Thursday, August 5, 2010

Motion of Poetry - Muriel Nelson

We came across Muriel Nelson as we have everyone else - via a Call for writings. A meeting of strangers; papers crossing desks. The wonderful part of our work is reading submissions - what great surprises we find, and Muriel Nelson is such a one, without question. We were taken by her poetry immediately - by its movement, only later absorbing sounds and ideas. We like how Muriel blends the here - with the far; the familiar - with the distant; the known - with the unknown; the present - with the past. Continuing our series of background information on Bibliotekos contributors, we offer below (in her own words), Muriel’s Profile. Delight in it - and read her poetry. Check out Muriel’s publisher, Bear Star Press - and order some of their books (for yourself or your local/college library). Please note that the Profile is the copyrighted work of Muriel Nelson. You can find a little on Muriel here, at Verse Daily, including some of her online poems. And here, at the Beloit Poetry Forum blog.
My favorite way to get to know a poet is to find out what the poet loves. I’m fond of Miroslav Holub’s playful little “Conversation with a poet” in which Holub writes:

Are you a poet?
Yes, I am.
How do you know?
I’ve written poems.
If you’ve written poems it means you were a poet. But now?
I’ll write a poem again one day.

In that case maybe you’ll be a poet again one day. . .

Holub’s sharp logic draws my admiration, but what attracts me more is his keen awareness of boundaries, especially the one between the way he made his living as scientist and the living he made as poet. Most of all, I share his doubt of being privileged to cross that border again and again for more poems.

In my childhood home, also dominated by science, thinking meant linear logic which was regarded as a strength far superior to emotion. Creating meant carrying out a plan to make something tangible and useful (with the exception of music). Such patterns of thought were as firmly etched into my brain as the syntax of the sentences I learned to speak. Discovering poetry later meant exploring unplanned and mysterious territory beyond the limits of human logic and its tight controls, territory which could suddenly become vividly present, and then disappear.

About twenty years ago, when I was intensely involved in community volunteer work, a magazine on my lunch table fell open to an interview with Joseph Brodsky. I couldn’t stop reading after a paragraph or two, as was my habit at the time, so I bought Brodsky’s A Part of Speech. I bought it for a friend, mind you, because I thought she needed it, but when I read the first few poems to see if they would suit her, a childish voice in my head said, “She can’t have this. It’s mine!” She filed her gift with her old grammar books. A second copy became the beginning of my new life in poetry.

Imagine studying and practicing your way through two music degrees and many recitals, poking your nose into out-of-the way places in Europe to learn languages and research ’cello music, teaching, raising children, caring for dying relatives, and starting community programs, all the while losing the habit of reading, and then picking up a book from a culture foreign to you. There you find that the author has made his poems out of your diary—which you’ve never shown anyone—which, in fact, you’ve never written. After stealing a memory of yours, your image for it with its exact date, the way you once coped with the worst of life, your leaps beyond logic to points where no language would go naturally, and even your very words to describe this theft; he quietly points out that none of this was ever true, not in the way you had believed.

I hadn’t read Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” nor did I realize yet that this Russian “primer,” or maybe that hurried lunch, would be a new beginning for me. Music, not poetry, was my art, and reading Brodsky’s poems made me angry. How could that Russian, writing from some prison or Gulag, know details about my inner life: my words in the English translations he had made himself, my figures of speech, and my patterns of thought?

Angry and mystified, too, I read everything I could of his to find out how he did that, attempted my own poems, and made a list of questions I couldn’t answer by reading, which he later graciously answered for me. I was a beginner, and he was trailing all possible honors in this field—the McArthur Genius Award, the Nobel, US Poet Laureate, etc. He was also in precarious health, so you can imagine what a generous act those answers were on his part, and what daunting and exhilarating conversations those were for me.

I went home, wrote, and studied with the silly goal of learning to write one poem which some day he might read and say, “Now there’s a poem.” Two weeks after I finished my second master’s degree, from the Warren Wilson MFA Program For Writers, and before I had published much of anything, the evening news carried a bulletin that at the age of 55, Joseph Brodsky had died.

