INLANDIA LITERARY JOURNEYS: Persuasion and pitfalls in political poems

o5n5zl-b88689179z.120160414135006000gt9g06if.10This is the year it could happen. Maybe you’re stuck in a stop-and-go rubberneck on the 91 freeway, the radio a dull drone through your morning migraine as the partisan station of your choice recaps the political news of the day.

Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe you’ve already begun thinking of words that rhyme with candidate names.

Wherever it happens, you might have the sudden urge to write a political poem sometime during the next eight months. To help you get ready, I’ve prepared this simple guide to help you handle the situation with aplomb.

First of all: Don’t panic. Pull to the side of the road somewhere safe, or wait for the nearest exit, then find an empty parking lot or an exceptionally long drive-through line. Poems sometimes write themselves, but they can’t write themselves while you’re driving. Only poem in park.

Don’t feel guilty. A poem is just a special way to talk about special things. We all have an innate desire to say the un-sayable, to articulate all that lies just beyond the reach of articulation. Poetry can happen to anyone, anywhere, so remember: It’s not your fault.

Find a recording device. Use your smartphone, if you have one, to record your poem as a voice memo, text it to a friend, email it to yourself, or tap it out using a standard writing application.

If not, many of the world’s greatest poems have been written on ancient, crusty glovebox napkins. It’s true. If all else fails, there’s still memorization, a pneumonic device, which historically has been the point of poetry more often than not. Whatever tool you use, just don’t lose it.

Now that you have your poem saved, the real trouble begins. Sure, you’ve written something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth put it, but what next? Does your political poem have any cultural value? Should you share it with close friends, or perhaps even the public?

On this question, poets themselves have long been split. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and others have been trying to pat themselves on the back equally firmly ever since.

William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Your political poem could be a matter of life and death! More recently, Meena Alexander writes that, “We have poetry/ So we do not die of history,” a statement I particularly love.

Not everyone agrees, though. In a 1965 lecture to students at Berkeley, Jack Spicer said, “I don’t know of any political poems which have worked,” and suggested instead of writing poems that they write letters to their congressmen. Both would be equally effective, he reasoned.

I once asked National Book Award winner Troy Jollimore why he finds political poems difficult to write, and he worried about preaching to the converted: “The people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values.”

He has a point, too. A poem isn’t an argument. A poem’s purpose isn’t to persuade — persuasion is for op-eds and campaign ads.

So keeping that in mind, re-read your political poem. Is it cheerleading, or is it trail-blazing? Does it reach deeper into the abyss to haul up some new creature?

Just last week, an Orange County poet named David Miller wrote in a political poem, an elegy for the personified American Dream: “I ran when I heard you crying/ like a phone, no one told me how alone you are.” Now that’s what Shelley meant when he said that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”

Be honest, does your political poem really purge the film of familiarity, or is it just more mosquito guts on the windshield? If it’s the former, then by all means share it widely! This is the year for purging.


Wrightwood author Timothy Green is editor of Rattle magazine

Blink of an eye / ideas and people connect / in haiku by Timothy Green

Frogpond

In Japan, the brief poetry form is all about socializing. Why not here, too ?

When my grandmother’s hearing had grown too poor for the telephone, we started exchanging letters. Once a month—on the same day as the Edison bill—I’d receive a handwritten letter, pressed firmly with a retired schoolteacher’s perfect cursive, yellowed paper cut neatly from the same ancient notebook. Family gossip, news of my father, the weather back east, details of her various ailments.

She’d close every letter with a haiku. It was both a hobby of hers, and a nod to my odd profession. Her last was probably her best:

snow-covered sundial

waiting

to tell time again

I imagined her as the sundial, snowed in by age, her bed long-since moved to the living room so she wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs, waiting patiently for whatever spring might come in whatever existence might come next.

When I had a moment, I’d tap out a hasty reply, glancing out at the palm trees on Ventura Boulevard from my office window, and close with a responding haiku.

it’s December too

in California

the crickets shout!

There was a joy to the haiku that I’ve only recently come to understand. Easy to write but impossible to master, they never grow old. You can write them in the car stuck in traffic, or plop them easily at the end of a newspaper article. Haiku are so simple they can be simultaneously silly and profound, and that contrast has kept them fresh for centuries.

