September 20, 2011

Making a Book of Poems

Sequences and Consequences

I'm fascinated by stories about books and how they come together. I wanted to share my own experience; maybe it might help other writers articulate their own process. My main goal at the beginning of a new book is to not be controlling, but to let individual poems emerge and then stack them for later review. I share them with a few friends to get feedback, revise, and return them to the stack.

Nine months into this process, I took out my notebook and looked for poems that were related by image or theme and arranged them into a sequence or set as if I were going to present them at a reading or performance. This chapbook size (chapbooks are about 20-30 pages) sequence is the building block of a full size manuscript (a poetry manuscript is about 60-100 pages in length).

There are some guides available about assembling a poetry manuscript. Ordering the Storm by Susan Grimm offers several essays from various writers about their methods.  Of course, what works for one writer will not work for another. The best guide for the form of your book is careful examination of the poems inside -- you must listen to the work.  

After developing a sequence of poems, I notice repeated words and images. Revising begins. I consider poems' relation to each other. I find a good opening poem. Like the first sentence or paragraph of any book, the opening should be interesting and have a hook. It introduces the reader to your themes or preoccupations. The last poem should be satisfying. In between, if it's a narrative, a rising and falling arc. The work needs an overall title. 

While in this stage of the process, I maintain the daily writing practice. In addition to the journal, I start writing about the process of assembling the new manuscript. Writing is not merely a process of recording thoughts; it is a path of discovery. New things will occur to you while writing that would not occur otherwise. 

In addition, I collect my current favorite poems and poets, fiction, nonfiction, visual art, music, and objects. If I find a book I love, I keep it.  I read and reread it, examining how it is assembled: as if it were a garment, I consider the fabric, the cut, the seams, the finishing. I will do this with individual poems. I will read the poems aloud often and hand copy them in order to run them through my hand, in order to personally experience the words, the line breaks, the stanzas, everything.   

These collected works form a constellation of influences over my own new work. I look for patterns and stories in the constellation. This is the time when I write ekphrastic poems (poems in response to visual art). My book Echo and Lightning was somewhat influenced by a painting by Emily Carr that hung in my studio. I work on poems that respond to the other works, that create a dialogue, pay homage or explore a form or an image. This might be called research and development.

One of the ways I further develop a manuscript is to explore memory, myth, and music.  Memory both personal and communal, historical. This is a consideration of roots. By writing in this direction, I deepen the work and find ways to connect it to family and historical events.  Next, I consider cultural or mythic stories to find resonating patterns. This is the opposite of roots. It's a reaching outward. Religious stories and archetypal patterns are powerful forms; if you connect to them, your work will extend farther. Christianity, Greek myth, Nordic myth, the Kalevala (epic poem of Finland), and archetypes explored by Carl Jung and others might be part of your consciousness. I consider runes, the I-Ching, and Tarot cards for their archetypal images. Often times I write poems that connect with these larger patterns.

The work I do in this process might end up in the manuscript or it might not. There can never be any expectations of new work; it must find its own direction and form. My job is keep experimenting, playing, feeding the work, enriching the ground and the environment.

Preoccupations arrive. For instance, during the making of the last book, Cloud Birds, bears began to visit. In one summer, I encountered no less than seven bears. Because of a childhood terror of bears, I was faced with managing my anxiety. In order to overcome my fear, I decided to write twenty one love poems to bears (I was inspired by Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and One Poem of Despair). As it turned out, the bears helped me identify that one of the themes of Cloud Birds was fear. It's important to pay attention to your life and what is going on; it feeds the creative work. Be receptive.

"Whatever gets in the way of your work becomes your work," said Carolyn Forche to me years ago at a poetry workshop. This meant that things you might think of as distractions, interferences, or obstacles might very well be the heart of your book. Write about it. Pay attention!

Music is a very important element of poetry and revision. The sound and rhythm of the sequence is a point of consideration. Are these breathless or fast-paced? Are these contemplative? What are the textures? How do the individual lines and stanzas best convey the rhythm and sound?

Other considerations in revision: point and counterpoint. Good art has interesting contrast. This is true of a book of poetry. Design principles used in visual art or architecture are useful. Consider your unique mark, perspective, composition, imagery. Is it collage or painterly?  If it were a physical space, what would be its entrances, exits, transitional spaces?

