CELEBRATING MIDWEST LITERATURE, REMINDING MYSELF WHAT IT IS TO BE A WRITER
I don’t know if you know this, but Gyroscope Review’s three editors live nowhere near an ocean. Constance Brewer and I, the two founding editors, are firmly planted in what some consider fly-over country: Wyoming and Minnesota, respectively. Our Assistant Editor, Josh Colwell, lives near Pennsylvania’s border with Ohio.
I’ve been thinking a bit about this lately, and about the way literature from New York or Los Angeles might be embraced more quickly than that from elsewhere. I’m firmly planted in the heart of the Midwest, but let me tell you – literary tradition in Minnesota is strong. Its roots are deep. Most people know Bob Dylan and Prince came from Minnesota, but there are so many poets and writers who lived and still live here to celebrate: Robert Bly, Patricia Hampl, Phoebe Hanson, Bill Holmes, Louis Jenkins, Deborah Keenan, Freya Manfred, James Moore, Jim Northrup, Joyce Sutphen, Connie Wanek, James Wright, and more. We have Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, and Holy Cow! Press among other small presses. The literary tradition here is varied and rich.
And I recently reminded myself just how rich by visiting the Prairie Poets & Press exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Elmer L. Anderson Library. My own road trip to the prairie this summer put me in awe of its inspiration, its space, its quiet that is perfect for the writer or the artist who wants solitude in which to work. I wanted to know more about the writers who sought ideas from that landscape and remembered that the exhibit at the U of M was still open. Off I went.
The Prairie Poets & Press exhibit covers more than just the prairie. It divides Minnesota into five regions: Superior North, Northern Prairie, Out West, River Valley, and Twin Cities. Examples of poets’ work from each area is offered, along with snippets of personal correspondence, marked-up copy, publication covers, newspaper articles, and photos. Robert Bly loomed large in the Out West section, shown with his old farmhouse and offering marked up bits of his work, covers from his little literary magazine that started in the late 1950s and lasted into the 1970s. Bly gave a reading a in 2015 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis as part of their Literary Witnesses program and I went to hear him. As I looked at what the exhibit displayed about Bly, I could hear his voice in my head, and appreciated his work as one of the poets who sought to move on from what has been called “old-fashioned verse.” In other words, verse that is less formal, uses plain language, does not rhyme, uses the poet’s individual voice. The definition may sound a bit familiar to those of you who have read our journal; that’s the kind of poetry we publish at Gyroscope Review.
Other parts of the exhibit that I especially enjoyed were the handwritten copies that came from the poets themselves that showed how they worked. My favorite was a page from one of Louis Jenkins’ notebooks that showed the same prose poem written twice, words crossed out in both versions, the endings entirely different. This little look into how poets work made my own messy notebooks feel a little more valuable, a little less like unimportant scribbling. And it reminded me how revision might take the writer far from the original idea.
And, of course, I paid attention to the number of small literary magazines that have come from this area. Robert Bly’s The Fifties (which changed names in subsequent decades: The Sixties, The Seventies). Dacotah Territory. North Coast Review. Since Gyroscope Review spans far more than just Minnesota thanks for our far-flung staff, I wondered if we would ever fit in an exhibit like this; maybe just a little?
After I had walked through the entire exhibit, feeling lucky to have either heard or worked with several of the poets mentioned, such as Deborah Keenan who taught at Hamline University when I was working on my MFA, I thought about how any landscape has potential to produce a diverse mix of writers. Any place where people feel rooted, inspired, and pay attention is a good place to make art, write poems, tell stories. What is it about Minnesota that created this abundance? What is it about the coasts that do the same?
Whatever it is, I celebrate these Midwest writers who came before me, who inspire so many, who put us on the literary map. If you’re anywhere near Minneapolis this summer, the Prairie Poets & Press exhibit just might give you a little something you didn’t know you needed. And if you can’t make it to Minneapolis, at least get to the prairie, where the vast sky and open land will encourage you to listen to yourself.
In honor of the current special theme for Gyroscope Review, “The Crone Issue”, let’s talk a bit about the theme. When we put out the call, we decided to limit it to an underserved section of the population, women and those that identify as women over the age of 50. It’s around that age that women really start to disappear in society. They are not valued any longer. Having outlived their usefulness as mothers or sexual objects, they are discarded and disregarded. From the heartfelt cover letters we are getting, it’s apparent older women are eager to have an opportunity to submit, and disappointed that this kind of opportunity doesn’t present itself more often. Older women need to be include, invited, and embraced.
