on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2016 18 Dez

Stephen Dobyns

von: Manafonistas Filed under: Blog | TB | 1 Comment

Cabbage—the first word put down
with his new pen, a trophy pen,
like a trophy wife, not cheap,
absurd to use a ballpoint pen

for a task like this, a challenge,
for which he’d also bought a new,
but ancient, rolltop desk recently
restored, with matching chair,

also not cheap, and for which he’d
renovated the attic room with
pine-panelled walls, bookshelves,
and good light for his new office

or weekend office, a place planned
for many years, even before college,
back in high school in fact, a resolve
rare in his life, but about which

he’d dreamed in free moments
at his office, and which kept him
sane during those tedious years
of doing the taxes of strangers,

but now at last begun, excitingly
begun, as he leaned forward with
pen raised to put down on paper
the first word of his first novel.

This entry was posted on Sonntag, 18. Dezember 2016 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Comment

  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    This week, it’s about a poem by Stephen Dobyns. I had the chance to ask the author about the kindling and spark that fed this comic poem.

    “Determination” begins with and loops back to that infamously slippery “first word” of the blank page. The poem is about an amateur writer’s restless foray into a first draft: as soon as the first word is set down, the writer’s attention wanders from the page to his pen, desk, and walls, then beyond walls into the far reaches of “even before college, / back in high school in fact” before landing once again on the “first word of his first novel”— but no further.

    The interview:

    Rebecca Foresman (The New Yorker): I’m curious: how did you settle on a fitting “first word” to start this poem?

    Stephen Dobyns: I wanted a word that was noisy, silly, inappropriate, and didn’t suggest a narrative. “Onion,” for instance, satisfies three requirements, but it’s not noisy. There was an absurdity to “cabbage” that I liked. Try saying it ten times very quickly.

    Do your poems typically spring from an unusual or evocative word? Or does your inspiration for a poem begin with an image, something not moored in language?

    My poems always begin with a metaphor, but my way into the metaphor may be a word, an image, even a sound. And I rarely know the nature of the metaphor when I begin to write, but there is an attentiveness that a writer develops, a sudden alertness that is much like the feel of a fish brushing against a hook. So I wait and hope to reel it in. Sadly, a certain number get away.

    This poem—particularly its wry yet empathetic tone—seems to spring from personal experience with an unruly pen.

    I can’t believe there is a poet who hasn’t eagerly put down a word one day, only to erase it the next day deciding it was sheer lunacy. It’s part of the process of selection. As for the fellow in the poem, what he does may be comic, but he himself is very serious. He’s a sliver of the human condition.

    In past drafts of fiction or poetry, have you struggled to get over the hurtle of the first word?

    The beginning is usually written in my head, so I have lots of time to find that first word. However, once I am into the poem that word may be changed, or the whole line may be cut or moved elsewhere. Every bit of it must remain malleable until I decide that the poem is finished. But even then I can continue to make small changes long after the book has been published. Perfection is approached, but never reached. Still, that process of approach can last for years.

    “Determination” stands out for its humor. The first five stanzas roll irresistibly toward the punch line, so to speak, of the final line.

    Many of my poems try to use a comic element to reach a place that isn’t comic at all. The comic element works as a surprise. It is unexpected and energizing. In “Determination,” it can propel the reader back through the poem a second time.

    Did it take considerable revision to shape the rhythm of “Determination” into a humorous ending? Or did the lines naturally take on this tone from the start?

    The rhythm I wanted took a long time. The poem is a single sentence that slows, speeds up, and slows again. That took a lot of fiddling with line breaks, pauses within the line, use of double stresses, off rhyme, and other stuff. I think of a poem as a sound on the page, and I try to discover a sound that will inform the content. Also, I had been writing a number of poems where I wanted to put the effect before the cause, more or less. “Determination” was one of them.

    There is a pervasive—perhaps culturally instilled—superstition that certain materials or spaces enable the writer’s Muse. The writer in “Determination” seems to cleave to this, hoping to generate a novel. But his superstition goes beyond artistic aspiration. The writer hopes that the desk and lamps will bring him dignity, redemption, and self-preservation:

    … a place planned
    for many years
    … about which
    he’d dreamed in free moments
    at his office, and which kept him
    sane during those tedious years
    of doing the taxes of strangers,
    but now at last begun…

    Writers can be very superstitious. They must use a particular pen, a particular kind of paper. They must write in an empty room with bare white walls and no windows or a crowded room with lots of windows. Apart from perhaps journalism, a writer cannot will himself or herself write. Instead, the right brain will open a crack, and something pops out. Who knows why? So the next time the writer might try to repeat the same conditions, because most writers fear that once the piece is finished they will never write again. A lot of lucky rabbits feet are used up that way.

    Do you have an ideal environment for composition?

    Not necessarily. I like it to be quiet, and it usually occurs in the morning. There are three or four places in my house where I can write and I like to keep moving around. The moment I find myself falling into a necessary routine, I change it. I’d rather not accumulate superstitions.

    Is your composition space markedly different from the environment that inspires you to write poetry in the first place?

    A poem, for me, can begin anyplace. It can wake me up in the middle of the night. At least a dozen have started when I was swimming laps. I fuss with one line in my head, then another and another, and then I have to write it down. I’d prefer them to show up only when I’m ready at my desk, but they are willful.

    Do you believe—as the writer in “Determination” seems to hope—that inspiration gathers urgency and momentum if it is prepared for, but not acted upon? Or do you lean toward the theory that writing is a muscle that must be exercised daily to hone agility and increase imaginative circulation? Perhaps you believe something else entirely?

    Writing is a job, a craft, and you learn it by trying to write every day and by facing the page with humility and gall. And you have to love to read books, all kinds of books, good books. You are not looking for anything in particular; you are just letting stuff seep in. But I think you have to learn how the craft developed, what led to what, and how that led to something else. And you have to gain a sense of the culture in which it was written, the history of that culture, and how it affected what came next. You are also trying to absorb more of your unconscious into your conscious mind and to educate your choices, while realizing you will always be a student. It’s a long list, and none of it will necessarily make you successful. The fellow in “Determination” has a lot of work ahead of him.

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