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This is a question I’ve been pondering for some time now, and today I found an interesting post on another wordpress blog titled red Ravine that tackles the same issue from a different persepctive.  I fear the comment I left behind was rather long, though I hope my fellow blogger takes this as a compliment!  This blog, and the discussion at hand, interests me, so I include the link here to red Ravine:

http://redravine.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/midwest-poets-writers-when-can-you-call-a-place-home/

My comment is quite a ways down.  I should also mention that the above post includes excerpts from Patricia Hampl’s new memoir, The Florist’s Daughter, which in and of themselves are worth the read.

We’re officially over the hump of summer.  It feels like the beginning of the school year is creeping up quickly, and there are all those things I’d planned to get done in July…what exactly happened to July?  I’ve always had mixed feelings about this time of year.  The evenings are beautiful, the prairie flowers and grasses are tall and bright, coexisting in a densely crowded, field ecosystem.  The farmer’s market is ripe with fruit and vegetable harvests.  There are school supplies and fall clothing in the stores.  In general, I am in on the growing communal excitement over a new academic year, new classes, making new syllabi, ordering books.

On the other had, there is a mild malaise that often sets in about now.  I’m generally broke by the end of July, no matter how hard I saved, most of my friends are out of town traveling, and I begin to look back on the summer and realize that I haven’t tackled half the projects or accomplished half the goals I set out to.  Or even a third.  My book isn’t contest-ready, as I’d hoped it would be, I never got that head start of my prelim reading, and I didn’t get back in shape by biking everywhere either.  And there are tasks that take priority over even those personal projects: work for the Sycamore Review and for the Purdue OWL, for example.  The start-of-summer energy has dwindled, and all my time off thus far feels like a bust.

The year is waning, the moon is waning.  For now I’ll blame that.  Wednesday is another New Moon–our eighth invitation to make a fresh start this year.

tarotMy friend Eric emailed me a link to Mary K. Greer’s blog a while back, where she discusses poet laureate Kay Ryan’s use of the tarot as a daily writing exercise (see link to right).  In that blog post, Greer links to an interview with Alice Notley from PhillySound: New Poetry, in which she discusses writing in trance, the process behind several of her books, and teaching trance and tarot in the creative writing classroom.  This is a fascinating read:

http://phillysound.blogspot.com/2007_01_01_archive.html

I recently finished reading Michael Perry’s memoir Population: 485, which meditates on his return to New Auburn, WI, his adventures as a volunteer firefighter and first responder.  As a Midwestern writer, I am thrilled to have found Perry, whose next book, Truck: A Love Story, is already on my nightstand.

Perry’s voice is candid, at times colloquial and then brilliantly poetic, he is masterful at running his linguistic scales, moving fluidly back and forth between colloquialism and academic parlance, at ease not just within both registers but with mixing them as well.  In addition, Perry seems keenly aware of manipulating variations in tone from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph, and from chapter to chapter; his writing is not only poetic but also poet-like, especially in this regard.  Perry balances an awareness of his own sentimentality with unsentimental prose, neither idealizing the rural Midwest nor reflecting back on it from afar, as one-who-left (he is knee-deep in it, and soul-deep).  The result is prose that I deeply admire.

The following lines come from the chapter titled “My People” and made such keen sense to me that I am thinking about hanging them above my own writing desk.  I think reading this successfully quieted some of my own long-harbored anxieties about writing because Perry made so clear something that had nagged in the back of my mind for years:

“Rough hands are a comfort.  Like jeans and old boots.  I love to attend poetry readings, to skulk in the dark,      skimming words from the smoke.  (Riffing on a line by Jim Harrison, I find smoke-free poetry readings the moral equivalent of chamomile near beer.) …The whole scene makes me peaceful, although I throw a systolic spike whenever someone introduces a piece “given to me this afternoon.”  As if poems drop from the sky pre-formed, like sparrow turds.  In my experience, art is not to be awaited; it is to be chased down, cornered, and beaten into submission with a stick.  This belief correlates to Tom McGuane’s and my worrying about our hands.  Working-class prejudice never quite shakes the idea of art as frivolity, and frivolity has pink palms” (pp.118-119).

And then there are those moments that read like poetry disguised as prose:

“There are times late at night, when I’m one of two people on ambulance duty, that I am haunted by a vision of the thousands of hearts beating out there in our assigned patch of darkness.  The county plat book hovers in my head, a tangled maze of dead-end roads and out-of-sequence fire numbers” (p. 145).

I am thinking I need to keep a shelf of Midwestern writers who inspire me to keep going, and more specifically, who keep me coming back to the project of my current manuscript.  Many days pass when I wonder if I’m destined to be a regionalist.