Older women contain a wealth of wisdom. This is what we want to celebrate. Crone has been turned into a derogatory term. Let’s take it back. The dictionary defines a crone as ‘a cruel or ugly old woman’. The dictionary was not written by the enlightened. We prefer the more modern take, as identified in Wikipedia. “In New Age and feminist spiritual circles, a “Croning” is a ritual rite of passage into an era of wisdom, freedom, and personal power. Some feminist authors have defined the crone archetype in a positive light, as a powerful and wise old woman.”
By taking back the word Crone, women are recognizing the power, wisdom, and abilities of aging. We want work that celebrates the ideas of crone: wise woman, matriarch, post-menopause, grandmother, elders with strength and experience. Tell your story. Tell what has been digging at you the past 50 years. What are you not going to stand for anymore? What is your source of power and strength, be it quiet or fierce?
Women have a wealth of life experiences to share with others. Remain silent no longer.
Here is a poem that resonates with the theme of Crone.
by Marge Piercy
It happens in an instant.
My grandma used to say
someone is walking on your grave.
It’s that moment when your life
is suddenly strange to you
as someone else’s coat
you have slipped on at a party
by accident, and it is far
too big or too tight for you.
Your life feels awkward, ill
fitting. You remember why you
came into this kitchen, but you
feel you don’t belong here.
It scares you in a remote
numb way. You fear that you—
whatever you means, this mind,
this entity stuck into a name
like mercury dropped into water—
have lost the ability to enter your
self, a key that no longer works.
Perhaps you will be locked
out here forever peering in
at your body, if that self is really
what you are. If you are at all.
“Dislocation” by Marge Piercy from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Now it’s time for another pass through your poem, the final pass if you’re confident, one of many final passes if you’re an incessant tinkerer. (Not that I would know anything about that ….) If you find yourself skimming through the poem, or feel sick of it, put the poem away and revise another day. The object is to look at it with fresh eyes, as if you flipped open a magazine and saw it for the first time.
Examine your word choices. Are they appropriate for the poem? Is there another word that conveys your overall idea better? Make every word in your poem pull its weight – use strong verbs. Is your poem predictable? Part of the charm of poetry is a work turning your expectations sideways, or even upside down. If I know how it’s going to end, why should I read further? On the other hand, too much disassociation between reader and poem is what makes the audience believe poetry is only for ‘snobs’ and the literati. Reader accessibility is important. Who is your target audience?
Just like a novel, your poem tells a story. How it tells the story is up to you. Is it a mystery, a thriller, a romance? Does your language reflect your poem/story? Are your lines and stanzas lyrical, short and to the point, or dense and chewy? Don’t forget about pacing. You don’t want your reader skimming over the stanzas to get to the end. Take them along for the ride, let them enjoy the trip. Does your poem shoot the rapids, or canoe along the shore?
Can you reorder the poem to make it more exciting? Will shifting stanzas change the meaning of the poem? Maybe changing the meaning leads you in a direction you never would have considered otherwise. How much poem can you remove and still have it make sense? How much poem can you add, and still maintain tension? Change stanzas in a poem, lines in a stanza, words in a line. Open yourself to the possibilities.
The thought to keep in mind through all revisions – What am I trying to say here?
Distance yourself from your work. Step back, remove the rose-tinted glasses, and shine a halogen spotlight on the poem. Sometimes when we’re too close to a subject, our attempts to write a poem about it come off as syrupy or maudlin. Can you remove yourself, the “I”, from the poem and still tell the story? Should the poem about a relative’s fight with cancer be told from your POV, the relative’s, from that of a nurse, or a delivery person passing down the hall outside the chemotherapy rooms? From the POV of the hospital room? Each time you switch perspectives, you open up new possibilities for telling the poem/story. Maybe your love life crashed and burned for the fifteenth time, but no one really wants another poem that whines about how unlucky in love you are. Make the experience something your audience can relate to – everyone’s been there – But – how do you approach the subject in a fresh way? What’s general about your experience as well as unique? Try humor. Find the universals and use them to draw your readers in.
Remember – It’s Not About You.
