Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Holiday Gift

Christmas day I spent with friends. We ate, all day, played Scrabble, read poems (not necessarily Christmasy), shared gifts and talked. Typical and lovely way to spend a holiday. My gift from that event was a book by Robert McDowell, Poetry As Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions (Free Press, 2008). Lovely, appropriate, and challenging, because I don't restrict poetry to the realms of devotion. But I like the opening gambit, a discussion of the queasy feeling many of us have over the uses of poetry, our reluctance to announce our liking for it in the open space of public discourse: "We fear it is not practical, that it will somehow turn others against us, that it will impede our day-to-day progress." Yes! Exactly. Poetry has impeded my progress, or not impeded, but changed my direction, reset my goals, rearranged my mind. Knowing this about myself, I took up my pen and in this morning's journal entry, attempted one of McDowell's initial exercises, making a list of my definitions of poetry. Note the plural.

Here's what I think. I disagree with WC Williams; a poem is not a machine made of words. A poem is more organic, less clock, more leaf and stem. Nor do I see a poem as an expression of emotion "recollected in tranquility" (Wordsworth). Maybe that's because I'm not tranquil when I create. I'm intense, taut, waiting to see what finally appears on the page, and what comes is rarely what I expected. I do think poetry might be any or all of the following: a sharing of experience and insight through words arranged in a concise, musical form; sensory information captured in lines of coherent syntax, often arranged in lines that break purposefully, rather than hitting the margin and bending automatically; an expression of human experience combining images and metaphoric language in a new way. Do you see those two words in italics? I look for those qualities in my own work and find it in work that I admire.

Finally, I like the quote McDowell uses from Tom Lux: "We have to stop writing poems that make people feel stupid" (19). Right! Poems make us feel stupid when their language is too elevated, esoteric, or fractured to give us the information we might get from a more conversational diction, sane syntax, and a reasonably common vocabulary. Poems make us feel stupid when we look and listen for something new and can't find it; did we miss it, are we too insensitive to catch it, or did the poet neglect to tell us that she/he doesn't feel the need to include us in the discovery?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Craft v. Censorship

Poetry readings are risky. You might hear fabulous, fresh, imaginative, musical words--"the best words in the best order." Or not. You might also hear long, boring, vague, cliched things (I'm not sure what noun to choose here) that leave you leaning into your hand and paying close attention to the coffee mug in front of you. These alternatives illustrate the opposite ends of a poetry spectrum, the battle between free speech and hard work. What many new poets, and occasionally a few experienced ones, ignore is that for many in the audience, a poem is a work of art. As such, we appreciate the craft of the work, as we would admire the technique of a painting, the composition of a photograph, the balance and texture of sculpture. Because the raw materials of poetry are easily found--words and paper--the opportunity to try it costs little, and if one takes no risks, doesn't hurt a bit.

Ah, risk, yes, that's part of the boredom problem. If a poet takes no risk in putting together the images, sounds, structure, and importance of the piece, boredom results. We're listening to what we've heard before in ways we've already heard it; it is not, as Ezra Pound advocated, "news that stays new." Of course, the casual poet may not know that his/her work is all too common, because they haven't read widely, have little concept of the skills one needs to craft the news, think that putting words on paper and calling it poetry makes it so. I disagree. But--long, emphatic pause here--anyone brave enough to approach the mike, even after hearing a dynamite feature poet whose talent and dedication are obvious to all but the sleeping infant and maybe the mike stand, well, we owe it to hear the brave, the desperate, the egotistical, the newcomers, and the writers just having blah days. The minute we reject the merely inept, we become selfish, demanding to be impressed and entertained. We forget that each poet started with a weak grip, an unsteady step, little understanding, and an ego too big for the paper it's printed on.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writing Groups Continued

In addition to the writing I do with my solitary partner, I often sit in on other groups. This weekend, for instance, a fine group leader, Carolyn Jennings, led a clutch of us through a series of guided efforts focused on the present holiday season. We wrote in short blocks of time and evaluated our own efforts with a series of questions meant to deepen our understanding of our language and feelings and ideas. At one point we were invited to share a character sketch with a partner, or not. I chose not. The sketch I had put on paper is bothersome, a bit of autobiography I've struggled to bring to light for years, a lot of years. And the child in that sketch defies my every attempt to understand her. Or maybe she defies my attempt to use her for my current purpose--to put into a poem the long shadow that she casts on my life. One of these days I'll share it, but not yet. I have to do more work around this image before I can push it out into the open.

One of the risks of group critique and sharing is the possibility that we let the piece out of our hands before we have realized it. We haven't the confidence yet that it will say something we want to say or to discover or whatever moves us to write in the first place. (Was there poetry in Eden, the First Place?) A fellow from another group I go to regularly found a wonderful article that addresses this problem: Help, I'm Going Hoarse! Don't Lose Your Voice in Critiques by Becci Clayton . As you'll see, she warns against taking all the advice we hear from other writers. If, as happened to me recently, a critique identifies a problem area that you already suspected, good. Listen and take it seriously. But if you find yourself resisting with every cell in your brain what another writer tells you to do, listen to yourself with equal intensity. Don't become a clone of someone else. Find the confidence to say, at least sotto voce, but this is what I wanted to write. And go on with your work.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Leaping Lizards

We all know, who gather here, that I've been writing for a long, long time. So why am I not smarter? I have a writing partner who consistently catches me making leaps in poems, especially toward the end of a piece, which can leave readers squirming. When he takes off his glasses and rubs his temples, I know instantly that I've done it again. I could beg off and deny the importance of his advice. After all, our styles differ hugely. He writes political, long, full of word play. I write short, mostly lyrical, image based. How can we ever agree? Well, we agree that readers/listeners matter, that we want to communicate and that we must accept an honest response from an honest audience of one. We agree that for us and many people we know that poetry matters. It rewards us, informs us, focuses our minds and hearts on something other than TV ads and holiday horrors. We share a community of many poets in our area, a wonderful reward for the time we put into writing.

I've done the writing program thing and find that writing with one partner is very different from workshopping a piece with a whole group. The response is more predictable, the embarrassment less intense when one of us fails. And then, there's that concept of failure to reconsider. A misstep, a leap into obscurity or verbal contortion is not so much failure as risk taking. We know that this art form demands time and attention, that we will keep writing and reworking so that the other has access to our creative work, rather than that we will have wasted money on an academic program. Ours is a loose partnership based on coffee and love of language, feeding on wit, intelligence and shared values. If a writer has a writing friend, she's lucky. Look what Pound did for Eliot!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Kerouac, Right and Wrong

This entry comes from one of my writing group experiences. We talk, circle around an idea or issue, then write for 20 minutes or so. My response this week still has my head spinning, so with little revision, here's fresh food from the Louisville lovelies group.

"The purpose of art is to stop time." -- Jack Kerouac

Time as a construct makes me dizzy. Painting, photography, sculpture must freeze the scene, make the model pose until captured. Think of those early photographs that required a long exposure, so long that the subjects needed props to hold them in place. And while these visual arts stopped time, did they also warp it? I'm thinking of a studio portrait of my grandmother. She's about twelve, her hair arranged in careful ringlets, her stockings smooth, dress neatly draped over her knees, a perfect lady, and an unlikely role for her, but for the time it took to pose, she was just that, and not the boisterous girl who once left her red petticoat in a confessional.

Borges says that we cannot help but be part of our own time, cannot, as artists, fully enter past or future, so as writers we cannot stop time's effect on us. Maybe this is one of the differences between the visual and literary arts, although a novel, poem, or play from another era, honestly written, carries time forward to us, just as that photo of Gram carries her forward to me, however odd the portrayal.

