Saturday, January 6, 2018

What I'm Reading Now: Library of Small Happiness by Leslie Ullman

Upon Finding the Muse between 186 Pages of Essays and Exercises:

Striking the Flint with Leslie Ullman

Nearly a decade ago, in the midst of my favorite pastime (lollygagging on the Internet exploring Deep Image poetry), I happened upon an article by the poet Leslie Ullman. Why, I wondered, had I not known about this poet before now?  A quick search led to my immediate purchase of her 1998 publication, Slow Work through Sand followed by her three other books of poetry Natural Histories, Dreams by No One’s Daughter, and Progress on the Subject of Immensity.

I began what would become a gapped but enriching e-mail correspondence with Ullman over the next nine years and when “Library of Small Happiness” was released in 2017, its wide, creative net led to pages of annotations and margin notes spurring me into a new journal of my own writing.

The book itself is divided into two parts. Part I consists of seven essays on poets, poetry, and craft, and Part II contains a series of poetry writing exercises (which I soon found could be applied to any genre), notes on revision, and a brief section of references. I wondered; however, why the Preface, titled, “The Essay that Failed,” had not been included in the table of contents because it was there that I had to start taking notes – had to pull books from my shelves and answer Ullman’s question, “What is happening to me through [the poem]?” The preface and this initial question set the tone for the reader’s shift in perspective: both the Library of Small Happiness and the poem are interactive entities. Ullman emphasizes this on page 13 when she writes, “This book… [is a] collaboration between imagination and the written word.”

Upon reading the first essay, “A ‘Dark Star’ Passes Through It,” I noted that Ullman does not position herself as the authority on craft and writing but rather a journeywoman. Instead, she acknowledges the theories and strategies of her own teachers, favorite writers and artists, and mentors. This holds true for the entirety of the book. I was a bit dubious at first; Ullman, a prolific writer, served as Director of the Creative Writing program at the University of Texas-El Paso, currently teaches at the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts, and is a manuscript consultant. Why not take a more commanding stance?

The answer revealed itself with almost every annotation – what she values most are relationships and shared insights with both poetry and people. The following journal entry from my own notes provides an early summary: “[Ullman] concedes she is not (does not claim) she is unearthing new discoveries in terms of critical theory regarding reader experience, but not since Oliver’s Rules for the Dance have I held a stack of poems to the light of a craft book, and not since swooning over Hugo’s The Triggering Town have I so eagerly carved out blocks of time to write…Her holistic rubric provides the how of explication. Energy explication.”

As one moves through the remaining essays, it is easy to settle into the author’s rhythm of theory and example. In fact, the abundance of craft-centered theories and explanations followed by examples from authors such as Kenyon, Gilbert, Stafford, and Levertov (among many others) is precisely what makes Library of Small Happiness a book which mentors as it educates.  In the essay, “The ‘Personal’ Poem as Sacred Space,” the reader gets the sense that Ullman is on the poet’s side as a matter of principle. It is also here that she segues from the poem’s landscape (my margin note read “…the internal grip of awe”) to the poet’s internal landscape. On page 65 Ullman writes, “The work I’m about to discuss…renders intensely personal insights…by means of an unspoken, redeeming humility, a willingness simply to bear witness and settle into a certain degree of irresolution rather than a need to clarify for conclude.” The author understands the poet’s mantra – the world contains and evokes wonder, and Library of Small Happiness celebrates all who remain open.

As much as we sometimes wish it so, the poet does not exist in a vacuum. Ullman celebrates this, too, as she calls upon artists, psychologists, and mathematicians to assist in our journey throughout the creative process.  Each essay, for me, was an open but cupped palm where one could either burrow in the fleshy promises surrounding the heart and life lines and write about that experience or drop anchor and follow the author’s Venn Diagram of interconnected discourse between the disciplines. 
Library offers five sections of writing exercises that address (among other strategies) inversion, tension, persona, borrowing lines, juxtaposition, and reconciliation with the self. 

You’re going to want to grab a new journal. Another new journal. As I worked my way through the exercises, I encountered the sensation I can only describe as what one must feel when a ghost or energy from another dimension is occupying the exact same spot one is currently occupying. Except in this case, I was both the three dimensional writer and the other-worldly energy. Perhaps this is because Library of Small Happiness had me writing long before I reached Part II.

Yours with pen in hand,
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp