Wednesday, June 11, 2014


                                       THIS BUSINESS OF CREATIVITY
                                                   By Patricia Garfinkel

As writers, we take pride in our creativity, its mystique and uniqueness, the magic of putting pen to paper and out of words as ordinary as our conversation, make unimagined structures of thought.  Beyond this elation there is sometimes a pretence that art – writing, painting, musical composition – requires the indefinable “process of creativity” while fields such as science, mathematics and engineering require only high intelligence to elucidate an ever increasing array of facts.  While we tend to see art as creating something new, as artists we are apt to view science as merely unearthing something that already existed but that until the moment
of  revelation we were not smart enough to see.

However, the process, if we can call it that, for art as well as for science, is fundamentally the same, despite the obvious – that the results differ in form.

Of Copernicus’ thesis that the Earth moved around the Sun, renowned mathematician, natural scientist and writer Jacob Bronowski asks, When did Copernicus go out and record this fact with his camera?  What appearance in nature prompted his outrageous guess?  And in what odd sense is this guess to be called a neutral record of fact?”  When Copernicus wrote, “The Earth conceives from the Sun,” he could not have concluded this by filling endless notebooks with myriad routine calculations.  First he had to make the giant leap of imagination that would catapult his focus to the Sun, from whose perspective the orbits of the planets seemed simpler, more logical.

In the creative process, the artist and the scientist alike, bring forth an image, whether it be, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet black bough,”or the Sun as the center of the universe.  Bronowski is more concise when he tells us, “To the person who makes the theory, it may seem as inevitable as the ending of Othello must have seemed to Shakespeare.”

 C.P. Snow described art and science as two distinct and separate cultures despite the fact that he lived in each.  As both a scientist and a writer, with 11 novels to his credit, he insisted that “in the process of making a discovery, however humble it is, one can’t help feeling an awareness of beauty.”  The subjective experience, the aesthetic satisfaction, seems exactly the same as the satisfaction one gets from writing a poem or a novel, or composing a piece of music.”  I would also challenge that one surpasses the other in universal beauty.

Perhaps what we cannot challenge in this amorphous process of creativity is that, in all its forms, it brings order out of chaos.  The artist faces this chaos before being able to bring about the integration of the work.  The scientist faces similar fragmentation in an effort to comprehend nature.  Both must risk giving up the more conscious and analytical frame of mind to be open to the lower-level primary


process thinking of the unconscious that scans a million possibilities and then projects the missing order into reality. 

Neither artists nor scientists own the territory of creativity.  Each is blessed with a gift that enhances and advances the world.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Poetry and the National Conscience: An Unpublished MS Archived in the Gelman Library

This unpublished book manuscript from three Washington conferences,
featuring twelve poets, is now archived at the Gelman Library

During the war in Viet Nam (1968, 1969, 1970), the University of Maryland, with some grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts, convened three conferences, bringing together each time four or five poets and about 20 “delegates” (editors, teachers, and other poets) to grapple with the issues of war, poetry and propaganda, race, education and morality, and the nation’s changing identity.

The availability of poet Reed Whittemore, a faculty member at the University of Maryland who was widely experienced as an insightful, effective moderator, guaranteed that these annual conferences would attract wide interest and adequate funding.

We called in as panelists some poets who had been writing about these matters.  They were placed at a table onstage.  Just below them was a section of seats reserved for invited delegates, with access to microphones.  A fairly sizeable audience was in attendance. During each morning and afternoon session the poets read “position papers” which were discussed among themselves and with delegates.  These proceedings, the heart of the conferences, were recorded and later transcribed and edited for possible book publication.  Each conference ended, appropriately enough, with the panelist-poets giving an evening reading of some of their poems, selected for their relevance to the conference topic.

The very active delegates for each conference are too numerous to mention. Most of them were poets or editors or teachers of poetry from the Washington area. The 1968 conference is where many of the Washington poets of that time first got to know each other. 

With Reed Whittemore as moderator, the specially selected panelist–poets for each conference were as follows:
             1968 – James Wright, Louis Simpson, and Daniel Hoffman.
             1969 – Robert Bly, Senator Eugene McCarthy, John Unterecker, and Ted Weiss.
             1970 – William Stafford, Howard Nemerov, Raymond Patterson, and Denise Levertov.

