Blogging offers a forum for musing about the craft of writing and the events that surround us in a very frustrating and yet exciting time, as we are faced with many issues similar to those of the 1960s: A government that lies to us, neo-colonial incursions into other countries, repression of ideas and serious threats to the well-being of the human race, while offering bread and circuses at home in the form of rampant materialism. A groundswell of protests against authority again reflect the response that was given by youth in the 1960s. Writing once again can explore those moods and present an alternative.
O little corporation alone in the
Manger, who will keep the nipping wolves at bay?
You can hear, at night, the unions howl, the taxmen
Circling in the woods…
Pure sarcasm! The atmosphere downstairs at Moe’s Books is hushed, almost reverential, but these lines are biting. Poet David Shaddock speaks in an understated but crisp, clear style.
His teacher, the late Denise Levertov, “was both an activist and a mystic…I try, in her honor, to keep politics as one of my themes.”
Then Shaddock ventures into lyrics related to a cancer scare.
There were orange poppies and forget-me-nots
Vernal pools with a chorus of croaking frogs…
…how we listened
For hours to the bullfrogs and spring peepers
Convinced that we’d found the ur source of music.
The second reader, John Oliver Simon, gained notice during the 1964 Free Speech movement, with brilliant, direct poetry, in the manner of Gary Snyder. Biting eco-consciousness comes from Simon, too.
A nicotinoid is poisoning the bees
plumed from the mammary glands of cropdusters…
Then Simon considers passion.
Hot sexuality is the epoxy
that hooks our life stories as we do-si-do
with sweet smiling strangers out of Genesis
no marriage stays voluptuous forever
we usually react to this news badly…
At Moe’s Books, a landmark four stories at 2476 Telegraph Avenue, the staircase displays photos of the original 1959 building. That was a quaint time. Cody’s Books was the center for poetry but, since its demise in 2006, that role migrated to Moe’s. The setting seems to suit both poets: you can feel generations of tradition.
What’s magical about the eleven-syllable line? I wonder, which the poets reveal they’re using. Simon skirts the issue. “David Shaddock will probably excommunicate me from the eleven-syllable church.”
Ah-hah! A game within the game.
These poets may have a rivalry, a call-and-response. And they’re both writing sonnets. Are such poems arcane or dry? Not the slightest! The poets give intimate slices of their lives and we’re rewarded with the sense of how our lives are all similar. The audience, 25 or so white elders, sighs, and applauds.
The richness of the evening shows why sonnets persist for centuries. Sonnets fit the Western mind, demanding exact thinking in fourteen lines: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
That’s High School Logic 101. I have my own syllogism, since paying such close attention is tiring. Thesis: I’m hungry. Antithesis: no more fast food. Then I recall a possible gluten-free snack on the Avenue. Synthesis: good pizza.
Formal poetry is not, I suspect, a trend in Poetry Flash readings. I could be wrong! View the next week’s readers at poetryflash.org and find out.
(This entry originally appeared as a column in the Berkeley Times April 3 2015 print edition.)
“Someone tries to do good in America, they will only get so far, before they are stopped.” The poet, Brett Peter, quotes a dockworker who expressed his point by moving a callused finger halfway around a rusted barrelhead. And then stopping.
We’ve stepped into Poetry Express, a weekly Monday evening poetry series, at Giant Hamburgers, 1800 University Avenue. Shoulder-high gray fabric wainscoting, bland abstracts on the walls, and plate glass windows overlooking a parking lot. It’s corporate America, an elder version, with twenty or so gray-haired poets in steel chairs with red plastic seats. The youngest might be fifty-five years old.
“What’s on your mind, America?” Poetry has a way of answering this question. We needn’t worry about age for, as my father said, “You get older and older and wiser and wiser and then you die.” Along with the wisdom, since it’s MLK, Jr., Day, we expect some politics.
“My dad was a member of the John Birch Society,” says poet Jeanne Lupton. But to the young woman, “Liberals were more handsome and had more fun.”
This venue offers a featured reader, who reads for fifteen or twenty minutes, and an open, where everyone else reads. But tonight the feature couldn’t attend.
So the coordinator, Jim Barnard, spoofs old Sisyphus, who, in Greek mythology, pushes a boulder up a hill and the boulder tumbles down, over and over, throughout all eternity. He replaces Sisyphus with a dung beetle and the boulder with a dung ball. Bill’s the beetle, holding his arms up like little legs, pushing a humongous ball, then it rolls down and he spins around at the front of the room and crashes into the wall.
“Thank goodness for large boulders,” he says, as if the wall is a boulder that halted the beetle’s descent. Then he’s upright, again pushing the boulder – or the dung ball.
You get the flavor: there’s entertainment and insights in a direct, unpretentious style. Plenty of good sharing. But don’t suppose it’s all lightweight. Avotcja is present, and she won the City of Berkeley Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry for 2014. She speaks from her wheelchair at the back of the room.
“Marin Luther King, Jr., was killed because he was too much of a man.” She proposes that he chose Selma because the town was so reactionary, and his point was best made in the gut of the beast. That’s courageous. She closes with a surprising lyric, that she “Fell asleep listening to the trees breathe.”
Ah yes, Berkeley’s Poetry Express, like the old west Pony Express, delivers its own unique and surprising version of the news. Join the larger poetry express community at poetryexpress.com
(This entry originally appeared as a column in the Berkeley Times February 19 2015 print edition.)
by Clive Matson
The first topics of our new class, “Structure of Large Work,” seem straightforward enough. “Whose Story is It?” “What’s at Stake?” “Plot Works through Character,” “Sequence of Challenges,” and “Subplot.” What these compact phrases leave out are the intricacies.
Each topic is highly articulated, so much so that you could lose sight of why we write. Our texts, Field’s Screenplay and Vogel’s The Writers Journey, lay out schemes that are layered and absorbing. We could, instead of developing our writing, become entranced with getting each page to line up with what the guides propose.
These finely evolved schemes are recipes after the fact. We have, in our past and in our bodies, in our DNA perhaps, thirty-five thousand years of storytelling around village campfires. That’s salient story-telling, too, where the stories carry forth our identity and ensure our survival. In those thirty-five thousand years we learned more than two years in an MFA program can teach us. More than one author can put in a guide. That’s the scab we’re picking.
Why should we offer this class? For one, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of received wisdom on the basic structure of stories. Even after those thirty-five thousand years, however many times a year, it probably helps our mental editors, in understanding and editing a story, to review the concepts. This may enhance our rewriting and it could speed our next first draft quite a bit. But this works only if we don’t take the suggestions as dictums. Take them instead as stimulus.
What our audience gets involved with, at every level, is the story. The trance and the dream. When structural guides help the story speak, we are using them effectively. I saw a movie (Was it “Good Girl”? Or “Pirates of the Caribbean?”) where the structure was so well done I was bored. You could feel what was going to happen before it happened. Some might say the fault was the casting, some might say the directing. I think, with inspired casting and directing, the movie still wouldn’t work well. The structure was too micro-managed. Too obvious.
The second reason to do the class is the same as the first, with the angle of approach reversed. We, in our technological abundance, have removed ourselves a long ways from those village fires. We are too isolated from each other and too comfortable. We are no longer in direct touch with the elements involved in telling a fine story. We see too many movies, watch too many tv series, read too much slick fiction. We need to remind ourselves of the knowledge in our bodies and in our DNA.
We want the passion, the story, the dream to bend the structure in ways that are surprising, but only to the critical mind. The reader should go with the flow and not notice. Not notice because the story has carried the reader away.
That’s the goal. The reader is in a trancce.