28 April 2008

How do we know if we're good?

There's a good discussion about writing and publishing and talent in the advice column at Salon.com today. "Writing is in my blood," the letter writer says, "but how do I know if I'm any good? What if I have no talent? How can I find out? Who can tell me?"

Ultimately, I believe, this is a question we writers must answer for ourselves. Are you "good" if
(a) your novel is published by a big name publisher? (several members of my writers workshop)
(b) your book is a NY Times bestseller and gets turned into a movie? (my father)
(c) you are awarded a masters degree in creative writing? (many people seem to do this)

How many poems must one publish, in order to be a success? 1? 2? 5? 10? A pamphlet? A chapbook? A 'selected'? What if you write one poem, that everyone adores, and anthologizes, and the remainder of your work is quietly ignored? What about all the writers whose work is -- gulp -- only recognized as "good" after they are dead?

One answer that caught my eye quoted a poem I hadn't seen before -- the answer is from robertwt:

Don't forget W.S. Merwin's poem "Berryman," where he talks about asking John Berryman the same question. The poem ends:

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

I think I'm with Berryman and Merwin.

(P.S. To see the entire poem, go here.)

A funny one

Believe me, it's not my intention to keep plugging Poetry Daily, but Thursday's poem -- which I just saw today -- made me laugh, and that is rare, that a poem makes me laugh I mean, not that it's rare that I laugh, though it is rare that I laugh when I read poems. And why should that be? What's wrong with a little slapstick in a poem? A little Laurel and Hardy? Hm, that reminds me of something. But I'll get to that later. For the moment here is the funny one, called Treason, by James Tate.

23 April 2008

Valzhyna Mort, 2

I was so inspired by Mort's poem on Poetry Daily, that I went looking for more poems. I was curious about Franz Wright, who I'd never heard of before; the bio said he was Viennese but lives in Massachusetts, and I'm always interested in transplants, being one myself. Also the title of his Pulitzer-winning collection intrigued me: "Walking to Martha's Vineyard." But I didn't find one of those poems. Instead I found another translation of Mort's work. Belarusian I.

What is so captivating about these poems? (1) Their simple, direct language. Simple = beautiful. (2) How the poems feel so free in their own form. (3) In Belarusian I, the wonderful loop-back at the end (to an earlier image). (4) How each poem tells a small yet perfectly formed and unique story.

Valzhyna Mort

A fantastic poem on offer at Poetry Daily today.

20 April 2008

Stuck with a Sweet

This poem came out of the excellent poetry workshop I attended last Friday evening, run by poet Anna Woodford from Newcastle. The workshop was given through the Open Univeristy here in Brussels; Anna is a Creative Writing tutor. My colleague Julitta made me go with her, and I am very pleased that I did.

You don’t like sweets. Grandpa

always gives you sweets.

You tell him no thanks,

you tell him not to,

but he thinks you’re some weird kid because of that

and then you feel guilty, he’s your grandpa,

an old guy on his last legs

so why don’t you just take the sweet?

Good girl, that’s a good girl,

says Grandpa.

The sweet is warm from his pocket, the wrapper

like cellphane tulle. You untwist it, certain

your mother can hear it

all the way

where from wherever she is,

so you finish it quick like she does when she pulls off your bandaids –

one quick rip;

and pop the sweet into your mouth, nodding

“fank you, grandpa…”

The sweet is thick, it’s an old man’s sweet,

bland and a little soft,

but one good thing you discover is that

you can chew it; you won’t have to suck it for ages

and then spit it out,

which you normally have to do when grandpa’s not looking.

The problem with chewing however is that you're stuck,

your mouth's really full,

and you hear your mother, already, saying,

“What have you got in that mouth?

You’ll ruin your teeth, yong lady,

if you keep this up.

And where are you getting this candy from anyway, missy?”

“Gramfa,” you say, your mouth still quite full,

too full to properly speak;

you don’t mean to get gramps in trouble –

not any more trouble, at least,

but too late, she stomps off, and

you think, this is it,

now you've done it,

this is the real thing,

and you tentatively cover your ears with your hands,

but then, nothing happens.

And when nothing keeps on happening, for a while,

you sneak down the hall and the kitchen stairs

and then you see her – your mother,

not with grandpa like you thought but quite alone

with her back to the house,

smoking a cigarette.

She sits in the swing you disdain,

claim you’re too big for.

She's pushing herself around

by the ball of one foot.

You know because you’ve done that before, just like that.

