I’m starting a new online class Monday on Digital Storytelling, which I’m hoping will lead to a series of hands-on classes on Digital Storytelling that I can twist into poetry projects. I loved my last digital lit class, Electronic Literature, which led me to one or two books about digital lit. But I’m half experiment-lover and half Luddite so whenever I do this electronic lit stuff I always want to try to ground myself in something very physical around writing. This usually turns out to be haiku, which can be very quiet and tactile.
So I haven’t forgotten my 52 haiku project (which got shafted in last year's drama) and I hope to start this in the next few weeks: one haiku prompt a week for 52 weeks. I’ve added the component of Sumi ink drawing to it (for something even more tactile: haikus with little drawings. Truth: I utterly suck and drawing but I’ve purchased two things for the project:
So once a week I’ll post the prompt, my haiku and drawing and any other experience with it. Anybody can work along with me now or in a few months down the line or in a few years when you come across this post in the backwaters of the Internets.
This will be the instruction each week:
Researching this project, I came across a very cool Aliens Sumi ink drawing by a modern Sumi artist who attributes this work to Qi Baishi (齐白石). Read more about it.
I haven’t been blogging but I have been reading. Here's a roll-up of some of the books of poetry I've read this year.
Looking Back to Place
This is a very small run of an anthology of New Mexico poets, published by the Harwood Arts Center in Albuquerque. I couldn't even find a photo of the book jacket online. Lame. The back cover talks about people’s relationship to place and how place is sacred, etc. But it wasn’t a very satisfying look at the place that is New Mexico. There were few good NM poems but the scope was not limited to this state. Jill Battson had two good poems: “Lightning” and “As Seen from New Mexico” and Maresa Irene Thompson’s “What Water Means to Desert People” was great. I probably has higher expectations since the project was such a locally produced one.
I found the complete opposite result with Inez Hunt’s High Country Poems. Obviously self-published but I managed to find that cover online! This is a book I found in Las Vegas, New Mexico, at the very fine local bookstore there, Tome on the Range. Yes, the book looks awfully self-published and by that I mean bad graphics, bad layout, bad titles and really distracting backgrounds. The book practically reeks of bad design ideas. Did I mention the complete font overdo on every poem? But guess what? Looks are deceiving. Yes, the poems are classic, stereotypical western poems. But the writing was so much better than your average cowboy poet. I now wildly speculate that Inez Hunt was simply out of print and some friend or family member put together this anthology of her best poems out of kindness and respect. I’m not 100% on this theory but she apparently did leave poems to her daughter and now here we are with this great thing.
Excerpts from "Ghost Town House"
...storms strike hard
To shake the chinking loose
And cold settles in a down-draft
Through a sodden flue.
Glass shatters or is stolen,
Leaving hungry holes.
The floors break through
Where memory grows too heavy for the joist.
The rats gnaw tediously along with Time
In little bites.
On a recent trip to Arizona, I picked up With the River on Our Faces by Emmy Perez at the University bookstore in Tuscon. Perez’s poems of place depict Southern Texas and El Paso. Perez also writes Rio Grande poems and poems about border politics. “The History of Silence” was the best poem inside and I wished I could find the long poem transcribed online so I could include it in my Poems for Dictators list. Her poems are meandering like rivers and occasionally remote. Some of her gaps are too mystifying and obscure, but there’s a 2016 poem that mentions Trump’s wall.
Pat Mora books always feels like a good poetry deal to me. This book covers all forms of water topics: the sea, rivers, rain, birth and general wetness. It’s about women and water, about danger, slyness, erotica, Frida Kahlo. The poems have some great titles, like “Coatlicue’s Rules: Advice from an Aztec Goddess” and “Malinche’s Tips.” This poem invokes the landscape of the southwest that I feel and smell everyday. Mora also gets political about borders in poems like “La Migra” ("Let’s play La Migra /I’ll be the Boarder Patrol.”)
The amazing poem “Let Us Hold Hands” is often posted online as a healing or political poem performed in a convocation.
I also picked up the book Buzzing Hemisphere by Urayoan Noel in Tuscon under the faculty authors section. This is an amazingly experimental book about translation. Poems are in Spanish and English but never strictly translated. Noel takes liberties with his own poems! The book is also about borders between hemispheres, politically speaking, and the hemispheres of the brain. Noel uses language experiments with word play, spacing, bolding, layout, numerics, letter casing, and experiments in word choice for his translations. For instance, in English the word might be “musicians” but in Spanish the word is “mercenario.” So translations become inter-textural! And some of these experiments are no small feat (pun intended). There’s a form he calls a Sunnet in there, a syllabic staircase sonnet that manages a mono-rhyme poem with the correct syllabics in both Spanish and English. There are also poems that use Google Translate, anagrams created with anagram apps (one called United States shaped into a concrete poem), poems translated from spoken word. English and Spanish are shuffled around.
For anyone interested in the art of translation, this is a great book for you.
Recently, my parents moved from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania (where they retired) to Cleveland, Ohio, where my brother lives. I spent two weeks in late 2016 helping them comb through 30 years of stuff and stage it for removal to local charities or trash. My mom and I have never particularly shared the same interests in books. She likes historical fiction and I like experimental fiction (as a kid I liked scary fiction!). But anyway, in her stack of books to give away she had a book called Poe & Fanny, a novel by John May, an historical novel about a literary figure, Edgar Allan Poe, about a particular time in his life. So as historical fiction, the story is highly speculative but it portrays a very historically detailed account of Edgar Allan Poe’s time in New York City.
