friday roundup with voice, heart, and a brief for the defense

Winslow Homer, Rowing Home (wikimedia)

Winslow Homer, Rowing Home (wikimedia)

Another Friday, and this week I’ve been reading the old white guys. Mostly Seamus Heaney and Jack Gilbert. Smatterings of Frost, WCW, and Stevens. They may have been old and white but they wrote damn good poems, and prose, and had inspiring things to say about poetry and the writing life. Here’s some of it:

voice  Can we talk about voice? About “finding” one’s voice? There’s a lot of talk about this in writerly circles, but voice seems generally undefined, or ill-defined. I was reading Seamus Heaney‘s essay “Feeling into Words” this week (from this book), and came across his definition of voice which struck me as one of the more helpful definitions I’ve come across. He writes:

“Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that (s)he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines (s)he is making up.” (parentheses, mine)

How does one find one’s voice? According to Seamus:

“In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else… . This other writer, in fact has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspects of yourself and your experience. And your first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, those sounds that flowed in, that in-fluence.”

Which reminds me of the other most-helpful-quote-about-voice I’ve come across, also involving imitation, which is from Kathleen Graber, passed on to me by fellow poet and dear friend Kelly Cressio-Moeller:

“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.”


heart  I can’t seem to stop reading Jack Gilbert for more than a week or so at a time. Then, inevitably, his poems begin calling out to me again and I have to go back despite the fact that I should be reading other things, making dinner, or folding laundry. In fact, sometimes when I’m making dinner or folding laundry, I listen to Jack Gilbert’s Lannan interview and/or reading.

Besides his poems, which are amazing, original, and entirely in his very distinctive voice, I take heart in his approach to life and poetry. He was a fool for love. He eschewed the whole poetry world scene almost entirely (except when he needed money). About this, when asked if he thought it was a disadvantage to spending most of his life abroad and away from American literary circles, he said, “It’s fatal, which is all right with me.”

I re-read his Paris Review interview yesterday and was struck again by his commitment, in poetry and in life, to the heart; the real, human, visceral, vulnerable heart. Or as he called it, the conscious heart:

“The poem is about the heart… I mean the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world that know spring is coming.”

I find this true, comforting, and devastating. It’s why we write: because we know it all fades away.

a brief for the defense  We know this—that everything fades away—every day, but most days we can gloss over it. Not yesterday, though. I have a list (ever growing) of poems for the grim times. Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief For the Defense” is one of them. “We must risk delight,” he tells us in this poem, “Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world.” You can read the whole poem at this link (you’ll need to scroll down or read through the front matter).

May we all remember to stand in the prow, listening.

social media anxiety, or, my big face on the Internet

^^For example^^

^^For example^^

Last week or the week before, a very nice thing happened for me: The Missouri Review, one of my dream journals, featured one of my poems on their website in their poem-of-the-week feature. I was and am beyond thrilled about this.

That morning, I woke up to the buzzing of my phone: TMR had tweeted a link to my poem.

Immediately the low-level anxiety began. Because while I am on Twitter (@mollypoet), I don’t really know how to Twitter. It’s 5:45 a.m.  Do I retweet, or does that seem overly self-promotional? Do I favorite it and/or reply with a ‘thanks’ and/or do nothing? If I do nothing is that rude? If I do something is that annoying?

Then on to Facebook. I love sharing other people’s poems on Facebook, but I feel shy about sharing my own. Is it required to share a link to one’s poem(s) on Facebook? I mean, is it considered bad manners if you don’t because you’re not publicizing the journal who’s supporting your work? Should I tag the journal in my post, or is that annoying?

And then, when you share it (as I did, despite my anxiety) and people like it and compliment it and share it again, what is the expected response? An individual “thanks” to each one? A general, “thanks everyone”? Liking the shares? Sharing the likes (okay, I realize you can’t really share likes, but you get the idea).

