Saturday, November 10, 2018

Are Poets’ Spoken Voices Part of Their Art?

I recently spoke to a poet who said a surprising thing to me: “I don’t like going to poetry readings. I prefer not to hear a poet’s voice, because once I hear it, I always hear it in my head when I read their poems.” That amazed me, because that’s exactly why I do like to go to poetry readings. I enjoy hearing the poet’s individual and idiosyncratic use of the spoken language.

Can you imagine the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, for example, without that whiny, growly, funny, syncopated, and deeply tender voice of his? Here’s an example of Ginsberg reading his famous tribute to Walt Whitman, “A Supermarket in California.”

Allen Ginsberg
Who can conceive of the poetry of Sekou Sundiata without his soulful baritone, completely as musical as Charlie Parker’s solos, especially since Sekou chose to record and not to publish most of his poems. Here’s Sekou reading his irrefutable and still all-too-relevant indictment of racial profiling, “Blink Your Eyes.”

Or Adrienne Rich’s ringing voice calling out the powerful in her precise syllables, as exact and exacting as her diction and imagery and politics. Here is Adrienne reading her poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”

Adrienne Rich
Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. Do we know what Shakespeare’s voice sounded like? Or Lorca’s? Not knowing their voices allows us the freedom to interpret their poems when they are spoken, just as a ballad singer can interpret “Fly Me to the Moon” her own way. Each singer sings it differently. That’s a good thing.

But even if we know the sound of a poet’s voice, that doesn’t preclude a great reciter from recreating the poem for herself. Think of the Oscar-nominated actor Alfre Woodard reinterpreting Ntozake Shange’s “Somebody Almost Walked Off Wid All My Stuff” in for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. Ntozake was a magnificent reader of her poetry, but that didn’t stop Alfre Woodard from reinventing the poem with her own voice, inflections, and choreography. 

Ntozake Shange
In the age we live in, where recordings can be preserved almost as easily as books, and maybe more permanently, a poet’s voice can be part of a writer’s legacy. And why shouldn’t it? In a way, that challenges writers to read their work more professionally and memorably. Isn't the sound of poetry what distinguishes it from the other literary arts? How sad that we don't know the timbre of Lorca's speech, since he lived in the age of recorded sound, but was assassinated before his voice could be preserved for all time. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Unwritten Pact between a Writer and a Reader


Most books of fiction or poetry involve an unwritten pact between the writer and the reader. That pact takes the form of an understanding that the reader develops based on the tone and topic of the book; the title and early chapters or poems; and the cover, genre, and publicity for the book. Based on all those, the reader develops certain expectations.

For example, the tone of a book could seem romantic, such as a book that has the word “love” in its title: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, for instance. Or, if a book is classified as a mystery, such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we are prepared for a certain amount of blood, since there will probably be a violent murder. As likely as not, more than one.


Readers often choose a book because they are in the mood for a romance, or a thriller, a mystery, or a historical novel, so if the author varies greatly from the initial expectations, the reader can feel cheated, bored, shocked, or betrayed. Readers have their threshold for how much they want of violence, sex, philosophy, romance, etc. One of the surest ways for a writer to lose a reader before the end of a book is to violate the unwritten pact that s/he has made with the reader.

When I was listening to the audiobook of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was prepared for there to be some gore. What’s a mystery without a body? But the type of sadistic rape/murders in this book took me by surprise. I thought this was going to be more of an English-style mystery with quirky characters and a detective with a loveably odd personality who turns out to be uniquely suited to solve the crime. But the farther I got into the plot, the more I realized this book was about a team of sadistic rapist-murderers who committed the most violent and sick acts, not once, not twice, but over and over. I did something I never do when I’m reading a book—I gave up only twenty pages from the end, because I couldn’t stomach one more drop of blood. Essentially I felt betrayed by the author. I had been lured into a world that seemed relatively in balance except for a random crime, but that world turned out to include a cascade of horrible and almost unstoppable atrocities.

