Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jane Shore, A YES-OR-NO ANSWER: Five Years of Meticulous Poetry

When poet Jane Shore greeted high school teachers today at the Advanced Placement Institute in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, she found at least one who had attended in an earlier year, eager to hear her read from the new collection she's just brought out: THE YES-OR-NO ANSWER. The book includes material she's been working on for at least five years -- and, in an unusual twist, a note at the back recognizes the summer teacher institute for its efforts and enthusiasm in helping her move forward in revisions of one of the poems, "The Streak."

The poem began with her (then) 12-year-old daughter's persistent request for a colorful streak in her hair. Shore and husband Howard Norman (yes, the novelist) finally agreed, but retained veto power over the color. The lines of the poem move from the relative safety of a rural beauty salon that sells "Manic Panic" hair dyes, to the terror and grief of Persephone's capture and retreat into the underworld for half of each year -- perhaps an extreme version of what it's like to let your daughter grow up, but one that the poem justifies in several ways.

Shore pointed out, "The minute you put words on paper, you're changing the experience, and then it's a matter of getting at what the deeper significance of the truth might be." She reflected on having brought an early draft to the teacher group five years ago and said, "The first time I brought it in, the poem was very much like wet clay."

Leading the high school teachers into further discussion of issues like "are poems overanalyzed?" and "don't you feel vulnerable?" Shore emphasized the separation that takes place during the publication process: "It's art -- it's not you. It started with you. I think that's a good thing to tell your students, [the poem] is not them."

Another selection from the new collection is called "Keys" and lets Shore tell her own side of the shocking interruption of violence into her life, when a death occurred in her urban home in the Washington, DC, area. But it didn't disturb the teachers as deeply as her images in "The Streak." She took them into more comfortable terrain with her classic "Shit Soup" (a remembrance of her mother), and the gently mournful "The Blue Address Book" -- and then, with the title poem of the collection, rocked them once again with how risky and intensely personal she can make her work.

At the end of her reading, a shaky silence spread among the teachers -- and most of them then lined up at the front of the room, eager to gain Shore's signature on their copies of the collection, and to pause for a moment of not-so-poetic conversation that brought the afternoon back to familiar safety.

Shore's words, though, hung in the air: "It becomes necessary to separate the self away from the poem, because it generates its own questions."

Here's the version of "The Streak" that she brought to last year's teacher gathering:


Because she wanted it so much, because
she'd campaigned all spring and half the summer,
because she was twelve and old enough,
because she would be responsible and pay for it herself,
because it was her mantra, breakfast, lunch and dinner,
because she would do it even if we said no --

her father and I argued until we finally said
okay, just a little one in the front
and don't ask for any more, and, also,
no double pierces in the future, is that a deal?

She couldn't wait, we drove straight to town,
not to our regular beauty parlor, but the freaky one --
half halfway house, half community center --
where they showed her the sample card of swatches,
each silky hank a flame-tipped paintbrush dipped in dye.

I said no to Deadly Nightshade. No to Purple Haze.
No to Atomic Turquoise. To Green Envy. To Electric Lava
that glows neon orange under black light.
No to Fuschsia Shock. To Black-and-Blue.
To Pomegranate Punk. I vetoed Virgin Snow.
And so she pulled a five out of her wallet, plus the tax,
and chose the bottle of dye she carried carefully
all the ride home, like a little glass vial
of blood drawn warm from her arm.

Oh she was hurrying me! Darting up the stairs,
double-locking the bathroom door,
opening it an hour later, sidling up to me, saying, "Well?"
For a second, I thought she'd somehow
gashed her scalp. But it was only her streak, Vampire Red.

Later, brushing my teeth, I saw her mess --
the splotches where dye splashed
and stained the porcelain, and in the waste bin,
Kleenex wadded up like bloodied sanitary napkins.
I saw my girl -- Persephone carried off to Hell,
who left behind a mash of petals on trampled soil.

CALENDAR ALERT: Jane Shore will read with Julie Agoos at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum on Wednesday July 30, at 7:30 p.m. -- the event is free and open to the public, and a book signing will follow.

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