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...
I've started a project of 33 poems based on girl friends and relatives I've known who were an influence on me in some way.
The first ten so far are a combination of relatives and friends from grade school.
NaPoWriMo will be upon us in just about a week. I probably won’t post much on Big Bang Poetry during that month as I’ll be furiously writing disposable poems. I did the prompts last year and it was a bit unsatisfying due to the fact that everyone is now creating their own prompts. So this year I decided to return to a project, one based on a poem I did many years ago for my friend Michelle Sawdey after hearing she passed away and while I was on a writing retreat and found a notebook she had given me and being moved by her inscription.
My NaPoWriMo project is called “32 women” and I’ll be writing each day about a woman who has been a part of my life, plus 2: one intro poem I’ve already finished for March 31 and the original Michelle poem for May 1. As we progress, you can find them here: https://hellopoetry.com/mary-mccray/
Then I have another project lined up to start maybe in June called "52 Haiku." I’ll be posting a prompt each week for a year. Each prompt will initiate a meditation, a haiku, and a small sumi-e ink drawing. I so suck at drawing, this should be interesting. As a guide I’m starting with some of the prompts in Zen by the Brush and I'll be using an ink kit I found online.
What I love about haiku is that if feels like the opposite of eLit: offline, quiet, single minded.
And yesterday I came across this interesting page surveying Shambhala Publications haiku catalog. Food for thought while we prepare for 52 Haiku in June.
So there’s the quiet, formal, contemplative haiku and then there's the rambunctious, genre-bending, boundary-pushing area of experimental and eLit poetry. On experimental poetries, I found some interesting things:
Monsieur Big Bang recently sent me this link to Marie Osmond from the show Ripley's Believe it or Not. She's in a yellow robe doing a dramatic reading of Dada poems, specifically reading Hugo Ball’s sound poem “Karawane.” All I can say is "Wow Marie, we hardly knew ye."
My friend Maryanne sent me this link to a whole carousel of poetry readings on The New York Times “Read T a Poem" page. It's got a a very clunky user interface. Here’s another list that includes some, but not all the readers, which include Amy Adams, Brian Hutchison, Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Matt Bomer, Michael Benjamin Washington, Lauren Ridloff, Joe Mantello, Charlie Carver and more.
“A metaphorical and poetic journey about finding hope against all odds, Thanner Kuhai transports the reader/player into an immersive cave environment where language becomes intertwined with natural surfaces in a glimmering subterranean world. Navigate a labyrinthine network of flooded tunnels and passageways teeming with strange life and shadows of words. Submerge deeper. Or seek escape to the surface.”
See a preview at http://www.dreamingmethods.com/thanner-kuhai/.
And I know I’ve been insisting here that lyrics and poetry have more in common than not, (since Bob-Dylan-Nobel-Prize-gate last year), and I recently had a very unfortunate hard drive accident, (coupled with a miraculous file recovery), that scared me into backing up all my old files. As I recreate a lot of them into newer formats, I’m finding that (a) I had no idea how lame my early ideas were and (b) I had no idea how appallingly shrill and cocky I sounded in old college essays. It’s been painful. I now wonder if this hard drive accident was the universe kindly trying to delete my old self on my behalf.
And lo and behold, I see I felt the same way about what was and was not poetry back when I was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence. In one paper, our professor, poet David Rivard, asked us to write about our favorite poems and the majority of mine were not poems. They were a hodge-podge of poems, song lyrics and found quotes.
I even had this to say before I launched into my list:
“Since we have consistently failed in poetry to at least come up with a working definition of what it is, no one's going to tell me what it isn't.”
Holy crap I was smugly confident! That was a real circle snap. And the whole essay is like that. Painful.
That said, I'm happy to see I included Joni Mitchell's “Last Time I Saw Richard” (which I once memorized and would read aloud as a poem) and I often think about this prose poem I made from a Grary Shandling joke:
that's a problem that's plagued me
throughout my life.
I did not know that there was a picture
on the other side
of the drive-in screen.
I thought all the cars were wrong
who were on the other side.
It was a very philosophical approach.
I thought they were wrong,
I was so convinced of it.
