Monday, December 22, 2008

Winter Greetings

Well, it's official--I'm a terribly inconsistent blogger. While I have been busy with projects and end-of-the-year holiday madness, I think another reason I haven't written anything here in a long time is that I, along with the garden, have gone dormant, at least in some regard. It would seem that winter is a good time for all living things to turn inward, to reflect, and to process everything that's been gathered over recent months.

On a side note...after becoming enthralled with the symbolism of trees, I found The Meaning of Trees: Botany History Healing Lore by Fred Hageneder at the library. I have retreated into the book during these dark, cold days. One of the most mesmerizing passages I've come across is, "The Welsh goddess of the hawthorn once walked the empty universe and her white track of hawthorn petals became the Milky Way." With the hawthorn on my mind lately, I now see hawthorns everywhere, when I never noticed them before. Their red fruits decorate the branches like fairy-sized ornaments. Isn't that how it often is? The world is full and vast...if only we knew what we were looking for, we might find it among us.

May you have a joyous holiday season, and may you indulge in winter's dormancy to emerge into a healthy and wondrous 2009.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Weather Report

Steady rain today. Family and friends in Wisconsin report snow. For them, the poem "Snow" by Naomi Shihab Nye. Here you will find an interview with Nye, in which she says:
Number one: Read, Read, and then Read some more. Always Read. Find the voices that speak most to YOU. This is your pleasure and blessing, as well as responsibility!

It is crucial to make one's own writing circle – friends, either close or far, with whom you trade work and discuss it – as a kind of support system, place-of-conversation and energy. Find those people, even a few, with whom you can share and discuss your works – then do it. Keep the papers flowing among you. Work does not get into the world by itself. We must help it.

...

There is so much goodness happening in the world of writing today. And there is plenty of ROOM and appetite for new writers. I think there always was. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Attend all the readings you can, and get involved in giving some, if you like to do that. Be part of your own writing community. Often the first step in doing this is simply to let yourself become identified as One Who Cares About Writing!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Thoughts on the Hawthorn

Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a workshop presented by George Ella Lyon. I'm still digesting the material (perhaps more on the writing and discussion later). In the morning she shared a book called The Wisdom of Trees: Mysteries, Magic, and Medicine by Jane Gifford, which is based around the Celtic Ogham Alphabet and which attributes a tree to each moon of the year (a tree zodiac, if you will).

After the workshop, I did some brief searches about this intriguing idea. Here and here are two links that provide additional information. My point is not to focus on whether the Celtic tree calendar is based in truth or myth, but rather to consider the power of trees and our connection to them. My birth tree is the hawthorn, and there just happens to be one in my front yard. For the last two years a mockingbird has nested there. The hawthorn offers small white flowers in May and red, berry-like fruit through the winter.

I'm trying to figure out what is so special about a tree, aside from the obvious--that it gives food, shelter, oxygen--and I think, for me, it might be its physical presence, how it is rooted in the earth, grounded, sturdy, and at the same time reaching skyward, growing up and out, claiming the surrounding space. It is a model for how I'd like to live my life, connected to the past while being fully present in this moment.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

December!

Somehow we've slipped into the last month of 2008, and once again I'm trying to figure out where the year went. I'm winding down the day with a cup of tea (if you're in Madison, check out the macha teahouse) and listening to my favorite holiday song.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

The poem "A List of Praises" by Anne Porter.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Talent, Opportunity, Time

As one might suspect, no single factor dictates success. This article (edited extract from Outliers: The Story Of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell) examines examples of "outrageously talented and successful people" and muses on what factors shaped their success.

Here's the part that really grabbed my attention:

This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Gift of Community

This week I had the pleasure of attending the last fundraising event this year for the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Once again, words seem inadequate to describe how this place has contributed to my development as a writer.

The building itself is magical, not to mention the people who staff it and volunteer. Some of the Carnegie Center's offerings include writing, computer, and language classes; tutoring, youth, and family programs; and exhibits, readings, and other special events.

While I may never feel completely at home in Kentucky, the flickering moments of belonging I have experienced have been among members of the region's unique writing community, most of whom I met through the Carnegie Center. Community--a sense of belonging--is one of the Carnegie Center's greatest gifts. It is as if an orb weaver crafted an intricate web, and written into the center of the web is the Carnegie Center, all the silken strands radiating from that center.

You can read the Carnegie Center's blog here.

Marilyn Taylor - - Wisconsin's Next Poet Laureate

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has appointed Marilyn Taylor as Poet Laureate of the state. You can read about the appointment here.

Marilyn was my mentor in the English/creative writing department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee many moons ago. I cannot adequately express how much she contributed to my development as a poet. I have always felt privileged to have had the opportunity to study with her, and I am absolutely thrilled about this news.

“Marilyn Taylor is committed to bringing poetry to all corners of Wisconsin,” stated Governor Doyle. “She has impressive credentials and an obvious love for her work and her state. I am confident that she will be an excellent Poet Laureate.”

You can read some of her poems here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More Patricia Smith, Persona Poems, and a Prompt

One thing Patricia Smith does masterfully is the persona poem (sometimes called dramatic monologue). Poets.org defines the dramatic monologue as a poem in which "the poet speaks through an assumed voice--a character, a fictional identity, or a persona."

In Blood Dazzler, Smith takes on a range of personae from Hurricane Katrina to President Bush to a dog left behind. What surprised me was that the persona poems written in the voice of inanimate things could work. There seems to me a great deal of risk in speaking in the voice of the Superdome.

The Greek word persona means "mask," and some poets suggest wearing the mask of someone else--writing from a different point of view--is freeing because you are not writing your story, your vulnerabilities. However, I think to write a successful persona poem, the poet might have to make herself more vulnerable than, or at least as vulnerable as, when writing about her personal experiences. She must be able to locate in herself aspects of that other person (or thing), no matter how different or frightening or uncomfortable. Just as writing about the self reveals the other, writing about the other reveals the self. (A side thought--does this come more naturally for writers who write fiction more frequently than I?)

I found this interview with Patricia Smith (interviewed by Cherryl Floyd-Miller for Torch) where she talks about crafting persona poems. About the persona poem, Smith says:

I think the persona poem moves us out of our space, moves us out of our comfort zone where we’re almost forced to take a really hard look at another life. Whether it be something you’re just doing for the fun of it, like, you know, wow, what’s it like to be Little Richard for a day, or you’re sitting next to some woman who is clutching like twenty bags or something on the subway, you know that her whole life is in those bags, and you realize just how close everyone’s life is to your own. They may look really distant. You may say, “Oh my God, I’d never be a bag lady.” But starting to look at that persona and really examining it honestly, you realize how close we all are, and you may really be one paycheck away from that. So, it kind of forces us outside of ourselves – which we should all in a perfect world do naturally anyway. We should strive to relate to whoever it is that we meet, or we don’t meet, anyway. I mean, that’s what the human race is supposedly all about, but we don’t do that. Working in persona – if you do it enough – kind of makes that a second nature, even if it’s somebody you will never write about. You tend to take a closer look at their lives because you’re used to doing that in your creative work.
And she says:

Persona helps develop the poet’s eye. Then when you come back to yourself with that knowledge, you can write about yourself in a way that is more insightful and probing than before.
So if you're looking for something to try, write a persona poem. As Smith suggests in the interview, start from your natural curiosity. Begin from a question you want answered.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler

I am reading Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. These poems tell the story of New Orleans before, during, and after Katrina.

