Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Strengths and Weaknesses

Here's a challenge:

Look over a large selection of your own poetry and try to note habits, good and bad, that you fall into. When you're looking at your work in this way, don't just notice the habits, seek to discover ways to utilize your strengths more completely, and way to augment or re-balance the weaknesses.

This is a challenge designed to bring forward a little self-awareness of your process and results. It's something I would urge most poets to do, periodically.

I'll answer the challenge myself, to get the ball rolling:

This is a very hard question for me to answer. I would have to start by saying that I pay a lot more attention to the process than the product. This is true for me in all of the several creative arts I work in: process matters, product sometimes doesn't. So, I'm not sure I can answer the question, except in some kind of roundabout, blithering, babbling sort of way.

I never had anything like a (typical) confessional lyric poem stage. In my teens I did have a stage where I wrote a lot of stuff out of vivid imagination that in retrospect could be called psychologically revealing, but none of it was about me per se. A lot of it was fantasy, fiction, even science fiction. I also wrote my first homoerotic poetry at that age. (Shock! Horror! Teenagers have sexual feelings! Call the thought police!) In fact, the three or four longest poems I've ever written have been erotic poems; two of them were started at age 16, and completed well over a decade later. (One of those things you pick up and put down, and set aside, and come back to sometimes many weeks or months later.) When I showed some of those old poems to adults, they got uncomfortable. (Today, they probably would call the cops; which is just so ridiculous.) I still have most of these old poems, buried in old notebooks in the basement.

I didn't write my first good, mature poems until well into my twenties, and I didn't write in my current (new and improved, one hopes) style until about 10 years ago, in my late 30s. I recently have been thinking along the lines that most poets don't write a single good thing until they're at least 30 or 40; and most poets who get published too young burn out too soon. (How many poets published in the Yale Younger Poets Series go on to produce great work later? A small minority.)

The best poem I ever wrote is the one I haven't written yet.

I abandon poems by the kerb as soon as I can't do anything more with them. I often do not wrestle with a poem beyond a certain point; at that point, it's better to scrap the thing and start over from the same point with a brand new poem. Endless revision can take all the life and joy out of poetry.

I don't self-analyze my poetry when I'm doing it, as bringing the inner critic online during the writing process itself is a sure-fire inspiration-killer for me. Looking back in artistic overview is not something I do much of, either. I can't even say that my poetry evinces a coherent body of work, as I have written in so many styles across so many topics. The only forms I write in, typically, are haiku and its related forms: haibun, tanka, renga, haiga. I suppose some poets would call it a weakness that I have no "feel" for traditional European poetry forms; on the other hand, one of my strengths is that I do have a very good feel for many Asian poetry forms.

I regularly "invent" forms for myself. Which means I do a poem, then like the shape of it when reading through it later, and do other things in that form. I'm aware of having invented 3 or 4 new forms for myself that I still regularly use.

What I often do during revision is compress and compact the poem's language, make it tighter and more connected. I am known to spew out a lot quickly, then edit it down. I often have to remove a lot of "the"s and "and"s, so I guess you could call that a weakness.

Poetry is my third art, after music and photography (visionary digital art). In all my arts, I have two favorite four-letter words: DONE, and NEXT. I am not the most patient and methodical of artists; quite the opposite. I don't spend much time in self-analysis, as psychology and autobiography not what the art is about. In fact, a lot of my poems (and visual art) are impersonal, verging on egoless. My work has been called both "brooding and moody" and "coolly transpersonal." It's also been called shamanic, transpersonal, mythopoetic, and archetypal. Go figure.

In fact, I don't have much ego-based ambition about my art; my music is the most personal to me, the rest much less so. For example, I've been a commercial illustrator and designer for years, so I gave up ego in my visual art a long time ago. (If the art director wants you to change an element, you do. You learn to detach from your artistic goals in order to realize the client's goals, even if you disagree with them. One learns detachment or one gets out of the business.) In my poetry, I trust my instincts; if a critique helps me improve a poem, I go with it, but I also have a strong sense of what the poem wants to be, so I'm not likely to adhere to the winds of fashion or make changes that go against my instincts. Thus, when I present a poem for critique, it's usually for a final polish, and only rarely an early draft. There are poems I write that I never present for critique, because I don't feel they need any feedback; they're pretty much already done, and I've already revised them on my own.

