friday roundup: open letter to November edition

oak tree (wikimedia)

oak tree (wikimedia)

Dear November,

We used to be friends. Remember — how I loved your scraped and silvered beauty? You and your bare trees, your lonely moons. Orion low in the sky. That hush just before winter clicks into place.

I mean, I even chose you for my wedding day and, November, you delivered! I recall with such tenderness and gratitude your sun on that day, your warmth, which I took as a good omen even though you quickly turned to ice and snow. That is not a metaphor.

Then, you may recall, we had some rough years together. I won’t go into the details; you know them. Suffice it to say that our friendship cooled somewhat, or at least became complicated.

And this year — really, November? I’ve pretty much had it with your sore throats and sinus infections, your cars needing brake work, clinic visits, pharmacy wait times, and all your extra days off school. Not to mention your long nights which come earlier and earlier each day. And the other day, remember when I finally cried out to you (this was, you’ll recall, after waiting forever at the pharmacy to find out they only had a two-day supply of the second antibiotic, and I’d have to go back the next day for the rest): “That’s it, November! The only way you redeem yourself is if a book of poems shows up on my doorstep, like, now!”

And you… well, wow, you delivered (again). But did you have to include that author bio? — the one where the poet won a bazillion awards and on top of being a poet is a PhD psychologist in private practice and “lives in [redacted] with her husband and their three young children” — and from the looks of the author photo, all this by the time she was about twelve years old? Sheesh.

But if you think for a minute any of this can get me down you’re absolutely right you don’t know me at all. Besides the fact that mine are the problems of the privileged — this is forever in my mind — I have my defenses against you, November.

I have tea. With honey.

I have po-friends. Enough said.

And I have Mary Ruefle, who has an amazing mind and writes things like:

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I want to say'; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”


“(Words) are a bridge that, paradoxically, breaks isolation and loneliness without eradicating it.”


“I would rather wonder than know.”

and who writes an entire essay on two Emilys and an Anne (this Emily, and this Emily, and this Anne). All in this book.

And I have Gaston Bachelard who spends two pages on a door that is not quite open and not quite closed. TWO PAGES on a door left ajar. I adore that man.

And I have all my November Poems. Such as,

this one, and

this one, and

this one, and

this one, which (sorry – you’ll have to crane your neck or print it), November, I really think should be more readily available to us, but since I’m grateful for the experience of pulling down my mom’s hardbound Complete Poems of Robert Frost, and paging through until I found it, I’ll give you a pass.

And November, I know you think you have me up against the ropes now with two more clinic visits this afternoon and Thanksgiving around the corner and all that cooking. But I thumb my nose at you because my mom and dad are coming. So there.

Lastly, this: I am a sucker for beauty. Which is why, November, even though I’m really annoyed with you this year (not even ONE full week of school all month!!??) and even though our shared past is a bit of a hard road, thank you for the beautiful gold-upon-gold of the ginkgos that line my street. And for teaching me all you have taught me about keeping at it, and scraped/silvered beauty, and the peace of night coming early.


friday roundup: walking the plank, how to end a poem, and when in doubt, art

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

Dear Reader,

Are you still there? I am still here. I am still juggling, dancing, dashing and dodging, but alas, never balancing. I am still reporting to my desk in its four-foot stretch of wall space with regularity — “as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos… .” And they do. Intermittently. As one of my first teachers of poetry (and a mother of four) used to say: “Life is very lifelike.”

Anyway, onto poetic thoughts and musings….

walking the plank  I am still reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (Wow — just noticed the price on that baby. Hunt around. I found it for much cheaper). I am still finding gems page by page, sometimes a whole essay of treasure. After figurative language, line is probably my very favorite element of poetry — both in reading and writing. I like it best when reading or writing a line of poetry is like walking the plank. Here is Catherine Barnett (who I quoted a few weeks back as saying poetry is “a ruin of prose”) on this march-toward-death quality of the line:

“Poetry gives me endless options, and where and how to end the line is, for me, one of the most energizing possibilities, uncertainties, because it holds within it the possibility of beginning again at the next line, and that little vertical fall is fuel, libido, a little vertigo — and because it holds within it the possibility that the line won’t end, not / this / time. Preserving your options is only a poor man’s strategy for forestalling death. A line-break is the same. Mortality confronts you at every line. Is this it? Is this it? Is / this / it?

