Fire Writers Conference

This past Monday I had the honor of leading a workshop for the Fire Writers conference, a one day series of creative writing workshops conducted for high school students from public and private schools across Yamhill County. The conference was held at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Oregon. Workshop leaders included Kate Carroll de Gutes, C. Morgan Kennedy, Fonda Lee, and Kate Ristau.

Alex Dang opened the conference by performing his poem “What Kind of Asian Are You?,” a powerful poetic statement that interrogates the poet’s struggle to define his identity while dealing with problematic stereotypes imposed from the outside. Dang’s presence was important for me, as it made room for my own presence. Performing as a writer of color involves summoning up not only nerve but conscience. How can I best present my work with integrity and conviction? Who will hear it? Teaching is also performance, and these questions come to mind often in my work on and off the page.

Kim Stafford then gave a keynote address entitled “Poetic Testimony for Strange Times.” In this address, Stafford spoke of the importance of embracing what he terms the “3 gifts”: your fire (your own way of kindling self and following “what makes you pay attention”), your truth, and your writing. He also shared stories about his travels as Oregon State Poet Laureate and read poems written by high school students he’s met during his tenure. Hearing Stafford speak is always a lesson in generosity and how the writing life can answer and honor human life one word at a time.

49898424_1987904911257037_4298754598161612800_oMy own workshop was entitled “Mira/Look: Ways of Poetic Looking” and focused on exploring the power of naming, describing, and evoking, framing these acts as forms of “seeing.” The exercise involved reading, and some in the moment writing of haiku. The students in both of my sessions were impressive in their enthusiasm for writing and in their depth of responding to the ideas I presented. I also participated in the haiku writing alongside them, something I don’t normally allow myself to do. Here are two haiku from these sessions:

the space between my front teeth
the air pure
morning observation

resistance
is being tired but alive
winter sunrise

Experiences like this conference always bolster my self-esteem as a writer. Whether it’s engaging in generous conversation about each other’s writing projects, sharing writing tools and strategies with young writers, or simply listening and sharing worries and concerns about the writing life, a gathering like this one strengthens my conviction as both writer and human.

Special thanks to Lisa Ohlen Harris, Deborah Weiner, and everyone else who helped make this conference possible! And a warm thanks to the students who shared their time and writing with me, and to the teachers who continue to guide their way.

*

As part of his keynote address, Kim Stafford shared the following poem by his father, William Stafford, which approaches the idea of “the muse” with tact and purpose, side-stepping the usual problematic tropes around the idea. I suppose what I mean when I speak about experiences like this conference strengthening me, I mean something of salvation. A reminder that, like the one given to the speaker of this poem, one is able to save one’s self.

 When I Met My Muse – William Stafford

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off – they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

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writing prompt: Stafford’s four elements of daily writing practice

For this week’s writing prompt, I’m revisiting my time presenting at and attending the Oregon Poetry Association conference in September. While I have devised mine own daily writing habits over the years, it was at this conference where I learned the practices of one of my go to poets, William Stafford.

Stafford’s son, Kim Stafford, was this year’s keynote speaker, and along with some compelling insights into his current poetic life, he shared with us his father’s daily writing practice. From my notes, here’s how he broke it down:

Four Elements of Daily Writing Practice

1. Write the date. Kim Stafford said this was simple enough, then quoted his father: “Once I write the date, I know I’m okay. “

2. Write a paragraph of boring prose. Stafford said this could be in the realm of “Dear diary…” language, straightforward observations from everyday life. He also framed this step as “writing before you have to write well.”

3. Write an aphorism. This step involves writing a one sentence observation on life or idea. Doing this also involves stepping back and seeing a pattern in your “boring prose.” In practice, if step 2 feels like boarding a plane, checking the luggage, etc., then this step is like taxiing on the runway.

4. Write whatever comes next, a poem, a story, etc. Having been warmed up by the previous steps, you’re ready to take flight.

While William Stafford himself was famous for his daily writing habits, seen with a kind of awe, he was also the first to point out that it was a humbling habit. I can verify that writing every day doesn’t necessarily lead to gold; more often, you have scratches and inklings. But, for me, it’s all about the attention to language, being able to stay close to the heat behind turns of phrase and word choice – that’s the value of daily writing.

However you choose to get into this process, be sure to make it your own. If not daily, weekly even. What matters is you and your words.

Here’s a blog post by Kim Stafford where he elucidates on the process further.

OPA freewriteBelow is my own first attempt at Stafford’s practice. Because this first attempt was written at the conference itself, my boring prose is short. As for the poem, I did what I often do, which is pick a number of words per line as a structural guide (here, it’s 4 words per line). I had in mind two new friends of mine that I had just met at the conference.

