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Friday, February 26, 2016

Dear Wikipedia,

I notice that you have decided that I am a New Formalist. You may like to know that, in fact, I did not know the term until a few years ago, about the time Kim Bridgford invited me to be on a panel and later to run a panel at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Even now, I am not entirely sure what New Formalism is, other that a list of those poets who are willing to write in meter and sometimes rhyme. I occasionally go by Eratosphere to see what some of those people are doing and who has a new book. Somehow I don't think that's enough to make me a member of a literary movement. 

And I would not dare to claim a part in any movement, as I completely failed in my duty to live in large cities and know poets. In fact, I lived for a very long time without knowing many poets--I seemed to know mostly fiction writers and painters. Now I know more, thanks to twitter and Facebook and such places, but I can't say that I have restricted my knowledge to writers who like meter and rhyme.

But how can I be part of a thing I can't even define? Perhaps I should go read a definition. Perhaps I should worry about how I've never been to a New Formalist salon. Have I missed a great many good parties? Perhaps I should go read a manifesto. Is there, in fact, a manifesto? Or perhaps a badge? A pin? Send word!

Good cheer,

* * *
My favorite-via-email response from a poet and writer: "My sense is that Dana Gioia and the others in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s who deliberately pushed to repopularize form are the real “New Formalists.” (Wasn’t there a journal by that name? They even had a nice anthology called, I believe, Rebel Angels.) Now that they’ve all done their thing and taken the heat for it, for which I am very grateful, we should all just be “poets” and leave it at that, methinks. Besides, I reserve the right to go bonkers in free verse whenever I please." -J.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

You Asked, no. 14: Spiring up from leaf litter: Mary Bullington and collage

Amid the rubble.
All images via Mary Boxley Bullington.
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series is composed of our questions to each other. Soon I'll post an index to our conversations, as well as some information about how to see more of Mary's work, and how to get in touch with her. (Note the close, with a reference back to an earlier post with the Tarot card of the Fool heading over the cliff.)

Youmans: I think of the floor of your collage studio as leaf litter--a compost composed of dropped fragments that is continually being stirred up and giving birth to something new. Can you talk about your materials and method, as well as your sense of having a call to be an artist?

Bullington: Years ago, my brother Andy, coming into a studio paved with my collage scraps, said, "You could make a whole series just using this stuff, and call it Floor Art." And I do! Here we go back into the idea of the materiality of my work, and how this affects the process of making it. But first, a definition: Collage = any work of art made primarily by cutting or tearing and adhering papers and/or textiles to a support, using the basic principles of design to create unity and surprise. (The word collage derives from the French word coller, to paste.) Collage is made out of 2-D material cut or torn, arranged, and pasted into place. It's a very forgiving technique in that you can cut out the bad and save the good, and also, a highly morphic way to work, because you're constantly moving bits and pieces around, sometimes completely changing appearances and structures as you do.

Lion collograph to make collage pieces.
For the last 20 years, one hallmark of my collages has been that I create virtually all the materials I use in them, by painting, drawing, and mono-printing rag paper that can be easily glued flat to a painting on another piece of paper or to a more rigid support. But this method of working evolved gradually. When I started out in the 1980s, I made my collages from sheets of commercially colored papers, especially a paper called Color-Aid whose surface is beautifully silkscreened in a solid color including every hue, tint, and shade in the design spectrum.

Lion early on, with human mask.
I began to shift away from using commercially colored papers in my collage-making after the summer of 1986, when I rewarded myself for passing my oral exams at Indiana University by buying gouache. I started painting abstract designs on paper and incorporating these paintings into my collages. After I moved from Bloomington to North Carolina in 1987, I stopped making collages for several years to concentrate on teaching writing at UNC-Greensboro and researching my dissertation in medieval lit. Then, one day, circa 1990, I got mad and pulled a large, very bad painting on paper of a naked lady out from under the bed, dismembering and rearranging her until she became a much smaller, much more compact and much more interesting figure of a man in a coat and tie. I called it "The King," because it featured only the shoulders and head, with a tragic face wreathed in a crown of flames. I recognized immediately that this collage was far superior to anything I'd ever done—and represented a new direction: I could not only fit painted papers into a design, but make the entire collage out of a single painting by cutting it up and reinventing it.

Lion, approximately stage three, on olive ground.
This became for me and is still a major modus operandi. I find the materials I create often inspire invention and help me generate new work. Ideas usually come either while I'm painting or drawing freely, or while I'm looking at a new painting on paper to see where I can take it—and whether cutting it up and collaging will add dimension and interest, or will just ruin it. And often, as you say, I get ideas when sorting through my scraps. (In addition to the floor, and small boxes and baskets of scraps, I have 4 waist-deep hampers in which I put my left-over cuttings.) Now and then I'll make up a game to play with myself using scraps: Mary, pick up 10 pieces off the floor and put them on top of that painting over there. Then I'll add a new rule: You have to tear the pieces, not cut them; you must throw them, not place them. You can't use any blue. Etc.

Lion's head
Trial and error is my mainstay. Making a collage is often a bit like going to the optometrist's office and trying different lenses: Is this one better? Or is this one better? Half the time I don't know! I'll spend all day— two or three days—laying out a collage, then come into the studio, look at it, and shake all the pieces off and start over. Not very efficient, this method! And there are all sorts of other inefficiencies. One of the problems with collage is that it has to lie flat until it's glued, so you don't see it in the perspective that you will when it's hanging on a wall. Not unusual to find, after glueing a collage down, that a whole section is wrong—or that it hasn't got enough "air." Ten days work down the drain. If I'm patient enough, sometimes I can cut it up and redo it on a fresh ground. But then there are also the lucky accidents! A fragment slips from its place to a much better place. A little abstract scrap falls over a face and I see she now has a wonderful scowl now that I would never have thought to put there. Once I photographed a newly finished abstract piece, and damn! when the image came up on the computer screen, I saw it was a lion—a wonderful, compact little lion. Been working on it for days and never saw that lion before, but there he was, by jiminy! Now I had to work to enable other people to see him! (And all the while, a little voice whispered in my ear, "But he will never sell!")

Standing His Ground. 2011-2015
To be a full time, fully committed artist, I think you have to be more than a little obsessive-compulsive--and a little crazy. Would a sane person commit all her time to and pin her economic life—now and future--on the whims of a market that may or may not care a fig about collaged lions? Or Nazis? Right now that's one of the things I'm working on—Nazis. And I find I'm channeling my favorite German Expressionists as I do. (But they will never sell!) How dare you take such folly seriously? How dare you do it full time? Wouldn't it be wiser to have another job to provide real income? Well, yes, it would. But I know from experience that if I hedge my bets, I will never be but so-good of an artist.

"Who Peynted the Lion?"

And then, on top of all this, there's always the possibility—the probability, really—that the work will fail. An artist has to be willing to make some stuff that's seriously BAD—I mean, god-awful. Not on purpose, mind you. Again, my brother Andy, a full-time musician, says it as well as anyone: "You're never going to do anything really good unless you are willing to stink up the room--completely stink it up!" So sometimes you work up a rage, and then you work in a rage. Very few artists talk about this, but it's true. Other times you work in terror. When I find myself going out on a limb and getting scared, I will start talking to myself: "Do I have any idea what I'm doing? NO!!!" "Okay, then, let’s do it some more!" Sometimes things go bust—you ruin something good, and it's really not retrievable. The best you can do for now is shove it into a drawer for a month—or for a year or two or three. Or you have to cut out the part or parts that might be usable and pitch the rest. And off and on, if you are growing as an artist, your eye will change—your taste will change. I have several photo files labeled "Work Destroyed for No Good Reason." Almost every time I troll through my photo folders, I find new images to put in the "Destroyed" albums. Very discouraging. But you can't let it defeat you. After all, you chose this life, didn't you? You knew you were crazy, didn't you? But the truth is, Marly, on some level, we didn't choose this life—it chose us. But we did choose against common sense to listen to the inner call—and to obey it.

That obedience—and the discipline to work in its traces—is part of the ethic of art-making. When I look back on the last 20 years or so, I realize I became a visual artist basically on a hunch—a pretty good hunch, maybe, and obviously a better hunch than becoming a medievalist turned out to be. Or being a poet, for that matter. Because, as you said, Marly, in your answer to my question about the Artist-as-Fool in The Book of the Red King, the Fool—that is, the Artist--knows he's found his true home when "he becomes fruitful." For that, I found myself willing to step heedlessly off the cliff into thin air.

The mess on Mary's studio floor.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

You Asked no. 13: Reading, affinities and animadversions

Berlin, 1932
Collage in progress
Mary Boxley Bullington
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.

Bullington: Who are two or three of your favorite poets—the ones you return to over and over--and why? What do you look for in reading other poets? What gives you the most pleasure when you read or write poetry and what most annoys you? Why?

Youmans: Yeats. I have a love for Yeats that just won’t quit. This year I’m not dipping into him but reading him book by book, trying to get a better sense of the stages of his life in poetry. I admire the way he kept burgeoning and leafing out, and that he continued writing into age without becoming stale. He didn’t stay one thing; the young lyric poet of the Celtic Twilight is very different from late Yeats, though they have elements in common. And all this is true even though I don’t particularly care for some of his ideas, and even though I don’t always sympathize with his created mythology. Nevertheless, I like it that he has a mythology and framework and edifice of poetry, and that he mythologizes his own life and loves and concerns, placing it and them on a higher plane. I’m fond of his sense that what we see is not all that there is, and of his attempts to pierce various veils. Most of
all, I like it that his poetry always wishes to approach song.

Shakespeare. How can I not pick him? He is so myriad in voice, so infinitely varied in what he undertakes. I don’t expect any more explanation is needed, even if he is a dead white male, jettisoned by hip English departments.

Lots of other poets have left work that I return to: the Beowulf poet, the Gawain poet, Wyatt, Herbert, Vaughan, Donne, Marvel, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, Dickinson, Hopkins, Bishop, etc. And that’s just poetry in English (or Anglo-Saxon.) Whim will take me back to Li Po or Borges or Cavafy or Homer (or Lodge’s versions!) or Sappho or Virgil or Tranströmer or Rilke or Darío or Akhmatova—it’s hard to say where I might whirl off to next, though I have some contemporary poets I want to read or reread, and I’ve been wanting to take a look at more work from the classical world. I started the morning with a poem by Gabriela Mistral, but this month I’ve been reading Robert Walser and Yeats and Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse (clearly a strong source for Tolkien), and also Mary Kinzie’s The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose. 

What do I look for? Both a sense of kinship and utter difference please me. I am lured by sound, truth, muscular strength, metaphysical boldness, beauty, fearlessness, range of subject, wideness and depth—by many things. I suppose what pulls me most surely is the sense of captured energy and life.

You ask what most annoys me. I don’t think annoyance ever comes into my writing or reading. I’m simply going to stop reading if a work seems lifeless and without energy. I’ll also stop when a poetry book seems too prosaic, as if a bit of prose had been chopped into lines, helter-skelter. I’m especially likely to put a book down when that very prosiness does not work in terms of prose syntax. I tend to get tired of poems with a narrow scope of subject and lack of depth.  Poetry is a great sea, with room for little jellyfish and sharks and right whales. Just as the sea needs every sort, poetry may need every sort of poet. Even the sorts of poets whose work a writer dislikes may be important to him or her—important in strengthening and establishing what it is the writer does like and desire to see in poems. And even a smaller talent brings joy and growth to its owner, and surely that’s good.

Some other general tendencies and popular academic trends bother me. I don’t like to see poets who are scornful of the past lives devoted to poetry. The proper stance for any poet in relation to the past ought to be one of humility in the presence of mastery. The dead should not be dead to us if their work is alive. The academy-based desire to wage war on what is called cultural appropriation can be destructive to an art that has long been a kind of Silk Road of cultural exchange. Who could possibly untangle those world-spanning threads? Likewise, the idea of rejecting all dead white male writers is destructive to young poets, particularly women. Don’t read Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer? Cut them from the English major? Just slash yourself off at the knees and be done with it! The trajectory of many ideas now trendy in the academic world is destructive to poets. The misapprehension that we still have a living avant garde in poetry and so haven’t exhausted the concepts born of Modernism is, to me, simply wrong. The academy should be a fruitful place. Too often of late, it has crafted strictures that hobble the mind.

And what do I find bothersome in my own work? I’m not exactly sorry when time shows me that a poem of my own isn’t as good as I thought it was—how terrible if I could never tell! I simply go on my path, pursuing the muse. But every poet knows that the fire in the head will never be fully matched by a poem. That’s why Yeats’s wandering Aengus spends his whole life chasing after a glimmering girl. The dream poem will always be better than the poem on the page, since no poem can quite catch the entirety of the flood that sweeps through when a poem arrives. And that’s fine. Perhaps an onslaught of perfection would put an end to future poems. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016


For the first time in my life, I desire an app! "The Garden of Earthly Delights."

Running with the Amazons

That interesting formal poet, A. M. Juster, just tweeted a link to a writer talking about Amazon: "if you've left me a review on or or any of the other amazons you can be sure that I've read the review and thought about it and that those reviews have a surprisingly important impact both to book buyers and to editors." Huh. "Surprisingly important impact both to book buyers and to editors." So go comment. I don't, usually. But maybe I should start.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Maze of Blood at First Things

Having just fished a snow-laden contributor's copy of First Things out of the mailbox, I am pleased to find not only my review of A. M. Juster's St. Aldhelm's Riddles (thank you to Matthew Schmitz for asking), but also an appearance in the year's roundup of 2015. I'm very glad to be among the lucky few included in the essay.

Here's a look, for visitors who don't have a subscription. (The essay will probably up online later on, just as last year's was.) I should clarify that the reference to "who wasn't written for Marly or for me" is a glance back to prior paragraphs, where Claire Vaye Watkins is mentioned, along with her much-read (yes, I read it) essay in Tin House that stabs at a good many targets, especially "white male literati."

* * *

from John Wilson, "Books of 2015," First Things (March 2016)

Jacket art, Clive Hicks-Jenkins;
book design, Mary-Frances Glover Burt
      Marly Youmans's new novel, Maze of Blood, has an epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges (who wasn't writing for Marly or for me, but whose books I have read and reread over the years). It's taken from Borges's story "The Garden of the Forking Paths": I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars."
     I hate to give away too much and spoil someone's first reading, but here I will be violating that rule a bit. Maze of Blood is (among other things) a novel about the imagination--"about it" by enacting it. (Coleridge is a tutelary presence throughout.) The protagonist, Conall Weaver, is based on Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Youmans tells us that before the book begins. But it is not a novel "about" Howard. Rather, it takes his experience as a kind of template.
     Howard committed suicide at the age of thirty--stunning, if you consider what he'd already achieved. (Lots of writers today have published very little by the time they are thirty!) Conall Weaver also kills himself--very early in the book. This is a novel told in reverse chronology: In the last section, Conall is a young boy.
     By now, you may be shaking your head--what sort of book is this? "Experimental fiction"? Ugh. Actually, no--though it may not be your cup of tea in any case. If you are willing to trust the writer, you'll soon get the hang of it. Conall Weaver, like Robert E. Howard, grows up in hardscrabble Texas, a setting in which his writing seems out of place. But he's not just alienated from his setting (which he also loves); he feels at odds with his "time." As does Marly Youmans in her "time," which is ours as well. His stories are an act of rebellion and an act of celebration.
     But this isn't simply a Portrait of the Artist--for Artists (or would-be Artists) only. We are all characters in search of an Author, so the Spirit of Story tells Conall:
     For everything inside a story--and know most of all, that the world is a story and began with a word--is made up. And so the tale of a Green Knight with his chopped-off head still holding a knight of the Round Table to promises made is no less true than the tale of a man crammed with secrets who spontaneously combusts and leaves behind only a black, tallowy mark on the floorboards, and his story in turn is no less true than the tale of a Texas sharecropper's wife who has had a miscarriage only ten days before but just this morning was walking behind the mule and guiding the jerking plow.

