"Why in the world would poetry be the only purposeful human activity that cannot be taught?"
-- David Weinstock
David's Weinstock's poetry is featured in the Text Poetry Section of this issue.
The Bread Loaf Diary
_____ by David Weinstock
August 9, 1999 9:00 am
I do not actually do this, except in my mind, for I fear that I long ago exceeded the nuisance threshold of the conference staff. This year I desperately want to show them The New Me, an exemplary citizen of the Bread Loaf world. They are perfectly polite of course; they are Vermonters. I'll never know what they actually think. But I wouldn't blame them if they shudder to see me. I'm the guy, what's left of the disheveled fat guy, who snored so loudly during one celebrity poetry reading that I had to be hustled out of the room.
Bread Loaf's admissions committee is particularly good at screening out lunatics and troublemakers, but in 1996 I was able to sneak in under their radar, for my lunacy was of a covert, quietly hallucinatory sort. I had not, for several years, had a good night's sleep.
In fact, I hadn't had a good minute's sleep, according to the Burlington neuro lab, which wired me up to a rolling rack of sensors to investigate my obesity-caused sleep apnea. On average, their electrodes revealed, I repeatedly woke up every 45 seconds, all night long, just to stay alive. My oxygen-starved brain was forced to scramble up the steep wet walls of sleep just far enough to take control of my throat muscles so I could take a gasping, snoring breath. Then it would drop back down into sleep for a few seconds until it needed another breath.
I was perpetually drowsy in those days, flying parlously low over a dark day-for-night ocean, my landing gear grazing the wavetops. I could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, and did--at my desk, in a meeting, in front of the TV, telling the kids their bedtime stories, reading, writing, thinking, talking. Only two activities seemed to stimulate me enough to stay awake: eating.
If being awakened from sleep 80 times per hour sounds like a particular cruel Mengele experiment, the truth is I had done it to myself. My weight had been inching upwards for years. Just prior to my first Bread Loaf summer, I had suddenly stacked on 70 extra pounds, bringing me just short of 300 on a mesomorphic 5'8" frame. "Ideal weight" charts are bogus--any unsuccessful dieter knows that-- but nobody should ever weigh twice their chart weight. My entire body was operating dangerously beyond design specifications. Most of the new weight had gone to build out a grotesquely extended belly which sweatpants could not conceal. One day a three-year-old asked, and I don't blame him, if I had a baby inside.
What didn't pad my belly encircled my neck, which was far worse. Fat deposits in the neck, by taking up room normally occupied by the airway, make apnea infinitely more severe. Doctors say there is no more reliable warning sign of sleep apnea than a 19" shirt collar.
But enough about me. I'm back in Carol's office, remember, not really, and I've just made my imagined, feebly conciliatory offer of errand-running. She smiles and says no, everything is under control. No paper cups required; Bread Loafers drink from glass and eat off china, all briskly set out and cleared away by a sweaty corps of America's most promising young writers. "Our waiter has a Guggenheim!" I remember Jack Garman whispering to me one night at dinner. This was a humbling thought. Not only did the waiters throw the best parties, they got the biggest grants. I started asking them to autograph my napkin.
Mosquito repellent? Also superfluous. The drought, Vermont's worst in 30 years, may be devastating our farms, but it has also snuffed out billions of little anophelid bastards better than a lakefull of DDT. We've had a peerless summer of evenings outdoors. Tourists and locals alike stay out every possible moment, enjoying the unaccustomed touch of air which does not bite. Regionwide, Off sales are way off. Here, where minimum August evening protective attire is ordinarily a Deet-stained cotton sweater, topping densely-woven khaki slacks, you may now view a glorious display of bareness and tan, shoulder to ankle.
As for floppy disks, what's a floppy disk? The Writers' Conference is not a writing conference; we are asked to leave all computers at home. The rule dates from typewriter times. It was made for the sake of cordial relations between roommates in Bread Loaf's tiny cellicles, which have neither the room, the electric outlets, or the acoustics to accommodate any activity except sleeping.
The anti-computer stricture, I am sure, is doomed, and will finally fall this very summer. Computers are hopping the barricades like Manhattan token suckers. Massive civil disobedience, in the form of two hundred contraband laptops, is already streaking from every corner of the English-writing world toward Burlington's cute little gourmet-coffee jetport. Compact computers now are scarcely bigger than dictionaries, with dual megagig hard drives that could swallow the complete collected works of Stephen King and Isaac Asimov with room left over for Lyn Lifshin. And everyone, even including my mother and my Aunt Lois, has an email account. Hi, Mom! Hi, Lo!
