Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Revision and Preparations

93º ~ feels like 106º ~ the sun unwavering, cicadas and humidity constant


In anticipation of August 1 and the re-opening of submission periods for a good number of journals (although not as many as will open on September 1), I've spent the morning reading over all the poems I've written this summer. I am happy to report that despite my fits and starts, I do have a solid group of drafts that I think will eventually make it as publishable poems. Given my lack of success last summer, this is a relief.

However, it's been a long time since I've made a regular habit of submitting work, and I have to say, I'm nervous and hesitant. Already, I've received a few rejections of poems written last year, even a few where poems were solicited by editors. I bear those editors no ill will. The poems in Alchemy, the ones that have appeared most recently in journals, bear little resemblance to what I had on hand to send those editors. I'm sure they wondered about the shift in voice, subject matter, and style. I wondered, too. I was lost.

Now that I've found a way to continue working in that baroque colloquial syntax and diction, but to move on from the sickly speaker's voice, I think I might be more on the right track. I think. I'm waiting to hear back from another poet-friend-peer on a handful of poems, and this morning I went about my usual revision routine. It looks like this.

I open my folder of drafts (printed copies of the latest versions). I begin to read each poem out loud, pausing between poems to clear some head space and try to get a new and separate look at each. If after one read-through of the poem I still have confidence in it as a complete piece, I re-read, out loud, for clunky lines, for cliches, for any place I can trim and cut. I make these changes on the computer and print out a new draft. If the poem then seems ready to meet the world, I move it to a new folder that will be waiting for me on Saturday to make new submissions.

[I find it interesting that with the work I'm doing now, work that is more autobiographical, more familial, my biggest fear is in being the wrong kind of sentimental. I never wondered this when working in the sickly speaker's voice, and now I find myself having to navigate that old problem once again. Le sigh.]

In the process described above, there is also a chance a poem will continue to founder. The doubt may still be too strong and the whole refusing to coalesce. In these cases, I simply leave the draft alone after one re-reading. Often, I simply need more time and distance from the piece to understand what it needs. Sometimes, the poem will never make it out of this stage. I've learned to live with this and recognize that the time and effort were not wasted, as I believe:

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." ~ Beckett from Westward Ho.

Monday, July 27, 2015

What I'm Reading: Citizen by Claudia Rankine

95º ~ feels like 105º ~ cicadas buzz-humming every day now in the sun


Much has already been written about Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. For those unfamiliar, this is a hybrid collection that blurs the line between lyric essay and prose poetry, and includes some stunning visual art as well. (Here's an example of the poetry.) The subject of the book is race and what it means for Rankine to be a black woman existing in the world today. The essays and poems in these pages work hard to expose what subtle institutional racism looks like from the recipients' viewpoint, and when not doing that, they tackle head-on racial confrontations in our recent headlines. Combined, the book is a powerful wallop.

I knew most of this before I opened the cover, so I'm not entirely unsurprised by the weight I'm feeling now. Over and over, as I read Rankine's straight-forward, even blunt, lines, I asked myself: how can one human (or many) treat another this way? And especially, what pushes a person to physically harm another?

I read Rankine's book and I empathized with her speaker and with the recipients of hate at the heart of her work. And then I wondered: how can we teach this empathy to everyone? What will it take to make people really see each other as precious and alive? At the heart of it, that image of being erased, of being unseen, is the image that stuck with me. Don't you have to erase someone, to distance yourself from that person, in order to do harm? So, how do we make each other see?



As I read, I also couldn't help but contemplate the book's design. I have so many questions for Rankine and John Lucas, who designed the book for Graywolf Press. The cover itself is striking (art by David Hammons: In the Hood, 1993), but I was a bit taken aback by the interior as well. The pages of the book are heavy, 80# matte coated and slicker than regular page weight, even though matte. I understand that the visual art reproduced in the book called for heavier paper and other design considerations, but I was surprised that the press could afford to use that paper throughout the book. It certainly gives the book a stronger "hand feel." I began to wonder if this weight was consciously planned. A weighty object for weighty subjects.

On a completely side note, I was sad to see the use of a sans serif font for the interior. I know this is the digital age, but I have a really hard time with blocks of text in Arial and the like. The font in Citizen is quite large, so I didn't have a hard time reading the actual words; I did have a hard time tracking line to line. I suppose this simply makes me a member of the "older generation." I do wonder if Lucas meant to link the physical text to the digital world where more and more people do their reading.

All of this is to say that if you haven't yet had a chance to read Citizen, I hope you do so soon. In all my questioning, I am confident that the beginning of an answer can be found in reading each other's work and attempting to see the world, to feel the world, from another's body.




Thursday, July 23, 2015

Draft Process: I am No Cordelia (Darn It, Shakespeare! I Just Wrote Another Sonnet)

88º ~ feels like 100º ~ 50% chance of pop-up thunderstorms, yesterday the rain missed us by less than five miles ~ we wallow


Those of you that follow my work know that I'm no formalist. Sure, I love sound and pattern, and I use a lot of slant rhyme with healthy doses of alliteration, assonance, and consonance thrown in for good measure, but I am loathe to count lines or otherwise restrain myself. So, what's a poet to do when suddenly the drafts start coming out in form? Well, blame Shakespeare, of course.