And you don’t know what to do now,

you’re stuck with the taste of the sweet,

but you're pretty sure

that you shouldn't disturb your mother;

so you watch as the smoke from the cigarette

curls itself, silently, upward.

18 April 2008

Vincent's play

Went to go see my friend Vincent's new play last night. It's called "Max Dix, Zero to Six", and is about the formative years of young Max Dix, conception through age 6. The play is very very funny and very very true -- and I wish I could see it again in order to pay closer attention to some of the more poignant parts, including scenes involving the father leaving. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that "Father", for Max, becomes a series of envelopes, which arrive regularly through the mail slot in the front door. Each envelope contains a cheque to support Max and his brother, but never a note or a word to either boy. Now if that is not an indictment of our times, I don't know what is. A marriage breaks down, for whatever reason, and the parents separate, and the father becomes, by and large, a cheque through the door. I'm not saying it isn't a much needed cheque and I'm not critiquing divorced fathers -- I'm just saying it's true and it's terrible that it's true, and Vincent's play captured it perfectly.

Elsewhere (lest you think it all about Dad), the play captured all too well "the rapid and many changing faces of Mother", which I won't go into now because ...oh dear... it's so close to home!

Brussels community, go and see this play, you won't regret it. Details (and video preview!) here.

More about Vincent Eaton here.

Bliss around the corner

It has been an unusually stressful week, at many points an utter crap week, but I'm happy to report: there are good things in life. My friend Max emails that he's in love (I believe he says "madly") and that he's not just happy, but joyful. Joyful!

I can't be more pleased than to see someone I care about be so happy.

He adds, "Remember that bliss sometimes is right around the corner." And I don't doubt it -- it's just that it feels like I'm liable to turn that corner, and bliss'll run smack into me!

Disc of the Week

Found this gorgeous CD in the Mediathèque this week: The Eternal Candle, with Jacqueline Delvaux on guitar, and Frédéric Piérard on clarinette. Description and a clip ("ecouter un extrait") are here.

Piérard's tone is impeccable and gentle. Delvaux's playing is beautifully understated. The clarinette and guitar are in pefect balance. Highly recommended!

PS Piérard is playing locally in a couple weeks (for free even!) and I intend to go and see him...

16 April 2008

Sandwich du jour

On good crusty white bread, in order: one slather of Branston pickle, ham, layer of leftover braised Belgian endive, gruyère cheese, sprinkling of radish/alfalfa sprouts, wiping of whatever Branston pickle is left on the knife, then top slice of bread.

I would have liked to have offered a visual here, but I ate it.

15 April 2008

Poor sod

I was going to talk about something else but then this morning I happened upon a really good eavesdrop. I was sitting in the tram, minding my own business, when a man came on and sat down in the seat across from me. He was texting very intensely into his telephone. Then, in what appeared to be mid-text, his telephone rang. I wasn't expecting anything, but it turned out he was anglophone. He began an intense discussion in British English. My ears went on red alert. It was hard to hear because he was being discrete, plus the usual tram noise. So I had to really concentrate -- without being obvious, of course.

No one in this town should ever feel confident about speaking freely in their mother tongue on public transport...

At first I couldn't tell if it was about work or not -- work meaning, business; because this guy, who's in his mid-30s I would say, was having to work. "If I could just make one small point," he said, about 10 times, at regular intervals. (Clearly, he couldn't...) I couldn't tell what he did wrong but he sure had done something. He said he was sorry. He admitted that he has to "work on it." But whoever he was talking to, they weren't buying it.

From where I was sitting, this was a man who'd been caught out, and was now desperate. He seemed to truly want to keep his relationship intact. He looked like he hasn't slept, his eyes were red and his face puffy. I had no doubt he'd cocked up pretty badly -- or he wouldn't be half as contrite.

Then I heard him say, "That's it again -- Everything! There's always something else!" And I knew that he was going nowhere fast. Buddy, I wanted to tell him, when she starts saying "everything", you're really done for. You should never disagree with "everything", especially not when you've done whatever you just did. Agree with her: you're an idiot. Beg her for mercy: you've been a fool!

Regrettably, at that point, the tram reached my stop. It was his stop, too. We both got out. We crossed the street and I could hear no more. He walked away in the opposite direction from where I had to go.

He still had the phone pressed tight against his ear.

11 April 2008

Friday night bliss

ah, Friday night: No pressures or demands; no homework, no school things to prepare for. I've done a bit of yoga and now I'll go cook the girls their supper. There's a gentle, luminous sunset. We can all watch Eastenders in a while, and then I'll read. And there's a story I'm starting to piece together, I may work on that. The point is: no requirements. Only peace.