Let me know if you end up trying your hand at this practice. Would love to hear from y’all! [ thefridayinfluence@gmail.com ]

Daily Writing freewrite – José Angel Araguz

  1. 09/29/2018
  2. I have driven to Eugene to present and be uncomfortable it seems.
  3. Poets don’t ask for credentials, not the real ones, they ask to hear about the work we share.
  4. (Poem):

Meeting a poet after
walking and not speaking,
not making eye contact,
not knowing what I
matter to or what’s
a matter with me,
we begin to talk
of language in language
we’re fond of; there’s
others walking around us
but the words between
us, who has placed
these words between us?

meditation: william stafford

This time last year found me writing about meditation in a blog post for the Cincinnati Review, about its place in both the writing and personal life. It’s one of those concepts and practices that gets lost under human error and flash, much like good poems often get lost in the error and flash of revision. Yet meditation’s troubled calm is worth reckoning with for whatever glimpse of clarity it might bring to your life; in this way, too, meditation is linked to the reading and writing of poetry.

oregon-51014_960_720One poet who I feel lived and reckoned with this troubled calm is William Stafford. In “Meditation,” Stafford adds his own take on the concept. This short lyric reveals and hides itself like a coin flipped in the air. Both an admission of defeat and of hope, it dwells right where one waits for things like memory, poems, and clarity.

Meditation – William Stafford

If I could remember all at once — but I have forgotten.
But some day, looking along a furrowed cliff, staring
Beyond the eyes’ strength, I’ll start the avalanche,
And every stone will fall separate and revealed.

*

Read more about William Stafford here.

saying with william stafford

Scars – William Stafford

They tell how it was, and how time
came along, and how it happened
again and again. They tell
the slant life takes when it turns
and slashes your face as a friend.

Any wound is real. In church
a woman lets the sun find
her cheek, and we see the lesson:
there are years in that book; there are sorrows
a choir can’t reach when they sing.

Rows of children lift their faces of promise,
places where the scars will be.

*

Reaching out to William Stafford’s work today in light of the inauguration. Fear still finds its way into conversations between me and Ani. I find myself thinking back on other elections, other times when the “slant” life took unsettled me. Whatever happens, I am grateful again for my readers – of the blog, of the work, of poetry in general. Through these words of ours we learn from each other.

Frozen_River.jpgThe poem above floors me by the subtle way it develops its metaphors, culminating in the image “there are years in that book.” I think of Stafford as one of the great “readers” of the books in scars and moments. Such careful reading breeds careful saying. The poem below is a good example. If read too fast, one might miss what is being said. You might think that the way with all poems. Pues, so it goes. It has taken me years of loving this poem to begin to hear the river elsewhere coursing the river frozen here. Here’s to continuing forward with our saying and listening.

*

Ask Me – William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made.  Ask me whether
what I have done is my life.  Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait.  We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

*

Happy saying!

José

* revisiting everything

This week, I had the opportunity to talk poetry at the Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat which is held at Adelphi University. We wrote about the moon a la William Stafford’s qoute, and used that exercise’s focus on performance and attention to talk about various approaches to lyrical prose.

It was a great group who asked me questions ranging from what kind of sandwich I would be and why (the answer: French dip, because it’s a plain sandwich, just bread and meat, but it’s transformed in the eating, the dip into the au jus sauce before taking a bite making it a little funky, as I try to do to mine own plain words and self), to what role does place have in my process. The answer to this latter question is complicated. I mean, when by the mountains in New Mexico, my poems tried to stretch like a range across the horizon; when in NYC, my poems tried to match the heights of skyscrapers. But when it comes to my books, there’s a little bit of everywhere and everything in each. We carry our places with us as much as our stories.

I thought of this as Rob Linne, who was kind enough to invite me to talk at the retreat, introduced me by saying that I was from Corpus Christi, calling the city one of his many hometowns. Something about that phrasing and sentiment continues to feel right to me days later.

Much of the talk revolved around me reading poems from my book Everything We Think We Hear, and then tying in the little lessons each poem gave me as I worked towards a final draft, lessons about lyrical prose as much as life.

One poem from the book I had planned to but didn’t get a chance to read is “Old Love.” This poem’s first draft came from a dream where I heard the final lines in my head and lived out the final image of talking into a baby carriage. I literally stumbled out of bed and those lines down, but it took a few years to really to where the poem wanted to go. While a lesson in waiting, this poem also became a lesson in honesty,  which requires its own waiting sometimes.

Old Love

 

When I dream of an old love, I let it ride, having already broken off what connected us, and not wanting to go through it all again. I drink my coffee the way they would remember me taking it, for some light and sweet, for others black and with a comment on how I can’t believe how long it took me to take it this way, undiluted, untampered, bitter. With a heat on my tongue, I listen to old love, let my mind wander more than I did when I was with them, knowing I have had this conversation, feeling the answers give over as accommodating as leaves to sunlight. With a green on my tongue, I inevitably mix up the conversations: ask after the father of one whose father was never around; whisper an inside joke I realize too late I never shared. When old love looks at me lost, I ask, Where did you get those, and point sometimes to a set of bow and arrow earrings, sometimes a pair of toucans tattooed on the inside of an arm. Stories of boutiques I paced politely. Stories of a childhood fascination with colorful birds. Don’t you remember? When we run out of small talk, I find myself pushing a baby carriage in which old love has fallen in. Helpless, I look down, only to hear myself doing baby talk, shaking my head, waving my hands, emphatically repeating words, and, in general, speaking in such a way I know I cannot ever make myself understood.

