First Packet Nerves

So here’s the two page essay I wrote on Paul Muldoon for my first packet. Two pages isn’t enough really, to say everything I wanted to about this book – I wanted to talk more about his cryptic style and actual content, but I didn’t want to go over the limit. Liam was fairly clear that he disliked being inundated with overlong essays from anxious students!

Moy Sand and Gravel, in Riddle and Rhyme

Paul Muldoon may well have been a leprechaun in a previous life: he is as tricky as Rumpelstiltskin. However, permitting poets the role of riddlers, and admiring the elaborate structures of formal verse, I set out gladly with my pen and trusty Internet Search Engine in an attempt to discern the patterns behind Paul’s latest Pulitzer prize-winning collection, Moy Sand and Gravel, applying what lessons I could to my own work.

Paul loves rhyme the way that Byron’s Don Juan loved women – with an inability to be faithful to any one kind for long. Most of the poems in this collection contain liberal use of end rhyme, whether perfect, slant or, a particular favorite of his, identity rhyme. (In “One Last Draw of the Pipe” ten of the fourteen lines end in the same syllable, draw.) Likewise the rhyme schemes vary from simple abab patterns to the amazingly complex. I am keen to try the pattern he uses in “Whitethorns,” for example, where every line of the first stanza rhymes with the corresponding line in the second. Not only does this offer a subtle effect totally immune to singsong-ness, but the second stanza resonates in gentle echo of the first.  He also puts terza rima to good use in “The Unapproved Road.” I plan to experiment more now with interlocking rhyme schemes. “The Grand Conversation” (abccabdd) and “John Luke: the Fox” (aba cbc dbd ebe) both have charm without the underlying implication “And look how clever I am!” unfortunately present in poems such as “The Braggart” (aaa bbb.) Such heavy handed use of rhyme also leaves him open to accusations of forced rhymes in instances where he uses obscure words to complete his scheme. Why, in “News Headlines from the Homer Noble Farm” does he compare turtles to delf (an excavation, usually a quarry or mine) if not mainly for the rhyme with shelf?

Paul is considerably lighter handed with his meter. Many poems indeed, such as “The Whinny”, have none discernible, despite an end rhyme scheme. It’s a technique that appeals to me – I sense it is rather better to write a sonnet which has no pretensions towards iambic pentameter than to write one which has a laboriously counted ten syllables per line and yet doesn’t quite achieve the rhythm. There are fourteen such sonnetypes (by which I mean any fourteen line poem with an end rhyme scheme) in this book. It’s also clear Paul knew the rules before he started breaking them, as illustrated by more formally metrical poems such as “Two Stabs at Oscar,” a parody of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

Many poems required my considerable scrutiny before they gave up their meaning. Often it was with a treasure-hunter’s joy that I reached the final X-marked spot, as in “Summer Coal” where the key to the map was the understanding that the two first person stanzas are in opposing points of view, or in “When Aifric and I Put in at That Little Creek,” where a Google search of Masatiompan revealed it as the mountain from under which St. Brendan set sail for America. Yet, in “As” the swamp of pop culture, brand names and history became too murky. Here I became convinced that no amount of research would upset my conclusion that the author was making connections entirely on his own ear and what Frank O’ Hara called “nerve.” Similarly the final long poem in the book “At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999” seems no more than a deliberately obscure convolution of his son’s Celtic-Judaic heritage.

However, I will forgive Paul Muldoon his occasional lapse into over-indulgence, even if he does occasionally seem to need a gentle reminder of what happened to Rumpelstiltskin at the end of the fairytale. There’s so much here to admire – translations of Valéry, Horace and the ancient Briton Caedmon, ekphrastic poems, poignant laments over the troubles of Ireland, ambitious and artful sestinas. He really does appear to have mastered the art of spinning straw into gold. Moy Sand and Gravel, as a whole, is a gem.

The Reality of Low-Residency

I got home late Sunday night after an unpleasant “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” journey home. Yesterday everyone was off for MLK day, so today was the first day during which I really tried to get into the routine I will need to follow for the next two years.

It’s not that bad.

I got the kids on the school bus – as usual – then myself off to the YMCA for my 8.35 Chisel Class. I had to nip to Target afterwards for Becky’s Art Supplies – the list arrived while I was away – but I was home, showered and at my books by 10.45. I finished To The Lighthouse, which I had started at the airport – I’d really needed a short poetry break after the residency (although VW’s prose is practically poetry – I’m anxious to try and write a poem which uses the same non-linearity and devices of time compression and expansion.) Then I started Moy Sand And Gravel by Paul Muldoon, which is the book I am planning to write my two page essay on for the first packet, due February 1st. I read/ made notes/ researched for 2 hours, and then I found myself ‘Muldooned out.’ I shall probably post my essay here, so you can wait until then to discover my thoughts, but that leaves me about half way through the book.

Then I revised the poems we workshopped at the residency for about the next 90 minutes, which was a very productive session. Liam wants those in the first packet too, along with two new poems (but I wrote two while at Bennington, one of which I like enormously, so no problem there.)

Also today I received an acceptance from the Schuykill Valley Journal for “If We Kissed,” which was very gratifying.

