Wednesday, May 30, 2007
But this morning I realized that all this pushing has taken some of the fun out of cycling. It has become more like a job, or a goal to be reached.
I'm all for goals, but this morning, I decided to switch my goal back to having fun. A good ride means I enjoy myself—even if it takes an extra 10 minutes.
The morning ride was hard anyway, but in the afternoon, my new perspective worked. I had fun.
On the ride home, I thought about poetry and the plethora of rejections (including the one I got today). Although they come with the territory, they can get demoralizing. I write poetry because I love to write and something in me needs to write. I enjoy it.
Then there is the publishing part. Could I let go of the goal of getting published and just submit for the fun of it?
It seems so counter to our culture. And necessary. And worth trying, at least.
In the first series, I wanted some of the themes and images to weave throughout the series. I started with a bunch of free writes and then moved lines and groups of lines around until I felt like I had sections that could be poems.
The Camargue series, and the process of writing it, is much more narrative—even if it isn't literally linear. I'm starting the poems one at a time and working on them as individuals—and I'm finding that it's much easier to get stuck.
(What do I write about now? Where is this series, this story, going?)
How do you work on a series of poems? What is your process? How does it change?
Picture a black-and-white photograph, with bright pink letters:
THE EDITOR WIDE-LEG
It also said "New for summer."
Maybe I should go shopping. Just maybe.
(Or maybe I should find out why EXPRESS is sending marketing my way, as though I might go shopping.)
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
While cycling last week, I had some time to think not only about how long it takes me to get somewhere, but how I get somewhere. I am very slow on my bike, so a 35-mile roundtrip gives me plenty of time to ponder.
I have identified four kinds of cycling:
- Cruising/coasting: It's easy and you feel good.
- Pushing: Attacking a hill (or pedaling really hard on a flat or even a downhill—which I generally do not do).
- Recovering: After pushing.
- Bateau biking.
What do boats have to do with bicycles? Good question!
I've been trying to be smart about protecting my knees (now, there's a first). When I start to flag on a hill, I gear way down, so that I'm pedaling with no resistance. It's slow, but it's also kind of leisurely.
I imagine myself in some beautiful floral dress and a hat with a ribbon riding along the side of the lake. It has a feeling of boats and water and freshness and ease.
I'm grateful for any ease I can get. Even if the joggers can pass me.
Monday, May 28, 2007
Here are a few older poems:
My Daughter Asks to Touch the Clouds
We pass through low-hanging
skins of weather,
where mists form
portents, rag ghosts
in those deafening moments
when our feet leave the ground
and we step
into forested air.
Follow the delicate lines,
each branch sculpted
into the fleeting whole.
Snow graces bare limbs
with bushy extravagance.
its own shadows.
The road cuts through a sky
mountains blur into,
and the dark firs, alone,
traipse toward heaven.
Gone is the bright sky
we saw at sunrise
as the shell of the world
of mountains rising
vanished behind the
stubborn fence of clouds.
A mean wind
worries the lake
into a tempest—
challenge the laws
of surface, the desire
Water crashes into air.
Leaves and old papers
and when glass panes
shudder in their sashes
we hear that rattle
in our own bones.
On a warm, wood bench
by rose rugosas,
close your eyes.
The fountain sound
could be a cataract,
a cloud-burst in Delhi,
of hands clapping.
The sun unwrinkles
The water drums.
Soon, school will end.
will play all day.
A hunger sunlit and amniotic
tugs at young limbs
as they test the water’s skin.
Oh, to flop
in the lazy glistening,
wet to the ears.
Arms lose attendance to gravity.
Legs kick and furrow
the surface into spume.
In the summer’s hard draw
all children are fish
reclaiming their gills before birth.
What do you do with these? Is it okay to have incidental poetry (like a postcard or a coffee break)? Or do you set them aside and hope that one day they will be ready to become something else?
Here is one that I think may finally be ready for another, deeper look:
Your Europe Movie
Two swans from Fellini
appeared in deepening air,
an apparition we did not
approach head on. The rowboat leaked
water thick with green
and the noise of fish breathing.
Then twin necks curved into the bowl
of twilight, sky swimming
more stars than you could expose.
