wordless wednesday, not exactly: Bad Mood, Baker Beach

Happening now on my (temporary) kitchen cupboard:


Because we need poems for the bad mood days. This one has been keeping me sane all week.

[Also, please someone tell Mom: BP O’s her $25. We need chocolate milk, ribbons for pointe shoes, cashews, peanut butter, Grape-nuts, spoons (??what??) and scrapers for the cars. Someone also remind her: Just do the next right thing.]

The poem is by Tracey Knapp, who I heard read a couple weeks ago at my friendly neighborhood independent bookstore. She read from her book, Mouthwhich is full of utterly hilarious and altogether heart-wrenching poems. If you’ve ever wanted to learn about how to execute humor in poetry, and especially humor alongside tender-heartedness, this book is a must-read. Or if you just need a good laugh-cry.

If you don’t want to have to squint to read the poem in the photo above (and I cannot blame you), here it is.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Baker Beach, it’s on the very northern edge of San Fransisco, in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. A singular location.

Friday is finally, actually-factually, MOVING DAY. Although it feels surreal, we will soon live in a house again. I will have my stuff. And by “my stuff” I mean: my books, my dictionaries (which are a class of “book” all their own), my desk, my two favorite kitchen knives, my flannel shirts and pajamas. Socks by the dozen. Scissors. Tea kettle. Gaston Bachelard.

In other words, you may not hear from me for a bit. Meanwhile, write on!






letter to the semi-secret super library nerd lending program

Hester Prynne, labeled.

Hester Prynne, labeled.

Dear Semi-Secret Super Library Nerd Lending Program,

I know I’ve been pestering you a lot lately, and I hope you don’t mind me contacting you directly, but there’s something I feel I need to say.

Let me explain.

Yesterday, I was, yes, requesting yet another somewhat obscure book from you when I visited my borrower profile page. I just wanted to see what the status was of my pending requests, but here is what I saw instead:

“Borrower Type: Individual (fines)”

(insert arrow to my heart here)

I just want to say that I am so sorry, and I know what this is about. This is about Madeleine and the Eiffel Tower, isn’t it? I don’t know what to say besides I have looked everywhere for that DVD, EVERYWHERE. And also there was a two-year-old in my house that day, and well, I don’t know if you have any experience with two-year-olds, but… . Well, never mind.

I also just want to say that I tried to pay for it already — which would’ve cleared my fines — but they wouldn’t let me. No, they said I had to wait for the bill. And while for most bills, I don’t mind the wait when it comes to clearing my name with the library I am always eager to do so. So I am now in the waiting period. And meanwhile: fines.

And one last thing: I know you didn’t know me until after I had kids, but I want you to know that until my oldest child was two I had an absolutely pristine record at the library. Pristine! I don’t know if you have kids, but sometimes they seem to have magic powers in the area of causing certain objects to disappear. Forever. If you come across my favorite wooden spoon or the blue star that goes on the bottom of the stacking toy or especially the missing diamond earring from the pair that my dad gave me on my wedding day, would you kindly let me know? Thanks.

So, I hope you can give me another chance. I mean, I would never, NEVER lose one of your items. In fact, your items have a special section of bookshelf near my desk. And I hope once I get the bill and clear my name, you too will clear my name in your records so that I can once again be a worthy borrower of your incredibly important program.

Hanging my head down in shame,


ghazal for my roommate at AWP, whom technically I’ve never met

Although I’ve considered wearing cute shoes, I’m sure I’ll end up in my Danskos.
This is how you’ll know me at the airport: my yellow pants, my Danskos.

Also, I am short, and middle-aged, with brown and green glasses. You’ll notice
I’ve not perfected the art of scarf-wearing, but I know how to wear Danskos:

With boot cut pants and “interesting” socks. Or with skirts (matching tights).
Don’t worry — I know better than to wear skinny jeans with Danskos.

I’ll meet you at Ground Transportation, at the hotel shuttle pickup, and if
I’m too short to be seen in the crowd, look down at the floor for Danskos.

They’ll be black. I hope you’ll realize the sacrifice I’m making here. Cordovan
with bleach stains and scuffed toes are my most comfortable Danskos.

My luggage is so big because I had to pack my fleece bathrobe, two sets of pj’s,
my slippers, a small tea pot, a flameless candle, and more than one pair of Danskos.

What can I say? The book fair alone makes the case for abandoning
the red ballet flats and the gray boots in favor of my Danskos,

and I’m high-maintenance when it comes to creature comforts.
And cups of tea. And naps. And early bedtimes. And, well, Danskos.

If at any time during the conference I disappear, I suggest searching
in the Dickinson Quiet Space, where I’ll probably have kicked off my Danskos.

You may find me rather bland as roommates go. Not much of a party girl,
mediocre fashion sense. Hi, I’m Molly Spencer, devotee of poetry and Danskos.


not-so-wordless wednesday: Mrs. Williams responds…

Mrs. Williams RespondsIMG_2263
to His Note About the Plums

This is just to say
I burned your laundry
that was piled on the floor
and which you were probably

expecting me
to wash and dry
and fold
and put away.

Forgive me
the pile was high
so rank
and so daunting.

how to terrify a middle-aged, suburban, formerly-midwestern poet

Dear MUNI, please don't make me wait forever. wikimedia

Dear Muni, please don’t make me wait forever. wikimedia

First tell her she gets to read at LitCrawl. This will be terrifying enough because, amongst other things, she will not know what to wear.

Then tell her she’ll be reading from an anthology of erotic poetry, which, true, she does have a poem in — but technically it could be interpreted as erotic or not erotic, and when she wrote it she didn’t even realize it could be interpreted as erotic (but, truth: once she realized it could, she revised as such).

Next tell her she’ll be reading with people she’s never met before, and while she’s sure they’re very nice poets, she’s shy. And she’s pretty sure they’re younger than her, although she has no data to support this certainty.

She is also pretty sure they’ll know what to wear.

After that, send her some pre-reading information and include things like this:

“the audience can be loud at times, the scene rowdy, and venues packed beyond belief”

(The middle-aged suburban formerly-midwestern poet’s eyes grow large. She would like to know exactly what is meant by “rowdy.” Could it possibly involve rotting vegetables being thrown at the stage? Or getting the hook?)

“bring your flexibility and your sense of humor”

(The middle-aged suburban formerly-midwestern poet wishes she were super-flexible with a generous sense of humor, but she knows she’s really more like Bert than Ernie, more like Rabbit than Tigger. And she is already nervous about this reading, and unsure of what to wear).

“parking will be very challenging”

(The middle-aged suburban formerly-midwestern poet remembers life back in the midwest when “challenging” parking meant you would have to walk from the far edge of the parking lot to the venue. Those were the days. She knows that “challenging” parking in the city means: NO parking. She knows this means she should take transit, and while she’s good with that in principle — she’s a regular on the 22 bus, on the CalTrain — she can’t but help going back to the memory of waiting for a Muni that never came. Never. In fact, she’s not sure, but she might still be on that platform in the city waiting for that Muni.)

“there’s an after-party”

(The middle-aged suburban formerly-midwestern poet remembers the last after-party she went to. It was in 1989. Yes, it was in the Eighties, people. It was after her high school’s production of Oklahoma! She knew what to wear, and she knew her best friend would be there. She knows all the cool kids will be at the after-party, but she has never been a cool kid. Also, she probably can’t afford the extra babysitting time the after-party would require, so,… [here the middle-aged suburban formerly-midwestern poet wanders away mumbling incoherently and looking dazed]).

So, um, yes. She’s a little nervous about my reading on Saturday. And she’s adding up the psychic and actual cost of this little reading (seriously, we need grants for writers so they can attend their own readings!). And she’s telling herself, You don’t have to be one of the cool kids. And, You can wear one of your Haystacks! And your boots (thanks Mom and Dad)!

But she probably won’t stop wondering exactly what “rowdy” means until after it’s all over. And she would love for you to come if you’re in the Bay Area and if you can swing it; info here. And she wants you to know, if you never hear from her again, she’s probably somewhere up in the city, on a fog-cloaked platform, waiting for a Muni.

friday roundup: why apply?, “to make the world strange,” and eating well

What's wrong with this picture (also, please don't look too closely -- my towels are an embarrassment)

What’s wrong with this picture? (also, please don’t look too closely — my towels are an embarrassment)

Reader, it’s been a week of minimum days. And next week is also a week of minimum days. Because, conferences. [I pause here to NOT get on my soap box about how unusual and inconvenient this schedule is. Ahem.] I’ve been breathing deep about all the writing I’m not doing, setting tiny goals for myself, and enjoying long afternoons with my kids. Also, folding towels. Now let’s do the roundup before school lets out for the day:

why apply?  If you’ve been reading along, you know I’ve been applying for a few writerly gigs. There’s nothing like working on applications to encourage Spiteful Gillian, my inner critic, to come sniffing around. She’d like to know why I’m even applying? Do I know how slim the chances are of actually getting one of these gigs? Please indulge me as I write an open letter to Spiteful Gillian:

