Monday, January 31, 2005

South Africa to African-America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #1)

Monday, 31 January 2005

The following is the first letter from 7 days of correspdence between myself and Vonani Bila, a 32-year old poet/publisher from the Limpopo province of South Africa. He is my cottage-mate for my 3-week residency at the Caversham Centre for Artists & Writers here in South Africa's Kwazulu Natal province, homeland of the Zulus. Though Vonani and I see each other first thing every morning, spend virtually all day together, and see each other last thing at night, we decided it would be interesting to see what sort of dialogue would happen via good old-fashioned letter-writing. Again, here's letter #1:


TODAY, IN THE 8TH DAY of my first trip to South Africa, I sat on a protruding rock by the rushing Lion River, muddy from all of the recent rain. In a moment of reflection, amid the hornets & butterflies and the various wild grasses, beneath the white sun climbing the great blue ladder of summer sky, I scooped my hand into the red soil and held – I mean really held – African dirt for the first time. It was a moment which I have dreamed of all of my life.

Though its texture is looser, its color is not unlike the red clay of Georgia, the only place I have ever called home. There, the red clay gets into your clothes, writes itself indelibly into your skin. Ask anyone who was born there. It never lets you go. And I wondered if this soil here in Kwazulu Natal - which too has seen more than its share of shed blood - might possess the same quality.

And as this dirt’s redness rubbed off on my brown hands, I contemplated the notion of home. Many African-Americans, including myself, view the trip back across the Atlantic to the so-called ‘Motherland’ – such as this trip which I am presently on - as a trip back home, of getting back to one’s roots, of reaching into the waters of a past which is beautiful, glorious, and untainted.

When I stepped off of the plane in Johannesburg, I must admit that, despite what I knew of South Africa’s brutal suffering under apartheid, I still could not help but expect something magical to happen in this moment. In fact, I think I desperately wanted something to happen in this moment – the moment in which I would inhale my first African breath.

So, I took one, deep, final gulp of plane-pressurized oxygen before I exited the South African Airways jet and held it. And held it. And held it, until I was well into the interior of the airport. I wanted to be alone as I took in this sacred breath as I had no idea how I would react: Would I tremble? Would I shout? Would I be brought to tears?

And in that first inhalation, do you know what I felt? Air.

But I am not disappointed. It was an opportunity for growth. My American upbringing had me perhaps expecting a microwaved experience – that I could set a timer and – voi la!, I’d be transformed by Africa. In fact, it is with each new sunrise, this becomes a more transformative experience – hearing the stories of you all here in the residency, of Lionel’s experience on Robyn Island for 7 years with Nelson Mandela; of the alien, yet somehow familiar music of the Zulu language, the curious clicking of Xhosa, the syncopated rhythms of the crickets and frogs; the muscular African names on public buildings, engraved in stone; the thunder so proud it quakes the bones, the hills so green they hurt the eyes; the Black announcers and news anchors slipping in and out of languages like clothes. It makes me dually proud and humble - this new world, this new existence.

And as I held the red dirt in my hand, watching the Lion River run from me, like tears, I pondered what my role is in all of this - particularly, in light of the arrival of Terri, the other American – a White American – at the residency.

My mind dwelled on the exercise we did earlier in the day – ‘The Gaze’ – in which we had to stare into each other’s eyes, silently gaze into each other’s souls for an eternity of three minutes. Her blue eyes – like two boundless skies, and seemingly just that far away. With this Zululand soil in my hand, I was suddenly confronted with an impossible dilemma. With whom do I have more in common – Terri, who, though White, lives in the same city I call home – who goes to the same theatres, eats at the same restaurants, knows the same music – or you, Vonani, who shares many of my views of the world regarding community and capitalism, who also shares my Black skin, but who I had never even known existed just last week?

What do you think?

M. Ayodele Heath
10:40 PM

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Monday, January 17, 2005

A Day in the Life of a Low-Res MFA Student (1.4)

Saturday, 08 Jan 2005, 1:30 p.m.
CHARD DeNIORD & JANE MEAD, 2 Ways of Reading the Same Poem

AFTER A WEEK OF SEEING perfectly polished poems presented in the faculty lectures, it was interesting to see what would happen when faculty members examined a not-so-polished piece. After experiencing the different ways faculty members had of leading workshops – experiencing their different shticks, it would only follow that they might have differing opinions about what worked - and about what needed to be repaired - in a work in progress. And this is precisely what happened in Chard deNiord and Jane Mead’s presentation, “Two Ways of Reading the Same Poem.”

What made the discussion all the more interesting was that it took place in epistolary fashion, which meant that we got to see the progression of their divergent viewpoints converge over the course of 5 or 6 letters toward a middle ground. The poem on the table was the student, R____ Montgomery’s “Elsewhere Someone the Color of Jesus.” Chard gave his take first.

The lack of definite placement in the poem – “Elsewhere,” “If this is Iowa or Illinois” – bothered Chard. He also disapproved of the repetition of “Of course” in lines 3 and 4. He wanted to see more definition in the “something” that kept bringing the subject of the poem “back to himself.” Chard attributed these issues to a weakness in writing.

Jane Mead, on the other hand, saw these as deliberate devices. The “Elsewhere” amplified the sense of lostness and alienation in her opinion. She liked the “Of course” and felt that it contributed to the poem’s tone. She seemed to accept the poem on its own terms, for its contract, while Chard seemed to have never accepted the poem’s contract at all.
Over the course of their correspondence, Chard’s opinion moved more toward Jane’s, but the verdict was that the poem was falling short of its potential because the poet’s intent was unclear.

“See what horrors can come of carelessness!” Chard said and they went on to discuss a poem which, with carefulness, achieved what this poem failed.

To demonstrate how the student poet could have more successfully used ambiguity, Chard and Jane discussed Robert Frost’s “The Fear.” Like “Elsewhere Someone the Color of Jesus,” Frost’s poem begins in the darkness with a mysterious man. But the difference between the work of a master and that of an apprentice, Chard and Jane agreed, was that the Frost’s poem provided a payoff, a revelation that transformed the mystery/ambiguity into awareness.

This was a very insightful illustration on the consequences of unclear intention. Also, it showed how – even with two pair of skilled eyes – there can be such differing interpretations of the same poem.

They closed with some parting advice about workshopping a poem: When revising a poem, one should never feel like he is just ‘following instructions.’ Only make a change if 1) you understand why you are making the change and 2) it is something that you want to do.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Day in the Life of a Low-Res MFA Student: 1.3

Friday, 07 January , 2005, 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

IN DAY 4 OF workshopping, I learned that each faculty member has his/her own individual style facilitating a workshop – letting the poet read the poem first vs. letting someone else read the poem first; letting the workshoppers comment on the poem, allowing the poet to comment only after they are done vs. letting the poet comment briefly on the poem before the other workshoppers give their feedback, etc.

In addition to differing attitudes toward protocol, I also realized that each faculty member seems to have a different craft specialty, or shtick. For Anne Waldman, it was intentionality. For F.D. Reeve, it was identifying what the poet hasn’t seen. For Michael Waters, it is indubitably the line.

During Peter Johnson and Russell Edson’s lecture on the nefarious “prose poem”, it seemed that Michael was about to bust an artery anytime anyone suggested that a poem in line breaks be “unbroken” and presented as a prose paragraph. It seemed that Waters held the line as holy, sacred. And in today’s workshop, we learned his scriptures.

“The beginning of the line is as important as the ending,” he said. “The line needs to function as a poem in itself.”

Michael noted that many poets end their lines with muscular nouns and verbs, but often begin their lines with weak articles and prepositions. By starting lines with weak words, he argued that poems lose momentum. They build toward the end of a line and then start over. It was a new concept for me, as I must say that I have been negligent with line beginnings, so I asked him for some exercises that we could do to work on building lines.

The first exercise he suggested was to scan a poem – not by stressed and unstressed syllables, but using a system which he developed marking meaningful words (indicated by an ”X”) versus insignificant words (indicated by a “—“). Taking three lines from Yusef Komunayakaa’s “The Whistle,” it would scan like this:

_ x x _ x x

A titanous puff of steam rose
_ _ x x x

From the dragon trapped below
x x _ x

Iron, bricks, & wood.

For a successful line, according to Waters, a poet would want to have more X’s per line than –‘s. These three lines (4-2, 3-2, and 3-1) would thus be successful lines. It is an invaluable exercise which I will incorporate into poetry writing for the remainder of my writing life.

As another exercise on crafting a good line, Waters suggested that we take a foreign language poem and a foreign language dictionary and attempt to translate the poem line-for-line. Keeping the lines intact, the exercise is to make the lines as interesting as possible.

