Trying to make a poetry school that's for everybody.

I'm Hannah Lee Jones and I began Primal School as a space to document my journey as a student of poetry independent from a graduate path in English lit or creative writing. I also wanted to leave a resource others can use: book recommendations, articles, posts on what I'm reading or learning, and most importantly, interviews with poets exploring the craft of poetry itself. Whether your path includes an MFA or not, my hope is that the knowledge that gets shared on here will help you find your own way. Learn more, or if you're interested in my writing visit the news page  

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"eternal graffiti 

written in the heart of everyone" 

- Lawrence Ferlinghetti's definition of poetry

 


 




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Wednesday
Jul262017

The Lessons of History, Re-Envisioning Our Language, and the Mysteries of Life and Death: Tod Marshall on His Poem "Birthday Poem"

Tod Marshall

I thought Primal School must be doing something right when I got an email from Washington State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall expressing his support for the blog and offering to connect. What I didn't expect was to receive an envelope in the mail about a week later with  Range of the Possible, a compilation of Tod's own interviews with contemporary poets from Li-Young Lee to Yusef Komunyakaa. Generosity of this kind might very well be part of his incredibly full job description as the appointed ambassador of poetry in our home state. But when I wrote to him with some of my thoughts on the challenges facing poetry in our communities, his response, which startled me with its simplicity and is also captured in this interview, seemed to cut right through the fear and rancor and divisiveness facing our country to something far more essential. Even while noting fiercely (as he does here) the importance of understanding our present problems in historic terms, "I believe, truly believe, that art and kindness are why we exist," he wrote. Everything else, as they say, is technical. — HLJ   

===

BIRTHDAY POEM

My mother turned 60 this week,
deep in that stretch where anything
can happen (her mother died at 57).
I'm 42, and Dante's dark forest, well,
let's just say it continues to thicken,
and I know what you spiritual people
are thinking, muttering koans under
your ginger tea breath: it can happen
anytime, anywhere, to anyone, and
that's why the moon doesn't cling
as it slides across the sky. Fine.
Last fall, hiking near Priest Lake,
I came across a teenage boy covered
with blood, sobbing. He held
a compound bow with pulleys
that looked like they could move the horizon
or at least hurl a razor-edged arrow
a couple hundred feet through the breast
and heart of a skinny doe and out again
and into the shoulder of a five-month fawn that
still quivered. Cedar scales
covered the forest floor, a mossy quilt
to hush the pain, and so we pulled
on the shaft, but it was stuck in bone,
and the fawn mewled, moaned, kicked
thin legs, black hooves like chips of coal.
I told the kid to find a big rock. Quick. He did
and held it toward me, somehow confused, and I
tried to smash the skull but missed once,
shattering the eye socket and breaking the jaw,
before ending the pain and walking away among massive trees
that held the sound in the harsh ridges of bark.
Jesus, Mom, I'd meant to write a Happy Birthday poem.
When I'd gone a hundred yards,
the quiet beneath the looming cedars
was the quiet I felt as a child in your arms.
You were a little bit older than that kid. This
is the best that I can do. Above the ancient grove,
tamaracks lit the hillside in an explosive gold
glowing toward dusk. Close your eyes.
You can see them. Keep them closed.
We'll all blow together and make a wish.

===

A standout feature of this poem for me is its irony, beginning as a meditation on your mother turning 60 but then veering off into a reckoning with death, since birthdays are generally celebratory affairs. What began this poem for you?

It actually began as a sort of parody poem. I was thinking about poems such as William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” Robert Wrigley’s Highway 12, Just East of Paradise, Idaho,” and Marvin Bell’s If Jane Were With Me, or the “roadkill/mercy killing poem” and how the dynamics of all three of those poems might connect to masculinity. I think I might have written the deer killing moment first, and then stepped back and said, “Wait, what else is going on here?” I’m also very interested in critical moments of decision: the smaller choices we make and the crucibles on which those choices turn. The poem has numerous moments of choice — the decision to fire the arrow at the deer; the decision to have a child at a young age; the decision to bludgeon the fawn to death. Stafford’s poem, of course, is one of literature’s most haunting explorations of that inhabited moment of choice: “I thought hard for us all — my only swerving — / then pushed her over the edge into the river.”

Such decisions being moments where we can’t afford to “swerve.” I appreciated the tongue-in-cheek jab at New Age spiritualists in lines 6-11, giving the reader a glimpse into that Dantean consciousness you set up just before it. Seems a kind of rejection of the whole notion of peaceful non-attachment regarding death. 

Well, that non-attachment is something I long for and dream of (which, of course, is exactly not how that non-attachment is brought about).  I’m a hopelessly failed spiritualist and Zen practitioner. The world is too full of sharp teeth, I guess, and I’ve been bitten by them as well as bared my own at others more often than I care to admit.   

Of course I can’t resist the urge to note that your name “Tod” is the German word for death.  

