friday roundup: truth, art, hope

Friendly reminder with penguin paperweight (don't ask) and stapler.

Friendly reminder with penguin paperweight (don’t ask; involves sensitive middle child) and stapler.

Hello out there.

Well, wow. I feel really quiet today, and have all week as world and national events have unfolded. That old question: What can one person possibly say or do in the face of such injustice, devastation, terror?

But of course there are things a person can do. Times like these, I remind myself that — as the years-old tag from a bag of Good Earth tea that I have taped to my bookshelf says — “Your choices will change the world.”

So I keep choosing: truth, art, hope.

(Also, I keep choosing civic engagement, support for candidates and organizations that work for what I believe in, awareness of my own privilege in the world).

That middle word in the first list helps me with the other two. Sometimes art is a way to the truth. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gives me hope.

Here is a poem that speaks the truth.

Here is one that gave me hope this week, by reminding me how to start again each day.

Here is an excerpt from a poem written decades ago that still speaks to our particular moment.

I’m going to wander off and be quiet some more. Happy Friday. Let us combine. Amen.

friday in lieu of a roundup: silence can be a plan

Silence by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (wikimedia)

Silence by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (wikimedia)

Hello and happy Friday.

Today I’m planning for silence.

By which I mean, I’m preparing to leave tomorrow for a little cottage near the ocean where, for one week, I’ll read and write without any competing demands (laundry, meals, homework help, broken fingers, settling arguments,dentist appointments, track meets, leaky faucets, grocery runs, and the like). And without the sounds of other people’s voices, and bouncing basketballs, and overheard Pokemon episodes, and the chorus of “Mars, Mars We’re Going to Mars” from the third grade play, and perhaps best of all, without the nightly whine of leaf blowers blowing out the parking lot of the grocery store loading dock across the street.

I did the same last year for the first time, and learned what a gift it can be to plan for silence.

And yet, it’s a struggle. Mainly against guilt. Spiteful Gillian, who really doesn’t hang around these parts much anymore, has made a comeback. She wants to know: “How can you abandon your family for a week just so you can go off and (air quotes) make art (end air quotes)?” She wants to know: “Wouldn’t that money be better tucked away for college — which is in FIVE YEARS (this one, in particular, kills me every time — FIVE YEARS till my oldest goes to college). She says: “What if the house burns down, what if someone gets sick or breaks a finger, what if the earthquake finally hits and YOU ARE NOT THERE?”

She’s so annoying.

I counter her, saying: Writers and artists have always needed periods of solitude in order to do their work. I am setting a great example for my kids; I am showing them how to be committed to one’s work as well as one’s family. I am not (air quotes) abandoning (end air quotes) anyone — I am doing my job. I am a person who needs periods of quiet and solitude in order to be my true self.

Also, I have left them a bunch of homemade food in the freezer, so get off my back Spiteful Gillian, geez!

But someone has said it better than I ever could (shocker). Here’s Adrienne Rich on silence:


Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed

the blueprint to a life

It is a presence
it has a history a form

Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence

(from “Cartographies of Silence”)


So off I go, into a plan rigorously executed. I may or may not be around this corner of the blogosphere during my time away — I tend not to do well with grand pronouncements of I will or I will not, but instead with going with the flow.

Whatever you need to do your life’s work and be your true self, make a plan to get it. Execute it. Rigorously. Make it the blueprint of your life. Amen.

friday roundup with throng of poets, line (again), and a nest


Vincent’s “Still Life with Fife-bird Nests” (wikimedia)

Hello out there. Happy Friday. Friday of AWP for many poets; Just Friday here at the Wee, Small House.

Real-time digression: I love how Vincent Van Gogh signed his paintings “Vincent.” Just Vincent. As if he were a child making art at his mother’s table. As if there were no other possible Vincent who could’ve made the art (ends up he was right about that, I guess). I am just now thinking about the gesture of putting one’s name to a piece of art. I’m wondering: What are the poems we would write if we were just going to sign the poems “(your first name here).” As if we were writing at our mothers’ tables. As if there were no other possible (your first name here) who could write those poems? Are they different than the poems we’d write planning to sign our full, adult, names and all they mean for the self we’ve constructed in the world? If yes, let’s go write them.