Research – it’s not just for novels. A false fact will make the reader uncomfortable at best, at worst? A blunder and they may never read your work again. You’ve lost credibility. Even if the reader doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong, most people have an innate bullshit detector that lets them know when a writer didn’t do his or her homework. The more ambitious reader will do the research you should have done on the subject – then rub your face in it. Publicly. Put forth your best effort with a poem, your readers will appreciate it. You may never hear the acknowledgment, then again, you might. I still hear from people about a poem on Gorgonzola cheese I read at a festival ten years ago. I get accosted in the aisles at Wal-Mart. “Aren’t you the cheese poem lady?” Not necessarily the title I wanted, but the poem obviously struck a chord. I had one person tell me they even went out and tried Gorgonzola cheese thanks to my poem. Another wanted to know if I had any more ‘funny food’ poems. If I had to choose between being known for Shakespearian sonnets on metaphysics, or weird food poems … I’ll take weird food poems any day. It makes for interesting conversations.
When revising, trust your reader to be intelligent. You don’t need to spell out every detail. Don’t mediate between the reader and your poem. You won’t be there to interpret when the reader flips open a book and finds your poem. Your work has to stand on its own.
When is a poem finished? That’s a tough call. There comes a time when you have to back away from the poem and say, “That’s it. I’m done.” Leave it; stick it into your ‘finished’ folder, and move on to the next. I tend to write poems in batches, and revise in batches. Once you get your mind into revision mode, it goes easier. When I’m ready to submit, I open the poem and give it a once over, to make sure I didn’t overlook anything, or misspell a word. Since I’m not in ‘revision’ mode, I can resist the urge to tinker yet again. Usually….
It’s a never ending process. I have poems in print I’ve revised yet again. I want my best work out in the world. There are poems from years ago I cringe at, but also there are old poems with a snippet of something good hidden in their clumsy verse. I steal the good and rework the idea. (Can you steal from yourself??) We all learn more tools and tricks as we gain experience *coughs* – get older – so apply that knowledge to your poems. Your readers will thank you for it.
Image courtesy of Pixabay. Originally published in Life on the Periphery by Constance Brewer
Considering it is just after Mother’s Day, with Father’s Day looming on the horizon, I thought I’d talk about writing poems about parents. We get a lot of those type of poems at Gyroscope Review. It’s an important topic as poets work through their feelings about parents and the past – and sometimes the future. It’s a deeply personal topic, and there is a fine line between the danger of lapsing into sentimentality or letting the poem explore the theme. Writing about the loss of a parent, or a parent with cancer is a tough topic. Look for the universal in the subject. People will care a lot more about the poem if they can see themselves in it. They might be indifferent about your pain, but let them see how it’s everyone’s pain and they are on board.
Other parent poems we get are about the act of raising a child with all the cliches of childhood. Skinned knees, first dates, learning to ride a bike. How do you open that up? Approach it from a father’s point of view, or a sibling, or the skinned knee itself. Take us somewhere new. Make us see the subject in a different light, one we haven’t thought of before. What we don’t see is enough poems about the intricacies of being a parent. What it’s like to raise a special needs child, or a gender fluid child. Or a bullied child. Or an autistic child navigating the everyday world. Put us in your sneakers. As a parent, how do you approach these topics without echoing breathless news headlines?
Here are some Gyroscope Review poems and the issues they are in to explore:
My Bi-Polar Bear by Paul Strohm ISSUE 18-1 WINTER 2018
Candy Colored Dreams by Deborah L. Davitt ISSUE 17-4 FALL 2017
Sketches of my Mother by Samuel Salerno ISSUE 17-4 FALL 2017
Grendel’s Mother by Sally Zakariya ISSUE 17-3 SUMMER 2017
Every Day is Mother’s Day by Alexis Rhone Fancher ISSUE 17-1 WINTER 2017
The Man Who Explained Maps by John Grey ISSUE 17-1 WINTER 2017
Memorial for Miriam’s Dad (and Miriam) by Sandy Feinstein ISSUE 16-1 WINTER 2016
Waking Daddy by Akualezli Hope ISSUE 16-1 WINTER 2016
Letting Go by Barry Charman ISSUE 16-1 WINTER 2016
Mother’s and Father’s Day make everyone hyper-focus on tradition—cards, ties, a bouquet of flowers. Dig deeper. What if, as a parent, or a child, you never gave or received any gift on those days? How would you feel? Does acknowledgement matter? Has it torpedoed a relationship? Is it revenge for an imagined slight? Self-preservation?
Parents aren’t as simplistic as we remember them to be. They have lives outside of their children. We often are exploring through poetry our relationship with a parent, and how it’s changed now that we’ve gotten older (and so have they). We should no longer look back with nostalgia, but with the critical eye of the poet, ready to write the truth, no matter how unpleasant it might be, or what it might reveal about ourselves. That’s a tough order. But poets are up to the challenge.