When you return, we will share
another language. I still know how to swear
in second-hand Italian.
Your movie unrolls
in scenes of foreign lighting,
reels floating through plotted takes.
I sit at the kitchen table
stare at my coffee, mute,
leaning into the frame.
Back to the writing board.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
At his best, Mr. Collins uses specific details to place the reader, draw the reader in, and then take the reader someplace else. My all-time Billy Collins favorite example of this is in "Osso Buco."
At other times, Billy Collins sounds like Billy Collins—as though he has made a cottage industry from chronicling the minutia of the mundane.
And he can tell you this is not necessarily a bad thing.
While driving home from a local nursery one recent Sunday morning, I happened to catch him on "A Prairie Home Companion" on NPR. During the show, he read "You, Reader," and the audience laughed and laughed.
Laughter is good.
Meanwhile I was grumping that I wasn't writing the poem right then because I had several basil plants and 12 bags of compost in the car and I would write a different poem later.
When I had a chance to read the poem on the page, it struck me differently, especially the ending near those hydrangeas.
I noticed that many of Mr. Collins's poems seem to end in mid-air, or mid-thought. And I know that I like to try to close things up (end with a clap of thunder or the bang of a drum). Is it better to leave the reader hanging? Instead of lopping off the last stanza that I write, should I lop off two or three or four?
Mr. Collins's emphasis on observation of the every day reminds me of questions I've asked about some of my own poems—those that seem so plain, so descriptive, that they lack depth. I call them bagatelles, or little nothings.
(Back in the '70s, my piano teacher said that's what bagatelle means. Beethoven wrote little pieces that he called "bagatelles." They may have been little, but they were lovely. They didn't need a tympani.)
I'm not implying that Mr. Collins's poems lack depth—but they make me wonder where the difference lies between a poem that illuminates what's going on, revealing itself in layers, and a poem that simply states what's going on.
What's the difference between a work of narrative power and a bagatelle? How do you avoid writing a little nothing?
Friday, May 25, 2007
For his list, Peter chose "songs that still take me back to the time when I first heard them, first played them (or the album they were in) over and over." I chose some of those, although I couldn't tell you the names of the albums (maybe what the cover looked like), and I also chose songs that I bashed out on my guitar (even if I never heard it performed by the original artist).
Here is my list:
- Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills & Nash)
I did not attempt to play this one on my guitar!
- City of New Orleans (Arlo Guthrie)
- Tangled up in Blue (Bob Dylan)
- Chelsea Morning (Joni Mitchell—not Judy Collins)
- Gabriel and Me (Joan Baez)
I never heard Ms. Baez perform this, but it was in a song book that belonged to Missy, another girl at camp. I copied down the words and the chords. It was my introduction to bass runs, and it's one of the influences on the Camargue poems that I am writing.
A close runner up was Perfect Circle, by R.E.M.—but in trying to find the title for it, I came across the lyrics. I had always thought that they said something about "silk shoulders high in the rain," which makes no sense but is lovely and mysterious. It turns out that the actual lyrics have shoulders but no silk and no rain.
And as soon as I post this, I will say, "But what about…?" I'd like to be able to include everything ever done by Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash AND Young, Elliott Smith, They Might Be Giants, Eels, Cake, Peter Gabriel, the aforementioned R.E.M., and Roxy Music, plus Wildwood Flower (another entry in the J.B. songbook and made famous by the Carter family), and a couple of sea chanteys that I don't know most of the words to. So I'm cheating a little bit.
Now, I shall tag Sandra, because she's the musician. And Greg (maybe he'll throw in a show tune or two). And Jamie (perhaps it will inspire him to update his blog and tell us about his recent cycling adventures).
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
As much as I want to write my best poems, I also have a strong desire to be done. Okay, that one's ready! Maybe I stop too soon. Maybe I need to explore more, dig a little deeper.
Over the weekend, I had an idea about how to expand an older poem that has been on my list to overhaul. Here is the original poem:
It shares the name of my grandmother
and blooms with the same delicate sensibility,
softly fragrant, pale yellow—
the color of morning
or a woman’s dress as she walks onto the porch,
braces against the omniscient wind.
