Reviewer: Tatjana Jevdjic (The Courage to Create) A poet is perhaps an unusual choice
for an inspirational speaker — poets as a general rule, as a type –
I wouldn’t say all poets, but, have a tendency to be
a bit depressive, introspective. (Laughter) They want to go up into their garrets
and write their poems, and – um – avoid people.
(Laughter) So the idea of coming out
and public speaking about courage I was interested in what Victoria had to say
about courage and the writer, because it also seems
a bit strange for me, living here in Greece,
where we have free speech, to talk about the courage to create — You know, maybe where there are women in Afghanistan
who risk death to write their poems. I don’t risk death to write my poems. But, I have been thinking about
the courage to create, the courage to create in a crisis, and what keeps coming
to my mind is a sentence by John Keats, in one of his letters, where he defines a quality
which he calls negative capability, which is something
I’m sure many of you have heard of. He was talking about
the genius of Shakespeare what makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare. And he defined negative capability
as the ability to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubt – without any
irritable reaching after fact or reason. To me this isn’t exactly “courage”.
I think of courage as maybe defined in this very sort of positive way, courage as mastering fear,
or conquering fear, and negative capability
is something not quite that. If we think of fear as fear of change,
fear of the unknown, and particularly for artists,
fear of failure which is change and the unknown, together. This negative capability
is not a way of conquering these fears, but a way of existing amongst them,
and living in them, and moving in the space
that they create. Change and the unknown and even failure
is a space where we create, and you have to be able to live in that. I think of also the symbol
of poetic inspiration from ancient times,
you know, we think of the winged
horse Pegasus, (Greek:Pegasus) whose name, of course, comes from
the greek “pigi” — a spring or source and that wonderful surge of flight,
the flight of inspiration. But for me, the symbol of
poetic inspiration is the bat, (Greek: nychterída) because unlike birds,
for instance — or Pegasus I guess, I don’t know about the physics of Pegasus, birds are able to get into flight,
to create the lift out of their own efforts and construction to get off the ground
and into flight. Bats cannot do that. Bats, if they’re on the ground,
are stuck. I don’t know if you’ve
ever seen a bat on the ground
or in a documentary or something, but it’s like watching a stilt walker
with crutches or something. It’s a very awkward and pathetic sight. A bat has to hang
somewhere upside-down, in a cave or a tree
and fall into flight. A bat has to drop into the unknown
in order to fly, and I feel that the creation of poetry
is something like that. But it’s not when we’re afraid,
we want to control everything around us, but that in order to create
we have to give up control or the illusion of control to do this. So, a bat falls into flight,
into that half-light of dusk and then, proceeds
to move through the world, not by looking where it is going,
but by listening where it is going. And to me that is a symbol of poetry, and how I write poetry,
how I read poetry. So, this is a poem.
“Explaining an Affinity for Bats”. That they are only glimpsed in silhouette, And seem something else at first
— a swallow — And move like new tunes,
difficult to follow, Staggering towards an obstacle they yet Avoid in a last-minute pirouette, Somehow telling solid things
from hollow, Sounding out how high a space,
or shallow, Revising into deepening violet. That they sing —
not the way the songbird sings (Whose song is rote, to ornament, finesse) — But travel by a sort of song that rings True not in utterance,
but harkenings, Who find their way by calling into darkness To hear their voice bounce off
the shape of things. I’m sure you all are sitting there thinking,
“Why that was a sonnet?” Yes, the other thing I can say I’m mostly —
most known for is working within traditional forms,
meter and rhyme, which has maybe not been
the most fashionable thing in the last 80 years or so. There is a lot of
misconception about form. I think people think of —
Well, you hear a lot about poetry being about self expression
and freedom of expression. I’m not really for self expression, yes. I’m not really interested in expressing myself,
I don’t really think I’m that interesting. I am interested in
expressing the poem, and finding out
what the poem has to say to me and learning something from the poem. I mean, any teenager
who’s miserably in love, will express him or herself in a poem.
It’s not necessarily a good poem. So, I am interested in how to express
what the poem wants to say and that again
is a giving up of control. So, for me working within forms
within certain patterns, with some arbitrary rules,
with rhyme, which is maybe the most mysterious
of all the rhetorical devices, because it creates reason
where there is none — Why is that womb and tune, rhyme? I mean it, we seem to feel like it has some kind
of magical connection. And each language
has its own group of words that have that magical,
magnetic connection of rhyme. So, for me working in form
is about giving up control, giving up some control to the form,
finding out what the poem wants to say. Maybe I’ll end up on a line,
because it rhymes, and I didn’t know that’s
what I wanted to say. So as a mother, also, which is also
about giving up control — one of your fears as a poet
who becomes a mother is that you’re losing yourself, that you’ll never be able
to write again. People asked me what —
has being a mother, how it has affected my poetry? And my traditional line is,
“There is less of it”. But, at the same time, it also brings you
into this gray area, this gray space, when you’re up
all night with a colicky baby in those strange hours,
like 3 AM and you have had no sleep. Sometimes that’s
when the creativity happens, because you’re not trying
to control your thoughts, and my first poem I wrote
after having my son, I was walking up and down,
you know, the room, with this squalling,
screaming infant and that rhythm of walking and not thinking
about, “Oh I’ve got to be writing a poem, I haven’t written
a poem in nine months”. Suddenly,
the poem came about — It was a triolet or triolet, which is a French form,
French fixed form, with eight lines. So that’s kind of handy if you are mother,
and you don’t have a lot of time. Eight lines and two
of those lines repeat, so, don’t really have to write eight lines.
(Laughter) And then if you steal
one of the lines — you only have to write six lines,
I don’t know – I can’t do the math, So I’m afoot.