I’m not sure it is possible to explain this or any other inspiration or influence, but I think patterns of thought are more apparent and audible in poetry than in prose writing. When these patterns collide or coincide with a reader’s at a particular moment, something like the lift which makes an airplane fly can occur. The poems I love to read to lift my consciousness convey their most profound meanings in sound. After all, when I begged to learn to read, my mother taught me to read music hoping that I wouldn’t be a misfit in first grade. I must have thought that everything in a book made sounds. Since sound is the most difficult aspect to translate, I am still in awe of the following two examples: In Marbles: A Play in Three Acts, Brodsky plays with Russian/English cognates (by way of Latin) and with near rhymes to work his way out of boredom, coming up with, “Medium, tedium, Te Deum, Per Diem.” In “The Fountain,” his meters, liquid (voiced) consonants, and obsession with negatives join to produce this: “For no loneliness is deeper than the memory of miracles.”

As you can tell, the project of Common Boundary is closely related to what fascinates me and inspires my writing: those profound walls and gaps between individuals and groups of many kinds, breaks and breakthroughs, untranslatables and correspondences, and the high energy which can suddenly forge new bonds—in humans and whizzing particles alike. It’s that energy which I hope moves my poems. My poems are made of things over- and underheard, stolen, mis-taken, transferred from music, and sometimes spelled by ear—disparate bits and odd God-thoughts; i.e., my imperfect observations, fascinations, concerns, and shortcomings along with some I’ve borrowed. In my notebook are fleeting ideas and moves harvested from poems which have struck me as fresh, odd, funny, wise, and promising. My poems in Common Boundary draw on the few memories passed down to me of my Russian-German grandmother widowed on her homestead in Washington State, whispers of a distant relative whose branch of the family was sent to Siberia, writings of a student whose parents survived the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, news of refugees from Kosovo, and a loving “breakthrough” gesture I learned while attempting to teach music to deaf children.

I guess my method is like playing with Legos. Our sons used to say they needed “a red four-bump piece” or a black propeller, which they would take from something else—ideally from what the brother was making. For me, line breaks pull ideas apart enough to allow alternative meanings to break through and enrich. Sound often provides my “Lego bumps” to snap unmatched words and ideas together.

Perhaps you are a lover of a good story. I am, too. The lyrical compression which I admire in poems where every word is both necessary and rich can be exhausting, and as W. H. Auden writes in “The Composer,” “the poet fetches / The images out that hurt and connect.” To relax and enlarge my world, I’ve most recently enjoyed the fiction of Louise Erdrich for its ecstatic moments, the young writer Jonathan Safran Foer for delightful collage effects and high emotion, Zora Neale Hurston for gorgeous descriptions and those voices, Flannery O’Connor for relentless irony, and Toni Morrison for complexity, wisdom, and hilarious names.

I’m not a narrative writer, but when I’ve put poems together into book-length manuscripts, I’ve discovered some main or recurring concerns. My MFA thesis attempted to bring the various parts of my life into a sort of coherent whole or, at least, coherent relationships—an attempt which many current thinkers argue is futile. Artistically, I was fascinated with music/poetry correspondences and sound/sight images such as Czeslaw Milosz’s “ringing, rolling sun,” so like a baby’s ball. My first published book, Part Song (Bear Star Press, 1999), and a later collection, Sightsinger, continue to play with sound and sight, the latter riffing on Emily Dickinson’s question, “Why — do they shut Me out of Heaven?” My chapbook, Most Wanted (ByLine Press, 2003), was inspired by Osip Mandelstam’s idea of the distant addressee, and I’m still haunted by a conversation with my former musicology professor Alexander Ringer, a survivor of the camps, who told me near the end of his life that he was struggling to write a book in German because “the Europeans are the only ones who understand me.” Later, I wrote a collection, Daylights, which is unified, I hope, by the many meanings of the title word. Now I’m working on the ancient idea “to know in one’s heart.”

I must qualify that last sentence. I want to be writing poems to follow one called “To Wit, To Dote” (published in Beloit Poetry Journal). I try to start poems by reading—most recently, the brilliant young poet Ben Lerner for his inventions, my former mentor Heather McHugh for her intensive language and generous heart, my friend and wonderful critic Martha Zweig for her word play and light hand, and Anne Carson for what she will come up with next. Often, though, life—family, teaching, care for the garden’s fruit, rehearsals, news, illness, and the drudgery that accompanies it all—interferes, and then opens the way to the kind of doting that leads to poems.