friday roundup with apprenticeship, loss, and servitude


Lot embriagat per les seves filles (detall), Rutilio Manetti, oli sobre tela, 157'5 x154'9 cm. Museu de Belles Arts de València. (wikimedia)

Lot embriagat per les seves filles (detall), Rutilio Manetti, oli sobre tela, 157’5 x154’9 cm. Museu de Belles Arts de València. (wikimedia)

Well, it’s official: The blogosphere is now the domain of grandmas.

I know this because I’ve been watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and there’s a commercial about a car with wifi, and somebody’s grandma is sitting in the car and says, “I can update my blog from here?”

But I just keep blogging from time to time, though our attention spans shrink; though it’s a grandmotherly thing to do. Because it comforts me, and helps me think, and because I love to Spread the Poems.

Moving on:

as an apprentice  I have always considered the writing life an apprenticeship. I learn at the feet of other poets by reading their work and trying out their moves. This is also known as imitation. I confess, I even have a file in my file cabinet called “Imitation.” This week, a friend shared a quote on Facebook that really resonated with my experience of poetry as apprenticeship and how we learn from imitating the work of other poets:

“At some point as an apprentice, you realize that you might finally possess enough skills to fashion a reasonably passable imitation of the artist whose work has inspired you, but something other than ability prevents you from achieving the perfect fake. The thing that will keep getting in your way will be your own voice. Ironically, then, in trying to write like the poets whose work I loved, I learned to write like myself.” — Kathleen Graber

the specific art of loss  The last time I translated poetry, it was 1989:

Córdoba, lejana y sola    (Córdoba, distant and alone)

That’s Lorca, although I didn’t know it in Spanish III, junior year of high school (Le Sigh). So, as I said, I don’t work in translation, but I’m interested in it — in how translators select the right words to faithfully render another poet’s work. I also think it’s interesting to think of any poem as a translation — the translation of an experience and/or emotion into words. We set out to do the impossible: to express things that defy expression. I’ve been reading John Felsteiner’s translation of Paul Celan‘s work, and something he wrote in his translator’s note snagged in my mind:

“(W)hy not think of translation as the specific art of loss, and begin from there?”

I love this idea for translation and for the attempt to translate experience into words in a poem. If we give over to this endemic loss, what might that open up in our work?

“and I am its servant” Every now and then I come across a poem (or a book) that says to me: “You will now be my servant. You will sit at my feet and learn. You will be moved by me forever. I am now your companion for life.” I came across a poem like that this week, thanks to the fantastic Francesca Bell, who shared it on, yes, Facebook.

It’s by Chana Bloch who I happen to know just celebrated her 75th birthday (um,yes, Facebook). Here, Reader, is:


A FUTURE by Chana Bloch

A sharp wind
pries at the doorjamb, riddles
the wet sash. What we don’t say
eats in.

Was it last week?
We sat at the fireplace, the four of us,
reading Huck Finn. I did the Duke,
you the Dauphin, the kids
tossed pillows in the air.
We owned that life.

There’s a future loose in my body and I
am its servant:
carrying wood, fetching water.

You spread a hand on my stomach
to feel the dark
The hand listens hard.

And the children are practicing
pain: one finger, quick!
Through the candle flame.


And speaking of 1989, this poem was first published in Poetry in the May, 1989 issue.

That’s all for me today. I’m giving myself the gift of a few hours off to meet up with a friend. And it will involve pain au raisin. Have a good weekend, and thanks for reading. Your loving,


friday roundup: returning edition

"Evening Return" by Clarice Beckett, wikimedia

“Evening Return” by Clarice Beckett, wikimedia

It’s Friday again. The weeks blur by. Every week I think I’ll write an extra post about something. There are so many things I’ve been thinking about — “practicing” (long story); the tradition of self-portraiture in art and poetry; and process, always process. One of these days, Reader, one of these days…

But for today, just some thoughts about returning.

In this post, I wrote about finishing up (at least for now) a Large Project, which is my first full-length manuscript. I wrote that  finishing a Large Project — writing in and around and toward that project — is very different from the act of just writing A Poem. And it is. But I’ve begun to unhitch myself from writing in and around and to the manuscript. I’m loosening into creativity with no destination in mind. Yes, I’m starting to remember how to write just A Poem.

And as I’ve unhitched, loosened, and remembered, some old companions have been helpful. I’ve returned to a few things in particular, which I’ll share here:

habit vs. originality A few years ago I read Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation after reading about it on It’s a fairly heady text and I don’t remember it all, but what has stayed with me is Koestler’s examination of habit vs. originality. While we all need a writing habit (if we want to get anything written, that is), we want our writing to be fresh, original, surprising, creative. Re-visiting Koestler’s thinking on habit vs. originality has reminded me to try new things in my writing and new ways into writing — to let go of habitual processes, to be super-flexible, to knock together two unrelated things (what Koestler calls “bisociation”) and see what happens. Here’s a visual from the article that I have hanging in my “writing studio” (I use the term loosely):


And here’s the article in full, which I’m sure I’ve linked to before, but like I said: returning.

patience And when we are returning, how can we not return to Rilke? His Letters to a Young Poet has been a touchstone since I first read it one million years ago. Okay, twenty-five years ago, but still. Here is Rilke on the necessity of patience in the creative life:

“There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!…”

the keys to my place  As I’ve unhitched, loosened, remembered, and returned, and as I’ve stayed true to the time-honored practice of poets and writers everywhere called Butt-In-Chair, I’ve maybe caught some glimpses of the muse (BTW, here is Sandy Longhorn on Butt-In-Chair). I’m not saying she’s moved back in, but I’ve seen her peek through my windows. What a mercy. Here is a poem that you may know, but that seems important this morning. It is Moira Egan’s “To My Muse, Upon Her Return.”

(Ha – perhaps I should write a poem: To My Muse, Peeking Through My Windows).

Happy Friday, happy weekend, thanks for reading, and many happy returns.

friday unroundup: just three poems

a draft of Plath’s “Ariel” with notes for revision

Hello and happy Friday.

There are many things I’ve been reading about and thinking about and writing about this week, but I just don’t have a full-fledged roundup in me today.

But we always have poems, right?

So here are three — one is new-to-me and two are old, faithful companions.

a blood sisterhood  A po-friend linked to Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying” on Facebook this morning, and I was immediately whisked back to the first time I read this poem. Age nineteen (how had I NOT read it before then!!??), the second floor of the library at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland (long story). “I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood” but when I read this poem I knew I had found one.

Here is “Blackberrying.”

(and thank you Sandy Longhorn)

revision  Long-time readers know that I am a committed disciple of revision. And so when I find a poem that is, in some way, a revision, or is “about” revision, or that has the word “revision” in the title, I am usually a sucker for it. As I am for this poem, Laura Van Prooyen’s “Revision” featured today on Verse Daily.

I could probably write a three-page paper about all the things I admire about this poem. In fact, I am getting really good at churning out three-page papers lately. Alas, there are other three-page papers to be written today.

this earth the beloved left  Speaking of revision, it seems the world and our lives are constantly subject to it. This week someone dear to me was laid to rest; his once-strong body returned to the earth. Gregory Orr’s “Untitled [This is what was bequeathed us]” has been a faithful companion for years, but especially so this week. Here it is.

Happy weekend and thanks for reading.



friday roundup with pain au raisin

life savers

life savers

Hello, Reader.

I am here to attest that pain au raisin saves lives.

Or at least it saves Thursdays.

Or at least it saves that portion of a Thursday after the headache eases and before you get home and your front door lock is broken and you have to break in to your own house and then you pick people up from school and go to the middle school where Eldest is playing basketball except his game is actually away not home so you race down to the South Bay in rush hour traffic and your GPS, affectionately known as Marge, fails and you get lost and end up in the hills and then you finally find the school where the game is being played and you arrive to watch the last three minutes of a game they are losing by more than 20 points and because of all this Sister misses ballet.