It may be an author’s Weltanschauung that the world is endlessly violent and cruel, and who am I to second-guess anyone’s worldview? But it did feel to me as if the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had violated a pact with me as a reader. Yes, the author has an obligation to make a statement, and also to surprise the reader. But in my opinion that surprise cannot go so far that the reader feels cheated out of the type of experience that s/he was led to believe the book would provide. I think we as authors have to be sensitive to a reader’s expectations, not to coddle the reader, but we do have to deliver on what we promise.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Writing the Historical Novel: An Interview with Jasmin Darznik, author of Song of a Captive Bird

I recently read the wonderful novel Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik, about Forugh Farrokhzad (1935­–1967), one of Iran’s greatest poets. It’s a fascinating and beautifully written story. I asked the author several questions about how she wrote the book and the challenges of writing a historical novel about a real person.

Jasmin Darznik
For those who are not familiar with Forugh Farrokhzad, could you give a very brief summary of who she was, what she accomplished as an artist, and what she represents to those who revere her?

Brought up in Tehran during the 1940s and 1950s, Forugh Farrokhzad, was the first woman to transcend the label of “poetess” without the support or patronage of a man. She was not yet twenty when she wrote “The Sin,” a poem so candid and daring that its publication in 1955 made her the most notorious woman in the country. Her five books of poetry cemented her reputation as a rebel and a powerful voice for women’s rights and social justice.

Her poems still offer an extraordinary reading experience more than half a century after they were first composed: the subject matter is daring, the language unfettered, and the point of view direct and unapologetic. More than perhaps any other writer, Forugh Farrokhzad gave Iranian women permission to be bold, furious, lustful, and rapturous. She remains an icon in Iran—one of the most influential women in the country’s history.

Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967)
Why is her story so compelling to you?

The longer I write, the more I believe that stories choose us, rather than the other way around, and that it’s not so much our work to make up them up as to let them be told through us. Art, if it is art, will tend to go its own way, and in the words of Theodore Roethke, we learn by going where we have to go. To be less elusive: Writing Forugh’s story was where I had to go to understand Iran and forces that shaped the 1979 Revolution and sent so many thousands of Iranians—my family among them—into exile.

Why write a novel about her life as opposed to a biography?

A biography was impossible, at least for me. Given Iran’s tumultuous history, and its ongoing complexities, so many stories have been buried or obscured. Forugh’s is one of them. By the time I got to her, she was more myth than woman. There is so much that’s unknown and perhaps even unknowable about her. When she died her papers and letters went missing, those close to her were, and in some cases remain, circumspect. All that proved useful to me as a novelist because it opened the way for my imagination.

Could you give examples of some things that your research did not or could not reveal that you had to make up in the novel? How were you able to imagine those scenes or characters?

Song of a Captive Bird opens with a scene in which a fifteen-year-old Forugh undergoes a virginity test, with traumatizing and disastrous results. I didn’t know if Forugh had ever undergone such a test, but it was consonant with the other facts I was able to discover about her and, more broadly, about young women of her generation. The more I thought about it, the absence of any evidence only strengthened the possibility she had experienced something of this kind. This is precisely the kind of story that would have been repressed or suppressed, and also the kind of experience that could explain the dramatic rupture that occurred in her life when she turned sixteen.

Another example: It’s likely that Forugh, like many artists and progressive people of her era, was closely watched by the monarchy then in power. What shape that watching took was a mystery, and one I decided to solve through writing the book. I didn’t expect it would be such a central part of the book, but the more I wrote the more it felt impossible to disentangle Forugh’s story from the story of what was happening in the country in the 1950s and 60s.

Were there moments in the plot where your own experiences helped you identify with Forugh? Could you mention one of those and how your own story helped you write more deeply about a particular incident?

I left Iran when I was a child and haven’t been back, but the cultural taboos and prohibitions Forugh faced are deeply familiar to me from my upbringing. This is what so enraptured me about her writing when I discovered it. She was writing about a world I knew, and doing it with an honesty that still felt risky decades after her death. I found myself profoundly moved by the feeling that her poems weren’t just telling me a story, they were telling me who she was. Having grown up in a family where telling who you were could be, and often was, regarded as a betrayal, her poems were both a revelation and a provocation. The obstacles I’ve faced have been negligible compared to what she experienced, but I know well the voice that tries to keep Iranian women silent.  

You chose to translate the poems of Forugh Farrokhzad in the book yourself. Could you tell us about that process? At what points in the story did you feel it was important to insert part of a poem?