(Laughter) This was the lullaby as a word
that came out of that event, “Triolet on a Line
Apocryphally Ascribed to Martin Luther”. So, I just stole the first line. Why should the Devil
get all the good tunes, The booze and the neon
and Saturday night, The swaying in darkness,
the lovers like spoons? Why should the Devil
get all of the good tunes? Does he hum them to while away
sad afternoons, And the long, lonesome Sundays?
Or sing them for spite? Why should the Devil
get all the good tunes, The booze and the neon
and Saturday night? (Applause) So that’s a sort of lullaby,
I guess or maybe an elegy for my lost wild youth
or something. (Laughter) So this poems come about for me —
working in forms is — I don’t know where the poem is going,
the poem tells me where to go. I spend a lot of time
reading children’s books, and re-exploring those fairy tales
that are part of our growing up, but we misremember them,
you know, when you think of the “Princess and the Frog”, you know — How does the Princess turn the frog
back into a Prince? With a kiss, unless you’re reading
the actual Grimm story when she turns him back into a Prince
by throwing him against the wall. They’re very strange,
these stories and very violent, and also things happen just because
it’s part of the narrative. There is no character development
or anything, and yet there’s something
magical about this. So this is another of the sonnets
and it’s titled “Fairy-tale Logic”, and I was thinking about how strange
and scary these stories are. Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks: Gather the chin hairs
from a man-eating goat, Or cross a sulphuric lake
in a leaky boat, Select the prince
from a row of identical masks, Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; Count dust specks,
mote by mote, Or learn a phone directory by rote. Always it’s impossible what someone asks — You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve, The language of snakes, perhaps,
an invisible cloak, An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke, The will to do whatever must be done: Marry a monster.
Hand over your firstborn son. (Applause) And some of my forms are not necessarily
the traditional received forms of poems. I am interested in all kinds
of forms and structures. So this, from quite early on
I was writing about Greek mythology, I’ve lived in Greece since 1999, but even as a teenager I was writing
these poems about Greek mythology. I maybe do it a bit less now
that I’m actually here in the middle of it
all the time. My son Jason, you know, on the playground
with Xenophon and Andromeda, and so on. But I’m still very interested
in one of the myths that has always
really fascinated me, you know, artists and so on, through the ages
is the myth of Hades and Persephone
(Greek: Persephonia and Adis) where he snatches this little girl
picking flowers as it were, and takes her down to the underworld
where she becomes queen of the underworld. Now, I’ve written several
poems about that. So, this is a continuation
of that obsession — that’s the nice thing
about being an artist — you can do the same thing over
and over again and it’s not OCD, it’s art. (Laughter) “First love”,
this is a different kind of form, but I think many of you will recognize
this particular form. “First Love: A Quiz”. He came up to me: a. in his souped-up Camaro b. to talk to my skinny best friend c. and bumped my glass of wine,
so I wore the ferrous stain on my sleeve d. from the ground, in a lead chariot
drawn by a team of stallions black as crude oil
and breathing sulfur: at his heart, he sported
a tiny golden arrow. He offered me: a. a ride b. dinner and a movie,
with a wink at the cliché c. an excuse
not to go back alone to the apartment with
its sink of dirty knives d. a narcissus
with a hundred dazzling petals that breathed a sweetness
as cloying as decay. I went with him because: a. even his friends told me to beware b. I had nothing to lose
except my virginity c. he placed his hand
in the small of my back and I felt
the tread of honeybees d. he was my uncle, the one
who lived in the half-finished basement, and he took me by the hair. The place he took me to: a. was dark as my shut eyes b. and where I ate bitter seed
and became ripe c. and from which my mother
would never take me wholly back, though she wept
and walked the earth and made the bearded ears
of barley wither on their stalks and the blasted flowers
drop from their sepals d. is called by some men
hell and others love e. all of the above (Applause) So, my latest book is called “Olives”, a little bit of my life in Greece,
I guess, in a sense. I’ve wanted this black figure
scene of the olive harvest probably because it’s also a sort
of a contemporary scene. It’s not like olive picking
has changed hugely in its methodology
over the centuries, but the press wanted
to put a cover with sort of ‘William Morrisy’ wallpaperish, you know, olives and leaves, and I said that’s great if you’re selling
shampoo or something, but the thing I wanted
olives as a title, because I’m really intrigued
also with the letters O-L-I-V-E-S, because it’s also o-lives. So I’ve enjoyed playing around with that. So there’s a little poem on the back cover
called “Olives”, and each line is playing
if not with the letters, then with the sounds
that make up “olives”. Some of them might cheat a little bit, “olives” Is love
so evil? Is Eve? Lo, love vies,
evolves. I
lose selves, sylphs of
loose Levi’s, sieve oil of
vile sloe. Love sighs,
slives. O veils of
voile, so sly, so suave.
O lives, soil sleeves, I love so
I solve. (Applause) And I’ll close with
this poem “Ultrasound”. Certainly having a child
is scary in its own way and interesting and exciting. What butterfly —
Brain, soul, or both — Unfurls here, pallid
As a moth? (Listen, here’s
Another ticker, Counting under
Mine, and quicker.) In this cave
What flickers fall, Adumbrated
On the wall? Spine like beads
Strung on a wire, Abacus
Of our desire, Moon-face where
Two shadows rhyme, Two moving hands
That tell the time. I am the room
The future owns, The darkness where
It grows its bones. (Applause) I was asked in one of the interviews,
“What is the thing you created that takes the most courage
and that you’re proudest of?” And without even thinking
I said “my children”. Thank you, (Greek: sopoli)