Many thanks to Ann Cefola for her kind review of CMP in annogram.
"Poet Mary McCray’s astonishing second book, while reading like a novel, integrates highly crafted poetics. A gorgeous immersion into southwestern landscape, the Primer is as much a spiritual as external journey. Easterner Silas Cole finds camaraderie in the company of the mysterious Coyote, the quiet cook, and gambling cowboys who teach him to reel in his soul as well as the herd they drive. While Silas can “extract the holes of bullets” and “save them like buttons”, he ultimately learns "nothing but earth wants your bones.” This is a gritty and lyrical narrative I could not resist."
This year I was catching up on old New Yorker issues and I found this very funny wild west mashup, "Frontier Squad Goals."
Some funny samples:
Avoid feeling guilty for saying no to future social plans that would be difficult to attend because we will be living in a new place, for which we have no map.
Eat more unprocessed, clean food, with no mold, no obvious discoloration, and no parasites.
"Incapable of true poetical originality, Whitman had the cleverness to invent a literary trick, and the shrewdness to stick to it."
Peter Bayne, Contemporary Review, 1875
"No, no, this kind of thing won’t do…The good folks down below (I mean posterity) will have none of it."
James Russell Lowell, quoted in The Complete Works Vol 14, 1904
"Whitman is unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics."
The London Critic
"Of course, to call it poetry, in any sense, would be mere abuse of language."
William Allingham, letter to W.M. Rossetti, 1857
"Mr. Whitman’s attitude seems monstrous. It is monstrous because it pretends to persuade the soul while it slights the intellect; because it pretends to gratify the feelings while it outrages the taste…Our hearts are often touched through a compromise with the artistic sense but never in direct violation of it."
Henry James, The Nation
"Whitman, like a large shaggy dog, just unchained, souring the beaches of the world and baying at the moon."
Robert Louis Stevenson, Familiar Studies, 1882
"…his lack of a sense of poetic fitness, his failure to understand the business of a poet, is clearly astounding."
Francis Fisher Browne, The Dial, 1882
"He was a vagabond, a reprobate, and his poems contain outbursts of erotomania so artlessly shameless that their parallel in literature would hardly be found with the author’s name attached. For his fame he has to thank just those bestially sensual pieces which first drew him to the attention of all the pruriency of America. He is morally insane, and incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, virtue and crime."
Max Nordau, 1895
Wes Anderson released his beautiful Isle of Dogs this year. Fabulous animated version of a Wes Anderson movie (in look, humor and tone). I own the DVD. I have the giant poster. I wear the t-shirt.
But there were two satirical haikus to open and close the movie.
I turn my back
On human kind
Frost on window pane
And then at the end:
To man’s best friend
Falling spring blossom.
I loved it. I also tracked down Issue 47 of Rattle Magazine for its catalog of Japanese forms. In the back, there's an excellent dialogue on haiku between Timothy Green and Richard Gilbert. They specifically discuss Allen Ginsberg’s famous translation of the Basho frog in a pond poem, explicating its last line, “Kerplunk!” Gilbert says, “the wetlands of Connecticut have bullfrogs and they do kerplunk! And Allen’s from New Jersey and they kerplunk there, but in Japan they don’t kerplunk.” And he goes on to discuss why this translation, however charming, accidentally and significantly changes the meaning of the original poem by altering the size and sound the frog makes when diving into the pond.
And I finally finished a book about translations of a Chinese poem by Weng Wei, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, How a Chinese Poem is Translated by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz. This overpriced, 50-page book had been on my wish list for a while. And it was an interesting dissection of translation problems with examples of 19 attempts to translate a 1200-year-old 4-line poem that was part of a landscape scroll. The authors provide notes on the Chinese language and how word choice and meter may affect reading. They start with Ezra Pound’s contributions, explain transliteration (word for word or character by character) and then dive into translations chronologically by W.J.B. Fletcher (1919), Witter Byner and Kiang Kang-hu (1929), Soame Jenyns (1944), G. Margoulies (1948) which was French so even the translation needed a translation, Chang Yin-nan and Lewis C. Walmsley (1958), C.J. Chen and Michelle Bullock (1960), James J.Y. Liu (1962), Kenneth Rexroth (1970), Burton Watson (1971), Wai-Jim Yip (1972), G. W. Robinson (1973), Octavio Paz (1974), William McNaughton (1974), Francois Cheng (again French, 1977), H.C. Chang (1977), and Gary Snyder (1978).
