Tag Archives: Vanderbilt Saturday University

“I can feel the movement from Theiclydes to Virgil like some guys feel the trading of a player from the Red Sox to the Yankees.”

I went to the third of this semester’s poetry Saturday University at Vanderbilt on March 23rd, where Garrett Hongo read and answered questions about poetry. The first two sessions were with Thomas Lux and Stephen Dobyns, and my notes for those are here: Notes from Thomas Lux; “The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.” (Stephen Dobyns).

Below are my notes from Garrett Hongo’s session, somewhat cleaned up for public consumption:

Tells story about his family & birth and how post office manager told him family stories when he went back to Volcano (Hawaii) as an adult; read “Volcano House” (“there’s all kinds of quaint Oriental shit in there” he says about it). Talks about his brother, about finding out family stories from his aunties, being told stuff like his grandfather killed his aunt because she slept with somebody in the cane fields: “I don’t know if they’re true, but they sound like they’re true. They explain the violence of families.” Read “Aubade, Kawela“; “Bugle Boys.”


Q: so musical, what does it look like on the page?

Long lines (he shows us).


Q: why lines and not paragraphs?

“Martin [Rapisarda, the associate dean for Arts & Science at Vanderbilt, who introduced him] alluded to the corrections I made about my influences.”

The line derives from Wordsworth. The measure is a line but the stophe is a paragraph. You have to have 3 lines going:
1. Stichic/lineation
2. Measure/meter – breath line
3. Then the strophe
Together they make up the logic, the music, the sequence of the poem.

You have a verse paragraph which has within it the line, the breath line and the strophe.

A verse paragraph model, not plainly said. I don’t say things plainly; I don’t like to. When I write, I don’t really write in a way to the audience, but I write to honor the ancestors and the canon. These things really live for me. I can feel the movement from Theiclydes to Virgil like some guys feel the trading of a player from the Red Sox to the Yankees.


Q: balance of high diction with accessibility?

I love to be read by common readers. There’s a democratic principle involved that I don’t want to make it difficult or obscure or put a kind of intellectual border guard at the door to the poem.

But I trained in semiotics and linguistic theory. I think that so called language poetry is bankrupt. I want to write so my father or my brother could have read it.

Stylistically though, no. My work is a combination of developed aesthetic and the ambition to reach the faithful, the common reader.


Q: how you pulled thought processes from different languages and traditions into a whole?

It’s all English, even pidgin.

Tells story about seeing a play as a teen by Derek Walcott with Elizabethan English in Caribbean accent. Whole play was like music to him.

Reads to us from oral history of Hawaiian musician (I’m too interested; I forget to take notes).

I think all languages are inside of us, it’s just accessing them. I’m learning Italian and when somebody talks to me in Japanese, I’ll answer them in Italian.

I’ve scripted out my next three books. I know what they’ll be about.

I don’t do drafts. I do takes. I try it this way and then that way.


Q: have you acted?

I ran a theatre company for three years. I like the theatre, but the problem is this: we were producing plays by Asian-Americans and it was hard because there were so many cross-currents of what I’d call subjugation. Most of my actors were bourgeois, and they worried some of the plays would offend their parents or the community; once we had a bomb threat, because somebody thought we were making fun of Chinese people, so they were afraid, and I had to pick them up by the lapels and shake them. Some of them are successful actors and they play these slant-eyed buck-toothed characters because they have to make a living, and I just left because I wouldn’t do that.

Tells story about writing comedy and hating it, deciding to write poetry.

Poetry is a special place in the mind. Different for each of us.


Q: could you talk about the internment?

My family was not interned, per se. There were three imprisonments:

The first roundup, journalists, Japanese language instruction, professors, etc, including my maternal grandfather who was considered a hard case because his English was good for Hawaii but not for the FBI. They thought his night-fishing (you light torches, put them in the sand, it attracts the fish) was signaling to the enemy.

The second was the entire community (film Snow Falling On Cedars shows it).

The largest one was 120,000 people, all Japanese west of I-99. Officially apologized for by Reagan.

The internment was like a natural disaster in that it was a complete destruction of whole communities.

Mainlanders and Japanese-Americans from Hawaii didn’t get along. When they saw the fences and guards, after that there was no fighting between them.

To come back from that, the kids wanted success and security above all. It made for a kind of monolithic resolve among my generation of mainland Japanese-Americans.


Q: how you work with the past and memory? Dealing with the tension between getting it right and being happy with what you get?

Trained in oral history. That helps. There was a shape to the way folks told stories, a dramatic shape, that gave me a way in. When I do research, I try to work to the point where I internalize the data so I can put it together in an emotional plot like an old-timer telling a story.

Most of my books I think about for years, living with the stories, and then I can write most of the book in a few months, work on it afterward but most of it done in a month or two, but only after years of thought.


Q: talk about starting poetry workshops?

My refuge, a place where only poetry happened.

Poetry workshop comes from the actor’s studio model, mutual critique from the whole workshop with the teacher at the end. Can go wrong, with it really being a salon for the faculty.


Q: writing for aesthetics vs validation through publication?

Poetry is very different – it’s the most non-capitalized of the writing arts. You don’t get money. It has to do with song and tradition.

Here’s a story: I’m in Seattle doing theatre stuff, and I got flown down to do a meeting with Touchstone. Bill is very preoccupied – he says we’ve got this story about a white man who marries a Japanese woman before WWII, and leads a rebellion out of the internment camps. I said, after I write this story, where could I live? He says fine it’s your funeral. Ten years later, I’m having dinner with Maxine Hong Kingston and (I missed name) and they say he asked me to write that too! They found somebody to do it and the Japanese American League picketed the opening.

The body of knowledge is controlled by power. Truth is constructed according to how it flatters the body of knowledge. Stereotypes. Poetry is like another system that’s another kind if jurisprudence – I’m free to do what I think is the truth.

It sounds idealized, but it’s not capitalized, so it’s not controlled.


Q: how does Jack Su fit into this?

He loved music. He wanted to keep playing it. He wanted to keep his band together. A lot of people hated him for that, for pretending to be Korean to avoid internment. Had something of his humanity he wanted to uphold. Not disgraceful. Jack was just a guy who needed music and took it as a higher calling. I never interviewed him so I don’t know what he would have said. Pat Suzuki, a lounge singer, told me a lot of these stories, which is how I know a lot of this stuff.

The new generation doesn’t have that reverence to the elders. They don’t think in terms of why people did things, but it was important to me.

“The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.”

On Saturday, March 16, 2013, I went to the Saturday University poetry session by Stephen Dobyns at Vanderbilt University. Below are my notes from the two-hour session, which consisted of a talk and then a Q&A, somewhat cleaned up for coherence (and with my comments in square brackets).


Language is a diminishment of thought. You have an idea, and you try to say it, but there’s always the knowledge that you’re not saying it right. Problem with language: torment and gift. We can’t really communicate emotion – we know what the other person means when they say they’re hurt/angry/happy/etc but we can’t really know the actual depth and nature of that feeling. Always an approximation.

Language is a diminishment. How do you counteract that diminishment? Metaphor.

Words come out of right side of brain (also: dreams) but syntax from left (also: reason, math, etc.). Words often start as metaphors (eg., threat = crowd of men coming over hill; supercilious to do with eyebrows; language comes from the word for tongue and speech comes from word for scatter – we scatter words in front of somebody). Right brain where you understand gestures, and right brain bigger in children until they start to learn language. [I was curious and did some googling and found this: The right brain hemisphere is dominant in human infants (pdf).]

Metaphor is an attempt to take a signifier of feeling (words like sad/hurt/angry/whatever) and make it accessible so we know the depth and nature of the feeling. Examples:

  • quiet as a crane watching a hole over the water
  • quiet as a house in which a witch has just stopped dancing
  • quiet as the thief the dog just bit

Different kinds of quiet. Use of sense detail so we can feel/understand better.

Or e.g. life candle-flame wind coming. There’s missing words in that example which we instantly fill in – lots of information in that little sentence. If you made an equivalent in discursive thought (life is precarious), you’d understand the logic of it but you wouldn’t feel it – metaphor makes you a participant.

Metaphors are like little stories. You visualize in it, and become a participant.

“The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.”

