Naomi Guttman

naomi-guttman-web
Naomi Guttman’s first book of poems, Reasons for Winter, won the A.M. Klein Award for Poetry. Her second, Wet Apples, White Blood, was co-winner of the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Best Book of Poems for 2007. The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera is her third poetry collection. Raised in Montreal, she now teaches creative writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.
Visit Naomi Guttman online.

More about Naomi Guttman:

Author Questionnaire

When did you start writing?

I started writing as a teenager—mostly awful poems in verse and some other terrible free verse poems as well. In my first semester at college, I enrolled in my first bona fide poetry workshop and had a breakthrough with free verse while studying the work of Theodore Roethke and Heather McHugh. It was then I began to learn how language can be intensified by multiple strategies: diction, inversion, elision, juxtaposition, syntax, and line breaks. Of course, that didn’t happen all at once, but I got a taste of the possibilities. At base, though I would say that from early childhood I was attracted to the musicality of language—as I think almost all children are—and I find myself always returning to that. Nursery rhymes and songs were very important to me. I loved A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. I can recite most of those poems by heart still today.

Why do you write? Has this changed over time?

I write because it keeps me feeling alive and engaged, and engaged in reading, which may be more fundamental for me than writing. Great writing provokes me into imagining that I could write that well. I don’t need to write to survive, but when I am not engaged in writing, something is missing. I write because the visual arts, music, some dance, and literature are what, to me, give meaning to life, and of all these art forms writing is the one in which I have the most experience and thus facility. When I was younger it had to do with articulating my own feelings; as I’ve grown older, it’s a means of making sense of the world or reflecting the ways in which there is no sense in the world.

Who are some of your favourite writers? And what do you draw from their work?

Like many contemporary poets, I will name Elizabeth Bishop because she taught me that from the most humble subjects and in a modern and unassuming voice, great poems could be made. She is also exemplary when it comes to innovation of forms, the use of forms, while never sounding old-fashioned or trite. Theodore Roethke’s intensity of language and image, that synthesis, was very influential for me as a young writer. Anne Carson is a favourite because of her daring, her imagination, her artful way of connecting ancient and modern and thereby reminding us that the ancient abides with us. I love W.S. Merwin for his use of the line, the way he pares the sentence down to its most elemental by banishing punctuation and forcing the reader to slow down, to reread. I also admire his commitment to conservation and raising the alarm about the future of the planet. Adrienne Rich was a great influence for her political commitment and the ways in which she brought that into her writing, even though it didn’t always work to advance her career. She was a great intellectual and used the power of her intellect to examine the basic injustices of our day and to elucidate them in terms that respect conflicting perspectives. I admire her essays just as much I do her poetry: the writing is lucid without being simplistic; reading her essays taught me a great deal about humility and the search for truth in argumentation, as well as about prose style. There are too many writers to mention, really. Many prose writers, especially those who focus on the short story, are among my favourites: Alice Munro for her amazing ability to convey interiority and her slyness about human suffering, and also her poetic language. She’s a wonderful poet, really. I love David Mitchell’s work, as well as Jennifer Egan and George Saunders, Elizabeth Strout, among many others. I guess with all of them it comes down to how they convey our contradictions, our ability to fool ourselves, but also how they are able to create physical worlds in language, to populate them with assorted voices, and to say just enough and not too much.

Explain a particular poem of yours from a Brick Books publication – you can present your interpretation of one of your poems or else offer some more general commentary on how you would like your work to be read.

Criss-cross

Castle and heddle the warp the weft

a web a cloth a nap the stuff

take yarn manila sendal and cross

tufts of rabbit merino floss

fibre worsted linen and jute

throw down a pattern unravel a suit

of sea water nacre opal and clay

plaited ribbons steeped in dark tea

skeins of skin, brocaded bones

a bolt of tulle a pile of stones

milk and sugar a cotton web

a veil of clouds a coat of reeds

cut the length leave hang the thrum

fray the fringe abandon the loom.

