Monday, September 14, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Chase Twichell

Evelyn sent me a piece from The Atlantic, a ranking of the MFA programs. She is reminding me that while low-residency is one low-cost option, another way of going about it is applying to the well-funded programs (a few of which are named in The Atlantic's list). But no matter how enticing this sounds, I'm not applying. This year.

A poet Chase Twichell talked a lot about her writing process. For her, the process is different for every poem. "Sometimes a poem beings with a musical image -- every poem is different." She prefers to know as little as possible about a poem for the first draft. "Find out a structure of a poem before you start polishing it."

According to Twichell, the main theme of poetry (all writing?) is DEATH. "Is there anything else you write about?" (DEATH who speaks in small caps is not Twichell, it's Terry Pratchett). "When I read poems, I am very interested in how a poet deals with the fact of death. I want the poet to reflect on death."

Twichell's rules for any work of art (poetic or otherwise?):
1. No declarations
2. Remember DEATH
3. Tell the truth

Primarily, declarations should never be used "to obfuscate the truth." And "remembering death gives the work great urgency."

"Don't distract with things that are not essential."

She is not a fan of poetry written in strict meter & rhymed, because she believes the point of poetry is to "confront the problems that there are right here right now," and doing so is only possible in "language that isn't far from the language of regular speech." At the same time, she also seemed to believe that "our language is disintegrating."

"The trick is, make speech memorable." Twichell offered a possible formula, a game she had played with her students (akin to Madlibs): abstract noun (DEATH, fear, anxiety) -- concrete noun (dog, cat) -- adjective. The formula creates metaphor: "the sleazy cat hole of despair" (what's a cat hole?), "the greedy syringe of loneliness."

Trying to be original, she said, people forget that "originality" means "to go back to the origins." Twichell's injunction: "Go back to the source of what you're writing about. Risk to feel that there is something at stake in the poems." "Not allowing yourself what you already know how to do -- that's a risk."

"The purpose of art is to destroy itself." (This might be a quote. Googling for it, the second result is a reference to a book on German Romanticism and Friedrich Schlegel. The German Romantics seem to have been haunting the conference throughout.)

She quoted John Hollander's comparison that form of a poem is like a vase -- you pour the content into the vase. Twichell's own working metaphor is that structure is like a turtle shell or a skeleton, opposite of form. Structure comes from within a material. And "every line is like jumping off a cliff."

"Disingenuous emotion or thinking comes across in disingenuous language." She told a story about how important it was for her to find the right name of a plant for one of her poems -- she could not substitute a more familiar plant, because this would be disingeneousness. I kept thinking about my own story, "Fire on the Lake," for which I spent a few hours Wikipeding an English name of a popular small European fresh water fish, similar to perch. The result? The fish is named "roach"! I put that into the story and, no matter how many words I use to qualify the roach as a fish, everyone who reads it thinks my characters are using cockroaches for bait. I still haven't solved this particular problem, but I think I'll eventually give up and call it perch.

She quoted somebody: "A poem is a room in which the poet and the reader meet."

Later, at the evening reading, she told an anecdote (in the Russian sense of the word): "Truth asks DEATH: What do you worship? & DEATH says: TRUTH." (In Pratchett, DEATH is a skeleton & has no vocal cords and his words enter one's head without the help of the ears.)

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