Kim Triedman

poems & other disasters

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12
09/14

Tracing the Line Between Poetry and Prose

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(This post was published this past April by Beyond The Margins)

It’s national poetry month, and the dogs are intoxicated.  These two things are not totally unrelated, or at least not in my universe.  After a too-long winter, April means I finally get to write my poetry out on the front stoop while my dogs get to hurtle and root and plow their noses into the softening earth.  It’s a trade-off: I let them dig, they let me write.  If we’re lucky, I’ll end up with a serviceable poem; they’ll wind up with dirty snouts and a mouthful of grubs.

It’s a win-win situation.

As both a novelist and a poet, and most recently a prose poet, I think a lot about what defines poetry and what distinguishes it from its first-cousin prose.  In some sense, it matters to me very little: more and more, I find myself writing without intention – without any definable form in mind.  But I also recognize that I seem to know poetry when I write it, and when I hear it, no matter how innovative or well-disguised; and I wonder at just what it is I am responding to, because poetry communicates on so many different levels that it’s often hard to unpack just what and why a poem is.  So in honor of National Poetry Month, and because I need to figure some things out for myself, I’m presenting here just a few of my own impromptu thoughts on what makes a poem a poem…

The answer that occurs to me first and foremost is music.  For me, writing and reading poetry is a thoroughly musical experience.  Sentences and phrases announce themselves in cadence, phrasing and meter; words arrive as much for their mouth-feel as for their meanings.  When I write poetry, I’m completely tuned in to the sounds and the textures of language.  My internal ear determines where specifically it wants some beats emphasized over others, or when it requires a pause rather than a full stop, or whether it is more suited to a meandering or more rapid-fire pace.  I need to hear the sounds in my head in order to write them, and in hearing them I hear their own particular music.  It needn’t be beautiful or even appealing, but it is there.  Every sentence or phrase is its own composition.  Every word that fits into that composition must bring to it so many things: rhythm and repetition and rhyme (or slant rhyme), its own specific constellation of beats and stops and syllables.

Another defining ingredient is metaphor.  Poetry is first and foremost about making connections, and these can work in ways both small and large within a poem.  I think it’s just the way the poet’s mind works: seeking to clarify things – to pin them down precisely – by finding the perfect analogy.  To both the reader and writer these connections surprise and delight, offering a kind of deep resonance that feels both more simple and more elegant than any lengthy explanation could possibly provide.  This is one of the things I love most about poetry: the way it reduces and enlarges at the same time, reaches and flies and leaps, pulling disparate things together in ways that make a kind of perfect and exquisite sense.

Distillation is also key.  Writing poetry is a process of natural selection – of identifying only what is absolutely essential and letting go of everything else.  While poetic forms and styles vary dramatically, I’d venture to say that every successful poem does a heroic job of identifying itself as much by what it leaves out as what it includes.  In poetry there is never the imperative to tell the full story – only to create something exalted out of details and sounds and rhythms and well-chosen breaks, the building blocks that send a poem soaring.

The last item on my short-list would have to include discovery.  I often find when writing poetry that I uncover things I’ve been thinking or feeling or muddling without even being aware of it.  When I begin a poem, I rarely have anything more than the first few words in my head.  By some ineffable magic, those first words lead me tripping down this ladder of other words until I find myself at the bottom of the poem — the very last line like an answer to a question I hadn’t even known I was asking.  I never fully understand why I have to write a particular poem until I finish it.  Only then does it expose itself — an image revealed by the final puzzle piece.  So I think for me the process is about discovery, and self-awareness – about processing the world so that it makes some kind of cosmic sense.  This is also also my experience of reading poetry: before it can be fully comprehensible – and fully evocative — a poem must be experienced as its own whole thing.  Its beauty lies in its gestalt – the fact that it is its own best description of itself.

These are just my own musings on my own experience of poetry – both written and read.  I’d love to hear how others experience it — what makes a poem a poem — and where you see the line falling between poetry and prose.  Certainly the membrane is fluid and porous: all of these qualities figure themselves into other forms of writing, although I would argue that they are not definitive in quite the same way.  A successful novel can be written with or without musicality – or even metaphor – but a poem that doesn’t sing and dance, that doesn’t make compelling demands of those precious words it chooses to bring in, that doesn’t discover itself in its wholeness, is not a poem, not in my universe.

I’d like to think that my dogs might agree, if only they’d pull their noses out of the dirt.