And I never went around to look.
And then there was the Rupert Holmes song “Studio Musician” on the list, a song I once loved from Barry Manilow’s 1977 live album. Barry Manilow even adds his jingle for State Farm at the end of it, reminding us he was a studio musician of sorts, a jingle writer.
All the discomfort of encountering my less-than-charming former self was somewhat alleviated by being reminded of this very lovely thing.
For Christmas I got a subscription to Birchbox, which is basically a monthly package of of beauty product samples for items you otherwise couldn't afford. I get overly excited when the box comes. I'm even charmed by the boxes themselves.
Anyway, one of the products that came this month had a poem printed on it. It’s a limp plimper, (don’t ask me; I just blindly use this stuff), and the packaging contains a haiku:
Sink some ships with those
Dangerously plumped up lips
Can you say luscious?
It’s a pretty rickety haiku with questionable punctuation but maintains a perfectly good syllable count.
It’s also a haiku that worries me about its possible dangers...with the actual word danger in it! So this would make it both a poem and marketing fail.
I’m really excited about the latest essays I’ve been reading. At the end of last year I concentrated on books by Louise Glück, starting with American Originality: Essays on Poetry (2017). I was prepared to not like it because of one reviewer claimed it was a defense of American Narcissism. The reviewer turned out to have read only the first short essay, (lame reviewer), and Glück was not even defending narcissism, but explaining how America got hooked on it.
In any case, I was forced into a crash course on reading Glück prose, which is difficult and abstract and even though her essays are often short and tiny, they always required slow, concentrated reading. She reminded me of C.K. Wright in that way, their dense, packed gems of thinkings.
There’s also a big of sexism in me that prickles when women write like word-tangled academics, as if being complicated is an attempt to keep up with "Professor Guy," who throws his weight around with unnecessarily big words and complicated sentences, doing little to communicate anything but intimidation to his readers. I said the word obtuse earlier incorrectly but I was searching for willfully obscure and esoteric. Inaccessible.
Stupid me, this is not what Louise Gluck is doing at all. She is just very precise and particular. In fact, I came away thinking Glück prose is probably the smartest, most perceptive writing on poetry I’ve yet come across. And I fully appreciated her willingness to write about modern poetic realities instead of the same ole easy targets, like lamenting the state of current readerships. Her ability to parse modern conundrums might just take the top off your head.
Well, at least half of it will. The other half contains introductions to book contests Glück has judged over the years. Although including them in these essays feels like a generous impulse, book introductions are hard to like. They’re not journal or magazine reviews, which tend to be more holistic about a writers life or themes. Introductions are also not fully satisfying out of context and if you haven’t read the book’s they refer to, the quotes leave you feeling more disoriented than enlightened. They also don’t quite whet your appetite for the book the way book reviews do. That said, in many of these introductions Glück presents a formal or stylistic challenge each writer has overcome and you get a few paragraphs on the drawbacks of each style or form, including some good conversation around things like nonsense writing and irony, (“Irony has become less part of a whole tonal range than a scrupulous inhibiting armor, the disguise by which one modern soul recognizes another…characterized by acute self-consciousness without analytical detachment, a frozen position as opposed to a means of inquiry”). See what I mean? It’s tough chewing but worth slowing down for that.
Other big topics she tackles: American ideas of originality and self-creation and how ironically the “triumphs of self-creation (and uniqueness) require confirmation, corroboration,” confessional poetry and self-absorption and what is narcissistic and not narcissistic: “the sense that no one else is necessary, that the self is of limitless interest, makes American writers particularly prone to any version of the narcissistic. Our journals are full of these poems…a net of associations and memories, in which the poet’s learning and humanity are offered up like prize essays in grade school.”
She talks about what being really smart means and the thirst to be perceived as a smart poet: “Central to this art is appearance: less crucial to think than to appear to think, to be beheld thinking.” And later she says, “This means that certain brilliantly intellectual writers are not treated as intellectual writers because they don’t observe the correct forms…it does not conform to established definitions of intellectual daring.” In this, she includes poems that are “too lively” or “grammatically clear” or “not on the surface difficult.” This reminded me of the New York Times Magazine’s essay on “thirst.”
