Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Killing the Darlings

Is there a word for reaching a point in writing a poem where you know that it will be getting much, much worse before it gets any better?

Is there a way to avoid this stage entirely? Is there a different term for this realization when it happens on the same day you receive a rejection from a journal THAT ASKED TO SEE MORE OF YOUR WORK?

My students laught at "kill your darlings." Then they fall asleep. I vote for "spanking the monkey" but of course that phrase is aleready taken.


Bippo's Place for Smiles

Yesterday I brought my children (2 and 3) to the dentist for the first time. This was a trip to hell, and it cost $189. This place is called Bippo's Place for Smiles, and it is a shining example of the depraved attitudes many of the people in my community (and I guess I belong in there to a certain extent) have towards child rearing. I did not shop around, but I am quite sure that this place costs twice as much as any other pediatric dentist. In the outside play area there is a jungle gym like the ones at MdDonalds. There is a meditation garden. Once your spoiled children have finished perusing these delights, it's time to enter "The Jungle." Yes, "the jungle." At Bippo's place for smiles, one does not simply open the door and walk into the cramped waiting room. First one must walk through a thirty-foot hallway that is painted to look like a jungle--wild animals (with wild sounds piped in), cross over the goldfish pond, and climb through the tree house that eventually leads to the waiting room. In the waiting room were several televisions, video games set to restart over and over--no quarters needed, and a tropical fish tank that was stocked with all of the fish from Finding Nemo. There was a crawl space behind this talk so that the wee ones could crawl in and see the whole thing from behind. There were helium balloons, and Bippo himself circulated the waiting room handing out toothbrushes and taking pictures with the children. Until yesterday, my kids had never seen a video game.

In the back of the office, there was a fleet of beautiful dental technicians handing out stickers justto get the children to come into the room. If the child sits on the chair, he gets to pick a toy from the tooybox. In fact, they must reward after brushing every tooth, because my oldest came out with an armful of bracelets. I came home with the news that both of my children had overbites. They will both need braces. I think that no one gets out of Mandeville without braces.

When I and my brother used to go to the dentist, my mother was sitting there forcing us to do our homework, ready to swat us with a rolled magazine for the slightest thing.

Friends, we have it too good.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Obscure Toil

Here's a poem from Lucia Perillo's new book Luck is Luck. I read a few poems of hers on Paul Guest's blog, and decided I had to have the book, pronto. I went all the way to New Orleans and unleashed two todlers in the bookstore on the hunch that they would have this book, because I couldn't take the time to call.

This poem is about writing. It's about Emily Dicinson and office supplies and political prisoners. And that great truth--that we're doing this work and maybe no one will remember!

On the Rhythmic Nature of Obscure Toil

So you write one poem, then another,
until your stack is big enough to bind with a black
spring clip. If you were Emily Dickinson
(but there is no chance that you're Emily Dickinson)
you'd have poked a sharp needle through the sheaf.
Then laid it to rest in an underwear drawer
until you died of glomerulonephritis:
a disease, alas, with too many syllables
to suit your common meter. And when sister Vinnie
discovers your cache, whet do you care?
You just wish you'd sat for another daguerreotype
besides that one with your hair so severely parted,
signifying the pre-central plumbing era
and its omniprescent oily scalp.
Then hair mousse comes along
and the thread through the sheaf becomes this spring clip
made by a woman imprisoned in China.
One minute she's dopin Tai Chi in the park,
making Fair Lady wrists when a cop steps up,
calls her pose dissident, and slaps on the cuffs.
Then for all minutes after, she's sticking these wires
into the black triangular piece,
so many per hour her fingers are flayed
like brushed dipped in rust-red paint.
And you, you thought you were just writing a poem
without the crutch of Emily Dickinson's beat,
her thump-thump-thump-thump/thump-thump-thump
that can be sung to "Swing Low Sweet Chariot"
or "When the Saints Go Marching In."
But since you didn't want that to help you along,
you wre just fidgeting, scratching your head,
absentmindedly staring out of the window,
and while you were gone, look:
someone left these bloody prints across the page.

On the cover of Perillo's book are Audubon's shrikes and a green background.

Speaking of obscure toil, for a brief stint I held a job in a special collections library. This was nowhere near as cool as I thought it would be. Everything was locked up in the dark, and you weren't supposed to touch it. Artwork, books, photographs, statues. This library had one of a few (two?) complete folio collections of Audubon's Birds of America. The library stored these books on their sides in the dark, and once a year took them out for viewing in a special room. Anybody could come, but it seems like only the wealthy patrons were aware of it. On those days I wore white gloves for the only time in my life and slowly turned the folio pages, which are quite huge, while people ooed and ahhed over his Wild Turkey (the smaller birds just don't stand out). After an hour my time in the viewing room would be over, and I would shrink back to the stacks, flashlight in hand and forbidded pen and notecard in my pocket to sneak research towards a poem of sorts.

By the way--in this special collections library, the archives of poetry boooks from the affiliated university press were stored on the sixth floor behind a locked metal gate appropriately named "the cage."

Monday, April 25, 2005

Dark blood in my body

Lately I have heard people, in blogs and elsewhere, talking about James Wright. The most recent occasion was Alison Stine's blog, in which she talks about opening the book and using a line from a poem of his to lead her through the night.

I do that a lot with the work of James Wright. The book Above the River is never far fom my reach, and my copy is so dogeared and useless that really there's little point in me trying to find anything special. It's better to just open up and read.

The thing I love about Wright is that time after time in his poems I find that he has said the unsayable. In my life, this is what I am going for--in the poem, in the process of creating the poem something takes over (Muse? Metaphor? Grace?) and allows you to utter things that are nearly inartculate they are so right. I know this sounds like bull, but anyone who is a writer will understand, I bet. It's like being blind, or being lost at the same time you know exactly where you are. This makes his poems hard to talk about it, but when I have been looking at them for a while they sort of lock into place and are perfect, and make perfect sense.

Here's a favorite:

As I Step over a Puddle at the End
of Winter, I Think of an
Ancient Chinese Governor

And how can I, born in evil days
And fresh from failure, ask a kindness of fate?
--Written A.D. 819

Po Chu-i, balding old politician,
What's the use?
I think of you,
Uneasily entering the gorges of the Yang-Tze,
When you were being towed up the rapids
Toward some political job or other
In the city of Chungshou.
You made it, I guess,
By dark.

But it is 1960, it is almost spring again,
And the tall rocks of Minneapolis
Build me my own twilight
Of bamboo ropes and black waters.
Where is Yuan Chen, the friend you loved?
Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness
Of the Midwest? Where is Minneapolis? I can see nothing
But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.
Did you find the city of isolated men beyond the mountains?
Or have you been holding the end of a frayed rope
For a thousand years?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Hee Hee!

Do you ever get so delighted with yourself that you start to giggle at the least provocation? Well, that's how I feel today. I finished up some very big projects that were looming over me, and with that comes a certain degree of freedom. And I have practiced being assertive and delegating, and this is loosening my workload a bit. Also, yesterday I wrote a proposal that is so good I can't believe I had anything to do with it at all. I felt absolutely inspired, and after months of thinking about the project and conducting research, it just smacked me over the head and I finished it in only a few hours--I did a tablet draft while my kids were in the sandbox and typed it up right after they went to bed. It didn't even have a typo. I've been inspired in the classroom before, but never with a project for work. After my boss read it she gave me a two-pound praline and called me fantastic in a French accent.

After that I spent the night finishing a revision of one poem that's been due to an editor and working on another I started this week. Today my mom is picking up my kids at school, so I stayed here at school and finished a draft of the new poem. It's called "Breaking Curfew with the Ancient Chnese Poet." Hee Hee!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Procurer of Blurbs, or, Mom, Where Do Blurbs Come From--The Sequel

A while back I posted about having a hard time deciding what to do about blurbs for my chapbook. I am well aware that a chapbook doesn't need blurbs, but I want some anyway, and I want some good ones. But I had no idea who to ask--I didn't want to rely on former teachers because I did that for my first book, and I didn't want to use a colleague, and I don't really know anybody. I was stuck.

Then I started thinking of people who might be interested in my work and 1 or 2 book poets whose work has been important to me while working on my poems. And then I just hunted down their emails and asked them, prefacing the asking with a brief statement about how important their recent work had been to me. I started with four, and all four have been receptive--I got one blurb the other day, one on the way, and two promised. I think that's pretty good.

Here's an excerpt from the first blurb, which I may have to cut down for size. I wonder of it's ok to put her name down?

