Tuesday, September 27, 2005

confession vs. storytelling

One of the main points of my ECE is that the poet I'm writing about, Eleanor Lerman, is not a confessional poet, though she mainly writes what can be called personal narratives. I'm not going to go into this right now, as I'm a bit sick of the topic --- my essay passed muster as far as the content, was returned for MLA corrections, has been corrected, but won't make it out until tomorrow's mail. I'm just glad I was able to paint a sympathetic portrait of Lerman even though at times during the writing of the thing I felt that Lerman was the worst poet ever to have her work published. Certainly not true, but I'll bet some others of you who've written ECE's may have had similar feelings about your poets, at moments.

No, what I'm thinking about now is my own poetry. What is the difference between "confessing" and telling a story which happens to be about your own life??? I will try to paste one of my latest
(I should note the title is borrowed from Rae's creative thesis):

Leaky Boat

A cup of ice water means the world to me.
Many in Katrina’s aftermath had less,
though I can make a list of what I don’t have:
working car, now, is the latest item, and
money to get it fixed, or even money for lunch.
At home the hot water pipe has sprung a leak ---
we scrounged seven dollars and change to buy
the less good of two clamps at Keith’s Hardware.
If we’re lucky, Gabe won’t be too tired from work
to screw the pieces into place. But we are blessed:
my girlfriend has a bookstore charge. So, here, now,
each of us has a shiny new book to read,
and let’s lengthen the list: I have this pen
and a big fat notebook for this assessment
of an impoverished life where things go wrong.
Ants run around on the wall I’m sitting on, as I wait
for Triple A, but none have bitten me yet.

There’s more. I’ve put everything I need
from the trunk of the car into my brand new
monogrammed LL Bean backpack on wheels,
frightening gift from my practical mother ---
cat food, medicine, a denim shirt in case the temp
should plunge from ninety down to sixty suddenly.
My girlfriend’s complaining of discomfort ---
how can that be? Sitting in a parking lot
in the heat? We are indeed a lucky pair.
My car will sit at the service station
a good solid week until payday. I will walk
or take the bus. Or hitch up the big dogs
to the red plastic wagon my girlfriend’s son
bought at Goodwill for the baby, which is now
taking up space on the dining room floor.
We will get where we need to go. We will get
our medicine. The cats will eat. Life is not
just a carbon impression of life today --- it is real.

I read this poem in its draft form (which it is still in) at Destinations bookstore in New Albany, Indiana. Response was good, but I'm seeing things in the poem to work on, like for example it sounds like the baby is taking up space on the dining room floor. And I'm not sure about the
last line -- which I've changed since reading the poem.

So what's the verdict, bloggers, is this a confessional poem??? The way I look at it, I'm not a hoarder of secrets; I guess I was influenced early on by my writer father, who kept telling me that "everything is material." I actually did write this poem sitting on a concrete wall at the edge of the parking lot where my parked car was leaking antifreeze like a geyser. In a way, I think this is a "found poem" --- or a poem which exploits a real-life situation to make a poem.

Of course it's psychological/psychiatric issues in poems that are most likely to win the confessional label. I don't even see why this should be. If a poet writes about being depressed, then suddenly they're confessional? To me, moods and brain-states are just part of life.
Because Plath/Sexton/Lowell/Berryman et al had psychiatric diagnoses, they were given the additional label (which I'm positive they LOVED) of "confessional." To me this is especially
ironic with Lowell, who had such a huge body of work that had little overtly to do with himself: historical poems, translations, etc. When you read almost any definition of "confessional" in a glossary, it says it was a "literary movement." I really don't think so. I think the poets in question were using the material their lives gave them. It's true that for example Elizabeth Bishop could have been a more confessional poet --- she suffered from severe alcoholism and depression --- but she either chose not to consciously, or simply wasn't drawn to writing poems about these psycological issues as much as others. She was Lowell's buddy, of course, and
critical of some of the decisions he made about subject matter, such as his decision to write about his ex-wife (am I dreaming this??? I think I read this somewhere).