Let’s talk poetry:

learning again Long-time readers may recall that there are several things about life and poetry that I have learned, re-learned, and re-re-learned. As I’m transitioning away from finishing a Large Project, I am re-re-re-re-learning some things. Here are a few of them:

  • Finishing a Large Project — writing in and around and toward that project — is very different from the act of just writing A Poem.
  • There is no need to try to turn A Poem into the next Large Project. One must let A Poem swim in its own little fishbowl indefinitely until the next Large Project begins to take shape. And one may have to flush many A Poems down the toilet in the meantime.
  • Resistance is futile: You may want to write about the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, but if the Muse says instead to write about the survivors of a 19th-century shipwreck, you’re stuck with the 19th-century shipwreck.
  • Poems (for me at least) come out of playing with language. Exercises and prompts can get you to the page and give you ways to play with language. An exercise or prompt has done its work if there is one phrase in the two pages of writing you did for it that opens the door to a new draft.

on the speaker  I’ve been studying William Carlos Williams this week, and one thing I noticed as I read is that in some of his poems the speaker is nearly (or totally) absent, while in others the speaker is on center stage. I have been busy creating a spectrum of speakers from “speakerless” to “assertive speaker” (in between are variations of the “subtle speaker”).

The speakerless poems strike me as almost a reverse ekphrasis: the poem’s primary impulse is to create a scene, as in “Nantucket.” The poem with an assertive speaker is dependent on that particular speaker to show us a slice of the world through his/her eyes, as in “Danse Russe.” In between are different subtle speakers who enter the poem, but gently and with a light touch.

All this has made me ask questions of my speakers in my poems: Why are you here? Can you leave? If not, why not? Do you really need to come in at line five, or can I show you into the room of this poem at line thirteen? Rather than walk into the room of this poem, would it be better for you to simply peek through the window or maybe send a text? And so on.

Dear Blue,  I’ve also been reading Blue Venus by Lisa Russ Spaar. In terms of voice and language, her work is entirely different that WCW’s. While he writes in a simple (yes, “American”) vernacular, Sparr simply luxuriates in sound and language. I confess, I love it.

Blue Venus explores, amongst other things, insomnia. There is a lot of night in this book, and a lot of the color blue. One of my favorite poems in the collection is a direct address to blue. Here is,


DUSK by Lisa Russ Spaar

Blue, I love your lapis palace,
your stair of melancholy that burns,
but does not consume my heart.

I love the heaven-shot and glinting stares
of all your tall and far-flung windows,
your shadowed sills, your roofless picnic of stars.

I climb your fabled tense of once
and upon a time, your fractured prayer:
that restless hinge: your voice, thick with thorns.


What color (or colors) could you write a direct-address poem to? Something to try, perhaps.

That’s all for today — happy weekend and thanks for reading.

friday roundup: bidden, notes on line, and a little song

"Abend an der Ostsee" (Evening at the Baltic Sea) by Ernst Oppler

“Abend an der Ostsee” (Evening at the Baltic Sea) by Ernst Oppler, wikimedia

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday.

I’m a little low on words today, but have found a few gems — some new to me, some not — to share.

Let us commence:

bidden In a letter to his mother 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote:

“Art is a curious command. We must do what we are bidden to do and can only go as far as the light permits.”

In my experience, sometimes the light lets us see all around a room, or a good way along the path in front of us. Other times, it barely lets us see our own shoes. This week, I needed this reminder —  that we must do what we are bidden to do. I think it’s good advice for art and life.

(BTW, have you ever wondered how many possible gems future generations of writers will lose out on because most of us no longer write letters? I mean, my own correspondence exists in the world primarily of texts that say things like: “At dr appt will call after” and “I.cannot.possibly.cook.another.dinner.” But maybe the gems will still be stashed somewhere by poets who are thinking worthier thoughts than I.)

notes on line  Line is probably my favorite craft element of poetry because it can do so many different things. This week I went back to Best Words, Best Order to re-read a few things Stephen Dobyns says about line (in section three of his essay “Notes on Free Verse”).

Many times I’ve been in discussions with poets about whether or not line breaks should be “read” — that is, when reading a poem out loud (or in one’s head, for that matter) should one pause where the line breaks, or not? And if yes, for how long? (Full disclosure: I fervently believe that line breaks should be “read.”).

Denise Levertov famously said that a line break is worth “half a comma” — a pause not long enough to think, but “long enough to register something.” No pressure.

Dobyns lightens our load — I mean, how long is half a comma??? — by saying,

“(t)he exact duration is unimportant. It lasts about as long as it takes to move one’s eyes back to the beginning of the next line.”

I feel like I can commit to that.

Here are a few more things Dobyns says line / line breaks can do:

  • create tension
  • resolve tension
  • allow slips of  meaning
  • influence cadence
  • duplicate the process of thought

He says,

“Where the line breaks can never be a matter of accident since the line break is so much a part of both form and content. Indeed, it is often here that the poet’s most personal rhythms are clearest.”

a little song  Last week I started reading Cecilia Woloch‘s new chapbook, EARTH, recently released by Two Sylvias Press. I started reading it, and finished, and started again, and finished again. I keep going back. It’s that good.

This is a lovely book, both object-wise — beautiful cover art, pleasing look and feel — and content-wise. In fierce but lovely language and image, these poems remember loved ones and lost worlds, explore mortality and inheritance, and allow their speaker to claim his/her Self (yes, that’s Self with a capital S). One of my favorite poems from the collection recognizes the reality that one’s Self actually contains a multitude of Selves. Here is:


Oh beloved, oh afraid
of the bloodstain, dark spot, ticking clock
of what has shone in your life like luck —
too bright to last — oh fortunate
who slipped the licked stones, glittering
inside your pockets, spread your arms
and dreamt your ghost wings would unfurl
from your bony shoulders — angel bones
and that the sky would hold you up
and love — a tree from which you swung —
oh branch you called your father’s name
oh bird who sang your mother’s song
oh little sweeper of the world
whose life inside my life has burned.


(!!!”oh little sweeper of the world”!!!)

One of my Selves now must go off and schlepp some groceries for the Feeders of the Wee, Small House. (I think of them as Feeders. As in, “a person or animal that eats a particular food or in a particular manner.” Forgive me.)

I wish you a happy weekend, ample light to see by, a clear bidding from whatever your art might be, and a little song for your one afraid. Thanks for reading.

one by one

Six Persimmons, Muqi 13th century, wikimedia

Six Persimmons, Muqi 13th century, wikimedia

In my little circle of beloveds — family, friends — there has been a lot of loss and suffering lately.

This morning I woke up headache-y, but needing a particular poem. I couldn’t remember its title, but knew it was by Thomas Lynch. I remembered reading it for the first time when a friend made a copy of a handout she’d received in a poetry class long enough ago that there was no hope of my having filed it electronically.

I remembered: there is a blue bowl in the poem. There is a tree.

I knew once the headache fog lifted, I would have to go out into the garage and paw through old files. I knew this could take me all day (or all week), but I needed that poem.

By some miracle I found it after about five minutes of searching. Thank you, Universe.

This poem reminds me of something a friend of blessed memory used to say: Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet promised to us. Today is all we have.

And although it is hard — probably impossible — to live that way every day (I, for example, am thinking about how I must thaw the meat for tomorrow’s dinner), this poem is a good reminder of Today is all we have.

Here is:



A blue bowl on the table in the dining room
fills with sunlight. From a sunlit room
I watch my neighbor’s sugar maple turn
to shades of gold. It’s late September. Soon…
Soon as I’m able I intend to turn
to gold myself. Somewhere I’ve read that soon
they’ll have a formula for prime numbers
and once they do, the world’s supposed to end
the way my neighbor always said it would —
in fire. I bet we’ll all be given numbers
divisible by One and by themselves
and told to stand in line the way you would
for prime cuts at the butcher’s. In the end,
maybe it’s every man for himself.
Maybe it’s someone hollering All Hands On
Deck! Abandon Ship! Women and Children First!
Anyway, I’d like to get my hands on
you. I’d like to kiss your eyelids and make love
as if it were our last time, or the first,
or else the one and only form of love
divisible by which I yet remain myself.
Mary, folks are disappearing one by one.
They turn to gold and vanish like the leaves
of sugar maples. But we can save ourselves.
We’ll pick our own salvations, one by one,
from a blue bowl full of sunlight until none is left.

from Still Life in Milford by Thomas Lynch
Originally published in Poetry East: Origins (#43)


Hug your beloveds. Say a little prayer for peace and other miracles. Choose your salvations one by one.