friday roundup: a poet walks into a bar, totally-indifferent-to-angora, and “The Book of Dreams”

in memoriam, until next year

until next year

Hi, Reader, and happy Friday. I have felt quiet this week. Our ginko tree is bereft of its leaves. November, and the year turns. There were my plans for the week, and then there was the actual week: sick child. So much depends on those two words. But I tried (oops — first time through I typed “tired”) to keep myself from floating away entirely by reading and writing in the morning. And I am still here, somehow, anchored at my desk, though loosely. Now for the roundup:

a poet walks into a bar  It’s always fun to be in a social setting and to answer that age-old question, “So, what do you do?” with “I’m a poet.” I always anticipate this scene with a mixture of glee and dread. Glee because it’s somewhat fun to catch people off guard; dread because: conversation stopper. Last weekend Husband and I were invited to a retirement party at a bar in downtown San Jose. Have I mentioned that Husband works in the tech industry? Social situations full of engineers are even more … interesting… than most, and the “poet” response can come close to unhinging people :).

It couldn’t have been five minutes before someone asked me, “So, what do you do?” “I’m a poet,” I said and waited for that deer-in-the-headlights look. But instead, this woman looked at me with warm eyes and said, “You know, that is some of the most important work in the world.” And she meant it. Not that we want to go looking around for our sense of purpose in other people’s impressions, but I was heartened by her sincere response. She went on to ask me several questions about my work and my process. This is my wish for all poets: May you one day be asked what you do and greeted so warmly in return.

totally-indifferent-to-angora  Speaking of being heartened, I was poking around online and read Poetry Daily’s 2006 interview with the poet Bob Hicok, who is a fellow native Michigander, and who wrote one of my favorite poems ever, “A Primer” (BTW, if you watched the video I just linked to, I can’t believe the audience wasn’t laughing harder and more frequently in this poem — they probably weren’t from Michigan).

I’ve always been heartened by Hicok’s story. He worked for many years in the automotive industry as a tool-and-die man (this is a Michigan term: tool-and-die men and women make the dies to stamp out parts for cars). He didn’t come up through academia, but through the hard work of reading and writing. Here are a few things he said that I found particularly heartening:

…on being identified as a funny poet:

“I like that I’m considered a funny poet, so long as that isn’t the end of it. It would be nice to be known as an ambidextrous poet. A totally-indifferent-t0-angora poet.”

(I’m actually not indifferent to angora; it makes me itch.)

…on writing with an audience in mind:

“It would be fun to have an audience. I’d keep it in the garage. I don’t know how anyone could write with a group of people in mind. It’s difficult enough to rummage around in my own head, let alone estimate how my words will enter another life. Writers should be good at sensing where readers will be more or less confused, angry, emotionally or intellectually involved, at evaluating the content of their writing in general terms. But to think about readers while writing is to invite the hypothetical into the process in a way that stops me from being open to the actual, to myself.”

….and on what the best thing a book of poems can accomplish:

“The best thing a book of poetry can accomplish is give your back pocket something to cherish.”

So much depends on that cherished, back-pocket book. You can read the whole interview here.

“The Book of Dreams” I’ve been reading Robin Ekiss‘ book The Mansion of Happiness this week. Oh, Reader, I adore it. I promise to tell you more about it soon, but for now I’m just going to leave you with this stunner of a poem for your Friday:

*

The Book of Dreams by Robin Ekiss

Everything is inscribed: the paper hawk
and dried branches of statice,

topographic maps of the moon,
its face damaged by lakes,

the laundress bent over
the metal ribs of her washboard,

kettle on the cold stove,
generating more heat than an idea.

From far away, sound approaches.
Crickets rub their dry-wing blades together.

A child’s first words sentence here:
I helped God make the stars.

Death hangs on the back of the door
and says nothing. Before it wakes,

the mind travels the usual route:
precipitous drop without a parachute

*

You can buy this book here.

Have a wonderful weekend and thanks for reading!

Anne Higgins’ next big thing

Vexed Questions cover

Hello, Reader. I’m still working my way through the last of commitments I’ve made to host other writers’ “next big thing.” Without further ado:

What is your working title of your book? Vexed Questions

Where did the idea come from for the book?  The title came from a talk on Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” given by Sarah Scott, a Shakespeare scholar and colleague of mine. She referred to some issue about some lines from the play that continue to be a Vexed Question. I had never heard that term before. I looked it up, and found this:

“VEXED QUESTION, vexata quaestio. A question or point of law often discussed or agitated, but not determined or settled. (Source: A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856).

