To Each Our Own

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

Before ending, (or perhaps the better word is interrupting), this ongoing discussion of voice, which began with a gift from Allen Ginsberg teaching us that to write good poems we had to write bad ones, then lead to my own journey and expanded into a theory about voice in general, it is important to perhaps restate the obvious: namely, that voice is the single most significant source of the poem and the one thing that makes it uniquely and utterly our own. It cannot be duplicated. On the other hand, technique and craft are shared. They are learned. While each of us select what works best for our poem, technique is mechanical; it is device, and therefore, it is known. But voice is unknown. It’s that door opening inside us revealing that place where our soul lives. And given our willingness and commitment to listen, to wait and record, we are rewarded with the soul’s conversation offered up in its unique language, logic, imagery and form.  This is the bedrock and brilliance of the poem. This is the gift

Finally, it is this intimacy between poet and soul that not only gives us the poem and its readers, it is also our antidote for envy—this voice that is our gift, this that we may learn to love, this that makes our own art separate and original and lasting, this like no other.

Words as Art Objects

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

At heart a visual person as well as a lover of words, in addition to a unique and identifiable voice, what most captivates me about a poem is the painterliness of it—the exquisite execution of detail, simple or baroque, Alaska landscape or Persian carpet—and the ways that words connote or carry voice. The right word insists I smell the garbage, the shit, the powder on the baby’s neck, the fire after it’s gone; it releases the vulnerable in me—the shame at the center of my chest, the child—joyful or afraid, the heat in my groin, the old woman carefully dying; and it goes for the forbidden in me—the wolf, the bear, the huge sex of it, the bare teeth. And it is the facile blending of words to make exquisite morsels and the freedom of the psyche to bring forth images that only the underworld understands—this is the gift of the painterly poet—in his or her hands, words are brush and paint: color/pain/rage/sex /joy/food/drool….

I’m drawn as well to the visual power of words—they weave whole tapestries with each. They amplify each other –rendering one another stronger or quieter by their physical proximity—beside, above or beneath.  It’s not surprising then that along the way, I found the physical side of my poems, or better said perhaps, I discovered that place where poetry and visual art merge and words exist as art objects and tools rather than simply as carriers of literal meaning. They are the sculptor’s clay and the arms and legs of the dancer.

Just as Molly helped me to find my poems, this discovery too was set in motion by a mentor. One day over coffee during one of our many conversations about poems, my good friend and poet Baron Wormser asked me what my relationship was to the left margin. I answered simply that that was the place poems started from and returned to. Baron indicated that he felt some poets were left margin poets and others were not—he was and he felt I was not. I recalled that I had used the page and the line differently when I first started to write- starting lines and stanzas in the middle of the page, alternating stanzas from left to right among other things, but I had abandoned those tendencies early on. In my attempt to write an acceptable poem, I corralled its physical as well as its emotional life. In my mind, invention and imagination were restricted to words, images and ideas; form was inherited, its creation completed by the masters who came before us. I simply followed the ‘rules’ already set down for big emotion and blank verse; though my lines were long, they obediently returned to the left margin before taking off again. Baron suggested I disguard convention and explore my own impulses. I felt exhilarated and inspired–like a commandment had been lifted. I could do what I thought I could not. A widely respected poet, a master himself, encouraged me to invent my own art.

As I write this, my relentless dependency on authority figures continues to embarrass me. I would like to have taken those liberties on my own, but I could not. And I am not alone in this. Try as we might to divest ourselves of (or at least firm up) our childhood frailties, they leap to the foreground when we are our most vulnerable, particularly when our lives and loves (people and poems) are threatened. Why didn’t I know that I could invent my own form? Where was it written that the book on form was already closed and complete? Here again, my defenses (in this case, denial) were working to protect me from some wildness I feared would erupt should I let go. At heart, I was still a bad girl hiding her evil or crazy nature. Desperate to be good and to please. Because I was already saying wildly unconventional things in my poems, I needed to house these in more acceptable traditional frames. To have invented on the page as well would have been to leave myself aesthetically out there on a limb completely alone. I did not have the confidence for that. I needed to belong and the more I wrote, the more I felt myself moving into a field of my own. But with Baron beside me, I felt less alone and very much affirmed. Remarkably this had been my experience with Molly—her encouragement the permission I needed to explore dark territory and make poems of subject matter and imagery that often seemed bizarre and even offensive. (I had similar permission in the discovery of my imagination. Reading Gerald Stern and then studying with him opened me up to the delight of play and imagination. This was another magical world that only opened when a mentor said it was safe to go inside—to not be frightened or repelled by my differentness—in fact to revel in it).