Kerouac has to be right in one sense, that an honest journal, portrait, or poem catches and immobilizes a slice of time, becomes a freeze frame able to evoke the past. But he's also wrong. Nothing stops time, and time makes strangers of us all. A dozen years from now, my grandson will not know that an old photo in an album has caught a little girl in a nicely dressed lie. And a dozen decades from now, language will have changed so much that these very pages will seem alien, of value only to some pedant studying old words, old phrases and constructions, curiosities as odd as narwhals, as dead as passenger pigeons.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Life Without a Coffee Shop

Last evening, as planned, I drove to the next town to attend a poetry reading at a comfy, independent coffee shop. Horrors! There's a sign on the door, "poetry reading canceled, closing early." This cannot be. People will come, they will cry, they will demand explanations. Well, that didn't happen. A friend who had already arrived and I posted a sticky note next to the closure announcement telling a third friend where to find us, and we went up the hill to a Mexican restaurant, kept a beady eye on the door and finally three others joined us for an impromptu dinner and reading--just to our own table, of course. We had a good visit, laughed a lot, and left satisfied. But the ghost of a thought followed me. Already I live in a neighborhood where our only semi-independent coffee shop closed precipitously on the day of a poetry reading. You can understand my angst. Poetry and cafes have long been good bedfellows, warm companions, etc. The supermarket version of coffee shop is not the same.

Here's another thing; the place that closed without warning--I was to have been the feature reader that evening, heck, the only reader. So I take these things personally. If that Mexican restaurant, long a fixture in its town, closes, I'm going to call for an exorcism, or genetic alteration to remove my poison poetry gene. Or stay home. But that might call down the imps of the perverse and my house go to strangers, a sign posted on the front door, "Contaminated. Do not enter." How can Auden claim that poetry makes nothing happen. Just look at this mess.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fear of Fundamentalism

Prayer for an American Rose

Let her wear jeans.
Let her practice karate
and feel sun on her skin.
Let her study ecology, engineering,
medicine, law or all of these.
Let her serve no man but
whom she serves by choice.

Stop the woman haters here and there
before she grows breasts and bleeds.
Do no marry her off.
Dear god, she's not meant to wilt
in skirts and a scarf.

Some days the news makes me grind my teeth and pace. When that happens, and I see children I love in danger, I understand, a little anyway, the urge to revolution. If we cannot protect our freedom, little girls will be locked away in domestic prisons, and we will have to fight. More than anything in this world, I want girls to have the freedoms I have had all my life: to study, to write, to work, to wear what feels right and to worship (or not) as I choose, to marry or not. To manage my money, drive a car, walk the dog without waiting for a male relative to go along.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Town Gone Wrong?

Wide-open hours on Sunday afternoon, I pick up Katherine Anne Porter's short stories and read "Maria Concepcion." This story features a young couple in Mexico, expecting their first child, a North American archaeologist, the "other woman," and a midwife. Over the course of the story, the husband runs away to fight the revolution with the other woman, the archeologist consistently condones the husbands infidelity and eventual desertion of the army, and on the return of the couple, the wife stabs to death the other woman, who has just given birth to the husband's child. The wife, having lost her own infant, takes this baby to raise; all involved conspire to thwart the police from arresting the wife, including the midwife who just delivered that infant. As Porter's supporters have often noted, there's a world of complexity in a short story, an economical and potent piece of fiction.

Here's my concern: what am I, the reader, meant to feel about these people? Not one of them earned my sympathy or respect. There was no remorse on anyone's part. I extrapolate the future for the couple and the child into one which will see the husband unfaithful again. Will the wife kill all her rivals? I know that a slice of life has to contain people who do bad things; much of our literature is an oblique morality tale about the dangers of human relationships. This tale is unrelenting. And written by a woman who knew Mexico as her "beloved second home." What was there to love, if we accept her story as emotionally valid? As a writer, Porter has lodged this one in my memory, a good thing. As a reader, I'm stymied, pondering, questioning, also a good thing. But I wish someone would tell me about Porter's view of justice, morality, compassion--all missing in her characters.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Getting Back in Gear

After a month away, I'm struggling to regain my writing posture, and find myself with an embarrassment of riches to share here. As many of you know, I went to Ireland, mostly the west coast, no big cities, lots of sheep and cows, and that wonderful vegetation--it really is as green as the postcards. What you cannot see in the postcards is the warmth of the people, and their love for their culture and their history. We all know about the Troubles and the Famine and the Celtic Tiger economy of recent years, but we cannot know the people as individuals from reading a book or watching a documentary. I'm thinking about Steve, a lobsterman from Donegal, and Orlagh, a bookdealer from Carrick-on-Shannon, Adelaide, the barkeep in Dowra, all the hospitality from the B&B owners in Galway, Bundoran, Bunratty and those towns already named. And I'm thinking about the audience at the All Ireland Poetry Day on October 1st. Thanks to Orlagh, I was invited to read at The Dock, a large gray stone building converted into a theater and art center.

By now, I've done a fair number of poetry readings, but this one will always stand out. The whole country was celebrating poetry. Little children had been in writing classes that morning, and now the adults would partake. Dermot Healy, the guest writer, started us off with a wonderful piece about swifts (birds) making love in the air. Eileen O'Toole performed her own poems with verve and grace, then while Gian Costello played guitar and dulcimer, Eileen (also our MC) read his poems. The rest of us tossed out whatever we had to offer, a poem found in a late mother's box of clippings, a couple of Yeats (I mean, what else!) poems, a wonderful and mysterious recitation in Irish. I was happy to contribute my own work, but I was happiest about the attention paid by those who came to hear poetry. We have all been to events where people read and leave, not much interested in what anyone else has to say. Not at The Dock. They listened, they commented, they engaged with the poetry. That was better than Guinness to me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Love Research

Most writers come up against a knowledge gap eventually. A character takes an unexpected turn, develops an interest in something the writer doesn't have a clue about, or you put the people into occupations that suit the plot but are alien to you. I did that years ago. I wanted a male character who was gone from his girlfriend for long periods of time, and long-haul trucking made the most sense. He's a bit of a loner, smart but not interested in formal education. So he learned to drive a big rig as a teenager, a far-fetched idea, and makes a good living as an independent driver/owner. His name is Charlie. But for all the years that novel has sat on the shelf, I've been uneasy about my portrayal of his daily routine and the inside of that cab. The only things I knew about semi's was imagined or observed from highway travel, listening to the old CB. From time to time I mentioned to others my wish to see the inside of a cab and talk to a real pro, but insurance fears (Would I fall out of the truck, knock my head on some piece of crucial equipment, or cause a scratch in the finish?) and lack of opportunity stymied me. Until last evening.

A good friend who knew about this wish to explore a big rig made arrangements for me to visit a show truck, a 25-year-old Peterbilt, gorgeous, imposing, red with lots of chrome and lights, what as a child I called a Christmas tree, and a walk-through cab with a spacious bed and good stereo. I sat in the driver's seat, held that huge steering wheel and imagined dealing with 18 forward gears and four reverse gears. I admired the view from that high vantage and learned a bit about the way an independent driver/owner manages his load, his sleep, his log, and his life. I learned that the CB is obsolete, and the one in this truck is just a tip of the cap to authenticity and very occasional use. But here's the best part: the man showing off his show truck happens to be named Charlie, and he learned to drive the rig when he was thirteen! Isn't that delicious? What's more, he's invited me to go for a ride one day soon. I may give up writing and become an LTD, that's Lady Truck Driver!

