Sunday, April 19, 2020

I Forgot All About This Blog

So funny. Walking into an empty room and talking to oneself. My last post was five years ago, before the publication of my first book. Before I was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Before I published, in a haste, a chapbook full of poems about death.

Now, I am circulating another manuscript collection. It's a good, coherent collection of poems. We will see.

I feel so good about my life today. I am a poet! Ha! What a great circumstance!

I love reading difficult books, listening to arcane classical music (and to schmaltzy popular music too,) learning a new language, taking careful walks, corresponding with friends, binge-streaming television and movies, drinking coffee, taking virtual tours of art museums, doing crossword puzzles, listening to academic podcasts, writing novels and poems, all of it.

It is a good life.

I will never be famous. I will never be rich. I will not change the world.

I have, like everyone else, made terrible mistakes of which I am horribly ashamed.

But I am also proud of the good work I have done.

Here's a poem from the manuscript I am shopping. (If you can help my book get published before I die, that would be very cool.)

(first published in Badlands)

I know I should be miserable,
a sixty-year-old private man,
whose job it is to mop the floor
of this fashionable restaurant,
a man with an expensive education
and the easy command
of several languages.
But the late summer afternoon
buzzing outside the window glass
has cooled to a fragrant dusk,
and the meteor cars,
their headlights suddenly bright
in the darkening day,
chase each frantically
to the same uncertain eternity,
while the wet floor glistens and dries
like a piece of polished silver,
and I am satisfied with my task.

Keith Dunlap

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Manifesto Part Two

2. Avoid preciousness at all costs. There is a strain of contemporary poetry that depends on preciousness. By preciousness, I mean taking itself very seriously, using heightened language where plain language will do, compressed syntax, both typographic arrangement on the page and grammatical arrangement, and a didactic abstraction in place of narrative or imagery to explain/tell the reader what the poem is about. This is not for me. If you are trying to sound important or deep, you are most likely trivial and shallow. The experiment of paraphrasing the content expressed by poetry of this type is an instructive exercise, one which reveals the truth of this general rule. I never worry about the meaning of a poem while I am writing it. Or not much. I worry about sound, form, diction, imagery, reversal, and narrative. I aim for simple. For pleasures of ear and mind's eye. By doing this, in as unpretentious a manner as possible, I find there are often startling, mysterious, paradoxical depths to my work.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

My Manifesto Part One

As a preface, I want to admit the limits of my aesthetic creed. The following may not apply to anyone but me, but, for me, it is an ideal at which to aim.

1. Do not write with an intention to getting published.

In other words, do not let ideas of what may be "publishable" or not, what currently seems to be the prevailing aesthetic regime with regards to content or style, have any say in the creative process, except accidentally through constant reading and reflection. Don't worry about what kind of stuff is getting published at journal A or Magazine B, etc., and then try to emulate it. And when Journal A or Magazine B rejects your stuff because it is not the kind of stuff it publishes, don't fret it. This attitude of mine may seem wrongheaded to many professional writers (and their agents) whose livelihoods and identities depend on getting published. Of course, it is easy for me, because I am a poet. Nonetheless, I think there is a much better standard to aim at, one which, ironically, will probably serve as a better path to publication, if that is important. The trite dictum "be yourself" does not suffice either, however. I think writing is a desperate act of love. A poem is a note, a postcard to the universe. It says, I am paying attention, although it may not always seem it. I see you. I am humbled by your complexity and your beauty mixed with tragedy and comedy. I can't really put it into words, but I am going to try. In this sense, for me, writing has to be guided by inspiration. I hear, see, think, remember something which somehow coalesces into something else, the first line of a poem, or the first few lines, or the poem in its entirety. I do not reject this message. I follow its voice, which, in the end, is my voice. I am not afraid of its formal nor of its informal qualities. No content is taboo. None is preferred. If I seem to circle the same objects, so be it. I can't force it. I can't "sit down to write", even if I have a time when I sit at my desk each day. If nothing happens, nothing happens. That's okay. The world doesn't need me. I need the world.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

It's Been A Long Time Since We Spoke

So, it turns out that opening a coffee shop is not the best plan for "the writing life." I have been too busy to take a deep breath, much less blog. My hiatus has been sponsored also by our caretaking of Olive, a neighbor's black lab. Between getting Viv off to school in the morning, shop-related errands, walking the dog, actual work-related chores, and work itself, not much time to give the lazy thoughts room to grow and breed creative and/or critical expression..