Art is made out of these types of metaphors. Poems are always communication and/or decoration. If a poem only shows you language and imagery (decoration) then it doesn’t work. If you say something, ten people who read it should have more or less the same idea of what you said, or it isn’t communicative and the poem fails.

Re line breaks – at any line break there’s a pause. Any change away from the default sentence has a lyric element. True objectivity is impossible, so your poems will always have some footprint of your experience, your perspective.

“The writer is coming to greet you in the same way the metaphor is.”

A poem doesn’t have to be formal but always has a relationship between stressed and unstressed syllables. Can’t help it – that’s the nature of the language.

We develop a sense of empathy, through metaphor and art. One of the functions of non-discursive thought is to teach us empathy and to teach us how to live in society. Very important. One other thing a poem will do is to show you the arc of your life and how to live. If there were only one poem that’d be terribly skewed obvs but with thousands of poems you get a picture. Art becomes a tool against self-deception. Any constraint on the poem (thinking about what editors might want) is going to mess up the poem. Poems show the arc of human emotions, too.

Much of my writing has been to please, and when I realized that I wrote Black Dog, Red Dog (now becoming a movie). If you’re censoring yourself in the poem, readers will see it and stop trusting you. A writer can choose not to write about something, but you can’t turn away from what you choose to write about.

Read us: “Sloth,” “Anger,” “Spite,” “Silence.” [“Anger” and “Silence” are here.]


Q&A from audience

Q – how did you stop censoring yourself to please others?

I pushed myself to write on uncomfortable subjects. I tried to stay away from political correctness. Worked summer at crippled children’s camp when I was 15. Wrote “Bleeder” about a hemophiliac there. I write a poem to find out what I’m writing about. If I let myself be constrained I’m not serving the poem but worrying about protecting myself from criticism.

Q – you want us to communicate but not to censor, so we have to pay attention to the reader but not pay attention to the reader (contradiction)

That’s a truthful paradox. The important thing is not to lie, not to write a form of propaganda. I don’t write a poem to please someone, but I hope they’ll understand it.

Q – what about editing, workshops, etc where somebody else looks at the poem?

The best thing about a workshop is to show you where alternative readings exist, by how they read it differently than you intend. I know the poem so well, things seem so clear, but in a workshop you can find out where it’s not clear. The class can spend time telling you their confusion.

Also, workshops can toughen you up.

Workshops can go wrong when people are nice to the poem so the author will be nice to their poem when their turn comes. A terrible thing.

Workshops cannot solve your poem’s problems but can help you know a problem is there.

You need frankness and courtesy, maybe with some gentleness but honest.

Q – writing process – thinking through feelings, as you’re developing that, how do you switch when working on other poems with different feelings?

I have to re-feel it.

Poems can move the reader in a nice way or in a dark way.

Q – what kind of socialization does a dark poem help – what does it accomplish?

We can’t pretend those things don’t exist. I have a 3 year old grandchild who they’d throw in jail if he was my size. He’ll look at you and smile and throw a glass across the room. He’ll be socialized not to do those things but they’re not gone.

We need a common courtesy to deal with each other. It’s grease to keep things going because basically we’re not very nice. You’re not evil because you have that temptation. Ideally a poem can help take parts of our unconscious and bring them into our consciousness.

Q – I’ve always written poetry to show something nobody sees. Do you write to communicate things you can’t say in your life?

You can choose not to write the poem, but you need to be honest if you choose to write it.

It needs to be credible.

Q – four aspects of the syllable?

Pitch: high noise (words like shrill, shriek), low (words like soothe, slow). You need to be aware of mood of words matching mood of poem.

Duration: speed needs to natch speed of actions being described. Eg “the sudden blow” in Yeats “Leda and the Swan” wouldn’t work as something like “an unexpected violence” because it takes too long.

Timbre: words you can hear, “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” Robert Lowell, begins with so much noise to show a drowning.

Stress: rhythm and beats.

You have a lot of choices for which word to use and English gives us many more choices than other languages.

Q – back to paying attention to reader, are you looking for clarity – you want us to get it, but can’t be concerned about whether or not we like it


Q – writing poetry to write about something personal without thinking about the reader – at what point do we need to think about the reader?