Some would call it a strength that I am ridiculously prolific—I make art (in whatever media) every day, with few exceptions. I have built up several distinct bodies of work with internally coherent styles (if diverse across the set of "all work"). So, when someone asks me for a piece, I often have a lot to draw on, and can even fine-tune an existing piece to match the request. Some artists think that's a weakness, and call me scattered and unfocused, but they miss the point. In all my arts I've won awards, etc., so if I'm "scattered" I am so in a good and productive way, and maybe it just doesn't matter.

I am a very strong improvisor, in poetry, music, and visual art. I play with things till they reveal to me what they want to become. I "listen" to what the poem wants, to where it wants to go. My artistic process is strongly intuitive, as opposed to rational, methodical, mechanical, intellectual. Some would call it a weakness that I have no "discipline" about poetry: I don't write a poem every day, but only when one seems to want to be written. It is my job as an artist to be always alert and ready, but never to force it. I do write every day, actually, I just don't write poems every day; essays or journal entries, though, are often how I start my day, even before breakfast. I suppose some poets would call it a weakness that I'm neither a formalist nor follow their kinds of discipline (writing a poem a day can be a good exercise, for some, but no one should be fooled into thinking that everything that comes every day out is a good poem).

One strength that I do possess, that I think a lot of poets lack, is artistic self-confidence and self-direction. Sometimes that inner compass serves you much better than anything else.

I can list a few other strengths not yet discussed, some of which are purely technical in terms of writing craft:

1. I'm good at line-breaks and overall enjambment. I have a good feel for where to break the line, to underline or establish the mood the poem. If the tone of the poem is propulsive, for example, I know just where to break the line so that the reader wants to hurry on to the next line or phrase. This sounds self-consciously manipulative, but I'm making an observation based on looking back over many of my own poems; when I actually do it, I do it by "feel" not by intellect.

2. Much of my poetry is cinematic rather than narrative. I am good at letting sequences of images evoke their own implicit narrative, without following an explicit scenario.

3. I am very good at mining my dreams and other sources from the unconscious for material. A lot of this turns into my strongest, most evocative and strange imagery. I have kept a dream journal since I was very young. A lot of my poems began in my journals, and were later pulled out and revised into poems. I allow myself to do "free writing" in my journals, without any goal or editing; sometimes I fall into a poetic cadence, full of imagery and music, without thinking about it. I allow myself to turn off my Editing Mind and follow the pen wherever it wants to go.

4. I actively seek to take risks with my subject matter. This can be very challenging for me personally, having been raised by parents who believed in emotional and spiritual privacy, in never revealing too much of the self. Some of this risk-taking openness and honesty is the direct descendant of my decision, in my youth, to live as honest, open, and authentic life as possible. It is also part of the coming-out process that many gay and lesbian writers go through, at some point: you want to write about what you honestly care about, and you don't want to have to redact yourself, or your writing, any more.

This isn't to say that this is personal poetry, or a kind of confessional poetry. Nothing remotely that exact or explicit. I'm not interested in either autobiography or self-justification. I already mentioned that I never went through a typical confessional lyric phase in my writing—I mostly confined that to essay, not poetry. It may be true that some earlier poems are "coded" or concealed, or symbolic rather than explicit; one can always read that into one's early-life work, but one must be careful not to retroactively revise one's own history too much on purely psychoanalytic grounds. (Freud is over, okay? Let's just get that out of the way.)

The risk-taking honesty in question is the honesty of response, not of biography: If I just saw a rock outcrop or a naked torso that made my blood sing (and both have), I want to write about what was triggered in me, as exactly as I can. When the world catches light, or takes fire, I want to write that down in a poem. So, this is in many ways a poetry of eros and ekstasis. I think I've gotten pretty good at this. It's the reason behind my writing discipline of being prepared for the poetic vision to strike, but not writing a poem a day, or other classic writing-practice tricks.

The risks I seek to take are often along the lines of putting my mind inside the mind of the Other, and speaking with their voice(s). This is a poetry of empathy rather than simulation. I'm aware that I've got at least one or two memorable poems that are from the point of view of the non-human. This, too, is about eros and ekstasis, but from a trans-human viewpoint. It's the curse and blessing of being a mystic, a visionary who just happens to make art.

