Friday, March 27, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Stanley Kunitz

I was surprised to find that I haven't chosen something by Stanley Kunitz as a Poem for the Weekend yet. I did blog about one of my favorite poems by him here. Kunitz attended Harvard, served in the Army during WWII, taught at several preeminent U.S. universities, and won oodles of awards for his poetry. He was named Poet Laureate in 2000, and died in 2006 at the age of 100. You can watch Mr. Kunitz read one of his poems here.

How Long is the Night

by Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)

On the anvil of love my flesh has been hammered out.
Indifferent, in the indifferent air,
I circulate and suck the star-space in.
No one is dear to me now,
Leastly myself that sickened in the night.
I would abandon this loose bag of bones
And walk between the world's great wounds, unpitying.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Be the Sponge


I’ve been lecturing, I mean, um, working with one of our kids lately. The kid who got a bad grade in math even though he’s actually quite brilliant with numbers. The one who’d rather be working on his YouTube trick shot videos than sitting down with an Algebra equation. How can x and y compete with a ping pong ball ricocheting from three surfaces before sliding into a discarded Pringles tube? They can’t and yet, they must.

So we sit down together, night after night, and do homework. Sometimes I bring a glass of wine, which is actually not recommended. And I tell the aspiring filmmaker: It’s not a matter of spending hours and hours. It’s a matter of focus. You’re going to have to think about the math while you’re doing the math. And in class when the teacher is talking, you’re going to have to listen to what she’s saying. So many things in life depend on controlling your own mind, I tell him, starting to feel very life-coachy. This is probably the most important skill you can learn, I say. It’ll help you with work, with your happiness, with relationships. But for now, you must pass 7th grade math. Sometimes you have to be a sponge, and sometimes you have to be a laser.

He stares blankly at me, as adolescents tend to do, planning how he’ll get a wiffle ball thrown from our roof to land in a bucket across the street. While he’s filming it. He may also be picturing my own forehead as a prop in a trick shot involving a pool ball.

But I’ve been thinking about my Ghandi-esque pronouncement. Be the sponge. And then, be the laser. And it seems to me that my own working life teeter-totters from one of these to the other. Sometimes, I need to shut down the computer/phone/mindclutter and be the sponge. Actually notice things. Listen. Watch. Take notes. And sometimes, I need to shut down the computer/phone/mindclutter and force myself to put out a laser beam of production. In my case, to write something. It isn’t easy but I can tell you that in comparison, I’d rather be doing what I do than 7th grade math, which is just as exasperating as I remember it to be. Only don’t tell him I said so.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Lyn Lifshin


Last weekend at the Tuscon Festival of Books, a nice woman handed me a small green card. It's a Pocket Poem, in celebration of National Poetry Month, which is April. There is an actual "Poem in Your Pocket Day," initiated in 2002 in New York City but adopted by the Academy of American Poets in 2008. This year it falls on April 30th and all lovers of poetry are encouraged to print one of your favorite poems onto business cards and pass them around to anyone you see. Or do it any time during April, or even before, as was done to me. And you can share your poem on twitter with #pocketpoem.

So. The poem on the card I received is by Lyn Lifshin, a prolific contemporary poet who has published over 100 books and chapbooks of poetry. More about her here.

Light From This Turning

by Lyn Lifshin

I have lost touch with
distant trees,
the wind you brought
in your hair
and lilac hills

Something different
bites into the river
and the river of lost days
floats over my tongue

Love, you are like that
distant water, pulling
and twisting
you turn me

apart from myself
like some frightening road,
something I don't want
to know

Still, let my
hair float slow through
this new color,
let my eyes absorb
all light

from this turning
that has brought us
here, has carried us
to where we are,
we are

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Genevieve Kaplan

This week, I went looking for some very contemporary poets. I found lots of good stuff, bookmarked a few journals that were new to me, and this was the poem that brought me back, again and again. You can read more about Genevieve Kaplan at her blog, The Forest and The Trees.

It is so sweet this sugar, the sugar

By Genevieve Kaplan

and it meant something and it meant something to me
soothing in the springtime though the seeds eaten

and it meant something and it meant something, something
in the springtime, through the seeds, prowling out of the night time
windows open, sash ajar, novices out (outshone) the bars, the slats
not as far away as we would like. soft (no). a hiss
to the monument of dusk coming quickly. how ought
I introduce it? how might it to me? soft time of the world, soft
hour of the hard night

Friday, March 6, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Jean Follain


Before he was a poet, Jean Follain was a lawyer and then, a judge. He grew up in the small town of Canisy, France, and spent his adult years in Paris. A short biography is here.

