friday in lieu of a roundup (again)

2016: the year the artists died. Or that’s how it feels. Or maybe I am just old enough now that the artists that coursed through my life are old enough to die (though some have died too young, to be sure).

I am tied up most of today–no time for the usual roundup. But this here is a poem I turn to when the world feels much too dark. Which is often.

I’ve probably posted it here before, but it keeps. I give you W. S. Merwin:


THANKS by W. S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is


friday in lieu of a roundup: on keeping the channel open


From Moby Dick

Reader, one of my friends on Facebook wrote that there are negative amounts of poetry in her life this month.

Here I raise my hand.

And yet, the Universe (well, okay, social media) keeps reminding me that making art is not about production or results.

So in lieu of a roundup, I’m going to share a few things that have kept me relatively calm amidst the negative amounts of poetry in my life so far this month.

#1 the pitch drop experiment  My genius, biochemist older brother told me about this years ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. In the pitch drop experiment, a scientist set up an experiment to see how long it would take for pitch—which seems quite brittle in some ways, and indeed can be chipped off itself at room temperature, but is in fact viscous—to form a drop, and for that drop to fall. That process takes about a decade. I haven’t verified this independently, but my brother told me that when the first drop of pitch finally did fall, the scientist who set up the experiment was not there to witness it.

#2 the paint that is still drying  My genius, poet-artist friend Kelly Cressio-Moeller does this cool thing on Facebook: Every Friday she posts a piece of art and a little something about it. This week she posted a still life by the artist Dick Ket. From wikipedia:

“As a result of his technical experimentation with different formulations and additives to the glaze medium, some of his paintings are not completely dry after six decades.”

#3 the open channel  Yet another friend posted an inspiring quote from Martha Graham about the role of the artist vis-a-vis her work (and specifically vis-a-vis evaluating her work):

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

I think all three of these things speak for themselves. I wish you blessed unrest.


friday roundup: poetry is, the poet is, & “and so there came to me sorrow”

Reader, this is my desk right now:


How often do I start these posts by saying everything’s chaotic? Well, this time I mean it. We’ve (mostly) moved out of the house to have some work done on it and everything’s chaotic. Poetry has not been the first thing on my mind, but I think I can scrape together a roundup. Here we go:

sometimes I think I should avoid all social media now and forever amen But then I read something like Ange Mlinko‘s reflection at FSG’s Work in Progress today, which I never would’ve seen if not for social media, and I think I have to stay on social media now and forever amen.

Mlinko writes, amongst other things, about her own discovery of what a poem is. She writes a little argument against poets needing beautiful places: “Learning another language is a thousand times more useful to poetry than a room with a view” (though, again… I would not look down my nose at a room with a view. I would not.). She reminds us that a poet’s task is not to gush over things. Here are a couple of her definitions of what poetry is, what a poem is:

“Poetry is articulation: conversation and history and the fate of persons.”


“I would no longer think of a poem as an aesthetic object, but as a fragment of an abiding conversation.”

I love this last idea especially. Every poem a fragment. Every poem in a continuum. Read the whole (short and entirely readable) reflection here.

a poet is … or is not. I’m reading Denise Levertov’s translation of Guillevic. I have another, bigger translation of his work, but so far I’m enjoying Levertov’s more, primarily because of her translations, but also because it’s much smaller and more mangeable. I am that kind of reader, I guess: Give me a tome and I’m overwhelmed before I open it; give me smaller and more manageable and I will go in, and deeply.

Anyway, the book is prefaced with remarks by Guillevic about what a poet is and is not. This was written in a time when all was written in the masculine and I’m going to let those references stand without the [sic] [sic] [sic], but feel free to imagine other pronouns, whichever fit your life. Here’s what he says:

“For the poet is he who has the power to make with the language of his country certain combinations which other men need in order to find themselves, to find the world—to live.”


“For poets, there is a road that must be travelled in order to arrive at living on the true side of life, that side of it one can finally affirm… .”


“(W)hen I say here, poet, I do not mean versifier, but that man who writes a tortured language in which other men—and the language itself—can recognize themselves as true.”

I can sign up for that.

and so there came to me sorrow  Here is a beautifully sad little poem of Guillevic’s that I keep returning to (it is untitled, but bears the dedication: a Colomba (to Colomba; and that a should have a little left-leaning tag above it in the French).


I had married a wand of willow
and so there came to me sorrow.

We never took those long voyages
through clouds towards
a depth of sky.

But I was poised
for moments or for eternity
like water in water.

—And now the time comes when he must know
who, on the riverbank, has touched
his bride,
the willowbranch:

whether it is again he who suffers
so much, and in so many landscapes.


It’s interesting… in a note, Levertov admits to departing from the literal meaning of the second line of the poem, which literally translated would read “and of course the worst one that came along.” For me, her translation loses the humor of Guillevic’s words, but is ever more poignant. I don’t translate, and don’t have a well-formed opinion of whether translators ought to depart from meaning this radically, but in this instance I’m pretty much loving the Levertov translation.

I’m interested in, and frankly a little puzzled by, the shift from first-person (“I”) to third-person (“he”) in the fourth stanza. A little distancing happens in that shift, but you don’t often see this… . What I’m saying is that shift would get nailed in workshop!:). But I guess if you’re Guillevic you can get away with it. And I like the quirkiness of it.

Thanks for reading, happy weekend!


friday roundup: going to seed edition


It’s Friday again (and here I think of Robert Hass: “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself.”).

I had planned to be at AWP this week, but Things Changed.

Today is April 1. I am not fooling about anything. Last year on this day, one of my darlings replaced the sugar with salt and I ended up with salty tea at 5:00 a.m. In case you can’t tell I AM NOT OVER IT YET, and therefore am boycotting April Fool’s Day. Forever.

Now, for the roundup:

going to seed  After my musings on a room of one’s own, a friend sent me an article by Annie Dillard in which she writes about her writing digs. She keeps things simple: sheds and tents:

“When you build a fancy study—a houslet—or add a room to your house, you lose the fun of the thing. A toolshed or a tent, like a tree house, lets you fool yourself into thinking you are not working, only playing. ‘Society’s norms be damned,’ you tell yourself, ‘I’m on the lam.'”

I can see her point, and I’m not much one for “fancy,” but I would not look down my nose at a study, a room in my house. I would not.

My favorite part of the article has more to do with the writing life than writing studios. She writes:

“In order to write books I spend fully as much energy ignoring what I was reared to notice as I spend working. The feats of discipline people think writers perform to drive themselves to their desk are easy evasions of the real hard work: not playing along with the rest of the world.”

Can I get an amen? And here’s the best line of the essay:

“Going to seed is an act of will.”

How I love this line! A friend pointed out that “going to seed” is such a nicer thought than “living in squalor.” I’m all in for going to seed. I wish I could link to this essay, but it is apparently the only thing in the world that is not findable on the Interwebs. If you are intrepid, you can go to the library and see if you can find it through EBSCOhost or something… it appeared in Architectural Digest under the title “Keeping It Simple.” Also it’s in this book.

the only thing we really have This week I stumbled upon and thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Blake’s article at The Rumpus, “Men Explain Submissions to Me.” She discusses some of the demoralizing aspects of submitting poems to lit mags, and the even more demoralizing feeling of getting mansplained in the process. But even better, she gives us a list of soul-preserving things to do (and not do), reminding us that “the only thing we really have is respect for ourselves and our art.” What I love about her list is that it is steadfastly committed to the writer keeping her agency throughout the submissions process. “Treat your work the best you can,” she writes; and, “Guard your energy at all costs. Your energy is best for your writing.”

You should go read the whole article / list here.

a poetry of shine  I’ve been spending a lot of time with C.D. Wright’s Steal Away: Selected and New Poems. Here’s a kind of ars poetica that I’ve really fallen for:



This isn’t the end. It simply
cannot be the end. It is a road.
You go ahead coatless, light-
soaked, more rutilant than
the road. The soles of your shoes
sparkle. You walk softly
as you move further inside
your subject. It is a living
season. The trees are anxious
to be included. The car with fins
beams through countless
oncoming points of rage and need.
The sloughed-off cells
under our bed form little hills
of dead matter. If the most sidereal
drink is pain, the most soothing
clock is music. A poetry
of shine could come of this.
It will be predominantly
green. You will be allowed
to color in as much as you want
for green is good
for the teeth and the eyes.


Wishing you a happy April 1, no fooling.


friday roundup: the lies we tell ourselves version


Scary Clown

Reader, I am back from my writing residency. Which was wonderful (more on that soon). And I’m thinking about the lies we tell ourselves.

lie #1: clowns are not scary  I’ve been telling myself this as long as I can remember. Perhaps it all started with Bozo the Clown (that hair, those shoes!); the deal was sealed by reading It in eighth grade. But “clowns are not scary” is a lie. I just now walked out into my garage and was unexpectedly greeted by Scary Clown.

