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. ( 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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Garden Revisited

The magnolia and catalpa of two weeks ago.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Accent?

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Midland
The Northeast
The South
North Central
The West
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

This is extremely funny to me. My husband and I are convinced we speak standard English without an accent. But folks can often pin us to the Midwest, sometimes even to Wisconsin. My husband insists this is because standard English is what's spoken in southern Wisconsin. Still, we probably speak some "Wisconsinisms" that reveal our heritage. My favorite is bubbler, which sadly hasn't slipped out of my mouth in years. Now I tend to favor the more widely accepted water fountain.

List Poems

Following up on an earlier post, here is a list poem I found on

And I can't talk about list poems without referring to Whitman. At the Poetry Foundation, you can read Song of Myself. Among the cadence of the poem are lists, varied and beautiful.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In Memoriam

Cyd Charisse, dancing star of such musicals as "Brigadoon" and "The Band Wagon," died yesterday.

I have fond memories of watching these musicals and others with my Dad in high school. Never mind the often silly, redundant plots and poor segues from talking to singing and dancing; the best musicals lightened my heart.

On a side note, seniors at my high school could get parking spots with short names spray painted over the spot (yes, I went to a pretentious high school, sometimes dubbed Gucci High). My spot said Cyd.

Here's a clip from "The Band Wagon."

Overcoming Fear

I'm crossing into dangerous territory. I'm writing about what I'm writing. In the past, I've been extremely cautious about writing or talking about the work I'm doing, as if acknowledging it will make it disappear. Poof! and the mystery is gone. I suppose I still have that fear, but at the moment I have a greater need to make myself accountable to the work. Writing about it is recognizing it, which is almost like having a deadline.

I have the most trouble talking about my fiction (Poof! is lingering just around the corner to take it all away). This is probably because I consider myself a poet. For many years now, I've written poetry, taken as well as facilitated poetry classes, had some luck publishing poems, and in general steamed myself in the vapors of poetry. I have a certain comfort level in poetry. While an artist should probably never feel too comfortable (risking complacency), she won't get anything accomplished if she's at the other end of the spectrum. Writing fiction, I feel uneasy, stumbling around on stilts, unable to balance or steer in the right direction. Perhaps writing about the process of writing fiction will enlighten the work I'm doing and help steady my reeling.

The story I want to make myself accountable to is Lily and Louisa's story. No title yet, nor am I sure what the scope of the story is. It is turning into a longer work (again, I can't utter certain spell-breaking words, such as a word that rhymes with grovel). I think the most important thing right now is to see this work through to whatever its natural end is, to listen to the characters and everything they have to say. It began with a short story called "After the Snow Fell," written in January 2006. Some time after that (maybe a year or more later?), the characters started showing up again, and I found myself wanting to tell the rest of their story. Only recently have I started to type up the mess that's in my notebooks (fear, again, that I will give up, discover there's less to love once it's in Times New Roman).

I suppose it's quite simple. I need to write to overcome my fears, to push forward with the story, with the writing, with this scary and elusive process.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Diner, Lists, and a Prompt

We went to the Market Street Diner last night. The food was too rich...too much cheese and cream. But then I have to remind myself I don't keep going back for the dinners. I go there for the pies and shakes. I love walking in to face the glass case filled with the day's selection of pies, cakes, and cookies. I love the order slip the server sets down on our table that lists the pies in the case.

And then I realize I love lists. I'm not the only one. Lists abound in our culture. To-do lists, top ten lists, grocery lists, bulleted lists, numbered lists. And if there's one thing I've learned from my experience as a technical writer, the corporate world loves lists too. They are effective because they are concise and easy to read. Who hasn't scanned a manual or e-mail for the list that so neatly sums up what has been dragged out for pages?

Poetry loves lists too, as evidenced by the list, or catalog, poem. I'm still looking for a great list poem to share. If you have one in mind, let me know! Perhaps that's what this week's prompt should be. Write a list poem--an inventory of things, people, places, ideas, whatever is on your mind.

For now, I'll end with a list of my favorite pies (in no particular order, and honestly I haven't met a pie I wouldn't eat):
  • French Silk
  • Rhubarb
  • Oreo
  • Peanut Butter
  • Apple
  • Blueberry
  • Lemon Meringue
  • Peach
  • Derby
  • Raspberry

Monday, June 16, 2008

Art is Work

The New York Times reports on the N.E.A.'s first nationwide profile of professional artists. The article cites:

“It’s easy to talk about artists in lofty and spiritual terms,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Without denying the higher purposes of the artistic vocation, it’s also important to remember that artists play an important role in America’s cultural vitality and economic prosperity. Artists have immense financial and social impact as well as cultural impact.”

Read the entire article here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day

My Dad was the solid wall I leaned against after my Mom's death. My Dad demonstrated real dedication to his life's work and continues to do so through his varied volunteer work at the age of 74. Sometimes I was privileged to accompany him to the office on Saturday when I could sit in his swivel chair or walk through the shop where Important Things were being built. My Dad is the reason for my near obsessive-compulsive behavior, the reason I check the stove burners are off half a dozen times before I leave the house. I love Big Band jazz because of my Dad. My Dad knows that sometimes I need to talk his ear off. My Dad's eyes are sparkling, laughing eyes. My Dad likes puns, really bad puns. He complies with my requests for letters because he knows I am a keeper and shaper of memory. My Dad reads my poems, believes the world needs artists, tells me about the poets he sees on the News Hour. I will always be my father's child. All of my father's children believe they are his favorite one. And we all are right in our belief.

Family Gathering

Yesterday was my nephew's high school graduation party. Last Sunday my niece celebrated her high school graduation. That means five of the ten nieces and nephews on my side of the family have graduated high school. With my niece's graduation, my brother and sister-in-law will become the first "empty nesters" of my siblings. And yesterday I learned my oldest three siblings now need reading glasses.

The strong current of time is washing over me.

My sister treated the family to a lovely dinner to celebrate her son's graduation. When the question went around the table for an Irish toast, we all looked around blankly until my Dad pulled one from the vault and said, "May you be in heaven an hour before the devil knows you're dead."

More and more my time with my family is like this...a few hours stolen a couple times a year. And I always feel both filled and drained afterward. Why is that? Is it because the large gathering setting doesn't allow for the quality of time we once shared? Maybe the quality isn't any different. Maybe it's because I live so far away now. I don't know what's going on in their day-to-day lives and they don't know what's going on in mine. But I'm not sure I'd see my family much more if we lived closer. Is it a condition of growing up, building our own lives, that we must push off, the familiar nest of our youth a place we can never return to?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Let's be honest. I am not one of those writers. You know, the ones who write & write & write, ideas and fleshed-out themes bleeding from a vein that never runs dry (hmm...that pinkie wound must be at the forefront of my mind still).

I am the writer whose muse disappears frequently and without notice. For example, right now my muse is sleeping in, enjoying the cool morning sheets and pillows piled around her head like the woven flowers draped over winning horses.

As such, I rely heavily on prompts, that little shove on the backside to get my writing going. Here's a prompt I'm giving myself:

Write a thank you to things you don't usually thank: a skillet, a lightbulb, a bedsheet.

from Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider

If anyone out there tries this, consider posting your experience in the comments...did the prompt work for you? Did it take you in an unexpected direction? Did it make your muse think twice about sleeping in?


I woke up bleary-eyed and wondering why my sit-bones were so sore. Oh yes, I went to my first spinning class last night. A warm but pleasant evening outside, and here was a full class of people riding stationary indoors.

I have been trying to work up the nerve to take a class for a few months. Walking by the room, I've been both intrigued and intimidated. The participants always look so relaxed, despite the sweat showering down to the floor, despite their thighs tightening through the resistance. Maybe not relaxed, but confident, in control.

