Thanks to Catherine Daly for tagging me for the Next Big Thing! Here at last are my responses to this little questionnaire. (I think I will stop saying “at last”—everything takes time, and the more everything you do, the more time is taken up.)
So: here and now, on the first or the second day of spring, depending how you count, are my responses. The book that has occupied most of this year for me is first. But there’s news of the endearments too! (See parentheses.)
I am tagging Meryl DePasquale, whom I am very happy to have met recently, who is a fine companion in poetic pursuits, and whose next big thing promises to be awesome!
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I was planning a train trip. I was imagining pleasant hours in the dining car, imagining I’d want to write, and possibly to play with some poetic form or other. But I knew I wouldn’t lug a giant book along just in case I got the notion to write a rondelet. So I made a small one.
It also came from my love of practical genres: signage, instructions, guides. And of small books, like the one of Edward Lear’s poetry and drawings that I bought on a trip to London in seventh grade.
(From the endearments, a group of poems made via an anagrammatic procedure and for which this very blog provides occasional annotations.)
Anagramming precious, a word rich in vowels and thus rich, I have begun noticing almost-possible words: if only I had one more c, I could have succor; if an h, ichor. If only an n, so many words—prune, coin. Despite the addition of repeated or new letters, these words keep the virtue, which a set of bona fide anagrammed words has, of consistent color or flavor. They are tangential to the project; I offer them here in case anyone is in need, for instance, of matchy-matchy repetends for a sestina.
osprey (I knew there was a bird in there—)
In which I ask myself what color each letter is, in order of the alphabet and with a side excursion into musical notes
Letters have had colors for me for a long time. When I’m reading, they recede and the meaning of the words takes up most of the room. But when I’m thinking of words or letters specifically, the colors float there. Some are less vivid than others. Sometimes to see a letter’s color I need to see it next to other letters. Some change depending on what other letters they’re next to.
A result of this synesthesia is that certain of the endearments have colors. The originating word, in my mind, has a palette that infuses, transforms, as it appears in the words that make the poem. Thus “dreamboat” is grass green (d), pinky red (a), bright blue (e), all dulled down a bit by the dark black-brown of the r and the muddy purple of the m. “Sweetheart” has a similar blue-red thing going, deepened by the blue of the w and cheered by the vague but warm-colored h.
Where do these colors come from? I think the A comes from a Fisher-Price magnet alphabet that we had on our fridge when I was growing up. That bright pinky red. But of the others’ provenance I am less sure, because that alphabet does not continue to match up. Oliver Sacks could probably tell me.
Below, a record of what colors the letters have in my mind as of this September. The problem being, of course, that saying one version of a thing can make it more true. Thus I intend to avoid rereading this record. I like shift.
In the first nanopoem mentioned earlier, I wanted the singular: dart-eyed mare. But astute readers will notice that this creates a missing letter: the s makes 13 letters and completes the anagram. I don’t think such a choice would be true to this variety of nanopoem, as I have defined it here. These little byproducts of the endearments are found things. One that had had words excised from it to make it sound better wouldn’t feel sound. In addition, I had already used mare in another anagram: stare eddy mare.
Although they crop up less often in sentences and thus make for fewer satisfactory nanopoems, I’ve become more lenient about using letters as words with recent endearments. (This may partly explain why it took hours to finish anagramming my dearest dear.)
But what is a word, for my purposes? All letters get the definition “a speech counterpart of orthographic [insert letter here],” and, oddly, all letters but j get “a graphic representation of this letter,” but both of these definitions seem too meta to count. Letter as letter: no thank you. I am already subjecting the alphabet to enough strain.
A well-known pleasure of the anagram is that sometimes it makes sense: from the mixing up emerges a phrase, a bit of syntax, that is pleasing in its own right. Like finding an amethyst in a streambed. (Which I did, as a kid—and then I found out that the rock-finding guy who was visiting us had planted it in the stream in front of me. He thought I should be rewarded for my effort. But it felt like a false reward to me.)
No one plants the especially crystalline anagram. You find them fair and square. My dearest dear, which I’m working on, has offered up a few good ones. Some are pretty:
Some of them express facets of the human condition:
Am tardy. See red.
