Sunday, August 28, 2011


Many of my poems go first to friends who critique them. One, let's call him Lars, always goes for more clarity, more development, even at the cost of compression and subtlety. The other, we'll call him Arnie, wants further compression and an adrenaline rush at the end. Together they embody one of the great arguments about poetry: Is it meant to instruct or to entertain? That word or is a bugger. The best poems do both. Would that I could count on writing only the best poems. So writing exclusively for either of my friendly critics won't do. Why care what they think? Why try?

I write to be read or heard, to inform and to entertain, to argue that the world and my life in it are more complex and more braided together than I can easily say. I write from experience, not from ideas only. And not from emotion only, but to use all the ingredients of poetry in proportion. Each poem changes those proportions, but always the secret spice, the Bam! that kicks it up is discovery, mine and the reader's. I read and write poems to discover what life is about.

So, let's make that reader plural, because I'd like lots of people in on this ongoing conversation. The little world map on my blog stats page claims that I have readers in China, India, England, people in places I cannot otherwise reach. I would like to see what those readers want from me, so I'll add poems now and again to my website, keep my publication list up to date, scatter poems like seeds even if I rarely see the harvest. I have a foolish faith in poetry and choose to believe that my silent partners are there, be they Lars-like or Arnies, invisible, nodding or grimacing as they read. This spidery link keeps me writing.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Options and Images

Third Thursday at Forza Coffee Company was great fun this month. We had an all open-mic night, with fourteen poets reading. The reading went so smoothly that we heard all fourteen before the break and several again after the break. The theme was the dog days of summer (see last post) so we heard lots of dog poems and swimming poems, etc. And a few that defied categorizing. Part of the conversation at the break centered on describing a good poem, an issue for us since, what, Aristotle? We certainly did not settle the issue or come close, but it was good to think about that pesky old definition/description.

Noodling in my journal this morning, I thought about how we get to write even marginally good poems. We read good poems and bad; we listen to other poets at readings; we practice and throw out a large percentage of what we try. Pride and ego get in on the act: we want to be respected by readers, listeners, and especially other poets, so we try hard to write fresh, insightful, musical pieces. But when that idea of reading widely came up in the discussion, an impish face next to me questioned that idea. Why do novice poets not read everything they can? Years ago critic Harold Bloom described the anxiety of influence, which I hear from poets now and again. I offer up my pleasure in reading lots of poetry, the education that I get when I'm enthralled or offended and consider why I reacted strongly. And I think of other poems as recipes. We learn to cook from cookbooks or from those we know who provide us with delicious meals. Why then should we fear to learn how to make a poem from the examples of others?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dog Days of August

Energy drains; air conditioning strains; interest wains. I've been stuck in a goo of rhymes lately and I don't like it much. One more symptom of summer doldrums. But I'm fighting back. I just updated the website, and that felt okay. I sent a revised poem to my critique group for tonight's meeting, and I've started my weekly poem for my on-line writing group. What I have not done is update my publications list here, but I think I can manage that today. Mostly though, I want to sit very still and play solitaire on my ITouch or read magazines on the Kindle. Right now out the window in front of my desk I see a vibrant blue sky, almost violent in its clarity and I know that the car will be an oven when I leave in a couple of hours to drive to a meeting in Denver.  But who am I to complain?

Just finished reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Having read Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath years ago, I thought I understood the Dust Bowl. I've known and loved Woodie Guthrie's music from that time. Truth? I knew nothing. Egan has educated me, which is a good thing because next month I'll be a reader at an event in Lafayette, CO called Dust Bowl Poetry. The whole town is reading Egan's book and a variety of events are planned in response to that communal experience. It's a great idea and I'm pleased to be part of it. Much better than having been part of the original event, which did involve parts of Colorado. If you haven't read this book, do so, please. It is a cautionary tale that relates to our current blind spots about global warming. We need to learn from our collective mistakes.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Just finished Jane Smiley's Moo (1995) and loved it. The characters are plentiful and distinct. That she never loses one and keeps all the reins straight through 414 pages of tightly packed prose amazes me. She could drive a twelve-horse hitch through the eye of a needle! Despite having published this book almost two decades ago, she keeps her story fresh, and the fiscal debacle that drives the plot seems particularly timely now.

As a faculty member at a midwestern university, Smiley certainly wrote about what she knew. The whole campus population is available to her and she works them hard. Faculty, students, families, towns people and the animals in the university programs, a hog named Earl Butts to a model of bad equine conformation, they are real. And her range of information has a power all its own--from animal husbandry and horticulture to gold mines in Costa Rica, university administration, economics, religion, farm machines and the hideous bureauracies of academia, all present. She has no angels, just some characters less ego-tainted than others, but they too, are fully present. Read it!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reading in Overdrive

Just back from a vacation in the Colorado high country, no wifi, no TV, no computer. So what's to do in a cabin 9400 ft up the side of a mountain? Sleep, eat, watch the dogs run, and read. In nine days I read nine mystery stories, a history of bread and part of Mrs. Beeton's The Book of Household Management. Obsessive? Ya think? Here's where the obsession really comes to light. At least five of the mysteries, which I read anyway, annoyed me to the point where I would snort and read a clunker sentence or two to anyone who happened to be in the room or on the porch. Even Duncan the Dog got an earful, and his ears are pretty darned big. I doubt, however, that he has much experience with clumsy prose or a distressing lack of editing. His ears are more attuned to deer clattering down the mountain or a chipmunk scolding from a lodgepole pine.

The books in question shall, out of courtesy, remain nameless. However, we might each take a deep breath and hope with every molecule of our being that when we publish, someone will have pointed out the places where we have dumped useless information just because it's esoteric and lets us feel smarter than the reader: like telling me that Fanny Farmer first regularized measurements in recipes. Actually, Mrs. Beeton did so to a degree a century or so earlier. (She lived 1836-1865. Farmer seems to have published in 1918.) This sort of detail feels about as right as chocolate chips in Yorkshire pudding. Then there's the snob effect where the heroine remarks that someone has used incorrect syntax in speech. Dialog is not, not, not, about correctness. Dialog is the faithful, concise reflection of how the individual characters speak. Nor do I appreciate having an author explain what has already become obvious through the action. If you write anything, especially mystery stories where plot and pacing are crucial, don't sin against your readership. If you write, edit or publish such drivel, shame!