This is my first semester where I am not a student, not a teacher, not threaded into the intricacies of syllabus-scheduling, not lining up books from someone else's requirements. Technically speaking, I am still an MFA student, though I am done with my coursework, and my situation is unique. I've simply deferred my defense to next May so that my double-surgeries of the spring, my hugely difficult pregnancy can fade a bit and my focus can return to that file that waves hello at me every day, that manuscript I hope will one day be bound into an Actual Book. I will happily report to (new) thesis advisers (I will miss my previous ones though; this was the worst bit of deferring) throughout the year.
This means, though, that I feel compelled to keep my brain from atrophy. My days are filled with diapers and blocks and baby-proofing, and my bear is the absolute best companion on this planet, but she certainly cannot participate in poetry exegesis as I might desire.
Last night, the three of us got together at my home, over cashew-ginger-carrot soup and kale chips, and had our first discussion of what I hope grows into a very engaging project over this next year. We've formed a small collective, with another friend participating in Atlanta, something that has grown and changed and is in its fourth year, and this year, we plan to buckle down and produce something at the close. Each month, we hope to get together (next month, the coffee shop at MCBA) and putter about some topic. Initially, I believed it would rotate each month, though the topic was interesting enough for the others that we'll see how it organically changes, rather than force it into shifts.
I began my little packet by including definitions and thesaurus entries for "permission," hoping, perhaps, some close-but-not-quite linguistics would spark. It's all connected. I gave a string of writing exercises and we decided to write together on #2:
1/ Freewrite on the word “permission” or “permit.” Create your own definition.2/ The old childhood memory prompt. Look back on a time when you wished you were given permission to do something. Write about that. Imagine what might have happened if you were given that permission. Maybe it’s something you never worked up the nerve to ask for. Maybe it was something you only wanted without giving it words. Give it words now.3/ Take this moment now to write something secret. Maybe it’s an incident in your private life that you’ve always thought: No, if I write this, someone will get hurt. Or, No, if I write this, I will have told, and-- maybe there’s something small and shameful about that. Give yourself permission to tell that story, even if that story ends up being burned in a sink later.4/ There are narratives around us that we are fascinated by. There are stories across the globe, in the news, the ones we can only imagine but aren’t a part of our own life’s experiences. But you held back, maybe because you didn’t know enough, or maybe because you felt it wasn’t your place to give voice to this particular situation. And again that sink, even if—give yourself permission right now to write it. See where it takes you.
We found emotional charges, and Meryl had a line connecting two acts of crossing that both Colleen and I murmured to. [This takes me back to a reading at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, where Kim Addonizio linked that happy ah-sound to gerbils orgasming. She didn't take credit for this simile, but I cannot remember the source.]
I am all-but-one-hundred-pages done with The Grand Permission: New Writings on Motherhood and Poetics and gleaned several quotes that felt relevant, each containing an ability to strike sparks:
Sometimes, as you “await the birth-hour of new clarity,” as Rilke advised Mr. Kappus, a path around the emotional obstacle will appear.- Maxine Kumin, “Motherhood and Poetics”I sat [my children] down in my poems, to crawl, to run, to smash a dozen eggs. I opened the page to them.- Maureen Owen, “When as a Girl on the Plains of Minnesota”But neither writing nor motherhood is mere attitude. Each performance is a hard-won process, an action selected freeze-framed from a sequence of failed attempts to match an aesthetic or emotional ideal. Each act of writing or mothering stuns by the immensity of its hidden archaeology of failure, riddled origins, hidden clauses, minute pleasures achieved through tactical approximations. Poetry and mothering have this in common with other human activities that manage to be part of the real, and in doing so they can transform our sense of the real, even as they are incomplete, imperfect, or impartial.- Eric Hunt, “The World Is Not Precisely Round”Aleksandro Solzhenitsyn, when he was in prison, had no paper or pen, so each day he took a match and put it to the side. Each match signified a page of his writing. When he was released, he wrote the five hundred pages of The Gulag Archipelago from these “notes.” I always remembered this story, for it illustrated to me the mind’s power to preserve significant experience until it can be told.- Toi Derricotte, “Writing Natural Birth”One writes inescapably out of one’s obsessions—linguistic, philosophical, formal, cosmological. During my formative years as a poet (and in my educational milieu), “form” was regarded as a container rather than a force, examined for its features and flaws rather than the consequences of its use. The poem was, as Charles Simic once put it, “an antique pinball machine with metaphors instead of balls.” It was to be read as expressive of the sensibility of the poet, whose “voice” it conjured, and as an unparaphrasable utterance of complex figural interplay and patterned sound. The reader installed herself in this poem, reading analytically or “closely,” so as to discern the intricacies of its making, rather as a watchmaker approaches the works with spring-pin tool and dust-brush. Thus machined, the poem was regarded as a species of discourse, to be valued for itself and for its utility as communicator of feeling and thought.- Carolyn Forché, “Emergence”A person seeks models whether that model is used as someone to emulate or resist. For women, models are problematic because so few have been allowed to succeed. And to use the male as a model is also problematic because their experience—even if one could argue that their work is “universal” in symbolizing birth or loss—cannot accurately reflect what a girl learns about her body from that body and from culture. In fact, that is a problem with persona pieces that cross gender—how can a woman write from the body of a man, from a body that experiences erections? Or a man write from a woman’s, one who conceives and gives birth? Who suckles? Is it possible? And how is the body contained in one’s work apart from the subject matter?- Kimiko Hahn, “Pulse and Impulse”That the poem must not hold back. That the poem must not be ashamed of itself.- Alicia Ostriker, “Notes on ‘Listen’”
For me, there was a kind of division. Initially, permission came from this book and made me think of how we sometimes have to give ourselves permission to write about a particular topic, about how we might think something is poetically unworthy of address; this was something surprising to me when I realized motherhood has been one such topic for many talented writers.
Then--"I Go Back to May 1937." Then--"Infidelity." Permission divided to me. It cleaved into two simple and distinct categories: permission you give yourself (to write a family secret, to be a poet, to be a stay-at-home mother) and permission you seek from the world around you (to write from another experience, to address something so big and vibrating).
Such as this: Nicole Cooley's essay "Poetry of Disaster." The packet grows richer. It's hardened my reading list resolve (Muriel Rukeyser's Book of the Dead has floated to the top), has touched me and made me feel strange [shame? no. regret? perhaps] at choosing to stay-at-home-and-watch-the-news on 9/11 when she and her students, breathing the same air as the towers discussed those words, what was missing. It's a good piece.
And it compels me. Particularly since the famine has haunted me so. What is a writer to do but write about what distracts us? But what right do I have to write about those things?
Both Meryl and Colleen attended Naropa this summer, and Meryl described the most successful exquisite corpse activity, where the workshop leaders filled the well, so to speak, with images and videos and discussion so that already the imagination was piqued and on similar sources. Our wells are beginning to fill.
It's all connected.
We meet again in a month, just after the Twin Cities Book Festival, and another discussion. In the meantime, we'll see what from these pages (and here, these links and pastings) prompts a poem, a fragment, and we'll exchange and circulate and see how that builds. I hope, when a year has passed, or a little less, depending, we can put together a letterpressed project, a kind of souvenir of this companionship, maybe something broader.