Author Archives: sdembroski

Continuing the Poetic Journey

By Suzanne Simons. 

 

The work of a poet is many-fold – to ferret out gems in ordinary lives on ordinary days, encourage us to imagine, connect with one another, transform the personal to the universal or nearly universal, highlight beauty, shine light on injustice, help us feel more deeply, pay attention to the present and our place in it, to understand truth with big and little “t”s. The poet does this through imagery, rhythm, patterns, diction, literary devices and all within a container of story.

There are many definitions of poetry. Carl Sandburg wrote “Poetry is the report of a nuance between two moments, when people say, ‘Listen!’ and ‘Did you see it’ ‘Did you hear it? What was it?’ ” Meena Alexander added, “In this time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.”

My first semester in the poetry sequence of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College has been one of immense pleasure, challenge, connection and depth. I was surprised and delighted at the ease which poetry rolled out of me, and on demand. While much of my writing career has been focused outward on telling other people’s stories and observing events, with poetry I got to participate and also share some of my own stories that need telling. I was also surprised and delighted by my enjoyment of writing patterned poetry. Other than writing haiku, this was a new experience, and couplets short and split, heroic sestet, tercet, spatial, and villanelle were among my favorite forms for the lyricism they provoked and the mathematical challenge they demanded. Much of my patterned poetry began as free verse. Placing poems within an assigned pattern and crafting them further improved the quality.

Creativity often flourishes better inside a container or basket of parameters, and I would like a substantial number of poems in my thesis collection to be patterned. Sometimes a poem fits naturally into a pattern, sometimes not. For example “At Dusk, Salmon Spawn” fit easily into the villanelle structure. “Beach Chairs” I literally dreamed in sestina, illustrating the usefulness of keeping a dream journal. On the other hand, “Traces of Ritual” was not going to be wedged into a pattern, regardless of which one. At least for now. Work with patterned poetry has also inspired me to teach it. I recently taught a community poetry workshop on revision for the Olympia Poetry Network, and patterns were one of the techniques I encouraged participants to try. In spring, I will be part of teaching another community poetry workshop more focused on specific patterns. In my spring poetry program at Evergreen, “Poetry for the People,” I will put a fair amount of emphasis on reading and writing patterned poetry.

In order to further their craft, poets need to read broadly and deeply, drawing ideas of content and form from others. Key readings this semester were Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, Dorianne Laux’s and Kim Addonizio’s The Poet’s Companion, Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry and the many Writer’s Almanac poems I read and annotated. Hugo’s book taught me that reality is merely a jumping off point of imagination and meaning. Laux’s and Addonizio’s book was inspiring for the amount of creative and innovative writing prompts and in very useful categories, such as family, erotica, witnessing and place. Several of the exercises I tried became poems. The book also is of great value for discussion of craft, such as imagery, music of the line, simile and metaphor, etc. Williams’ work opened up a whole new world of patterns and made them accessible with clear definitions and engaging examples. Whenever I think of spatial poetry, I think of Jo McDougall’s “The Black and Small Birds of Remorse” shifting from foot to foot.

Key activities which deepened my understanding of poetry and poetics were annotating poems from Writer’s Almanac. This exercise gave me an opportunity to read and reflect on a variety of contemporary poets, themes and styles while applying some common poetic language and terms I learned from MFA director Brian Turner’s handout. The book annotations helped me to read more closely and consider which concepts might apply to my own work. Writing an essay on a nonfiction book was a brilliant assignment which led to developing concepts of how the book might spawn a collection of poetry. An alternate option for this assignment could be to write an essay on a novel and how it might work as poetry. The essay on the sonnet encouraged me to consider the pattern in depth through a close reading of Sara Henderson Hay’s Story Hour. Similarly, the annotation on Jimmy and Rita was an opportunity to consider the verse novel. Of course, writing poems, whether through exercises or full-blown drafts, and the final assignment of revising, were the pinnacle of the semester. Choosing only six to revise was difficult, and I believe that several poems that didn’t make the cut are important to bring to the world after further revision, such as “Double Nickels,” “Duotone,” “The Dark Side,” “Unpacking,” “After Dinner,” “First Swim of Fall,” “Hometown 1973” and “Tale of Two Lakes.”