One of the things I like about being a writer is being able to hear others’ interpretations of my work and not having to offer my own. In rereading the manuscript of The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes From the Opera, I find it difficult to isolate one poem to discuss. Because this manuscript is a novella—a series of poems about a particular family and their lives at a critical period—each poem has in some way to advance either the plot or the understanding of a particular character, or both. “Criss-Cross” is one of the few poems which, though it is clearly about Ari’s weaving project, came from the fiber of language, as it were. At the time of its composition in the summer of 2012, I was deeply invested in drafting poems about Ari and her “Human Footprint Series,” a series of tapestries—of fiber artworks—that explore humanity’s dominion and destruction of life as we have known it for thousands of years. Some of these poems risk didacticism; in fact one poem, Ari’s “Artist’s Statement,” is patently didactic, but purposefully so, and I hope that its tongue-in-cheek quality will be apparent to readers. “Criss-Cross” arrived, however, almost out of whole cloth—to pun shamelessly—when I spent a morning with a certain music in my ear—a throwback to accentual verse, really—and concentrated on a list of textile vocabulary I had compiled from my thesaurus and the dictionary. Working from this list of nouns and verbs, I felt truly as if I were weaving the poem out of those words, or—even more strangely—as if I were simply a conduit and the poem were weaving itself. I know that it’s a cliché, and it doesn’t mean that a lot of practice and trial and error did not go into the writing—but it may be that all the practice of writing other poems and listening to other poets’ music primes us for the composition of some of these highly lyric poems that seem to announce themselves when conditions are ripe. That is the beauty and mystery that I think draws most of we who think of ourselves as poets to write lyric poetry.

In terms of its placement in the manuscript, I see this poem as a tipping point for Ari, one of the book’s primary characters, and her work as a fiber artist: up until this moment, she has devoted herself to weaving. By the end of the poem, not only does she cut a particular cloth from the loom, but she is ready to “abandon” the loom altogether for a while in order to explore other techniques. This new openness to a rich quarry of new materials and skills metaphorically hints at her readiness to begin to remake herself after her mother’s long illness and death. The poem “happens” in about the middle of the manuscript—signalling the beginning of a long process of reckoning with loss and aging, of entering another stage of life. I guess I see it as a “hinge” in the narrative, but one of several: even as Ari embarks on this textile project, her husband Donny is involved in his own artistic adventure as a musician and conductor of a chamber choir who is mounting a production of the first European opera, Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo.” This dance between their two projects and their different approaches to life generally is one of the most important tensions in the book.

Essay: “Scenes from the Opera: On Writing a Novella-in-Verse”

About two years ago, I was thinking about food, as I often am, thinking about people I’ve met who are passionate about food and their different approaches—the gourmand, the health-conscious, the allergic, the political—as well as those who are more or less indifferent—the timid, the lazy, the careless—all the types among whom I live and the multitudes contained in me, Walt Whitman in the kitchen. I began writing poems about a contemporary Canadian couple, Donny and Ari Backus, and their two young sons, Stefan and Onno, dividing myself into the adults particularly, the Dionysian “Donny,” and the abstemious “Ari.” As I pushed further to align their characters with their namesakes, Donny became not only a foodie, but a musician; Ari not simply a person resisting her appetites, but a weaver.

The poems accumulated, and I realized that I was composing a long poem, maybe a novella-in-verse, in which we witness a family drama from a variety of perspectives. What distinguishes a long poem from a novella-in-verse? The long poem has many models, but fitting in dialogue and scene and all the elements that structure a piece of extended fiction, that ease and enchant a reader’s entry into the world of a novel—those do not seem to be as easy a reach in the long poem. A long poem creates atmosphere, it builds tension both within poems and in the spaces between them, but does it lead us through? And what kind of novel are we talking about? In the early 21st century, so many traditions of the novel crowd together on our shelves that it may be a false distinction to separate certain books of long verse from certain works of fiction. Perhaps the long poem fits best into a post-modern paradigm of the fragment, the collage, the unfinished. However, this question of genre is one in which I don’t dare engage as I compose. In the act of writing I am occupied with the fabrication of moments that seem true to themselves, and I trust that in the end they will make sense together.

