The Art of “Controlled Chaos”

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The Skagit River Poetry Festival is being celebrated this weekend (today through Sunday) in La Connor, Washington. Some big names, along with local hero-poets, are on the list as presenters and guest readers – most notable is the three-time Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky. I’ve attended the festival just once, when the organizers invited my sister Mary Cornish to be one of their presenters and workshop leaders. The setting is idyllic, of course – quaint La Connor, a small town on the banks of a slough where the Skagit River approaches the sea. The town sits at the western edge of the Skagit Flats, home to world-famous tulip fields. My father once had a small shop -“The Blue Heron” – of his handmade jewelry on the main street of town.

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La Conner, Washington – Mount Baker in the background, Cascade Range

I’ve been debating with myself whether to attend this year, and still haven’t quite decided. Robert Wrigley is leading one workshop; he’s a wonderful poet, and I worked with him briefly when he came in as a guest to talk to my MFA class at the University of Washington. Love his poetry. But I’m not sure his 2018 workshop interests me enough. Instead, I’m thinking of signing up last minute for a Sunday workshop called “Controlled Chaos: The Long-Armed Poem” with Ellen Bass, simply because I find her description of the workshop irresistible. It speaks to what I believe about poetry, and I want to share the description with readers of Books Around the Table. I’d love to study with someone who says this:

“A certain kind of poem reaches out a long arm and sweeps disparate, unexpected things into its net. It scoops in a great deal of material that is more or less obviously related. It doesnt hug the shore. It doesnt walk a narrow line. It retains a kind of wildness. It can seem untamed. And yet all the elements have enough magnetic or gravitational attraction, enough resonance, that the writing feels organically whole. To write this kind of long-armed poem, to allow the excitement, tension, and passion of chaos into our writing, we have to open the doors. We have to be willing to be surprised, startled, even shocked. We have to be willing to experience the most essential state of creativity, the state of not knowing, of being open, of being willing to be changed. In this workshop, well look at examples of the long-armed poem and I will give some practical suggestions for how you might experiment with bringing more controlled chaos into your own writing.”

“Controlled chaos” – yes! I love that phrase. This is often my goal: to embrace “the state of not knowing.” This holds for my poetry for children, as well as my poetry for adults.

And here is another element of the description of the workshop I like – Bass’s instructions about what participants “might want to bring”:

“….any or all of the following: a snippet of overheard conversation, an image from a dream, a quote from a book you’re reading, a line or two from your journal, a memory that’s been on your mind, a handful of words that have caught your attention, a song that’s been going through your mind, something you saw recently in nature or in a city.”

Like I said, irresistible. So why resist? I’ll drive south on Sunday, across the Skagit Flats, taking along some possibilities. A line in a song. An overheard conversation. A handful of words and a desire to play. Essential: a willingness to experiment with controlling the chaos through poetry.

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To see the Poetry Friday round-up this week, go to Sloth Reads.

Here are my contributions: a poem by Ellen Bass titled “Enough” [see note in comments] and a poem by Robert Wrigley titled “At the Beach.”

Enough

Enough seen….Enough had….Enough…
Arthur Rimbaud

No. It will never be enough. Never
enough wind clamoring in the trees,
sun and shadow handling each leaf, never enough clang
of my neighbor hammering,
the iron nails, relenting wood, sound waves
lapping over roofs, never enough
bees purposeful at the throats
of lilies. How could we be replete
with the flesh of ripe tomatoes, the unique
scent of their crushed leaves. It would take many
births to be done with the thatness of that.

Oh blame life. That we just want more.
Summer rain. Mud. A cup of tea.
Our teeth, our eyes. A baby in a stroller.
Another spoonful of crème brûlée, sweet burnt crust crackling.
And hot showers, oh lovely, lovely hot showers.

Today was a good day.
My mother-in-law sat on the porch, eating crackers and cheese
with a watered-down margarita
and though her nails are no longer stop-light red
and she can’t remember who’s alive and dead,
still, this was a day
with no weeping, no unstoppable weeping.

Last night, through the small window of my laptop,
I watched a dying man kill himself in Switzerland.
He wore a blue shirt and snow was falling
onto a small blue house, onto dark needles of pine and fir.
He didn’t step outside to feel the snow on his face.
He sat at a table with his wife and drank poison.

Online I found a plastic bag complete with Velcro
and a hole for a tube to a propane tank. I wouldn’t have to
move our Weber. I could just slide
down the stucco to the flagstones, where the healthy
weeds are sprouting through the cracks.
Maybe it wouldn’t be half-bad
to go out looking at the yellowing leaves of the old camellia.
And from there I could see the chickens scratching—
if we still have chickens then. And yet…

this little hat of life, how will I bear
to take it off while I can still reach up? Snug woolen watch cap,
lacy bonnet, yellow cloche with the yellow veil
I wore the Easter I turned thirteen when my mother let me  promenade
with Tommy Spagnola on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Oxygen, oxygen, the cry of the body—and you always want to give it
what it wants. But I must say no—
enough, enough

with more tenderness
than I have ever given to a lover, the gift
of the nipple hardening under my fingertip, more
tenderness than to my newborn,
when I held her still flecked
with my blood. I’ll say the most gentle refusal
to this dear dumb animal and tighten
the clasp around my throat that once was kissed and kissed
until the blood couldn’t rest in its channel, but rose
to the surface like a fish that couldn’t wait to be caught.

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Poet Ellen Bass


Wrigley

Poet Robert Wrigley

Wrigley

10 responses to “The Art of “Controlled Chaos”

  1. Gorgeous post! You’ll need to give us an update after you go to the workshop. ❤

  2. What a coincidence! Was just reading some of Ellen’s poetry yesterday. I’m very late in discovering her particular genius. Her workshop does sound fabulous. Thanks for sharing her poem along with Robert Wrigley’s. 🙂

    • I have quite a collection of poetry books, Jama – but no Ellen Bass, so I am just discovering her, too! (P.S. Royal wedding covered live on TV in the wee hours PST tonight! I loved your blog entry about all things Harry-and-Meghan!)

  3. I have to read more of Ellen!

    • You’ll like her work, Bonny – the poems are accesible but multi-layered, so subsequent readings provide you with more and more to think about. Hope you enjoy reading them.

  4. Quick apology: By accident, I originally posted only the first two stanzas of “Enough” – the post has now been corrected to show all seven stanzas. Moments of darkness, yes, but ultimately so tender about “this little hat of life.”

  5. I love that phrase–“controlled chaos”–it kind of reminds me of raising kids. I can’t wait to hear your updates after the workshop.

  6. That invitation to controlled chaos sounds irresistible! I hope you share updates from the workshop.

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