Saturday, October 22, 2016

Advice from Writers I’ve Mentored and Taught

In this blog I’m featuring advice from writers I’ve mentored when they were students or interns. I’m so proud of the many writers I’ve worked with over the years who have become excellent published authors in their own right.

Tara Ballard studied with me at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). Her recent poems include “Unfinished Letter to Officer [Insert Name]” in HEArt Online. Tara’s advice:

Don’t try to dictate the direction of the poem as you are drafting. Examine your tendencies and habits. 

Kersten Christianson was a mentee at UAA. She is working on a chapbook, What Caught Raven’s Eye, through Petroglyph Press. Her creative manuscript Something Yet to Be Named will be published by Aldrich Press in July 2017.  Kersten’s advice:

Write what is most important to  you. Read globally, expand your literary citizenship.  

Allison DeLauer is a poet who also writes for performers. Allison studied with me at California College of the Arts (CCA). Her publications include the chapbook, Eve Out West; and a fascinating and witty poem called “The Neighbors Knew I Divined Water.” Her advice:

Spend time walking outdoors. Use the microphone on your phone to record your poem-thoughts, when walking. 

Makenzie DeVries is a poet who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and studied with me at UAA. She’s been published in Duty Bound from the Alaska Humanities Forum. Her advice:

This is relevant to me these days, being the crazy busy person I have unfortunately become: make time to write, at least a couple days a week. Well—at least one day a week.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc was an intern for the Lunch Poems Reading Series at UC Berkeley when I was the coordinator there. His poems have recently been published in Field, jubilat, the Literary Review, and are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest. Gibson’s recommendations:

I’ve always been partial to Philip Levine's advice: “Fuck writer’s block. Lower your standards.” Levine was repeating advice from William Stafford, though he added the f-bomb for fun. It’s a reminder that I find I often need, and I repeat it to students (though I might substitute “forget” for the swear if they’re young). We have to be willing to write anything, even and maybe especially the terrible stuff, to get to what’s real and worth pursuing. 

Margaret Elysia Garcia was my student at University of San Francisco. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and plays—yes, and she’s good at all of them. Her audiobook, Mary of the Chance Encounters, was produced by Wretched Productions. recently collected 15,000 books for the school library in the town of Indian Valley, California, where she lives. See this news item. Her advice:

Take interest in and promote other writers. Too many writers—especially women writers—do not take themselves seriously. Own what it is you do and find the community that will support your voice. I used to try writing from home, but home can be invaded by other identities and other people. Now I write from my little office with another writer typing away upstairs and it has made all the difference.

Martha Grover was my mentee at CCA. She’s published two books of nonfiction: One More for the People and The End of My Career, both from Perfect Day Publishing. Her suggestion for writers:

One great piece of advice was given to me by my very first creative writing teacher, the poet Joseph Millar. He would often tell us to “put this poem in a drawer and take it out again in three to six months.” I think we often give up too easily on our writing, or edit it to death. The point is to let time pass and be able to look at the piece with fresh eyes. Good writing takes time. 

Andrea Hackbarth studied with me at UAA. Two recent poems of hers were published in Mezzo Cammin. Her advice:

Always read more than you write. Spend time reading and rereading the poets and other writers that you love. When you do write, aim for that kind of greatness.

Alice-Catherine Jennings also was a student in the UAA program. She recently published a chapbook: Katherine of Aragon A Collection of Poems. Alice suggests:

Study another language. It will increase your vocabulary, shake up your syntax, and change the way you think.

Mandy Kahn was an intern in the Lunch Poems Series at UC Berkeley when I was the coordinator there. Mandy’s numerous publications include the critically acclaimed poetry collection Math, Heaven, Time and a wise and thoughtful blog, “Thirteen Thoughts on Poetry in the Digital Age,” in the Huffington Post. Her advice:

Love the making process and all you make will carry love.

Laura LeHew was a student of mine at CCA. Her books of poetry include Becoming from Another New Calligraphy and Willingly Would I Burn from MoonPath Press.

My advice to writers is to be an entrepreneur. Writing is your business. If you are not writing you should be submitting and if you are not submitting you should be writing. Rejection happens, don’t take it personally. Network, join a professional organization like the AWP or your local or state association. Network with the people who run reading series. Start a reading series. Volunteer and/or intern. Start a blog. Join Facebook. Have your own website. Collaborate with other writers on interesting projects. Run and/or participate in critique groups. Give a workshop. Teach. Align yourself with a good mentor and then pay it back by mentoring others.

Myron Michael is a poet and essayist who studied with me at CCA. He won the Eastern Iowa Review’s experimental essay award. His advice:

Make time to write. All of the good things.

Rheea Mukherjee, who studied with me at CCA, just published an engaging first book of short stories, Transit for Beginners, from Kitaab International in Singapore. Rheea lives in Bangalore, India. Her advice:

It’s an essential time for writers to explore “the other”—mentally, physically, spiritually, and politically. Stepping into the shoes of the unknown and writing from that perspective can bring new potential and purpose to writing and its place in our world. 

Mae Remme studied with me at UAA. Her recent works include a powerful prose poem, “Bloody Marys,” in Tethered by Letters. Mae’s advice:

When inspiration hits, even if the timing isn't right to sit and put it all on paper (or screen) take note. I have too often thought I would never forget an idea only to later lose the line, image, or revision. And one of the many things Zack advised that stuck was even if a revision comes to mind after you submit or publish a piece, still make the revision for future opportunities.  

Lisa Stice was my mentee at UAA. Her first book of poems, Uniform, from Aldrich Press, deals with the moving experiences of the wife of a U.S. Marine. Her advice:

Don’t give up on writing or submitting. There’s going to be writer’s block. Push through and be open to what you need to write, instead of what you want to write. There will be rejection. Once you find your niche as a writer, you’ll more easily find the journals and publishers that are right for your work.

Laura Wetherington was a Lunch Poems intern at UC Berkeley. Her book A Map Predetermined and Chance was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books. Her advice:

Write everyday, even if just for five minutes. A daily practice keeps the creative pump primed.

I feel so lucky for all the amazing students I’ve worked with in my teaching and mentoring. I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to keep the river running.—Zack

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Reflections on Bob Dylan Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

On the one hand…I’m absolutely thrilled. It feels like an incredible affirmation of the beliefs and aesthetic that I cut my teeth on. I remember listening over and over to Dylan’s albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited in the late 1960s.

One of my most vivid Dylan memories is hanging out in a café in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the summer of 1970 with the temperature 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52 degrees Celsius), drinking a peach and kefir drink over ice and listening to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album again and again, since it was the only record they had.

Bob Dylan’s music was so much a part of the counterculture and radical politics of the 1960s that it feels like the Nobel Prize went to the entire movement, as if the award actually belongs in that café in Morocco or to the be-ins in Central Park with acid heads gyrating like helicopters in clothes as multicolored as reptile skins.

Dylan is the master of the kiss-off-your-old-lover song, a particular variation on the ballad that he perfected:

When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry, and it was your world.

(“Just Like a Woman”)

He has that lovely snarl in his voice that sounds like Woody Guthrie reincarnated as a schnauzer. I think many of the best recordings of Dylan’s songs are by women, like Etta James’s rendition of “Gotta Serve Somebody” or the jazz vocalist Barbara Sfraga’s almost a capella version of “Every Grain of Sand” or Mary Travers shaking her blond Niagara while she croons “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Something about the combination of Dylan’s hard edge and the heart of a great chanteuse feels like justice to me. Has anyone  yet compiled the Women Sing Dylan anthology?

Bob Dylan freed poetry from the prison of the page. He is a modern troubadour, a true successor to the Provençal poets who roamed the hill towns of Southern France in the Middle Ages using their lutes to find rhyming forms that had never existed, even in Granada.

On the other hand…every literary prize always makes me think almost more of the writers who didn’t win or have never received that honor. What about the novelists and essayists and poets who’ve done the hard work of assembling a lifetime of work, an entire shelf of words. What has Bob Dylan written to compare to Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto and memoir Truth and Beauty, for instance; or Tawara Machi, who has remade the ancient tanka form; or Argentina’s Ana María Shua, the master of flash fiction and author of more than forty books?

Ana María Shua
Not to mention Leonard Cohen, who, like Bob Dylan, has married poetry and song lyrics in his own way, maybe with more compassion and wisdom.

In the end, isn’t the whole point of the Nobel Prize for Literature that it gets us to read writers whose work we wouldn’t know otherwise? And since we already know Dylan, every phase of his work from folk to rock to neo-country, more numerous than Picasso’s periods, what has the world gained by this award? Isn’t this a missed opportunity to introduce the community of readers to a neglected genius?

Maybe. But I still get a thrill every time I hear “Tangled Up in Blue.”

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Basket Poem

Not long ago I wrote a blog where I talked about Walt Whitman’s celebrated poem, “I Hear America Singing.” In discussing this poem, I realized that it’s actually part of a category of poems that I would call “basket poems.”

In a basket poem, a writer comes up with a container that many different events or things can be gathered into. For example, in Whitman’s poem, he collects incidents where he hears or imagines Americans singing while they work. In the first line, Whitman describes the basket that he’s going to use to assemble all these images:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear

Then he proceeds to put one incident after another into his basket:

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the      steamboat deck…

All in all, Whitman describes eleven different types of workers, each with a different task, each with a different song.

I can imagine Whitman getting the idea for this poem by hearing two or three of these singers during a stroll around his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He then either stayed attentive to others who sing while they work, or invented or remembered the rest. Whitman’s basket for this poem is: American worker singing. The poem becomes an assortment of these different carolers, each one representing the dignity and joy of honest, democratic labor. It’s a sort of innocent socialist realism, before there was actually such a thing as socialist realism. Maybe we could call it “socialist lyricism.”

Interestingly, the poem does not arbitrarily list these workers and their songs. It begins with the heavier sorts of labor: mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman. It then becomes somewhat more domestic and rural, and the time of day changes to a later hour, the end of the workday:

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown…

Then the singer/workers become distinctively female:

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing…

Finally Whitman ends the poem not with daytime labor but with the fun and leisure of the nighttime after work is done:

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s poem is an excellent template for a basket poem:

1) Choose a category of images, incidents, objects, or phrases.
2) Collect a satisfyingly diverse assortment of like objects or phrases in your basket.
3) Sort the objects in the basket so they form a sort of order.
4) Begin and/or end with an object or phrase or image that doesn’t quite match the others, that provides some closure, some break in the list.

You might ask, “What’s the difference between a basket poem and a list poem?” Well, a list poem could also be a basket poem. But a basket poem doesn’t have to be a list. I wouldn’t exactly call “I Hear America Singing” a list, though it has list-like qualities. In fact, a basket poem doesn’t have to be a list at all.

I’m thinking about Mary Ruefle’s poem, “Merengue.” After the first three introductory lines, the whole poem is a series of questions. 

Mary Ruefle
You could hardly call this poem a list. But I would call it a basket poem, since Mary Ruefle collected questions that interested her, put them in her poetic basket, and formed a poem out of them. Here is the middle section of the poem:

Did you learn how to cut a pineapple,
open a coconut?
Did you carry a body once it had died?
For how long and how far?
Did you do the merengue?
Did you wave at the train?
Did you finish the puzzle, or save it for morning?

All these experiences seem like possibilities for fairly simple activities that we could know in a lifetime. The poem’s implicit question is, to my mind, “Have you lived life to its fullest, or have you failed to experience many wonderful things?” What’s lovely about the poem is that this most important question is left unasked. Was it Alice Notley who said, “What you want to say in a poem is what you should leave out”? “Merengue” is a fine example of that.

Like Whitman, Mary Ruefle begins and ends her poems with lines that don’t fit in the same category as her basket, which is questions about simple actions. She starts and ends the poem with declarations, allowing for both an introduction to her list at the beginning, and closure at the end. She also prepares us for the ending by tackling bigger issues in the last two questions:

Have you been born?
What book will you be reading when you die?

Although the last question might seem somewhat random, it does continue the subject of life and death that the previous, ambiguous question broaches.

Basket poems can take a surprisingly long to time write. It may happen that the category you choose to put into your basket is a fairly obscure one. The more esoteric the basket, the longer it will probably take to fill. Remember to sort the objects—they can’t all be equal or have the same resonance, or you will have nothing more than a shopping list with no beginning or end. Once you have collected all your objects or phrases in the basket, you might also have to add or subtract in order to form the pattern that the objects seem to want to be part of.

Other recent posts about writing topics:

Thursday, September 15, 2016

How to Be An American Writer, Part 9: Conclusion

In this series of blogs, I’ve talked about four different approaches that American writers have taken toward U.S. society:
1) Expatriates
2) Populists

3) Internal exiles
4) Critics and satirists

I don’t mean to suggest that these approaches are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think many U.S. writers partake of two or even all of these attitudes at one time or another in their literary careers. On the other hand, there are American writers who don’t fit into any of these categories.

In this blog, I’m going to try to make some generalizations and draw some conclusions about these four approaches.

The Balance among These Approaches Has Changed
An interesting sidelight to these four approaches is how the balance among them has changed over the years. In the 1920s, for instance, there were probably as many leading American writers living in Europe as in the United States. These days, there are very few expatriate writers, and even the ones who do live abroad often spend only half the year overseas. For instance, the poet Marilyn Hacker lives in Paris, but only part-time. Why this shift away from the expatriate writer?

The Expatriates Won
Well, for one thing, I think the expatriates won. They waged their struggle to convince Americans that the customs and tolerance of Europe and the Mediterranean are in many ways more conducive to the good life. Nowadays, almost every American city contains elements of what used to be only available in sophisticated Europe—a diversity of lifestyles, for example. Not to mention the espresso machine; the croissant; yogurt; shallots and radicchio; artisan goat cheeses; fine wine, beer, and liqueurs. And the profusion of art galleries. It’s not necessary anymore to be an expatriate to partake of all these pleasures. There’s a quite a lot of what you can get of Paris or Florence right at your local Whole Foods Store, café, or gallery.

But the Populists Are Now the Largest Group
Looking at the lists of American writers and which ones take which approach, I think it’s safe to say that the populists are by far the plurality now, if not an outright majority. Why? The resurgence of writing by women and by people of color and in the LGBTQ community has re-energized writing about moments that matter in everyday U.S. life and the stories of Americans. Not only that, the victory of the expatriates in terms of lifestyles has made it largely unnecessary for U.S. writers to go abroad in order to find the tolerance, sophistication, and artistic ambiance they sought in 1920s Paris. 

There Are Fewer Literary Satirists and Critics
I think the ranks of the satirists and critics have also thinned compared to previous decades. Television and the Internet have become more likely venues for satire and criticism than literature. Satire and criticism are so time constrained—what’s funny or politically astute this week is not necessarily even comprehensible in a few months. So why try to immortalize it in literature? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it has to be done now with more of an eye to what is universal in the satire or the criticism than was the case in the past. Literary reformers are sometimes the victims of their own success, and the conditions they protest change and sometimes even disappear.

So, Where Does This Leave American Writers?
Should we be booking passage on the next cruise ship to Europe in order to hang out at a Left Bank café? Should we wave the flag on Main Street? Should we retreat to a homestead where our only neighbors are grizzlies? Should we mercilessly mock all that is sacred in American life? The point of these blogs is not so much to recommend any of these approaches. Instead, I’m hoping that you will recognize in some of the writers I’ve discussed some impulses of your own, and come to know them better.

I think that each of the four approaches that I’ve described has its strengths and weaknesses, and we can learn something about our selves as writers from considering those.

Expatriates—Strengths and Weaknesses
The strengths of the expatriate, for instance, are sophistication and tolerance. The expatriate usually accepts a range of human facets and pursuits more comprehensive and accepting than what is often welcome in much of the United States. The weakness of the expatriate, from my standpoint, is that this stance can lean toward snobbism, or even elitism with regard to Main Street. There is a sort of disdain for the common American in some expatriates that risks losing what is genuine and democratic in the U.S. experience.
Read more about U.S. expatriate writers >

Populists—Strengths and Weaknesses
The strong point of the populist, on the other hand, is an appreciation for exactly the quality that the expatriate is somewhat indifferent to—the authenticity, camaraderie, and egalitarian impulses of America. Along with the populist attitude goes enthusiasm for the diversity of U.S. society. The weak spot of the populist, I would say, is a certain naïveté, a willingness to ignore what is materialistic and gruff in American society.
Read more about U.S. populist writers >

Internal Exiles—Strengths and Weaknesses
The forte of the internal exile is uncompromising, high principles. The internal exile has the ability to tell the truth about America’s destructive and overly mercantile tendencies. Sometimes the internal exile has an inspiring prophetic side. The internal exile is also sometimes an advocate for nature over wanton human development. The downside of the internal exile is a sort of misanthropy—painting all of the urban experience with a brush that is too wide and too negative. I think some internal exiles are open to the criticism that they are blind to the benefits of diversity in the United States.
Read more about U.S. internal exile writers >

Satirists and Critics—Strengths and Weaknesses
The satirist or critic’s strong point is being able to instruct at the same time he or she makes us laugh. The satirist does not let cultural icons go unchallenged. There is a bravery in that willingness to take on the powers that be. The Achilles’ heel of the satirist, for me, is an occasional blindness to the small, meaningful moments that the populist celebrates. There can also be elitist undertones to some satires or criticisms of American life.
Read more about U.S. writers who are satirists and critics >

Whichever approach to being an American writer feels familiar and comfortable, consider learning from the other approaches as well. Whatever the approach, it’s crucial to appreciate what is true in the other viewpoints.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 8: Satirists and Critics

The last approach to being an American writer that I’d like to discuss is the satirist or the critic. These writers do engage directly with the American mainstream, unlike the expatriate or the internal exile, for instance. But the critics and satirists paint the United States in order to hold up a mirror and show the blemishes, often to hilarious effect.

