Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Writing #75 : Eileen R. Tabios

Eileen R. Tabios

Someone is always dying. One day, I read about a murderer receiving the death sentence. Death breeds death.

A poet, I was moved to write. I wrote:


When anger is maintained, it’s often from a lack of imagination.  That wouldn’t have caused the governor to stay the execution.  Because sometimes anger is appropriate.  There was a father who tied a son to a tree and made the son sing “Ave Maria” while the father threw rocks until the son’s head burst into a bloody pulp that could sing no more.

The father punished his son because … actually, the reason doesn’t matter.  By the law governing the governor, the father received the death penalty.  And the governor stayed the execution, though not because he conceived of a better alternative to a decision that serves only as pure punishment.

The governor stayed the execution because he read through the murderer’s files.  When he stumbled across the name of the father’s mother, the name of the son’s grandmother, he stumbled across the inescapable humanity of the perpetrator and victim.  Thus, did the governor stay the execution of a man he saw anew as a man.  A man birthed by a mother named “Elizabeth.”

I wrote a prose poem. Death breeds death. But it also breeds life, in this case, the life created through writing a poem.  In this poem’s life, the application of a name, which after all is a type of word if not minimalist poetry (there is a life behind a name!), opens up (the reader’s) assessment as regards the unnamed murderer. It wasn’t enough to rely on the abstraction “murderer” for judgment. Poetry demands specifics: Did the murderer deserve the death sentence? Were there mitigating circumstances—was self-defense involved though not ably proved in the court process? Did the murderer suffer from mental illness?  Was the victim in such severe pain that death was considered by someone to be a reprieve?  What really happened? Would the murderer’s death actually atone to the resulting bereaved? What really happens?

And lurking underneath the questions is the largest question of all: can the death sentence ever be … justified?  I am getting agitated as I write these words, becoming bothered—I am feeling the onset of a huge headache.


I began writing poetry at age 35. I have been a poet for 20 years.  At age 55, I have a very clear delineation in my mind about life before and after poetry.  Pre-poetry, I would have read about a murderer receiving a death sentence, mentally noted it, but then moved on to keep reading about other matters, matters that I felt were other to me: Iran, Donald Trump’s hair, Lea Salonga, baby pandas, whatever. (Why do I say, “I would have …”? I did. Pre-poetry, I did read about a murderer receiving a death sentence and reacted simply by moving on…)

Post-transition-to-poetry, I read about humans sentencing another human to die and I pause. I linger over the words. I think. I wonder. I am saddened. I am … irritated. I get on the internet and begin to research death penalty, crime, studies on the related psychology…  My head starts to hurt.

Pre-poetry, my life was, actually, it was okay. But post-transition-to-poetry, my life became engaged. One can’t be an effective poet without thinking, without feeling, and bringing both mind and heart to whatever surfaces in life because a poet must be present. A poet must notice, and then more difficult, be concerned over what is happening in hir environment.

That concern can be difficult to bear. But it can also open up the poet to the vividness of life: the beautiful becomes more beautiful, the low becomes more depressing. As a poet, I am more invested.  As a result:

Pre-poetry, I casually accepted the death penalty. 
With poetry, I no longer accept.

If action unfolds after thought, mine will proceed from that thought.


With poetry, I am no longer casual about how life unfolds, or may not unfold.

Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released about 30 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her most recent is INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems and New (1996-1915). With poems translated into seven languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized ten anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays in addition to serving as editor or guest editor for various literary journals.  She maintains a biblioliphic blog, “Eileen Verbs Books”; edits Galatea Resurrects, a popular poetry review; steers the literary and arts publisher Meritage Press; and frequently curates thematic online poetry projects including LinkedIn Poetry Recommendations (a recommended list of contemporary poetry books).  More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com

Monday, October 12, 2015

On Writing #74 : Sheryda Warrener

On Writing: Make It New
Sheryda Warrener


On the walk up Comox St. to the market on Saturdays, I pass by an apartment window with a row of twelve Queen Elizabeth II figurines on display, each holding a black purse, each waving that magesterial wave with a white gloved hand. The queens are roughly six inches tall, solar powered, and their bobbly hands never tire.

