Monday, June 15, 2009

what i've wanted

I started this blog last year to post pieces of a manuscript as it developed, but I wound up posting other things, too, adjacent concerns, whatever I wanted. So the blog is Old News but the blog is not the Old News that is the manuscript. I might post the complete, ordered mss. here soon. As I finish it up, some notes here on what I’ve wanted to do:

I first got interested in poetry, about ten years ago, because I saw in what I was reading the possibility of telling a story that was also a meditation. (I was inspired by two poetry classes I took my last year in college: Postmodern American Poetry, taught by Jeffrey Nealon, and a writing workshop taught by CS Giscombe, whose book Here was also a big influence.) Since then, I’ve tried to address, through writing, the question of how to inherit the world. And directly correlated: how to be in the world. How to live.

Old News is driven by doubt yet hinged on the idea that one must invent (rather than find) one’s own way of being/doing (faith), and that this must happen through interaction with one’s neighbors, with one’s nearest public, while remaining conscious of that public’s slippery extensions into more distant publics.

I wanted to write a book about my neighbors that was a little history book of Philadelphia, a narrative driven by conflicts I see and feel, hashed out by characters (neighbors) who recur as remnants of each other. I used old newspapers I’d found under the floors of the house I moved into a few years ago. They were from the 1920s. I wanted to retell some of the tiny forgotten stories in these, the common everyday mishaps, tragedies and curiosities that are rarely reported in newspapers today. To pronounce names no longer attached to anything. Not to memorialize, but to gain a sense of scale. I tried to weave the mystery of the antique seamlessly with present-day conundrums and banalities to gain a sense of scale that is holier, I think, definitely less destructive than a view narrow enough to justify, say, the hideous contrast of luxury architecture being built upside or in place of longstanding redbrick houses in gentrified neighborhoods like Northern Liberties (Who remembers just a few years back black people attacking whites with bricks there, beating them unconscious?).

But there are seams. I took care not to reduce people’s experiences to my own, nor to elevate mine; to let each be discrete, stand alone, and to know I’m gonna die. Don’t know if I succeeded.

I wanted to state bare facts and face them.

Philadelphia remains mostly poor and violent.

I don’t mean accept facts. I mean face, as in “not turning away.” Journalism 101? I didn’t want to make a newspaper, though. Nor parody of one. Initially, I thought of each piece as a page in a newspaper (e.g, the sports page). I abandoned that idea. It was cute, but ultimately this is just a book of poems that make up one long poem. I wanted to write a poem. Investigation, sure, but more songlike than reportage, I hope. Poetry is more nuisance, new-sense, than news. It should keep working, keep going. To resist inevitability - the psychology if not the politics of inevitability. To resist the cult of the final word and cultural amnesia. To value means no less than ends. And for the pleasure of it, the pleasure in placing one thing next to another - by knowing that first thing first - and moving your eyes across both, creating a sound. Pleasure and idea in the experience of juxtaposition. That is sound. A sound sound.

I wanted the book to move from page to page the way my prose poems (from my previous mss., stolen cars) had moved from sentence to sentence. This would be the form of investigation. With the prose poems, I began with a particular image or circumstance and followed it with a sentence that developed what was most at stake, most urgent in that first image or circumstance, then treated the second sentence the same way with the third, etc. There were two methods of development (or, investigation, if you like). 1) description of an object or situation that is physically near and in relation to the circumstance described in the sentence preceding it; 2) metaphor, simile, or association (sound or sense of something) that is grounded in the reality of the circumstance it is developing—not reference to something that will remain outside the perimeter of the story merely for the sake of description. The point was to show the world in motion. I wanted the digression that adds (not decorates or erases) – this is inspired by the talk-poems of David Antin – the digression that builds, digs deeper, arrives and arrives while it leaves and leaves. This got really hard to do from page to page; probably I failed. Sentences and pages aren’t the same thing, after all.

As I read Old News I see and hear two motions: digging (unearthing) and an accordion-like motion of unification/separation among the characters (myself included). This I didn’t plan. I can only write without knowing where I’m going. If that sounds like a romantic position, okay, but it isn’t hopelessly so. It’s how one learns.

The poetics is in the poem “remains” - the rhythm I arrived at is in that. It has carried over into living.