Sunday, April 29, 2007


When he had his evening show, Arsenio Hall used to do a bit about "thoughts that make you go 'hmmm....' " Here is one.

While introducing Naomi Shihab Nye at the Burning Word Poetry Festival yesterday, Molly Larson Cook mentioned something that the poet once told her.

Possibly paraphrased—

Anne Lamott: Write the truth.

Naomi Shihab Nye: Write toward what you don't know.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The fourth option

This past weekend, I spent a fair amount of time online researching the Camargue region of France. On Saturday, though, I took a break and stopped in at Open Books to pick up my copy of Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone, by Janice Harrington. While I was there, I spoke with J.W. Marshall about the logistics of writing about a place one has never been to. I came up with three options:

  1. I could write it and then show the work to someone who has been, as a kind of sanity check.

  2. I could write the whole idea off as ridiculous and skip it.

  3. I could write the poems and stick them in a drawer with the hopes that someday I would be able to go and experience the Camargue, at which point I could finish them.

“What about the fourth option?” John asked.

“What’s the fourth option?”

“Go now!”

We agreed that was a very romantic idea—just hopping on a plane and jetting across the globe to research some poetry. Yeah, right.

I left the store with not one but three new books of poetry (the aforementioned, plus Blackbird and Wolf by Henri Cole and On the Vanishing of Large Creatures by Susan Hutton). I also left with a feeling of empowerment—if Henri Rousseau could paint pictures of the jungle, I could write about the marshes of the Camargue.

But what would that fourth option look like, if I just had a couple extra thousand dollars and enough vacation time lying around and I could put my bicycle on a plane and fly to France for two weeks and bike around the Camargue and look at the birds and maybe ride a horse and write and write and write—and eat! Spring and autumn are supposed to be the best times to visit.

For example, how much money? How much vacation time?

Where would I fly into? Paris, and take a series of trains? Where would I stay?

(I know, I know: I’m always whining about wanting to go to Italy—and now France?)

We were at one time planning to go to Paris and Brittany and possibly Provence this summer, and then that plan was taken off the table.

I’m not nearly as good at doing things as I am at dreaming about them. Then again, we’re still talking about maybe taking the trip next year. In the meantime, I’m online reading and looking at photographs and maps and beginning to play with some poems.

What do you do when you want to write about a place that you haven’t been to? Does that question ever come up? (And if I've asked this before, my apologies—but I'll keep checking in.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

As mentioned earlier, I'm casting about, fishing for ideas to explore—the next thing to write about. Yesterday, I was thinking about horses (I was another horse-crazy girl) and then through the bus window I saw a patch of scilla and I thought about purple—scilla, lilacs, wysteria—and the way it plays with light.

I also was thinking about metaphor and suspect that it can work either way: You can find a metaphor, an image, that works for what you are trying to say—or you can find the image and then, in the process of writing, it becomes a metaphor as you learn what you are trying to say. Does that make any sense?

This morning, I was back to horses—and the Camargue region in France. I thought about looking up any folklore or stories about them, but then I remembered that I’ve been wanting to try to create my own myths (something that Ilya Kaminsky suggested to students in a workshop a couple of years ago). Maybe this is the time. (Another good reason to go to France, and France is right next door to Italy. But first I think I need to do some reading. Research rears its head again.)

So far, this casting, this fishing, is a catch-and-release endeavor. Nothing to keep yet—which makes me think about the story of the fisherman who nets a fish and then it talks to him and begs for its life and makes promises and—I'll try to look up the story. Likely there is more than one.

I'm also casting questions onto this web log. Going back to the first post, I started this project on the premise that misery loves company. (Anyone out there?) I natter on, but I'd love to listen, too—to hear what you think, how you work. Or maybe you have questions, too? Or maybe I just need to get out more.

This weekend offers an excellent opportunity: It's the Seattle Poetry Festival. I'm thinking of heading down to Hugo House on Sunday, when my friend Judith Skillman will join Bob Redmond, Judith Roche, and Jim Bertolino for a panel discussion on Building a Literary Community. And after that, Burlesque Poetry in the theatre, plus much more poetry all day. If you're going to be in the Seattle area, check out the full weekend schedule.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bus poem reminder

Have you submitted your bus poem yet? The contest is open to residents of King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties in Washington State. It's an online submission form, and I now I've sent mine in.

Just for fun, here are the two fifty-words-or-less poems that I didn't send:


She lies very still, tries to connect
one world to the next, hold her dreams
as though she carried a full bowl.

