Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Our bodies, our poems?

Must the physical and the spiritual be mutually exclusive? A few months ago during dinner, some colleagues were discussing that feeling of having poetic limits, and how one might get past or through them.

At the time, I tried (ineptly) to use a physical metaphor—running. Imagine that you're running as fast as you can, trying to beat someone in a race, and suddenly you dig down and find out that you can run even harder—harder than you ever have before. My metaphor fell flat. My colleague explained that he was looking for a spiritual answer.

Certainly my years as a modern dancer make me biased, and I still like the metaphor—even if I haven't quite figured out how to apply it to poetry. But I continued to think about whether there has to be a divide between the body and the physical self. And that led me to think of the physical rites that are used to connect with the spiritual: everything from tribal dances to the Whirling Dervishes to the rituals of the Shakers. What about Yoga and T'ai Chi? The physical experience as a path to some deep place beyond the physical.

I often think of poetry as coming from a place of stillness, but I've found that walking, riding my bike, or working in the garden helps release me into that mental stillness from which ideas and poems can emerge.

That gives me two paths of physical-spiritual inquiry: going beyond the current limits and connecting to the quiet source. And I need to work on getting more of that physical rhythm—that energy—into my poems.

Do you ever feel a connection between the two? (Or does this make no sense at all?)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

In training

For a little while on Sunday morning, my husband and I were watching Federer and Gonzalez play in the Australian Open. I love to watch tennis, and I'm always amazed by the sheer athleticism of the players. Even beyond the skill required to ace a serve or put the right amount of spin on a backhand shot, the sport demands an incredible amount of strength and endurance. It's just you out there for as many sets as it takes to play the game. Imagine the training involved.

I feel the same way when I watch golf on TV. It's a different sport and it's played at a much different pace. But as I watch players focus on sinking their putts, I consider all the practice shots they've made in preparation. I think of them getting up every morning and practicing golf.

The point? Poetry! (Oh, to get up every morning and write and read—and not for five or ten minutes, but for an hour or two.) If you want to rise to the top of your game, if you want to reach your peak potential, how do you train?

Answers might include school certification and MFA programs. But I'm thinking more on a daily or weekly level. What do you do? What do you have time to do when you want to achieve maximum creative fitness?

Inspired by a golf tournament, I tried for a couple of years to have what I thought was a pretty well-rounded regime. It included free writes, writing new poems, revising poems, reading poems, reading about writing, and sending poems out. When I type it up, it doesn't sound like a lot, but I could almost never complete a full circuit in one day.

I also tried to institute "writing Sundays," which worked mostly well for about two months. I'm about to try again.

In the meantime, I'm down to the free writes, not nearly enough reading, and whatever else I can manage. I need to get back on track with a harder workout (and you'd think that January would be a fine month for writing exercise—all that grim weather).

How are you working out?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When is a poem not done?

I usually start with a free write or some sort of first draft. Then I revise and revise and revise. After that, I send the poem to a friend or bring it to my poetry group. I gather the impressions, comments, and suggestions—and then I revise again. Finally, I think I have a finished poem. None of this is unusual.

Then at some point, I send that poem out to a publication. Most of the time, the poem and its companions in the self-addressed stamped envelope come back. I send to a different journal or review. They come back just like boomerangs. The sun comes up again and I send poems out again and—I suspect that none of this is very unusual.

My question: How many times do you send these poems out before you stop? Years ago, someone asked me this and I didn't know. Since that time, I've written more poems, had more come back more times, and developed a sizable, or embarrassing, pile of potential rejects. (And all of these poems were at one time new and dear and held a part of me in them.) When do you decide that a poem is, after all, not done?

I've tried looking through my records and counting ("Gee, I've sent that out X times, maybe I need to give it a rest or give up), but I haven't come up with a magic number. At some point, though, I stop sending the work.

And I've gone back to some of those old poems and taken another look at them—more revisions. I find it's a good way to keep my writing muscles working when I'm having a hard time starting something new. With the time distance, it's easier to let go of images or stanzas that once seemed critical but no longer seem to fit. In some cases, a couple of those new-old poems have been published.

But it's pretty depressing to think that every poem will eventually need to be rewritten. Or, as sage advice goes, every poem needs to stay in a drawer for a few years before its revised.

Do you save your work before you work on it and send it out? Do you rework your old poems or put them out to pasture? Do you have a cut-off number—the point at which you won't send a poem out again until you've given it another look, come to new conclusions? How do you work on old work?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Writing in a series, or not

It's chapbook time again, and deadlines are coming up. The chapbook is such a nice length for exploring one or two subjects, for developing a series of poems—and I feel most comfortable when I'm working on—working my way through—a series.

