Tuesday, July 29, 2008


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


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.