Better Poems for Ferguson

The Paris Review, in a presumed effort at topicality, recently published Frederick Seidel’s The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri – a kind of semi-ironic, chilly, not very good poem about the unrest in Seidel’s home state. And they are, rightfully, getting some blowback for it. Here’s hoping they hear the criticism, think about it, and publish something better in the coming months. Or how about several somethings better? How about a whole issue devoted to Black voices? Now that would be a thing, Paris Review.

Some have  said that white people shouldn’t say anything at all about Ferguson. Then there’s Danez Smith’s Open Letter to White Poets, which takes the exact opposite tack. If you are a white poet, there might not be a perfect solution. But here are some things:

1) Listen, listen, and listen again before speaking.

2) Just sit with your discomfort; it will prove instructive.

And 3) For God’s sake, don’t write a poem about how you’ll never have to worry about your children being gunned down in the street. We know already.

Without further ado: recent poems by poets of color (ie, the Paris Review Antidote)

Roll Call for Michael Brown by Jason McCall

alternate names for black boys by Danez Smith

not an elegy for Mike Brown by Danez Smith

Rules for My Future Son Should I Have One by LaToya Jordan

How Do I Love Thee? A love poem from the Ferguson, MO police dept to Black residents: An informal emulation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 by Aya de Leon and Like flowers in the sky by Vanessa Huang

I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp White Background: An Elegy by Morgan Parker

Sonnet Consisting of One Law by Lynne Thompson

a work in progress by Mahogany L. Browne

Survival Guide For Animals Born in Captivity by Camille Rankine

How to Not Get Killed by the NYPD by Metta Sama

The Gun Joke by Jamaal May

Two Poems to #StandWithFerguson by Nancy Bevilaqua and D.M. Aderibigbe

#BlackPoetsSpeakOut on Tumblr

And this Twitter feed is basically functioning as one long poem at the moment. (Dec 3 11pm)

Poet Claudia Rankine on the violent deaths of black men at PBS NewsHour (Rankine reads an excerpt from Citizen). And Using poetry to uncover the moments that lead to racism (video).

bitter crop by Kelli Stevens Kane

Transition Magazine at the Hutchins Center I Can’t Breathe series

Winter Tangerine Review’s Hands Up Don’t Shoot edition

Posts of interest

#BlackPoetsSpeakOut, But Is America Listening? by Minal Hajratwala

The Spontaneous Overflow of Powerful Feelings: Poetry as a Political Response by Jonathon Sturgeon at Flavorwire

Teaching Ferguson and Failing (to whom I owe many of the above links) by Caolan Madden at Weird Sister

Open Letter to White Poets by Danez Smith at Squandermania and Other Foibles

An Open Letter to the Paris Review and After the Ballad by Shannon Barber at About that Writing thing

Poems That Are Better Than “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” at Miss Fickle Reader

The Stand With Ferguson series at Apogee

The Bearing Witness to Ferguson series at Entropy

After The Ferguson Decision, A Poem That Gives Name To The Hurt by Syreeta McFadden at NPR

Who’s Writing the Real “Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri”? by Annie Finch at HuffPost

If you’d like to try your hand at writing an actual ballad to Ferguson, see The Real Ballad of Ferguson Missouri Ballad Challenge. (Deadline Dec 15.)

I’ll continue to update as I find more.

To MFA or not to MFA…

… that is the question. And I’m not the first to ask it, obviously. There’s a near-continual debate, in writing circles, about the MFA – is it good for poetry? is it bad for poetry? – who cares! can we even afford it? What happens to a person of color in an MFA program? I’m strangely relieved that the debate is still a lively one. And I don’t see it dying down anytime soon.

I had a friend who was in school for her MA/PhD, and she had a classmate who had already completed an MFA from Iowa, and was getting an MA in art history at a prestigious liberal arts college. I was like, dude, you’re telling me he goes from highly regarded program to highly regarded program, just collecting degrees that interest him? Yep, he was. He was – and I feel like you can see this coming – from a well-off family. I wished, fervently, that I was him. Well, not a dude – but intellectually curious, gifted, and rich. You get the idea. A life of studying things I love? Sign me the fuck up!

So if I were independently wealthy, I’d get an MFA. If I wanted to teach, I’d certainly do it. And I think it would be awesome. But so would all of life be kind of awesome if I didn’t have a day job, worries about retirement, and all the various constraints on my limited life energy that most of us have.

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about how much I wanted more freedom. But in day-dreaming, I kind of shortchanged the freedoms I do have. I can’t throw all my structures away and go live in a yurt. But I can make choices, find out they’re right for me, or all wrong for me, abandon one path for another, abandon one path for no path, start over, double down, doubt everything I’ve ever written, send it out anyway. And maybe it’s the cynicism of encroaching middle age, but I spend a lot less time fixated on the pie in the sky these days. I suspect that a certain amount of pragmatism is a necessary step to actually getting what I want.

So here’s my life: I have a non-literary day job, and I squish poetry in wherever it will fit. Poetry, for its part, is remarkably agreeable about this. It understands my need to do sometimes a little, occasionally a lot, go down plenty of blind alleys, and on some days ignore it completely (mystery leak in kitchen, evening spent crying, important episodes of Gilmore Girls to watch, etc.)

It’s true that I often feel like less of a Serious Poet because I don’t have an MFA. I’m continually impressed by people who pursue them, whether full-time or on top of a job, or with small children at home, because they want to teach or because they just feel like it’s the right thing. We’re a tribe. I want success for every writer. I support every writer doing what she most wants to do. But I also accept that some things are not me, or not me at this moment.

At this moment, I think my writing benefits more from small, persistent actions than from grand, sweeping commitments.

And poetry holds, generously and gently, the imperfect life. The life of compromises. The life of the worried, the hopeful, the confused. I’d even go so far as to say poetry welcomes it.

This is not the book you’re looking for

So, I have a draft of a poetry collection. I had put it together to submit to a contest with an immovable deadline. [Outcome: I am not a Yale Younger Poet.] Even though the timing wasn’t right and I didn’t have enough good material, I worked hard on the shape of that potential book.

And now I realize I have to throw it out and start over.

Because the way I actually write does not match up to the way I wanted to write. The structure, which I put together like an elaborate puzzle? Was not organic to the things I actually write about. The book I had in my head is not the book I’m going to end up with.

 

New possible sections for a collection of poems:

Part I.  Angry poems, with hints of social criticism.

Part II.  Depressed poems, with overuse of winter tropes.

Part III.  Poems in which I come to terms with anger and depression and reach something as close to zen enlightenment as I’m capable of. Overuse of fall and spring tropes.

Part IV. [END BOOK BEFORE SAPPINESS SETS IN.]

 

Yeah, I think I’ve got this nailed down. This time.

Poetry Grind #2 Update

(Read about Poetry Grind #1 here.)

Poetry Grind #2 is in progress, instigated once again by the amazing K.T. Landon! This time we have 9 members; some of us are the same as last time and some are different.

It’s… different. I’m having a harder time generating new stuff. I think that’s just… life, honestly. A lot more static interfering with the signal.

On the other side of that, I’ve been using the grind as motivation to go back to older stuff that needs revising. Like, neeeeeeeds revising. Or needs to be summarily DELETED.

Do you ever just delete old work? I was always like “Save All The Things!” But in the process of moving house, I  ended up donating and throwing away bags and bags of stuff. It was easier than I thought it would be. And it was a shock to the system that I’m still recovering from, but that I needed. So now I’m doing the same thing with old drafts that never went anywhere. If there are one or two good lines in a draft, I copy/paste them into an “inspiration” document, then delete the rest.

I think the reason this works for me is that when I re-read things I don’t like, I have a really strong emotional reaction to it. I can’t stand the self-indulgence and pretentiousness. It makes me depressed and irritated. And since I’ve been keeping a journal for [redacted] years, it’s not like I don’t have those same thoughts written down somewhere else.

So I’m kind of feeling less precious about every single piece of writing.

 

detail

 

Some art stuff

p_013131

 

Life gets increasingly complicated over time. I tend to take on multiple little projects, and since I have a day job, I sometimes have to cull my activities so I can refocus on writing.

So thank you to the friend who suggested I should have a crafting room in my new place. I had been thinking of it as a writing room, but it should be more.

Over the years I have undertaken a lot of amateur art projects. Lithographs and artist’s books, pottery and collaged valentines. I like to lose objectivity in the embroidery floss aisle at the fabric store. I have a mild obsession with sewing handbags. For several months, I kept a florid visual journal using colored pencils. I used to take weird Polaroid photographs for kicks (good times, good times). I’m not saying I’m good at any of these things – that’s really not the point – just that part of valuing creativity is that the creative thing tends to leak out everywhere. Packing and moving the detritus of all these projects (or, when I was desperate and out of time, throwing them in the dumpster) forced me to think about the nature of art-making.

And this is my conclusion: art is essentially – well, disposable isn’t the right word – let’s say in transit. It passes from me and out to the world. I don’t mean that the product is worthless. My nephew wore the bracelets until they fell apart, my friends seem to love their valentines (thanks for humoring me, guys!), and somebody at the Goodwill store is going to be happy to discover that bag I made out of batik turtle fabric (uh, I hope). And yes, my mom still keeps all my pottery.

But art, the product, has meaning as we give it away.* It starts life inside us, but it’s really complete when it’s gone into someone else’s head and rearranged things a little.

 

* Or sell it, if you’re a professional.

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Thanks to K.T. Landon for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour! Here we go.

 

What are you working on?  

1. The first draft of this post. It was lengthy and pretentious, so I deleted it.

2. a. Unpacking.

2. b. My current journal is an all-white Moleskine, to inspire me to be a minimalist. (So far I’m not inspired to declutter, but I’m very inspired to complain about decluttering.)

2. c. Praying to Hermes, god of communication, that Verizon fixes my internet before Poetry Grind #2 starts on Monday.

3. I was in a boring day-long meeting, so I wrote a poem about spiders and whether or not to kill them.

 

How does your work differ from others of its genre?  

I don’t really want to answer this question. Does anyone really want to answer this question? Don’t we all think we’re in a category all our own?

My thing is, I loved studying the arts in college, but my experience of the academy was that it was a lot easier to take something apart than it was to put it together, and that the two practices – both worthy – required utterly different mindsets. So I try not to let “comparison sickness” creep into my thinking about writing. If I read a lot of Milosz, I start to sound like Milosz. But eventually I just write like me again. I’m inescapable. And the only way I can define myself better is to keep evolving.

 

Why do you write what you do?  

I have such nifty, clever ideas about what to write poems about… and instead I write about what I keep stumbling over.

I keep stumbling over approximately 40 boxes of packed books, so I’m thinking a lot about their relation to life as a writer. The carefully packed boxes from ten years ago, labeled with their exact locations on the shelves – “upper right,” “lower left,” “poetry.” (It’s kind of cute how organized I was.) The new boxes I packed more haphazardly – the books signed by my dad; the book with an ancestor’s inscription and a crumbling spine; that weird little book about wabi-sabi that I keep re-reading the first half of.  

I was a better packer in my 30s, but a worse writer. I wanted everything to be finished, to be polished off. I’d labor over one poem crankily, obsessively – open with a good idea but manage to strip away every spontaneous thought, every strange locution, until it became a hollowed-out version of what a poem should be: all the parts, no heart.

And I think about how I could easily fill up my bookcases with the books I already have. But how I need my bookshelves to not be full. They can’t just be proof of where I’ve been. The poet can’t ever think she is finished. She has to keep some open space. I try not to become too rigid, too aligned, and too full of my own history and my own certainties.

I didn’t answer the question… I think the point is, I’ll probably throw away the poem about the spiders and find it was just a way for me to get to my real topic.

 

How does your writing process work?

I keep a journal, full of unrestrained self-pity. I cherish it as proof that I got through each day. And sometimes it also functions as a first draft.

Sometimes I decide I’ll write one poem each night, which is a great way to be productive, but not as good as…

…I’ve done one month-long poetry grind, which is an incredible way to be productive.

I used to think I could only compose on paper, but the grind taught me that I can also write first drafts on a laptop, and that I can let go of things, and be looser. You never know when you’ll get to the good stuff, so the key is to just keep writing.

I like it when other people participate in the same project because it alleviates my existential suffering.

 

So that’s all there is to say about me… My nominees for The Writing Creative Process Blog Tour:

Sarah Hand is a paper mache & mixed media artist and teacher. Exploring and spreading wonder and making stuff keeps her going. She lives with her husband and unruly cats in Richmond, Virginia.

Julia L. Mayer has been a Philadelphia area psychologist, specializing in women’s identity and relationship issues for over twenty years. She’s worked with numerous young women struggling with bad boyfriend issues.

 

Poetry Grind update

So, I’m on Day 20 of the 30-day Poetry Grind exercise. I haven’t had time to post about it because I’m writing every day and I’m worn out! Woo!

There are ten people in my group. We’ve only lost one person along the way. That means nine people have been consistently sending out a draft a day, to all the others. This is completely amazing to me. These people are serious about poetry.

Some observations, in no particular order:

1. The generosity of the medium.

You can write a poem about absolutely anything. I can’t talk about what other people have written (wish I could!), but some of my topics included:

migraines

hearing aids

cosmetology school

death

my day job

12-step programs

the Poetry Grind itself

 

2. Community.

It is really, indescribably great to get to read other people’s poems every day. This will make you look forward to your inbox. Getting to see “invisible” work: the daily work of exploring a form or a theme, the daily work of hammering away at something. I get familiar with other people’s preferred forms, and I start paying more attention to my own. I see that somebody else is willing to write about x thing, and I feel like I have permission to write about x thing.

Thinking about this experience versus the classroom/workshop experience, there’s just no comparison at all. There is real value to reading someone else’s work over the long haul, in an intensive way, especially seeing the false starts and the different angles we all try in order to get inside an idea. It opens your ears to ways of thinking and approaching the work that I haven’t gotten anyplace else.

3. Conservation of energy.

You are not allowed to respond at all. GENIUS. I find it exhausting sometimes, in a workshop, to give feedback. This way, I get all the intellectual engagement but I get to reserve my energy for my own writing.

4. Discipline.

I am forced not only to generate, but I also feel motivated to get things to a respectable place. Having an audience, even if they aren’t reading what you send, pushes me to write better things. I put a lot more effort into these drafts than I would without that impetus. I don’t give up as easily. Because I feel like, if I’m asking someone to even glance over this thing, I can make it a little better. Not perfect, just a little better than I would have otherwise left it.

A friend of mine recently quoted somebody as saying that overcoming writer’s block is about the patience to keep writing even when you’re writing terrible stuff. I’ve become willing to start over and over until I get something that starts to click.

5. Cutting your losses.

Because I’m on a deadline (midnight each night) I’ve started abandoning things that don’t work, very quickly.

Having to do it every day encourages me to let go of the previous day’s effort and move on. I know I’ll come back to a lot of these pieces, but right now, I don’t have to. This is writing as a process, not a product.

6. Poetry First!*

I love my real-world writing group, but it’s a mixed group of poetry/prose, and I often write prose in it. There is nothing like having a group of just poets.

7. Conservation of momentum.

There is no slacking. Some days, you write a three-page rant. Some days, you write a three-line blurb that you wring out of your brain at the last minute. It doesn’t matter. You keep your hand in.

 

* This reminds me of Portlandia’s Women and Women First.

women and women first