"Christeene Fraser is a vibrant new voice on the poetry scene. Starkly confessional, yet warmly human, her writing strikes a nerve in the audience...a poet to watch."

Bruce Haring, Director, New York Book Festival

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Oh Writer's Block, Thou Art a Black Dog from Hell

What are you supposed to do when the inspiration just sort of...stops?

From March to December 2010, I wrote about 250 poems. That's an average of 27.77777778 poems per month--just shy of a poem a day. We had a good run, me and poetry. This creative burst came after years of neglecting poetry in the wake of endless academic papers, lesson plans, reports, and email. I never made that choice consciously, to stop writing poetry--but being a good little student and careerist, poetry seemed like a selfish indulgence.

But then I attended a writers conference, my first, and I arrived ready to go to battle: with two fully-groomed non-fiction book proposals, business cards, a binder of writing samples, and my best I'm-a-serious-but-hip-writer-glasses a la Jonathan Franzen. I had a couple of promising bites for my book proposals, but it was the poetry that stood out the most for the editors I met, particularly one who was kind enough to actually sit and talk shop for an entire hour. My poetry? But those were the writing samples I had shoved in the binder at the last minute to show "range." I was nominated for the conference poetry award, and while I didn't win, it was an awakening of sorts. It reminded me of who my first love was, and had always been. That was the beginning of our love affair.

Luckily poetry had not divorced me in favor of someone who took her more seriously over the years.

And now, nearly a year after that fateful conference, I find myself writing blog entries during my hallowed poetry time. Every time I've tried to put any poems down the last 7 weeks or so, I've hated them. Hated them. They've felt forced/trite/too-overworked/too aware of themselves/too you're a sad woman with an English degree stop kidding yourself.

So I'm left with the question, what do you do when you hit this wall? Some thoughts:

1) Talk to other writers--I've met some A-mazing writers in the last year. Both in the academic circuit and online. People that I feel privileged to have met, and I know to a great extent that this will benefit me in the long run. Not so much because of the obvious networking piece, but more because I believe when great minds interact a piece of them is taken away in the other. It's a kind of magic osmosis, a blending and rejecting of ideas, aesthetics, and principles that might have never occurred to you, sitting alone in front of your laptop.

2) Go do something other than writing for a bit: This is not to say that you shouldn't continue to labor on your writing in some way daily, but I think it's good to add something new to the mix. Any good trainer will tell you that you will hit a weight-loss plateau after awhile. Usually this is cured by adding new elements to the workout regiment. What will this look like for me? Well, let's just say I have my first session with Sheneka Rosser trainer extraordinaire this coming Saturday. Have you ever seen a morbidly obese half-Asian female poet? Well have you?! No. Not gonna happen here. Facebook/Google images has officially killed the whole illusion that you can be a writer who cares nothing for your appearance. You don't have to be a sex symbol, but you can't look like the uni-bomber either. I know how shallow that sounds, but it seems naive or deceptive to tell a writer otherwise.

3) Get cozy with the business end of writing: Writing is like a mullet, dude. You can't have the party in the back without the business in the front. It isn't a mullet if you take one or the other away. When the muse departs, it's a perfect time to get to business--start studying literary mags you admire, reading articles by their editors, following AND commenting on industry blogs, becoming a part of the dialog in some way.

4) Stay positive:
This is SO easy to tell someone else. I've told my writerly friends, "Hey, you're in a gathering season right now, that's all." Now it's time to put my money where my new-age mouth is. And I will remind myself that you can't write like you're on fire all the time or we'd all be dead by 25. And I will remind myself that I should like to sustain the fire over a lifetime. And I will I espouse the model of Sharon Olds over Sylvia Plath where life-writing-sanity-balance is concerned.

And that is precisely what I will do until inspiration rockets down into my brain like brimstone. In the interim, pass the 10lb weights--I'm busy getting ready for my new purple tankini.

*What do you do when you hit writer's block--I mean, your "gathering season"?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

La Literati Interviews: Anthony Madrid

I first noticed Chicago-based poet Anthony Madrid in AGNI online. His poem "If I Am a Total Washout as a Lover (and I Am)" lured me in with its playfulness and tongue-and-cheek wit; but it was his latest manuscript, The 580 Strophes that set the hook deep in my throat.

Can I get an amen for trite-but-otherwise-apt fishing metaphors? Amen. Forget it. You'll amen me after you spend some time with his poetry. Read on, take notes:

Q: One of the things that initially struck me about your poems was this sense of highbrow finesse that was accessible to the "common" reader—a reader perhaps not initially aware of some of the allusions you incorporate. It seems to me that many poets pander to either academia or the plainspoken, whereas your poems have the potential to please both, aesthetically. Is this a conscience effort? Do you consider who will receive your poems when you write them?

You're talking about all those literary allusions. I'll tell you what that is. That's my having been fucked up for life by reading T.S. Eliot when I was a junior in high school. All those footnotes, back of The Wasteland—? That stuff looked to me like this great big heap of unbetterable awesomeness. And still pretty much does. I—don't really expect to recover.

So, no, I'm not conscious of any balancing act. I just write what I like. Like every other good little twit out there.

Q: You've got an impressive list of publication credits—snagging coveted spots in AGNI, Boston Review, Iowa Review, Poetry, and Copper Nickel among others. Do you have any wisdom to impart for poets attempting to break into the world of these competitive journals?