Monday, February 15, 2016

You Asked, no. 12: Basket of light

Mary Boxley Bullington, Briar-Patch. 2009. Acrylic, gesso, oil pastel on paper, 30" x 22." Julia Rose Collection, Fork Union, VA. Click for larger images.
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.


You are unusual among contemporary American poets in that you love form and formal meter. Why do you love it so much? And how does this help you when you are writing and revising your poems? And how does it help you write free verse?


Dear Mistress Nosey,

Why do I love formal poetry so much? I love shapeliness. I love complicated rhythm and sound, all interwoven and laced and accruing energy as it goes, like a basket full of light. I like the way a sudden contorted idea, say, can be reflected in the meter. Or how the swiftness, sleekness of a running cat is caught in metered lines. Whatever the subject, form can marry content in a great celebration of vigor and sound when the constraints of form are imposed. I love the way poetry lives in the borderlands between the written word and song, and that metrical poetry is always running toward the land of song.

I also love difficulty of achievement, and striving for the goals of mastery—to be better than I am, to grow bigger on the inside as I go. In The Castle of Indolence, Tom Disch wrote that many a free verse poet would come a cropper if attempting to wield meter and rhyme. As someone who didn’t give up on formal poetry, he no doubt had received a good bit of scorn for his perseverance in the art. But some of our poetry has become entirely too easy—any bit of prose broken into lines can be claimed as a poem. The result can appear very far from the spirited playfulness of creation. Formal poems don’t leave a lot of room for the easy; they’re salutary medicines, good and joyful for the mind.

Do I object to the existence of free verse? Not at all. I write some, now and then. When I write in that mode, I feel free in a way that must mimic this historical movement of poetry—that is, I’m breaking with my own past, frolicking and dancing on the bones of metrical lines. (Here Ms. Mary Boxley Bullington will want examples, but she’ll just have to wait until a batch of newish free verse poems of mine is up online—six will be in At Length soon. Even there, a reader would see lots of parallelism, sound weaving, narrative, and other organizational strategies.) It’s only when I’ve written a good deal of formal poetry that I think it even possible to write some free verse that satisfies me.

The world of poetry used to be a big place, crammed with many and varied forms, but for a very long time now it has been dominated by short lyric poems, often containing a small epiphany. Writing in form leads a poet to explore forgotten forms, and to discover that poetry once had a far greater range of subject that we find today. Thaliad (Phoenicia, 2012) is part of a Western epic tradition that includes Homer and Virgil. What other forms have we tended to forget? Bucolics (eclogues). Satire. Masque. Verse epistles. Romance. Georgics. Canticle. Plays in verse. Riddles. Philosophical essays in verse. Etcetera. Allegory probably will never come back, but some other genres might be re-made for our day. I like to live in that larger realm of forms; I like to write my poems inside it. And that means writing in shapes. Sometimes it means thinking about how to make very old things live again and be new.

You ask about revision. Rhyme especially warrants revision. To make every rhyme feel natural and yet have it be plucked from a limited array of words; to have the syntax be clear while yet landing the rhyme syllable(s) at line’s end; to avoid padding to get to line’s end: these are the sorts of challenges that appear when a writer begins experimenting with form. Write in metrical lines for long enough and the making of them may feel like instinct. But it’s perilously easy to make an error, simply by paying attention to rhyme words and not to the context and the poem as a whole. An error in rhyme word choice becomes an error in meaning or tone or logic, and a little time shows those mistakes clearly—more clearly than in a free verse poem, where decisions made often seem fuzzy or random.

Rhyme is magic. Magic! Rhyme whirls the poet to an unexpected place. Rhyme tosses the poet away from any obsessions with the self. It insists that allegiance is not to oneself but to the poem, and to the making of new sense from the swirl of rhyme sounds generated by the opening lines. Thus rhyme demands a certain self-forgetfulness. Self-forgetfulness is a fruitful way to be, if a poem is in the offing. Rhyme sounds hurl the writer toward fresh ideas that never would have appeared if the constraint of rhyme hadn’t pushed a new direction.