At some point in the writing, the poem stops being about you. Poems aren’t the same as autobiography. You have to give to the poem but the poem isn’t yours, in a sense. First drafts need to be written without that critical voice, and then after you can start working with it. Don’t let the critic in until the first draft is done.

Q – what is your editing process?

Most poems, I get a few lines in my head. Very often the first line I have will be the line I stay with. I start the poem and try to see what comes out of it. Try not to direct it. Then I’ll go through and see what’s missing, and what wouldn’t be clear to somebody who isn’t me, then I work on the structure of the poem, try to create some surprise and go from long to short to long to short to create tension and rest, so it goes back and forth between tension and rest. Maybe move lines around. The whole thing has to stay malleable. I don’t think a poem is done for about a year, sometimes longer. I have to develop a certain objectivity that may be developed by not looking at it for awhile.

A lot of internal rhyme, off rhyme, and taking a sound that declares itself and creating internal rhyme throughout or for awhile, one does this often without even realizing one is doing it. Obvs it has to seem as if it’s natural, somebody speaking, seem as if it’s effortless. Larkin does this amazingly well.

[If this seems like an abrupt ending, it’s because the Q&A ended abruptly. If you want more, he also talks about this stuff in Best Words, Best Order and Next Word, Better Order.]

Notes from Thomas Lux

I went to the first of this semester’s poetry Saturday University at Vanderbilt today, where Thomas Lux read and answered questions about poetry. Below are my notes, somewhat cleaned up for public consumption:




Q: re enjambment/process

The single most difficult thing to do is to pay attention objectively to our own work. At a certain point in composition, after first drafts, when editing, you need to put on different glasses—so you have a verb lens (look for passive voice, too many -ing endings, etc.), line break lens, etc. Read your work as if you didn’t write it.

Line breaks are to help teach the reader exactly how you want the poem to be heard.

Most line breaks are in logical/grammatical places (where the reader breathes) but also can be used to set up suspense or a sort of double entendre, where the line makes you think one thing is coming, and then it’s something else. Line breaks may seem arbitrary, but the poet should have a purpose. “I want everything to be auditory.” The bottom line is, nothing is arbitrary—you choose it, so think about it—try different things + pay attention.

The more you work on a poem, the more spontaneous it should seem to the reader.


Q re his process

Starts with an image, or a little thing nagging him, or a title that jumps into his head or jumps out of the middle of reading he’s doing. Saves up fragments. When he has time to write, uses fragments to start a batch of poems, maybe 5 or 7 poems at a time, then does drafts cyclically so works on them in order (can’t edit poems out of order)—types them up—works on typescript with four different coloured pens, still cyclically. So edits in order all poems in red, then green, etc (colors don’t matter, just help him to see where he left off). Once all edited in all colors, does clean typescript and repeat until happy. “Part of the obsessive, nutty way I try to put order on something very subjective.” Doesn’t know what he wants to say when he starts. Process of discovery.

Like Robert Frost said, find out what you don’t know you know.


Q re meter

The point of meter is working off of or against the meter (for reason). You don’t just fill the meter perfectly (“that kills poetry”).

Writing in received forms of any kind (sonnet, sestina, etc.) or any kind of form (even made up) doesn’t limit us—it frees us, because it forces us to think in another way, and helps us to make discoveries.

All that said, Emily Dickinson said—who cares to count syllables when a thought takes your breath away—but meter helps you find those thoughts.

You don’t read poetry because it’s well-made, even though that’s important, but because of the crazy stuff, the stuff that moves you.


Q when/how to decide to abandon a poem that isn’t working

Sometimes poems just don’t fly—wooden. Put them away. Sometimes years later, discover something in them you couldn’t see originally, but usually not. “It’s always more important to work on the next poem.”

Do submissions mechanically and don’t take rejections personally. (Editors are just people.)

Keep a list of magazines you like and keep envelopes ready to go. Send them out as soon as you get them back.

Hire a secretary in your brain to do this, for an hour or two every week.

I advise being as cold about that, and as indifferent, and putting all the passion into writing and making the poems better—not to get published (or to get anything), but because poems are important.


Q Do the best poems get heard?

