Signifying in this instance: more on joy. This just in. The most recent online issue of the Mississippi Review is called The Happiness Issue. Jane Armstrong edits this edition. In her introduction, she confesses that she expected a very limited response. Instead she got inundated with poetry.
When I posted the call for stories, essays, and poems about happiness, I didn’t expect much of a response. We don’t do happiness very well, I thought. We’re much more adept with trouble, deception, entanglements, threats, betrayal, despair, and darkness. And why not? Just read the daily news. Sometimes we can manage a “happy ending,” but it’s likely to be ambiguous, bittersweet, or deeply ironic.
So I was surprised to receive almost 400 submissions for this issue, all attempting to interrogate, contemplate, quantify, meditate upon the true nature and meaning of happiness….
You can take a look at her 20 selections at Mississippi Review Online. Bless this Internet is all I have to say.
Lucinda Williams does a great song called Joy. Do you know that one? This song, like most of Lucinda’s, is not gleeful. But she is a blues singer.
One of my friends who teaches poetry workshops told me that he made an assignment once to a group of graduate students. Simply put, he asked everyone to write a happy poem. Not one person turned in the assignment.
Do your poems tend to monopolize one particular emotion? Do you have favorite poems that could be called joyous?
I had admired the book of essays by David Mamet on bookstore shelves for years before I actually bought and read it. The actual subject matter of Writing in Restaurants turned out to be not what I had imagined. The problem was one of projection. I was thinking about my own experiences with writing in restaurants. Mamet, it turns out, is a completely different person.
As you might guess, if you haven’t read the essay, Mamet the playwright, thinks of the restaurant from a theatrical point of view. There were some similar issues; he considers this space which is somehow both public and private. A writer in a restaurant both observes and (yikes!) gets observed.
There was an era of my life in which I did lots of restaurant writing. I can’t pinpoint specific poems to particular locations, but I do have fond memories of filling up pages of my journal in afternoon cafes. Now that I work a lot, I do less restaurant scribbling than I did when I was teaching or going to school. My friend Stacy Aab does a whole lot of writing at Empire. Years ago I believe my buddy Tom Cambronne wrote exclusively in dining establishments. Add your own story in the comments section, if you feel like it.
Christa’s post has encouraged me to keep adding to my own story, so here’s a little more of it. After the 2 semesters of freshman English I was really at a loss. By hunting for orange spines or skinny books, I was often able to find some kind of poetry, but I didn’t know a soul who shared my interest.
I carried around a slim volume of poetry for pretty much the entire year. The school I chose to attend was not known as a breeding ground for all things literary, and I don’t recall luring in a single fish with my chosen book-bait, Pieces by Robert Creeley. But by the time I returned it to the campus library, it was soft from my constant revisitations.
20 years later Creeley did a reading in Houston and agreed to visit a group of kids involved with Writers in the Schools (WITS), the organization I work for. The high school students who met with him attend a performing arts program, and they had some great questions. Some asked about writing, but many steered the conversation toward their own chosen art form, so he talked about jazz musicians, painters, and collaboration. I got a big kick out of the fact that he somehow managed to mention being in prison three times.
After the Q & A, I told Creeley the story about how I toted his book around New Orleans for a year. He asked me, “Which one of my books did you carry?” When I told him, he said that was an excellent choice and gave me a kiss on my cheek.
The latest issue of FENCE magazine reminded me of this. After my freshman English course, I had pretty much completely cruised the poetry selection in the Norton anthology. I was not sure how to proceed. I had developed an appetite for poetry but wasn’t sure where to go get seconds. I decided that the slim books with the orange spines tended to be good choices. When in doubt, I relied on the good editors at Penguin to steer me on. If Creeley mentioned Olson, I’d look him up in the library. And so on. We all start somewhere.
Which poets did you read when you first began writing? Of those, which ones do you still enjoy revisiting?
I think Wallace Stevens was the poet who jazzed me deeply first. The vividness of his imagery translated brightly and instantaneously in my head like a animated cartoon version of a painting by Joan Miro.
As a kid, I went through a rural public education system, and we didn’t read poets unless they were at least 100 years old. At college I found out that poetry was not, like the Latin language, dead. That was big. My teacher in fresh English struck me as Oscar Wilde with a Mississippi accent. Although my grades from the course were only average, I still have my journals from that year (age 17) when I discovered poetry. I copied poems straight from the pages of the Norton anthology. Besides Stevens, on those pages are verbatim Robert Creeley, Adrienne Rich, and James Tate. Although my poems look more like Creeley’s than Rich’s on the page, I’m pretty sure that I’ve inherited something from each of them. From Rich it is something about my identity as a poet, a lesbian, and an intellectual. With Creeley it’s more about poetics, and what the poem is supposed to be.
If you feel like it, tell the story about how your relationship with poetry began.
I’ve been considering the possibility of starting a blog about all-things-poetry for many months now. It’s not that I think I have the answers. Or even the questions. I’m not looking for a soapbox. But I am interested in the blog as zocolo, as town square, a place of exchange and conversation.
I attended two grad programs in creative writing, and the thing that struck me then and now is that the conversations both in class and outside of class were sensational. I can remember sitting in the private room at the Brown Bottle (Iowa City) listening to my friends Stephanie Brown and Jeff Hamilton talking about Lester Bangs, People magazine, and the new formalists all at the same time and thinking, This is really something. Twenty years later I feel exactly the same way.
Great conversations are getting rare. In her book, turning to one another, Margaret Wheatley argues for a renaissance of the conversation. She outlines the norms that must exist for honest conversation to take place. My favorite one is, “We must stay curious about one another.”
There’s so much to talk about. Let’s begin the begin.