Here’s an example from a sonnet where I had no plan, no goal, and only that lovely sense that a poem was about to wash through me; rhyme led the way forward (from Able Muse, winter 2013; reprinted in Irresistible Sonnets from Headmistress Press, 2014, edited by poet Mary Meriam):

(from “The Baby and the Bathwater”)

Let it go, let it all go down the drain—
Ash from the crossroads where a witch was burned,
Dirt from the cellar where a queen was slain,
No heir escaping death, and nothing learned,

The crescent moons of darkness under nails,
Ditch-digger’s drops of sweat, the blood from soil
That sprouted fingertips, the slick from snails
Glinting on butchered peasants left to spoil:

Let it swirl, let it all swirl down the drain—
Let murderous grime be curlicues to gyre
Around the blackened mouth, let mortal bane
Be gulped, and waste be drink for bole and briar.

Here’s a new washed babe; marvel what man mars,
The flesh so innocent it gleams like stars.

I’m not all that fond of walking people through poems—I prefer unmediated experience—so I’ll just say something about the progression in the poem as it related to rhyme. And this I am only doing because Mary asked, so don't expect it to happen again! Going for “learned” as a rhyme with "burned" tilted the poem strongly toward the hopelessness of history and experience (whether witch-burnings, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, etc.) as a means to teach human beings and so reinforced the idea of “letting it go.” (Yes, it's a rather dark poem.) “The crescent moons of darkness under nails” pointed a way toward other dark and light elements in the poem—stars, the round black mouth, the silvery track of snails. (Seen from the right angle, recurrence of such opposing images is a kind of rhyme as well.)

Though it’s a Shakespearean sonnet, the poem tends to break in half after the first two quatrains that are a catalogue of darknesses. The opening line of the third quatrain is almost a repeat and uses the same end-word as the first line, and that means an increased tightness in the rhyme scheme. The voice in the poem is more commanding, thanks to repetition and parallelism, and it also rises to a higher pitch of speech, moving considerably away from daily talk. (A great deal of contemporary free verse is allergic to a higher level of speech.) “Drain” calls up a rhyme word out of the past, out of the real but half-mythic world where witches are burned and queens murdered: “mortal bane.” “Gyre,” likewise, is a higher note, and “Let murderous grime be curlicues to gyre” is probably the line that surprised me most. “Gyre” generated a word connected with the mythic realm of witch-spelled, sleeping queens: "briar."

The turn in the final couplet to the baby, a newness salvaged from the bathwater of history—whether an everyman sort of baby or even the Christ child, marred by man—was in great part generated by sound. “Marvels” led to “mars,” and “mars” in turn led (for no planetary reason!) straight to stars. As a mother, I was often struck by the fairy beauty of babies and small children. I never fully knew that beauty until I had children of my own. My small, blond children sometimes seemed to reflect light, to glisten and be gleaming with tiny crystals. So the very opposite of marred man and woman was unmarred infancy, bright and clear, unsullied by the darkness of history. In the end, the poem doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

In poetry, rhyme makes us make it new. Rhyme makes me surprise myself, and surprise in creation is a delightful, invigorating feeling that urges a writer on. The poet then follows a magical thread from rhyme sound to rhyme sound, calling up new and unexpected meanings. Rhyme is the smack of the ball hitting the bat and flying into the sun—coming down and caught who knows where.

Early Snow, January 2016 Acrylic, gesso, India ink, oil pastel on paper, 22" x 22."

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Maze of Blood in Baton Rouge

Title: "Maze of Blood combines romance, adventure, mysticism."

Greg Langley, for many years the wise and wide-reading Books Editor at The Baton Rouge Advocate, has written a review of Maze of Blood. Find it HERE.

Clip: So “Maze of Blood” is a love story. It’s an adventure story. It’s mystic in places. It’s literary and poetic. It’s a Texas Gothic tale. All that is wonderful, but the book does have one hurdle for readers to overcome: The end is at the beginning. Caradog has died. Maybelline is no longer Conall’s best girl. And Conall, hero of the tale, has taken a fatal step almost before the plot finds its first complication. Then Youmans writes the story forward from a past point. It is told in first-person in the rich and sometimes fantastic voice of Conall. This may sound confusing, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would be. But with Youmans, you can count on the entree being just as sweet as the dessert — no matter which one is served first.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

You Asked, no. 11: a painter's words

Mary's studio windows and chest of drawers.
Click to enlarge the images.
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.

Youmans: We met in college, in a writing class taught by R. H. W. Dillard. You still write poetry (and I still think you should put a book together.) Talk about the ebb and flow of your own writing, and how its course (a tidal stream, maybe?) moves through the lands of your painted work. 

