Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Do I Get Bored when I Read? (a student asks) & Mindfulness Training

61º ~ yes, 61º on Jan. 19, you gotta love the mid-South, we'll get back to our "normals" of around 50º for a high for the rest of the week, but we're headed close to 70º today ~ while I know warming trends are not a good thing, I'm going to put this one in the short-term plus column

This semester, I asked my Creative Writing I students to email me any questions they have about writing. I did this to A) establish an email connection with each student and B) to help guide my prep for the semester. In general, I've gotten a lot of "How much do writers make?" "How long does it take to get a book published?" "What can I do with creative writing if I don't want to teach?" and "What do I do about writer's block?" type questions. Remember, these are first-time creative writing students, and community college students as well, meaning many of them won't have been exposed to information about the writing life. All of these are the questions I expected and have a lot of experience covering in class.

However, one question sent me rocking back on my heels. A very enthusiastic student asked "Why do I get bored when I read?" and "What do I need to read to become a better writer?" Like many of my students, he has a great desire to write but has little background in reading. He sees this gap and is concerned, but as he's tried to read in the past, he's gotten "bored." (This sets him apart from a lot of the other students who want to write but don't enjoy reading...without an awareness of that lack of enjoyment.)

I've been mulling over this question, and I don't have a definitive answer for this one student, because I don't know him well enough yet, but I have one major guess.

Our 21st century, technology-based society does not cultivate the enjoyment of reading. When asked what they do in their spare time, over 60% of my class (males and females) report playing video games. The other 40% doesn't have spare time because of family responsibilities, jobs, and school. Now, I'm not a rabid hater of video games. I think that some of them pull in the imagination in creative ways, and I do believe that we all need to have some things we simply do for "fun." What I do see, however, is that gaming and surfing the net require the opposite of skills needed for enjoyable reading.

Reading fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction requires flexible imagination muscles. It requires the ability to inhabit the life of another person and understand it (empathy), and the best writing lures us into that imaginative act and feeds a human need. Sadly, as our world has turned toward technology and speed of information, there are fewer and fewer vehicles for creating empathy through imagination. (As the student asking the question is a young man, closer to a traditional student than a non-traditional one, I also wonder if "teaching to the test" has caused some of this as well.)

My thoughts might not be completely clear, but I don't think this student has taken the time with his reading to take it in and find pleasure from the experience of empathy. I say this because over the last decade of teaching, I have definitely noticed a decrease in the ability of my students to read something as simple as an assignment sheet and retain that information. They "read" by running their eyes over the words and comprehending them in that moment, but not by "taking in" the information communicated by the words.

All of this hits me at a time when I've taken up mindfulness training (in a non-formal way). I first learned of mindfulness when I was a college student in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and I was assigned  one of Thich Nhat Hahn's books on mindfulness. This practice requires slowing down and actually being in the moment. There's no way I can sum it up well here, but it is all about "the now." Eckhart Tolle is a writer discussing this topic who many more may have heard of these days, thanks to Oprah.

In any case, I've been struck by how the practice of mindfulness, really being and seeing each moment "I am washing this dishes. This is how it feels to wash the dishes..etc." correlates with the practice of reading. We have to give our whole attention to the words, body & mind, and when we don't, we comprehend and retain less. This proves true in my own life. I have a bad habit of trying to multi-task while I read. I might be trying to eat while I read, which requires juggling silverware, dishes, food, etc. while reading. Every time I do this, I realize I'm less engaged with the text before me. When I do focus on the words and read with a pen in my hand, then I get the full experience of empathy, of enjoyment, of new thoughts, and/or of gaining self-knowledge. The reading fulfills me.

So, back to my student, if I, a woman in mid-life not brought up by computers, texting, and a "need for speed" in all things, struggle with mindfully engaging with reading, what a greater struggle people of my student's generation might have.

Again, I don't mean this to be a technology bashing post. I do think we need a greater balance with how we use technology and more awareness of how our minds are changed (how we interact with information) because of that technology.

In the meantime, one of my goals for my class will be to show students how to become fully immersed in a text and to not get least not all of the time.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What I'm Reading: Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral

54º ~ straight-up sun shining down on all, light breezes, backyard birds & squirrels in motion

During my recent wrestling with a writing drought, I sent out a call for inspiration on Facebook. My poet-friend, Al Maginnes, recommended that I get my hands on Gary McDowell's new book, Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral and try his approach. While I haven't tried the approach, I have finished reading the book and want to say a few words about it here.

Many of these poems were written in the middle of the night as McDowell tended to his daughter as she struggled with colic. Each morning, he would pick a book from the shelf, randomly, and find a line that spoke to him. He'd write out that line and leave it there, waiting for the middle of the might, when he would then draft a poem around or inspired by the line.

I do plan to try to use this prompt, and I think it's wide-open enough to serve poets of any style.