Maybe she raises a hand against early glare,
gazes across the rows of potatoes and peas,
the gnarled apple tree grown ancient so soon,
and she steps down toward the path
that curves under dark firs
to the sheltered scarf of her own rose garden,
My shrubs grow rangy, riddled with blackspot
except for this stoic rugosa that proffers both roses
and the woman who rests in memory, in earth, in her name.
I was thinking about how the need to do everything perfectly can sometimes serve as a deterrent to doing anything at all. My grandmother, who had a degree in home economics, was like that. The burden of perfection weighed on her. I came up with this revision:
It shares the name of my grandmother
and blooms with the same delicate sensibility,
softly fragrant, the pale yellow
of morning or a woman’s dress
as she walks onto the back porch,
braces against the reckless wind.
Maybe she raises a hand against early glare,
gazes across the rows of potatoes and peas,
the gnarled apple tree grown ancient so soon,
and she steps down toward the path
that curves under dark firs
to the sheltered scarf of her own rose garden.
Agnes planted hybrid teas, showy blossoms
as bright as egg yolks. But the chicken coop
sat empty, and her cooking days were done.
She knew the full measure of perfection,
how everything must end up just so.
until it wasn't worth the trouble,
We can just sit and visit, she said,
although she let me deadhead the lilacs
and sometimes the columbine,
and we drove down the hill
to Vicki's Café. Her pans kept clean,
her stove shiny and white.
My own kitchen is a ruckus,
and the garden is riddled with weeds.
My shrubs grow rangy, shot with blackspot
except for this stoic rugosa
that offers both roses
and memory, the woman who rests
in earth, in her name.
I wanted to say, "Done!" and "Yea! Maybe this will work!" But it doesn't seem finished. And maybe it makes my grandmother sound lazy, which was not my point.
So now I'm thinking of another rose poem that's been on my list to revise. Maybe I need to somehow combine it with this one—a mashup? (Is that the right word now?)
Here is that other poem:
Disease blackens tender foliage ears,
erupts in clusters on green leaves,
runs rampant through the beds.
In dazzling blue May,
I take up the expected instruments,
cut my losses with worn blades.
By leaf and limb, I operate,
pare old growth back to clean margins—
bone, cane, any green wood.
With each calculated clip, the shrubs grow smaller.
I should have pruned more vigorously
in the early year—cut hard when I had the chance.
No pardon for the delicate.
I sacrifice most of a rose to save the rest,
that what’s left may fade or flourish.
Will they fit? Now I'm having a hard time seeing how. Or is it just an idea in this poem that I need to find and use? I have my work cut out for me.
Do you ever piece together old poems?
How do you know when you aren't done? A gut feeling? Some process that works for you?
Monday, May 21, 2007
One of the online topics du jour continues to be The Secret. Slate posted a sort of rebuttal against the trend toward rosy-colored glasses and asked for anecdotes from people who tend to view the worst case scenario.
I am a past master at the worst case scenario. However, I use it as a comfort. It's like Linus's blanket. After I figure out what the worst possible thing is, I can work back to more likely possibilities and create Plan Bs. Thus, the worst case scenario ceases to be a prophesy of doom and becomes a tool for creative thinking.
I remain convinced that the move away from creative thinking, and thinking in general, is a key component in the current situation inside these United States.
Next on the list: Currently, there is a trend to kid-bash and to fault parents for heaping piles of undeserved praise upon their progeny (this link is the second or third story that I've seen on this trend). I was explaining this to one of my sons, and he said, "Are you kidding? In this family, you have to hit your parents up for sandwich bread!"
I brought home a new loaf for him—but my concern lies in the currently promoted advice to praise your children only for specific things that they do—only when they do something really great. Grades and sports come up.
Enough already! Why can't you just tell your kids when you think they're being really good people? Why do you have to limit praise to what people do, instead of expanding it to who they are?
All vehemence aside…
What does all of this have to do with writing or poetry? Nothing, although if I had a secret, I would tell you. If you want a worst-case scenario, I will tell you. I like to tell my kids when I think they are being good people, because the rest of the time I have to carp at them about their grades.
