Thursday, January 26, 2012


Some advice I offered to a friend who's teaching her first creative writing class:

The one thing I'd emphasize -- workshopping student work is an important part of the course. You're expected to do it, and the students sort of expect it. But once you give it to them, they don't know what to do. Because critiquing the work of others isn't something that comes naturally. It has to be learned, and it's not always easy to learn. So -- you'll find you own way to teach this, but it has to be taught.

One way is to offer discussion questions. I can't really do this -- it's not natural to me. But it's one way.

Another -- and this works better for me -- is to set up forums on Blackboard. Divide the class into smaller discussion groups -- say, for to six in each group. Everyone in the group is to post his or her assignment, and everyone is to critique the work of the other members of the group. Then you start a dialogue, critiquing their critiques, suggesting things they might have thought of, encouraging perceptive critiques. Most of the first ones will be awful. I loved this -- it reminded me of my own grandmother. This had a really good flow to it. That sort of thing. As I said, they won't know what to say -- they won't have any sort of critical vocabulary. You encourage them to do the same things you encourage them to do in writing about literature -- go to the text, focus on specifics. What more could the author do to make this the poem it wants to be?

Don't do in-class workshopping right away. Start giving them that vocabulary first, and the encouragement that it's all right to be critical, and how to constructively bring out the things that are good about the piece -- not all criticism has to be negative.

Do some workshopping in small groups, and some in the whole class. But this will be one of the most important skills you'll teach them all semester.

You MUST read the article I just read today in the New Yorker -- Groupthink, by Jonah Lehrer. It's absolutely fascinating about the ways people make progress in groups, and the ways that they don't.
And some more thoughts on Lehrer's article. He discusses the history of brainstorming. It was a technique invented and promoted by advertising genius Alex Osborn in the 1940s -- its most important tenet, encouraging a free flow of ideas by absolutely forbidding any negative feedback at all. Negative feedback discourages creativity by inhibiting the participants. In this stage, Osborn says, you're looking for quantity, not quality. "You're loosening up an unfettered imagination -- making your mind deliver." Lehrer gives a little more history -- the idea was an instant smash, and has been used by businesses and other organizations ever since, He also gives a history of research on the technique. Research emphatically shows that id doesn't work. Blind studies of one control group who brainstormed an idea, and another who split up so that each member worked on the problem individually, invariably showed the same results. You got more ideas, and more good ideas, from people working individually. And working in groups? It has value too, but much more value if people are allowed to criticize and argue. I have been in writers' groups, and I have friends who have been in other writers' groups -- the kind which are about sharing and mutual support, and don't allow any criticism. Well, any writers group is good for one thing -- it makes you write. If you meet a bunch of folks every week to talk about your writing, you're going to want to write something every week. But outside of the fact that it would drive me crazy, I never believed the sweetness and light approach would do anyone much good. Now I stand validated.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What's my name?

I've been talking to my daughter about characters' names. She says that one of the reasons it's so hard for her to write a novel is that she can't name her characters. Most of her short stories, she says, are about lost, lonely women who don't really have names, and I think actually that this is one of the strengths of those stories. The characters have a haunting, unsettlingly memorable quality that could be blunted by naming them. But in a novel you pretty much have to name your characters, and what if you choose the wrong name? Will it throw everything off, or get you pointed in a wrong direction.

Poe did very well with unnamed characters. But what about full-length fiction?Are there novels -- other than really experimental ones -- where the character doesn't have a name? There's Proust. We generally call his character "Marcel" because that's Proust's name, and the novels are so clearly autobiographical. But actually, he only refers to himself as "Marcel" once in the seven volumes, and that fairly far along. Mostly, he has no name.

Can you go through a private eye novel without naming the lead character? I bet you could. Spenser only has one name. In the Sergio Leone Westerns, Clint Eastwood is The Man With No Name. In Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe has a name but nothing else -- we never see him except for a couple of shots in mirrors, we just see what he sees. A first person narrator can tell or withhold whatever she likes, and no reason that she can't withhold her name. Instead of saying "My name's Honey West," or whatever, it can just be "I told him my name."

Anything you deny yourself can be made into a strength. Those writers who self-censored, or were censored, away from George Carlin's seven dirty words lost a certain realism, but gained the creativity of circumlocution --"He told me to do the impossible to myself!"

Here's a nice use of that device from Tom T. Hall, in "A Week in a County Jail."

Well, I told him who I was and told him I was working steady
And I really should be gettin' on my way
That part about me bein' who I was did not impress him
He said, "The judge'll be here any day."

Perhaps not naming a private eye cloaks her/him in a layer of invulnerability. Someone who won't even share her name with her readers is a very guarded, close-to-the-vest person. Just as naming a character makes, consciously or unconsciously, certain character choices, so does not naming a character.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

More Descort

The Byronic stanza, of course, had ended with a couplet, and I decided to take that couplet, sandwich a third line in the middle, and make it a villanelle stanza. But you can't really give the flavor of a villanelle in one stanza, so I had to write the whole villanelle.

Here the question of form dictating mood gets a little wobbly. Certainly it's possible to write a comic or sardonic villanelle. The form is wonderfully flexible, and if you don't believe me, look at the new anthology edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Eizabeth Mali. (I'm in it -- not with this one -- but there are lots of real poets, too  -- using that famous question that was put to Carl Sandburg -- "are these real poems or do you just make 'em up yourself?")

Anyway -- forms that use repetition can be playful and not so playful, and of course the blues goes in both directions too.

I think there's a real connection between the blues and the ghazal. But use repetition, both come from Africa, and both frequently make use of the poet/singer's name. I don't think there's much likelihood of a cultural connection between the blues and the villanelle, but as Joseph Campbell pointed out, we're all part of one big mother myth, and there are many cross-cultural correspondences.

So I found myself going back to the grim fatalism of "Betty and Dupree" with the villanelle, but I also found myself being more literary -- the villanelle pushed me that way, as a blues would not.

His mind was fixed. He took a .44,
The frame was cool and dry; the grip was warm.
To get that ring, he’d rob a jewelry store.

No use to try and hold him back—the door
Clicked softly shut behind him. Like a charm
Or talisman, he held his .44.

You knew that this would be a night for gore.
He smashed the glass with gun and bloodied arm,
And blindly crashed into the jewelry store.

He scarcely seemed to care what lay in store,
And, heedless that he’d triggered the alarm
He grabbed the ring, and waved his .44.

He killed two cops, and wounded several more.
Then, weary in his soul, and sick of harm,
Threw down the ring, and fled the jewelry store.

The law all vowed they'd even up the score.
Dupree beat west, and hid out on a farm
With no companion but the .44
And stalked by nightmares of the jewelry store.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Descort part 2

My descort included a 12-bar blues stanza, a Rubliw (a syllabic form invented by Richard Wilbur), an ottava rima stanza in iambic pentameter, a villanelle in iambic pentameter (because one villanelle stanza does not demonstrate the form, I used a whole villanelle), a ballade stanza in a catalectic dactyllic tetrameter (Lew—not sure I described that right), an alexandrine with ABABA rhyme scheme, and a cinquai I'm not exactly certain that a descort -- this descort, anyway -- is as interesting to read as it was to write. But I found that writing it gave a real insight into how form influences content. I decided to do variations on a theme, because I suspected that there'd be a problem with, if nothing else, emotional continuity, so it made sense to come at the same thing in different ways. "Betty and Dupree" is a blues ballad, with a story line, so I could advance a plot at the same time I was working out stylistic variations, and whatever came with them. Also, by choosing a blues, I had my first stanza form.
Betty told Dupree she wanted a diamond ring
Betty told Dupree, I want a diamond ring
Dupree told Betty,  I’d buy you most anything
  "Betty and Dupree" begins with a hopeless situation. Dupree will do anything for Betty, but he will never be able to afford a diamond ring. The blues stanza is not particularly designed to carry a plot. Its AAa form presents a statement, generally an emotional predicament, repeats that statement for emphasis, and then resolves it, with a fatalistic inevitability or an ironic twist.  "I've got 19 men, and I want one more / I've got 19 men, and I want one more / If I get that one, I'll let those 19 go" (Bessie Smith). Bt "Betty and Dupree mak s it work. Each stanza is a separate and complete chapter in the story.  
Just sleep
little Betty
see what tomorrow brings
Go to sleep my little Betty
see what tomorrow brings
Now it’s only
  I got this form wrong (sorry, Lew!) A rubliw, invented by Richard Wilbur (hence the name) is supposed to be a monorhyme -- each line rhymes to the same sound. But I did have the syllabic pattern -- 2, 4, 6, 8, 6, 4, 2 -- and I chose it because I could keep the AA lines of the blues, using the second stanza of "Betty and Dupree" almost intact. But then I needed to shrink the final line, which in the original is "When you wake up in the morning, you just might have your diamond ring." I had thought that in spite of the tragic nature of the original, all this playing with form would result in a playful, mostly comic poem, but that didn't happen here. As the form closed in on itself, so Dupree's options were closing in on him, awake and alone in the dead of night.  
If history and legend have it right,
A man will risk it all to please a mistress.
We know from witnesses that Dupree’s night
Was fueled by coke and weed; his mood was listless,
Then near berserk; at last, by early light
His eyes were bloodshot and his hands were restless.
His mind was fixed. He took a .44,
To get that ring, he’d rob a jewelry store.
  The ottava rima stanza is Byron's, and it's hard to approach it without Byron's ironic distancing. Nothing could be farther from the blues, which is all about empotional directness and intensity. I think this is one of the main reasons that the blues has lasted as important art form -- it is uniquely able to express deeply personal and powerful emotion. "Betty and Dupree" tells a story in the third person, but it's still Dupree's story, and the narrator is powerfully involved with him. The first important artist to use the blues as a storytelling vehicle with an ironically detached narrator was Chuck Berry. My third stanza ends with the song's third verse -- "Dupree took a pistol, it was a .44 (2x) / To get that diamond ring for Betty, he had to rob the jewelry store." The song gives us Dupree's isolation and desperation. Byrony irony puts Dupree in a historical/psychosical context, and moves us away from Dupree. We only know his story from witnesses. More later.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Descort part I