I’m very much feeling I can do this, at this point. Long may it last!

Ten Things About Bennington That I Really, Really Love…

  1. My Intake Class, henceforth to be known as “The Class of Jan ’08” – actually there are 25 of us, so that is really going to be 34 things I love. And of course I don’t love all of them. There is a profound sociability distribution which would make that impossible. However the delight of being with 25 smart people who share my passion for writing, after being stuck in suburbia for 5 years, is indescribable. Some of them also share my passion for wine…
  2. Liam Rector, my teacher this semester and the Director of the program – this guy is incredibly intelligent, has read EVERYTHING and knows exactly how to pare a poem to the bone. He also has this roguish little smile. I’m meeting him to discuss my reading list at 4.30.
  3. The Campus Bar – OK it’s not the Ritz, but they sell large glasses of chardonnay for $2.50 and there’s Table Football.
  4. Having a Pigeonhole – the English word is better than ‘box’, don’t you think? People stick poems in them, postcards, notes.
  5. Having a Mealplan – the food is OK, honestly. Some of it is a little experimental, but the curries have been good and the breakfasts are wonderful. The main thing is: I didn’t shop for it; I didn’t cook it and I don’t have to wash it up.
  6. Snow – I know, I know, and we haven’t even had much of it for the time of year, but it makes the campus look idyllic, and there’s that whole college thing about scarves…
  7. Missing lectures – attending them too, obviously. But I’d forgotten how deliciously naughty was that feeling of “I think I’ll just lie in bed a bit longer and skip the first one” — which I did this morning.
  8. The Faculty Readings – Liam’s reading tonight. Timothy Liu (who is really funny – you should have seen him at 80s dance night) tomorrow.
  9. The fact that for the entire semester I need to read 25 books (I love reading), write 10 poems a month (I sometimes write that in a week), one 10 page essay and then I’ll be 1/4 of the way to getting my MFA.
  10. My husband and kids for letting me come here for ten days. Oh, and Donna and Rachel for looking after my kids! I love them, and miss them, but this whole experience is enabling me to rediscover an Anna I’d lost sight of over the years. Thanks guys!

Another Quick Bennington Update

I wish I could take more time to write everything up, but they keep us busy during the day and, well, the bar is open at night!

I’m just having a quick cup of tea and then I have to get showered, dressed and breakfasted ready for an 8.20 a.m. lecture on “When Poets Vacuum.”

I love every minute!

Quick Bennington Update

So I’m here, and it’s great so far! Everyone is very friendly and smart. The two faculty readings we had tonight were fantastic – Jill McCorkle’s story almost made me cry.

I’m having some issues with my Ethernet connection, and I need to buy a mug and some milk for my tea. But I’m going to sort those out tomorrow. Right now I’m going to bed.

The Minefield of Editorial Decision Making

I’ve been thinking some more about the political side of poetry, and specifically, about making editorial decisions. I know there’s a whole website dedicated to exposing poetry contests where the winners are proven to be friendly with the judges (Foetry). It seems unfortunate that completely different standards apply in the arena of general submissions, where not only the name of the poet is firmly attached to the poems, but often a lengthy biography detailing previous publications, prizes and lofty positions held in the educational establishment. How many editors are intimidated into accepting poems because of such bios? Personally I request no bios with submissions for the Barefoot Muse, and so do the QNDs for Up & Under. Nevertheless, many submissions ignore this request.

If only there were a convenient way of making general submissions blind, the editorial process would be fairer and less fraught with anxiety. If it were blind, acquaintances who currently submit to me knowing I am under pressure to accept their work would have no comeback when it gets rejected.

There are several types of submission I shudder to open, knowing I will either have to offend someone or accept substandard work.

  • Second rate poems from a widely published and influential poet. Yes, I know my zine and journal are not among the highly regarded. Still, why would you want your second rate poems to appear anywhere? Revise them, trash them, but don’t send them to me. I take the view that I am always going to write more poetry, so I don’t hang on to my best poems waiting for an acceptance from a big journal. I get them out there to be read. And I don’t send my second rate poems anywhere.
  • Poems from Editors who have published me. Let me reiterate, I know that is how many journals operate. I don’t want to be a part of it. I expect you to publish MY stuff if it’s good enough for your journal, and I will publish YOUR stuff if it’s good enough for mine, not just BECAUSE you published me.
  • Poems from friends and acquaintances. In the Barefoot Muse I do fortunately have the option of simply saying “I’m sorry, it’s not metrical enough.” As I am a soft touch I often add “But if you like I’ll work with you to get the metrics right and THEN I’ll publish it.” Up & Under, where I am one voice of five, occasionally ends up taking an undeserving poem simply because of the politics.

I read another poet’s blog recently in which he said that as a rule he never submits to journals run by friends. I think I’m going to adopt that principle for myself and also make a New Year’s Resolution to accept and reject solely on merit. I shall remain unswayed by your Pushcart Prize nominations and your impressive list of credits. I shall not Google you to see if you are published online. If I know your name I shall attempt to forget it. That way, I can create a Literary Journal for the people it is really meant for, the readers.