Beyond the line, Waters also emphasized the music of a poem and introduced the idea of extending a poem by sound as opposed to by logic and quoted the poet, William Stafford, “You can’t tell when strange things with meaning will happen.”

Waters also used Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” to demonstrate music through a sort of rhyming in modern poetry akin to slant rhyming that doesn’t seem to yet have a name – the rhyming of penultimate syllables: killing with belly; hesitated with waiting.

It was a refreshing perspective and, by far, the most scientific poetry workshop I've ever attended.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Day in the Life of a Low-Res MFA Student: 1.2

Tuesday, 04 January 2005, 1:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.
PETER JOHNSON'S LECTURE, History of the Prose Poem f/ Russell Edson

IT TURNS OUT I'M NOT THE ONLY ONE confused about what a prose poem is. Apparently, Peter Johnson, editor of the now-defunct journal, The Prose Poem, doesn't know either! After his hour-and-a-half lecture, I had more questions than answers.

To be fair, Johnson's presentation on this oxymoronic 'genre of a thousand faces' was extremely informative, just not definitive. Most helpful was his booklet A Short Primer on the Prose Poem in which Johnson traced its history from its 19th century French origins in Baudelaire and Rimbaud into 20th century America with Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams and into the so-called 'golden age' of the prose poem in John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and countless others in the 1960's and 1970's. Also included were a number of essays on the form, plus an assortment of examples including a prose passage from a William Faulkner novel and a 'still life' from Gertrude Stein.

Essentially, what distinguishes poetry from prose is the line break, right? Wrong. Chopping a passage of prose (like say, this paragraph you're currently reading) into lines does not make a poem. Likewise, taking a poem in lines and presenting it in a blocky paragraph doesn't make a prose poem. What makes a prose poem is that it simultaneously employs poetic craft elements such as metaphor, imagery, and rhythm while relying on the sentence as its basic building block instead of the line.

The prose poem variously owes its lineage to: the fable, surrealism, psychological condensations, and even -gasp!- poetry minus the line breaks (a description which caused conniptions with faculty member, Michael Waters, the resident 'line' fanatic specialist - especially when Russell Edson commented, “The line break? You can do that with punctuation!”)

Judging from all of the ruckus the discussion caused, it seems the label, prose poem, is, to say the least, controversial. A large part of the problem seems to be a matter of intention: Did the author set out to write a prose poem? Many authors after Baudelaire - and even before - wrote pieces with characteristics often attributed to the prose poem but which just used different names. Half-breed. Mule. Mutt. Which is to say, some poets find the term derogatory. Other poets refuse to have their work classified. These and other factors make it all the more difficult to define. And as Johnson's pithy partner-in-prose, Russell Edson, began to speak, the discussion deteriorated into a poetry versus fiction slugfest, only adding to the confusion.

While the elder Edson remained essentially mute at first, the younger Johnson described pure prose as the form of the masses, of colloquial everyday speech; and that pure verse, on the other hand, was the language of formal structures like the court, and of highly educated people. The prose poem is, essentially, the middle ground between the two. But later in the discussion, Russell Edson ruffled feathers all over the room by referring to poetry as primitive and prose as the ‘higher art.’

No sooner than he had offended the room of MFA in Poetry students, Edson the Barbaric contradicted himself, after saying that poetry was primitive, by saying that fiction was the original literary art: "The first stories were when hunters came back from the hunt. When they began to embellish, then it was called fiction." As murmurs rose in the room, Alicia Ostriker argued that the lullaby and the nonsense syllables that a mother says to a child (which more approximate poetry) would have pre-dated the 'tall tales' of hunters. It seemed this ’History on the Prose Poem’ was going in circles. Ironically, in one of Johnson’s many definitions of the form would quote from Kierkegaard, “All comedy involves contradiction.”


Perhaps the most lucid illustration of what makes a prose poem was the poem, “Vodka Veracity.” It seems that this poet pulled off what was not only unethical but the unthinkable: she published the same poem, word-for-word, in two journals simultaneously - in one journal with line breaks and in another as a prose poem.

However, seeing both versions side by side, virtually everyone in the room - even Michael Waters - agreed that the piece was far more effective without the line breaks. Yet, its language achieved something which was undeniably poetic. The rambling, drunken nature of the poem’s voice benefited from the prose poem’s longer-lined presentation. “Vodka Veracity” demonstrated the importance of form echoing content.

Finally, something everyone could agree on!