Personally, I've found it difficult to write "political" poems (or poems that address social concerns...which raises the question what constitutes a political poem for can't every poem be considered a political poem in some sense [i.e., the personal is political]...but that's for another post perhaps). For me it is all too easy to fall into rant or lecture mode, to lose the essence of the poem.

Smith's poems are what political poems should be because first they are poems. They are musical. They are crafted (I mean this in a positive way; I mean she has considered structure carefully so the form suits the poem). They are filled with hard evidence (singular images, convincing voices). And through these means, the poems take on the weighty topic of Katrina. She has made poems that balance beauty and substance.

Here you can listen to Smith read three poems (the third, "What Betsy Has to Say," is from Blood Dazzler).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Poetry of Place

William Stafford, in Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer's Vocation, said:

All events and experiences are local, somewhere. And all human enhancements of events and experiences--which is to say, all the arts--are regional in the sense that they derive from immediate relation to felt life.

It is this immediacy that distinguishes art. And paradoxically the more local the self that art has, the more all people can share it; for that vivid encounter with the stuff of the world is our common ground.

Artists, knowing this mutual enrichment that extends everywhere, can act, and praise, and criticize, as insiders:--the means of their art is the life of their people. And that life grows and improves by being shared. Hence, it is good to welcome any region you live in or come to or think of, for that is where life happens to be--right where you are.

This passage caught my attention because long have I been intrigued by poetry and poets of place. I have envied poets whose writing is steeped in a particular place (some associations in my mind include Philip Levine/Detroit, Susan Firer/Milwaukee, Frank O'Hara/New York, Ted Kooser/the Plains, Kathleen Norris/South Dakota). It seems like many poets have a city or region that influences their work.

No single place has infused my writing, nor do I feel like I "belong" to any particular place, perhaps because I have lived in a fair number of places. What constitutes home anyway? If I had to name one place that consistently feels most like home, southern Wisconsin (Madison/Milwaukee) would be it, though I suspect it has more to do with the fact that it's my birthplace and home to family and less to do with a connection to the place/land directly. Still it is the closest connection to a place I have (and yet it doesn't permeate my writing). All the other places I've lived, I've felt like a visitor. If I lived in Kentucky 20 more years, I would probably still feel like an outsider, perhaps contributing to why I feel inauthentic grounding my writing in a place.

What I take from Stafford is that if we are present to the place we are now (whether as a native or as a visitor), we can inhabit that place; we can serve witness to it as only individuals can.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Carnegie Center in the News

The Herald Leader had an article today about the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Read about it. Celebrate it. Support it.

Countdown to Halloween

"Bats," a poem by Paisley Rekdel.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Drink from Your Own Well

William Stafford, from Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer's Vocation:

Kierkegaard said, "Drink from your own well." And I like that, taking it to mean that each of us has an individual source for our best work, and that to reach deliberately elsewhere is to neglect something essential in our writing.

So when I get up in the morning and settle down to write, I do not reach for what is timely or in style, but for something that suggests itself to me right at the moment. It can be any trivial word or even syllable, or a sound from the trees outside, or what day it is, or that the sun is about to come up--anything. And sometimes I feel that the more trivial it seems the better, for with nothing to live up to I can relax and catch onto a current within me.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Reflecting on the Week

I have been tired (as I'm sure those around me have been too) of hearing myself complain that I haven't had time to write in recent weeks. The word that frequently escaped was balance, how I've been trying to learn how to balance the work I need to do (i.e., what I'm being paid to do), the work of daily life (you know it...laundry, dishes, yard work, phone calls, etc.), and the work I need to do (i.e., my own writing). The latter is what has been compromised. It's what always gets compromised when there are time constraints and responsibilities. Notice the complaint sneaking in.

So this week I tried a new approach. I woke one to two hours earlier than normal to write. I would probably classify as a night person, certainly not an early morning person by choice, so this was tough for me. But it worked. I resisted the urge to ignore the alarm. I pushed myself from the warm bed (surely one of the Sirens in inanimate form). I went to my favorite chair in the office. I wrote. I wrote until the time I normally wake up. It doesn't matter what I wrote; some of it is garbage, some has promise. But I am satisfied, as if a craving has been fulfilled.

I'm toying with the idea of staying up an hour or two later instead of rising earlier as perhaps that would be more in line with my body's natural rhythms. But there is something I really like about writing first thing in the morning. The mind is in the perfect state for writing...a complicated blend of foggy and clear, blurred by the dreamworld and unspoiled by the noise of the real world. This state of mind allowed me to write without judgment. Moreover, I liked writing in the dark that comes with this time of year, with only light from an adjacent room--quite congruous with the early morning quiet.

Will I be able to keep this practice? Time will tell. At least this week I'm not tired of hearing myself complain. I'm just tired.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Poetry Sites

Here are some poetry-related sites that have come to my attention recently:

Poetryvlog posts a weekly video of a poet reading his or her own poetry.

Ars Poetica shares daily poems about poetry. This blog has an interesting origin; it began when Dan Waber invited five of his favorite poets to send him an ars poetica they'd written along with the names and email addresses of five other poets. The invitations grew from there.

Mark Doty's blog is a sort of online notebook for the poet. (As a side note, I think Doty has to be one of the hippest poets out there. What other poet of his reputation [if you haven't heard, his book Fire to Fire is a finalist for the National Book Award] has a public MySpace page and blog? And I may be one of the least hip poets without a reputation for using the word "hip.")

Monday, October 20, 2008

Spot of Tea

What's a writer without her beverage of choice and a little something to nourish her? For some reason, fall equals baking to me, so last night I stayed up too late and baked biscotti, adjusting the recipe to what I had on hand. The biscotti turned out to be a nice little treat for my morning break today. To be honest, though, I typically drink my tea out of a mug but I thought my mother's tea service would make a prettier picture; it certainly made for a more elegant spot of tea.

Here's my modified (and halved) recipe (I think...like I said, it was late last night) which made 16 cookies:

Biscotti

1/4 cup and 2 tbsp sugar
1 cup flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 cup slivered almonds
3 oz. egg substitute
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350F. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add almonds. In another small bowl, whisk together the eggs and vanilla. Fold egg mixture into the dry ingredient mixture. Stir until dough is stiff. Split dough into two sections. Roll/shape each piece into a log. Place the logs on the baking sheet (I lined mine with a Silpat) and flatten slightly. Make sure to leave plenty of room between them. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let cool. Leave the oven on. Slice each log into 1/3" slices diagonally. Place (cut side down) on the baking sheet. Bake for another 20 minutes, until crispy.

Next time, I might increase the cinnamon and nutmeg and/or substitute almond extract for the vanilla.

Georgia On My Mind



Ella Fitzgerald...no one else like her.

As far as I know, Atlanta's had a dry season, just as Kentucky has. While I was visiting, the area got some much needed rain and I had actually packed an umbrella, which meant I got to walk in the rain, something I haven't done in a long time. With moderate temperatures and steady rain, my walk took me over puddled sidewalks, pine straw from longleaf pines, and iron-rich soil that muddied and ran in red rivers. Many writers walk--to clear their minds, to fill their minds, to establish a rhythm in the body that carries over to the written word--so I don't know why it surprised me how cleansing and energizing a solitary walk could be.

One of the treats of the trip was a visit to the Georgia Aquarium. While the Tennessee Aquarium still ranks number one in my book, the Georgia Aquarium offered some great exhibits, including the whale sharks. I can't find words to describe these fish. I was spell-bound. If a trip to Atlanta isn't in your future, check out the Ocean Voyager web cam, where you might spot one of the giants gliding across your screen.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

No Praise, No Blame

After reading Sherry's recent posts about William Stafford, I decided it was time to read his collections about writing poetry. The library only had Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer's Vocation so that's the one I'm reading. Turns out it is what I need to be reading right now. Stafford championed process over product. What Stafford espoused is summarized nicely in this statement of his:

A writer must write the bad poems in order to approach the good ones--finicky ways will dry up the sources.

Essentially the idea is to lower one's standards. Although I've heard (and tried to practice) this advice fairly regularly in my writing career, it still seems foreign to me (shall I say, un-American?). We are trained to set goals, make progress, achieve, have something outward to show for our labor (i.e., publications, awards for the writer). Certainly goals serve a purpose, but it is good to remember a writer is someone who writes, not someone who publishes, not even someone who writes well necessarily. By lowering or removing expectations (and as a result, nixxing those pesky, shaming, blaming voices when expectations aren't met), the writer writes for the sake of writing, for the sake of language and interaction with the language. Anything that might result from the writing process, say a finished product or publication, is just gravy.

On the flip side of "no blame" during the creative process is "no praise," no criticism or judgment of any sort. I've practiced this in the earliest stages of writing. This freedom from judgment is a critical component of Writing Practice, which in other circles is called free-writing or pre-writing. Whether in a group or alone, I have learned to turn off some of the censors/editors during the first stages of writing. However as drafts progress, as I become more committed to a piece, the internal editor becomes louder, more insistent, either drawing smiley faces or circling flaws in red ink. Okay, the editorial process cannot be shrugged entirely; sometimes I need to hear from the internal editor that I'm on the right track or that such and such construction is awkward. But I think the later stages of writing--at least sometimes--could benefit from a no praise/no blame philosophy and the open dialog with language it encourages. As simple as applying the philosophy, right (insert smiley face followed by #@##&!)?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

miller's pond, 2008, Vol. 11, Issue 1

I'm pleased to report my poem "Photograph, Summer 1981" appears in the recent issue of miller's pond. The issue includes poems by featured poet Jeff Worley as well as poems by Leatha Kendrick, one of which is one of my all-time favorites, "Talking to Liza."

Wisconsin Book Festival

The Wisconsin Book Festival starts today in Madison. This is a terrific tradition, a five-day conversation about reading, writing, and books. This year's theme is Changing Places.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Blackberry Lily, and a Correction

The blackberry lily seedpods have opened up, revealing the luscious seeds that look like blackberries (thus the plant's common name).

In September, I lamented the departure of the hummingbirds. Since then, I've spotted individual hummingbirds hovering around the feeder or the mouths of remaining flowers, the most recent sighting being Sunday. I think, each time, how rare and that surely it will be the last time this year. Odd how sometimes it takes time to recognize loss.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Spice of Life

While making dinner the other night, I was searching online for information on spices, which brought me to the Enspicelopedia. From allspice to white pepper, this online resource provides a description, uses, origin, and folklore for various spices and herbs. I especially like the folklore section (must be the writer in me). Did you know that Romans believed cinnamon's fragrance sacred and burned it at funerals? Or that the name parsley comes from the Greek word petros, meaning stone, because the plant was often found growing among rocks?

I think my delight in finding the site stems from my love of reference books...dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias. From early on, I've loved scanning reference books (and in recent years, online sites), looking for something but not knowing what. Maybe it's the brevity of the entries or the fact you can open the book to any page (hmm...sort of like poetry). Maybe it's simply my admitted love of lists.

Often when I need to jump-start a poem--whether looking for a hook to start a new poem or fresh insight to feed the revision process--I'll head to the dictionary or encyclopedia. Getting to the root of a word or event or thing clarifies the word/event/thing. Such research frequently cracks open the poem. Although I've been doing this for a while, I'm still surprised that by studying the elementary aspects of something, I can find a way to grow the poem into something quite complex and multi-layered. But life is filled with those pleasant incongruities.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pink for October

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month.

It is a reminder to show my love for the women in my life. It is a reminder to love myself. It is a reminder that we are ultimately responsible for our own health, for listening to our bodies, for caring for our bodies by practicing regular self-exams and scheduling annual mammograms at age 40+ (or earlier depending on your physician's recommendation). It is a reminder to educate myself, that I still have a lot to learn. It is a reminder to believe a cure is possible.

My mother lived her life with faith, gave her love unabashedly, and left behind hope.

Friday, October 3, 2008

20 Days for Peace and Justice

Friend, fellow writer, and Peaceways Newsletter editor Gail Koehler sent notice that the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice's 20 Days for Peace and Justice have arrived. Check out the calendar of events, which has something for everyone. Writers in the area might be interested in Writing Peace and Justice: A Reading by the Affrilachian Poets at the Carnegie Center on October 10 at 6:30 p.m.

Real change happens at the local level.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Yard of the Month

Our yard was named the neighborhood's yard of the month for October, a delightful recognition. With the gift certificate to the local nursery we received, I got some mums and pansies. I've never planted mums or pansies before, maybe because my gardening energy is usually spent by the time fall comes around. This year, the garden required very little maintenance so I had fun getting my hands dirty once more. The additional color really brightens up the garden beds.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Follow Your Bliss

It has become a popular catch phrase, follow your bliss (I first heard this advice when I was graduating high school), so I was interested to learn where it originated. Joseph Campbell, whose writing and teaching have been on my mind of late, said:
I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time - namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.
I've found it's pretty easy to fall off the track of the life one ought to be living (or never get on the track for those who start from less than desirable circumstances or can't imagine their bliss). And I do suspect that when I'm not following my bliss I'm more susceptible to getting off track. Still part of me believes there is no one right track, no wrong track either, maybe no limitation to a single bliss. The entire journey informs us; it's how we use what we learn, how we make corrections, in order to live to our fullest potential. But maybe these are just different sides of the same gem stone. Read more about following your bliss.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The New York Quarterly - Issue 64

Issue 64 of The New York Quarterly is now available, and I'm pleased to report that my poem "Running at Daybreak" is included.

The issue, aside from being chock full of poems, features craft interviews with Marge Piercy and and David Lehman as well as essays on the present state of American poetry.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Joseph Campbell and Myth

This weekend I watched the remainder of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. It took me quite a while to get through this two-disc program, partly because it's hard to find six hours to devote to anything, partly because when I did make time, I found myself frequently pausing and replaying sections so I could write notes. I remember wondering how Campbell could clearly articulate so many thoughts and ideas wordlessly residing inside me. Even the ideas contradictory to my own helped me to understand my own reasoning. He also raised many new concepts, which I want to think and read about further.

Some random paraphrased snippets from the program:
  • The influence of a vital person vitalizes.
  • One should seek the experience of being alive, not seek the meaning of life.
  • Consider intention (aesthetic) versus nature (expressive)...the beauty of a spider's web comes out of the spider's nature.
  • Myths and dreams come from realizations, find expression in symbolic form.
  • Myths need to change as the world changes. The world is changing too fast for new mythology.
  • Art reveals through the object the radiance, speaks to the order in one's own life.
  • There could be no relationship with that which is absolute other (lots in the program about dualities...male/female, man/god, good/evil, man/nature, love/pain).
  • Images/symbols of myth are reflections and potentialities of all of us.
  • Myth, like poetry, attempts to say what cannot be said with words.
  • Poetry is a language that has to be penetrated...it opens, doesn't shut you off...it is the precise choosing of words that has implications past the words.
  • Your (image of) god is your ultimate barrier to the transcendent experience.
  • This moment now is the heavenly moment.
  • One must have a sacred place.
  • Myths are basically the same all over the world, in separate cultures and separate time periods...two possibilities for this are diffusion (mythology travels with traditions that travel through cultures) and the human psyche is essentially the same all over the world.
As I reread these and my other notes, I realize the effect has been diminished, the meaning blurred. It's like eating just the cherry off the top of a sundae. So if you're curious after this post, read Campbell's work or watch the PBS program, listen to these ideas directly from the source, devour the whole dessert. I ate and am more ravenous for it.

The First of Autumn

To Autumn

by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How I See It

Check out my Mr. Picassohead, site created by Ruder Finn Interactive, which I came across by way of Sherry.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Purpose

A thought that inevitably surfaces when you are a poet is why...that is, why write poetry? With so many people who write poetry and so few who read it, I sometimes wonder why should I add to the surplus of this medium?

Sherry Chandler wrote a post related to this recently and what struck me most was this:

If, like the monks who pray at Gethsemane to restore balance to the world, I choose to spend my life as an obscure poet, nourishing my own human spirit and with luck a few readers’, then who is to say that is not a worthy thing to do, whether or not I leave an individual mark on the world at large.

Of course! Why I never thought of it this way before, I don't know, given my Catholic upbringing and its orders of secluded nuns. Absolutely, the world needs the sisters (and the secular) who live and work within our communities, but as much of a critic as I can be, I also (need to) believe that the world also needs those secluded nuns sending forth their silent prayers.

On a related note, this weekend my Netflix adventure was disc one of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the long-ago PBS series where Bill Moyers interviewed Campbell, the now-late legendary thinker and teacher. I'm still digesting their discussion and hope to write more about it, but for now I'll focus on the part related to this post. Campbell suggests the artist's function is the mythologization of her environment. This turns everything upside-down for me, in a very good way. For far too long, I've looked at myth as something of the past, something unchangeable. But here's a directive that I, as an artist, am responsible for creating new myths. And, as Campbell points out, the world is in desperate need of new myths that meet the needs of our contemporary society.

Campbell also likens the poet to the shaman of primitive societies, for both share a unique connection to the universe and act as intermediary between the visible world and its invisible plane.

Now, let me be clear, I'm not suggesting I have shaman-esque capabilities or the sanctity of secluded nuns, but Campbell's message and Sherry's post came at one of those times when I was feeling frustrated with the limitations of a poet, the only real role I've felt "called" to do. I guess I'm saying I take my messages of affirmation any way I can get them.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Poem for the Season

Linda Pastan's "The Months" on the Poetry Foundation web site.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Signs of Autumn

While I haven't actually caught the scent of the imminent season in the air yet, I'm taking note of its first indications.

It looks like the hummingbirds have left the area. I'm always caught surprised by their departure, wishing I could give them a proper send-off with hearty thanks for being such pleasant summer guests. Berries are ripening on the beautyberry and winterberry bushes, flushing with color. I can almost see the winterberry's blush deepen every time I look upon it. The bees and butterflies have lighted in a frenzy upon the rose-colored flowers of the aptly named Autumn Joy sedum.

Indoors, it's time again for watching football. And for a renewed desire for learning, for reading and for becoming more informed, for words, resplendent words. Yes, all signs that autumn is about to make its entrance.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Coppelia

Watership Down

I'm beginning to think I'm living in a fantasy world ruled by rabbits. Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. They have no interest in the neighbor's traps. And why would they when their world is filled with luscious goodies? The guy who designed/installed our landscaping said I should consider them natural pruners. Surprisingly, though there seem to be more rabbits nestled into the neighborhood this year, the plants generally seem to be heartier and healthier than in previous years. I can only assume the garden is enjoying its natural pruning.

Monday, August 25, 2008

More on the Sonnet

In An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, Marilyn Hacker notes about the Italian sonnet "that all these versions of the sonnet almost predicate a poem whose "argument" divides into two parts, a premise set out in the octave (first eight lines), with the sestet contradicting it, modifying it, or giving a concrete proof."

The volta, or turn, seems to be the essential element that makes a sonnet a sonnet. Meter might vary, a couple lines might be added or subtracted, rhyming might be slant or varied or even non-existent, but most poet-critics suggest the turn is a requirement.

Hacker also says (specifically about sequences of sonnets):

Its Italian form is very like a mixture of the two most flexible and utilitarian "blocks" of verse narrative: the quatrain and terza rima.

And she summarizes the sonnet as (in regards to its origins and contemporary applications):

a poem in "popular" language that could be read or written by anyone (not only clerics and scholars) and that incited its writers to fresh examination of their evolving languages' interactions with the human world.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Sonnet

I have two sonnets in need of revision, of re-envisioning; thus, one thing I'm contemplating lately is the form of the sonnet. What constitutes a sonnet, or "little song?" How can I develop my sonnets into fully realized poems while maintaining their sonnet qualities?

Tony Barnstone writes in A Manifesto on the Contemporary Sonnet: A Personal Aesthetics (featured in The Cortland Review, December 2006):

Poets set sail like Columbus, unsure whether they would sail forever, sail off the waterfalling edge of a flat world, or encounter India or other new worlds. There is something comforting about knowing the destination of your journey. Sonnet-mariners know they will arrive at a port after a voyage of fourteen lines. With free verse, one travels into the fog, and must map the world again with every poem. With free verse one has to ask each time, "What makes this a poem?" Why should I break my line here and not there? What sort of stanza shape and length should I have? What voice shall I speak in, with what attitude, with what rhetoric, with what image structure? We have to come up with organic ways of making it poetry, because the mechanic form has been dispensed with.

Working in form (sonnets or otherwise) gives me a compass and the comfort that there is a destination ahead. I'm envious of the free-verse poets who can write beautifully and clearly without maps. Recently even my poems that end up in free verse tend to start in form. Without some breathable shape, my writing borders on prosaic thoughts broken into lines. Furthermore, form helps write the poem. Rhyme, in particular, leads me to what the poem is trying to say. I might arrive at the same place in free verse, but form tends to get me there in a more direct, unexpected, and interesting way. (Bardstone's essay addresses rhyme and rhyme devices in detail...worth reading if you're interested in that sort of thing.)

Barnstone proposes a number of ways of approaching the sonnet, one of the most interesting being to "transform sonnets in English into sonnets in English":

I found that approaching the sonnet as a translation game was a very generative creative mode. The translator wears the skin of the author. It is a kind of spirit possession. In my own work, I have learned much about traditional form by wearing the skin of the Chinese sonneteer Feng Zhi, of Petrarch, and of Borges. In addition to learning their techniques in the process of translating their poems into sonnets in English, I have developed a technique of transformation that I have attempted to apply intralingually as well as interlingually. I might, for example, work from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, using some of his rhymes and filling in my own lines, or write poems in direct conversation with the imagery of a source poem.

I think I may be too far along with my two sonnets in question to start from the translation/transformation approach, but I think it is an interesting approach to play with to generate new poems.

What I need to do is study my sonnets--map out the routes they took, look at the destinations they arrived at--then see if I can improve upon the routes and destinations.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Archaic Torso of Apollo

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Secret Garden

I realized I haven't written about the garden recently, which is probably largely due to the fact I haven't done much work in the garden recently (because the garden hasn't needed much work recently). It's probably also because there are no "star" bloomers right now, no plants that draw attention away from all the others. But as I was sitting on the swing this evening, it dawned on me that the garden hurries on, even when I'm not noticing. As I've been enjoying fresh strawberries, reading on the swing, watching hummingbirds zipper and butterflies coast through the sky, chancing upon a praying mantis guarding the fuchsia in a hanging basket, it's been happening. Summer is marching to its inevitable end. The school buses have returned. The ornamental grasses are gathering their plumes. The sun puts on its nightly show earlier each evening. Here's to being mindful of the show.

The Love Letter. A Dying Art?

I came across this article about love letters by way of the Arts Journal. There's something about a love letter. But maybe that's just because I'm a writer. I like the idea of love transcribed on stationery--handwritten exclamations (or subtle declarations) creased and stuffed in an envelope, dropped in the post (perhaps after much deliberation), and shuttled across distance to bring together two people.

I remember being so tickled when I found my parents' love letters, written so many years earlier when my parents were not my parents but two young kids testing out their romance, my father pursuing my slightly aloof mother (and--gasp--there was a chance I might not be born). Reading those innocent letters felt part archeological dig, part invasion of privacy, and part exhilaration at being privy to, however remotely, the development of a relationship (particularly one so important to me).

I suspect, as the article suggests, that the love letter, written on honest-to-goodness paper, is a thing of the past (still, S. and I met through letters written while we were at different schools, and though that's in the past too, it doesn't seem quite so far in the past). But, then, I suspect letter writing in general is a thing of the past. Why write a letter when you can send an e-mail or text message? Don't get me wrong...I love the electronic age. But there's nothing like opening the mailbox to find something other than bills and catalogs. There's nothing like holding a letter in your hands and later storing it away in an old shoebox. There's nothing like reading words inked in the penmanship of someone who loves you. There's nothing like sitting down to write back.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Artistic Space

The other day, Lori-Lyn wrote a post on her blog The Dream Life about writing spaces and it has stayed with me. I tend to float around from room to room, as projects develop or seasons shift or my mood changes (my cat does this too, finding a favorite spot for a few weeks at a time). The age of the laptop makes this even easier, though I wonder why I don't roam even farther, to the patio outside or library or local coffee shop, instead choosing to stay somewhat anchored inside the house.

When I'm daydreaming about the "perfect" house, it usually has a large shed (small barn?) at the back of the lot, a place separate from but close to my living space. It would have windows (natural light is a must in my daydream), at least one wall of solid, beautiful bookshelves, a comfy, oversize chair for reading, a large table to work at with plenty of space on top to spread papers out and plenty of space below for my legs (I'm constantly knocking my knees on my current desk...perhaps that's part of the reason I move around the house), and of course wi-fi connectivity for that laptop I drag around.

While having a good and beautiful place to work is nice, I try to remember it is not necessary to write. Writing happens anywhere we make it happen.

Still it's fun to daydream. So...what's your artistic space, whether real or imagined?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Personal Narrative V. Lyrical

Recently I've been thinking about the differences between, for lack of better terms, the personal narrative poem and the lyrical poem. What I mean by personal narrative and lyrical is: poems that surface from personal experience/events and poems that do not surface from personal experience/events, respectively (which leads me to ask, Isn't every poem personal to the poet, but now I really am rambling).

Though I've mostly written the personal narrative, I've had an underlying desire to move away from the narrative to the lyrical, and in the last few months my poems have moved in this direction. The question that follows is, Why? Why do I think this shift might lead to better poems? Why do I mistrust the personal narrative? Why has my work shifted in this direction, because I'm willing it or because it's a natural progression?

Some initial thoughts:
  • Sometimes I have a hard time believing my personal narrative could be universal. As with all artists, poets are trying to speak to a wide audience, to connect with them, to transform their personal ideas and experiences into something that resonates with a multitude of readers/listeners. A tiny voice sometimes chips its way into my head, suggesting no one is interested in reading about my experience dealing with my mother's cancer. Still, it is frequently the personal narrative poetry of other poets that I'm drawn to.
  • I'm often labeled a women's poet, for good or for ill. A woman's personal narrative is sometimes discounted. (I realize this is a very general statement that is likely to incite intense emotions, thus my reason for not expanding on it. It is too unwieldy for me to deal with at this time, but it is a thought I've had so I wanted to record it.)
  • The personal narrative, rising from real life experience, does something to the memory of that real life experience. In writing experience down, attempting to bring some permanence or insight, the writer inevitably changes the memory of the experience. Of course, even without writing, memory is never the same as the actual experience. But the process of writing, purposefully revisiting and reshaping, further alters the memory. I find it comparable to taking a photograph. In one sense it helps preserve the experience. On the other hand, as the memory/writing gains energy and power, the actual experience loses that energy/power.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Prompt

Raised Catholic, I continue to be intrigued by the tradition and ritual of the Catholic church, its saints and sacraments, its popes and Purgatory, and on and on. The imagery of this tradition frequently appears in my creative writing. So here's a writing prompt--good for writers of all genres--that rises from this intrigue.

Write a confession. It might be a first-person narrative or dramatic monologue. It might be heavy or humorous. It might be a long-kept secret or widely known fact. It might be directed to someone specific or the world at large. It might be none of these things. The goal, as with any prompt, is to play, to follow whatever trails the writing leads us to.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Black Swan Pas de Deux

For my senior-year performance, I danced the role of Odile in the Black Swan pas de deux of Swan Lake. Recently I've been thinking about the role and the ballet once again as I've been working on a poem off and on for some months about Odile. She's a tricky character to get right, both on the stage and in this poem. Perhaps watching the dance repeatedly will generate new sparks.

Added: American Ballet Theatre
Gillian Murphy as Odile, with Angel Corella
Marcello Gomes as Von Rothbart


World-Wonder

While hiking in the Red River Gorge this weekend, I surprised myself with my world-wonder. Everything seemed new. Everything seemed camera-worthy. I probably frustrated S. with my frequent stops to snap a picture of some mushroom or tree or river rock.

Hiking this year has been markedly different from last year. Last year we had an extreme drought and consistently hot, humid days. This year the weather has been lovely, the best summer the area has had since we moved here. Though precipitation is still below normal, it has not been as drastically low as last summer.

Following a stream into the forest, crisscrossing the little creek several times, we hiked a trail that was new to us. The trail smelled of damp forest floor and smoky, smoldering campfires from the night before. At the top of a bluff, we stopped and lounged on a rock, our hunger fed by granola bars, our thirst quenched by water, our restlessness quieted by the peace of the place. The breeze rippling through the trees sounded so much like the water running through the stream below.

During the first half of the hike, we crossed paths a couple times with a man from Lexington. I'm guessing he was in his seventies. Bravo! I thought as some of the terrain was quite steep and challenging.

At a certain point we knew we'd have to turn around and backtrack out since continuing forward would be far too long for us, given the time, food, and water we had remaining. I was despondent. I wanted to see new parts of the trail, new mushrooms and trees and rocks. However, I was also fatigued and famished by this point. The second granola bar and more water would have to do, and my thoughts returned to the man in his seventies, driving his walking stick into the ground before him, moving forward. When the energy kicked in, I realized I was still moving forward too, one foot in front of the other, and to my delight, the return trip was new. How did I miss that yellow flower growing out of the stream edge the first time through? How did I miss those water skimmers clipping across the water's surface? How did I miss that particular music of our boots shifting the river rocks as we crisscrossed the creek? How could I think my world-wonder would leave me?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ghost Forms

If you have about an hour and are interested in how traditional form influences free verse, listen to Katie Ford's talk "Ghost Forms: Using Traditional Form in Free Verse." You might have heard similar points made before (such as how the turn is essential to sonnets and nonce sonnets), but the contemporary examples Ford cites make the presentation original (at least for me). The title of her talk is borrowed from what Roethke had to say on the subject, which I think bears repeating:

Behind every free verse poem there is the ghost of a form.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mammoth Cave

What is the attraction of a cave? S. and I went to Mammoth Cave and toured through part of the cave system open to visitors. Early guide Stephen Bishop called the cave a "grand, gloomy, and peculiar place," and that's about as good a description as any. On the four-mile, four and a half hour Grand Avenue tour, we walked through gypsum lined passages, narrow canyons, underground hills, large rooms, and areas with dripstone formations. We experienced dry caves and wet caves. We saw cave crickets and bats. We learned about the geology, ecology, and history of the cave system.

Long have humans been fascinated with the cave, given the names of past visitors on cave walls, those from the mid-nineteenth century that had been charred on the cave with candle smoke and those from more recent periods that had been etched in the limestone, as well as given the artifacts that have been found, including Native American tools and bones.

I think I would have enjoyed the cave more if we could have explored it on our own, although I understand the reasons the group tours are a necessity (cave preservation and visitor safety). I found it hard to appreciate the full effect of the cave in a group of 80. Two of my favorite moments on the tour were when the lights went out. The first time was accidental as we were walking through Cleaveland Avenue. The second time the rangers turned out the lights and requested silence for a moment while we were seated on benches in a large room (Aerobridge Canyon, I think). That is when I came closest to understanding the cave: in total darkness, enveloped by the earth, nearly 300 feet below the surface, with only the sound of my own blood rushing through my body.

Perhaps there is some connection to why I'm a writer. I get a similar thrill writing--entering darkness and solitude and silence, where I must rely on my imagination to reveal the light and the sounds of humanity.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Donald Hall

I finally got around to reading a Paris Review interview with Donald Hall, which I came across on the magazine's web site and bookmarked several months ago. The interview is from 1991 (so I'm further behind on my reading than I thought), but parts of the interview speak to what I've been pondering lately. I'm particularly interested in what Hall had to say about his process:

...I begin with a loose association of images, a scene, and a sense that somewhere in this material is something I don’t yet understand that wants to become a poem. I write out first drafts in prosaic language—flat, no excitement. Then very slowly, over hundreds of drafts, I begin to discover and exploit connections—between words, between images. Looking at the poem on the five-hundredth day, I will take out one word and put in another. Three days later I will discover that the new word connects with another word that joined the manuscript a year back.

Hall, a devoted reviser (hundreds of drafts!), also says:

First drafts of anything are difficult for me. I prefer revising, rewriting. I’m not the kind of writer like Richard Wilbur or Thomas Mann who finishes one segment before going on to another. Wilbur finishes the first line before he starts the second. I lack the ability to judge myself except over many drafts and usually over years. Revising, I go through a whole manuscript over and over and over. Some short prose pieces I’ve rewritten fifteen or twenty times; poems get up to two hundred fifty or three hundred drafts. I don’t recommend it, but for me it seems necessary. And I do more drafts as I get older.

And:

Today when I begin writing I’m aware: something that I don’t understand drives this engine. Why do I pick this scene or image? Within the action of kicking the leaves something was weighted, freighted, heavy with feeling—and because I kept writing, kept going back to the poem, eventually the under-feeling that unified the detail came forward in the poem. The process is discovering by revision, uncovering by persistence.

Yes! I sometimes think there's an overemphasis on creation and not enough attention to revision, which is just as magical, if not more so.

Hall also talked about the passage of time and its effect on him as a poet:

I’m more patient now. When I was in my twenties, I wanted to write many poems. I had goals; when I reached them, they turned out to be not worth reaching. When you begin, you think that if you could just publish a few poems, you’d reach your desire; then if you could publish in a good magazine; then if you could publish a book; then . . . When you’ve done these things you haven’t done anything. The desire must be, not to write another dozen poems, but to write something as good as the poems that originally brought you to love the art. It’s the only sensible reason for writing poems. You’ve got to keep your eye on what you care about: to write a poem that stands up with Walt Whitman or Andrew Marvell.

Okay, so I'm still impatient and I still desire publication of my book. However, there are moments of simplicity when the outside world (its charms and lures, its criticism and cold shoulder, its fleeting praise) falls away and I'm only concerned with the work at hand, with writing a poem that can stand up.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Style

What's on my mind now is style. What makes a poet recognizable? Many poets, particularly the "big name" ones, have a distinct style. Give me uncredited, unknown poems of certain poets and I think I could match the poets to their poems. But what constitutes a poet's style? Form (and I mean this loosely...form, not Form)? Tone? Imagery? Language? A bit of all of these, perhaps. There is something else, though, something that's undefinable.

I don't think I have a distinct style, which makes me wonder...am I lesser poet for this? have I not established a style yet or is it my style to have no recognizable style? Maybe I'm too close to the work and can't label my own style.

As I write this post I realize I'm not really saying anything, just talking to myself. I feel better when I consider that talking to oneself is something we all do, and more than that, it's useful. Talking to oneself helps sort out one's thoughts and feelings. In Writing Poems, Robert Wallace says:

Talking to oneself, literally, like Wordsworth on the footpath with his terrier, may be a help in keeping the poem going.

and later:

Enjoying the sound of his or her own voice, sculpting, relishing, caressing the unfinished poem is part of the job, one of the tools.

So, too, sculpting, relishing, caressing the unfinished thought is part of living. Having talked to myself about style, I'll be ready to receive "the answer" when it comes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Crocosmia

Krokos (saffron, in Greek) + osme (smell) = crocosmia, whose dried leaves apparently smell like saffron. I'll have to crush the dried leaves this winter and test this etymology.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Poet's View -- Kay Ryan

This clip gives you a little taste of Kay Ryan, recently appointed the country's poet laureate.

And here you can read some of her work, though the selection doesn't include one of my favorite poems by her, "Cheshire." For that you'll have to buy or check out from your local library Say Uncle.

Second Opinion

Leatha Kendrick’s Second Opinion (David Roberts Books, 2008) begins with a poem that acknowledges “I still desire what’s gone. What I’m leaving” and ends with a poem titled “What You Leave Me.” Between these bookends the poet explores the equally expansive subjects of loss and joy, often within a single poem.

Covering such ground in a single collection, a lesser poet might come across as unfocused or artificial. In the hands of Kendrick, this expansiveness is seamless, even essential. Kendrick invites the reader into familial relationships and imagery of the home, native landscape, and body in a way that both illuminates and transcends the personal experience.

She shares an acute awareness of the past, the uncertainty of the future, and the mischievous hands of time, but above all she insists on the present. From “Into Flame”:

My body brittle, dry with age,
I break out of sleep aflame,
remember every spring—
they all come down to this one.

One of the most haunting poems for me is “In Passing” with its gritty voice and a face that doesn’t turn away from the harshest realities:

...
I don’t have so much
as a nickel’s worth
of advice to spend on you


or on anyone, now death’s
resident already
in my flesh, insisting


on her solid, if misshapen,
reality. I’ve got to say
only what is necessary,


things like, What a meal
that was! How’s the wife
been feeling? Isn’t this
a gorgeous day?

The poems that play within the boundaries of traditional form and the poems that fall into the category of free verse have a clear and definite sense of form and language. “Threshold,” a double sonnet, takes a fresh look at the mothering of daughters, from when the poet “held my daughters, cradled / like sprays, bouquets extravagant of flowers” to the present day when “Together we wrestle / separate futures, listen for the rustle, / breathing through the line.” Even in these small snippets, Kendrick’s command of sound and delight in word play, characteristic of the collection, shine through.

The poems of Second Opinion are at once heart stopping and heart racing. As is the case with all things of the heart, the poems overflow with love and honesty.

Ginger and the Mockingbird

Ginger is finally getting some much needed rest.

Her excitement began a couple weeks ago when a mockingbird began patrolling the yard. It seemed like a strange courting ritual. The mockingbird perched on the deck railing, singing to Ginger and frequently swooping down in front of her, flapping its wings. My ever-brave cat alternated between hunching before the glass door, making guttural noises, and backing up into the corner, behind the blinds.

Of course, in reality this was no love affair, only an indoor cat and very aggressive bird with an active nest nearby. I think we probably had multiple mockingbird nests this year, but I only found the nest in the hawthorn tree, where a pair nested last year as well. I counted three or four yellow beaks opening like flowers before I was dive-bombed by an adult bird. This week the nest sits empty and Ginger's feathered suitor no longer visits her.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The River Birch Revises Its Life

Sometimes disparate parts of my life come together in surprising ways. Or maybe not so surprising, since we humans seem inherently drawn to metaphor. We want to see connections. Maybe we even need such connections to survive.

This afternoon the guy who designed and developed much of our landscaping stopped by to take a look around. We had a look at the river birch, which has a few clumps that look distinctly different from the rest of the tree. These clumps have smaller, drier, more condensed leaf clusters. Upon closer investigation, Daniel determined these clumps belong to the original tree, the one with a root ball that came from a nursery. The rest of the tree--the healthier, larger part (that looks like the main tree now)--is actually from an offshoot that grew after being planted and adjusting to the soil.

Then this evening in Leatha's revision class, she pointed out that sometimes we must abandon the original impulse of the poem to find a truer, better poem--the real poem. What a challenge for most of us! Particularly if the original impulse has some nice language or images, if it looks like a real poem. Sometimes we can develop a poem only so far using the original impulse and thus must follow the offshoot that becomes the real poem.

I tell myself: remember the river birch.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Notes from the Garden in July

While I was outside grilling salmon (my first attempt at cooking fish at home--which turned out pretty well, by the way), I was delighted by the first hummingbird I've seen this season. The last couple years the hummingbirds have tended to show up at the end of summer, stopping by briefly to drill nectar from the last flowering wells before heading further south. Yesterday's bird darted around the crocosmia and hosta then darted away just as quickly. This morning I set out the nectar feeder with hopes of enticing the visitor to return and stay a while.

On another note, I'm once again being defeated by the Japanese beetles. Every year I battle them. Every year they win. They are especially vicious to our Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. I pick them off and drown them every evening, and last week I even broke down and sprayed the tree with insecticide. Still the beetles persist, eating away until only filigree vestiges of leaves remain. I know the Walking Stick looks best in winter--when it's naked and can show off its gnarled shape--but that doesn't mean it needs to be bare the whole year. My neighbor has resorted to trying the traps, even though there are reports that traps only draw more beetles to the area. Thus far, the beetles seem no worse, nor no better, than previous years. So I go on, my only satisfaction watching the little devils come to their end in a bucket of water.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Memorable Evening

The Carnegie Center reading last night was, as I expected, a lovely event. The only way it could have been lovelier would have been to have a larger number of guests in the audience. About a dozen staff members and instructors read, and I am humbled and honored to have been included with such a talented group of writers. Although we largely read to each other and our devoted family and friends, the reading was proof that amazing things happen at the CCLL every day.

There was a little bit of something for everyone last night--poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction; humorous pieces, poignant pieces, and gut-wrenching pieces. The line-up included memorable pieces from Leatha Kendrick and Neil Chethik, former and current CCLL writers-in-residence, as well as stunning "farewell" pieces from Rachel Noble and Randi Ewing, members of KaPow!, who are leaving for MFA programs in the fall.

What stays with me most is the feeling I often have after spending time at the Carnegie Center--a feeling that is part joy, part peace, part gratitude.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell

My father has said that this might be his favorite dance number from a musical, and I could easily concur. I could watch this clip over and over. Tap was never my strength as a dancer; I only studied it for a couple years, but I found it to be a tremendously fun (and challenging) dance form. I love the intricate sounds the shoes can make. In fact, I'm not sure I could listen to the song of this dance number without hearing the accompanying music made by Astaire and Powell, so intertwined are they now.

Monday, July 7, 2008

First Poems

For Leatha Kendrick's Revision as Regeneration class this week, she has asked us to bring in the poem that first made us want to be a poet.

I'm not sure I can pinpoint one poem that made me want to be a poet. Perhaps the nearest thing I can do is reflect on the poems that I've stashed away as part of my earliest remembrances of "getting" poetry, or rather having it "get" me; these poems were among the first to take hold, steering me into the language of other poets and poems (and eventually the desire to be a poet):

Sunday, July 6, 2008

CCLL Reading

On Friday, July 11 at 6:30 p.m. the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning is hosting a staff/instructor reading. Come listen to recent work by some of CCLL's staff and instructors (including yours truly).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

truth and Truth

Thanks to my sis-in-law for passing on a post from the blog Measure for Measure: How to Write a Song and Other Mysteries. In the entry to which I've linked Rosanne Cash talks about truth (and Truth) in lyrics:

I always sputter that the songs aren’t a diary, a blog or a therapy session. I’ve never had a fact-checker come in to go over my lyrics. I haven’t worked through all my childhood issues and achieved enlightenment through songwriting. I can write whatever I want, and I’m the only one who knows what is indeed fact (or at least my version of fact…you see the problem?) and what is poetic license.

Conversely, where am I supposed to get inspiration, if not from my own life? Television? (Yes, I can have it both ways: “Consistency is the last resort of the unimaginative.” — Oscar Wilde).


Yes, a resounding yes! I shout as this hits home for a poet. Certainly poems (often) rise out of the personal experience, but in the process of making a poem out of the experience, the poet strives for something greater than the truth of the moment; she is seeking the Truth. The root of poetry is poiesis, which means "to make." The experience (or image or whatever) on the page can never be exactly like it was in Real Life. Our hope, then, as poets, must be to make the poem as good as it can be, to be accountable to the poem's deep Truth.

