the rolling year in equal parts*

Aztec calendar, which apparently did not actually end in 2012, wikimedia

Aztec calendar, wikimedia

*That’s a line from Ovid’s “The Rape of Propserine” (A.D. Melville, trans.) perhaps better known as the story of Persephone and Demeter, the ancient myth that explains, amongst other things, the turning of the year, the seasons, the existence of bleak winter.

November. For me, and for others I know, it’s a fraught month. Partly it’s the season and weather: If it’s not already winter where you live, winter’s coming. Not to mention the fact that it starts getting dark really early this time of year. Partly it’s the history of this month in my life (and for some others I know, in theirs) — what past Novembers have held. The year turns, and we turn with it.

Today I was thinking about how comforting it is to turn through the year with poetry, about the poems I always pull out and revisit at certain times of year. As the school year begins, I’m always thinking of “The Tortoise Survives the Fire” even though the poem takes place in January — because this mama-tortoise has just survived the summer, and those bouncing backpacks at the end of the poem. There’s “All Hallows” by Louise Gluck in October, “Feathers, Sister, Falling” by Sally Rosen Kindred for November, and “Minnesota Thanksgiving” by John Berryman (yes, he really did just say, “Yippee!”). So  many poems for the first snow (which I no longer experience first-hand, but which I pull out when my old homes wake covered in snow): Anne Sexton, Billy Collins, Thomas Hardy“For the Time Being” by Auden on the day after Christmas (“Well, so that is that. / Now we must dismantle the tree…”). For epiphany, Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” And not a poem, but a passage from Yeats’ Dubliners (the last five sentences especially) which has helped me through many a March (yes, March, the snowiest month in the upper midwest). When the rains begin (again, I’m still in the Midwestern spring in my poetry cycle — must update to California seasons soon), “The Antiphon” by Denise Levertov (which I can’t find the text of online). In the summer, William Carlos Williams and his plums. Others that I’m sure I’m forgetting.

(Yes, like this one that I’m just now adding after remembering it — it’s good for end of semester time).

These poems help me mark time. They help me reflect — what was going on the last time I lived with this poem? What have I learned / done / lost / forgotten since then? They help me refocus on the now: this season, this moment, this plum.

But I’m talking too much. Sorry. What I really wanted to share is a poem by Charles Wright, “A Short History of the Shadow.” I saw this poem for the first time only today, but it broke me open and it will be one of my November poems each year, I’m sure.

Do you have poems you return to as the year rolls? If yes, I would really love it if you’d share them in comments.

I won’t be posting for the rest of this week — I’ll be baking and boiling and mashing and saucing and candy-ing and basting and stuffing and (oh yeah, eating) and doing crosswords and hanging with family and going for long, slow walks in November. Oh, and I almost forgot!: celebrating 15 years with my sweetie on Thanksgiving Day itself.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading. May the year roll gently for you.

in which someone is wrong on the Internet, and I spout

Watch out -- thar she blows! wikimedia

Watch out — thar she blows! wikimedia

Have you seen this cartoon?

Yeah, I know. When someone is wrong on the Internet, trying to convince them (or anyone) they’re wrong is tilting at windmills. But for some issues close to my heart — like working parents, or poetry readings, or now, The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a  Mother: Have Just One Kid — I can’t help myself. I just have to pipe up.

And here’s the thing: I’m not even going to try to convince anyone (including you) that anyone’s wrong. I just want to say what I believe. So, here I go:

First, can we agree that the editors at The Atlantic probably chose a headline that was sure to get people’s hackles up? Okay, now that we’ve agreed on that:

Can we stop? Can we stop pretending there’s a secret to being a successful mother-writer? Can we also stop pretending that the secret to being a successful mother-writer is access to affordable childcare and a partner who shares equally in parenting (although I admit this would be pretty sweet)? Can we also stop pretending that being a successful mother-writer is harder than being a successful mother-anything-else? Can we also stop pretending that it’s harder to be a mother-writer than a not-a-mother writer, or a not-a-mother anything else? Can we also stop pretending that there’s a secret to being a successful writer, regardless of motherhood status?

(We will not stop pretending that generations of institutionalized and cultural ideas about women’s roles at home and in the workplace still influence women’s lives because we’re not pretending about that. That’s been pretty well-documented, and we’re working on it, and let’s not stop working on it.)

Would some examples be helpful?

Is it harder for me — a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for a non-mother writer who’s caring for a chronically ill spouse or an aging parent?

Is it harder for me — a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for my friend who cares for her adult brother with severe mental illness to find time for her life’s work?

Is it harder for me — yes, still a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for a writer who has the *Secret Number* — one — child, who happens to be a special-needs child?

I’m thinking no.

Is it harder for me — who just said to her children, to quote Joan Didion: Shush, I’m working. Why don’t you ride your bikes to the park. — to find writing time than a mother of one, who has no playmates on standby? I don’t know, but I kind of don’t think so.

So first off, can we agree that life is very life-like and we all have responsibilities and relationships that tug us away from our life’s work from time to time? Mother, not mother, writer, not writer. Et cetera.

Okay, moving on:

Do we all need better access to affordable childcare, eldercare, family-care? Yes.

Should we all have partners who share equally in parenting and household-running? Probably. Personally, I’m not waiting around for that (although I am trying to influence the next generation in my very own family). My husband, though very supportive in many ways, works a job that requires many hours and lots of travel — he is simply not here to do half of the child-rearing or household-running. Is this ideal? Probably not, but it seems to be the way upwardly mobile jobs are going in this economy, and I can’t change it in time for it to be different in my near future.

Can we now get back to the question of The Secret to Being a Successful Anything?

Friends, there is no secret. Not for being a successful writer or anything else. There are only two things:

The first is to define success for yourself. If I define success as winning the Yale Younger and then directing the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, I’ll never be successful — I’m too old for the Yale Younger and I haven’t the credentials for academia. Lucky for me, I have my own idea for what it means for me to be a successful writer. Would that success be obtained more easily or quickly if the particulars of my family situation were different? Possibly, but I will never know. We all have one life. This is mine. I’ve never believed that you can have it all — especially not all at the same time — so I’m doing the best I can to have the most important things as I go along.

The second is to be bound and determined. No matter how many kids. No matter if your house just burned down. No matter if your cats are sick, or your spouse is sick, or your job is requiring extra hours right now. Find a way to do your life’s work, whatever it is that you feel called to. There will be bleak seasons, there will be long slogs. There might even be months or years where you’re just only keeping your foot in the door. Yes, you will have to sacrifice. Yes, this requires discipline. No, it is not worth losing your health (physical or mental) over. But find a way.

End of spout. Forgive me. Amen.

friday roundup: to sound through, apocalyptic poetry, and “They fall from my life”

I want to be the Woman with the Cracked Face. P.S. Don't they look heavy? from wikimedia

I want to be the Woman with the Cracked Face. P.S. Don’t they look heavy? from wikimedia


Um, wow. That week went by fast.

This morning at the Wee, Small House, there was a frenzied search for a “white elephant” gift for the 5th grade gift exchange, a moment of panic during which I wondered if I was supposed to provide gifts for the 3rd and 1st grade gift exchanges (I chose ignorance, which is bliss), and a spirited debate between Husband and I about where to set up the annual Christmastime jigsaw puzzle:

Me: Can I set it up on the card table in front of the fireplace?
Him: No.
Me: Grrrrrrrr!
Him: (furiously searching Google for “puzzle boards”)

I confess, I actually growled. We are, as yet, undecided. But now, on to the roundup:

to sound through I’ve been thinking a lot about persona poems lately. Partly because I still have several Mail Order Bride poems that aren’t quite done (if you have know idea what I’m talking about, read here, here, and here). Also because I’ve been working through a series of persona poems around the Demeter/Persephone myth. And also because two more personae, who I’m not quite ready to talk about yet, are knocking at my door and demanding to be let in. Sigh.

According to my sources, the etymology of the word persona is a bit murky, but may have come from the Latin personare which means “to sound through” — as in the masks used in ancient Greek and Roman theater to amplify voices on stage (world’s first PA system, see photo above). I like this idea of the poet’s voice and experience “sounding through” whatever persona the poet is working within. For myself, I think the most effective persona poems are those that effectively marry a universal (or nearly universal) truth of human experience with the known (from myth or legend *or — I’m just realizing I should’ve added — history &/or current events)) or imagined truth of the persona. For more persona poem reading, here’s an essay by Jeannine Hall Gailey on the use of personae by Lucille Clifton, Louise Gluck, and Margaret Atwood. I found it thought-provoking and insightful.

apocalyptic poetry Well, it appears that the Oreo Cookie was right — here we are. But over at Escape Into Life, Kathleen Kirk has curated a poetry feature around the theme World Without End. I’m honored to be part of the feature; mine’s the last poem down, but don’t skip because the art and the rest of the poems are fantastico. I confess, I’m totally jealous of Karen Weyant’s disco poem — why didn’t I think of that? Thanks to Kathleen for this timely feature.