Most often my grandmother’s haiku would offer a shift in mood, adding levity or perspective or clarity to the information that the letter had shared.

lost my other shoe—

now even the right

isn’t left

Almost a decade later, I still remember many of them fondly, and they always embody my grandmother’s quietly sarcastic personality.

More recently, I interviewed Richard Gilbert, a haiku scholar at Kumamoto University in Japan. He described with great enthusiasm the beloved space haiku holds within Japanese culture. With a total population of 130 million, it’s estimated that 12 million attend a regular haiku group. Witty celebrities compose haiku-like senryu live on TV.

Haiku itself descends from a party game, so it should be no surprise that they’re fun to write. At the kukai, as it was called, friends would gather around a bottle of saké, taking turns composing lines on a chosen topic. Class boundaries and social conventions dissolved as participants adopted pen names, many of them humorous. Bashō was named after the banana tree outside of his hut.

Listening to Gilbert tell it, haiku as a social act sounds like so much fun that I can’t help wishing we made it a part of our culture in the West. An outlet for playfulness and creativity and face-to-face interaction, haiku embody much of what we seem to be lacking in the age of smartphones and Facebook.

So let’s start now. Why not cap off your annual holiday letter with a summary haiku? Turn a family dinner into your own kukai, composing short poems about the season.

Before you start, it’s important to know what haiku are and what they aren’t. No other form of poetry is so misunderstood. Haiku are not three-line poems of five, then seven, then five syllables. Counting syllables doesn’t make any sense in Japanese, which is divided into units of time and not sound. You can think of traditional haiku as three lines that are short, then long, then short in duration, but even that generality isn’t an important rule in modern haiku.

The heart of a haiku is really the kireji, the cutting word, which is almost a form of punctuation that divides the poem in two. In English we might use a dash or colon—this division separates the first image from the last, creating a comparison that can be evocative or uncanny. The best example is Bashō’s famous frog:

old pond—

frog jumps in

the sound of water

That dash is the kireji, and it signifies a complete cut in time and space. The haiku presents one image, an old pond, and then another isolated image, the frog jumping into the sound of water. How the two images relate to each other is left up to the reader—and it’s that interactive, connective leap that stirs our thoughts and emotions. This is one of the many things Bashō meant when he said, haiku jiyu, or “Haiku is for freedom.”

Much more goes into classical haiku, but this is all you need to know to write decent modern haiku in English. Don’t count syllables, just count images or ideas: There should be two.

watching football

my keyboard

almost silent


To learn more about the history of haiku, you can find my interview with Richard Gilbert in issue #47 of Rattle, or read his translations of contemporary Japanese haiku poets at his website.

Young Poets Have Lessons for Us All by Timothy Green

For our children, summer means trips to the beach, barbeques, and long stretches of glorious boredom. School is out, the days are long, and the possibilities endless. For this poetry editor, summer vacation also serves as a break from publishing adults, focusing instead on children, as I work to compile the annual Rattle Young Poets Anthology. With the help of their parents and teachers, thousands of children age 15 and younger share work with us each year. Listening to their voices is as soothing as ice cream on a hot day.

When most people think of “children’s poetry,” they think of poems written by adults for kids—they think of Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. They don’t think of children themselves as poets, and it’s very difficult to find any anthologies of poems written in the other direction, by children for adults. That’s unfortunate, because, as I’ve quickly learned, children are absolutely brilliant wordsmiths.

This shouldn’t be so surprising. The early years of language development are magical. No other time in life is full of such wonder, such imagination, and such playfulness. Young poets don’t write out of habit; they haven’t yet learned how to be cliché. They write with a natural spontaneity that adults have to work hard to achieve. “The cents of a penny/ is less than your love,” writes Zoey Sheffield, age 6. Lines like these seem as effortless as they are abundant.

There’s more to young poets’ work than just the strange and beautiful ways that they construct language, though. Children are writing about most of the things that adults do, with a depth of understanding and attentiveness that deserves more respect than it’s usually given. Eight-year-olds are responding to climate change. Eleven-year-olds are trying to processes the graphic terrorism of ISIS. Four-year-olds are thinking about their parents’ struggles with anxiety and depression.

Until I started reading these poems, I never realized how rich and complex the interior lives of children really are. Consider this short poem by Briar Sprungin, age 8, and the level of emotion it captures:

The Woman

I was racing down the stairs,

a woman of white caught my eye.