You could also say all the same things about comedy writing and the false hierarchy of value in all forms of writing and thinking.
She also covers language poetry and fragments: “in the absence of context, fragments, no matter how independently beautiful, grow rapidly tedious: they do not automatically constitute an insight regarding the arbitrary….[they are] a strange hopefulness…born of a profound despair, the hope that, in another mind if not one’s own, these images will indeed cohere…the hope that if one has enough memories, enough responses, one exists….the longer the gesture fails, the more determined the poet becomes.”
She even lists out the tactics of language projects: incompleteness, focusing on the what-is-missing in human communication, aborted attempts, gaps, the unspoken. She tracks how quickly those strategies “turn rote, how little there is to explore here.” She says, “the problem is that though the void is great the effect of its being invoked is narrow.” She says, “the paradox is that the named generates far more complex and powerful associations than does the unnamed.”
This is particularly good: “The unfinished alludes to the infinite…the sense of the perpetually becoming is conceived as a source of energy, also a fit subject for intellectual speculation. The problem is that there is nothing to say once the subject has been raised.” At the end of the day, “the experience of reading a stanza is not different from the experience of reading forty stanzas.”
It’s sort of shocking to me how old these essays are (late 90s) and how we’re still being asked to read forty more stanzas of the same language experiments year after year.
She also covers myths, personas, narrative, image poetry, fear of closure and the embrace of chaos. And her comment here jives with what David Foster Wallace once said in defense of sentiment: “Distance for sentiment, anxiety at the limitations of the self, create contempt for feeling, as though feeling were what was left over after the great work of the mind was finished.” Yes! Thank you!
She talks about political poetry, too often compared, she says, to the lyric and she feels these “distinctions are a matter of degree.” She talks about the cult of beauty’s lack of insights versus projects that explore puzzles and arguments.
Probably the most moving section covered why we write: the idea of personal growth and healing compared to reflections on loss and suffering, unhappiness in art, true risks of happiness, authenticity, the creative being and suppression of all other selves. Contrary to the idea of the troubled artist, Glück says the happy spirit, “fortified, can afford to go more profoundly, more resourcefully, into the material, being less imperiled.” “Well-being,” she says, “seeks out the world, a place likely to be more varied than the self.”
Wow. All this in a 200 page book!
My favorite quote from this book: “Poems do not endure as objects but as presences. When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice; you release into the world again a companion spirit. I read poems to hear that voice. And I write to speak to those I have heard.”
I’m kind of ambivalent on self-help gurus these days. There are just so many. And we're so self-absorbed already. The fact that they work as click bait only reinforces the issue that we're obsessed with our own improvement. That said, I'm a total child of the 80s and inbreed to have a hard time resisting self-helping myself. It's also the beginning of a new year, the time when you try a little harder on new resolutions. Medium.com keeps serving me up self-help headlines, appealing to my weakness. But here are three particularly good ones that have surfaced recently.
This list is all about small habits that can help you in big ways. The first item on this list is great. And although hard to learn to do consistently, it pays off. Setting expectations with others and yourself is a big deal, in relationships and personal goals. There are
And the only items I’d quibble with are: #2, I don’t think journaling is really all that. Some people send emails instead, or do other writing projects or blog.
And #3: to say I never lie is to say another lie. But that said, making every attempt not to lie is a good idea, because as Mark Twain says, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” It’s not just an issue of bad karma, it’s just more efficient thinking.
And #10, never eat alone. That sounds a bit extreme. I would change that to “don’t be afraid to eat alone but look forward to eating with people too.”
This was an awesome list and explores not just why you need recovery from things like work, technology, people, food, fitness and being awake, but how to take these breaks. Even poets can overwork!
All the work ethic items in these lists are great. Even the love advise is sound. Self-knowledge is the holy grail, and Dolly Parton is a big proponent of item #5, an idea which is also gets ink in item #7 of the first list above. I’m still struggling with some of these myself. Especially #6 and particularly #7, to which I retort, "What if your tiny voice is a crazy person?"