Monday, December 5, 2011

Can Anyone Write Poetry?: Thoughts on Teaching and Writing

On Sunday, December 4, 2011, I was invited to participate in a community panel at Wachtung Booksellers, in Montclair, NJ. It was a perfect afternoon for talking about poetry with other writer/teachers at a beautiful bookstore and a gathering of artists, poets, and readers. Marina Cramer, a writer herself, and gracious host and coordinator of the series, "Writing Matters," prepared the questions and facilitated the panel. Here are my responses.

-Can anyone write poetry?
This is a wonderful question, and I think that no, not everyone can write poetry in the sense that not everyone can sing. This is what’s unique about poetry, and why most people have a special relationship with poetry—whether they love it or not, the relationship with poetic writing is different from that of prose.

Writing is writing, of course—we created genres to distinguish what happens when we write. But perhaps the clearest definition in literature is not so much between fiction and non fiction, drama, novels or short story, journalism or journals, but rather between stories and songs. Poetry is writing that is closest to song—and though we all enjoy singing, some voices are truly unique.

-Many of us, especially in our teen years, feel an irresistible urge to set our experiences down in verse, pouring our emotions out on the page, and - if we ever show these efforts to anyone- resist any suggestion of rewriting or improvement. What's wrong with that?

Absolutely nothing. The impulse to write verse is a response to the way poetry has made us feel through images. We are enchanted by the spell that elevates our experience of life to a spiritual plane. We feel a connection that soothes the ache of feeling alone in the world. And every adolescent must go through this rite of passage, the recognition of our essential nature. If we share it too much, the spell might be broken, and we fear the same will happen if we change our words—they will not be ours, they will not have the same magic—or the spell will vanish and we may realize that our words are not as special as thought. The best feedback in this instance is to understand what the person is saying. That is the validation the young poet needs.

-Why poetry? Specifically, why is it important to teach us how to write it? Isn't reading the work of others enough?

People open up to poetic language and they are willing to respond in a creative, artistic fashion before they take a chance at critical analysis. I’ve been teaching a new course this semester, called Global Literatures in English: Anglophone Literature of the 20th Century. The purpose of this course is to survey writers outside Britain and the U.S., both in English and in translation, to study the influence of literature in English outside of these two canons. It is very interesting, because these writers carry the cultural history of their lands of origin in their work, as well as the literary history of English. Even though my job is to open the door to critical thinking about literature, the surest way is by having students respond to poetry. For one thing, bringing the poetry of Caribbean, African, and Bengali poets into the class allows us to hear English with a broader sense of rhythm and meter, as well as imagery.

            Just last month, when we read poems by a survivor of the Argentinian dictatorship, and I asked for a critical analysis of the poems—several students wrote their own poems in response to what they read! It’s a bit like teach math in a non threatening way—and poetry is all about the arithmetic of language*, as it connects areas of our cognition in ways that, perhaps, other art forms have not.

-How does the study of poetry affect the way we think about and look at life? What is the teacher's role?

This is part of the same answer for me—as a teacher, my role is to show people how to look at their own process. How they got from one thought to the next. If we can see not just how a poem is constructed, but how we would construct it, the process of analysis is honed and strengthened in us. At the same time, poetry allows us to slow down—insists that we do, or we will miss what is valuable to us. It is this paradoxical balance of analysis and pure feeling that poetry can teach us, perhaps better than other forms of expression. In a way, it is a meditation on life and on our small role in the immensity of existence.

-To rhyme, or not to rhyme? Why?

Rhyming is poetry’s device, as is imagery. End rhymes go in and out of style, but all poetry contains echoes of sound, resonance from one line to the other, internal music and rhythm. If we can learn to work with rhyme we can perhaps get deeper into the construction of a line of verse. It’s like a journey to the microscopic components of a cell. And in the same way that we might learn more from the process, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will create poetry once we know the formula. But we may end up creating our own forms, and discovering ways to improve our poems—even if in the end we discard the device. Our greatest American success in the poetic genre has been Rap. Rap came out of the experience of Black artists; from African American culture specifically, at a time the custom of rhyming in poetry had all but disappeared. And yet this powerful poetic device gave birth to a form, and a poetic culture that has affected every language on the planet.

I’d say it is an entirely personal choice to use end rhyme and formal structure when starting out to write poetry. If you feel it, go with it. If it hampers your ability to work with images, then put it aside for a while.

-Let's talk about poetic forms. Can you tell us, briefly, how they came about? Does shaping language to fit specific structures really make better poetry?

To squeeze it all into one paragraph-- we often talk about received forms as those patterns that are handed down to us and have been repeated and perfected over hundreds—sometimes thousands—of years. This is where we get the concept of following form, formal, from the idea of a vessel that shapes the contents. A short history of poetic form would take us from Greek drama in 700 BC when the metric foot shaped the verses of Homer, all the way to how Shakespeare used iambic pentameter in the late 16th and early 17th century. In the East, we have the short forms of Japanese 11th century tanka, haiku, and later renga, in which the number of syllables control the poem. From the 15th century, we have the Malayan pantoum, whose repeating lines and patterns use each line twice—a similar pattern to the European villanelles. From Persia we have the ghazals, poems originally written in 12 to 15 couplets, with the poet’s name in the last line, and which, over the centuries, vary at the end by creating a turn in the meaning and surprising the reader—we might think of this tradition as being similar to the sonnet, a poem of 14 lines that also functions with a turn in thought, beginning with a development in the first 8 lines, and a “therefore” at the beginning of the next six lines which work as a conclusion.

I think that working with the content to take the form can help us to write better poetry, just as following a classic 5-paragraph essay form can help us to organize our thoughts, to clarify what we mean, and in the end write a better essay. Working against a constraint helps to define and to choose, to exercise our minds and hone our ability and creativity. But form alone cannot do all the work—giving our minds free rein is just as important, so we can reach the territory of our memory and our subconscious. In fact, I’d like us all to try an exercise in a bit, to give poetry writing a kick-start.

-How do you feel about free-form compositions which follow no rules?

Similarly, free-form compositions fulfill a function, but free verse is by no means free—we still have to work hard to compose a poem.

-As a teacher, how do you measure success?

Through the student’s work to apply knowledge as well as understand the process of writing. The result, if it is a poem, will speak for itself.

-What special challenges do you encounter when teaching poetry in translation? Do you encourage your bilingual students to translate their own work? Why, or why not?

Poetry in translation is probably harder to teach, I think. But this is because it’s also hard to find good translations and there is a world of cultural information that we must communicate at the same time, in order for the student to understand the context. However, some of my favorite poetry workshops have been about translation when we do exercises that involve transporting imagery from one language to another. In translation, we are standing on a stage facing a mirror image on another stage, and we attempt to carry all the meaning into that looking-glass stage: will it work there? It is existential and surreal, that is why I reference Alice in Wonderland. My specialty has been translating back and forth from Spanish to English, the Latin American poets as well as a number of Spanish poets. What I’ve found is that people enjoy the exercises I do myself to translate, to write, utilizing the added richness of various languages to understand a piece of work.

I would especially encourage bilingual students to translate—the work is very much like working with form because there are constraints and there are advantages. It doesn’t mean that your translation of your own poem will be better if you do it yourself—another translator may see things that you don’t! But the added territory of another language is a gift of unexplored poetic terrain, ever changing. We should definitely travel there.

-How do you recognize a gifted poet in the making? What do you do to promote their development?

I think that poets recognize themselves, first of all, and second, I’d never say to someone, you will not be able to write—poetry or prose. The truth is, one never knows. But a poet with a gift will be heard much as one hears a piece of music. First is originality, which will sound like a crystal bell in our ears. And then there is the proof of time, when the work is consistently creative, surprising, clear, and evolving, always improving. In writing, the student is reaching for the ability to apply knowledge, and to master the tools of the craft. To do this, the work is constant, and study cannot be substituted with anything. What I can do as a teacher, is a conversation that will last through the process of the evolution of their work.

-What excites you about teaching poetry? Conversely, (questions of academic politics aside), what is your least favorite part?

Ah, the best gift is to understand the moment of recognition when a student has learned how to discover, how to accept that we know nothing, and how to start over again—and then discover something truly magical, all on their own.

The least favorite would be meeting a student who no longer thinks she or he has anything further to learn— that is perhaps most dispiriting to student and teacher.

-Outside the classroom setting, what is the value of poetry workshops?

The continuing process of learning and change has to be nurtured, but also, we have to keep from getting jaded, from being afraid of change, from becoming too comfortable with our own habits of writing. So the workshop is a place where one can learn to listen, to give feedback, to become co-teachers with other poets, and to hear how the art of poetry is changing, every day.

-Talk briefly about your own process. Do you compose when inspired or follow a writing regimen?

I do both; I write whenever I can, when I wake up from a dream, when I’m humming a song, or writing something very boring and dry. The best discovery for me was to realize that writing is a practice, that we can write and revise, and never lose our inspiration—that writing and revising takes humility and honesty, and the commitment to learn. Following a writing regimen is marvelous—when working on a novel, I find it is absolutely necessary. To finish my book of poetry, Sobrevivir y otros complejos, I had to follow a schedule. But if life interferes, and it will, the best thing to do is to write whenever and wherever we can. We may not get another chance, after all. Having said that, as a writer and translator I have also made a conscious choice to devote myself to a separate art form—as was designing and making jewelry. It was important to delve into another form of expression, after many years of teaching creative writing, and not to push myself to write until I was ready, even if that day never came. It was a great risk to take, but one that helped my spirit to rest. Creativity never stopped, it simply changed form.

-When is a poem done?
 Perhaps it is never done, but there is a point when we have to let it go, otherwise we begin to write a new poem.

I think that we know when a poem we’ve been writing seems to fit the right form, when we read it aloud and it doesn’t have any raggedy edges still sticking out, nothing that bothers our ears or stops the meter from flowing. And when it looks right on the page. When it begins to feel separate from us as if someone else had written those lines but they sound right. That’s when it’s done—because another poet did write it, the poet one used to be. Then it’s time to be someone else, to recognize we know nothing, and to begin all over again.
......Thank you to my co-panelists, Nicole Cooley, Roger Sedarat, and Madeline Tiger, for the opportunity to explore teaching and writing, and for sharing your work. Their books are available at Wachtung Booksellers, 54 Fairfield Street, Monclair, NJ. My books, the novel Living at Night, Sobrevivir y otros complejos: Narrative Poems in Englillano, and my translation from Spanish of Noemí Trujillo's La muchacha de los ojos tristes, are all now available at Wachtung Booksellers.
*Here I make a reference to Audre Lorde's The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ernesto Sábato: His Indelible Vision of Latin America May Have Been What We Could Not See

Last semester, Fall 2010, when I taught Latin American Literature at the JSM Institute/CUNY, I reviewed my syllabus for this course very carefully, as it is one I love to teach. I love it because the span of growth of LatinAm Lit swells in late 19th and 20th centuries, and encompasses my favorite writers, my favorite books. Every generation has their formative canon, and this was mine-- Machado de Assis, Guimaraes Rosa, Huidobro, Mistral, Neruda, Parra, Borges, Cortázar, and then Brunet, Valenzuela, Pizarnik, Castellanos, Rulfo, all the women poets, GGM, and eventually, Bolaño... but among the older ones there was Sábato. Ernesto Sábato, the Argentine writer who died this year at the age of 99, and who is best known for two books- El túnel and Sobre héroes y tumbas.

