Monday, November 24, 2008

She's Back

The retreat cottage was in Silver Cliff, CO--in a high mountain valley near the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The yard was fenced, so Duncan loved it, kept asking to go in and out just for the sheer joy of having me open the door on demand, no leash, dogs and cats and people in the neighborhood to watch. I loved it because there was a fireplace in the front room, lots of color and good art on the walls, and best of all, no phone, no TV, no computer, no noise. I learned that I really can do a lot of writing without all those distractions and excuses. It felt good to just sink down into the poems, wrestle with revisions, and see some results. And of course, get a start on a new piece. I slept when I was tired, ate when I was hungry, walked twice a day in gorgeous weather with those amazing mountain peaks always in view. The air was clear and the sun warm enough in the afternoon to sit outside for a while. I will definitely go back to Bloomsbury West.

Because I have always done my early drafts longhand, not having the laptop with me was no sacrifice, and now I have six pieces revised and ready to retype, and the new one to commit to Times New Roman. These poems give me direction for today and maybe tomorrow. And this morning, I found myself turning off the news after just a couple of minutes. There is no reason that I cannot create the quiet that I so enjoyed in Silver Cliff. What I have realized is that I use music, noise, to mask thinking when it gets hard or scary. I depend on the distraction to relieve whatever anxiety rises with me in the morning as I think ahead to the day's events and wonder if I can do anything right. That's a leftover from being a shy, scared kid who never thought she could accomplish anything, but was too silly to say so. If I can drive through those mountains, live in solitude, and still write, I'm thinking I can maybe write a poem that matters.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Retreat & Revision

Today I begin my long-awaited writer's retreat weekend. My bag is packed, sparsely. After all, it's just a three-day trip. But imagine my angst over what to take. Oh, not the clothes, another pair of jeans, a warm layer or two, and the toiletries kit that's always ready. I've studied the map and will shortly print out the directions to the house where I'll be staying. No, the big issue is what work to take with me. After all, I have at least six writing projects on my list, all of which deserve work. But this retreat weekend has me considering my focus. Right now I've tossed in my reading supplies, a copy of the Best American Poetry 2008 and Back to the Castle by Vaclav Havel (think about transition of regime and read this one), but reaching for a notebook, I went for the poetry. This might be a decision based on the good time I had at a reading last evening, or that I won this weekend in a poetry contest, or just the wish to sink into what I know best. So the dog and the poems will go south with me, once the fog and traffic clear.

What will I come home with? I have a hefty stash of poems that have never found a home and it's time to look at them with a sharp eye. One editor recently returned a manuscript with a request that I up the intensity of the language. Not an unreasonable request, but I don't automatically follow such suggestions from one reader. I want the poems to have more than flash and filigree. I want substance, meaning, memorable images. Typically, I don't compose well in a new location, so revising with these things in mind will be a logical goal for me. And maybe not having my usual distractions around will allow me to focus. Coffee, a couple of books, a lot of poems--I'm ready. I'll report back on Monday.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Read This

E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News: set mostly in Newfoundland, full of quirky, delicious language and equally quirky characters. In the first part of the book I wanted to smack the protagonist because he was sooooo passive, but we both got over that. Winner of a National Book Award. One of those that I kept hearing about and finally grabbed, didn't put it down till the last page turned.

True Green @ Work, by Kim McKay and Jenny Bonnin with Tim Wallace: A National Geographic product subtitled "100 ways you can make the environment your business." Concise advice on working green, features companies that are significantly committed to eco-responsibility, and an extensive list of resources. I'll be on the hunt for their previous book, True Green, 100 Everyday Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthier Planet.

The new version of Fritof Capra's The Tao of Physics. This book has long been on my list of life changers, and the revised version does not disappoint. A deep look at the correspondences between Eastern thought and modern physics. Don't panic, you don't have to know all those mysterious formulae. In the same genre, look for Murray Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and Complex.

You can see why I'm late with this blog! There's a breeze making diamonds on the duck pond, the dog is asleep in a patch of sun on the carpet, and I have all these great books winking and beckoning. Not to mention a handlful of poetry essays to edit and jillions of other tasks large and small. You get the idea. Excuse me, I'm just going for one more chapter, then I'll get down to work, really, I will, promise.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Define "BOOK"

A friend showed me her newest high-tech device recently--a Kindle. You know, that thing that looks like a big calculator but contains thousands of pages of writing. She's about to leave on a plane and cannot pack a month's supply of vacation reading, unless it's compressed into this gizmo, which, by the way, she stores in a case made from a real (i.e. paper) book! This disguise allows her to sit beside the pool, appearing to read a traditional book, not attract thieves, not appear to turn a page, not to look like a techie, but to enjoy her reading for hours. So, I ask you, what makes a book a book? Is it the paper? Is it the cover? Is it the concept? The first definition in my Oxford says, "a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers." Well, that dog won't hunt anymore. The second entry helps a bit more, "literary composition intended for publication." We could, I guess, debate "literary" for quite a while, but what about "publication"?

Is this blog publication? Have I published when I offer a poem or story out loud to a small, but interested audience? Must the work reach strangers to count as published? Whew! This is getting hard. If a book is not a gathering of pages bound along one side, and publishing does not mean I have a contract and income, we are free! We can define ourselves and our work as we like. Not everyone will agree, but that's not news, is it? I think publication means that some objective third party has read my composition and agrees to pass it on, paid or not, on paper or on-line. The editorial decision trumps friendship, favoritism, and flattery. A good editor is essential to my concept of publication. I cannot see all the competition for attention that exists in my chosen fields of poetry and fiction. Nor can any one editor, but s/he has a wider view than I have. I may not like the opinion offered, but I have to respect the process. If a book can be a handheld screen hidden inside a traditionally bound book, then we can redefine, each of us, what we expect to count in our search for credibility.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Dog is Three!

How many writers depend on solitude for their sanity? And how many of us disturb that solitude by introducing a pet into the scene? Just about every one I know. The advantage, of course, is that a dog doesn't offer his/her opinion on the local news in the middle of a tricky transition or just as the climax of the story finally, after days, occurs to you. Well, my dog doesn't speak in English, but he has a schedule and he expects me to follow it. Duh! I taught him to expect a cookie first thing in the morning, and to expect a walk when I put on my shoes. Duncan the Dog has no concern for my mental activity. As far as he can tell, I'm just sitting still, wiggling my fingers on the desk. So, right now, he has no compunction about patting my leg with his paw, or looking deep into my eyes with his very dark, very beautiful, very intelligent eyes. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a beloved dog, Flush, who was kidnapped, and the poet almost lost her mind until he was recovered. I understand. Every night when Duncan goes out for the last time before bed, I stand at the door, watching the trajectory of his outdoor leash, hoping no predator decides he would make a great snack. A friend of my daughter's let her beagle out and a mountain lion grabbed it, fortunately, letting go when screams errupted from the frantic woman waving her arms. The dog made it, went on to win in dog shows, his usual job.

Could I write without Duncan curled up beside my chair? Probably, but I wouldn't have any excuse to walk every morning, to admire his gorgeous cream-colored coat, to enoy the fact of having another sentient being near me, one who thinks I'm pretty great, except when I won't let him disembowel his new bed or eat dinner from my plate. Today he is three years old, and I expect--absent coyotes or mountain lions--to have him around for another decade or more. He won't know why he gets an extra treat for lunch, but Happy Birthday, Duncan Dog. And many more.