—which is no fun for anybody, but which happens. One more, kind of Shakespearean, and possibly an answer to the previous one:
Stay mere dread.
Should I call these things micropoems? They are smaller than what others are calling micropoetry right now (they’re many fewer than 140 characters, to use one measure). I wanted to say nano, but are they small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier? Besides, everything is nano of late.
But my present sample, I am realizing, is perhaps skewed—my dearest dear has 13 letters, which is long(ish) for an endearment. This changes things. Most endearments are too short for the descriptor micro.
So nano it is.
When, in January, I had the chance to set type for the first time, I made the above. I felt giddy all day. I wrote, afterward: I love every letter of the alphabet! In fact, however, the endearment is a kind of lipogram: Many letters are excluded. On account of this, I came very close to running out of several letters. At the end, one V was left in the typecase.
Certain of the letters were not printing as well as others. So, under the advice of Frank Brannon, who is amazing and who perceived just what amount of makeready I was ready to make, I made little cushions for them, squares of newsprint, which I slid under the relevant piece of type. The “r” in “endearment” needed a lift, for instance. This and many more adjustments.
The screen does not do justice to the excitement of feeling those printed letters under my fingertips. Printing enlivens. Printing, be my valentine?
I. Many people will not, of their own accord, look at a poem.
II. Millions of people will, of their own accord, spend lots and lots of time looking at photographs of cats.
III. Therefore, earlier this year, I concluded that the best strategy for increasing the number of viewers for poems would be to print them on top of photographs of cats.
IV. I happen to like looking at both poems and cats.
V. So this is, for me, a win-win situation.
VI. Fortunately, my own cat is a patient model, and (if I am to be believed) quite photogenic.
VII. The aforementioned cat is Tisko Tansi, small hero.
VII. Thus I present to you (albeit in digital rather than physical form) an Endearments broadside, featuring a poem that originally appeared in BlazeVOX spring 2011.
VIII. If you want to share a copy of this image, please ask first. If you want a real copy, you can ask about that too.
The endearments lend themselves particularly to the world of things. At least, I have found it easier to work with them visually than with other poems of late. I’ve printed them on top of old photographs, and on the pages of old natural-history textbooks. And I’ve printed them on top of newer images too. These objects, even the digitally created ones, are of the physical world rather than the virtual one. This is important. In an essay for Fringe, “On Poetic Objects and Poetic Economies,” I consider the advantages and challenges of bringing poems into the visual world:
If I could think of the poems as objects, I said to a friend, a visual artist, this past spring, they would take up as much room as objects do in my mind, and then I would need fewer things in my life. Fewer artifacts waiting to become art.
After exploring cheap art, poems on cards, broadsides, I allow myself a bit of exhortation on these objects’ behalf:
After it’s had the chance to live online a while, affix your poem to a page. One you can give out, or barter for snacks or a drink, or sell for a few bucks. . . . And if you are one of the fine folks who are doing something like this already, for your own work or for that of others, in your living room or in a letterpress studio, I applaud you. Don’t stop. . . .
Make it. Allow it to exist in time, and try again. And try new things, and get better.
It’s easier to get away with such imperatives if you’ve followed your own advice. In the case of poetic objects, though, the physical evidence necessarily has a smaller audience than the html-encoded call to action. So I am offering a partial fix. Shortly I’ll post the digital iteration of a broadside I made of the “beloved” endearment. I printed it on pale grey, textured paper, and I handed it out at the 2011 West Chester University poetry conference. Now it will live here too, but it is better in person.
How is it mean? asked J.
“Fail, pal of mine”? I said. Isn’t it mean to tell someone to fail?
I don’t think so, said J. I wouldn’t think that was a bad thing to tell a friend. Failure isn’t always bad.
I could see his point. The gleeful aspect of the lines just preceding that last line (“fie, foe”), and also the frame of mind I was in when I wrote, it had pushed it that way for me. (Again that maker’s narrative, which must be relinquished when the poem is done. All right, I relinquish it.)
About a year ago, I had a change of thinking in my excellent modern-dance class, taught by the excellent S. I had had this problem for a while: if things got past a certain threshold of difficulty and I was having trouble getting it, my mind would spiral into something like despair. It took a real mental effort to flip back up into the present moment, to move, to try. I had gotten better at this, and it happened less often.
