Category Archives: Poetry

The Writing Life

With this blog entry, I do a turn — not 180º but perhaps 120º, devoting this blog, and this website in its entirety, to the writing life — the life of a writer, that is, and everything he or she might be interested in, including readers.

Young Zeck or, more fully, Young Zeck Image Communications, was the name of the little corporate communications consultancy I operated for about 25 years. It was, every now and then, successful in producing corporate jobs like company brochures, annual reports, and websites — and the income that goes along with such jobs.

The consultancy was not as successful as it might have been because I never fully devoted myself to the corporate life or corporate lie, if that’s not too extreme. Let’s put it this way, rather: the institution (corporate, governmental, academic) has a belief system that prefers money or a consistent code of values above all else. As someone trained in the humanities, and from the earliest age, how could I give myself to this kind of groupthink? The focus on money, and system, mean truth was an easy prey and beauty not far behind.

Gay Talese Writer's Life
Gay Talese’s Writer’s Life is said to be “a cracking good read.” So let’s get cracking, readers and writers.

Yes, companies will hire you to produce plausible representations of their business and business methods, and you can write and design attractive products that both you and the client can be proud of. But when I did so, I would always think, what now? What new job must I be hunting for? What new values in life?

Since the mid-1980s at least, I’ve been writing stories and poems, and they’ve been accumulating in my drawers (computer drawers or folders). I’ve published a few, but not many. There’s very little  money in publishing in little literary magazines, and, yes, money is a consideration if not the main consideration. There’s very little ego confirmation when the stuff you’ve sweated over so hard is rejected by these magazines.

Most literary writers, I think, publish for exposure. They want their names out, their creativity on display. They want to be read and, yes, admired. They don’t quit their day jobs, most of them, and they shouldn’t. But always in the back of the mind the idea lurks that they could make it someday as a writer.

Make it, as in making a living. Make it, as in getting a life. Make it, as in doing just what they’ve always dreamed of doing but were afraid to ask or try.

I retired from college teaching and corporate communications about six years ago when my wife Jennifer and I moved from Minnesota to Northwest Arkansas. Since then, I’ve tutored kids and done a little webmastering, but have continued to write stories and poems … and now and again the beginnings of a novel.

About four months ago I joined a weekly writers’ group, the Dickson Street Writers. We meet every Monday afternoon at Nightbird Books, an indie book shop in Fayetteville that accommodates us and other groups. Our facilitator, Linda, is writing a group biography about Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and that gang. Most of  us are writing fiction, a few poetry.

We bring a printed copy of what we’re working on to the store and shop it around among ourselves. We read our own piece, that is, and the others mark and muse the typescript, then comment on it orally. More than the specific comments and directives, which are often helpful, it’s the mere example of others who are doing the same kind of thing and honoring the same direction, that is invaluable.

Yes, I’ve been in other writers’ group before, but somehow they didn’t last long. They were beset by divisions, competitions, lack of interest, ennui, lack of comprehension (I have no idea what you’re trying to say, or why you’re trying to say it). The Dickson Street Writers are older, for one thing, and more mature. (No spring chickens peck this barnyard.) They’re more tolerant of differences — one of which is that I am the only male member! (Sometimes in jest I call the group 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) Linda has remarked, on more than one occasion, that I’m brave to read what I do — a man’s fiction, perhaps, among so many women. Or fractious fiction, could be, among more conventional MOs. (I’ll take up this topic of courage in writing in more detail later.)

So here, at last, to the writer’s life. Raise your glasses high. To something of a meaning and purpose for your later years, if that’s what they’ve come down to.

 

In your face poetry

Claudia Rankine
The Jamaican-American poet Claudia Rankine.

Joined a poetry discussion group a couple of months ago, led by Linda Leavell, from whom I had taken an OLLI class on the poet Marianne Moore. (Linda has written a fine new biography of Moore, Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore.)

When I joined, we looked at a couple of poets with Arkansas connections: Miller Williams, who died just this year and who taught for many years at the U of A, and a student of his, Jo McDougall, who grew up on a rice farm in the Arkansas delta. Both are more or less traditional poets, intent on form and formal compression — saying a lot in a little space, which they do admirably.

Then we came to Claudia Rankine, a black Jamaican poet, living and teaching in the States, whose two books of poetry have been hailed as “brilliant” by the critics. The second volume, Citizen: An American Lyric, which we read, struck me, however, and others in our group, as fraught with problems and questions:

  • Why the naked aggression of the tone, the confrontational manner?
  • Who is the audience for this “lyric” or mixed-media collage (many passages are prose, or video script, and they’re accompanied by photos and/or photo collages)?
  • Why the abstract academic language and could-be-Marxist jargon?

Linda gently countered our objections, offering other views but not disparaging us.

Walt Whitman, she pointed out, was greeted with cat-calls and confusion when he first published Leaves of Grass. Here was a poetry so new, so revolutionary, it startled, shocked, offended people used to traditional English forms like rhymed iambic pentameter.

Maybe the audience is the people — a inclusive, popular, demotic group? Maybe it’s white bourgeoisie, like us, who read poetry and who need shock and waking up? (Let’s face it, there were ten or eleven white faces, female and male, in the group last night, not one black face, or brown, or yellow. Let’s face it, if Baudelaire and Rimbaud could épater lebourgeois, or shock the middle class, shouldn’t we expect today’s artists to do the same? Sitting on our capital accumulations and hemorrhoids, don’t we need shaking up?)

But what do you do (Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!) when you read a passage like this?

And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the clearest vengeance … to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled …

Rankine is catching no flies with this vinegar.

Similarly, she defends, as an egregious example of racism, the kind of bad line calls that Serena Williams suffered in major tennis matches, and Williams’ response to one call, telling the referee that “I’ll fucking take this ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” The ghetto of her upbringing reasserts itself in the face of white prejudice, the desire to smash the white face and wipe it out. (And yet Williams glosses this event, and the outrage it produced, this way in a recent interview: “I just think it was weird. I just really thought that was strange. You have people who made a career out of yelling at line judges. And a woman does it, and it’s like a big problem. But you know, hey.”)

Not just a woman. A black woman. A black woman so physically imposing and dominating that she, and her sister Venus, have been called “the Williams brothers” (if mostly by the Russians, who should talk, they with their Olympic doping record).

Each person reading Citizen will have a different reaction. Our group was divided about the work, many praising it, others like myself doubting its worth, all of us prying, under Linda’s instructional nudging, into the whys and wherefores of this odd and perhaps epic new American “lyric.”