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Bachofner on THE BOYFRIEND PROJECT

I’ve asked Maine poet Carol Bachofner to guest blog on here in the past. Since this is a big year for her, I’ve asked her to write again for this blog. My prediction: you are going to want to order The Boyfriend Project right away.

by Guest Blogger Carol Bachofner

2017 proved to be a year of productivity for me as a poet, with two manuscripts finished and both scheduled for publication. It was a hard year. The process for writing the two books was very different in terms of style, approach, and form. The work of moving back and forth between the two projects was a challenge to say the least, not only in the writing but also in the editing, revising process.

The finished products are very different too. One is somewhat typical, poems largely in free verse with shapes and setups that look like what we think of when we imagine poetry, other than the occasional prose poem. The other, Test Pattern, a fantod of prose poems is a breakout in terms of style. The poems do not look act much like typical poetry, more like little bits of fanciful, dystopic prose.

For now, I begin with book #1, The Boyfriend Project (Such a Girl Press, 2017).

 

The Boyfriend Project

In 2007, having moved back to my home state, I heard from high school classmates that a boy I dated in high school was dying of lung cancer. He wanted to see me. I spoke with his wife and she urged me to visit. The visit was wonderful and poignant. We admitted that what we experienced as love when we were teens had prepared us for the love we’d both found as adults. We laughed and joked and shared our memories of kisses, his unauthorized visits to my babysitting job, and how we saw each other then. We shared a kiss on his porch, a goodbye kiss.  As I drove away, I could see him in the rear view mirror and knew at that moment this would be the last time. He died two weeks later.

I began thinking of the other “boyfriends” I had known (including crushes) and wondered what had become of them. This was punctuated by reading an article online about a war memorial in the town where my high school sweetheart had lived. His name was on the memorial.  I was filled with dread that he might be deceased. I wanted to know. I did an internet search and found a business listed under his name. I called and left a message: “hey there, this is me, if this is you, please call.” He called within the hour. He was alive and well in a nearby state, married with two nearly-grown daughters. I called. It was such a relief to hear his voice again, a voice which sounded exactly like it did the last time I spoke with him. We decided to meet for lunch. We enjoyed five hours of wonderful conversation, glad to be connected as friends after 45 years of each wondering about the other.  He apologized to me for breaking up with me on the telephone on Valentine’s Day. I teased him by “breaking up” with him in a phone conversation the year following.

Break, Break, Break

Valentine’s Day 1965,

a break in his voice, a zip

of energy I feel through the phone:

          I love you. I miss you.

          We should date other people.

45 years now, married to those other people,

we break up over and over, just for fun.

 

My meetings with these two former boyfriends gave birth to the book, a look at girlfriends and their boyfriends. I saw the project as a possible chapbook with funny or tender poems about boys I’d known and “loved.” What I did not expect was that the project would end up a full-length manuscript or that it would morph into looking at boyfriend stories of other women who were eager to tell me what those boys meant to them, and that I would end up looking at a timeline of relationships that spanned the innocent crush to the crushing and sometimes cruel. The book project raised its hand and demanded I take it more seriously.

When I began discussing the project with others, hearing stories about them and their boyfriends, I realized that my singular perspective was a little narrow and artificial. After all, it’s not about me. It’s about this universal thing called love, whatever that means. I wanted more. I wanted to give my readers more. Shortly thereafter I also began to realize that sweet glittery hearts and cupids was not all that needed to be covered here. Everyone who talked to me about their boyfriends had one who was cruel or unkind, even dangerous. What about those? Again, the project raised its hand and demanded to be a part of this. The project had a new idea of itself and I had to accept that.

Always in love is how I would describe my life. I love the idea of love, the rush of new love, the comfort of long-lived love. My father called me boy-crazy on more than one occasion. So the poems I set out to write was partially focused on resurrecting the many boys who’d come into my life, however briefly or in a more substation time frame. I had to start with my ride on the Kindergarten Bus. At age five, I was in love with two little boys whose names I cannot recall. What I do recall is the ride home from school. I wind the clock backward and write in the present tense. This is a technique I recommend to make a poem that happened in the long-ago seem more like something in the now. Of course the poem had to anchor the manuscript. I share it here in its entirety since it is a short one:

 

Kindergarten Bus  c. 1952

Boys

 

little men without a clue

want to hold hands with me —

I let them.

