Friday, October 28, 2011

Call of the Weird

Life gets angstful, right? Right? RIGHT! And some days I just want to run away, but I don't have the cash for that. I mean, as Robert Frost said, "Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in." So home is home, even when it's not the serene and lovely place we see in the carpet ads. And home right now in the US is not the American Dream. I'm angry and disappointed about the stalemate in DC, wish Warren Buffet would run for President, wish I had a voice loud enough to make a difference. I keep emailing my senators but they shoot back canned responses that have nothing to do with my thesis: our government is stalemated and when bread goes stale I feed it to the birds. It's for the birds, right? Right? RIGHT!

When my brain feels like it's on fire and there's no relief, I turn to murder. No, I don't intend to shoot anyone. That's ugly. I read mystery stories. Yesterday I checked out a bagful from the library and today I'll relax in the arms of homicide detectives. They solve problems, put bad guys away for a long time, and give me hope. They take my attention fully.This week I'll read six, four by Diane Mott Davidson and two by Cleo Coyle. These are culinary mysteries, the ones that focus on food, either as part of the plot or as part of the setting, not that these elements are separate in a well-written mystery. Davidson's sleuth is Goldie, a caterer in Colorado high country; Coyle's is the barista/owner of a lush coffee shop in Greenwich Village, NYC. So, while things are stonewalled in the real world, solution is possible between the covers of a good murder mystery.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Friend Serendipity

Jung said, in effect, that there are few/no accidents. Things connect. I vote for Jung. Most recently it happened this way: over a year ago I attended an AWP convention in Denver. Like most attendees I came home laden with handouts, freebies, ideas and good memories. Among the things I unpacked and stashed were three copies of American Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets. Since the unpacking they have been on my shelf, where I put them with intentions to read them "sometime." This weekend our household went into fall cleaning mode, which entailed energetic tossing of extra stuff. I sorted the shelves in my office and pulled those three journals, thinking that since I had not read them in over a year, they could go to the discard pile.

Something made me stop. I glanced at the contents on the covers and clutched them like long lost cousins before tenderly laying them on my reading pile, the one near my chair, the one that gets regular attention. In one copy was an essay by David Baker, whose book my poetry book club had read and discussed only two weeks ago. Baker's topic was "Where We Live in Poems." I've been working on a poem that was spawned by an intentional train trip wherein I rode from Boston to Denver, paying close attention to a sense of what America looks like from the tracks, let alone from the wrong side of them. The second one has an essay by James Galvin on "James Wright and the Poetry of Place." And the third has Rachel Zucker's piece on "The Long Poem." My train poem is long. How did I happen to have in hand exactly when I need it these three essays that will strengthen my poem immeasurably? Must be Jung looking down and smiling as he nudges things my way.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lambs and Clams and Titles

Donald Murray, a writing teacher from New Hampshire, says in one of his text books that any piece of writing requires me to make a long list of possible titles, like 30 or 50. I'm happy if I have two or three. Sometimes finding even one title feels like relief from a headache. But titles matter. How can I find the poem in my computer files if the title isn't distinct? How can an editor believe that her table of contents won't put people to sleep before they dip into the text? So, what makes a good title for a poem or a story?
  • Distinction--I want an individual name for a unique creation. I once had an editor tell me she very nearly rejected my poem because I had the word spring in the title and she was bored, bored, bored by spring poems. Lucky she read the poem and saw that it was unique and not just more lilacs-and-bluebirds sentimentality. Calling a poem "Spring" will not do.
  • Another thing is the energy gap that the reader must bridge between the title and the text, and a well-chosen title can make for more energy in that gap, especially if the title both leads into the poem and creates tension. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" intrigues me and leads me into an elegy. Surprise! Energy in poems, says Stephen Dobyns, comes from surprise.
  • Then there's tone. I had a real lol moment this week. I have a poem about the inevitable destruction that comes from human beings satisfying their appetites, a serious poem for a serious issue. I had called the poem "What Counts Mounts Up." My critique group critiqued that off the page, leaving me with a John Doe poem. It's in my revision folder, an unclaimed body in the morgue. But the imp of the perverse niggled my mind: I'll call this poem "The Sacrificial Clam." NO! Do not do that, my left brain shrieked, while my right brain giggled. Sigh, I won't do it.
Take any reputable anthology and study the list of titles. Which ones make you want to read the poems? Then study the relationship between the title and the text. Is it right? Will you remember it? Whitman, whether you like him or not, has good titles. Shakespeare has none, just a numbered list of sonnets, but he's Will Shakespeare, so, if we're smart, dedicated poets, we read his stuff anyway. You and I don't have that kind of name recognition. We have to study titles as if they are all we have. In a way they are.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Gawande Connection

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and one of my favorite writers. No surprise then when I opened a recent New Yorker that I turned immediately to his article, "Personal Best." And, there was synchronicity on the page. The tag line was, "Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?" Well, yes, I should.

I had an hour previously returned from a workshop on small business development. I know too little about it and want to know more. Poets get complacent about the truism that we don't make money, and I've pretty much tattooed that idea on my frontal lobes. Surgeons, on the other hand, make plenty of money. So what do Gawande and I have in common? Writing, obviously. He has a handful of excellent books, and here he was still writing in the midst of raising a family and leading a professional life that must keep him roller blading from one task to the other. Now he has added another element. He hired a surgery coach to help him off the plateau where he felt stuck in his professional development.

The synchronous issue here is the coaching. I had that very day put myself in the hands of a couple of business coaches for the afternoon and one, Mary Walewski, asked casually, had I ever thought of coaching other writers? Well, sure. I do that sometimes. I had just offered to help one of the other attendees get started on her book.

But not for money! Heaven's sakes, I do it for free. Why? Mary had just coached me into a new attitude. I wrote down my credentials and hey! I qualify. So I'll sit with Mary an hour this week and let her coach me in the art of making what I do into a respectable small business. Like Gawande, I'll accept coaching. We all have skills to pass on and I will convince myself that I deserve to be paid for sharing my knowledge and experience. Except here. Here you get it free.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Writing in Circles

This is the final piece from the list I started a month ago, "Beating Poetry Submissions into Shape." My last gasp in that post was to develop patience while your submissions are circulating. It's part of the writing cycle.

I am not a patient person. Waiting for things to happen is not my style. So once those submissions leave my hands, I have to do something. And that something is a bouquet of weedy, but sturdy things. I read--not just poetry, although that's an important part of my on-going education. I make an effort to find other writers. We read to each other, we write together, we listen to speakers. We drink lots of tea and coffee. We share news about rejections and acceptances. This is a very important part of a writer's life. Some days it is the only part. Well, that's not quite right. I journal every day. No exceptions unless I'm comatose and that doesn't happen much.

I'm mostly awake and aware of my surroundings because being healthy and active is part of this whole writing show. Yes, there have been great writers--Keats comes immediately to mind--who have written in the throes of illness, but that too is not my style. While I wait for editors to respond I walk the dog, clean my kitchen, go out to lunch, do all those things that other people do. Stephen King says in his book On Writing to put your desk in a corner and remember that it is not the center of your life. And quite frankly, if you don't have a full life, you limit your ability to write. Because everything you put on the page comes out of your patient love for the world, even when you're mad as hell. You're here, you're alive. Live and let the editors do the same. It all goes around and around.