Yes, each one of us poets is responsible for the choices we make as to subject matter in our poems (what an ungainly sentence). Of course, in the big wide world there is plenty to write about other than our mood or mood-medicine. Is the choice to write about the latter a matter of
"honesty" or is it exhibitionist? Is honesty a kind of exhibitionism? Would the confessional
poets have done a greater service to themselves and American Literature if they had kept mum about their hospital stays and states of melancholy, and instead written about mating habits of insects and fall foliage??? Would they have written better poems???

Are poets more or less likely to write, say, about suicide, now, than before Plath and Sexton?
Did these two make the climate more or less favorable to such poetry? Can a poet now write about ANYTHING she wants to write about, or did the "confessional movement" create new taboos, in the long run???

I'm actually interested in answers to these questions.


Thursday, September 22, 2005

the rehabilitated blogger

The wicked stoned old witch of rock 'n roll, Marianne Faithful, is playing at this moment in this place. I've been accused of wanting to be the drummer for her band, an ambition I can't think of ever having consciously entertained. I once gave a cassette of her music to a TV newsanchor who tried to return it saying: "I don't like her attitude." Oh yes, Marianne has a lousy attitude.
I saw her biography in a bookstore but didn't buy it; she's one of these people you know pretty much as much as you need to know about without actually knowing it. Maybe the same can be said about me.

In other news I've had too much coffee and the DJ on WFPK goofed up and started playing the wrong song twice in a row. Maybe she was too excited because she was trying to play a new song by the excellent local band (the cream of Louisville's crop) My Morning Jacket. Anyway here I was excited about it myself, hanging on every note, and when the first vocal began I thought: "Wow, My Morning Jacket has really changed their style." But the then DJ cut in and said OOPS. Another song started, and once again I'm there, absolutely plugged in, and the vocal starts. "Oh, so My Morning Jacket has a female vocalist now --- oh, wait, that's Melissa Etheridge." The song stops, a third song comes on --- this time it sounds like the band whose new release I've been anticipating as much as I've ever anticipated a new release --- especially as they've put out a couple of weird CDs with B-sides or whatever. I guess CDs don't have B-sides so I don't know what to call it --- the kind of reject music.

All of which makes me think of Gwen's challenge to write about an anniversary. October 4th is the day My Morning Jacket's CD is due out, it is also the anniversary of the day I gave up drinking and the day I went back to drinking exactly eleven years later. I like this symmetry, though I have to say, while I'd love to be back on the sauce in a spectacular way, closing bars with zest and fervor, hitting the dance floors on the weekend in my leather mini-skirt and heels, the fact is I have wimped out. I can't drink anymore, a funny thing happened on the way to the cash bar, I realized I needed a cup of coffee instead. So while I give myself permission to drink,
while the taste of alcohol is not forbidden, three or four sips and I'm out of it. I don't know if there's a cure for this; I'm not really looking for one.

One final note: of course the MLA stuff on my ECE needs work, I knew it would. But apparently the content is OK. Maybe better than OK. Which is what I really wanted to hear. I honestly, time taken for blogging aside, worked harder on that thing than any academic project to date, including previous theses.

I apologize for my blog entry about brain-farts. I guess I had one myself.


Sunday, September 18, 2005

used brain for sale

Camille Paglia, in her chapter on Emily Dickinson in her book Sexual Personae notes that Miss Emily uses the word "brain" in some unusual ways. Unfortunately, I have used the pages of Paglia's book to roll big fat joints which I enjoyed several times a day while enjoying my ECE (Extended Cannabis Episode).

Of course some of you may not realize I'm joking. No, I don't smoke marijuana because it inspires me to prepare gourmet meals in the wee hours of the morning. Or failing that, it alters a mind that is already permanently altered, and that's not necessary.