For more on Michael Perry, visit http://www.sneezingcow.com

horses floodAs early as last summer, I began noticing that I was collecting water imagery.  It showed up in notebooks, in my journal.  And this year, as I pulled some poems from my manuscript and began re-visioning the collection, I saw echoes of it in the older poems.  A new thread had surfaced in the book, brought out by time and a bit of emotional distance probably. If I back up even further, I began dreaming intensely about flooding water and rivers and currents the summer before I moved to West Lafayette–a river town–in 2004.

When I began drafting new poems this summer, I became more and more interested in rural Midwestern landscape and, specifically, the flooding that ravaged it earlier this year (and back in 2008 too).  Floods not only alter physical landscape but change how we interact with it, making everything suddenly foreign, unnavigable.

So one night, I was up late, feeling restless, and I decided I would follow the rabbit down the hole.  it turns out that research can, in fact, be an integral part of the writing process and not simply a way of avoiding it.  At worst, perhaps it is productive procrastination.  I began by reading articles and searching for maps, photographs, and interviews about the floods, which yielded a surprising wealth of imagery and, something I didn’t expect, motivation to continue the project, even beyond the boundaries of what I initially thought I wanted to tackle.

Below, I’ve included a link to an interactive on MSNBC that allows the viewer to click on towns along the Mississippi and learn more about the flood and the damage it left behind:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25193213

What’s your rabbit?

Ted Kooser recently picked up one of my poems from Blue Collar Review titled “Bankruptcy Hearing” to reprint in his column American Life in Poetry (see the link to the right).  Below is a wonderful video of one of Kooser’s readings.  Kooser is a Nebraska native and has been hailed as a voice for rural America.  Enjoy his sense of humor and his poetry here:

For the last two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with writing dates, during which I agree to meet my friend Katie, a fiction writer working on the draft of her novel, at a coffee shop and write.  We don’t talk much.  We don’t review each other’s work.  We just…hold one another accountable.  If I know someone expects to find me somewhere at a given time, I tend to show up (versus telling myself “I’ll go write tomorrow at 4:00,” in which case I usually get caught up cleaning my closet or reorganizing my collection of dictionaries).

Some days I spend more time staring out the cafe window than actually putting thought to page, but I always manage to leave with something.  When I joined Katie, the moon was waning, and so I dove back into writing by hauling out some of my drafts from last summer and revising them.  When you haven’t written for a while, working language can feel very much like an aerobic workout when you haven’t been to the gym since last summer: it’s a little painful, you feel out of breath, and you spend every minute thinking, “Is it okay to quit now?  At least I tried.”

Some days I worry that writing dates, while effective, may ultimately be a quick fix for a long-term problem: I’m more externally motivated than I am internally.  I used to feel horribly guilty about this, until I realized that the entirety of the American public education system is designed to make students externally motivated: grades, prizes, praise, etc.  Graduate school moves away from this, of course.  Grades are no longer a primary motivator.  There are fewer prizes and fewer people cheering you on.  It starts to become solely about the project you have imagined…and then there’s nothing left to do but embark on the hard work of it.

My father once told me that he wished my sisters and I had failed a little more often in our lives.  At first glance, this sounds like a terrible thing to wish for, but he meant it in the sense that we had all excelled academically with a minimum of effort.  While we made ourselves busy, had we ever really come up against the difficult work of a personal project?  He could see this before we all realized it.  Now, each of us struggles with creative work, which comes easily to no one except in rare and short-lived moments, exceptional bursts of clarity that dissipate before we’ve had our fill.  We work hard for a little while, then wonder why our normal efforts haven’t manifested as we imagined.

I sense that, for me, making the transition to being a more internally-motivated writer has begun but is going to be a slow and difficult process.  But there have been a few bright spots thus far, glimpses given by the universe to let me know, as a friend’s Tarot deck so recently told me, “I can’t fuck it up” as long as I keep going.  For example, when I pulled several poems from my book manuscript, I started seeing different connections among the poems that were left, threads that had previously been buried in my hurry to complete my thesis: water imagery and a uniform Midwestern landscape.  The book was suddenly more about region than it was about the speaker, and this possibility excited me. Lately, I’ve been wary of starting any poem with “I,” which may be, in and of itself, a sign that the externally motivated performer-writer is giving way to the internally-motivated writer-as-medium (in this case, medium for a landscape).

Our next writing date is Monday, and since we’ve entered the waxing moon, I’ve been drafting new material for our last two meetings.  Yesterday, I was embarking on flood research.  This process is radically different from the previous draft-and-dash technique  I employed the night before workshops.  And it is slower and so require more patience…something else I need to work on.