Diggin’ Up Bones

I had a dream a while back. I was standing in a small room furnished with only a table and three chairs. The table was covered with a checkered cloth and set for a meal. I decided to sit for a few minutes and see what might happen. Suddenly two men in white coveralls wheeled an upright piano and bench into the room. They lifted the piano cover and left.

Silence. The smell of stale smoke. I walked to the piano and cautiously sat. My right hand slowly moved to the keys and began to play the melody line from “All the Gold in California Is in a Bank in the Middle of Beverly Hills in Somebody Else’s Name.” Then my left hand joined in, and before I knew it, I was so engaged in playing the song and surprised that I could that I didn’t realize the room had begun to fill with people, that there were more tables now, more chairs. That I was in the center of a stage colored by bright lights. That there was a small band behind me, with a dobro and pedal steel guitar. That the audience was applauding wildly. That they seemed to want more.

So I stepped away from the piano, grabbed the microphone, tossed my black Stetson to the floor, unbuttoned the top three buttons of my shirt, hooked my left thumb over my large silver belt buckle, balanced on my bowed legs, and broke into a rousing version of that great Randy Travis song “Diggin’ Up Bones.”

During my performance I began to wake up and realized that what had slowly awakened me was the radio alarm –– tuned to KEYL, central Minnesota’s country giant. Playing quietly was Randy Travis singing the chorus of “Diggin’ Up Bones.” And for a moment I wasn’t sure if I was still in the dream.

So does this mean anything? Does this have anything to do with writing?

The transition into sleep is called the hypnagogic state; the transition out of sleep is called the hypnopompic state. As we drift out of and into consciousness –– when we are “half-asleep” or half-awake” –– we can experience something similar to those times when we are so caught up in writing a poem, for example, that we “become the poem.” (See Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.”)

These phenomena are not uncommon for writers. Aristotle spoke of the “affectations we experience when sinking into slumber.” During these altered states of consciousness, our inner world becomes more important than our outer world. The imagination has more freedom. A dream state becomes more available. We can lose track of time; we might not hear the phone; we forget about supper. The internal critic, who tries to discourage us or correct every grammatical mistake, has no power.

I hope, from time to time, through no conscious effort on your part –– other than sitting down to write and writing your way into it –– you have felt yourself  “becoming the poem.”

Author’s Bio.:  David Bengtson grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island and moved to Minnesota to attend Concordia College in Moorhead. From 1968-2002, he taught English at the high school in Long Prairie, Minnesota, where he lives with his wife, Marilyn. In addition to three chapbooks and a collection of 71 prose poems, his writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and has been heard on “The Writer’s Almanac.” In 2003 at “Poetry Hour,” sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service on the Mississippi River Stage at the Minnesota State Fair, he handed out his first batch of “Poems-on-Sticks.” Since then, he has given away more than 7000 “Poems-on-Sticks” at readings, workshops, and presentations.

Open Book in Minneapolis

I am a lover of books, of words, of anything literary. I am proud to be a bibliophile, a lexicophile and a word nerd in general.  My personal library includes a shelf for my collection of old dictionaries. And as most book lovers tend to do, I try my hand at writing every now and then.

Because many readers of the Lake Region Writer’s Network blog share at least one of my passions, I want to tell you about a near perfect experience I had last week. I had occasion to visit the Open Book in Minneapolis. If you have not visited this enchanting place, do so as soon as you can. I know…it’s a long trip, the traffic is terrible once you get there, and it’s winter time, but it is worth it.

To begin with, Open Book houses three separate organizations that support the Literary Arts: The Loft Literary Center, The Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and Milkweed Press. All three are located in a series of renovated old warehouses. The minute you walk in the door, it feels like you have walked into that room we have all dreamed about having, you know the one, filled floor to ceiling with books, spiral staircase, lots of overstuffed chairs to lounge in, sunshine streaming in the windows, the smell of coffee mixed with old leather and ink.