All that being said, the result of the prompt for McDowell is a series of poems created out of fragments, thoughts snatched from an unmasked mind, making leaps and intuitive connections rather than linear progressions. In her blurb, Lee Ann Roripaugh calls these "mosaic worked poems." Yes, in the true sense of a mosaic made up of broken pieces, these are poems made up of broken thoughts with lots of white space as the grout that holds the whole thing together.

For me, the book is most successful being read in large chunks together. I have a hard time entering fragments in fits and starts, but when reading the poems together, their weight builds and ideas spark.

For an example of the way McDowell makes use of fragments, here are some lines from "Of Notes."

More like autumn than autumn is

Settling gravel and moonlight, and a campfire
feels its way into the dark

They used to burn coffee to cloak
the scent of death

One little two little three little

Bike racks        Fire hydrants         And all the little boys
allowed outside

unwatched after school.

The poem goes on from there, but what I want to highlight are the intuitive leaps already present. We begin in "autumn," a time of burning leaves, a time of "death." Next we get the "campfire" and a leap to the use of burnt coffee "to cloak / the scent of death." And finally, we get that eerie threat of what could happen when children are left "unwatched." The poem takes a turn back toward the innocent after this, but it is bittersweet as an echo to a reminder of mortality and danger in this world.

Reading this type of collage / mosaic poem requires me to flex muscles I don't normally use in reading more linear / cohesive poems. It requires both a loosening of my hold and a strengthening of my focus on each individual line. I have to give up the idea of a straight narrative or a "clear" lyric, and instead give each line, each word the same focus in order to bring the intuitive leaps into focus.

I'm thankful for Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral for this insight, and more, for the beauty of the lines etched on every page.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2015: Arriving with a Whimper

27º ~ gradually warming up out of our first true "cold snap" ~ looking at 55º for the weekend ~ all here remains shrouded in gray

Dear reader, I was all about the forward movement in mid-December, and then there was Christmas, and in the aftermath of that holiday, the onset of "the central Arkansas death cold," so named by a friend who suffered through it first.

I knew the holiday would shift my focus from writing, and I let it be. After all, for me, living a full life informs my writing. However, on December 27th I had the first inklings of a head cold. This would later spawn into a going-on three-week upper respiratory nightmare. I've spent a lot of the last few weeks "drinking lots of liquids and getting rest." Oh, and spending a fortune on over-the-counter treatments for the symptoms. But this is not meant as a sob story, as so many others suffer much more difficult medical issues and I am on the mend.

Instead, this experience brought to mind a book on writing that I read a million years ago in the early 1990s, Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown. In Starting from Scratch, Brown offers lots of great advice and support for people trying to figure out the writing life, but the thing that has always stuck with me is her discussion on a healthy lifestyle and writing. In the book, she talks about practicing healthy living as a way to support her writing. This went against all my young romantic ideals of the artist drinking wine or whiskey, smoking cigarettes or pot, and generally "running wild," a la The Beats, and yet, over the course of my life, I've come to agree with Brown. I can't write with a muddled brain, whether from "over-indulgences" or from the kind of fog brought on by a head cold.

After Christmas, while I had two open weeks of nothing but free time (with a moderate amount of prepping for the semester thrown in), once I came down with the severest symptoms, I couldn't formulate an original thought to save my life. Now, I know that I didn't ask to get this cold, and I didn't live an unhealthy lifestyle to bring it on. However, I did make some unwise choices. The kind I seem to make repeatedly. On the first sign of the cold, instead of putting myself to bed and taking care of myself, I went all out in taking care of household chores, errands, and cleaning that had been put off during the end of the semester crazies and the holiday. I overworked myself and tried to deny that I was sick. It caught up with me in a big way.

And once again, I'm re-learning "the oxygen mask lesson." In life, like so many other women, instead of reaching for my oxygen mask first (airline safety rules), I reach out to do for others OR to do the things that I believe I am supposed to do to make me a good wife, daughter, sister, friend, etc. I am lucky, no one in my life is making me think I have to do these things. Instead, I impose these ideas on myself until once again, life reminds me that if I don't take care of myself first, then there is nothing left to give back to family, friends, writing, students, the community, &etc.

Somewhere in all of this, I read online (somewhere): "We schedule what we value." This is my new mantra, and it is written out on a post-it that is stuck to my computer monitor, right where my eyes meet it first thing.

So, my wishes for the new year include: (short term) a return to health and (long term) a steady practice of scheduling time for myself, especially time to write.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Today's Draft, Brought to You by Lucie Brock-Broido and Sheldon Cooper

42º ~ slight warming, still a chance of rain, all grey, all quiet

Well, here I am, practicing BIC (butt in chair) and being present. The world was fighting hard against writing time today. I was cluttered up with thoughts of the errands I need to run and the urge to up and do them now, now, now, when, really, there is no rush. So, I fought and stayed in the chair.

I read some more Lucie Brock-Broido. I'm still working on Stay, Illusion. Today, I read "Attitude of Lion," amid others, and in this poem, Brock-Broido draws on the elements of animal heraldry. I learned something new by investigating her use of "sejant" and "couchant" in the poem. While I knew that animals were depicted in family crests, flags, seals, etc. in different "attitudes," different positions, I had never learned the history and meaning of this. So, I read up on them all and then returned to the poem with a new appreciation.

I read a few more poems, but none that held me as much. In the back of mind, I kept thinking of an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Yes, you read that correctly, The Big Bang Theory. I was thinking of the episode where Leonard tells how he came to live with Sheldon and to sign "the roommate agreement." In this episode, we learn that the apartment has a flag: "a gold lion rampant on a field of azure." That phrase "rampant on a field of azure" just kept repeating through my head.

So, I turned to my notebook and wrote "I, Rampant on a Field of Azure" and decided that made a great title. I imagined myself taking the rampant posture of an animal on a flag and sort of wrote a self-portrait, I suppose. It begins:

Fierce fingers splayed,
            ready for the raking
                        slash across my enemy's throat,
I lead with my hands.

So there you go: one poetry lion (Lucie Brock-Broido) mixed with one popular culture reference and voila!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I Get By...With a Little Help from My Friends

37º ~ the whole day gone gray with overcast, across the alley a troop of roofers punctuate the otherwise quiet air, one bright red sweatshirt catches and distracts the eye as it hovers in high branches

Well, as the lapse in posting on this blog over the past six months can attest, I've been struggling. Struggling to maintain a focus on my own work amidst the work of my paying job and the work of being spouse, family-member, and friend. I know the fallow period that follows completing a big project, such as having two books come out in close proximity (one out and one on the way out, in any case); however, this time has felt a bit bleaker, and things recently reached a breaking point.

If you are on Facebook, you know that a few days ago, I posted a call for help. True to form, my friends turned out in all their glory and offered support and concrete advice. This morning, I returned to the desk with new determination and plucked one such piece of advice from my FB thread and BEGAN.

This bit of advice was offered by more than one person: transcribe a poem by that you love (written by someone else, of course) into your journal.

Duh! (Head slap) This is one of the prompts I offer my students because it has helped me so many times. I happened to have Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters beside me, so I opened to "Rome Beauty." Really, I could have used almost any poem in the book, but this one seemed "do-able" for a new beginning.

*While I've been struggling with poetry, I've also been struggling with some stress-management issues. I recently revisited Thich Nhat Hanh's audiobook The Art of Mindful Living to try and get myself back to living in the now and being present.

As I transcribed the poem, I kept the mindfulness lessons at the surface. I did not rush. I read and absorbed Brock-Broido's words, a phrase at a time, and I copied them into my journal with an attempt to keep my handwriting legible, my lines steady. This was, after all, not the rush of drafting, but the return to finding joy in language and in poetic lines.

After I completed the transcriptions, I felt calm, centered. However, my coffee had grown cold. So, I left the desk and hit the microwave in the kitchen. And here, perhaps I offer too much information. Often as I wait for my coffee to reheat, I stretch, twirl, dance, etc. on the old linoleum floor (yet another instance where the cats look at my like I'm crazy). Today, I pivoted on one foot with the other touching the cardinal points of the compass. I did so unconsciously, but almost immediately, lines sprang into my head.

I, too, am a bit Obsessed
with my own wind-tossed turning

on the compass wheel. ...

Boom. I was at the desk and scribbling madly in my journal, now throwing any semblance of good handwriting out the window.  The draft is unfinished as yet, but 12 lines made it onto the computer, which is a fabulous start. Also, this strange thing happened, the poem is filled, I mean FILLED, with rhymes.  Frost, exhausts, lost; so, no, show, slow; in, limbs; dismissed, wrist. Rhymes, but not in any standardized pattern. Just there, singing beneath the surface.

And so, I say "thank you" to everyone who commented on Facebook, sent me a private message, or has simply listened to me whine and moan for the last bit of life. I owe you all...Big Time!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What I'm Reading: Floodgate Poetry Series Vol. I: Bazzell, Call, McGrath

57º ~ a murky, heavy-sky day of gathering thunderstorms, late November in the mid-south, most trees have lost their leaves, but the sweet gum holds on, tenacious

The Floodgate Poetry Series features three chapbooks by three poets in a single volume, and the debut volume is just out from Upper Rubber Boot Books. This collection features chapbooks by Jenna Bazzell, Martin Anthony Call, and Campbell McGrath, and the series is edited by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, of fame.

