It is rather hideously late at this point, and all logic and reason is pointing out that I should be going to bed. But as I already appear to be here at the expense of my health for the furtherance of my sanity I say, heck, why not do this now? That, and I promised to update faithfully, so update I shall.
Hi. How's it going?
It's been brought to my attention that while I have kept you abreast of daily happenings, I have not stated much of what is being learned. Therefore I shall do so with rough drafts of my residency reviews. Mostly because it's shorter than typing in all my notes. These will be cleaned up a little later, but I needed to get something down to work with. So, here we go. Please excuse typos.
Marvin Bell's talk focused on learning to be a writer every day. While actually writing daily was a factor of that, he spoke more to overcoming the setbacks, stumbling blocks, and just plain blocks we as writers experience. It was less about improving our work than inspiring ourselves. He refers to these inspirational techniques as 'Cheap Tricks'.
One of these tricks was to focus not on the requirements of an assignment, but to focus on materials. For instance, we could be assigned to write thirty poems of fifteen lines each (that wasn't the exact example, but it will work for all intents and purposes.), and once we'd written about our shoelaces and our shirt, the window sills and that particular noise from next door, we exhaust our ability to contrive content. Here is where the materials go to work. The words, phrases, forms, syntax, metaphor, and dozens of other elements of the craft begin to work for us, making the content come. The poetry must be the place ideas are born. The poems should not be born of ideas.
I had discovered this, to a point, in my own experimentation with forms. Using a form for a poem forces the poet to give the poem the reigns and be the guide. Marvin pointed out that everything connects, whether immediately or eventually, and I have found that to be true. When poems are allowed to guide themselves they create incredible, revealing stories. Forced to obey, they fall flat and dull.
Another Cheap Trick I am eager to try is to keep an endless 'scroll' on the computer desktop. This encourages daily writing and alleviates the daunting sight of a blank page. When a writer feels dry, going through the scroll can yield ideas, images, phrases, or suggestions. I have found a blank page to be a tough thing to overcome, and I also have a bad habit of throwing things out when I think they're no good. But "good stuff and bad stuff are all part of the stuff," Marvin said, and I'm excited for the new stuff I have now to make stuff with. (Mom, please don't kill me over the preposition...).
Debra Gwartney fascinated me with her material. She told us "When the action is hot, write cool." Her discussion of how spare, unemotional language can so enhance a written piece surprised me. In poetry, I appreciate spare language which gives the reader space to work. But I had never noticed its effect on prose before. Debra gave several examples of emotional moments when the characters speaking offered their experiences up in a detached way. The excerpt from Mark Richard's The Special Child made the point best for me. Richard layers trauma, tragedy, terror, and sadness over and over one another, yet the tone communicates only flat, straightforward facts. As short as the exerpt was, I was both eager and afraid to read the full work. richard managed to conjur up a horror in the pit of my stomach, even though he described the events in a detached tone.
I know in my few attempts to experiment with prose I have launched into traumatic events, allowing myself to feel what the characters felt and get all the action down on the page. But Debra made me aware that, though the reader needs to sympathize, all that action tends to overwhelm the reader, leaving little or no emotion for the remainder of the story. The events which feed the excitement and tragedy in a story must carry beyond those moments. The tension has to last in order to keep the reader engaged.
Another interesting point was the distinction presented between suspense and tension. Suspense was defined as asction in the outside world which carries us outside the moments of action, forcing the reader to await the resolution. Tension was described as the speaker's inner turmoil. I had considered suspense and tension to be much the same thing, so to have them explained in this fashion was illuminating. Steven James wrote that he found tension to be the most important driving force of any story. I originally took that to mean that the events of the story were meant to build the anticipation for the final event. I understand now that it is the inner conflict of the character, the actual tension, which carries the story best.