And then there’s the phenomenon which I now think of as My Big Face On the Internet. Because there was an author photo with the poem, and that photo was the “preview” Facebook chose to display (and I don’t know how to change the preview, do you?), and now Facebook has this algorithm where your last post comes up first on your news feed when you log in (so annoying in my opinion), and then: My Big Face On the Internet.

For the record, I rarely check Facebook during the work day, but (another source of low-level anxiety) that day I felt like I should because people were being very kind and generous commenting on my poem and sharing it, and I wanted to thank them.

And then there are the anxieties outside the small matter of sharing a link to one of my poems. To wit: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? To put it another way: If I abhor something in real life but do not abhor it on the Internet, do I abhor it? If I support something in real life but do not say so on the Internet, do I support it?

In other words, I feel like an expectation has developed that one must comment on certain things on the Internet in order to “be part of the conversation” and abhor/support the appropriate issues.

In some ways this is good. Social media has helped shine a light on many issues that might not have gained as much traction without it: police brutality, white privilege, sexual misconduct, questionable publishing practices, diversity (or the lack thereof) in publishing, mansplaining, and others.

And it has become a mighty web of support as well. I feel like my morning Facebook check-ins are like going to the break room at the office and chatting with people as we pour our coffee before settling into the work day. But instead of “Did you hear the Dow is down 200 points already?” it’s “Have you seen this amazing poem by so-and-so poet?”

Also, a few of my now closest friends in real life I met online first. So yay, Internet!

But I still don’t know how Twitter really works and how many times do I announce the reading I’ll be participating in and do tag the journal that’s hosting the reading in my post and must I post a photo afterwards and thank the people-I-know-on-Facebook for coming (for I am truly grateful) and should I tag them or say I was “with” them or neither and is it really necessary to announce every acceptance and every publication online and what does “like” mean anyway and the phrase “manage your online presence” makes me want to crawl under my bed and what on earth have I done to suggest to Facebook that I should see ads for plus-size clothing on the right hand margin of my news feed?

To quote Mary Ruefle, “I think we should all be in our rooms writing.”

So here is my tortured relationship with social media laid bare (please note: I have not even mentioned blog anxiety; that is another post for another day, or perhaps an epic poem). My personal approach to social media is to be as human as possible, to give and enjoy camaraderie and support, and to let the annoyances and low-level anxiety float by me. Also, not to spend too terribly much time on it.

All that being said, here is a link to my poem and My Big Face On the Internet. And thanks for reading.

friday roundup with omission


Note to self: the delete symbol comes first.

Happy Friday. It is another “hawt” one here in the Peninsula Town. I’m always grateful for the cold, deep, indifferent Pacific, which helps cool things down overnight at least.

Last week I was busy with school deadlines and I was amazed to discover how happy I was about it. Poems and essays and things to say about them. Questions to ask of them. Close readings to make of them. It reminded me of the time during my first graduate program twenty years ago, when I could spend a whole day in the library reading and writing, while feeling it must only have been an hour. Back then, no school pick up, no hungry bellies about, nothing to call me away until I noticed the light was shifting, that it was getting dark, that the ranks of the library dwellers and thinned considerably since I last looked up, that I should probably walk home to my tiny, roach-infested apartment and have something to eat.

It’s good to have things we love to get lost in. Even if our lostness doesn’t last as long as it might have once, or might again someday.

This week I got lost in “Omission,” a piece by John McPhee in The New Yorker (Digression to say: Please tell me I’m not the only one who gets stressed out when The New Yorker arrives without fail every week and I am already behind on last week’s The New Yorker, and how am I ever going to keep up with The New Yorker?) McPhee is what I think we could call a nature writer; at least, his subject matter is often the natural world. But in recent years he’s been writing pieces for The New Yorker on writing. Without fail, I love them and learn from them. Here are some juicy bits from “Omission”:

“Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word?”

“At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.”

“Ideally a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.”

