Friday, December 23, 2011

Quiet Times

I woke at three last night (not an uncommon occurrence) and was struck by how quiet it was. The weather being warm as it can be in December in Florida, we have the windows open, and I listened to the silence. A screech owl was repeating its steady quavering note (not the one that descends), and that was the only sound.

It reminded me of a couple of passages in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Twain evokes the rural countryside of 19th-century America. There's this one at the beginning of the book:

The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving.

And this one, as Huck rides the raft down the river:

And how far a body can hear over the water such nights! I heard people talking at the ferry landing. I heard what they said, too -- every word of it. One man said it was getting towards the long days and the short nights now. T'other one said this warn't one of the short ones, he reckoned -- and then they laughed, and he said it over again, and they laughed again; then they waked up another fellow and told him, and laughed, but he didn't laugh; he ripped out something brisk, and said let him alone. The first fellow said he 'lowed to tell it to his old woman--she would think it was pretty good; but he said that warn't nothing to some things he had said in his time. I heard one man say it was nearly three o'clock, and he hoped daylight wouldn't wait more than about a week longer. After that the talk got further and further away, and I couldn't make out the words any more; but I could hear the mumble, and now and then a laugh, too, but it seemed a long ways off.

Maybe I like to wake in the middle of the night because I enjoy that silence, find myself craving it during the day sometimes, when the next-door neighbor's dog barks incessantly, and jets pound overhead on the way out of OIA, and a Harley Davidson farts its way down Bumby, half a block away.

I suppose it's almost a cliche--I know I've read it several places--that poetry arises out of silence, or out of listening, at least. I know that I need silence to engage with the material that becomes a new poem, and can't imagine trying to write with music in the background. How could I hear what was trying to come through that way? I love Frost's sonnet "Mowing," which begins,

There never was a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself.
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound,
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

I don't own an Ipod or any other device that requires my ear or ears to be plugged. Give me bird song, even if it is at times challenged by the ambient sounds of the city. It's still there if one practices listening, elemental, intense, something almost said, like any good poem.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

As If

It's happened again. Ten years after my first book, A Small Fire, was published, a new one, As If, is out. As far as productivity goes, that's a pretty weak track record. The Hass's and the Olivers and the Glucks can put out a book every three years or so. I've stopped wondering why I'm not prolific. I am what iamb. Ten years' work is maybe something to celebrate, though. Here's the Wind Publications page for the book:

Monday, January 31, 2011

Booking It

For the last several months I've been finalizing the content and ordering of my second book of poems. The publisher has it now; it's out of my reach, on its own, is what it will be. I had a lot of help in this process from poet friends--Phil Deaver and Debra Kang Dean--and I appreciated that help. For while I had little trouble deciding which poems belonged in the collection, I was stumped at trying to decide on the order/arrangement of the poems.

Gregory Orr's essay "Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry" was a revelation for me. In it, he defines the four temperaments necessary for poets to possess in some degree: story, structure, music, and imagination. I've always felt that my strengths as a poet are structure and music. And, while it might risk being reductive to say so, story and imagination seem required in the arrangement of poems in a manuscript. The individual poems tell stories, but, ideally, the ordering/clustering of the poems in the book will at least suggest a story, or something that approaches story (a color? motif?). The more I write here, the more this idea seems to recede. But especially in collections that resist narrative continuity, manuscripts like mine that contain a predominance of lyric poems, some kind of coherence can be difficult to come by.

And maybe it's just easier to work with someone else's manuscript; maybe I've just been too close to these poems for the last ten years to be able to see how they're meant to play off of each other. That's where good editors like Phil and Debra come in.

The book, titled As If, is due out from Wind Publications in a couple of months.