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08
04/14

VIDA and YOU

(Adapted from VIDA and YOU, Beyond The Margins, March 3, 2014)

The new VIDA statistics just came out a few days ago, and there’s a lot to crow about.  For those of you who aren’t yet aware of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, this four-year-old advocacy group has been at the leading edge of a movement bent on fighting gender inequality in publishing.

The brainchild of two female poets – Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu – VIDA began with the circulation of an email questioning the absence of feminist conversation in contemporary literary circles.  In short order, Marvin, Belieu, and a handful of others pulled together the first of what has become an annual inventory detailing the relative publication of (and reviews of) male vs. female writers.  Dubbed “The Count,” this inventory is now released every year in advance of the AWP conference.  Using easy-to-read red/blue pie-charts, it highlights clearly and directly how the major literary publications of our times are faring on the gender parity spectrum.

So, how are we doing?? 

Well let’s just say the eagle hasn’t landed.  Despite some admirable gains by two major literary outlets this past year – specifically The New York Times Book Review and The Paris Review – the gender scales at the vast majority of  prominent literary publications still tip decidedly toward…well…the penis.  According to 2013 data, roughly 75% of writers published in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement are men, and the list goes on.  Says writer (and VIDA advocate) Elissa Schappell in a recent tongue-in-cheek piece for Dame Magazine (“Would It Kill Ya to Publish Some Women?”), the venerable New York Review of Books “mans up” at a whopping 80%.  Schappell writes:

“It isn’t just you wondering how many issues of The New Yorker have gone by without one major piece written by a woman…How many issues of The New York Review of Books it took before they found it in their hearts to publish more than one essay by a woman, or even critique a woman’s work (That banging you hear, that’s the sound of the editors nailing 2x4s over the manor windows).  And someone should wake up the editors of The New Republic, who had their worst year yet, and let them know it’s not reading women that lowers testosterone.…”

 

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Still, the picture is not all doom and gloom.  Other magazines have responded by consciously attempting to reverse the imbalance.  In particular, GRANTA, Tin House, Poetry Magazine, and Boston Review are a few of the bright stars in this small universe, with Poetry maintaining the most consistent parity for four years running.  And at The New York Times Book Review, new editor Pamela Paul is making inroads not just in covering more books by women but also by having female writers review books by male authors and vice versa – something more or less unprecedented before her tenure.

Responses to “The Count” have varied widely, but clearly the numbers have struck a chord.  More and more column inches are being devoted to the topic of gender parity, in publications ranging from Mother Jones(“Where Are the Women Writers?”) to The Guardian (“Research Shows Male Writers Still Dominate Books World”) to Flavorwire (“Why I’m Canceling My Subscription: An Open Letter to Harper’s from a Loyal Reader” and “A Tale of Two Literary Magazines: The Believer and Tin House Respond to the VIDA Count“).  According to playwright Amy Wheeler, who writes on the VIDA website, the implications of such an imbalance are sobering: “If you understand that storytellers shape our culture, then ‘Who gets to be our storytellers?’ becomes a pivotal question.”  The fact is that while many editors maintain that the work they publish is the best work that comes over the transom, a significant share of that published by the premier literary magazines is either solicited (by male-heavy editorial staffs) or submitted to these editors via literary agents, who, according to Schappell, statistically tend to submit more stories by men than women.

Still, the naysayers have also made themselves heard.  Those like Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, maintain that “he’s ‘not too appalled’ by their record” – despite the fact that it’s held steady at 80% all four years:

“While women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS…The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books…You have to keep an eye on it but I suspect we have a better story to tell than others (The Guardian)”

Some critics of VIDA statistics argue that all the organization is doing is shaming editors into publishing women.  Still others claim that the questions asked and the methodology used to draw conclusions about gender disparity are flawed.  The most common criticism of VIDA’s approach is that it doesn’t include information on the numbers of relative submissions by male versus female writers (Lambda Literary). Whatever the case may be, the numbers and the methodology have proven convincing enough to have been reported on and reproduced extensively in many leading literary and commercial publications.

 

Thus far, what I’ve tried to do here is simply inform.  Many people – writers included – are still under the false impression that women are much closer to having an equal voice in publishing than the statistics would seem to bear out.  It’s up to you as readers to follow some of the links provided above and come to your own conclusions.

But in leaving you, I will ask you to consider how (and how strongly) you feel about the issue of gender parity in publishing and – should you be so inclined – to make your voices heard.  In any case, let us know your thoughts.  If you’re unhappy with the picture outlined above, use your power as a consumer: support those publications that support gender parity, and let those editors of publications that do not know how you feel.  Spread the word about VIDA and The Count.  Make a little literary history.