My most recent post mentioned my re-reading of King Lear, and this morning, I spent some time with my BIC (butt in chair), re-reading the quotes I'd copied out. Yes, I already underlined and otherwise added new annotations to the text, but I also kept a running list of quotes on scratch paper, given that the Riverside doesn't lend itself to easy use, what with its great heft.

In Act IV, scene ii, Albany asks of Goneril and Regan (Lear's two oldest daughters), "Tigers, not daughters, what have you perform'd?" This line became the beginning of my draft today, although altered. The title of the draft was easy, given what should be my natural place (Cordelia) is far from the truth. So:

I am No Cordelia

Tigers, not daughters, what we have perform'd
is this. Our father was no Lear, no proud king

So, the draft kind of just fell out of me after that, and I let it all come out in handwriting in my journal. Starting with a Shakespearean line, I shouldn't be surprised that the lines came out in five and six stresses, but I promise I wasn't consciously thinking of this. Imagine my surprise when I went to the computer and typed up the draft and it was not only 14 lines long but also ended with a rhyming couplet. Ack!

I should clarify that the draft is in no way a perfect Shakespearean sonnet. It lacks a clean rhyme scheme, and I haven't scanned each line to work out the iambic pentameter (oooo, shudder). So now I have to decide if the draft requires this. It is definitely a poem of allusion, so, will the reader expect it to fall into that "proper" sonnet form?

Any thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Re-reading King Lear, Layers of Marginalia

91º ~ feels like 103º ~ heat advisories from now 'til Christmas by the feel of it


The other day, C. came inside and found me with my gigantic Riverside Shakespeare sprawled across my lap and asked, "What's that?"

I answered and added, "I'm reading King Lear." 

"For school?" he asked.

"No," I answered and mumbled something about my own reference, feeling slightly embarrassed and unable to explain that the play might offer insight into some of the new poems I'm writing, or not. The truth is, once I started re-reading it, interested in the opening scene of the division of the estate, I ended up needing to read it all. Sucked in, again.



This is probably the third or fourth time I've read King Lear. The first would have been when I acquired my Riverside as an undergraduate at the College of St. Benedict / St. John's University. The price tag is long since gone, and I've lugged the weighted thing across the country and back several times, but it's always been worth the price. I read the play again as a graduate student in Dr. Candido's class at the University of Arkansas, and now again in my mid-40s. Somewhere in between those student days, I must have read it again because I can detect distinct layers in my annotations. I love that I have layers of marginalia that record not only key themes and passages, but also who I was as a reader each time I came to the play. Also, given that I've never been a snap reader of Shakespeare's language, the marginal comments have eased each subsequent reading, allowing me to sink more fully into the text.

And this is why I'll always advocate for annotation, which at the moment also means printed text, given the limitations of the technology to date (yes, I've tried most of the electronic annotation programs and found them wanting).

As for why this play at this time, that peer reader I mentioned in my most recent post brought up King Lear in reference to my draft. It's an easy leap to make as Lear has three daughters, and I am one of three sisters (no brothers, though our mother is alive and well contrary to Queen Lear, long dead). My recent poems are touching on my father's Alzheimer's and the onset of dementia (Lear's madness), as well as my relationship with my sisters.

So, I was reading the play again and it brought up some interesting thoughts on empathy and how we look for ourselves in literature, but often only in the best characters. I am the youngest child, by rights that would make me Cordelia, the loyal, steadfast daughter; alas, that is in fact my oldest sister who lives next door to my parents and helps in the caregiving every single day. There's also the fact that my father is no Lear. He amassed no estate and there is no quibbling over who will inherit his non-existent wealth, but still I read trying to figure out what the play could offer me.

For the most part, I found myself reading the passages of Lear's madness much more carefully and deeply. There's no surprise there, as my entire family now ripples with the effects of my father's Alzheimer's. I copied out several dozen quotes from the play with the idea that they might inform new drafts, and this works well with my focus on the colloquial baroque. This is not to mean that I want to imitate Shakespearean language per se, but there are phrases that have come down to us as part of our colloquial language that still echo the richness of a more complicated syntax, and sometimes the most authentic thing to say is:

"Break, heart, I prithee break!" (V.iii. 313).


Friday, July 17, 2015

The Importance of Peer Readers

93º ~ Feels like 104º ~ stay inside weather for the foreseeable future, even running errands between air-conditioned buildings is exhausting ~ cicadas are singing again


This week, a good poetry friends reached out to ask if I'd look at a draft of a poem and offered to look at one of mine in return. Perfect timing! I've been racking up poem drafts pretty regularly for the month of July, and many of them are through the first awkward revision stages and can stand on their own. However, I lack all confidence in the work, so it was great to do a poem exchange.

