friday roundup: the Eiffel Tower of poetry, split the page, and mortal moments



Hello Reader, and happy Friday. Since the last roundup there have been FIVE whole days of school for the kids! (well, technically four and a half since every Thursday is a half-day — but still, much more poetry time than last week). I’ve been getting up with the moon, which has been amazing this week in case you haven’t noticed. When the kids were small and went to bed at 7:00, I would go to bed at 8:30 and get up at 4:30 to write. I fell out of that habit as they grew and their bedtimes, and mine, got later. But for the last two weeks I’ve reverted to my old schedule with a slight adjustment of the waking time to 4:45. Say ‘hey’ to the moon, make tea, and I’m at my desk by five. I’ve been a much happier person on this schedule — just knowing that time at my desk is waiting for me each morning, or knowing that, whatever unexpected events the day holds for me, I’ve already put in my time at my desk. I’m adding one pre-dawn hour for reading and writing to my brief list of saving things. Now, on to the roundup:

the Eiffel Tower of poetry  I continue my love-fest with Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. This week I read her essay on theme. I was thrilled to learn, amongst other things, that Mary and I have in common an uneasy relationship with Polartec, and also that she refuses to subscribe to, but secretly reads, the New Yorker (seriously, people, you have to read this book). But about theme she says:

“I am led to believe theme is absolutely meaningless in the long run. But part of me cannot believe I just said that.”

She also says (and this next quote strikes me as particularly important from a craft perspective):

“If you take the theme out of the poem and talk about that theme there should still be some residual being left in the poem that goes on ticking, something like, why not say it, color, something that has an effect on your central nervous system. It is not what a poem says with its mouth, it’s what a poem does with its eyes.”

Ruefle eventually argues that maybe all themes are similar or the same. We’ve heard it before: all poetry is about death. Ruefle doesn’t go quite that far. She says all poetry is about mutability (mutable meaning “liable to change”; from the Latin mutare “to change”). She closes the essay thus:

“I have nothing else to say about theme; the whole subject has begun to depress me, like the classified ads in poetry magazines. As Roland Barthes reminds us, Maupassant often ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower, because it was the only place in Paris from which the Eiffel Tower could not be seen. Where is the Eiffel Tower of poetry, and could we have lunch there?”

Yes, Mary. Let’s.

split the page  Every time I hear the word “split” I say in my head “the lark and you’ll find the music.” This phrase occurred to me this morning, somehow, as I was turning to my notebook and I thought I wonder what would happen if I split the page? Would I find music? I tried it. Literally. I folded the page down the middle, then did a freewrite in the left hand column. Next a free-write in the right hand column, encouraging but not forcing, the lines to weave together where they met in the middle. To wit:


A new trick for getting to unexpected language and image! The results, while not mind-blowing, were at least interesting and will be good inputs for drafting days. I thought I’d share this trick with you — another way to cut and shuffle language — in case it appeals to you to try it.

mortal moments  Many in the world are marking Good Friday today, and so it seemed a good day to turn to Denise Levertov (known affectionately on this blog as D-Lev) whose heritage was Jewish, upbringing was Anglican, and who converted to Catholicism later in life. Here’s an ekphrastic poem, which I think draws on Rembrandt’s heads of Christ paintings (the Google seems to think so, and the poem mentions “those small heads”). One thing I love about this poem is that the poet considers what’s NOT in the painting (add it to your methods for ekphrasis). It’s also pleasingly (to me) post-modern: the Christ is humanized and maybe even flawed. Here is:


Salvator Mundi: Via Cruces by Denise Levertov

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (as I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone wh has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, not to be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.


Mortal moments. Mutability. Lunch at the Eiffel Tower with Mary Ruefle. I wish it all for you. Thanks for reading.

things I know for sure today

Luther's list of 95 Theses. I guess he was pretty sure. (wikimedia)

A famous list: Luther’s 95 Theses. I guess he must have been pretty sure. (wikimedia)

Many moons ago I took a writing class at my friendly neighborhood literary center (well, okay, it was Across The River as we said there, but close enough) the instructor started the first class by asking us to make a list under the title “Things I Know For Sure.”

My page was blank.

Things I know for sure? The longer I live, the more certainty seems to be slip-slidin’ away.

