The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 1

I met Carrie Tangenberg several years ago in a writing group for poets and authors.  Right from the start I could tell she was an intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken woman.  The best part was that Carrie never came across as haughty or unapproachable.  On the contrary, her elegance and calm reserve combined with her intellect positioned her to make the most constructive critiques.  I have also witnessed this in the classical literature book club to which we both belong.

When I realized I needed a poet for The Artist’s Corner, Carrie immediately sprang to mind.  I only wish you could hear her answers in her own sophisticated voice.  I know you’ll enjoy reading them as they are deeply informative, openly transparent, and incredibly encouraging for anyone who has ever had a passion for art.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Creative writing has been part of my life since early childhood. In kindergarten, I wrote a story about a stick of personified butter in its trials and travails. I think that was my first story. Then, it was poetry in elementary school, which has persisted to present day.

After college, I applied my writing talent in office settings of the publishing and higher education fields. Later, I switched focus to teaching English and writing, along with other humanities subjects. Now, I blog about non-fiction, poetry, and novel writing, as well as nature, travel, and film and TV storytelling. I also tutor writing and career help online.

Other ways I stay connected to the writing world include participating in a classic literature book club, a local writing group, and our region’s National Novel Writing Month program. I took a course in memoir writing earlier this year, and I won a local poetry contest in spring 2016.

I also garden, bird-watch, practice photography, and hike in the area’s metro parks. In reading, I favor Outlander, literary fiction, adventure, contemporary realistic fiction, and sci-fi, poetry, and non-fiction works of memoir, writing about writing, and satire. My film preferences are eclectic, but many of my favorites happen to be space/alien sci-fi adventure such as Star Wars.

See the “About me” page of my blog for more philosophical and literary hints to my personality.

What prompted you to begin writing poetry?

I’ve always had a strong sense of rhythm and musicality, so after dancing jazz in first grade and lip-syncing to tunes in the living room, I started writing rhyming poems about birds in fifth grade. Most of my life’s poetry is about nature or wildlife, from the first to the most recent attempts. I also love language and playing with the sounds words make.

Who or what is your inspiration for writing poetry?

Number one, as I said, is wildlife or wilderness, often birds, trees and flowers, landscapes, waterways, and even insects, soil, and rocks, or as broad as the cosmos. I’m fascinated by predator-prey dynamics, the beauty and indifference of nature, and I love all sorts of animals. Favorites include wolves, foxes, African wild dogs, otters, all sorts of birds, chameleons, and meerkats. In an alternate life where I’m better at math and science, if I couldn’t be an ornithologist, I’d be a wildlife or canid biologist.

Other inspirations are existential or spiritual contemplation often intersecting with language and meaning—in other words, the nature of life, death, perception, reality, motivation, and how we express and understand those. Occasionally, I’m inspired by current events such as the death of Leonard Nimoy, for which I wrote my first elegy.

How does a poem begin for you, with an idea, a form, or an image?

It varies. Sometimes I’m attempting to capture an image with description. Other times, I like a phrase or concept and want to see what I can make of it. Mainly, spare impressions guide me forward, and the end result can often remain rather impressionistic. I long ago developed the habit of gravitating toward nature imagery for my similes and metaphors.

I suppose I enjoy the challenge of urging fresh ways of looking at nature, since it’s been done so much by so many poets and songwriters for so long. Nature poetry is typically the first kind that non-poetic types think of or attempt to write, usually a piece of verse about autumn leaves, celestial bodies, or weather. I often aim to upend those expectations or write the usual in an unusual way. So, the prominent starting points are ideas and language, but I might set out to fill a form such as a sonnet, blank verse, or even a limerick—for added, puzzle-solving challenge.

What conditions help you with your writing process? Where do you write? When do you write?

Optimal conditions are the ongoing puzzle I have yet to solve. If only I could figure this out, I’d be in so much greater shape artistically, if not also in terms of publishing. I write mostly at home, but I also find inspiration in local parks, other green spaces, and the occasional cafe. Sometimes I’ll start on the computer, but I keep in touch with the fact that handwriting can boost my creative flow. I write in cursive as often as in print letters, and that lends its own enjoyment of beauty to the exercise. I can write at all hours, whenever the mood or idea strikes, but I’m most productive late at night. I’m not sure when I write best, though.