Clowns are scary. That is all.

lie #2: one does not need a room of one’s own  This one’s a little more complicated than “clowns are not scary.”

Many are the times (and blog posts) in which I remind myself that one does not need a room of one’s own in order to write. By and large, I believe this to be true.

But when one goes away on a writing residency and actually has a room of one’s own to write in for ten days, one must then confess that there are benefits to having a room of one’s own.

For example, one can write the titles of all the poems one has written or plans to write on index cards. One can then fasten those index cards to the walls in thematic groupings. To wit:

IMG_6508 3

This….. multiplied by 3 walls

One is then able to see the pathways along which one has been writing, even though one had thought oneself to be writing “just a bunch of random poems” for months.

One can also hang one’s manuscript on the wall. To wit:


The ms. – partial view

One might then realize  a couple poems need to come out, one needs reformatting to shine, and a few need reordering. One may be putting lipstick on a pig, but at least one is doing it with an eye to the entire pig.

So, for me the bottom line is: One probably cannot have a room of one’s own all the time unless one is very, very lucky indeed. But one must endeavor to have a room of one’s own from time to time. Amen.

(As for the other benefits of a literal and figurative room of one’s own—the quiet, the time to think, the creative flow, the other-people-cooking-one’s-meals effect, these I will address soon in another post. Meanwhile, let these benefits not be underestimated.)

lie #3: this has *got* to be the last of the snow It is snowing again in the Old Country (also known as Michigan). Although there is no snow fatigue going on here in the Peninsula Town, I remember well the snow fatigue that accompanies March in winter climates. Luckily, we have poems for this. Here is Heid E. Erdrich‘s poem, “Last Snow.”

Happy weekend and thanks for reading!

friday not a roundup, late, and just this

Dear Reader,

All recent time and energy has been devoted to getting myself out of the house. I mean completely out of the house. For 10 days.

I am feeling lucky to be on my way to a writing residency, during which time I will not be cooking, cleaning, running people places, or settling arguments. I will also not be blogging. But before I go, I wanted to share this poem from the current issue of Poetry magazine by the poet Margaret Noodin.

I love that this poem is not translated, but rather, written in two languages. And I love it because it’s simple but powerful, and for its killer last line. I hope you love it, too.

I’ve been gone not-even-one day and I already miss my kids, but I know the uninterrupted time to write is, and will be, an enormous gift. I am beyond grateful for it.

Enjoy the poem. Until soon….

friday roundup: squalor, sad poems, and blackberries


This  may or may not have been the scene at my writing desk for most of yesterday.

Dear Reader, it’s Friday again. I’m dashing this off early because later this morning I’m going to see the Bonnards at the Legion of Honor. (!!!!!!!!!) Bonnard is one of my favorite painters of all time. I’ve lost track of whole days paging through books of his paintings, and now I get to go see Real Live Bonnards With My Own Eyes. I can hardly believe it. Isn’t this life amazing?

But first, the roundup:

squalor  n. a state of being extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty or neglect; from Latin squalere, “be dirty.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about squalor this week. This is because a meme has been circulating on Facebook with a quote from J.K. Rowling on how she was able to be a mother and write a book. The quote, which I believe comes from this interview, is this:

“(P)eople very often say to me, “How did you do it? How did you raise a baby and write a book?” and the answer is, I didn’t do housework for four years! I’m not Superwoman, and living in squalor that was the answer.”

At first I felt a little rush of jubliation: Oh, it’s okay if I neglect all the housework and just write for four years, because this is how you get a book written! But almost immediately, I thought, Ick, I don’t want to live in squalor. Maybe I won’t be able to write a book. I’m by no means a neat-freak, but at the Wee, Small House we all work together to keep the place relatively clean and tidy. Because I want my home to be peaceful and welcoming and relatively clean and tidy. I feel like June Cleaver when I say that, but it’s true. I don’t do well in squalor or anything near it; it distracts me and makes me miserable.