"Okay, then," I say. "You've got all that. Maybe could I pick somebody up at the airport?" Carol hesitates, looking me for the first time square in my no-longer-drowsy eyes, and suddenly she understands my need. "I might just ask you to do that," she says, sweetly. "Can I find you on the front porch?"
I nod eagerly, twice too many times. Then I shoulder up my contraband laptop and float out through the Inn lobby towards the porch, where there is a green Adirondack chair I plan to make my headquarters for the duration. I am stunningly, joyously, gratefully wide awake.
August 10, 1999.
This year, unlike 1996, I will not be one of those 10. In 1999 I am officially an auditor. Each workshop has two auditor slots. This is because my tuition has been waived, a fringe benefit of my wife Ann's employment at Middlebury College. Come to think of it, my entire existence these days, body and soul, is a fringe benefit of Ann and her employment. She is my patron, and poets must have patrons.
Being an auditor imposes a small but important civil disability--I may not receive a private manuscript critique from Ed Hirsch. Fortunately, in the years since my last Bread Loaf tour, I have developed several other reliable sources for expert feedback on my work.
Each workshop is led by a well-known senior writer--mine will be the poet Ed Hirsch--assisted by a fellow. A fellow has published one book; the senior writer many, in Hirsch's case six.
Many of the faculty are celebrities, as poets and writers go, which is to say, not very far. No American poet is a celebrity in the true sense of the word, on the exalted level of, say Fran Drescher. (If you know who she is, shame on you. Watch less TV and read more poetry.)
Drescher is the Nanny, the screech-voiced protagonist in an embarrassing TV sitcom of the same name. In the first day or two after Princess Diana died in a car wreck, when it was still widely supposed that the accident had been caused by those pesky paparazzi, Miss Drescher, arriving at a movie premiere, emerged from her limousines to answer a TV reporter's request for a comment. "The photographers are a terrible problem," she said, pulling her non-fur wrap protectively around her shoulders, "for those of us in The Celebrity Community."
The Celebrity Community! The Celebrity Community contains no poets. This despite the fact that The Celebrity Community has lately shown remarkable catholicity and inclusiveness in who may become, and remain, a celebrity. It is no longer necessary to be a movie star, a sports champion, or a Kennedy. Today Monica Lewinsky and Martha Stewart are both full-fledged celebrities, merely for performing, albeit with more than common enthusiasm, the humblest of domestic chores.
Monica yes, Martha yes. but poets, never. No matter how far this new liberality may extend, it will never reach down to the poets. Poets are not celebrity material. They are invisible to paparazzi; their images do not register on film. They emerge from their own cars. They have no agents, no managers, no handlers. Poets all handle themselves.
Would you like to take a famous poet to lunch? Just ask. The phone number is listed. The schedule is open. And if the poet, when reached, displays the least hesitation about joining a importunate stranger for lunch, simply say these magic words: "My treat!"
(On second thought, perhaps a poet might conceivably enter The Celebrity Community. Naturally, it could not be for writing poetry, only for some other, more celebratable, unique personal achievement or lucky accident. Sending a series of letter bombs comes to mind, and has worked in the recent past. Receiving even one letter bomb can also be the ticket.)
The real reason poets cannot be celebrities is that so many of them are teachers. Which brings me to the perennially annoying question: "Can poetry be taught?"
The question never seems to go away. As a student I was asked it at least once a month. As a teacher it comes more like once a week. In the wisdom of middle age and early parenthood, I have finally learned to reply, almost politely, "Why in the world would poetry be the only purposeful human activity that cannot be taught?"
The questioner, brought up short by my logic, always tries again, immediately reframing the question. "I mean, I know you could tell them how many lines in a sonnet, and what's the rhyme scheme, and all that. But can you really truly teach Poetry?"
That capital P on Poetry is the giveaway. It means that poetry is not an ability. Rather, it is an ineffability. It's not a vocational skill, like welding, embalming, or embezzlement. Poetry, in the firm opinion of everyone who doesn't write poetry and the most deluded three-quarters of those who do, is not something you create. It is something you already have. It is a state of grace, glorious but undeserved. It's like the blues, like style, like class, like jazz. It is a shrug, a je-ne-sais-quoi. It is "If-you-don't-know-I-can't-tell-you." It is a magical divine fluid, a mythical ichor supposed to flow in the veins and flood the internal cavities of The Talented Other. Who's got it? Not me. Not you. Only those favored by, or born of, the gods.
