Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

The poem "A List of Praises" by Anne Porter.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Talent, Opportunity, Time

As one might suspect, no single factor dictates success. This article (edited extract from Outliers: The Story Of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell) examines examples of "outrageously talented and successful people" and muses on what factors shaped their success.

Here's the part that really grabbed my attention:

This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Gift of Community

This week I had the pleasure of attending the last fundraising event this year for the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Once again, words seem inadequate to describe how this place has contributed to my development as a writer.

The building itself is magical, not to mention the people who staff it and volunteer. Some of the Carnegie Center's offerings include writing, computer, and language classes; tutoring, youth, and family programs; and exhibits, readings, and other special events.

While I may never feel completely at home in Kentucky, the flickering moments of belonging I have experienced have been among members of the region's unique writing community, most of whom I met through the Carnegie Center. Community--a sense of belonging--is one of the Carnegie Center's greatest gifts. It is as if an orb weaver crafted an intricate web, and written into the center of the web is the Carnegie Center, all the silken strands radiating from that center.

You can read the Carnegie Center's blog here.

Marilyn Taylor - - Wisconsin's Next Poet Laureate

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has appointed Marilyn Taylor as Poet Laureate of the state. You can read about the appointment here.

Marilyn was my mentor in the English/creative writing department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee many moons ago. I cannot adequately express how much she contributed to my development as a poet. I have always felt privileged to have had the opportunity to study with her, and I am absolutely thrilled about this news.

“Marilyn Taylor is committed to bringing poetry to all corners of Wisconsin,” stated Governor Doyle. “She has impressive credentials and an obvious love for her work and her state. I am confident that she will be an excellent Poet Laureate.”

You can read some of her poems here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More Patricia Smith, Persona Poems, and a Prompt

One thing Patricia Smith does masterfully is the persona poem (sometimes called dramatic monologue). defines the dramatic monologue as a poem in which "the poet speaks through an assumed voice--a character, a fictional identity, or a persona."

In Blood Dazzler, Smith takes on a range of personae from Hurricane Katrina to President Bush to a dog left behind. What surprised me was that the persona poems written in the voice of inanimate things could work. There seems to me a great deal of risk in speaking in the voice of the Superdome.

The Greek word persona means "mask," and some poets suggest wearing the mask of someone else--writing from a different point of view--is freeing because you are not writing your story, your vulnerabilities. However, I think to write a successful persona poem, the poet might have to make herself more vulnerable than, or at least as vulnerable as, when writing about her personal experiences. She must be able to locate in herself aspects of that other person (or thing), no matter how different or frightening or uncomfortable. Just as writing about the self reveals the other, writing about the other reveals the self. (A side thought--does this come more naturally for writers who write fiction more frequently than I?)

I found this interview with Patricia Smith (interviewed by Cherryl Floyd-Miller for Torch) where she talks about crafting persona poems. About the persona poem, Smith says:

I think the persona poem moves us out of our space, moves us out of our comfort zone where we’re almost forced to take a really hard look at another life. Whether it be something you’re just doing for the fun of it, like, you know, wow, what’s it like to be Little Richard for a day, or you’re sitting next to some woman who is clutching like twenty bags or something on the subway, you know that her whole life is in those bags, and you realize just how close everyone’s life is to your own. They may look really distant. You may say, “Oh my God, I’d never be a bag lady.” But starting to look at that persona and really examining it honestly, you realize how close we all are, and you may really be one paycheck away from that. So, it kind of forces us outside of ourselves – which we should all in a perfect world do naturally anyway. We should strive to relate to whoever it is that we meet, or we don’t meet, anyway. I mean, that’s what the human race is supposedly all about, but we don’t do that. Working in persona – if you do it enough – kind of makes that a second nature, even if it’s somebody you will never write about. You tend to take a closer look at their lives because you’re used to doing that in your creative work.
And she says:

Persona helps develop the poet’s eye. Then when you come back to yourself with that knowledge, you can write about yourself in a way that is more insightful and probing than before.
So if you're looking for something to try, write a persona poem. As Smith suggests in the interview, start from your natural curiosity. Begin from a question you want answered.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler

I am reading Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. These poems tell the story of New Orleans before, during, and after Katrina.

Personally, I've found it difficult to write "political" poems (or poems that address social concerns...which raises the question what constitutes a political poem for can't every poem be considered a political poem in some sense [i.e., the personal is political]...but that's for another post perhaps). For me it is all too easy to fall into rant or lecture mode, to lose the essence of the poem.

Smith's poems are what political poems should be because first they are poems. They are musical. They are crafted (I mean this in a positive way; I mean she has considered structure carefully so the form suits the poem). They are filled with hard evidence (singular images, convincing voices). And through these means, the poems take on the weighty topic of Katrina. She has made poems that balance beauty and substance.

Here you can listen to Smith read three poems (the third, "What Betsy Has to Say," is from Blood Dazzler).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Poetry of Place

William Stafford, in Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer's Vocation, said:

All events and experiences are local, somewhere. And all human enhancements of events and experiences--which is to say, all the arts--are regional in the sense that they derive from immediate relation to felt life.

It is this immediacy that distinguishes art. And paradoxically the more local the self that art has, the more all people can share it; for that vivid encounter with the stuff of the world is our common ground.

Artists, knowing this mutual enrichment that extends everywhere, can act, and praise, and criticize, as insiders:--the means of their art is the life of their people. And that life grows and improves by being shared. Hence, it is good to welcome any region you live in or come to or think of, for that is where life happens to be--right where you are.

This passage caught my attention because long have I been intrigued by poetry and poets of place. I have envied poets whose writing is steeped in a particular place (some associations in my mind include Philip Levine/Detroit, Susan Firer/Milwaukee, Frank O'Hara/New York, Ted Kooser/the Plains, Kathleen Norris/South Dakota). It seems like many poets have a city or region that influences their work.

No single place has infused my writing, nor do I feel like I "belong" to any particular place, perhaps because I have lived in a fair number of places. What constitutes home anyway? If I had to name one place that consistently feels most like home, southern Wisconsin (Madison/Milwaukee) would be it, though I suspect it has more to do with the fact that it's my birthplace and home to family and less to do with a connection to the place/land directly. Still it is the closest connection to a place I have (and yet it doesn't permeate my writing). All the other places I've lived, I've felt like a visitor. If I lived in Kentucky 20 more years, I would probably still feel like an outsider, perhaps contributing to why I feel inauthentic grounding my writing in a place.

What I take from Stafford is that if we are present to the place we are now (whether as a native or as a visitor), we can inhabit that place; we can serve witness to it as only individuals can.