Thursday, February 23, 2012

Simon Armitage

The Butler writing community didn't know what to expect when they arranged to fly British poet Simon Armitage across the pond. His book, "Seeing Stars," features whimsical, surreal poems. We wondered about the man who penned this work. A stereotypical stand-offish Brit? A dry, funny, Monty Python wit?

We were surprised in the best way. Memories of certain authors' visits stay with us. Jonathan Lethem and John Green, with their open-hearted generous spirit, with their desire to engage and share literary wisdom, left deep marks. And so it was with Armitage's quiet energy, his eagerness to participate and engage.

Not as well known in the U.S., Simon Armitage, awarded the title Commander of the British Empire, is a writer of poetry, novels, translations and nonfiction, and has also written for radio, television and film. What's the path a young Brit takes to becoming a CBE awarded poet? By the time he entered his teens, Armitage was enthralled with poetry. One year his teacher posted the six best poems from Armitage's class. Armitage's wasn't one of them. He chuckled as he told us that he might be pursuing a career of revenge.

Following his father's footsteps, Armitage's first job was as a probation officer, in Britain a position more closely aligned with social worker. There's a link between the social values of probation officers and the social values of poetry, he said, in that in both professions you're social irritants, not fully signed up to society's expectations. When he started writing poetry, still working as a probation officer, others asked him if he'd still have material from which to draw upon if he quit his job. Armitage wondered if the world of a probation officer, with its drama of, for instance, babies with burn wounds, is actually the real world. His days in social welfare behind him, he has now achieved his independence -- freedom of thought and expression -- through the quiet world of poetry.

At his Tuesday night reading Armitage read his poems with soft-spoken humor. He was funny, gracious and quick to respond to questions with dry wit. He began by explaining that for U.K. poets, 'place' is emphasized, is the taproot and wellspring of their work. The poems in "Seeing Stars," he said, have been described by some reviewers as prose poems, but he doesn't agree with this classification. Others have said the works are flash fiction, and Armitage quipped that he wasn't sure what that designation means. They have also been called "Not Poems." Because, he said, if one writes poems it's almost impossible not to write one, he gave this label a hearty Yes!

Armitage prefaced each piece by relaying a personal story that formed the seed for the poem. Despite his quiet nature, Armitage was a natural performer. His reading, deadpan and peppered with singular inflections and wry pauses, entranced. He told us that his interest lies with poetry that has a living voice within it, a relationship with the language, rather than poetry that sounds like writing or thinking.

Although Armitage has penned novels, he said that the longer term energy commitment a novel requires no longer suits him, and he much prefers the short bursts of energy involved in composing a poem. He loves the idea that poetry is portable, and can have poignancy, life and energy in different settings. In writing poetry Armitage said he is trying to communicate an idea

"Poems come to me as daydreams. My mind floats from one idea to the next, and a bit of language comes along."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Karen Maezen Miller. Zen Priest. Memoirist

I was due to join the Butler grad student dinner last night with Zen Priest Karen Maezen Miller, and I didn't know what to expect. A silent, beaming figure? Beatific smile? Otherworldly? Maezen Miller wasn't exactly that. Not that she didn't radiate a certain type of energy, but she was a lively dinner companion. She asked each of us about our lives. She had opinions about topics of discussion and she shared them. In short, she was engaging, definitely of this earth.

I was psyched to meet Miller. Her first book, "Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood," was, for me, that magical book that found its way to me at the very time I needed it most. In "Momma Zen" Maezen Miller tells how she uses Zen to navigate the "crooked path of motherhood." Maezen Miller said that while "Momma Zen" is the story of a daughter becoming a mother, her new memoir, "Hand Wash Cold," is the story of a woman becoming a wife.

After dinner we gathered at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing (my graduate writing program's lovely new home). Maezen Miller spoke about the path she took to becoming a writer. A petite woman with close-cropped gray hair, she slipped off her shoes and moved around the floor, gesticulating to emphasize points. "Everything I read and write is right in front of me," she said. To illustrate this she read a quote from an article she found in her Efroymson Center bedroom. The quote, from Andy Levy, director of the grad program, was about how the Efroymson Center will give our program a home and enable it to grow. Maezen Miller remarked that her writing helps her to make a home in her own life, and enables her to grow.

Growing up, teachers praised her writing, giving her confidence in her creative ability. She loved words and language. This affection for the written word led to her successful career in marketing. Ultimately, though, her work as a ghost writer and in writing speeches for others left her unfulfilled. After her mother died she realized she wanted her words to be her own, to serve something other than the corporate world.

"Don't write what doesn't need to be written," she said.