My connection to Volume I is that I blurbed Call's contribution: The Fermi Sea: Book I of Hologhost. Today, I read both Bazzell's and McGrath's chapbooks as well. I'm struck by the distinct differences in each collection, and yet how the volume somehow holds together as a piece in itself. Overarching themes of history (both personal and political) woven through with glimpses of the future run through the collection.

First up is Jenna Bazzell's Homeland. A devastating elegy for a troubled mother figure, the poems are frantic prayers spoken in a haunted, southern landscape. While I was impressed with the entire set of poems, "Nightgown" stuck with me, and I think I'll be returning to it in the days to come. Here is the opening.

Tonight, call back the ghosts you refused--listen to their steps

from the ceiling to the floor--palms flat to the window, a pair
of stumbling bare feet. Nights like this you're spun
                                                       in your mother's skin: fingers
thin as forsythia limbs, slender neck bent over a coffee table.

After these poems of grief, grounded in a lush landscape, we move on to Martin Anthony Call's The Fermi Sea. These poems move us into a dystopian future where the promise of technology has changed the world, but not always for the better.

Here's my blurb:

Martin Anthony Call’s character sketches in The Fermi Sea call to mind a dystopian Spoon River Anthology set somewhere mid-twenty-first century on the West Coast. Filled with nanotechnology, all-digital media, walled cities, holograms, and air cabs, these poems project a gritty disillusionment about the power of both humans and machines. (Think more Blade Runner than Star Trek.) With deft poetic strokes, Call introduces the reader to a host of characters whose trials have only just begun.

Here is a bit of "Wheeler," one of the opening poems.

Simon drops off the sofa at the sound
                     of his buzzer blaring
and the Vid-Mon popping on full volume.

4 AM wake up call could only be
                      Wheeler, leery and
lizard-eyed, woefully paranoid

Wheeler, who might be a city administrator
                     if not for the rabbit-
         hole of prescription pharmaceuticals.

Finally, Campbell McGrath shifts us back in time with Picasso/Mao, a series of persona poems covering much of the 20th century from the point of view of these two influential men. While much has been written about both Picasso and Mao, here we have a re-imagining through a heightened, personal lens as McGrath attempts to remain true to the facts of history while broadening our empathy for these cultural giants.

Here is the opening of "Mao: On Patience (1931)":

Sick with malaria, I withdraw from the clamor
of disputatious cadres
to live in a bamboo pavilion with He Zizhen,
my revolutionary companion,
who has surrendered our newborn daughter
to be raised by peasants. A model comrade, she would not
saddle the Party with an infant's needs.

All together Volume I of the Floodgate Poetry Series does not disappoint. It offers all of the advantages of the chapbook with the added spark of three voices placed side by side, so that the poems of one poet linger and influence the reading of the next.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Upcoming Reading: Drake University & the Des Moines Public Library: The Writer's Harvest

45º ~ a distinct chill in the air, bright/brilliant slanting sun, autumn in Arkansas

As always, the semester presents its marathon challenges, and then, I look up, and notice we're 3/4 of the way through. This year, that means, I'm about to go to Iowa for a reading. Wahooooooza!

What: The Writer's Harvest
The Drake Writers and Critics Series, in partnership with the Des Moines Public Library
When: Thursday, 13 November, 3:30 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Where: Des Moines Public Library, downtown branch
Who: ME & Aimee LaBrie, plus a sampling of Drake students whose work appears in their lit mag, Periphery

In true weather fashion, an "arctic blast" plans on blowing through while I'm up home. Highs should be right in that comfort zone of the low 30s, and, oh yes, there's a chance of snow at some point. Uhm, yum? Still, central Arkansas will be only slightly warmer, albeit without the snow chances.

I guess I'll be taking my winter coat along and reading some "cold" poems. If you live in or near Des Moines, I hope to see you there!

Can't wait to visit with all the Drake writers and see my MFA buddies, Amy Letter & Brian Spears!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sibling Rivalry Press: The Queer South

56º ~ a cold front arrives, sweeping from NW to SE, bright autumn sun slanting sideways, leaves floating down one moment and hurtling down the next as the wind comes up

As the literary scene in central Arkansas has expanded over the last decade, one of the great additions to the party has been Sibling Rivalry Press. I've been fortunate to get to know Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington, and it's probably no secret that I'm a fan of their work. For those unaware, SRP is a champion of LGBTIQ authors, but is an inclusive press. While straight myself, I'm not one to get hung up on labels. I read for the love of poetry, and so do Bryan and Seth, based on the quality of the work they produce.

Awhile back, Bryan reached out and asked if I would blurb a new anthology, The Queer South, edited by Douglas Ray. My policy on blogging is to say "yes" whenever I can, schedule permitting. As it happened, I had the time, so Bryan sent on the proof of the book. As I scrolled to the table of contents, I saw Dorothy Allison, Richard Blanco, Jericho Brown and many more "established" voices. However, right there at the top, alphabetically, was John Andrews, and I started to smile.

John Andrews was my student at the Arkansas Governor's School about a decade ago, when he would have been a rising high school senior. I've had the great pleasure of knowing John as he completed his undergrad degree and then went off to get a graduate degree in creative writing. Now his work shows up in journals and anthologies, and I just smile and smile. I can't claim any huge influence over John's work, as I only taught him for six weeks one summer; however, I still count him as one of mine. To see four of his poems in The Queer South sealed the deal. I read on with delight.

Without further ado, here's my blurb:
In The Queer South words emerge, blazing, from the red clay, the kudzu, the streaming rivers and creeks, and the sun-cracked city streets. Poems and essays wrestle the ghosts of history, ghosts that don't fight fair, hurling religion, race, and gendered expectations, alternating between shouts of bravado and whispers of shame. Yet, these love poems, coming out stories, and, yes, even songs of rejection, win by laying bare the skin of any reader's heart.

At nearly 300 pages, The Queer South is a hefty anthology, and one I strongly support.

Here's John Andrews' "The Heart is a Shotgun House" to get you started.

The Heart is a Shotgun House

no hall

three rooms
rubbing up against
each other

a house without
a backdoor

in the living room
smell every spice

the pots
boiling over

the wind
through the bedroom

we made moonshine
in the bath

put all the bottles
on the front lawn

to bathe them
in moonlight

left the tap


on the porch

I caught him eating
leftover spiced apples
in the midnight kitchen

after sleeping
with a shotgun

you'll pull the trigger

aim for anything
in the dark

Sunday, October 19, 2014

How a Poetry Manuscript Becomes a Book

58º ~ nothing but sweet sunshine for days and days to accompany the cooling days of fall, the trees have just begun to turn as the hours of sun diminish, hummingbirds departed about a week ago, it seems

Oh, dear reader, an entire month has lapsed since last I posted. Such is the life of a poet working at the community college level (with extra teaching at the grad level to boot).

Still, my life has not been without poetry work. Much of the last month's poetry time has been spent working with my incredible editor, Tayve Neese, from Trio House Press. Today, I'm thrilled to share the cover of my new book, due out in April 2015.

Each press I've worked with has had a different approach to cover image and design. In this case, Trio House asked me for three possible images. These images would go before the production committee, and if the committee thought any would work, they would choose one. If the committee wanted to take the cover in another direction, they would then find and use their own image. With these instructions, I immediately contacted Carolyn Guinzio, poet and photographer, and asked for permission to put three of her images forward for consideration. Luckily, she said yes, and then the production committee said yes to the above image.

In terms of which of Carolyn's beautiful photographs I might put forth, I knew the following. Given the tone and subject matter of the book, I wanted a cover with reds, browns, burnt oranges, glowing embers, etc. I also wanted something with either a medical feel or a vintage feel. Blood Almanac and The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths both contain realistic images (that I love) on the covers. This time, I was interested in some abstraction entering the frame.

When Tayve emailed me the finished product this past week, I confess, I cried. I instantly loved the entire vibe of the cover and how the graphic extension of lines across the image reflects the sickly speaker's situation, that of institutionalization. As I saw the cover for the first time, the number of references to the speaker's barred window popped into my head. I cried. I danced. I emailed Tayve back so we could celebrate together.

Many, many thanks to Carolyn for the photo and to Dorinda Wegener, the Managing Editor at Trio House, for helping create such a fantastic cover.

OK, so while the production committee was busy making the outside of the book look fabulous, Tayve and Issa Lewis, an editor at Trio House, were busy with inside edits. They both scrutinized the text, from front matter, to content, to back matter, and then sent me several pages of editorial suggestions. These suggestions were super helpful in making the book consistent, sometimes in terms of how the dash was used, and definitely in terms of how the ampersand was used. (If you've followed the drafting process of these poems in my previous posts, you know the ampersand plays a key role.) Other editorial questions brought out weaknesses in two poems that needed to be improved, for which I was extremely grateful. Sometimes we are too close to the work to see it clearly.

I addressed the edits and came up with some questions of my own. Back and forth we went until we had what we considered the final copy, and by that, I mean, the FINAL copy. This went off to Dorinda for the publication committee to work on. The manuscript needed to be taken from a Word document and put into a publication-ready format. This involved selecting a font, formatting the front and back matter, as well as the table of contents and the acknowledgments. Then, the poems had to be formatted on the page as well and page numbers inserted.

Once all of that work was done, Tayve and I received our first round of galleys, in PDF form. We each spent a week combing through the pages, and lo and behold, I discovered two word changes that needed to be made, again for consistency within the larger narrative of the poems. Luckily, the word changes didn't change much in terms of formatting, and with things being digital these days, they were easy to fix. Tayve and I also talked about such minute details as spacings for indents, consistency of italics, and where we needed to either put in or take out commas. Yes, even after our stamping FINAL on the previous copy, there were still tiny details to address.