After this conversation with Baron, I went back to my poems and blissfully took to the page as canvas on which I painted words—letting the voice and the poem decide their direction and how loud or soft their volume. It was exhilarating this opening up. I was in love with letters and words as physical beings that have shape, size, color and intensity—tallness, fatness, redness—tools that when manipulated could deepen emotion and resonate on multiple levels—conscious and unconscious. Each is its own sculpture that separately and in combination with others becomes the greater structure that is the poem. So too I saw how the length and shape that the lines take all deepen the art– the livingness of the thing. I agreed wholeheartedly with Baron that not all poems are adequately represented by departure from and return to the left margin. I came to understand that the poem has to be allowed to sprawl if it wants to or stand straight and correct in its assertions—its spine more or less prominent in keeping with its emotional and intellectual voyage. For that reason, though I admire them a great deal, formal poems, though rigorous and grand if well executed, seem in dissonance to the stretch of many feelings and experiences. Therein, however, lays the art for the formalist—ordering the chaos.

My aim on the other hand is to embody the feeling in its truest, perhaps roughest, primitive shape or limb, so that the physical reality of the poem reflects and promotes the meaning. For me, poems are dances: live beings standing or moving in broad empty spaces. Each has its own form and distinct identity on the page and as poets, it’s our challenge to discover that.. Whereas my self-protective impulse had initially denied and stifled the voice, then attempted to tame it and eventually to simply tone it down, I now use its physical characteristics to deepen and propel the voice –to slow or accelerate its movement or intensity –through the poem; where successful, it more clearly conveys the voice on the page as I hear it and as I want the reader to hear it.

Carried even further, even our sense of the page as canvas for words comes into question. Imagine ‘Leaves of Grass’ or ‘Howl’ written without the imposed boundary of paper size that fits in a book and must stand on a shelf. I like to daydream about long sheaves of parchment rolled and tied with leather string lounging on broad shelves or tables or hanging on walls–size and shape again determined by the stretch and reach of the poem and the voice calling from inside it.

Sabotaging Voice

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

Little wonder we poets have our own writing defenses— ways of subverting or otherwise muting the voice. The most obvious of course is the block. The voice refusing to speak. The soul refusing to speak. Blocks, like psychological defenses, offer places where the soul can heal or hide as it needs to, as all souls must. (Yet not all blocks stem from perceived danger, some stem from the soul’s involvement in other fields. Others may indicate that the soul has nothing to say; having emptied itself out, it needs time to collect its thoughts before refocusing.) Next is the poet’s careful selection of what may be said—what topics may be taken on in the poem and what can be said about them. Because so much of who we are is emotion, and so many feelings tend not to be trusted—we are tempted to avoid them and make art that is clever, artful, even painterly perhaps, but not honest. The paradox then is that we write because we have something to say, but our fear of exposure is so great that it stops us from writing. One solution is to disguise the truth as fantasy; less successful is writing lifeless things. The result may satisfy the poet’s internal censors, but because the poet takes no risks, the reader is not moved. The poem that results is less than the language and overwhelmed by technique. When the soul is missing from the poem, the voice is missing and when voice is missing, I believe we have no poem, just a clever collection of words.