He goes on to describe, amongst other things, the process of “greening” that took place at Time magazine when he worked there. After a piece of writing was finished and approved by editors, the piece would go to Makeup (which I think we can think of as the layout department). It would come back to the writer with directions to “Green 5” or “Green 8″—which meant to underline the text in green pencil which could be cut in order to reduce the piece by the number of lines in the instructions so that it would fit in the final, published version of the magazine.

If this is not a perfect revision exercise, I don’t know what is. I’m planning on writing “Green (insert # here)” on little pieces of paper and putting them in a drawer, then pulling one out each time I work on revision. Green 4! Bye, bye, darlings. Goodbye favorite image that might even be good but not crucial. So long, last stanza.

In poetry, one form of omission is what we sometimes call “subverting the narrative.” In subverting the narrative, the poet makes the decision not to tell the story behind the poem, or at least not to tell it like a story. Here’s a Marvin Bell poem that I feel makes masterful use of omission in this way:


“Gradually, It Occurs to Us…” by Marvin Bell

Gradually, it occurs to us
that none of it was necessary—
not the heavy proclaiming
the sweat and length of our love
when, together, we thought it the end;
nor the care we gave your dress,
smoothing it as we would the sky;
nor the inevitable envelope of This-
and-goodbye. All that was ever needed
was all we had to offer,
and we have had it all. I have your absence.
And have left myself inside you.
Now when you come back to me,
or I to you, don’t give it a thought.
This time, when first we fall into bed,
we won’t know who we are, or where,
or what is going to happen to us.
Time is memory. We have the time.

–from Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See (and sorry to link to the Devil himself)

You can read the whole John McPhee article here. Happy Friday, happy weekend, and thanks for reading.

friday roundup: heat wave edition with fragments, ruins, and katydid

IMG_5564Dear Reader, it is so hot. Or as we say in California, It is sayyyew hawt. And even though on the Peninsula we say it is sayyyew hawt when it hits 82 degrees, this time we mean it. Temps at or above 100 all week (today, a little relief: forecasted high of 93). Have I ever mentioned that the Wee, Small House has no AC? Well, enough about me. I have one of the easiest and most comfortable lives on the planet, and it is raining on refugees in Europe, but I am really looking forward to the mid-70s we’re supposed to have next week.

In other news, meet my morning companion (pictured, above). As I drafted (a draft so sad and middling that, yes, I re-touched it out of the photo), this little katydid appeared on my desk. She was harmless enough but I do wonder from whence she came. I put in a request with Tech Support and they came, humanely captured her, and returned her to her natural habitat.

Now, on to the roundup.

more words  I am still reading (at this point, re-reading) Stanley Plumly’s essays. I am still looking up words that are new to me (gantry—a bridge-like overhead structure supporting equipment such as a crane or railway signals; autotelic—(of an activity or creative work) having an end or purpose in itself) and the words that I’ve been looking up for years and have a sense of, but when pressed, can’t articulate clearly, so, dictionary (ontological—having to do with the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being; declension(in the grammar of Latin, Greek, and other languages) the variation of the form of a noun, pronoun, or adjective, by which its grammatical case, number, and gender are identified; panegyrica public speech or published text in praise of someone or something). Sometimes I want a bigger brain.

these fragments Sometimes I read something that simultaneously just about kills me and saves my life. From Plumly’s essay “Wistman’s Wood” (P.S. Whistman’s Wood is a pocket of ancient woodland in Devon):

“The room in ruins—that is what a spot in Wistman’s Wood is in winter. The winter wood reminds us of our poet origins, of the spiritual space and longing even in a child, who follows us from place to lost place. The winter wood reminds us that dark and windswept memory is more vital than a green thought in a green shade and that the setting of that memory is in the moment in the space that represents the truth. Sitting in the room you write in, you sit within the tangle and the winter mist. The leaves have long since blown into corners. You sit there with the hard language and memory in front of you and you feel yourself disappearing. Wonderful. These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” –Stanley Plumly

That last sentence is, of course, from Eliot, “The Wasteland,” but I’m ready to award a Pushcart for Plumly’s repurposing of the line here.