Once, I believed that crap. Sometimes I still do. But not this week. They can teach. I can learn. I'm going up the mountain tomorrow, and I'm not coming down until I can write poetry.
August 11, 1999
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it..."
_____Robert Frost, Mending Wall
Thus it was this morning that the most direct route up to Bread Loaf was blocked off to through traffic. The flagwoman pointed me down a back road where I got more than usually lost. Even with the 14-mile detour, I was still absurdly, over-eagerly early for registration. To the good, it did keep me in the car long enough to hear Garrison Keillor's National Public Radio "Writer's Almanac" program, poetry's only significant outpost in our mass media. It doesn't have the promotional clout of Oprah's Book Club, but booksellers tell me that when Keillor mentions a poet, sales go up.
Keillor read a satirical poem by James Laughlin, who wrote that there are 100,000 reasonably competent poets in America, and that 10,000 of these hold MFA degrees. It does sometimes seem that too many poets running around. On the front cover of the indispensable Poet's Market, 1999 edition ("1,800 PLACES TO PUBLISH YOUR POETRY") is a little blue starburst, what my old gang back at L.L. Bean used to call a "splat," bearing the legend "OVER 300,000 COPIES SOLD!"
You do the math. On average, that means 167 poets thronging every "publishing opportunity." And in fact, the situation is far worse. Consider Bread Loaf's own Bakeless Competition. The prize, an extremely prestigious and desirable one, is to have your first book published by the University Press of New England. (No cash; just being published.)
The prize is offered in three categories: poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. This year 650 poetry manuscripts came in. Staff screeners eliminated 625, including mine, and sent the remaining 25 to judge Agha Shahid Ali, who chose the winner, Jill Alexander Essbaum's Heaven. I don't hate her. I even sent her a congratulatory email.
Non-fiction is an entirely different story. Only 100 manuscripts came in. Why? One screener speculated that non-fiction writers are getting published the old-fashioned way, by commercial publishers, and don't need competitions. This particular screener, by the way, doesn't like to be called a screener. "Don't you think 'preliminary judge' sounds much better?" he asked.
Garrison Keillor finished the poem, I found my way back to the right road, and soon I was passing through Ripton, officially declared "Robert Frost Country" a few years back. Next came the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail, the Robert Frost Wayside, and the Robert Frost Cabin. Finally, the mustard-colored buildings of Bread Loaf hove (heaved?) into view.
Nothing much ever happens on registration day. Writers are shy. Some will claim to be jet-lagged, but they look shy to me. I myself am painfully shy, but compared to most writers I am a flaming extrovert. I got my packet, filled out two pin-on name tags--one for my sport coat, one for my shirt, in case I took off my coat --and started to mingle.
Immediately, a stranger greeted me, redundantly, thus: "Hello David Weinstock David Weinstock!" I looked down. My jacket had slipped down my shoulder, and both name tags were visible. I took one off and mingled on.
Turns out I know more people here than I thought. Alan Shapiro, my workshop leader from 1996, is back. My state senator Elizabeth Ready is here. Leslie Pietrzyck, who in 1996 was a lowly contributor like myself, is here as a fellow with her newly published book, Pears on a Willow Tree. Ordinarily I am insanely jealous of published friends, but I never get that feeling at Bread Loaf. I was happy for her. Besides, she's not a poet so it doesn't count.
And in addition to the friends, one hero, Susan Brind Morrow. Morrow's first book is the astonishing and unclassifiable volume The Names of Things, the only book that has ever moved me to mail a fan letter. I spent the rest of the day scanning the arriving conferees for a sight of her, armed only with the mistaken notion that a woman who speaks fluent Arabic and travels alone to dangerous and exotic places like Egypt and Sudan would surely look like Christiane Amanpour. She does not, as I discovered when she sat down at my table for dinner and introduced herself. And yes, she remembered my letter.
August 15, 1999
Michael--he is distinctly not a Mike--warned us in his welcome remarks to pace ourselves. For the first few days, we ignore his advice and try to do it all. Then fatigue and common sense set in and we become more selective. My workshop leader, Ed Hirsch, did request that we attend all poetry readings and lectures by poets. I have mostly complied.
But the entire enterprise of public poetry readings is a painful one for me. When I first began performing my own work, a friend, an elderly Maine poet named Wilbert Snow, saw how much I was enjoying it and warned me, wagging his finger,: "Creative contact with an audience can destroy a poet. Look what happened to Vachel Lindsay!" That was 25 years ago, and I have still never looked up what happened to Vachel Lindsay, lest it stop me from giving readings.