Friday, September 11, 2009

e Miscellany

A moment of quiet to recall that this is 9/11.

A reminder to those who care, I'll be on vaca for the next month or so. I may or may not have a chance to capture a few thoughts here. Much depends on the internet cafe situation in New England, Ireland, No. Ireland, and England. If that sounds ambitious, it is. I've just had two days of solitude in the mountains of Colorado getting rested up for this big trip. But I am excited to be in the air and on the road. While in Ireland I'll hear Michael Longley read--if I can get from Galway to Cliften in time--and do some genealogy, visit places where some of my family originated. And see The Burren, the Aran Isles, Galway's Oyster Festival, The Giant's Causeway and anything else that catches my fancy and doesn't cost more than my ticket home.

After I get back to the US I'll spend some time in New England with family, and go to the Fryeburg Fair! For those who don't know Maine, this is the final and my favorite of many regional fairs. That it happens the second week in October only adds to the flavor. Foliage and harvests will be in full swing. I'll visit all the animal barns, especially the horses and the oxen, amazing creatures, goats and fowl and rabbits. I'm not too fond of sheep and who knows if we will be allowed in the swine sheds. I'll see my human family, my dog family, and my horse family. I'll sit in Brian Boru's Pub in Portland, ME and visit with my poet friends. I'll come back to Colorado exhausted and full of images and ideas. Probably no poems, because I don't write well on the go. I'll keep a journal and that's about it. But then, it's a vacation!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Feeding the Muse

Saturday afternoon three poets and a supporter sat around the table, ate wonderful cheese, fruit, croissant, drank wine and chocolate coffee. We read poems and perused sample copies of publications we might send work to. Now that's a delightful way to network. I recommend it. And it grew out of the generosity of our hosts and an ongoing moveable workshop. Bill, our host on Saturday, has long been a member of a group of writers who respond to a prompt regularly and who publish to each other their latest efforts. Bill has created a second group. He sends out a prompt pulled from the work of Charles Simic, and we each create a poem that springs from that impetus. It works because we don't want to disappoint each other. And because of the email contacts, it does not require us to put on shoes or comb our hair and drive somewhere to work together. I think it does help that we know each other, have an occasional opportunity to see each other face to face, but it also helps that we do our level best (what would an unlevel effort look like?) to please one another.

Traditionally, poets and writers have complained about the isolation in which they work. I just saw an essay by Joyce Carol Oates that centered on this issue. And I agree, the work itself must be done in some uninterrupted, interior space in the mind, whether that mind occupies a body sitting on a rock or in an easy chair or at a desk or on a laptop. But pretty soon after the poem emerges from its cocoon, it ought to fly to welcoming ears and eyes, see if it can sustain itself in the sun. If it still feels right after that trial among friends--who may or may not give you a straight answer to the question, Is it good?--then it might be time to let it rest, revisit the process, and send it off to do its job in the larger world. Kay Ryan has said, "One of the elements of an art is the fact that it communicates. The transaction isn't complete if you don't publish." (Newsweek, July 13, 2009). Then again, in the same magazine, Louise Thomas says, "In the end, poetry needs only two caring people, one to write, and one to read." However you define publish, do it. Find that one to read, two or five if you can manage it, and watch their faces as you read to them, take to heart their emails, communicate. Otherwise, it's therapy, not art.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Nostalgia Lit

The public library's new books shelves are a delight to me, so much so that I often forget the list of books to read that lives on the back pages of my journal. This week I plucked off the shelf An Irish Country Christmas, by Patrick Taylor (Tom Doherty Associates, 2008). This book epitomizes a genre I love, what I call Irish nostalgia, the sort of book that Maeve Binchey does well. Taylor has hit the NY Times Best Seller List with his previous book about the fictional village of Ballybucklepo. (I pronounce it Bally-buck-lepo, based on the hyphenation when it runs over the line, and unpronounceable otherwise in my mind.) The book resembles another series that I like, the All Creatures Great and Small books that feature the doings of a country vet in a by-gone rural England. Like those books, Taylor's novel features a crusty, good hearted senior partner and a novice partner learning from experience what it means to become part of a community of odd characters and odder events.

I cannot help admiring this happy-ever-after book, despite its marzipan world in which the good come to no harm and the bad repent, despite its many information dumps: one could now do a fair job of delivering a breach birth after reading about Fingal, the senior doctor, doing just that in a cottage, with minimal equipment and supported by his own sweetheart, conveniently an experienced nurse and an equally wise midwife. The book is riddled with literary quotes and scientific/medical trivia, under the guise of a competitive brain game the two doctors play regularly. Like other nostalgia fiction, however, this book soothes and refreshes. Knowing a bit of the history of No. Ireland, I don't expect to find Ballybucklepo when I visit Ulster next month. It won't be on the map, because it exists in dreams. This is Dickens without the dark. Poverty in Ballybucklepo is benign, an opportunity to share, and The Troubles have long ended there. No one dies, and Christmas is a white setting for roast turkey, mince pie, and gifts for all. If only it were true.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

To Preach or Tell the Truth?

Recently a Colorado TV station, KBDI, aired a wonderful program titled "Polis Is This"--a biography, in essence, of poet Charles Olson. If you are already familiar with his work, this film takes you back and features a host of his compatriots from Black Mountain College, some of whom I have met or heard read, so I was nostalgic about that aspect, as well as the clips of his home town in Massachusetts, the fishing town of Gloucester. As a fellow New Englander, I get his drive to explore the history and nuances of that place. Place--the great challenge for many of the poets whose work I turn to for guidance and example. How to get at the heart of one's experience with place, when I come from a family of vagabonds and immigrants? Our attachments to place are brief and, at times, mythic. We create a memory and grip it like a life preserver when we feel lost and alone. "If only I could have stayed in Happyville, where everybody knew my name." No wonder Cheers was so popular. Even the idea of having a regular pub appeals when, in fact, we have little to call our "local" and every place looks like a chain-store franchise.

What Olson felt and espoused was the particularity of his community, its mythic connections, its impact on his unique life, and his effect on that place. Olson was a big man, physically and emotionally and intellectually. He knew poetry in a deep and useful way. It filled his head and his days. He has a reputation for having taught classes (he probably would not have accepted such a regimented label as this) that lasted for hours when the discussion was vital and the people engaged. One time he went on for 24 hours, talking, talking, listening, listening. Makes the fifty-minute hour seem like chump change, doesn't it? What I came away with was a thirst for his poetry--very different from what is heard today--and a determination to serve this muse with more devotion. I don't want to preach, though I see that tendency in myself. I want to offer to anyone who can use it the truth of my unique experience in whatever place I find myself. Let them make use of it as they wish. That's the best that I can do, knowing the limitations of language and selection, the need to replace nostalgia for a burned out farm in Maine with insight into the Front Range and suburbia where I now live. To be a poet, really, is not fun, or not only fun. It's a responsibility to "notice what you notice," as Ginsberg says, and to report back with all possible honesty.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Books Matter

Like many tightwad readers, I often buy books at yard sales, thrift stores, and any cheap outlet I come across. Recently I brought home, among others, Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a detailed case study and history of a Hmong child born in the US who developed a devastating seizure disorder. The child, Lia, had multiple admissions to a hospital in Merced, where the whole staff did their best, given an almost insurmountable divide between her parents and those who neither spoke Hmong nor understood the deeply held cultural beliefs that forbid surgery, invasive procedures, or ongoing Western medication. The Hmong, having suffered horribly during their escape from S. E. Asia, rely on their shamanistic blend of health care and spiritual advice--pretty much one and the same. No surprise, in retrospect, that Lia's doting parents never understood or approved of the treatment their daughter received. It all came to a sad end in which the child lived, but without any perceptible brain function beyond the brain stem. She breathed, her heart beat, she digested the food patiently spooned into her by a mother who ended up never leaving her daugher's side, she no longer seized because most of her brain was inert, but she never again spoke or knew what was happening to her.

