Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hard work

An Outside Chance

The guys held out hope
that through plain luck or accident
they might suddenly discover
they were brilliant at golf—a stellar success.
Any future afternoon might find them
on the green, irons and woods turning to gold.
They ignored the usual course for triumph,
formulas of training and time,
banked on the promise of the prodigal,
the fortuitous rush of unexpected skill (plus money).
The trick was not to try, not to find out yet.

The possibilities tantalized: triple axels,
chart-topping novels, Oscar statuettes.
Even the links were tempting—
but I kept to the devil I knew,
stuck with the barre, trusted
that if another fate came along,
I’d have sense enough to know it.

I wrote this poem for my first husband and his brother—and it's alluring: You might wake up one day and discover your passion and find out that you're absolutely fantastic, the best.

At dance class last week, people brought up this new concept of "The Secret." They explained it as the idea that by being grateful for what you have, you open yourself up to receive what you need from the world. It isn't really new, but I like it.

Then I did a little reading online and found out that "The Secret" also encompasses the idea that if you just want something enough, you'll get it. (I think the exact words were "Ask. Believe. Receive.") Wishing will make it so.

This flies in the face of what I believe: that if you work hard enough, you'll get what you want. (Corollary: if you stay open to possibilities, you may discover opportunities—good ones—that you didn't even know you wanted until they appeared). This won't work in every scenario. I didn't ever get good enough in dance, even with that barre. But I could argue that I didn't try hard enough. And I should remind myself that I am dancing again on most Saturday mornings.

For me, the same work ethic applies to poetry: I can't write the kind of poems I want without some metaphorical elbow grease. I can't polish the poems unless I revise them. They won't get published unless I send them out—and that's a lot of work, because chances are very good that I will be sending them out time after time after…

I even have a short list of professional poetry goals for the year. I write them down (it's a little bit embarrassing), and I want them. Because I have never achieved all of them, I carry them forward from year to year. And I can honestly tell myself that I probably need to work harder—even if it won't hold true and if at some point I'll find myself up against a set of limitations that I can't get past (like not being good enough to get into Twyla Tharp's dance company).

What about you? Do you have goals (or secret desires)? How do you keep up the hard work, or what do you think about "The Secret"?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lynda Hull

I continue to be inspired by the poetry of Lynda Hull. I first saw one of her poems on the Poetry Daily website, and I'm so glad that I did. I can still read only about five of her poems at a time, and then I am overwhelmed by the images and the rhythm and the violence and the sadness (so much longing!) and the unflinching clarity. The images are excruciatingly precise. To me, she works with words in the same way that Edward Hopper works with light. Each offers a look into a place and a time and an immense loneliness. Or is it solitude?

I was waiting for the bus on my way home from work and watching the cars stream down the boulevard. People were walking by and the lights were changing and the wind was rearranging the grit and old leaves and I thought about the way Ms. Hull's poems pull me in.

She begins by observing as an outsider. She notes small details—visual and emotional textures. Often these details resonate with some other time—maybe even a different place—and she pulls the reader with her. She becomes a part of the place and the time and the poem not by plopping herself down in the middle but by observing from the outside, and the outside draws her and the reader in. I'm not saying this well at all. It's much better to read the work.

There's more. Because I can read so few of her poems at a time, I have quite a bit of bus ride left to think about them. I was reminded of Gregory Orr's four temperaments of poetry: music, imagination, story, and form. As I learned them, they fall into two groups. One group is music and imagination; the other is story and form—and the idea is that the strongest poems should have at least two of these temperaments, one from each group.

Surely Lynda Hull's poems have music—a smoky, hard-edged jazz, a driving momentum. But they also have imagination—an urban wilderness of imagery flying into and out of the mind's darkest admissions. And she tells these bleak stories that are tempered with love and wistfulness. That's three temperaments, and often she uses form—not formal rhyme, but set stanzas.

Lynda Hull died in 1994, but her collected poems were recently published by Graywolf Press. I recommend them.

Monday, February 19, 2007

What about the other 199?

I've heard that you have to write about 200 poems to get one that really works, that sings. Sometimes that number changes, but the idea remains the same.

At a reading, a novelist mentioned that he had written about four pages for every page that was in the final version of his book. I figure that those other four pages disappeared in the revision process. But if you're penning many poems to get that one, what happens to the others?

And do you know which one is the one? Sometimes I think I've finished the best piece that I've ever written, and it just falls flat. On other occasions, I struggle with a poem only to take it to poetry group and hear that it's working really well for the other members of the group. I think that's probably because I'm stretching into more unfamiliar areas, so it doesn't feel comfortable to me.

Lacking that certainty, I try to look at every poem as an opportunity and to give every opportunity to be that poem. This comes back to the question of what to do with all the others. Do you throw them in a drawer, throw them away, keep working on them, send them out? At that moment, do they feel like that poem to you?

Or is the number just that—a number? What do you think about the 199?

Friday, February 16, 2007

What the eyes miss, the ears hear

I've been getting ready for a reading tomorrow. I'll have two and a half minutes, not a second more, and I've been practicing so that I'll be certain I can fit in two poems and know how long they will take. The pressure's on.

At a reading last summer, one poet recited all her poems from memory. Look ma, no paper in my hands. I was really impressed, and I said so to her at the reception that followed. She then told me that she found memorization to be a really good tool for finding out new things about a poem. She had even discovered changes that she wanted to make.

