poem as slick made thing: from Alice in Wonderland to Yehuda Amichai

A line comes to mind, an image, a quote, a throwaway comment, an intriguing word, and a poet realizes a poem has to come out of it. At least that an attempt must be made. What the poem will be, its shape and content, even its theme, might be unknown. The poem starts to be made, another line, a word follows, coming as if out of the air.  If I have an idea for a poem and know where it is going, I might as well forget it. My interest is gone.

This isn’t how all poems are made, but it’s an interesting way to work. Underneath all the thinking and making, a poem may end up being about something deep in the subconscious, something important that has been waiting for a platform.

But since a poem is a made thing, it can be approached in many ways, the way a child looks at the materials available and without thinking, begins to make or build. We grow out of it; as adults simple playing can be embarrassing. Adult play sometimes narrows to games of one sort or another.

The poem at the start of the rabbit collection, ‘where language forms’ had several beginnings. I’ve written poetry for many years in the Japanese forms of haiku and tanka, among others. In three or five small lines, the poet often is conscious of using juxtaposition, of not following a thought in what many would consider a logical way. Something magical can happen by having a reader or listener make their own leap between two written concepts.

Another ‘brick’ in the building of this poem is my collection of pretty well anything that comes to my attention, via book, facebook, conversation, television or radio, basically I’m like the bird that collects things becaus they are blue or shiny. I collect words in various arrangements.

When I started writing lyric poems like this, it confused me. How do such disparate sets of words seem to work for me. They didn’t seem to work for some in a critique group. But some juxtapositions took hold ‘in my gut’, and insisted on staying together.

In this case, the poem started with the second verse, a quote from Lewis Carroll, and when it came to continuing the adventure, I decided to play and find lines that were noteworthy, colourful, or lines that I wanted to read over and over. Well, I’d think, let’s put that into a poem, see if I’m still interested in what I’m making.

It reminds me of Mary Dalton’s Hooking: A Book of Centos, and being astounded how lines from other poet’s work fit together because the poems ask readers to use their own intelligence and sensitivity to make meaning from a poem. Because I wanted to make my own leaps, and my own meaning.

So it was that ‘a hint of the philosophy behind the southern drawl/ sweet and delicious as falling into butterscotch’ from the mystery writer Barbara D’Amato, was so delicious and buttery that it need something to ‘stop the story’ because ‘the lens of our mother tongue changes it’, a quote from Czeslaw Milosz.

In the same way, singer/songwriter Adam Lambert’s ‘broken pieces break into me’, is true to Shakespeare’s ‘this our life, exempt from public haunt’.

The critical point is when all the pieces are in the right position, and the maker realizes what the poem may be about, discovers a central meaningful idea. Here the flexibility of language, the freedom of it, how curious it can be, how what a biologist with expertise in parrot-ology has to say is of  equal merit to that of a well known poet or philosopher, how the one expression can deepen the richness of another all spoke of shadows, memories, the everyday realities we live with.

The first two lines are mine and they came after the rest of the building blocks had rearranged themselves into a comfortable room in this language house.  As ‘poem’ comes from the Greek poíēma, meaning a ‘thing made,’ and a poet defined in ancient terms as ‘a maker of things’ it’s comforting for me to remember that a poem is a strange thing which operates as nothing else in the world does.

Yehuda Amichai’s lines about an old toolshed, saying so much about how we can ‘read’ a toolshed as a toolshed, or spend time to read more deeply, and discover that a toolshed is love, and a great love at that, leaves me with so much more to consider about language and ways a great love can be dismissed or discovered in the most unlikely places. I also like his lines there, to hand every time I open this collection, so I can read them and appreciate them as often as I want to.

Next time, I’ll try to figure out why a more narrative poem in the collection went where it went, and why, and why I wanted to keep it. Because a narrative poem, too, is a made thing.

of cabbages and kings, and leporids

So here is rabbit, taken from the last long poem in this collection. rabbit is my very own leporid.

My photo of Molly Forsythe’s sculpture

Every once in a while, you get the feeling that things are meant to be. Take this rabbit. I mean the one in the poem, the last long poem in the collection. rabbit just hopped into my life and meant something more to me than I realized, until something happened to make me realize it.

Many of us have rabbits in our yards. They are ubiquitous, in quiet colours, make hardly any sound, so why do we like them so much.  Why then write about one, and deem it important enough to name a collection after it. All I know is that one particular rabbit was important, and it took writing about it to know why.

I may write about that in a later post. This is more about putting a group of poems together. What’s interesting is when you end up with a terrific editor who has suggestions and you look at, in this case, his suggestions, and you ponder, and you respond to them. When you have Allan Briesmaster as that editor, you quickly become aware of his alertness and sensitivity to the poetry, to the content, to his author, and to our readers. It is a very alive time. You feel listened to by someone with more than a poetic mind, someone who is looking at a whole book and how it fits together. Your book.