I am interested in creating a world.  Some writers might focus primarily on the story. But there are story telling techniques or narrative strategies that can enhance or emphasize certain aspects. For example, the rule of 3 occurs in fairy tales, the character gets 3 wishes. There is the "onion," or "once in a blue moon," or "journey" template. Consider the techniques used by the earliest narratives: Chaucer's Tales, Beowulf, stories of Camelot. It's wise to trust your instinct, and then in revision understand how the choice works for the manuscript.

A book takes a lot of writing and a lot of time. After I have sixty or so poems, I began to consider the overall shape of the manuscript. Everything needs to be deliberate, even if serendipity and accident put it together initially. 

I make decisions about sections, as in, how many sections (if there are sections)? what is each section about?  what order do I put the sections in? The first sequence I have in Echo and Lightning is about migration and ascension; the middle section is about descent. In the Kalevala, the beginning creation story is about a women swimming in the ocean. There was yet no land, she swims and swims. It seemed logical, and it was the shape of a wave, which made sense for the overall form, a collection of poems strongly connected to water and sky.

Also very valuable: good readers. If you have good readers to give you feedback, you will be a better writer.  If you hear the same suggestion from two or more friends, pay attention. These are my thoughts about my process; your process might be different. I suggest you write about it.

September 11, 2011

Migrations: Poetry & Prose for Life's Transitions

Performances and Readings:

1. Teatro Zuccone, Duluth, Sunday, Oct 2, at 3:00 pm  (poetry, film, cello)

2. Esko - Moosebrew Coffeehouse - Oct 18, 6:30 pm

3. Two Harbors Library, Thursday, Oct 20, 6:30 pm

4. Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College, Thursday, Nov 3, 7 pm 
         (poetry, film, cello)

5. Lyric Theater in Virginia, Minnesota, Monday, Nov 7, 6:30 pm

6. Superior Phantom Gallery, Saturday, Nov 12, 3 pm (poetry, film, cello) 

7. Macrostie Art Center, Grand Rapids, Thursday, Nov 17 at 7 pm (poetry, film, cello)

The Community Arts Learning Project has developed into this anthology about changes.  You will want to read it!  Here are some reviews:

"The Lake Superior area has either bred or attracted an amazing community of poets, and the best are featured in this diverse collection edited by Sheila Packa.  While the title Migrations implied any number of processes to me, I was struck by how many delightfully (or darkly) unexpected topics Ms. Packa had included.  Love, childbearing, opening, the creative process, Christmas, aging, divorce, the seasons, Paul Wellstone’s death, all and many more are examined in these luminous poems.  Open to any page for the gift of a glimpse into the poet’s mind and heart! 
Carol Orban, retired teacher, Ely, Minnesota

Sheila Packa's Migrations is the product of a born writer’s craft nourished and shaped by immigrant work ethic and iron will, Finnish music, burning taconite pellets, long northern Minnesota winters, seeing deep patterns in nature and community and literature. With this potent collection of poems and prose she helps us connect with ourselves and one another as a community in the midst of change, movement and radical growth.
Ann Wallin Harrington
Family Justice Center Facilitator

Migrations is a marvelous collection of wide-ranging, in-depth reflections in poetry and prose on major existential transitions and reinventions. It conjures up colorful images of weather, flight, birds, water, air, associated with transformations triggered by experiences such as being trapped, going away, bewilderment, violence, aging, loss, death, trauma, emigration, and departures.
Tineke Ritmeester, PhD, Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She is a Dutch immigrant in transition.

