The Operating System

5th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 21 :: KAREN CRAIGO on MICHELLE BOISSEAU

[box]It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]
When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.
Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.
Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.
Enjoy! And share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/box]
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BIG IDEAS, DIRECT LANGUAGE : KAREN CRAIGO on THE POETRY of MICHELLE BOISSEAU

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[line][script_teaser]Were I not a poet, I don’t know what I’d be. Maybe I’d be one of those middle-aged women you see in the hairstyle books at the salon, in the “medium” section, rocking a bi-level haircut—light ash blond, honey highlights—and if I raised a question in your mind, it would be, “Are they really trying to bring back the mullet?”[/script_teaser]
[script_teaser]I like things better the way they are. The universe is fat with things that require investigation, and I’d like to be like my mentor. I want to check things out, look closely, try to make sense of things. Like her, I’ll pick up a blip and follow where it’s heading. [/script_teaser]
 
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My very first observation about Michelle Boisseau was that she moved like a dancer. And I don’t mean she displayed a mincing delicacy or insectlike lightness to her movements; I mean that she stepped into the classroom with both grace and intention, and although she was petite, every muscle seemed coiled with potential energy.
I was a first-year student at Morehead State University then. At the time, I was putting a lot of focused effort into making my bangs rise up a certain way, and making the flaps of hair over my ears stick out just so. I thought I looked pretty, and I probably did, to one with a never-repeatable eighties sensibility. In retrospect, I realize that my head looked ready to detect sonar.
Michelle became the most important person I would know during my time at MSU—and one of the most important people I would ever know, in terms of the lessons she modeled and taught about writing poetry. Had I not shown up in that room—had I not pointed the great dish of my head in her direction—I wouldn’t be a poet today.
My introduction to Michelle was as a teacher, and as an author of the best-selling poetry textbook Writing Poetry, she is frequently encountered first in just that way. It’s a book I’ve used in my own classes, to shockingly good reviews. (In my experience, students do not usually like textbooks.) The consummate teacher comes across on the page with her characteristic frankness and enthusiasm.
But most of what I’ve learned about poetry came not from the classroom, but from Michelle’s poems. She released her first full-length collection, No Private Life, when I was her student, and I remember every detail of the reading she gave on campus then. The characters in the collection have stayed with me all these years, like the bride who figures in the poem “In Her Parachute-Silk Wedding Gown.” It’s a poem set immediately after World War II, in a nation that can’t wait to return to normalcy. The bride has fashioned a dress from the groom’s parachute—a fad at the time. The husband-to-be, “just a boy / home from the war,” watches as the bride walks down the aisle, dizzying herself with her eyes on her bobbing bouquet. I can’t return to this early poem without hearing Michelle’s voice first delivering it:
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And the men,

nudged to turn around
and watch the bride descend,
see a fellow parachutist
as they all drift

behind enemy lines,
stomachs turning over as they fall
into the horizon, into the ring
of small brilliant explosions.

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It was a big lesson for a new poet—to take a poem to unexpected places. There is nothing particularly bridelike about this character’s thinking. Come to think of it, my own wedding-day thoughts were not particularly bridal in nature. I was in a big white dress of my own, and I nursed not a single appropriate thought all day.
Michelle has just released a new book, her fifth, titled Among the Gorgons, winner of the Tampa Review Book Prize. The poet’s trajectory over five books has been toward even more keen observation and striking imagery. I know; I’ve been watching closely and hanging on every word.
She was recently featured on Poetry Daily with a poem from Among the Gorgons titled “The Obstinate Comedy.” It’s a striking example of a poet at the top of her game, as she writes compellingly personal poems that somehow steer clear of the confessional. The poem begins with the line “In the middle of my life I lost my way,” and then shows the speaker on a path in the woods, expecting something that then shows up:
[line][articlequote]     … but ahead of me something was
taking up all the space. It was dark
and slippery like things that don’t breathe,
and it was so humongous I couldn’t
see how close it was or get a feel
for its edges. … [/articlequote][line]
Note the plain language of someone earnestly puzzling through a problem. I also like the Vasko Popa-like gesture of approaching mystery by describing its physical dimensions. These, too, are lessons I have gleaned from this poetic mentor and that have shaped not all of my poems, but a handful of the good ones.
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……… By turns the tongue in my mouth
……….was a frog jinking against my palate
or a wad of soggy pulp. You can’t talk
……….your way out of this impasse, said the crows.
……….You can’t hold in the rings of time
said the trees, switching their branches.
……….And the knot? Naturally it was mum.
……….Obsidian and vitreous, it gleamed
like a symbol while the tumored
……….forerunners crabbed my lungs.
……….Breathe deep, turn the tides inside you.

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Again we see innocent diction layered over very sophisticated rhetoric, and that’s something I’ve always aspired to as well. In my own poems this trait is hit or miss. In Michelle’s, it’s perpetually a hit.
Were I not a poet, I don’t know what I’d be. Maybe I’d be one of those middle-aged women you see in the hairstyle books at the salon, in the “medium” section, rocking a bi-level haircut—light ash blond, honey highlights—and if I raised a question in your mind, it would be, “Are they really trying to bring back the mullet?”
I like things better the way they are. The universe is fat with things that require investigation, and I’d like to be like my mentor. I want to check things out, look closely, try to make sense of things. Like her, I’ll pick up a blip and follow where it’s heading.
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[textwrap_image align=”left”]http://www.theoperatingsystem.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Screen-Shot-2016-04-18-at-6.51.41-PM-e1461020278644.png[/textwrap_image] Karen Craigo is the author of two forthcoming poetry collections, No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017), and she maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.
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