Monthly Archives: August 2009

MFA Thesis Diary #5: Talking to Ghosts

Creatively speaking, the last week has been a difficult stretch. I refuse to accept the term writer’s block. I believe (or at least, would like to believe) that creativity is about rhythm and, like everything else, that rhythm has ups & downs. With the Fall semester a few days away, my poetic mind seems to have been inundated with anticipated faculty meetings, appointments, classes, papers, papers, papers. So forth & so on.

Of course, you know this reality. Any emerging writer has to deal with the collision of creative & ‘real world’ responsibilities. It’s often frustrating, but unavoidable. So, instead of whining, I want to take this opportunity to remind myself why I am writing these poems.

1. I don’t believe in art for art’s sake. I believe in creativity with a purpose in mind. My purpose is to write poems that act upon the writer (myself) and the reader. Lately, I’ve noticed that I don’t write with an audience in mind so much as a question that I desperately need to answer. While I rarely arrive at a definite answer, the process of writing gets me a little closer. That’s what I get from my poems: the beginning of an answer. Hopefully, readers will use the poems to voice their own questions.

2. I’m writing these poems because I haven’t read them elsewhere. Yes, I am motivated but a lack, an absence of voices that resemble my own. Yes, this has to do with identity & representation. No, I do not shout about identity & representation in the content of my poems.

3. The process of writing this manuscript  allows forces me to confront anger, hurt, and joy that I forgot I had. Poetry requires a brutal attention to detail and so, the act of writing a poem about my personal experiences pushes me within inches of a past that (sometimes) I’d rather take a few steps away from. To write these poems is to talk to ghosts and, more importantly, let them talk back.

“Before I Was Straightened Out”

I just wanted to share with you some of the wonderful things I’ve read in the past seven days, all of which involve the written, spoken, & loving word.

“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses & liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it as. Writers are like that… Like water, I remember where I was before I was straightened out.”

(from What Moves at the Margin: Essays by Toni Morrison)

“For those American poets who doubt the existence or relevance of well-written political poetry in the USA, for those who think “political poetry” is just a post-9/11 fad, I would say to leave your comfy little academic and abstract circles and open your minds to poets coming out of communities of color, immigrant communities, multilingual communities, communities of working folk and families, these American poets’ communities, and see that “political poetry” has always existed, has always been necessary, has always been crafted and spoken and sang, has always served to educate, inspire, and mobilize its constituents.”

(Barbara Jane Reyes on Suheir Hammad’s new collection)

“Images will often manufacture a language of their own and converse in it among themselves. They will communicate with each other by means of pictures and will make up secret alphabets which they will use for correspondence with each other.”

(from What It Is by Lynda Barry)

I’ve also been reading (and in some cases re-reading):

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan

100 Demons by Lynda Barry

The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith

For the Love of God by Alicia Ostriker

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio

MFA Thesis Diary #4: On Truth & Accuracy

accuracy |ˈakyərəsē|

noun ( pl. -cies)the quality or state of being correct or precise

truth |troōθ|noun ( pl. truths |troōðz; troōθs|)the quality or state of being true

I have to be honest with you. I have no problem lying in order to tell the truth. Does this make me a horrible person or just a poet? My manuscript draws – in large part – from my own experiences growing up in Memphis, TN & North Texas. The narratives in many of the poems come from my personal memories & yearnings. So, here’s the thing. When I sit down to work on this manuscript, I’m concerned with getting to the truth or, as I call it, the heart of the matter. I don’t care about how things actually happened so much as what they meant. This is a choice I’ve made as a writer. If I were writing a memoir, things might be different, then again – they might not.

Of course, none of this is revelatory. I’m bringing it up because the more I write about the “boy” I was, the less he begins to resemble me. The boy in these poems was born in my mind & memory, yet he’s much more thoughtful & sensitive than I was. When he looks at a sudden downpour, it means something to him.  When he steps on a twig, he hears it. I seriously doubt that at the age of ten I was that aware of my surroundings. I’ve put my current self into this boy’s head. This is necessary in order for the poems to happen. All of this is to say: I’m coming to terms (or perhaps I’m fine) with throwing the burden of accuracy out the window. Some of the poems are willfully inaccurate. Some of them are absolutely false, and yet – I write each of them with a very specific truth in mind.

Links: Because I Haven’t Forgotten You

unknown-soldier-1-650

Using a comic book to portray the civil war in Uganda.

Actor Doug Spearman thinks racism in the gay community is worse than it was in the 1980s (& I’m inclined to agree.)

You’ve got to read this poem by Jon Swan.

Richard Newman goes between the sheets with his readers, pun intended.

Renee Simms on what HBO’s The Wire taught her about writing.

How to Make the Workshop Work (Part Two)

BREATHE

The most stressful moment in a workshop for me is the moment immediately after the poem has been read out loud. A silence falls over the room as my classmates make notes & decide what they’re going to say. Meanwhile, I stare at my draft, trying to appear calm. Inside, I’m screaming “Oh, hell. Just spit it out! You hated the third stanza! Admit it!” If I had it my way, I would have a strong margarita on hand for this moment, but since I don’t, I try my best to breathe. Three deep breaths. And if that doesn’t work, I try to look busy by scribbling notes on my draft. The point is to chill out & prevent myself from tearing down my own work before my classmates even get a word in.