 

14
01/14

13
10/13

Writing Out of Middle Age

(First published by Beyond the Margins, October 8, 2013)

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SO apparently I’m what you call a “bloomer.”

An about-to-be-debut-novelist at 54, I’ve been tripping across this term more and more lately, much the way a mom-to-be starts noticing that all of a sudden pregnant women are everywhere.  I’m quite sure the moniker didn’t exist a decade ago, and now apparently there’s a whole website devoted to us (bloom-site.com), not to mention recent column inches in the likes of The New Yorker and The Guardian.  In any case, it’s a stunning discovery.  Apparently, in some critics’ estimation, by the time we hit our 40s we “writing-elders” are creative dust bowls:  any real contribution to the world of letters we might have made would have been written ten years ago.

So yeah, I’m a bit of an outlier, falling somewhere between the MFA-bearing-hipsters and the…well…deceased.  But while I’m still here, and I can still grab the microphone, I’d like to say a few things about what it is to start making art in the middle.

I didn’t actually write a creative word until I was approaching my fifth decade.  Throughout high school and college, I gravitated toward courses which afforded me the opportunity to select right from wrong, true from false; multiple choice over essay.  I was not a comfortable public speaker; I was terrified of venturing any opinion that might provoke incredulity in my peers or even outright dismissal.  When given the choice I shied away from English and history and philosophy, preferring the safer terrain of the social and physical sciences, subjects one could master given the basic ingredients of time and will.  Years went by, and I did this with life, too.  I lived it safely.  I mastered it.  For nearly two decades I felt like I ran a marathon every day just trying to keep all the right balls in the air.

I was nearing 40 when it all came tumbling down, the weight of all that “rightness” suddenly too much to bear.  One Sunday afternoon I sat out on my front stoop and forgot how to breathe and watched my life snap cleanly down the middle.  A nervous breakdown, in old-timey parlance; a severe depression, I would learn soon enough.  The best piece of advice from that time?  “Write it down,” my mother said.

And I did.

So for me, writing came not so much as a choice as an imperative.  Once entered, it was a place I found I couldn’t leave.  My guess is that this applies to many late bloomers: people who’ve somehow found it necessary to step away from the harsh geometry of their constructed lives – which no longer seem to fit or sustain – in favor of something which yields and bends, carries life’s ambiguities in flexible arms.  There is urgency to this kind of writing. There is a sense that there is so much to say and not enough paper in the world to say it on and not enough time in which to say it.  Once I started, it became the most real of places: the most authentic, the most heady and, in its way, the most life-giving.

I expect for younger writers it’s hard to conceive these days that a person could just pick up writing in the middle of life.  For me it was not only that simple, it was an answer I didn’t know I was looking for.  I’d already accumulated a lot of life behind me: I’d married, had a career, raised three children most of the way up.  I had felt my way through 40-odd years of living but never allowed myself a place to process all that life-stuff:  to unwrap it, sift through it, hold it up to the light of day.  Writing gave me that space.  That stillness.  And what a bounty – like discovering an old box of photographs you never knew existed.  Suddenly, worlds opened up to me, my own worlds, distilled and exquisite.   At just that stage when so much in life seemed to be receding, it was like looking up and seeing things in color, for the first time.

Writing very quickly became my default method of processing my world, something I hadn’t previously built into my life.  I was happier, and saner, for it.  It created a need for itself, and the act of capturing a thing in words – pinning it down precisely – became my way of accommodating it in my mind and in my life.  Interestingly, my identity was not at all wrapped up in this.  I didn’t have anything to prove.  It was just mine, more privilege than responsibility.  Perhaps we late-stage writers may be somewhat less caught up in wanting to be writers than our younger brethren.  Many or most of us have already had (or continue to have) other careers.  Our identities may not be so tied to the idea of being authors as are those who’ve gone through graduate school (often at great expense) with that specific goal in mind.  The writing itself, coming often as a complete surprise in middle life, is its own best reward, giving us a vital new piece of ourselves which never before seemed within reach.

Whatever it was that I somehow couldn’t find in myself in my earlier years – eyes; wings – I have been able to reclaim here, now, in the desert of the long-middle, where I can savor it like a tall glass of cold water.  There is joy in it.  There is celebration.  There is an unmitigated sense of possibility.  And during the long haul that is the latter half of the journey, there is perhaps nothing more welcome than that.

 

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