She had two braids down to her toes.

She was mumbling something.

I asked if I could help her

but she didn’t say a word.

Then she whispered in my ear,

“Survive,” and disappeared.

It turns out that children are also great teachers of poetry, of what poetry is, and what it can be. In compiling these anthologies, we ask the young poets why they love poetry, and their answers provide some of the best insights I’ve found.

“I think of poetry as an art to transfer our thoughts about the world or imagination that lives around us onto paper,” writes New Zealand’s E. Wen Wong, then age 11, “[O]ur minds are search engines constantly producing ideas to make an impact on the world, whether it is big or small.”

Madeline McEwen, also age 11, says that poetry “gives us beauty even when the world seems ugly.”

Meanwhile, 7-year-old Cody Dane likes “making new rhymes,” and has the profound realization that “you can learn more when you’re rhyming.” His contribution to the 2015 anthology is this three-word poem that would make any concrete minimalist proud, exploring the way perception becomes awareness (through rhyme):

My Cat

Fur Purr Her

In a conversation with Rattle many years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winner Sharon Olds remarked that “There isn’t a bad poet in the 1st grade.” The most amazing thing that I’ve learned in editing this anthology is just how true that statement is. The thousands of poems that we receive for the anthology every year are but a tiny fraction of what is produced. Everywhere in the world, from the Inland Empire to Africa to Singapore, children are writing moving and memorable poetry—doodling with words for classes or for fun, but making so much more than refrigerator art.

These are small but powerful voices—we only have to listen and learn.

A Conversation With Rattle Editor Tim Green by Cati Porter

We’re again in the midst of National Poetry Month, so I thought it might be a good time to catch up with one of our regular columnists, Timothy Green. An avid supporter of the literary community, Tim recently moved from Los Angeles to Wrightwood, a move that has proven fruitful for him and his family. Here is our conversation:

Cati: Inlandia is all about celebrating the region, so tell me: you’ve been living in the Inland Empire for a few years now. What convinced you that moving to Wrightwood was the right move, and how does it compare to where you were living before?

Tim: I grew up in western New York, and my wife in rural Washington, state. We moved to Los Angeles to work at Rattle, but we were never meant for the City of Angels. We managed for a while, avoiding crowds by time shifting our weekends and work hours, but then we had kids and realized we needed a change. We chose Wrightwood for the seasons, the nature, and the easy drive up—coming here felt like coming home. I’d never lived in a small town before, and now that I’ve experienced the friendliness of the line at the post office and how much everyone cares about things like Little League, I’ll never be able to leave.

Cati: Most people who follow this column know that you write for Inlandia Literary Journeys and by virtue of that know that you are the editor of Rattle, a prestigious literary journal based out of Los Angeles. You mentioned once that you read something like 80,000 submissions each year—is that right? How do you get through so many submissions?

Tim: Writers send us 100,000 poems a year now, which is 250 a day, every day—even Easter. When you consider that the average book of poetry is about 50 poems, that’s five books before bed each night. I don’t know how we do it—my wife Megan and I read everything, and we’re always reading. But, then, this is the 21st century; everyone is always reading. We’re just always reading something very specific: boxes of submissions.

Cati: Can you tell us about the literary community in Wrightwood? I understand there are a number of writers who live there? You’re a writer as well as an editor—how has moving to Wrightwood affected your writing?

Tim: Wrightwood is a great place for writers—it’s almost in the name, right? My office overlooks a few dozen Jeffrey pines, all of them full of squirrels and quail and Stellar’s jays. It’s a great space for daydreaming. And there are writers here—I met a few through Inlandia: MJ Koerper and Victoria Barras Tulacro. But there hasn’t really been a literary community; there hasn’t been a nexus to bring us all together.

Cati: Today in my inbox, I received notice that you are planning a Wrightwood Literary Festival? Can you tell me a bit about it—where did the idea come from, and what kinds of activities and special guests do you have planned? I understand you’re also leading a workshop, on polishing your writing for publication. That’s a great opportunity for folks who want an editor’s insider perspective.

Tim: We’re having this festival to bring us all out of the woods, so to speak. The festival was borne mostly of jealousy, to be honest. I love Wrightwood, but I wish there were more of an Idyllwild element to it. Wrightwood is a great gateway to skiing and hiking, or day-tripping the Angeles Crest, but it isn’t known for art—why not? There are artists here, many visual artists, many musicians, many writers. I thought we could show off the beauty of our mountains, while also giving our local artists something to rally around. 

Inlandia Literary Laureate Juan Delgado is giving a keynote presentation on hiking and storytelling, followed by creative workshops with local artists. It’s really a retreat: our goal is to provide a space where participants’ personal stories can come to life. The wildflowers will be blooming, the pine scent on the air will be at its peak—it will be a respite from the daily grind of the Inland Empire, capped off with a lively open mic.

My contribution will be a workshop on how to really move an audience through writing. We all have important stories to share, each one of us, but how do we make a complete stranger want to listen? As an editor, that’s been my job for the last decade, and I’ll share what I’ve learned.

Cati: Do you think the festival will become an annual event? If so, what do you think future years will have in store?

Tim: The festival is definitely going to become an annual event. We wanted to start small and build outward, and in the future we’d like to make it a whole weekend, spread across multiple venues in town, including more visual arts and theater. For now, more information for the May 30 event can be found at www.wrightwoodlitfest.com.

One Man at a Women’s Club by David Stone

Over thirty women filled the luncheon tables of the Beaumont Women’s Club on Sixth Street when I arrived. “Would you help us with an extra table?” asked Ruth Jennings, the Program Secretary of the Club. Getting put to work, I immediately felt like I was at a family event where the men had all escaped to another room.

A few weeks earlier, Mrs. Jennings had written me a beautiful handwritten letter in response to my Inlandia Literary Journeys column, The Lost Art of Letter Writing. She had invited me to join Cati Porter, Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute, to discuss the work of Inlandia and share some of our poems. Written on gray cotton stationary, Mrs. Jenning’s formally formatted letter described her own remarkable personal letter collection, including letters written by relatives describing scenes of the American Civil War and the funeral parade of President Garfield in 1881.

Although in my childhood my grandmother Margaret Stone was a longstanding member of the Waverly Women’s Club in Pennsylvania, and my mother, a housekeeper, had been paid to wash the dishes for that group’s meetings, I had never been privileged to view the proceedings of any of their meetings.

When the women in Beaumont stood to start their meeting by saying the pledge to the American flag as I brought in the last of the extra chairs they had asked me to retrieve from the hall closet, I paused in the door and placed my hand over my heart, feeling like a kid in school. I quickly joined Cati Porter at our back table in time to listen to the women recite the Women’s Club Pledge as they held hands. At first I felt compelled to join the women in committing to virtue and service, but hearing my own lower voice, I fell silent and scanned the room. The youngest were middle-aged like myself. The oldest, Blanche B. Fries, sat directly in front of me. At a hundred years old, she told me she still teaches piano lessons to children. She has five students.

President Joan Marie Patsky, chairing the meeting from a podium at the front, encouraged members to pass a clear plastic jug and give “Pennies for Pines.” A thoughtful member told me of the Club’s service project, how they collect money to purchase property and to plant trees. I followed the example of most of the members and emptied my wallet of some green bills and not copper. A container for a fifty-fifty raffle soon followed. One lucky member takes home half the pot, and the Club earns the rest. They asked Cati to draw the ticket for the day. The winner shouted when she determined she held the winning ticket.

Cati and I filed to the back of the room to pick up one of the antique clear glass luncheon plates with a corner raised ring to stabilize a cup. Disappointingly, no matching glass cups were set out for this meeting. I have never dined with that form of dinnerware.

Stretched over several tables were finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, crudités, sweet breads, and fresh fruit. Back at the table, I pleasantly startled myself as I ate what I thought was a pitted natural olive, but turned out to be a homemade chocolate. I enjoyed the sweet treat just before I stood up to speak.

President Patsky introduced Cati and I to the members. Cati described the mission of the Inlandia Institute to promote literary activity in the Inland Empire region of California through writing workshops, readings, and the publishing of books through Heyday Books and more recently under the Institute’s own imprint. She announced the inaugural Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Book Prize. Cati read a poem from her book Seven Floors Up inspired by a sticker that came home with her son one day, “Caution Please Do Not Turn The Head Forcefully.”

Inspired by the fine penmanship in Ruth Jenning’s letter of invitation, I began my portion of the program with “If We Stop Teaching Cursive” and “Reading Time.”