*

This weekend is CantoMundo. I’ll be participating in one of two CantoMundo readings in Austin, TX, details below. If you happen to be in town, stop on by – it promises to be a great time! I’ll be part of the group reading on Saturday.

Screenshot_2016-07-21-17-45-54-1

Happy everthinging!

José

* writing the woods with wislawa szymborska

In the summer course I’m teaching, we have been discussing ideas of writing as performance; that is, what gets going as soon as words are on the page. It’s similar to what William Stafford means when he says, “The moon you are describing is the one you are creating,” which I wrote about in a post from this Spring. 

I came across this week’s poem, “The Joy of Writing” by Wislawa Szymborska, and share it here because of the connection it has to these concepts of writing as performance. From the beginning, the poem ties the act of writing to what’s being described, creating a singular conceit of “these written woods.” The metaphor is stretched enjoyably far. What I find most enjoyable of all, at least this week, is the startling nature of the last line: “Revenge of a mortal hand.” In contrast to the title of the poem which sets up low dramatic expectations, Szymborska takes us down to that last line with a sense of mortality and complication that is surprising as well as apt and necessary.

The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827

The Joy of Writing – Wislawa Szymborska

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Happy mortaling!

José

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Reasons (not) to Dance by Jose Angel Araguz

Reasons (not) to Dance

by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends August 07, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

* moody mooning with stafford & gilbert

If you were a scientist, if you were an explorer who had been to the moon. . . What you said would have the force of that accumulated background of information; and any mumbles, mistakes, dithering, could be forgiven . . . But a poet – whatever you are saying, and however you are saying it, the only authority you have builds from the immediate performance, or it does not build. The moon you are describing is the one you are creating.  From the very beginning of your utterance you are creating your own authority.
(William Stafford)

trojanLast Friday, I had the pleasure of talking at Foy H. Moody High School (Go Trojans!), the high school I graduated from in Corpus Christi, Texas. My talk was structured around the above quote from William Stafford and the idea of writing as performance. Along with reading poems about the moon, I provided students with index cards where they could try their hand at describing/creating the moon. Here’s one that a student, Ashley, was kind enough to allow me to share here:

It makes me want to swallow
my tears, it makes me believe
I can forget my fears.
It gives me hope.

One of the things that moves me about this young poet’s lyric is how it reaches out to a similar sentiment as the Izumi Shikibu tanka I shared last week. Both lyrics set the solitary figure of the moon against the solitude of the self and work out of that tension a feeling of hope. Truly inspiring!

As part of my visit, I donated copies of Corpus Christi OctavesReasons (not) to Dance, and Everything We Think We Hear to the library. As I made my way through readings from Reasons and Everything, I found the moon popping up over and over again in the poems, serendipitously chiming along with the framework of my talk. It was one of those happy accidents that happen while teaching that, in a way, show your intuition paying off.

When a student asked why I thought the moon came up in the poems so much, I surprised myself again by sharing that it might have something to do with having shared a room as a child with my mother. She would work late nights, and often I would stay awake in bed staring out the window. And most nights the moon was there; when not, then the stars.

Looking back on this moment, I can’t help thinking about the following poem by Jack Gilbert, where he gives his own moon-reasoning:

Secrets of Poetry – Jack Gilbert

People complain about too many moons in my poetry.
Even my friends ask why I keep putting in the moon.
And I wish I had an answer like when Archie Moore
was asked by a reporter in the dressing room
after the fight, “Why did you keep looking in
his eyes, Archie? The whole fight you were
looking in his eyes.” And old Archie Moore said,
“Because the eyes are the windows to the soul, man.”

738px-Galileo's_sketches_of_the_moon
* mirrors to the sol *

Another “wish I could back and share” thought: It completely slipped my  mind that in the Octaves I have the following poem where I riff and hold conversation with the Stafford quote. I share it here in the spirit of belatedness:

The moon you are describing is the one you are creating
– William Stafford

How many moons between us, friend?
I meet you under circumstances
bad and good: bad, because you’re not here,
good, because I get to listen

and hear the moon you’d have me see.
Moon of my own efforts: where to start?
My questions? What are questions? Tonight,
the moon is in the shape of one.

*

Special thanks to Simon Rios and Melissa Yanez of Moody for helping set up the talks! Thanks also to Ashley, Marcos, and all the other students who participated in the talk about the moon!

Happy lunaring!

José