And my poetry group meets this Thursday, so I had best get busy.
I'd love to hear what you think.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
When I read yesterday's poem by Michael Pettit on the Verse Daily website, I also thought about momentum. The poem benefits from having no intervening punctuation (just a period at the end), but it also uses word choices and line breaks and subject to pull the reader along. I can see that the poem is doing it, but I still can't seem to get that feeling into my own work.
Any tricks or tips?
The sky is blue after a night of rain, but I can see the wind pushing the lilac and the roses and the pine tree up the hill. So I'll probably stay off my bike. Maybe I'll write.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
But we were discussing the ways in which even a little bit of hunger can make you grumpy and unfocused—how while it's zapping your energy, it's distracting you. How to think? How to think creatively? How to write?
I told her my theory of about the starving artist, and she asked, "What's that?" I tried to explain about the garret and suffering for your art and the meals that I so foolishly skipped when I was foolish and young and somewhat financially challenged and trying to be a modern dancer.
We both agreed that was a pretty poor idea, and I explained that I thought that the idea of the starving artist—however popular and romantic—had to be false, because when you're hungry, it's just too hard to get your best work done.
It makes me wonder about all of the real, harsh hunger in the world, and about all the creative thinking and problem solving and writing we as a world must be missing out on.
Then I said that I wanted to write something, and she said, "Write about that."
Does deprivation provide a necessary impetus to unleash some creative power—keeping you mentally, creatively lean—or is it the effect of choosing expressions that might not in our culture and society be financially lucrative, and choosing to hone in on those even if they don't pay? If you get a steady day job and groceries, are you selling out?
What do you think about this idea of starving or otherwise suffering for your art?
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The repetition of cycling round and round frees up my mind to ramble along (although it works better when I can breathe). I've always thought that this kind of activity was conducive to creative thinking. Maybe it is. Maybe the problem is that by the time I get off my bike, I'm just a pile of mush, so I'm not making the transition from thought to text.
I want to get back to the Camargue poems, but I've reached a little stall. Is it the biking, or do I just not know what to write?
What do you do when you get stuck?
Monday, May 14, 2007
Is it possible that the biking pumps up the endorphins, and then I'm so blissed out that I don't need to pursue a creative outlet? That's kind of scary. Let's not go there.
My little bike poem has not progressed, but when I bike I think about writing, and I also think about my stepson Jamie, who is a big-time cyclist.
So in the spirit of biking and writing and occasional poetry, I thought I'd share a poem that I wrote years ago for his birthday, when he and his Dad were in training for the annual Seattle-to-Portland ride. (It's an old poem; Jamie's 27 now.)
Rubber taunts the road
as you pedal up hills, over bridges.
The first warm day in a week refuses
to loosen its grasp of the dramatic.
A gull wing flashes white
against the dark berm of watercolor cloud
you race toward
the way you passed your father
a mile back, legs pumping strong,
lungs fired with a smack of salt air.
Up ahead the sky bends pale
and you push harder
into the clear unknown.
Friday, May 11, 2007
It's too rough still to post here—to rough even to qualify as a draft—but I started thinking about some of the other poems that I've written for special situations, special people, and special occasions.
Always, for me, there is an initial stretch of panic, followed by a dry spell and one or several starts before I'm able to find the right balance between the event or the person and what the poem itself wants to stay.
I've found that some of them work out better than others. For some of those efforts, their merit lies more in their presence as a gift than in an poetic power or craft. And sometimes they come out really strong!
But I was thinking how even if those poems don't really stand on their own after the day is done, they are written for their audience, and they reach their audience—and how often does that happen?
I've written few poems for birthdays (one that I wrote before my middle child was born—and then I saved it for 15 years) and a couple of poems for weddings. I'm posting one here, which was written for my sister's wedding:
After a meal and a moment,
you enter the wide evening,
turn east toward lilac dusk
and the steep flights
to Hunter Boulevard.
The city unfolds below you
like a fan of watered silk
or a deck of cards.
Take a breath, deeply.
You have held your hands close,
drawing for two of a kind,
keeping an ace in your cuff.
A train’s descant, parting sorrow,
rises over Beacon Hill,
settles like thin rain,
the echoes of a saxophone.