On my visit I was fortunate to have Jocelyn Hale, executive director of The Loft, give me a tour. Our first stop was The Minnesota Center for Book Arts: http://www.mnbookarts.org .  MCBA is self proclaimed as, “The place to feed your curiosity, stretch your creativity and get your hands dirty! From the traditional crafts of papermaking, letterpress printing and bookbinding to non-traditional artmaking and self-publishing techniques employed by contemporary book artists, MCBA celebrates and supports the limitless creative evolution of the book arts.” In their gallery they had examples of the newest trends in book art. If you aren’t familiar with this art form, visit http://weburbanist.com/2011/03/07/literary-love-12-works-of-book-art-architecture/ and see the elegant, humorous, inspiring works of art made from books. MCBA provides workshops and materials for those interested in book arts. They also have a marvelous gift shop; bring your credit cards and gift lists.

If you are more interesting in writing, The Loft is the place for you:  https://www.loft.org/. Their long list of programs includes writing classes, both at The Loft and now online https://www.loft.org/online-classes. No more excuses that a class at The Loft is too far away, you can take a class at home in your pajamas if you want to. These online classes, by the way, are a direct result of feedback Jocelyn Hale heard from you at the 2010 LRWN Conference.  If you might have difficulty affording the cost of a class, I have more good news. You can apply for a $500 grant at the Lake Region Arts Council to cover the cost of the class and if applicable, related travel expenses. Give our office a call at 218-739-5780 or email us at lrac4@lracgrants.org we will give you more information.

Our last stop was at Milkweed Press,  one of the nation’s leading independent publishers, with a mission to identify, nurture and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it: http://www.milkweed.org/. If you are interested in submitting work for publication or for any of their three literary/poetry prizes visit here http://www.milkweed.org/content/blogcategory/40/72/.

Again, if you are headed to the Cities this winter, treat yourself with a visit to any or all of the three Open Book organizations.  I will leave you with what Annie W. on Yelp* had to say about Open Book:

“I’ve heard a lot of great stuff about Open Book/MCBA for awhile but I was never motivated to check it out until recently. I found out that my future faculty advisor at MCAD was having his work shown there in conjunction to some other graphic design specific events and since nothing beats starting a fresh new school as the over enthused bordering on stalker student I decided to check it out…One star for parking and a bazillion more stars for how fantastic the space is. There’s a great coffee shop inside and a cute book store where you can find awesome handmade books, prints (awesome ones from Aesthetic Apparatus), and book making material. There seems to be a lot going on, definitely more than meets the eye. I think you can even rent out studio space, I’m not sure. This is the kind of place I can imagine myself holing up in during the winter cold, sucking up their wifi bandwith, and drinking endless amounts of hot coffee.”

Author’s Bio.:  Maxine Adams is the Executive Director of the Lake Region Arts Council (LRAC). She has had several poems and essays published in local reviews and enjoys reciting poetry aloud at venues such as the Evansville Arts Poetry Readings and local poetry events. She was also the originator of the LRAC 6 Word Short Story Contest.

The Voices of Poetry

Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes.
Limitless out of the dusk, out of cedars and pines.  –Walt Whitman

Looking through a folder of samples saved from creative writing classes over the years, I’m struck again by the narrowness of the range of the student poems, at least at the beginning of the course.  And in my experience as a writing teacher, this work indeed seems a microcosm of work by any poetry beginner.  Love (usually unrequited), not surprisingly, is the primary concern, followed by simple observations (usually aphoristic) on “Life,” an occasional sketch of a familiar landscape or a dying relative, and not much more.  Irony and humor are largely missing, as is anything that might involve taking a political stand.  If doggerel or other inept metrics or rhyming seem on the decline, cliché and sentimentality are not.  And most beginners still can’t tell the difference between poems and song lyrics.  Once, Rod McKuen (sometimes introduced as America’s most understood poet) was an influence to discourage.  One small (but typical) example: “Dreams have taught me / to turn my back on nothing
 / that might be something.
 / Something being that other one /one always needs to compliment
 / the given hour.”  Alas, today, a multitude have taken his place, still writing largely without imagery, nuance, or surprise, and sometimes without much sense either.