A final conference, in 1971, was no longer related to the issue of national conscience and was not recorded.  The panelist-poets in ’71 were William Mathews, John Logan, Donald Hall, and Michael Harper.

Editing the recordings into a publishable typescript was a large and time-consuming task.  Because the recordings were sometimes faulty and indecipherable, there was a good deal of back-and-forth with the poets and delegates for final approval of their words.  The assistant editor, my graduate assistant, Eugene Harding, worked hard and well, but we couldn’t keep pace with history. As the war was winding down in 1971, Harper and Row, having shown interest, decided (wrongly I think) that this creative and imaginative response to war would not survive the actuality of that particular war. By 1972, other publishers sensed that the country wanted only to forget the war. The book was never published.

However, on the occasion of the recent founding of the Washington Poetry Archive, a  growing collection of books and documents  being gathered at George Washington University, the manuscript of Poetry and the National Conscience is now available to scholars and other readers. By way of transfer from off-site storage, it is available in the Gelman Library’s Special Collections unit, on the 7th floor.

The poems read by the poets in the evening sessions having been deleted, the manuscript is now 173 pages.

For purposes of this blog, here are some sample quotes from some of the dozen poets. They seem to me fully as penetrating and important as they were during the American people’s part in that war and in the concurrent struggles for racial equality.

Louis Simpson:  In America the wish to destroy other people has never been so
strong because we will not transform ourselves into better men.  . . .The next problem is the impulse to self-destruction.
                          
Ted Weiss:  We must not luxuriate in that last pleasure, guilt.

Raymond Patterson:   . . . a death-dealing confrontation with the cultural bias in the language, a bias that has to do with things black.. . .
                          
William Stafford:  A pattern that others made may prevail in the world, and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

Denise Levertov:  [The poet] has an obligation to put his own body where his words have preceded him.

Howard Nemerov:  The world does not respond to these eloquent chidings by getting better. . . .I am backing away from putting my body where my words are. I want my words to be freer than that. . . .

Samuel Allen:  . . . black consciousness [is] a form which slouches toward the continent of its integrity to be born.   

James Wright:  Those great polemical poems from the past and the bad poems about the war in Viet Nam [are equally] the will trying to do the work of the imagination. . . refusing to think.

                           

Monday, May 19, 2014


Slanting, Scattering, Squeezing Rhymes—and Historical Sequences--Judith McCombs

 

 

“Are you a formalist now?” asked my Writer’s Center boss, the poet Sunil Freeman, when he saw my Slanting, Scattering, Squeezing Rhymes workshop title.

“Semi-formalist,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Sort of dressy casual,” I said. And so it is.

 

            I came to rhyme early, middle and late. Early, as so many kids do, via nursery rhymes, Mother Goose, my young mother singing rhyming scat syllables to me. Then came Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses; and the child’s book of fishing verses that her tall brother, who was School Superintendent of Westermoreland, Kansas, gave his six- or seven-year old niece. Uncle Floyd’s gift led to this early perfect-rhyme couplet: “The short, stately grapevines stand in [something] rows / But where they are marching, nobody knows.” And to “Gibson Hanky George Mechanic, Turton Ahla-antic,” the forced-rhyme names of the summer lightkeepers on my father’s U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey Party, whose vehicles followed behind ours as we went from place to place the summer that I was 6 ½.

 

            Midway, as a college student at Ohio Wesleyan and Univ. Chicago, I tried to imitate Robert Frost’s rhymes & Shakespeare’s sonnets, won poetry & fiction prizes—and wrote my first published poem, in Fiddlehead! That followed W. D. Snodgrass’s visit to Chicago’s only creative writing workshop; he had recently won the Pulitzer for Heart’s Needle, despite his Iowa friends’ warnings that end rhymes were passé, dead & gone.

 

Later, in Detroit, Snodgrass—a master of rhyme and poetic form--had each of us in his Wayne State Univ. workshop write one iambic pentameter line for a round-robin poem in class; he then pointed out that mine had way too many syllables—15 instead of 10. I’d automatically crammed my line with anapaests (short-short-long feet, as in “of the day”) not iambs (short-long, “of day”). Everyone knew English was basically an iambic language—but I’d gone with the older rhythms of the King James Bible, which is chockfull of anapaests—and happened to be the most powerful language I’d ever heard, in church or anywhere.