(sub)mission accomplished

I just sent in the Mslexia competition submission. In the end it all comes down to clicking on 'Send'.

To take the edge off this anti-climactic moment, I'm heading into the kitchen, where I shall whip up something chocolate, while playing my new favourite record, cafe banlieue by tango
à trois.

Btw, there's a sample track on the link.


You think you're having a good day? So did I.... Then I spent about 25 minutes trying to get a piece of flat (lavash-style) bread out of the toaster.

It had somehow slid all the way to the bottom, the very bottom where the crumbs go, and wedged itself in.

Yes, it was the last piece in the house.

No, I was not successful.

Ah, French!

This morning on the tram I sat across from a man who was reading this book of Emily Dickinson poems:

Isn't it gorgeous?

And I know that we call 4-line poems "Quatrains" too. But we'd never publish an English edition called that. We would use
"The Collected..." or "The Complete..." And seeing that word as the title like that -- plain, unadorned, elegant-- it struck me as yet another example of how something , even quite basic, can sound absolutely marvellous in French.

10 April 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to reading a poem

I was skimming through Poetry Daily the other day, catching up on poems. The first line of one recent poem I read as this:

"At the end of the road is a beautiful marriage."

Which caught my attention.

But when I looked more closely, I saw that the line, in fact, was really this:

"At the end of the road is a beautiful mirage."

Which made me smile.

Recommended: Jon Pineda

Two poems by Jon Pineda showed up on Poetry Daily the other day. I thought they were wonderful.

Making a competition submission, steps 2-100

OK, so the entry fee has been paid, and you qualify as 'overseas' (ha, Belgium to England) so you can enter via email. So now what? Oh yes, the poems. You need to select some poems.

You want a range, because it's subjective; you know the name and work of the judge, but you don't know what kind of poetry she goes for. Best to submit as wide a range as possible. So you get 6 poems but the 6th doesn't really work so you get another one.... But after reading that one about 100 times, you decide it is too American; the cultural references may not resonate with a British reader, and too there's the problem of anything American these days -- you wouldn't believe the things some people say, when they think that we're Canadian! So scratch that. Scramble around through your pile of work-in-progress poems for a suitable replacement. Pick something softer, a bit ethereal. Read it over. There, that's better. Now set the language to English-UK and run it all through the spellcheck. Put all the U's in. Now print it all out and read it again. Tweak a word here, a comma there. Print out again and read and edit again and then again, until you're sick of it. Read it again. Are you totally sick of it? Has it stopped making sense? Good. It's just about ready.

Now carry it around in your handbag for a few days.

Repeat as needed.

08 April 2008

A rejection letter

This is what a standard rejection letter looks like:

Yes, they get crumpled quite quickly.... You get used to it.

04 April 2008

Kinder, Küche, Kochen

Today's poem
is in the kitchen
mixing batter.

Today's poem
is melting butter
in a pan.

Today's poem
is a stack of crêpes on a plate
for a houseful of children.

Today's poem
is powdered sugar
and lemon
and jam.

Today's poem
is all sticky-fingered.

Today's poem
is licking the plate.

Today's poem
is washing up later.

Today's poem
will now have a break.

New poems

Check out (if you will) the new poems in nthposition, as recommended in EYEWEAR. I particularly liked the 3 by AA Isham, especially I paint a mug. Fuzzy Coffee also deserves a special mention, and not juist because I like coffee so much. I really must put together an anthology of coffee poems one day.... Yet another item for to the "really want to do it, don't know when I'm gonna do it" list!

02 April 2008

A submission, step by step

Today I phoned up and paid for my submission to the Mslexia poetry competition. The deadline's at the end of the month. I'll make the actual submission later -- right now, the girls are still on their spring holiday from school, and it's all I can do to make a phone call for 5 minutes without interruption. What I like about the Mslexia comp is that I imagine about a thousand other poet-mothers, all eeking out 5 more minutes to work on their poems, while their children get up to god knows what in the background. We go, girls!

01 April 2008

A poem for Claude

Which poem would you have loved next? Which one

Would have gotten you out of your chair,

Impatiently turning through pages so fine

I would see the pink in your hands? And the blue

Inside of your veins. And the black of each printed

Letter. Somehow it would all come together.

You’d push your now-wild hair to one side

Until you found it: Your latest treasure.

And in one of the half-dozen languages you read,

You’d read it, translating for my benefit,

Your finger at rest on the text

Like you’re taking its pulse. Like what else is there.

This poem you would have loved next.

Its heart beats, somewhere.