Thursday, October 23, 2014

25 years of the Best Poems

In 1989 I began copying out other people’s poems and keeping them in a loose-leaf notebook. The germ of the project was a collection of poems I put together for a Reader’s Theater class at Santa Rosa Jr. College. Reader’s Theater performs primarily non-theatrical texts as theater - poems, essays, fiction. The text in hand may feature in the performance. You might make your notebook flap like a bird while your colleague reads from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example. You generally don’t memorize, but you ought to practice enough that the text is there for anchor rather than crutch.

Many things about Reader’s Theater worked for me - the choosing of the texts, the collaging of them, the performance (without memorization being required), the inventiveness of minimalist staging. The class attended one competition. We didn’t win any awards - our competitors were experienced and we were just figuring things out - but it was fun and nerve-wracking.

For the final project we were in teams. For my team I proposed a piece based on my fascination with creation-of-the-world stories. Sadly, one member took ill and had to bow out. That left me and a woman who had let me put the readings together and mostly followed my directions for performance. She was game, but by the time we gave our grand performance we had had little rehearsal time. We didn’t get to perform before the rest of the class, even. I think our entire audience was the instructor. She had nice things to say, though had to note how unfinished it seemed. That’s the Creation, isn’t it?

Writing poetry you get asked who your favorite poets are. There was the vast corpus of poetry and I had read so little of it. How could I name favorites? Having read poems mostly in anthologies I knew I liked this poem or that poem, but poets? I ought to know for myself what/who I liked so I could follow up. If I loved a William Carlos Williams poem in an anthology, I could turn to his collections with a good chance I would find more to love. So in order to learn, in order to hang onto the poems that touched me and incorporate their lessons into my own work, in order to name favorites, in order to have poems to share, I decided to save poems.

At the end of the Reader’s Theater class I had a small batch of poems I really liked - a Hawaiian creation chant, a California Indian creation tale, a poem by James Weldon Johnson. They were already gathered in a notebook, so I just added to it. At first I typed up the poems. I wanted them to look professional, as though this anthology were an Anthology. But I hated typing and that quickly got in the way. The frustrations of typing overruled the need to look professional. Besides, “professional” meant typesetting in my mind. The typewriter’s product didn’t really match my fantasy. If I couldn’t do “professional” then I would go for personal. Although I try to keep my handwriting neat and readable (and mistake-free), I’m hardly a calligrapher. Over time I forgave my imperfections. One of the benefits of hand copying, I discovered, was the physical fact of writing the poems. What better way to learn from them? Sure, there’s memorization (and I promised myself I would try that), and there’s writing about a poem (and I’ve done a little of that over the years, too), but hand copying is a simple way to really concentrate on a poem. You notice when words repeat. You notice the off-rhymes, the visual patterns. You have to see - and feel - each choice of word. I also found later that when I reread the poems I was reading my own writing - it looked like I had written the poems thus I felt more ownership of them.

I enjoy reading poetry. I don’t like everything I read, but that’s no surprise. Most poems I read once and feel no pull to return. Many I read twice to make sure I get what the poet was up to. A few I mark to reread several times. If, after five or six readings I still don’t want to see the last of the poem, I copy it out. I reminded myself several times, especially in the early years, that I was copying out poems that were special to me, not the best poems by some other measure.

I have posted lists of several years worth of my personal anthology. Over the years I’ve been bothered by the claim that magazines like to make - that they publish only the “best” of what they are offered. Having worked on a few little magazines I know the claim is disingenuous - to be generous. I also decided to be amused by the titular boast of the Best American Poetry annual anthology. So when I began to post a list of what I had copied out in the previous calendar year I dubbed each “The Best Poems of the Year.” Whether the poem was written a thousand years ago or yesterday didn’t matter in the slightest. These were the “best” poems I had read, the poems that worked “best” for me. They are all, at the very least, quite good, and I am happy to have them.

When I realized this was the 25th year of my personal anthology I thought I ought to read the whole thing from the beginning. Of course, the poems I copied out in the early years are probably the poems I have read and reread more than any others so I’m not encountering surprises. There are poems I probably would not copy out today, but I still like things about them and understand why I chose to copy them out at that time. It may be that there are poems I did not copy out at the time that I would today, had I the chance, but that’s something I’ve discussed with myself over the years. It’s okay. You have to let things go. I do have permission to copy out a poem I come upon in a new context. I also have permission to discard a poem I’ve come to dislike. I would rather not do that as I wish to honor my original choices. But I have done it a couple times.

Here are the pieces that began the project, the ones that “created” it:

Hawaiian Chant ….. The Crawlers
James Weldon Johnson ….. The Creation
Maori of New Zealand ….. Chant to Io / Six Periods of Creation
Yurok of California ….. a folk tale beginning “At first Wohpekumeu wanted to make the river run upstream…”