Sunday, January 25, 2009

How Poems Work

It was a small, compact mirror

But it was enough. He took it everywhere he went, so snug in his pocket it made a small, pleasant shape in the well sewn suit. For those rare moments he did not see himself reflected back adequately he was always prepared. I am here, he might say, here I am.


Questions for the author:

Q: First of all, why is this a poem? It looks like a chunk of prose to me. What's the difference?

A: I call it a poem.

Q: And why not prose?

A: I could just as easily call it prose, today it's poetry.

Q: Are you serious?

A: Yes, and no. I think it's a poem in the sense that it's operating on the level of metaphor, it is using imagery to evoke something, the language is slightly condensed--though perhaps not as much as I would like in a poem, or even a prose poem versus a short/short fiction. The argument for categories I find a bit dull however, which makes me misbehave. My apologies.

Q: While I find the mood of the poem affecting, it's also a bit dark. There is a sense of foreboding.

A: You're right, it is all of those things.

Q: I am confused by the poem. It seems to be taking place in another world, far away from the one I inhabit at the moment. Can you tell me why that is? Where it is?

A: Well, the poem is in English. It is on a blog. That is already in another world, or an in-between world. It was created in my mind, which was, at the time, in several places including a certain spring day in the English Countryside, Berlin, April 30, 1945, a small restaurant near Haverford College, 2006, my apartment in Brooklyn, 2004, and Montreal, January 2008.

Q: No wonder I am confused. I see no evidence of any of those places in the poem, which really doesn't give specific clues. Am I missing something?

A: You may well be. Currently I am missing several things. Some of which I have just mentioned, some I can't mention here, or won't. The beautiful thing about missing things however, is that while you are longing for one thing, you open up space for other things to appear.

Q: Do you think it's fair to not be in a specific place in a poem? How do you expect readers to react to such nonsense?

A: No, I don't think it's fair. And I expect them to react as they wish to react. Poems are not made to love or understand necessarily, or only, they can also frustrate, compel, sadden and so on. Still, I think the poem is quite specific actually. It takes several moments, having occurred in different times and places, organizing them around a central image. In this case the small compact mirror.

Q: Can you tell me where the poem came from exactly? How did it occur?'

A: As I just said, from the collision of ideas around that image.

Q: So, can you walk me through the thought process leading up to this poem?

A: Do you really want to know?

Q: Yes, why shouldn't I know?

A: If I tell you where the poem comes from it erases the nuances of the original which I left up to you to fill out.

Q: Perhaps, but I am interested in knowing how it "fills out" for you.

A: Okay. Well, as I said, it was born of several moments that collided in my head very sharply, and which I felt compelled to explicate by way of words in order on a page. The moment evoked feeling, and don't people like to quote Wordsworth and argue poetry is an overflowing of such? Well it is, and as Wordsworth goes on to say, it is an overflow of feeling given much thought. So to wrestle the thought and feeling into some shape. To transform it from the original. The image at the core was Hitler's gun. I had dinner once with Lee Miller's son and he told me the story of Lee Miller having acquired Hitler's pants (among other things) from his apartment in Berlin. You know she famously arrived there shortly after he and Eva Braun had vacated it. He told me of the small dent in the pocket of Hitler's pants, made especially for him, with many special features including the secret gun pocket. He said you could still see the outline of the gun itself, how it lay against his body all those years. He said something about gun powder too, perhaps one could still smell it in the air, and he said it would be, and perhaps it is now on display at Farley Farm, which you can visit.

I wondered if he could also smell evil. I thought of Hannah Arendt's writing on the banality of evil and connected that with lesser forms of meanness in the world, which made me ache a little. I thought of Lee Miller, whom I admire tremendously, having such items in her possession all of her life. I wondered if there was any getting away from such heaviness. One could simply list those heavy items. Objects themselves tell stories. I also remembered Miller's photographs of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the photograph of her in Hitler's bathtub. I mourned the fact that she never photographed again after the Second World War. I wondered if she was ever able to see the world though a clean lens after such images were burned in her mind. I thought of how terrible it is that we take our ideas of things everywhere with us and attempt to order the world to align with what we want to see, and then how some of us do this consciously, others unconsciously, and how difficult becoming conscious can be.

I think Hitler also had a mirror, I'm fairly certain Penrose said something about that. But no matter, by now my mind had moved on to ways in which we see ourselves reflected back at us. I had been thinking that in some way nature poetry can seem like a man standing in a field with a mirror, so I thought of replacing the gun with a mirror. There are a few other strands too, but I think I've revealed more than enough. In any case, all of these ideas exploded in my mind. I started with the title. Then described the use of the object trying to keep it as simple, as matter of fact, as I could.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Virginia Woolf.


Shawna Lemay said...

"Poems are not made to love or understand necessarily, or only, they can also frustrate, compell, sadden and so on."

This is wonderful, all. Perfect bday gift for VW.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Yes, this is wonderful. And yes, the argument for categories is, indeed, a bit dull. Hear hear for misbehaving!

Lemon Hound said...

Just reading Derrida in _Points..._, Sina... à propos... from a telephone interview w. Le Monde...

after accusing D of hermeticism and after his response,

Q: Yes, but precisely, must not philosophy liberate itself from them in order to become immediately available and open to everybody?
JD: No text opens itself immediately to everyone. The "everybody" our censors talk about is an interlocutor determined by social situation, often that of a minority, by academic training, by the state of culture, of the media, and of publishing.

And go on from there where you will...

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks for your comments Erin, Brenda, Shawna.

I keep thinking the poetry police are enroute with cuffs and, oh, perhaps a taser. I expect to be charged for revealing trade secrets--at the very least roughed up a little. Unless I have a typo in my post. Then one can simply come up with a parody of it, or me. A lot simpler.

Isn't that what happened to Job on Arrested Development when he revealed a magic trick? The magician's union?

Brenda Schmidt said...

That reminds me of the wilderness cabin H and I once owned on an isolated lake in Manitoba. Precipice Lake. There were only a couple cabins on the entire lake at the time. So there we were, fishing from our crumpled, leaky boat, minding our own business, when a shiny Lund sped up. In it was another cabin owner who introduced himself as the police of the lake. Only then did I become conscious of our ripples.

Lemon Hound said...

Ripples indeed. One never knows where and how these ripples will play out...this from one who fell to earth in northern Manitoba. Not on a lake, but into the strong arms of my father. Apparently there was no doctor in town at the time.

Tracy Hamon said...

Very engaging! I think the Q & A could almost be a part of the poem itself. I've been working on a prosey Q & A poem to answer, and I guess tie in various different voices and poetic "why's" to finish off my thesis, so I was delighted with your interview form.

gary barwin said...

I wrote and posted a text linked below in response to the powerful and resonant images of both Sina's original poem and the subsequent discussion/interview.

Another kind of ripple.

Lemon Hound said...

This morning an email from a fellow poet saying she got much more from the narrative about the poem than the poem itself with the non-specified "he." It's always a gamble, leaving too much out. But a poem is not the same poem to every reader equally either...

Lemon Hound said...

Q&A at the right moment can be liberating.

Thanks for the visit, Tracy.

vintin said...

"The beautiful thing about missing things however, is that while you are longing for one thing, you open up space for other things to appear."

That's a hopeful thought.

"I thought of how terrible it is that we take our ideas of things everywhere with us and attempt to order the world to align with what we want to see, and then how some of us do this consciously, others unconsciously, and how difficult becoming conscious can be."

I've been trying the opposite path - at times, anyway - of being 'consciously unconscious' - as a means of accessing the present moment - as an antidote to the avalanche of consciousnesses. Starhawk (okay I'm flakey) discusses the idea of shaping one's consciousness for specific tasks or purposes - crafting poetry is one of these means of shaping consciousness. Or something.

Great blog!

Lemon Hound said...

Um, ya, that's brave mentioning Starhawk. You are indeed flaky. But not cagey.

I look forward to the bookstore.

And thanks for the visit.

Hopper said...

Q. How do you combine the dingy mystery of a fart with the grace of the razor-bill?

A. See the wings shudder
as the gull ever so gently
breaks wind.

Lemon Hound said...

Interesting use of the word fart. Always a tough one to work in.

daniela elza said...

I love the delicious deviousness and playfulness of the answers. Which turns the interview into its own poetic experience.
Can we truly enter a text?
Or do we stand on thresholds?
Taking in the changing view.
Not because the text keeps changing,
but because we do.