Saturday, November 27, 2010

Coquinas and Childhood

I was digging through old pictures recently to find some of the best baby and kid shots of my sister, part of a little photo montage for her birthday. One of the shots I found was the one above, which reminded me of lines from one of my favorite Donald Justice poems:

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.

I always loved this photo -- partly because it was taken in one of our favorite places: Gulf Shores, Alabama, back in the early '80s when there were far fewer giant monolithic condos lining the beach and more vast strips of sea oats dotted with little beach houses. There was no oil in the water, our grandparents were still alive, the waves were gentle and glorious, and all we did for a week (and sometimes two) was swim and eat shrimp and read books and play cards and build sandcastles and dig for coquinas (shown here in their "angel wings" stage) and try to avoid sunburn.

But I also love this picture for its specifics: the light of nearly sunset; my father, who grew up coming to these beaches, about to throw me into the surf; the storm clouds retreating and the just-barely-there rainbow arcing through the left corner; and my little sister standing watching it all ... her stance suggesting excitement and fear and the thrill of waiting to get tossed into the sea. Seeing it again suggested certain connections between shell-collecting, the lines between innocence and experience, and the fears a father might have for his children.


This poem dug back into the sand.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Woot! Terrance! Terrance!

Really pleased to see Terrance Hayes win the National Book Award for poetry this past week. I was blown away by Wind in a Box and just finished Lighthead last night ... amazing, trenchant, beautiful stuff. Hayes is an astonishingly adept synthesizer (of the non-Casio variety) of the personal, the pop, and the brutal past of the American project.

For those who don't know his work, find it, ASAP. Listen to it. Or, better than getting the milk for free, go buy Lighthead and treat yourself to his poem "The Avocado" and the rest of the brilliance therein. Or snag Wind in a Box, and marvel at the incredible wit, insight, and form-busting of his "letter" to Michael Jackson.

(I heard him read this amazing, funny poem at the Folger back in 2008 for the State of the Union: 50 Political Poems reading. I got into the city early enough that I spotted him wandering down Pennsylvania Ave. before the reading and briefly stalked him down the block, ogling from a distance to see what geniuses do when they're not geniusing. This one went into a book store and a convenience store (where he bought some water--I can only assume it was this brand). If he ever got creeped out by the adoring white girl loitering creepily behind trees and crouching behind newspaper boxes, he had the decency not to call her out on it.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Defending Dandelions (Can Older Poems be Saved? Or Should They All be Razed to the Ground?)

Revisiting old poems is something I try not to do very often. It creates a number of problems for me: I notice the immaturity/ triteness/ pretentiousness/ strained qualities of the earlier work, which affects my confidence; and even though I perceive the crappiness, I then find myself stuck in the voice/mode of the earlier work for weeks afterward.

It’s the anxiety of influence, except the influence is of your own younger, stupider self.

Or, sometimes—and worse—the influence of a younger self who was briefly in the poetic zone, and whose momentary energy/vision your current self cannot seem to recapture. It’s a depressing moment to catch yourself trying and failing to write like yourself, especially when the self you’re trying to write like was already mostly trying to write like Philip Larkin.

My few attempts to rescue early poems from their flaws have been largely ineffectual. In my experience, while stories can be retrofitted, most poems cannot. I’m curious whether others have this sense too, or whether you’ve been able to save and use some old trifle—even if it was only a line, an image, an idea?

The first poems I remember writing came in 5th grade, when I wrote one poem about a fox attempting and failing to raid a local farm—“My family must go another night/without a plump and juicy hen/But farmer, tomorrow night beware!/The fox lurks again!”—and another that was my attempt to defend dandelions from what I saw as an unfair hatred by lawn-obsessed suburbanites—“Though some folks call you ‘pesky weed’/Your color never does recede. Dandelion, this poem is true/You're my flower; I love you.”

(I can't believe I'm copping to having written those lines. I can forgive myself for them only by repeating over and over: I was 11. I was 11. I was 11.)

A defense of dandelions, though, is an idea I reconsidered a few months back and decided it had some sort of merit. The problem with the 5th grade version of the idea (excuse me: one of the many problems with the 5th grade version) is that my 11-year-old self was truly, passionately, literally devoted to dandelion defense, rather than realizing that suburbanites hatred for dandelions might be extrapolated into something else—specifically, the understandable-yet-sad devaluation of lovely, everyday things in favor of the rare, the forbidden, and the new.

This poem seeded and floated away.