But I wanted to remark on Dickinson's usage of the word brain. It's not a very feminine word. Neither, or course, is "fart" --- the two together are deadly. I don't picture the average slim blonde cheerleader using the term "brain-fart." I'm neither slim nor blonde, but that is the first time I've ever used that term. A boyfriend introduced it to me, one of my creepiest boyfriends, I should add. He would wash his hair: the first day he looked great, the second day OK. The third day, the baseball cap would appear on his head. As the days went by, the hair sticking out in back would come more and more to resemble a waterfall --- no, not the right color for a waterfall, but the right degress of "moistness." And this guy was always
talking about "brain-farts." I thought it was the tackiest, most tasteless thing I'd heard anyone say since another of my creepy boyfriends (I had a string of them in the mid-nineties) spoke of how he was "dyin' to NAIL me." Let it not be thought these were long-term partnerships.

I can't find the poems Paglia has quoted, nor can I find Paglia's book. Oh, well.

There's a joke my mom told me about brains. Something about a college president's brain, a dean's brain, a department chair's brain, and on and on to a graduate student's brain. It's too bad I can't remember the punch line.

My own brain is of course no good anymore, after being bent out of shape to produce the most bent out of shape ECE anyone could imagine. So I'm not going to for example spend five or six paragraphs on the philosophical debate about whether the brain and the mind are the same thing. I've read books on the subject, that's another reason my brain doesn't work anymore,
and I've lost the last trace of my mind.

I have to let my tomcat out of solitary. To all bloggers: happy happy joy joy.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

obsession --- a user's manual

Sometimes I feel like a hurricane has passed over my CPU --- yeah, that thing in my brain that processes stuff and then moves on. Anybody who knows me well knows I'm obsessive, something that some writers get away with because they're writers, but it certainly becomes tiresome not only for me but for many people I come in contact with.

For example I think I have written at least five SOS e-mails about my Extended Critical Essay to Kathleen, the administrator at Spalding who kind of keeps an eye on the third-semester students who are writing these essays. Well, those of us who are doing fine and not falling down and having self-doubt attacks are pretty much left to their own devices, though Kathleen (maybe someone else too???) checks the MLA formatting when we're done.

I have not heard back from my mentor since she told me she was going to contact Kathleen about the sorry situation my ECE was in. I'm hoping the reason I haven't heard anything is that my mentor has other things on her mind. I'm hoping there's nothing "going on," in other words. I have a paranoid friend who's always trying to figure out what's "going on" --- once she got all upset because Emeril the chef was making a chop suey sandwich --- she thought somebody was sending her a coded message.

OK so I have weird friends, but that happens to people who are themselves a little "different." My first residency at Spalding I definitely gave people a taste of "different." This semester's anxiety and obsessing are less surreal, more just plain pathetic.

I had a dream in which I received an e-mail from Kathleen that said:
"Who the hell do you think you are expecting all of us to drop everything and pay attention to your minute difficulties with your ECE???"

I do believe this is the message I deserve to receive, though it is not, of course, what I want to hear. Mainly, I just want to finish writing the darn thing, so I can be a poet again.

Oh yeah, I wanted to tell Amy Watkins, whose e-mail address I don't know, that I finally read her poem called "untitled" that she pasted into the comments section on my blog --- great poem, Amy. Sorry I didn't see it earlier.