 

Many have been taught that anapaests are for light, rollicking verse. But the King James Psalm imprinted most deeply in my mind and memory was crammed with anapaests: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me . . . .” The King James translation was made by a committee of 17 (!), who would say lines aloud to hear which version sounded best. The old border ballads, created by illiterate Anons., used anapaests freely and seriously. Coleridge followed their example in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,/ Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”)

 

Few poems in my first three poetry books are end-rhymed. Most have four strong beats,  held together by a net of internal slant-rhymes. Their form owes more to the older, out-loud traditions than do most poems written nowadays. Perhaps more to the right-brain music of remembered, echoing sound. Bit by bit, now and then, I was edging and leapfrogging away from free verse—and getting lost in time, while searching rhymes.

 

English is poor in rhymes, compared to Italian or Spanish—if by rhyme we mean only perfect rhyme. But English has a huge vocabulary--borrowed, pieced, stolen, invented, from many languages—and its slant rhymes are multitudinous. Yeats snuck slant rhymes in. Dickinson used them. So did the old ballads: and from them I learned to hear which were stronger (feet, keep); which good enough (feet, fight); which weak indeed (feet, fraught).

 

While belatedly moving back into slant rhymes, I was reading historical fiction, which, along with non-fiction social history, was gaining ground. Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain I read more than five times; Alice Munro’s “Wilderness Station” and View from Castle Rock even more times, for teaching and articles; John Prebble’s Scots social histories showed ways to re-imagine lost lives. History was full of stories, conflicting and contradicting; as tangled and fascinating as memories, headlines, myths and lore.

 

            After Roots, family histories and social histories, of ordinary, non-prominent people, proliferated. Why? the Web & Ancestry.com spread family trees far and wide; people—mostly older people—went to Ellis Island, the National Archives, historical societies, clan societies, Family Research Centers. This had something to do with an aging but still alive & functioning generation; something to do with wanting a simpler, more understandable time; something, as Munro suggests, of a failure to imagine the lives of our descendants. Or of wistful thinking that somehow we, or they, may still survive, more simply, when our invulnerable technology implodes.

 

            Lately I found myself writing family & clan narrative sequences, mostly in simple ballad or couplet form. The first sequence traced my father’s father, an adventurous farmer-carpenter who left home very early, going four states West when he was about five, to find a lifelong, loving family. The rhymes for him are mostly slant; perfect seemed too fancy. (That sequence won the Maryland State Arts Council’s one highest Individual Poetry Award in 2009.)

            Now I’m writing slant-rhymed couplets in the voice of a real 1600s Scots sorcerer, one Patrick McKommie, who lived apart from my small, dispersed Highlands clan. Patrick was the one folk healer who the Kirk could not excommunicate for sorcery—as they did women and a few men—because the Presbitrie told Patrick’s minister he must first seek Bishop’s advice—but for decades no Bishop would answer. Patrick would have to be a maker—and a magnet--of stories. I’m also writing slant-and-perfectly rhymed ballads of the history and folklore of Patrick’s Chief, M’Comie Mor. (www.innisfreepoetry.org; and www.shenandoahliterary.org 62:2 (Graybeal-Gowen Prize 2012) and 62:3)

Rhymes—and voices--do come more easily now—of is it only that I go more readily to the places where they are?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

MFA Programs


In the mid-70s two projects in particular lay the groundwork for establishing an MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University: the designing and implementing of a course on Washington, D.C. as a learning resource, and an annual Writer’s Conference. 

Today, the University’s links to the vast resources of Washington are well known, but forty years ago this was not the case. The huge reservoir had scarcely been tapped. And thus we put in place a program for incoming freshmen and transfer students that embodied everything from the Congress, Department of State, the courts--from small claims to Supreme Court--international organizations, State Department, archives and libraries, Smithsonian, walks through our diverse neighborhoods led by young people from those neighborhoods, performing and fine arts, the media, lobbying organizations, religious organizations, the environment, including a journey on the Potomac River kindly provided by the National Park Service on their Wood-duck Barge at 5 A.M., usually in the pouring rain with Smithsonian Castle Curator James Goode who pointed out significant buildings as we sailed along. 

And the great generosity of key figures in these organizations in helping to teach our students will be remembered. We never could pay them but we would set up a table in the Gray Hall ditto room—the size of a closet—and serve elegant lunches to congressmen and Supreme Court aides to justices--Justice Douglass’s for one who saved the C & O Canal when there was a move to turn it into a road by requiring members of Congress to walk with him from Georgetown to Cumberland along the beautiful Potomac River.

