Saturday, March 31, 2007

Back home

A week of writing and reading—a perfect vacation. It started on the plane as I was drifting off to sleep, tired beyond my bones. In that state of extreme relaxation—surrender—the images arrived. I didn't get a nap, but I did get another poem.

I spent my time away reading Il Purgatorio and The Beautiful and Damned—not the usual poolside fare, but a strangely compatible combination. And I worked on my long project, although I'm still struggling with the Italian. (Do I need it? Am I forcing it? Am I chickening out?)

But my attempts to write about Hawaii are still trivial. I know that sometimes travel poems come long after the trip has ended, and I have some ideas intellectually about how to craft them, but the images remain predictable.

Do you write travel poems or place poems—whether they are the same or different? How do you approach them? Do you have favorite travel, or place, poets whose writing inspires you?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Tomorrow morning well before dawn we leave for Hawaii. I'm looking forward to some sun and sand and fish. In between adventures, I'm hoping to relax and read and spend some time with my long project.

I'm not a very good traveler, but I like being places and I like writing about them—not that I'm necessarily successful. It's good practice and a good way for me to reflect on my experiences and surroundings. But it makes me wonder about the difference between a travel poem and a place poem—or is there a difference?

I guess I'm thinking of the travel poem as being about the place and the place poem being about something more. If none of this is coherent, I should probably go finish packing.

In 2007 Poet's Market, the entry for the journal Kaimana: Literary Arts Hawaii notes: "Hawaii gets a lot of 'travelling regionalists,' visiting writers with inevitably superficial observations." Fair enough—and that's the bar that I'm trying to transcend.

In the meantime, for whatever postcard respite it can provide, here is a poem from a previous trip.

False Bloom

Bougainvillea clouds the hillside
in flocks of purple, orange or red.
Its papery leaves mimic true blooms,
the throats of hibiscus,
the fragrant plumeria.

The bougainvillea, guest from Brazil,
grows by the name pukanwila,
shows rampant on roadsides
by old lava flows and pale grass—
hard to tell what doesn't belong.

I would be a visitor here
even if I put down shallow roots
and spoke of local plants
in a new tongue,
learned another language for time.

I would need a strong anchor
when the trade winds blow,
good reason to stay as a stranger.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Quoting: What are the rules?

I'm still working on my long series project, and I spent a little time this weekend reading Italian poetry (in English) with hopes of finding lines that I could weave (in Italian) into some of the poems. My attempt to be multilingual and literary (with appropriate references in notes).

I was slowly making my way through Il Purgatorio and also reading some twentieth century poets. Then, late Saturday afternoon, I remembered something that I'd heard about using quotes—for example, in epigraphs: You have to get permission, unless the poet is dead.

Is that true? Does anyone know?

Friday, March 16, 2007


I finished Brigitte Byrd's Fence Above the Sea and was so inspired that I'm trying to write a similar work—inspired by, not the same. Usually, I am wary of repetition, and I avoid using the same word twice in a poem and even very many times in the same group of poems.

But I've been experimenting with repetition more lately (Go ahead, use "blue" twice in the same stanza). With this project, I'm working on weaving some of the same words and, more important, the same motifs, throughout a set of poems—repetition without redundancy.

I also want to weave in phrases of Italian (Byrd knits in bits of French). Because I don't speak Italian, I'm reading Italian poets to pick up phrases (quotes as opposed to plagiarism).

It could end up as one big derivative piece, but it's a challenging project. Because I want all the poems to interconnect in theme and language, I feel like I can't be done with one of them until I'm done with all of them.

In the meantime, it's keeping me busy.

How do you tackle big projects?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

"But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed"

"But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter…"
—T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

I'm not too balding and I don't fast anymore, but last night, I received a rejection letter from the Bart Baxter spoken word contest. I was disappointed—especially because I had looked forward to performing the parody, which I will do somewhere, at some point. But I realized that, in the meantime, I could post that poem.

Although it is online, and not spoken, here is my homage to Mr. Eliot:

The Apologies of J. Alfred P.

I was the patient, too cheap for ether,
too worried my heart might stop,
nerves frayed, the exhaustion of desire.
Alfred was a family name,
and Prufrock, too—a row of dead men
posed in portraits on a wall—but the J.
belonged to me: Joanna.

From room to room, the pretty girls go,
discussing Bosch and Vincent Van Gogh.

I have walked the streets
through evenings thick
with yapping Pomeranians,
wandered without being seen,
obscured by smoke in noisy bars
where sawdust stuck to my shoes.

Do I care about the universe?
In a minute there is time
to change my mind
but not a moment to rehearse!

I have been measured
and spent, lipstick smudges on the cup,
soup stains on the table cloth.
I have spooned out every night,
stirred the blurring twilight
as the young men turned
away from their windows.

Between the dinners, other women linger,
talk of love and John Sargent Singer.

And who would not succumb
to lamplight on bare arms—
but those lit limbs were mine,
the gown last year's fashion
(a hopeless flirtation, obvious
desperation in apricot silk).

I have whispered
from the pages of a poem
and dined alone on crab cakes
with a Chinese oyster sauce
(number 37). I have learned
the words for aspiration,
pinned them next to synonyms
for failure, for regret.

Oh, to feel the wind—
to watch it blow the trees in waves,
a green ocean outside my pallid rooms,
to smell the rotting kelp and old shells
littering some distant shore
where the surf crashes white
and leaves its traces on the sand,
leaves echoes of the mermaid's call.

Do I dare to answer?
I do not think that they want me to sing,
but then my voice curls out the window,
mingles with that yellow smog
and clings to crusts the pigeons eat.

I have strayed far from the sea
and put the peaches in a pie.

I am no mermaid.
But meet me sixish
at The Slug and Lettuce
and we’ll drink a pint,
speak of art, have one last laugh
with all those tarty girls
before you go.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

2 bits & 1 longer thought

My son's 11th grade language arts teacher told the students that, because they were 16 or 17, they could write a love sonnet. My son worked on this all weekend. Sunday night, I asked him if he had finished it. He said that he had—but that it was not about love, exactly. It was about toast. His first line: I can handle toast.


In a previous post, I talked a little bit about my poetry goals. The other day, I was discussing them with someone (probably with at least a little frustration), and he asked me this: If I achieved them—or even some of them—how would I feel? Would it change who I am? Hmmm...


This past week, I've been reading Fence Above the Sea, by Brigitte Byrd (Ahsahta Press). Most of the poems in the book are in prose poem, or short short, format. They have a stream of consciousness feeling, and they carry through and return to certain phrases, certain themes. They also weave phrases of French (I plan to go back and reread them when I have my dictionary nearby).

The resulting images are tactile and surreal at the same time, and I find the work inspiring. It's so different from the poems that I've been writing, and I can feel myself being nudged into a new direction.

To me, this is the value of reading—and reading work in a variety of styles and voices. I might try on someone else's style, an exercise used in writing classes. It's fun to bust out and do something unfamiliar. It gives me a chance to explore other parts of myself and other ways that I can express that self. And even if the poem starts out sounding like the poet, it will change as I revise it. It will, for better or worse, become mine. It's just good to stretch.

How do you stretch? What are you reading?