Monday, July 21, 2014

The Poet on the Poem: Alessandra Lynch

I am pleased to feature Alessandra Lynch in The Poet on the Poem. I found her poem, "Magnolia," in 32 Poems and was immediately captivated by it. I then tracked down the poet and she generously agreed to participate in the following Q&A.

Alessandra Lynch is the author of two collections of poetry: Sails the Wind Left Behind, winner of Alice James Books’ New York/New England prize, and It was a terrible cloud at twilight, winner of Pleiades Press’ Lena-Miles Wever Todd Award, judged by James Richardson. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and MacDowell, and she was a recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Award. Her poems have appeared in numerous poetry journals, including The American Poetry Review, Blackbird, The Cortland Review, Crazyhorse, The Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Volt. She teaches in the undergraduate and MFA programs at Butler University and lives near an Indianapolisian canal with her husband poet, Chris Forhan, and their two sons, Milo and Oliver.

Alessandra's most recent poetry book is It was a terrible cloud at twilight.
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A wedding broke out in the magnolia—
                          fever of white gloves, distressed wind.

The bells hung upside down. They’d choked
on their own tongues.
                                  Hung too, on unspeaking terms
with the air, I acknowledged the impasse--
                                  I wore a dress of paralysis.

Then all her little white dresses lifted as one—
                                 as though on signal—a four year old
                                               girl tilting up her own dress in the living room, opening up
                                               like an umbrella to her mother’s lover, her face, god I can’t
                                               even imagine it, sweet and cold, methodical, desperate,
trying to woo him—.
                                  Maybe I don’t want

a voice at all.  All this mouthing in the magnolia--
thin cries
                         —too delicate
                                                to tend.

I think of a sea and its glistening foams and cascades hundreds of miles off
and its whales’ limbic thudding through water, their intelligent eyes
bright with salt.
                        Rushed wind…
                                     White  rushing petals…
                                                                          the ransacked

DS: What ignited this poem? How did you get from the tree to the opening metaphor?

AL: When I write poetry, I work associatively (and swiftly)—through image and sound. I never  know what will arise from my tapping into language and tinkering with images. I read every draft obsessively to heed the music. I never analyze what I’m doing until the very “last” drafts, or until someone asks me to analyze my work (a la Blogalicious!—I’ve learned much about my own poem through your questions). In this way, I feel I can trust that what appears on the page is coming from a deeper, more surprising place—the realm of poetry—than what my conscious mind alone might conjure.

Living just outside my bedroom window, there is a magnolia tree that blooms yearly—roughly five days’ worth of luminous white blossoms (at times they appear to be floating on air, detached from the branches). It grows so close to my window that it seems to be pressing into the room.  Its leaves are dark green and shiny. I have had intimate views of yellow finches among its branches. One year, a robin built her nest in it, and I watched her fledglings hatch there. Magnolias have been around since the time of the dinosaurs and zillions of years before bees!

This magnolia is a tree I adore, a tree I turn to when I am despondent, a tree I marvel over for its leaves’ depth of glossy green, its supple blossoms’ ghostly glow. One day, I began marveling over how the blossoms looked like thin white gloves, the whole tree like a wedding party or a bride of sorts—hence, the “wedding” metaphor in the poem. I felt distress in the tree, too, for a number of possible reasons: the wind was harrying them, magnolia blossoms last briefly, and my associations with “wedding” are based mainly on my experience as a child of my parents’ harrowing divorce.

The verb “broke out” and the “fever of white gloves” suggest contagion and agitation. The bells image furthers the wedding motif, and bells “hung upside down” echoes the shape of blossoms; but these are bells that can’t express themselves, muted by their own nature. The magnolia has no voice or mode of “self-expression,” other than the quick change of blossoms to leaves to stark branches. The bells “choking on their tongues” could lead associatively to the speaker’s poor relationship with life or air—the essential element in the world that keeps us alive and enables us to speak.  “The impasse” then has to do with lack of communication or blocked communication as in the bells and the speaker. This “impasse” is further embodied by the sibilant sequence—it underscores the “impasse” by keeping the reader stuck in that one hissing sound (perhaps spawned by the word “unspeaking”).