Anyway, I decided that I had encountered many vexed questions in my life, and decided to include in this book many poems about those vexed questions.

I used whimsical “vexed questions” as dividers, though the questions had more than whimsical overtones: ”How Does Straw Become Gold?”  “What Have I Swallowed?”  “From Whose Body Did You Come?”  “Who Still Gets Flowers?”

What genre does your book fall under?  Poetry

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  Can’t do just one sentence! Many of these poems grew out of fairy tale themes and characters. Many of the poems deal with cancer – not just the disease, but the causes: pollution, environmental disasters, our tendency to put off going to the doctor, etc. Many poems about aging, too.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  Neither. It’s been published by Aldrich Press in California.  It’s available on Amazon now!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  This is my sixth book of poetry. Most of these poems were written between 2008 and 2012. I was working on another manuscript at the same time, but these poems seemed to call for a new book.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? My own ongoing interest in fairy tales inspired me, but also my teaching a Poetry and History course on twentieth century Europe at my university. Finally, my 2008 diagnosis and radiation treatment for cervical cancer impelled me to write, though it took me until 2011 to be able to write about that experience.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  I have one poem in that book called “Habit-taking” which is about my first days in the convent in 1978. Some of the other poems are at least indirectly related to my life as a Catholic sister. I was thirty when I joined my religious congregation, and I am still a member today (kind of like still being married), thirty-five years later.

Buy this book here.

photo courtesy of the author

photo courtesy of the author

Anne Higgins was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is a member of the Daughters of Charity. She is a graduate of Saint Joseph College, Emmitsburg, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, and Washington Theological Union. She lives in Emmitsburg and teaches at Mount Saint Mary’s University.

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,

M.

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.

an interview with Molly Fisk: part 2 of 2

Quick - somebody pass the blow-dryer! (wikimedia)

Quick – somebody pass the blow-dryer! (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader. Today I’m happy to post part 2 of my interview with poet, essayist, and radio broadcaster, Molly Fisk. This time, she interviews me briefly, then gives us the skinny on self-publishing and print-on-demand. AND she’s offering a free signed copy of her book Blow-Drying a Chicken, which believe me, you want. More details about the giveaway at the end of this post. If you’re just joining us, you can read part 1 of this interview here. And now…

Molly Fisk: Let me turn the tables for a minute. What brought you to poetry writing? I know you’re the mother of three fairly young kids, and have relocated to CA from (?) Michigan. Were you a poet before you became a mother, or are those two things rooted together?

Molly Spencer: I think I came to writing poetry out of a need to process and understand the world and my life. Words always felt like a natural mode of expression to me, but to tell you the truth, I don’t remember writing my first poem, or how old I was when I started writing (definitely not out of my parents’ house yet, though — because I used to “borrow” my dad’s legal pads and Swirl pens to write with). I do remember a night of typing up revisions on a typewriter, before correction tape, and letting a curse word slip when I made a mistake — all this, during my mom’s quilting group. This brought laughter from the quilting ladies, and consternation from my mother. As I think back on it, I’m glad I was committed to revision early on.

About poetry and motherhood… There was a time when I thought I had to choose between the two. It’s as if I had some innate sense that there wasn’t enough of me to be both mother and poet. I also knew that I’d have to be more honest than might feel comfortable to me or my family if I were to pursue my writing. At the time, I chose motherhood, or thought I did.

It turns out I was right: there isn’t enough of me to be both mother and writer. At least that’s how it feels most weeks. And I was wrong: there was no choice. I feel claimed by poetry — not that I think I’d un-choose it if I could; just that it chose me, not the other way around. So, I’ve made my peace with feeling like there’s never enough of me for both callings and pursuing both callings anyway. And I’ve made peace with being more honest than might be comfortable. I will say that, although I’m sure I’d have been writing poetry even if I’d never had kids, there’s a lot about motherhood and family life that I find puzzling and complicated. Writing helps me sort all that out (and plus, I think it’s something people need to know about!), so naturally motherhood has become a source of content for me.

As for my peregrinations, I do come from Michigan and Michigan will always be “home.” There was a year or two here and there — Indiana, Ireland, Louisiana, New York City — then 13 (I think) years in St. Paul, Minnesota, and now, here in the Peninsula Town these last two years. I’ve told Husband I’m not going any farther west, unless it’s to a house on the coast (#notholdingmybreath).

