Mouse #13 Poetic difficulty statement

Problems are good. If you don’t have a problem, you’re asleep at the switch. ~ Erin Moure

Another exercise Erin had us do was writing poetic difficulty statements. Here’s mine (which won’t surprise any of you mouse-trackers reading along at home):

I am grappling with freeing myself creatively. How to silence the editor/reviser long enough to generate enough raw material of which to make something? I get and idea and write a few lines – I have at least a hundred three- or four-line poems – and I can’t go on. I’m so afraid of being cliche! I have another hundred ten-line poems that lack tension and significance.

Then she asked us to list things we can do in the next day, week, and month to alter the situation:
1. jump tercets – next day (more on this later)
2. write friend/evil twin poem – next week (explanation to come)
3. create a running list of concrete images as they come to mind – next month
4. don’t work late at night. ever. this is wheel-spinning futility
5. when I’m spinning my wheels, stop and read instead
6. ask a friend which of my little sheep poems to send to pasture and hope they find a train track
7. work at a coffee shop more often
8. post a reminder about the mice (the nasty squeaky ones, not the bond-gnawers) in a jar (more on this later)
9. set realistic goals for how many new poems and revisions to complete in a week (Ask Meira for help)
10. submit to CV2 and Grain – this month
11. write another difficulty statement next month
12. then read this one and see how far I’ve come!

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Mouse #12: find the heat!

I participated in a Writers’ Guild Masterclass this past Sunday with Montreal poet Erin Moure. What a stretching experience! After trying to read her books and throwing them across the room, repeatedly, and discovering an interview that revealed her opposite-to-Angeline philosophies of reading and writing, I was cryin’-in-my-sleep nervous.

I found her delightful. She was dogmatic, but in a “you can go back to doing it your way tomorrow” kind of way. She explained that people express; language produces. Therefore, the important question about literature for her is not “What does it mean?” or “What did the poet intend?” but “How is this little machine working? Where is the vent in this poem that’s heating up the room?” (For those of you who’ve studied literary criticism, this would be a more reader-centred, rather than author-centred approach. I was glad for my biblical criticism training that gave me a bit of a mental framework.)

So, rather than finding and critiquing the parts of our own and each other’s poems that needed work, we read our pieces aloud, then passed around our pages and circled each others’ “heating vents” – the words, phrases, or stanzas that jumped out as we heard or read them. Then we read the group only those passages will the most circles. Every time, the room was filled with nods and “ah” at the resonant images set free. Amazing!

Then we rewrote our “heating vents” on a new sheet of paper and worked to fill in the gaps with more strong images. What a positive, eye-opening way to revise. Anyone can circle the words that emote, surprise, or leap (say, non-poetic spouses who only read photography forums). I think my writers’ group will try this method of feedback too.

It’s easy to get bogged down in what isn’t working or what I’m intending and failing to say, but poems rise or fall on the wings and gravity of their images. So from now on, I’m going to focus on feeling the heat!

Mouse #11: the Walker ahead of me In The City

I get lost easily. I try to drag my husband everywhere as navigator, but when he’s not around, I take my GPS. At ever wrong turn, she calmly says “Recalculating…” The cul de sacs and one-ways of “poetry” have bigger pits of sludge to bridge or wind around than Winnipeg’s Red or Assiniboine, so newcomers like me need a guide. That’s what the Writers’ Guild has given me.

It’s hard to believe now, that when I joined the guild last summer, I said I didn’t know what good it would do me. This winter I was selected to participate in the guild’s Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program, under the direction of Meira (may-ear-ah) Cook, CBC literary award winning author of two novels (one forthcoming) and four poetry collections including “A Walker in the City.” When I got the call, I screamed and leaped about like a Price is Right winner, and I still haven’t come-on-down from the high.

Every two weeks until June, she and I meet for two hours in a coffee shop to go over the 10-20 new poems/revisions I’ve emailed her. Besides being enchanted by her gentle nature and South African accent, here’s what I’ve gained/learned:

1. An understanding of line breaks. I used to begin lines with a bomb-dropping words and leave my frayed pronouns and prepositions dangling at the ends. Meira taught me that the end is more important than the beginning. I know I’ve internalized good breaks because last week I gave her a poem with naughty breaks that worked well, and she said I’d broken the rule effectively. You can’t break until you’ve got it.

2. Metaphors need to carry forward; for example, if children are circling me like hot popcorn, they can’t immediately chant. Burst or snap, perhaps, but not chant. If I’m inside a womb, the images need to be round; no frames or borders here, only rainbows.

3. The psychological transparency of pronouns. Pronouns reveal a poet’s anxieties (Are they my ancestors or ours? Is it my childhood home or theirs?) but they (or I) doesn’t need therapy before we can fix the poem.

4. Capitals at the beginning of each line is outdated. Get with the 21st century program.

5. A grasp of immediate, concrete images, and a knack for skating off the cliche (eg. “What to get for the person who gives everything?”), together with an aversion to idioms and cop-out “glitter-glue” words like “beautifully” and “twinkle.” When I use a “Hallmark” image like angels or dream or love, I need to twist it, so the angels are drunk or rheumy. (And always put the most shocking item in the list last.) The power of the poem is in the tensions, the surprises.

6. An awareness of more poetic forms. I was already using metaphysical conceit, dramatic monologue, narrative, nature, and shadow poems, I just never knew it. Now I can read other poems who use these styles and learn from them.

7. On the subject of reading other poet, Meira has introduced me to Tim Lilburn (a stretch for the imagination), Anne Szumigalski (I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t heard of her before), Dionne Brand, John Donne (I lived too long before I read “Batter my heart, three-personed God”), and Don MacKay (speaking of surprising metaphor!).

8. The need for more than one layer of meaning. If I could count the number of time Meira has written “Go on!” on my drafts, or the number of times she’s asked “Nice start. So what are you planning to do with this?” on my “completed” submissions…well, I can’t. We’ve discovered I have a talent for writing in an playful child voice, but I can’t leave my poems in petting kitty land. There must be a “shadow” falling across the barn door. I don’t need to hit people over the head with answers about the nature of femininity and the meaning of childhood or a new definition of family, but I do need to hint at something profound. I still really struggle with this one, but I have another three months to move my work closer to, if not a hint, at least a wink or glance of profundity.

9. As per Meira’s advice, I’m swearing off contests. My poetry submissions and mice-inspired ficitonal work sent to Prairie Fire and The Fiddlehead’s contests were all rejected by the guest editors in favour of one of the other bazillion contest entries. From now on, the goal is to get published sooner rather than richer, so I’m submitting to the journals’ regular editors – who love promoting new artists – rather than throwing my lottery ticket in a barrel of legends and hopefuls.

10. I qualify (or so we hope) to apply for a Manitoba Arts Council grant for the first draft of a poetry manuscript. Imagine: the government might pay me $2000 to start my book! (At 15 hours/week for a year, that’s $2.56 an hour more than I’m making as a poet right now. As the CFO at my office likes to say, I know how to pick the lucrative careers.)

11. Hallelujah, I have a focus: my manuscript will be about the experience of parenting a child with autism – from pregnant fears, to the first suspicions, medication “trials,” close-calls in traffic, and echolalic rhythms. From not picking a genre to having a manuscript idea, I’ve walked a long way this year.

And I’m so glad to have a peripatetic master walking with me. “Arriving at joy-of-creating, on right.”