Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Repetition: Further Thoughts

I've written, last year and already this term, on the matter of repetition. Repetition as a key to matters of both form and invention (or, what we make as well as how we make it: product and process) is an obsession of mine -- because it is both simple and complex as a concept.

So, I try to approach it in different ways. Technology (online tools, that is) allows some new approaches, although they resemble skills that are already necessary to reading and writing.

For example, the simple CTRL + F command (in your browser or in Word), which allows you to quickly locate instances of a word or phrase. Take a text of your own, or of any writer, and search it for various words and word-patterns: what do you notice of primary terms, instances of repetition, proximity of certain words, etc.?

Another useful tool is a tag cloud. A cloud allows you to create a visual representation of word occurrences.

Before proposing an experiment, I will develop my thoughts a bit more. Creativity is, from one angle, a matter of finding associations that others don't notice, or that are in some way volatile -- leading to further associations, for one thing. Art is pattern-making; repetition is the tick-tock of pattern-making and pattern-recognition. Between two things, including two instances of the "same" thing, there are many dynamics: a matrix or space of possible value or meaning, a tonality derived from the combination of the two things, a sense of speed in traveling between the two, a texture, a rise, a fall, etc. (Tick-tock: what is that vocable we use for naming time except the resistance to seeing a second instance of the same thing as the same thing? We have to alter it; we have to invent the illusion of change.)

Writers develop their works, they invent and discover, partly through returning to a point of observation, obsession, desire, fear, or memory. Language allows us to see many in one: Love is love, but it is also lust, ardor, passion, longing, romance, fondness, amorousness, and many other "synonyms" that are really different angles, different degrees, different stages, different influences, different steps on different ladders of experience. Also, each word, each concept or node of experience, has it's opposites: hate, loathing (an almost-rhyme with loving!), despising, disliking, detesting. One word, one node, when touched, reveals many possible pathways forward. We fit experience to language, and language to experience. We invent, and yet we re-inhabit forms that writers have always used; we speak words and phrases, perform entire conversations, that others have had before us. Life is a ritual, life is a discovery -- both.

One way to think of art-making is as a way to move forward (to discover, to escape, to survive) and at the same time stay still (to preserve, to persist). This is a paradox -- a puzzle that making art seems to undo, but really it adds other layers to the puzzle. Repetition, creating of patterns, invention of form -- these are ways we engage the paradox.

This is all rather abstract and high-falutin', I know. It is a felt notion more than a theory, I guess. So, let me push into the experiment, and see if you have any insights of your own -- ways to make more concrete and practical my ethereal ramblings:


Look at these two texts by classic American authors -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature" and T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Emerson's text is a long essay, Eliot's is a longish poem; the essay is from the early 19th century, the poem from the early 20th century. Both use reiterations of words and concepts. What I'd like you to do is to use CTRL  + F, and/or simply your own scanning/re-reading/note-taking skills to study how the writers use repetition at the word/phrase level. Specifically, for Emerson -- focusing mainly on the Intro and Chapter 1 -- how often does he use words that have to do with SEEING an LIGHT? Don't look only for those words; think about what words are in some "family resemblance" with them: words that directly or indirectly have to do with seeing, light, and their opposites.

Then, in Eliot's poem, discover how often he repeats the same words, but also, again, consider how those words form patterns in association. Study as well how those clusters of similarity change and move in the poem.

Finally, for fun, copy and paste some or all of the texts -- and any other text -- into this resource, "Wordie" -- a word-cloud generator. What words are dominant? What forms do you see in the hierarchies of repetition?

As a final "Exercise," you might take the most frequently used words and write your own story/essay/poem with them.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reading Events in Houston

There are many literary events in Houston,; here are links to online information about some of them. Going to readings is a good way to meet other writers, to get a sense of the social sphere writers inhabit, and perhaps to find opportunities to read yourself (particularly at open mic events).


This is the premier literary event in town -- the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.


Inprint also has readings by local writers, followed by open reading opportunities.


The University of Houston Creative Writing Program has readings, but also, the literary magazine they host, Gulf Coast, has a series at the Brazos Bookstore.


The Houston Poetry Fest is many events every fall: readings, awards, etc.


Here's a single event at UH-Downtown.


Kaboom Books is Houston's finest surviving used bookstore -- and they host a reading series specifically for "nanofiction"!


If you're interested in the Poetry Slam movement -- the main site has more information besides this Verboscity reading series.


Check here for ongoing notices, particularly events at Borders and Barnes & Noble stores in town.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

YouTube as a Writer's Resource

You probably know about YouTube as a source of entertainment, how-to information, etc. Have you thought of it as a writer's resource? There are a few ways I can think of it as useful to us, but for this post, I'll focus on YouTube as an archive for video/audio of lectures and readings.

Writers frequently give "readings" -- they are invited somewhere ( a college, a bookstore, or some other venue) and read selections from their works. Sometimes, they also lecture on their art; also, they give extended interviews, usually on their influences, their craft, their politics, their live stories, and other matters. There are also a few films about writers and their lives, their times, and their work. Finally (and for this, see some of my posts from last Fall 2009), there are feature films about writers, or -- of course -- films based on their works (even, though rarely, on poems, as opposed to novels).

For now, I will share some YouTube videos of writers reading (and, as often happens at readings, talking about their craft and inspiration).