Here is a succinct quote about the situation:
“…translations are relatives, not clones, of the original. The relationship between original and translation is parent-child. And there are, inescapably, some translations that are overly attached to their originals, and others that are constantly rebelling.”
But Weinberger and Paz were way too dismissive about the translations they don’t like and too laudatory over translations they themselves contributed. Their was a glaring unfairness built into the project: all the other translators didn’t nearly the same amount of space to describe their choices as the authors provided themselves. And then they used highly subjective judgement words like “dull.” They made inexplicable leaps, attributing to a translator “unspoken contempt for the foreign poet” if the translation stayed too far from the original. Weinberger and Paz called for the “dissolution of the translator’s ego” (as if such a thing were possible) all while ignoring the fact that their own statements were rife with ego. Later in the book they insist of Kenneth Rexroth that he “ignores what he presumably dislikes.” There's a shitload of presuming is my point.
I appreciate the detail and close readings this book provided but some comments were willfully enigmatic like this one
“…taken from a three-volume set, all by the same translator, and published, oddly, by Columbia University Press...”
The fact may indeed be odd but you’d have to be an insider to understand why.
But there was a wonderful keeper quote from poet Gary Snyer:
“The point is that translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a re-imagining of the poem. As such, every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life. And no individual remains the same, each reading becomes a different—not merely another—reading. The same poem cannot be read twice.”
You can't dip your foot in the same river twice. The same poem cannot be read twice. Wow. Given that sentiment you’d think the authors would have been more open to the personalities of these translations that were different than their own.
I hope to get "52 Haiku" back on track next year.
I’ve been majorly waylaid from blogging about poetry by a punishing amount of life events. But I’ve kept on reading. Like Nettie sobs to Celie in The Color Purple, "Nothing but death can keep me from it."
The difficult book club has kept moseying along, which is all you can do with difficult books. My third turn running it, I picked the interactive novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. And for those of you who haven’t read this novel about monsters and academia, there are plenty of poems in it. First of all, the character Zampano has a whole appendix of them, Appendix 1-F, pages 558-565, which feel like satirical send-ups of contemporary confessional poems.
The book is about overthinking, the plethora of ways to overthink and over-research (I scored high in 'Input' in the Strength Finders test so I'm a particularly bad case), information overload, all as a sort of avoidance of the heart and its useful information. And posturing, lots of posturing. Poems fit smack right into this hot mess.
There’s one poem in another appendix set called The Pelican Poems, Appendix II-B, pages 574-580, that explains the inspiration for the title "house of leaves" (page 563) and another poem there exploring roots of a tree as an idea for both family tree and the scary labyrinth under the house (page 565). I never did find out who Pelican was or how those poems tied in to the book; but frustrations over fragmentary information is also a theme of the story. The Pelican Poems themselves are also satirical but in a formalized, jet-setting, European style.
There are also appendices that read like poems, a chapter of letters from Johnny's mother reminiscent of long prose poems and an appendices of quotes full of found poems (pages 645-656). 656! Yes, this was a long book.
There are also excerpts of real poems from Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath and Jane Hirshfield which further clarify the book’s themes and Danielewski's inspirations. The book is full of narrative layers, footnotes and typographical accents. Danielewski's sister, rock artist Poe, also created a companion album that provides yet another source of narrative input.
Next Tuesday, September 4 on Amazon.com!
You can also download the 70+ page reader's guide (which is also a traveler's guide through the Goodnight-Loving Trail) for free. Download it at marymccray.com.
....so then we found out we had to move. On top of everything else. Criminy! The fact that this book is coming out this year is a miracle. It's been rough. The last few months have been packing and planning a move. Not what I had in mind for this year at all.
But we've had a lot of help from friends and family and I'm grateful for that because it's kept things with this book on track, but barely.
But I would not advise putting out a book of any sort in the same year you have to move. It's financially and physically not a good idea. Had I known.
Anyway, I also want to point out how many edit drafts this process went through. If you don't love editing, don't self-publish. End of story.
This manuscript was originally written in 2014 and went through two (2) drafts of editing by myself and Monsieur Big Bang way back then.
This year the manuscript was professionally edited (probably the most expensive part of the venture apart from cover design). That was edit number three (3). Then I edited the manuscript one final time as I was laying it out for proofs. That was the fourth (4) edit.
You can see from the post-it notes above, proofs needed many edits too. As of today there have been six (6) rounds of proof editing.
We're at a total of twelve (12) rounds of edits. In the very last versions, you're often only editing one or two things, but it's time consuming. And you have to enjoy making small changes over and over again. Which I actually do. I really enjoy editing. I find it relaxing and productive. You wouldn't know if from all the typos in this blog but if I had the time I would take every post through 4-5 rounds of editing. But it's a free blog, so you get what you pay for.
This book isn't free and it needs to be error-free.
Things have been cray-cray in the land of McCrayCray. The project to publish the new book of poems started in January, but since then I've been swooped off into another, more demanding, job. I've been to Ohio and back to bring a truck load of furniture to Albuquerque from Cleveland, where my parents live now. Then we found out we have to move in two months so we're trying to find new digs. Then our car breaks. Then there's a family reunion to get organized for. Actually two. I've been a big grumps 24/7. And of course no problems happen sequentially. They happen concurrently. So while I'm losing my mind, I'm finding some thread of sanity in the lessons of Cowboy Meditation Primer. Not that I'm great at it, mind you, but it's a practice and you just get tons more practice during the hard times.
But the book....is still...on schedule...for September.
It's been rough though. To make matters worse, I decided to write a Traveling Guide/Reader's Companion for the book, a map for traveling along the Goodnight Loving Trail with the characters of the book. The guide is also packed with New Mexico history and Zen Buddhist ideas referenced in the book, as well as where to stop along the way. It will all be a free and downloadable in September when the book goes on sale.
I might not get the eBook done, but...you can't have everything. Anyway, despite my complaining, a lot of great stuff has come together in the past few months.
Artist Emi Villavicencio did the cover for my last book of poems (see right) and I had such a good time working with her for that I decided to see if she was available for the new book. Lucky for me she was. We worked on this project from about late February to the end of June.
I told her we needed some kind of mashup between cowboys and Buddhists. So she sent me some pictures of belt designs and tattoos just so we could brainstorm off them. By April, she sent me the following drawings to see what would work.
I loved the Zen sand garden imagery and I also loved the simplicity of the rope, except it looked too much like a cattle brand. Ouch. So then Emi came up with the following two variations based on that feedback: the first based off of a style of Buddhist guidebooks and the second based off an idea we had for spurs dragging lines across the sand. I loved both of them and it was hard to choose which direction to go in.
From there it was working on variations of the boot idea, which we picked because the book has so references to taking care of your feet and feet being a focus of meditation. We could also focus on the iron-rich, red quality of New Mexico dirt. I was worried the New Mexico sky was the only element missing from the design, it's vibrant white and blues. So we decided the title might be a way to fit that element in.
In the first draft, Emi sketched everything out loosely. Then we tried a translucent boot and a more Zen font for the second version. The final draft returns to the more stylized cowboy boot, richer dirt, and the blue sky font coloring.
What a fun process. Meanwhile, I needed to get an author photo shot. Stephanie Howard did the photography in Marina Del Ray, California, for the last book. But she has since moved to Atlanta. Finding new people for this part of the project proved difficult. People I contacted weren't available at the same time, strangers wanted money up front. Shoots got planned and cancelled. Finally, my co-worker in Media Production here at CNM, Pat Vasquez-Cunningham, suggested some simple shots with his tintype app. We went down to Old Town Albuquerque one evening and took some great shots.
His app does crazy things to make your eyes look ghostly like a tin-type photo. I call the last one my country-music-album cover.
The shirt I'm wearing I just bought from my new favorite story, Soft Surroundings. It's called, (I kid you not), a poet's blouse, I suppose due to its ruffled sleeves, as if it were a shirt Lord Byron would wear.
Pat also took some shots that didn't turn out for some awesome reasons, including a series where his camera would only focus on my hands. I liked that since my hands did all the work (or a lot of it) typing out the book. In this photo you can also see my great-grandfather's cowboy boots on my feet.
Here he is wearing his own boots with my Dad and Uncle.
Sooooo…. "33 Women" did not turn out at all like I expected. And I don’t know really how to start summarizing it. I haven’t delved into biographical material in a very long time and never to this extent, for 30 days. The idea for the project came to me way back in 2014. I imagined the set would be very light and fun. In my head they would be just hanging-out poems.
But every single day I was forced to confront the value of all my friendships with these amazing people, what they gave me or how they directed me somehow. And some days I wasn’t really ready for it. But I had a strict self-directive to keep the poems chronological, so I did it but....things got heavy, man. I can only attribute it to recent events and affections.