In our correspondence, Arc’s editor Katia Grubisic wrote to me that “the length of a banquet table, alluded to in the title, suggests the span of life, its many courses, guests, tastes, spills.” Yes, all those things, as well as pauses, conversations, disappointments, ceremonies, regrets, and anticipations. I’m also fascinated by the power of food itself and the ways it can be used to perpetuate as well as to control desire. While we must eat to survive, our food choices now are inflected by a multiplicity of forces that play us: advertising, health concerns, traditions, family, religion, belief, and, of course, taste. Once I embarked on the banquet, on developing these two characters with their conflicting approaches to food, to life, I began feeding them from the table of imagination the dishes I thought would best suit them, and they in turn began feeding me their ideas of how to nourish them further. How did I come up with the 10-line lyric? By accident, organically, as the shapes of most poems come into being—via their own music.

These nine poems are excerpted moments. I hope the reader will see connections between the characters, appreciate a variety of moods, a suggestion of the length of the marriage that is the banquet of the life these two central characters have made together, and also some of its origins. Western chorus frog is one of several poems sprinkled through the manuscript that represent a series of tapestries Ari is making, inspired by our environmental crisis.

Many courses from this banquet are missing, some of which would provide the narrative ligaments. Yet readers can be expected to do some of that work themselves—that is, in fact, the pleasure of reading: the proleptic moment we appreciate only after the fact, the glass slipper that sets the quest in motion. What a reader sees in these pages may be like the experience of seeing photographs of a nude without being sure, even on close inspection, whether we are looking at the fold of the upper arm resting against the rib cage or the crease between the back of a thigh and the calf.

Long ago I read an interview of Alice Munro where, to describe how she feels as she begins a short story, she uses the metaphor of visiting a house for the first time: as you enter, you notice the furnishings, the wall paper, the books and decorations; but it takes you a while to understand the architecture, the way the rooms of the house connect via doors, hallways and stairs. This describes well my experience: I am still feeling my way around the interior of this longer work, and it will take some time before I understand completely how its rooms connect.

Having now written 40 of the 100 or so poems I anticipate will make up a book-length manuscript, when will I stop, how will I know when it’s done? When I throw it into boiling water and it rises to the top? When a toothpick thrust in the center comes out dry? When I cut into the joint and the juice runs clear? Perhaps when the stains and spills and full stomachs tell me, when the guests lift the napkins from their laps, push their chairs back from the table and say, “C’est terminé.”

A version of this essay appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, #67, Winter 2012

Poems by Naomi Guttman, Excerpts from The Banquet of Donny and Ari

(Epigraph)

Stories never live alone: they are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward.

– Roberto Calasso

POEMS

Early music

That summer Ari lay on the swept wood floor,
Donny played the harpsichord.
River heat rose around the island, clinging to them,
sticky with newborn love.

In tall frosted glasses, he served cantaloupe
crushed with ice and lime, red beans and quinoa
on earthen plates. Dampness entered, settled
like the children they didn’t yet know.
On the swept wood floor she lay her braid undone—
Bach’s inventions catching in her hair.

Argonautica

Donny doesn’t think he’s made decisions—
life’s a hungry lion tracking prey. Each hour has a texture
and a name, but not a place to stop. If only he could cast himself
beyond time’s grip, forward, backward, he wouldn’t care—
escape the wax museum of the now without a scratch,
without being missed. Where would he go? Some risky thrilling era?
But with indoor plumbing and martinis. Would he be a firefighter,
secret agent, pitcher, a hero riding rocky seas. Orpheus drowning Sirens,
shielding grateful sailors with his sunburst Stratocaster and his song.

The book of life

Though Ari won’t believe in God, she knows that something somewhere
must be counting: calories and carbon use, every inner tube she’s ever burst,
every acid-crusted battery, somewhere there’s a ledger for the damage
of existence: each bottle top and what it cost the Earth,
the atmosphere, accruing to the rubbish mountain of her soul.

Joy is only sugar, an empty source of energy, and happiness a fiction;
it’s misery and guilt that architect the real. And the body,
the body’s just another spring of discipline; something counts each lick,
each sip, each chew, each mile she runs with weights on arms and legs
up and down the neighborhood so early that she wakes the dogs.

