Advice from a Master

Some years ago I took a master class with the poet Marvin Bell. I’d beennightworks galvanized by an interview I read in American Poetry Review. The interview (not linked) was accompanied by a selection of Bell’s Resurrected Dead Man poems. I was only starting to take myself seriously as a poet—i.e., to give myself permission to call myself one. Many people who write fiction regard poetry as something sacred that they have either failed at or “could never do.” And it’s often the case that a poet has tried to write fiction and was told by some teacher that he or she sucked at it, and wound up writing poetry instead.

And some poets and teachers of poetry have strong feelings about the division of art forms. Bell himself has said that writers of prose and poetry do very different things. Novelists must put stuff in, while poets leave things out.

Yet, here I was, writing stories and piling up pages that I thought might one day turn out to be novels. And here were these poems, or things that might be worked into poems, dropping into the various piles on my desk. Was I supposed to cut them up and flush them down the toilet like unwanted children? Bury them in the backyard in the dark of the moon?

I didn’t think so.

deadmanI found the Dead Man poems and their sequels so exciting because of the way they related to sentences. Every line was a sentence, and every sentence was a line. The narrative drive, the energy gripped me—I paced, I talked to myself on walks in the woods—and yet many of the poems talked about the end of things, they discussed what happened when you emptied (after considerable agony) the possibilities.

An MFA was logistically and financially out of reach, so I promised myself I would take a workshop with Bell if I could find one. I did, at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop.

Some key advice I encountered there, not included below: Examine the strength of the line. If you had to pull a line out of the poem, what would it sound like on its own? Sometimes you need a crappy line just to get to the next one, and sometimes bad sections help the great ones stand out, IMO—a too-polished workshop piece can sometimes be bland. But on the other hand what good are lines like these:

 

or were

 

is to see

 

over and of

 

All from a recent collection of a highly respected American poet (the collection also contains work so stunning I don’t care if he never writes another poem).

Anyway, Bell recently sent me a list of 32 points of advice he likes to give to writers. He says he was asked to write an essay, but he was too lazy and came up with this list instead. I was going to write a blog on an entirely different topic, but I was too lazy. So I’ll post this list instead, with his permission. I may not agree with every point, but this guy has been at this for a long time and has work to his name that I look to again and again. Here’s the core of his philosophy about writing.

 

32 Statements About Writing Poetry

(Work-in-Progress)

1. Every poet is an experimentalist.

2. Learning to write is a simple process: read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else. And show in your writing what you have read.

3. There is no one way to write and no right way to write.

4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.

5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.

6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.

7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.

8. Try to write poems at least one person in the room will hate.

9. The I in the poem is not you but someone who knows a lot about you.

10. Autobiography rots. The life ends, the vision remains.

11. A poem listens to itself as it goes.

12. It’s not what one begins with that matters; it’s the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.

13. Language is subjective and relative, but it also overlaps; get on with it.

14. Every free verse writer must reinvent free verse.

15. Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

16. A short poem need not be small.

17. Rhyme and meter, too, can be experimental.

18. Poetry has content but is not strictly about its contents. A poem containing a tree may not be about a tree.

19. You need nothing more to write poems than bits of string and thread and some dust from under the bed.

20. At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and exhausts them.

21. The penalty for education is self-consciousness. But it is too late for ignorance.

22. What they say "there are no words for"–that’s what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.

24. The dictionary is beautiful; for some poets, it’s enough.

25. Writing poetry is its own reward and needs no certification. Poetry, like water, seeks its own level.

26. A finished poem is also the draft of a later poem.

27. A poet sees the differences between his or her poems but a reader sees the similarities.

28. Poetry is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it’s poetry! On the other, it’s just poetry.

29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.

30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too.

31. This Depression Era jingle could be about writing poetry:

Use it up / wear it out / make it do / or do without.

32. Art is a way of life, not a career.

– Marvin Bell

 

Used by permission.

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Bookshelves as GPS

I was recently on some website reading a post analyzing the future of paper vs e-publishing (probably in relation to the iPad release), and I saw a comment from another reader who implied that the only reason anyone would keep real books around anymore was to show off how smart they were.

I found this amusing because of the reverse echo of Paul Sogge’s witty post on how e-readers would make it hard for people to do this very thing, especially if they wanted to document their social media guru-ship by filling their office shelves with books about Twitter. (I responded to him via Twitter that I could at least read dumb books in public on a Kindle without anyone knowing. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could get a Kindle that would flash smart-sounding titles, like Ulysses, across the back, while you were actually reading Twilight?)