The part I like best is this: "Through these landscapes wander a surprising pair of literary ghosts: French convict-poet Francois Villon, feeling thoroughly at home with his fellow sinners, and Chinese scholar poet Li Po, drunkenly searching for his lost pastoral world. It's about time that Southern "grit lit" crossed over from fiction to poetry, and Alison Pelegrin is just the poet to pull it off." Julie Kane

What is "grit lit"? Grit like grits, like girls-raised-in-the-south, like gritty? Or something else entirely?

I don't hate the South!

I got an email from John H. over at Kestrel asking me to proof some proofs of mine and to please hurry up, because they are on a tight schedule. The funny thing about all of this is that these poems were accepted for realease in the 2001 issue of Kestrel, which was supposed to have a feature on New Orleans area writers. I even had to write an "intro" to my work-- I rememeber it, because all of this happened the week of my dad's funeral and the week before my first son was born, so that piece of writng was so important to me--just something to DO and keep my mind off of his body getting burnt up in the crematorium.

So I proofed the work and sent it back. No hard feelings, and it seems to be a good issue because I saw the table of contents. Pictures of New Orleans and everything. And before he acceped the work, John H. offered me some exceptional feedback.

This week I also got some great suggestions from Blackbird about a poem of mine they have accepted. Gregory D. has been one fantastic editor to me--he's given me more insight on two poems than I've had from anyone in the last four years. I'm excited that someone thought enough of the poems to write so much about them. I'm in the mood, so I'll probably address those changes tonight.

The last time I got lengthy comments from a journal years ago--the editor was protesting a poem and said I reminded him of Quentin from Absolom, Absolom: "I don't hate the south! I don't hate the south!"

Whatever. The poem was supposed to be funny. I gave a reading to a huge crowd the other day, and somebody taking notes in the front row (surely for extra credit!) asked if I was serious in such and such a poem or was I using "irony."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


I'm ashamed to admit that I was just reading an entertainment headline about the Desperate Housewives stars "flipping out" over a photo shoot. You know, who sits where, who wears what, who's on the inside flap of the magazine, etc. These women, according to the story, were really cutting up about the whole thing. And I was reading it thinking, what a bunch of babies--they should be happy that people will pay money to see them in a bathing suit, and that poets will PUSH ASIDE A DRAFT OF A POEM THAT IS GOING WELL to read about it.

It then hit me that poets and writers often behave in the same way. In my own life, I have been pulled into just this sort of controversy myself. And I am so dense that I thought all of us--and these are people I admire--were just trying to find a date that fit our schedules. What I really think is happening is that everyone is hustling for a better posiition on the program, and exclusive show . . . . whatever. My play is to duck my head and play dumb. I don't want to give up the gig, but I have no problems sharing, either.

I can't wait to see how this plays out. So mundane, and yet so interesting. I have to practice my cocktail party behavior so that I can see things in more than one dimension. Friends, that is going to take some work.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Tripping over Cobblestones

This weekend was the Tennessee Williams Festival. I was a participant this year, which means I got tickets to all of the ritzy parties, which means I had a good time. On Wednesday I had a little too much fun at a party with all sorts of writers. Maybe later I'll go into the adventure I shared with Anne, Dean, and Brad, an ordeal which involved being lost and walking--IN HEELS--among the cobblestoned streets in the French Quarter for about two hours.

It was fun though, and I was giddy when I got home. I even teetered to the mailbox, and boy am I glad I did because what was inside but a letter from the guest editor of Ploughshares saying how much he loved one of my poems. At the end of the letter he wrote "You're the real deal." That's something all poets should hear now and again.

Also in my mailbox were my contributer's copies of the Cimarron Review. If I can ever figure out how to do a link I'll link to the site because my poem is featured there. Also featured is a poem by Brian Turner. I think that guy is a great writer. Maybe he'll come to the Ten. Wms Fest one year.

On Friday I intorduced Ellen Gilchrist, which is no mean feat--that intro cost me a poem and a half, I swear. And I even had Stokes on the phone helping out. Sunday I was on a boring (not my fault) poetry panel. Then I skipped out to see Dave Eggers (Eggars ?)being inteviewed by Anne at Muriel's. But we got there and it was so crowded and hot, we just left after sneaking in to tell her good luck.

I also had a poem accepted by Blackbird, which is a great online journal. Guy the editor write me a very long email with brilliant feedback on a poem I sent to them. Makes me wish I had a writing group.

Rather than Creole tomatoes, my hubby bought be a bright-painted, wooden jackalope from Mexico from the French Market. In its ears I have placed the letter from DStJ.

As Whitehead used to say, Onward.