Each of us has our own idiosyncratic ways of subverting voice which closely resemble the defenses we use in our everyday emotional lives. For the most part, these defenses are unconscious. They have been so incorporated into our personality that they function on their own, and only a very careful study of our own psyche brings them into focus. Examples are avoidance, denial and repression all of which involve ‘forgetting’ and dismissal of certain feelings and experiences; they simply do not exist. Intellectualization involves the use of reason to explain away emotions. Compartmentalization is the tendency to view parts of the psyche as isolated and without influence or interaction. Hysteria involves elaborate exploration of every nuance of a feeling or experience and the tendency to give all equal weight so that the distinction between what is important and what is not is lost.

In my own case, my defense pattern is a combination of intellectualization and hysteria. My impulse is to overwrite or to write around a topic rather than hitting it head on. Though I concluded that I was/am inarticulate, I believe this ‘muddy’ writing is less a problem with language and more likely related to not knowing myself what I really mean. I need not to know. When I catch myself saying or thinking something ‘bad’ or questionable, my immediate self-protective response is to glaze over or get lost in lesser details thus extinguishing the original thought. The voice gets bogged down with vague approximations of the truth.

To complicate things, and now I am speaking of all of us, it’s the unspoken, the part that has been so inhibited, that has in its imprisonment, greatest energy. Silenced for so long, it has much to say. It is this drive toward speech that necessitates, even demands the poem and informs the voice. In fact, it is the voice.

This war between silence and speech will be waged to a greater or lesser extent in all of our poems. In my own case, saying more than the subject requires or using too much detail can make it difficult for the reader to locate the focus of the poem. Sometimes I think of it as the voice screaming. Finally let out, it rushes to say everything for fear of the next silence. The challenge for me then is to aspire towards that fine line where I let the voice pour out but not so much as to drown itself and the reader. On the other hand, since I often err on the side of saying more, in my impulse to be more acceptable—which for me means spare and stark as opposed to conversational– to correct for that seeming messiness, I often carve the life out of the voice.  I make my wished-for small stark poems, and, in so doing, ‘create’ flat dead poems.  The finest small poems are meant to enliven a particular detail, but mine amount to short-circuiting a process. The truth is that my natural voice, in keeping with my personality, is vociferous, and my aesthetic project is to follow the emotional and psychological patterns of experience and that involves many steps and a lot of detail. Since my goal is charting process, much as I long for it, summary is not enough.

My eventual solution to the battle between saying too much and saying too little goes back to my uncensored writing. I explore every tributary or image that comes to me, and then I leave the poem alone. I have no idea where that fine line is… what’s too little or too much until I let the emotion cool off and I come back to the poem and reenter it. At that point, with the advantage of distance, the more essential elements of the poem will usually call out to me.

Pursuing this discussion still further, it follows that if voice is the soul’s utterances, then literature resides in that place where language and form are in harmony with the voice. The voice chooses the language and the form. It knows what it has to say and how it wants to say it. So language and line, form and syntax all serve to advance the soul’s message. Because some voices are loud, celebrant, some histrionic, others pensive, reserved, each need different venues—paragraphs, lines, language, tone. Lines will loosen, tighten, language will become more muscular, more relaxed depending on the emotion expressed. Typically, the quieter, more reserved the voice, the tighter the language, the shorter the line. The more expansive, bountiful, angry… the more the line will have to stretch out and oftentimes the language will have to loosen to accommodate the feeling—huge as it is. So too with the choice of form—poetry or prose—narrative or lyric, formal or free verse. The art we strive for is a seamless one—where the frame or craft serves and enhances the art without drawing attention to itself as artifact. So too with prose. Just as the soul, the face and the finger-print are each unique so too is our way of relating a story and unfolding a character or series of characters.

Voice

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

As critical as voice is to our poems, few talk about it—what it is, how we ‘find’ it, what interferes with or enhances it–this elusive thing we can’t make art without.

It is my contention that voice is the soul of the artist speaking. Initially unconscious and as unique as the internal private terrain of each person, voice is an amalgam of all the verbal and preverbal experience—conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational –of the writer. In a sense, a door opens inside the writer revealing that place where the soul lives. That door opens and the soul slips out. Voice is the soul of all art.