What is your creative process? Do you have any routines?

Typically, I’ll draft a poem long-hand, then either mark it up or type it up for revision. Next, I’ll try to apply my revision ideas. Often it helps at this point to set the poem aside and come back after a few days or even weeks to see if I still like it enough overall to polish it in its current basic structure. If not, I’ll file it unchanged. If so, I’ll put my best foot forward in finalizing the poem.

I once chronicled my verse writing process on my blog in a series of 4 posts. I learned a lot by doing that, but I don’t know if it helped me set any particular approach in stone or make significant changes to my routine. The posts are cross-linked, and the first one is “On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation.

What books (of poetry or the creative process) or poets have influenced your writing?

Emily Dickinson was my initial influence for imagery, rhythm, and the combined sounds of words. She wrote a lot about death and loss, as well as nature, in her reclusive solitude. As a child, I had few close friends, so I could relate to some of that desolation and loneliness. Those feelings linger with me, but they’ve also evolved as I’ve adjusted how I write about nature. I have become accustomed to melancholy and used it to my artistic advantage.

Other works I find myself imitating are the nature poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Amy Clampitt, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats, and Judith Wright. I also love poets Philip Larkin and Billy Collins. Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, which I read in college, is simply stunning. Beauty drips from this post-colonial Caribbean take on Homer’s The Odyssey.

How often do you create a new poem? What style or form do you choose for your poems?

I write half a dozen or so poems a year, sometimes working on them for long periods and coming back after a break to revise further. The rest are brief impressions jotted and then affectionately released from my attention into the archives. Most often I write in free verse using internal or near rhyme.

Are there any forms you haven’t tried but would like to?

Let’s see. I’ve written one poem in blank verse, a few sonnets, a syllabic, an elegy, a sestina, a villanelle, couplets, limericks, a handful of concrete poems, free verse, songs with refrains, and I tend to play with line and stanza breaks. If I thought more about it, I would probably find lots of forms I’d like to try. I have a poster with a reference chart of poetic forms on it at home. Some of them are very difficult, though, and it takes real dedication, regular practice, or teaching poetry to be primed for those challenges. I tend to dabble and seldom tutor poetry writing, though I have enjoyed a few sessions.

How much of yourself do you write into your poetry?

That’s a good existential question if I ever saw one. For me, the way I’ve written myself into poetry has progressed in different stages, but sometimes I return to earlier ones. I used to write a lot of confessional poetry about feelings, anxieties, depression, situational impressions, my experiences during study in France, and some poems about playing soccer or about ideas in stories I’ve read.

Nowadays, I still write occasional complaints in poetic form, but I don’t consider those serious or publishable samples. I have a strong aversion to writing, or reading, political poetry. I prefer the essay form for that purpose. I find a lot of slam poetry and poetry focused on political viewpoints to be too whiny, with off-putting ideas or, most frequently, simply incomplete and unpolished. People tend to take liberties with form, clarity, and content when motivated by outrage or ennui.

I’m always somewhere in my own poems—as the speaker and observer, as a character made of shades of myself and my way of thinking and speaking, and sometimes as the subject. I think every writer is to some degree.

Do you find yourself returning to a particular theme in your poetry?

The most prominent themes include natural elements as expressions of mood, marveling at some specimen of the animal kingdom, struggles for personal freedom and comfort in my own skin, or a combination of these. I’ve also focused a lot on nature poetry in my blog, along with book and arts reviews, emphasizing Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book and the STARZ TV series. I recently added travel writing about our wonderful trip to Scotland inspired by Outlander. My blog title is a throwback to my philosophy roots, a nod to part of a nickname for me, and a portmanteau meant to capture that blend of writing topics: “Philosofishal.

Word choice in poetry seems so important. Do you write with a dictionary or thesaurus next to you or make words choices in the editing process?