I love reading my own poetry in public, and I get compliments when I do. I take no credit for this; I attribute it to the fact that my poems are frequently comical, and therefore out of the mainstream. Audiences know what to do about funny poetry: they laugh. Everyone knows their part, and it is comfortable. But most American poetry and poetry readings are deadly serious, painfully intimate, like a prostate exam, dreadful but necessary, 90% embarrassment and 10% unexpected thrill.
In case you have never attended a poetry reading let me describe one. Imagine you have taken your sweetheart out for an evening of chamber music at the local arts center. You join forty or fifty highly-educated adults seated on folding chairs and wait politely. The hour arrives. But instead of a tuxedoed string quartet, in comes an 11-year-old boy, dressed like Jimmy Olson on a bad bowtie day, wearing a tuba, carrying a baseball bat, and with an overstuffed dimestore photo album tucked under his arm.
The audience applauds. For his first piece, the boy--we'll call him "the poet"--plays a brief series of scales on the tuba. The audience takes a deep breath and holds it. The poet misunderstands this as a signal to proceed, so he favors us with a second creation: he opens his tuba's spit valve to eject a bubbly stream of sputum and condensation, which splatters on the floor.
The audience, in rhythmic unison, sits perfectly still. Pleased that he has been so entertaining, the poet drops his tuba and shoulders his bat. He takes a few tentative practice strokes, swings for the fences and smashes the bat into his own forehead. The audience averts its gaze as he bleeds for several stanzas. The audience stares at the ceiling, then at the floor. Thus encouraged, the poet, for a grand finale, opens the photo album, which turns out to contain not snapshots, but X-ray films, all revealing metastatic cancer in the bodies of the poet's loved ones: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, wives, children, self, and historical figures. The audience stares and gasps. Some weep, some snore. The poet closes the album, steps back from the podium, bows. The reading is over. There is applause.
There are a dozen more readings to go this week. I can't wait.
Internet publishing is here to stay, I told the five Bread Loafers who showed up. If I'm finally convinced, you should be too, for I used to despise the Web. I didn't think it would ever amount to anything. I based this misprognostication on the hyper-useless content of the earliest home pages--"To see pictures of my cat Spock and my dog Bones, click here."
When photography was invented, people said it was a novelty that would soon be forgotten. Same for motion pictures, and television. Obviously, they were wrong. But when they also said the same thing about the Viewmaster, 8-track tapes, and the Salton Home Yogurt Maker. Any yard sale in Vermont proves they were right.
My friends think me an avid gadgeteer, but they haven't been paying attention. I don't like new gadgets, only old ones. I was never what we marketers call an "early adopter," someone like my relative Larry, perpetually the first to sport the latest toy the first computer, the first CD player, the first digital camera.
Not me. I generally wait until newfangled technologies rack up a track record. My first radio transmitter was only good for Morse Code. My favorite cameras are older than I am, and my basement printing press was older than my mother. Even my Web-browser is text-only. It was written in FORTRAN by guys who could count in hex, and if you understand that sentence, I know all about you. I've seen your plaque in the Computer Programmer's Hall of Fame, which reads: Eohippus, the Dawn Geek, Inventor of the Millennium Bug. "Saved two bytes!"
Mint," said the woman, reaching for a pen. "That section does need some work. How many victims do you think would be enough?" Her pen scratched as she began to revise the indictment.
The defender stared, bewildered. "Stop!" he said. "Don't you understand? I've saved you, saved your life. You will be exonerated, set free, forgiven! Here, give me those." He lunged forward and tried to wrench the papers and pen from her hands, to stop her from writing another word.
The jailer, hearing a scream, rushed to the cell, but it was too late. The defender lay in blood on the polished library floor, his throat torn out, his belly ripped wide. Beside him, in her corner, squatted the prisoner, as before, as always, pen in hand, swaying back and forth, slowly and carefully, line after line after line, writing, writing, writing.
August 18, 1999
The conference's kickoff lecture was by Patricia Hampl, best known for her memoirs A Romantic Education and Virgin Time. Hampl told the story of the lead poem in her first volume of poems, which spilled the family's most closely guarded beans, the fact that her mother is epileptic. Hampl's mother objected to the poem, and asked for it to removed from the manuscript. Hampl persuaded her that it was the best poem in the book, and should stay in.
