Bright Moon

I step off the bus and start down the street. It’s dark and the stars stand out. I come around a corner and there is the moon, white and giant. “People walked there,” I think, trying to imagine the distances. It was a very extended SCUBA dive.

Folded in my pocket are Kip’s two poems and Carrie-Ann’s pitch letter: I am walking to Carrie-Ann’s for our weekly meeting. Aside from a 6-month absence, I’ve done this for five years; Wednesday night is writing group.

I linger a bit, outside; I’m looking at the moon, trying to absorb something from its light.

OK, enough; time to go in.

Inside Carrie-Ann’s six people examine Kip’s poems in excruciating detail. “I dunno, this line seems condescending….” We work as a group. Some people have come and gone but the constitution of the group has remained essentially the same. We have poets, realists, memoirists, fiction writers.

“I dunno, I think this is a cliche…” We jab and jibe, we have fun, we talk about how the work influences us, or not, we laugh and people talk over one another sometimes. A lot of what we say says as much about each of us as what we mean to say about Kip’s poems. “This is a fantastic line. Unbelievable.”

We consider every word, punctuation mark and word-structure like surgeons. We might as well be wearing sterile suits. This attention is exactly what I love.

A slice of exotic cheese, some crackers, some comments on the ridiculous rewording of <i>Huckleberry Finn</i>, and down we dive into Carrie-Ann’s book pitch letter. “This might not play too well…” someone says, and this is nicely refuted with logic–actually it should play very well in the hand of an Acquisitions Editor.

I sort of slide away, sometimes, watching Bruce’s animated physical style, and Tracy’s folded position. Tola sits like a professional; Kip sits carefully; Carrie-Ann is in the lotus position with her laptop; David leans back but is exploding with interest; and I wonder what I communicate physically with whatever paperclip-pose I take in my seat, chewing on a pen, and I think on the fragility of groups, and the integrity of ours. Half of this is showing up, I think, the other is being present, really taking time to examine the work. We all do both parts, and that is a wonderful thing to see. For years we’ve been at this, learning each other.

On the way to Carrie’s the moon was so beautiful that I’d thought, “This is the best moment of my life…”

How could that be, walking alone on a dark road with a 7-11 coffee in one hand, and a stale burrito in the other?

Well Done

To complement my previous post, which delineated some common writing mistakes and how to avoid them, this post focuses on some common writing successes. These are things that work to connect with the reader and keep them reading. Some are of course just the converse of the points laid out in the previous blog, and when they are, I elaborate to clarify. And, again, subtleties can be debated (though I’d argue the principles are ironclad) and, no, I don’t always accomplish these in every work; but I do work at it.

Telling an Old Tale in a New Way: We writers usually tell an old tale; the only reason we didn’t quit at Shakespeare (in the West, anyway) is that the world changes, people change (to a degree), and old messages need new context and new telling. Casting wisdom in a new mold lets you communicate that wisdom with modern people. This isn’t easy to do, but it’s one of the main reasons we keep writing.

Taking the Reader to New Place: Many people do not have the luxury to travel the world, or can’t or won’t travel across town or even down the street. A good writer can take the reader anywhere. It’s not easy, and it requires certain tools and methods, but there are many reasons to do it, one being the same reason to travel; to see things from a different perspective. Breaking a reader out of the bubble of daily time and space–and you can tell you’ve done it when they tell you they felt like they were right there in that new world–is tremendously rewarding for both writer and reader.

Exploration: This is very similar to Taking the Reader to a New Place, but, in some way I haven’t yet sorted out, it’s different. I feel this is more motivational; it doesn’t necessarily have the function of place-setting for an ancient tale, it simply stimulates the reader to see, and maybe even do. This kind of writing is often somewhat breathless. Dozens of examples rise to mind; here’s one from Craig Childs’ superb book, The Way Out, in which he describes his exploration of a flooded cavern in the Grand Canyon: “Our headlamps brushed the ceiling, showing a few passages. We went up. Each of us tried a different route, climbing through dust and pieces of rubble. I ascended a chimney, emerging into a room the size of an aircraft hangar. Perhaps seventy feet tall and over a hundred feet long, its ceiling was a lifted dome, its floor a garden of waterfalls and pools. Darkness ate my beam of light toward the back. A quarter-mile into a desert cliff, beneath two thousand feet of solid rock, inside the belly of the mother, was this: a buried grotto with the broken plumbing of a spring sending water everywhere. As I walked, my light took on altering values, passing through swift water, still water, deep water, sheeting water, plumes of mist, and shiny, wet stones. The river ran the width of a street.. That makes me want to drop everything and explore the caves of the Grand Canyon. That motivates me into action, if ‘only’ charging me for my own projects. This writing, contrary to elemental physics, generates energy from apparent nothing. Exploration can take place in many domains–mine is largely that of the physical universe–but, I think, you get my point.

Revealing the Truth / Exposing Complexity: Presumably readers want clarity, or at least some kind of understanding (at least, the readers I want to communicate with). A writer has the potential to expose truth because reading takes more time and attention than listening to a sound-bite. In John Steinbeck’s daily journal he wrote, about taking time with his writing to expose truths, “The human mind, particularly in the present, is troubled and fogged and bee-stung with a thousand little details from taxes to war worry to the price of meat. All these usually get together and result in a man’s fighting with his wife, because that is the easiest channel of relief for inner unrest. Now–we must think of a book as a wedge driven into a man’s personal life. A short book would be in and out quickly…A long book, on the other hand…instead of cutting and leaving…allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge…When the wedge is withdrawn, the tendency of them mind is quickly to heal itself exactly as it was before the attack. With the long book…when the wedge is finally withdrawn and the book is set down, the mind cannot ever be quite what it was before.” While plenty can be said for shorter forms, such as short poetry, I think what he was getting at there is the time it takes, in some forms of writing, to clarify. Again, yes, short works can well wash and make clear, but, again, the point–whatever the form–is clarity and the exposure of complexity.

Reminding the Reader of Dignity: The world, as I feel it, shaped largely by commerce, leaves us little dignity; great power lies in the hands of those who constrain our choices, and unless we’re careful to protect our own dignity, we are defined by our consumption, we are simply consumers (you can see a clip of how I feel here). Writing in a respectful way reminds us of human dignity. If that is too much social commentary for you, you might want to read someone else. I’m leaning a lot on Steinbeck right now, and here I will use him again: “I intended to make [some of his writing]sound guileless and rather sweet, but you will see in it the little blades of social criticism without which no book is worth a fart in hell.” This is very important to me. About it, Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote, “The airplane is a means, not an end. One doesn’t risk his life for a plane any more than a farmer ploughs for the sake of the plough. But the airplane is a means of getting away from towns and their book-keeping and coming to grips with reality.

The Crystallization of a Worldview: This is entirely for the writer; the writer, presumably wishing to communicate something clearly–even if it’s uncertainty–requires something of a comprehensive worldview; in German, the word weltanschaung, literally translates into world-view, but carries something more organic and expansive that I can’t quite outline; it is more a feeling than a statement, a feeling that suffuses everything a writer writes. This worldview is part of one’s voice as a writer. Writing, putting your words down in some durable form, forces you, at least in the moment, to assemble the building-blocks of a worldview. This view can change as the world and the writer changes, of course, but having these worldviews, and knowing which ones came before, and even how the one-at-present may be changing, is important to clarity and honesty as a good writer.

Take Possession

In a recent article in The Sun magazine, poet Kim Rosen said, “For most of my life I was afraid of poetry.”  This fascinating comment was just one of many contained in the interview by Alison Luterman.  Rosen mentions numerous encounters with people who truly believe that poetry “makes me feel dumb, like it’s some puzzle I can’t figure out.”  She further states that lots of people think of poetry as some “elitist club” they can’t join.

Rosen’s response to that was to write Saved by a Poem, for the express purpose of ameliorating that condition.  Her purpose, aside from a wake up call, was to heal and enrich.  She likes to think of poetry as having the power of personal transformation, but she is quick to acknowledge, “you don’t have to love all poetry? Do you love all music?”

I cite Rosen’s remarks because I recall how alienating some group members felt when we first dealt with poetry.  There were all manner of explanations.  A few folks felt the need to preface their remarks with the revelation that they just don’t “do poetry.”  Fortunately, in our group, that has changed.  I’m not sure what accounts for the new outlook, but I suspect it has to do with the quality of discussion we often have.  Part of that liberating force includes inviting the readers to bring their own lives and experiences to the poems and disregard anything approaching a “correct interpretation.”

When we forget about the information that might be needed to understand a poem, we allow ourselves to bring our own emotions to the text.   In poetry there is much potential.  Possibilities include cultural understanding, personal growth, and my favorite, an appreciation for the rhythm of the language that surrounds us in writing, media, and music.

I love hearing poetry read aloud.  Sometimes I think that it should always be heard, but I get that it’s not possible.  Still, as Kim Rosen reminds us, we can carry poetry within and benefit from its power in times of need.  Students were once asked to possess poetry; that is, take ownership of a poem.  I’m sure you’ve got one or two rattling around in your brain.  They are particularly useful these days for coping with the spirit of these times.  And if you go to the well in there and it’s dry, then you can tap the spring of your own sensibilities and create something new.  Just remember, you can make the rules for your own poetry.  You own the process, it doesn’t own you.

Stop Staring at Me: A Case for the Male Gaze

Male GazeRecently I was scolded for my poetry; for my description of circumstances which involved a certain action. An action everyone does. It is our first way of communicating. Our first and most instinctual way of indicating. The most often used way to show interest. A look. Being so instinctual it is hard to put your finger on it. There are kinds of looks: the evil eye, the hairy eyeball, the funny vibe, the come hither. One can gawk, gander, glance, and this is the one that got me in trouble … gaze. In particular the one with a penis attached, the Male Gaze.

The poems were admittedly about the Male Gaze in that they described a man looking. From Heavy Hands Ink Vol. III the poem “Napkin Ring” describing Portland with the lines …a city that reeks /of family where young women /speak to me with a pronounced /accent of their own /perhaps I listen /to them more carefully/ shows the special kind of care men take when in the presence of young women. However, this is a wholly different gaze from the next poem I read “The Unsaid” with the lines …A look in her /eyes means to her he does, a look away whispers that he’d like to. He looks her in the mouth /and says,  “No.”

“The Unsaid” in being about a man stuck within a seduction clearly got under the skin of the reading’s hostess. She expressed her disapproval of poetry about the Male Gaze and then continued to elaborate that there is no such thing as gender. My first inclination was to write it off as an academic rant like those practiced in small liberal colleges after taking Introduction to Gender and Equality 101. But she was right on both counts and she was also wrong on both counts.

She was right in classifying the poems as about the Male Gaze; a way of looking that objectifies or at least sets the woman up as other. She was also correct in stating that there is no gender. For if you switched the genders of the characters or jumbled them in the four obvious ways (or even the myriad of subtle ways gender is expressed) the “gaze” still exists. Although it is difficult to call it “male” gaze if it is occurring between lesbians.

What Mulvey describes with the term Male Gaze is a power dynamic rooted in gender. It is not confined by gender, however. It is about power and “The Unsaid” describes not an object or even just an other it describes an opponent. The man as he tries to decide where it is safe to rest his eyes surrenders even after saying no. Looks are more powerful than words. Looking is primal, and primary and without the Male Gaze generations of children would not have been born. It is central to bridging the distance between sexual partners. It acts as an assertion of desire and dominance. For those that don’t want to be desired or dominated or are sick and tired of it happening all the time in every venue keep up the good fight. Call it out when it is inappropriate. Wear your turtlenecks and long pants. Put your hair up or wear a hijab. Just don’t cover your eyes or no one will know what you want.