The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself writes Robert Hass in his essay “Listening and Making,” and it’s true, one doesn’t have to go far to discern some pattern or other, and anyways, we humans are hard-wired to sniff them out. Yet, down the row, the queen second to the end wears not blue but yellow, and holds a white purse. She is ever so slightly fancier than all the others. Hass continues: Repetition makes us feel secure and variation makes us feel free. This queen in yellow is the unexpected twist that makes the whole spectacle so compelling. A disruption to any pattern causes a disorientation necessary to our human existence. In art, as in life, it’s this shift out of the pattern (to return moments later, or immediately) that reminds us we’re alive.


Repetition is spontaneous, impels a reader forward or demands attention, inundates or decimates. In poetry (and stories too) it is one of those internal structures that fades into the background so even close readers might miss it entirely. Like the giant pillar running up the center of a pagoda (we know it’s there but can’t see it), repetition is one of those invisible elements that gives the whole structure its strength.

I am enamoured with the repetitive mode. At the level of language, I’m drawn to the simple recurrence of words. Matthew Rohrer pays particular attention to repetition in his poem “A Little Rain,”

Everything beneath the roof
of trees is sticky
from the trees.

The trees have gifted the ground with their stickiness, and the word trees is a gift too, a kind of trade within these two short lines. This kind of repetition creates a tiny, satisfying circuit. Further on in the poem he writes:

The water
comes from lions. It goes
back to water.

How simple, to describe a fountain in this way. In poems like this, not only is the sonic experience of the word a presence, but the image too, like a too-bright light flashing across the eyelids long after the eyes have closed.

Here’s a few lines from Mary Ruefle’s poem “Jumping Ahead”:

If only I'd understood that loneliness
was just loneliness, only loneliness
and nothing more.

The sound of loneliness is like a little bell that tinkles in my ear in a sad way. The texture of the word has a little downward slope, and the echo here describes the experience of the feeling so precisely. But by repeating the word, Ruefle has also totally obliterated its influence. That four beat “and nothing more,” along with the sudden absence of the word, renders the feeling of loneliness useless, literally reducing it to nothing.

A final example: Here is a list of repetitions from Brenda Shaughnessy’s 36-line poem “I Have A Time Machine”: But, but, travel, time, time, next, next, zipping, zipping, window, fish, fish, the past, sometimes, sometimes, myself, myself, me, me, explode, explosion, mother, mother’s mother’s mother, fish, window, travelling, time, the past. I stare in awe at the mastery, I circle and re-circle the words. Like a queen on display in a window, the poem waves metronomically at me, a little smug. She has gotten away with something but I can’t tell what.


The act of writing is to enter into the repetitive mode. I sit at the kitchen table at roughly the same time every day (or once a week, or twice a week). I have a cup of coffee, some poems to read, my notebook. I sit sit sit. To be in the moment of writing, open to possibility, to the strange tacks the imagination may take, is brave. To let the pattern be disrupted, and then to drag that pattern back into existence, is hard work. But the ritual of writing is fortifying. By invoking a necessary repetitive practice one gains access to the imagination. It is here where the pattern is disrupted, and the real transformation takes place. Eventually, it will resume: dishes in the sink, emails to answer. But for a time, a new rhythm is discovered.

What these experiences must touch in us is the rhythm of our own individuation. That’s Hass again. I love the tail end of this line: the rhythm of our own individuation. Feeling alive, feeling safe, a back and forth so human it’s innate in us. The part rhythm plays in the work of the imagination can’t be ignored. I’m reminded of a Dean Young poem, “Romanticism 101” that concludes with the lines:

Then I realized repetition could be an ending.
Then I realized repetition could be an ending.

The queens wave each time I pass. The world stops, then starts again. Yes, for sure I’m alive.

Works Cited

Hass, Robert. “Listening and Making,” from 20th Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. The Ecco Press, New Jersey.1984. pp. 107 – 133. Print.

Rohrer, Matthew. “A little rain,” from Surrounded by Friends. Wave Books, Seattle. 2015. pp. 8. Print.

Ruefle, Mary. “Jumping Ahead,”* from Trances of the Blast. Wave Books, Seattle. 2014. pp. 62 – 63. Print.