Eventually. Emerson said no such thing as unrecognized genius. You’re trusting a human being—one particular judge wants to grab your book while another might hate it. Sooner or later somebody will pick up your work if it’s good.

Which poems are going to last will be settled long after we’re dead, so it’s pointless to worry about it.


Q Ever write a poem perfectly the first time?

No. Usually it takes five or six tries to even get a first draft. Some poets write quickly, but it’s rare for great poetry. Fast writers: Keats—Hart Crane—Rimbaud—but they had an advantage we don’t have, in that they were raging geniuses.


Q Titles?

Sometimes find inside the poem after writing, but frequently starts with title. Finds a few words in the middle of somebody else’s otherwise unexceptional sentence, or jumps into head.

When a person reads the title, I want them to have to read the poem.

Our main responsibility to the reader is to not be boring.


Q Craft books?

  • Mary Oliver
  • Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms
  • Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics
  • Dorianne Laux

Give yourself exercises. Doesn’t like writing prompts because generally autobiographical (“which is really interesting to us but not always to the reader”) and thinks poet should already have an idea of what they want to write about.

Sometimes I’ll arbitrarily set myself a goal: “in this draft, I will find 7 syllables I can cut.”

Editing—cutting—first + most important revisional tool. We have to be draconian about removing dead syllables, polysyllabic words (because usu abstract/explainey). Be ruthless. Slash and burn.


Q Rhythm?

When people say, “how come poems don’t rhyme anymore?” I want to say, “Are you fucking deaf?” because we still rhyme. My poems are full of internal rhyme.

Pay attention to stress syllables: how frequently and where they come.

In normal English, about 60% unstressed; he aims for 50/50 stressed/unstressed.

Also, pay attention to onomatopoeia. Use unpleasant sounds for unpleasant things.

Play with synesthesia. Forgot who said “a poem is only as good as its sensory information.” That’s why abstraction and abstract words don’t work.


Q Humour?

People ask, “why are you using humor in your poems?” and I say, “Well, I’m trying to be funny.”

Some people think poetry has to maintain a constant gravitas; he disagrees. Sometimes humour can tamp down something really dark. A survival technique. Playful or whimsy to satire. If you’re not funny in real life, don’t force it.

“That’s 400 years on the breasts. Think how boring that would be. At some point. 15 or 20 years in.”

Today was the second half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry.” (I wrote about the first half here.)

The bulk of the session was devoted to the kinds of “turns” a poem can take—that is, the developmental moments in a poem which turn our attention. In the first session, he had already talked about the importance of having these turning moments to propel a poem to its ending. He listed these as the types of turns a poet can employ:

  1. Logical or rhetorical turns: For example, in “To His Coy Mistress,” Marvel employs a three-part logical syllogism (major premise, minor premise, conclusion) and the turns are signaled by the words “but” and “therefore.”
  2. Turns in time or space: For example, in “Tintern Abbey” the poet falls into a reverie and remembers, and then when he comes back, the landscape is coloured and informed by his memories. Time and space are provisional in a poem, and we can take advantage of that.
  3. Turn from the abstract to the personal: For example, in “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,” Eberhart tackles these really broad themes of morality and then in the final stanza turns to two specific soldiers he knew who had died, and it’s the personal details at the end which give the poem its power. Also, e.g. Vijay Seshadri’s “The Long Meadow” and Billy Collins’ “The Death of the Hat.”
  4. Reflexive poems which turn in on themselves: These poems develop a disproportionate interest in some aspect of themselves, eg. Billy Collins’ “Canada” with its obsession with Cherry Ames, or eg. Michael Donaghy’s “The Break,” in which the second stanza (all about the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton) is addressing the simile in the first line (“Like freak Texan sisters joined at the hip”), moving away from the first stanza’s discussion of his failed relationship to go inside the simile (as though, Collins said, walking into a hologram). In these poems, the tenor and vehicle often get switched, such as in Yannis Ritsos’ poetry (“a genius at destabilizing”).
  5. A turn to the present, so that the poem includes its own composition.
  6. A turn to the reader: For example, in “Dulce et Decorum Est” at “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace.”

