Monday, May 30, 2011

The Seductive Idea of Movement

The Making of Revolutionary Road
I love the Bonus Features on DVD's almost as much as I love the movies themselves - especially those clips titled "The Making of...." in which you see the filming of a scene which seemed so natural in the movie, but you see it with all the intrusive cameras in the background. Suddenly, you become aware of what a collaborative art filmmaking is. And how can the actors ignore that huge machinery poking around at the edges of their vision??

In DVD  bonus material, you get to hear from artists known and respected by their peers but too far in the background to turn heads in a Culture of Celebrity -  - prop masters, production designers, cinematographers, costume designers, location masters. For example, the bonus material for Revolutionary Road includes insightful comments from the person in charge of props - about how important an object becomes if it is touched by one of the characters in a scene.

The person in charge of locations for that same film talks about how important it was to choose a real home to shoot scenes in - because in the film, when the main character played by Leonardo di Caprio is standing at the living room window, the audience has to believe that "all of suburbia is outside that window."

Woody Allen goes outside the window all the time - he uses cities in a way I like, letting Manhattan, Paris, Barcelona and London stand in for "romantic misery, domestic disappointment and erotic longing." He does know how to tell a good story about certain kinds of people and their ethical dilemmas. Still, the unfolding story seems secondary to the way he casts light (literally) on a city street. Maybe he should try poetry.

In recent interviews online, Jack Fisk, the production designer who collaborated with Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life, says fascinating things about Edward Hopper and the art of knowing what to put in/what to leave out of a scene and how to to make the background "drop out" in order to keep the setting from pulling the audience away from the story. You can read his comments while viewing a slide show of scenes from that movie.
A Scene from Malick's Tree of Life

As much as I love poetry, I do think about what it would take to write a piece of fiction where these kinds of decisions come into play - putting a person at a window, believing in the built-world you've provided for him or her, using setting as a character, putting in just enough but not too much, having a real narrative thrust that couldn't/shouldn't be interrupted. Some of my decisions about a poem as I write involve questions like this, but   my poetry really owes more to the music of words and to a single image. For me, poetry is static - not dull, but still - it captures "the decisive moment" in the way photographs do. But there's something very seductive about the idea of storytelling - because stories, as far as I can see, are about movement. I tend to like small stories that don't make grand leaps. But they do move - and movement - movement - such an attractive thought.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Poetry Friday: Riddle Me, Riddle Me, Riddle Me Ree....

I've been preparing my July Residency lecture for the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I teach in the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Here's the description that will appear in the Residency Schedule:

Who Am I? What the Lowly Riddle Reveals: Using the smallest and possibly goofiest gateway possible, this lecture will enter the enigmatic worlds of Ambiguity and Identity via the humble riddle. Riddles develop our ability to think metaphorically, almost always asking us the same thing great literature asks: Who am I and in what ways do I resemble something - or somebody - else? The answers to those questions often elude us, but as we move toward them, we establish both independence and empathy.  This lecture will examine not just the playground manifestations of such a strange form but their elegant precursors, from those in the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book to postmodern puns. We'll talk about nonsense and playfulness. But mostly, we'll think about the way riddles - like metaphors - function as masks, first obscuring and then teasing out identity.

So for Poetry Friday today, I'm posting a couple of riddles.

What's the difference between a cat and a comma?

A cat has its claws
at the end of its paws,
and a comma has its pause
at the end of a clause.

That's a punning riddle from Iona and Peter Opie's book, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren 

Here is an original riddle of my own (you'll find the answer down below, before the comments):

Who Am I?

The wind won't blow? That's where I go.
The hot sun stings? I open my wings.
On my back I carry a heron,
my spine is woven through with ribbon. 

Aristotle thought riddles were important enough to discuss them in his Poetics: "For the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations.....the greatest thing by far is to have a command of is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances."

You can find riddles by many wonderful poets - just look at the work of Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden...and the new Children's Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis, who has a whole book of them! ("Her hair's / The stairs.")

Riddles are also common to stories of a hero's journey. There's the classic riddle put to Oedipus bythe Sphinx - "What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? -  and Tolkein's riddle from The Hobbit -  "A box without hinges, key or lid / Yet golden treasure inside is hid" (answers below.) and of course, there's Lewis Carroll - "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" - who knew a thing or two about playing around with words.

The solution to my riddle? A fan.

To J. Patrick Lewis's riddle? Rapunzel.

The answer to Tolkein's riddle? An egg.

To the Sphinx's riddle? A man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.

The answer to Carroll's riddle? Who knows? But remember what Nancy Willard says: "Sometimes questions are more important than answers."
Head over to Heidi Mordhorst's blog - my juicy little universe - for today's Poetry Friday Round-Up.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Poems of Stacy Gnall

Welcome to the Poetry Friday Round-up! 

The Drift Record is proud to play host to Poetry Friday this week, and we'll cross our fingers & hope that those of us who use Blogger sites don't lose our access as we did last week! If you're looking to share a link, do so in the Comments field.  Have a good time browsing and reading!

[Added note: though I originally said I would list links in the main body of this post, it seemed redundant, so if you're looking to read this week's posts, just go to the Comments field and link directly or cut & paste the provided URL. Hope everyone is okay with that!]

Stacy Gnall's debut book of poetry: Heart First Into the Forest

For my own contribution this week, I'd like to point people toward the website of ALICE JAMES BOOKS, where the publishers are currently promoting the work of a new poet I've never read before but want very much to read now. Her name is Stacy Gnall , she's Los-Angeles based, and her debut book of poetry is titled Heart First Into the Forest.

Though Alice James Books does not publish children's books, I'd like to recommend Gnall's work to people working with young adult readers or writing for a YA audience, based on the huge interest among kids that age  in fantasy and fairy tale revisions. Gnall, I think is doing something that bright young adults might be interested in: She recreates the mood of the classic tales, less Disney and hauntingly Grimm. And she doesn't just write prose and divide it into arbitrary lines - she isn't just hoping the "white space" will make readers think it's easy, as some people writing "novels in verse" do now. She is really going for poetry, for the compression of it, and for the mysterious power and music of language. She stranges it up, she doesn't mind exploring the dark side, she touches on the sensuality and awakening sexuality which YA readers long to explore, and her work is excitingly different. 

It isn't easy, true, but I think we honor YA readers when we credit them with being able to linger in the unexplained and challenging. And we honor poetry when we acknowledge the fact that it's not prose. I look for poets who handlethe particular shaping of poetry with elegance, power, wit, and a good understanding of the tools available.  It might take some time floating in the middle of a good poem - reading and re-reading - to get not only the mood but the meaning. But that's okay. In fact, it's more than okay - it's what poetry is really all about. Slowing down, listening to the music of both the words and the world. 

In my work at Vermont College of Fine Arts, students are often eager to learn how to write rhymed and metered poetry for young children. But the interest in poetry wanes when they move over into work for young adults. Then their writing focuses exclusively on fiction. Why is that? I'd love to see more of my students thinking about the power of poetry in the lives of teenagers. And this fairy-tale fascination might be a way in. It seems to me some of Gnall's poems would be a perfect way into more sophisticated adult poetry for teachers working in a high school setting.

Here's the poem Alice James Books sent out in its pre-publication publicity:

Bella in the Wych Elm

She through the rootlets.
She murked by moss.
She in its whelm.

She the owl in the tree
trunk’s mouth stretched
to canvas a scream.

She the taffeta still
in her teeth.

She slight in the night’s dark
peignoir, eyes on the sky
so long stars disappear.

She flesh left
for the air to edit.
She year after year. 

First, she gold rush of hair
as she collapse, light
avalanche from the hands
that ferried her there.

She slung on his arm
and set—an epaulette.

She first dragged
down the woods’ brusque
tangent, first taken
from the tousled ground.

She a splurge—scarved
and sexed. She slim consent.
She the throat’s spangled
cackle and choke.

She first in the trysted park.
She in his arms his lips the grass.
Through the rootlets.
Murked by moss.
In its whelm.                                   
She our sleep
thrashed and thrummed.

She spurns our nerves,
she trips our veins.
She missing reel,
we scratch the blanks.

She for his mantel.
She for your mantel.
She my trinket too.

I don't think there's anything more explicit there than in many YA books now. To me, this poem stands alongside something like  Margo Lanagan's extraordinary YA novel Tender Morsels (marketed to both YA and adults in Lanagan's home turf, Australia - and why do we have to choose between these designations in the U.S.?) which also dwells in the world of the fairy tale.

You can read more about Stacy Gnall and Heart First Into the Forest here (Alice James Books....)

POETRY FRIDAY ROUND-UP: To see what other people are posting at The Drift Record today, just go to the Comments field here - links are provided by individual bloggers. You can click on some of them for the direct link, or cut & paste the URL's for others. Have a great time reading through them.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Children's Poet Laureate: Gum Chewing, Bubble Blowing, J. Patrick Lewis

The Man Himself
I'll join the crowd and offer up a message of congratulations to J. Patrick Lewis, our nation's new Children's Poet Laureate!!!!!!!!!!!!! Such exciting news for those of us who love his work. Pat is the author of one of my favorite riddles:

Her hair's
The stairs. 

The answer to the riddle is Rapunzel, of course (taken from Pat's book Spot the Plot.) If you're wondering at all why he's now the Children's Poet Laureate, just try writing a riddle - or any poem - with only four words, using that many tools from the poet's toolbox: rhyme, meter, humor, compression.....that's not just four words, folks, that's four syllables!

I'm going to link two pages here: Both are from past posts to The Drift Record, and both are about Pat.

The first, posted last December, was written when Pat was named  the recipient of the Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children from the National Council of Teachers of English.

The second, from October 2009, was in response to Pat's invention of a new poetry form he calls the "zeno." I gave it my best effort with some original zenos of my own. 

These posts (both have links to other bloggers' interviews of and reflections about Pat, remind me that a Poet Laureate needs to be not only a good poet, but an inspiration to other poets. I wish him all the best with this new position he takes on - the honor is well-deserved, and I'm sure the responsibilities will be generously carried out, with more than a few laughs along the way. 

Poetry Friday is being hosted by the Jama Rattigan over at her delicious blog, Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup. Head over there to see what other people are posting (I bet more than a few are focused on J. Patrick Lewis!!)