Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hotel Poetry

OK, so more luxuriating than writing on my retreat. It was a good weekend, and I did read and think and even write a bit. I was reading Ellen Bryant Voigt, whose Messenger: New and Selected Poems I bought after hearing her read at the College of Saint Benedict last week.

It was a good reading, and she was speaking my language. I associate her with the early low residency MFAs, Warren Wilson and the one she founded at Vermont. Her name was around, but I don't remember reading her work as a graduate student in the late-1980s. The language she was speaking was narrative and lyric. She read some narrative poems, a poem she called a lyric that sounded like narrative to me-- it had a setting, characters, even a small action. She had spoken to a class earlier in the afternoon where she'd explained what she meant by these terms, and why she was referencing her poems this way.

She also talked about getting tired of writing narrative and consciously switching to lyric, and then going back. At the end of the reading she read new poems, without punctuation, packed with words and association and ultimately seeming like more work than they were worth. I'd have to see them on the page, but afterward a friend summed it up saying, "What is it with contemporary poets piling on words?"

My favorite of the poems she read were a series of monologue sonnets set during the 1919 influenza epidemic. The poems were elegant and detailed, evocative and believable. I asked after the reading why she'd written so many about this epidemic, and whether they were based on research.

She said they weren't based on research, as her research had turned up no stories of the influenza at all. One book on the subject full of facts, but no stories, no mention in literature except for one paragraph by Willa Cather. How all those authors could have lived through something that decimated the population and not leave a creative record was beyond Voigt's understanding, and is beyond mine. I'm interested in collective memory and more particularly in collective forgetting, so this was equally interesting to me. Voigt said the lack of a record gave her creative license to "make it up," focusing just on not being anachronistic and fully imagining each situation.
Her starting point was a story a friend of the family had told, a country doctor, who had traveled during the time of the influenza with an empty bag, seeing the ravages of the flu but unable to offer any treatment or relief. I can certainly see how helplessness like that could take hold of someone and result in poetry. And once you're in that place, and exploring that story, other characters speak to you-- if you're lucky.

I fed on her poems, on the language and lines, and attempted something. I made a heading: "Garden Poems" and started to try to write about vegetables. I wanted to make them one by one, carefully drawn like illustrations on old-fashioned seed packets or calendars, or traced on cloth to be embroidered. That would make them lyrics, I think, crafted pictures, standing alone. And it would depend on music and shape, on craft. I started with carrots, and moved on to peas. And for a few days I kept that image of the carrot in my head. When I read the poem again today, it seemed oddly perverse, sort of darkly sexual, in a way that made me embarrassed. Not at all like the image on the side of the seed packet. But not far off Roethke's root cellar.

No comments: