Wednesday, October 9, 2013


I don’t have much use for the muse. I want to take credit for everything myself. I don’t mind if it’s a train of thought if I’m the station master. I don’t mind if it’s a thought bubble as long as I’m the one blowing into the soap. I understand the wish to account for the thing that plops into your head like a pebble someone else has thrown or the the thing that rises unbidden from the depths as if someone had slipped off the restraining ropes.

It does feel mysterious how ripples and consequences move out . But how my heart beats without me thinking about it might be the same, or the constant bellows of the lungs. Maybe there’s an autonomic nervous system for creativity, notebooks and landscapes and mourning and laptops as possible triggers.

Is the muse an excuse for loitering? I’m waiting for the muse and she hasn’t come. Maybe we can start blaming her for other lapses--I’m not feeling the gym (because the muse mislaid her leotard). That lousy muse--why can’t she take the dog for a walk?

Is the muse too fairy-godmother for me? But that would be a tangible transaction, noisy with birds in that Cinderella tree and the pesky, helpful mice.

Sometimes bacon is my muse or a weird article online or a word that comes into my head unbidden with all of its slippery typefacedness.  The stories my friends tell or old show tunes. The imagistic representative of a relative’s condition. Who invented ink--that guy or those papyrus makers in Egypt of old.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

10 Rules for Becoming a Writer

1. Be born into a family where a sibling also wants to become a writer. This will build in both sounding board and competition.
2. Spend a lot of your childhood indoors reading.
3. Have language be as sensual in your mouth as someone's finger or a piece of fruit or a honeycomb.
4. Ignore the well-meant advice from the poet who takes off his sandals during your personal manuscript consultation and remarks how some people find it valuable just to write for themselves. (Never think this is what your students want.)
5. Read everything more than once. Well, maybe not stop signs or billboards.
6. Weep sometimes (but in private).
7. Recognize your empty-head time as a valuable resource (swimming, vacuuming, driving to work).
8. Take notes.
9. Find a community or several. Form your own retreat or writing group. Belong to more than one group. Attend readings and buy local books.
10. Don't stop.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Filling the Beaker

This weekend I'm sneaking away to a secret writing hideout with my secret writing friends. We will of course be writing secrets since that's what creative writing is all about--twining up the knotty boutonniere of story, that lace veil, that pair of handcuffs, that broom that sweeps the chaff away. We've been going to our secret island for a very long time. (I might have written the first letter of invitation in Wordstar--that long ago.)

Sometimes I have a project, sometimes I float around and swim illegally off the bird sanctuary. Or go into town to eat ice cream or drive past the house with the long long lawn falling away towards the lake. I always pay attention and get up before everyone else and make coffee. Maybe the best times are when everyone is around the kitchen table (on some very uncomfortable chairs) joking and exchanging book recommendations and talking about the work. (I just attended a terrific reading at lunch today which gave me two new directions for poems.)

But I'm also taking a course through Coursera--a MOOC (I feel so high tech saying that although I've already forgotten what it means). Modern and Contemporary Poetry--beginning with Dickinson and Whitman again, every beginning new. I'm getting a new notebook out of the drawer--red. I hesitated about this. When would I find the time? But there's so many places to squeeze ideas into the day. First poem to read: "I Dwell In Possibility," a prophecy of anticipation or hope.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

If My Head Were a Cauliflower

I think I'm getting my veg metaphors confused. But I've already written the cabbage head poem and I never boxed (re: cauliflower ear). I thought cauliflower because of its segmentation--so many sections that can be broken apart.

The beginning of the semester feels a little like that. Unwinding the cellophane, driving the knife through the head, pulling off the leaves, piling parts in the pot to boil.

Segment of planning.
Segment of syllabus and page numbers.
Segment for speed reading and photocopy list.
Segment where all assignments-to-be crowd up and then string apart to their fundamental properties.
Segment of sending out poems/book/chap (now the season is upon us again).
Segment of last minute gardening needs.
Segment of writing anew (but maybe that was the leaves)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Flying the Sonnet Flag?

This summer I've been doing a lot of revisions. Some of it is work that I'm just making, some of it the avalanche of poems from my poem-a-day experiment. I've noticed that shorter poems--12 lines, 13 lines, 15 lines, I'm thinking I could make that a sonnet. Why?