I chose poems that were critical to my composition of the book. Many scenes grew directly out of my reading of Forugh’s work, for example her poem “I Feel Sorry for the Garden.” In the novel I imagine the literal destruction of her childhood garden, an experience I imagine might have inspired her vision in that poem. Later in the novel there’s a scene that envisions the origin of her radically transgressive poem, “The Sin.” That poem totally changed her life—I couldn’t not include it. In other instances I was working less from what the poem expressed than what it implied. A mood, say, or frame of mind. The book’s final scenes are very much infused with the feeling of her late poems. I think that for American readers the inclusion of the poems does two things: introduces them to a writer they likely don’t know and, secondly, stages a dialogue between Forugh’s voice and mine.

You made an artistic decision at some point to have Forugh speak “beyond the grave,” so to speak, rather than to locate the narration of this novel at a point in her actual life. How did you decide to give her knowledge of events that occurred after her lifetime and what are the pros and cons of that choice for a writer?

In early drafts, the novel actually began with Forugh speaking “beyond the grave.” My editor helped me see that wasn’t the best choice for the opening since it gave away certain secrets. That said, I always knew that the story would embrace not just Forugh’s life—extraordinary as it was—but her legacy, and though there might have been other ways of capturing that legacy, it felt right for her to have the last word. I see the novel as her story, but also Iran’s. I wanted the reader to leave with a sense of the enormity of her influence as well as the ways the terrors and beauties of her Iran survive into the present-day.

What do you hope readers of the book will come away with, in terms of the life and work of Forugh Farrokhzad, and also the larger issues that her life brings into focus?

What Forugh’s life represents to me is the possibility of a woman becoming free. Free in her art, free in her life. She never achieved it, though she came close in some ways. Despite the seeming distance between her life and ours, between her country and this one, I think that in discovering her courage we can fortify and amplify our own.


Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Influence of Islamic Poetry on Western Poetry

It is so common these days in the West to stigmatize and stereotype the culture of Islam that we don’t often think about the fact that much of what we identify as Western culture was actually borrowed from Muslim peoples. Poetry provides several good examples of this.

We often think of rhymed verse as being characteristic of Western classic poetry. Actually, the opposite is true. Neither ancient Greek nor Roman poetry rhymed. Homer’s Odyssey was chanted to a strummed lyre, but the lines did not end in rhyme. Catullus, Virgil, Horace—none of the classic Roman poets wrote in rhyme.

Rhyme actually came into European verse through the influence of Arabic literature and the Qur’an on medieval Provençal poetry. Almost all of the Qur’an is written in rhymed verse. The oldest Arabic poetic forms, such as the qasiyah and the ghazal, dating from the 7th century C.E., use rhyme in their structure.

Rhymed Arabic poetic forms were sung and flourished in Spain during the Moorish period that began in the early 700s C.E. These forms influenced poetry in neighboring Provence, where the troubadours created and sang the first lively vernacular literature in Europe. There is more than one scholarly work that documents this legacy, including “The Impact of muwshah and zajal on troubadours poetry” by Ziad Ali Alharthi and Abdulhafeth Ali Khrisat, which claims that even the word “troubadour” derives from Arabic. These authors also maintain that the tradition of courtly love, so central to Provençal and modern Western poetry, came from previous traditions in Hispano-Arabic verse. They show that courtly love was originally a Sufi trope, equating the beloved with the divine. What could be more central to European literature than Dante’s love of Beatrice? And yet that too can be traced back to a Muslim tradition.

The influence of the rhyme schemes of Islamic poetry appears in some of the most unexpected places. What poem is more quintessentially American than Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

My little horse must think it queer  
To stop without a farmhouse near  
Between the woods and frozen lake  
The darkest evening of the year.

Do you recognize the AABA BBCB rhyme scheme? It’s not at all a typical pattern for English-language verse. 

Omar Khayyam (1048–1131 C.E.)
This is the rhyming pattern that Omar Khayyam used for his famed Rubaiyat in twelfth-century Persia:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

This rhyme scheme is actually called the “Rubaiyat stanza” because it was most famously used in Khayyam’s poem. So, even in one of our most American poems, you can find the influence of Islamic poetry.

