Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, April 27, 2012

Sacred Places

As I expected, sitting and talking about poetry with a small group of Quakers--in a room with lovely woods and a stream right outside the door--was pretty wonderful. Several of us took a brief walk beforehand, and found a deep purple trillium blooming in the crook of a tree trunk.

In honor of last weekend, these lines from Wendell Berry's "How to Be a Poet" (from his 2005 collection GIVEN):

Stay way from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Happy weekend. Find some sacred places.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Remembering Len Roberts

I'm getting things ready for a weekend away with local Quaker friends, a family retreat at a camp in the Pocono Mountains, where I'll lead a two-hour workshop in which we'll read and write some poems. To get ready I've gone back to Len Roberts' fine To Write a Poem, a book I draw on a lot, perfect as it is for writers of all ages and levels of familiarity with poems.

It's been five years since Len died, after a startlingly brief illness. He was such a figure here in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania where I live, a generous teacher and dedicated poet, beloved by many friends. I didn't know him well, but I admired him and his work. That spring, in 2007, he judged a student poetry contest for me, and he planned to join poets Steve Myers and Marjorie Maddox in speaking to my Poetry Writing students on April 26. But on April 13 he wrote to say he wouldn't be able to make it, that some medical issues had come up, and on May 25 he died.

I've kept copies of his emails and have felt so sorry, for five years now, that I didn't know him better.

There's a wonderful archive of Len's poems, "The Len Roberts Memorial Reading Room," at Here are the final lines of one, "The Trouble-Making Yellow Finch":

. . . the finch
down there making a racket
worse than my father's
harmonica playing when
he was drunk, crumpling
into snow banks on the way
home without losing a beat,
the tune an after-midnight
whine that made the neighbors
turn on their lights and
hang their heads from cold
windows to shout Shut up
or Turn it off, the warbler
of Olmstead Street throwing
snowballs until the cops
would come and tuck him
into their car and take
him to his other home,
his absence then
as the finch's when
I look down to curse
him again only to find
him gone, the small
wings and maddening beak,
the somersaulter
among needled twigs
who had disturbed my peace
and brought my dead father
back with his showing-off-
zipping around and
his brief yellow streaks,
his fraction-of-an-ounce heart.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lullabies and Gutterspaces

At the beginning of March I attended the AWP Conference in Chicago. Apart from the usual strangeness of that conference--which has become a big, unwieldy blur of thousands of writers and books filling several giant exhibition spaces--was the additional strangeness, for me, of spending time in Chicago, a city that was very, very different when I lived there for several years in the mid to late 1980s.
I’ve been trying to hold on to that strangeness, which lately seems vital to me, for my writing. (I’ve been influenced by writer Jim Shepard here, who says in an interview accompanying his story “The World to Come” in the March 4, 2012 issue of One Story--a fantastic story, by the way--that his thesis advisor John Hawkes told him to always look for the “weirdness” in his work.)
I’m also trying to think of ways to get my students to reach for this weirdness, to launch themselves outside the safe confines of the everyday (though I’m not necessarily talking about fantasy or science fiction here; those worlds come almost too easily to them, I think, steeped as they are in wizards and vampires and, now, fictional dystopias). Here are a couple ideas I’m playing with.
1. Listen to Merrill Garbus (of tUnE yArDs)’s “Wooly Wolly Gong.” Then write a lullaby for your unborn child (remember, these are mostly pretty young and sheltered undergraduates I’ll be teaching).
2. This one is inspired by a show I saw at the Art Institute while in Chicago, called “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1971.” I’m not usually a huge conceptual art fan, but I got intrigued by a number of the artists included in that show, among them Gordon Matta-Clark. One of the assembled collages from Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” project was included in the show, and--with my ongoing preoccupation with the strangeness of property ownership--I got very interested in this whole project. 
In the early 1970s (during the New York fiscal crisis), Matta-Clark, an artist and practitioner of “anarchitecture,” began buying up various small, oddly shaped pieces of “leftover” New York City property, mostly in Queens. (These were called, variously, “gutterspaces,” “curb properties,” “odd lots,” and “property slivers”--and there’s another writing exercise in these names themselves.) 
But the main exercise I have in mind here involves setting a work (maybe a piece of microfiction, or a one-act play) in--or on--one of these “property slivers.” The process should start with the writer getting as full a sense of his/her chosen sliver as possible from available images. I'll have them start with the schematic drawing of the pieces Matta-Clark bought, included in Jeffrey Kroessler, et al.’s Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates (which chronicles a 2005 show at the Queens Art Museum):

What would you do with #5, for instance?

Besides the more obvious questions Matta-Clark’s work raises about property and wealth, I like the idea of an exercise that forces a writer to work small, actually in miniature, though possibly LONG miniature--to examine things at that level. (This is probably because I’ve been working for a long time now on a novel whose central character moves from the hills of West Virginia, to the American West, to upstate New York, New York City, Europe, the West Indies, and beyond, all in pretty short order.)
So, for this exercise, choose one property sliver, find out as much as you can about it (online, and in the work of Kroessler, Jeffrey Kastner, Sina Najafi, Frances Richard, and others), place at least two characters on it, and go from there. 
I’ll try it out with students next year. In the meantime, if you try it out yourself, let me know how it goes.