I’d say the best known U.S. writer satirist/critic is Mark Twain, who had an uncanny ability to mimic the speech and the foibles of the common man or woman.

One of my favorite parts of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his portrayal of Tom Sawyer’s gullible Aunt Sally. Aunt Sally is trying to figure out how the leg of the bed in Jim’s prison was sawed off, when Jim was locked in a room with no saw. In reality, Tom Sawyer did the sawing—is that a pun? Here is Aunt Sally’s description of the situation:

“You may well say it, Brer Hightower!  It’s jist as I was a-sayin’ to Brer Phelps, his own self.  S’e, what do you think of it, Sister Hotchkiss, s’e? Think o’ what, Brer Phelps, s’I?  Think o’ that bed-leg sawed off that a way, s’e?  think of it, s’I?  I lay it never sawed itself off, s’I—somebody sawed it, s’I; that’s my opinion, take it or leave it, it mayn’t be no ’count, s’I, but sich as ’t is, it’s my opinion, s’I, ‘n’ if any body k’n start a better one, s’I, let him do it, s’I, that’s all.”

What a gift for rendering the Mississippi Valley dialect Twain had! As much as Twain makes fun of the common man and woman, though, and the gullibility of Americans, you do get the sense that he is in some ways a populist. His poking fun is often done out of a democratic impulse to nudge the masses toward greater awareness, and not out of a deeper cynicism about the U.S.

Other notable American satirists or critics:

On the poetry side, Edward Arlington Robinson, author of “Miniver Cheevy.” Robinson had a knack for finding the underside of different fates. 

e.e. cummings, particularly in poems such as “pity this busy monster, manunkind,” showed the materialistic and insensitive face of U.S. society. 

On the fiction side, Sinclair Lewis, a novelist whose work was extremely important for my parents’ generation. Lewis, one of the few Americans to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is not read as much today as he was two generations ago, but he produced some scathing satires of small-town American life, including the novels Babbitt and Main Street. His dystopian fiction about fascism taking over an all-American community, It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935, might well be a prophetic glimpse at the regional surge of extreme right politics outside of urban America.

Sinclair Lewis, author of It Can't Happen Here and other novels
Nathanael West, author of Miss Lonelyhearts, mocked the shallowness of popular American culture.

I think some of the recent American women novelists are critics of American society, such as Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres, and the excellent novellas, Ordinary Love & Good Will, which both shine a flashlight on tender spots in American culture. 

There’s also Jane Hamilton, who wrote the novel A Map of the World, a scathing critique of the prejudices and limitations of Middle America—in the world of that novel, if you make one false move, you become an anathema.

Ishmael Reed is a wonderful satirist who critiques American society with African American funk in mind in such novels as Mumbo Jumbo. Reed is also a poet, essayist, and playwright, one of the few writers who excels in all those genres.

Ishmael Reed, author of Mumbo Jumbo and many other books
We could add to the satirists John Kennedy Toole, who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces (a book I’ve never been able to finish, I have to admit).

In the nonfiction category, there’s Tom Wolfe, who pokes fun at the American intelligentsia and other aspects of U.S. life in such books as Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and The Painted Word.

The satirist or critic challenges the American mainstream. Unlike the populist writer, he or she doesn’t see the U.S. experience as a source of wisdom or epiphanies about the meaningful, small moments of everyday life. Critics and satirists are taking aim at American society, often with either a humorous or reformist intent, but highlighting the sides of U.S. culture that are deserving of scrutiny or even mockery.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

Monday, September 5, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 7: Internal Exiles

Now we come to the third approach of American writers to U.S. society, which I would call the internal exile. Unlike the expatriates, who discover an alternative home in another country, and who find that the American experience compares in important ways unfavorably to the values and culture of that other place, the internal exile rejects any homeland outside the U.S. The internal exile digs deeply into the American soil, but on his or her own, in isolation from the larger society.