She sits up.
The vessel becomes a sieve.

Fatigue is the thread that fills both her worlds.
Some day, she will remember.
Some night, she will sleep.

When the Window Stays Dark

What lark wakes me?
Or is it a common robin
singing into the dark?
The moon floats nearly full,
floods its light onto frost—
seasons spring with winter.
My dreams spill
onto the carpet,
mingle with this poem
that keeps me from sleep.

When you have only fifty words, half the fun is in finding the right title. As far as I know, there is no official limit on length (although it still has to fit on a bus placard).

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The news this week

It's time for more of those random thoughts on life in general.

The news this week haunts me. Now, news on the web includes the pictures and profiles of people who were killed on Monday in Virginia. I haven't been able to read much of their stories. It is so tragic, such an unnecessary loss of life, of living—all those potential moments gone.

I'm also haunted by the shooter—how his writing seems like it wasn't a path out for him but another weapon for him to use. All of the stuff around writing—the classes and evaluations and rejections—can be hard. But the actual act of writing is for me a chance to transcend, or escape, that other stuff. It is, on my best days, a gift I give myself.

But that didn't work out for him.

I hope that the families and friends of the people who were slain can find some way to give themselves eventually a way to heal—whether it's writing or painting or running or cooking. Whatever will work.

And today in the mail, my younger son received his first recruitment brochure—not for some fancy schmancy East Coast college, but for the Marines. This initiated a conversation about the D word: DRAFT.

Some people say there will not be a draft, that the United States public wants to pull out of the war. Some say that everyone should share the burden of the war. The idea of another draft scares me.

Today in Baghdad, four large bombs exploded, and more than 170 people were killed. That's just in one city. That doesn't count the people who were injured.

Sometimes, maimed is a better word.

Having grown up during the Vietnam War, I could find no positive percentage in invading Iraq. I wasn't convinced about Afghanistan—but at least there was a connection that looked logical. Now, Afghanistan is still not a stable place and Osama bin Laden, our original culprit, has slipped mostly out of the U.S. headlines.

I realize that I'm telling you what you already know. Forgive me, today. Please be my choir.

I had an errand to do, and as I walked up the hill, I thought about all the people who have died during the Iraq war—all the military people, all the Iraqi people—and all the people who have lost their loved ones and their homes. I thought about the librarian in Baghdad.

I know that some people in Iraq are working on creative solutions. But in a broader, big-picture way, the "deciders" still seem to be relying on shock and awe instead of investigating creative solutions to the violent situation that we created. And the more violence, the more diluted and narrow the world conversation becomes.

Thank you for listening.

I wondered whether writing poetry could help the families and friends of those wounded or killed to process their loss and their grief. I found some poems and stories on the Voices in Wartime website. I imagine there is more. I hope so. Or whatever will work.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What next?

Now I'm casting about for ideas, whittling away at minor possibilities.

Back in January, I considered writing a series of poems on alchemy (I was inspired by a reference to "the alchemist's physic" in John Banville's novel The Sea). That quickly transformed into an introspection on what a modern day alchemist would be and just as quickly lost steam as I moved back to more garden-inspired poems. Not such a stretch, as alchemy is turning lead into gold (among other pursuits) and gardening is turning dirt into gold (and blue and magenta and white).

The alchemist could become a cartographer, but I'm not getting very far.

I've also toyed with the idea of doing something with the Tarot deck, but that will require research. And this afternoon I thought about doing some history-based poems on Rudolf von Laban. (I was thinking about efficiency of movement—okay, I was feeling extra lazy). More research. I'm not good at research—not patient enough, I want the results faster. Maybe this is my chance to gain a little discipline.

In the meantime, it's a beautiful afternoon—with neither the thunder nor hail that was forecast this morning—and tomorrow night I have poetry group. It's time to write something.

Do you tend to get your favorite ideas at a certain time of day, or in a special place, or when you're washing the dishes or walking the dog? Or do they arrive at random? How many show up before you find the one that you can run with—or can you run with them all?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

No news is no news

I complain plenty about the near-constant stream of rejections, and I also know that it comes with the territory. But even more disheartening than the anonymous printed "no" is not hearing anything at all.

I heard about one writer who sends follow-up letters and then quickly gets an acceptance from the magazine. Now back to our regularly scheduled reality.

How long do you wait? Some poets have told me that if they haven't heard anything in six months, they move on. I usually give it a year, and then I flounder around wondering whether I should bother with a follow-up letter.

