Friday, August 28, 2009

Cicadas, Workshop Blues, and Early Mentors

After all the kids are out and the only sound competing with their snoring comes via the open window, solace overtakes me: rings of thrumming, the hundred tree limbs in the dark lined with the night choir.

An offhand response to the question, “What do you not want in a submission?” made by Tin House editorial staff: “...For such a small insect, cicadas sure show up a lot in poetry and fiction. It sounds silly take issue with it, but the point is that it smacks of device, which in turn interrupts the dream... (Bullseye, Poets and Writers, Sept/Oct 09)” has me, of course, also musing in the dark... well, why? Why would so many writer’s minds gravitate to the image of a cicada? Tell me what you think...I have my own ethereal impressions—what a soothing antidote the sound provides for instance, to the high speed buzz of the internet (which I love as much as the next writer).

I (of course) have a cicada poem—well, two, but they came fifteen years apart. And don’t come near nailing cicada essence like Adrien Stoutenburg does in Cicada: he sang like a driven nail / and his skinless eyes looked out / wanting himself as he was. And later in stanza three: Some jewel work straining in his thigh / broke like a kindgom./ I let him go... (poem--originally published in The New Yorker in 1957--appears in its entirety a bit down the page here:

But I do have cicadas to thank for drop-kicking me into the gut of workshop blues when the opening lines to The Chanter’s Daughter were challenged for mixing metaphors...The poem opens, When she sings / she unearths the air-dance cicadas know; wings sear the dark with colors for your ears ... and the larger criticism had to do with the historical irresponsibility of referring to the holocaust, which I had not lived through myself. As a first year grad student, starry eyed from a year of studying astrology and tarot, busy believing writing emerges from some mythic place you cannot frame or limit, I took the comments personally, not yet having developed that protective husk you need to survive any creative writing program with your soul intact.

When the poem was published later that year in Kalliope (Vol. XVI. No. 2, 1994), already underway with the peculiar disassociation from joy that came to characterize my relationship with my writing then, I remember feeling like a mistake had been made—I’d pulled the wool over these editors’ eyes, they hadn’t seen as clearly as my instructor.

When, months later I actually sat down and read the magazine from cover to cover, I found I was in the company of poets I admired; in particular, Maureen Hurley—who came to Monte Rio School with a visiting poet program when I was in seventh grade. We’d recently left an Illinois commune and landed in the crazy midst of Starret Hill families (trying to survive the drug culture and poverty of the green, dripping winters under the redwoods), my parents on the verge of divorce. And Hurley walked in--a quiet unassuming woman who spoke to us about words and their resonance, taking down our associations and connecting them until the entire board was covered in a web and I lost some of the fear of my new classmates.

Back in the heartland as a graduate student, just the sight of Hurley’s name (as well as a phone call to my undergraduate writing teacher) rescued me from the feeling of alienation threatening to take over. As self-absorbed as I was, I did recognize the closing of a circle with gratitude.

That confrontation—experience of being shaken as a young writer—has its place—I see now. I do still believe writing comes from a mythic place you cannot limit or frame, but I’m grateful for having been challenged by the convictions of established, charismatic, intelligent writers. And, the saying goes, that which doesn’t kill you serves to make you stronger. Here’s to the magnificent cicada...And to the editors at Tin House, I'll consider waiting another fifteen years before I write about cicadas again...unless, of course, I master the art of using the image to propel my reader more deeply into the fictional dream.


Ethel Rohan said...

Ah, yes, the fictional dream. John Gardner had a lot to say about it, or more importantly how not to interrupt it for readers.

I too believe that writing comes from some mythic place and I'm am always so amazed and grateful when it graces me and fills the page.

Your writing is evocative, intelligent, and lovely.

Tania Pryputniewicz said...

Ethel--you are so kind to comment. I love Gardner's writing exercises in The Art of Fiction. Actually, that birth essay "Sheila's Vine" started from doing the Gardner exercise that has to do with writing a ghost story (I wrote that segment over ten years ago). Since I've not nailed fiction yet, and the ghost of my student wouldn't leave me alone, it morphed right back into its non-fiction borders. Nothing is ever wasted, is it.