One tries to kiss me.

 

Two, who by high school

would not have shared me,

hold my hand in turn.

Their faces shine

with something like love.

 

Last off the kindergarten bus,

I am a kiss stolen by the boy

whose house is 3 blocks away,

who walks by my house on Saturdays,

wishes school was 6 days.

 

This poem is soft and funny and sweet. Sweetness deserved the entre to the book. I knew pretty quickly that the arc of the poems would move from this childlike sweetness to the teen years, fraught with frustration and fumbling attempts at love and relationship. Isn’t that the way the teen years work anyway?  The teen stories I was able to access showcase a range of experiences, not the least of which uncover a look at forbidden love and a bit of risk. The following poem, a story shared by a woman friend, illustrates this.

 

Church Boy, Town Girl

At the edge of town,

behind the Baptist Church,

behind the church bus, they smoke, inhale

unfiltered Camels. Church boy

wearing Jesus Saves tee, town girl

in a yellow sun dress. He presses her hard

for a kiss; she blows smoke circles

with her eyes closed. She knows what’s next,

like her mama told. Watch out for them

churchy boys, they’s the devil. They take

what they wants and lets you go.

Still as a broken clock, she waits.

Inside the church, singing:

and the walls came a-tumbling down.

 

 One of the problems with writing about love, and writing about the less beautiful side of love, is doing it without getting too personally involved (as the writer). Huh? you are probably saying, isn’t “love” a most personal thing after all? How does one write about love from the outside, looking in and still get across the feeling of love in all its facets?

The answer, for me, has always been to write somewhat obliquely. In other words, don’t think everything needs to be told. Find those details which will tell it. Let the truth of the situation emerge on its own, which will happen with some diligence on the part of the writer.

Look at what this poem does and what it does not. We can see the girl and boy from the elements of setting: where are they? at the edge  and behind the Baptist Church.

What are they wearing? He is wearing a Jesus saves tee; she is wearing yellow sun dress. Who is this girl? A Town Girl. She is no church girl. This suggests also that she is out of her normal setting. He, by virtue of what he is wearing is in his normal setting, but maybe not by his own choice. As reader, you get to decide by way of the details. You have become the omniscient observer.

It is easy to discover the set up and the problem from these small aspects of setting. All writers should consider setting when writing and revising, poets included. Setting details place the action of the poem in a space that matters to that action.

Look now at what is happening, the action of the poem. The boy and girl are engaged in doing some things likely forbidden by the church, smoking and making out. The setting (behind the church) suggests this. They are unfiltered  as the cigarettes they smoke,; they are not concerned about what’s right or wrong. She has her eyes closed. He is pressing her. Running through her head, is her mother’s warning about boys, especially them churchy boys. The use of this internal warning provides another layer of the girl’s dilemma. In the final line, we know the outcome from the song they (and we) hear… and the walls came a-tumbling down. Readers know what is probably next.

This is oblique writing. Oblique writing is not at all vague. It is about telling what needs to be told in such a way as to let the reader experience what the people of the poem are doing or feeling. Oblique writing is an embodiment. You are the girl. You’re not simply told about the girl. This attention to detail let’s you be part of the girl’s story without intruding. I am grateful to “Donna” for sharing her story. I hope my poem honors her.

As the manuscript began to take shape, I realized that it would be good to include a few poems about the sadness and rejection that sometimes accompany love. We’ve all been there through bitter breakups, divorces, even illness. What does love ended or altered look like for the dumped, the thumped, the sorrowful who are out of love? Again, women stepped up and shared. I already had my own stories to render into poems. There was no end to the dearth of material. I decided to fill the middle of the manuscript with the sadder side of love. There were so many stories, I wondered if I’d ever be finished telling them.