Let us give thanks for smart poets who write essays and books on craft so that we can read them. Amen.

how to end a poem  (insert maniacal laughter here). And lo, it is said, “Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.” Yes they are. But I gave a little craft talk on endings at my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and the outcome was a list of strategies for ending a poem. I could kick myself for not making this list ten years ago. Here is the list:

  • Bold claim
  • Shift to the imperative voice
  • Direct address (“Greetings, Earthlings.”)
  • Apostrophe
  • Dialogue / something spoken
  • Make a list
  • Ask (a) question(s) (Personal favorite: Lucille Clifton, “quilting,” “how does this poem end? …”
  • (needless to say) Strong image
  • Explicit entry (or re-entry) of the speaker
  • Big swerve (e.g., description, description, description, statement that seems to have nothing to do with the description but obviously does because it’s in the same poem)
  • Change in perspective (a widening or narrowing of the lens, so to speak)
  • Return to or break from pattern used previously in the poem (formal, syntactical, metrical, etc.)

These strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are not offered as The List, just a list. One that I plan to keep adding to as I study poems and their endings. It will not make endings easy, but now you have a list of things to try when you don’t know how to end a poem (or maybe you already had this list and I am late to the party).

when in doubt, art  Sometimes the world feels heavy and incomprehensible (most times?). Then it feels like whatever tiny lines we can write on a blank page don’t matter. Because tsunami. Because QSIS. Because the plane. Because the girls. Because school shootings. Because starving children. Because midterm elections. Because “surgical strikes.” And the list goes on. When the world feels too heavy to write about, I often turn to art and write an ekphrastic poem. Art, I feel, is reliable. It always has more to give — more beauty, more comfort, more hope, more humanity. And of course, art is of this world, too — so then I feel better about the world in a roundabout way.

Anyway, I read a stellar ekphrastic poem in Blackbird this week, and I’ll leave you with it. It is “An Early Nude by Rothko” by Lindsay Bernal.

Happy weekend!

friday roundup: half of everything edition

half moon (wikimedia)

half moon (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader.


When the kids were all tiny I used to joke that I delivered half my brain cells with each of them. Which, you know, if it were true, would be a problem — there are three kids.

And lately I feel like I’ve been doing almost everything by half-measures. Last night I made half a dinner. I’m halfway through this month’s class work (with less than half a month before it’s due). I half-heartedly went on a field trip with someone’s class this week, and left halfway through because the bus had been late, and they started later than planned and I had somewhere to be. Many times lately I’ve had an idea for a blog post, but never got to the second half of actually writing it. And of course, the kids have yet another extra half-day of school today. So there’s that.

So I hope you enjoy this half a roundup.

Half because I am just going to point you to a couple things here (yes, I am rounding up from 1.5). And one I already pointed to on Facebook this week, but oh does it ever keep.

world and word  Lucia Perillo has a little piece called “World and Word” up at Kenyon Review online (It’s one of their series of “Credos,” which you can read more about if you visit the link.). I’ve only half thought about it yet, but she talks about the theory that language must precede reality (I think she does not agree) and what happens to a world of things when technology intervenes and puts great distance between them, and/or makes them so easily replicable. You can see why I need to think more about this. But I love what she says about:

“(T)he first responsibility of poets is to wrestle with the world, the actual world that is out there, boiling.”

and also that

“(T)he poem pulls the world closer… .”

You can read the whole thing here and maybe you can even use your whole brain to think about it. That would be very lucky indeed.

“Greetings, Earthling”  Now, here comes the poem that I already shared on Facebook this week, but Reader, oh my goodness. This poem has such scope, facility, and power. I would someday like to write a poem half this good.

Here is Jericho Brown’s “Heart Condition,” which comes from his newest collection, The New Testament (Copper Canyon).

At this point, no more halves. I wholeheartedly wish you a whole entire weekend of whatever you enjoy most.


friday roundup with ruins, ars poetica, and laundry

Tintern Abbey (wikimedia)

Tintern Abbey (wikimedia)

Reader, GREAT NEWS: this time the laundry is not mine!

(not that there isn’t some laundry in the vicinity…)

Since the last roundup there have been two trips to the mall. It’s a miracle that I’m still here to tell the tale — that’s how much I hate the mall.

On to poetry:

ruins  I’ve been reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, recommended to me by one of my po-friends. The essays are short, therefore manageable, and often inspiring (although a few I’ve classified as trying-too-hard-to-be-clever). Here are some highlights:

From Kasim Ali:

The line is a means by which we “explore the fleetingness, uncapturability, and pure tragic drama of a single moment that passes and has to pass.”

“To proceed line by line means not to feel yourself forward in the dark but to throw yourself with abandon into the arms of darkness.”

From Scott Cairns:

“A sufficiently textured line (that is a troubled and troubling line) is the poet’s best defense against the tyranny of syntax.”

“… (E)ach line, in turn, avails a momentary opacity that can extend, or complicate, or otherwise enrich the syntactical overlay of meaning… .”

And, my personal favorite, from Catherine Barnett:

“…poetry is a ruin of prose…”

!!! “a ruin of prose” !!! I swoon.

ars poetica  I wrote a short ars poetica this week. It goes like this:



Poetry is a greased pig.


Then I read an ars poetica by Anne Hébert: her poem “Mystère de la Parole (The Mystery of the Word).” It is actually much more inspiring than mine, especially the last two stanzas:

“Oh my blackest brothers, all feasts secretly carved; human breasts, calabash musicians where captured voices clash

Let the one who’s been given the work of the word accept you like an extra dark heart, and don’t let him stop until he has justified the living and the dead in a single song at dawn among the grasses.”   –Anne Hébert

!!!! “An extra dark heart” !!!!  I swoon again.

laundry  I’ve also been reading Tess Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge this week. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “I Stop Writing the Poem.” Here it is:



to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.


I love how the poet widens the lens just a touch at the end of this poem in order to complicate it (something to try for your next ending, perhaps). If you read the collection, you discover that someone actually has died, and that “watching to see how it’s done” at the end is even more devastating.

And now, I must gird my loins for attending the costume parade. In the rain. I hope you have a spooky day and a spectacular weekend. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: being the cannibal, sensory detail in the brain (and also the heart), and the title for this post has too many words in it



Happy Friday, Reader. Did you know that in some species of insects and arachnids the females eat the males after or during the act of procreation? I have been thinking about this lately, not because I’m eyeing my spouse thinking ‘snack.’ No. Rather, because I’ve been cannibalizing old poems. Let me tell you a little bit about…

being the cannibal  The Manuscript That Will Never Say Die, Or For That Matter, ‘Done’ (as I fondly refer to my manuscript) has been sniffing around my desk asking to be fed and watered. Dear Manuscript, I sometimes feel like saying, I have nothing more to give. Except that I’ve learned again and again when I feel that way it’s time to go back.

By this I mean go back to old poems, old not-quite-poems, and old just-writing-in-my-notebook-not-even-close-to-poems. Because, guess what: the different, fresher, stronger, more resonant images that you think you need for what you’re working on today might be there.

In other words, let your poems be cannibals. Let them go back and eat the pinky finger of the poem you’ve decided is just not crucial enough to work on anymore, but whose seventh line you know is really strong.

And also, friendly reminder: All the poems in the ‘I Abandon’ file? Those, as you page through them, will tell you the story of how you got to the poem you are writing this week. Oh yes, the poem I finally wrote that stuck has twenty-seven failed poem attempts behind it. Nothing is wasted.

