Friday, September 25, 2015

Trick or Treat!

But... beware if you plan to knock on the door of Kathleen Driskell. She lives next door to the dead and there’s no telling what trickery she and her neighbors will have stirred up for you.

            Often two genres lie bookmarked on my desk simultaneously. Less often do they have a connection. In this case I’ve been reading the work of two teachers of Creative Writing, Kathleen Driskell, and Charles Harper Webb. I was already reading Driskell’s collection of poems, Next Door to the Dead, when the September 2015 Writer’s Chronicle arrived.  Driskell is Professor of Creative Writing and Associate Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville. Webb teaches at California State University, Long Beach. A subtitle of  an article  by Webb on the magazine cover, “In Defense of Less Difficult poetry” with the title, “The Limits of Indeterminacy” enticed me to flip to page 98.

            If Webb’s subtitle baited me, it was the accompanying artwork on the opposite page, two side-by-side mazes, that had the magnetism of a checkout counter magazine that guarantees losing five dress sizes in six weeks. In spite of that mouthful of indeterminacy, the two juxtaposed mazes  made the gist of the article immediately plain: the left maze was dense and dark, but the other one had  more white space, making it doable even for one who isn’t going to waste much of her valuable time with a maze of any stripe. And as soon as I read Webb’s quote on the first page “...poets have replaced traditional development of subjects with non sequiturs, and orchestration-of-effects with randomness,” I knew that I would read Driskell’s book with an eye to the veracity of that comment. I am one, given the choice of a less difficult maze and a simpler one, who would always choose the simpler maze.

            (BTW, LeslieLearns@awpwriter favorited my tweet about these mazes.)

            I am also one who likes to know.

            Turns out, so does Kathleen Driskell. In her latest book she writes epitaphs for folks she never knew. When asked what might her neighbors lying dead in the cemetery write as an epitaph for her, Driskell replies, “Now she knows.”

            What is it Driskell now knows?

            Seed Across Snow had already planted the notion that much about her poetry is Emily-esque with its even lines and tidy stanzas. One tiny poem consists of eighteen words, twenty-five syllables. In her comparison of this book with the new one, Driskell herself says, “I have to admit that unlike many of today’s writers who are taking on more global subjects, I seem to be completely obsessed with a mere square mile around my home...the buzz that our church-home is haunted comes mainly from our proximity to graveyard and the train trestle where the famous Goat Man of Pope Lick is said to lurk. I dismissed that matter as silly but in a period of a few years, our neighbor was struck by a car when coming across the road to her mailbox which sat right next to ours, two teen-aged boys were drowned in nearby Floyd’s Fork, other neighbors discovered a young woman who was nearly mortally wounded and thrown from a car into a ditch, a nearby house burned to the ground and on and on...and Next Door to the Death, if anything, seems to narrow my real estate.”

            This limited milieu and other Dickinson-like details of Kathleen Driskell’s  Next Door to the Dead swarm about as warm and  fuzzy as the occasional hummingbirds sipping on Ginger Lilies and Bleeding Hearts outside my window. Brevity, irony, humor and more: it’s all here in Driskell’s newest collection from the The University Press of Kentucky. 
            After reading the Webb article I was impressed with the idea of how much “less difficult” poems appeal to me. I like reading Driskell’s poems set in this simple cemetery because that setting holds an entire community of varied individuals with their twisted, or haloed, or ordinary lives. Each reader will have his own set of imagery and symbolism to add to whatever I feel.
            I emailed Driskell a few questions to include this one:
KT: Name at least one well-known poet whom you consider difficult and one whom you consider less difficult. Which poet would you choose to emulate? Why?
KD: This changes for me as I read through my life but I can say that I still have trouble with Wallace Stevens. I feel I understand a number of his poems—and they are important to me, such as “Sunday Morning” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” those early poems, but most do not connect with me. I did study Stevens during my MFA at Greensboro, and I understand the main thought-currents of his writing, still...a goal of mine is to immerse myself in poems, biography, criticism of Stevens’ one summer...
On the flip side, though I would never say he is an easy poet, Robert Frost has always been extremely important to me. His poems are accessible to most, at least on the surface, but there are also undercurrents and cave rivers running discovered with subsequent readings... that’s the sort of poem [“Fences”] I usually want to make—not one that deceives, but a poem that can be read and understood on the surface, then intrigues enough to call for revisiting, and once revisited rewards the reader with something new.
            Several such poems populate Driskell’s Next Door to the Dead. Any time I say/read the word cemetery, my mind pictures the hillside in the northwest county of Alabama where my daddy was known as the area’s best gravedigger. I was told after his death that he could always get the ledge for the casket carved out of that red dirt perfectly straight and level, his only instrument, a shovel. A black and white snapshot in Mama’s pictures has her kneeling at a short grave with an overcoat on and her square head scarf tied under the chin in the manner of European women. Daddy is standing at her side with his overalls and work boots on, which I’m nearly certain he wore to dig the grave. He dug four graves for their babies. The pain on both their faces is gut-wrenching.
            I languish with Driskell over the exacting boot of her gravedigger in “Grave of the Mathematician.” Webb points out in his article that the “difficult poem” is often easier to write, easier to make sound new, and may also shield the poet’s psyche. I like Driskell’s true voice in her “less difficult” poems. This poem soars from the specificity of the mathematical details and signs to the ethereal: the metaphor of a grieving man as a slash against the wind; and the tracks of a wagon carrying an infant, an equals mark.
            And for the first time ever as I revisit Driskell’s poem to write this blog, I consider the digging of the graves of my mama and daddy, by  machines. Oh, sweet duplicity of progress and poetry.
*****
Treat yourself to Driskell’s new book for Halloween! And, do remember that I like to know. What is your fave and why?  



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