Writing exercises – please share some of your favourite writing exercises – things you do to limber up or exercises you use with workshops.

Daily Poetry Journals

A couple of years ago I took a figure drawing class. Part of the pedagogy to keep a drawing journal in which we made studies, e.g. “draw your foot in five positions,” or “draw five different ears.” Though I had always asked students to do the occasional exercise, my teacher’s drawing journal inspired me to challenge them to take on a series of daily exercises over the course of our 14-week semester. The assignments are not difficult in and of themselves, though they do require you to set time aside each day of the week, with one “day off” per week. Here is the “daily poetry journal” plan.

For 6 out of 7 days of each week do these exercises:

Week 1: Write at least 8 lines of one of these meters each day. Don’t use the same meter more than once. What you write does not have to make sense:   Iambic trimeter; iambic tetrameter; trochaic dimeter; trochaic trimeter; trochaic tetrameter; dactylic dimeter; anapestic dimeter.

Week 2: Each day, record three observations of things you notice around you: smells, sights, sounds, etc. Though you are welcome to use figurative language, the emphasis here should be on precise diction.

Week 3: Find six evocative (for you) words or phrases that are abstract in nature and each day write an image that reveals the word’s meaning to you. e.g. for “midnight” Coleman Barks wrote: “A miner buries his hands in a woman’s hair.”

Week 4: Each day, take the first line of a poem from one of our texts and follow it with at least 10 more lines.

Week 5: Each day write a complex sentence that contains several clauses. Then rearrange the syntax of that sentence so that it is different from what it was. Do this twice, so that you end up with three differently arranged sentences. You may alter coordinating conjunctions, etc. Here is an example:

“After a three days’ driving, Jenna’s old Pontiac, which she’d inherited from her paternal grandmother, a car with a bad case of rust and a failing alternator, stopped next to a cornfield where she decided to nap in the shade and protection of the August stalks.”

Stopping next to an August cornfield, Jenna napped in the shade after three days of driving the old Pontiac her paternal grandmother—Granny Lynn—had left her, and which she appreciated, even though it was rusted through in spots and the alternator was failing.

  • Granny Lynn had left it to her—a rusty old Pontiac with a failing alternator—yet this was the car with which Jenna would start her new life, that is, after she napped in the corn stalks of August on this dusty country road she’d gotten lost on after driving for three days.
  • August cornfields surrounded her—the only shade for miles after three days of driving, and it was here that the rusted old Pontiac—a posthumous gift from Granny Lynn—sputtered to a stop, and where Jenna decided would be a good protected place to nap before figuring out what to do next.

HINT: Make the first sentence sufficiently complex so that you can work with the material you have created to make several more interesting and complex sentences. As above, it’s okay to add new details, but the point is to start and end the sentences in different syntactic locations.

Week 6: Making Lists: From ancient times, poetry is full of catalogues or lists, e.g. The Iliad. Lady Shonogan, who wrote the 1000, CE masterpiece The Pillow Book, is famous for its categorized lists. For example, she has lists of things that give a clean feeling; elegant things; things that give a feeling of disgust.

Here are two categories, followed by lists:

  • Things that are near yet far—The Miyanobe festival. Relationships between siblings or relatives who don’t like each other. The winding path up to Kurama Temple. The first day of the New year, seen from the last day of the old.
  • Things that are far yet near—Paradise. The course of a boat. Relations between men and women. (162-163)

Each day, create a category and list at least 5 items that belong in it. Use your imagination: make it strange!

Week 7: Make a list of your 50 favorite words. Each day, investigate the etymological roots of at least one of them. Put something of what you discover into your next poem.

Week 8: Each day, write a rimed iambic pentameter couplet.

Week 9: Find a poem you admire of between 10-20 lines. Copy its syntax and line breaks, substituting your own language.

Week 10: Make a list of dead metaphors, homilies, or clichéd expressions. Each day, choose one to strangify, and “make it new.” E.g. “She let the cat out of the bag,” => “He let the cider out of the shoe.” Or “A stitch in time saves nine” => “A pinch of tea saves dreaming.”