Maezen Miller uses writing as a process to examine and become intimate with her life, pointing out that there's a difference between one's life and the story of one's life. When she finds herself sick of one of her life's stories, she seeks the underlying truth, tries to unwind it, and look at it with fresh eyes, without filters and judgment.

In response to a question from the audience, she said she never hates writing. "Hate comes from fear," she said. "There are times I may not be ready to write, or may be confused. It may be hard for me to have faith during these times, but if I can roll with that, without ever passing through hate, I end up in love with writing again."

The funniest part of the evening was when Maezen Miller addressed discipline and practice, as they pertain to writing and Zen. "Put your ass on a chair," she said as she slapped her rump and pointed to the chair behind her, illustrating the point. "Every practice needs structure."

A self-professed late-comer to both Zen and motherhood, Maezen Miller told us she came to Zen when "everything fell apart." "Liberation comes when the walls collapse," she said.

She closed her talk by reading new work that happened to tap into my interest in the Hasidic roots of my family's lineage. She commented that just as it's the older generations' job to take root, the newer generations' job is to uproot.

Definitely something on which to meditate.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

You may wonder how many times can I possibly evoke Mr. Slinger, the hep teacher from the children's book "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse," whose catch-phrase is "Wow, because that's about all I can say. Wow." Yet, here it is again, because that's about all I can say. Wow.

I could tell you that Swamplandia! is set in a rundown theme park in Florida. I could tell you about the delicious, compelling and brimming-with-quirk children of parents who run the park. I could tell you about how, like in every Disney movie, the mother dies and that this sets in motion the kids' quest. I could tell you that Swamplandia! is so story-rich it almost feels like two separate stories.

But I won't.

Instead, I'll just say this: GO OUT AND BUY THIS BOOK! And this: Russell's writing is swoon-worthy. In previous posts I've shared with you the dirty little secret of my less-than-fully-developed fiction gene. Yet, Russell's inventive turns of phrase, her sparkling similes, her vivid descriptions...Oh, for God's sake, just read it! Thank me later.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Poet Anne Waldman

As the song goes, "Don't know much about poetry." It's not just me, is it? I hear "poetry" and I narrow my eyes and tighten my lips. I expect to be perplexed, to struggle to understand.

Waldman was one of the key figures in the Beat movement, and co-founded with Allen Ginsberg the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Despite my San Francisco upbringing, despite that my high school was a block away from the corner of Haight and Ashbury, I expected Waldman's reading to leave me dazed and confused.

I missed last night's reading, but was able to attend a reading/performance Waldman gave for a small group of Butler students this morning. Donned in a gold and scarlet fringed paisley scarf and skinny black slacks, Waldman brought her musician son, Ambrose Bye, to accompany her readings. She began with "Why Am I Daring To Show My Face," a piece Bye accompanied with keyboard and a recording of a repeating vocal taken from the poem. Say what you will about poetry, Waldman's not boring. She doesn't simply read. She sings. She chants. She clips and staccatoes some words while drawing out others. That Waldman's sensibility was born in the social revolution of the '60s gave her reading a strange duality, as if existing both in the present and back in the psychedelic flower power days. This sense of time-travel echoed in Waldman's appearance, her face now lined, but her hair still long, stick-straight and jet black.

(Speaking of art that feels out of time, check out Uh-Oh Plutonium, a strange punk-glam music video featuring a 1982 Anne Waldman: )

Her next poem, Doubt, a state of mind that's one of my more reliable companions, especially resonated.

Waldman read from her book, Manatee/Humanity. Over Bye's background track of synthesized aquatic sounds, Waldman explored her environmental concerns. She read, gestured and swayed, as if the words' energy pulsed through her body. In the Q&A that followed the performance Waldman explained that the manatee, a huge yet fragile beast, is the central deity of the piece, and the idea came from her encounter with a manatee at a theme park. Other elements woven through the piece are Buddhist tenets, and the loss several of her close friends.

Waldman also performed a poem she penned that was included in a literary magazine's Beatles tribute. Her poem riffs on the song "Tomorrow Never Knows." She noted that John Lennon wanted the song to sound as if it had been recorded from a mountaintop, so the Bye's soundtrack included the call of sea gulls.

In the Q&A I had the chance to ask Waldman to describe the starting point of her path to becoming a poet. It's an intriguing question, don't you think? What does a poet's childhood look like? Waldman answered that her artistic parents led her naturally to a creative path, that art was such an integral part of her upbringing, it became her identity. In essence, she had no other choice.

Still don't know much about poetry, but I'm now a Waldman fan.