A motto for
Mary's studio
Bullington: Marly! You have given a question here that I could write a book or 2 about—or at least a chapter or two. So I propose answering this question in parts. We don't want to overwhelm our dear readers!  
     My first impulse was to say that I find writing poems and painting really don't mix. In fact, I wrote out a rather petulant first draft of an answer saying how antithetical the process of working on each of these art forms is for me. True!  I find that writing of any kind—and the analytical thinking that goes with it--gets in the way of making visual art, and therefore I try NOT to mix the two. On the whole, I find that the act of writing activates very different parts of my brain from the act of making visual art, so I consciously try not to get too verbal or analytical when I'm in my studio, especially when beginning a new work or radically revising an old one.
Mary in the studio, c. 2010
      I was also going to say that the "course (a tidal stream, maybe?)" of my literary thinking or writing process that "moves through the lands of painted work" comes mostly after the fact, or in the later stages of making visual art, or in titling finished pieces. Once I cross the studio threshold, I try to block verbal (much less literary) modes of thinking. If I turn on the radio too soon, the words of the D.J. or the lyrics of music can get in my way. I like to get down to work most often in utter silence. I pick up a tool or a color, look at whatever I have on the table, and decide if I want to fool with that today. If I have a blank sheet of paper in front of me, I start to make arbitrary marks and see what happens. Sometimes I'll write down an arbitrary phrase of two, or the names of the colors I'm using—not to stimulate verbal thinking, but as a mindless way of drawing. Because writing, especially cursive writing, was the first training I ever got in drawing. To write words down
on paper or canvas or wood is, at the most literal level, to draw! And our handwriting is so ingrained in us by the time we're grown that writing with a pencil, crayon or other graphic tool is a kind of drawing that we do without thinking—or at least, without thinking of it as drawing per se. So I begin by making marks or writing phrases or screwing around in some way that makes the paper less clean. In short, I begin by doodling.
The rainbowed shelves
of acrylic paints.
     Fact is, I love doodling. All through grade school I doodled; all through college and graduate school. Not one of my spiral bound notebooks is free of awful and godawful doodles and woodles and woogs. It's the only way I survived all those words coming at me! (Mind you, all my formal education, right up to the Ph.D., is in English.) But I confess that doodling during my classes helped me weed out the stuff I wanted to remember from the rest. Without it, I'd have died of boredom. Nothing made of paper was sacrosanct--not even the family telephone book; not even the mimeographed poems in our creative writing classes; not even my F. N. Robinson 2nd edition of Chaucer's Works. At 40-something, I decided to buy another copy
"The Studio, Early September" 2011
of that sainted edition because I found the doodles I'd done in the margins of my old one in my early twenties distracting and downright embarrassing.
     Ah! But here I DO see a marked similarity between my process in writing poems and my process in making visual art. The years of creative experience I had of writing poems was of sitting down in front of a typewriter or a blank screen and doing a kind of mental doodling. This was not drawing, but simply letting words come, and come totally at random. When I start writing a poem, any word will do. My first job is—and always has been--to pay attention, and to type the words, phrases, and sentences almost as rapidly as they come into my brain. And the kind of attention I pay—rapt attention—is key to this process. I can change the words later, but at the start, I dare not break the chain that brings them, one after another, sometimes filled with surprises. I'm not making a poem at this point, not at all. I am simply recording a rhythmic, hypnotizing thought, a thought I didn't necessarily know I could have, and to have it I have let it come, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence.
Mary's poetry table, downstairs.
     My life-long penchant for doodling in tandem with this process of waiting and letting come what may is a strong common current that runs through both my poetry making and visual art making. When I go into my studio, I'm not there to create a picture—much to less to create Art with a capital A. I am there to make marks on a surface, draw from thin air or perhaps from a photograph, cut and arrange shapes on a surface. Whether the marks or arrangements will be any good is not, at this point, any of my business. My business is to make marks, cuts, and arrangements and pay attention-- rapt attention--to whatever ensues.   

Click on You Asked in the labels below for the whole series thus far. Click on Bullington-Youmans interview party for just the Mary-Marly yack so far.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A crumb of dust

George Herbert, who left us gold...
"To be a window, through thy grace."
St. Andrew's, Bemerton, Wiltshire.
Ash Wednesday.

Flakes of snow falling out of the ash-light.

As I am dust, and to dust I will return, I started off the day properly with tea (needed to moisturize that dust in the meantime!) and a rich, metaphysical poem from the marvelous Anglican poet-saint, George Herbert (1593-1633), writing of "a crumb of dust." Some poems are touchstones that tell the gold a poem can be--how large and bold and beautiful. This is one.

The Temper (I)

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes
     Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
     If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
          My soul might ever feel!

Although there were some forty heav'ns, or more,
     Sometimes I peer above them all;
     Sometimes I hardly reach a score;
          Sometimes to hell I fall.

O rack me not to such a vast extent;
     Those distances belong to thee:
     The world's too little for thy tent,
           A grave too big for me.

 Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch
      A crumb of dust from heav'n to hell?
      Will great God measure with a wretch?
           Shall he thy stature spell?

 O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
      O let me roost and nestle there:
      Then of a sinner thou art rid,
           And I of hope and fear.

 Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
      Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:
      This is but tuning of my breast,
           To make the music better.

 Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
      Thy hands made both, and I am there;
      Thy power and love, my love and trust,
           Make one place ev'rywhere.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Cephalopodish at TerraNullius (Italy)

More than a year ago I posted about some tiny stories starring cephalopods. Though I've written quite a few miniature stories of late, I haven't sent them out, and so it's entirely to the credit of Italian poet Alessandra Bava that these appear in Italy's TerraNullius. I love being asked. Thank you, Alessandra.

Need octopi and cuttlefish in your day? Jump in here.

What's that? That's the w-shaped eye of a cuttlefish looking at you, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, February 08, 2016

You asked, no. 10: children and books

Mary Bullington, "Creation," 2013
Mixed media collage of painted papers
on monotypes and painted paper
(acrylic, gesso, oil pastel, india ink)
25" x 22"
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other. This question is rather close to You asked, no. 1, but as that one is collecting a lot of readers, the yoking of motherhood and the arts is clearly a burning question for many. So here goes, though there will no doubt be a bit of overlap.