Week 11: Each day of the week, write down a new word you have come across or a word you have never used. Find the definition. Use the word in a 5-10 line poem.

Week 12: Choose one painter or photographer whose work you admire, (e.g. Rubens, Steiglitz, O’Keefe, Kuharic…). Each day, study one of his/her images and write 5-10 lines about it. In other words, keep focused on a particular artist but each day move to a different work.

Week 13: Write an “American Sentence” each day. An Am. Sentence is a modified haiku invented by Allen Ginsberg, a one-line poem, usually in 17 syllables.

Here are a couple of his:

Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella

Rainy night on Union square, full moon. Want more poems? Wait till I’m dead.

Week 14: Make up a journal assignment of your own. Do it every day.

Conversations between the editor and the author about a poem.

Sue Chenette, my editor, and I had lively correspondence about many poems in The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera. The book is a novella-in-verse, and Sue expressed concern about characterization, particularly about the ways in which the narrator sometimes seemed to judge the male protagonist, Donny. The poem “Argonautica” is an example of a poem whose narrative stance fell into this category; that and other editorial questions made us go back several times over this particular poem.

Below are two versions of the poem along with some of our back and forth.

Argonautica (Original)

Donny won’t believe he’s made decisions—life’s
a lion tracking prey, its belly never full, mind
following body. The way each hour has a texture
and a name, but not a place to stop. If only he could cast himself
away from time—forward, backward, he wouldn’t care—just leave
his life without a loss, escape his wax museum
for a spell, no pain or grief for anyone. Where would he go?
Some risky thrilling era, but with indoor plumbing and martinis:
Firefighter, secret agent, pitcher, hero riding rocky seas, Orpheus drowning
Sirens, shielding sailors with his lyre and his song.

In the fall of 2013, when Sue first received the manuscript, she wrote in a marginal note on the poem: “I’m wondering about point of view. An omniscient narrator is judging Donny, pointing out that he ‘won’t’ believe he’s made decisions and that he wants his thrills and indoor plumbing too.” And in a cover letter, she added, “Donny is fully and complexly present, but I wished for a more rounded sense of him sooner, something beyond the distress and discontent of ‘Feast and famine,’ and ‘Argonautica.’I would be interested to see him practicing, to know the range of his focused and fleeting thought in that setting.”

At Sue’s bidding, I began to compose or revisit other poems from Donny’s point of view that were more nuanced; and yet I still struggled with “Argonautica.” In my initial response, I wrote:

“I’m finally getting around to looking more closely at your questions and comments, and doing the minor edits before I get to the major ones. Re. major ones: I agree at times that Donny is seen too much perhaps from Ari’s point of view, but I really want to keep the line in ‘Argonautica’ about how his adventurous spirit is married to his love of comfort. I don’t see that as necessarily Ari’s point of view or even a critical narrator’s point of view. In any event, I guess it will depend in the end on whether I manage to write a poem that would give us a ‘fuller sense of Donny’ earlier in the book.”

Sue responded: “Looking at Argonautica again, I found myself asking if the line in question were something Donny would say about himself. That feels important to me, for balance, since in the poems that express Ari’s frustration, for example “Book of life,” the lines do seem to express things that she would say about herself, at least in the moment of the poem. Could Donny have a sense of self-irony sufficient to acknowledge his need for indoor plumbing and martinis? If so, I wondered if adding a dash to the line: ‘Some risky thrilling era – but with indoor plumbing and martinis’ could do that little bit to make the observation seem more his than that of someone else telling about him without his implied participation.”

Argonautica (second version)

Donny doesn’t think he’s made decisions—
life’s a hungry lion tracking prey. Each hour has a texture
and a name, but not a place to stop.If only he could cast himself
outside time’s arms, forward,backward, he wouldn’t care—
escape the wax museum of the now without a scratch,
without being missed. Where would he go? Some risky thrilling era?
But with indoor plumbing and martinis. Would he be a firefighter,
secret agent, pitcher, hero riding rocky seas. Orpheus drowning Sirens,
shielding grateful sailors with his sunburst Stratocaster and his song.