[Ok, sorry for that digression but this is how my brain works. On to the roundup:]

“the solitary, the hermetic, the cranky self-taught”  A throng of poets has descended upon Minneapolis, where yesterday it snowed (she said, smugly; forgive her).

[I pause here to remember the moment last year when I reminded a poet-friend that there would also be fiction writers and non-fiction writers at AWP. Her blank stare upon receiving this news will live forever in my memory.]

But back to the poets. AWP, or any throng, can cause anxiety for poets (perhaps other writers too?) — the crowds; the name-dropping; the selfies; the editors who rejected your poems; the Very Famous Poet who walks by causing one to freeze in one’s boots before one can think of something to say; the Very Famous Poet you are standing next to in line for the ladies’ and you think of something to say but then after you think how STUPID it was to say that; the people looking at your name tag, realizing you are just a baby poet, walking on by. Etc.

But I love AWP. I love seeing my tribe in the flesh. I love the worst-attended panels. I love all the books and lit mags that jump into one’s arms. I am not there this year, but I can’t wait for next year’s in L.A. (That is how much I love AWP — I am going to brave L.A., which I know nothing about but whose traffic has intimidated me from afar for years, for AWP).

Here is a little piece by Kay Ryan (Kay Ryan week on the blog, I guess) who is not an avid AWP go-er, but who has gone. And documented her experience. And possibly did not hate it as much as she thought she might. Or maybe did. I usually read this piece on my AWP off-years, so it’s possible I’ve linked to it before. It’s a good piece for reminding us to simultaneously embrace and shun the throng.

line (again)  I know, sorry, but I love line. Or should I say, Line. This week I’m re-visiting James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line. Two things jumped out at me. Here they are:

1. For those of you who, like me, are forever puzzling about what prose poetry is and what kind of poem belongs in a prose container: In prose poems “the narrative links are supressed.” And “rather than fulfilling the expectations aroused by narrative logic, (a prose poem) foregrounds the disjunctive movement we associate more readily with poetry and in particular with lineated poetry” (parens mine).

Okay, that makes sense to me. I can work with that.

2. “(L)ine is a way of making familiar language strange again.” Yes, yes, yes. And so is poetry. Yes.

nest  I accidentally found another poet this week. Don’t they just pop up out of nowhere, and then you have to have their book(s)!? #bookbudgetblownagain

This poet is Katy Didden, whose first book (which I have duly ordered), The Glacier’s Wake, won the Lena-Miles Weaver Todd Poetry Prize a few years ago (BTW, that prize churns out some really good poetry). While I wait for the book to arrive on my doorstep — I LOVE THIS WORLD! — I’ve been hunting down some of her poems online, and have fallen in love with “Nest.”

Go read it to relish the way it builds sound upon sound, to enjoy its surprising word choices and images, to experience the way it becomes a wild meditation on both life, and the fragile nest of language we create to try to define or explain or document life.

I will never see a camera lens the same way again. “And click. And crack.”

Happy Friday, happy weekend, thanks for reading!

some notes on process: the writing notebook

Alas, mine do not look so beautiful or romantic... . (wikimedia)

Alas, mine do not look so beautiful or romantic… . (wikimedia)

Last week I wrote a bit about how I use a notebook while reading. Now we get to the heart of the matter: the writing notebook.

Each morning, after I’ve done a little reading, I turn to my writing notebook and spend some time writing. This writing can take many forms:

  • It is often free-writing — wherein one writes for a set period of time on whatever comes along.
  • I’ve found that use of a wordbank during a free-write will sometimes make me reach deeper and results in more interesting figurative language, so I’ll often choose 10 or so words at random from my reading notebook and use those at some point in the free-write.
  • Sometimes I’ll also use a line from another poet’s work, or one that arrives in my mind as a scrap of language, in the free-write, repeating that line if I get stuck.
  • Other times I’ll write according to a prompt or exercise, usually from The Practice of Poetry or Wingbeats.
  • If I’m feeling really stuck, I’ll write a reverse dictionary.
  • Or I’ll write the opposite of another poet’s poem, or according to the map of another poet’s poem.

I’ve found that writing for at least 15 minutes is most fruitful for me — there’s something I break through at about the 10-minute mark, after which the writing is free-er and more imaginative. While free-writing, I don’t censor, edit, or correct things. I often end with a one-word sentence: “Bleh.”

I always log whatever I’ve written in the notebook’s table of contents. I began this practice a few years ago and it has been a life-saver at times. I might remember something I was writing or working on in the future and rather than having to go through every page of a notebook looking for it, I can often narrow my search by the table of contents. To wit:


But then — and this is the key for my writing process — I go back.

About once a week, I go back through my morning writing and underline or highlight words, progressions, images, metaphors — whatever jumps out at me as the diamonds in the rough (and believe me, it is mostly the rough). Here is what it looks like:


Then I type these up and put them in a file called Fragments. These fragments often become the seeds of poems as I page through them on drafting days and find words and lines that seem to belong together. Or other times, one of the fragments will be just the line/image/metaphor I need for something I’m drafting or revising.

I do not consider all the things that don’t get pulled into the fragments folder wasted. It is all there somehow. And the only way I got to the diamonds in the rough was to also write the rough.

Other things I write in my notebook: scraps of language, titles that arrive unbidden, ideas for poems, something I’ve heard on the news or read that I want to learn more about, research for poems.

And drafts, of course. I still draft by hand, although occasionally I’ll switch over to my computer mid-draft if the language is flowing faster than my pen keep up with.

And for the record: my notebook is not neat or beautiful; it is not sacred. It is a beat-up, messy, chaotic workhorse of a notebook.

Last week, I quoted Cecilia Woloch saying: “No prompts, no strategies, no tricks. I work and I pray.” 

As you can see, I do use prompts, strategies, and tricks. All of these methods into writing help me get below the conscious process of writing, and into the subconscious river of language where my poems live. I think of it, in the words of Kay Ryan, as “breeding a needle.” In her essay “Specks” Ryan says, “rooting around in a haystack long and fruitlessly enough could conceivably breed a needle.” Yes. Breed, little needles, breed!

But I also work and pray. There is no substitute for working and praying. And especially no substitute for working.

And every writer finds her own process. Sometimes ideas from another person’s process can fold into one’s own writing practice, and sometimes not. The key is to have a writing practice, and to find the place where your poems live and go there often.

friday roundup: to collaborate, “I work and I pray,” and The Blue House

Monet: Das blaue Haus in Zaandam (wikimedia)

Monet: Das blaue Haus in Zaandam (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday. Did you survive April Fool’s Day? I confess, I almost didn’t.

One of my darlings swapped the sugar and the salt.

Let me tell you something: when you take your first sip of tea at five a.m. in a dark and silent Wee, Small house, you do not want to have put salt in it.

And later as you are trying your damndest to be good natured about the salt in your tea, and when you poach eggs for your darlings big and small and line them up on the counter and break the yolks and people take their first blessed bite of a rare, hot breakfast, you do not want to have shaken sugar on them.

The truth is, I’m not over it yet and may never be. But I will soldier on. Now for the roundup:

to collaborate  Earlier this week, I went with a po-friend to a very cool event a few towns up the Peninsula. It was a reading/discussion/Q&A with Jane Hirshfield and Ellen Bass. Hirshfield read from her two recent books Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (essays) and The Beauty (poems). And Ellen asked her questions about particular passages or poems, a bit about process, etc. I loved the format, and both women are such authentic and generous people, so the room was brimming with warmth and good energy.

Also, if you ever have a chance to be in the same room as Ellen Bass, take it — because she will laugh at some point, and her laugh is the most amazing laugh, and it will heal your soul. But I digress…

Here are a few treasures that Hirshfield shared, and that I hastily jotted down in my little notebook of grocery lists/scraps of language/hangman games from various waiting rooms/notes from the urology clinic, etc.:

On process:

“A phrase arrives with its own rhythm, music, and tone. My job is to collaborate.”

On the preponderance of objects in her work: Hirshfield noted that the vocabulary of objects and things is a vocabulary that everybody already has. Everybody has relationships with a chair, a table, a spoon, a tree. Although she didn’t say this verbatim, my sense was that she feels objects have a context that can enrich a poem just by having appeared in a poem, and without a lot of extra words around them. Duly noted.

On the transformative power of writing:

“If you can write the poem, you are not flattened, and writing the poem is a way to unflatten yourself.”