One of my goals for earning an MFA is to learn to write quality poetry that doesn’t sound like journalism with line breaks. I believe I achieved this and largely due to faculty mentor Gailmarie Pahmeier. Her feedback on my poems, exercises, essays and annotations – via e-mail, snail mail and phone conference – was abundant, affirming, inspiring and very useful. She taught me how to open a poem, tighten diction, count those feet and meters, and poets to read that I might find useful due to content and/or form. In other words, how to craft elegant, meaningful poetry. She also shared suggestions and insights which resonated deeply and provided ideas for future poems and collections. This ranged from making “Traces of Ritual” into a series of poems or numbered poem, and using the four elements of fire, air, water and earth as a framework for my thesis collection.

Re-establishing a regular writing practice is another goal for my MFA. While the setting bounced back and forth between my favorite coffee shops and writing at home in my pajamas, I did mostly stick with my intention of writing and reading much of three days a week. After an initial adjustment, I also settled into a pattern of prioritizing my writing and related graduate work over teaching – and it felt wonderful. In the course of my professional life, I have felt most satisfied and felt my work most valuable when engaged in jobs or projects I believed in. My enjoyment of writing had petered out in journalism at a time when I needed to find a creative medium truer to who I am and also be a medium for continuing social justice work. Poetry satisfies both needs. In writing poetry, I choose whether to focus on present, past or envision the future. From working on a variety of poems this semester, I learned that my most satisfying writing was about the present and asking the reader to consider the everyday gems that land in our laps and that we also share with others. In teaching poetry and as a board member of the Olympia Poetry Network, I experience the power of poetry to connect people across age, class, race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. As John Gardner wrote, “True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values…Moral means nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that in the long run as well as the short we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done. Moral action is action which affirms life.” As the word “moral” comes with the baggage of rigidity, perhaps “best” or “true” are more fitting. Our best action affirms life. Our best poetry affirms life.

Works Cited

Gardner, John, On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979. Print.

Nastasi, Alison, “20 Poets on the Meaning of Poetry.” Flavorwire. 8 Sept. 2013. www.flavorwire.com, on-line.

Fire and Forget, an interview with Brian Turner

 

 Fire and Forget 4

Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War (DaCapo Press, 2013, edited by Roy Scranton & Matt Gallagher), offers stories from fifteen writers who are or have been directly involved in recent military conflicts.  Their writings deal with the immediate experience of war and its aftermath, as well as the impact these experiences have both for the soldier and for the family and community which awaits him or her upon returning home.  The following is an interview between Brian Turner, author and contributor to the book, and Sarah Colby, a graduate student in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College.

Sarah Colby:  Poetry is your chosen genre, and one for which you are well-known.  Why did you decide to write a short story?

Brian Turner: When one of the editors, Roy Scranton, approached me with the idea, I was excited by the challenge he’d placed before me. I liked the possibilities that fiction and war fiction might offer, especially given the parameters of the project that Editors had in mind. Much of the fiction on war that’s written in our time seems steeped in the tradition of war journalism and, to some degree, reality television. That is, it comes across as hyper-real. I wanted to try something in the vein of Ismael Kadare—an Albanian novelist whose work is deeply influential—and I knew that the editors might see the merit in that approach (alongside the writers they’d assembled into the book).

SC: You say that Kadare is “deeply influential.”  In what ways?  How can a writer of fiction achieve influence?

BT: At some deep and human level, stories and moments have the ability to cross literary borders—from the poem to the story to the novel to the essay, and so on—while also crossing the borderlands of nationality, culture, time. The political parallels I find in Kadare’s work echo into our own time—so much so that when I had the chance (in 2010) I traveled to Albania to try to get a sense of the landscape which produced Kadare. The main thing here isn’t Kadare and his work. The main thing is to try to learn as much as you can from those who intrigue and challenge you.

SC: The title of the book, Fire and Forget, comes from a term that refers to the launching of weaponry that, once fired, seeks its programmed trajectory and target with no further involvement from the soldier.  Less than 1% of Americans are involved in direct military service.  One of the recurrent themes in the stories seems to be about a feeling of disconnection with the American public.  We as a nation are, it seems, engaging in “fire and forget.”  We have deployed the military to engage in conflict and then turned back to our daily lives without further action or thought.  How do stories like these about war and its aftermath change our collective understanding of conflict, especially these recent ones which have been so extended and are ongoing?

BT: I’m not sure that these stories will change our collective understanding of conflict, though they may help some to more fully appreciate the profound and lifelong impact war, violence, the potential for violence, and, more generally, aspects of military service which are mostly inaccessible to those who’ve never served. These stories offer inroads for some readers, I hope, to become surprised, challenged, stirred up, conflicted. They may help to remind us that the war comes home with the warrior. We live in a damaged world and it is a world of our own making. If a complicit narrative rings true, then perhaps that will call us, as readers, to consider our own complicity. If an indictment rings true, the same logic holds.