One thing I learned from talking to women is that love is elastic. We can come back after a fall. More importantly, we are the sum of our loves. It doesn’t subtract from us. We are also part of the equation for one another in coping. We are part of a community of lovers. When one of us is suffering, the rest of us can make a difference.

Thanks to Jean and her story, I was able to show that. In my poem, After Your Divorce, I explore how empathy might work, how there is a support we might offer in time of lost love (for whatever reason; this is about loss via divorce).

There is a you, a she, and an I in the poem, never named. These do not need to be named because the poem is about all of us, and about how we sometimes miss the opportunity for being the help that is needed. In a sense, the poem is an apology. It is also an acknowledgement that love problems know no gender. The you might be a man, might be a woman. We don’t know and we don’t need to know. What we do know is that  the I has missed an opportunity for empathy.

 

After Your Divorce

                   I asked you to read my poems

 

I wrote table and forced you out

into the woods to choose a tree,

maple, oak, or maybe an exotic teak.

You had to decide the shape too,

round or rectangular or oval. I wrote

a cobalt bowl filled with orange day lilies

and a white coffee mug, rim smudged

with Dior’s Infra Rose. I might have

written an apple on an ivory table runner

from Brazil, but I wrote a half-eaten

nectarine set on a white paper towel the way

she did to keep from messing up a plate

for just one item. I knew about your divorce

and yet I wrote table, leaving so much

for you to do. I should have written door.

 

The poem relies upon the details to show the situation of the you as well as the response and final empathetic gesture of the narrator. Notice again the setting and the details within. These amplify the situation as well as show the lost relationship. We see how the lost person was in the relationship. We see her details in the specific lipstick she wore, how she used a paper towel for her snack. We can see her. We can feel her. Not only that, but the you has become a sympathetic person to us.

The speaker of the poem, the I, has gained empathy by poem’s end. We feel satisfied with the character. The sadness is not gone, but we are heartened that empathy has come.

What of the fact that some people would do anything for love? Some maybe want to avoid bad love by extraordinary means. I included a quirky prose poem in the book that tells how that might go. Even in light of the somewhat odd connections made between the speaker of the poem and the fortuneteller, it is details and setting which hold up the ideas of the poem. The speaker desperately wants to know about, be warned about bad lovers. The epigraph by Maggie Smith describes lovers as confetti. The speaker knows already that confetti is unpredictable. Still, she is crazy to find out what can be predicted. If only she could pay what is asked.  I hope the poem leaves readers asking what would I do for love or to avoid a bad lover?

 

Bad Lover Juju

                   Everyone you loved was scattered confetti

                                    — Maggie Smith

 

Some of it (them) green, some yellow, some a garish orange. One was your favorite purple, the kind with blue-red in it. No matter. They weren’t your type of lover. Not that they cared. Not that you knew that back then. Disposable was what they thought when the lights were out and you had gone home. All eventually floated away on the backs of birds of prey, leaving you bitten. Shiny feathers fell on your head, on your shoulders as they went. You visit the woman whose talent is seeing lover juju. You want a new lover, someone not confetti. She asks for beads of glass, blackberry ice cream as payment. You’ve brought vanilla ice cream — all you have. Bad juju she says, licking the bowl and stringing a noose from the beads. You want to hear the name of a lover who could save you. More beads, more ice cream. The woman falls asleep with her hands on the noose she’d made. She begins to look like your mother, your grandmother. Bad juju you think, backing slowly from her chair. Bad juju she dreams, saying aloud the names of every bad lover. You dial the ice cream parlor down the street. They’re completely sold out of blackberry. They tell you there’s been a run on that lately. Bad juju.

 

Still, even in light of the somewhat odd connections made between the speaker of the poem and the fortuneteller, it is all about details and setting holding up the ideas of the poem. The speaker desperately wants to know about, be warned about bad lovers. The epigraph by Maggie Smith describes lovers as confetti. The speaker knows already that confetti is unpredictable. Still, she is crazy to find out what can be predicted. If only she could pay what is asked.