The fact is that all of global culture is as intricately interwoven as Omar Khayyam’s rhyme scheme. Every culture has evolved in dialogue with the others it has known. The world is as interconnected culturally as it is ecologically. To pretend otherwise is to miss the one of the most important points about the arts.  


Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Power of YES: Why Community Matters in Your Writing Life, guest blog by Joan Gelfand

Do you know the story of how John Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono?

While visiting an art gallery—Lennon himself was a sketch artist as well as a Beatle—he spotted Ono on a ladder installing her one-woman art show: a huge sculpture of the word YES.

Joan Gelfand, guest blogger, poet, writing coach
There is a children’s book called Richard Scarry’s Please and Thank You. The book is an object lesson in teaching children the consequences of their actions with the help of a cast of lovable characters—Lowly Worm, Pig Will, and Pig Won’t.

Pig Will does what’s asked of him. Lo and behold, guess what? Pig Will gets the goodies. He gets to participate, have fun, and be an all-around happy guy.

Pig Won’t, of course, always finds a reason to say no. You guessed it. Pig Won’t doesn’t get the goodies.

Simple as this sounds, Pig Will has power.

When people see that you help out, not only because you want to build your reputation, but because you are a team player, you are also cheerfully having a “Pig Will moment.” You are “paying it forward.”

Not all of our Yeses or positive actions are immediately followed by fabulous outcomes. But haven’t you found that taking positive action—on balance—has benefited you?

The Big, Scary “Yes”

In 2004, I quit my corporate job to write a novel, had a setback, and was just starting to establish myself as a poet. Like many writers, I was busy! I still had a daughter at home, I was running a small business, and my writing projects had projects.

When a writer friend told me about the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), I was thrilled to meet colleagues and friends who were in the same boat! Soon after joining WNBA, members received an email. The current president was stepping down and, if someone didn’t take the reins, the chapter would fold. Wow. Okay. I was new to the group, but with the support of another member, we said “Yes,” and took on the presidency. Boy, did I get an education! I learned how to plan events, communicate to a group, and get things going. Together, we doubled our membership! Somehow, I found time in my busy life to help WNBA.

Two years later, I was asked to be the incoming national president’s vice president. Now, that was a serious ask! It meant two years as VP, two years as president, and two years as Immediate past president. I was loathe to take on a six-year commitment. I wanted to get back to my novel. My husband strongly advised that I take the position.

Since that time, I’ve had five more books published, four of which were directly related to my leadership role in WNBA. The other one certainly took into account that I had a national platform.
The point here is not about happy endings, it’s about why community matters in your writing life. 

Community

Doesn’t it seem to happen that just when you are feeling stretched thin, crunched for time, and really not in the mood that opportunities to say YES! present themselves?

What I want to say is that it isn’t always so obvious when the right time is to say “Yes.” Building your platform is not exactly like party planning.

Sometimes you need to say “Yes” exactly when you would be inclined to say NO!

Sometimes you make that extra effort to build your platform at exactly the time when you want to pull in your oars, hibernate, isolate and…. WRITE!

But winning writers, remember, are a breed apart. Winning writers who follow the “4 C’s” are  firing on all burners; building community, working on craft, maintaining commitment, and moving forward with confidence.

A note on teams: Remember that you don’t have to go it alone. When I took on the presidency of WNBA, I had mentors. Past presidents, executive board members, and chapter members were all sources of great inspiration and encouragement for me. “Yes!” 

Joan Gelfand’s new book, You Can Be a Winning Writer: The 4 C’s of Successful Authors: Craft, Commitment, Community and Confidence, published by Mango Press July, 2018 is on Amazon’s #1 Hot New Releases. The author of three poetry collections and an award winning book of short fiction, Joan is the recipient of numerous writing awards, commendations, nominations, and honors. Joan can be found writing and coaching writers at EcoSystms co-working space in SF. http://joangelfand.com 



Other recent posts about writing topics: How to Get PublishedGetting the Most from Your Writing WorkshopHow Not to Become a Literary DropoutPutting Together a Book ManuscriptWorking with a Writing MentorHow to Deliver Your MessageDoes the Muse Have a Cell Phone?Why Write Poetry? Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe VillanellePraise and LamentHow to Be an American WriterWriters and CollaborationTypes of Closure in Poetry