In this next version, I made the first line potentially less judgmental by changing the verb from “won’t believe,” to “doesn’t think.”  To this, Sue responded, “in these two lines, for instance, absent the “won’t,” the emphasis now falls, for me, on the second, so that I do feel inside Donny’s mind, seeing the world as he sees it.”  Regarding figurative language shifts, in lines 4-5, Sue expertly steered me away from mixing metaphors: “This was the only phrase I wasn’t sure about. His feeling enclosed by time is important, I think, but I wondered if the poem really wanted both metaphors, the arms and the wax museum. It could read ‘outside of time.’”

As readers can see, I made Donny less certain about what he would do by using the interrogative twice in the sixth line. I also changed “lyre” to a hipper, more contemporary instrument, the Stratocaster—a guitar many believe to be the most important element in the sound of mid-twentieth-century Rock and Roll. I also modified “sailors,” making them “grateful,” to give the reader a little more of a taste of Donny’s desire for grandeur.

The poem appears with still a few more slight modifications in the final version. But for those, you will simply have to read the book!

A poet’s statement on some aspect of craft

Like it or not, I seem to be drawn to form. I don’t know why this should be except that since I was very small I’ve enjoyed symmetry, whether it was rhythmic or visual. This probably indicates a primitive aesthetic; though I’ve certainly written many free verse poems, I seem always to return to form, whether it’s the pantoum, the ballad, or blank verse. One could say that formal poetry provides us with even more of a challenge to “make it new,” as Pound said, than do the organics of free verse. For example, riming forms require us, in the 21st century, not to depend on the usual suspects. I love to read formalists and to puzzle out what they’ve done and how they did it. Among my current favorite poets now is A.E. Stallings, whose book Hapax offers a feast of formal poems, each one different from its sisters.

In The Banquet of Donny & Ari, I found working with form to be a way into the book. I started it by writing 10-line poems, because I wasn’t sure how to begin the poems and this seemed a good way to make myself write. Ten lines, that’s all, I’d tell myself, and at first I entertained the notion that all the poems should be 10 lines long. It became clear after a while that even if each poem were 10 lines, I should vary those lines somehow, cluster then differently, and I played with this for a long time, attempting to find the organic shape for each poem.

Of course, as a result, some of these poems ended up with fewer lines and some ended up longer. Eventually I got to the point where I could see that the only path was to take the material where it wanted to go. When I freed myself from the constraint of 10 lines, a multiplicity of forms came forward. Some poems arrived as music, where sounds and rhythm took over; one was written in a 4-stressed line, recalling accentual verse, like a chant. Another became a pantoum, which seemed to serve the poem well by recalling the dream-like trance of ritual movement. Still another poem was inspired by a mirror structure, which I stumbled upon in a poem by Howard Moss. In this way, slowly, I was able to rescue the book from the tyranny of a haphazardly chosen stanza length and shape, and I believe the collection is that much richer for its refusal to adopt a single form throughout. That, however, could be a way of excusing myself from that challenge: to write a book using a single form and still make it an interesting read.

Study Questions on Méira Cook’s Monologue Dogs

1. In what ways does Cook’s use of characters from history, mythology, and fairy tale illuminate or complicate the original or accepted versions of the tales or characters?

2. Sometimes Cook re-locates characters from history or folklore into a modern setting: how does this affect our understanding of the poems?

3. Cook often quotes or misquotes phrases from the work of famous poets. What is the effect of this weaving in of others’ words?

4. The book is divided into four sections: what kinds of patterns do you see within and between sections, patterns of imagery, idea, voice, or form?

5. In the book’s last section, “Crooked,” Cook writes a series of short notes explaining or providing background to a few of her poems. Read the book through before reading this section and then read this section. In what ways do these offerings amplify the poems? Are they poems in their own right?

Prepared by Naomi Guttman. Monologue Dogs can be purchased as a print book or an e-book from the Brick Books website.

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The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera

Reasons for Winter

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