In the past, for many of the poems I published prior to The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, I had peer readers provide feedback at some stage of drafting. This feedback took the form of both global and local comments. By that I mean, I asked my peers to let me know their general impression of how the poem was working, what message it was giving, but I also looked for and received marginal notes on places that might need tightening, words that clunked, form that sagged, etc.

For a handful of poems in Alchemy I received this kind of feedback as well; however, after a certain point, the sickly speaker was so strong in my head, and each poem so connected the one to the other that I fell out of the habit of sharing the work with early readers. In fact, I didn't send the manuscript of the book to anyone before I started submitting it to presses. I was simply that confident in the whole of it.

Alas, since I finished that book, I've gone back to square one and feel like a beginner again. I see what I've drafted; I can identify the poetic elements that are working, but I am all staggering, weak-kneed foal when thinking about sharing any of these poems.

So, when I shared this recent work, I asked my friend to simply tell me what she got from what I'd written and to throw up a flare if the poem seemed too sentimental, as I'm back to writing more autobiographically rather than with a clear & separate persona. When I received her feedback last night, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. She got it. [The key is to make sure your peer readers are skilled at offering feedback without simply blowing kisses back at you.]

All of this is to say that no matter how much experience I have, no matter how much success, hanging on to a sense of confidence is difficult for me without peer readers. So thank you to my friends who have served in this capacity. I'm grateful.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What a Teaching Writer Does When She isn't Writing

94º ~ feels like 105º ~ in official Heat Advisory mode now, and as much as I love being warm, even I have the A/C going today with a dewpoint of 75º...swampy


As a young writer and then a grad student, I had no idea of all the ways being a teaching writer would expand my world and my community. Sure, I knew about conferences. Sure, I knew that most books had blurbs on the back cover. Sure, I knew that writers formed friendships across geographic areas and exchanged letters or emails (yes, in my early grad school days, personal email was just becoming the norm and we all had dial-up accounts that took FOREVER to load). However, as I was struggling to simply embrace the craft of writing poetry, I rarely thought about what my working life would look like once I secured a teaching position.

In order to lift the veil a bit for future writers, here's a hodgepodge or what I've been up to while also putting in drafting time.


** Editorial work
I serve as a co-editor for Heron Tree, an online poetry journal, publishing one poem a week with a collected annual print edition. At Heron Tree, we are three people, all sharing in the tasks of running the journal. Until last week, we were reading submissions from our Jan 1 - May 1 submission period and holding weekly editorial meetings to select poems for publication.

My year-round work with Heron Tree is in PR/social media. I post on our Facebook page twice a week to help promote each newly published poem, and I work with outlets like New Pages and the CRWROPPS-listserv to promote our reading periods.

This week, I fulfilled another role. We publish our print edition in the early fall, collecting poems published on a roughly academic year calendar (2014 - 2015 this go-round). I spent a few days reading and re-reading all of the poems that will make up our third edition, and I "ordered" the poems into a rough draft. Next week, we three editors will meet to iron out what will become our latest print annual.

** Blurbing
In the past few weeks, I've been working on a blurb. Whenever I'm able, I try to say "yes" when asked to blurb a collection, perhaps out of a sense of paying it forward for all those who blurbed my work. When setting out to write a few sentences that will capture the essence of a collection, I read the work twice. On the first round, I read the book, cover to cover, rather quickly, only stopping to jot down big-picture themes. Next, and after at least a day has passed, I read much more slowly, often over several days, sinking into each poem with an eye for lines that stand out as representative of the larger themes. I dog ear these poems, and when I'm finished with the second read, I turn to writing the blurb, where I incorporate the themes with specific quotes to support my claims. Finally, I send the draft to the poet and ask for any revision suggestions. I'm serious. I don't ever want to misrepresent a collection or fail to capture a theme the poet thought necessary for future readers. I'm also fully aware that the press might cut my blurb at any time. This is life.

Being asked to write a blurb is an honor, and a gift, as I get to read a book well before its publication date. This most recent work has been with John McCarthy's Ghost County, slated for publication by Midwestern Gothic Press in 2016.  Y'all can just add this title to your "to-read" list now, FYI.

** Conference follow-up
In June, I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference at the University of Northern Iowa. That conference was two and a half days of non-stop poetry & writing extravaganza. I attended several remarkable panels on creative writing pedagogy, as well as getting to hear some wonderful readings. While in attendance, I was my normal, frantic note-taker self, filling up page after page of my journal.

Finally, today, I went through all of those notes and collected the pedagogy suggestions and exercises into one Word document that I can email to myself at school. I followed up with emails to a few presenters, asking for more information or simply continuing the conversation (oh, the joys of email's convenience). I took any writing inspirations and re-wrote them in my current journal, as the one from the conference was full in June. I also took the time to look up specific poems and essays suggested by presenters / readers. Now I see that I need to do this more promptly following such a great event, as a few of my notes had lost their meaning in the month's expanse since I'd jotted them down.

** Post-publication award for my new book
On tap for my next non-drafting work is to review a list of post-publication award opportunities for The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. Trio House has already made certain selections and we've worked out who will do what to get the book submitted. However, I love to make an Excel spreadsheet any time I can (it must be the accounting genes I get from my mom and my sister), and I want to be sure I haven't missed a golden opportunity. Note: Trio House has been wonderful and supportive about getting the book out to these awards, but I also know that a small press has a limit on the number of copies and the award fees it can allocate to any given title. I'm happy to pick up the extras for important possibilities.


What I notice, when I look at this list of work is how much a part of a community I've become. Some of this work might not pertain to folks who don't teach, but most of it centers on being an active poet in the publishing world. No, none of these activities are required to be a writer; however, for me, all of these activities help me. They help me become a better writer, of course, but they also help me become a better reader. In the end, though, they mostly help me feel not so alone, given that most of my drafting work happens in solitary focus on the page, which can drain my energy stores.

I hope this helps shed some light on what I do with my "poetry time" even when I'm not drafting. (And I've just realized that there isn't anything listed here about the collections I've been reading lately...but that's a whole other post entirely.)

Until next time...

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reading Aloud While Drafting: Just Do It

83º ~ feels like 91º ~ a looming brown-gray sky, yet the storms hover northward, gusts torment the trees from time to time, breaking out of gentle breezes


Today, rather than give a detailed account of my drafting process, I want to talk about the importance of reading aloud during drafting. I've said it before, and I'll say it again; poetry is oral / aural. In the best case, we would hear each poem via the poet's own voice, either in person or on a recording. The next best case is to read poems aloud as we encounter them on our own. In the worst case, when we read poems silently, we still should "hear" them in our heads, which means a slight difference from reading prose to ourselves. After all, the poet has taken pains to represent how a poem should sound based on word choice, line breaks, stanza breaks, and other typographical choices.

In terms of my own work, I always begin with pen and paper (my journal), jotting down in a rush the first lines that suggest themselves to me. At this stage, I'm not usually focused on sound yet; instead, I'm letting the poem find its center and coalesce. (And, of course, after all these years of reading and writing poems, I've absorbed ideas of sound that find their way to the page unconsciously.) Once the poem has gathered weight, I move to the computer and the drafting process begins to look much more like conscious craft. Here, I begin to read and re-read aloud as I add lines, shift clauses around, play with white space, etc. Often, I'm still searching for the poem's destination at this stage. In this way, the poem grows into its own body and takes on its sonic charge.

Here are two examples of how reading aloud played a part in today's draft.

In my journal, the draft contained the phrase "hides in the shadowed alleys." Once I moved to the computer and started reading aloud, I kept saying "hides in the shadowed valley." After the third time of getting frustrated because I thought I was reading it "wrong," I realized that, no, in fact the poem needed "shadowed valley" not "shadowed alley."

Later, I had written "a dozen bright-plumaged birds," and a similar stumbling kept occurring. In this case, it was caused by there being too many syllables in that phrase, even though I wasn't working on a formal poem. (In other words, meter still matters in free verse.) So, I eventually had a light bulb moment as a result of my tongue getting twisted and revised this to "a dozen bright-plumed birds."

Until the next session...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On Leaving a Community College Faculty for a That of a Four-Year Institution

83º ~ feels like 91º ~ the swampy days are back, from inside looking out, though, all appears beautiful


While I did draft a poem today (a sonnet, egads!), there was nothing very remarkable about the process, which followed the standard of the previous two drafts. Instead of recording the blow-by-blow account of today's poem, I'd like to address, more specifically, my recent change in jobs. Several readers have expressed an interest in the interview process and my shift from community college to a four-year institution where I'll be teaching undergraduate creative writing majors along with graduate students pursuing an MFA.

The first thing one might need to know about the situation is this: C. and I are fairly well-tied to central Arkansas. We've talked about my going on the job market over the years, but we have a great life here and have not been inclined to disrupt it. Central Arkansas features many institutions of higher learning, so I've mostly kept my eye within this range.

From January of 2005 until May of 2015, I taught at Pulaski Technical College (North Little Rock, AR), with a 5/5 load that always included a heavy emphasis on composition. (In the last four years, my teaching load was reassigned to 4/4 because of my work with the Big Rock Reading Series.) I did have the opportunity to teach introductory creative writing classes, usually one per semester in my later years at PTC. I had incredible support from my dean and my colleagues in the English Department, which allowed me to make the job the best possible fit for my writing life; however, my writing life was not required for my teaching position at PTC.

In August of this year, I'll join the faculty of the Department of Writing and the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas (Conway, AR) as an assistant professor. I'll be in a tenure-track line for the first time, 12 years after receiving my MFA. The teaching load is 4/4, and I will have some college writing courses. UCA has a thriving BA in creative writing, as well as the new three-year MFA program (begun in the fall of 2012), so I will have plenty of opportunities to teach creative writing classes. I'm pumped to begin a new portion of my teaching life at UCA and to do so with outstanding colleagues.

In terms of landing the job, I followed the same process as everyone else on the market. I saw the call for applications in early fall 2014. I spent five weekends, working six- to ten-hours each weekend, putting together my application packet. My CV was a mess; I hadn't written a letter of interest in years; and my teaching philosophy was a decade out of date. I was thrilled, then, when I received an offer for a phone interview.

True story: I bombed the phone interview. Landed flat of my face. For the first time in my life, I blanked during an interview. I'm not saying I don't have the knowledge or the experience; I'm saying that I couldn't formulate a coherent thought to save my life. In hindsight, I realize that this might have been because I wanted the job too much, and it was most definitely because I didn't seek help in preparing for the phone interview. Being a decade out of grad school, and having not been actively looking for a job, I was unprepared for the set of questions, and I was unprepared to organize my own thoughts on the fly.

In late March, I was surprised to receive an on-campus interview offer. This time, I did seek help / coaching to prepare me for my on-campus interview, which included a presentation on how my writing life influences my teaching life and vice versa. Here I reached out and relied on good friends with years of teaching experience, and one who had recently landed her own tenure-track job and offered great up-to-date insights.

At the end of a very long day of interviewing, presenting, and generally being "on," I knew I'd done well, and by that I mean I knew I'd shown my true abilities as a writer and a teacher, unlike in the phone interview. However, I had no idea how the decision would go.

Here, it might be important to address the fact that, yes, I knew the faculty at UCA prior to applying for the job. The literary community in central Arkansas is vibrant, but relatively small, so of course, we mostly know each other. The folks at UCA had hosted me for several readings in the past. I'd hosted several folks from UCA for readings at PTC. However, I can honestly say that I was not / am not close bosom buddies with any member of the writing faculty. My friendships with them will certainly grow as we work together, but I don't think I was any kind of shoe-in because of those connections.

Needless to say, when the call from the department chair finally did come with the job offer, I pretty much leapt out of my skin with joy. My path to a tenure-track line at a four-year institution is not the traditional one, and I am grateful for the 10 years of teaching at PTC. Many of my students there taught me about grit and determination. They taught me about perseverance in the face of the gravest obstacles, and they taught me that people are capable of immense change. They also taught me how to teach to the student, not to the group and not "to the test." For these reasons, I'm thankful for my time at PTC.

All that I learned about teaching and being an active member of a college community in the past decade came into play when landing this new job. During my on-campus interview, I had concrete examples of both successes and failures from the classroom, and I could demonstrate how I addressed those failed moments when they did occur. I could show my contributions to the college with actual accomplishments and real feedback from colleagues and administrators. Now, I'm building on what I learned at PTC as I begin to craft my new syllabi and learn about the culture of my new department, college, and university. I'm nervous about "leveling up" and about entering the publish or perish paradigm, but mostly, I'm just filled with joy and absolute awe that I have earned this opportunity. I'll definitely add more insights once the academic year arrives and classes get underway. (I can hardly wait!)

Until then....



Monday, July 6, 2015

Draft Process Notes: I Refer Myself to the Judicious Reader

77º ~ gray-whitish skies, some stirring breezes, a chance for a storm in the next 24 hours, and then a dry spell predicted, all is green & healthy through the view out my window


Today's desk time repeated much as yesterday's, combining inspiration from Lucie Brock-Broido (this time words gathered from "Rampion" in The Master Letters) and from the language in The Art of Simpling (written in 1656). I began my time at the desk thinking about anaphora, that use of repeated words or phrases at the beginning of clauses that causes some poems to sing, but also to echo the high church use of litanies. The church I was raised in didn't use a litany, but when I went to the College of St. Benedict, I did attend several masses each year, and I always loved the music of the litany and the communal response.

But that's a bit of a diversion. What I mean to say is that I was holding in my head the idea of the anaphora and the idea of the colloquial baroque* as I started my desk time today. Before starting to gather words from Brock-Broido, I read from The Art of Simpling, which brings out a lot of King James syntax. I skipped the "quoteths" and "fadeth away" phrases, but copied out some phrases that felt imbued with energy, such as the phrase that became the title of the poem. Another one of my jottings, "This is mine own gloss," became my starting point. Here is how the draft begins:

This, then, is mine own Gloss for the peculiar remedy, rumored
among the inelegants, the delegates
                                                          of the cellar and the glass-black fields.

Again, I seem to be writing about the body stricken by illness, and I worry a bit about separating my new voice from the voice of the sickly speaker in The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. However, this draft surprised me as it also became an exploration in class issues, in particular my guilt over having risen to the intellectual class and separated myself from my more working-class family members.

Also, while the use of anaphora is not present until the closing stanza, it is there. I drafted that stanza with the specific intent to use the repetition. This is not something I've had to "plan" this way in the past. It seems to go against my idea of letting the poem lead me to where it needs to go; however, since I was really working with an idea of form, I think focusing on the repeated phrase ("that I might now...") helped me in my discovery. Revision time will tell.

Until the next session...

*The "colloquial baroque" is a phrase coined by Lisa Russ Spaar to get at the blending of dictions in contemporary poetry, of moving between Latinate phrases and conversational ones. Practitioners that I think of when using the term are: Lucie Brock-Broido, Mary Ann Samyn, Emily Rosko, and Spaar herself...plus plenty of others.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Draft Process: The Tonnage of a Toxic Secret

77º ~ hazy skies, but sunlight filters through ~ sad news: we lost the one robin chick from the second clutch to Friday's storms, must destroy the nest and the nesting place as too fragile for the nurturing


Even when I'm not at the desk, my mind is often on writing these days, and I've been mulling over why I might be in such a "stuck" mode. Sometime in the last two days, I realized that I miss the voice of the sickly speaker. I miss the voice but not the persona, if that makes sense. In other words, I want to get back to that "colloquial baroque" inspired by Emily Dickinson, Lucie Brock-Broido, Mary Ann Samyn, and Lisa Russ Spaar to name just a few.

Today, I relied on another tactic in drafting that rarely lets me down. I went back to a poet whose work I not only love but also find challenging. Lucie Brock-Broido's poems in The Master Letters never cease to amaze me, and even though I've read them all many times over, when I return I feel like I'm reading the book for the first time again. That's the kind of power I want laced through the body of my poems as well.

Today, I opened The Master Letters to "For the Lustrum," and started doing a random word bank. In the meantime, I've also been taken with the Doctrine of Signatures and ways plants have been used as medicine from ancient times to today. From that, I ordered a photocopy of a text called The Art of Simpling by W. Coles ("simpling" was another word for the knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses in 16th and 17th century England). So, I added some words from the first few chapters of this book to Brock-Broido's.

Before I started word-gathering, I also happened to glance at "Toxic Gumbo" in The Master Letters. This poem isn't great for word-gathering if I'm just going to use one poem because it is relatively short. However, in glancing over it again, I remembered/saw again that it is a single sentence in the form of a question with many clauses. It spans seven couplets, or 14 lines. I've often seen the exercise of "write a poem that is one single sentence but is more than four lines long" or some such. So, after I had my word bank and phrases had begun to suggest themselves, I flipped back to "Toxic Gumbo" to see how it began. It starts: "Am I to be a patient / Saved by the grave experiment..." So, I took the structure as my starting point. My title also comes from Brock-Broido's, in a way. The draft begins:

Am I to be cursed with a curdled tongue
for the length of this luminous season,

(Can you tell I'm fixated on breaking out of this writing drought?) And wouldn't you know it, but my poem comes in at seven couplets as well, even though I discarded the book after getting the draft started. I did use many combinations from my word bank. I also read and re-read the draft aloud as I went, after the initial rush of lines. Of note, I did more revision of the first draft than normal, as I noticed that I "cheated" by using several comma splices toward the end of my draft rather than sticking to the syntax I wanted to model. For some reason, I was averse to a poem having more than one question mark, especially to having three question marks in the last five to six lines. So, I spent some time re-working the syntax, leading to a few new discoveries in the last two couplets.

Bodily, I feel a settled sense when a draft has come together and offers some hope for becoming a full-fledged poem. I'm happy to feel such today.

Until the next session...

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Draft Process: To Live in a Far Country

85º ~ dew point & heat indices climbing back, "feels like" 92º ~ adult robins are feeding one chick, the second clutch not nearly as prolific as the first, the sun is out in force, thunderstorms splatter the map by evenings these days, a lucky few receive the rain


Dear reader, I am thrumming with a new exercise and the draft that it produced. And here's the story:

Yesterday, I got the news that I could go to UCA and get my ID, receive my keys, and see my office. Whee. And so, I made the drive that will become my daily commute, roughly 40 minutes each way, with 30 of those minutes spent on the interstate. As I've been planning for this job transition, I've been thinking about podcasts for that commute and recently I subscribed to Transatlantic Poetry on Air. This is an amazing web-based reading series that I first heard about through one of the hosts: the poet Robert Peake. While I haven't managed to log in to any of the "live" readings, I was delighted to learn that the podcasts were now available and supported by iTunes. (Check them out!!)

So, yesterday, I hit the road and then remembered the podcasts (this detail is important). Since I hadn't chosen which episode to listen to before I started driving, I just went with whatever episode my finger hit, given that I was going 65 mph. Lesson learned! Still, this random choice sparked poetry, so no complaints.

I hit on the episode featuring Agi Mishol and Marie Howe. I knew of Howe, of course, but Agi Mishol was new to me. It turns out she is an Israeli poet writing in Hebrew, and she read in Hebrew for the broadcast. Her poems are translated into English, though, and in the "live" broadcast those translations were on the screen. I'm kind of thrilled that I didn't have access to the English. Instead, I let the Hebrew of Agi Mishol's reading wash over me in the car.

And then it happened. I started doing homophonic translations as I caught familiar sounds. (I have often done homophonic translations myself and with students using written texts. For those unfamiliar, a homophonic translation is when you don't try to actually translate a text [from a language you don't know at all...should be completely foreign to you] but instead look for suggested words in your language of origin.) I heard "let me" and "start" and "vault of names," which sent me scrambling for my journal and pen. Another lesson learned: I need to get one of those dash-mounted note pads as I didn't want to stop the podcast to use the voice memo function on my phone. I jotted down some quick lines and then went about the rest of my day (listening to NPR on the return trip as it was time for All Things Considered).

Today, when I got to my desk time, I knew I wanted to go back and re-listen to Agi Mishol with a concentrated focus on using homophonic translation to produce a full poem. And it was a success. Such a success that I plan to do this with my poetry students this fall!  Wahoooza.

So here's the beginning of my draft today. The title is taken and tweaked from something Agi Mishol said in English about "living in a far community" as she tried to describe the small town she lives in.

To Live in a Far Country

Let me start here on this small plot
of red dirt baked hard by drought.  *

The map I clutch marks this spot
The Vault of Forbidden Names, begs me

to dig...

*The red dirt is courtesy of Arkansas. They are expanding I-40 between Little Rock and Conway, so I was bathed in the dust of that red dirt for part of my journey as the scrapers scraped and the dump trucks dumped.

The draft goes on and sort of becomes a local myth/fable/story for a group of people I made up out of thin air and Agi Mishol's beautiful Hebrew sounds. Now I plan to read the translations and listen to the Marie Howe portion of the episode.

Until the next session...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Draft Process: And Did the Country Grieve

79º ~ the thunder, lightning, and rain rolled through last night, taking away our heavy heat and leaving a three-day respite (predicted) ~ one confirmed baby robin in the nest, waiting to see if others will grow large enough to be seen above the rim


Dear reader, as you know I've embarked on my key writing time, and I have to say that it's been a rough week. But, I knew it would be. These muscles are long out of shape. So, I've been at the desk each morning, going through my routine and doing lots of "At this moment..." writing. You may recognize this as my BIC method (Butt-In-Chair).

I've also been thinking a lot about my fall classes while I've been going about the rest of my days. This dovetailed with my cutting up of magazines for my collage work. Sometime in May, I started pulling out pages of text from the magazines/newspapers/books that I was cutting up. (In the past, pages of text were not important and I simply recycled them.) I've got a box that is about 9" x 11" and about 8" tall, where I collect these pages of text, all with the idea of using them for student exercises, as places to gather words without context.

Given that I've been struggling to come up with drafts, I thought I'd give it a try myself today, perhaps spurred on by my recent discovery of two copies of Wine Enthusiast from a decade ago. In the back of these magazines, there are pages and pages of ranked wines with descriptions, and oh, the descriptions are divine...if you skip the abstractions.

So, today, I tried something new, inspired first by the wine descriptions. Instead of just gathering words, I gathered three- to five-word phrases. I think I've shied away from phrases before as a way of avoiding copying too closely the original. However, as part of my new "assignment," I told myself I could only gather five phrases from each excerpt, and I would use five excerpts from vastly different sources. Thus, my first use of a phrase bank rather than a word bank.

Today I used:
Wine Enthusiast descriptions of wine
a page from a National Geo. article on photography in the mountains as scientific instrument (or some such...I'm not reading for content)
a page from an Oxford American essay about a deteriorating house and music
two newspaper articles, one on some political scandal and one on the drought in Texas

With great fervor, I scanned the pages, working best when I disrupted the regular left-to-right, up-down reading by starting lower left and letting my eye skim the page, backwardsish. A sample of what I collected:

agile on the tongue
the wild Greek hymn
accept secret donations
documenting the shifting landscape
curved blades jut out
first whiffs discover
the house collapsed

In the meantime, prior to this, I'd scribbled "And did the drowning boy pray?" in my journal. This is a line from the short story "The Onion" by Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt in Quiddity 7.2, which I'd been reading at the start of my desk time. I liked the way the form of the question could result in so many answers beyond yes or no. I wondered if I could use it in a poem.

And then, I heard "And did the country grieve?" in my head. Of course, with all of the turmoil in our country lately around racially-motivated violence, the events in Charleston have been right at the front of my brain. As soon as I had the question, I wrote it down and it became the title. The draft begins:

The shifting landscape stilled
in the surge of a wild hymn
sprung from throats more used
to dry conditions. Ancient words,

Right away as I drafted, I saw the need to manipulate the phrases I'd captured and re-work them for the poem, but it was a great spark to get me started. And while the draft doesn't mention Charleston or other recent events by name, it does attempt to get at my emotions surrounding such tragedies. I had no idea when I sat down today, that I'd come up with this draft. This, this is the joy of writing for me, the discovery.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

At this moment...: A Way of Diving In

90º ~ dewpoint 73º ~ looking forward to a cold front forecasted for later this week ~ watered front and back early this morning, all the birds enjoyed


I did, indeed, spend yesterday afternoon at the collage table, getting the new journal ready to go. For those interested in such things, I seem to need blank pages so my undisciplined script doesn't look quite so much of a disaster. Also, when I'm working on wordbanks and such, I don't like to be controlled by lines. I use an unlined Moleskine with craft paper covers.

