Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Notes on Student Poems

  • Streamline. How to say something more clearly. 
  • More humor. Jazzy titles
  • How can the reader know what you know? Readers respond to image, narrative, the unexpected, a different point of view.
  • Abandon centering. Think about using stanzas/space to create clearer meaning.
  • Rhyme is doing you no favor.
  • OK. I like all this where the familiar tale is being mixed with other things and given new particulars. But then in last two lines back to usual--why?
  • Too pretty sounding?
  • I like this incremental repetition but I want more. Push harder.
  • Combination of two things can increase interest, effectiveness.
  • Read aloud for rhythm, clarity, necessity.
  • What I want most is for you to experiment with not centering--will change feeling of lines.
  • Cutting always good.
  • Language--what is the ratio of complexity to clarity. Think about necessity. Deliberately making it more difficult and I can be fine with that if it has a purpose--re-seeing?
  • Maybe un-sentencing would help.
  • This sounds funny.
  • A little falling off towards the end where earlier there's all this great, various stuff. Think about order.
  • Think about line breaks to shake up usual way of reading and emphasizing words.
  • Doesn't hang together in interesting or directive way like what follows.
  • Not clear to me why this enters the poem.
  • This is a great quote but it seems sassier than the poem itself.
  • Think about order--clusters of idea/messages.
  • Why so many commas?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Transcribed from a Lake House (but not there now)

Definitely want to work on the poem but now my methods change. Notes, notes, notes, some looking up, then typing into the computer the fits and shreds, firming up the lines, moving things about.

I'd like to make an idea list. It's 7:03 and I have a strong cup of coffee. A list for small places in Cleveland which interests me as a series, an approach. So far 1. Daddy's car 2. The Brick 3. alley by Euclid 4. WW utility room 5. censer 6. Amana freezer 7. BSS parking lot.

What else might qualify in strange ways (I'm crossing the numbers off so things don't have to come out straight):
  • Miss Roger's piano room
  • the pool at Rocking Chair Cove
  • the cottages after I grew up
  • the wine bottle when I pushed down the cork
  • the pothole where I got that flat tire
  • the stuffed veal breast
  • the hollow chocolate egg of confetti
  • could I try the rubber boots again
  • the library on Mapledale
  • or maybe a particular book--The Dandelion Cottage with its wallpaper scrap idea of making a home
  • the pyrex coffee pot--thinking about it like a movie with repeated sloshings gurgle gurgle swamp swish empty
  • the surrey
  • the secret place behind our thin suburban woods
  • Alvie's 
  • the little park and Bob's Big Boy while we waited for Katie

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lake House Diary VI (Thinking About the Prose Poem)

I just came back from a long weekend on a large island in Lake Erie. It was an annual gathering of writers that we figured out has been going on for 20 years. Good friends, good writing, good newcomers, surprising turns, noisy dinners, conclaves on the back deck, swimming off the bird sanctuary beach. Because I've been having kind of a dry summer, I brought with me a talismanic notebook (steno) that I used several years ago when I wrote like a storm pouring out and everyone would wish for a return of that kind of bounty as do I.

I also considered if I am nostalgic for the rhythms of the prose poem. Maybe I think that because of my two recent readings. At one, having read a number of poems in a row, I read the last poem (a prose poem) as if I was a furnace gusting out a great fireball or a prophet letting loose his proclamation. At the other, I read in a much more punctuated, measured style. But this second reading was only one poem--much time elapses--and then second poem (not prose poems). And I know a rhythm and a power can be built if there is a continuing in the reading. Something to think about.

Maybe my sense is that prose poems sometimes have something untamed about them and I like that. Do not gentle me! Nor should I gentle myself in this! I went to the prose poem because of rhythm but maybe there was also burgeoning and proliferation and carelessness in the right way which really means there was not care in a mingey persnicketty kind of way. I need that wildness again.

(note at the bottom of one of those notebook pages: feral cats in the backyard)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lakehouse Diary V

Writing this on the program for the symphony performance because I am so very early. I heard music as I was approaching the amphitheater and thought I had mistaken the time. But just warming up and delightfully discordant. The orchestra is wearing white. The Glossary to my left says Adagio. Allegro. I think there were more people here yesterday but maybe it's early days yet. The lecture went well. Heard that it was useful, rapid-fire (good, good). People laughed in the right places. My lecture/reading person is not the same me nor is my workshop person.

I think I finally managed to relax this evening before walking over here. I sat out on the balcony and read an entertaining, light-hearted book on Kindle. Usually my time is too carved up/allotted so that here long stretches of the day just confuse me. Maybe I can write for a set time for the next three days though I still have the workshop plus prep and the individual conferences plus prep. Molto. Piu. Sostenuto. What about what I began in class today? Object study of the patio's awning? Maybe make that sense of being a possession or attachment a part of the poem. Must be careful not to step on Mary's poem's toes. Many people with pillows. I can always sit on my jacket. Forte. Cadenza. I wonder if this robust rattle makes them more perfectly in time when the official music begins. Much fuller now.

Excerpt from my lecture--"Beginnings, Endings, Titles, and White Space":

A title is a convenience, an aid, an arrestment. If a poem has a title, the reader feels he has a handle on things, an orientation. And maybe that helps him enter the unfamiliar territory of otherness, the exotic, the dangerous, the sensory. So first, the title can make the poem approachable. OK. As the reader I know where we’re going, even if that turns out to be a complete illusion.

A title has many possible uses which is why I can never understand why people want to say “untitled” or “Poem #732.” Why throw away an opportunity?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lakehouse Diary IV (New Lake Again)

August 15, 2014
Where has Brenda Hillman been all my life? I have just started reading Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire. I love it—playfulness, attention to sound, wordplay, interjections of Latin insect names, scattered vivid image, white spaciness later on. I felt more excited reading the Section I title page (4 epigraphs and a section called “Argument” which is a very, very long list: “microseasons, vowels, panticles, California grasses, existence, sex, the cosmos . . .) and the first three poems than I have felt all summer.

August 16, 2014
Things I have heard this morning: operatic-y voice singing a hymn, somebody practicing the piano, church bells tolling the hour, church bells playing a Woody Guthrie song, boat honk, parts of a sermon, motor boat buzz. I have practiced my reading which will be today at 3:30. I have studied on the parts of my first workshop tomorrow. I have worked on the lecture that will be on Tuesday at lunch. After lunch today, I took a short walk down to the lake shore and over past the Atheneum to the beach. Later: reading + reception + more Brenda Hillman+ listening to Thrity Umrigar’s NPR interview. (Swimming in words.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lakehouse Diary III (New Lake)

Friday, July 18th

I am sitting at the desk in our hotel in Reno, a way station on the way to Lake Tahoe and all that it represents for me personally which is in part a kind of personhood where all my first impulses are to me and to my writing and to my healing from whatever vicissitudes have been marking me. I want to let go of all the responsibilities I usually carry. I want to feel happy. When they say "happy as a clam," maybe it's because the clam is in his shell and can shut up shop  for the day as he sees fit. I want to go and steep myself like a teabag in beauty. I want to open up the doors that are shut in the everyday behind which are the things of my poems. That's not really true since the things of my poems are made up of little pieces from my life. But something is shut up or off--maybe the muscle of my writing, maybe the ceiling is lowered when I need the whole sky to carome off of, gyrate, flex, like the acrobat/gymnast I never was. So, clam. So, teabag (sorry this has some kind of possibly icky sexual connotations). So, ceiling raised, pushed up, opened, wiped.

On the plane I made notes of 3 things I'd like to write about--not in poems I don't think:
1. What would your writing plan be if you got a Guggenheim or whatever and had a year off in which to write?
2. What is something you don't normally attempt like that note in the orange notebook about deliberately trying to evoke something in the reader--I think it was in response to an author saying how he deliberately tried to evoke horror.
3. Questions from the writing group discussion of my 2 poems.
  • I was struck by B's noting my use of items from daily life/pop culture and calling them kitsch. Surely that 's a term of a derogatory nature. He asked why I didn't use more  formal or classic elements. Was this question arising out of "value" or having to do with process? (kitsch--"something of tawdry design, appearance or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste." "tawdry, vulgarized, or pretentious (sentimental appeal)."
  • L's question about how the poems had 2 parts which worked differently and had different levels of impact on the reader. Interested in thinking about this in detail.
  • T's question about whether I intended emotional or intellectual response which I realized only later can never be one or the other but always both in various stages of realization/permutations of power.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Lakehouse Diary II


More snakes! Although really just one when I went for a walk at the end of the drive. I wrote a very strange poem today about how people supposedly have mistaken a giant fish or a whale or a giant turtle for land. Even St. Brendan! Very long multi-syllabic words for it in several languages. The poem interests me but is perhaps in another country from other things I have written perhaps ever. I also sorted through my unbooked poems and made 5 sections—two unseries, work series, lecture series, small place series. I think I’ll put “Soldiers” by itself in the front because it seems to me it prequels several sensibilities to come. Sat for a very long time in the canopied swing thing while the wind got stronger and stronger and the light changed and the waves got higher so you could see through them at the top.
P.S. T___ makes us look bad by working longer than M___ and I.


Danger alert! T___ and M___ attacked by a bird down by the miniature golf last night. This was after T___ had given this same bird the bottom of her cone who only got one satisfying peck at it before  there was a giant bird scramble and it was taken away. When we were going to the car, T___ shrieked and I thought she’d fallen, but the bird had thumped her head, and then thumped Mary. We discussed how this and the angry tornado of birds (also yesterday) could be useful scenes in the beginning of a horror film. Today writing another weird poem with parenthetical inclusions that answer the title. Also, we visited the coffee shop/bakery. Good coffee. M___ declares she can’t remember ever having a better cake doughnut. Planning to make a list of poem ideas this afternoon. Something that will be on that list is the Exeter book which has caught my interest.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Lakehouse Diary


We arrived at the Lakehouse yesterday. I’m staying upstairs in a room with a giant king-sized bed, yet there are no sheets to fit it. This is the only quibble I have other than the water snakes M___ reported and then I viewed myself today. There’s a narrow rocky beach here with a large portion made up of a drift of tiny shells, but the snake has taken the shine away. Fortunately, there’s this very clever two seated swing with a roof right at the entrance to the beach that is great to sit and rock and read or talk or just look out at the water, hear the waves. The waves all the time like the whoosh of your heartbeat or the anticipation of new things. Advent! All night long I heard them. Also, there are so many more birds here than at Quarry Hollow or any place else on Kelleys Island that I’ve stayed. Red winged blackbirds being the only ones I’m sure of. Yesterday, I heard a bird call that sounded like the chimes of a bell. Today I wrote a new poem in the morning—maybe in the small places in Cleveland category, and I worked on revising “At the Lecture on Lost Bones and Self Worth.” I worked it so much, I can’t tell what it’s like. I’ll have to let it be until tomorrow. Yesterday we had P___’s wonderful Moroccan chicken for dinner and today we’re going to go out to eat. When we went for a walk there were a number of 8 foot tall Queen Anne’s Lace growing. I have never seen them more than 3-ish feet. Anywhere.


Danger update. I started looking up the giant Queen Anne’s Lace on the internet. Turns out it’s hemlock—every part poisonous. M___ had suggested I bite off the stem when I was picking my posy. Glad I didn’t. And I just came back from the beach. I sat on the rocks so I could watch the increasing waves keeping a reptile eye out for snakes. Today I wrote a poem which at first I didn’t like. It started out by my thinking one of my small place poems should be about a censer. When I finished my poem, it just seemed so flat. I finally broke it up into tiny lines with underlining line breaks and I liked it better. I also read all my loose poems to think about making a new book. Lots of series. I think the Aunt H series being subsumed into the whole will make things better. But still lecture series and work series. I know the lecture series can’t be last. Maybe second? Maybe the soldier poem first? I should think about what to write when I go to bed again. Still no cute t-shirt for I___. Two gift shops so far.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

Kris Ohlson invited me to take part in this Blog Tour about Writing Process, everyone answering the same four questions. I’ve been in many writing groups with Kris (at least three) and I’ve always been astonished and pleased by her intense, vivid approaches to subject matter. Kris’s book, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet (2014),  presents a rethinking of agriculture, as she interviews and interacts with experts, the chapters like a series of core samples, rich and deep. Kris blogs about her writing here.

1) As for me, What am I working on? This is a tough question. It seems I am always working on numerous tasks that flit through my brain like energetic flotsam and jetsam. But if I sort, clarify, I can come up with three tasks that are occupying me. The first is thinking about a poem-a-day project I’m doing with some other poets in June. Because of it, I think I am actually putting off writing anything new this week because I don’t want to be spent (all the excuses one can come up with!). Second, and more long term, I am writing a series of poems based on lectures I attend, recording language and ideas and then departing completely from the subject matter. It is a great way to jump start a poem. I’m trying to decide if the titles, which note “At the Lecture of X and Y” (always two things) are important. Does the poem need them as balance or can-opener or instruction manual? Third, I am putting together a new book. I’ve just started this so the book doesn’t even have a name yet. I can’t refer to it shorthand as “Cake” or “Bird” yet.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? It is kind of dismaying that I don’t have a pat answer to this, but poetry is so various. I like eventual clarity. I am more interested in being earnest than hip/ironic.  I am dark yet joyous with it.

3. Why do I write what I do? I write because I am good at it. I think poetry appeals to me because I have a metaphoric turn of mind. Also, I think in jumps and detours and digressions. Writing poetry helps me to understand things or at least be able to deal with them, run my hands over all their parts and ask questions. Sometimes I choose what I'm writing about, but sometimes not.

4. How does your writing process work? It can start with an image or a turn of phrase that somehow I know is important (recently “turnspit dogs” which I haven’t done anything with yet, but hope to). Then things gather around it. I write longhand or sometimes type into a google doc. I like to establish line length early (now that I’m back to lineated verse), and often use couplets, although I’m doing a little no-punctuation-tab-white-space stuff now and then, and  that’s usually a block of lines. I write towards the unexpected, not knowing where I am going to end up. I better not end up anywhere dull or with someone else’s poem/words/conclusions/images wasting my time. Sound is always important whether I’m doing a big rant-y pour or a finicky image slot. If I had a regret (although not a part of the question), it would be that I can’t see further into the future of my work. What is it planning?

I've asked another Cleveland writer I know to continue the tour. Brad Ricca is a renaissance man amalgamating the comic book/graphic novel universe and the poetic. I got to know him hanging around the Popular Culture Working Group talking about Pet Sounds and Barbarella  and Nancy Drew. His recent works are Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster--the Creators of Superman (2013), a literary biography, and American Mastodon (2011), a book of poems that won the St. Lawrence Book Award. He blogs about his work here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Origin Story

Sometimes the poem is pleasurable like cat's cradle or silly putty and then you make a skein of the string and put it in the drawer, ball the putty up and cork it back in its cylinder.

Sometimes it is urgent that you write this poem.

Or sometimes it becomes urgent as you write. Coals that you didn't know lived within fire up, and lines and stanzas end with smoke.

Sometimes you assemble a village of words. How do the villagers help each other--can we angle this roof? replant this crop? It is always cloudy over this half of the village. And here a volcano is planted and here a monster is hidden in the corn. Boots on the ground, you finger the soil and push the sun up higher with a stick.

If it's a poem, it's going to snow some time so enter with more than a weskit. I'm a little afraid to knock on the doors or look in the windows. What if it's only me that lives here sitting at every kitchen table with every coffee cup? What if it's all my people--the ones I want to see and those I don't? Chickens in the church pews. Blackbirds in a tent. Buttercup drinking every buttercup. Where is the bridge out, the brazier we can light to make the balloon go up?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Incoming Poetry Stuff

I admit it. Sometimes at the end of the semester, especially the spring semester, I don't even try to write. Yesterday, as I waited for a student I made a little chart of the weeks in the summer, summer starting for me on May 12th, because I'll be done with all grading and student response (I think). Now I am in the time of limbo, waiting for things to be turned in, putting off computations of attendance and miscellanea.

This is a good time to send work out, so this morning I sent 7 poems winging away electronically. And 3 returned almost immediately--ancient journal data. But they're in the right place (maybe) now.

Then language intruded, I started to make notes on my post it size grocery list, harder to fit phrases in, turning it sideways and drawing some arrows. Sometimes incoming poetry stuff can't be stopped (has something to do with frosting in a can [which I would be excommunicated from the family for using] and making a cake of myself!).

National Poetry Month is almost over. I have written a poem (not the frosting one), attended two Emily Dickinson-oriented events (one musical, one academical), met with my poetry group, officially received an individual artist grant, went to a poetry reading by an Ohio poet, participated in a large group poetry reading (8 minutes each), had a poem posted on two different library sites for NPM and Poem in Your Pocket Day, commented on and discussed face to face 176 student poems (at least), went to a Poetry in the Museum event, and ate at a creative writing student lunch.

Cool thing: a map of all the bookstores and libraries in the U.S. Glad to see there's a giant overlapping cluster of stuff over where I live: map

Sunday, April 6, 2014

National Poetry Month Guilt

Waves of guilt emanate from the computer for the blog-poet (which sounds good but is in the wrong order) who has not yet blogged in the month of April, who has not yet written a poem, who is reading nowhere in these 30 days, who has only been to one event (but is going to one later today), who feels a little weary right now, who is not caught up in the thrall of language, who sat at her desk and looked at her emails and Facebook and the weather before starting to write, who read some Emily Dickinson and some George Keithley, who did some laundry and vacuumed, who pretended getting a manila folder and putting some pages in it counted, who looked out the window, who went shopping for summer clothes (or at least spring), who took her car for an oil change, who enjoyed her walk back even though the wind was fierce, who sliced a banana on her Cheerios, who knows tomorrow is all about 30 student poems and the coaxing and clipping that is like a kind of gardening, who will go to the museum and listen to other poets later today and take notes that may lead with their random tendrils to a poem.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mystery/Confusion and Forms of Diminishment

Last night in class I said that when we didn't understand something in a poem we should think about where it would appear on the continuum from confusion to mystery. If I cannot figure this out or parse it down or look it up or know how to order it or find music in it or essentially create something of substance from it, why is it there? Sometimes if the thing dwells toward the confusion side, it feels like shorthand to the poet/self--the sign that stands in for meaning but that only floods out with significance for the poet. Sometimes the confusing thing is a landscape of rubble--a lot of stuff dumped in a too small space. Pieces from different jigsaws dumped into a single box (although I resist poem=box). However it fails, the reader is left to labor to no avail and it remains a distraction. (Disclaimer: I do not mean failing to see what the poet is trying to do and imposing what I want done instead.)

Mystery feels different to me. I don't exactly understand but I don't care because I am somehow moved regardless. I am not flailing around trying. It's not withholding or careless or jumbled. Mystery allows more into the poem instead of blocking up the door. It offers more than one choice or possibility or dimension. It makes the poem larger. (It is not a veil over something that doesn't work or make sense.)

What is interesting to me as well, right now, is forms of diminishment. How do we err by making a poem (and keeping a poem) small? I'm going to have to think about this for a while.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Snow Day (Personally Observed)

What does it mean that I spent the focussed part of my snow day writing poems? Is it the equivalent of flopping down to make snow angels, of slowly building a snow fort, of creating once again my misshapen man of snow? (I strongly suspect that snow men only worked right when my mother took a hand.) Am I making my impression on you? marshalling my defenses? recreating the world out of the materials at hand--some snow, a carrot, two pieces of coal (and where would I get those nowadays)?

Maybe it's the pleasure of working on something that is only rarely possible. Snugged up in my office this morning when it was still minus 9, I wrote a poem called "On the Way to the Bookstore," but now called "Undergrowth." Really I had very many notes from last spring semester sprung from the fourteener line exercise I like to use in class. It is about a very specific place in Cleveland, in University Circle, so that when I had finished pinching it and cutting it, it occurred to me I should write about the Brick, which was the closest thing I had to a regularly attended college bar. It's no longer there, but I have many fond memories of that place and that time. Thus, "Bottom Shelf Special" was born, although at first I was only writing little notes on the bottom of my typed draft of "Undergrowth."

I love it when that's how it works--me tipping accidentally into the poem and having lost my balance whooshing away down the hill with it. But also I've been thinking about writing poems about very specific places in Cleveland (past or present).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Model Poems

Am I unnatural? (Maybe this is a question that everybody asks themselves and some of us then become poets. But I mean something else.) I'm going to an informal gathering of poets this weekend, and we're supposed to bring model poems--meaning a poem that we would like to write, that we aspire to. On the face of it, I believe in model poems. I use them all the time in poetry workshops because I think they make our ideas about what a poem can be larger, more infinite in variety. But do I ever want to have written someone else's particular poem? Maybe this is a matter of semantics. I am perhaps sometimes jealous of the mastery? But are they ever saying what I would say? Isn't that impossible.

And what should I bring? I'm almost certain I'm going to bring Paisley Rekdal's poem Mae West: Advice. I like it for its bravura, in your face excessivism of sound; its rounding on the sonnet as male love poem; its unusual pleasurable language. I do love it, but I don't want to write it. I had some thoughts about Matthew Dickman's poems because I recently read Mayakovsky's Revolver. I like that his poems are long and filled with wonderful imagery like "All the cigarettes she would light/ and then smash out, her eyes/ the color of hairspray, cloudy and sticky/ and gone, but beautiful!" If I was forced to name my favorite poet, it would probably be Elizabeth Bishop in poems like "Crusoe in England," but that's a very long poem. Maybe "Filling Station?"

Don't get me started on which two poems of my own I should bring!