Breathe deeply. Sing.
In the measures of music,
you meet a language
for desire and trust,
map chords or discord
to a treasured resolution.
Twilight strikes a solemn key,
matches the color of morning
and you trace the sun’s descent
into the valley, the old high school
gone rose in the day's denouement.
Take a breath. Say Yes.
It’s not the stairs you’ve counted,
but the steps ahead.
You find a pace that fits
to walk in all weather.
How about you? Do you write poems for family and friends and special occasions? How do you approach that project?
P.S. This was written as a follow-up poem to "The Fine Art of Measurement." I don't have a direct link to that poem online, but it was published in Weathered Steps (Rose Alley Press).
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Miles bicycled today: 36.5
I tried two new routes, one on the way into work and one on the way back. The second route won for civility, although the ride home took me two hours because of stopping to look at my map and turning the wrong way (especially after I ran out of map). Now I am very tired and very sore and very, very relaxed.
What does this have to do with rejection?
Nothing—but I'm getting there.
Yesterday I received yet another no in the mail, and when I went to log it in my little records document, I realized that the packet had come back in barely over three weeks. Bummer--that's a pretty swift rejection, and it made me think about all the different levels and shadings of rejections that we get (yes, I'm making an assumption here). I know that tend to read things into what little information I can imagine.
- The quick rejection 1: Barely time to get to the journal or magazine and back.
- The quick rejection 2: It takes a little longer.
- The slow rejection: A year goes by.
- The nice rejection: The rejection includes a handwritten note—and sometimes encouragement.
- The brusque rejection: Your cover letter is still in the envelope (did the editors read your submission, or just see a name they didn't know and stuff it in the SASE; am I being cynical?).
- The nonrejection 1: You never hear anything.
- The nonrejection 2: Your packet comes back in a different envelope with no name and no rejection slip (okay, it's probably a rejection).
- The nonrejection 3: Your SASE comes back empty.
Now I am pretty certain that this would look entirely different from an editor's perspective. In fact, I bet editors have lists of their own. I'd love to hear about them.
It would also be nice to talk about flavors of acceptance—but mostly that's delicious.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
After being dismissed, albeit gently, at the middle school bus stop, I got on my bike and rode two miles down the hill to my own bus connection.
But when I got to the bike rack by the Montlake Flyer stops, I couldn't unclip my shoe from the pedal. I twisted and twisted.
I thought, "Maybe if I take the shoe off, I can get a better angle." Then I was standing in the long, damp grass on one foot, with the other foot daintily clad in a sock with blue flowers, and bending over my bicycle twisting the stuck shoe.
I kept hoping that someone would say, "Do you need some help?" But no one came along—or if they did, they thought that I knew what I was doing.
- I could put my shoe back on (and hope not to fall over in the process) and bike back home, put the bike in the shed, and forget all about it.
- I could ride over to the bike store and wait for them to open (but it might be two hours).
- I could actively solicit help.
Gingerly I rolled my bike to the sidewalk, carried it down the stairs to the highway, watched streams of people boarding my bus, and asked the much-more-together cyclists at the stop if they could help.
"Hmmm," said one of the cyclists. "You need tools."
Before I could say much of anything, he had his tools out of the bag, and then he had my shoe off the pedal.
On the way home from work, I stopped off at the bike store for a new shoe screw and some tools. Now in my bag I have bike tools (a lovely collection of hex wrenches) and poetry tools (pen, index cards, stamps, and whatever I'm currently reading).
But what does this have to do with poetry really?
I had planned to try the long ride again tomorrow—especially now that I have tools and by this afternoon my knees didn't creak quite so much. I was also trying to find good excuses to blow it off and just ride the bus. But I'm still trying to find the perfect route, and I've been turned on to a few good ideas. I want to try them out. I want to explore.
I realize that often I explore less when I'm writing. I have my "voice" most of the time, and it's comfortable. It's me. What if I could avoid that temptation? How can I explore? Really?
Today I'm going to do a reduced bike commute and ride most of the way on the bus, which means I get to read. Novel or poems or Poets & Writers? Although I love the poems, I lean toward the novel—and why is that? Again I ask whether I should try writing fiction again?