The Poem  The poem for this week’s roundup is called “The Poem.” Really. One problem I have when I’m reading almost anything is that, if another book or poet or poem is mentioned, I can’t help myself—I have to go read that other book or poet or poem even though I really don’t have the time… (the things we do to ourselves…). So I did that this week, tracking down a copy of Marvin Bell‘s 1977 book Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. “The Poem” is the opening poem in this book and while I usually shy away from poetry about poetry, this poem seemed accurate in an important way to me. Here it is:


THE POEM by Marvin Bell

Would you like me more
if I were a woman?
Would you treat me better
were I a man?
I am just words, no
not words even, just marks
on a page, tokens of what?
Oh, you know.
Then tell them, will you.
Tell them to stop looking for me.
Tell them I never left home.
Tell them, if you must,
that I never left my body.
Unlike so many others,
I never had wings, only shoulders.
I was, like the snow bunting,
of tout build but moderate size.
Better make that “exceedingly” moderate size.
I neither blessed nor cursed
but that the good suffered
and evil closed the books in triumph.
I cured no one.
When I died, my bones
turned to dust, not diamonds.
At best, a tooth or two became coal.
How long it took.
You would have liked me then,
had you been alive still.
Had you survived
the silliness of the self,
you would have treated me better.
I never lied to you,
once I had grown up.
When x told you you were wonderful,
I said only that you existed.
When y said that you were awful,
I said only that life continues.
I did not mean a life like yours.
Not life so proud to be life.
Not life reduced to this life or that life.
Not life as something—to see or won.
Not life as a form of life
which wants wings it doesn’t have
and a skeleton of jewels,
not this one of bones and becoming.
How perfect are my words now,
in your absence!
Ungainly yet mild perhaps,
taking the place of no field,
offering neither to stand in the place of a tree
nor where the water was,
neither under your heel or floating,
just gradually appearing,
gainless and insubstantial,
near you always,
asking you to dance.

I’ll be taking a blog break next week. Deadline looming. Peace to all of you and the whole wide world today. Say ‘yes’ when the poem asks you to dance. ;).

friday roundup on saturday: just a poem


Still Life at Museum Cafe with Destroyed Ham Sandwich, Empty Cup of What Was Tea, and Book of Poems.

Hello, Reader, and happy weekend.

Sometimes of a Friday one abandons one’s Plans and just goes to the museum. I did this yesterday. I went to the museum to see the Turner exhibit. By myself. I haven’t been to a museum alone since I lived in NYC in my twenties. I even rented one of those hand-held units with ear phones that tells you about the art as you walk through the galleries (mini-review: slick and interesting, but I’m not sure I’ll do it again as other peoples’ words may have crowded out my own thoughts and questions about the art, and the little scraps of language that often arrive as I consider works of art). It was all very wonderful except for the guy who kept stepping right in front of me as I viewed the paintings to take photos of the art with his iPad.

I just want to share one poem from Prairie Schooner, the summer 2015 issue, which I read this week. I fell hard for Simon Perchik’s “You draw the map on her dress.” You can read the poem here. You can subscribe to Prairie Schooner here, and they even have issues available in e-book format if your house, like mine, is being overtaken slowly by books and lit mags (I pause here to recall this conversation between the husband and me: Him: Do we have to have all these books piled up all over the house? Me: Yes.).

Have a wonderful weekend. Write on.

friday roundup with dictionaries, sources, and bridges

My favorite bridge... (photo from wikimedia)

My favorite bridge… (photo from wikimedia)

Dear Reader,

It’s Friday. Today there is no pink eye, no late start (for two out of three children), no half-day (for the remaining third of the trio). My house is quiet, my desk is clear.

Don’t tell the Universe.