I periodically refer to dictionary.com or thesaurus.com and research using the Internet. Word choice is extremely important—one of the most important aspects of poetry in particular and, I believe, any good writing. Precise meaning, the right sounds, the right shapes and lengths for optimal rhythm, and careful phrasing, punctuation, and line breaks all have to work in concert for the best effects.

Punctuation choice is highly under-appreciated as a conveyor of nuanced meaning in writing. In poetry, if it is to be used, which is not required, punctuation must be precisely and consistently applied. That was one of the most memorable lessons my verse writing professor had for me in college: “You really must study punctuation.” As an English teacher and poet, I pay close attention to grammar and mechanics standards. When you know the rules, you can more effectively bend, break or uphold them to fit a poem’s purpose and style.

What is your revision process like?

In a poetry reading event at the Akron-Summit County Public Library last year, former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, of whom I have been a long-time fan, said his writing process is nearly effortless. This comes with experience, of course, but he also makes a point of intentionally abandoning the task early if it gets too unwieldy, cumbersome, or sticky. I haven’t learned that trick, or earned that freedom, yet.

As I mentioned earlier, if I think I have a good enough start, I’ll draft and revise until it’s finished or until it’s changed too much to salvage. This speaks to the importance of saving versions. It can be unavoidable to struggle, though, and to be disheartened by ruinous results. Revision is the fine art of learning when good enough is good enough, which is very subjective, especially for new or amateur poets or poets without good editors. Perhaps I also feel a sense of urgency to put out a product, abandoning my drafts only after a hefty, strenuous effort, long past the wisest point of letting go.

Writers need to learn to become comfortable with what we call sh**ty first drafts, to expect snags and detours, and to know when it’s time to switch focus to a new or different project. Several factors may need to come together to make a piece work well, so that means a lot can go wrong, too. First, you have to know what the different aspects of a poem are. Then, after carefully assessing each factor and addressing each as needed, you can get a more realistic sense of a poem’s or a painting’s potential.

It’s always going to be something of a process, but we’re better off if we can recognize when we’re courting futility. The key at that moment is not to view this as a failure, which can be quite hard for artists, me included. Instead, finishing may be a simple matter of using a different form for the content, pinpointing that missing language or concept, or waiting a while for it all to coalesce, but that doesn’t necessarily make finishing any quicker or easier.

Is poetry your only type of writing? If not, what other types of writing do you indulge in? What is the relationship between your poetry and other writing?

I write a lot of different things, but not as many as I should or could if I were publishing my verse regularly. I write essays and articles on my blog about creativity, book reviews, TV shows, travel, and nature. I write novels during NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo. I write political manifestos I never publish, just to get things off my chest. I recently began trying my hand at memoir and may do more of that in the future. My main focus right now, though, is the non-fiction on my blog.

Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

My standards for what makes a good poem have definitely risen with education, my own reading, and writing experience. I’ve also found poetry in the prose of certain novels and learned to appreciate different poetic forms and outlets as I’ve aged, realizing how rare poetry really is.

Do poets experience (mental/writing) block (or fear) the way a writer of novels or short stories does? If you have, how did you handle it?

Writing is writing. Working with words or any creative material, in whatever form, brings with it challenges and rewards, as with any job. Furthermore, good writing and holding oneself to a standard of good writing means that, chances are, there will be anxiety. Pressure is useful up to a point. It’s when my own internal pressure to perform and produce becomes too much that I have the most trouble writing.

For me, it’s a periodically recurring problem. I feel as if I’m always searching for ways forward, but that’s also my nature: I’m a seeker. I’m very interested in the “how” of life and writing, so I experiment a lot, resist routine, and tend to suffer the inevitable consequences: interesting process, fewer outcomes, more worry. It’s mentally and emotionally taxing, but it can be creatively fruitful, too, because I’m already slightly outside the box in my thinking sometimes.

What do you hope to achieve with your poems? Do you ask questions in your poetry? If so, are they open ended questions or do you resolve them?

I have several different aims that can either cooperate or compete with each other in a poem for both my audience and myself. Beauty is one. Insight is another. Cleverness and novelty, yet others. Sometimes I write my journaling in verse, but I may not realize it’s just artistic journaling until later. In those cases especially, one of my aims is to convey a certain message or answer a particular question.

