Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Transgress, transform, transcend--trala!

Recently I almost stopped writing fiction…

I was still fulfilling story-anthology requests, but I was overtaken a spring spate of poetry—a veritable flood in which I wrote one, two, or sometimes three poems a day. Formal poems, that is: the once-beloved kind with meter and rhyme and aspirations toward song. And I found this immensely satisfying. In the light of poetic practice of the last century, it feels positively kick-up-my-heels transgressive (transgressive--a favorite caddisfly-nymph decorative ornamentation of the academic world, which I hereby steal and pervert for my own purposes), particularly as some of these were not lyrics at all but longer narrative poems.

In addition, I entirely ceased thinking about where whatever thing I had made would be published because there was so darn many poems that I couldn’t even bother to think about such petty little distractions. This is a good, a downright delicious feeling, especially since I have realized that a writer who has seven books (counting the forthcoming U. K. book) but has never received the a “push” from her various mainstream publishers is not going to find novels easy to publish in the brave new world of publishing where Bookscan numbers, past marketing history, youth, and other silly things determine one’s lot. If my soulmate Hawthorne (so conscious of guilt that he must have been a Southerner in disguise) had had to put up with this stuff, he’d never have gotten so far as The Marble Faun. Why, who would publish so odd a thing as The Blithedale Romance? And what about that darling old crustacean, Melville? They never would have let him thrust his whaling boat past Moby Dick. Moby would have been the enormous white rock that his gifts foundered on. As it was, the powers tried manfully (demonfully, perhaps) to stop him. Luckily he managed to slip pursuit by constant transformation and by surviving neglect and general human stupidity. There’s nothing like eternal persistence, a trait (or perhaps itself a stupidity) for which the mid-list writer then and now must be grateful.

Having written an astonishing-to-me number of short-to-moderate-length poems this spring, I have ventured into long ones. Currently I’m on page 50 of a narrative poem entitled The Thaliad. As a person who has been prone to having each new book be entirely different from the last (the absolute bane of publishers) and who has frequently shifted from poetry to novel to story, I’m finding combining an expansive narrative with poetic form to be a fresh-feeling and an entirely enjoyable act. It’s a sort of culmination of many trajectories and tendencies having to do with approaches to joy, truth, and beauty.

And that is what I have been doing—along with the usual summer ferrying, the mama-work, the carrying-of-houses-and-laundry-and-so-on—while neglecting this airy little nothing called a blog.

* * *

Illustration: scratchboard drawing by my daughter, 16.

46 comments:

  1. Spring floods, for sure! I look forward to reading what you've written in your state of flow. It's wonderful when that happens----to have such a prolonged episode is yours seems miraculous!

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  2. How cool is that, to have a flood of poems! Will you share some later?

    My way with poems is more like a dry wash most times -- on occasion, there's rain and the channel washes full, but more often the water's about 2 feet beneath the sand and caliche, and it takes patient digging to get to the flow.

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  3. This sounds exciting and really a kind of reaching out for what is right and what should really matter. It is the joy of creating that should count, and nothing else...this is something I know - or should know -and yet find it so difficult to master. Thank you, Marly - inspiring stuff.

    And that Indian is superb. It looks authentic, as if it were a self-portrait. You have a very talented daughter.

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  4. Clare,

    Thanks for the compliments to R--and Laura, too, elsewhere. As you both know, encouraging words are precious.

    We who make things seem to be a little stupid and have to keep telling ourselves what we already know--at least that is true of me.

    Laura and Lori,

    Some of my new things are coming out in "Mezzo Cammin," "Books & Culture," and "Unsplendid," though most haven't gone out at all as yet.

    Yes, there's nothing like feeling ripe--that grass-growing mood, as Melville says.

    And Lori, you may say dry wash, but you are wonderfully prolific in your multiple-mode way.