Three cover drafts from the Aeolus graphic artist

I am stubborn, ask anyone, but when it’s about a poem or a cover, I will offer reasons for that doggedness, always believing that I am right and that I have the best argument. It must have been hell for Allan at times, because he is, on top of everything else, a gentle man, and alert to his author’s delicate ego. I, on the other hand, have had very many years of building up to this moment. Like a three-year-old I pummel my fists and pound my heels on the floor, it’s my book! But, mostly, once he suggested where it could be improved, I usually quieted down and thought, well that’s exactly how it should go!

One question was whether it was a good idea to have so many different styles in a collection. We came to the conclusion that we both liked the idea. At first I was just so pleased to have him as editor as well as publisher that I was okay with every dropout suggested, especially as he always gave a reason for his suggestion. Some poems I fought for, and others were dropped. Then I found that I cared more than I thought I would. At times I had to argue my point more strongly, and to give Allan credit, he was impressed by a good argument, something to remember if you are lucky enough to publish with Aeolus. But be ready to back up your stance. Very ready.

I was surprised at how I dug my heels in a couple of times. It made me think more than I usually do about what I do and why I do it. What words I write and how I put them together and why. We get so little chance to talk about our own poems. As a member of two excellent critique groups, The Other Tongues and The Ruby Tuesday group, I benefit from having other poets’ eyes on a poem, and from feedback. I then benefit from looking at the work of others, and bending my lazy mind to understanding and expressing what I think and feel about the poems of others. It’s excellent practice.

But talk about our own poem, where it came from, why it is in the form presented, the motives behind it and what we actually thought we were doing when we put those words down, why our lines end where they do and the reason for the distribution of white space, any philosophy or personal histories that brought us to this point, well, there isn’t enough time to do that thoroughly. And I couldn’t do that, you say to yourself. It’s so self serving, isn’t it? And really, there’s no time for it all to be about me. But there are times we want to say more, times we are exploding with it.

Because there are times when reading someone else’s collection, we are wondering about those particular things. When I read an essay about a poet and their work, I am pleased to see a little more elucidation, something about a poet’s background, whether the garret had an electric heater, what they thought about sex. Something about their educational background, or the history of the period in which they lived.

It’s like knowing why a cook uses olive oil instead of butter, or how the colours of an oil painting have changed in the past centuries. In understanding the clockworks, or why a poet uses an expression like ‘Charlie bit me!’, the context makes the poem clearer and more accessible.

So I’m going to talk about this collection. And maybe a little about me. Horrors!  You might choose to unfriend me or unfollow my blog. Better do that now, because the next post is going to be about MY poems, and why. Just wait until I start writing about making gas from coal. Oh, sorry, that’s my next collection. Right now, it’s all about rabbit.

Before I close this post though, a short tale. Once I knew Aeolus was going to publish rabbit, I started to think of cover ideas. That very day, on facebook, I saw a photograph posted by a ceramicist friend in readiness for a craft fair: it was a little rabbit sculpture, and the rabbit looked so vulnerable, so fragile and breathtaking, that I needed to bring it home immediately, and ask Allan if it could be on the cover. I messaged that I wanted to purchase the rabbit and I did. The artist is Lanark’s Molly Forsythe and her email is in the book. I am so happy about this! A professional photo was made and cleaned up (three hours!) by Chuck Willemsen of Merrickville, a close friend and the husband of one of my dearest friends, Lesley Strutt, poet and Young Adult author. I feel wrapped in friendship with this sculpture on the cover of rabbit.  Thank you. You are all such very special people.

the professional photo by Chuck Willemsen, used for the cover

But back to me.  Beware.  Next post will be all about me and MY poems.  And my rabbit.

‘my own’ rabbit in a towel in a box by my chair

China in Tanka/ Terry Ann Carter

Yangtze Crossing, Terry Ann Carter (2009, Bondi Studios)

yangtze cover 2In 2005, Terry Ann Carter accepted an invitation to teach at the International Educational Exchange Center at Dongzhou Middle School in Haimen City, China, a Summer Language School for Teachers. She suggested we do this together. We both found the five line Japanese form of tanka to be the best way to express our experience.  We published a set of chapbooks. Yangtze Crossing is Terry Ann’s collection. It takes you through her second trip to China, and my first.China 308

Yangtze crossing
I must be someone else
crossing the river
clouds drift
in no particular direction

In this poem Terry Ann Carter sees herself, a modern women from Canada, on a ferry in China in a country of millions of women whose ways of life we cannot possibly understand.  Initially the poem speaks of the natural astonishment of being in China at all.

It is an adventure to cross the Yangtze, though today there is a bridge where we crossed to Shanghai from the north. The photo shows our chauffeur (yes!) waiting for the ferry beside our Mercedes (yes!!). Blame it on the heat and humidity, and/or being driven in China by a chauffeur in an air-conditioned Mercedes, but there was a sense of unreality despite the closeness of truck beds on the ferry loaded with piled cages of chickens, despite the small girl hiding bashfully in her mother’s skirts from the white devil ladies, leading to connections less concrete than what we saw around us, those of myth, poetry, and history.

The muddiness of the water and our muddy relations with this country, mud by the shore, too polluted even for reeds to grow through the trash washed up in the estuary.

Terry Ann Carter was also a different person than she was when she first came to China many years before.  Like the clouds, her mind was unable to settle for long on what her senses were telling her. There were so many changes, yet so much was unchanged.