[I pause here because I feel the need to apologize for linking to so many of my own poems. Normally, I’m not so self-referential.]

“They fall from my life…” Reader, this week I read a poem that took the top of my head off. I can’t find it anywhere online, so I’m going to hope the gods and goddesses of fair use will have mercy on me if I print it here. Because it’s amazing. Here it is:


Ovarian Tree by Olena Kalytiak Davis

All night the dull ache
of an overripe dream: a room
swollen with women — Look
at their hands, their hair, fern-like,
falling —
bouquet’s of adder’s tongue
hung by the root —
in a gravity that rests so low
it drags on my heart, bends
down these boughs; the hysteria
of hands and hair and gravity
and a beauty so rare
it is familiar: Look
at their waists, that’s how they bend.
Look at their wounds, that’s where
their children play. They fall
from my life until
there are no women left,
only children pulling at berries, and berries dropping
and dreaming of a new blossoming

When I’m awake, I’ll call this curvature of the soul a state.
When I’m awake, (where are the women?)
I will have forgotten.


I am so wowed by the imaginative leap that turns ovaries and fallopian tubes into an ecosystem — a room full of women; hands and hair and plants and roots and boughs; that low-resting gravity. This poem comes from Davis’ book And Her Soul Out of Nothing, which I’ve been reading and loving (and learning a lot from). Buy it here.

Also, I love that in her bio on the Poetry Foundation website she says her life is:

“mostly, getting my children raised, or just dressed: finding two  matching socks, making sea creature mobiles, reading The Magic School Bus and Moby Dick to them, sweeping over and under the mess, including scraps of construction paper and scraps of the western canon.”

OMG, my life too!!!!!! 🙂

And now, Reader, I am Behind on Everything. And it Might Rain (I’ve intuited that the phrase “Might Rain” is always capitalized in California). And, yes, the most wonderful time of the year, etc., etc., etc. So I’ll sign off, but not before wishing you a wonderful and restful weekend and holiday. See you back here soon.

how to write when there’s no time to write

Have poems and pain reliever, will travel (public domain).

  1. Write while watching the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl. Interrupt writing while watching the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl only to go fetch ice cream. Resume writing, while watching the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl, while eating ice cream.
  2. Keep writing supplies everywhere: kitchen, bathroom, bedside table, laundry shelf, purse, dining room table. Realize you aren’t using the writing supplies. Keep them everywhere anyway.
  3. Consider writing on son’s gauze-wrapped arm when an idea comes suddenly during PICC line maintenance. Think twice. Tell child: DON’T MOVE I have to go get a post-it note. DON’T MOVE. And DON’T TOUCH IT. !!DON’T!! Then remember: there are writing supplies on the bedside table. Feel yourself washed in relief. Use them.
  4. Leave the house on Sunday afternoon for some writing time. Worry the whole time about said child, said PICC line, and whether or not Husband is losing his mind. Write a little bit anyway. Come home and apologize for leaving the house for some writing time. Ask husband if he lost his mind. Realize he did not. Retract apology.
  5. Wake up at 5 a.m. for some writing time. Realize said child with said PICC line is already awake. Regret waking up at 5 a.m. for some writing time.
  6. Realize you have way more writing time than people trying to survive in the dust bowl.

But seriously. Here’s how I’ve staked my claim as a writer during trips to doctors offices and ERs, during said child’s hospital stay, and during the last week of learning how to be a part-time nurse and teacher:

have an emergency kit  The moment I realized we were heading to the hospital, I grabbed my Emergency Kit. We all have our own Emergency Kits, right? Mine includes ibuprofen and Emily Dickinson (well, not Emily herself, but her poems). I know if I have those two things I can manage almost anything. I would also recommend snacks. Yeah, I wish I would’ve thought of that.

have one project  When it became clear that said child’s treatment and recovery could take a while, I immediately let go of all writing goals and projects. Except one. I’m working on a fellowship application that’s due December 1. This has become my only writing priority. Amazing how times of trial can help us to prioritize.

work in scraps  I’ve been grabbing what time I can: 5 minutes here, 10 there. During one “writing session” I decided the ordering of the first four poems in the manuscript for the fellowship application. During another, I wrote down a couple phrases that were ringing in my ear. Yet another: the other day I paged through an art book and wrote down whatever came to mind. None of it is really writing per se, but I’m taking what I can get.

read READ, I say, READ! Did you know that reading is basically writing? In that it seeds all writing? So, read. And if you are super-motivated and have an extra 10 seconds, take notes: words you like, ideas, anything that strikes you.

it’s all the work  Any creative life has its bleak seasons, either because the well is running a bit dry, or because of, ahem, circumstances. I’ve been reminding myself that all of life, plus paying good attention, prepares the ground for writing (or any creative act).

And now, Reader, the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl is over and it’s past my bed time. May you always have time to write, even when there’s no time to write.

friday roundup: the perfect date, we’re all beginners, and “List of First Lines”

Sputter, gasp. Here we are on Friday’s shore. This week, there was a birthday at the Wee, Small house. The celebrated one really loves to celebrate. He had elaborate plans, and many menu requests. I had to draw the line somewhere, so I chose to draw it right after Boston cream pie, and right before miniature cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches in all different shapes. “Cookie cutters, Mom!” said he. I’m not sure when making a birthday cake became a Herculean task, but I think it was somewhere between Child 2 and Child 3. At any rate, it was a wonderful (and delicious) birthday. On to the roundup:

the perfect date  A couple weeks ago, Husband and I went on the perfect date. We started at the Goodwill store in one of the nearby fancy peninsula towns (our own, dear Peninsula Town is not nearly so fancy). If you go to the Goodwill store in a fancy peninsula town, you can get designer clothing dirt cheap. I didn’t actually buy anything this time around, but it was fun to browse, especially because the store’s background music was square out of the 1970s (summer breeze, makes me feel fine, blowin’ through the jasmine in my miiiiiiiiiiinnnnd). Next stop was the used book store (um, maybe I should’ve titled this “the second-hand date”) with a whole wall devoted to poetry. Of course, at a used bookstore you usually only find the rock stars and then a volume of poems by Jewel (seriously, every used book store I’ve ever entered has had a volume of poems by Jewel for sale). I was able to pick up a couple of essays I’ve been wanting — Denise Levertov’s and Adrienne Rich’s. I’ll be sure to share any jewels I find as I read through them. In the meantime, if you want a quick primer on the importance of line, go read Marie Gauthier’s post on the poetry of e-cards. I found it both hilarious and instructive.

we’re all beginners  Drew Myron has a post this week (or was it last week already? time flies) about reasons to attend a writing workshop. My very favorite one is #1 We’re All Beginners. Drew says: “Even if you’ve written a dozen novels and hundreds of poems, you start over each time you write.” The freedom of starting over every time we write is a wonderful thing. It deflates all the pressure of feeling like we must sit down with a blank page and write a masterpiece. And it also allows us to break free from what we’ve written in the past and try something new. Thanks to Drew for this reminder.

List of First Lines  Speaking of starting over, I’ve returned to this poem over and over again since I first read it in The Best American Poetry 2006. The poet, Megan Gannon, shared her process in the Contributor’s Notes: She was having a hard time writing anything. Every line seemed a false start. She stuck with it, pledging to write as many incomplete lines as it took to come up with a draft. As she wrote, she realized the incomplete lines themselves were becoming a poem. Pretty cool. Another reminder that, whatever we’re working on — a poem, a painting, miniature cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches in all different shapes — the effort is worth something. Here’s the poem:


List of First Lines

when winter sits as if

when a wrist gives

when you pour two saucersful for

when the sifter sticks

when the window

when drifts

when fenced in, staked down, full of forgetting, bent and kissed

when, if, then


when spoons tarnish

when the moon removes

when, whose

when winter isn’t it — more drift, almost ash,

when half the calving’s risked for fuller hands

when kindling’s stacked, a pack pyramid — first fourteen, then thirteen inside

when itching rends a loose stitch, a stray

when the wash creaks in a cold key on the line

when to burn

when to cut what won’t brown, tie to ends, haul and hold

when water seals stone to sediment, stem to picture turns

when the kettle seethes a stream on warming hands

when the birds

when rooms split light like a bent tin

when the cabinet’s stacked, still damp or dripping, isn’t it evening

when seed scatters, buckshot-strewn, through, or threw with, this

when shadows, parceled out from edge to edge

when by the bed the loose green is gotten

when skin

when burns raw red instead of, still

when lying quiet

when told to turn

when sighing through a reed of barbed trees, try

(originally published in Third Coast)


Well reader, we’re off to the swim team olympics, and then we’re going on a field trip that I’ll tell you all about real soon. Happy Friday, happy weekend, and thanks for reading!

we need to talk about the mail order bride

“portion of a wedding veil” public domain from wikimedia

That’s how a group conversation began last night in the writing class I’m taking.

Yes, I said, I know, I know, I’ve been dreading this.

For those just joining us, the Mail Order Bride is a persona who showed up on my poetry doorstep last fall and demanded to be let in. Here is some background info if you’re interested: this post & this post (both from my old blog). And here is one of the Mail Order Bride poems that has seen the light of day in a publication.

I’ve been worrying about the MOB, thinking she might be too overbearing to live with the rest of my poems. I’ve been trying to figure her out — what, exactly, is she helping me to explore? What is she trying to do, barging in here and taking over like this? These poems have all been drafted within the last 8 months, and I’ve struggled to articulate why they’re important and what they’re attempting to do. Yes, certainly an exploration of the joining of one life to another, but that never seemed like the whole story to me. Still, I was at a loss to articulate it for myself.

For class, we were asked to bring a stack of poems that is representative of our work and our voice. Fellow students read the poems and gave feedback. My stack included all 8 of the MOB poems, a few about motherhood, a few about illness, and a few in the style of old tales (witches and wolves and magic spells, oh my!). Finally, a chance to hear from readers who have all of the MOB poems in one stack; a chance to hear about whether or not she plays well with others.

This discussion was so helpful to me, and during the exchange of thoughts and perspectives, I think I finally learned what the MOB is all about. One of my classmates said he felt that, when viewed against the landscape of chronic illness and motherhood, the MOB poems go beyond exploring issues of marriage, and also examine the idea and experience of surrender, and of utter dependence of one person upon another.

When he said this, chills washed through me and I felt dizzy. Sometimes the body knows before the mind does. I think this reader is exactly right. Those of you who’ve been reading a while know that I have a chronic illness that recently (and after many long years of misdiagnosis and missed diagnoses) has been identified as Lupus. During the worst of it, I was utterly dependent on other people — certainly on Husband, my parents, many friends and neighbors — to take care of me and the children. It’s hard to need someone else to button your shirt and tie your shoes; to brush your hair and comfort your crying infant. There is loss, grief, fear (even panic?), and helplessness when, as an adult, your well-being is held completely in another’s hands. But there is also gratitude, a great tenderness, a deep intimacy, and love. These are the lines the Mail Order Bride is walking in all of her poems. I finally get it.

What I learned about the MOB poems will help me make them better and take them forward into the rest of my work. So, anyway, this is a very long-winded way of saying how lucky I feel to have po-friends and colleagues who will read my work and help me to learn about it for myself. And a reminder to myself (and to all the writers and artists in the readership) that we can learn so much when we share our work with others.

when a sports fan marries a poet

Apparently there was this big football game on Saturday and the San Francisco 49ers won. Husband and I were listening to the game as we drove over to the east bay for a party. Imagine this scene:

[radio in the background, the radio announcer says,”and WHAT an AMAZING thing to do and feel for Alex Smith to have JOE MONTANA here to witness this win!” (or somesuch, and p.s. Alex Smith is the 49ers quarterback)]

me: Why does it matter if Joe Montana’s there to see it?

Husband (incredulous): Because, he’s Joe Montana, the best quarterback of all time, and he was a 49er.

me: I know, I know, but why does it matter so much that he was there?

Husband, incredulous and speechless, says nothing, keeps driving

me: Would it be kind of like if Seamus Heaney came to somebody’s poetry reading?

husband: Who?

me (incredulous): Seamus Heaney

husband (looks at me like I just sprouted a third eye; mumbles): Uh, yeah, I dunno.