(When I speak of voice, though, I am not suggesting that it is singular—that each of us has but one voice that chants for or from all parts of the soul; rather I’m referring to the whole orchestra of voices—generations of voices we’ve known, listened to, assimilated and or rejected).

But much of what the soul has to say is strange and forbidden, therefore threatening. What we fear most is censure. Our impulse is to hide –to protect ourselves in the poem in much the same way we do in our everyday lives.  But to the extent that we are successful in sabotaging the voice, we’ve sacrificed the poem or story. Problems of voice erupt when this need to conceal is greater than the need to speak.

Essentially, the freeing of voice is synonymous with the freeing of the person. For the poet to speak, she must have available to her all the rooms in which she lives. She must have access– not necessarily understanding. In fact, given the intricacies of the psyche, understanding will always be tentative and incomplete. But poems are about discovery. The greater the discovery, the stronger the poem. But the challenge to this discovery is, as discussed earlier, is the terror of what will be revealed Though not all writers come from the same restrictive terrain that I do, we all walk around with censors inside that dictate what is acceptable and what is not. Each time we write a poem, we risk discovering something bizarre and/or distasteful about ourselves, and the reality of that constitutes a significant threat. (That being said, the threat of the poem is far greater than the threat of personal discovery. In our own lives, we apprehend ourselves all the time and to the extent that we are psychologically aware of the workings of our unconscious, we decode its messages. All of this happens privately and for the most part remains so. Not so in a poem. Each time we write, we risk making public some strangeness that in our everyday lives we strive to deny even from ourselves. The challenge of the poem then may well be greater than that of even therapy. Or confession.  In these, we reveal to ourselves and one other what we do not want to know; in the poem, we open it up to the world.)

A Mentor

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

A friend told me about Molly Peacock whose work I greatly admired—she took private students and was very supportive without sacrificing the rigors of art. She could teach you to find your own poems without soliciting clones to mimic hers. You could grow as a writer without being decimated emotionally. She liked my work and valued my subject matter. She accepted me as a student and became my life raft.

Molly challenged me. Rather than protecting me from the poem—she urged me towards it. When I went for safety, she probed further and pushed me to fly wilder. When I said I couldn’t, she insisted I must. She laughingly accused me of always trying to cover my bra straps in public. She insisted I let them show. When I revised weirdnesses of thought or language out of a poem, she insisted I put them back in. My constant pull between acceptance and convention on the one hand and imagination and independence on the other were always at the center of our sessions. Molly gave me the courage to delve deeper and explore even darker terrains. I wrote poems filled with rage and celebration, poems about pain and illness, poems in which I railed against the Church, the nuns, of all things, God. I wrote poems that appalled me and poems that amazed me.  But this time I wasn’t alone with them. I had found a home and a parent/mentor: a godmother for my poems.

But still I struggled. I started to study my own process and that of other writers. Most of my friends knew that they were gifted but were frustrated by the lack of appreciation that came from the literary community. I, on the other hand, was aware that even with Molly’s belief in me, and that of my poet friends, along with considerable success in several competitions, I was still full of shame when I viewed my own work. I did not know what was good about it, and I was plagued by envy. I wanted to write more like my friends–smart, intelligent, dense small poems—so I continued to try to clean up the mess in each new one.

I continued to work with Molly, continued to discover, to write, to send work out, and to pray for approval. I suffered. I wanted to belong, but I knew that to belong I needed to value my own creation. Alan, again, at a crossroads, recognizing how deeply unhappy I was, encouraged me to find what it was about writing that made me happy. He was right once again; I had lost (or perhaps never really had) the sense of pleasure associated with writing, so I went back into therapy but this time twice a week.

I began to zero in more intensively on voice–what it is, what inhibits it, what heightens it, what mutes it. I proposed a definition, proposed it as the single most independent and original aspect of the gift of art. I explored my own –what I approved of, what I disapproved of. I used what I was learning to teach other writers to explore their own.

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