Not to say this is always easy for me. Sometimes I will cling to a detail that is not quite working in the poem but that feels important to me. That's when it's helpful to have trusted readers, readers who want the work to be its best, as well as time because time creates distance and distance helps with objectivity. I find it's also important to ask myself why I cannot let go of that detail. Maybe it belongs in the poem but hasn't been said in just the right way yet. Simply slashing through a poem is a dangerous method of revision. I'm not opposed to cutting as long as I understand why I'm doing so. Or maybe I am hanging onto the detail because of the experience in Real Life and not the experience in the poem. Regardless, I should be able to justify every element, every choice I've made, in a poem.

Cash's entry winds around to other related topics and is worth reading in its entirety.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Visiting the Islands

The images from St. Thomas were so striking, so colorful and rich, and yet as time passes I find myself depending on the photographs to supplement my faulty memory. (Ah memory--shifting, shifty, shadowy, and misshapen--but that is for another post at another time.)

One thing I wasn't prepared for (probably because it's a U.S. territory) was that the island seemed more run-down than I expected. One taxi driver said (without our asking--so he could have told us anything, or nothing) that the island is much better off than the islands that do not receive U.S. funds. And I imagine part of the run-down quality is the very nature of any island; it is isolated, with limited natural resources, and it's expensive to get goods in and out.

Still, one image that came to mind was Eric Fischl's "A Visit To/A Visit From The Island." Certainly, Fischl's painting is the extreme, a diptych with the purpose of exposing issues of class and race. The visitors around us were not indolent (nor nude) and the islanders were not refugees washed up on the beach. So I must ask myself why my mind made an association with the painting. I suppose because there was a sense of two separate worlds, one of the vacationers visiting and having a good time, one of the islanders working and going about daily life. Doesn't this sense permeate any location that's a vacation destination, where tourists flit in and out on holiday, the natives' livelihood? I think what troubled me was I could not see what the vacationers' money funded. It's not cheap to visit St. Thomas (partly that island thing again--hard to get items in and out), but I would have felt better if it looked like the working class was benefiting from the money spent on its island.

More and more I see the issue of class (more than gender or race or any other) as the one we need to address most.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Garden's Labor

During my brief visit with my Dad, we went to the Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnall Park. It's been years since I've been to the gardens, which are one of the highlights of the Milwaukee county park system. Years ago, the park included a section with thousands and thousands of tulips, each year carefully planted according to various color schemes. Since it's well past tulip season, we didn't venture to that part of the park.

However, the roses were in their glory, as well as many of the perennials. Two specimens seared in my mind's eye were the alliums with their enormous flowering globes and the 'Sum and Substance' hosta with its massive leaves.

The garden's web site includes this bit of history:

Two federal programs having the greatest impact on Whitnall Park (and other parks as well) were the Civilian Conservation Corps, more commonly referred to as the CCC, and the Works Progress Administration, or the WPA.

And these days, much of the upkeep is at the hands of volunteers, so says Dad (who also reminds me the volunteer community is an essential vertebra in the backbone that is America's workforce). Thus I am reminded gardens and people go hand-in-hand; each shapes and cultivates the other.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Meditation on a Meditative Form--The Villanelle

I met with a couple of the lovely and talented writers of KaPow! yesterday to discuss two villanelles I had written recently. (Poets.org gives this explanation of the form.) As we were talking about the form, I was trying to articulate why the form sometimes works so well. Because eight of the 19 lines are repeated lines and the entire poem hinges on two rhymes, it seems to me that when a villanelle works:
  • The repeated lines change or deepen in meaning as the poem progresses.
  • The variable lines support and push on the repeated lines.
  • Much energy comes from the union of the repeated and variable lines.
  • Its subject matter is usually not narrative in nature but meditative.
For me, this last point is important. In much of my poetry, particularly free-verse, I am trying to get from point A to point B in a clear and linear manner (blame my training as a technical writer). However, this is probably impossible to do with the villanelle. Its nature is to double-back and wind around an idea. So the villanelle seems an especially apt form to work in when I have a subject that I need to meditate on, a subject that feels more like prayer or song than story.

In An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Artists Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art (The University of Michigan Press), Maxine Kumin concludes about the contemporary villanelle:

It's my thesis that we don't need to ossify these ancient French forms by slavish imitation. We can enliven and enhance them with our own approximations. By resorting to the ingenuities of our own time and place, American poets in the last fifty years have turned a stultifying and restrictive form into an elastic, even gymnastic one. Perhaps in the twenty-first century others will remake the villanelle in ways as yet unthought of.

An excellent point of which I need to remind myself from time to time. When I work in form, my goal is to let the form be flexible, elastic, let the form serve the poem and not the other way around, but sometimes, particularly during the revision process, I lose this flexibility and find my allegiance has shifted from the poem to the form. I think there is a way (there must be!) to honor the spirit of the form while maintaining the integrity of the poem. Such is my quest.

Here are some of my favorite villanelles:

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Poems Speak to Us...If We Listen

If you're lucky, you'll read a line in a poem and know it is speaking directly to you. That's how I felt when I read these lines at the end of Linda Pastan's poem "Women on the Shore":

If death is everywhere we look,
at least let's marry it to beauty.

This could be the manifesto of why I write poetry. Read the whole poem here.

My Fair Lady - See for Yourself

The end of "I could have danced all night" as well as the beginning of the Ascot scene.

My Fair Lady

Last week I caught the last half of My Fair Lady (1964 version) on television. I've already noted that I love musicals (though strangely not the new ones), and My Fair Lady ranks right at the top. While it doesn't have dancing, which is one of the elements I adore about musicals, it does have Audrey Hepburn, with whom I've been enamored for years. And though there are no elaborate dance scenes, it is one of the most stylistic and carefully choreographed musicals I can think of, from how the characters stand to how they move through a scene to how they interact with one another. The Ascot scene in particular stands out in my mind as a feast for the eyes.

One thing that has troubled me over the years is how I can love the movie when the story makes me a little uncomfortable. The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, which in turn was inspired by Ovid's Metamorphosis. Wikipedia gives this plot summary for the movie:

Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), an arrogant, irascible professor of phonetics, boasts to a new acquaintance, Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), that he can teach any woman to speak so "properly" that he could pass her off as a duchess. The person whom he is shown thus teaching is one Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), a young woman with a strong Cockney accent who is selling flowers on the street. Having overheard Higgins's boast, Eliza finds her way to the professor's house and offers to pay for speech lessons, so that she can work in a flower shop. Pickering is intrigued and wagers that Higgins cannot back up his claim; Higgins takes Eliza on free of charge as a challenge to his skills.

My feminist perspective makes me feel a little guilty for loving this movie. Take, for example, the song "A Hymn to Him," in which Henry Higgins sings to Colonel Pickering, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" I have conflicting feelings about the ending as well, when Eliza returns to Henry (I make the assumption that she stays), though we know he'll never change. What heartens me is that Eliza is as hard-headed as Henry, so I feel she'll give right back what she takes. Also, I sort of like that it's not the ending in the play. In Pygmalion, Eliza marries Freddy, the young, eager man who falls in love with Eliza, though she doesn't feel the same way. While this is a more realistic ending, it has its own lamentable implications, specifically that Eliza marries out of necessity and lack of choice (and choice, in my opinion, is at the heart of feminism). As Eliza tells Henry, "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else." As much as the story brings up issues of women's equality, it also takes on class issues--how language and accent contribute to the distinction of classes.

Maybe that's why I love this musical so much...because it challenges me. At the same time it delights me with its sights and sounds. I could have danced all night.