Instead, I'm working on these Camargue poems, which are really like little interlinked character studies. It's another series in which I'm not sure the poems, and their characters, will be able to stand alone. But I realize that it's my own way of writing stories.
I fail at writing fiction because I'm missing the plot genes. I'm convinced: It's a DNA issue. But I'm thinking that maybe in these little poetry links I can replace a plot with an emotional arc—a concept that Lana Hechtman Ayers recently introduced me to. She's good at seeing the emotional arcs. I'm not, so that's another thing to work on.
When you're pulling together a collection of poems, or when you're working on a series of poems, do you look for an emotional arc?
Sunday, May 6, 2007
This morning, after a very brief and mostly unsatisfactory free write, I headed outside to work in the garden. I started out by applying some very old fish fertilizer (it's had a lot of time to sit in the shed, and I'm not sure it's even still effective). Then I headed to my local gardening source and picked up some more herb starts, a couple of Tuscany Roma tomato plants (if I get even one tomato from them, it will be a miracle), and 12 bags of compost.
I didn't buy any more thyme, but I'm hoping that six plants (plus one lemon thyme) will get my family through the spring and summer.
Now it is all in or on the ground. While I was out digging holes and spreading mulch, I thought about May Sarton. Years ago, I read Journal of a Solitude—and it's only in the past few weeks that I've realized or admitted that I've held that up as the model life, and I haven't come even close.
In the Journal, here is a typical day: Wake up, write (tea or coffee and breakfast at some point, if I remember correctly). Read the mail. Respond to letters. Then head outside after lunch and garden all afternoon. Friends may stop by. What a perfect day! And we're talking about most days, for a year.
I'm remembering this from reading the book more than two decades ago, and I may be missing some of the details, but this is what has stayed with me: write and garden. And I rarely get there.
Maybe tonight I'll write a little. Maybe in September I'll see some plum tomatoes.
How do you find time to write? (I've asked before, and I'll keep asking.) What's your favorite time to write?
What's your perfect day—for every day?
Friday, May 4, 2007
And then again...
Today on her web log First draft: Leonardo likes gulls, K.R.A. posed the question "I kind of like poetry, but I don't know anything about contemporary poetry. Who should I read?"
and then listed 12 poets, with the following rules:
No blog friends
No real-life friends
No real-life mentors
Alive as of this writing
Her 13th? "Someone I haven't read yet"
I thought, "What a great idea! Which poets would I recommend?"
I started my list and immediately bumped up against the not-a-friend/mentor and alive-now parameters (good-bye to my good friends, whose poems I admire; good-bye to Frank O'Hara).
After the cross-outs for the previously mentioned reasons, I had a start:
Olena Kalytiak Davis
Naomi Shihab Nye
(and I really want to add Lynda Hull because, she would have been alive if she hadn't died early)
I stopped. I realized that my list was mostly women, probably all white, and probably all or mostly living in or from the United States. I added Rita Dove—a very strong poet to include on the list, and I need to read more of her work.
If a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, it can also be a very helpful thing.
I see that I have some reading to do—not just casual poem-of-the-day reading, but some real deep dives: more contemporary African American poets, more African poets, more Central and South American poets, more European, Asian, and Middle Eastern poets. Remember: to meet the criteria of the list, they need to be living right now.
I see another trip to Open Books in my near future.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Come to the virtual table and dig in.
It’s an inspiring start if you’ve been hungering to write some historical poems.
The site features photographs of the individual place settings along with short biographical articles on each woman and links to women whose stories might be connected or related in some way. The links include all the women whose names are written in gold along the floor. I’ve been exploring the site in little tastes and snacks, starting with Trotula, and I’m hoping to find some time to enjoy a more hearty repast—many courses.
In the meantime, my little Camargue project has led me to Ra, so my next stop is The Egyptian Book of the Dead. It’s kind of handy that I already have a copy.
The forecast has said rain, but the sky is not falling right now, so I had better get outside and trim some of the verdant lushness around the fringes of my yard. (Really, it’s quite out of control.)
P.S. You can probably tell that I still don't quite understand this labeling concept.