Perhaps part of my fear stemmed from my lack of experience on a regular bike. I am the rare exception, having ridden bikes very little since I was a child. In fact, I had only ridden a bike with handle speed/brake control once before my husband bought me a bike for my 30th birthday. Stopping and getting off the bike (without falling or injuring any body parts) are my main troubles. I'm sure these would come more easily with practice, but it's difficult to get a certified chicken like myself to keep doing something that could cause injury or, worse, embarrassment.

One would think that my years of dancing would have made me more graceful, centered, balanced. Not so when an apparatus is involved. My center of gravity does not extend beyond my own body.

Back to is a bike that's stabilized, which takes care of the problem of getting off the bike. But of course there's a problem. We're talking about a bike and me in the same breath. There is a crank system, which the rider turns to increase or decrease resistance to simulate hills and flat terrain. The instructor would shout out, "Increase to a seven and a half" or "Level out to a five." It was dark in the room to keep it from heating up more than necessary and I never did figure out how to tell what number I was setting the crank to. No visible numbers as far as I could tell. So I faked it, turning the crank randomly when the instructor yelled out, "Up to an eight!" I measured my resistance in terms of viscosity, pedaling through air, water, butter, molasses. Pedaling toward reconciliation with the bike.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Midwest Storms

My sister-in-law sent me this slide show/article. My thoughts are with family & friends back home.

In the Garden

The backyard is heavy with the scent of magnolia blossoms. Briefly I feel drunk, swimming in the sweet smell and humid air.

The catalpa is flowering. This is the first year it has flowered. Small, white, trumpet-shaped, with some purple and yellow markings.

I snapped some pictures throughout the yard. O, I have many I want to post. It will be a while, though, as our main computer (which has the photo software) is temporarily unavailable. Sadly, the fan died Sunday.

Fried Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Pied Beauty" has always been a personal favorite. Maybe because it's a sonnet in disguise. Maybe because that crazy sprung rhythm keeps me on my toes when reading it. Maybe because it flies in the face of one of the "rules" hammered into beginning poets (i.e., be wary of adjectives).

A playful adaptation by R.S. Gwynn can be found on Kooser's American Life in Poetry site.
What I want to learn from this is how to write playfully, with humor and lightness, and to do so with grace and ease.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Typing remains slow and frustrating. Perhaps not the best time to start a blog.

This difficulty began on Friday. I went into the garden early to beat the heat. Summer's switch was turned on early this year. 90s and high humidity already. After braiding some of the fading daffodil stems as my mother-in-law suggested, I decided to do some deadheading for a change of pace. Half way through pruning one of the peonies, I cut the edge of my pinkie with the garden shears. Odd that I didn't cry out, but instinctively I must have known such energy would be fruitless since there was no one around. I put the bleeding finger into my mouth and ran inside.

The wound continued to bleed after cleaning it and putting pressure on it. My husband returned from his trip around 2 and examined the damage. He confirmed my suspicion; while the wound was bad it wasn't the type that could be stitched. Essentially I trimmed some flesh from the finger. There was nothing to suture together. Bleeding continued into the night and I began to panic. Would the bleeding ever stop? Would I remain without a chunk of my finger? Would this pulsing pain running through my hand end?

The next day the bleeding stopped and by Sunday the wound started to scab over. There is some pain, it's difficult to type (I'm getting very familiar with the backspace key), and as my husband says, "It ain't pretty," but the finger is healing. And I'm humbled once again by the work my body does. Yes, healing is slower and less efficient than when I was younger, but this body still surprises me with its power. It's hard to think that it will not always be so.

I'm hesitant to finish deadheading the peonies. Perhaps I should let them heal their own bodies, let the dried petals paper the garden bed, let the stems scab over, let scars form to remember the painful blooms.

The Journ(al/ey) Begins

A friend suggested I try blogging, and since she put this idea in my head I can't get it out, no matter how I shake it about. I know, I know, as if the world needs another blog, another voice fogging up the windows of the world. I think what's different is that I need my voice. I need a forum where I can write randomly and track what is on my mind. Paper notebooks serve my poetry and fiction very well, but blogging might be a good way to explore other writing. The writing process, writing prompts, my wayward garden, my travels (both real and metaphorical) are top on my list right now. Let the rambling begin.