In your hands, you hold a unique collection of high quality poetry and prose by favorite & by newer Lake Superior area writers. Don't set it down! Turn the book over to examine the cover and lift it to smell this ink-and-paper presentation of singular ideas. And know that Migrations follows the primary rule of poetry, reframing details of your world in ways that jolt your consciousness.
Cal Benson, author of Dakota Boy

From the Introduction:
Each fall, along the western shore of Lake Superior, hundreds of thousands of migrating birds ride the thermal currents above the dark conifers and bright reds and golds of autumn leaves. They follow the shoreline. Under their outstretched wings, I reach for the language of flight as I gather and arrange this collection of poems and prose.
This book is about migrations in life that all of us make: the embarking, the long journey, the returning — beginnings and endings, irrevocable. We are like birds in migration, traveling between memory and new beginnings. The stories and poems capture the voices of many writers and the landscape of the North and of Lake Superior.
In every workshop, I hear new and arresting voices. I've included poems of blessing and transition, polished and unpolished, that capture an image, a turning point, and a unique voice. Each was like a bird inside a larger flock and as such, wide-ranging.
Years ago, in the Split Rock Arts Program, I talked with poet Carolyn Forché about the difficulty of finding time to write. It seemed I was always in transition, juggling many responsibilities, and found it challenging to set aside enough time to write.
"Whatever keeps you from your work becomes your work," she said, meaning that I should write about what I was currently grappling with. Along with her husband, freelance photographer, Harry Mattison, she had facilitated the Iron Range Documentation Project. As a social activist and witness to atrocity, Carolyn Forché's own voice became the vehicle of many, and she wrote to reveal the pain and suffering in Nicaragua and other places. Later, she edited an anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (WW Norton, 1993).
Poetry can be many things: song, story, memoir, philosophy, image. Poetry can use many narrative strategies: journey, list, prayer, blessing, letter, or quest. Poetry can witness; it can be an agent of change. It can preserve a moment with vivid immediacy. It can awaken. Its purpose is diverse, but it always illuminates.
I followed Forché's advice, and now give that same advice to a lot of writers. If something is an obstacle, write about it. If something is getting in the way of your writing, then you should be writing about that. If you are preoccupied, let your thoughts go into ink on a page.
It is important to create a time and place for writing. There is evidence that keeping a journal improves one's health and immunity, and that it speeds recovery from illness. Writing is a tool of the mind, but I also think it is a tool of the soul. The poet Linda Hogan once said, "Whatever you write will make it stronger." Writing helps one find and use a voice. Writing strengthens identity and allows it to develop and change. Writing about place helps us understand our roots and name our desires, not just for ourselves but for the larger world.
A community that honors and celebrates the arts becomes a community of openness and exchange. Unique voices rise that bring images and stories that stir us. The arts foster diversity not uniformity. The community that invests in the activity of art making is preserving its culture and promoting creativity. We are all strengthened.
These poems, stories and essays form a conversation; I invite the reader to participate. At this moment, something is changing in your life. Find an image or a metaphor to enter the complexity. For me, writing is a type of way-finding, a lamp in darkness.

September 2, 2011

Poet's Work: Condensery

My grandmother worked with wool. She raised sheep, and spun their fleece into yarn. She knitted the yarn, and then boiled the knit to shrink and thicken the wool into felt. Felted wool slippers and hats are phenomenally warm, protecting the wearer from piercing northern winters. As a writer, I am more of a wool gatherer, but my process with language is similar to her process with wool.

There is a difference in the language of poetry and prose that can be described by using the word compression. Paul Valery said the language of prose is meant to fall away once meaning is delivered, but this is not so with poetry whose language is meant to recreate the breath, and make the poem new each reading. Reading poetry gives the reader an ear for this, and I recommend reading poetry extensively. There are techniques that poets use to compress the language. 

Poet's Work
by Lorine Niedecker

   advised me:
          Learn a trade

I learned
   to sit at desk
          and condense

No layoff
   from this

Condensery is an apt term. The poet must condense the language; in the condensing, the language begins to have more substance.  My grandmother had her copper laundry boiler, a wood stove, and wooden paddles as tools to condense her knitted garments into felt. The poets' tools also allow one to put the language through a process. Figurative language allows a writer to compress language. Metaphor is effective; the writer talks about two things at the same time. Consider this line from the poem, "Questions of Travel" by Elizabeth Bishop.

"And have we room/ for more folded sunsets, still quite warm?"

One word will makes the difference. If the poet had used the word 'blankets' instead of 'sunsets,' then the effect would have been prosaic. Bishop's decision to use sunsets makes the sentence take on more wonder. One can imagine the sunset's colors folded and put away like blankets. Can one take a sunset along, in a suitcase? The sunset suddenly becomes intimate as the blanket on a bed, it has a tactile sense. She did not say blanket, but she has created a physical sense of touch by suggestion. A single word choice made the meaning both intimate and expansive. The compression the poet achieves here suddenly vaults the reader into another space.

