Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Year in Poems

Don't worry. This isn't a list of Best Books of the Passing Year, or even of poetry books that I've read this year. Although there have been a few poetry books of note that I've read or re-read this past year, that did leave a mark on me. I might get around to mentioning some of those, later.

This morning, for no reason at all, I've chosen to look back over my own writing output for the year. Vain, and vainglorious, as that seems, it also seems important to do a periodic self-assessment. I do periodic self-assessments of various kinds throughout the year, not one hopes out of narcissism, but because one needs to check in every so often in order to hopefully stay on course. The inner compass does need to be calibrated against the outside world, every so often.

It hasn't been that big a year for writing. Nor for visual art, except that during my roadtrip last winter out through the Rocky Mountains to California and back, I made some of the best photographs I've ever made. A lot of that was luck, being in the right place at the right time—but the source of luck is being to willing to put yourself there, standing in the way, and hope that something beautiful happens. Photography is ultimately about light, and the winter lighting in the Rockies, and by the Pacific Ocean this past year were dramatic and interesting. I feel like every time I take one of these major roadtrips, I get better as a photographer. Some of that is practice, persistence, and discipline, but some again is being open to trusting the luck, and willing to change plans as opportunities present themselves.

I've written perhaps ten essays this year that I think are very good, as good as any I've ever done, and worth keeping. Of course, I've written probably a hundred essays in toto this past year, since it's a form I write in a lot. These few are the ones that stand out to me today, as worth keeping, or perhaps someday compiling. My best essays this past year all touched on various aspects of the creative process. Who knows, there might be a book in that, eventually. I've also gotten interested again in renewing my practice in design, graphic design, book design, and typography in particular.

One habit I've gotten into, in recent, turbulent years, is to make a master Word file of every poem written during the year. That way I can keep track of the, back them up, and more or less note their chronological order. Some poets keep print files and folders. Although many poems begin in my handwritten journal, which I write in a lot especially when on the road, or out camping, when I type the poems begun in the journal into a Word file I usually do a revision or two during the process. The poems are then compiled, usually when finished (or abandoned, as Paul Valéry once said), into a master file. I'm looking through this file for this self-assessment of poems.

I wrote more poems this year than I thought I had. I had felt all along that it was a pretty dry year for poetry. There was the usual flood of haiku, many of them in response to my travels, and to the photographs made during my travels. I wrote more poems than I thought, but many of them are slight. The first half of this past year was mostly empty of poems. I was taking a break, not writing much at all. I was focusing on the photography, and on the music—and when I do that, fewer poems seem to happen.

It's been a very good year indeed for me, musically. Several important events have occurred in my musical life, some of which I'm not yet ready to write about. I bought a piano! I've made a few little pieces, written some new piano and choral music, and there's more on the way. I've known this to be true for many years: when I am musically satisfied, I don't write many poems. That's just artistic crop rotation. I'm used to that.

I'm looking over the small crop of poems written in the first half of the year, and only one or two are really catching my attention right now. None are grabbing me by the lapels and shaking me up and down. Bits and pieces, fragments, small images and smaller insights, stacking up but not bursting into fire. One of the ones that does grab me is deer, woods, dusk, which in fact is more of a multimedia poem than purely a poem. I've been doing more "illuminated poems" it seems.

I do think of this past year as a turning point in my art-making, in which I began to pursue several more multimedia and three-dimensional approaches to art; no longer satisfied with the pure poem, the pure flat photo, I've been thinking of ways to break out of the frame, to make the art, and the writing, more multidimensional, more interdisciplinary, more unified into an overarching multimedia art. Combining all the various media in various ways. Even trying simple things like making a rock garden with calligraphy. I feel like my pencil drawing has gotten better, and I've made a few more woodcarvings, with many ideas on the burner I just haven't had time to fabricate.

So it looks like the first half of the past year was a fallow period for poetry. Only one or two that really stand out to me now. A lot of okay little things, nothing major. If I went back and looked over this small batch of poems in another year or so, I expect one or two more would stand out, and the rest would probably be forgotten. I just wasn't that into it.

Then around Memorial Day, in late May, midway through the year, on the heels of a medical near-death experience (a crisis I detailed in The Anemia Diaries), there came a change, and I began a series of poems in a new form or style that opened with a bang, and still continues. Most of the poems of any quality in the second half of this past year were written in this form, which was templated by the first poems written in response to almost dying of anemia in May: Letter to ______ and Needles. Looking back over the year, it's Needles that I think is probably contending among the top five for "best poem of the year." Of course, that's only my own assessment, and poets are notorious for not being objective about their own writing. Time will tell. And some other folks do seem to have liked these poems, so that's a good sign. Meanwhile, I've written a Logbook and other thoughts on this poem series. Another poem in this series, Switch, also stands out to me in retrospect.

Poems in the second half of this past year have still not been overwhelming in their numbers. At the moment, it seems to me that I wrote fewer poems, but I wrote better poems. Fewer in number than in previous years, but with a better quality overall. I don't write a poem a day, not even a poem a week sometimes, and I have no desire to. Quantity doesn't always improve quality. I haven't written many haibun this past year. Most of these poems of the latter half of the year are, as I mentioned, in the Letter to form, although I also wrote a series of aubades, inspired as were the Letters poems by some of my reading in poetry during the late spring and summer.

Two other poems I find myself still liking very much from the second half of the past year are Solace for two hands, and the surgeon of the nightsky. Both of these poems were written outside of any series, and both of these were written during or after visits to St. Paul, MN, to see my artist friend Alex, who has moved to the Twin Cities after finishing art school in Portland, OR. Alex is in some ways my muse; we talk all the time about art-making, and lately I often feel inspired to try new things after these talks. It was Alex' idea for both of us to try working in papier-maché.

And that's about it for poetry this year.

As I said, not a lot of poems this year. Actually this self-assessment of what I wrote this past year was perhaps made easier by there being less to look over; I wrote a lot more in previous years, and as a result was overwhelmed by any thought of doing this kind of review. It's been a year for fewer poems overall, which suits me just fine, as the few poems that did emerge that I thought were good are, perhaps, really good. A few of these few poems that were the best of what I wrote this past year I think might be, perhaps, among the best poems I've ever written. I certainly feel that way about Needles, which is a poem that means a great deal to me, that I keep re-reading and liking all over again. (Again, that's just my own opinion about my own work, so it's not very objective. Time will tell.)

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