Usually, I try to start a year beforehand—or, at the latest, in September. The kids go back to school and I begin to think seriously about a chapbook. (I used to be a little more haphazard, but I remember standing on my front porch one warm and luxurious July evening when Greg Hischak turned to me and said, "So, have you thought about your next chapbook submission for the Floating Bridge Press contest?" Or something to that effect.)

I like the idea of exploring one idea, or a couple of related concepts, in a group of poems. I like the way they hang together and, I hope, flow from one to another. I like to try to dig into different textures and emotions and events. And this past year, I have not had a series in sight. At least, not any work that spans more than four or five poems.

What do you do when you have a lot of separate poems? Or maybe short stories? How do you bring them into the same room in a congenial way, as though for cookies and tea?

I've heard of linking them together by the titles (discarding whatever titles you had before and creating a theme or even a narrative in the new titles). That sounds cool. That even sounds adventurous, as though inviting a new person in to inhabit your stanzas. I haven't tried it yet. I guess that I sweat so much over trying to find a title in the first place that I'm reluctant to let it go.

I've also thought about trying to pull out some cohesive idea, but sometimes they are just too random. It might be too much of a stretch.

I guess that's a pretty good sign that those poems don't belong together. But as I said, it's chapbook time again, and the deadlines are coming up—and even though contest entries are a long shot, they are also a ritual.

Do you ever have trouble getting your different poems into a collection? Do you have any advice to offer or tricks to share?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

That gray area

While walking to the bus this morning, with the sky dark before sunrise and the last snow bright beneath my feet, I was wishing that another storm would blow through and bring more snow before the last of this melted. Then I remembered that I have a poetry reading tomorrow night and slicker roads might make it hard for people, including me, to get there.

I was stuck between opposing desires—or between a desire for more winter wonderland and a fear of slippery conditions. I was in the gray area.

I thought about how much of life is bounded by extremes, and how usually one end or the other has its own discomforts or impracticalities or dangers.

We can either careen between those ends or try to find some comfort in the middle. Only I find it isn't very comfortable in the middle—an ambiguous territory of consensus and compromise. It is continually changing, and it requires constant small adjustments—like being on a balancing board. Mostly wobbly.

And yet, I suspect that the gray area, the shifting middle, is a rich creative source—that those tensions between the black-and-white extremes can yield the most original ideas, the freshest images, the best chance to see a little more of who we are.

I find it's hard to stay there, and I readily accept distraction—television, wine, even the weather. What would happen if I didn't?

What might I do, write, find if I stay a little longer in the gray area between what I already think I know?

Monday, January 15, 2007

2:00 P.M. for peace

A few weeks ago, I was trying to think of ways that I could act on my reservations about the current course of the war and much of the world in general. I'm not great about writing letters—and when I've tried to call my elected officials, their voice-mail storage has already been filled. The good news: People are calling their senators and representatives. But what can I do? In what other ways can I protest?

I had an idea that I could choose one time a day, every day, and focus on putting positive, healing energy into the world: 2:00 P.M. for peace.

It isn't a small thing, it's a tiny thing. It's an experiment. But I thought that if I could do it every day, if I could remember to do it every day, maybe it would make a difference (even a tiny difference). And it has.

While I have a hard time remembering (at my job, I have a little reminder that pops up on my computer—and if that's cheating, it still works), I find that when I set aside those couple minutes to step back, take a breath, think good thoughts, and send them into the ether, I feel better. That's a start.

You're welcome to join me any day of the week, at 2:00 P.M.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Missing it?

Do you ever read a poem and wonder whether you've just missed it? Why did that poem get published (when so many of yours were turned down—possibly by the same magazine)? This probably sounds insecure and whiny. It probably is. But sometimes I wonder: What catches an editor's eye? What in this specific poem stood out? (And why am I not seeing it?)

Most days around lunch time I check a couple of poem-of-the-day. It's a good way for me to get a quick bit of poetry and inspiration in the middle of my day. These are sites that choose poems from publications that have been sent to them. Sometimes, I see a poem that I really like. Sometimes, I see a poem that I like so much that I wish I had written it. Sometimes, I see the same poem on both sites (which means that one editor chose this poem for publication in print and two more sets of editors chose to publish it online). Sometimes I read a poem a few times through and I just don't feel that spark. Or I might enjoy parts of it—a line or a stanza—but I don't get it as a whole piece. What am I not seeing? (And why am I not seeing it?)

Maybe I'm being too picky or too competitive or too pedestrian or too dense. (Or a little too hard on myself?) But I try to step back and look at it more objectively: What did the editor find compelling? What do editors want? (And is that what's missing from my poetry?)

I can say, "I'm not good enough," and maybe I'm not (or maybe my poems are not). But that is just not specific.

At work, we talk about knowing your audience. The first thing you have to do before you write technical documentation is to understand who is going to be reading it and what the want to find out, how they want to find it out.