What impresses me, in addition to the detailed and well written text, is the need for such books. As a nurse, I often faced language barriers and struggled to understand cultural difference. One has to in order to care for people who are, almost inevitably, different from oneself. I don't work as a nurse now, and I have no experience with Hmong culture, probably never will, but the book has given me what I need to try again and again to understand the diversity that is increasingly a part of being an American. The book holds that experience in place, makes it available for me to return to it, to share it with friends, to treasure the knowledge. Imagine that, a significant lesson in decency and its limits in the face of ignorance. All for a couple of dollars. Ah, books.

Friday, July 10, 2009

What a Difference a Week Makes

Well, a week ago I was all fired up about the weak language I heard from a politico, and now I'm fired up about a conversation with a group of poets in a coffee shop. The difference? We talked to one another, listened, had specific things to say, especially to one of our group who asked for help and advice. And the useful information kept her pen moving as she made lists of things she could do to learn the slippery art of poetry. For what has been described by some as a dying art, poetry elicited enthusiasm, energy, openness--things I value in conversation. There's the word that works--conversation--a spoken exchange. Ah, when we exchange words, all parties have a say. That's nice. In the age of text and twitter, the sound of a human voice, modulated to reach only those who want to hear it, is precious. A conversation suggests closeness, geographical proximity--not a newsreader on the other side of the continent--reciprocity, multidimensional sound, complete with tolerable interruptions, hesitancy, clarification, and the unique tone and timbre of each human voice.

Poems and stories, wonderful as they are, don't allow for the immediacy of talking face to face. We read and reflect, maybe write a note to the author, but we tell our coffee klatch or dinner companions about what we read. Speech is the most fluid and spontaneous use of language. It sometimes uses the sculptured sounds of poetry, but it also allows for laughter and the low murmur of sadness. Conversation cannot be called back without converting it to dialog, in which the writer prunes and shapes the sentences to fit the page. Much as I love making poems and stories, I value as much the increasingly rare chances to talk with patient, open-minded people. We worry about what high-tech life does to reading; shouldn't we also be concerned about what it does to conversation?

Friday, July 3, 2009


Last evening a large group of people gathered to hear one of our senators speak on health care reform. Well, first of all, the senator sent in the JV's and showed himself at the tail end of the meeting. And I do mean the end with the tail on it. How do people--citizens--put up with the vague language out of political mouths? No, the right question is why do we tolerate being talked at, talked down to, talked to death with no tangible results? If any poet or fiction writer I know stood in front of an audience and blathered on about how pretty the scenery is and how we might take a stand on an important issue, IF others will go along--we'd be hooted away from the mike, given the vaudevillian hook, the gong, the raspberry. Sometimes I wonder about politeness. It just makes me want to scream.

But my mama told me to use my inside voice, so I wrote a letter to said senator, listed my specific aspects of concern over health care and threatened to vote the whole slew of them-there law makers and breakers out of office the very next chance I get, if I haven't by then come down with some pre-existing, expensive illness which any insurance agent can dodge. Somehow the doctors and nurses and pharmacists have been left out of the discussion, let alone the patient. So, I'm not a patient, and I'm impatient: I want real speech backed by action. Bah, humbug, I'm going to do the laundry and write. At least Congress hasn't screwed up these modest daily activities. And I know how to put together a simple declarative sentence.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Favorite Things

I've been reading Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, a book that fell into my hands when a friend was disposing of yet someone else's books. Guess I was meant to read it. So far what intrigues me is that the chapter I read this morning--on the patio with coffee and the dog and quiet all around--was about recognizing what makes us happy. This came within an hour of my flapping shut the journal with the thought, this bores me. I had nothing to say worth saying. Not a happy response from a woman who has a dog, a cup of coffee, and a patio with clematis and tomato blossoms, peppers, strawberries, and lemon cucumbers sprouting. And, who did not have to plant any of these wonders, because her talented daughter does the gardening. Now that right there, those growing things, ought to be enough. But add the old-soul eyes of Duncan the Dog, the dog, and the list grows. Then the blond grandson, who just got his orange belt in karate and pitched out three batters this summer, at ten years old, who can read faster than a speeding bullet, who actually wears his glasses, well, need I say more?

Yes, of course I can say more, for sure: Frank Gregg's music, Billy Collins's poems, the little yellow roses in a pot on the windowsill in front of me, my desk and laptop, the lovely red box where I stash miscellaneous desktop stuff, the blue sky through the window, my healthy fingers on the keyboard, my black shoes and my new sneakers. The classical music pouring out of the radio, an orchid plant on the bookcase, the bookcase and its contents. You get the idea. Boredom is an act of inattention. In a few minutes I'll go brush my teeth and be glad to have them. Later today I'll go to friends and share a barbecue. Who cannot appreciate a Sunday afternoon on the porch with live music, good conversation and guacamole?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Writing Prompts

We know that anything can be a prompt--form, sound, feeling, deadline pressure--but which ones work? I believe it differs for each of us. Usually, I respond to a phrase that has a halo of possibility around it. It might be a couple of words: "300 page widget" or "speaking in earnest." Or it might be a visual image: our choir director sitting with her aching foot propped up on a hymnal. Rarely a prompt comes when I'm hunting it like a snark in a Lewis Carroll episode. (And, by the way, snark is not in my big dictionary, though snarky is, from snore or snort. See how words lure me from my intentions?) The prompt I used this morning came from my friend Bill, "imaginary visitors." I imagine Thomas Hardy on my front porch, amazed at suburbia. How I'll pull it off, I have yet to know, because a prompt is just a little jolt of electrical energy to the brain, a battery to start the engine, but not a predictor of where the vehicle will finally come to a stop.

Once prompted, I have to follow the leads that free association provides. In each brain, those associations will be unique. No one else has the exact experience with Thomas Hardy that I have. This is not to say that mine are better or worse than yours. But I have to make a dozen decisions as I compose--oh, there's a nice sound combination, here's a gnarly line break, there's an image that engages me, but oops! I mixed metaphors in that spot. All of this and more happens almost simultaneously if I let it. But the instant I strain for effect, imagining the reader or listener, whether that be my writing partner Larry, or a gang of poets at our local readings, I lose the trail and have to chase my mind back into that thicket of composition, reminding myself that I will revise, that the prompt may lead to a place I've never been. And that's fun. Was it Robert Louis Stevenson who said a book is "a frigate to take me lands away"? A writing prompt is a ticket to Terra Incognita, to the future, to the Thomas Hardy past. One of these days I'll start a prompt file, but for now I must answer the door and hear what the man from Dorset has to say.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Writing Retreats

Last weekend Duncan the Dog and I drove south and west to the old mining town of Silver Cliff. Well, I drove, and he navigated. From the back seat. We had our own food and personal stuff, my journal and a good read (Rolling Thunder by Doug Boyd). Everything else we would need was waiting for us at Bloomsbury West, a vibrant blue and yellow cottage with a fenced yard and a couple of wonderful reading chairs. No television or wi-fi. There is a radio, which I chose to ignore, and there is cell phone service, but I turned the phone off. We took walks in this mountain valley at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo peaks, admired the highly individual houses, chatted a bit with the neighbors, and ignored any suggestion that the world is round, small, and troubled. I read all of Boyd's book and Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, which I found on the generous book shelf in the cottage. I sat in the shade and admired the spring plantings in the many-colored pots that ring the house. Hawks and crows and anonymous small birds provided an almost constant air show.