So, About that MFA…

Now that the New Year’s Eve Party is past (lovely, thanks for asking) the next big thing on my horizon is my first ten day residency for my MFA in Creative Writing. I leave Thursday for snowy Vermont. I want to express my thoughts here about MFAs in general and my own in particular, as after my residency my position may have changed.

First of all, and I know others have said this more eloquently than myself, I abhor the fact that in the poetry world, who you know counts more than what you write. I hate attending readings where the featured reader is not impressive, despite numerous publications and books. I hate reading terrible poems by ‘name’ poets in journals that have rejected my stuff. But I understand that is how it is. I serve on two editorial boards myself: Up & Under, the QND Review and the Barefoot Muse. Of course you look at the name on the submission. Of course there’s a halo effect.

One thing is certain, things can only be changed from within. How then, does someone like me, a foreigner with no connections in this country and no links to University English departments, get into this sacred poetry circle? The MFA can’t hurt.

That’s the cynical angle, but I started thinking about doing an MFA before I even really knew what one was, and way before I read all the arguments for and against. Back then my reasoning was simple, I wanted to be a better poet. In 2004/5 I audited two undergraduate classes at Richard Stockton College, the Basic Poetry Workshop with BJ Ward, and then the Advanced Workshop with BJ and Stephen Dunn. Bear in mind I have no literary qualifications whatsoever. Before that, the last time I studied poetry in a classroom I was not quite 16 years old. I loved it. BJ and Stephen are both wonderful, inspiring teachers and excellent poets. They are also demanding of their students, and that was something I needed. The workshops I had been involved in outside of University were of a way lower standard, and basically I wasn’t getting the necessary feedback to improve as a poet.

During the second semester I read Stephen Dunn’s excellent essay collection Walking Light. In one of the pieces he describes how he came to do his MFA, which was not by the conventional route. He did not have an outstanding undergraduate career, and was thirty at the time some of his friends told him he should apply, and that he would get in on the strength of his poetry. It got me to thinking, maybe, just maybe, *I* could get in on the strength of my poetry, and that the irrelevance of my undergraduate degree wouldn’t matter. I talked it over with Stephen and BJ, and Stephen agreed to recommend me if he was sufficiently impressed by my final portfolio.

I applied to Warren Wilson, Fairleigh-Dickinson and Bennington College. Obviously I needed to go the Low Residency route. Believe me, it’s been hard enough arranging to leave my kids for ten days! Warren Wilson kept me dangling until AFTER I had already accepted my offer from Bennington, and then rejected me. I was speaking to Crystal Bacon after a Princeton reading, and she told me they rarely accept anyone on their first application. She herself had been rejected twice before finally earning a place. At 37, I just want to get on with it! Bennington looks awesome, and I will have Liam Rector as my Faculty Advisor for the first semester.

So, I think the MFA will increase my connections, help me grow as a poet, and there’s one last thing. I actually believe it might help me to get a job! I’ve been out of the workforce for nine years and I’ve never worked in the US. I’m also tied to school hours. The only job I could get right now would be something minimum wage in retail or catering. However, Lorna has been in full day school since September. I’ve been pretty focused about writing a couple of hours every day while the kids are gone, but I think the MFA will force me to be even more productive. And then in two years time I’m hoping I can get a job teaching Community College a couple of hours a week, acquiring some experience so that when the kids are old enough I can apply to a regular University English Department.

So, those are my reasons and my game plan. I’ve read a great deal of criticism of MFA programs and I’ve also read some glowing recommendations. None of it matters – I intend to make my own mind up over the next two years. I also propose to have some fun!

sylvia's Grave 

Possibly the Worst Time Ever to Start a Blog

There are five days until Christmas. In approximately three hours my husband, myself, and our two daughters will load ourselves into a cab, along with 3 suitcases (one entirely filled with Christmas gifts) and drive to Philadelphia Airport on the first leg of our week long Holiday trip home to the UK. A week after we get back to NJ, I shall travel to Vermont to begin the first 10 day residency of my MFA course at Bennington College.

So, naturally, it’s the perfect time to start a Blog!

Look, I am a rational minded creature with an Engineering degree. One of my ex-boyfriends used to call me “Spock,” and in Poetry Workshops I have been known to exasperate participants by listing the parts of their poems which caused my logic beeper to emit piercing shrieks.

On the other hand, my creative side is frequently swayed by fate. I have been sorting, packing and wrapping all day, and when I finished about half an hour ago my husband literally forced me to sit down at the computer with a cup of tea. I was checking the referral statistics for my formal poetry e-zine The Barefoot Muse and I noticed a Yahoo link offering me the chance to start my own blog attached to the site. To me that was the equivalent of opening a Fortune Cookie which stated “You really ought to start a blog – everyone does it these days.”

So here we are. I probably won’t be able to add another post until we are back in the country in about a week’s time, what with my parents only having dial up Internet access and my In Laws, who live in Prehistoric Barnsley, S. Yorks, not having a computer at all. However, at that time I hope to regale you all with joyful tales of Christmas in the old country, complete with nagging relations (“Your children have the most appalling American accents“…duh!), pints o’ bitter in the local pub, and hopefully at least one decent Indian takeaway.