Shaughnessy, Brenda. “I Have a Time Machine,” from The New Yorker, July 20, 2015. Online.

*With thanks to Curtis AuCoin for reminding me about those Mary Ruefle lines.

Sheryda Warrener lives in Vancouver, where she teaches poetry at the University of British Columbia. Her poems have appeared in Arc, The Malahat Review, Event, and the Believer, among other journals. She is the author of Hard Feelings (Snare/Invisible 2010), and a new collection of poems Floating Is Everything, from Nightwood Editions.

Friday, October 02, 2015

On Writing #73 : Pam Brown

Pam Brown

Rachel Blau DuPlessis said 'a poem builds up, in a steady accretion, like plaque'. True. In general, this describes my method.

My own poems have a notational style comprising a kind of linguistic debris. In some instances it's a Sydney-noir-comedy-debris and sometimes it reads like I'm suffering from bleak romanticism. But I'm usually paranoid enough to be aware of those traces & to comment on them when they occur.  I think I use a kind of ‘philosophical' 'I' to examine my situation as a poet in the culture-at-large.

Technically, in writing I don't always punctuate where punctuation should be. I don't like colons much. I really dislike semi-colons & tend to use dashes instead. I don't always use a full stop or a comma where convention might expect one.

I don't like Italics for titles or emphasis either.  Although sometimes I have used Italics for emphasis. Five years ago, I did compromise when one of my books, 'Authentic Local', went from manuscript to publication - replacing underlinings & single quotes & so on with Italics & capitals because of the publisher, papertiger media's house style.

I find in writing a poem that it's 'difficult' to get it right - to have it look, sound & read as I intend. I can spend ages adjusting punctuation & spacing & lineation. Also on keeping things clear. Sometimes having my fragments connect to my meanings is really a challenge. I live in my own private metonymy. I guess, with indirectness, which is how some of my poetry can operate, that good old representation is a kind of solution. I'm not a formalist. I don't work within particular poetic forms. I've tried various forms and they usually fail to conform. I do think that it's difficult to have formal poems retain a  procedure & avoid seeming contrived & tight. I like content to work easily without being obstructed by the form. I don't want that kind of structural difficulty. 

I usually say that a benign compulsion nudges my writing practice. The process, although somehow mysterious to me, seems to be to track lines of thought, to collect & record glimpses, to use snatches of language & elemental situations & try to place them at a slant to a linear norm. I could say that I make 21st-century poetry in the shadows of the 20th-century's post-Modernist idea that after the atomic bomb, linearity is anachronistic.

The eruption of innovation in poetry (& every other art-form) in the 1960s, in tandem with a new wave of global politicisation, influenced my generation irrevocably.

I've been making & publishing poems for over four decades now. I used to say that generally my continuing aim was intelligibility but I renounced aiming for intelligibility about a decade ago (not that I replaced it with deliberate ambiguity or obscurity or anything like that).  I realised how 'out there' poetry is to central culture. I became used to a more eccentric approach rather than thinking about rendering poems 'intelligible'. (In a way it was almost a reclamation of some early looseness of style).

If my poetry has a narrow appeal I don't mind -  it's been a long time & if my small audience isn't a 'general' one then that's ok. Though of course it would be nice to be read by as many interested people as possible.

If I think about it I probably do hope that my poems 'connect' with the social (meaning the polis) somehow. For poetry to exist in corporatised western societies, where the context is always power, then it has to be sceptical of the status quo, questioning, probably experimental, or at least apply an unanticipated use of form & language.

My attitude? Anti-Wordsworthian, still.

Pam Brown's seventeenth book of poems, Homeby dark, was published by Shearsman Books in 2013.  A bilingual edition of her poems, Alibis, translated into French by Jane Zemiro, was published by Société Jamais-Jamais in 2014. Pam is a contributing editor for several magazines & independent publishers. In 2014 she edited the 'deciBels' series – ten international poetry titles for Vagabond Press. Vagabond will publish a new collection of her poems, Missing up, in late 2015. Her blog is thedeletions.blogspot.com & she lives in Sydney, Australia.