I debated whether to include an excerpt of his novel, On Heroes And Tombs this time around. We are in the 21st century; I happen to teach this course in English. How relevant is Sábato to my students in New York City today?

This time I chose shorter excerpts overall, mostly poems and short stories, in order to travel back in time to understand how the character of LatinAm Lit developed. We read "The Doll Queen" by Fuentes instead of Aura and The Death of Artemio Cruz, and "Housekeeping," by Rosario Castellanos instead of Balún Canán, although I did translate a few pages of it in the end. Every time I chose a short piece over a complete novel, it meant we would not spend a comfortably long sojourn with an author, getting to know her or him. We would blaze past and get only a taste. On the other hand, we would be able to talk about influences, currents, and how one cadence engendered a school of thought, and one certainty gave rise to a desperate challenge-- to be the "antipoet," and write "antipoems," as Nicanor Parra did. Would we have Junot Díaz today without Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres? or Roberto Bolaño's Estrella distante without Luisa Valenzuela's El gato eficaz or Strange Things Happen Here? (I realize I code-switch between Spanish and English on the titles of books. That's because some titles will be familiar and easily understood-- with a little effort-- even if the reader speaks only English or only Spanish... at least that's what I hope. That we get used to gliding from one language to another to catch the best of each one without resistance, and therefore, broaden our horizons.)

But Ernesto Sábato tried to tell a story of the birth of Latin American identity, a very weird thing for a novelist to do, and then in the middle of bleeding heroes and the tombs of the fathers of his nation (any nation), he wrote the most scary and the most classic piece of urban paranoia ever written: "Report On The Blind."

This section of the book is a stand-alone piece, that can indeed be viewed as a short story in itself, and needs little connection to the rest of the novel.  Although the plot follows the lives of Martín and Alexandra and their tragic, star-crossed love, there is a foreboding sense that it is Alexandra and her father-- who represent the old families of Argentina-- who inhabit a dark past, a guilty past, that comes to haunt Martín in the present. But Martín has his own obsession, which is a fear, a paranoia, of the sightless people of Buenos Aires who, he believes, are involved in a secret society.

I remember reading this book in the early 1070s, when I studied Latin American literature at the University of Connecticut. It had only been about six years since I'd arrived as an immigrant from Chile with my family in the U.S., and while I'd become proficient enough in English to go unnoticed in the xenophobic New England of those days, I often felt the alienation of the outsider. The decidedly pastoral UConn campus was a welcome refuge in Spring; plenty of lilac and magnolia along the paths, Swan Lake and Mirror Lake, the two ponds, created lovely spots to sit and read by their grassy banks. I walked into the Humanities building with great anticipation, however, because I would be going to my favorite classes with Dr. Luis Eyzaguirre, and for an hour and 15 minutes, speak Spanish and listen to his analysis of books and authors who were all the rage-- we were smack in the middle of the Latin American literary Boom phenomenon.