But back to Blow-Drying a Chicken… . Tell us about getting this book out into the world: how you did it, what you learned.

UnknownMF: Blow-Drying a Chicken is my new book of radio commentary: short, three-minute essays on every subject under the sun. I’ve been recording these for the News Hour of my local radio station for about ten years now, and have made two CDs of them. When I decided to self-publish, and looked at the four books I had at various stages of development, this seemed the easiest to get finished, and also perhaps the most likely to be popular. And it has been tremendously popular, more than I dreamed! I am also quite shocked at how much readier people are to buy a book when they know it isn’t poetry.

One of the drawbacks to having John Updike be your uncle and becoming a writer, even as late as I did (at 35), is that you see the old publishing model as the norm, and you want to succeed (or I have always imagined success being) according to that norm. But as you may have noticed, I’m not John Updike… 😉 I’m a woman, I’m a feminist writing about child abuse, I’m on the West Coast (yes that matters), I’m mostly writing poetry (not light verse the way he generally did) rather than novels, etc., etc.

So after having two poetry collections brought out by wonderful but very small publishers, and waiting probably far too long to be “discovered” in some sense by the larger literary world, I finally decided I couldn’t stand waiting one more minute and should self-publish a book of my radio essays and see what happened.

I’m the perfect person to self-publish, because I’ve put books together in the past (four anthologies for California Poets in the Schools) so I know the right people to ask for help: one friend did the cover for me, another did the pre-press insides, a third copy-edited, and all kinds of folks have helped me with promotion. Even Uncle John, before he died, agreed to let me use a quote from one of his letters to me as a cover blurb. I’m also a born entrepreneur, there is nothing I like better than being in charge of everything all at once and keeping those plates spinning. It’s a particular type of approach to the world and I’ve had it since I was selling home-made rag dolls to gift shops in San Francisco when I was 10.

Having said that, there’s a big learning curve in dealing with print-on-demand issues and training myself to switch hats between being the author (Hooray! Guess what?! I wrote a book!!) and the publisher (Be quiet! We don’t have any books yet! Don’t tell anyone until we have some to sell!). Luckily I have a coach who helps me sort these things out, so I’m not in hysterics as much as I might otherwise be.

Many things have gone wrong, particularly with various branches of Amazon, but all of them got figured out and fixed, so now I think I have the production end in place and can turn my attention to selling. I’ve sold quite a few books already, but I want this little volume to go far, so I’ve got to hunker down and see how that can best be done.

MS: Well, I hope you’ll come back and tell us about that after the book has been out in the world for a while. Thanks for sharing your book’s journey with us. Do you have any parting words of wisdom about writing and/or life and/or the writing life?

MF: Some people begin to write because it interests them or they have an idea about what “being a writer” might look like that seems appealing. Some just can’t stop themselves from writing, they feel driven. Either way, writing turns out to be partly fun and partly lots of work, just like any other pursuit: cross country skiing, writing code, teaching math to fifth graders, or painting the outside of a house. You just have to figure out if it’s your kind of fun or not. I would rather write than many many other things, including painting the outside of a house. But it’s just like anything else in this marvelous world, you have to learn a lot, and then when you think you’re good at it you find a whole new vast layer of things you don’t know and ought to, and then you go through boring phases where it seems less fun than it was, and then you get re-inspired and fall in love with it all over again. Writing is not going to save you. But writing can be the way you save yourself.

**

Meanwhile, Reader, if you’re wondering why anybody would ever blow-dry a chicken, let’s just say the farm kids know, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more. Buy it here.

And if you’d like to enter the giveaway for a free, signed copy of Blow-Drying a Chicken, comment on this post by October 7. Be sure to include a way for me to contact you. I’ll draw the winner’s name a week from today.

And because there’s a youtube video for everything:

photo courtesy of the author

photo courtesy of the author

Poet Molly Fisk writes weekly essays for community radio stations in California, Colorado, Illinois and Wisconsin. She’s the author of the poetry collections, The More Difficult Beauty, Listening to Winter, and Salt Water Poems, and the audio recordings of commentary, Blow-Drying a Chicken and Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace. Fisk has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She’s the owner of Poetry Boot Camp (poetrybootcamp.com) and can be reached at mollyfisk.com.