How on earth did you find time to write all those books while having and raising 3 children?

I wrote a book with my first baby on my lap. Once I had two children, that idea didn't work so well. At times I have dispensed with sleep, though I don't recommend this as a way of proceeding. It probably impairs baseline health and will make the books more wild. I drafted The Wolf Pit on very little sleep because for several years prior, any spare time had been taken up by general over-busyness, two long-distance moves, and a problem pregnancy. My lively youngest child wasn't yet in school. Nor was he particularly sleepy. A little more sleepiness would have been helpful and obliging of him, but it wasn't in his nature, and so that was fine.

The questions of finding time and whether to have children are important to any artist who is a woman. It is essential to remember that children have no need for a writer (or other sort of artist) in their lives. It is essential to recall that they have a deep need for a mother. Not infrequently, children present syndromes or issues that turn out to be quite time-consuming. Of course, many of our great, now-historic women writers were childless--Woolf, Austen, Dickinson, Wharton, Emily and Anne Brontë, George Eliot, etc. On the internet, one can still learn that young women sometimes mourn that their children stop their writing, or diminish their ability to write. We live in an era of falling birthrates in the West, particularly in Europe, where many people are choosing to have no children and to enjoy the subsequent leisure time and increased wealth that comes with living without them. Having children is a decision, one with a cost.

For me, having children meant having a bigger life, a more challenging and profound and beautiful and even more painful life. After all, without life, there is no art. The question was whether I was willing to patch together scraps of time and quilt together books in them, whether I had the mental concentration to write books in that scattered way, and the discipline to write late at night. And yes, it turned out that I did. I should add that three of my books were impelled by the obsessions of my children. Also, fragments here and there ought to have footnotes to their credit. But even if those things were not true, the simple yielding to a larger life was transformative to me.

A final tribute: I would not have thirteen books and a batch of nigh-finished manuscripts if my husband did not cook dinner most of the time. He took over much of the cooking when my middle child was two, and life became busier than before, and he never quit. He's a stellar cook and baker. Am I properly grateful? Yes, I am.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

You asked, no. 9: resources

May your head be full of dreams!
Division page by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Maze of Blood.
Here's a reference list of critique and forum sites that I've made for the people on twitter and Facebook who ask me to read and critique their work. I'm afraid that I can't do such things for all who ask--I need to manage being a mother of three, hitting my deadlines, and accomplishing the writing and reading that I must do.

I think the best advice--advice I have often given--may be to get to know your regional poetry-and-fiction scene and area writers and poets. That way swapping work and critiquing can happen in a more natural way. I don't do that, but I imagine it's rather enjoyable if you don't--as I do--live in the middle of nowhere. But many people have little access to the kinds of events that occur in an urban area.

I'm not very good at telling people, NO. So here is a list of helpful places in lieu of a big fat NO. In other words, this is an attempt at a polite and helpful No, but thank you very much for thinking of me, and the very best of luck to you.

If you have a site, workshop, or person to recommend, please leave a comment.

ERATOSPHERE. FORMAL POETRY. I'm a member of the site, though I've never participated in the workshopping--just a tad too busy. But plenty of well-known writers of formal poetry have passed through its machinery, and people seem to love it. (I go by to see who has a new book, ask a question, see what the latest fracas is, etc.)

ERATOSPHERE. FREE VERSE. Look for "Non-metrical Verse" in the forum topics. Workshopping of free verse.

CRITTERS WORKSHOP. FICTION. SF/F/H. I know a bit about this one because someone in my family has used the site. He seemed to find it useful, although I remember him saying that one person who critiqued his work was stellar and the rest less or little help. You have to critique some work by others in order to become part of the system.

CRITIQUE.ORG WORKSHOPS. FICTION. MANY GENRES. NONFICTION. SCREENPLAYS. This one is a child of CRITTERS but is bigger than its parent--does all fiction genres, as well as nonfiction and screenplays.

LAURA ARGIRI. Reasonable fees for editing and revision work.  If you're interested, I can send you an email address.

CLAIRE YOUMANS. (No doubt she is a very distant relation!) Writer who edits nonfiction, fiction, and translations from Japanese and French. Ask me for contact information.

THE WRITE LIFE INDEX TO FINDING A CRITIQUE PARTNER Includes a lot of possible forums and workshops.  I don't know much or anything about most of these, but the site seems a good place to start.

POETRY COURSES And since someone also asked me about a poetry course this week, here's a site with links to free poetry courses

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Amara at Mezzo Cammin

The new issue of poet Kim Bridgford's Mezzo Cammin is up--for any of you interested in my The Book of the Red King (the focus of the prior post) manuscript, here are three poems focusing on the court alchemist, Amara. And read the rest of the issue!

Monday, February 01, 2016

You Asked, no. 8: Kin to the Fool

Watch out, Fool!
Bullington-Youmans interview party, continued. In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You Asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.

  --from At Length 
  (more Red King poems there)

What does it mean to be a fool?