Dogs and Schoolboys

by Jean Follain (1903-1971)

The schoolboys crack the ice for fun
Along the path
Beside the railway tracks
They are warmly clothed
In old dark wool
With belts of polished leather
The dog that follows them
No longer has a bowl to eat from
He’s old
Since he’s their age.
And in his native French:
Chien aux écoliers
Les écoliers par jeu brisent la glace
dans un sentier
près du chemin de fer
on les a lourdement habillés
d’anciens lainages sombres
et ceinturés de cuirs fourbus
le chien qui les suit
n’a plus d’écuelle où manger tard
il est vieux
car il a leur age.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Writers: Let Go of that Can Do Attitude (for a while)

Years ago, I developed allergies. I had all the classic symptoms: occasional runny nose and itchy eyes, sneezing and congestion. My ears often felt plugged up and once in a while, I’d come down with a sinus infection. I became very preoccupied with eliminating this nuisance from my life. I tried different allergy medications and decongestants. I used a Neti pot (when I remembered). Nothing improved; if anything, it got worse. I was constantly assessing my sinus situation, constantly trying to reach a state of normal. Finally, I made an appointment with an allergist, to start having the allergy shots that seemed to help lots of people. She ran a whole panel of tests, made pinpricks on my back to see what type of allergies we were dealing with. And she found out that I was allergic to…nothing. Not pollen or grass, not pet dander or wool. Nothing.
Things continued. I waged my war, unconvinced and still suffering. I saw an ear-nose-throat doctor. His conclusion: slightly deviated septum and “sensitive sinuses.” In the same way that just about anybody will sneeze in a dusty attic, my nose tended to flare up in response to certain things. It was overactive, that was all. This doctor gave me a prescription for a very expensive nasal spray, a steroid, and for a while, I tried it. Then something shifted. I decided to quit trying to eradicate the thing and just live with it. And all these years later, my ears still crack when I swallow and I’m usually in some state of congestion. I do use the Neti pot (when I remember), and I occasionally take something if I feel a bad session coming on, or if I’m getting on an airplane. But I don’t think about it, hardly at all, and the symptoms are a mere fraction of what they were when I was attacking and treating them.
I wrote most of a short story last week, then immediately hated it. It seemed that my jumping-off point was a bit gimmicky, and I couldn’t remember the point of it, couldn’t figure out, really, what it was about. There were some good bits, but so much of it was insipid and it didn’t have the eerie tone I was hoping for. I beat myself up for it for a few days, then decided to scrap the whole thing.
Today, I was listening to a podcast while running. It was about the ways we love and one of the segments featured the author of Mating in Captivity. She was talking about the enigma of modern marriage, the way we have expanded the requirements for a partner from simply societal identity and species continuation to the metaphysical and emotional. We expect our partners to be our best friends, to fulfill all aspects of our desires, to be adventurous and stable, passionate and loyal, basically—to be everything to us. And that’s a tall order. The author talked about this in the context of the American “Can Do” ideology. We tend to be a culture of problem solvers. And sometimes, she said, we need to learn to live with paradoxes rather than trying to solve them.
And it occurred to me: this is what I was doing with that story. In my immediate rush to fix it, to solve it, to make it everything at once, I wasn’t being realistic. Maybe it was like my non-existent allergies: I just needed to learn to live with it, accept its imperfections and all of the ways it pains me. Like a partner, I can’t expect it to be all things. This is a constant fear for writers, wondering if you’ll know when something should be salvaged or scrapped, knowing that you’ll never completely cure the ills of any project. But I think only when you stop and let the thing exist, warts and all, can you start to look at it with any sort of calm. If you set aside that “Can Do” mentality and have some patience, then maybe the flaws you’re seeing won’t be as overwhelming as you think, maybe you can find your way to a path you can live with. You’ll still want to fix some things of course, only not all at once. Sometimes it’s good to shut down that problem-solving tendency, to stop looking for cures or complete fixes. Sometimes it’s okay to let a paradox be a paradox for a while.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka