writing process blog tour, or, once upon a time, I went to IKEA…


no more depressing photo in all the world (wikimedia)

no more depressing photo in all the world (wikimedia)

…with my dad. This was in the Grim Time. Husband and I were selling a house I could’ve sworn we just bought so that we could move across the country to a town I’d never seen. The trip to IKEA was to pick up items that would add to the appeal of our house: planters, a ficus tree, more lamps, a few prints for the walls — things to convince someone they wanted to live in that house (which I could’ve sworn we just bought — hence, no prints on the walls yet).

Anyway, I hate shopping in general, and I get overwhelmed in large stores, and I could not find my way around IKEA to save my life. A couple of times I asked a worker in a blue shirt how to get to a certain department. They kept saying, “Just follow the arrows on the floor.” Arrows? On the floor? But I don’t look at the floor while I walk. And the arrows didn’t go where I wanted to go, at least not directly. The arrows went other places first. I did not have the energy or the desire to go other places first. Please, just tell me: Where are the freaking house plants?

When Carol Berg tagged me for the writing process blog tour, I immediately thought of this trip to IKEA. The reason why is not immediately clear to me. But I expect that writing about it might make it clear.

What are you working on?

  • A book review of a book you’re definitely going to want to read
  • A series of poems titled “Sick Room”
  • Revisions and submissions, revisions and submissions, revisions and submissions
  • A series of ekphrastic poems based on paintings from this amazing book
  • And other stray poetry creatures that cross my path

How does your work differ from others of its genre? I’m not sure my work differs wildly from other contemporary poetry being written today.  All I know is that there are poems that ask to be written. “Ask” is putting it mildly. “Demand” might be more accurate. I can only assume that the poems that demand to be written by other poets are different poems than those that demand to be written by me.

Why do you write what you do? Joan Didion said:

Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

The pictures in my mind are different, but my reason for writing is the same. I write about the things that mystify, confuse, and confound me. I write to try to figure them out.

I also write because once upon a time I tried to NOT write and it just didn’t work. At all.

And I write because I believe that art can transform: the person making it and the person taking it in; suffering into insight; pain into beauty; confusion into (at least momentary) clarity; scrawls of black on a white page into a poem.

How does your writing process work? I always begin by reading the work of other poets. Their words, their moves are springboards into my own work. On writing days I wake early, read, then free write off of what I’ve read. Once or twice a week, I revisit the free writes to see if any (or if any lines from all) are asking to be a poem.

When I draft, I often have an idea for a poem in mind, or a title I’d like to draft under, but sometimes I begin with a truly blank page and discover the poem as I go. I use language-based prompts and/or constraints to bring me to words and images I probably wouldn’t get to without them. Some of my favorite tricks:

  • word banks: Whenever I read a book of poems, I make a list of words that seem important, recurrent, or interesting. I number the lists, then use random.org to select 10 words. The challenge is to get these words into the draft (I also often do this with free-writes). All credit for this trick due to Sandy Longhorn.
  • cut and shuffle 1: I write two short pieces. One describes a physically inactive or quiet scene; one describes a physically active or emotionally charged scene. Then, I incorporate alternating lines from each scene into a draft. Credit for this idea goes to Jack Myers in The Practice of Poetry.
  • cut and shuffle 2: I take a free write (or lines from several free writes) and type up the sentences in a list. Then I go to http://www.random.org/lists/, enter my list, and let the randomizer spit out an order. From there, I construct a poem. This often involves a lot of cutting and re-lineating. This is also a good trick for revision.
  • gaping lines: I take a poem by another poet, or one of my own drafts or free writes, and write the lines on a page with gaps in between. Then I draft between the lines. At the end, I pull the borrowed lines out and see what remains. Also from The Practice of Poetry.
  • twenty little poetry projects: Also from The Practice of Poetry (handy little book, no?), described here. For me, this prompt feels especially fertile for long(er) poems.
  • drive words: From Thirteen Ways of Looking For a Poem. Write down five words in each of the following categories (they can be merely suggestive of each category): flowers/plants; metals; weather/landscape; parts of the body; words you like the sounds of; colors; scents. Choose one word from each category. Then choose five words from another poet’s poem. Use your words and the words of another poet to draft a poem.
  • homophonic translation: Take a poem from another poet and plug it in to Google Translate. Translate it into another language (I often use German because of its wealth of sounds and textures). Then translate it back into English based only upon how the poem sounds if read as English (meaning is not important; in fact, the translation will be nonsensical). Use any lines or phrases that catch your ear to begin a draft.

So, now the IKEA story makes sense, right? Because when making poems, I do wander, and follow barely-noticed arrows, and take detours, and sometimes I never find what I thought I was looking for, but maybe I find something else.

I love reading about other poets’ processes. In case you do, too, here are some poets who’ve written about their process as part of this blog tour:

Carol Berg, Kelli Russell Agodon, Susan Rich, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Sandy Longhorn, Angie Macri (hosted on Sandy’s blog), Donna Vorreyer, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Kelly Davio.

Happy reading, happy writing!

“in poverty and solitude, at night”

Gypsy Woman with Baby, wikimedia

Gypsy Woman with Baby, wikimedia

Happy December, Reader. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are now enjoying turkey soup, turkey tetrazzini, turkey tamales, turkey chili, turkey… turkey… turkey… .

Here at the Wee, Small House, we are through all the turkey and have turned back to the usuals: spahgetti, black beans and rice, white bean soup, pinto beans, red beans and rice, chili beans, beans… beans… beans… .

But let’s talk poetry. Today, I’m happy to share the December issue of Stirring, A Literary Collection, which includes one of my poems along with the work of several other poets and writers. It’s a great issue; stop on over and take a look.

My poem, “The Mother,” is here, and I thought I might write a little about where this poem came from.

Do you know of the journal Poetry East? It’s a great journal out of De Paul University, and every now and then they have a special issue called “Origins: Poets on the Composition Process.” The “Origins” issues publish poems accompanied by the poet’s notes about the writing of the poem. Because I’m fascinated by process, I absolutely love these issues.

So, about a year ago I cracked open the Origins from Fall 2005 (poetry — it has no expiration date), and the issue began with a poem by Jane Hirshfield called “The Poet,” which you can read here.

I then read the composition notes that accompanied the poems. This poem came out of an experience Jane Hirshfield had of writing in residence at the Bellagio Center for Scholars and Artists near Lake Como in Italy. Apparently, there are some pretty nice digs at the Bellagio Center — so nice that Hirshfield felt blocked: “What more expectable response than guilt at such largesse? What more normal result than silence?” she asks in her notes.

She went on to write about asking for a more humble room, after which “instead of being frozen by the sense of the of unearned — and unearnable — privilege, I could suddenly look at it directly, by the means I have always faced my perplexities, confusions, and sorrows: through the writing of a poem.”

To which I say, Yes.

Something broke open in me at reading her words, but viewing them through the lens of motherhood. I confess, there were some thoughts along the lines of Oh, Janey, cry me a river — because, yes, I am at times a small, small person, and because I might have just lounged in that luxury and slept. But there was also a sense of knowing that feeling of guilt at such largesse — the indescribable riches of having three children, and yet the burden of it as well.

Both the Muse and the mother often exist, in Hirshfield’s words, “in poverty and solitude, at night.” Um yes, sometimes the only solitude for the mother is at night if she’s lucky. And by poverty, I mean only that there is a certain asceticism of motherhood that I’ve never been able to deny — sometimes my two arms are really just not enough to hold the incredible blessings and the equally as incredible demands of motherhood.

Whatever dislodged in me at reading Hirshfield’s words produced my poem, which uses her syntactical map (one of the many ways I beg, borrow, and steal from other poets). And, like Hirshfield, “from that point on, I wrote fiercely… trying to make use what I could of the remaining gift of time and silence and paper I had been given.”

To which I again say, Yes.

Thanks to Donna Vorreyer, guest editor, and the other editors at Stirring for including my poem in this issue. May you always have the gifts of time, silence, and paper. Amen.

making room


btw, this lasted for about… 10 minutes

Last week I sorted, this week I cleared.

Beginning with my desk, which is often home to tall piles of books and papers and files — the sign of a writer at work, to be sure, but every now and then it’s good to make room. I’ve found that clearing the decks (and/or the desk) can make room in my brain, as well — room for ideas and ruminations.

And I made room in my schedule as well. Mercifully, the family schedule is a bit calmer than it has been, which helps — but I’ve also said No to things. Things at the kids’ school, primarily, which has not always won me most-popular-mom status. But which has been empowering. (I pause here to remind myself: If you don’t make room for your creative life, no one else will).

So, for the first time in many weeks, I made room to sit down and consciously draft poems. I wondered if I’d remember how. But I did remember — it’s all about playing with words and language. I began, as always, by reading other people’s work and writing out of a phrase or image that caught my attention. Then I got busy playing — free associating, mixing sentences, looking up synonyms and etymology, listening for more phrases in my poet’s ear.

And also, by making room. Both drafts I worked on this week didn’t become poems until I started cutting out big chunks of them. It’s easy to resist cutting — right? — but I kept reminding myself I still had the previous, uncut version to go back to. In the end, I don’t think I will go back. The cuts made room for mystery, for leaps, for lyric moments. They let the poem grow, even as the number of lines decreased. I was reminded of one of the maxims I learned from my very first writing teacher: Be brave and cut much.

And also of this quote from Elie Weisel (which I’m sure I’ve shared before, but which bears repeating):

“Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.”

Which then reminded me of this quote by Ernest Hemingway:

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an icebert is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”

I’m not saying I knew enough what I was writing about as I set out to draft, but by cutting, I became more aware of what I was writing about — and it often wasn’t what I thought I was writing about to begin with. Funny how that works.

And, as in poetry so also in life: This week I’ve made a conscious effort to make room for more restorative/relaxation time. It’s always struck me as ironic that just when you need that time the most, it’s hardest to come by. But I’ve wandered, I’ve had a couple conversations with my favorite neighborhood plant (pictured here), I’ve sat on the couch with my feet up working crosswords.

I hope there’s some room in your life right now for whatever you want and need, too. If not, can I gently suggest you consider cutting? 😉

how to steal poetry


This is what my notebook looks like when I’m stealing poetry.

Last week on her blog, Carol Berg wrote about stealing poetry. Her post was prompted partly by her plans to “steal” from a poem in a journal she’d misplaced, and by submissions guidelines from a new press that included a plagiarism warning (it would not be tolerated, said the warning). As Carol pointed out, it seems a shame that any submission guidelines should even need a plagiarism warning.

Most poets know the old quote by T.S. Eliot, or at least its shorthand: good poets borrow, great poets steal. I believe the actual quote, which comes from a book of Eliot’s essays on poetry, is:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

So, if I’m right that this is the actual quote (and I think I am, but I’m not an Eliot scholar), the distinctions are important. Yes, when we’re just starting out we imitate others so that we can learn the moves of a poet. But notice that the full quote doesn’t say that great poets steal, or even that good poets steal, but that mature poets steal.

So, what is a mature poet, and what is stealing? My own take on this is that a mature poet is one that (a) has been at it for a while, and (b) understands the importance of reading, and learning from, a lot of other poets’ work as an underpinning to their own work. Of reading poets that came before — the canonized as well as the relatively unknown — and poets who are writing now. I know that the trajectory of my own work — my ability to write and polish poems that I can believe in and feel are well-crafted — pours forth out of what I’ve read and what I’ve studied. From my perspective, the mature poet understands that her work comes out of her reading and study of other works.

But what about stealing? Oh yes, I steal, indeed I do. Here’s how:

1. Wordbanks.  We’ve talked about these before. They are lists of charged, interesting, or seemingly important words in the work of the poet I’m reading. I use them both as a way into new language — choosing a few at random to fit into what I’m drafting — and as a revision tool — trawling through wordbanks to find just the right word for whatever I’m revising. (By the way Sandy Longhorn was the gal who originally got me going on wordbanks, as well as an exercise called “Drive Words” in Wendy Bishop’s Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem). Since words used by themselves (versus phrases of words put together) are not anyone’s intellectual property, I don’t keep notes on where the individual words came from.

2. Borrowed phrases.  I’ll grab a phrase or even a whole line from a poem. Usually, I take it as a repeating/touchstone line for a freewrite, beginning with that phrase/line and following where it leads me; returning to it when I get stuck and then letting the line relaunch me into whatever’s next. Sometimes I’ll take a borrowed phrase or line as a title to write under. In my notebook, and in any draft, I note what I’m reading, where the phrase comes from (poem title, poet, book title, page number). And I put the borrowed phrase/line in quotes, so I know what’s mine vs. what’s borrowed.

3. Syntactical maps. Sometimes I look at the way a poem I’m reading unfolds through language: Look, it starts with a location word. Then three short stanzas, all beginning with “Let… .” Then the last stanza asks a question that goes unanswered (and again, I make a note of where the map comes from — poem, book, poet, page number). Sometimes I get even more mad-libby about it and will scrawl something like this in my notebook:

Title = a month of the year

(Frequency word) they/we (v.) (element of landscape)

The (adj) (actor(s) in the poem) does something

They (v.) and (repeat same v.) these (name the actors again)

They ___


The mother could say _____


So_____ (here, return to the element of landscape)

These / this (element of time) + (describe element of time)

(This syntactical map comes from the poem “November” by Megan Synder-Camp which I can’t find online). Then I draft a poem corresponding to the syntactical map. Or, maybe I just take one element of the syntactical map as my first line, and go from there. Often, the map is just the thing that gets me to the page, and my draft may go off in a completely different direction in terms of syntax.The same is true for a borrowed phrase or line — it gets me to the page and into an area of my subconscious that I didn’t know was waiting there for me.

But isn’t that true for everything we steal? It gets us to the page. “…Good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

The thing is, of course, to give credit where credit is due. If I end up with a draft that is syntactically similar to “November,” then yes, I say “after Megan Snyder-Camp.” If I use a phrase in its entirety either as a title or as part of my draft, then yes, I make a note of that and include that information as a contributor’s note when/if the poem is published. If I write a poem composed entirely of lines and phrases written by other poets, yes, I cite each and every source. If I write a poem via erasure, then yes, I cite the source document that was erased. And for poems that end up in a book, this is why there’s such a thing as end notes.

Sometimes it’s tricky. You got the idea for a poem from another poem, but yours is, in the end, something entirely different in terms of language, form, and subject matter. I believe this doesn’t require citation. Anyone disagree?

Mature poets steal. “Good poets make it into something better or at least something different.” Ethical poets keep track of, and list, their sources and inspirations.

And now, I must steal way to shorten the straps on someone’s ballet costume. Happy reading, happy stealing, happy citing to you.

manic monday: wednesday edition with thoughts on the purpose of prompts


Corvus moneduloides, New Caledonian Crow from wikimedia

Reader, where do the days go?

Since my last post there has been:

  • one family movie night
  • one lost basketball jersey
  • one basketball game
  • two basketball practices and one ballet lesson
  • one crockpot fail (I know — so unfair)
  • an unknown number of loads of laundry washed and folded
  • one load of sheets, clean but unfolded, left that way for a week (even now it stares at me expectantly)
  • one sick husband
  • one hot, and many cold, cups of coffee
  • one first grade bike rodeo
  • many checks for head lice (so far, no head lice, fingers crossed, knock on wood, and all that)
  • one lost social studies project
  • two miracles. I mean two poem drafts.
  • one parenting workshop on developmental assets (don’t worry, parents, you’re only on the hook for 40)
  • one leaking dishwasher
  • one canceled dishwasher repair appointment
  • and some crows in the ginko tree

Life is full, life is good. And I, for one, need a nap.

But first let’s talk about writing prompts. Because I’ve been working through a series of 21 prompts called the “21-day Antidote” with some po-friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about prompts and their purpose.