For years, Hampl told herself that she had freed her mother and the family from the terrible burden of carrying a shameful secret, that she had done them a favor. Eventually she realized, with pain and chagrin, that her mother had not felt liberated, only exposed. She had agreed to the publication only out of love for her daughter.
Hampl seemed to regard such situations as an inevitable consequence of writing truthfully about real life. As a memoirist, her chosen materials are especially close to her own life. But by her own account, she has lost many friends this way.
Personally, I think one would be quite enough. I have already removed one good poem from my manuscript because it is uncomplimentary to a loved one. I've just had another poem accepted for publication which I must now decide whether to withdraw, or at least to revise, because it describes a family member in a way which might not please him or her. Why couldn't I, like some of my friends, have had family who don't read poetry or who don't read at all?
August 19, 1999
In outward form, all workshops are alike. We sit in a circle, much like Quaker meeting, group therapy, or Chinese prison-camp self-criticism sessions. Each writer in turn presents one piece. Usually it is xeroxed in advance and distributed; in the case of a poem or short prose it is also read aloud by the author. The writer falls silent as the others respond, offering advice, corrections, criticism, praise, encouragement, suggestions, edits. Frequently debates break out, which sometimes go far afield from the poem. There are genuine attempts to help; there may be showboating and namedropping; often there are bizarre misreadings of the piece. The author sits quietly, trying not to jump into the discussion-in some workshops this is a strict rule-until the end.
Beyond those universal basics, workshops vary wildly, depending on the leader if any, the talent and tact of the members, and the length of time a group has been together. I have started two workshops myself. In one, I am the leader. It has met weekly for just over a year, and has a regular attendance of a dozen or so, about as big as a workshop can comfortably be, plus drop-ins. The other group is leaderless, with a consistent membership of five writers at approximately equal levels of skill and experience, and meets twice a month. We've been together for nearly 3 years, with some changes in personnel. Both groups are an enormous help to me as a writer. The critiques are fair, the praise is truthful, and the advice is generally sound and stimulating.
When the conversation peters out, usually after 10-15 minutes, the workshop leader asks the writer for a final remark. It is good form to smile thoughtfully, thank everyone for the advice, and look thoughtfully down at the page, as if you will go straight home and incorporate the suggestions. Not all the suggestions, mind you-only the ones which are still left standing after they too have been workshopped by the group. Conflicting suggestions can unbalance the author-which of many contradictory insights in worth remembering?
All this talk may actually be insightful and useful. Ideally, it tells the author exactly how to perfect that particular poem, or at least how salvage parts of it for later use. More importantly, in theory, it teaches the writer what questions to ask during the composition of the next poem and the next.
Realistically, many poems are mangled beyond repair by the workshopping they undergo. Putting one back together would be like reassembling a cow from 2,000 cheeseburgers.
The writer, too, may feel slaughtered, dismembered, and ground up. One horrible workshop meeting can be enough to put you off writing for a month, or forever. This is an omnipresent fact. Whenever a member doesn't show up, or leaves early, there are nervous jokes: "Was it something we said?" There are countless stories about people who burst into tears in the middle of a workshop session, flee the room, jump back into their cars, drive cross-country, and are never seen again.
This reflects badly on the workshop leader, who may have made thoughtless remarks, or allowed other to do so, but often the problem is elsewhere. The writer was simply not ready for criticism-everyone goes through that early phase-and should not have been playing on the railroad tracks.
The Hirsch workshop is strikingly different from most of what I've said here, and has made me want to run my own workshop differently. More on that another day.
Fashion notes: Yesterday, on a whim, I wore a jacket and tie to the conference. I could not have excited more comments, compliments, and teasing if I had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Most Bread Loafers dress like graduate students on vacation, which is not surprising, for that is what many of them are. Bill Rudolph, a poet from Iowa whose long poem set in a bowling alley got workshopped frame by frame last Thursday, has been wearing a Bread Loaf sweatshirt. The blue lettering is faded, as if he were a longtime veteran of the conference, but it turns out that the bookstores sells them that way. Apart from one particular green straw hat, apparently stolen from a leprechaun, there is little flamboyance in dress. T-shirts and jeans predominate. It's a comfortable place.
August 20, 1999
Hirsch, Rhymes with Mensch
A mensch is what a Jewish boy grows up to be if he eats all his dinner, every single bite. I know because when she fed me, Grandma Hannah would always say "Dovidl, eat like a mensch!" My family stopped speaking Yiddish decades ago, retaining only words which have no adequate English equivalent, like meshuggah, megillah, and mensch.