Oh, yes, I also wrote a section of a book I've been playing with. That's the ostensible reason for going to the place. Writerly seclusion. How about a more realistic description: the time to do nothing I didn't want to do. I ate when and what I wanted, slept when I was sleepy, and nibbled in some of the books, devoured others. I went "downtown" to adjacent Westcliff for lunch, looked into some of the shops--little or nothing there smacks of big business--and bought an interesting stone to take home and a lovely necklace made from a mineral I had not seen before. When we left the cottage on Sunday morning, I took Route 69 toward home and marveled every hundred yards at the open fields, still green and full of new calves, a pair of stunning paint horses, then the drama of bare wild rock and the attention grabbing road that slithers through the land near the Arkansas River. I had a moment of envy over the number of rafters spilling down the river. But mostly, I felt happy to be going home after a restful and somewhat productive weekend. 

I've been to communal retreats, made friends with other writers, listened closely to the leaders of workshops and seminars, focused on the readings, and written like a mad woman, forcing each moment at the retreat to yield WORK. Not so at Bloomsbury. No one drives me to write anything. Even my critical self backs off and I really do relax. So when you look at the ads in writers' magazines for retreats that ask for your work in advance to see if you are worthy, or charge you a hefty sum for the privilege of being there, think hard about the word retreat: "the act of withdrawing." (American Heritage). Retreats that actually ask you to engage might be better called Advances. Not the same thing at all. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Six Degrees

What a tangled, spangled web of poets and other people I know! Think for a minute (anymore than this will make you dizzy) about how many people you have met in your lifetime--friends, colleagues, relatives both close and distant, the pizza delivery person, the plumber, banker, auto mechanic, vet, etc. We each have a city's worth of people in our lives, even if we consider ourselves as mundane, run-of-the-mill folks, not celebrities like Susan Doyle or Michelle Obama. I am amazed. And pleased, because most of those I know are pleasant, helpful, interesting, and/or talented. My dog-groomer friend is a resource and a hard-working inspiration. My daughter is both imaginative and funny. Even my dog--especially my dog--adds to my connections in the world. One of my good friends I met because she admired my dog.

We all know the theory of six degrees of separation, right? I'd like to revise that to six degrees of connection. We cannot escape connections, nor should we want to do so. My connections to other poets create more poems. For instance, listening to Bill Roberts say that he writes five poems a week moved me to try it, and for some time now I have revised my process and make a good attempt at a poem every morning. Amazingly, it works once I tell myself to trust the language and the associative process that is poetry making. And then, there's Carolyn Jennings who leads journaling seminars, who encouraged me in one of her programs to step outside of my usual throat-clearing every morning and dig a little for something meaningful. My journal pages no longer bore me, but inform me, even inspire me to connect with the poems that lurk like mice in the corners of my mind. Or maybe they are hawks, eagles, something more substantial than rodents. I'd like to thinks so, because now that I acknowledge how many people might hear my work, I want to keep those connections, not put people off by giving them lukewarm, leftover verbiage, wilted as yesterday's salad. Nope, it's fresh greens for all my friends. And there are many. Good morning!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Getting Close to Publication Day

Yesterday the nice man in the big brown truck brought me the one and only copy of my new poetry book, The Great Hunger, the proof copy, proof for me that it's going to be here soon, proof that no matter how many times you read a manuscript, things slip by your eyes. I found three spelling errors and decided we need a different spine on the book. Poetry books are often thin and shelving a book with no visible title or author is a bad idea. We have enough trouble getting noticed without being invisible on our own shelf. But the good news is that I still like the work. After months of waiting, I had at least fleeting thoughts that when I saw the finished product, I'd be tired of it all or disconnected from those poems, some of them written many years ago and collected for this book. It's reassuring to me that they seem fresh. Since they are mostly about food, fresh is good.

Now I can plan a party, look forward to the AWP convention next spring, read these poems without shuffling papers. A book is a wonderful thing. I think. But publication also means it's time to offer the work to the world, to--gulp--reviewers, critics, axe murderers, and Ponzi scheme creeps. So much danger in the world for a thin book of poems. Okay, I'm squaring my shoulders, taking a few deep breaths, and putting my trust in the work. It's the best I had to offer when I submitted it, and it leaped that huge editorial hurdle. Pretty soon those little glitches will be fixed and the nice brown truck will drop a box of books at my front door. In the meantime, I have more writing to do. One book is never enough. 

Monday, May 4, 2009

Time Flies

Whether you're having fun, or moving, time gets away, just sneaks off and when you look around, it's weeks since the last blog entry. Not that I haven't thought about it, just haven't made the time to sit here and type. But I'm back. And what I want to write about today is the responsibility I feel to the opportunity to write. Knowing that people in other parts of the world don't have the freedom or the luxury to say what they mean is something we should all recognize and honor. Do our best with the chances we have. For me, that means not frittering away the time to arrange words on the page and say something! 

Yesterday I attended a writers' meeting in which a very accomplished poet talked about his own processes for writing and for publishing. We laughed a lot, learned a lot, and finally boiled his message down to "Write the d----d poem!" Bill Roberts writes a poem a day. Granted, as he says, he's retired from his previous responsible job and can take all the time he wants to write. But he wrote while he was fully employed, and still sets a good example for the rest of us. I tried to follow his advice this morning. I opened the mystery novel I'm reading, picked a random word and got to work. Amazingly, my morning pages yielded a poem that I like, lots. I miss the sort of throat clearing I often do first thing in the morning, but it felt very good to find words that will mean something to someone else. I know this won't happen every morning, but at the very least, I can try to use my hard-won skills creatively, honestly, not falling into the sloppy ego-centered stuff that often dribbles from my pen. Hereby resolved, to behave more like a writer and less like a wimp.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Too Much Manipulation

For years I have carried around in my mental file drawer two images that I want to connect, but every time I try to do that, they resist. One is the sight of a sliver of white quartz dangling from a spider thread in a tiny roadside cave near the Sorgue River in France. Seeing that little chip of stone dangling like bait, I have wondered how long it stayed there, how the spider who dropped that line felt when her projected web was complicated by this foreign object. Such a tiny thing to lodge in my head and never quite get free of. The other persistent and seemingly mundane image is that of a dark-clad figure walking an otherwise deserted city street late at night, so dressed as to hide even a hint of male or female or age (other than a healthy, if casual stride) through a drizzly rain, in no hurry. I was in a hurry to get home from second shift at the hospital where I worked. We were the only two people visible in that neighborhood, I hidden by my car, the other by clothing.