Emily Dickinson
The most famous example of this sort of writer might be Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Dickinson had a brief stint as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). She was more or less hounded out of that school after being categorized as “hopeless” by the administration because she was impervious to the religious fundamentalism that was the order of the day. This was the period of the Second Great Awakening, then hurricaning through New England. Here the Puritan tradition resurfaced in its insistence on spiritual conformity. 

Emily Dickinson
After leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson kept to her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was actually the congressman from this district, so Dickinson’s nonconformist views on religion, love, and women’s roles would be controversial and possibly damaging to her father’s career.

For example, Dickinson wrote:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

What more eloquent statement could there be of the individual’s right to communicate directly with the Spirit, and to see the divine directly in nature?

In a remarkable essay on Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home,” Adrienne Rich makes a convincing case that Dickinson understood the explosive nature of her rebellion, and that that Dickinson deliberately kept to her home to protect the revelation of her poetry and her ideas. “I have a notion that genius knows itself;” writes Rich, “that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

I think Rich is right that Dickinson’s reticence to share her poetry was not the withdrawal of a dry school marm but a savvy choice. Dickinson had the shelter of her family’s home as a writer’s retreat—so long as her work didn’t embarrass or disgrace her father and her other relatives. Dickinson’s best choice for publishing and preserving her nonconformist poems was to turn them into a sort of time capsule. That way her poems could be read, understood, and appreciated in a future century—which they are.

Robinson Jeffers
Another writer I would classify as an internal exile is the poet Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962). It seems that internal exiles tend to be poets. Poets are not given to compromise, and it takes an uncompromising and independent spirit to choose and to flourish in internal exile.

In 1912, Jeffers had an affair with a married woman who was older than he was, Una Call Kuster, the wife of a prominent Los Angeles attorney. The liaison was so scandalous that it was featured on the front page of the L.A. Times. Jeffers and Uma fled to Carmel on the California coast, where Jeffers helped design and construct Tor House, a refuge from the humdrum, modern world. Jeffers lugged and mortared many of the stones himself that were used in the construction of the tower.

Along this rugged coast, Jeffers retreated and wrote many of his poems.  

Maybe the poem of Jeffers’ that most embodies the outlook of the internal exile is “Shine, Perishing Republic.” This poem typifies the critical view of the internal exile toward the larger American society:

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
     center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
     are left the mountains.

Gary Snyder
Another internal exile is still living today. I’m referring to Gary Snyder (1930– ), a poet and essayist of the Beat Generation. Gary lives in a house called Kitkitdizze, in the foothills of Sierra Nevada Mountains in California in a house he also helped to construct. He deliberately chose for his home an area that had been heavily logged, in an effort to reclaim and nourish the land. The architecture style borrows from both Japanese homes and Native American lodges. The house is only accessible by a three-mile, unpaved road. For many years, Snyder pumped all the water they used by hand. His family had only an outhouse.

Of course, there are many other facets to Gary Snyder that don’t relate to the idea of an internal exile: he had a long teaching career, very connected to his students at University of California, Davis; he lived abroad in Japan and is in many ways global in his outlook; he was part of the camaraderie of the Beat Generation and close to that group of writers. But I think that there is an edge to Gary Snyder’s writing that is very skeptical about contemporary American culture, an edge that would allow for him to be called an internal exile of sorts. 

John Haines
I believe we can add to the list of internal exiles, the Alaskan writer John Haines (1924–2011). Haines, poet and essayist, lived for twenty years on a homestead outside of Fairbanks. Here’s an excerpt from a poem by John Haines, The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky,” that I think speaks to the view of the internal exile toward the larger society. It’s spoken in the voice of a frontiersman visiting New York City:

The old Imperial sun has set, 
and I must write a poem to the Emperor. 
I shall speak it like the man 
I should be, an inhabitant of the frontier, 
clad in sweat-darkened wool, 
my face stained by wind and smoke. 

The speaker sees himself as apart from the political and economic center, but in that distance there is room to critique the mainstream. In the poetry of this internal exile, there is a sense of belonging to a different polis, a different community from the one that is generally acknowledged as established. I think we see this in Jeffers’ and Snyder’s work as well.

The populist believes in the inherent goodness of American life, but the internal exile doubts it. The internal exile may believe that redemption lies elsewhere—maybe in nature, maybe in Native American or other cultures, maybe in a more resonant past or a more utopian future.