At this point, the galleys are back with Dorinda and her team, and Tayve and I should receive another look at the "almost book" form soon. We will go over all the details again, and then, fingers crossed, we will go to press.

As all of this was going on, we were also working to get the blurbs for the back cover together. I send all my thanks to Carol Frost, who selected the sickly speaker as the winner of the Louise Bogan Award, and to Lisa Russ Spaar & Oliver de la Paz for writing such generous words about the book. I'll leave you with a look at the back cover, minus bar code (thus the white rectangle at the bottom). Soon, soon the book will arrive with its own weight to be held in the hands. I can't wait!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

BIC & Poetry vs. Collage

81º ~ feels like 85º, summer's having a final blowout sale this weekend with temps and humidity climbing, a promise of cooling down in the new week & the new season, hummingbirds continue to battle it out, one bird trying to claim all four feeders in our yard

First, a celebration of BIC (butt in chair), as it really does work. This morning, I flailed about for at least an hour, starting two miserable drafts in my journal before stumbling onto what I really wanted to say/write.

I have to thank Brent Goodman this morning.  His poem "The Brother Swimming Beneath Me" bleeds into the line "is not dead yet... ." That sparked a first line for me, "Dad isn't dead yet, but disappearing." Many of you know that my dad has been dealing with Parkinson's for years. Recently, he has shown all of the elements of Alzheimer's setting in as well. As always, it is a struggle for me to be so far away and to know that my mom and my oldest sister bear the brunt of his caregiving. I thought that's what the poem would be about, but no.

Instead, today poetry did that magical thing. The draft went in another direction, focusing on my dad, not me, and helping me see something about him that I'd never been able to articulate before. The draft, titled "Undersong," actually reveals a man "letting go" of the world long before symptoms appeared because the world had advanced beyond his recognition. Yes, it is based on autobiography, but there's a good deal of fictionalizing going on in there as well.

*Note, "undersong" is a real word with a real definition, but all these silly spell checkers keep telling me otherwise. Le sigh.

So, hurray for BIC and for poetry as an act of discovery that helps me make sense of my world. It might not make living in that world any easier, but it helps.


Now, to poetry versus collage. I don't really mean this as a "versus" kind of thing, but the form of "this versus that" is easy shorthand. What I mean to say is this: I am torn. I have a limited number of hours to devote to my creative life, and I'm having conflicted thoughts about where my collages fit in with my poetry. Truth is, some mornings, I'd rather be making a collage than stumbling over the page in this broken way of late. Yet, I have been "a poet" for so long that I feel guilty about wanting to be making a different kind of art.

I worry that if I don't keep my BIC, I'll lose my poetry muscles (from past experiences, I know I will), but if I'm uninspired by writing and inspired by working with visual images, shouldn't I honor that?

Anyone out there who makes art in multiple fields care to offer any advice? This is much weirder than genre-switching on the page. Each practice requires a whole different physical space and movement, a different firing in the brain. Help!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Voice: Lost? Forgotten? Changing?

66º ~ edging toward fall, squirrels racing about with nuts to bury, no hummingbirds this morning...are they migrated and gone? -- oh wait, one just flirted by

Today, I'm consumed with the idea of poetic voice.

In grad school, lo those many years ago now, I remember the moment I was said to have "found my voice." It was when I began writing the poems that would become Blood Almanac. It was when my poems might still have held some imitative quality of the writers I admired, but had finally grown into their own skin, their own obsessions, their own range on the page.

That voice, obsessed with the Midwest, prone to mid-length lines and shortish poems, enthralled by music and sound within the line, held up for almost 10 years, into the poems of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. Then, with The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, the voice became "skewed" by persona. The sickly speaker had her own pace, her own Victorian-esque and baroque sensibility, and there is very little of the Midwest in her book.

Now, I'm out in the dark again, searching for "my voice." Yes, I wrote some "angry sister" poems, which were persona (and different from the sickly speaker), but by and large, I am not gripped by any obsession at the moment. I have no fire in my belly and no sense of the line on the page.

But, today, with my BIC, a draft came calling. It is plainspoken and direct. The lines are shorter than those with which I'm most comfortable. There's very little magic realism, fairy tale, or high imagination at all. In fact, the subject is about being "unhaunted." I was reading a poem from Anna Journey's If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, a book filled with the speaker being haunted by the departed, and haunted in that lush Southern way, when this draft of mine arrived.

This draft, "The Long Unspoken," comes out and it's all about how being "unhaunted" is a failing on the speaker's part, which seems to me to be directly about my feelings on voice, passion, and "inspiration" at this moment. I am "un" and it is a failing.