SC: You say that “the war comes home with the warrior” and that these stories can help remind us of that.  As I read Fire and Forget I felt that even though these stories are, in large part, written with the traditional beginning, middle and end, they all seem at the same time rather open-ended.  None of them really offers a solid “finish” to the experience of war.  Can you envision a story where war truly ends? 

BT: In terms of “war” stories, I imagine the story would have a coffin. And then another generation. And then a coffin. Another generation, another series of coffins. And then, silence, maybe. One season blending into another.

SC: One of the stories in the book is written by Siobhan Fallon, who writes stories about the experiences of the families – spouses, parents, etc – who stay behind.  Do you think this story belongs in this book where all the other authors are soldiers?  Why or why not?

BT: For many here in the States, war is purely an abstraction. It’s difficult to recognize it on our doorsteps, in our living rooms, in our conscious and subconscious minds. Part of the genius of Siobhan’s work is that her narratives create the necessary bridgework to bring the war(s) home to American soil, to recognize that which many turn away from and ignore or otherwise have little to no access. Through the imagination, she helps us to better see the world we actually live in.

SC: When Here, Bullet, your first volume of poetry about Iraq, was published in 2005, there were not many stories and first-hand accounts of this war in print. Now there is a growing number of books about Afghanistan and Iraq, related in theme but quite varied in the ways that theme is addressed.  With so much being published do you think there is room for more stories about these conflicts?

BT: There is always room in the world for a great and necessary story told exceptionally well, regardless of subject material.

SC:  In past wars, first-person accounts by way of journals and letters were an important source for documenting the experience of war.  Due in great measure to the ephemeral nature of current communication, (email, Skype, etc.) the conflicts in which we are now engaged are turning out to be among the least-documented in terms of first-person accounts.  What value do you see in soldier’s writing, even if it is not for publication?

BT: I’m especially interested in preserving the voices of those who were low on the food chain. That is, I’m not as interested in the accounts of high-ranking officers and the politicians with whom they share flights to and from the battlefield. I’m far more interested in what life is like from a ground-level vantage point. In terms of understanding war, civilians caught up in war have a tremendous amount to teach us about the wars which soldiers and journalists and historians so often write about. Fear, boredom, pain, loneliness, love, anger, loss, and more—war adds to the definition of these words we share. Some of these soldiers have the ability to share with all of us the new and profound nuances which have been added to these words. They can help us to fully appreciate the complex nature of the world we live in and inherit.

SC:  As an accomplished writer you could turn your hand to any topic.  What motivates you to write about your experiences with war?

BT: I do see my work beginning to wander across the expansive landscape of the imagination. I’m compelled to write about topics that at a surface level appear to be about war. The underlying theme is love and loss, though—that’s what the poems have been about all along. If I shift the overt landscape of the poem or story or essay in my future work, love and loss will surely remain the constant underpinning for it all.

SC: In conclusion, do you have any encouragement or advice for those of us who would like to begin writing, and for those of us who would like to write at a level commensurate with the authors in Fire and Forget?

BT: As my uncle told me when I was a boy—The world waits for all that you will bring it. It doesn’t often feel like it, but it’s true. If you find yourself wandering through the aisles of your local bookstore, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. I do the same. I wander the aisles with my head canted to the side as I read the new titles printed on the spines of those books, year after year, because I’m eager to find the book that you’ve written, perhaps, dear reader, dear writer—that gorgeous, painful, sublime book I want so much to read and be augmented by.

 

Brian TurnerPhoto by: Kim Buchheit

Brian Turner is the author of Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise. His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Poetry Daily, VQR, The Georgia Review, and other journals. He is a co-editor of The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeney’s, Fall of 2012) and his memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, will be available in 2014. He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, he US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and Weekend America, among others. He teaches and is the Director of the low-residency MFA at Sierra Nevada College.

Sarah Colby

Sarah Colby was born in northern New Mexico and raised in the Rocky Mountains.  She earned an MA in Art History from Brigham Young University. In the process she met and married her husband, an active-duty Chaplain in the U.S Army, at present stationed in Hawaii.  When not unpacking from her latest move, she occupies herself teaching art and art history, exploring places and cultures, and writing poems.  Her experiences as a military spouse in war time have motivated her to seriously pursue writing.  She is currently an MFA graduate student in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College.