Of course, I know it's because it will indicate that I understand traditional forms, that I embrace traditional forms, that I'm informed. It will give me the appearance of propriety--proper poem-ness. When did I start to care about that?

Can I say that there are certain ways I think the poem should not be groomed? And maybe this is one of them. It's the shape of the poem's throat I should be wondering about, the utterance unspooling from that mysterious dark interior, what I coax (co-ax like a threat?) like an animal out of a cave. (And suddenly it rushes you.)

One of the ways I work as a poet is through refusal. I began in free verse. I refused early lukewarm estimations of my work. I refuse my own bad writing. I refuse writers block. I refuse the low rung of the ladder I'm standing on. I'm thinking I should refuse this, too.  

This is not the same as setting out to write a sonnet or a crown of sonnets, or a ghazal (which is the form that interests me the most right now). Shapeliness is an important element in poetry. But should a poem be trimmed to an expectation unrelated to its being?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Pep Talk Now That It's Summer and I Have More Time

It's summer, but there's no real writing going on. Would it be helpful if I listed my difficulties? I feel scattered generally in that living paycheck to paycheck way but I mean my  thinking. I can only plan until the next short term fulfillment or task. I'm hiccuping instead of breathing. I'm continually getting snagged instead of skimming a surface lightly. Is it my age? Is it my impending birthday giving me a surface roil? Is it the sweating? Is it the influence of my job and how I flick through computer sites to distract myself/calm myself down? I have thought this before--that my job makes me think less well.

What's odd about my unwriting is that when I break through the skin of the poem and start fiddling with organs (OK--too many murder mystery books obviously), things seem to go well. So breaking through the skin continually. A better metaphor-- putting my head underwater where everything looks flaring and dreamy and I have to hold my breath. Dive deep.

Should I have a prompt chosen every week just in case? Should I keep an image notebook? This immediately appeals to me. It would be as if I'd be doing sketches. OK. Find suitable notebook. Look up mosaics online today and see how interested I am in that possible poem.

Learning to breathe underwater again.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

In Defense (of Parentheses)

Because I seem to be turning back to the parentheses (which I don't seem to use when writing prose stanzas), I thought I'd look back at my remarks on ( ) at the time of my thesis:

In Defense (of Parentheses)
            What is the objection to the parentheses? That it interrupts the clean flow of the narrative or the sentence or the movement in the poem? That it’s a gimmick rather than useful? That it is a shoddy substitute for what the poem should be doing like an exclamation mark where words alone aren’t equaling intensity?
            Against these three points, I would argue first that it is always my intention to interrupt, that I’m against the idea of one line or narrative because life is shivery and multiple and refracting.
I think of the parentheses working with the line in a kind of point/counterpoint way—they are very necessary. The parentheses do not always work the same exactly, but they are always OTHER in relationship to the particular moment of the poem. It’s not just the information that is contained by the parentheses—which might be reminder, caution, correction, added detail, commentary, but the change in pressure, or relief of tone and/or intensity; the sense of pause from the main line, therefore functioning as white space; the introduction of a different, suppressed speaker (although this is rare); the opposition of dictions for a pleasurable contrast, the opportunity to ease a transition.
            If I use “What I Might Be with Wings” (p. 20) as an example, I could say the first parentheses in line 3-4 is a reminder as far as information goes, but it also yanks the reader away from the tendency to the ecstatic that the poem is doing in the main line. The second in line 5-6 is the second in a series of 3 jokey kind of statements, but in terms of information is the most sensory of the three. The third parentheses in line 9 is again very sensory and also sound-oriented and seems to be pushing back toward the ecstatic where the main line is not. The 4th and 5th instances which occur next to each other in the 10th line are offering alternate choices in terms of information but also indicating by the blocky stoppedness of their placement in the middle of the line, the turmoil of the main line of the poem.
            When an exclamation point or a capitalized word is employed because of a failure of intensity or interest, it has a single job, kind of like an adverb, to pump up the volume of the spindly word-display. I hope I’ve demonstrated clearly that the parentheses is much more multi-faceted in use and transcends a single aspect of poetry, being useful in terms of at least space, sound, meaning, and tone.
            The parentheses makes the poem appear more approachable—pulling the reader closer as if to say “for your ears only”—as well as making it more meaningful and complex. It replicates that push/pull tendency the poems develop around ecstasy.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Why I'm Not Writing Much Right Now

Sorry if I've been distant.

Right now I'm in the throes of planning a writing conference and executing that plan. (The conference is June 1st.) Rooms, food, parking, presenters, attendees, high school scholarships, publicity, give-aways, book fair, manuscript consultations, brochure handouts, cancelling table order, adding mid-morning coffee, buy mid-afternoon cookies, schedule, budget, wait for a key hand-off, arrange for someone to introduce the presenters, smile a lot next Saturday, tasks for the grads, copy handouts, consider buying white board markers, what about the AC, can we turn the fountain on, who can take photos?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Summer time when the writing is easy(-ier)

Every year I do this kind of computation with the same anticipation and longing I used to employ making lists before going on family vacations.

1. Figure out when I will be done grading.
2. Identify date fall semester begins.
3. Count up how many weeks are to be all about writing.
4. Lop one week off at the beginning (dissipating exhaustion).
5. Lop one week off at the end (intense phase of fall semester prep).
6. Count what's left =12 weeks (sounds pretty wonderful).
7. Make a list of books I'd like to read/annotate/buy--poetry, poetics, how-to, serious fiction.
8. List what I'd like to accomplish:
  • Book ms. out (should I give it a once-over to make sure there's no horrifying weakness, no creeping gauzy semi-invisible wounds?)
  • Poems out (what a wonderful thing summer submissions are)
  • Poem ideas I've already had (list)
  • Write, write, write.
  • Gauge series I'm working on to see how to/if to expand (I'm pretty sure could use at least 2-4 more)
  • Cock my eye at the poem-a-days. What do I want to do with them? I recall thinking that some could be put together. Maybe I should think fragment.
  • Begin working on a new project. (I recently asked someone what they were working on and they had a wonderful historical person to bounce poems off of.)  I have a note that says "this kind of long dialogue of poems" which sounds like a series to me.
  • I'd like to think about myself as a writer apart from what I am actually writing. Maybe thinking about placement or trajectory or brilliance (as if I were some kind of astronomical sign).
I find that writing is a lot like gardening. There's a seasonal quality to it. And when working fiercely (always my goal) there's time spent on the standing work and time on the kneeling.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Present But Not by Heart

I never have a class where I require my students to memorize poems. This has nothing to do with how useful/pleasurable that might be and everything to do with my secret childhood piano recital memorization fiasco. In the only college class where I was required to memorize a poem, I went with Philip Larkin's "This be the Verse," because of the rhyme and meter and brevity--all of which helped me fulfill the requirement.

I'm reminded of memorization because this month, since it is National Poetry Month, I've been posting a quotation from one of my favorite poems most days.

So far:

"The small rain down can rain." 

"The knife there on the shelf—
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain on the handle ... "
From Crusoe in England by Elisabeth Bishop

"First came the crib
with its glacial bars.
Then dolls
and the devotion to their plastic mouths.
Then there was school,
the little straight rows of chairs,
blotting my name over and over,
but undersea all the time,
a stranger whose elbows wouldn't work."
--from "Rowing" by Anne Sexton

"But at my back I always hear
Time's wing├Ęd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity."
from Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"

"It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes."
From Pablo Neruda's "Walking Around"

Tomorrow, I think it's going to be Robert Creeley: "I Knew a Man." 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Punct This!

I am mystified by the fact that I'm writing a poem using unconventional punctuation. I started out trying to use bullet points but they looked too dark and maybe too orderly. I knew I wanted to write this poem when my sister sent me the Open Culture posting of rare film footage of a number of authors. The Mark Twain film really set me off in that good I-have-to-write-a-poem-about-this way. The poem seems to be a prose poem with no line breaks, but yes stanza breaks. And I had just stopped writing prose poems!

Ten years ago, I would not have fooled around with marks this way. I used to crack down on the ampersand when my students used it! It was all about the language. I still do think it's all about the language. But white space and punctuation have become more meaningful to me, more speaking.(Although that doesn't mean I can tell you why these marks seem important to this poem.)

I find it a little zany that I can move back and forth between styles from week to week, but there's more than one way to write a poem. If I were going to put my finger on the cause of my present flexibility, I think it might be my MFA experience. I went into the MFA already writing competent poems. And the MFA took me and shook me and stretched me and threw me in the creek and hung me to dry in a tree and said read read read and write many poems in this short time. Good results.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Should There Be a Cannibal in Your Poem?