Then there is always the question: Did that publication even receive my submission? Was it lost in the mail or in the e-mail pipe? Should I try sending it again? Or should I give up on that publication? Should I give up?

Some publications that now accept online submission also send an automated response to let you know that your submission was received (before sending the anonymous electronic "no"). At least it eliminates the question.

That's my rant for today. Thanks for listening. I'd love to hear how long you wait for a response, and what you do when you hear nothing back.

And it's spring, and life is good.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

So what about those lines?

And the line breaks?

Often, if not always, you want the poem to move forward—to move the reader forward. Do you end the line in the middle of a thought or a phrase? Do you end with a verb?

(Here I admit that I have a completely inflexible aversion to ending a line with "and"; I think it's a part of my editor character flaw.)

Or do you want each line to be able to stand, with strength and rhythm, on its own?

I think the answer lies in some graceful balance between the two. How do you find it?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Poetry & prose

I've been reading The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and relishing it—the language, the structure, the imagery, the craft, and these amazing ideas.

The prose that I enjoy the most shares quite a few similarities with the poetry that I enjoy: they both have rhythm and imagery and some sort of structure or arc. But then, I know that poetry and prose differ in more than line length. Hard for me to define, though. What do you think? (This may be where my lack of education shows up most noticeably.)

I also confess that I read with a bit of guilt—because I read more prose, more fiction, than poetry. Part of this is because I'm working (or not working) on Paradiso right now, and I just haven't felt inspired even though it's heaven. Part of it is that I'm drawn to stories, but I write poetry. Hmmm…

(I've tried to write fiction and found that, among other problems, I lack the plot gene.)

I think I'll read something else while I'm gathering up some steam for Dante. And if you're in the mood for a novel, check out The History of Love.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

And about that whining…

I know that I do it. I'll apologize right now and probably again and again.

I'll keep sending out work, the rejections will keep coming (oops—where's that positive attitude?), and I will sometimes whine.

But I try not to mope and complain—at least, not too much, and I have some history behind this. Back in 1985, I was taking a poetry workshop in New York, and the teacher would spend much of the class time complaining about how unsupportive her friends and acquaintances and the world all were of poets and their work writing poetry. (This amid a flock of earnest poets and a haze of cigarette smoke.)

Okay, she was probably right—but I was struggling to be a Famous Modern Dancer and all of my friends were telling me that I should probably write poetry instead. I was lucky to have such supportive friends, although I still wanted to be the Next Great Choreographer. Finally, in the middle of class, I couldn't take it any longer, and I walked out. It was out of character. It was my protest (sort of cutting off my nose to spite my face—but at the time it seemed like a good idea or at least a relief). I didn't go back. (I'm shy enough that I would not have had the guts to return the following week.)

Now when I start to wallow, I do remember that class as a cautionary tale. I slip—as you can tell—but I try to keep it to a minimum and work on that positive attitude. I'm sure it's here somewhere.

On another note…

The Cranky chapbook contest deadline is Saturday, April 15th. For more information, see

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Write what you know? Part 1


How many poems can I write about fatigue?

I know: It's starting to sound pretty boring—and fast.

The conventional wisdom we often hear is "Write what you know." However, what if mostly what I know these days relates to weariness and middle age? Yawn.

The rest of life is really good right now, and that also tends not to make exciting, tension-filled poetry. While I'll take happiness over drama, I still want to write poems that I think are strong and other people might think are worth reading.

Or can you write what you don't know—especially if it seems more interesting and less self-indulgent? How do you do it?

(I don't know when part 2 will come up, but I'm certain it will eventually.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Bus poems & a question

Originally, my plan was to write a new bus poem--start a new bus poem--on each day of my vacation. I was about halfway through the week when I realized that, in working on my long project, I had forgotten about my earlier plans. So I decided to write a bus poem a day for the first half of April (except for the first of April).

So here is the reminder: If you live in King, Kitsap, Pierce, or Snohomish county in Washington State, you can submit a poem for possible publication on the bus. The poem must be 50 words or less, you can submit only one poem, and the deadline is April 30. For more information, go to

On a different note, does anyone out there know about the publishing status of poems that are published on blogs?

So far, I've only been posting poems that were previously published or that will probably not be published anywhere else (example: "The Apologies of J. Alfred P."). But a friend was asking whether I had posted some garden poems, and I thought this was as good a time as any to find out about the rules.

Rules on a blog? What next?