But sometimes there are things that I think I know for sure today. Something might happe to change my mind tomorrow, or even tonight. But for today I’m sure of two things:

1. the brief list of saving things is growing: In fact, it may become the Long List of Small but Saving Things. Added:

  • eggs
  • virtual cocktail hour (this is when you have a glass of wine and text back and forth with a friend who is also having a drink)
  • period dramas (such as — sigh of longing — Downton Abbey. I rest my case).
  • early-to-bedders — for the kids, or you, or both
  • when the semi-secret super library nerd lending program has the book(s) you really want
  • when your library special request comes in, and then you can hold the book(s) you really want in your very own hands

2. you must go read this piece of writing by Francesca Bell about her writing process. A brief excerpt:

“And that is how my writing process works. Or doesn’t work. Or works sometimes, when the stars align, and the two children remaining at home are required to attend school at the same times on the same days, and it isn’t tax season or the holiday season or Mid-Winter Break or Spring Break or the summer, and no one is sick, and inspiration collides, miraculously, with opportunity. I sit at my writing table, during school hours, and I write.”

Can I have an Amen? But really you need to go read the whole thing because it will inspire you, and remind you that you can fit your creative work into your life whatever your life looks like (oh, and coming back to add: and that slow but steady wins the race), and also because you might think that poetry and Teddy Roosevelt have nothing to do with one another, but actually, they do.

And you thought I had nothing to do with poetry? (wikimedia)

And you thought I had nothing to do with poetry? (wikimedia)

Signing off…

friday roundup: Virginia Woolf version with card table and questions

Hello Reader, and happy Friday. Spring break in the P-town is almost over. Don’t look now, but it was actually a good writing week for me. The children were instructed to let me work in the mornings, get their own breakfasts, clean up the kitchen, etc. With the exception of one pitched battle fought over a package of mini-sausages on Monday, the system worked fairly well and I ended up with several revisions, one new draft, and submissions sent off into the world. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about and reading this week:

on card tables and rooms of one’s own  This week on Facebook there was a thread about writing spaces — I can’t even remember how it started, but at one point in the comments people where sharing what kind of space they have to write in. There was a corner, an almost-room with a half-wall, my own three-foot stretch of wall amidst the kitchen, and one actual study with a door that closes (although the owner lamented that the door did not necessarily guarantee an increase in productivity).

Then I came across this article by Susan Straight on learning to write without a room of one’s own. Straight writes about having written in all sorts of places: at the counter of a Mobil station where she worked, in the front seat of a blue Toyota, on a flimsy card table (#beentheredonethat). She writes:

“For 24 years I wrote not while driving but while waiting in parking lots for hours — basketball and tennis and doctor appointments and hospitals, Girl Scouts and plays, driving exams and prom nights… .”

Thankfully, I am not at the prom nights time of life yet, but: Yes.

She writes:

“The whole time, I waited to be alone.”

(Who, me?). She writes:

“For those of you… who might believe, as I once did, when someone tells you there are certain conditions necessary to be a serious writer, a real writer, let me say: I am writing this in a dollar notebook from Staples with a purple gel pen.”

I love to read about how other writers fit writing into their lives and into the spaces (literal or figurative) of their lives, and I feel heartened when I learn (again) that we all fit writing in when and where we can. Yes, Virginia, we all sometimes wish we had a room of one’s own, but when we don’t: Write anyway.

bodily syntax  Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams has been getting a lot of press in the literary world this week. Here is a piece by Jamison on writing about the body. She writes about having found permission to write about the body after reading Woolf’s On Being Ill. The whole article is interesting, but the insight I took away from it is Jamison’s comment on Woolf’s writing in the essay: “Even (Woolf’s) syntax feels bodily — full of curves and joints and twists, shifting and stretching the skin of her sentences.”

I do a lot of writing about the body, and I keep a lot of lists of words, but I have never thought about creating a list of bodily words, or about arranging syntax so that it seems muscular, joined, physical, sweaty. My middle schooler would say: “Poet fail!” I will be thinking about it from now on.

questions  Speaking of the body, many of you are probably familiar with May Swenson’s poem “Question,” with its muscular opening lines: “Body my house / my horse my hound / what will I do / when you are fallen” (whole poem here). This week I read a new-to-me poem that’s in dialogue with Swenson’s poem, and it’s a keeper. Here is Sara Eliza Johnson’s “Question.”