Das ist Todt. Yup. The poem “Fuck Up,” a little later on in Bugle, is supposed to echo back to the death in “Birthday Poem.” From the moment we enter screaming into the world we’re already on our way to that whimpering exit. I just heard Tim O’Brien read at Gonzaga the other night, and he put it succinctly: “This is not a game with survivors.” But yes, imagistic echoes, proliferating motifs and echoey constructs throughout a book of poems are all of tremendous importance to me. It’s all there, from the substance abuse to information “leaking” to the life/death and creation/destruction dynamic. And at one point in the writing, I got the sense that the core of the book would revolve around the idea of how we construct myth/reify language in a post-apocalyptic setting. There are still traces of that in several of the poems — and I left them in there because that’s pretty much what we’re always up to. I just finished an amazing book by Victor Klemper; it’s one of those books that I’m embarrassed I didn't read earlier in life. It’s called The Language of the Third Reich. As a Jew living in Nazi Germany he was writing about the degradation of language; how words are drained of meaning or vampired (if that can be a verb) into empty vessels. To my mind, that degradation is the opposite of the work of poetry, and it’s unfortunately far too prevalent in the history of the last hundred years.

A kind evasiveness or lack of clarity perhaps, or doublespeak, if we were to take things Orwellian with that vampiring of the language. But returning us to your poem…some striking images from the hike at Priest Lake: the boy you encountered on the trail, the mortally wounded fawn, the “mossy quilt to hush the pain.” Did you give much thought to rhythm and meter at this poem’s writing? And how about the poem’s form? 

Musicality in poetry is very important to me.  So although I didn’t pursue any specific metrical shapes — unlike many of the other sonnets in Bugle, the book it appears in — I wanted to create a rich texture in terms of sound, especially during that moment of grotesquery. The poem starts out in a sort of chatty fashion and then builds to its music, I think.

Felt that in the reading. I’m interested in the mercy given to the fawn and how it becomes a kind of armature for the moving statement towards the poem’s end, by which time it’s addressed to your mother. The hint may be in those glowing tamaracks you end with, but I’m looking at the surprising lines, “You were a little bit older than that kid. This / is the best that I can do.” – what’s happening there?  

Well I think that my initial impulse was to end on the violence, but I couldn’t think of how to do that, so instead I thought back to the frame of the poem — the figurative violence of how painful and challenging it must have been (as well as beautiful and fulfilling) for my mother to go from being a teenaged girl in high school to a woman responsible for another young life — I’m feeling this viscerally right now; this fall, my parents will celebrate their 50th anniversary, and I’ll be celebrating my 50th birthday. Anyhow, she must have felt heavily the chances of failure in protecting that young life, in spite of knowing she would give it her best. A terrifying transition in my mind. So I guess that’s how things tied together for me. “The best that I can do” — you can’t have any celebration of life without death lurking in the background — harkens toward the poem’s closure. The ending for me has always been very difficult to read (I’ve re-read the poem with my mother in the house and it’s hard not to lose it). Oh for the retreat to that sweet moment of unawareness nestled in your mother’s arms (however terrified every new mother must be).

Tod's process: "I love our woods and rivers and mountains, and I try to spend lots of time wandering around in them.
My fishing buddy Ryan Hardesty took this photo. I love how small I look behind the mid-stream rock,
upriver around a bend, wondering what might be there (a pursuit I suppose not terribly unlike the search for art)."

In your interview with Humanities Washington you described poetry’s ambiguity as being highly necessary in a culture that’s uncomfortable with mystery and not “having the answers.” How would you suggest that poets approach their writing and practice of poetry in uncertain times? 

Well in the time since you put this question to me, the world has become much more uncomfortable and much more uncertain. Every day we see our President acting out in a manner ranging from indecorous to outlandish to completely barbaric. Any news which isn’t favorable to this administration is regarded as “fake news,” imperiling our freedom of the press. I could go on and on. It’s a horrific moment in history when such devastation, especially toward the most vulnerable members of our society, can be perpetrated by a kleptocratic plutocracy intent on…okay, I have to stop and take a breath to focus on your question. But first let me recommend Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny, a powerful little pamphlet that offers twenty ways to politically engage in times like this. All of his titles are excellent. I’m rarely ahead of the curve on things, but I bought On Tyranny  when it first came out because I happened to be immersed in Snyder’s other writings. It’s since become a NYT bestseller, but I agree with what he says in the book, which is that it’s very important to get news from print sources. Web media can be okay, but the nature of the medium and its kinship with spectacle can make internet news much more prone to misinformation. It’s also important to practice corporeal politics: citizenship done right is getting our bodies out there and showing what we value.

Why such a focus on the news? Poetry is, of course, news that stays news. I think we should be reading widely in history and politics, philosophy and theology; we should all be trying to discover a “new” poet (new to each of us) every month and revel in that discovery for what it is: a new voice in one’s life. We should look to the work of poets in other cultures and and countries where the situation is historically more repressive than our own — Hikmet and Milosz and Akhmatova and Radnoti and so many others, as well as poets in our own tradition — June Jordan and Audre Lorde and Muriel Rukeyser — for whom social justice was a primary concern.

Anyhow, my main point is that the ambiguity, the grayness or confusion that is often stimulated by a poem or painting or sculpture, or any work of art — couldn’t be farther from the obfuscation that the Trump administration is engaged in. Poems invite us into mystery, into unknowing, and they do so in an attempt to enlarge our worlds rather than shrink them.  As far as how poets approach their writing in “uncertain times” — I think that we have to look to the past both for the lessons that history can teach us about meglamaniacal authoritarianism, and  how writers of the past have cultivated their art as a mode of resistance.

Thanks for the book rec – a timely and totally necessary read. On to standard questions: what advice would you offer to poets writing and practicing without the MFA/advanced writing degree? (Actually, one thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a lot of good general advice about how to improve one’s writing, but not much specific advice on how to revise a poem, so something along those lines would be very helpful). 

Sure. I think that the hardest part of revision connects to the root of the word — to re-envision a poem is tough, especially once we get the poem typed out all pretty on the page. So, I delay that “typing out” step as long as possible. I try instead to rewrite the poem at least once by hand (shaping those words and scribbling out blunders, the routes that are perhaps too facile and easily drawn and aren’t the best for the poem). Once the poem is typed out it seems to become more fixed, static. Of course, lots of poets type their poems out on a computer or typewriter and make wonderful works; I just think that they need to be especially cautious of the poem “feeling done” before it actually is.

Another tidbit: be patient with the poem. I always try to let a few months go by before I transfer it from notebook (written by hand) to laptop (a typed version). I think that gives me some semblance of distance, which always helps the poem.  More nuts and bolts: query each word, each adjective, each verb, each noun. Are they necessary? Are they precise? Musically integral? And the order that I’ve listed those three things are not necessarily an order of value — music probably supersedes all (to my thinking anyway). 

If you could assign some “homework” to our online classroom of readers (it can be anything: a writing exercise, a craft book to read, a collection of poems to read, a link to an article).

How about something of all three:  I love Jane Hirshfield’s work, and her book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World  is a great new collection of essays on poetry. Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures  may be my all-time favorite. Also grooving on the poems of Jamaal May right now — he’s got a great voice with a powerful weave of image and music. Radnoti’s poems have also been on my mind a lot. I like to reread Adrienne Rich’s speech on “Claiming an Education” every few months. 

And here’s an exercise, with thanks to Chris Howell: choose a language that you don’t know — French, Spanish, Greek, Slovene (it’s up to you but I’d avoid pictograph languages such as Chinese or Japanese). Then find the work of a famous poet writing in that language — if it’s French, then you could look at Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Nerval, or a host of other poets; it’s it’s Greek, then Cavafy, Seferis, Sappho, or something ancient; if it’s German, Rilke, Trakl.  Choose one poem of 12-20 lines by the poet. DO NOT READ A TRANSLATION OF THE POEM into English. Now, attempt to write a translation of that poem based solely on your reaction to the sound qualities of the original. Do this without looking up any words to translate. Instead you should try to follow syntactical patterns, formal constructs, and any other rhythmical devices that you feel relevant. The idea here is to use the imagination rather than the predeterminations of language logic, to let your mind loose from making sense of the original so you can see where the rhythms take you. After you’re complete (and ONLY after) you are done with your “translation,” you can have a look at at the English translation of the poem you’ve just worked with.

Staple together copies of the poem in the original language, your own “translation,” and the actual translation (three different poems).

For extra credit you can also turn in a translation of a poem from a language that you do know. Everyone MUST do the exercise above, but you can do an actual translation of another poem if you like (to boost your participation mark)!

An intimidating exercise which sounds incredibly fun. I’m going for it. Now tell us a poem you love, and tell us why you love it.  

Robert Hass has been my favorite poet for a long, long time. I first read his poems in 1990, I think, and Praise is a book to which I often return. There are anthology pieces in there, a delicious sense of sound, powerful poems on human frailty, philosophy, and the intersection of art and life. Human Wishes  is equally wonderful, if maybe not quite as taut as a collection.  Anyhow, the poem that I want to mention is “Faint Music.” It’s from Sun Under Wood, also a fine collection, and a virtuoso performance in syntax and sound. The poem is about grace and language and so many other things. I’m always a little stunned that Hass is so adept at translating haiku, and rendering devastating punchy images, as well as giving us sprawling poems in a wide range of voice such as this one. 

Bonus question for Tod, per the poem’s last line and since your birthday's coming up: as a poet and human, tell us one wish.

That we get to redo the Presidential election? Or how about this: that each of us is able to tap into that highly poetic capacity to deeply listen to each other rather than to the propaganda of those who want to divide us.    

===

TOD MARSHALL was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Wichita, Kansas. He studied English and philosophy at Siena Heights University, holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University, and earned his PhD from The University of Kansas. Tod directs the writing concentration and coordinates the visiting writers series at Gonzaga University where he is the Robert K. and Ann J. Powers Endowed Professor in the Humanities. He enjoys backpacking and fishing and spends about a month of every year out of a tent. He currently serves as the 2016-2018 Washington State Poet Laureate. You can keep up with him on Twitter: @wapoetlaureate

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