Because poetry is not like technical documentation, it gets a little trickier. The poems that I send out have, potentially, has two audiences: the editor and the reader—although the editor has already been tasked with knowing what the readers want. It gets more complicated, because poetry is supposed to be the soul's voice, what the muse gives you. Next to all that, figuring in your audience sounds kind of calculated.

That's one way to look at it. Or I can think of it as craft: What makes a good poem? What makes a good poem better? Is it momentum, or rhythm in general? Is it stronger imagery, more original metaphors, a better idea in general? I keep trying to see it. I keep trying to learn.

Knowing what editors are looking for could provide some clues. I'd rather have a pretty good idea about it, and then make my own decision, than just not see it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Writing the weather

When I was younger, I often thought (in a pretty judgmental way) that grownups who just talked about the weather were avoiding serious conversation about more profound issues. How shallow. How superficial.

Now that I am, technically, grown up, I talk about the weather all the time. I use it to start e-mail messages or to friends who are far away. I refer to it in closing paper letters to friends in other climates. If an advisory is posted, I check the window every few minutes. The weather can be exciting, dramatic, wet (and inconvenient). It can affect where people live, what they have to eat, whether the schools stay open and the lights stay on. It can offer signs of climate change, global warning.

The weather can be fun to watch—except when I'm worried that a tree will fall on the house or my car will be blown off the bridge. It can be deadly. It can change the landscape—as when rivers run in the street (bad) or when snow transforms the landscape and changes everything (beautiful). It can affect how I'm feeling or what I feel like doing. And it offers a wealth of metaphors (the gray skies, the stealing mist, the long drizzle, quick gust, hard frost--and, again, snow that softens, covers, conceals, freezes).

We've had our fill of wild weather this winter, and we're only in the beginning of January. I'm waiting to see if the snow that has been forecast really arrives tonight, if power winds push the cold front through, what the yard will look like tomorrow.

If the season so far is any indication, I get the feeling that there will be plenty to talk about and to write about before we reach the first day of spring.

Sunday, January 7, 2007


To be as clear as possible, and because it is important, I want to point out that the physical inconveniences I whined about in my previous post are just that. I'm talking about the discomforts—real or not-so-real—that come with the territory of middle age.

I am not talking about serious illness. I have friends who are confronting and fighting and managing very real health threats right now. And they are living with grace and energy and strength and hope. They inspire me and remind me to embrace life and everything that I can do in it. They are amazing!

Thursday, January 4, 2007

External influences

I can find inspiration in external influences—paintings, sculpture, dance, trees against the skyline, other poems—but today, I'm thinking about those other external influences. Sitting in my good chair with my bad heartburn, I'm thinking about how nagging physical considerations can keep me from writing.

It might be some traveling ache or pain, and I have plenty of those. My knees are bad! I can't write! My shoulders hurt! I can't possibly work on a poem. I have a cold, or I'm too hungry, too full, too, too, tired. Oh, the whining—it's always something.

It can also be too hot, too cold, too bright, or too noisy. This last factor is possibly valid—but when it's lumped with all the others, nothing is left.

While I fear that it's hypochondria (how predictable), I suspect that it's all a deception, a ruse—using those distractions as an excuse not to write. That doesn't make sense. Why find a reason not to do what I like to do? Minor complaints make a bit of sense if we're talking about delaying dishes or laundry (and I'll do all the washing anyway). But writing? Am I avoiding writing? Or am I subconsciously finding reasons not to start writing. Starting is the hard, sweaty part. After I get into it, I stop noticing all that other stuff.

So, as I try to get my body to the gym this year (and that has yet to happen), I'll work on getting my mind past my middle-aged grumbles and past the starting block and do some poetry laps.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Writing with confidence

It's a new year, and a good time to try something different. I welcome the symbolism of a new beginning, and resolutions—really, the first of any month will do, or the solstices or each equinox or even the beginning of the school year. But January 1 always feels like the big start.

A little over a year ago I was in a writing class and the teacher observed that one of the other students "wrote with confidence." What an idea! This was something I hadn't considered, confidence not being my strong suit in any arena. Writing with confidence—maybe I should give that a try. The idea stayed in my head, but didn't make it onto the page. Now, this is as good a time as any to start.

It could be tricky in that writing, I think, depends in part on not knowing where you're going. At its best, it's an act of experimentation and discovery. So writing with confidence might be like boldly stepping into the abyss. It reminds me of the Corning Glass Museum, which has a platform made of glass—and it's hard to step out onto that platform even though I know the glass is thick and the museum wouldn't put it there and invite people to walk on it if it might break.

In this writing year, I need to walk, not edge, out onto that glass. I'll need to practice writing with confidence, as though I trust that I belong here, and the glass will not shatter.