I can't say exactly how many times I've tried to weave these two small, ghostly memories together in order to say something about the threads that bind me to other people and the fear I often feel that we have just too many people in the world. Yet, each life matters, so I surely don't recommend that we willfully discard any individual. The images won't meld; I've overworked them and need to just let them sink to the bottom of that ocean of memories. But . . . but . . . they do surface again and again. Maybe the poem or the story is not about the concept of over-population, but about the persistence of memory, even seemingly unimportant memories that do not carry any obvious emotional baggage. I don't know. But the words that carry those images still show on the pages of my journal. They are safe there, ready to call up I ever figure out just what they mean and why they won't go away.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Business Speak

Have you ever read an essay written by and for a business person? Yeah, yeah, define business person. I mean someone who works for a corporation with more than a couple of employees, the people who think millions of dollars are pocket change in the big scheme of things. Well, I have read this sort of writing and I cannot say I'm hooked. There are writers in that world who understand how a reader gains understanding--by a shared language, shared experience, mutual respect. Fortunately, my contacts in the business world are of this sort. However, even the good writers among them run along the edge of the cliff and can easily fall into the abyss of the abstract. It's much easier to speak in generalities and unarguable vagaries than to dig up the sensory-specific language that would allow one to determine the truth of a statement.

Lately, in addition to corporate prose, I have been reading history and criticism, equally dangerous mountains to climb. And I wonder if anything I read is as urgent as the information I get by opening the front door to check on the weather. If I see storm clouds building, I'll need a coat and the dog will get wet. No hidden messages there. Nor in the noisy ducks celebrating the return of water to their recently dry pond. Noting vague about their chatter. This concern with getting my information first hand--or as some would say, experientially--comes from the poet/storyteller state of mind. Everything in life is mundane, until I look closely and think that no other person is exactly like me, no other dog is exactly like the shaggy terrier dancing on his hind legs at the prospect of a walk. We need business, we need critics who can explain the larger issues of literature, but we also need mallards nattering just down the hill, and the smell of rain about to make them happy. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

I never know what will happen when I sit down before dawn and take up my pen. Yes, I still begin a writing project with pen and paper. Usually, the room is quiet but for ambient bird noise or the upstairs tenant doing dishes. Occasionally, I turn on classical music. Mostly though, I hear a running commentary in my head, often a scared voice telling me that this idea is weak, it won't work, people will laugh or look at me with blank faces, not understanding what I want to tell them. Then a different voice says, "Oh, go ahead. Just try it. It's not like you have to share this piece if it doesn't turn out well. After all, you have plenty of paper and a box of pens. Go on, write something." If I'm starting a short story, I often begin by describing the scene from a distance, getting my bearings in the environment, looking at what might happen in such a place. This week the place was a rented room in a tenement, similar to the historic one I once visited in New York. I wondered who would live there, what kind of people they might be. I sort of had it in mind to write a love story. Not a very romantic setting for that. But people love and hate one another in all sorts of places.

Pretty soon I heard a line of dialog from the narrator, and that was what it took. I knew he was an interesting guy and could see how he fit into that room. And how he related to his lover. I think the story works, not that any of us ever quite knows what that means, but it has stayed with me for about 36 hours now, like the memory of a good film. I still see Daniel and Ana in that place and feel their estrangement. No it's not a feel good, Cinderella story, but it does seem authentic. And for me that's what matters, that I met a couple of people with realistic strengths and weaknesses, and a hint of the impossible. No one else has seen it yet, so my satisfaction might be a form of motherly pride in another newborn, however wrinkled and innocuous. But this story would not have survived if I had listened to that doubting voice and not to the one who says, "Hey, you've done this before. Trust the process. What if . . . ?" So, I'm watching the snow blow past the window, wondering if I'll meet any interesting characters today, whether they live in New York tenements from the late 1800's or a futuristic biosphere with Pierrot paint on their faces. Some of my best friends are invisible.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A New Mission

Yesterday I met with the new manager of my local independent bookstore, and came away excited. Something I have dreamed about for years is about to be realized: a writers' haven where we can engage in real conversation and events that interest us, a welcome oasis in the sea of commercialism. We plan to have, every other Sunday, a couple of hours devoted to things we like--talking, listening, learning about writing, reading, and the books we still love despite the techno revolution that both connects and separates us. I like the computer world, but I also like people I can shake hands with, look in the eyes, hear the timber of their voices, drink tea with, let conversation flow and dance, and relax in the company of my peers.

I used to think I wanted to own a writers' B&B, still do, sort of, but in addition to being a poet, I am a practical person who knows the value of her own meager funds and the energy required to run a business. So now my business is helping Nancy K. get this store-front refuge up and going. We'll concentrate on our community, try to meet and serve those who labor at their desks in our part of Colorado, whether the world confers success on them or not. This is not about stardom, but about the joys and sorrows, the tricks and traps of the writing life and sharing them with others who are there, have been there, want to go there--here. Yes, here. And for those of you who still believe--I walked into Nancy's store in search of a particular dictionary, such a writerly thing to do. Within five minutes, we were dreaming big and recognized a common approach and a commitment to "build community among writers, readers, and book lovers." Get your calendars ready. We are off and running!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hooray for an Audience

How can I tell you the appreciation I feel for my audience, any audience? Last evening I took to my writing group a short-short story that I was worried about because it was set in a specific era, and it featured a naive narrator, one who does not know what the audience/reader knows. How though, does one create that setting in an economical way and not leave the reader wondering what the heck is going on? First, I had to do my homework, my research, and make fairly certain that I knew what I was writing about. In this case, I had to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of both Celtic mythology and immigration into New York in the late 1800's. The mythology was interesting and somewhat familiar, as my first book of poems stems from that tradition. The immigration piece came out of my genealogy work on my own Irish ancestors. Anything can be grist for the writer, though sometimes information is more gristle than grist.

Packing all of this back story and lively characterization and dialogue into 700 words was a challenge, and I knew I did not have an objective view of it to see if I'd pulled it off. Well, I did. Mostly. Those in the group who had no background in mythology were left behind, but most of the people got it. I even saw that knowing gleam in our facilitator's eyes as she linked her mind to the story and knew what I knew, what the first-person narrator did not know, that she was talking to a god-figure who had appeared on the sidewalks of New York. What fun! There are, as I've probably said before, three high points in writing--one, when you get that tickle in the brain that says you're onto something worth writing about; two, when an audience responds the way you hope; and three, when an objective editor says yes!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Meandering toward a book

Well, finally, it looks like my new poetry book, The Great Hunger, will appear soon from Plain View Press. I'm waiting for the cover design. The galley proofs are done. These things always take longer than we anticipate, but it will be worth the wait. Although, once it's set and sold, the chance of embarrassment increases. It's too late to refine and revise; it's time to, as Valery said, abandon the poems, let them try their wings, fly out of the nest, and all those other cliched descriptions of letting go, like raising children and sending them out into the world still a little green, raw, unfinished. I'd like to think the work is as good as I can make it, but that niggling thought still pops into my head, "Oh, no! It's still not good enough." Too late, too late!

Time then to concentrate on the business end of writing--getting a list together of people who might be interested in reviewing the work (however ragged it may seem to me), another list of those who might buy the book, including book stores, and a guest list for the launch party. I have a place in mind, one I am told will be available, and a fabulous singer-song writer--Frank Gregg--who will play for the guests. I know where I'll get the big boxes of coffee and where to find a punch bowl. I'm rehearsing, sort of,  the thanks to the people who helped, my version of the Academy speech, though less glamorous. Well, knowing me and my friends, it'll be a lot less glamorous but way more fun. This is not my first book, but it's the youngest, and the baby always gets the bulk of ones attention. I just hope this kid behaves and doesn't spit up on someone's best jeans.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who Listens to Poets?