I think now of Robert Lowell’s marriage poem “Man and Wife” (pointing directly to problems in a marriage) and Gerald Stern’s “Magnolia,” in which there is a rather makeshift wedding depicted (“two tin buckets / of blossoms waiting for us”). I don’t know if those other poets’ poems rose through my blood on that day of looking, or maybe the magnolia tree inherently inspires such a connection to weddings or marriages—the blast of rich, voluptuous white, the heartbreakingly short-lived blossoms.

DL: I’m intrigued by your metaphor, “I wore a dress of paralysis.” Tell us about this metaphor and the surprising shift from the dress to the four-year-old girl and then to the whales.

AL: Perhaps “dress of paralysis”  arose from the initial wedding metaphor—with its “white gloves,” but it also embodies the speaker’s inability to express, to break out of the “impasse” and to move words and/or life forth…. Still, it is a dress, and the implication could be that there is a vital, active life/female body encased by that dress. Perhaps this type of dress is a protective one. Don your “dress of paralysis” and you don’t have to speak and make yourself vulnerable. I believe that often we remain silent out of some kind of terror. I also think of how immobile trees can appear to be—almost paralyzed—when actually they are constantly in motion.

“All her little white dresses lifted as one” could bespeak magnolia petals upwardly blowing, opening a space or door into memory, expressing some kind of vulnerability—I feel the line as mysterious and ghostly. This line might have been triggered by “I wore a dress of paralysis” not only through the dress-image association but also through the psychological effect of an insight opening a door. This part of the poem becomes rather “chunky” typographically as there is an “opening up” or confessional quality to the language. That scene of the little girl flirting with her mother’s lover (the earlier “distressed wind” being part of the wedding could connect to this scene), and the various, complicated expressions on her face in the doing, ignite the speaker’s own desperation about voicing herself, which possibly opens her up to pain. Vulnerability is intrinsic to self-expression. The girl’s “tilting up her own dress” is a voiceless communication, a plea borne of a complex situation having to do with need and confusion…

The statement of not wanting “a voice at all” feels as though it solidifies a nascent theme of disconnection in this poem. Another nascent theme is surrender—surrender both as giving up and as releasing (uttering). “All this mouthing in the magnolia” could allude to the various metaphors speaking throughout the poem, as well as the blossoms and leaves of the tree which, to this writer, are some of the tree’s “mouths.”

The shift in the poem to the sea and its “glistening foams and cascades” is the speaker’s way of contending with the enormous responsibility and ensuing futility expressed in “too delicate to tend.” Thus, the speaker-poet adjusts her focus to the sea—a new association she has with the magnolia blossoms: the foams and cascades—the realm of whales? The speaker (and reader?) might find respite and comfort at this point in the poem in the beauty and power and distance of the sea and the whales. The enormous undersea beauty might counteract the speaker’s feelings of fracture, might wash away painful memories, but—alas!—the wind lives everywhere—land and sea—and a “rushed wind” makes not only the “foams and cascades” of the sea but also those of the magnolia tree; and here it disrupts this lulling sea-rhapsody, returning the speaker and the poem to the tree and its “fever of white gloves.”

DL: The sounds in your poem are lovely and subtle. For example, in stanza 2, you have “hung” and its repetition, “tongues,” and “unspeaking.” In stanza 3, you have “impasse,” “dress,” and “paralysis.” How deliberate was your use of assonance and consonance?

AL: My first drafts tend to be rife with imagery and music—it’s how my mind works, it’s how I’ve always invoked my poems. There’s nothing particularly deliberate about it—all of it’s unbidden. The music in language is visceral and mysterious and the truest mode of expression I know. All those sound sequences arose as I wrote the initial draft and remained throughout the drafting process. I probably had many other moments of music that weren’t as charged or intrinsic to the piece that I left behind on the cutting room floor (after doffing my hat to the work those lyrical passages helped me do). The music in language leads my mind, and I try my best to follow it and to recognize when the music is intrinsic to the image and to the emotional root of the poem versus when the music is decorative or just music for music’s sake (though, at times, poems need moments of the latter too).

DL: What is the function of your poem’s form? At what point in the drafting did you incorporate the indentations?

AL: Fairly early in the drafting (possibly the second draft), I began indenting (without consciously thinking about why or how—it just helped me feel a certain energy or life on the page). Now I see that I was probably following the feeling of agitation and augmenting the motif of air through the spaces.  The indentations could also embody the expansion and contraction of breath in a distressed state or the structure or design of how magnolia blossoms appear on each branch. In earlier drafts, the indentation was more erratic and perhaps a bit melodramatic.

DL: In the closing stanza, with its three quick images, you return to the wind of the first stanza. Why that circling back? What made you decide to put the word “air” on its own line flush to the left margin?

AL: I guess that, ultimately, the speaker-poet did want to tend to the magnolia’s thin cries—on some level, I might have wanted to keep the magnolia and all that it represents alive to the reader. And, in so doing, I continued to give voice to those tongue-choked bells, that speaker in her dress of paralysis, the child who lacked language for all she was experiencing.  Maybe the speaker-poet was compelled (however unwittingly) to continue facing the manifestations of her current distress, inasmuch as she swerved off to marvel over the whales. “Their intelligent eyes” could see what she was doing by swerving away from the magnolia! But in swerving, she dropped into the sea, realm of the unconscious, realm of deep inner truths.  Maybe those eyes were the catalyst for her to return and confront her own pain and bewilderment again for a truer catharsis.  

In terms of the last few breaths of the poem, I kept fiddling with the placement of “air” before deciding to keep it flush to the left margin. I wanted the feeling of “ransacking” to reverberate with all the other elements of the poem before settling on “air”—also, rhythmically, it felt too abrupt to have “air” on the same line as “ransacking”—and there was a sort of abandoned or neglected or stifled feeling I think I conveyed by isolating “air” in its own corner.

Ultimately, my writing process—including decisions about spacing and line breaks—is guided by intuition, certainly not a whole lot of consciousness or deliberation (those I reserve for writing other than poetry). These answers to your questions record notions that either came to me after the fact of writing or half-consciously guided me in the making of “Magnolia.” As Theodore Roethke says, “We think by feeling. What is there to know?”

Readers, please enjoy this recording of Alessandra Lynch reading her poem, "Magnolia."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Revision: Making Persian Carpets Out of Poems

My July 1 Poetry Newsletter included a wonderful Craft Tip contributed by Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen. Entitled “Sometimes, Beware the Good Poem,” the piece cautions against over-revising a poem.

Guilty! At least sometimes. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the poem really isn’t good and I’m trying to put lipstick on it when I should just murder it and put it out of its misery. Sometimes the poem is good, but that’s all it is and I’m trying too hard to achieve greatness. Sometimes the poem is good, maybe even really good, one of my better ones, but it came so easily that I don’t trust it, so I give it a good beating. Sometimes I’m just stalling getting back to the blank page and beginning the next poem.

Allen calls over-revision “one of the greatest sins of contemporary poetry writing” and blames the sin on our “listening overly hard to suggestions from a mentor or other participants in a poetry workshop.” He issues this warning: “Over-revision tends to tamp down a poem, to suck out its life, to leave in it too little of its original passion.” And lest we be overly concerned with perfection, he reminds us that “legendary Persian carpets purposely contain an errant thread.”

Allen’s words clearly resonated with my newsletter subscribers, a number of whom wrote to tell me how good it was to read those words.

And yet shortly after the newsletter went out, I happened upon this from Stephen Dunn:

I'm an inveterate reviser. I'm just always doing that. In my lifetime, there have been a handful of poems that have been finished without much revision, but only a handful. I often go to Yaddo or McDowell in the summers and tend to generate a lot of work without worrying about completing it. Then I spend the next year refining those poems and getting them in shape. A fairly new experience that I’ve been having is revision as expansion. Most of us know about revision as an act of paring down. Several years ago, in looking at my work, I saw that I was kind of a page or page and a half kind of poet, which meant that I was thinking of closure around the same time in every poem. I started to confound that habit. By mid-poem, I might add a detail that the poem couldn't yet accommodate. That's especially proven to be an interesting and useful way of revising poems that seem too slight or thin; to add something, put an obstacle in. The artificial as another way to arrive at the genuine—an old story, really.
                                   —from an interview in The Pedestal Magazine, issue 41, 2007

This also strikes me as good advice and not at all contradictory. We've all sucked the life out of some poems, but haven’t we all also written the poem that quit too soon? Haven’t we all abandoned a poem without ever having worked hard enough on it to discover its real potential, its real subject? Haven’t we gone in fear of obstacles?