I love how this poem both engages and breaks free from Swenson’s poem, with form that wanders away from Swenson’s sturdy stanzas and images that spin off wildly from the hunting image system Swenson uses. Brava! You can learn more about Johnson and her work here.

And now, to return to the fray: more sausage arguments this morning (there were two left and three kids and somebody was pig-hogging!), grocery getting, prescription pick-up, basketball practice, family movie night, and maybe a few minutes with my notebook at the card table in my mind. Happy weekend, and thanks for reading.


writing process blog tour, or, once upon a time, I went to IKEA…


no more depressing photo in all the world (wikimedia)

no more depressing photo in all the world (wikimedia)

…with my dad. This was in the Grim Time. Husband and I were selling a house I could’ve sworn we just bought so that we could move across the country to a town I’d never seen. The trip to IKEA was to pick up items that would add to the appeal of our house: planters, a ficus tree, more lamps, a few prints for the walls — things to convince someone they wanted to live in that house (which I could’ve sworn we just bought — hence, no prints on the walls yet).

Anyway, I hate shopping in general, and I get overwhelmed in large stores, and I could not find my way around IKEA to save my life. A couple of times I asked a worker in a blue shirt how to get to a certain department. They kept saying, “Just follow the arrows on the floor.” Arrows? On the floor? But I don’t look at the floor while I walk. And the arrows didn’t go where I wanted to go, at least not directly. The arrows went other places first. I did not have the energy or the desire to go other places first. Please, just tell me: Where are the freaking house plants?

When Carol Berg tagged me for the writing process blog tour, I immediately thought of this trip to IKEA. The reason why is not immediately clear to me. But I expect that writing about it might make it clear.

What are you working on?

  • A book review of a book you’re definitely going to want to read
  • A series of poems titled “Sick Room”
  • Revisions and submissions, revisions and submissions, revisions and submissions
  • A series of ekphrastic poems based on paintings from this amazing book
  • And other stray poetry creatures that cross my path

How does your work differ from others of its genre? I’m not sure my work differs wildly from other contemporary poetry being written today.  All I know is that there are poems that ask to be written. “Ask” is putting it mildly. “Demand” might be more accurate. I can only assume that the poems that demand to be written by other poets are different poems than those that demand to be written by me.

Why do you write what you do? Joan Didion said:

Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

The pictures in my mind are different, but my reason for writing is the same. I write about the things that mystify, confuse, and confound me. I write to try to figure them out.

I also write because once upon a time I tried to NOT write and it just didn’t work. At all.

And I write because I believe that art can transform: the person making it and the person taking it in; suffering into insight; pain into beauty; confusion into (at least momentary) clarity; scrawls of black on a white page into a poem.

How does your writing process work? I always begin by reading the work of other poets. Their words, their moves are springboards into my own work. On writing days I wake early, read, then free write off of what I’ve read. Once or twice a week, I revisit the free writes to see if any (or if any lines from all) are asking to be a poem.

When I draft, I often have an idea for a poem in mind, or a title I’d like to draft under, but sometimes I begin with a truly blank page and discover the poem as I go. I use language-based prompts and/or constraints to bring me to words and images I probably wouldn’t get to without them. Some of my favorite tricks:

  • word banks: Whenever I read a book of poems, I make a list of words that seem important, recurrent, or interesting. I number the lists, then use to select 10 words. The challenge is to get these words into the draft (I also often do this with free-writes). All credit for this trick due to Sandy Longhorn.
  • cut and shuffle 1: I write two short pieces. One describes a physically inactive or quiet scene; one describes a physically active or emotionally charged scene. Then, I incorporate alternating lines from each scene into a draft. Credit for this idea goes to Jack Myers in The Practice of Poetry.
  • cut and shuffle 2: I take a free write (or lines from several free writes) and type up the sentences in a list. Then I go to, enter my list, and let the randomizer spit out an order. From there, I construct a poem. This often involves a lot of cutting and re-lineating. This is also a good trick for revision.
  • gaping lines: I take a poem by another poet, or one of my own drafts or free writes, and write the lines on a page with gaps in between. Then I draft between the lines. At the end, I pull the borrowed lines out and see what remains. Also from The Practice of Poetry.
  • twenty little poetry projects: Also from The Practice of Poetry (handy little book, no?), described here. For me, this prompt feels especially fertile for long(er) poems.
  • drive words: From Thirteen Ways of Looking For a Poem. Write down five words in each of the following categories (they can be merely suggestive of each category): flowers/plants; metals; weather/landscape; parts of the body; words you like the sounds of; colors; scents. Choose one word from each category. Then choose five words from another poet’s poem. Use your words and the words of another poet to draft a poem.
  • homophonic translation: Take a poem from another poet and plug it in to Google Translate. Translate it into another language (I often use German because of its wealth of sounds and textures). Then translate it back into English based only upon how the poem sounds if read as English (meaning is not important; in fact, the translation will be nonsensical). Use any lines or phrases that catch your ear to begin a draft.

