Diane Frank on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Diane Frank by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

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Biographical Information—Diane Frank

frankDiane Frank is an award-winning poet and author of six books of poems, including Swan Light, Entering the Word Temple, and The Winter Life of Shooting Stars. Her friends describe her as a harem of seven women in one very small body. She lives in San Francisco, where she dances, plays cello, and creates her life as an art form. Diane teaches at San Francisco State University and Dominican University. She leads workshops for young writers as a Poet in the School and directs the Blue Light Press On-line Poetry Workshop. Blackberries in the Dream House, her first novel, won the Chelson Award for Fiction and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her new novel, Yoga of the Impossible, was #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list for metaphysical fiction, and #1 on their Hot New Releases list. To schedule readings, book signings and workshops, and to invite her to speak to your book club, contact www.dianefrank.net.

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Iowa Omen

Three hawks fly south
        as your voice trembles
                across the great plains.

Fields of sleeping cows
        a gentleness in the land.

Here is the omen:
        Sky splashed with aurora,
                blue stars, curtains of light.

The letters are gold
        on red silk –
                Japanese calligraphy.

If I had the right kind of ink
        I’d write them
                on your skin.

Poe and Poetic Discovery

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on February 1, 2015, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

If you spend enough time around poets, you’re bound to hear grandiose claims about self-discovery and poetic epiphany. And it’s true, our favorite poems tend to be surprising, even to ourselves. There are prosaic explanations for this: The best poems give voice to the unvoiced; they provide words for thoughts and feelings that we hadn’t before been able to describe. Saul Bellow famously said, when asked how it felt winning the Nobel Prize, “I don’t know. I haven’t written about it yet.” There is certainly a way in which words build a framework for understanding.

The movie What the Bleep Do We Know? relates an anecdote that, when Columbus first came to America, the natives literally couldn’t see his ships, because they had no mental concept of a ship that large. As sure as I am that the story is apocryphal, the poet in me wants to believe it—I’ve felt it myself: Every poem I’ve written that feels successful has taught me something about the world that I didn’t quite grasp when I started writing it. What if there were some truth to this notion of poetic epiphany?

Everyone is familiar with Edgar Allan Poe. But what you might not know Poe’s last work—which he considered to be his greatest—Eureka: A Prose Poem, not only presaged the Big Bang Theory by 80 years, but also provided the first recorded solution to Olbers’ Paradox.

Also called the Dark Sky Night Paradox, Heinrich Olbers described the problem of the relatively low brightness of the night sky in 1823. If the universe were infinite and eternal, as was commonly held at the time, then any line of sight would eventually hit the surface of a star—in other words, there would be so many stars in the sky that every point in the sky would be bright. In Eureka (1849), Poe explains it like this:

Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.

Poe is describing the concept of a bounded observable universe—light has a finite speed, and perhaps the universe just isn’t old enough for all of it to have reached us yet. He goes on to explain how the universe sprung from a “primordial particle”:

… one particle—a particle of one kind—of one character—of one nature—of one size—of one form—a particle, therefore, “without form and void”—a particle positively a particle at all points—a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided …

The particle then expands outward by “divine volition,” a repulsive force that’s opposed to gravity. Once matter is expelled outward it begins to clump together due to gravity, forming the stars and galaxies we see today. Eventually, gravity draws all matter together to once again reform the primordial particle, resulting in an infinite series of big bangs, and a continuously expanding and collapsing universe. He even acknowledges our impossibly small place within it: “Our Galaxy is but one, and perhaps one of the most inconsiderable, of the clusters which go to the constitution of this ultimate …”

Keep in mind that Poe died 60 years before Edwin Hubble discovered that there were other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Poe didn’t know about Einstein’s cosmological constant, or dark energy, or cosmic microwave background radiation; there was no WMAP of galactic clusters. But he was able to intuit one of the most fascinating theories of the century to follow him, using only a term he himself coined: “ratiocination.”

For Poe, ratiocination—an idea introduced in his detective stories—was a kind of imaginative reasoning, the ability of intuition to make sweeping connections between seemingly small and disparate details, a leap from all the might-have-beens to what probably is. It’s a counterfactual logic that’s able to reveal deeper truth.

For those bounded by logic, ratiocination is only accessible in dreams: the sewing machine, the structure of Benzene, DNA’s double helix were all discoveries said to have first appeared in sleep. But poets practice ratiocination every time we sit down in front of a blank page, often with only the faintest glimmerings of what we actually want to write about. Imaginative intuition is a daily practice.

So next time a poet tells you about some grand epiphany, consider (maybe) listening.

To Blurb or Not to Blurb

Once a week, on average, I receive a request to blurb someone’s poetry book. For the last five years, I’ve been saying no. For a while it was a hedged no; I’d say that I probably won’t have time, but feel free to send the manuscript, anyway. A few dozen consecutive failures and that evolved into a blanket no. No, sorry. No, sorry. Sorry, but no.