Poets have long been a tiny part of our national life, no matter how we wish it to be otherwise, or tell each other how important it is. On the other hand, American poetry is booming in its own twisted way. Rap, cowboy poetry, slams, workshops, readings, and graduate programs abound. We have hundreds of on-line and print publications to keep up with. (Wow, I just ended that sentence with two prepositions, and I'm proud of it.) If you want a visual of that list, go to and look at their member list. CLMP stands for Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. In my own corner of the world I can attend four poetry readings a month, most of them small but fervent. I found four huge shelves of poetry books at my almost-local B&N this week, so many that I had to make choices about how to spend my book allowance. Yup, it's a good time to be an American poet. We are free to write sonnets or free verse, language poems or narratives, short, long, serious or light. I can go dizzy just thinking about the many sizes of poetry.

And if I'm dizzy, what happens to the newcomers? Where can a newly outed poet go for solace in this chaos? I think they go to friends, or they make friends with other poets, maybe those who have been around a while. They listen and talk, they scribble and erase, type and delete. They experiment. Experimentation is at the heart of American poetry. Since Walt Whitman and the Belle of Amherst broke the tight-fitting rules, we have each been allowed to choose our mentors and our heroes. If I tried to list the poets I hold in esteem, we'd never reach the end. An important factor in establishing such a list is, obviously, reading and listening to other poets, lots of them, to see what's available and what appeals to me. It means that I finally had the courage to face a mic and listen for whatever response I could get from a handful of people kind enough to listen to me. This dialog doesn't end. It's a life sentence with complicated cell mates and complex phrasing. Come on in, the water's fine.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Busy, Busy!

So much going on that I am, at times, befuddled. I have too many sticky notes on my desktop, too many projects that are not related to creative work, and too many domestic projects, not the least is planning for another move at the end of April. And April is poetry month! Being my own boss is lovely, giving me the option to schedule life with more flexibility than I've had in the past when students and/or patients required me to keep appointments and schedules. But the world runs on schedule, whether the trains do or not. (If you don't get that allusion, go to Wikepedia and look up Mussolini.) However, I do not get bored with such a list of things to attend to: civic responsibilities, teaching classes, taking part in poetry readings, editing contributions soon to be aired by The Cafe Review, and writing! I am still working my way through a pile of culled poems and finding what's worth saving, reworking, revising. This is deep work, challenging myself to see why a poem failed originally. Often it was laziness, haste, cowardice, little things like that. What I saw today when I dug deeper, was a pose that hid the anger over being "uncool" but loving my own life.

Here's this morning's revision, first the early version, then the latest:

Tired of Good Behavior

I want to throw away
this nodding smile,
this commerce and 
swap meet of courtesy 
for once. Be a punk.

Stop matching my socks.
Bras could go.
Tidy files could go,
rules and schedules.
Bag the day book.

Punks take pain
and ride it--
nose rings and tattoos.
Tear their clothes,
mix drab fabric.
Don't smile
or mind their mothers.
They break
windows and bones.

They don't shop around
because you can't save
what you don't have.
I'm a quarter punk now,
ready to take on
the constant chaos
that frees us.

The Uncool

How do you do? I have holes
in my earlobes, none in my tongue.
My jeans are intact. They fit at the hip.

I'm not even one quarter punk,
but descend from a tailored tribe.
We match our socks and

do not love pain, not even our own.
The family crest flaunts
a black day book on a white field.

We shop around, atavars
of the gatherers we were. We purr,
swap smile for smile, trade hello

and how-are-you, dare to open
fists and doors. We vote. We don't
enlist in the army of chaos.

We have evolved beyond the age of
mutilation. It's not all about God,
but where you left your keys,

where you left your kids and not
dragging dead bodies through dark halls.
We are the diurnal middle class.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Discovery and Poetry

For several weeks now I have been cleaning out my poetry notebook and deciding which pieces are worth revision and which ones need to be tossed, maybe gleaning a line or two to store in the journal. Throwing away poems used to feel like treason; how could I just crumple a poem that had tickled my brain and grown from a little phrase into a living piece of art? Easily when I gained enough perspective to recognize the difference between art and artifact. Artifact as in static, noise, unimportant background that masks the real message. My friend Merrell used to tell me there was a difference between a clever poem and a good poem. And he had the guts to say that to my face when I lost my edge, not an unusual event. I still take his advice, although we have not talked in years. As I ripen, I am more willing to see that some poems just don't have the guts to say what they mean. I have learned to question the cute, easy, superficial lines and images that might entertain me, but that teach me nothing. They are all pose, not poetry. There's no discovery there.

Often, the urge to make a poem comes from that ticklish phrase or image that snags my attention, and I get caught in it. So caught that I forget to take a risk, look deeper at why that particular bit of language or sensory input tugs on my sleeve and pesters me to come out and play. Impish or angelic, these sniggles want my full attention; they want to show me something I didn't know, or remind me of something I know but don't want to think about. Cleverness can be a good thing, if it leads to real insight, like an attractive sign leading to an overlook where we can see for miles. Often those miles are really years, and the view is of ourselves or those we love or thought we loved. Then, and only then, is a real poem on the page. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, described the hero's journey as dark, lonely, risky, and fruitful. We can all be poet-heroes if we dare.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Handwriting on the Wall

Dana Gioia in his collection of essays, Disappearing Ink, makes a point of valuing the handwritten manuscript, pointing out the high prices such paperwork demands from collectors and literary scholars. He also points out that most contemporary writers discard those messy drafts, if they exist at all. Most of us use a computer to ease the revision and to store our work. That last idea can be a myth if your laptop DIES and you cannot start it. Even BACKING UP your work does not guarantee that you will retrieve every poems or short story. At least we need to keep hard copy, and although retyping a novel is hard duty, at least the creative work is not lost and in the retyping one might notice flaws that looked like flourishes in the earlier version. Yes, I know all of this from personal experience. Now, if I can find the original file for my business cards, I'll be happy.

However, I wonder what the writing process was like for those who had no word processor, who relied solely on pen and ink. Were those writers less inclined to fix the flaws? Was it sometimes too much effort to rewrite the whole piece? Did that intimate relationship between the thought and the hand make a difference in what landed on the page? I write early drafts in longhand, then proceed to print somewhere in the middle of the piece. Line breaks are infinitely easier on the screen, and seeing the white space as it will look on the page helps to shape the poem. But the work takes on a certain anonymity. Anyone might have used the keyboard to produce these words, unlike my handwriting, which no one would willingly duplicate. My process rides the cusp between generations of pen wielders and generations of keyboarders. A teacher once told me that my poems exist is a middle ground between heaven and hell; my process fits that place. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sympathy Card

Our neighborhood is shocked over the death of a young girl, and I cannot help but imagine what her family feels. Thinking about my casual family dinner last evening, there's this:

Call It a Day

Bassoon's cucumber sound,
spoonful of low notes
to fatten a day brisk with laundry,
robust soup in a new pot--
dice, chop, boil, simmer and serve
a promise of clean sheets.
Murmuring over a salad of
fourth-grade spelling bee,
office politics, what the dog
dragged in, chewed, spit out.

Castled against yellow crime tape,
remains in a nearby ditch--
female with boots--call it
Friday Supper. Oh, call it
refuge at the table.
Offer carrot cake if you can,
cold milk, and a good night.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Unplugged and Unblocked

Quite a few blogs ago I reported on my discovery that I work best in quiet. Now I have to recognize another need: a clear calendar. Once I break the spell, I'm done for the day. Because I have the luxury of scheduling my own time, rather than reporting for duty every day, I should be cheering. Long stretches of time are mine for the taking. But along with that luxury comes our old friend guilt. There is so much to be done in this world, so many other creatures deserving of attention and care that I have to remind myself that my work is my work. Writing poems--so far--is not illegal or immoral, at least mine are not, I think. So why not stay at the desk for hours  and hours? Why put the computer to sleep and close the notebook?

