Monday, November 23, 2015

Wherever Poets Gather

Having just returned home from the fall conference of the North Carolina Writers Network (only to leave again the next morning), I have a head full of great workshops and readings, great writing ideas, a stack of books to read, and a reminder why poetry still matters. The conference held in Asheville was a perfect setting for Jane and me to share our call for submissions for the Well-Versed Reader, since so many of our favorite poets were there.

One of the few complaints I heard (other than the usual variation of themes on thermostat) came during the evening open mic readings, held in three different rooms: "Why have they separated the poets?!"

Fiction write Lee Smith opened the conference with a reading on Friday evening and presented a workshop session on Saturday.  Former NC Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer was featured at Saturday's luncheon, beginning with her beautiful, timely poem "Mountain Time," which moves from pessimism about the state of and future for poetry to a lovely quilting metaphor.

Two themes thrummed under the surface of so much I heard this past weekend:  Words Matter. Stories Matter. That's why poets write and why readers read. That's exactly why we hope to bring the two together.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Calling All Book Clubs

Call for Submissions.
I've been a book clubber long enough to know that coming to a consensus about what to read can be one of the biggest challenges. Some people want to read all the new edgy fiction; others want "something light for a change." Some come for the wine.

Some book clubs are well-organized, choosing books, hosts, and meeting locations a year at a time. Some plan programs about the author or the book. Some have book-themed food--or wine. I've visited book clubs in which the members swap books but never read the same one at the same time. (They also serve refreshments using the good china and silver.)

My book club rarely manages to settle on a single book, often adding a second or third extra choice.  We can't plan too far ahead because the book we read in June might not have been published in January.

Most book clubs I know lean heavily toward current fiction, but some read nonfiction--and some read the classics. One of my male college friends, a non-reader back then, joined a book club after he retired and read War and Peace--and convinced his wife and grown son to read it.

Very few book clubs choose poetry. On a few rare occasions, I've been invited to speak to friends' book clubs who selected my chapbook for reading.  I'm sure there was some duress on the part of my friends. Usually, though, the members expressed surprise that they enjoyed reading poems.  They even seemed to enjoy them more after discussions. 

After teaching high school for all those years when students, given an option, tended to choose the shortest book, I wonder why, then, adult readers avoid poetry? As I've mentioned in an earlier, some  people are put off poetry by school experiences.

I think a bigger problem may be that people rarely have any contact with poetry after school, any reason to pick it up and read it. Try browsing the big box bookstore poetry section, and you will find a little Frost, Dickinson, Whitman--but very little poetry from this century.  If your exposure to poetry is limited to The New Yorker, you might think it's all supposed to be highbrow (translation: obscure and abstract.)

Show up at a local poetry event--yes, most cities have them, even small towns--and you might be surprised. Sometimes the best introduction to a poet is hearing that poet reading his or her own poems. It adds another dimension to the words on the page. 

When I started going to our local poetry reading, I made a point, whenever I could, to buy two copies of a chapbook or collection from the featured poet--one for me, one to share.  Then I had an automatic book club meeting, someone else who could talk about the poems with me.  Almost always, something in the poems suggested exactly who my recipient should be.

Jane and I would love to hear from book club members to know (1. what you are reading; (2. if you've ever considered poetry. 

While I'm talking poetry: The National Book Awards for 2015 were just announced. Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis was the poetry winner.  Yes, there is a poetry winner! Check it out.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Pouring Water on a Great Poem

While keeping in mind our Call for Submissions, I wanted to share a little piece I came across in my reading.

I read the Sunday papers in my own arbitrary method, stacking my favorite sections in the order in which I will attack.  From the New York Times Book Review, I prioritize the "By the Book" interview section, in which the author of a recently published book answers questions about his or her reading life and history.

Last week, Gloria Steinem was front and center. When asked which genres she enjoys reading and which she avoids, her answer both pleased and surprised me. While she admits that she "used to be hooked on novels," she says she's not "hooked on ideas," adding, " Poetry has replaced novels. If you poured water on a great poem, you would get a novel."

That is just the idea Jane and I are pursuing in this anthology project. We want to introduce readers to the distilled language, the conciseness of story found in poetry. I forget huge portions of novels, even short ones. I'm often left with what Cathy Smith Bowers referred to as the "abiding image."

Try this: Think of your favorite novel and conjure up the most concrete image you recall. 

 Of all people, I would never suggest replacing novels with poetry--or biography or philosophy or DIY--but I would hope serious pleasure readers would expand their horizons to include poetry.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Scintillating Shapes of Story

Nancy’s post discussing pairings of fiction and poetry for book clubs (not unlike the wines and cheeses that nourish discussion) gives a wonderful example of narrative poetry in Miller Williams’ “The Curator,” a free-verse piece. Now, friends, let’s open a dialogue about narrative poetry in the comments section here.  In the weeks ahead, Nancy and I plan to post some good examples of narrative poems that we find compelling and hope you will join us here to read, comment, and suggest narrative poems you love and writers you admire.  While this is not the place to submit your own work for discussion, it is a wonderful forum for links to poems and poets who inspire your work.  Want to share?

So, let’s talk form. Should narrative poems always be free verse? Not at all, in my opinion. Narrative poems can take any number of forms. Some of the most memorable to us from childhood are rhymed and metered to a fine bounce.  Remember “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer or Henry Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”?  Poets from Shel Silverstein to AA Milne peopled poems with rhymes we could dance to.  As we grew older, we engaged with epics, narrative poems with a long tale to tell, but also with shorter stories like Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” Is this a character study or a narrative poem?  Look at the form it takes—couplets in iambic pentameter— that nevertheless does not read in the bouncy fashion of our childhood favorites.

Now, have a look at Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” written in blank verse (iambic pentameter with no rhyme scheme) so masterfully that Frost uses two partial lines of conversation to complete one line of iambic pentameter, not an easy thing to do. Through conversation, the characters are developed, the plot thickened, and the overall conflict and purpose of the poem revealed or suggested. There’s nothing like a misunderstanding between a man and woman to generate heated discussion. Frost appeals to readers for understanding about this couple’s plight.  I had a student tell me that “Home Burial” and “Death of a Hired Man” could be short short stories or flash fiction.  Clearly, narrative elements—a story and characters—were obvious to him.  Why not just call it prose then? 

Because Frost is a poet.  Because the lines and the form itself, blank verse, is verse, not prose.  Because the margins and line lengths suggest NOT a prose form but a poetic one.  Let’s face it, any number of works can be re-formed into another kind of writing.  The writer gets to make that call for his or her own work.  Still, isn’t the effectiveness of a narrative’s form and structure an interesting conversation to have with your book club?

None of the poems mentioned here are short poems, begging the question of how long a narrative poem should be.  E.A. Poe in his “Philosophy of Composition” insisted that all stories be only as long as one could read in one sitting, no interruptions. Homer would clearly disagree. Perhaps more important than length, I’d say a narrative poem should be effective, long enough to tell the story as well as it can be told and still leave a mystery for the reader to discover. Yes, I know that Nancy and I arrived at 110 as our line limit, simply because we’d like to represent more than one writer in our anthology. What do you think about the relationship between length of poem, story told, and reader engagement?

Can a story be told in fewer lines, even in a few words?  Perhaps you recall DeGroot’s play Papa that says Ernest Hemingway allegedly bet he could write a story in under ten words.  His story was this: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."   Whether or not the writer actually wrote the story or engaged in the bet, the legend of it engages writers and thinkers to consider what a story is—what is written or what is suggested that leads the reader to imagine a completion, an actual story.  I submit that these six words are like a good question, the seed of a story, which, when planted in the mind of a writer or reader, becomes rooted and leafy, fleshed out as a plethora of thriving stories.  The six words alone won’t do it for me.  However, you may feel differently and consider this a microscopic story.

As you write and submit your own strong narratives to our Call for Submissions for The Well-Versed Reader, help us engage you in discussing effective narrative poems that you would well suggest to your book club. Post links and comments in the comments section below.