And then we hear so much about compression, about reducing clutter, cutting out details, getting rid of this and that. How many times have you been told that “less is more”? So when someone tells us to add more, to expand, to keep going, we might be hesitant to pay attention.

But we should pay attention. We don’t want to kill a poem, but we also don’t want to fail to give it life.

The March Poetry Newsletter included Fleda Brown’s Craft Tip, “Putting Obstructions Along Your Poem’s Path.” Brown offers a number of terrific and specific suggestions for getting your poem to its full potential. Suggestion #3 has been useful to me:

Once you have something going, some inclination in a poem, pick a book of someone else’s poems. Choose a book whose poems draw you at the moment. Go through it and make a list of more than a dozen words that appeal to you. Make yourself use them in your poem. Since you already have your mind on the poem, the words you choose will magically relate, one way or the other.

What else can we do to “arrive at the genuine,” that is, to discover the poem’s potential?

Here are some strategies that I’ve found useful during revision:

1. Instead of taking the ten words out of an entire book, take them out of a single poem, one that has strong diction. Then plug those words into your own draft. Expand / revise as needed.

2. Find the lifeless part or parts. Open up space there and keep on writing. Freewriting can occur at any time during drafting and revising.

3. Go into the right margin of your draft and find 3 places where you could insert a negative statement.

4. Go into the right margin and write some kind of response to each line, perhaps its opposite, perhaps a question.

5. Go metaphor crazy. Add 10 metaphors or similes to the poem. Keep the keepers.

6. When you have several drafts and feel that the poem is getting close to done, experiment with stanza breaks. This will expose weak spots as well as unnecessary repetitions and excessive verbiage. Break the poem into quatrains. Then break it into 3-line stanzas, then 2. Don’t do this early in the drafting as it may incline you to write and revise to fit the form. Save until the end so that you find the form that fits the poem.

Then ask yourself, Have I left in the errant thread? And consider leaving it there.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Crafty Poet: Group Reading 3

On Sunday, June 22, a group of contributors to The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop gathered at the Bernardsville Public Library for a group reading and discussion of the book. I consider myself very fortunate to have had three group readings for the book, each of them well attended, each of them a lot of fun. I also consider myself very fortunate that so many of my contributors have been willing and happy to travel a distance and give up a day in order to participate. I thank them!
The book from which we read
Me welcoming the audience and then discussing my Craft Tip, "Finding the Right Words"
Ann DeVenezia reading her sample poem, "Waiting for My Friend," and discussing
the model poem and prompt which led to her poem
Susanna Rich reading her 3 sample poems, "Radish," "The Snake Milker's Daughter," 
and "Gassing Up in New Jersey
Tina Kelley reading her sample poems, "My Man, the Green Man" 
and "To the Inarticulate Man Who Tries"
Michael T. Young reading his sample poem, "Advice from a Bat," a poem based on the prompt
for Amy Gerstler's "Advice from a Caterpillar"
Joel Allegretti reading his sample acrostic poem, "In a Station"
Gail Fishman Gerwin reading her sample acrostic poem, "Rosebuds Ungathered," and then "Behold"
Ken Ronkowitz reading his sample poem, "Carpe Diem," and discussing
the role of cliches in the poem
Adele Kenny discussing her Craft Tip, "Petals on a Wet, Black Bough," 
and later her model poem, "Snake Lady"
Wanda Praisner reading her sample poem, "After Love"
Charlotte Mandel reading her sample poem, "Flood Washed," a poem
modeled on one by Stanley Plumly
Basil Rouskas reading his sample poem, "Scents of Summer,"
a poem which relies on the sense of smell
Antoinette Libro reading her sample poem, "Baggage"
Following the reading, we had a reception at which cookies were served and eaten.
The audience joined us and engaged in some conversation with the poets.
The S'Mores I made completely disappeared.
It was a delicious day!

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