I decided, after the rather tragic or lonely poems in the second part of the book, to end with my own stories of great love, my last love. I want to leave the reader with a sense that sometimes, if we are lucky enough, love can be mature and enduring. One of the poems comes from a time when I needed an unselfish love, needed a supportive love. From a time when love may well have been all there would be for me. This poem is from my grownup story of love.

I chose to write this poem in my own voice. I am the speaker and I am the receiver of the love. Poets are often told to avoid “confessional” poems as they leave out the reader. But facing probable death in a poem willingly breaks that open. As in the discussion previously, we all could use a little empathy. Who would not be drawn to the relationship in this poem, feel a sense of empathy toward both the speaker and her lover? Need and gift. It is because of great love that the need may be expressed and the gift given. Look at the details. See the love at work in those details.

Calling You

I call to you, whimpering in the night

where we once cried out in lovemaking.

I call and you lift me up for my medicine

or a trip to the bathroom.  I am not yours

as I once was yours; I have become your task.

 

Your burden, wrought in love and devoted

service to that love is the meal we have set

before us.  We dine together, you sip wine

as I nudge soda crackers along my dusty palate.

We eat in bed and talk of other times, times lost.

 

I call you the little pet name I made up in jest

when you danced naked with a hat on your penis;

You laugh, call me “pretty lady” despite my gray

flat skin.  Your hands run my slackened frame;

still I am beautiful to you. All angles and bony

points of interest, still I am your passion.

 

Your face shines, avoiding pain and distress

over my possible outcome.  The doctors face me

with treatments which blush up in high fevers,

but you are cool. You collect my favorite things

near the bed to distract me from all suffering.

 

I call out to you in the night when I think “this is it”

and you roll to one side, spooning my weak body

with your strong one. I feel your current seep in

and get enough juice to make it to morning.  I call

and you bring me whatever I need.  I need everything.

 

The final poem is Polaris, a short poem to my husband. A poem that says so much about how love blends us one into the other. The poem encompasses that relationship which has evolved over many years, over many constellations of love have burned themselves into something eternal. I always end my public readings with this poem. It delights both of us when he is present. When I read the poem, I feel my palm pressed together with my husband’s. I can taste the starlight on my tongue.

 

Polaris

       for Bill

 

On our January porch, hands

open to star shine, we are pierced

by Polaris. It’s a stigmata I feel

as my right palm presses

your right palm, fingers laced.

It’s a burning, a covenant. Later

in our bedroom, some shine

on your shoulder where I touch

as you drift into your own night

sky. We have been pierced

by star points, filled with light.

We sail on it, I your compass, true

North, and you my lantern

and flame, tower and beam.

 

Carol Willette Bachofner, poet, watercolorist, and photographer, has published five books of poetry, most recently The Boyfriend Project (2017) and Native Moons, Native Days (2012). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including, Dawnland Voices, an Anthology of Writings from Indigenous New England (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). She won the Maine Postmark Contest 2017 for her poem, Passagassawaukeag, which is published in The Maine Review. Her photo, Rigged, received Honorable Mention in the Spirit of Place contest by Maine Media workshop and is printed in the contest anthology. She served as Poet Laureate of Rockland Maine from 2012-2016.  Visit her web site at www.carolbachofner.com

Watch for Carol’s second post about her new books. She will write about Test Pattern, a book I was thrilled to write a blurb for. To purchase The Boyfriend Project click through the book cover art to Carol’s website and you can order the book.

 

 

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Break Out, Go Ahead and Do It: Part I

I asked the Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine, Carol Bachofner, to write about a poetic subject important to her. In this piece (which I am posting in two parts–today and then next Thursday), she explores her journey re-creating herself as the sort of poet she envisioned. Maybe all artists have to search to redefine their artistic identities to remain creative.  See what you think.