So, now the IKEA story makes sense, right? Because when making poems, I do wander, and follow barely-noticed arrows, and take detours, and sometimes I never find what I thought I was looking for, but maybe I find something else.

I love reading about other poets’ processes. In case you do, too, here are some poets who’ve written about their process as part of this blog tour:

Carol Berg, Kelli Russell Agodon, Susan Rich, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Sandy Longhorn, Angie Macri (hosted on Sandy’s blog), Donna Vorreyer, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Kelly Davio.

Happy reading, happy writing!

friday roundup: a brief list of saving things, using the you, and “What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse”


A Woman's Arm by Adolph Tidemand (wikimedia)

A Woman’s Arm by Adolph Tidemand (wikimedia)

Hello Reader. Sorry about the lack of roundup last week. It was one of those weeks. This week was less one of those weeks, and I’m happy to be here at my desk sharing what I’ve been reading and thinking about. Let us commence:

a brief list of saving things  Speaking of those weeks, I’ve been keeping a tally lately of small, saving things. By saving I mean able to save. Save as in “keep safe or rescue from harm or danger.” Save from the Latin salvāre, “make safe.”

Perhaps it’s overly dramatic (who, me?) to say that the things on my brief list can save a life. But maybe it’s not. And either way, maybe these things can save a day, or a moment, or one’s last shred of sanity.

Here is my list: a cup of tea; honey, just honey; a haircut; cozy socks; a good novel (especially if it’s Life After Life by Kate Atkinson which I hereby beg you to read if you haven’t already); a note from a friend; a text from a friend; a 20-second hug; homemade macaroni and cheese (or as we call it at the Wee, Small House, “Grandma Mac & Cheese”; and, of course, poetry.

What’s on your brief list of saving things? Gentle reminder: don’t forget to save yourself from time to time.

using the you  I’m still reading through Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, and with every page I’m more and more willing to follow her to the ends of the earth. I would drink her Kool-Aid.

In her essay “On Sentimentality,” she discusses (and argues with) a Philip Sterling essay on the use of the second person pronoun (the “you”) in poetry. Sterling’s essay, which is available to subscribers of The Writer’s Chronicle here if you’re interested, argues that the use of a vague (or not-identified-in-the-poem) “you” in poetry blocks the reader from participating in the poem, and makes the reader “a passive observer, an eavesdropper.” He also argues that use of the “you” can come across as accusatory and condemning.

Ruefle counters: “Sometimes I feel enormously privileged to be a mere eavesdropper.” And she suggests that if the “you” in a poem is vague, or not immediately identifiable, we should “read the poem, use your noggin, figure it out.” (Fist pump for Mary!). She cites Keats’ “This Living Hand” — vague, accusatory, condemning all — as “one of the greatest cases of the ill-defined you in English literature.”

I often experience the vague “you” in poem as an invitation to deeper intimacy than can be achieved with the lyric-I or the third-person. The “you” has room in it for the reader — it says “put yourself in this poem and see what happens.”

If you want to read more poems that contain masterful use of the “you,” I direct you (this is a specific you: by you I mean you) to Jennifer Richter’s Threshold.

“What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse” Well, wow. I completely fell for this poem by Geffrey Davis, which won the The Massachusetts Review Anne Halley Prize. Once again I am begging you to read something: find it here.

Then ask yourself: what poems can you write under the title “What I Mean When I Say (fill in the blank)”; who have you come for?

Thanks for reading. Happy weekend. Go forth and save yourself today.


four things I’m doing for National Poetry Month


photo from wikimedia

photo from wikimedia

Happy April is Poetry Month, no foolin’.

(BTW, I’ve always found it rather hilarious that National Poetry Month begins on April Fool’s Day).