With nature poetry, as I mentioned earlier, a typical aim is to upset expectations, to open minds and hearts to new ways of seeing things. Along with these purposes, I’m mindful of craft and improving it. I might focus on developing a keener feel for line breaks or achieving tighter phrasing or using a different literary device than I might typically rely on.

As for solving or leaving unsolved, it depends. I think I often try my best to answer a question my poem poses, but more often than not, it’s only partially resolved or the question has changed or has been revealed to be missing the point by the end.

~~Part 2 of Carrie Tangenberg’s interview continues tomorrow at The Artist’s Corner

 

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

the-count-of-monte-cristoYou’ve probably heard it said many times that a movie is never as good as the book on which it was based. I’d have to agree 99.9% of the time, because I have two movies in mind that actually were better than the book. Still, as my aunt once pointed out to me, the reason I enjoyed movies based on my favorite books, and that is a rare occurrence, is because I read the book first and was familiar with all the details and nuances of story and character that never made it on screen.

With all that being said, The Count of Monte Cristo is one book that will never be captured in its entirety in a movie, and yes, I know it’s been made into a movie, and no, I haven’t watched any version; I don’t have to, I’ve read the book. All 1276 glorious pages. But perhaps a mini-series would do a good job of catching a few extra, interesting tidbits, you say. I’m sorry, my friend, that will never be sufficient.

As I read Alexandre Dumas, admittedly for the first time, his writing constantly reminded me of Anne Baxter’s portrayal of Nefertiti in The Ten Commandments. Both Dumas and Baxter displayed the same intensity of passion for his and her craft. I’m talking over-the-top passion that sweeps one away with what they are reading, or in the case of Baxter, watching.

The cast of characters is as interesting and varied as the type of people one might view walking through a crowded bazaar in a foreign country. Rich and poor, saint and sinner, they all have wonderful personalities, even when it’s as an antagonist, and backstory galore. The interesting thing is I didn’t once mind reading their histories because without it the overall novel would have lost its magic and momentum. Dumas wove together what would have been for writers of today probably two or three novels. Yet he made the enormous quantity of words and pages work. He made it flow. He made me sigh when I finished the novel the same way I would upon leaving great friends.

The Count of Monte Cristo is not for the timid or impatient reader nor is it for someone who wants a quick hit story that translates well onto the big screen. Everything that makes the novel a classic is, unfortunately, being stripped out of writing today. There’s a reason it’s a classic, and I believe one would do well to follow in the footsteps of the masters.

One such technique, which Dumas employed brilliantly, was to engage his reader directly with gentle reminders of previously mentioned details, scenes, and actions. The writers of today would probably label this poor writing because they’ve been taught not to do anything that would jar the reader out of the story. How absurd. I wasn’t jarred out of the story, my mind so feeble or easily distracted that I took offense with the author. On the contrary, I found it tantalizing for this passionate man to say, “Now stay with me because I have something even more incredible to show you, and I didn’t want you to forget a single detail in my extensive, worthy novel.”

My classical literature book group read the Robin Buss translation published by Penguin. I researched Buss as a translator, and the general opinion about his translation of The Three Musketeers was that he did the best and most accurate job. Therefore, I trusted him for The Count of Monte Cristo. The point on which all agreed regarding the Buss translation is that it kept certain sexual overtones in place which had previously been removed or glossed over by other translators and/or editors so as not to offend delicate, Victorian sensibilities. Don’t allow this tiny fact to scare you off from reading Dumas. Compared to novels produced today for tweens and teens, the sexual scenes Dumas wrote would be considered implied at best.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for an easy yet engaging read, an exciting romp through history full of adventure, dashing, mysterious men, maidens who blanch and faint, and above all a great story of well-deserved revenge, then I highly recommend The Count of Monte Cristo.