Needless to say, life has been stressful lately. Work has been shockingly stressful. And I’ve been indulging in the basic comforts of TV sitcoms, which I don’t think I’ve watched since Thursday nights of The Cosby Show and Seinfeld (and we all know how that ended). But I’ve been specifically finding a show called The Goldbergs very comforting and I’ve binged watched about 5 years of episodes in 4 months. This is heavy nostalgia-therapy. Likewise, I’ve been a superfan of Schitt’s Creek for a few years, (I just bought the key chain; it’s a real piece of Schitt), and that show is very similar to The Goldbergs in their inclusion of highly emotional and unabashedly sentimental moments. When I first started watching The Goldbergs, (which I did because I’ve always found George Segal exceptionally charming, and he does not disappoint here), I would cry at the end of each formulaic episode! It was maddening and wonderful all at the same time. The same can be said for the last two seasons of Schitt’s Creek, which I started watching because I'm a fan of Eugene Levy, Catharine O'Hara and Chris Elliot (all in one show!), but have since developed super crushes on Eugene's real-life son Dan Levy (David) and his fictional sister Annie Murphy (Alexis). These shows make me feel all the feels (as my Millennial colleague likes to say). It all seems like a much needed backlash against posing and the post-modernist antipathy toward feeling feels.
I’m sure this was an influence in my swerve toward tear-jerking, end statements. It may be true, the saying about “no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader” but I've never been particularly interested in creating my own weepers, because as a Generation X human, I'm overly steeped in such posturing and post-modern anti-feels.
Adn you might think the #Metoo movement also influenced this set. The project was planned years ago and just happened to cue up this year. #Meoo was not even a thing. However, I can see traces of influence all through the poems. For one thing, the titles would never have been simply names of women, the common wisdom demanding titles more enticing and varied. But this year I felt very strongly about giving these poems the names of their persons. That was pure #Metoo tribute. It was also some #Metooness to shove the boys into the backseet (literally) very early on, and they stayed there. At least two of the friendships depicted were actually part of triad friendships with a boy member. And I decided to focus on the girl to girl part of it exclusively. I also sought out positive markers of these relationships, which I may not have done last year. And I couldn’t always pull it off but I started with that intention.
It was the same exhausting gauntlet of sweat it always is doing NaPoWriMo in April, just with an added layer of emotional stress. Considering all the drama going on, I’m amazed I made it through them all. I'm sure I have some new gray hairs to show for it.
Here’s the full set:
Letter to Michele, the original story and poem
In the spirit of girlfriends, I’d like to close with this clip sent to me recently by a very good new friend named Mikaela when we were discussing our mutual love of Kristen Wig.
Thank you Michele. This year’s NaPoWriMo journey was an extraordinary one for me and you inspired it many years ago with the inscription you left in your gift to me the day I left that company with the shark-tank lady. What surprises your friendship continues to provide. I will never forget you.
Two things have been happening: Monsieur Big Bang has been watching copious amounts of British mystery shows, (I’m attributing this to his turning 50 and needing to feel a sense of justice in the world), and I’m taking an open, online class about how reading has changed, for the better or worse, with the introduction of digital devices.
These two things came together beautifully this week when our class starting talking about all the various reading strategies people employ on different mediums, including academic “close reading” which is particularly relevant to poetry. This is a strategy coined by the Formalists or New Critics, a faction of Modernists in the 1930s/40s with practitioners such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren and tangentially T. S. Eliot and Imagists like Ezra Pound. Close reading focuses solely on poems with a careful explication of word choice and scansion, all other contextual information, (cultural, biography, psychology, whatever), to be completely excluded as beside the point. New Critics believed poems were whole and separate systems unto themselves. Likewise, they tended to believe the same politically and socially. Self-reliance. Each poem for himself.
I was trained to do close readings and I have a nerdy passion for breaking things down to their connotative, syllabic operations, but I’ve never liked these guys or their grand theories and so I tried to work it out this week in our forum discussions: what was it exactly that I didn’t like?
Close reading focuses on qualifying word choices, word types, word order, systems of meaning between words, how words look and sound together, in other words, how the machine of a poem operates. It's fascinating to track the craft of a poem this way, to explore the connotations of words and the denotations.
However, words themselves are historical and political systems. Their meanings evolve for cultural reasons and due to cultural pressures. The word “fag” is a perfect example. And words are chosen by a poet for biographical reasons, even if subconsciously.