Time, of course, is a major problem—even with the best intentions, and when I know I’ll probably love the book, it’s hard to find the time for extracurriculars when 20,000 poems still need replies (and they always do).

It’s more than that, though. When my own book was in pre-production, I asked seven of my favorite poets for blurbs. It was as awkward as it is for everyone else, but that’s what you do with a new book, and I did it. Almost immediately two of them replied in a way that I never expected: They said that they didn’t have time, but that they trusted me, and/or already knew that they liked my poetry, so if I needed a blurb I could just write one myself, and put their name beneath it. One said that I should send it to them for approval, but the other said I could use whatever I wrote unseen. I told them both I wasn’t comfortable blurbing myself, and used other blurbs instead. I know they were genuinely trying to be kind and not unethical, so I won’t say who they were. But I was more than a little taken aback—one might be a fluke, but two of seven? Every time I read a blurb now, I think of this.

And then there’s the fact that blurbs are ridiculous. I don’t need to describe how they’re ridiculous; everyone who’s read them knows they’re ridiculous. Dan Waber put together a great take-down with his Blurbinator, but there have been many.

They are hard to write, of course; that’s why they’re ridiculous—the balloon is so inflated that anything less than “John Keats reincarnate occupying the emotional space between an orgasm and angioplasty” sounds like faint praise. There’s an art to it, but it isn’t a fun art, nor an art that, I think, does much good.

Needless to say, all of this really interferes with my natural impulse to help books that I enjoy find a wider audience. I’ve been planning on writing more of these microreviews, which are basically just honest blurbs after publication—it’s still hard to find the time, but I want to try.

This morning I was declining my 40th blurb request of the year, and found myself halfway through a sentence saying that, while I can’t blurb the book now, I might be able to microreview it after publication, when the obvious occurred to me—why the hell am I offering to consider blurbing later, but not now, when it will be much more useful to the author now?

Here I am, holding a grudge against blurbs for the simple fact that I hate them because I can’t trust them, when I could instead simply try to make them trustworthy.

So I think I’m going to start treating blurb requests the same as I treat review copies: You can send me your manuscript, and a deadline, but you can’t count on me. If I don’t reply, it will either be because I didn’t find time to read the book, or because I didn’t love the book—but I’m not going to tell you which it was. The fact is, I don’t love many books, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And of course I’ll continue to only comment on books that I actually love. And have read.

I shouldn’t have to say that. And I probably don’t; the whole enterprise probably isn’t as bad as it seems. But I vow to stop being so cynical about it from now on.

HaikuTip #1

I keep finding myself wanting to write longer posts than are appropriate for Facebook, so I think I’m going to start blogging again, with mostly very brief writing tips jotted down while reading submissions. This is the first.

#HaikuTip: Connecting words are not cutting words! There are no real kireji in English—accept it.

In the Japanese tradition, kireji work like spoken punctuation or tense modifiers, but there is no equivalent in English. By tying the two images/ideas together instead of leaving them cleaved, you greatly weaken the power of the poem.

I can’t use examples from submissions, so here are some examples of how to ruin famous poems, starting with the most famous haiku ever:

ancient pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

This is, of course, Basho—I don’t know whose translation, I think in my head I’ve combined my favorite version of each line. But notice how “ancient pond” can exist there on its own plane. It doesn’t need anything else, nor does the frog. The frog and the pond can be completely separate from each other in time and space—in a way, the haiku is blending all of time into a single, timeless unity. The pond is every pond, and the frog is every frog—or it’s this pond and this frog. It’s both. And that’s pleasurable and interesting and Zen-like to ponder. But what if instead we did this:

ancient pond where
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

This was the original Basho:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

That “ya” is the kiregi, and according to the Wikipedia entry “implies an equation, while inviting the reader to explore their interrelationship.” As a cutting word, it really operates more like “is” than “where,” but so many English haiku poets seem to be using “where”-type words in its place, and you can see how that one word choice obliterates the Zen of it.

Here’s another Basho poem that we can ruin, this one of my favorites:

wrapping dumplings in
bamboo leaves, with one finger
she tidies her hair

This is Sam Hamill’s translation from The Sound of Water. A quick search doesn’t give me the original Japanese, but I’m sure the kiregi is after line 2. Let’s ruin it:

wrapping dumplings in
bamboo leaves, with one finger while
she tidies her hair

See how we’ve connected the two images with “while”? She’s wrapping dumplings at the same time as she tidies her hair—suddenly it’s just one person doing something, rather than this interesting blending of actions that could each be happening to different people in different centuries. Don’t do this in your haiku! The beauty and mystery of haiku lies in the tension between two images/ideas that at once connect and don’t have to connect. By using a connecting word between them instead of a cutting word, you make them only connect. Avoid it, so I don’t have to decide whether or not it’s worth asking you to edit.

I’m not an expert in haiku by any stretch, but I know poetry, and I know this is a tendency that’s making a lot of haiku less than they could be.