(originally posted October 2010)
I’m currently reading a book of essays by Stephen Dobyns, “Best Words Best Order”–a book that I now consider an ESSENTIAL read for any writer, especially poets! Halfway through it I feel both challenged and inspired–and a little daunted too, I suppose. The essay that I just finished reading on Rainer Maria Rilke has been in my mind, raising different questions about my work and growth as a poet.
In the essay Dobyns charts the writerly growth of Rilke, and claims that talent is merely potential, the promise of possibility–but that it takes more. Talent isn’t enough. Determination, ambition, energy and gall as well as the need to have one’s ego serve the writing (and not the reverse). Most poets go through two stages of a three stage process, but the third stage is where the difficulty lies. Dobyn’s points us toward Rilke’s explanation of the final stage:
- A willingness to face and forgive all the nastiness (insanity) that the unconscious mind dredges up.
- The need to look (at something) without imposing one’s prejudices, without any ulterior motive. (to be concerned about telling the audience about one’s loves and hates is not to make art.)
- To measure the work against your conscience. Are you truthful in your gazing?Are you being influenced by outside concerns: fame, money or love? Is it the totality of your craft? Are you lying about its completion?
- The need of unconsciousness. Whoever meddles, arranges, injects his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility is already disturbing and clouding their activity. Ideally, should be unconscious of his insights. (Rilke made distinctions between ‘making’ and ‘revising’ and the making was the unconscious part.
- The final point is that the artist must not turn his/her back on any subject. If it catches his gaze, he is not permitted to turn his back on it
I think I am in the second stage, where Dobyns describes most MFA grads to be in–I’ve learned some important things from my MFA, like how to write with clarity, streamline my writing, and, most important, how to truly revise. These are all good things but the downside to learning in an MFA invironment is that I’ve learened a certain “correct” way of writing, so the challenge for me will be to deviate from the way I’ve been taught to write (not only in my classes, but by the poets I read and admire). I think that I need to take more chances to push into that third stage–but what to do when “taking a chance” feels more like “making a mistake”? I guess that is where being completely “pure” and having no training in writing can be an advantage–never taught what is the “mistake” just completely leaning on intuition. although nothing is new under the sun, so maybe having that education can save me from making mistakes a poet who never attended any writing classes might make. I have often thought that my work progressed much faster than it would have if I had not attended undergrad creative writing classes and much faster if I had never gone for my MFA. I don’t know if either degree pushed my writing in a different direction–who can tell anything from the emotion-wrought high school poems from my old diaries?–but I would count them, however formative they might have been, as positive influences in my writing.
Its something to think about but maybe not to fret about. I believe that the best way to improve is through voracious reading, habitual writing, and giving no regard whatsoever to the possibility of having a work published until the work is completed.
one of the most difficult things, for me, in revision is when my first draft is a more solid first draft. its easier when they’re sloppy messy things that can be tucked and prodded and pinned back here and there. i need to expand a poem, and the initial draft or two left it pretty close to there. so i have to go back, take out the seams, let it out to add what needs to be added, and stitch it back together again.
“Writing a first draft is like groping one’s way into a dark room, or overhearing a faint conversation, or telling a joke whose punchline you’ve forgotten. As someone said, one writes mainly to rewrite, for rewriting and revising are how one’s mind comes to inhabit the material fully.”
– Ted Solotaroff
“The waste paper basket is the writer’s best friend.”
– Isaac B. Singer
encouragement from novelist john reimringer on being a parent and a writer:
The child is an opportunity. Remember that in art, restriction forces your creativity in new directions—the restrictions that dramatic structure puts on a novel, for instance, or choosing to write a sonnet puts on a particular poem. Form in art is a restriction that forces creativity. If you choose to have a child, you’ve chosen to add a new form to your life. Be open to the opportunities your choice will create. I should follow my own advice.
this week i started auditing a writing class online, Other People’s Shoes, Persona Poetry That Fits. its through the rooster moans poetry workshops, and they allow teaching artists (like myself–i teach a class on confessional poetry in may) to sit in on classes.
since a lesson is only posted once a week, it works out well with my tuesday night writing time. it has been good to write again (and i’ve even started submitting my writing again–i sent out to seven magazines this week! seven!).
i’ve always been interested in persona but only dabbled in it, so i’m really enjoying learning more about this type of poetry, and the writing prompts have helped me to be able to actually write a poem in what little (and precious) writing time i have each week. for the first persona assignment, i wrote a love poem from the perspective of a mug. it’s called…”mug” (working title), ha.
plus, i just love having a good assignment to complete. its the nerd in me.
i have some poems in rufous city review’s latest issue, at 2river view, and a poem (from when i was pregnant with zu) on literary mama. if we have as many babies as we hope to have, i suspect 90% of the entire body of my work will be about babies.