Our professor in his lecture on close reading referred to plants and humans, suggesting they are individuals like poems. But we know with certainty that plants and humans aren’t at all individual, self-sustaining systems and neither are poems; they are parts in a larger system and the more you "look closely" at them, the more you see how hard it is to define where a plant ends and water, air and soil begin. If you look closely at a person, you see they are not only the physical sum of water, air and soil, but the social sum of all the help and influence of thousands of other people they’ve known in their lives. You couldn’t survive 3 days after birth without the help of another person. The same with a poem: it’s a complicated system. A close reading is one tool of many exploratory tools to understand how it works. The study of biographical, historical, political context are other tools among many. To ignore all the other tools would be like a detective insisting he would only limit his knowledge of a murder to the physical scene of the crime.
So I have been plugging away on my upcoming book project and meanwhile an unexpected work-life reorganization happened. It caused a definite shift in work-life and became an occasion to send to some colleagues the following poem I found around the same time written by Greek poet C.P. Cavafy:
And if you cannot make your life as you want it,
at least try this
as much as you can: do not disgrace it
in the crowding contact with the world,
in the many movements and all the talk.
Do not disgrace it by taking it,
dragging it around often and exposing it
to the daily folly
of relationship and associations,
till it becomes like an alien burdensome life.
But here's my official book description:
It's the late 1870s and Silas Cole is a heartbroken journalist who joins a cattle drive in order to learn how to be a real cowboy. He meets a cattle company traveling up the Goodnight Loving Trail in New Mexico Territory. Not only do the cowboys give Silas a very real western adventure, they offer him a spiritual journey as well.
This book has been in progress over ten years. I started it shortly before I met Monsieur Big Bang while we were both still living in Los Angeles. The project started as an amalgamation of family history and the reading of (literally) 40 books on Zen Buddhism. Surprisingly, the family stories fell completely away and the set of poems became a fictional account of a cattle trail ride up the Goodnight Loving Trail, a few years after Charles Goodnight had stopped using it.
You probably know the trail and its cowboys, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, from the famous miniseries, Lonesome Dove, based on the Larry McMurtry novel fictionalizing their experiences in the late 1860s after the Civil War.
I've discovered there are no good maps of the Goodnight Loving Trail, especially as it travels through the state of New Mexico. I've even gone to the Charles Goodnight museum in Texas and various museums of cattle history to try to find a better one. No dice. These two maps attached are the best I can find online.
The well-known portion of the route started in Texas and traveled to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, then up the mountain route of the Santa Fe Trail through Trinidad in Colorado and stopped initially in Pueblo and later went on to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
In the book he collaborated on with J. Evetts Haley, Charles Goodnight talks about an alternate route he used in order to avoid Uncle Dick Woottons pretty steep Raton Pass toll. Goodnight's alternate route veers off from Fort Sumner to the ghost town of Cuervo, New Mexico, up through what is now Conchas Lake and the famous Bell Ranch, up the mesa near Mosquero, New Mexico, and then up to the grassy plains around Capulin Volcano and through another mountain pass north of Folsom, New Mexico, (which is famous for prehistoric Folsom man and a famous flood where the switchboard operator died trying to save all the village people.)
My poems follow this alternate trail and swerve back to meet the original trail in Trinidad, Colorado. I'm not sure that's what really happened (Trinidad specifically). Goodnight's story is vague on that detail. But he does mention specifically the New Mexico locations of Fort Sumner, Cuervo, Fort Bascom, Capulin Volcano and Folsom. There's also a historical marker in Mosquero confirming the trail came through their town. In his book, Goodnight also talks about a hill that is probably located along the mesa that rises up from Bell Ranch to Mosquero, that particular hill having been named "Goodnight Hill" in his honor, but no local histories or local people I've asked have ever heard of a hill by that name.
Along with stories of the Goodnight Loving Trail, these books also contributed a great deal to the new poems:
"The Prairie Traveler" by Randolph Macy, which was an official rewrite of the highly misleading and inaccurate book "Emigrants Guide to Oregon & California" by Lansford Hastings, more famously known as "The Hastings Guide."
"The Log of a Cowboy" by Andy Adams which was the personal story of one of the cowboys who allegedly traveled with Charles Goodnight.
The book's permissions are sorted out, the book has an ISBN number. The editor has come back with edits and the layout is pretty much finished, which always forces some pretty tough choices to be made around orphan, window and longer lines.
I'm waiting for the proofs to be sent out for blurbs and we're also working on the cover design and photos.
If all goes well, I'm hoping for a September publication.
I'm taking lots of deep breaths in the meantime, deep breaths at home, at work, probably in my sleep...