At the encouragement of Lewis Putnam Turco, for the fourth edition of his Book of Forms, I tried my hand at writing a descort -- a form characterized by its infidelity to any one form. Each stanza is written in a recognizable form, but a different one. Lew said that he had never actually seen one, so my entry didn't have much competition.

A little research into the form: there is actually a wiki entry on it, in which the invention of the descort is credited to Garin d'Apchier, whose exact dates are lost to history, but he did write the first descort, and I would share it with you, but it, too, is lost.
Gautier de Dargies, for whom we do have approximate dates (ca. 1170 – ca. 1240 -- he lived to be approximately 70, a ripe old age in those days), is said to have written three descorts.

Dargies has his own Facebook page, which I am the only person, as of this writing, to like.

Here's one by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras (1180-1207). It's  written in a variant of the form -- each stanza is in the same verse form, but in a different language. And it's quite beautiful. English translations are interspersed between the verses.
Eras quan vey verdeyar
Pratz e vergiers e boscatges,
Vuelh un descort comensar
D'amor, per qu'ieu vauc aratges;
Q'una dona.m sol amar,
Mas camjatz l'es sos coratges,
Per qu'ieu fauc dezacordar
Los motz sos lenguatges.
Now that is see becoming verdant
lawns and bowers and woods,
I want to begin a contrast
about love, on whose account I am distraught;
for a lady used to love me,
but her mind has changed
and therefore I sow enmity
among the words, the sounds and the languages.
Io son quel que ben non aio
Ni jamai non l'averò,
Ni per april ni per maio,
Si per ma donna non l'o;
Certo que en so lengaio
Sa gran beutà dir non sò,
çhu fresca qe flor de glaio,
Per qe no m'en partirò.

I am the one who have no good
nor ever shall I have it,
either in April or in May,
unless I have it through my lady.
True, in her own language
I cannot describe her great beauty,
fresher than gladiolus' flower,
the reason of my persistence.

Belle douce dame chiere,
A vos mi doin e m'otroi;
Je n'avrai mes joi' entiere
Si je n'ai vos e vos moi.
Mot estes male guerriere
Si je muer per bone foi;
Mes ja per nulle maniere
No.m partrai de vostre loi.

Fair, sweet dear lady,
to you I give and give up myself;
I shan't have my whole joy
unless I have you and you me.
You are a most treacherous enemy,
if I die through my good faith;
but still, there is no way
I shall part from your dominion.

Dauna, io mi rent a bos,
Coar sotz la mes bon' e bera
Q'anc fos, e gaillard' e pros,
Ab que no.m hossetz tan hera.
Mout abetz beras haisos
E color hresc' e noera.
Boste son, e agos
No.m destrengora hiera.
Lady, I surrender to you
as you're the best and truest
that ever was, and sprightly and valiant,
if only you weren't so cruel to me.
Most fair are your features
and fresh and lively your hue.
I am yours, and if I had you,
nothing would be lacking to me

Mas tan temo vostro preito,
Todo.n son escarmentado.
Por vos ei pen' e maltreito
E meo corpo lazerado:
La noit, can jatz en meu leito,
So mochas vetz resperado;
E car nonca m'aprofeito
Falid' ei en mon cuidado.

But so much I fear your anger
that I am in complete despair;
for you I have toil and torture
and my body is racked:
at night, when I lay in bed,
I am awoken many a time;
and since I gain no good for myself,
I have failed in my intent.

Belhs Cavaliers, tant es car
Lo vostr' onratz senhoratges
Que cada jorno m'esglaio.
Oi me lasso que farò
Si sele que j'ai plus chiere
Me tue, ne sai por quoi?
Ma dauna, he que dey bos
Ni peu cap santa Quitera,
Mon corasso m'avetz treito
E mot gen favlan furtado.
Fair Knight, so precious is
your honoured thrall
that every day I despair.
Alas, what shall I do
if she whom I call my dearest
kills me, I know not why?
My lady, by my faith in you
and by the head of Saint Quiteria,
you have taken away my heart,
and stolen it by most sweet talk.

English translation follows each stanza.  The original is in Provençal, Italian, French, Gascon and Galician respectively. In the envoi, the five languages are mixed together.

I did find one contemporary descort, in Drunken Boat. it's pretty good, and for some reason is unsigned.

Anyway, that's enough for one blog entry. I'll get to mine next time.