Which is not to say you never have to push through to new lines, images, metaphors, etc. It’s just to say: don’t forget what you already have. And, to repeat: Nothing is wasted.

(I can never think of the phrase “to repeat” without thinking of this scene in When Harry Met Sally).

sensory detail and the brain (and also the heart)  So, I’ve been memorizing a new poem this week (the poem’s not new; the me memorizing it is). It’s Jack Gilbert’s “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” and if you glance at it you’ll see that it starts out making an argument, and then moves into a meditation on language. An image-heavy meditation on language. A full-of-sensory detail meditation on language.

And I’ve noticed an interesting thing about memorizing the poem. Usually I go in line order to memorize. But this time, I’ve learned the last half of the poem first — not for want of trying to memorize the lines in order… it’s just that the latter half of the poem has stuck with me in a way that the first half has not (yet).

Which  made me think of a Poets&Writers article I read last summer, “The Heart and the Eye” (sorry, not available online). In it, J.T. Bushnell explains the neuroscience behind the power of sensory detail:

“When we read about an odor (or image or sensation), it engages the exact same part of the brain as actually smelling it (or seeing it or touching it), and those parts of the brain reside in the lower region, alongside our emotional centers.”

This, Bushnell says, is why writing full of images, smells, and other sensations “can take such precise aim at the heart.”

This (I think) is why I’m having a hard time remembering the more rhetorical lines of Gilbert’s poem, but also why when my husband sends a text that he’s at the airport in Singapore getting on a flight to come home, the following line from the poem comes out of my mouth before I realize it, “My joy is the same as twelve / Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.”

And it’s why when the air cools and the ginko trees begin their slow walk from green to gold I can cry out (to the embarrassment of my children), “O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper”!

Note to self.

the title for this post has too many words in it  What can I say, I’m tired. But I’ve been thinking about titles and what they can do for a poem (or how they can sabotage a poem) — pithy titles, mysterious titles, unique titles, boring titles, luxuriant titles, and especially the title of a Jane Hirshfield poem, which is “For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen.”

This poem is in her collection Come, Thief. Both in the table of contents and in the magazine it was first published in, it was titled “For the Lichens.” Space constraints, I’m sure.

But I’m so in love with its long, luxuriant title, which adorns the page above the poem in the book. Say it out loud! It’s amazing! And I like the poem, too — the way it’s a celebration of lichens but also of language and of survival. And, beyond that, of plain old keeping at it.

Here it is in The Atlantic.

May you have a luxuriant weekend. May you always keep at it, whatever ‘it’ is.

friday roundup: to recapitulate, understatement, and ‘failures like rented rooms’

Hopper's "Sun in an Empty Room"

Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room”

I won’t bother with a “since the last roundup” list. Even I don’t want to know.

Oh, but wait — there was a kid-free trip up to The City (as peninsula-dwellers call San Francisco).

And two critical response papers finished and sent off.

And as much po-time as I could squeeze out of two weeks of half-days of school.

And now:

to recapitulate  I’m always interested in the concept of truth in poetry. I know of some who vehemently feel that anything that is not actually (factually) true does not belong in a poem. I know of others who believe that the facts are only important insofar as they support a truth. Truth as concept, I mean — not necessarily what happened but the universal truth of the experience of what happened (if that makes sense).

I place my feet firmly inside the second camp.

Real-time digression: This makes me think of Beth Ann Fennelly‘s poem “Mother Sends My Poem to Her Sister with Post-its.” The poem is a series of short passages that read like what’s written on the post-its. Here’s one:

“She got this wrong / it was me not her father / who sang her ‘Irish Rosie’ / she was so sick with measles”

Real-time digression: I also love, love, love Fennelly’s poem “Poem Not To Be Read at Your Wedding.” Here’s a link (scroll down) and an excerpt:

“Well, Carmen, I would rather / give you your third set of steak knives / than tell you what I know.”