I thought about one of my earlier poems, a poem that I can read with a lot of feeling partly because I have read it publicly quite a few times. I know it well, not just the way the words shape in my mouth, but the emotional textures and flow. I can put some power into it.

Memorization can provide a shortcut to that. It's like careful reading for the ear. The little rough spots or unintended repetitions might not be visible on the page, but I notice them when I read a poem out loud. What the eyes miss, the ears hear. And what the ears might even miss, they will catch if they hear it over and over again.

I've caught a couple of things in these poems I'm going to read tomorrow, even though I've read them before. It's a fast intimacy, and one that I would do well to strive for earlier in my work, and in all of it.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Early mornings are a hard time to write, because everything comes out sounding the same. It's dark. It may be raining. Or it's spring, and the birds and the light have awakened me too soon. And it's time to get dressed and brush my teeth.

How to transcend the rigors of routine and explore—or find what I want to explore? Now, in the late afternoons, I have thoughts and ideas and images and usually no time at all to sit down and spill any of them out, much less follow them and see where they go.

I've thought about stopping off early at a coffee shop and sitting down with a cup of tea and scribbling some things down—but home has a strong pull. There are children and a cat and possibly rejection letters at home, maybe even some other interesting mail.

So it's the same old, same old, and not a lot of new work. Even when the poems are different, I start to feel like I am writing the same poem over and over again. It's different from developing a theme—more like being caught in one place. Do you ever feel like you're stuck in a writing rut?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

What is good enough? Part 2...

If you won't ever be the very best that you can be—that you will not one day wake up, pen a poem, dust your hands together, and say "That's the best, and I'm done now" (which would have some sad consequences), that being "good enough" is more like the math problem in which a ball that is thrown travels half the distance and then half of the remaining distance, and then half of the new distance, it will never be caught—then how do you work on writing your best?

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about writing the truth. I love that. It sounds so simple—an elemental approach. And yet I haven't found it to be simple or easy. What is the truth? Where is it? How many truths? How many routes to any given one?

I think the idea is to write my truth, and I also think that might be buried in some deep, secret place (maybe near my spleen). Getting at it has been no quick matter. But I still think that it might be the best way for me to feel like I'm drawing closer to the strongest work that I can do.

What do you think is good enough? How do you work at doing your best work?

Monday, February 5, 2007

The creative, what?

Another Monday, and I'm worrying about what to cook for dinner this week. All the anxieties, small and large, and I'm concerned with cooking. Maybe that's because it's something that I can control, as opposed to fretting over my problems as a poet—or as a mother or a wife or even an editor. Or it could be that the cooking is a big time sink—it isn't just the bit by the stove, but also the shopping and the dishes. All that time that I could be writing—or trying to write.

Truth: I like to cook. It's a creative act. As soon as I put an onion on the cutting board and pick up a knife, I feel pretty good. It's another one of those activities that can open my mind up a little, relax it and let it wander out of the ordinary. The stress comes from all the planning and needing to please everyone. That could be another parallel with writing poetry.

But, when I'm thinking clearly and not trying to decide between chicken or pork and how to eat less cheese, it comes down to that idea of Living the Creative Life. What if I could approach everything—or almost everything—as a chance to explore an experience and maybe discover something new about the world or myself? (As opposed to thinking, "Chores.")

I can try it when I remember to try it. The trip to the grocery store may be more of a challenge—but with luck, I'll find a parking place.

In the meantime, here's a poem:

What's for Dinner

Slice the onion long from the heart
and see the root ribs fall
away from the knife.

I have worried all day what to cook,
what to write. I dreaded the market
with its canned lights

and big-business meat, avoided
looking the potatoes in the eyes.

I dithered between dill
and fennel, wandered morosely
in search of a metaphor

even while I inspected the string beans,
feeling (so gently fondling) the peaches,
contemplating orzo or rice.

I have fingered through images
while I picked over the porcini,

and now I am chopping and mincing
and stirring and steaming, hungering
for one thought to swallow whole.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

What is good enough?

More envelopes in the mail, and now it is raining—extra-gray. The deluge of rejection slips makes me wonder, again, how to be good enough to get accepted. If I wanted to be more precise, I would ask how to write well enough. Somehow, it tends to get bundled up together. That's life.

As soon as I start to ask about "good enough," the question multiplies into two: How can I get good enough to be accepted, and how can I be good enough for me, write the best that I think I can write?

The first question deals with external measures. Someone else says, "Nice work, we like it," and sends an acceptance or an award or some other tangible acknowledgment or reassurance. It's easy to say that the outer reassurances are not what matters—that living up to your own idea of your own potential is far more important.

But those external measures are just that: measurable. And tangible. You can count them and say, "This is success" or "This is abject failure." It can be comforting to think that you know where you're at, where your work is at (even when it's dispiriting). Ah, you might say, but you should write for yourself—not for who might choose you. This brings us to the second line of inquiry.

The second question includes two dilemmas. First: How do you measure whether your best is as good as you can do? Second: You can't get there. It isn't possible—at least, not for more than about five minutes at a time. Can you imagine saying, "This is my best work, and it's the best poem I'm ever going to write?" That's more depressing than the rain.

We keep reaching for our best and hoping that we'll measure up to someone else's idea of what is best. (And I'll keep trying to figure out what that is.)