Not surprising that the muse has seen fit to take an extended vacation therefore. Can't complain. We had a great run the last five years. I just printed out a MS of poems written (or significantly re-written) over that span and the number is a little more than one hundred and sixty. So, six months of nada doesn't seem terribly tragic.

The spell was broken recently, but I learned and then was soon reminded by a good poet friend that many magazines consider posting one's work on one's (or someone else's) blog to be a "publication" and violation of their first rights if the accept the same for print. Uh, okay. Can't we all just relax a bit? How many people do the editors of these magazines think actually read my blog? Do they really think that the potential for buying TINY LITERARY MAGAZINE by the five or six people who sometimes read what I've written here will be compromised by me posting a draft of poem which I will later submit for publication to TINY LITERARY MAGAZINE?

Perhaps I don't take all this seriously enough. I am guessing that I don't. It's a kind of heresy, I suppose. The same nonchalant whimsy often infects my poetry. I'll betcha it happens frequently that that the "lack of seriousness" of my work poisons its official reception. My work does not generally exhibit either the post-adolescent angst/drama of the average MFA-type poet nor the self-important terror-filled rejection of "sentiment" by the teachers/publishers of most contemporary American poetry.

Is my work too playful, both in form and content? Hmmm. There is certainly a genuine darkness in a lot of my work, but hopefully it is not a contrived seriousness; rather an organic appreciation of the transitory fickle absurd nature of the subject. For example, the new poem takes place during a walk along a cemetary retaining wall. The rhetorical shift in the poem comes when the dog who is being walked stops to sniff a crack in the wall and the poem wonders whether the ground where the dead people are buried smells different. Playful in one sense, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Low Self Esteem and the Artistic Ego

I wonder what exactly is the artistic ego I've heard so much about. Various therapists have explained to an incredulous me that there is this thing called a healthy ego which has a reasonably accurate picture of the self and one's relation to the world, is generally positive, doesn't depend on the approval of others won at the cost of integrity by adapting to every slight fluctuating sign of interest or disinterest. So, is the artistic ego an outsized ego that has incredibly thick skin, ignores the raised eyebrow, plows straight ahead on its idiosyncratic adventures without concern? There is evidence of that in the world. Or is the artistic ego the opposite: a deeply insecure constantly questioning fragile neurosis trying to establish itself through representation after representation, never satisfied, full of self-criticism, easily wounded and offended? There is evidence for that too. Now, I know there is a certain personality type that is the unfortunate combination of the worst qualities of these two caricatures. In other words, there are people in this world who seek to make themselves feel more important than they are by feeling crappy about themselves all the time. It's the old "Everybody in this room thinks I'm a terrible person" syndrome, or if you're a writer, "I'm a genius! I'm an idiot! Nobody appreciates me! That person who said my work is good was lying!" syndrome. Don't ask me how I know this.

I had this sudden vision of my own work today as a pile of sentimental, cliched crap. It was horrible and I can't quite shake it. I try hard not to judge my own work or myself. Try to leave the critical analysis to others. But sometimes, especially after a long period without getting anything published, I just can't help myself. I know intellectually that my job is just to write the poems that show up to be written. To stay true to my ear and my aesthetic. But, damn, sometimes the slog feels like a slog.

The Complete Unknown

I frequently have mixed feelings
And am divided against myself
Half in love with easeful death
While standing on the beach in Eleuthera
There is no lifeguard and no rope
To stop me from swimming out too far
The water is almost invisible
The slope as gradual as the everlasting
Like a lifetime of minor betrayals
There is no algorithm to describe
A world resplendent with uncertainty
No big data computation to say
How the water dissolves the razor sharp shadows
Or the fluttering wings of a southern ray

Keith Dunlap

Sunday Puzzle

Just the word, Sunday, in the title
Makes me think of her and how she loved
Wallace Stevens, at least his poetry
And of her sister, the forty-year-old Buddhist
Who read “Sunday Morning” at her memorial service
And how Philip and I wept into each other’s arms
Each of us conscious of how each of us fell short
Of her love. What it was for Philip I couldn’t say
But for me it was that day when sick from chemotherapy
She confessed that her dying wish was for us to go away
Together and have sex before she was too frail
And I promised her we would knowing full well
That it would never come to pass and then she asked
What I thought happened after death
And I got all tongue-tied and gave
Some lame pseudo-philosophical reply
When all she wanted me to do was deceive her
When I told the truth and be truthful when I lied