Then my larger-minded self reminded me of a few things:

  1. Memes are not the answer. They are often clever, funny, wise, and/or insightful, but they are not the answer.
  2. I have already written a book, although I have not yet found a publisher for it, and I did it without living in squalor.
  3. Yes, if you want to write a book you’ll have to make tradeoffs.
  4. Every writer gets to decide what her own tradeoffs are. J.K. Rowling was willing to live in squalor; that’s what worked for her. My tradeoffs are usually made in the economies of sleep, time with friends, and the nature of the meals we eat (hello, grilled cheese and tomato soup, once again).
  5. And then, yes, sometimes the writing gets short shrift because of life, life, sewing ribbons and elastics on your daughter’s pointe shoes, and life. To quote Sarah Ruhl: “Life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

So, friendly reminder: You can write a book. You will have to make tradeoffs. You get to decide what the tradeoffs are. You will find a way to do it that works for you. You don’t have to live in squalor (although you may choose to). Life is not an intrusion. Amen.

sad poems  I am often drawn to the darker pockets of life in my writing, because those are the pockets of life I’m trying to understand. I understand the joys, but I need to probe the sadnesses for their meaning. Sometimes I worry that if people knew me only through my poems, they’d think I was sad, conflicted, and skeptical to the hilt. That’s why I was so happy to come across a short piece by Kelli Russell Agodon this week on the topic of sad poems. She writes about why she’s drawn to dark subjects in her poems, and shares a poem by Linda Pastan that can be everyone’s answer for why we write sad poems. The essay is here; go read it.

blackberries  I’ve been spending a lot of time with one poem this week as I attempt, so far unsuccessfully, to tame my essay on Larry Levis and the elegy. I’ve been spending a lot of time with one line of the poem in particular: A word is elegy to what it signifies.

If you know this line, you’ll know it’s from Robert Hass‘ “Meditation at Lagunitas,” one of his best-known poems. I’ve read a couple different things (the actual sources are lost in the fogs of memory) over the years that kind of criticize this poem as too romantic, or too simplistic, or whatever. I don’t know. I remember coming across it years ago, before I knew who Robert Hass was and before I knew much contemporary poetry, and really loving it. And for me it’s a poem that I learn something new from each time I spend time with it. I still love it, still learn from it. Here it is for you to enjoy.

I wish you the best of tradeoffs and blackberries in triplicate. Thanks for reading!


friday roundup: gaps, a finding place, and “The Last Move”

Reader, I am trying to write an essay about the work of Larry Levis.

This feels like an impossible task since so much has already been written about the work of Larry Levis, and because his work is so singular and, well, completely amazing.

I’m trying to write about the shape of his poems and his unique handling of the elegy.

I’m trying to do this during a stretch of time that has included only two full days of school in two weeks (“ski week,” half-day, late start, another half-day…).

It struck me a day or two ago: this is why I cook. Because it’s not hard. Because I can do it with one hand tied behind my back and any number of children doing any number of things in the near vicinity. Because I am actually good at it.

May I recommend, Reader, always having something you are good at in your back pocket while you are attempting the impossible.

Anyway… on to the roundup.

gaps  In attempting to write about the shape of Larry Levis’ poems, I’ve been thinking and reading about form. I turned to the venerable old work horse “Some Notes on Organic Form” by Denise Levertov. Her argument is basically that the perception of an experience that triggers a poem, and the form of the poem itself, are inextricably linked. In Levertov’s framework, the poet discovers the form of a poem in the process of its making. Formal elements are put in place because of the demands of the content. She says:

“Form is never more than a revelation of content.”

This all makes sense to me, and has accompanied my thinking on form since I first read the essay many years ago. But what didn’t stay with me was the last bit of the essay, which I’ve now rediscovered:

“(T)here must be a place in the poem for rifts too —(never to be stuffed with imported ore). Great gaps between perception and perception which must be leapt across if they are to be crossed at all.”

I think one of the things I love best about poetry is leaping across the gaps.

a finding place  Someone posted a quote about poetry from Jeannette Winterson on Facebook yesterday, so then I had to go find where the quote came from, and Reader, I found gold. You can find gold, too; it is right here.

What you’ll find is Winterson’s essay on the necessity of poetry, through an exploration of T. S. Eliot’s work. Here are my favorite nuggets:

” So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that’s what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.”


“Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality… .”


“Pain is often a maimed creature without a mouth. Through the agency of the poem that is powerful enough to clarifying (sic?) feelings into facts, I am no longer dumb, not speechless, not lost. Language is a finding place, not a hiding place.”

That’s my favorite bit right there: Language is a finding place.

“The Last Move”  And speaking of finding places… . Fans of fairy tales will know there’s a whole group of stories that scholars believe came into being to help ease courtship anxieties. “The Robber Bridegroom” is a prime example—yeah, the one where bride narrowly escapes being chopped up and eaten by her groom and his buddies. And then there’s “Bluebeard.”

I’ve recently come across a poem along similar themes that I feel should be in the canon. It’s from Ada Limón‘s Bright Dead Things.

You must read it: here.

Suffice it to say, I’ll never look at a water tank in the same way again.

Thanks for reading!