Dear Spiteful Gillian,

You are so freakin’ spiteful! But that’s not the point of this letter. The point of this letter is to tell you why I’m applying for writing gigs I might not get. Here’s why:

  1. It’s what writers do. Besides write, revise, submit, read, and champion the work of other writers.
  2. It gives me a better picture of what I’m working on — the themes, directions, and impulses of my work.
  3. Assembling a manuscript for an application is a really good way into revision. Bonus: afterwards, I have a few mini-manuscripts to send out to journals.
  4. Just to piss you off.

Lots of love,


Reader, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of my application season (woohoo!), and I’m really itching to get back to creating some new work. After everything’s signed, sealed, and delivered I’ll write more about what I learned in the hopes that it might be useful to you.

“to make the world strange” At my writing group this week, we talked a bit about surprise in poetry. Surprise is a word that often gets bandied about in classes, workshop, and submissions guidelines (surprise us!).

But what is surprise really? Dictionary definition: surprise: a feeling of mild astonishment or shock caused by something unexpected. What about a poetry definition? I think I found one this morning as I read a Poetry Foundation interview with Lyn Hejinian. She says,

Techniques of defamiliarization are precisely intended to revivify the familiar, animate the ordinary, and make the world strange so that it’s visible — even amazing — again.

I really love this idea of making the world strange so that it becomes visible again. I’m tucking it away into my “poetic surprise” pocket. If you’d like to read the whole interview, which is not actually about poetic surprise, here it is.

eating well  I have an admittedly conflicted relationship with cooking. On the one hand, I love it because 1. yum, 2. it connects me to people I love, and 3. healthy, nourishing meals are so important. On the other hand — Oh my goodness, three meals a day every day!? As I write this I’m cooking beans in the crock pot so that later I can make a pot of chili so that we can have an easy, early dinner then head out for my reading tonight. Cooking beans made me think of this poem by Louise Gluck (pretend there’s an umlaut over that ‘u’).


Firstborn by Louise Gluck

The weeks go by. I shelve them,
They are all the same, like peeled soup cans…
Beans sour in the pot. I watch the lone onion
Floating like Ophelia, caked with grease:
You listless, fidget with the spoon.
What now? You miss my care? Your yard ripens
To a ward of roses, like a year ago when staff nuns
Wheeled me down the aisle…
You couldn’t look. I saw
Converted love, your son,
Drooling under glass, starving…

We are eating well.
Today my meantman turns his trained knife
On veal, your favorite. I pay with my life.


Louise Gluck, the X-acto Knife of poets.

And now, reader, it’s time for me to check the beans, then practice some more for my reading tonight. I hope you have a happy Friday and a relaxing weekend. Thanks for reading.

a letter from the world

public domain

public domain

Dear Miss Emily D.,

OMG I almost missed your birthday! Well, I didn’t almost miss it, as I woke up this morning thinking of it, but then, well, remember that thing you said about “keep me from what they call households”? Yeah, well, I actually ended up with one of those (households, that is) so… well, never mind.

But anyway, for your birthday, I thought I’d write you a letter. From the world. That never wrote to you. Well, I guess I’m just one small voice in the world. But I think I speak for all of us when I say: about that Immortality you were so obsessed with? Yeah, you achieved it! Your collected poems is, like, 2.5 inches thick. Your house is a museum (and so is Susie‘s by the way). Your archive is online, which means, well, it’s hard to explain but let’s just say it’s available to anyone with an internet connection, which is, well, never mind.

Like I was saying, every high school student in the country learns your poem about “Because I could not stop for Death — / he kindly stopped for me –“ and if they’re lucky a few more besides. And, I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this but there’s this old TV show called Gilligan’s Island and most of your poems can actually be sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song! It goes kind of: da da da da da da da da da da da da da daaaa. Well, never mind.

But people have devoted entire careers to you! They look at everything: your letters, your family, your little books (they call them fascicles), the evolution of your handwriting, pin holes in the corners of your manuscripts (don’t be mad; Susie put them there when she was trying to organize your work for publication), the shape and inclination of your dashes. In fact, there’s even an artist that has designed and made quilts from your different dashes and markings. I know, right!?

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I wanted to tell you that the bees are hanging in there. They’re still at it despite some not-so-minor setbacks. But don’t worry, a MacArthur genius is looking into the issue so that, when future generations of readers come across the word “bee” in your work, they’ll know what you were thinking.

Also, you may have heard a rumor about my son saying something like his mom is a world-famous poet, in fact his mom’s name is Emily Dickinson? I just want to tell you that I had nothing to do with that.

Back to the households and all that bread you baked — I’ve always wanted to ask you: did you learn anything from all that baking? I mean, was it edifying in any way now that you look back on it lo these many years later? Just wondering.

Oh and back to the dashes, we have these really cool things now called hashtags. They’re kind of hard to explain. We use them in what we call the Twitterverse (like a universe, kind of, but for really short attention spans. Well not really a universe. But, never mind.). A hashtag is a filter for directing short bursts of communication, but also kind of an abbreviation for telling a reader what to think of when you say something else. I say all this, but actually I don’t know for sure what a hashtag is, I just think you might’ve liked them.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I have a shirt with your likeness on it, and sometimes I even wear it. #poetcrush

But seriously, Emily (do you mind if I call you Emily?), I really do want to say thank you. For being born and for doing all your work. For showing up at your desk and keeping at it. And especially for the hour of lead, and the certain slant of light, for splitting the lark and for that thing you said about “Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell.” And for feeling a funeral in your brain, and for the days when the birds come back, yes, definitely for those. For telling the truth but telling it slant. Also, thanks for keeping the sabbath at home sometimes; that really relieves a lot of guilt for me.

So, in closing, happy birthday! And thanks for being there for me. I mean, basically, you’re my oldest friend besides Jane, but you were right in the mix there with us! I’ll never forget your face looking at me from the cover of your Selected Poems and Letters. The way your eyes kind of said, I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you — Nobody — too? It’s like you knew or something!

In closing let me just add,

We waited while She passed —
It was a narrow time —
Too jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.

Which, if it sounds familiar, is something you once wrote, and I just have to say, we still wait as She passes, it’s still a narrow time and our souls, yes, jostled. But now we know just a little more about what to say, or how to say it, thanks to you.

Keeping fast hold of hands! — forever your,


how to cook like a poet

beans and rice and rice and beans

Okay, okay, maybe I’m stretching the poetry angle here a bit. But the idea for this post came out of a Facebook conversation yesterday with fellow poets and parents after I posted this as my status:

Discovered last week that even if I don’t try to write, and just do mom/house stuff all the time I still can’t get it all done. Very freeing! The fantasy evaporates! Ever onward with my new motto: write first, do the “musts,” lower standards for all else.

There were several commiserating and hilarious comments from other poets and parents (some of which included socks, applesauce, legal pads, and fervent declarations of belief), and then the wise and excellent Molly Fisk weighed in with this:

Most women’s daily lists have three days-worth of tasks on them… Write. Feed your family real food. The rest is pretty much up in the air on a rotating basis…

Having read that, I decided to revise my motto. Motto 2.0: “Write. Feed your family real food. The rest is pretty much up in the air on a rotating basis.”

See, the thing is, the “real food” part of Motto 2.0 is actually really important to me. Sometimes I feel like a throwback, but I think one of my crucial jobs as a parent is to feed my kids healthy food and, of course, to teach them how to plan and prepare healthy meals so they know how to do it someday for their own families. I confess, I have an apron and wear it every day. I confess, I made Sister’s birthday cupcakes, which seemed to almost horrify some of the other parents. Them: “You cook? Do you cook every day? How did you learn to cook?” Me: “mumblingsomethingaboutbeingfromthemidwest.”

But back to cooking like a poet. One things parents and poets often have in common is that money can be scarce. Don’t get me wrong, our family is very fortunate, especially in this economy, to have a good income that covers all of our necessities and sometimes a few extras. Still, we do everything we can to live frugally, and one way to live frugally is to cook frugally (think “concisely”), but with care and attention. You know, like a poet. So, here’s my handy-dandy guide on how to cook like a poet:

1. eat seasonally  I grew up in Michigan where fruits and veggies roll out of the fields from May to October. We marked the year by what was in season: first asparagus, then strawberries in June, moving on through cherries mid-July, blueberries in time for my mom’s birthday, then the bounty of August: peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn, cukes, plums and apricots, the peaches, the earliest apples. Well, you get the idea. Here’s the thing: eating what’s in season costs less. When strawberries are $5.99 a carton, it’s because they’re out of season, and they taste like cardboard anyway. When they’re $5.99 for half-a-flat, they’re in season and completely delish. You can save lots of money and eat better produce by eating what’s in season.