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald The Short StoriesAnyone who knows me knows I adore reading. And for those who don’t know me, it won’t take much time spent in my presence, whether in real life or via social media, to discover this. Recently, I’ve been reading the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I assigned this task to myself as part of the research for my new novel. My goal was to gain a better understanding of Fitzgerald through his writing first, and then I would tackle books of literary commentary as well as biographies of the man, the author, and his life.

I’m not sure where to begin with my review of Fitzgerald’s short stories because I must admit it isn’t favorable in the least. I must also confess my amazement that he earned the money he did during the era in which he wrote. This is especially astounding considering how small the payment is among literary journals today. According to the Dollar Times inflation calculator, four thousand dollars for “At Your Age” in 1929 would be like earning $55, 327.48 in 2016. The section notes prior to the story state this was his “top story price.” I interpret that as price per story and not salary for the year. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but either way, Fitzgerald was simply not that good an author.

If you read one short story, you’ve read them all and his novels as well. Beautiful, indifferent debutantes who pick up and drop men like they’re choosing and discarding shoes; rich ambitious fellas, possibly a football hero, who undoubtedly attended/will attend either Princeton, Yale or Harvard; a sprinkling of drunks, some hopeless, some loveable; endless comparisons between the North and the South or America and Europe; and the ambitious pursuit of money, fame, and power over, and over, and over again. The most unforgivable crime Fitzgerald committed in this reader’s eyes was to cannibalize his own short stories for the sake of his novels. Worse was the fact that his agent, editors, and publishers allowed him to get away with this.

Ridiculous and cliché are the two words that came to mind the most as I read Fitzgerald. The scenarios portrayed were outlandish and unbelievable, and I’m not counting “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when I say this. Why anyone, even fictional, would tolerate the behavior depicted among the characters is beyond me. I tried to keep in mind that attitudes and actions were different in the 20s and 30s, but my opinion of the situation often deteriorated to how stupid can one person be and how much longer before he/she quits putting up with this garbage? Perhaps this was common behavior among the rich and lovesick back then. I honestly couldn’t say.

None of Fitzgerald’s stories were memorable. As I looked back through the book, I tried to recall the storylines and characters by the title alone, but ended up cheating and reading the section notes. The only exception was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and that was because it had been made into a movie. So, I’m left wondering who decides what makes a piece of literature a classic. The death of the author, the passing of time, the payment received, popularity with the audience at the time of publication, being made into a movie, or some combination thereof? I shudder to think how the last four delineators will make classics of some of the drivel being produced today.

I don’t know what percentage of readers would stand with me in my assessment of Fitzgerald’s writing. Hopefully, I’ll find the commentaries and biographies more interesting. From what I already know about him, I believe if he had consumed less alcohol and been more content to hone his craft than pursue fame and fortune, he would have moved beyond his narrow world, experienced life to a greater degree, and found something new to write about. In the end, I’ll give Fitzgerald credit for leaving writers a good lesson even though he failed to learn it himself.

My Classical Education

My Classical EducationI stopped reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice forty-two pages before the end of the book. I am familiar with the conclusion, and I have viewed both the Jennifer Ehle version of the movie as well as the Keira Knightly version (the Jennifer Ehle is far superior), and yet I put the book down for no other reason than to extend my own enjoyment. I’ll never tire of the tension between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Jane’s sweet disposition, or even Mrs. Bennet’s endless rambling and scheming plans to marry off her daughters.

Pride and Prejudice is the first in a list of books that I am reading not only for pleasure but also for a close study of classical literature as suggested by Francine Prose in her book, Reading Like a Writer. The language alone inspires me to write better. I do have to wonder, though, if Jane Austen would have liked the benefit of word searches. While her pet words do not detract from the story in any way, she does have a few that she repeatedly employs. I find it encouraging that someone who is considered a master of writing and storytelling made such a simple error, and it is certainly one that I am willing to overlook.

Most importantly, what I am learning from reading Pride and Prejudice is that great writing appears in many different styles that transcend time. I may acquire a few talents from Jane Austen, and being compared to her would be no small compliment, but I have a voice of my own to hone and hopefully will do so until one day, when someone reads a passage from my books, they will be able to say, “Clearly, this is HL Gibson’s writing, and it is remarkably well done.”

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