Clive Matson writes from an itch in his body

Poetry and Darkness

February 2nd, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (2 Comments)

020210“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” writes Mary Oliver in “The Wild Geese.” This line has become an anthem for this generation, and for those of us going through changes. It might be the most quoted line of this decade. We need this growth and spiritual advice desperately.

Not easy to let the soft animal love, though, if you own upbringing has been difficult. One poet in our workshops is far into the journey of discovering what that might be. Who she is, what that soft animal might love. And poems are a powerful aid.

The journey might not be pleasant, and the poems can be dark. In fact, we were working with our poet and her poem, which has all the pain of being orphaned in a few compact lines. The images were energetic and troubled. The poet worked into the trauma and took a step forward. That step was dripping with pain, and it was only one small step. But the step was forward.

We could feel her exhilaration. We could also feel the darkness.

When it came time for the poet to speak, she was full of gratitude. “My previous workshops got so they wouldn’t read my poems. Too dark!” She mimicked those folks, holding up her hands with her index fingers crossed to ward off evil. “Don’t read us your poems!”

We looked at each other in astonishment. Hadn’t we just been given a few stations of her journey as a gift? Tough though it was, we were honored to join her.

I can’t speak for others, but for myself, my own journey is so difficult, I’m grateful for anyone sharing their own troubles. It’s trusting, for one thing. For another, it affirms the faith that we are together in this difficulty called life and there is common ground. Thanks are due her, from us, for such a gift.

I looked the poet in the eye. “I’m grateful for the company.”

(With help from D. Jayne McPherson.)

More Dirt

January 21st, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

012110A date wanted to bring her portable drill to my bedroom and put up new paper blinds, all because I mentioned the old ones were soiled and tipping. She hadn’t even seen my bedroom. And I had spent barely two hours with her, she couldn’t have known whether I’m handy. I wondered what was going on, and I winked at her. “Maybe I should accept whatever you offer.”
“Whatever” sounds limitless. I thought I might be in for quite an adventure.
When Chalcedony offers something, I don’t have the choice of refusing. I don’t have the critical apparatus to make a choice, anyway. She exists outside my ken. I write whatever she wants, and afterwards, sometimes years afterwards, I dive into the poem and hope it will offer up its essence.
My date read a couple of these poems and, as fits her lack of gender bias, wondered why we don’t hear the boyfriend’s responses. Especially since Chalcedony is often ranting, taking him to task for his cluelessness.
I didn’t have an answer, and later it occurred to me that some of the songs might be the boyfriend’s responses. But his push back comes disguised in Chalcedony’s voice. Flamboyant and feminine as it often seems, it sometimes does not have any gender clues.
I never saw the drill, and my blinds are still soiled and tipping.



November 4th, 2009 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

110409The Bronx in the 1960s was a difficult place, and one of our writers lived there in a sixth floor walk-up apartment with her mother. Rents were cheap, and as immigrants at poverty level they had been attracted to the neighborhood. But some buildings were burning, the streets were contested by gangs, and political groups were in conflict or disarray.

One day the City condemned their building, and all five floors beneath them emptied out. Mother and daughter stayed a while longer. When they came home at night to the deserted hallways, her mother stamped her feet hard on the floor and all the way up the five flights of stairs. Her daughter did the same. The mother called out, again and again, “Hurry up, George!” as if her husband were just behind them. In reality he was at work across town, but the muggers didn’t know this.

Years later the writer asked her mother how she felt about that time.”I didn’t think much about it. I thought it was just the way things were.”

“Just the way things were”? When neighborhoods are burning, and it’s dangerous to walk to the corner store and buy a quart of milk? We wonder what that does to a young writer’s psyche, and how she might react later.

But the writer calls herself a “recovering MFA graduate” and says she likes staying in touch with chaos. She did five years traditional training in literature and, ultimately, she found it boring to her creative impulse. She must have felt some resonance with the chaos, or its familiarity made chaos necessary to her work, or part of her recognized that at least some uncertainly is a quality of life. Everywhere. It was certainly present those years in the Bronx.

She says, “I invite chaos into my writing.”

Chaos is familiar territory to Chalcedony (Kal-SAID-en-ee), the spirit woman in my collections Chalcedony’s Songs. She lives in the passionate, archetypal currents running through our bodies, and the ride is often rough. Often chaotic. Her world doesn’t conform to our wishes, certainly, of how things should be. But Chalcedony likes the wildness and the rambunctiousness, and wants everyone else to enjoy it, too. Or at least to come to terms with it.

Especially her lover. Doesn’t he recognize that parts of life are always spinning out of control? In “Song Three” she admonishes him, one day when boundaries had dissolved and their impulses were overlapping. Everything was mixed up and intertwining, even at the atomic level.

“You think this is aggravating?” she shouts, “You think this isn’t the way of the world?”

Writing and Fun

October 26th, 2009 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (7 Comments)

102609“I’m having a lot of fun writing this,” said a beginner in Tuesday night workshop, thirty pages into a first novel.

The writer needs to meter out drama and character-building details in a smooth, believable, organic trance. This has to be complicated, and it cannot be an easy project. But what could be better than to have fun doing it? That would be a measure of one’s competence and ones’s daring. And more, a measure of belief in one’s competence.

People having fun as they write made me suspicious when I first started teaching, thirty-some years ago. How can you get to the energetic depths, if having fun is the overall tone? It fits intuition that there must be some unpleasant struggle somewhere, just as in life.

But another writer dispelled this prejudice, saying for that writer, writing is play. “Play like what children do: totally encompassing play.” Where the writing becomes the entire world and the entire world is one’s playground. One can map a lot of struggle, I understand from this, over into the child’s playground, and it won’t seem painful. “Deep pleasure in the writing,” said another writer, who added that a lot of practice goes into the pleasure. Lining up the vast creative unconscious in a harmonious way with that small part of us that recognizes pleasure.

Do you know the Robert Frost quote? “No tears for the writer, no tears in the reader.” It might also be true: “No fun for the writer, no fun for the reader.”

(With help from Sandy Olsen, Deborah Janke, and Jeff Karon.)