Both Terry Ann and I, like children, wanted to believe in the China of poetry and Art, of beautiful clothes and elegant manners, not the condition of those hundreds of pathetic chickens in the heat.  We could only look up, where the clouds were drifting, unconcerned. Of course, clouds do not float ‘in no particular direction’, except that here on the Yangtze, with everything coming at us at once, they seemed to.  The line could suggest the opposite analogy, that in China there is only one ‘correct’ direction, but that there is a feeling in the New China that anything is possible.

lazy afternoon
from the teacher’s room next door
a pipa melody
and wildflowers spilling out
of a vase

This is how we knew we were in China.  After all, we’d been picked up by our chauffeur from the Shanghai Airport, whisked to Haimen City on a many-laned highway. In our separate rooms, we had a bed, desk, computer to use, and air conditioning, modern bathrooms and showers. We were teaching in a secondary school and had at our disposal up-to-date classroom equipment.  The giant department store on the corner had just about everything, except yogurt and eggs…

But to hear in the evening this pipa music, a fellow teacher who was a student of this ancient stringed instrument, going over certain groups of notes, honing melodies, was for the moment, our China, the China of a small city.

The flowers spilled, like the notes, gracefully.  The vase, a container of water, a symbol for the physical body containing a spiritual life, as the music ‘contains’ life for the spirit.

The poem is a reminder of our students, teachers themselves, with us to improve pronunciation of English, and to learn new English Language teaching methods. There is a vase, containing, limiting the amount of water which is transparent and easily poured away, easily lost, a lesson, sign of what is possible and not possible, a structural discipline. That much water in just that form.

China 582It could be analogy for obedience and discipline, a ‘holding in’ first and foremost for Chinese students and Chinese teachers, for all Chinese citizens. Rules, philosophies and laws are cultural containers. This tanka is our friendly Director checking all my photographs before I left, is our students always wary of telling us anything about their personal lives, their families, or their teaching situations, and knowing that to exchange email addresses may be useless at best, if not dangerous. Vase as caution, solid and in a recognized shape.China 120The evaluation comments from our students were delightful and positive, and I’m sure they had a good time learning from Terry how to practice phrases while keeping a hula hoop going, or from me how to make collages and create stories and conversations about them.

But just before we left, a shy teacher came to me and thanked me for the new methods, but said none of them would be able to teach that way; they were told precisely what to teach and how to teach it, mostly by forced repetition and rote memory. If their students did not pass their exams in the manner expected, the teachers could lose their teaching positions.China 283This tanka, with its dreamy mood, is accessible however to anyone who does not know its background stories and/or associations. It is everyone’s memory of walking past a house, and hearing through an open window, someone playing Mozart on the piano, or someone practising something beautiful anywhere.  It leads to recollections of picking our own wildflowers in an empty lot, or in the country, or of stopping the car to choose a bouquet from the side of the road, or even wondering whether Chinese wildflowers are different from ours.

The next tanka is in a similar dreamy mood:

home from China
each rounded leaf
reminding me of moon gates
this summer night
fanning against my skin

 

moon gateI don’t know what particular plant Terry Ann was looking at in her home garden, but what was uppermost in her mind was not the plant’s name, but the shape of its leaves. This is one way memory works, a kind of synecdoche, a ‘part’, in this case a shape, bringing to mind a ‘whole’, not even just a whole object, but a complete scene.

Moon gates are almost cliché when thinking of China; every temple, every garden has one, and anyone having read or experienced anything to do with China, can’t help but having somewhat romantic feelings about them. Romantic is not completely the right word, but these gates in the shape of the moon and ouroboros signify myth, story, and mystery ― rabbits, the goddess Chang’e, moon as female principle (Yin), even the Good Night Moon storybooks we’ve read to our own children.

change e and rabbitLeaving aside our customary association of romance and moonlight, the romance in this tanka is in the delicate sensual phrasing of ‘summer night’ ‘fanning’ and ‘against the skin’. We are ‘touched’ in a metaphysical way, not quite physically touched, but as if our skin were being brushed by the summer air, a sense experience, a relationship between sense impression and its referents. In religious rituals relics are touched or kissed. Masons recognize each other by a handshake, Pygmalion had to first touch the statue in order to be moved.

‘Air’ has fanned against the poet’s skin, and she has made it touch ours ― touch as index to consciousness.  In this poem, touch is positive connection with memory, and with some things we already deeply know.

Here too is a physical structure in the form of not the moon itself, but what is outside the moon, the moon’s halo. It has given us a circle around emptiness, around what we don’t know, the art of knowing nothing.  It can be linked to the summer air, which we can’t see, but which we feel; nor can we see emptiness, no mind, the innocent mind, where it all begins and ends, but we can sense its truth, its essence.

To read Terry’s Yangtze Crossing is to give us an intimate picture of some aspects of Chinese culture ten years ago. Our students, the director of the Center, the secretary of the school and the principal were so warm and welcoming.

farewell party
students fold paper cranes
into a necklace …
like the morning moon
we will soon disappear

 

China 668

(We and some of our students and their friends at a farewell dinner)