I’m not writing a poem a day for poetry month. I took a look at where my work is, and decided instead to:

submit — I have submissions out at only three journals right now. Only three! And before we know it, many journals will be closing for the summer. So my number one priority for poetry month will be to send out a few submissions a week to my list of kinship journals (an always-evolving list). And if I’m going to be submitting, it means I will also need to…

revise — Submissions and revisions are joined at the hip for me. I’ve always wanted to unhinge one from the other, but so far haven’t figured out how. Maybe someday. For now, to the revisions/submissions process I say: I accept. I’ll be looking through promising drafts and using these tips, these tips, these tips, and also these tips.

So that’s two things… . The third thing I’m going to do for poetry month is a 30-day trial of Scrivener software for writers. Scrivener is a software program that allows you to electronically organize your notebooks, index cards, drafts, notes, updates, jottings, etc. It also allows you to compile large documents — say a poetry manuscript — from various smaller documents within the program. I can see immediately that this would be useful for long form writers: fiction writers, essayists, academic writers. I have a hunch it could be a good tool for poets as well, but I’m not 100% sure. And I’m always a little nervous when leaving behind one process for another, so I’ll be shadowing my Scrivener adventure with my usual Word documents that contain background notes, free writes, early drafts, and each revision. I’ll use the 30-day trial this month both for poetry and for a book review I’m working on, and I’ll let you know what I think about its utility for poets. Stay tuned.

Lastly — and here’s where there’s something in it for you — I’m going to revive my unintentionally-abandoned practice of sending out The Handout (You will note if you read the link that this is not the first occurrence of unintentional abandonment. Mea culpa.). All month, I’ll be setting aside poems that I find in some way, and then I’ll cut and paste and copy and mail the poems to your mailbox. If you want them.

If you are already on my The Handout list, you don’t need to do anything. If you’d like to be on my The Handout list, send me your name and snail mail address with “The Handout” in the subject line to: mollycspencer (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll add you to the list. The stamp’s on me.

Happy National Poetry Month!


on apprenticeship

Le Jeune Apprenti (The Young Apprentice) by Amedeo Modigliani - wikimedia

Le Jeune Apprenti (The Young Apprentice) by Amedeo Modigliani – wikimedia

I’ve been thinking about apprenticeship lately.

Apprenticeship as in the system of training put in place during the middle ages to teach the next generation of skilled workers a trade.

apprentice (n.) a person who is learning a trade from a skilled employer, having agreed to work for a fixed period at low wages.

From the Latin apprehendere, to take hold of, to grasp (ap- upon, + prehendere seize). So, one who seizes upon.

I’ve been thinking about it because I’ve been taking stock of projects lately. Being very tortoise-like in terms of pace to completion, I have several projects in the muck right now. By in the muck, I mean:

I felt a little tired and uninspired at the prospect of it — all that work. Even though it’s the only way through.

Then I had a very freeing thought. I thought, I could just ditch everything I’ve worked on up until now and start again.

I thought, There are worse things I could do (cue Rizzo).

This is what got me started thinking about apprenticeship — because my experience of and education in poetry has been apprentice-like to the hilt. Although I’ve not had one particular formal mentor, I’ve tried to apprentice myself to poetry itself by learning all I can from reading, imitating, writing, revising. The thought of ditching everything and starting again is very freeing and exciting because I believe there is always more to learn — there’s always the next poem, the better poem, the moment of insight (of seizing upon) that’s just around the next bend in the path.

In other words, if nothing ever comes of all I’ve worked on so far, there will be more.

Oddly enough, this thought (and its accompanying freedom and excitement) was just what I needed to feel more motivated about jumping back into the muck of ongoing projects. It has helped me to separate myself from my poems — they are not me, I am not them. They are the work, and I must apprentice myself to them.

That sounds so much more appealing than these poems need In apprenticeship, there is care, and real labor (from the Latin for toil, pain) and open-mindedness. There is an implicit admission of I have a lot to learn. There are people to learn from, and a process through which to learn. I’ll make mistakes, get frustrated, fail, fail again, fail better, probably even hit my own thumb with a hammer from time to time.

But there will be more, and then more, and then more. Amen.

(Note: Dictionary definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary; etymology information from Barnhart’s Concise Dictionary of Etymology).