2. plan ahead  I know, I know, this is the worst part. You actually have to sit down and figure out what you’re going to feed everyone all week. I hate it, too. But what I’ve found is that if I plan, I spend less money at the store and the whole week goes more smoothly. I’ve found it convenient to have a standard menu starting place, for example:

Monday – pasta
Tuesday – chicken
Wednesday – hearty soup, green salad, bread
Thursday – leftovers if any; if not, something vegetarian
Friday – pizza (often ordered in if budget allows)
Saturday – scrounge (my favorite night!)
Sunday – something on the grill

Having this backbone helps me fill in the week with recipes I know well (helpful hint: well-known recipes go most quickly, therefore maximizing your writing time!).

Also in the planning ahead department are two corollaries (say that the British way — it’s more fun): a. double and freeze: That’s right, make a double batch of spaghetti sauce and freeze half for next time. And b. parallel process: If your’re cooking on Monday night, prep Tuesday’s dinner right alongside. Both corollaries get you — you guessed it — more writing time! I’ll often start three meals on Monday afternoon. I figure I might as well cook while I’m cooking and free up some time later in the week. Not only that, but I find that if I cook a couple of nights a week, I very often have leftovers for later in the week. Oh, look, there’s another corollary: Cooking like a poet definitely involves serving c. leftovers whenever possible.

3. cook it yourself I know, I’m sorry, I sound like such a bore. Plan ahead. Double and freeze. Cook it yourself. But it really is cheaper and healthier. Of course, there are nights for everyone when cooking it yourself just won’t work. But if you can get into a routine of cooking it yourself most of the time, it becomes a habit and doesn’t (usually) seem hard anymore, unless you have children under the age of 3, in which case getting any meal on the table is nothing short of a miracle. And don’t forget to involve all members of the household in cooking it yourself, once they’re of an age when they’re more help than hindrance in the kitchen. This seems to be around ages 7 to 9, depending on the child.

4. one word: legumes  Legumes, such as beans and lentils, are very nourishing, very healthy, and very cheap. My older brother’s favorite money-saving advice is, “Beans and rice and rice and beans!” You can buy a bag of dry beans for a dollar. A little time and effort and you’ve got a meal for 11 cents a serving (I actually did this calculation once on the black beans and rice I make every week or two; it really did cost 11 cents a serving). We eat a lot of legumes in this family: lentils and pasta, beans and rice, lentil soup, navy bean soup, etc. They’re good, good for you, and nice on the budget.

5. two words: hot cereal  Do you want to know why your mother made you eat oatmeal on those cold winter mornings? Do you think it was because she wanted  you to have a nice, warm meal in your belly before you faced the blast of winter wind outside the door? Well, I have news for you: She made you eat oatmeal because she was broke! Hot cereal is one-bazillion times cheaper than cold cereal. It also allows you to determine how much sugar goes in the cereal bowl (unless you have a child like my middle child who is a sugar stealth bomber). We eat cold cereal, too, on days when there’s no time for anything else. But folding hot cereal into your breakfast rotation is a money saver. And it’s really yummy, especially with brown sugar and cream. Don’t skimp on the cream. One must sustain oneself, you know.

6. no guilt  I know you’ve been waiting for this one. We all do our best. Sometimes our best is homemade lentil soup, a loaf of bread, and a green salad. Sometimes it’s a peanut butter sandwich on paper plates. Sometimes we buy local, organic produce, sometimes we grab whatever’s closest and easiest, organic-orgshmanic. Food is such a gift, and having enough of it is such a gift. I try to avoid guilt around food — it tarnishes the sheen on the blessing.

*BONUS* One side benefit to cooking like a poet if you actually are a poet, is that, at least for me, working and dwelling in one’s body can loosen thoughts, words, and ideas from the depths of the subconscious. I am often seen dashing toward my desk in my apron, one hand covered in a potholder, and the pasta timer ringing, as I furiously scribble down a scrap of a poem or an idea for something I’m working on. Agatha Christie said: “The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” She just might be right.

Bon apetit, Reader! And don’t forget:

Motto 2.0