Mensch means more than merely "man," and it certainly nothing like "he-man," with its cowboy connotations of muscularity in head and haunch. No, a mensch is a solid guy, a whole human with heart and soul, someone who works hard, takes good care of his family and friends, and can be relied upon no matter what.
Meet Ed Hirsch, rhymes with "mensch." It's a slant rhyme. If you ask Ed about slant rhyme, or any other facet of world poetry, he can talk entertainingly for an hour, a fluent barrage of quotations and illustrations, anecdotes and examples. Theory and practice spin together in his talk, as if they belong together, which Hirsch believes they must.
Hirsch is a professor at the University of Houston and the holder of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship. He teaches above all that poetry is the interaction between meaning and form. (Everyone says this, but few can tell you exactly how it's done.)
Each and every student poem presented ran into Ed's insistent challenge: What exactly does the argument of this poem gain from the form you have chosen to put it in? When you chose your rig from the vast inherited tackle-box of literature, did you choose consciously according to the fish you purposed to catch? Why that line length, why those stanzas, why that rhyme scheme, why that meter or lack thereof, why that caesura or this word play? Did you think about it first?
Hirsch did not confine our workshop to the usual line-by-line slog through one student poem after another. We "workshopped" only one poem by each contributor, but I sense that Hirsch would just as soon have skipped that exercise. For he has bigger fish to fry. "By the end of the conference, I want every one of you to go up one notch in your game," he said. To this end, he made several unusual, mind-stretching assignments.
First, he required us to attend all the Bread Loaf poetry lectures and readings--at least 20 events--so we could discuss them in class. Once, hearing that most of us had skipped the previous hour's lecture, he chewed us out. My own excuse, which instantly seemed too lame to mention, was that I had heard the lecturer's own poetry the day before, and doubted he had anything to teach me.
Secondly, Hirsch passed out Witold Gombrowicz' infamous essay "Against Poets." Our assignment was to respond to it, in writing, in defense of our art. Writing a rationale for poetry itself, as if we were Poets Laureate testifying for NEA funding before a Senate committee, is an excellent corrective to the privately obsessively soul-baring stuff most of us produce.
The Gombrowicz assignment produced a happy and unexpected result. Most responded with poems which--once all references to Gombrowicz were excised--were excellent in their own right. My own response, sent out as the fifth installment of this Bread Loaf Diary, Hirsch thought too clever by half. But he also singled out for praise one paragraph, my own favorite and by far the most "poetic" part of the piece, rendering me far likelier to accept his broader judgment.
For the last class, Hirsch asked us each to bring in copies for everyone of two poems we admire, create a mini-anthology of our tastes and aspirations. Members brought poems by Wendell Berry, Robert Pinsky, Alan Shapiro, Emily Dickinson, Marina Tsvetaeva, the Latin poet Martial, Tony Hoagland, Theodore Roethke, Mark Strand, W.B. Yeats, James Wright, James Dickey, Phillip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Thomas Hardy, Charles Wright, Robert Haas, Susan Mitchell, Denis Johnson, Robert Duncan, and Charles Simic.
Hirsch never utters a paragraph that does not contain a reading list. At first I scribbled a running tab of Ed's suggestions; the first page alone will keep me busy for six months. But eventually I twigged to his actual method: read everything.
Everything! Czech poets, Hungarian poets, Israeli poets, Lorca and Wordsworth, Sappho and Gluck, Auden and Simic and Pushkin and Frost, Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, Rosevic, Simic. Mark Strand, Derek Wolcott, Norm Dubie, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, dozens more, each for a particular excellence, a specific skill. On Ed's say-so, I'll even suspend a lifelong aversion to Wordsworth and re-read "the Preludes".
August 22, 1999
It took quite a few weeks to catch up with my real life again. I still haven't entirely unpacked the cardboard liquor box of manuscripts and handouts I toted home. My Bread Loaf diaries, which I initially emailed to a few friends, have led to several (paying!) writing assignments from Vermont publications. I try not to measure my success by money, but you do get tired of giving all your work away.
Has my writing improved? Can't say for sure. Writing certainly feels better. I work faster and don't look over my shoulder half as much. I'm sustaining longer poems, probably the result of what I soaked up in August.
As far as getting poems published in deadtree journals, I'm psyched up for a sustained session of envelope stuffing. Now that I've eaten lunch with the big dogs, and know that they're not really so much bigger than me, I want to run with them too.