Who am I kidding? I make art because I have to, because the vision demands it, and because I have no other way of conveying what I have experienced, to let other people see what I have seen. So, a lot of my visionary poetry (and visual art) is actually nothing more than a record, or document, of what I have experienced.

If I can get you, the reader, to experience in your own self what I have experienced in mine, then that to me is a successful poem, or work of art.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I expect to write my 1000th poem this year. The volume I have sitting beside me at the moment, which is so heavy it would do you serious injury if I hit you over the head with it. My wife suggested to me only this lunchtime that I split it into two volumes but I said, "But I like picking it up and feeling its weight." And it is an achievement. Not all my poetry is in this folder. It starts at poem #453 which I have always regarded as my first adult poem. I'd had poems published before this one but it was with this particular poem that I found my voice.

My strength lies in the aphoristic quality of my work. I have the ability to pack a few lines with a lot of information and I'm good at punch lines. I haven't written a poem longer than a page since I was a teenager. I used to spend months on a poem tweaking it but nowadays if I leave a poem overnight to look at in the morning that's about it. There are two main reasons for this: 1) I'm a lot more confident of my own ability and 2) since I've simplified my style over the years it matters a lot less than it used to precisely what words I use.

My weakness is that I work in a prosaic style indeed many of my pieces could easily be reformatted as flash fiction. Personally I have no problem with that. I also tend to go over the same ground as if I'm trying to get it more right than my last effort. My main whipping boy is the truth; the title of my blog is, as you well know, 'The Truth About Lies', the title of my first novel is 'Living with the Truth' and actually feature the personification of truth as a character.

Form is something I am very aware of but I never look at form until the first draft of a poem is on the page. I wrote a poem last night which I finished off this morning. The lines were a little long so I split them and there it was: a regular 5-4-5 rhythm all but for a couple of line. Once they were fixed it was fine. There are those who would look at my adherence to structure as a weakness – indeed someone did reformat one of my poems recently as free verse thinking they were doing me a favour – but I consider it a positive thing.

For so long the only thing I wrote was poetry but writing prose came so naturally. Actually the first non-poetic thing I wrote was a play and I followed that with a children's book. Strangely enough I was practically forty and had written two and a half novels before I got a feel for short stories. I think being able to use all these different forms is a strength. I've never mastered, nor do I enjoy reading, the long poem and so it was natural for me to turn to prose when my ideas grew too big for my poems. I have written a couple of sequences of poems but they were never planned things, I just found myself wondering what happened next to my characters.

Probably one of my greatest strengths is self-reliance. I've worked pretty much in isolation from other writers all my life. I've not courted attention and I've not even been too fussed about publication although I have been published on and off since I was sixteen. Only now, now I have so much material lying in the proverbial drawer, have I decided to do something about it. I suppose that would have to go down as a weakness; I allowed the people in my life to come first and stopped thinking of my writing as a vocation. That was more than a weakness – that was an out-and-out mistake.

I particularly liked your comment about rules. I only wish that a lot of up-and-coming poets would realise there are rules. I regularly participate in a poetry forum not so much to get feedback on my own work but to give some of the new poets there a few pointers. I'll highlight where they've used alliteration or pararhymes or some such technique and I'll get them to question how they split up their lines. I'm bitterly opposed to the it's-a-poem-because-I-say-it-is mentality. If you're never going to let anyone read what you've written then fine. Other than that you have to be willing to be judged and if people aren't getting your poem then you should at least be open to the possibility that you've written a bad poem. It can happen. Get over it.

Enjoyed you post. BTW I've left a plug to your site on my latest post, Is there anybody out there? if you want to check it out.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the contributions.

I've never counted how many poems I've written over the years. I doubt it's a thousand, but who knows. There are notebooks in the basement I could mine, someday, and journals that I probably never transcribed all my poems out of. I admit that I am not the most patient writer, which I suppose is another weakness.

Self-reliance is something I don't always think about, but in fact I seem to have. It's a good thing to think about. Or perhaps, in my case, it's following that different drummer. I've written before about following one's own inner compass, regardless of with the critics say.

Hopefully some other folks will try out this exercise.


4:37 PM  

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