It takes place right at the time his most famous poem, “The Raven,” had been published. Poe was living with his wife and mother-in-law (who were also his cousin and Aunt) and explores an affair he was having with one of his admirers, up-and-coming poet Fanny Osgood. The novel doesn’t really prove an affair happened but offers an interesting possibility.
Chapters switch points of view between Poe, Fanny, his mother in law and his editor friend Willis.
The books reads like a historical fiction but there are interesting parts of academic considerations, like on page 25 where you learn in detail about the feud between Poe and Longfellow, which apparently was more of a paid editorial intended to drum up subscriptions for the offending paper. Author John May considers what Poe might have really thought of Longfellow as a writer, his meter, awkwardness and poetic ambition.
Pages 39 and 52 talk about “The Raven” specifically, it’s reception and explication. Fanny meditates on the poem’s sorrow, finds it emotionally compelling, and appreciates its vitality and gravitational pull. She insists the meter is a reflection of the heartbeat. Poe’s friend Willis later considers the poem's use of the name Lenore as a rhymed code word for Poe’s wife Sissy. Willis explores connotations and word derivations in the poem and about Poe’s wife’s impending death of tuberculosis.
Page 64 depicts Poe’s famous recitations of the poem and his affinity with women.
The end of the book includes real poems from Poe and Fanny both referenced in the novel and poems that might reveal evidence of an affair.
The violence and violent rhetoric in America has been very depressing this year. So it was comforting to read the book Revolutionary Memory, Recovering the Poetry of the American Left by Cary Nelson. I learned about this book from a MOOC I took last year on Modernism from the University of Illinois. Nelson hasn’t published an anthology of labor poems yet (and most of these poets are out of print) but this book serves as a veritable introduction to leftist poetry and how it was suppressed out of public consciousness in the 1950s.
Many of the new MOOCs on Modernism are starting to explore more marginalized poets as a refreshing alternative from the academic canon. This includes poets of color writing at the time, not just the Harlem Renaissance but writers who are Asian and American Indian. Nelson also explores the political writers who were all persecuted during the McCarthy Red Scare era which hit hard both Hollywood and academia. Turns out, McCarthyism is still hitting academia hard because these poets are never taught as part of the Modernist era, although they were published in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Langston Hughes is the exception that proves the rule. He is taught widely as part of the Modern Harlem Renaissance but his most most political poems are always excluded.
Nelson reintroduces many poems written about and during the early 20th century labor movement, poems about the Spanish Civil War, and poems about political speech, all which have been essentially erased from our social memory but also from the history of American poetry.
This is a fascinating look at a whole lost genre of poetry, which oddly wasn’t even recovered and repurposed during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
So last May I took a four week, online class called Reading Literature in the Digital Age on the Future Learn platform. It was taught by Philipp Schweighauser at the University of Basel. It was great, except that Schweighauser was doing a Simon Schama impersonation in every video.
The class was about different reading strategies people employ when reading academically or surfing on the web or in social settings. I learned more about deep reading, distant reading and hyper reading. And I’m a practitioner of all of it, for better or worse.
In fact, I've been noticing reading trends particularly around work groups for almost 30 years. When I started working in offices, desktop computers were rare and windows wasn’t even widely available yet. This was before email and the end of paper memorandums delivered into in-boxes actually sitting on corners of desks. I remember hand delivering stacks of memos.
My job now depends on a light understanding of a plethora of web and project management tools. And instead of seeing an increase in customer service with CRMs, better decision making with data-gathering tools, or quicker decision making with mobile access, I've seen a steady decline in productivity, efficiency and customer service and a steady increase in decision paralysis as each year goes by.
This is primarily because tools (and the frantic drive to develop the next hip one) have become a distraction from the work itself and, more specifically, a distraction from deep thinking and solving problems. We are now so pressed for time due to these "time-saving" tools that we’re forced into a reading survivor mode: skimming, winging-it, the bullshitting that has become prevalent in offices everywhere, the bullshitting that signals immediately: I haven't read it. Add to that the attention deficit introduced when spreading our eyeballs over various online media sites and indulging in fun online things which require even more skim-reading. We're now inundated with noise and a barge of "you should read this."
And it’s causing already bureaucratic organizations to crack from the lack of deep consideration over real business problems. Hyper-reading seems to me both the cause and the symptom of our online agonies. Here's an interview with Schweighauser about the class.
XKCD published this cartoon last year about the Digital Resource Lifespan:
Visit the hosted cartoon at https://xkcd.com/1909/ and roll over the graphic for some funny.
I keep coming back to this graphic and sending it around because it's all about intellectual perishability. The Father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, once warned us that decades of intellectual property would someday perish because it's stuck on outmoded formats. Electronic Lit is particularly vulnerable and perishable.
The quote above says it all: “It’s unsettling to realize how quickly digital resources can disappear without ongoing work to maintain them.”
Digital is more labor intensive and perishable than books are for this very reason. And as corporations constantly ask us to switch to new media, we spend money re-buying the same things we already have. And why? As a cross-over example from my other blog interest in Cher, one early Cher album from 1965 has since possibly seen six formats: mono lp, stereo lp, 8-track tape, cassette tape, compact disc and mp3. I have a box of my mother's old 78-records but I can't play them. I have many odd boxes of various types of computer storage systems: 8-inch floppy discs, 3 1/2-inch floppy discs, backup zip cartridges, writable CDs, SD cards, external hard drives, memory sticks. I even have some of my mother's recipes printed on the back of old fortran punch cards my Dad used to bring home from work. Read about the history of removable computer storage.
I also find it interesting that retail stores are now finding “the digital space so crowded” they’re going back to printed catalogs.
It's good we're not killing trees anymore, no doubt. But how to invent a permanent device that beats it for durability; it's hard.
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.