Ahem. But I digress. What I was planning to share was this quote from Louise Glück, the X-acto Knife of Poets:

“To recapitulate: the source of art is experience, the end product truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.” (from Proofs and Theories, Ecco Press, 1994).


understatement One of the things I wrote about in one of my papers due this week was ambiguity. I’m interested in how a certain quality of ambiguity invites the reader to engage more deeply in the poem, and to continue the work of the poem through that engagement. I won’t bore you with the criteria I propose create that quality of ambiguity, but I will share a couple of quotes from the section on understatement and the withheld image in the old work-horse Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry:

“Never tell a reader what will leap to the mind without your telling.”


“Mature writers prefer to understate, to say less than they might rather than more, so that the meaning can explode within the reader.”

Yes — that explosion of meaning — that’s one of the things I love about reading poetry. How you can read the poem at 5:30 a.m. (or whatever time you read in your neck of the woods) and then two Tuesdays later, while you’re wiping the counters at 9:00 p.m. it hits you, a possible meaning for that poem/line/image. Yes.

failures like rented rooms Short poems. I adore them. I read them. I study them. I cannot seem to write them. I aspire.

Here is a short poem by a poet I’ve only just discovered, thanks to another poet who wrote about her work on Facebook (I pause to admit mixed emotions and eternal gratitude for the tribe-building function of Facebook). The poet is Deborah Digges. As with my recent discovery (thanks to another poet — though not on Facebook) of Jack Gilbert, I cannot conceive of how I’ve lived 42 years on the face of this earth and never read Deborah Digges’ poems until now.


Custody by Deborah Digges

The first warm evening in April
I unpack my summer clothes, dresses
in which you knew me, hanging
from the lights and mirrors and windows.
Once our idea of heaven meant
all the dead relatives waiting
on the kept lawn of the many mansions
as if, suddenly sinless, they had nothing
to do. Now I’ve come to see our failures
like rented rooms to which the boarder
returns and falls asleep fully clothed,
only to wake at a cat’s cry
or a child’s, locked away in
one of the neighboring houses.


I love how that “like rented rooms” can be read both literally and figuratively. And how she brings sound in at the end to keep the poem ringing in our ears.

And that’s a wrap. Have a good weekend. Thanks for reading.

just words

many words, free for the taking

many words, free for the taking

Sometimes poetry is hard. Don’t say “bacon” — I’ve already tried that. And while bacon is delicious, poetry is still hard.

Also sometimes people have two weeks of half-days of school. And/or an eye infection, the medication for which requires a trip to San Jose. And/or sometimes the babysitter cancels and/or the Husband works late or both. And/or it is 90 degrees and the Wee, Small House has no air. And/or other things.

Then, sometimes, the poet-mother can begin to feel down.

But then she remembers something: words.

And then she reaches for her little green notebook of words. She begins writing down words, any words: dreadful, machinery, pistol, shoebox, gate. She feels a bit perkier already.

Then she decides to write down plant/flower/tree words: firethorn, rockrose, bindweed, oak. Beebalm, bugbane, bleeding heart.

Then words that belong to metal: clang, forge, slag, mill, melt, hammer, plate, rust, coin.

Earth words: salt, sand, clay, kiln, crevasse, fault line, dune, shore.

Landscape word (well, sometimes she can only think of one): aeolian.

Motion words: gallop, shoal, bend, curl, orbit, leap, buck, sluice, skim.

Words to love for their sound: paperweight, taxidermist, cinnamon, labyrinthine, lemon, redolent, root.

She could go on.

Then she remembers love. Love of words. The joy of them. That they are everywhere and belong to no one. That you can put one next to another and surprise yourself. That you can say them out loud. That you can make things of them. Just words.  (!!!!!!).

She does not go on to write the Great American Poem or even Any Poem. But she feels better. The best she can say is that it’s like finger-painting, which everyone should do once in a while. Amen.