LISTEN

When people are focusing on your title or a semicolon that should’ve been a comma, it’s easy to want to step in yourself and tell them to move on. If you feel they’ve misread something in your poem, it’s tempting to want to let them know what you intended. That’s not the point of workshop. You won’t be able to sit next to every person who reads your book & explain the poems so use the workshop to take in the feedback, all of the feedback. If you spend the entire workshop thinking about what you’re going to say in rebuttal, you’re going to miss some valuable criticism & thoughts.

EMBRACE CONTRARIANS

Consider this: Are you in the workshop because you want a bunch of cheerleaders or because you want to make your poems better? I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t look for encouragement, but know that the best workshops will present you with a variety of views. The idea is to have several options about where to take your poem next. Those options are limited if everyone is patting you on the back.

HAVE GOALS

For each poem (or story) you present in workshop, have at least three specific things you want to work on. (I don’t know how I feel about the third stanza; Is it me or are some of my line breaks awkward?; How do I make the opening grab you?) This kind of check list is a good idea for two reasons. One: It forces you to take an objective look at the poem you would like to believe is absolutely flawless. (It’s not flawless so sit down and take another look.) Two: In case the workshop discussion gets off target or doesn’t satisfy your needs, you have some questions ready for everyone when the time comes. It’s an exercise in self-discipline & a back-up plan.

GIVE WHAT YOU GET

Assuming that everyone in your workshop is giving 100% (I see no reason why they wouldn’t) show your appreciation by giving other people’s poems the attention they deserve. Poet Mary Biddinger says she believes in literary karma & so do I. Also, let’s be real. If you’re the person who makes two useless notes on other people’s drafts, but expect everyone to break their backs to help your work – everyone hates you & eventually they will stop putting effort into their comments. It’s about appreciation.

Wilde Boys: A Queer Poetry Salon

5740_916005470553_2209016_50853708_5468682_nIf you are a gay poet in the New York City area, you should definitely think about joining us for the upcoming Wile Boys Salon. It’s wonderful to meet other writers, chat about poetics, have a few drinks, & have fun while doing it. For more info, get in touch with Alex Dimitrov – adimitrov@gm.slc.edu

Langston Hughes & Closeted Poetry

I.

Last week, I told one of my 9th grade students that Langston Hughes was gay. The student stood up, panic-stricken, and pleaded, “Please don’t say something like that, Mr. Jones. That’s not funny.” He paused for a moment, then added. “He’s one of my idols.” None of the other students noticed the conversation, distracted by their own projects & discussions. And the student and I went about our separate ways. I should’ve have turned it into teaching “moment” but I didn’t. The student wasn’t ready, and – frankly – neither was I.

II.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I hated Langston Hughes in high school, but I wasn’t a big fan. His poetry was too simple & too concerned with race. Though I didn’t know the word at the time, I felt that Langston Hughes was passe. Save him for Black History Month & spare me another recitation of Dream Deferred. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

III.

My sophomore year of college I watched “Brother to Brother” a beautiful independent film inspired by the life of poet Bruce Nugent. It was the first time I had heard of Nugent & his classic work “Smoke, Lilies, & Jade.” It was also the first time I had heard that Langston Hughes slept with men. The movie alludes to a fleeting relationship between the two poets. Needless to say, I went to the library that same day & started re-reading Hughes’ work. New interpretations & metaphors revealed themselves to me, then the poems mocked: Why hadn’t I seen it all along?

b2b

IV.

Why am I telling you this? (Really, that question is aimed at myself, more than you.) Because, for better or worse, when I was 13, 14, 15 years old, I went to books to learn everything I could about being gay. I knew I was gay already. I had felt this identity churning inside me long before I had a name for it, but the life.. How was I supposed to live the life? That’s what I was reading to learn about. I stole my mother’s copy of “Another Country” by James Baldwin because I was embarrassed for her to know I was reading it. Soon after that, I stole another one of her books, a novel by the late E. Lynn Harris. Again & again, I returned to these books looking.. looking for my own face.

V.

Again, why am I telling you this? (This time, I really am talking to you.) As someone who happily works with college freshman and, occasionally high school students, I cannot ignore the disservice we to do our students by white-washing & “straightening” the literature we present to them. A poet’s biography isn’t the whole story, but it’s often a valid part of the story. To teach “The Bell Jar” without discussing the realities faced by American women in the 1950s and 60s is to lose out on a great discussion. To teach Langston Hughes without giving any consideration to his sexuality is a foolish as ignoring his race.

VI.

And so I return to that student: to the look in his eyes, the way his voice seemed to fill with gravity & hurt. I can’t remember what started the conversation in the first place, only that I said it to shock him a bit, to prove that I know something that he didn’t. I haven’t shared this experience with you to come to the point of commentary. Commentary implies that I’ve made my mind up. I don’t even have an argument, except to say: Our students aren’t getting the whole story, and perhaps neither are we.