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  5. That sounds so exciting, marly. I love it that someone is writing long, formal narrative poetry. Yes, transgressive indeed. I'm in the midst of moving my bookstore.
    Did you know books are very heavy?
    Yes, they are.

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  6. jarvenpa,

    Why? Is this good and meet and right? I hope so! And be sure to take those flowers with you... Roots and seeds and a few bouquets.

    I moved so much for a while that I once got rid of 25 boxes of books and had a big sidewalk sale as well. And I'm always wishing for some of those books now that I live in the sticks. For months I've been itching to reread Puttenham's "The Art of Poesy." And ordered one--and the dratted thing is condensed!

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  7. Hey,
    have you seen this?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbx3qnKKC0Q

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  8. Dear Holly No-Link-Whoever-You-Are,

    Now that is the triumph of book as mere product, the golden sight of material culture trumping art and literature and destroying it.

    You may not have noticed this little issue, so I point it out in case you come back on your way to telling a million other bloggers.

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  9. Marly,
    I'm so happy to hear you've been writing away all this time! I can't wait to see more of what you are doing, the long poem particularly. Will you put links to the things you've published in the blog?
    I also think that the drawing is gorgeous. How wonderful that R. is so gifted!

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  10. Hi Robinka,

    You must have just passed through--and there is one link up already, a couple of posts down the page (to some "Mezzo Cammin" poems). Yes, I'm definitely guilty of an excess of poems that have kept me from doing all sorts of promised things (as you well know) in a timely manner, particularly in the graduation-and-birthday-of-B season.

    R is a little woman of a zillion happy talents and rollicking hair. I hope she will find a suitably large niche.

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  11. I love formal poetry like that. I like Edna Sain Vinint Millay. I thought I had posted on this post, but maybe it did not go tthrough

    I think it is geat that you follow your ideas through what ever they may be. That is very comendable and shows great determination of purpose. That is something to look up to.

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  12. Ah, well, Susanna--we obsessives can take no credit for our manias!

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  13. Found your poems on Mezzo Cammin! Your poem "Mirror Tree / Tree Mirror" reads like a spell being cast. I'm feeling a strange need to write it out and hold it up to a mirror, but I worry it would make my whole house sprout knobby tree-trunk legs like a verdant version of Baba Yaga's house. Captivating!

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  14. Isn't it always best when a writer/artist follows the muse? That publishing world (from any angle, including the editorial from which i approach) is a path strewn with thorns, boulders that seem to rise up, suddenly...and very few opportunities to interact with good people or real fruits. What an unfortunate business it is now. i remember talking with Charolotte Zolotow a couple of years after she was summarily set out to pasture by the new bosses who devoured the publishing company she had been with and it was so very painful to see and hear her heartbreak. But after warning me about my desire to publish my heart's work, she still encouraged me to use my talents. i chose to listen to her, and to recognize my vulnerabilities and weaknesses and chose to take the easier (for me) route into the editorial...but someday soon i will self publish something that is more from the core. Oh to win the lottery...the big one...so that earning one's keep doesn't always take first priority!!

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  15. Oh....and i wanted to say how wonderful your daughter's drawing is!!! Marvelous.

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  16. Lori,

    Always interesting to see what poem out of a group strikes someone—and you have done a lot with mirrorings and echoing patterns in your photographs…

    Glad you found them.

    Zephyr,

    That Zolotow story is an old, old story, isn’t it? Artists and institutions are strange bedfellows and always have been—less bed-habitable that Ishmael and wild Queequeg. It is sad to think about Charlotte Zolotow feeling broken by neglect. Yes, I hope you do win that lottery!

    And thank you for the R-compliment.

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  17. Hey Marly...not to worry about Charlotte...her spirit is indomitable...but when the topic of publishing comes up, her eyes (even though she is now blind) give away her sadness at what has been taken away from the world (not just herself)...followed by a sharp flash of "life goes on!...let's walk in the garden!" She is incredible.

