20 October 2016

recent gadding.

As a dedicated student, I make it a minor point of pride that I never go anywhere or do anything. (Joke. Don't write in.) I've never felt such kinship with Kierkegaard as when I learned that he used to go to the beginning of an opera, run home and write for the length of the show, and then come back for the end so as to be seen leaving. You're such a nerd, Søren; let's hang out. All of which means only that it's rather a surprising turn of events that I went to two different events in a row at the weekend, a panel at the Art Institute Friday night and a concert on campus Saturday.

clockwise from top: Ware, Panter, Chute, Kokielski.
Art21 Panel—Gary Panter, Chris Ware, and Hillary Chute, with moderator Tina Kokielski. I'm not familiar with Panter's work, but I studied Ware in my lit seminar in the spring, and I've used Chute's work when I've researched academic papers on comics. (Seriously, I can't recommend her book Graphic Women highly enough. She knows the score. Dr. Chute, if you're reading this: you know the score.) This event was hosted in Fullerton Hall, a really beautiful auditorium that I'd never been in before. It didn't have a very clear topic beyond "comics! we like 'em!" and although I also like 'em I think the lack of focus was a major weakness; still and all, the panelists had fascinating things to say and I enjoyed myself tremendously. I took extensive notes, which I won't share here (although hit me up if you want a look), but I am sharing from my notebook the drawings I made of the panelists. The thing about Ware, which I did not manage to capture in my sketch, is that although he remarked on his inability to draw self-portraits in fact he looks like one of his own characters to an almost alarming extent. I am not at all sure what to make of this. He also looks like my Uncle Paul, although that might just be my standard white-man-face-blindness.

What I am sure of is that everyone involved was very aware that we were there primarily to see Chris; before the discussion they showed a filmed segment of interviews with him interspersed with footage of his home and of him working in his studio. That, and the insight it provided into his process, was one of the most interesting bits. He bikes his young daughter to school every morning [insert here adorable footage of the two of them on a tandem, which delighted me because I used to ride behind my dad on a tandem when I was about her age] and works from eight to 2:45, at which point he goes to pick her up again. It takes about 40 hours to make a page, he said, which includes lots of time spent walking around hating himself—and "there's something interesting about spending a couple decades on a book that takes three or four hours to read." This self-deprecating attitude continued throughout: during the Q&A an audience member asked him to comment on the fact that his early work was much more curmudgeonly than what he's done lately, and looking discomfited he said "I guess I was just a bad artist."

Andrew Peterson at Pierce Auditorium. I don't really listen to music. There are a few artists I love with all my heart—come talk to me about Martin Carthy—and I'm vaguely fond of several others, but when I listen to something it's usually a podcast or radio program, and thinking about music doesn't often take up very much of my brainspace. I certainly don't go to concerts. The other aspect of all this is that when I listen to music don't listen to Christian music. I'm not happy about it, but there it is: Christian music today is mostly not very good. It saves time to take that for granted. This is why, when I went to the chapel that Andrew Peterson did last Friday morning, I was astonished to find out that he's actually good. No, really, he's proper good, like a male Carrie Newcomer. (He is not as good as Carrie Newcomer.) He can write lyrics, and he's got a lovely voice, besides which he's very funny.

I went therefore to his Saturday night concert, which was a longer version of his chapel set. It was transcendent; there wasn't a song that wasn't beautiful, and as soon as I left the building I texted my mother saying "if I feel as though the top of my head has been removed I know THAT is poetry." I can't talk about it in very much detail, because I don't understand music and I'm not familiar enough with his work to know the names of the songs he sang and because anyway it's so hard to write about art you loved (it's easier to be smugly cutting than honestly appreciative), but I will say that because of Paul Simon's recent birthday he played both "Homeward Bound" and "Song for the Asking," two songs which I adore with all my shriveled little heart. So, a win!

14 October 2016

poetry friday: notes on sonnet-making.

The Spanish proverb informs me, that he is a fool which cannot make one sonnet, and he is mad which makes two.
—John Donne


At the beginning of this school year, I decided to write a sonnet every week. This is the last day of midterms, and I'm pleased to announce I've only missed one week since records began. When I tell people about all this they're usually impressed, and because I've got a congenital malformation of my compliment-acceptance gland this makes me panic. My genuine knee-jerk reaction, which I usually manage not to say out loud, is "But Ezra Pound wrote a sonnet every day!"

Which, okay. A of all, no one is comparing me to Ezra Pound, literally no one would ever do that; second of b, Ezra Pound was literally a fascist. This is not role model material! Being like Ezra Pound is not anyone's standard for me—including, if I think about it sensibly, my own. Depressive realism is not all it's cracked up to be, kids.

Another friend I told about it said, with very flattering enthusiasm, "Are you blogging it?" I'm not, for several reasons. Some of my sonnets are part of longer sequences that I want to finish before I do anything with any of the component parts. Some of the best ones I'm keeping under my hat because I've got pretentions to publication. (The college lit journal has one of those under consideration at the moment!) Some of the others I keep to myself because they're not all that good. However, even if I'm not sharing (m)any of the sonnets themselves, it occurs to me that the project itself might interest people.


Why sonnets? Several reasons.

They're easy. Or, rather, they're in a sweet spot of difficulty: hard enough to be a challenge, easy enough to be a realistic challenge. They're not limericks; they're also not sestinas. (If you're writing a sestina every week I pity you—I do earnestly pity you.) They aren't all that long. And they're flexible. There are lots of variations on the sonnet form, really too many if I'm honest, and you can write them about really truly anything at all.

One of the most important things, though, is that I know what a good sonnet looks like. Many of my favorite poems are sonnets. I have lots of them memorized; most if not all of my favorite poets wrote or have written them. This is a container I can put my thoughts into. They fit.


So. The facts are these. My sonnets go in my planner. It's a pocket-sized Moleskine (other artsy notebooks are available), and every spread is laid out with the days of the week on the verso and a blank lined page on the recto. Every week, I draw a line fourteen lines up from the bottom of the recto: that's the sonnet block. It's a rule of mine that only final drafts go there; rough drafts get written on my phone/laptop/class notes/dining hall napkins, and then the poem is transferred into my planner once I'm reasonably happy with it. I provide a diagram below.

Midterms! (I took this photo about a week ago.)
The nice thing about this, besides meaning that I have all the sonnets in one place, is that it provides me with a space that I feel obliged to fill. I'm literally making space for poetry in my week. I don't sit down at a given time and say, right, got to do my poem now—but every week I go out into the world with the intention of thinking in a sonnet way, and having a blank space marked out helps with that. Making space in my planner leads me to make space in my mind.

That's what a lot of my poetic practices (the most pretentious phrase I've ever written, I'm genuinely sorry) are fundamentally about: making space. Another example is that I've almost entirely stopped using my earbuds out of doors. I use them so I can listen to music in the library while I work, or watch Flying Circus in bed without bothering my roommate, but I've stopped using them to listen to things while I'm walking around campus or around town. This means that I've fallen behind on my podcasts—except for The Hidden Almanac, which is the podcast of my heart and soul—but it's worth it. I'm making a point of paying attention to what I see and hear around me when I go walking, and of making time to be bored and think about nothing. This really is how poems happen. It's a way of organizing your mind. What am I seeing? What does it remind me of? What do I think about when I'm not thinking about anything? What happens when I let myself be bored?

Another thing I do to nurture poetic thought is read. Not just my academic reading, although obviously I keep up with my academic reading, but some of everything—feminist science fiction and weird comic books and my mother's favorite novels. I was talking to someone recently who said how much she respects people who manage to keep up with their non-academic reading during the school year, and as I talked about it with her what I realized is that I simply can't not. I think what I said then is that I don't feel in balance if I'm not in the middle of at least one book. It's one of those things I check if I'm feeling particularly rotten: am I hydrated? am I eating sensibly? have I called home recently? does my room need cleaning? and when was the last time I spent a decent chunk of time with a book?

Books are a vital ingredient to my mental health in a way that very few other things are, and they're also a vital ingredient to my health as a writer. You learn to write, or any way I have, by reading something and saying, I want to do that. I want to make someone else feel like this book makes me feel. And then you copy it, and then you keep copying it until your copies start turning into something that sounds like you. You never need to stop learning that way. I still want to be Diana Wynne Jones when I grow up.


What of the sonnets themselves?

They're all in iambic pentameter. I adore iambic pentameter. There's nothing in the world that's quite so fun. Sure, a ballad meter is nice, for a while, you can sing it and that's charming, and I have nothing against an anapest or a trochee now and again (dactyls are obviously right out), but fundamentally I was exposed to Shakespeare at too early an age and when my thoughts turn towards poetry they hum along in iambs. My meter sometimes stumbles, of course—even Homer nods, and part of my goal with this project was to develop my ear. I'm not as tin-eared as I might be, but I've got a long way to go. The sonnet writing has really helped, and I get into that frame of mind to the point where even my free verse sometimes comes out metrically.

As for rhyme scheme: sometimes it's Petrarchan, but usually it's Shakespearean. I think my Shakespearean sonnets are better, but I'm prouder of my Petrarchan sonnets. They really are bigger accomplishments; doing Italian rhyme schemes in English is hard. This week I wrote a blank verse sonnet, but that's only because of too much Wallace Stevens in my diet.


Several Sundays ago I took a train into Chicago and spent the afternoon in the Art Institute. I love the Art Institute, and I've written several poems about things I've seen there. That time they were displaying lots of satyr statuary, and so I wrote a poem about that. I wrote the octet in my head walking around the exhibits, and then I went to the café and bought some tea and wrote it all down, and while I finished my tea—did you know that the Art Institute sells really good tea?—I wrote the sestet. Here it is, both halves. I don't think it's that bad.

pic ganked from Sotheby's.

Lines on a Statue of Pan at the Art Institute of Chicago
A woodland deity often worshiped in caves, Pan had dominion over flocks and herds and is associated with nature’s bounty. Here the brutish creature slings a pitcher of wine over his shoulder. The hole drilled into the vessel indicates that this sculpture was once part of a fountain in its owner’s garden.
“Was once part of a fountain,” says the sign.
Naff garden art, the neighbors must have thought.
A statue of a satyr pouring wine?
There goes the neighborhood. What bloody rot.
First century kitsch, a piece of Roman junk—
I see no reason it should have survived.
If anything its value should have sunk,
but here it stands, a miracle, revived.
We rescue the detritus of the past,
the flotsam of a world that used to be.
These are the things they never thought would last,
stuck on a plinth and labeled history.
Pan holds his jug, though there’s no water now.
Two thousand-odd years on, his chance to wow.

This week's poetry roundup is here.

8 October 2016

september bookblogging.

[disclaimer: I wrote most of this instead of reading Wallace Stevens in preparation for my English midterm. If it's only half as disjointed as "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" it... should still be pretty incomprehensible, actually.]

I'd assumed that being at school would bring my book count significantly down, but the damage isn't as bad as I'd feared; I managed ten this month besides school books, and two of them were really quite long.

Jill Lepore, Joe Gould's Teeth. This book is so good; I think it's the only biography I've ever read that's gripped me like a novel. Joe Gould was for a while very famous, mostly because he had famous friends—he got check-ups from William Carlos Williams! Alice Neel painted him! he was friends with Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings! (Gould and Pound bonded over how much they both hated Jewish people, this is literally a true fact, I hate Ezra Pound with the fire of a thousand suns.) Nowadays almost no one has heard of him, which is a shame. He got into Harvard as a legacy student, dropped out of Harvard, worked briefly for a eugenicist organization, was often homeless and at least once institutionalized, and he also invented oral history. Lepore's book is about all this, and it's also about Augusta Savage, a black sculptor Joe Gould harassed for years. Sad, weird, highly recommended.

Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales. A contemporary verse retelling of the Canterbury Tales. I mentioned this on the blog back when I first found out about it, and almost as soon as I moved back to Wheaton I ordered an ILL of it. It's just as good as I was hoping it might be. Clever, funny, experimental, true to the source material, and she made the Miller's Tale even more bawdy. (I know! I was astonished too!) There's no real dead wood here, even the Tale of Melibee is surprising, but my very favorites were "Joined-Up Writing" (a sonnet cycle based on the Man of Law's Tale) and "The Contract" (the Second Nun's Tale, as narrated by one of the assassins who killed Cecilia).

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. A re-read. This is a college novel about fairies. It was one of my favorite books in high school, and one of the few books I brought with me to university, but I was nervous about reading it again as an actual college student myself. I finally reread it on Labor Day, when I was recovering from a ghastly cold and needed to read something engaging but not actually taxing. To my delight, it held up and had even improved. Several of the characters are classics majors (in that sense it's really sort of a lighter-and-softer counterpart to The Secret History) and those parts were even better now that I student ancient Greek myself. I love this book.

Susan Palwick, Shelter. Why does no one ever talk about Susan Palwick? How does Susan Palwick not have a Hugo? This is near-future science fiction about AI and parenthood and mental illness. It's not one of those one-big-change books, it's subtle and complex and there's a lot going on in it. Palwick gets a lot of things right that writers, and sci-fi writers in particular, usually get wrong—she writes wonderfully about religion for one thing, and for another she can write believable children. Nick isn't a normal child, or a healthy one, but he's as desperately real as the adult characters are. Absorbing, stunning, you need to read it now.

Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. A feminist memoir. It's good, funny and angry and well-written, but I'm not sure it's quite as good as it's been made out to be. This may be partly because I'd already heard some of the best bits on a recent episode of This American Life. Caitlin Moran on the back cover is particularly egregious in saying that it's "literally the new Bible." Right. And Jessica Valenti's memoir is literally the Bhagavad Gita, and Bad Feminist is literally the Enuma Elish, and words literally mean nothing. Come on, Caitlin.

Lucy Knisley, Something New. Another memoir, this one a comic about Knisley's wedding. Fun, but slight and overlong. I might write something longer about it; watch this space.

Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things. Peter Leigh is a priest (n.b. the book does not use the word priest and I think that might be significant), Anglican-not-otherwise-specified, who gets sent to a recently-colonized planet to act as a missionary to the native population. This was a disappointment. It's a long book, and a lot of it is spent inside Peter's head, or in his emails home to his wife, and that's a problem given that Peter is neither likable nor interesting; at the end of the book I felt I didn't know much about him and didn't care to know more. (Note: based on plot developments, this is possibly something Faber's doing intentionally. It didn't work for me.) Theological science fiction is my entire jam, and I'll read as many examples as the industry produces, but this book is not great. The theology's nothing to write home about either, and much of the writing about Peter's faith felt fairly shallow to me. Just read The Sparrow instead.

Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue. A classic of feminist sci-fi. How much you enjoy this book will depend on your tolerance for second-wavers and the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I can cope with both of those things in a controlled environment, so I thought it was pretty awesome. A lot of the thought here falls apart fairly quickly if you start picking at it even a little bit (a text message I sent to my mother halfway through: "I reject the essentialist notion of a single 'female experience' in any kind of universalized sense"), but if you're into this sort of thing it's worth your time. I like it better than The Handmaid's Tale, to which it is usually compared, because Elgin writes female friendship better and is less afraid of science fiction cooties.

Susan Palwick, The Necessary Beggar. Absolutely wonderful. When Darroti kills a woman, he and his family are exiled to another dimension. They come through in a refugee camp in Nevada, where they start a long slow process of learning to live in another world. This book is about home and family and grief, and it's both sad and hopeful. Palwick does a gorgeous job of building her fantasy world, and of writing the culture shock that comes with the move to ours. (Content warning for suicide.)

Patrice Kindl, Owl in Love. This won the Mythopoeic Award for Children's Lit in 1995, and it unquestionably deserved it; this is what YA was made to do, and I've never read anything like it. Owl is a fourteen-year-old in love with her science teacher, and being a were-owl doesn't help. The first-person narration is both completely realistic and utterly alien: Owl is cold, uncertain, overconfident, passionate, awkward, brilliant, and totally sui generis.

Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year. This was for my Intro to Anthropology class. An anthropology professor in her fifties enrolls in her university as a freshman so she can understand the undergraduate experience, comes away with astonishing insights like "sometimes students don't do all their assigned reading." I too was stunned!


So that's eleven in total, ten of them by women. Four nonfiction, one comic, one book of poetry. All of them were library books except for Tam Lin and My Freshman Year, which I own. (Well, Freshman is a rental.) My favorite was either Owl in Love or one of the Palwick books, and I'll definitely be seeking out more by both Palwick and Kindl. I'll see you next month with another haul!