When I started teaching poetry writing, perhaps naively, I began the term by handing out a list of possible sources for poems—for example, family stories, memorable relatives, notable failures, rites of passage, meditations on mortality, reactions to stories in the media, the poem in some “non-poetic form such as the letter or postcard, reactions to art or photos or dreams, and, most important to me, the celebration of the fantastic as it is discovered in the mundane.  Not surprisingly in retrospect, those lists were for the most part ignored.  What I hadn’t realized was that both the students’ limitations and their timidity came mainly from their lack of reading.  Most didn’t actually know what a poem is, at least not the kind being written contemporarily.  The models that existed for them tended to range from the English Romantics and Poe on one hand, to a “wasteland” of incomprehensible private symbology on the other—what I’ve come to call the English Major Disease.  Some students continued to hold firm beliefs that poems should be written in rhyme and meter about exclusively “lofty” subjects spawned by Wordsworthean “inspiration—generally leading to self-absorbed spontaneity with, of course, no attempts at revision.  Perhaps more than any other period in the history of poetry in English, the early 19th century in England has tended to provide the model for young and old alike.

Too often poetry also gets defined by some sense of what is “poetic,” an idea that changes radically from age to age and which, especially in the last hundred years has undergone an ever-increasing expansion.  In Alexander Pope’s day, for example, “acceptable” poetry was expected to be written in heroic couplets with a very limited vocabulary.  A fish, for example, was a member of the “finny tribe” or “scaly herd.”  As a result, writing teachers today find it necessary to concentrate on providing more and more diverse models to study from a writer’s perspective, especially those poems which defeat old stereotypes.  If Keats wrote odes on “poetic” subjects such as Grecian urns and Shelly celebrated skylarks, what about Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda’s marvelous 20th century odes to such ordinary things as his socks, salt, dictionaries, and watermelon (“the green whale of summer”).

A more enduring state of affairs is the way some poems never seem to change, no matter what age they come from, especially love poems.  If stale, cliché-ridden love poems can easily be found in any supermarket greeting card rack or book display, then what about the truly novel and memorable (and easily found) approaches to the subject, from Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes” to John Frederick Nims’ “Love Poem,” which begins, “My clumsiest dear, whose hands shipwreck vases”?  Likewise, instead of England’s verdant hills, what about fresher, more familiar landscapes, such as Robert Bly’s or Ted Kooser’s Midwest?  Contemporary anthologies are full of such examples, to say nothing of most creative writing texts.  And one of the most fruitful areas to explore is indeed the discovery of the astonishing wherever it might be found.  Truly, the “poetic” is what poets continually reveal it to be.

The problem, of course, is getting would-be writers interested in reading poems that might—in subject, language, and approach—lead them in new (and eye-opening) directions.  Some remain afraid of being “influenced,” some are lazy or self-satisfied, and some are simply products of an increasingly electronic age that seems to militate against such things as poetry, or any discipline that demands careful and extended study.  As many have said, poetry depends far more craft than inspiration, and to put the kind of limits on the poem as some have done (in this age or others), serves only to diminish both.  For example, Percy Shelly wrote that “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds,” which must have seemed ridiculously limiting even in his time, though it’s certainly what some writers continue to believe.  Compare Shelly’s pronouncement to a much wiser and more enlightening quote from contemporary writer Salman Rushdie:  “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going asleep.”

Poetry has a broad spectrum of styles, tones, and purposes.  To deny this is to deny what poetry is and always has been.  And what style, tone, and purpose add up to in a poem, along with language itself, is voice—what makes a poem distinct, and distinctly yours.  As Joan Whitehead has noted, “We can only talk about ourselves in the language we have available.  If that language is rich, it illuminates us.  If it is narrow or restricted, it represses and conceals us.”  That illumination is what you spend a lifetime of writing developing.  It comes largely from reading, from studying good and varied poems with interesting and surprising voices. And that study should include books on craft, magazine articles, interviews, quotations—whatever might help to remind us that poetry has many possible voices and that being a poet means exploring and re-exploring several of them in the long process of finding one’s own.

Mark Vinz, a Lake Region Writers Network Board Member, recently retired after 40 years of teaching at Minnesota State University Moorhead where he also served as first coordinator of the university’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He is the author of six chapbook collections of poems as well as several full-length collections, most recently, Long Distance. Mark is editor for Dacotah Territory Press, which has published a number of short collections by writers in the region, and the co-editor of several anthologies.