July 24, 2019

Using Forgetfulness in Your Writing

I read an article by Lewis Hyde excerpted from his book A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past. In the excerpt, he describes a phenomenon that I didn't think I had ever observed in myself concerning memory.

He describes a time in the 1920s when Dr. Kurt Lewin noticed that waiters were very good at remembering the particulars of a restaurant bill, but once the bill was paid they forgot the orders. He wondered if we forget a finished task more easily than an unfinished one.
His colleague, Bluma Zeigarnik, studied the premise and found that it was true. Now called the Zeigarnik effect, she concluded that “Unfinished tasks are remembered approximately twice as well as completed ones.”

Why does this happen? Zeigarnik believed that we have a need for completion, a desire for resolution, and so the memory endures. Once completed, it is more easily forgotten.

Dickens' Dream by Robert William Buss, 1875 (Public Domain via Wikemedia)
I thought about this in connection with my writing - particularly my poetry. Do I forget my poems when they are finished but remember my unfinished ones?

Hyde uses a literary anecdote example with a story that I have read before about a time when Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost a suitcase containing the only copies of many of his stories. He was unable to re-create them. He commented on this in a later story, “The Strange Country.”
"Some of the stories had been about boxing, and some about baseball and others about horse racing. They were the things I had known best and had been closest to and several were about the first war. Writing them I had felt all the emotion I had to feel about those things and I had put it all in and all the knowledge of them that I could express and I had rewritten and rewritten until it was all in them and all gone out of me. Because I had worked on newspapers since I was very young I could never remember anything once I had written it down; as each day you wiped your memory clear with writing as you might wipe a blackboard clear with a sponge or a wet rag."
Hyde also says that more modern studies of the Zeigarnik effect have not shown the effect to be conclusively true. Hyde feels the studies have been "poorly designed" and so the results have been mixed. He would like to see studies based on "memories of emotional states."

He believes that desire seeks completion. Unrequited desire is hard to forget.

My poetry, though often connected to emotions, does not seem to be the best example. I remember my finished poems much better than the unfinished ones (and there are many unfinished ones). I don't have a strong need to finish most of them. I abandon many.

I was involved in a poetry experiment in a workshop that dealt with this theory of memory. The poet leader had asked us to write a first draft on a prompt for homework. He wanted one attempt, on paper (not computer) and then stop and bring it to class the next day.

In class, he collected them immediately - and then dropped them into a garbage can. The class was shocked. He said " Now, write that poem again. Whatever you recall matters. the rest will fall away."  Some of us remembered much of the draft; some remembered almost nothing. I recalled the opening and a few phrases and the general idea I wanted to convey. I think I did remember the best of the poem. At the end of the workshop, you could take your draft from the trash. It was interesting to see what had fallen away.

I first read Lewis Hyde with his book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property  which a friend recommended as a good book about creativity. One premise of Hyde's is that the marketplace is a terrible way to determine the worth of artists’ work. He calls the alternative economy "the gift" which allows creations and ideas to circulate freely, an idea which may make sense to you if you have ever given or received a work of art.

A Primer for Forgetting describes a version of forgetfulness through art and writing that offers forgetfulness as something that might offer a creative force.

In another book, Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde looks at human imagination as it is portrayed in trickster mythology which goes back to Hermes in Greece, Krishna in India, and Coyote in North America, and then comes into the modern works of Picasso, Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and Frederick Douglass.


This post first appeared on the One-Page Schoolhouse site 

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July 20, 2019

The Mimeo Revolution

The “Mimeo Revolution” was a period stretching from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s when small-press publishing proliferated. Many poets started their own presses, producing small books and magazines that ranged from letterpress publications to mimeographed and photocopied pamphlets.

In the late 1960s, I "published" my own "underground" newspaper, The New Times, photocopied covertly on the Xerox machine at my after-school job and distributed by hand at my high school and to friends.

Handmade books, self-publishing and publishing others who had few opportunities to be published in the mainstream presses. Some of the poets of the period include LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Hettie Jones, co-founders of Totem Press, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights.

The avant-garde Mimeo Revolution fostered diverse literary communities and gave new voices a national and occasionally international platform.

Poets House in New York has one of the most comprehensive and various chapbook collections in the United States. You can find out more about this period in publishing that helped foster many poets in their digital collection of chapbooks. One example that you can read online is Diane di Prima's 1973 Loba Part 1 from Capra Press.