by Guest Blogger Carol Bachofner

In the early 2000s, I faced myself coming and going in a kind of convergence between form and something “not form.” I needed expansion. I was fortunate at that time to have poetry mentors who sit cleanly in the “new expansionist” camp: David Mason, RS Gwynn, Dana Gioia, and BH Fairchild to be specific. I would describe myself as a new expansionist and count these poets as friends and mentors still. Having said that, I do see myself and my writing now as breaking ground — if only with a tiny hammer. I have not lost sight of my familial roots either, which have led back to ancestor William Dunbar (Scots poet of the 1600s). Despite the age and depths of my roots as a poet, I find myself searching for small breaths of innovation to keep myself and my poems moving forward. I see my contemporaries doing the same, thus debunking the criticism that new expansionists just want to make it old. I wanted to be “that poet,” one who would write the most memorable of poetry, find something new and exciting for my writing life. But instead I settled into a rather ordinary poetic life, satisfying and full, but pretty ordinary.

A breakthrough came for me in 2001while I was living in London. I spent time several days a week in the British Poetry Library located on the 5th floor of the Royal Festival Hall. One day, I came upon a children’s book that changed my writing. It was not a book of great acclaim or literary merit, but it had some language that, for me, was haunting. The story, about a hare in winter, was written by a Scots writer whose tale was poetically told, in a kind of verse that seemed to be prose and poetry combined. I decided to write a poem using some of the author’s rich language approach. I made my first pass at the poem, based upon translation and a parallel presentation, putting together a Scots language version with my translation side by side on the page. Although I did not (still do not) speak the language, I set about doing a translation, one phrase at a time. I still look at that parallel structure from time to time to please myself as a “translator.” As the messages of the story began to unfold in translation, so did the poem itself. I share it here in its final version, minus the original Scottish:

Peace, Tamh

What does one do but look
in a poem to what goes on out there …
Roland Jooris (Flemish poet)

White, cold white
stinging every bare unsheltering hill
Earth you dressed yourself up to be bare
watching snowfall, pleating snow
under doors, over meadows, over moors

The gusts of our longings dizzied us.
We warmed each other,
but the day did not endure

Silence, silence
O’ to be in the circle ‘round the hearth!

The skies are bruised in their seasons
Threads of breath from snowdrifts
travel for miles through the silence
shining white secret, it’s tinkling murmur,
well, that won’t be silent

White waves of stars at time of darkest moon,
a flag of truce for all tribes of the universe.
We are waking.

Then I Chose the Sonnet

Over time, the sonnet form has been adapted into something other than the form we were taught in school, something we can to choose to remake or reinterpret for a contemporary setting. We can open it up and break it into parts, shapes, and employ any manner of contemporary poetic gestures in so doing. Gerald Stern somewhat famously rendered the sonnet “American” by expanding it to more than 14 lines and abandoning obvious rhyme and meter. That got my attention, for its very boldness if nothing else. I found myself more and more attracted to the sonnet. To be honest, I had avoided the kind of regulation the sonnet took beyond what I needed to learn the mechanics of the form, the academic nuts and bolts. But here I was now, drawn to it like a moth to a streetlamp. I spent time, years, reading as many sonnets as I could reasonably do, from Shakespeare to Millay. I began to write sonnets. I wrote traditional ones (mostly terrible ones) and a few break-out ones. I was ready to accept another breakthrough moment.

What can form and an open attitude do to get you out of a rut in your poetry writing? It can redefine your aesthetic, give your writing system a jolt of energy. For me, it keeps me from writing the “same” poem even when focusing upon a particular topic over time. I recently sent off a manuscript that is rife with fractured forms and the whole seems to me to be a most pleasing concoction of what I am capable of doing with words. If I can please myself, I have at least a decent chance of pleasing my readers. Oh, certainly I do want to please you!