I’ll get right to the roundup:

dictionaries  It’s not very often that I need to have a dictionary nearby while I’m reading. But this week I’m reading Stanley Plumly’s essays in Argument & Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry, and I’ve been keeping my dictionaries right nearby to do things like…

…look up mimesis for the 100th time in my life (I can never remember what it means): “imitative representation of the real world in art and literature”

…try to determine whether there is any meaningful difference between suasive and persuasive (for all intents and purposes, no)

…learn the meaning of prolixity: Quality or state of being prolix, or unduly protracted in duration; specifically, a stylistic quality resulting from verboseness, diffuseness, and confusing or tedious copiousness of detail

Pro tip from Stan: No prolixity in your poems.

And thank you to my three favorite dictionaries:


sources  Here’s another pro tip, related to that old saw “write what you know”: Plumly writes, in his essay “Words on Birdsong,”

“Of the many sources of poetry, experience tied to time is fundamental, and, finally, archetypal.”


“Contrivance is endless, a kind of lottery of the imagination. Poets cannot make things up. Poets make things from—from memory; from matter that cannot be changed, only transformed; from the rock of fact that may disappear, eventually, from erosion, but that cannot be willed, out of hand, to evaporate.”

I think what he’s saying is that in order to be compelling, a poem has to have something real behind it: real emotion, real intellectual inquiry, real experience. Something has to be at stake for the poet and/or in the poem. Incredible language, impressive craft—these are not enough. Some would disagree, of course, but the poems that stay with me are those that have it all: incredible language, impressive craft, and something at stake.

bridges  A friend sent me this poem via text earlier this week. It’s W.S. Merwin killin’ it again. I love how it begins in certainty (“as I always knew it would be”), then veers into tentativeness and uncertainty. I love that the tentativeness of the poem is what carries it down the page until, BAM!: what’s at stake in five words. Here is…


THE BRIDGES by W. S. Merwin

Nothing but me is moving
on these bridges
as I always knew it would be
see moving on each of the bridges
only me

and everything that we have known
even the friends
lined up in the silent iron railings
back and forth
I pass like a stick on the palings

the echo
rises from the marbled river
the light from the blank clocks crackles
like an empty film
are we living now
on which side which side
and will you be there


May this day be a lovely bridge to your weekend.

the best laid plans of mice and moms

Presenting the first addition to the bulletin board

Presenting the first addition to the bulletin board

Well, today was going to be the First Official Day Back at My Desk After Summer Vacation, Upon Which All Charges Under My Care Are Back In School.

This morning over tea/coffee, Husband said, “Enjoy your first day of freedom today.” “Shhh,” I said, “don’t tempt the Universe.”

Then Sister woke up with her eye crusted shut.

So I’ve not been at my desk. I’ve been at the pediatrician’s office and the pharmacy. Drops have been instilled, Sister is watching TV and eating Kraft mac-n-cheese, and I am sneaking in a moment here to say go read this article, which a poet-friend linked to on Facebook yesterday, and which reminded me of the Most Important Things.

They are contained in this list of instructions from Jane Kenyon (of blessed memory), which is quoted in the article:

“Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.”

I can’t always protect my time, work regular hours, or be by myself. But I can and will do these things whenever possible.

I can walk. I can read good books. I can turn the ringer off on my phone (“take the phone off the hook” — seems so quaint now, doesn’t it? ;) ).

As for avoiding too much noise, I think we all have to decide what the “noise” is for ourselves. For me, social media, volunteer requests from school, and my inner critic are the noise that can become too much. I’ll be working on limiting the first and third items on that list, and on being liberal with the NO for the second.

If I could add one thing to the list, it would be: Yes, do all these things, but don’t wait for ideal conditions; just write. This approach is what has made it possible for me to do so much of my work through moves and illnesses and ballet rehearsals and allergy clinic visits and dry spells and All the F-ing Half Days of school and hospital stays and basketball games and feeding people and laundry piled on my desk… you get the idea.

Ideal conditions happen sometimes, and we can and must do things to help facilitate them. But  writing can happen during All The Times (reading counts), even if it’s just in tiny cracks of time in less-than-ideal conditions.

Write on.