Sábato's book wasn't my favorite. The yellowing pages and the small print of my Colección Piragua paperback made it a chore to read (the book cost $3.09 then!), as I followed the tortuous story of Juán Lavalle intertwined with that of Martín and Alexandra. Sábato blended his narrative with newspaper accounts and historical details of the colonial Latin American era and its independence from Spain. As a 19-year-old I was obtuse and too lazy to consider the significance of those old war heroes I detested studying as a child, to the contemporary character of our nations-- Argentina, Chile, Bolivia. Why should argentinos, peruanos, colombianos, etc., in 1972, care what happened in 1810? The early 19th century was the time of the próceres, a blend of revolutionary heroes and founding fathers whose images stared mutely behind the dusty glass of a frame that hung over our chalkboards in grammar school. Their stories had built Latin America. Their vision, when they were 24 or 25, is what defined each nation in the Americas south of the United States and each country guarded their próceres jealously. Argentina had San Martín, Chile had O'Higgins and Manuel Rodríguez, Venezuela had Simón Bolívar. But Juán Lavalle's story was one I had never heard before, because he didn't live to become minister, president, or ambassador in the aftermath of the wars of independence-- he was caught up in the power struggles that followed and killed in battle in 1841 by an army who didn't know who he was. The subsequent ordeal to rescue his body and then what sadly remained of his remains, makes an ironic and gruesome story. Sábato rescued his name from oblivion, and by juxtaposing it with the plot of a 20th century narrative created a strange interstice of Latin American literature in order to ask-- who are we? Who are Latin Americans, and what are our countries made of? Do we have anything in common with those idealistic young men, or with the elite, wealthy families that supported them?
And then, Sábato's book halts in mid narrative to take us into Part III: Informe sobre ciegos.
"Report on the Blind" is a fascinating story. I remember being repelled and captivated, but much more entertained by this part than by the rest of the book. It was more like a story by Donoso, Cortázar, or even Borges, with its opening poem and the allusion to the narrator's death toying with our sense of time, and then a game of logic to prove that God does not exist:
"1.God does not exist.
2.God exists, and is a louse.
3.God exists, but sometimes sleeps..."
Of course, we had to read at least this excerpt in my Latin American Literature course. "Report on the Blind" finds Martín late at night in Buenos Aires, in the summer of 1947, and as he tells us, at "the beginnings of my systematic investigation" of how the blind survive in the streets and underground maze of Buenos Aires, as part of a secret society. Unlike the magical environment of Fuentes or García Márquez which delights my students from the start, this story infuses the reader with a gradual descent into a desperate time. The city no longer belongs to them who think they know it, who think they own it. The pragmatic mid-twentieth century with its certainty of the modern and its self-sufficient distance from the baroque mess of its collective history, in this story of madness, fails the citizens. Gradually, the cosmopolitan Latin American loses grasp of reality and begins to recognize that the blind people are more aware of him than he is of them; that they can survive in the underbelly of any city a lot better than he, and that in fact it is they who are following him, they who control the money by selling trinkets on buses, they who are writing a report on the sighted rather than the other way around. Sábato makes the hair on our arms stand on end. Yes, we recognize that the narrator is mad, that he is paranoid, and while there is some relief as we disentangle and get some distance from the narrative, the effect is indelible. If we can be roped in by a story as nonsensical as this, if we can be dragged by a paranoid narrator as he tries to construct his own proof for the existence or absence of a god in the universe, then, what do we know about our own historical beginnings? Who are we, who founded our nations, what do we have in common with each other?
(And for non-Latin Americans this may make somewhat less sense, but there is the disquieting fact of history that tells us that most of the próceres never did come home after the wars. We know that San Martín refused to get off the ship to walk on American soil again, and went back to Europe, to exile. We know that O'Higgings abdicated and left Chile to live the rest of his life in Perú, and that Manuel Rodríguez was betrayed by his friends who saw him as a rival for the power they sought in government.)
People did rather hound Juán Rulfo for years after he published Pedro Páramo, because they wanted another novel and he had already written the one he needed to write. Something similar happened to Sábato because his novel opened perhaps too big a can of worms about Latin America, even if it isn't a lyrical wonder like Pedro Páramo, or a feat of magic like One Hundred Years of Solitude, GGM's masterpiece. But Sábato, unlike the less vain Juán Rulfo, kept trying to write a better book-- he just couldn't put the lid back on the last one.

In 1973, on the 11th of September, I did have a chance to ask why I had been so disturbed by Sábato's strange novel. Watching the news on a black & white TV set in rural Connecticut, I learned that the first bloody battle had broken out in Chile since colonial times and my countrymen were imprisoned in a state of siege. Whatever united us was deep in our bones. The pain of alienation had become exile, and it hurt far into the soul, more than I had ever imagined. I was still young and knew very little, but some of the perspectives one learns from books in the quiet moments that shape our lives, teach us how to see for the rest of the life we've got.
For whatever that's worth, I wanted to share as many strange and wonderful ways of seeing the world with my students.