Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dean Young: Failing Better

I wish I could vote for poet laureate. I'd vote for Dean Young.

It's clear cut for me. He's simply the only living poet who truly gives voice to the tragic and ridiculous and tender and doomed existential meaning of life through his whimsical, searching verse. When I read one of his poems, I never know where it's going from word to word. I know I'm going to be surprised, but I don't know how I'm going to be surprised. It's likely that I'll laugh, but it's equally likely that I'll laugh and cry, or something else.

I'm not going to write an essay on Dean's poetry (I previously wrote a ditty on his book Skid). He'll never be voted poet laureate because he's a bit too dangerous, a bit too wild and unpredictable. Poet laureates need to clearly edifying in some ways--they need to serve, after all--and I doubt that Dean Young is clearly edifying to most, although he is to me.

I just wanted to pull out a couple of quotes from a recent interview with him in fail better, a mag I love, and one that's a natural for him if only because his latest collection is titled Fall Higher. If you're going to describe Dean's poetry in two words, "fall higher" might be the best two words.

For one, he not only honors imperfections, he seeks them out. Dean says, "I certainly don't believe in the making of art as a pursuit of perfection, rather the exploration of errors and stumbles, smudges and yelps."

When I read that quote, I think of Cassavetes' films, except with a few wiffle balls of Dada tossed in. He says that "art may be made carefully but it's never made by the careful." That's such good advice these days when so many artists have become more attuned to the selling of their art than to the recklessly inclined soul behind its creation.

Dean's interview appeared in fail better after he received a heart transplant earlier this year. It will be interesting to see how such an ordeal will affect his work. He's faced death. He's been given life. His words already traced indeterminacy, yet they were full of a gleeful plunging, a death-defying, exuberant vigor.

"I'm still searching and messing about, making wild forays I hope," he says. "Time is always running out for everyone although I'll admit everyone doesn't have such huge scars. But one thing's for sure. I don't only want to write from the prospective of those scars."

Even if he writes of his scars, I'm sure there will be a smirk, a "yippeee," an unexpected observation, someone dancing, a roller coaster, a worm, a lizard, a clown, a bordello, an astronaut, and more.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Revision Tip No. 2,043: The Art of Dancing to Guy Lombardo while Drumming to Mingus

I've often heard it said that writing is revising, and that's true in the sense that you're adding layers and nuances and telling details in revision that often aren't possible in the bustle or turmoil or excitement of a first draft. You're making a fine wine in revision, in other words, which takes time, finesse, and sagacity.

Because of this, revision is an art that requires constant scrutiny. You can't just muscle through a revision like you might a first draft. It needs to be a process of challenge, counterpoint, and exploration—all within the malleable structure you've put forth—yet I've found that revision can be the opposite of this. It can tend to become lazy, an exercise in reading more than an exercise in active change.

Here’s what often happens to me when I revise a piece (and I've heard similar tales from other writers). Author writes first draft of story. Author sits down to write second draft of story. Author reads story start to finish making editorial scritch-scratches in the margins. Author types in changes. Rinse. Repeat. Reload.

Hmmm…it's a little bit like dancing a waltz, following the same steps over and over again, feeling the nice rhythms of the music, but unable to add the sorts of flourishes, startling details, absurd moments, etc., that make a story special.

There are a good 2,042 tips about how to revise a piece so that you’re not just pushing a plow through an already plowed row, but I’ve come to like no. 2,043.

Here it is: Instead of reading your story start to finish, don’t read it. Don’t even have the story in the room with you. Don’t have your laptop either. Your dog or cat can stay along with your preferred beverage, but that's it.

The thing is to revise as if you’re still creating, not just refining (as important as refining is). My best moments of creativity happen when I’m not writing within a structure, but meandering—caught in a drift with only the faintest sense of purpose.

So here’s one way of doing that: I grab a few books of poetry, an art book or two, my describer’s dictionary, and I page through them randomly, with some Mingus or Sonic Youth or Calexico or Arvo Part on in the background, and think about my story through all of these influences. I drop in and out of poems, riff on a phrase or a word or whatever comes to mind.

I’m not really thinking of my story, yet I am. I’m tracing moods, dreaming, conjuring, whatever. I write little scenes, character descriptions, single words that I like. It’s all a collage, which for me is the word that defines the best sort of creativity. It’s playful. One thing layers upon another. It’s impossible to make a mistake.

And that’s the crux of a second or third draft—the tendency to want to preserve instead of explore. The curves of a creation are in place, after all, so it’s difficult to want to give them a different shape, which means that a story can tend more toward the rigidity of ossification.

I find when I work outside of the story in this manner, and especially in the slow ease of  longhand, that nothing I write has to make it into the story. Still, I usually create a piquant scene or two, a more lyrical description here and there, and even figure out how to cut some of the bad stuff out.

It’s like a new, exciting kid has just moved next door and I’ve got a fun playmate. We run through the neighborhood without supervision. We feel the sweat on our bodies as if for the first time. We lose our breath from running.

I know that there will be revisions and more revisions, of course—and that sometimes it’s necessary to stay in the rut of the story for refinement’s sake, just to smooth those uneven surfaces. But this is one fun way to challenge a story, hopefully bring it to life in a way that a more workmanlike effort can’t.

On to revision tip no. 2,044, "Taking an Exotic Foreign Vacation to Revise Your Story." I have to admit that this one is my favorite. Although 2,045 has its place: "Marrying Rich to Revise Your Story."