Hardback1 Well, okay. I do sort of think I’m smart. It’s not totally my fault. I was told this from an early age, partly because I was so good at reading. But I’ve also had occasion to doubt myself over the years, and it does look like I’m going downhill. Even if I was smart at some point, I never did get rich, so I don’t have a house with which to show off how brilliant I might be, if I still were.

That is, my library isn’t half as impressive as Neil Gaiman’s.

If exhibitionism were my sole motivation for owning books, I could brag online, via Shelfari, a site that enables users to build virtual bookshelves. So I wouldn’t need to keep actual books around, taking up all my wall space and making it so hard for me to show off my great taste in art, not to mention my exquisite sensibilities regarding vinyl albums.

However, once in a while I have a party, and on those occasions, I do enjoy the spirited conversations that spring up around my books. I’m not sure this is showing off so much as facilitating. In any case, these discussions definitely wouldn’t happen if all I had were lousy little e-reader to pass around like an appetizer.

Years ago, a friend, the Canadian writer and performance artist Susan Scott, told me, “I’d get lost without my bookshelves. When I forgetCherryGeo who I am, I go and stand in front of them.” At that time, she and I were both reading and sharing a lot of spiritual geographies. Memoirs that were tied up with landscape—Teresa Jordan, Gretel Erhlich, Linda Hasselstrom, Kathleen Norris, Wallace Stegner, Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, James Galvin, Sharman Apt Russell, Ivan Doig, Sharon Butala, Terry Tempest Williams, Donald Hall.

Maybe that sounds alien to some people—losing sight of who you are in the heap of stuff you’ve read. But yesterday the New Yorker offered to psychoanalyze photos CherryDictatorsof people’s bookshelves, and I had to post a comment about that. Which shelf should I send a picture of? The one containing books about Russian history?  Arthurian arcana? General mythology? Native American history and religion? Comparative religion and early Christianity? Psychology and brain science? Physics? Children’s literature? Serial killers? Science fiction? Writing advice? American literature? International literature, organized by country? The relationship books? The ones on grief? Poetry?

Long ago, I learned not to go back to graduate school every time I got interested in something new. Though I have often been tempted.

Of course I get lost. Of course I need to stand in front of my shelves to remember who I am. It’s not about how many books are on each shelf, but about the journey each book represents. The period in my life when I was exploring that topic, all the way back to when I was eight and reading everything I could find on woolly mammoths. And Nancy Drew.

Then there are the bookshelves themselves. The ones built in to my study walls—thrown up in a hurry by my brother after a long remodel project when he really needed to be elsewhere. Montana, in fact. These shelves didn’t turn out the way I imagined them, but when I look at them, I remember how hard the two of us worked to make my new house livable after my wrenching divorce, how much I needed my brother’s support, how torn he was because he loved my husband at least as much as he loved me, how much he helped me despite his anger at me, and how tired we both were as we came to the end.

 StudyCorner4   StudyCorner1

And then came the beautiful cherry shelves he installed above the piano in the living room a few years later; the healing between us is evident, at least to me.

LRbooks

There’s the battered old lawyer’s bookcase, which used to be in my grandfather’s study. (I never met that grandfather.) When my alcoholic father died, I inherited the shelves, their glass shClassics1attered years before, a tennis racket, an X-acto Knife, and several rolls of duct tape. Seriously. That’s it. The shelves’ scars, a legacy from my dad, as well as from his father and from his father’s father, speak as loudly as do the contents of the shelves—a  dusty set of Harvard Classics from 1926, the year my father was born.

A rickety oak shelf holds all the seminal books from my childhood, the ones I shared with my son, as well as the ones he refused to hear, which I hold in trust for potential grandchildren.

Finally, there is the absent bookcase, the one my first husband built for me. It was perfectly sized for a wall in the study I loved, in the house I loved, in the town I loved, in the valley I loved, in the life I loved.

It exactly held a certain subset of my scholarly books that fit together in such a way as to represent a certain section of my mind. Perhaps a piece that’s never been whole since that part of my life ended. That shelf now holds the books of my ex-husband’s new wife.

nightstand4So, to the guy who thinks book owners are a bunch of show-offs, I don’t agree that’s fair, or precise. We’re just pretty un-Zen. We find it reassuring to stand in front of our shelves, from time to time, and think, oh, yeah, I remember how it felt to be 20 and studying the Soviet Union, thinking I was going to straighten out communications between our countries. And I remember when I was writing about the Anasazi and thought I would explain what happened to them better than anyone else could. And this is what it felt like when I decided that King Arthur and Jesus Christ were not discoverable as individuals.

Rather than showing anything off, I remind myself again and again of how much I’ve tried to learn, how far short I’ve always fallen, and how much there still is to know.

I’d be lost without my shelves.