“I work and I pray.” Earlier this week on Facebook, I linked to an interview with Cecilia Woloch. There are so many hundreds of interviews, videos, poems, articles, etc., linked to on Facebook that one cannot possibly read them all — but I’m so very glad I took the time to read this one. In case you haven’t seen it yet, or can’t take the time to read it for yourself, here are some gems (you can read the whole interview here at Speaking of Marvels):

On how her chapbook manuscripts came together:

“In retrospect, at least, it seems as if both manuscripts came together kind of magically, but I think the creative unconscious is hard at work when we’ve been working hard, and it knows what it’s doing.”

On process:

“No prompts, no strategies, no tricks. I work and I pray.”

On reading work aloud:

“I think when we listen to our own poems, when we hear them, we engage the body as well as the mind; and, when we’re not privileging the mind, we get a better sense of the music and the dance.”

On aspirations:

“Aspire to make the best poems you can make and then see what happens.”

(Quoting James Baker Hall), “‘Don’t let your worldly ambitions drive a wedge between you and the work that’s most sacred to you’.”

The Blue House  This week, I’ve been reading Tomas Tranströmer, who died last week and left us the poorer. I’ve been reacquainted with his poem “The Blue House,” which is the one that reminds us that “our life has a sister ship, following quite another route.”

I don’t know about you, but I am always scanning the horizon for that sister ship (not very Zen of me, I know). And also, I’m kind of obsessed with the fact and concept of: a house. So this poem has been nipping at my heels all week, asking to be read again and again.

I found a lovely reading of it set to music, and the link also has the text if you’re more of a reader than a listener (as I sometimes am). Find it here.

I am amazed by how that final image — the one just past the sister ship — flames at the end. I mean, how did he know to push through for that? He already had a sister ship, for goodness’ sake! I suppose that is why he is (was) Tomas Tranströmer.

And that’s all for today. My deep, sincere wish for you is that you never take your first sip of tea at five a.m. in a dark and silent house of any size, and find that you have put salt in it. Amen.

some notes on process: the reading notebook

An in-progress page of my reading notebook.

An in-progress page of my reading notebook.

A reader recently asked if I’d consider writing a post about how I use my notebook. Since then, I’ve been paying closer attention to how I use my notebook — or notebooks actually — and the answer is: pathologically.

Because I have too many of them. So I’m going to break this up a bit. Today: my reading notebook (there is also my writing notebook, and notebooks for lists, orphan lines, craft, lexicon, and… some other stuff).

The reading and writing notebooks are the ones I would take if the house were burning down, though I would hate to lose the rest of them. Really hate. Oh… I can’t even think about that.

Longtime readers know that reading is crucial to my generative process. As I read, I circle and underline, check and star, make notes on the poem’s architecture. I jot down words that seem important, complex, or rich in some way, or that are just beautiful. For many years, I wrote lists of words from what I was reading on a sheet of looseleaf, and then dropped it in my file folder called “Wordbanks.” Then the nature of my jottings grew. I began copying down lines that were especially interesting to me maybe because of their syntax, or because of a particularly stunning metaphor. I’d take little notes about themes, elements of craft, signature moves of the poet I was reading. After a while, I’d end up with all these looseleaf pages, and then my clipboard where I kept them while in-progress would disappear (ahem, children), and it all began to feel unwieldy, so I started keeping my jottings in a notebook instead. Thus: the reading notebook.

I still take the same kinds of “notes” — lists of words, lines that I want to pattern on or practice, points of craft, etc. — but now they’re all together. Genius (ha, ha). I use the lists of words for wordbanks — selecting 10 or so randomly and attempting to use them in a poem and/or freewrite. Or, I’ll look for a line that makes my small-lightning-zap-of-poetic-intuition light up, and do a freewrite on that line (more on freewrites in an upcoming post).

The reading notebook is also a resource for revision. Many times, when I need just the right word during revision, I’ll page through lists of words in my reading notebook (and/or the file of wordbanks) and find that word. Or I’ll go back to the jotted-down lines and look for a syntactical pattern that might help unstick a stuck poem.

Sometimes I feel silly writing down lists of words and copying lines. Except that it helps me write poems, so I keep doing it. For me there’s a mysterious power to writing something down on paper. It lodges in me in a way that it can’t if I’m just reading it. It becomes, I think, a seed. And not every seed grows into something, but as Thoreau says, “Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders” (thank you, little calendar I have on my kitchen counter, for the Thoreau quote).

So, that’s how I read poetry and use my reading notebook. Next up — maybe later this week, or maybe next week — the writing notebook. Happy reading and writing to you.

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,