No worries. I know this will pass and that the BIC system will work itself out. In the meantime, I continue to read, both poetry and non-fiction. I continue to open myself to the possibilities and whatever new version of my own voice is coming next.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Writing is Hard: Walking the Walk

81º feels like 87º ~ heat index to surpass 100º today, but then, the cold front lingering to our north will dip into the state and we will "plunge" into the high 70s tomorrow, sweet plunge it will be ~ whether heat or shortening days, the hummingbirds have been a bit overzealous of late

Every semester in my Creative Writing I class (a mixed-genre intro class) students come into the class with varying degrees of experience, but all with a desire to wrangle their emotions onto the page through words. And every semester, we hit a wall about now, as the students learn that writing is hard work. This is not a surprise to those of us long at the task, but many of my students have spent years writing in diaries and journals, letting the words fly and feeling great about it, but not having been introduced to the idea of writing for an audience. In my class, they come face to face with a new discipline, an attempt to apply a different kind of craft, and the great balancing act for me is to introduce them to craft without deflating their desire.

I talk a lot about messy drafts, consideration of audience, becoming aware of words as our palette, etc. And I talk a lot about BIC (butt in chair) and revision, revision, revision. Today, I'm living all of these lessons again as I search for new terrain in my poetry. I'm putting my BIC three times a week and I'm scratching and clawing, fighting with words.

Today, four messy pages of half-assed drafts in my journal before, again, I returned to the "am" poem. And then, some smooth sailing as the poem began in the journal:

Am jaw clenched hard
                            by dawn's alarm,

It unwound from there and I got about 3/4 of it in my journal before turning to the computer to try and find the end of the draft. And here I had to persevere; I had to let the poem reveal what I had to say, and that is hard.

Are there poets out there who sit down knowing "I am going to write about the energy of nightmares through the use of a dog with a stick metaphor, and I'll incorporate a savior figure and how the speaker trades the nightmare for an allegiance to a perhaps shady character"? Or simpler "I am going to write a poem about the lady at the pool who swims for 30 minutes and slaps & kicks the water as if trying to beat the life out of it"?

If so, I envy you at this moment. Perhaps I've come to the page like this in the past, but if I have, I've forgotten how it is done. And, this coaxing of the poem up out of the depths is terrifying...every single time.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day & the Political Poem

83º ~ feels like 89º, dew point 74º, the swelter-weather returns, bubbling up to heat indices nearing the century mark later this week, no real rain, watering for the second weekend in a row, hummingbirds abound

This morning, the first thing I read was a Philip Levine poem, "Coming Close, the daily poem from The Academy of American Poets. I went on to read another Levine poem, "What Work Is," archived by the Poetry Foundation. Both of these poems present the complicated lives of working-class people. Among Levine's other poems there are more direct implications of what happens when one moves from the working class to the middle class, as I have done.

This set me off in writing a really cliched, too overt "political poem," about my relationship to work. I mean, the draft is really terrible.

But, it got me thinking, how do political poets, and I count Levine as such, poets who comment directly on the conditions of the people with whom they are concerned, how do they do it? How do they honor their subject and make art of it? How do they avoid sentimentality? How do they avoid exploiting the very people they seek to honor? How do they move me without driving me away with points too blunt and too sharp?

If anyone has any answers, I'm all ears.


In the meantime, I must engage in that domestic labor that is grocery shopping and laundry and catching up on bill paying on this glorious holiday that not everyone gets to enjoy. Many folks, especially in retail and food service will be hard at labor today. May they prosper.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Book of Scented Things

80º ~ feels like 80º, headed up to 95º, our saving grace...a drop in humidity, no rain and no relief in sight, summer arrives late this year, but it arrives, cicadas and hummingbirds abound

In February 2013, I was invited by Jehanne Dubrow to participate in an anthology project that she was then editing with Lindsay Lusby: The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume. Now, the book is done and in the hands of reviewers and contributors. Published by The Literary House Press, it appears the book will become available for sale after its October 7, 2014 debut party at the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College.

You can read about my drafting process here. My perfume was Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement's by Heeley.

And to whet your appetite, dear reader, here is a glimpse between the covers of the book.

Anthologies, for me, are hit or miss. I tend to read them piecemeal, often only really reading a small percentage of the poems or authors. I mostly associate anthologies with classes, but I know that there are many other readers out there who have distinctly different approaches to anthologies. I tell you all of this as background to this fact: I read The Book of Scented Things cover to cover, devouring each and every poem, and not just because I'm a contributor.

Perhaps the organization of the book compelled me to read linearly. Like most anthologies, the book begins with an introduction (by Jehanne Dubrow), and there is a preface (by Alyssa Harad, author of a book and many articles about perfume). Then, we get to the poems. Each poem is numbered, and numbered in a certain typography that echoes perfume lingo, a la Chanel Nº 5. While some poets chose to mention their perfumes in titles or within the poems, in the contributor notes, the editors have included which perfumes was paired with each poet. While I'm not a perfume wearer, I found myself flipping back there out of curiosity time and time again.