One day in class, I had had such a moment. I wasn’t showing it, of course. I was working hard and concentrating; only the occasional frustrated shake of my head after trying a phrase betrayed my distress. I pulled out of it with difficulty, tried to enjoy the end of class and, as S. often says toward the end, to just dance, do it like you’re dancing and don’t worry about how it looks. As we were ending for the day, she said to the class, “You’ve worked really hard.” And in my mind a shift occurred. The hard work is the point, I realized. Failure is the point—when it’s done with an awareness, when you’re noticing what is happening, that information can help you get where you want to go. Closing my eyes and throwing myself at the movement, too afraid to watch and just hoping things will go right, I miss that information.
This may sound obvious. And I had read studies on attitudes toward learning, about which more below. But I had not felt this difference in my body and mind until then. The realization transformed the hard work I had been doing from a sometimes-terrifying effort to a source of pleasure.
Carol S. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has studied the ways we frame success. Her work, a lot of it focused on young women and mathematics, suggests that when we hear that our success is a result of inherent goodness, or talent, we are more likely to give up when we mess up. Makes sense—if you do good because you are good, and then later you do badly, it must be because you are bad. But if we learn and feel that success is the result of hard work and that skills can be improved with practice, we’re more likely to persevere when things get harder.
If you, like me, were sent to gifted-and-talented class in school, you may have ended up with the short end of this stick. When I first read about Dweck’s studies, I felt really hopeful—they may change education practices, and they have definitely changed my thinking about my own efforts.
Nonetheless, it took me until that dance class to really know it. (It also took a lot of prior hard work, and the good space that S. and my fellow students and I created in the class, to make room for that awareness, and maybe also it took reading a lot of studies about learning, so the ideas were there in my mind, waiting to take hold.)
People say “good job” a lot. Sometimes, if they are in the know, they say, “You’re working hard.” But people rarely instruct you directly to fail, as the poem does. They say, “do x,” knowing the effort might not work out. But not “fail.” I have said it. And now, after the fact, I hear the glee in it not as a cackling triumph over a frenemy but as a playful acknowledgment: of how the little chaos that a failure makes, if it’s paid attention to, can help one get more clarity, more precision, more freedom.
Fail, pal of mine.
Dweck, Carol S., “Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females at Risk” [pdf]. 2006. In S. J. Ceci & W. Williams (eds.), Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Associaiton.
A Chronicle of Higher Education article exploring Dweck’s theories, including some critique of them
The endearment ending “peaches” was published a couple weeks back as part of the 100,000 Poets for Change anthology at Fieralingue. This is really a coincidence of timing—it happened to be ready, and the anthology call was there, a confluence which serves to foreground some things about the poem that I had formerly been muttering about to myself only.
For so long I had the best-words part of this endearment, but the best order for them eluded me. So a narrative emerged to help me as I revised. “Cease,” “ash heap” and “cheep” suggested a phoenix to me—burning up, then resurrection. “She paces, hep as cash” felt like the push against the feminine that I sometimes feel. The “she” in my mind was wearing tweed, and a little cap, possibly. Expecting trouble but brazen in the face of it. About to change. Maybe to embody the gender he really was. Maybe just to bust loose.
I said the story about resurrection and about gender to A. a while back and he did not buy it. It seemed too far-fetched to him. I was disappointed, but as I have mentioned before, this circumstance is okay—the phoenixical skeleton upon which I have draped the poem as I’ve worked on it is not an essential part of the finished poem. It is less skeleton than clothes-horse. I pat it on the rump, say thanks, and let it run off into the field where retired clothes-horses spend their days.
Because I don’t want that framework to determine an end-meaning for the poem. It can’t, realistically; it’s not part of the poem proper, and the markers that originally suggested it often change as I revise. “Cease” became “Cease speech”; that and the “cheeps” at the end may say something about language. A change of language. A good silence, then (a) great cheer.
On September 24, the day of 100,000 Poets for Change, I’ll hand out broadsides of the peaches endearment. If you would like one, you can let me know. I am for change.