You can, of course, simple search YouTube (or Google) using any writer's name; but if you search YouTube itself, there are always suggested, related videos on the right. That's one good way to explore and discover new writers. Try that with some of the suggestions I make here.

Also, listen and look at the way writers read their works. Some are terrible at it! Others are very instructive as to how their works, or how poetry and prose, should sound out loud. (By the way: practice reading your own drafts out loud, or reading what you like of others' works out loud, as a way of hearing what's there that silent reading doesn't reveal.)

Some recommendations:

Kay Ryan, former Poet Laureate:


I highly recommend Ryan as a good poet to start with -- she's accessible, amusing, and brief -- but her poems are highly crafted, and explore the edges and interconnections of words and meanings.

Raymond Carver:


Ok, this is mainly for the audio; but listen carefully! Carver was a modern master, brilliant with language, and courageous in his characterizations.

Kevin Young:


Young is a prolific poet, and his poems -- in books that are amazingly long for poetry books these days -- are deeply inclusive, rangy, fluent, amusing or moving, and embracing. Sometimes, as a kind of parlor game, we can ask whether a poet is more "Whitmanesque" or "Dickinsonesque" -- read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and see what you think (and yes, it's a trick question).

Sandra Cisneros:


Unfortunately, there aren't so many good YouTube videos of Cisneros reading (some, though, offer us her thoughts on writing); there are good videos elsewhere, and later, we'll explore non-YouTube video & writing resources.

Mary Gaitskill:


A weird camera angle; but a typical sort of literary event, with a good reading presentation from a solid prose stylist and storyteller.

Ann Sexton:


This takes us back a bit: digitized video of older analog film. This combines Sexton reading with documentary.

Allen Ginsberg:


"Howl" was a classic work of the fifties and sixties: the flagship of the Beat movement.

Taylor Mali:


Slam poetry! -- perhaps a different category from "literary" poetry, but let's not be too picky; on the other hand, how is this different from, say, T.S. Eliot? I can guess which one makes us happier, but -- it's worth our while studying the differences and similarities. What, of these two choices, can be combined for something new...?

Wanda Coleman:


...maybe Ms. Coleman shows one way -- literary, fun, lively, well-made, loud!

Thomas Lux:


Tom's an old teacher of mine. Topical poetry! -- note, in particular, how as one goes through the world (driving on the highway, in this case), there are occasions for poems everywhere.


There's much, much more. There is also a lot on YouTube, though, that's BAD -- mainly, I mean the videos themselves: remember, it's everyone who wants to post something (well, with some editorial oversight, I guess) -- so sort the good from the bad: bad production values, in particular. But listen to how poetry and prose come alive when seen and heard, and take those insights back to the page with you.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


This is premature for us, perhaps, but all the same, it's worth considering ways of publishing your work when you feel it's ready. There are many ways to publish -- which, over the past fifteen years or so, has meant online as well as in print (well, we can include electronic media such as CD's as well, I guess -- and even live performance is a kind of publication).

Below is a link to information on an undergraduate-oriented literary journal; there are other types of journals, including online, and then there are more "commercial" or "popular" publications. It really depends on how you see your writing, your intended audience, and your concern about $$$. Literary writing doesn't pay much, or at all! It's for the "art." In our course, I'm focusing on the "art," but that doesn't mean your writer's sensibility has to be artsy -- just focused on matters of craft.

Anyway, here's a call for submissions I received from a former colleague; and below that, a web site that lists many journals, magazines, and small-press publishers (more on book publishing in a later post).



Monday, September 6, 2010


I have exercises on writing about things – two in particular that I will post this week (Week 2) are called “The Talisman” and “Garbology.”

On Facebook today, a friend linked to this interesting article in the New York Times Magazine. I offer it as an adjunct to the “Talisman” and “Garbology,” along with some musings to accompany it.

Partly, these exercises are about seeing. When we look at what’s present, we are seeing only a small part of what is really there, and only a small part of what each item in our view really is in itself. Regarding that first statement: we tend to see what we are inclined to see, what we are already familiar with or what fits our general view of the world we are a part of. Our eyes tend to home in on particular things, as well, to the exclusion of other things right there before us. (That’s true of hearing, as well). Regarding the second statement: everything is an emblem of some larger experience  -- a history, a family of things, the use or other meaningfulness of the thing, the metonymic realities of the thing (who owns it, made it, was affected by it, among other associations),  and countless other contexts we could define.

Many of the exercises are meant truly to “exercise,” that is, train, our perceptions: to see more, to see less at times, and thereby to see with greater focus, greater opportunity for value or meaning.

 One thing that interests me about this Times article (about the Internet-based initiatives it discusses, that is) is that the things we own and share are interconnected, and the stories about them are interconnected; the Internet, essentially a vast and dynamic system of interconnections, is therefore a natural medium (or dimension) for exploring the interconnectedness of things and the people who own and share things.

So, to add to ideas surrounding “The Talisman”: these web services, forms of Social Networking, offer technological ways of narrating and sharing stories; how do the Short Story, the Poem, or the Essay (consider them much older forms of technology, and also media, or alternate dimensions!) already do the work of telling, framing, and sharing stories related to things? How are things works of art in themselves; how are they also projections of identity, family, community?