Keith Dunlap

Saturday, March 2, 2013

You Must Be Insane to Write Poetry

No one person can be sane. It is always a judgment passed by someone else. And yet, given that each of us is at least in part unknowable to the other, it is a judgment to that extent passed on a set of representations. sanity a pretense? One cannot cultivate sanity any more than one can cultivate madness. Sanity is not an act of will. As already said, it is an observation made about a set of representations under a set of conditions. Is that person's response to a circumstance sane or insane? There are too many variables at play in the circumstances of sanity to be subjected to formula or defined. Sanity is "x", including the quotation marks...

Sanity is the sleight-of-hand of consciousness. It is a mirror that cannot be seen, a whisper that cannot be heard. It is about us. Better, it is the sense of the mirror that cannot be seen, the rumor of a whisper that cannot be heard. Sanity is linked to the uncanny the way hope is linked to despair or belief to doubt. Sanity remarks that all the pieces do not fit, that there is inconsistency and irrationality. This remark posits the vantage point of the imagined self, of the illusion of normality, of coherence, of self. Sanity is this hope for the other, this desire that the signs cohere into sensible meaning.

The sensation of rejection, emanating from a communication that seeks but does not find an audience, that is not contested but rejected as nonsense is a dreadful disorientation. One's only topics are subjectivity and reality. One's only recourses upon rejection are despair or a hardening of autonomous conviction. Insanity.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Minds of Others

It is what gives work meaning. But, what if I speak an entirely different language from those who are judging my work? I have heard it said that English majors don't read literature anymore. True or not, they certainly don't read the same books I did. Of course, some of this is describable as distinction: no one reads the same "books". I once went through the mental exercise of trying to figure how many of the roughly 50,000 remaining readers of Ancient Greek and Latin in the United States also attended law school and got an MFA. A small number, I bet. And those are probably just three minor irrelevant facts.  The real stuff, the real teachers in our lives, the alcoholic drug-addicted mother, the girl one fell in love with in high school, the death of a close friend, etc, etc., etc., are each different for each of us. So back to books.

It's astounding to me how often on first review of a new poem, I see the echos in it, the allusions, the tone picked up from thousands of poems read in several different languages. One must be wary of pride in this and I was more than a little mean-spirited the other day. I was sitting next to a young woman who has been writing poetry and performing at a local "spoken word" venue. I asked her about where her poetry originated, what inspired her, and she talked about about a group of incarcerated women she met who have evolved a rap-inspired spoken word to help them process the injustice in their lives. This is a beautiful thing. Beautiful in itself and beautiful to be inspired by it. But it also made me feel very alone, like a distant cold satellite in a wobbly orbit around a green and happy planet. When she asked me about my work, I told her that I had been writing poetry since I was in third grade, I listed the languages I had learned all or part of, the teachers with whom I had studied, the aesthetic school with which I had once been associated, the degrees I had collected, the reading I did in art history, philosophy, science, and the poets whom I loved more than others, whose music and depth still was a fount of inspiration. When I was done, I apologized for being an ass.

Of course, I am imagining the supposed audience. Here is what I imagine (some of this is fired by experience, having been co-editor of two literary magazines): a gaggle of bored, sullen, college students, who are texting while leafing through submissions to the magazine on which each is part of the editorial staff. That is the rhythm of their lives. Their literature. Web pages. Sound bites. Synopses and books about books about books. I once had a creative writing graduate student defend his failure to read literature by claiming that it would dilute his originality.  Has the world passed me by? Am I merely a relic?

Perhaps. Does it matter? Probably not. It's not as though I am going to stop writing. It is an affliction I can't seem to shake. The poems just happen. Perhaps the point is not to be published, to be acclaimed, to be compensated. Perhaps the point is the writing of the poem. All of it, all the books, all the experience, all the unconscious, all the conscious all comes down to that: the writing of the last poem.  Until the next one.

March 31

To what purpose, April, do you return tomorrow?
Like a virgin consecrated to God, producing nothing
But joy full of sorrow and the empty rehearsal
The same cruel trick played over and over and then
Smiling with your canine teeth exposed
Advertising like a sometimes distant friend
That winter is surely over until it comes around again

Keith Dunlap