DECONSTRUCTING THE POET'S BOOKSHELF!
I thought Poet's Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art to be a refreshing addition to the books which present poets discussing what's facilitated their work. You can click on the link to see the background to this project by editor Peter Davis -- essentially, Peter asks poets to list books that have been most "essential" to poets in terms of their poetry.
I was honored to be asked to participate in their second volume. Since I just finished my contribution, I (heh) naturally thought to blog it! If you compare my essay below to another available online, Reginald Shepherd's contribution, you can see a huge difference in response -- which hopefully means that Volume 2 will be exciting to read! For convenience, I'll list here Reginald Shepherd's List so you can compare it to mine below:
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Hart Crane, White Buildings
Louise Bogan, The Blue Estuaries
James Wright, Collected Poems
Marilyn Hacker, Presentation Piece
W.H. Auden, The English Auden
Louise Glück, Descending Figure
Jean Valentine, The Messenger
Laura Mullen, The Surface
Jorie Graham, The End of Beauty
Anyway, here's the FIRST DRAFT of my essay, which begins with my list:
Homer's Odyssey and Iliad
The United States of Jasper Johns by John Yau
Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Works 1974-1988 by John Yau
Pack Rat Sieve, Sphericity, Endocrinology and Four-Year-Old Girl by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Archipelago by Arthur Sze
The Ancient View of Greek Art by J.J. Pollitt
The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan
The Selected Letters of Richard Kerouac
The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems by Mina Loy, Edited by Roger L. Conover
Wine Buyer's Guide by Richard Parker
My way of making poems has been influenced more by the visual arts than it has been by literary works. I don't mean specific art works (though that has happened) so much as visual arts techniques or concepts. For examples, cubism and abstract expressionism taught me to write in ways that been described by such literary terms as disjunctive, elliptical, experimental--I note this because others have located my work among literary categories (sometimes to my amusement) despite the inspirations' non-literary nature. I also translated the painterly technique of scumbling to create poems, such as what mostly comprise my collections Dredging For Atlantis (Otoliths, 2006) and THE SINGER And Others (Dusie, 2007). And the way (some) sculpture and installation art manifest dimension has facilitated my interest in writing poems that can be read forward, backward, left to right or right to left, as exemplified by poems in The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I (xPress(ed), 2006). I've relied mostly on another art form to teach me the form of (my) poetry as it facilitated my attempts to make poems that surprise me and, hopefully, their readers.
On one of the Poetics Listserves in which I participate, we once discussed multidiscilinary/multi-genre approaches. Someone opined that she'd always felt it natural to take such an approach. But with the advent of MFA programs where such is not the norm, this poet observed, It's as if the multidisciplinary point-of-view is something unusual when she felt it as a normal practice. "Normal" is subjective, of course, but I think I understand--and agree--with what this poet observed. So, here I am in a contemporary poetry world where I've observed much anxiety over (literary/poetic) lineage--and I'm suggesting that poetry books actually have played a small role in my development as a poet.
This doesn't mean that I don't pay much attention to others' poems. I read a lot of poems. I enjoy a lot of poems. But the distinct majority has not offered something I can use in the making of my own poems--this is okay with me as I don't necessarily look to other poets to show me how I might make my poems, though when they do I am grateful. And a few have. Thus, my list of books that have shaped my art, can still include some poetry books. I emphasize that I don't consider this to be a "best of" or even "most loved" list of poetry books; these are books that affected my making of poems in some significant (to me) manner and whose influences I can specify.
Not necessarily identifiable--and so they are not on my list--are the effects of simply loving certain poems. But I’m sure Love’s influence exists and so I must note the importance for me of having read poems by John Donne, Odysseus Elytis, Federico Garcia Lorca, Eric Gamalinda, Pablo Neruda, Jose Garcia Villa, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke, and so many more. The existence of company encourages--and I highlight, too, the names of three Filipina women poets to whom I dedicated my first U.S. poetry collection, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002): Leona Florentino (1849-1884), Magdalena Jalandoni (1891-1978) and Angela Manalang Gloria (1907-1996). (I must insert this parenthetical to admit, however, that arguably my most loved poetry book is something I read before I began writing poems: Daniel Mark Epstein’s Young Men’s Gold which is my contribution to the frequently-embarassing category of people (ab)using poetry for romantic entanglements. Ah, youth…!)
Not included in my list, but certainly influential to its formation, is my book BLACK LIGHTNING: Poetry in Progress (Asian American Writers Workshop, 1998). I cite this book--titled after an Arthur Sze poem of the same name--as it's about 14 other Asian American poets' ways of writing a poem(s). Since BLACK LIGHTNING was researched and written during my first two years as a poet, its impact was significant. As someone who switched careers (from international banking to poetry), I began writing poems at age 35. To begin at age 35 meant, among other things, this pressure to "catch up" with my peers. As someone who's not formally studied poetry, I wanted as quickly as possible to know what this poetry thing is supposed to be about, and BLACK LIGHTNING offered me the chance to interview poets in a unique way. The poets gave me drafts of a poem leading to the poem's "final draft." I looked over the drafts and then began interviewing them about their processes, a procedure that went from the very obvious questions (e.g., why did you break the line there, change that word, switch from a "the" to "a" or vice-versa, and so on) to deeper poetics underlying their works.
BLACK LIGHTNING exposed me to a variety of poetic styles and from its fourteen poets, I came to read and list above the books of John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Arthur Sze. As a newbie poet, I felt most empathy with these three poets' ways of doing poems. Keeping company with their poems facilitated my ways to write poems that, good or bad, are (hopefully) not predictable because:
John Yau's poems facilitated my explorations of how to use words in ways that transcend their dictionary-offered meanings as well as the corruption of such meanings. I first stumbled across John Yau's poems through the American Poetry Review which published his poem, "Conversation at Midnight." I fell in love with that poem, and from reading it then went looking for all his books, eventually to read all of them several times. He's the only poet who's given me the experience of reading a few poems in a journal which then compelled me to search out other works. (I share this partly because--this is a type of effect desired by poets, isn’t it, in terms of reception to our poetry?)
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's poems facilitated my exploration of air and the swoon in language.
Arthur Sze's poems facilitated my exploration of how ultimately to engender harmony from text fragments that deliberately had been broken.
My (simplistic) summaries of these three poets' influences point to my disinterest, as a younger poet, in writing poems reliant on linear narratives--a concern that relates to the history of English in my birthland, the Philippines (I was ten years old when I immigrated to the United States). When I began writing poems, I preferred poems where I wasn't communicating something specific because the spread of English as a communications tool in the Philippines was one means through which the United States solidified its colonial rule of the Philippines in the 20th century. This notion of giving up authorial control was deliberate on my part as I considered it, metaphorically, to be the opposite of colonialism. These are ideas reflected in much of my early work (nowadays, I am not so invested in that particular political subtext--I welcome linear narrative as still a better alternative to the silencing of what must be communicated through a poem).
I cite another poet Richard Brautigan for his novel The HawkLine Monster because one of its characters, Cameron, gave me one of the seeds for a new poetic form: the hay(na)ku. The basic hay(na)ku is a tercet comprised of a one-word line, two-word line, then three-word line. The counting was inspired by Brautigan's character: "Cameron was a counter. He vomited nineteen times to San Francisco. He liked to count everything."
From the moment I read about Cameron, I began a Counting Journal where I tried to do the same thing-keep track of anything I could count as my days unfolded. The journal would come to reference The Selected Letters of Jack Kerouac where Kerouac is quoted as saying, "I think American haikus should never have more than three words in a line."
Both Brautigan and Kerouac's thoughts combined to compel me to concoct a "Pinoy Haiku form ("Pinoy" is short for "Filipino"). The form would come to be named "hay(na)ku" at the suggestion of poet Vince Gotera. Vince, together with Nick Carbo, co-founded the "Flips" Listserve for Filipino writers and/or those interested in Filipino literature. While conceptualizing the hay(na)ku, I had shared much of my thoughts with Flips members. The name references the Filipino exclamation "Hay naku!" which is used in a vareity of situations in the same way the English "Oh!" is interjected.
I cite The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems by Mina Loy because these poems were so powerful for me that I wanted to write my own poems “after” them, then thought to do so by a translation of the scumbling technique into writing. Merriam-Webster defines “scumble” as partly “to make (as color or a painting) less brilliant by covering with a thin coat of opaque or semiopaque color.” In translating this technique, I sought to make poems with heightened evocativeness. The first text I scumbled was Derek Walcott’s THE BOUNTY, which generated one poem. Mina Loy’s words generated enough poems to create the bulk of a poetry collection.
Given the visual arts providing the scaffolding to much of my poems, it makes sense that two art books would be on my list of influences. The first is the brilliant art monograph The United States of Jasper Johns by John Yau, an art critic as well as being a poet. I consider my poetics practice as partly a means of maximizing lucidity; thus, how one looks at visual arts is of great relevance. I have learned much from reading John Yau's criticism; in a way, his art criticism encouraged me, too, to write on the visual arts until I even released a book of art essays, accompanied of course by poems, entitled My Romance (Giraffe Books, Quezon City, Philippines).
Another influential art book is THE ANCIENT VIEW OF GREEK ART by Jerome Pollit. Dr. Pollit's influence can be gleaned from an excerpt in his book that I highlight as an epigraph in Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole:
"When a term like symmetria is used by a late antique rhetorician, one should probably not expect it to have the rigorous precision of meaning that it conveyed to a sculptor of the fifth century B.C. In general, it may be expected that the technical value of a particular term-that is, the value which is dependent upon the special knowledge and training of a particular group-will diminish as the size of the group using the term increases."
I cite Robert Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide for similar reasons as I cite The United States of Jasper Johns and THE ANCIENT VIEW OF GREEK ART. All three books show the importance of subjectivity even as they highlight, too, the importance of specificity in descriptive language. As regards Parker, I also happen to love wine, live in Napa Valley, and can produce as much horse patooty as any other oenophile when it comes to wine tasting notes.
I also cite Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. I add these books to the list not just for their texts but for their physical presence. As a child, I grew up in Baguio City, Philippines. Books were/are expensive in the Philippines. I remember a tall bookshelf in our living room that presented, among others, Homer's works. My mother made clear that the bookshelf, with its books, was something to be treasured. Thus, when I first read through Homer's words, I did so by not just trying to understand them but with a sense of touching the Sacred as I held his books--as I slowly, relishingly, turned their pages. The memory of each turn of the page is palpable--my fingertips itch as I, even now, feel the edges of those pages against my fingers as I write about our first encounters.
Ultimately, I cite The Bible. Specifically, John 1:1:
En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton theon, kai theos en ho logos.
"In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God."