May 30, 2013

Bob Dylan, Poet

See my flash fiction in Dandelion Review, "Handful of Rain."

Bob Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, and every year, this small town on the Iron Range holds a festival called Dylan Days to advance the arts and celebrate Bob Dylan. Last Friday night, Zimmy's Restaurant hosted the singer/songwriter event.  Because I was invited to keynote the awards for the writing competition and to teach a creative writing workshop, I did some research on his lyrics he wrote to discuss his techniques and find inspiration.  

In 1991, “The Song Talk Interview,” Paul Zollo said: “There's an unmistakable elegance in Dylan's words, an almost biblical beauty that he has sustained in his songs throughout the years. He refers to it as a "gallantry" in the following, and pointed to it as the single thing that sets his songs apart from others. Though he's maybe more famous for the freedom and expansiveness of his lyrics, all of his songs possess this exquisite care and love for the language. As Shakespeare and Byron did in their times, Dylan has taken English, perhaps the world's plainest language, and instilled it with a timeless, mythic grace.”  

From this interview, I've excerpted Dylan's responses about song-writing that reflect good poetic technique:  

1.  As an artist, Dylan said it was his job to "sing out against darkness wherever he sees it -- to 'tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it' until his lungs burst."

2.  About his own songwriting, Dylan said,"for me, it’s always been more con-fessional than pro-fessional.” 

3.  “...write about what's true, what's been proven to you, write about dreams but not fantasies.”

4.  “Just talking to somebody that ain't there. That's the best way. That's the truest way. Then it just becomes a question of how heroic your speech is. To me, it's something to strive after.”

5.  “Well, to me, when you need [songs], they appear. Your life doesn't have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That's why a lot of people, me myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who's never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really.”  

6.  “There's just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them.”

As a poet, I prize his narratives. They are spare and full of exact detail.  Singing against darkness is clear when he wrote songs of protest, but the singing against darkness can also be seen songs like Mr Tambourine Man, Visions of Johanna and All Along the Watchtower.  He conveys a desire or a longing that makes the lyrics work so well as poems.  

As an artist, Dylan was "present" or "awake" in the moment.  He did not wander into abstractions or tell the listener what to think or how to feel.  He used figurative language (metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy) and carefully crafted the words' sound, rhythm, and meter.  He revised a lot, even after a song was recorded on an album.     

Here are the writing prompts I suggested for timed in-class exercises (about 8 minutes of flow writing with no erasing).  I invite you to try these exercises, and see what happens. Each one yielded some excellent first drafts at the workshop, and I hope those writers finish those poems. 


Write about a person who you don't know but who caught your eye.  Describe this place and focus on a detail about that person.  Use vivid images. 

Write about a place:  This is a frequently used writing exercise that workshops often employ.  Richard Hugo, writer and author of The Triggering Town, said he always began writing about a town. When he did, it didn't take long before the real subject of the poem showed up. 

Choose an experience in your own life when you have felt lonely. Write about the time and the place using exact details.  You cannot use the word lonely in your writing, but you must convey the feeling the images, objects, or description.  

Write about an object well worn by your hands.  Take the persona of that object and write as if it could speak.  (This exercise provides good practice with staying in metaphor).  

After the free write exercises, I would mention the source:  Mr Tambourine Man, Visions of Johanna, etc.  

We talked about "voice."  Each writer has a unique voice.  Don't try to sound like Bob Dylan or anybody else!  Value your own combination of observations, obsessions, and phrasings. Your landscape, experience, and world view will be revealed in your voice. Strive to be authentic.  Be honest and true to your experience.  

The term "wordsmith" is archaic, but it carry the image of metal-working and blacksmiths.  Language is like ore; it must be mined.  It must be made into iron, and then it must be heated and shaped and welded and polished.   

Present your work out loud to others after you finish a poem. It will enable you to assess your final revision. There is no better way to "hear" the work. Even without direct feedback from listeners, you will be able to observe the sound, rhythm, and words as if from a stranger's eyes and ears.    

Walt Whitman, in the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass wrote: 
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

Like Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman, live your poems.  Write against darkness.  Speak your truth.  Bring all of your attention to the moment you are living, and then to the poem you are writing.   


Work Cited

Bollier, Thomas, Chris Kirk and Richard Kreitner. Slate Magazine "Bob Dylan Song Map." May 24, 2013.  Web. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
Dylan Days.  Sponsored by Dylan Days, a nonprofit organization to advancing the arts in Bob Dylan's hometown.  Web. Retrieved 30 May 2013.

Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.  Copyright 1979.  W.W.Norton and Company.

Whitman, Walt. "Preface to Leaves of Grass."  1855.  Web.  Retrieved 30 May 2013.

Zollo, Paul. "The Song Talk Interview." Web. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 

May 25, 2013

Where Is the Line of Energy?

Muriel Rukeyser said, "The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy." In the article "Gesture Writing," Rachel Howard suggests that writers can learn from drawing techniques.  Poetry is even closer to visual art than other genres; the economy and compression of language, the image and metaphor make it so.

Life drawing requires the visual artist to look for the energy of the work using strong gesture and line before doing fine details. Howard says:
Realizing that writing is a lot like drawing gives us a deeper approach. Because really, before we put a word or a mark on the page, both writers and artists must first step back and see. And seeing is not simple...Ellen Collett said:
As fiction writers know, every story is told by a narrative voice, and voice reveals itself by what it sees. Voice is a synthesis of seeing and speaking, of sight and syntax. While syntax — the mechanics of diction — can be made to toe the line and conform to a particular “style,” seeing is trickier to control. Seeing is choice. It’s inherently personal.
To see in the way that Collett is describing, to see deeply enough to capture the vibrancy of life on the page, a writer must move her consciousness out of information organizing mode into an intuitive way of seeing subtle organic connections and capturing them in bold strokes.
When Howard used the technique of gesture drawing, "There was the whole. It made leaps. It had perspective. It had emphasis and connection. It had life."

Poetry has a lot of energy: opposing forces, resistances, enjambments, and tension between the lines. Drawing can lend its gesture, but there is also an element of sculpture in poetry.  An excellent poem has been described as a "perceptual object" or "tensile being."  Poetry is physical; by this I mean it must be in the body and engaged with all of the senses.  Christopher Allen said of sculpture: "The material must undergo transformation; and it must have its own distinct and even stubborn character, so that the transformation is a kind of metamorphosis."  The language, the image, the metaphor, the patterns are the materials in poetry; the line of energy initiates the transformation or metamorphosis in a poem, creating new meaning at each reading.

Where is the line of energy in a poem?  Throughout the poem, and then, if it's a good poem, into the reader, the place of its transformation.


To read "Gesture Writing" in the NYTimes:

May 21, 2013

Advice to Poets from Wislawa Szymborska

"How to (and How Not to) Write Poetry"
Real letters to real questions from poets:


To T.W., Krakow: “In school no time is spent, alas, on the aesthetic analysis of literary works. Central themes are stressed along with their historical context. Such knowledge is of course crucial, but it will not suffice for anyone wishing to become a good, independent reader, let alone for someone with creative ambitions. Our young correspondents are often shocked that their poem about rebuilding postwar Warsaw or the tragedy of Vietnam might not be good. They’re convinced that honorable intentions preempt form. But if you want to become a decent cobbler, it’s not enough to enthuse over human feet. You have to know your leather, your tools, pick the right pattern, and so forth. . . . It holds true for artistic creation too.”

Why People Don't Like Poetry & What To Do About It

Poets have an obligation to consider why poetry is the least marketable of all genres. What do we do wrong?  In a poem, Rosario Castellanos wrote: 

Silence alone is wise.
But with my words, as with a hundred bees,
I am building a small hive.

Silence might very well be best, yet we are given the language and must use it for beauty's sake as well as practicality.  Poetry is a form that repels some people; perhaps they are afraid of being swarmed or stung.

Bad poetry gives poetry a bad name.  Bad poetry is pedantic.  It might be ostentatious, overwrought, or even unctuous.  It tells the reader what to feel.  It does not evoke an emotional response, and it can be too superficial or sentimental.  It lacks focus.  Metaphors are mixed. It relies on cliches. The mind wanders, the language is stilted or overly sing-song. The poet has arranged the lines in ways that are distracting and don't contribute to the meaning of the whole. Exposure to poetry like this is painful.

According to Mirriam Webster, solipsism is the philosophy that the self cannot know anything behind the self, and secondarily, "extreme egocentrisim." Solipsism might be one of job hazards for writers. Individual consciousness and experience offers a starting place for creative work, but how can we avoid boring others? Get off dead center. A friend of mine used to say that about people who despite the direction of dialogue always brought a conversation to their own struggles, accomplishments, wisdom. They are self congratulatory. It makes you want to run away, fast. How can you tell if you are solipsistic? Look for a glaze in the eyes of those around you, a certain lack of engagement, or withdrawal. At your desk, question the material and more importantly, yourself. What are your motives? What is your quest? Have you arrived at the true subject?  Have you developed your material enough to leap over the boundary of self? Can you find other patterns besides your own?

What is good poetry?  Of course, it's different for everybody, and it's difficult to articulate. I like what Emily Dickinson said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Good poetry is physical. It engages the senses. It opens the mind and senses. I also like what Dylan Thomas said, "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toes twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing." In other words, poetry connects to emotion, and it plays with language patterns in a way that is physically satisfying. In her work, my artist friend Gladys Koski Holmes felt she had to "break something open." This definition, applied to good art or poetry, satisfies me because it suggests that "aha" experience. It achieves or alternately, descends to a different level. It engages the imagination.  Carl Sandburg said, "Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly."

Aside from that, poetry needs good readers. It needs those who have a quest. The language of poetry is concentrated; it needs those who want to breathe a richer mix of oxygen. It needs people who are engaged in the creative process, who like to be challenged intellectually and who are not intimidated by ambiguity. Poetry needs readers who are willing to be changed by what they read.  It needs people to use their minds and bodies to receive literature; in other words, those who like to dance to new music.

Work like a bee, if you are a poet, from bloom to bloom, drunk with nectar, and make honey. (Keep in mind that bees have flight patterns, and notice how methodical and organized is a hive). If you are reader, visit the hive and savor the complex flavors.  Here's more of the poem that I began with -- poetry is the best way to speak:

by Rosario Castellanos
Silence alone is wise.
But with my words, as with a hundred bees,
I am building a small hive.

All day the hum
of happy work strews the air
with the gold dust of a far-off garden.

Within me a slow roar grows as in a tree
when a fruit ripens.
All that was earth -- darkness and weight --
all that was turbulence of wild sage, leaves rustling,
is becoming flavor and roundness.
Sweet imminence of the word!

Because a word is not a bird
that flies and escapes far away.
Because it's not a rooted tree.

A word is the taste
our tongue has of eternity;
that's why I speak.

(excerpt from the longer poem translated by Magda Bogin)

Stavans, Ilan, editor. The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry. c2011. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York.  (pp 446-447)

May 4, 2013

Duluth's First Poet: Mary McFadden in 1907

On the Inland Sea

In his essay "Landscape and Narrative," Barry Lopez describes a correspondence between the external landscape and the psyche. The place we grow up and live becomes an internal landscape; the contour and dimensions of the earth become that of our thinking.

If this is true, then Duluth, the farthest inland port, has shaped its poets and writers. The shores of Lake Superior lap against the five miles of sandbar, Park Point is divided by water (and shipping lanes) from Wisconsin Point. The city of Duluth is on the north shore; Superior on the south shore.

The earliest poem I've found written by a citizen of Duluth is here. Mary McFadden published it in the city newspaper in 1907.  She was the editor in chief, a suffragist, and political lobbyist. Her poems focused on the natural world. This poem captures a moment between day and night as the canoe slips from land to sea, "drifting away."

Mary McFadden did drift away from Duluth about four years after this was published to become the editor of a monthly magazine in St. Paul, and then she worked in Europe for six months as a war correspondent and then moved to Greenwich Village in New York City where she wrote articles for Scientific American, and she published poems in International Journal of Medicine and Surgery.  Mary McFadden's poem reflects the style of poetry in 1907, and it marks the beginning of the literature written in Northern Minnesota.

I've discovered rich veins of material in my research about northern Minnesota's literature, history, politics, geology, geography, religion, immigration, labor history, environmental issues and public health.  The influence of women in these spheres is considerable, yet often their stories were not regarded.  The origin of this word is old, Middle English and Old French, and it meant to "take notice of to " gaze" or "heed."  Too easily these stories fall into silence and the next generation grows up without knowing, yet going into the future on a road built by the capable hands of many women and men.

Today, I went down Chester Creek Trail knowing that it was created in the early 1900s from a primeval forest with rugged waterfalls.  Mary McFadden walked here. My path took me past houses, over bridges, and along the eroding slopes, steep streets, and potholes made deeper by the spring's rapid snow melt and the floods of last year. I can no longer walk on the ground without thinking of those who walked before me. I aim to widen my vision to encompass those who are no longer visible and those who will walk after me, but aren't yet visible. Silence will never feel the same.

Bakk-Hansen, Heidi.  "Mary McFadden: Duluth's Inkpot Warrior." Zenith City Online. March 1, 2013. Web. Retrieved April 6, 2013.