Poem Nº 1 is by Amit Majmudar, and is an anti-assignment poem. The title, "On His Reluctance to Contribute to The Book of Scented Things," explains. So, we begin with a poem where the first line, "All attars are unutterable," calls out the challenge for the poets, each assigned a different perfume as inspiration. There were no other "rules" for our writing. We were to write any poem at all, as long as it was in response to the perfume.

I was struck, at first, by the number of poems that directly mentioned the assignment, perhaps by alluding to getting the perfume in the mail or by describing the tiny glass bottle with the black top. It didn't even dawn on me when drafting "Too Simple a Reason," my contribution, to start there. Others worked from the idea of the scent on the body, as I did. And still others wrote poems less directly connected to the literal perfume on the body, but as reaction to the fragrance alone. Fascinating.

Another fascination for me is the range of style in the book: short lyrics, longer narrative, single long stanzas, couplets, a sonnet or two, a prose poem, etc. Along this line came the realization that while I recognized many a poet in the book, I met many new writers as well, and now I have a whole new list of books to explore (one of the greatest benefits of anthology reading).

It is nearly impossible to pick a representative poem to quote here, and certainly impossible to pick a favorite as my picture of the dog-eared pages should attest.

However, I'll list some titles as precursor to your reading the real thing come October, should you choose.

The Lost Bottle (Rachel Hadas)
Sniff (Catherine Wing)
You think language is silly until it happens to you (Dorothea Lasky)
The Perfumier on the Comeback of the Scented Glove (Rebecca Morgan Frank)
Mystery Joins Things Together (Rick Barot)
Gulf City Dialect (Nicky Beer)
This is What Manhattan Smells Like? (Matthew Thorburn)
If Scent is the Trigger of Memory, This is what America Remembers (Nick Lantz)
Too pretty for words (Jessica Piazza)
American Masculinity (Jericho Brown)
Dear Rotten Garden-- (Mark Bibbins)
In Algebra Class, Prince Stuck in My Head (Adrian Matejka)
Unrequited Sublime in Three Notes (Traci Brimhall)
At a Certain Point in Marriage (Idra Novey)

Finally, the last poem, Nº 100, is "Your Scent Does Not Remind Me..." by Elana Bell, and we come back full circle to the ideas introduced in Majmudar's poem. How do we say in words what is evoked by a scent? In between these two poems, there were many references to bodies, relationships, flora and fauna of all kinds, pastorals and urban landscapes, flights of fantasy and crushing confessional poems. It was a wild and wonderful ride.

Many thanks to Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby for the great job editing the book. The crew at The Literary House Press did a fabulous job on the production of the book as well. I'm so happy to have been included, and I look forward to hearing what other readers think of the collection once it is available to them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

So, Yeah, I Wrote a New Draft Today

81º ~ headed up to near 100º today, been swampy for the past four days, hummingbirds zoom the feeders

As many of you know, I believe in the BIC method of writing, where BIC = Butt In Chair. Today marks the beginning of week two for the teaching semester, and my schedule this time around allows me to be at the desk from 7 a.m. - 9 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Last week, I spent my three BIC sessions mostly reading, and I'll post about some of that reading soon. On Friday, I also dabbled in the journal, just playing with word gathering (making lists of nouns, verbs, and adjectives from whatever I was reading at the time), and then making some attempt at a few lines.

Today, I re-read the drafts I created in June and got a few inklings of where I might begin. One of the drafts from June is a simple "I am" poem based on whatever was going through my head on that day. Today, I started there again.

Am mirror to the wilted sky.
Am steam risen after rain
hovering groundward.

I got about a dozen solid lines out of the exercise. And the lines feel like a whole draft rather than a series of jagged fragments that go nowhere specific. While this might not become a fully fledged poem, I have begun, again, to focus on language and the line. I know that by following the BIC rule, I'll eventually figure out what it is I have to say.

What I'm really dying to know is this. What will be my next obsession? Do I need an obsession? Can I just write a bunch of unrelated poems? Has the sickly speaker ruined me by making me dependent on a narrative at work in multiple poems? Should I return to the angry sisters or have I gotten all I can get out of them? Should I write straight-up confessional poems? Should I stick with persona? Do I have the ability to write poems about ideas rather than people and things? Do I have the ability to get pointedly political?

And so, I return to beginner's mind, again and again and again.


In other creative news, I've opened a Square Marketplace to sell both my books and my collages online. You'll see the bright green "Order Online" button to the right. If you click on it, you will find a way to buy my books online, and you'll also find my collages there (yeep!).