The dog. He wants out, he wants in, he wants to play, he wants to sleep where my feet should be. He barks at pedestrians passing our front door, seriously interrupting the solitude. He's a small dog with a big voice. Right now he's trying to yak up some bit of string or lint that he got tearing apart his toys. At least if he yaks it up I won't have to rush off to the pet hospital with him. He's a darling distraction. But my writus interruptus is not all his fault. Like everyone I know, I need food and clean clothes. Today I need to go buy fish-oil capsules, milk, and baby aspirin. And I want to be responsible about the volunteer jobs I do: teaching, serving on a community council, shoveling horse manure at the rescue league. Sometimes, I just fall short, ditch the jobs and write. Sometimes I ditch the writing and do the jobs. Truth, I can't write all the time. I don't quite believe in writer's block, but I recognize the ebb and flow of energy and imagination. So I balance the guilt of leaving anything undone against the impossibility of perfection. Most of the time it works.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Reading Out Loud

Last evening was the monthly poetry reading at our local coffee shop, as usual a good time and lots of interesting work. In a slight departure from our schedule, we heard sisters aged 6 and 10 do a recitation that had us entranced. What a wonderful thing to have kids listening and performing. I hope they come back with a new routine. And speaking of kids, how about taking poems for kids more seriously? We welcomed the publication of a book titled, I swear it, Codfish with Cherries n' Graham Cracker Crust by Lefty Farkleberry. It's full of silliness and rhymes, great cartoon figures, and it rollicks. As opposed to rocks, as kids would say. Because there is a difference. These poems don't cater to the commercial world at all. They speak to and from the mind of their author, as do more solemn, adult, poems. I was much more intrigued by Lefty's poems than by a long, occasional poem written by Robert Frost for the Kennedy inauguration. Timely, but tedious. Not Frost at his best. Seems, however, he never read it because the glare from the snow made reading impossible, so he recited a shorter, much better poem. Maybe the kids in the audience listened in a way they never would have to the longer piece. Saved by snowglare!

How we introduce poetry to kids matters. If left to old fashioned teaching methods that make poetry esoteric and tedious, the up and coming poets among us would rather skateboard. I don't blame them. I remember my rather dignified grandmother, though, reciting something called "O'Grady's Goat." I can still see her standing in the middle of her immaculate kitchen, going on, accent and all, about a goat who ate the shirts off the clothesline. Maybe that recitation was my introduction to poetry, along with an innovative, overworked English teacher from high school, who, desperate to teach me about the great poems, but also having to teach the other kids about writing a full sentence, sat me down by myself in the library with recordings of Chaucer and let me take from it what I could. Then there's my other grandmother who sang to me. We sat in a much painted old rocker on the porch, watched barn swallows feed at sunset, and she sang popular ballads for what seemed like hours. I heard language as pleasure and freedom from childhood. I still do.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sunday Fun

Two days ago I spent a couple of hours in a local coffee shop with a group of folks who showed up just to write. How amazing! Instead of staying home noodling around in my sweats or relaxing in my big easy chair, I had to get dressed, go out in the cold, sit on a hard chair, and stop and go at someone else's request. No one expected us to produce anything to share, though we could if we chose to do so. The wind howled and the coffee machines buzzed and rumbled, but nothing distracted from our purpose, to keep the pen moving in response to the prompts given by our leader. This was about journaling as memory and foresight or insight--all good. The goal was to reflect on the year past and the year just begun.

Writing is usually a solitary occupation. Some days I don't want to see anyone or leave the house because I'm in the middle of work that commands my attention. And once I interrupt that process, break the spell, I have trouble getting back into the work until the next day when my routine kicks in again. Writing in company is affirming. I don't have to explain to anyone why I'm intent on the page in front of me, or why I'm not talking to anyone. They understand because they are sitting like I am, as if in meditation. Journaling is a form of meditation, one that like more traditional sitting, can be done individually or with a group. The group, though, keeps me honest. I won't jump up and pretend that I have to do the dishes or let the dog out. I keep writing because we are all engaged in writing. We are immersed in the process and free for the moment of concerns about product. That freedom is a nice change, one I hope to remind myself of more often. Even journaling, I am often on the look out for the key phrase or image that will lead to a story or poem. Sometimes, though, writing should be just fun.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Art & the Unconscious

Unconscious, "that part of the mind that is inaccessible to the conscious mind but that affects behavior, emotions, etc." We know about it, but can we ever know it, really? Many thinkers say that we cannot know it directly, only by oblique routes--therapy, dreams, and I would add, art. I heard myself say just that in conversation with a friend recently, and the statement keeps echoing in my head. This theory, that art is the revelation of the unconscious, would explain why I cannot stop making poems or stories. If I write enough of them, and as Allen Ginsberg would have it, "notice what I notice," I might see into that dark room in the cellar. An interesting thought.

Working for a time with my friend Jan, reading each other's fiction, I realized that I had lots of stories about alienated children. Well, that was a lightbulb moment. My family was fractured in all sorts of ways, and while I was never abused or neglected, I was shuffled around to live with various relatives as a way of managing my mother's need to work and her rather unorthodox way of job jumping. Often she planned to come see me or retrieve me from my temporary housing, but things often got in the way--no gas for the car, the car broken, another illness. And there I was, waiting for something to happen. I still find myself waiting for things to happen, until I remember that I can take an initiative as an adult. I don't have to wait for things/people to come to me. This waiting sensation and a tendency to let my characters disappear or run away surely come from that childhood vault of feelings that I have recognized only by seeing what comes out in the writing. Someone help me here, who said, "How do I know what I think till I see what I write?" How do I know what I feel, and what I fear, till I see what's on the page?

Friday, January 2, 2009


We all know there is a hot new movie out with that title, Doubt. I hear it's worth seeing. Doubt, though, is needling me this morning. I felt doubt as I wrote in my journal: doubt that what I do is not work and if it's not work, then what right do I have sitting around playing? Philosophically, I think this is rubbish, but when my devilish critical self gets on a roll, I get defensive. I argue back that, hey, I've done good work in other fields in my life. It's time to play. And besides, where do I turn for solace and distraction, wisdom and wonder? To books, stories, poems, that's where. If I can write something that offers others a moment's peace or insight, then it's all good, right? Right? I mean, all those movies that prop up the whole celebrity industry started with a writer. This is honorable work. Even if it feels like play. But there's that shadow behind me who sneers when I say this. Yeah, sure, it's honorable. Like sucking your thumb or watching dumb TV. I do watch TV when my brain is tired, but I never, ever, sucked my thumb.

I just finished Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs. Now here's a good example of why we should go ahead and write. If he is honest, and I think he is, this man grew up crazy, never knowing who he was, trying to be things he was simply not cut out to be, a cosmetics tycoon, a doctor. He denied his talent as a writer, but couldn't stop writing. I get that. Boy, do I. It took, I suspect, a great deal of courage to finally say to himself and to the world, "I am a writer." Like Harlan Ellison's business card which said, "I write." Every time Ellison hands out a card, or Burroughs lays out another slice-of-life memoir, they attest to their belief in themselves and in the power of writing to change lives. If we play at it, it works. If we worry about it, it doesn't. But it is serious stuff, and those of us lucky enough to do it, should be faithful and honest. Joseph Campbell described the hero's journey as a venture into the dark, alone, taking risks, and returning with treasure for the tribe. That sure describes what we do.