filmed, the raw footage didn't work out. For one thing, a good deal of cutting was necessary. Esarey advises keeping the trailer under 3 minutes. (I've read elsewhere that the average viewer won't hang in much longer than 1 minute.) Another problem was matching footage with audio.

2. So instead of raw footage, Esarey decided to use audio and photos/illustrations.

3. Esarey drew the illustrations by downloading a free drawing software for kids (called Tux Paint). She bought a drawing pen/pad that hooks to her Mac (Bamboo brand about $75). Then she did screen shots (shift + command + 4 on Mac) and was able to save those images and insert them into her video.

4. Her video ended up being a combination of iMovie, iPhoto, and Keynote.

5. She strongly recommended The Book Trailer Blog for more information about book trailers.

6. Here is some of what Esarey suggests you can do with a trailer: post it on your own website, YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites that you belong to. (Red Room and She Writes come to mind.) You can also use it at Amazon. If you want your trailer posted on your book's page, your publisher must submit it. But you can post it on your Amazon author page yourself.

7. Esarey also sent her videos around to bloggers. She said, "I think it's a great way to give people the gist of your work in an appealing, quick format."

Now I'm wondering if any of you poets have made book trailers? Let me know what your experiences have been. You can post in the Comments section or use my email link on my profile page.

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