Sandra Alcosser brought Marvin's point about everything connecting into sharp focus for me. I began to see that what is not written more often becomes what a reader takes away from a poem. Sandra's talk on brevity was heavy with examples, which I appreciated. (For those reading this blog post, see Merwin's translation of Hadrian's 'Little Soul', 'In a Station of the Metro' by Ezra Pound, 'Tao Te Ching' by Lau Tzu, [That would be Shih Tzu's little brother. Just kidding], 'Song of the Last Meeting' and 'Three Things Enchanted Him' by Anna Akhmatova. There was also a short poem by Blackman and a few others).
The basic point of the talk was that brevity can very much enhance a poem. Writing a short poem, or shortening a longer poem, can communicate as much if not more than the longer work could do. Her best example, Ezra Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro,' (Aw Heck, I'll just post it here:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough
That's the whole thing), revealed that the exclusion of such words as 'are like' petals on a wet black bough' give the reader so much more room to discover the poem. It does not direct the reader, but guides. The economy of words causes the words chosen to pop out and surprise the reader with the ideas and images contained.
Sandra also touched on metaphor, as well as devices like metonymy, referencing Anna Akhmatova's 'Song of the Last Meeting' where the speaker states "I put my left glove on / my right hand, like an idiot." The glove on the wrong hand is used here as a gesture which describes the whole of the situation. In this case, that situation is a failed relationship. Sandra challenged us to find a gesture which captures a state of being (which I have yet to do...). The author could have prattled on about the relationship and how it failed, but she goes on and allows the reader to discover that for themselves.
These liminal spaces, the things not said, are the spaces for the reader to creep in and take ownership. The spareness in this sense and in the removal of emotion from a poem or a story sets out just the story as it took place without analyzing or deconstructing. The reader receives only the facts. The metaphors and emotions are their own to fill in.
Kellie wells spoke to us on how to take the unusual and use it to refresh the usual. Her talk focused on Fabulist fiction, which she defined as fiction in which anything can happen completely unfettered by reality. This type of writing twists the unusual into metaphors for things we already know, but presents them as an interesting discovery. It works to defamiliarize subjects and topics so as to make them revealing again. It is a way to reinvigorate a subject.
Writing for these types of stories must be bold, go for broke, so the reader will be tempted to inhabit the space of the story which is both unfamiliar and daunting, yet tempting. Writing in this fashion can bring the writer to things and ideas which complacency tends to steer away from.
She also mentioned that a reader is always looking for reasons not to engage emotionally with a work.
And that's all the work I've done so far on my notes. I just find it interesting how, as Marvin said, everything connects. These talks so far have nearly all focused on the power of what is not said as compared to what actually is set before the reader. The mind will do the work if the materials are there (again, hearkening back to Marvin). It is crucial, it seems from these talks, not to overload the poem or prose with directions for the reader to follow, as that interrupts the creative experience the reader would otherwise have had with the piece.
I went to the student reading tonight. Last night nobody showed up and tonight I had signed up as third on the list, but scratched myself because my throat is bothering me to the degree that I choked while I was reading my poem in workshop this afternoon. (And I was the first one up. THAT was embarrasing. Especially since I've never met Kwame Dawes before, but he was the workshop leader today and I'm pretty sure he was watching. I think I'm going to get some cold medicine and find some water that doesn't taste like a pool. Because I really think the chlorinated water here is part of my problem...). Peter Sears walked in after me and sat up toward the front, but he turned around and said "Hey Montana, how ya doing?" I told him I was doin' all right and he said he had dinner with Sandra and that she picked me? What? I had her sign my book this afternoon and she looked and acted like she'd forgotten she ever met me. I wonder what brought that on, or if she picked the other Hannah. I don't know, I guess I'll see when the student-advisor pairings come out. So far as I know, they're not even being assigned until Tuesday. Still, if that's true that she chose me to be her student, at least I don't have to wait, and I know I have a good advisor. Not that they aren't all incredible. I've only heard one bad thing about one instructor and every other person had only good things to say about her, so it must have been an isolated thing.
Sorry if this is scattered, I'm falling asleep. See you all tomorrow!