Attempting to highlight the range of Inlandia publications, I read several of my poems from the 2013 Writing from Inlandia: “On Seeing the Cost of Time Change,” “Riding the Flexible Flyer,” and “A Dammed Life.” I displayed broadside prints for each of these poems with the block print illustrations I had created.

From Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus, I read “Wishing for a Ladder” and “Redlands Sunset.” From Inlandia: A Literary Journey, the official online literary journal of the Inlandia Institute, I read “Creosote,” and “A Rare Night Air.”

I closed with “Two Eggs,” “My Father’s Amputation on Tuesday,” and “My Top Drawer.”

The members asked Cati and I numerous questions about Inlandia and the topics brought up in my poems. They also spent several minutes in animated discussion of Timothy Green’s Inlandia Literary Journeys column “Poe and Poetic Discovery.”

More than thirty years after my mother had shooed me out of the kitchen at the Waverly Community House and told me a Women’s Club meeting was no place for a boy, I decided it was a great place for a man to visit.

Poe and Poetic Discovery by Timothy Green

If you spend enough time around poets, you’re bound to hear grandiose claims about self-discovery and poetic epiphany. And it’s true, our favorite poems tend to be surprising, even to ourselves. There are prosaic explanations for this: the best poems give voice to the unvoiced; they provide words for thoughts and feelings that we hadn’t before been able to describe. Saul Bellow famously said, when asked how it felt winning the Nobel Prize, “I don’t know. I haven’t written about it yet.” There is certainly a way in which words build a framework for understanding.

The movie What the Bleep Do We Know? relates an anecdote that, when Columbus first came to America, the natives literally couldn’t see his ships, because they had no mental concept of a ship that large. As sure as I am that the story is apocryphal, the poet in me wants to believe it—I’ve felt it myself: every poem I’ve written that feels successful has taught me something about the world that I didn’t quite grasp when I started writing it. What if there were some truth to this notion of poetic epiphany?

Everyone is familiar with Edgar Allan Poe. But what you might not know is Poe’s last work—which he considered to be his greatest—Eureka: A Prose Poem, not only presaged the Big Bang Theory by 80 years, but also provided the first recorded solution to Olbers’ Paradox.

Also called the Dark Sky Night Paradox, Heinrich Olbers described the problem of the relatively low brightness of the night sky in 1823. If the universe were infinite and eternal, as was commonly held at the time, then any line of sight would eventually hit the surface of a star—in other words, there would be so many stars in the sky that every point in the sky would be bright. In Eureka (1849), Poe explains it like this:

Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.

Poe is describing the concept of a bounded observable universe—light has a finite speed, and perhaps the universe just isn’t old enough for all of it to have reached us yet. He goes on to explain how the universe sprung from a “primordial particle”:

… one particle—a particle of one kind—of one character—of one nature—of one size—of one form—a particle, therefore, “without form and void”—a particle positively a particle at all points—a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided …

The particle then expands outward by “divine volition,” a repulsive force that’s opposed to gravity. Once matter is expelled outward it begins to clump together due to gravity, forming the stars and galaxies we see today. Eventually, gravity draws all matter together to once again reform the primordial particle, resulting in an infinite series of big bangs, and a continuously expanding and collapsing universe. He even acknowledges our impossibly small place within it: “Our Galaxy is but one, and perhaps one of the most inconsiderable, of the clusters which go to the constitution of this ultimate …”

Keep in mind that Poe died 60 years before Edwin Hubble discovered that there were other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Poe didn’t know about Einstein’s cosmological constant, or dark energy, or cosmic microwave background radiation; there was no WMAP of galactic clusters. But he was able to intuit one of the most fascinating theories of the century to follow him, using only a term he himself coined: “ratiocination.”

For Poe, ratiocination—an idea introduced in his detective stories—was a kind of imaginative reasoning, the ability of intuition to make sweeping connections between seemingly small and disparate details, a leap from all the might-have-beens to what probably is. It’s a counterfactual logic that’s able to reveal deeper truth.

For those bounded by logic, ratiocination is only accessible in dreams: the sewing machine, the structure of Benzene, DNA’s double helix were all discoveries said to have first appeared in sleep. But poets practice ratiocination every time we sit down in front of a blank page, often with only the faintest glimmerings of what we actually want to write about. Imaginative intuition is a daily practice.

So next time a poet tells you about some grand epiphany, consider (maybe) listening.