I have dared to bend, break, and reassemble form. Let’s look at this a bit in detail. I chose the sonnet, a form I’d rejected for the first half of my writing life. I thought the form stuffy. I hated the way all the sonnets I was reading felt artificial. I admit that my resistance comes a bit from “old stuff” in early college days when New Criticism was fading and free versifying was breaking down those walls. There is no doubt in my mind that I have pretty much always been teetering on the edge of a kind of cosmic divergence between constrained form and free form. If only…

Carol's office

Carol’s office

My very first experience with breaking open and “reassembling” a form occurred not long after this experience with translation. The resultant poem has somewhat traditional rhyme, a turn at line 9 (breakout from rhyme scheme included), and a rhyming couplet that is not exactly a couplet but rather part of a rhyme scheme that morphs into a couplet (fgfgg). Before sharing the broken open form, here is how the poem I wanted to write would look in traditional style (as a block of writing). Take a few minutes and look at all the tradition in this sonnet. There is meter, rhyme that is not entirely predictable, and the look of it screams SONNET! Ordinarily, I’d be proud to have this be my final draft. I’d be told it was a “good” sonnet.

But, for some reason it is not all that satisfying to me. It needed my further attention. You be the judge here. I trust you to see what I saw in the light of innovation and adventure.

Snow, a sonnet

From gardens of the fertile sky, a
fall blossoms made of air b
It’s God’s design that we might sigh a
as we see them sifting here. b
Each flower cut, is folded, sent c
flying stringless, pure, white kites d
to soften up the firmament c
with their muted spiraled light. d
Even the saints will try to shake e
the rumors they’ve been told f
of death that overtook a child g
who wandered in the dazzling cold f
blinded, lost and then beguiled g
by winter’s flowery, frozen smile. g

I think you can see how constrained the subject is due to the structure. It did not feel the way I felt doing the translation. Not at all. It was (is) tight, bordered, and rigid, with the possible exception being the rhyme break at line 9. More on that later when you have looked at the fractured version. The structure needed, wanted to be less rigid. Grief is not rigid. Snow is not rigid. I needed to do something so the poem could say its message. I needed to fracture and reset the bones of the poem.

Let’s look at what opening this poem up on the page did for it:

Snow

From hidden gardens of the fertile sky.
fall showy ice-spun blossoms made of air.
It’s God’s design
that we on earth might sigh
as we watch them sifting silently here.
Each pristine flower cut, is folded, sent
flying stringless, pure.
Latticed crystal kites
drift soft across the star-blank firmament.
From deep within the muted spiraled light,
saints and angels try to shake the news,
the frightful rumors they’ve been told:
of death
that overtook a child of two
who wandered out
into the dazzling cold,

blinded, lost, and then beguiled
by winter’s flowery, frozen smile.

If you look closely at the broken version of the poem, you will find the structure of the sonnet there (the “couplet” is there in its own way). It (the message) drifts down and settles, as snow does. It doesn’t overwhelm the message, but instead allows the message to settle on the reader as well.

Can you find the places where the rhyme lives? What about the turn? Does the turn happen somewhere different from the traditionally-structured version? What do you see as successful or not in this second version? Which pleases you and your particular aesthetic about sonnets? Does the breaking of form unsettle you? Is the second a sonnet at all? Only you can decide. But it pleases me to present it to you here.

Come back next Thursday for the rest of Carol’s essay.

Do you think that all artists have to search to redefine their artistic identities to remain creative?

About the guest blogger:

Carol W. Bachofner, MFA Poetry Vermont College of Fine Arts, is currently Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine (2012-2016). She founded (2010) and directs the annual Poetry Month Rockand, a city-wide celebration of poetry. An indigenous woman (Abenaki), she writes with a strong sense of place through narrative poetry. Her poems have appeared in such notable journals as Prairie Schooner, CT Review, Main Street Rag, Bangor Metro, The Comstock Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Cream City Review, Naugatuck River Review, and others. Bachofner teaches poetry in her community and “on the road” via workshops and conferences. She has four published books of poetry: Daughter of the Ardennes Forest, 2007; Breakfast at the Brass Compass, 2010; I Write in the Greenhouse, 2011, and Native Moons, Native Days, 2012. In 2011, Bachofner was a runner-up in the Maine Literary Awards, one of three finalists in the short works/poetry category. Visit her web site www.carolbachofner.com for links to her blog, and her facebook page or to contact her for workshops. or contact her by email at poet.laureate.rcklnd@me.com.

Carol Bachofner headshot

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