Is it to reel about the world
Like stars made out of icicles,
Dangerous and breakable?

What does it mean to be a fool?

Is it to make the things no one
Can recognize or put to use?
For the beautiful, for hurt joy?

He spins around, wanting to learn.

The Fool is dreaming that he lies
With truth—across a grave like glass
He lies, the shaft shoaling with leaves.

What can he do with schooling dark?

Each minnowed leaf says leave-taking.
He shakes his rattle at the dark
And fills his antic hat with leaves.

In response to my question about the place of myth in your work, you wrote of the book of poems you first sent me in 2010 and that you're finishing now, The Book of the Red King: "Why do I feel so kindred to the Fool?" This struck me like a hammer. A fellow artist once brought me an astrology chart image of myself, based on the time, year, and date of my birth. It was the tarot image of the Fool looking back at the little dog playing at his heels as he steps off a cliff into thin air. I thought this was hilarious—and very true of me! But I didn't see the Fool as an image of the creative until I read your Red King poems. So, tell me, why do you "feel so kindred to the Fool"?

First, I will not lie, exactly, in answering this question, but I will not answer it as fully as I could do, if I wanted to do so. But I don't. Fair warning!

Second, all Fools are tricksters, wielders of stories and parables. I may have lied already, while wearing the mask of the Fool.

Third, I feel that the poems themselves say all I could possibly say about why the Fool and the writer (or any artist who has a calling) are the same. The reading of the book-to-be will be the experience of why the two things are the same--and it will be more, a good deal more, I hope.

The Fool in The Book of the Red King manuscript has a great struggle growing up. There's early death in the family, there's difficulty. He runs to the forest and becomes a sort of young woodwose: "When I ran off to the forest, I was / Looking for a favorable message, / I was looking for a sign or omen, / I was searching for some news of dreamtime." Eventually he lies down in darkness and has a kind of death himself. Even his bones are scattered, until "The little animals and the big came / Trotting with my teeth-grooved bones in their mouths." A "Lazarus breath" enters his mouth and he awakens, "braced to live before I died again."

The story's all about metamorphosis, transformation, reaching for a union of opposites, and climbing the alchemical ladder toward a kind of burning gold. It's about finding more and larger life, reaching for wholeness, mixing the profane and the sacred--"A wordless word, a sluice of fiery rain, / A sweetness that is hurt, made flowering"--into one great unity. The holy Fool is an ancient figure, and this Fool is a torrent of opposites, seeking more life and love of all sorts (including the love of his pearly girlfriend, the lovely Precious Wentletrap), often finding confusion, desiring to make, to be bigger than he can possibly be. It's a question early on, whether he will be destroyed by his own impulses and situation or instead will answer the call to aspiration and journey. Even when he finds a stopping place, darkness and memory still visit him--it's still a challenge to not tumble back into that former world. After all, he appears doomed from birth: "The Fool crashed out, howling into the world-- / A bruiser, slimed and slick and shock-haired, plopped / On his fontanelle, his catch less body / Like something tumbled from a guillotine."

from the Major Arcana
But when he reaches the city of the Red King, it's clear that he has found his real home, in part because he becomes immediately fruitful. All the anguish and hardship of his long journey flowers into something else: "He stood as pivot of the wheeling square, / And language was a gold chrysanthemum / That burst with fountain-like abandonings / Of stories, fragments, anecdotes, and jokes--." His excessive flood of words calls out to the world, and one person answers: "At dusk when the Fool shone, his petals fire / Against the cobalt air, the city lay / Hip-deep in golden words and visible / To naked eyes as far as the new moon, / The Red King left his tower under stars / And followed gold to make the Fool his Fool."

All I will say is such a weird pilgrim's progress feels like the story of my own life. And that is despite the fact that I never ran away, or that my parents were not wild as I "crashed out" (though I was, indeed, a shock-haired Marly.)

All this business about metamorphosis is, of course, tied in with the Tarot you mention. In esoteric meanings, the Fool is a story's protagonist. The Tarot Fool goes on, passing through the various mysteries of life and meeting archetypal figures along the way--that is, he goes on a fool's journey through the emblematic places and archetypal figures of the Major Arcana. While the Rosy Cross and such esoteric brotherhoods made use of the Tarot as an initiatory pattern, I didn't study or make a lot of use of that material, though the Fool does meet "the Tarot witch"and her daughter, and there's a poem that is based closely on the Fool card: "...The fortunetellers sketched / This card, the Fool with feathers in his hair, / As if those ancients knew that he would come to pass / And stand between all things, the ground and air, / Wildwood and the castle, Red King and Corvid King." The Tarot connection does, however, reinforce the idea of transformation and archetypes that come from alchemy.

In some ways, we are all the Fool because we go on a wandering path through the life and are changed by it--we begin as children (i.e. innocents or fools), going on insufficient knowledge, and learning as we are knocked about by events.  An odd thing about the Tarot and this book-to-be is that it seems quite possible to talk about the sequence in detail based on the Major Arcana and the Fool's Journey, even though I didn't have that in mind. Jung would have something to say about that mix of Tarot and archetypes. Don't we set off heedlessly into the big world with its Magician and Hierophant and Lovers, little realizing that we are about to step over precipice after precipice?