Ha. Copper Nickel looks funny in that list.

Do I have any wisdom to impart. I don't. Every one of those acceptances was a Slush Pile Special. Nobody had heard of me. I was nothing. Which I still pretty much am.

I can tell you what I did, though. It's stupid. I wrote the whole book first, and then sent all those poems out at once. Theory was that I would suddenly be everywhere. "Who is this guy?" and so on. Classic naive shit. That was 2008.

But then good things started happening. I got picked up at Web Conjunctions early. That's good visibility. It's how Robert and Mary found me. And then there was AGNI Online. I think Chris saw me there. Poetry was maybe a year later.

All this is irrelevant. There are gazillions of people who have been in all those places and it doesn't mean jack.

Q: Why poetry? Why you? And why do you refer to yourself in the 3rd person so frequently?

Ay ay ay.

Why poetry/why me. The real reason I got into poetry is 'cuz I was very, very vain about the expressiveness of my talk, all through my childhood. I liked that, and I liked my handwriting—but that's it. I had no other sources of satisfaction. I looked like shit; I didn't have an idea in my skull; I was perpetually excusing myself so I could go into the bathroom and cry with rage. Need I say more? Anyone answering this description would become a poet.

Now, why third person. Oh, that's just this good thing I got from the Urdu poetry I worship. All those guys with their ghazals, they end their poems with these sudden shifts into third person. Berryman of course does this too, and everybody goes into total bliss. I don't know why it's so good, but it is. And so I do it.

Q: You've said previously that poets should consider, if not rely on, being read and experienced aloud. Some people might disagree with this, as the majority of poetry's consumption happens between a solitary reader and the printed word. Why do you think it's important to construct a poem with oration in mind?

Oh, I don't want to insist on this point. There's all kinds of perfectly good stuff that would never in a million years work at a reading, and that's fine. All I'm saying is I know ALL THESE PEOPLE who are so fun and exciting in real life, and will write you emails crackling w/wit and drama and opinion and all the rest of it, and then you turn to their poetry and it's like this soup of evenly-distributed hydrogen atoms. No fun, no drama, no opinion, no one's talking, and nothing is being said. But I think if these poets would just take the presentation-before-a-live-audience thing seriously, and write as if the idea was that you have to get out there and kick the ball down the field and then fffooompf put it in the net, maybe this whole poetry operation wouldn't look like such a drag half the time.

Q: Your latest work is called The 580 Strophes. For the non-English majors, explain what a strophe is, and why you want to change modern poetic form with it?

Part 1. What is a strophe. Strophes are when the poem is made out of a buncha same-sized scoops of talk, all in a row. Think verses in a song. Verse, verse, chorus, verse—this kind of thing. The verses are strophes.

A strophe is not the same thing as a stanza, though. 'Cuz you can have a poem where the stanzas are all totally irregular in length. The point of "strophic structure" is you get a rhythm going:

blah blah blah blah blah blah BLAH?
blah blah blah blah blah blah BLAH!

blah blah blah blah blah blah BLAH?
blah blah blah blah blah blah BLAH!

and so on. The whole point is the rhythm. Once you get it going, it actually seems annoying to break with it. This is somehow the nature of rhythm.

Part 2. Why do I think strophic structure is going to save the world. Basically? because people secretly want poetry to be rhythmic. That is my sincere belief. I'm not saying metrical; I'm saying rhythmic. They want the poet to jump in the hole and start shoveling out same-sized scoops of neat talk. It's just good to do that. But people are ashamed of it. They think, Oh well that's boring, that's monotonous. Yeah, well, if it is, how come songs are all like that, and it's not a problem there?

Rhyme too! People love that shit; they just don't know it. And since they're all terrified that they might be doing something their MFA guru would sneer at, they write these poems that look like blackboards at MIT. Oh boy, aren't we all having fun being "interesting"—! Except it sucks.

(I hate every last one of the "New Formalists," by the way, so don't start getting ideas. My la-la here has nothing to do with "participating in a tradition" or "proving you're a disciplined craftsman" or any of that. It's all about rhythm and rhyme as drugs. That's their justification; that's their glory. Anything beyond that issues directly from the Devil's anus.)

Q: You get to take credit for having written one poem in history. What is it, and tell us why.

That's easy. I'd like to have written Ecclesiastes. King James Version, babe. There's stuff in there that causes me to squirt tears, virtually every time I look at it. And I look at it all the time. That and Revelation are like favorite CDs I take down and play whenever I need a lift.

(Better mention: I have no religion.)

Q: What should Madrid fans keep their eyes on, going forward? What's your next move/project/piece?

"Madrid fans." That's rich. (Hi, Mom! How did you find this blog?)

Actually, I'll tell ya, my "next project" is → I want that book out. The 580 Strophes. I need that thing published, and I need to get the hell out of grad school. If I could have those two wishes, I don't need a third.

Madrid, as I have come to call him, is quite modest considering what he is doing with his poetry. In a poetic climate where writers tend to either rebel from the perceived pompousness of the high-brow, or run to impress/outdo other career writers without pausing to welcome the unwashed masses, Madrid's poetry offers something savory to both the ultra-violet academic and the unschooled lover of words. Something that is exciting, fresh, and within the confines of a consistent poetic form. Something that is, at times, simultaneously campy and high art. My advice? Keep your eye on Madrid. You won't be disappointed.