Poetry often evokes more than one meaning; Mary Oliver says poetry is language that casts more than one shadow.  If it casts a shadow, then it must have solidity and heft. This solidity and heft comes from the five senses, the perceptions of the body. If it casts a shadow, it could be a thing or a being, like cart or a horse. Interesting possibilities, this intensity of poetry. Each word has a history and a host of associations; the poet considers this.  Sometimes words come out on paper perfectly, but many times revisions help the poet find just the right language.

Here is another example:

by May Swenson:

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide? 

This poem is physically palpable. The form is created by a parallel questioning. The words lend their history and associations to the task; the words are tightly bound together like wool beat into felt.  My house, my horse, my hound. The series of words illuminate the body as place first followed by images of horse and hound.  Speed, beauty, animality.  Hound also invites associations with hunting and baying. Metaphor again. In this spare poem, Swenson also uses sound elements and patterns to compress the poem.  The rhymes are tight: ride and hide, I and sky and lie.  Almost rhymes: quick and thicket. hound and mount and cloud. Alliteration (same consonant sounds) and assonance (same vowel sounds) occur; everything intense.

The form of a poem lends the poet a tool for condensery. Repetition and variation are built in to some forms like the villanelle, pantoum, or sestina. Other forms have strict limits like the haiku, seventeen syllables, or the sonnet, fourteen lines in a certain rhyme scheme. One must compress and cut the language to fit. In addition, poets add tension. Suspense or the use of opposites add tension. Twists. Line breaks and choices about form can also increase the compression.

Robert Lowell, in interviews, said poems must be high tensile objects. He talked about setting up tension in or between the poem's metrics and in the form or content of the poem. For example, a sonnet form sets up an expectation of rhyme. The poem might use blank verse (iambic meter) and instead of rhyme on the end lines place it elsewhere, internally.  

Condensing is perhaps also a process of reduction. One takes away words and phrases, a process Virginia Woolf referred to as ellision. In the taking away, the poet can heighten the effect and create an ambiguity that evokes more meaning. Spareness is often powerful.The stronger the focus, the stronger the poem. Using precise and concrete images adds weight. Staying in metaphor adds focus.

Sometimes I think the form of the poem is a dialectic between language and white space, silence. Dialectics, or the use of opposites, compress. Allusion to other literary work adds weight and meaning.

Add heat. Keep refining. Words are like wool; they have fibers that pull on other fibers. About wool, my grandmother knew about boiling, then ice.  She knew how to take fiber into strand into knit into felt.

Poetry is distilled. From language, the poet makes a tincture or an essence. A poet learns to create a distillery to turn grain into whiskey or potatoes into vodka. 

Perhaps condensery is akin to the ancient science of alchemy and its quest of turning metal into gold. 

Of course, some writers do this is in fiction and essays as well. The writer, Clarice Lispector, created visceral, existential consciousness for the reader via the use of character and setting. Her language is compressed like poetry, compressed to a point of great intensity as if she were at a work bench, cranking the words with a vise. I read her work for its lessons in compressed language as well as for her vision. 

This sentence in her book Stream of Life conveys in just nine words her unique voice. 

"I am before, I am almost, I am never."

This poetic language uses parallel structure, repetition, variation, and sound in a tight form that conveys psychological truth. It embraces opposites.  None of the phrases are subordinated; all are equal.  It is tensile and brilliantly evocative.

Niedecker's poem "Poet's Work" expresses the poet's endless search, the quest for the right words and the right arrangement. It is work that is never done.  

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux. c1984.
Lispector, Clarice. The Stream of Life. University of Minnesota Press. c1989.
Alexrod, Steven and Helen Deese, editors. Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry. Cambridge University Press, c1989.
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. Mariner Books. c1994.
Niedecker, Lorine.  Collected Works. University of California Press. c2002. 
Swenson, May
Valery, Paul. Selected Writings of Paul Valery. New Directions Press. c1964.