I went to a reading with my class last night. We heard Alissa Nutting read her short story about a girl who trips out on her dying grandmother's prescriptions while pursuing a relationship with a cannibal she met on the subway. (She's a vegetarian.) It was quite fabulous in its accumulations of bizarrities and weirdnesses, and as they mounted I began to wonder how will she end it, how can it have a good end, but it did.

In a weird preview, we had just looked at Kay Ryan's poem "The Pass" which features members of the Donner Party. It is a much more wry view of their dilemma never actually mentioning human meat. (Although to be fair in Nutting's story we never do see inside of the freezers.)

There was so much pleasure in these two experiences, I begin to think my students should all put a cannibal in their poems. But what does that really mean?

I have already written my cannibal poem--no Donner Party, but a series of historical references beginning with lifeboat survivors put on trial for consuming one of their number, blood and liver first. What did this do for my poem? Enter extremity? Enter distance from the self (sometimes a difficult thing)? Enter the need for a convincing narrative of strange parts?

But maybe the cannibal in the poem doesn't have to be a real cannibal. Maybe it means what makes me sit up and take notice. Maybe it's the same thing as the "so what" question--I have read your poem/so what? Maybe it's the same thing that Ryan means when she says that she wants her poems to have "teeth." She explains that as a sense of wildness in the words, a sense that anything could happen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fortress of the Self

In a Stephen King movie--the one with the dream catcher?-- there are several scenes that imagine the character's brain or consciousness as a library of shelves and file cabinets and stairs.

And so many things are stored upstairs, every head like a hoarder's paradise with data stacked like twine-tied newsprint. This enormous data of everything experienced, read, thought, studied, forgotten is behind every poem a person writes, infusing it with considerable unspoken meaning.

As new writers, we sometimes find it difficult to clue the other in. Isn't it obvious? Why can't the other get it? We've just lobbed a poem from the fortress of the self, sent a flame-tipped arrow from the turret, spilled the boiling oil of our life on the below, written on the great stone walls in blood.

But that's not the same thing as being inside privy to the plant life, home movies, and notes from third grade.

Maybe a fortress is too medieval although it does have the sense of the protected, beleaguered self--battlements, torture chamber, great hall, portcullis. And aren't we our own city-state?

How to compose a poem that doesn't just reflect the reader like the glassy surface of the moat. How to compose a poem with tonal music, with images like cunning levers, with words that turn the handle of meaning to at least crack open the door?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Poem-a-Day Survivor

I need a T-shirt that says Poem-a-Day Survivor. Technically, I bowed out while the rest were still posting, but I'd been posting for 30 days--27 posts. I posted many poems without titles (which I almost never do), a list poem, prose poems, poems circling the sonnet size, a twitter-sized poem--140 characters, poems built on words that had an interior hard g sound. And when I read through them I noticed repeated themes/images/ words--curiously enough one being butter!

I need to think outside the poems and inside the poems, a little conversation on paper. I need to  read through and see if they're any good, if they're parts of something longer, what needs to be revised, what needs to be thrown away, what needs to be thought about or rethought.

This morning
--I sent poems to three magazines electronically
--I sent my manuscript to one contest
--Notes towards a poem kept intruding while I read one of Larry Levis's elegies

I'm glad I have two more free days.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Day 22

My poem a day pledge is whipping my butt. It's day 22 and I've written 19 poems. Or maybe poem parts? But my poem-maker feels like a shaken bottle of pop! (I don't know what my poem-maker is.) Since I seem incapable of thinking about my poems, my process, my plans for the next few months (maybe on MLK weekend?), I'm trying to send it all out--poems, book, probably not chapbook. And I want to go on record that I'm outraged that I would ever have to pay to make an electronic submission to a magazine (not a contest).

Consulting The Writer's Chronicle and Poets and Writers for new places to submit, I notice there are far more ads for MFA programs than almost anything else. Yesterday, I also looked at what journals had poems in Best American Poetry and scanned the mags a successful poet-friend is published in. I also like to send to local-ish journals. (It feels neighborly.)

Now I have to figure out the clumps--which sets of 3 to 5 poems to send to where. Faux logic and all voodoo in the laying on of paper.