This is an excerpt from a residency journal I was required to keep as part of the low-residency MFA in Poetry program at New England College.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Day in the Life of a Low-Res MFA Student (1.1)

Tuesday, 04 January 2005, 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

I ATTENDED MY FIRST workshop in the New England College MFA in Poetry program, facilitated by Anne Waldman, with what I thought was an open mind. Apparently, it wasn’t open enough.

“I’d like to start the workshop,” Anne began, “with what we at Naropa call bowing in.”

I wrinkled my inner brow.

“It doesn’t have any religious meaning, so you don’t have to feel all weird about it. And if you’re uncomfortable, then you don’t have to do it. But it’s just something that we do to show our respect to each other and for each others’ gifts, and for the work that will be presented.”

I balked, only for a split second, and only because I wasn’t accustomed to the practice, but, before I knew it, Tara, Adam, Barbara, and I were searching each others’ faces and… bowing in to each other.

Anne’s voice resumed in a warm blue glow over the room, “We’re going to begin with a free-writing exercise to get the juices flowing.” She handed out various sections of the New York Times – Frontpage, Arts, Business. “Choose a headline and just free-write.”

I chose, “How to Create a Buzz” and free-wrote onomatopoeiacally on the headline: Bees, chainsaws, crickets, movie stars, shave it all off, vibrate, bzzz, biplane engine over London, bombing squadron, hairclippers in a Southside barbershop.

What I wound up reading echoed the form of the shamanistic poem which Anne presented the previous day in the faculty introductions in the Simon Center. Instead of ending each line with says as did the indigenous American poet Maria Sabena , I ended each line with bzzzz:

Bumblebees bzzzzzz
Texas chainsaw bzzzzzz
Crickets hidden in the azaleas
all summer bzzzzzz
J-Lo needs face-time bzzzz
Talkin smack in a Southside barbershop bzzzzz…
Just when it was getting fun, she stopped us. We were there to workshop, after all.

While we had been working on the writing exercise, Anne had scrawled a boardful of notes regarding our poems up for workshopping: location-site (in the world of the poem itself, when the writer composes the poem); trajectory (the poem’s movement); modal structure; resonance to the past; cultural references (rock & roll, Buddhism, identity, race/gender).

Then, we got to the business of workshopping Barbara Paparazzo’s poem, which was part 5 in a series inspired by some of her reading of Gary Snyder during the previous semester. After Barbara read the poem aloud, Anne pulled another fast one on me. Before allowing us to give our feedback, she had Barbara comment on her intentionality of her poem herself!

In my previous workshop experiences, the poet always remained silent, at risk of losing his her life, until everyone had given their feedback on the poem. The logic was that the poet had already spoken through the poem, and it was our job as workshoppers to stumble around blindly to see if the words of the poem provided enough light for us to find our way.

But Anne’s philosophy was different. Her goal with a workshop was to determine if the poet was achieving his/her intentionality. By having the poet speak to his/her intentions first, it gave us as workshoppers a map as to whether or not those intentions were being achieved. It was a radically different workshopping experience for me, but it seemed to make the workshop move much more quickly and efficiently as we were able to more specifically address the poet’s concerns. The jury’s still out as to which way I like better – Anne’s way, or the way to which I was previously accustomed.

In Anne Waldman’s school of thought, “the experience” is the poem and “the reader is as important as the writer,” which is in line with her performance background and in line with my own aesthetic beliefs. She argues that the poem is something greater than just an arrangement of ink on a sheet of paper. It is 1) what the poet brings to the poem as well as 2) what the reader/listener brings to the poem as well as 3) the medium in which it is orally transmitted (voice, voice with music, etc.)

In addition to intentionality, Anne based her workshop on three central concepts from Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading: melopoeia (the music of the poem), phanopoeia (the images of the poem), and logopoeia (the ideas of the poem). She asked each of us to consider which of the three tended to predominate in our own bodies of work, though ideally a poem would skillfully employ all three of these devices. And although I'd like to argue that my own work employs all three, my work is predominantly a poetry of ideas which I try to smoke-and-mirro with the other two elements. And as I began to think of other more well-known poets whose work I variously embraced and detested – began to see them in light of these three areas of emphasis – I began to better understand why I am drawn to certain poets and less to others.

This entry is excerpted from a residency journal I am required to keep as part of the NEC MFA Program.

Monday, January 03, 2005

January 3 thru January 12

I'm in my 1st residency for the MFA in Poetry at New England College.

Wish me luck!