Saturday, September 03, 2005


So I sometimes try to be funny on this blog; it's because of the relationship between an actual nuthouse and a factual funny farm.
But today I want to include a straight-faced prayer for the victims of Katrina. I am quite concerned by the suggestion that the relief efforts especially in New Orleans are being mishandled because so many of the citizens of the city are poor and/or black. As is always the case after a natural disaster --- or a man-made one, it's possible to watch a lot of TV or read the news or hear it on the radio and be misled. Generally there is an effort to give the impression that Everything Possible is being done.
This may not be the case. I find myself going along with what some people I respect are saying --- however I have not seen evidence with my own eyes and i have no way to really judge. Am I stuck in the kind of denial white folks can get into because they want everything to be hunky dory??? So maybe there was a traffic jam at one point that delayed a huge number of busses on their way to pick up people at the Superdome, for example.
Whatever the case, I feel helpless, frustrated, and annoyed because this disaster comes at a time when I have SO much on my plate --- by which I don't mean food, in fact food on the plate is a little hard to come by, as
my first paycheck doesn't come until the end of this month. Because of this I have no money to donate, which makes me feel helpless and frustrated. Oh, I already listed those adjectives, and added ANNOYED.
The last one is most relevant because of the comments I received on my ECE today --- apparently my mentor thought she ought to do her job, and give my essay a careful, thorough reading. Oh yeah, she did. And I have less than two weeks to pretty much do a quintuple bypass on the thing.
Maybe something's wrong with my work ethic, because I feel like the ECE is low on my list of priorities, which is to say if I really had my druthers I'd head for a hilltop and spend two weeks in prayer and meditation.

Back to New Orleans: they're running their mouths now about how things are "getting better" --- one man said that we'll talk for years about why relief (fifty truckloads of stuff) didn't come earlier than Friday, but on Friday "We have the sense a corner has been turned." Now I'm in that kind of sullen mood, after seeing thousands of people camped out by a highway being passed over by the convoy of yellow schoolbusses. After seeing some "heartwarming" stories --- a white family in town on their kid's college tour rescued by a private contractor, a white/hispanic family welcomed into a another family's home in Texas. Is it my imagination or did neither of these heartwarming stories feature a black family??? Am I simply not sitting down in front of the TV at the right moments to witness all the outpouring of benevolence toward non-white people? I will admit that I can only take the disaster area in doses. I should say I have the luxury of being able to take it in doses. I heard a man repeat several times: "WHY DO I HAVE TO BE A PART OF THIS???" How many of us TV-watchers are slowing down enough to try to imagine how a person who would say this FEELS, a person who has had nothing to eat or drink for four days and probably little sleep. I believe I have mainly had this feeling in nightmares. There's a chill involved, a dread, a fear that nothing will be good again, a lack of hope. Of course, the biggest culprit is Katrina. But we the people and the government whom we elected should be doing everything humanly possible, I mean going to every length and more, to make this horrific situation better.

It's almost midnight; I haven't had the heart to do a stitch of work on my ECE, partly because the TV is on, partly because of the surgery my mentor demands. I don't want to be p-o-ed all the time, it actually makes me hurt physically --- and emotionally. But I'm in awe of the challenge my mentor has given me, not in good awe but bad awe, if I can make that distinction. It's the kind of awe you feel when you've just had a car wreck, and you're looking over the damage to your vehicle. The kind of awe that Katrina has inspired.

Anyone sleeping in a bed at home tonight should be grateful, in other words I should be grateful, I know, but it's been occuring to me lately that gratitude isn't enough. Counting one's blessings is sometimes little more than a heartwarming mental exercise, there has to be something more if one is going to have a positive effect on the world beyond one's suburban driveway. SHARING one's blessings is something like what i have in mind. Have I shared one penny of my vast wealth today, one cookie out of my bottomless cookie jar, one smile out of my repertoire of happy smiles???

I've shared a piece of my mind, and that has benefitted exactly WHOM??? I've shared my anger, fear and insecurity with everyone I've spoken to or e-mailed this whole day, and perhaps the only recipients of untainted kindness from me from the time I rolled out of the wrong side of bed this morning have been dogs and cats. Oh yeah, and the little black puppy ran away, the same day Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
To anyone who has accompanied my train of thought this far: may your minds and hearts find peace and comfort. And to God: may those affected by this wretched situation find peace and comfort, as well as food and drink and clothing and hope that they will again have a roof over their heads.