This morning, after shower and with coffee, OJ, and breakfast "cookie," I shoveled all the extraneous bits from my desk, turned on some instrumental music, and opened the new journal. I cracked the wee spine. I flattened the book open to the first, clean page. I sat with feet flat on the floor and took three meditation breaths to clear my mind. Then. Writing on the horizontal, I began with "At this moment... ."

"At this moment..." is one of the most helpful prompts from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. At least, it is the most helpful to me at this time and place in my writing. When I was a much younger writer, "I remember..." was the most helpful prompt of Goldberg's for me.

Knowing that the blank page can intimidate, I simply began recording what my senses perceived "at this moment." In a brief time, I'd filled two pages, and my writing had drifted into more imaginative spaces. While I did not draft a poem today, I returned to the practice of drifting, which will lead, I know, to drafting soon. Until I get in the groove, though, I'll be relying on "at this moment... ."

Without pushing it, I closed the journal and turned to another of my summer 2015 goals: submitting poems. While I don't have much to show for 2013 and 2014 in terms of poems written, I do have a dozen that might be publishable. I polished up four of those and bundled them off to a few journals. Those submitting muscles were pretty out of practice and the whole thing seemed exhausting. I confess that since I finished with the sickly speaker, I feel no ability to judge the poems written in her aftermath. By this I mean that with the poems in The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, I had a strong sense of each one being "ready" for the outside world, not only ready but "worthy." With these disparate 2013-2014 poems, I feel like an unsteady foal once again. I have no idea if their subjects will touch any readers, although I feel okay about their craft, so out they go. The submitting experience should tell whether they are of interest to others or not.

Until tomorrow's moment...

Monday, June 22, 2015

Kicking Off the 2015 Stay-at-Home Summer Writing Residency

84º (feels like 93º), dewpoint 76º ~ and so the season of breath-catching heat & humidity begins, all is richly greened after our wet, cool spring ~ the robins act & don't act as if they are in the midst of getting a second clutch to hatch, perhaps the sitting is unnecessary as the air temp is plenty warm, perhaps


The past three weeks have been slam-packed with busy-ness. The first week of June I ended up being seated as an alternate juror on a difficult trial involving domestic battery. The victim was in her 60s and the perpetrator was in his 50s, a sickening reminder that domestic violence can occur at any age, really.

Directly after that, I headed out on the road for a visit up home to see friends and family, and to attend the North American Review 200, a conference celebrating that magazine's bicentennial. How lucky was I to have the conference in my family's "backyard"?  I attended poetry readings that blew my mind and several sessions on CW pedagogy that provided pages and pages of notes for fall teaching and beyond.

On both sides of the conference, I spent time with folks I see too infrequently, and most of those visits involved getting to play with gaggles of children, ages 12 and under. Intense, exhausting, and so much fun.

Once home, C. and I made a quick trip down to see his folks for the Father's Day weekend, and now my calendar is clear from here until the first weeks of August (barring any trials, as my jury duty is from May - August). So, this post serves as my notice. I shall now embark on my favorite summer ritual (and the reason I don't teach in the summer). I will get up between 7 and 7:30 and after a shower & breakfast, I will post my "WRITING" sign on my office door. C. is wonderful about giving me space, time, and quiet, so I will spend some hours each morning in contemplation, and hopefully, eventually, in drafting and revision.

This blog will serve as my sounding board on how this business of capturing words to give voice to a chaotic, often heart-breaking, world progresses.

But first: I finished off my latest journal while I was in Iowa, so today, I will collage the cover of my next set of blank pages. Until tomorrow....

Monday, June 1, 2015

On Calling Up a New Obsession

69º ~ finally three days in the forecast without rain ~ survival rate of robins: 1 of 3, Saturday we watched the one learn to forage and to fly


Yesterday, in desperation, I posted this to Facebook:

Poet in search of an obsession. Please list non-poetry subjects for possible immersion.

Yes, I was willing to crowdsource. I thought I'd get a few new, interesting ideas; instead, I got a deluge. From the invention of zero to Samurai Jack, episode 7; card tricks to time travel; trilobites to Middle English Dream Visions, I was not disappointed.

Some folks offered subjects for research, while others offered activities to do, and I remembered that action is also a form of immersion.

This morning, I spent some time re-writing the answers as a handwritten list. I'm a huge believer in the difference between handwriting and typing, in the idea that by handwriting we must slow down (if only a fraction) and this allows more "space" in our thinking. As I copied out each new entry, I paid attention to what seemed to spark more enthusiasm in me, and for those entries there is a star, perhaps a coming back.

From time to time on my Facebook post, someone would respond by questioning whether an obsession could be crowdsourced. In fact, I don't really believe it can. I don't think one can be told to obsess about subject A, B, or C. Instead, I found the list more like a card catalogue through which I could flip. In fact, I remember one writing prompt from my past that called for the writer to go to the library, pull the Library of Congress Subject Headings books off the shelf, and randomly select a topic to "research" in hopes of finding a poem there. This Facebook list seems to be something of that sort.

Ultimately, I may be overthinking it all. Regardless, my butt is in the chair and I am engaging in the process. My faith rests in these actions.