At the same time, Georgetown University was the only university in the area that had had writer’s conferences and they were beginning to wind down their annual summer program. So we started what turned out to be an annual Writer’s conference. Of course we had no funds and had to raise all of it, which we somehow managed to do. Jane Stanhope, a stronghold in the Literature Department, once gave me a gift of bed sheets on which she had signed the names of dozens of famous writers from Dante to Longfellow in various styles of handwriting, as a commentary on the fact that it was my job to house, feed, transport and somehow come up with honoraria for the guest speakers and readers.  When I invited John Barth to come for $25 (no travel or housing) , he wrote back: "Your fee is $25; mine is $1000. Shall we dance!


Sunday, March 16, 2014

March 21 Splendid Wake Event: Black Intellectual History, Wounded Warrior Project, Spoken Word


A SPLENDID WAKE: PART II: UNUSUAL LITERARY PROGRAM TO TAKE PLACE MARCH 21, 6:30-8:00 P.M., Gelman Library, George Washington University, Suite 702, 2130 H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. Free and Open to the Public!

"In the Shadow of the Capitol" is just one of three unusual literary topics to be discussed March 21 at George Washington University’s Gelman Library.

Part of "A Splendid Wake," a project to document poets and literary movements in the nation’s capital from 1900-present, poets and panelists will report on experimental contemporary poetry, warrior poetry projects, and on D.C’'s African-American intellectual/creative activity during years of segregation in Washington.


Monday, March 3, 2014

DC poets of mathematics and science

Some remarks from JoAnne Growney
http: poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com  

     Nine years ago I moved to Silver Spring from small-town Pennsylvania.  My careful knowledge of particular poets in the Washington, DC area began to flourish more than twenty years earlier when -- as a professor of mathematics at a Pennsylvania university -- I began to notice and collect poems related to math and science. 
     But, before more history, let me focus on a recent event.  On January 17, 2014, DC poets E. Laura Golberg, Katharine Merow, Myra Sklarew , and Mary-Sherman Willis joined me and other mathy poets in a "Reading of Poetry with Mathematics" at a national mathematics conference in Baltimore.  Despite this poetic proclamation from Archibald MacLeish:

          A poem should not mean . . .
         
those of us present at the reading -- focusing on poetry connected to the subject matter of mathematics -- felt the special magic generated when worlds collide. (The online free-access Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, sponsor of the reading, is a place to find an ongoing and increasing source of such integrated work.)

     And now I return to the early history of my engagement with DC-area poets of mathematics and science: 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Dryad Magazine and Dryad Press

Dryad magazine and Dryad Press -- Merrill Leffler
          www.dryadpress.com


That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
    In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
    Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
                --John Keats

I have before me Dryad #1, Winter 1968. I don’t think of myself as a nostalgist but I can almost call up the uncontainable excitement I felt the afternoon I drove to the printer in Virginia and held the new 40-page issue and its scent of pressroom ink in my hands. I mailed this first sentence to Neil Lehrman and asked what he remembered. “Oh, that afternoon holding copies of Dryad in my office,” he said, “and the emotion I felt at what we had birthed. Off I went to show our accomplishment to my work friends, none of who had any interest in poetry. Still, I did force them to subscribe!”
Aerobee launch in Fort Churchill
            Neil and I were an unlikely pair to start a poetry magazine – not just because of our work lives. He was a newly-minted CPA and had returned to Washington – he grew up in Silver Spring – to work as a financial analyst for the Securities and Exchange Commission. I arrived in Washington in 1963 with a physics degree and a position at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight as an aerospace engineer – all of a sudden in my early 20s I was coordinating scientists, engineers, and technicians for launching scientific experiments aboard a two-stage rocket, the Aerobee, designed to reach orbital altitudes. I was on the road regularly to oversee launchings at White Sands Missile Range, Wallops Island, and a Canadian Army Base in Fort Churchill, Canada, midway up the Hudson Bay. Heady – at least for a time.
            It’s not that one’s work life is incompatible with one’s poetry life – I think of the Yiddish poet Mani Leib and the last lines of his Whitman-like “I Am,” wonderfully translated by John Hollander. To all but his literary friends, Leib was a shoemaker – know this, he wrote, “I am not a shoemaker who makes poems/ But I am a poet who makes shoes.”