Then we had a question and answer period. I didn’t take thorough notes on everything he was asked. He talked about sentimentality (which he doesn’t like) and irony (which he does); the poetic line as a unit of sense or a unit of rhythm but having to be a unit of something; the role of rhyme in modern poetry (“What happened was the rhymes invaded the body of the poem…”); and, how you know when you’ve finished the poem (his answer was very vague but I don’t know how anybody could answer that definitively).

I really liked one of his answers, to the question of how you decide what order to put the poems in a book manuscript. He said that he didn’t write with a book theme in mind (“All my poems are thematic in that they’re about me. Me and death.”) so he comes up with connections afterwards. He likes to lay his poems all out on the floor of the largest room in the house (“face up!”) and walk around them barefooted, looking for pairings and connections until he has enough groups of them together to make a book. However, and this was the part I really liked, he said you can also order a book by front-loading all the really excellent poems—putting the best stuff first to get the editor’s attention—and then when they accept it, say, “You know, I’ve had some second thoughts about the order…” Hilarious.

His recommended reading:

  1. Andrew Marvel “To His Coy Mistress
  2. William Wordsworth “Tintern Abbey
  3. Richard Eberhart “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment
  4. Vijay Seshadri “The Long Meadow” (subscribers to The New Yorker can purportedly read it here, and the rest of us can read it in the Collins’ essay “The Vehicle of Language,” also linked at the end of this post)
  5. Billy Collins “The Death of the Hat
  6. Billy Collins “Canada
  7. Michael Donaghy’s “The Break” (sorry, I couldn’t find this online)
  8. Yannis Ritsos “A Myopic Child” and “Miniature
  9. Wilfred Owen “Dulce et Decorum Est
  10. Billy Collins “January in Paris” (he reads it here)
  11. Richard Jones “Wan Chu’s Wife In Bed
  12. Charles Bukowski “8 Count

For more on all of this, try this essay: “The Vehicle of Language,” which must have been written by Billy Collins. Oddly, Lapham’s Quarterly doesn’t specify the author but lists Collins as a tag, but the essay is in the first peom and talks about a “poem of mine” called “Theme,” which is a poem of Collins’, so I’m satisfied he’s the author (but made slightly paranoid by the lack of byline, as though you all might catch me in an error and be all “obviously it’s an essay by this other poet, So-And-So, who also wrote an identical poem called ‘Theme’ good Lord, Joanne, how can you be so dim” or something).

No such things as distractions.

I attended the first half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry,” yesterday.

He started with the premise that the process of writing is a series of negotiations between the will of the poet and the waywardness of the poem, and that poets are the kind of people who can’t talk about just one thing at a time.

Here were his tips for how to engender the frame of mind while writing which allows you to surprise yourself and let the poem take an unexpected turn:

  1. Think of the poem’s subject as being entirely provisional. Writing a poem is the opposite of writing an essay; you want to turn away from your original thesis and enter new ground.
  2. A little subject matter goes a long way.
  3. Think of a poem as having its own intelligence, and listen to that. If you really listen, the poem might show signs of boredom, so to keep it happy, you gave to come up with something new.
  4. Distractions are clues. If you find yourself being distracted by something as you write, put it in the poem.
  5. Think of the poem as having a present, as opposed to being a recounting of past experience. For the reader, the poem is taking place as it’s read.
  6. Be willing to dispense with fidelity to what really happened. Take advantage of the imaginative freedom that poetry offers. Sometimes you have to make things up to get at the truth.

His recommended reading:

  1. Richard Hugo “The Triggering Town
  2. Shakespeare “That time of year thou may’st in me behold” (discussion of which led to a lengthy aside about sonnets being essentially having something to say, and having something to say about what you had to say, that is, suffering a moment of self-consciousness in those final two lines)
  3. Matthew Arnold “Dover Beach
  4. Billy Collins “The Trouble With Poetry” and “Poetry, Pleasure and the Hedonistic Reader” (I can find neither of these online; sorry.)
  5. Ruth L. Schwartz “The Swan in Edgewater Park” (if you read only one of his suggestions, read this one.)
  6. Stephen Dobyns new book about poetry (which he quoted from, on enjambment, essentially saying unusual enjambments should have a purpose), presumably Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, though I haven’t read it so I can’t confirm that.
  7. Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays” (also)

Edited to add: summary of second half.