    So is her daughter, who changed her name to Crescent Dragonwagon and is an award-winning cook and author. There are some pictures of her mom (who is 97, i think) at Crescent's blog: crescentdragonwagon.typepad.com...you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the column on the right

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  18. oh good grief...the column is on the left...i'm afraid it is August...when we zephyrs can hardly tell which way is up, let alone our rights from our lefts.

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  19. Crescent Dragonwagon! I suppose she had to go far to beat Zolotow! How splendid and mad...

    I have enjoyed many a Zolotow book with my children, so I'm glad she is still bumping along. Sad to think of her not seeing an electric storm or a rabbit in the grass, though. I have an uncle who is about 22 years older than my mother and will be 101 on his next birthday. So long may she wave. Children are still loving her books, long after the slings and arrows have melted into air.

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  20. hey Zephyr,

    I was so moved by your commentary

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  21. Yes, Marly!...long may the good ones wave...and Crescent has done herself and her mother very proud...and so have you! It is a good fight...i just wish it weren't necessary.

    Susangalique...thank you for your kind words

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  22. Thanks, Zephyr--

    That was sweet!

    And I just pulled a barrow-load (not a wheel barrow but a big one for a buried stone age queen--I am neglectful) of weeds up around the garden and planted some daylilies my neighbors quarried out of their garden and some sweet cecily, so I was having your kind of evening.

    My "foxgloves" were dripping with juice, as I committed much mayhem among the Bishop's weed.

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  23. a narrative poem, eh? I did that once. It was a hell of a lot of fun pulling everything together.

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  24. "...to slip pursuit by constant transformation and by surviving neglect and general human stupidity..."

    YES. And doesn't this portrait have that flavour - the deep lines that challenge and adversity can carve into our flesh, but the beauty of the laugh lines, too?

    You sound as if you are in a truly wonderful place, and I am all happiness for it.

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  25. Hi Dave,

    Wonder if that poem is lying around somewhere... Perhaps I'll go look on your infinity of sites.

    Amanda,

    I am having a an excellent summer, full of poems and garden and children. And I hope you are as well--I loved seeing the last head with its creator.

    R will be pleased that you liked her Indian (photographed long before there was such a thing as "native American")...

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  26. R's works is very commendable. Balance and composition is good and her rendering of personality is excellent. Definitely worthy of wall space. I look forward to more!

    She'll find her niche, and as for yours I must find one (book)soon!

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  27. Robert,

    Thanks for the comment on R's scratchboard--some of my painter friends sent her helpful email notes, and I'm going to have to collect all these with the comments and bundle them off to her at camp.

    You'll have to look hard in the U. K. Or you can wait until September (or maybe it's December) for the one that's coming out over there...

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  28. You sound on tremendous form!

    I detect a possible move back to formal verse in the air in general, I think. Don't neglect the blog so much you don't put the odd one here!

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  29. Hi Marly, again! I did get those links, as you may recall, and in fact passed them along to friends, one of whom visited you on this very blog!
    I am speaking about other and newer things, particularly pieces of the long narrative poem.
    RE: formal pieces, my students seem fascinated with them and with rhyme. I tried to get them to work on a blank verse dramatic monologue and all of them wrote rhyming pieces instead!

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  30. Robinka,

    Oh, yes, I remember. And she wanted a cat poem, but I don't have any, oddly enough. I do have cats. Maybe I could give her a cat (there's the pan-resister, after all.)

    One of the pieces that will be out in the December "Mezzo Cammin" is a long sequence, a narrative poem constructed of seven parts.

    I say, go where they want to go! The world needs more rhyming maniacs!

    Lucy,

    Do you think so? I'm not really sure there is--I hope so--but I'm sure that a lot more people are talking for and against it than they were earlier. But maybe you are more in tune with the zeitgeist than I am! It seems to me that lots of people are still violently against form. And too many people have staked their livelihoods on free verse.

    Of course, we're raised up a lot of literary types who are violently against literature as literature, so I think there will be a lot of confrontation between people who love literature and believe in what used to be called high art and those who think that literature is just a kind of helpless reflection of one's times and race and culture and so on. Writer as aspirant or writer as helpless idiot, that sometimes seems to be the choice.

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  31. thanks very much for sharing!

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  32. The grapes are ripe.
    Glad you're coming.

    F.

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  33. Me too--I think it'll be me and M. and N., as everybody else has a cold or else has to be at the first day of college.

    Those arbors...

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  34. Great reading as usual.
    Thanyou for your spirit!

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  35. Hi Jan,

    Thanks! I've just gotten back from Georgia and North Carolina... And am being a canning maniac.

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  36. Hey there!

    I was just thinking of you the other day.

    I found a sexy letter in the archives the other day and posted it. (yesterday) You might find it interesting (its very short). It is from the collection of a school teacher. It was in a pacel of letters in an obscure envelope. Pretty juicy!!

    any way, hope college days are good for your boy! I have so many students this time I have seen kids on 3 separate places. Which was really funny

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  37. That's a good reminder to destroy the old love letters! Shall mosey later...

    I'm still putting up my Georgia food-loot. Just made gumbo and now shall do peaches. Last night was six pints of pear preserves and four quarts of halves--off the tree beside my maternal family home.

    Have fun with that class--or is there more than one?

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  38. You inspire me to keep on keeping on on these days on which I neglect to sit down at my study table until the hours of sharpest thoughts have passed.

    I regret that I have nothing else of substance to say.

    L&L

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  39. Hi there, Annie--

    It's hard to bear down with youth and summer mix... But persistence is a very big deal in the life of art. Persist and you'll find that others fall away while you go on getting better, better.

    ***

    I'm ignoring all sorts of things (including things that various people have sent me or asked me to do) until I get some galleys corrected and my children are back to school--please forgive, all!

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  40. I'm sure you are forgiven and look forward to seeing you soon as you can.

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  41. Hi Jan--

    Just finished up much yesterday and may be back soon... I'm still looking for that mythical time of peace when I have leisure. Isn't everybody?

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  42. Wednesday the tenth of September, almost Christmas, by then you will know who will be Mr. Presedent! And if Big Bang was worth all the cash and hype.

    My youngest is off to university on Sunday "Freshers week" My eldest would be 28 now it's going to be very quiet here!

    It would be so good to have you back cheering us all up again Marley!

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  43. Why don't you visit my blog, Marly? I miss your sharp eye and sparkling syntax.

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  44. Robert and Robbi--

    Thank you for missing me! I will be back, I will, I will... But I am terribly busy here in the second week of school. After school yesterday (husband-out-of-town for a talk and dinner) was a playdate for N, football for N, "Grease" rehearsals for R, and high school open house. Afterward I stayed up ridiculously late, making snacks and helping over-tired children with homework pushed back by events. In the day I have deadlines I'm trying to meet and a great backlog of writing requests and work that I've promised to read from various people. I don't know when I'll get to it, though.

    Perhaps when school moves on a little, things will settle down. That was not an atypical day, though the lateness of the hour for kids was lousy and I hope won't happen again soon.

    I just refuse to be pulled to pieces and must creep on in my own way and my own time! So this is a kind of apology in the meantime.

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  45. Tell the Dear Daughter-DD I love the scratchboard. It's a hard medium to conquer and she has done it well!

    I look forward to finding and reading some of your recent spate of writing. I've been playing on Ravelry-a kniti and crochet site for a bit- and haven't been blogging. Working on a few art pieces, doing some pottery, teaching, staying busy.

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  46. Donna,

    You sound creative all around, so that's good.

    Stating the obvious: I haven't been blogging either, though I keep saying that I'm going to write some things about friends who have new books out. Must do.

    I don't have Ravelry for an excuse! Wish I did, but I did not inherit my mother's needlewoman ability to do all things with looms and needles and hooks and tatting bobbins.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.