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July 15, 2019

A Constellation of Kisses

A Constellation of Kisses, is a brand new anthology edited by Diane Lockward.  The song says that "A kiss is just a kiss," but poets often remind us that a kiss is rarely just a kiss. Lockward has assembled over 100 poems about kisses written by many of our best contemporary poets.

You'll find kisses longed for, kisses auditioned, kisses rehearsed, ritualistic kissing, delicious kissing. There is kissing that comforts the grieving. Kissing that blesses a union.

Kisses in this anthology may be romantic or funny or comforting or erotic or mournful--and more.

We may hope that kissing always begins in delight and keeps on being delightful. But the truth, of course, is otherwise. This is, after all, a constellation of kisses.

May there be no end to the most genuine kisses, the right kisses, the ones that are good and meant for us to savor. And while we're at it, let's wish for no end to poems about kissing. (from the Foreword by Lee Upton)

Full Disclosure: A poem of mine is included in this anthology.

July 11, 2019

Prompt: The Summer Of

Summer is fully upon us. I was flipping through the anthology Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools that was a project of Billy Collins when he was U.S. Poet Laureate and I noticed several summer-title poems. 

To a high school student, summer is some faraway paradise when you are sitting in a classroom. I could imagine myself back in high school English class hearing one of those poems and drifting away to summer past or future.

The poem I settled on for this month is "The Summer I Was Sixteen" by Geraldine Connolly which Collins found in her collection, Province of Fire (1998 Iris Press). It is set at the town pool, but it would work set at any public lake or beach. Her poem is in the Duke-of-Earl1960s but not much has changed in the rituals of summer pool life with sun lotion, blankets on the grass, the snack bar and boys studying girls and girls study boys with an intensity they didn't give to studying poetry in school weeks earlier. I understand those kids looking at:
"thin bikini straps and rubbed baby oil with iodine
across sunburned shoulders, tossing a glance
through the chain link at an improbable world."

In another poem from the collection, "Summer in a Small Town" by Linda Gregg, the voice is older, but still thinking about the opposite sex.
" When the men leave me, 
they leave me in a beautiful place.
It is always late summer."

And in this adult view, we are not looking across a crowded pool and hearing the sounds of kids singing summer songs.

"I swim in the public pool
at six when the other people
have gone home. "

And I might have chosen the more famous poem in the collection, "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver. No pool here. The voice is having one-on-one time this a grasshopper who she encountered while strolling this summer field.

It makes the speaker wonder "Who made the grasshopper?" and eventually to say that she doesn't know "exactly what a prayer is. "

What she does know, as many poets know, is "how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed."

She concludes with another question - this time more to you than to the universe of a God: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

For this July, we asked for poems that specifically begin with a title that tells us the age of the speaker (as Connolly does) or the year of the summer that is being written about. That is, write a poem of a specific summer and use the speaker's age or the year itself as the basis for the poem.

July 4, 2019

Podcasts and Poetry

An NPR story talks about how "Podcasts Are Providing A New Way Into Poetry" for listeners.  I have been listening to podcasts since 2005 when iTunes made them more accessible via subscriptions in their software.

Today, there are more ways to subscribe and listen. iTunes still works and many podcasts are available on a website. I prefer listening and downloading ones to listen to later using Stitcher on my phone or tablet. It's a free app and almost all podcasts are also free.

Besides my daily doses of news and many interview programs that I am listening to all week, I subscribe to a variety of programs devoted to poetry. You can do a search for them in whatever app you decide to use.

Here are my current top 5 favorites.

  1. The Slowdown - Former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith does this on weekdays. She opens with a personal essay and then reads someone's poem that relates to that topic. Highly recommended.
  2. Poetry Off the Shelf – poets, poems, poetry topics from The Poetry Foundation
  3. The New Yorker: Poetry - Hosted by poetry editor Kevin Young. A guest poet selects and reads a poem from the magazine by someone else and also one of their own.
  4. The Poetry Magazine Podcast - Poetry magazine's editors go inside the new issue and talk to poets who read their contributions.
  5. The Writer's Almanac - I start each day with this 5-minute podcast hosted by Garrison Keillor who reviews events that occurred on this day in history - some literary, some not - and then reads a poem.