When I first started out writing in a serious way, I relied heavily on prompts to get me going. General prompts helped me to mine my life and my memories for subjects: Write about your earliest childhood memory. Write about a family secret. Write a poem about an object that you keep on your bedside table. Et cetera.

As I continued along the writing path, general prompts became less useful to me (I only have so many childhood memories, and very few objects on my bedside table! unless you count books) and I gravitated to more language-based prompts, or at least prompts with lots of constraints, including prompts that required writing in forms. I’d often begin to write unsure of what the poem would ultimately be about, and invariably I’d be surprised at the product: Oh, I didn’t know I had a poem in me about that!

These days, I still like to use language-based/constraint-based prompts sometimes, but I also have ideas about the poems I’d like to write: sometimes a title will come to me, or a snippet of language; sometimes a memory will nag at me, asking to be written about. In this phase of my writing life, I’ve learned to use the prompt to get me to the page, but to abandon it the moment it ceases to be useful to the draft as it unfolds.

For example, the two drafts in my list of craziness above came out of prompts from the 21-day Antidote. One required working in syllabics, and the other was more wide open so I decided to use a much more constrained prompt called “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” which Margo Roby has written about here and which, like the 21-day Antidote, is found in this book. In each case, the constraints of the prompts were useful to begin with and took me places I’d never have gone without them. But then, but then. At a certain point, each draft took on some energy and wanted to do some things that the prompts didn’t allow for. Buh-bye, prompt.

A prompt can get you going, yes, but a prompt can also get in the way of what a draft wants to do. This is when you cut yourself loose from the prompt, perhaps returning to it later in the draft if the draft’s momentum stalls, or perhaps letting it go forever.

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to be a slave to the prompt, but instead to be a slave to the poem.

If you’re interested, here are my favorite books of writing prompts (I guess it’s bulleted list day on the blog):

If you have any other favorite books of prompts, share them in comments. Happy writing, thanks for reading, see you back here soon!

the landscape is assembling


Woman with Coffee Cup by Anders Montan, wikimedia

Hello Reader. How are things falling into place for you in the new year? Here at the Wee, Small House, the landscape is assembling (that’s a Louise Gluck phrase, btw, from this poem): This week, one sick child and one sick car. But no sick poets, so I’m counting my blessings. I’ve found the courage to add two events to my blank calendar, not that there aren’t more floating around out there in the near future, but I like to come up out of denial slowly. I’m joking, kind of, but it is true that this winter/spring will be busier than the fall was in terms of kids’ activities, so I’m treading carefully on my plans and energy stores. Wish me luck.

The landscape of the writing life is assembling, too. I’ve had two mornings to write this week and loved every minute of it. This morning I was able to write in a coffee shop for the first time ever – very exciting! Normally the energy of so many other people makes it hard for me to write, but I found a coffee shop that has very lovely booths, slanted and with high walls, so I can pretend I’m alone. And it opens early, so I can get started before the 10:00 library opening bell, then just scoot around the block when the library opens. Happiness is a new place to write. Do you have any new places to write this year?

Today I worked more on the exercises I mentioned in this post, and wrote in imitation of Sappho and Louise Gluck (ha – those two go together like peas and carrots. Or not). It had been years since I’d read Sappho, and all her ecstasy made me happy. I also grooved on the fragments as they’ve survived — hole-y and half-there. They make me want to write like that on purpose, and maybe I’ll give that a shot. Or maybe it’s a good revision strategy: If you knew your poem would survive only partially, what phrases would you choose to be the survivors?

I read from The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck. As I have often said: exacto knife! Here’s what I jotted in my notebook about her poems:

  • Bold, confident statements
  • Plainspoken, unadorned, and very precise language
  • Lots of wind (which, in The Wild Iris, I sense takes the place of the presence of God as wind often does in the Hebrew Scriptures)
  • Asks a lot of questions
  • Idea poems

I decided I’d try to write a poem that began with a bold declaration and ended with a question — neither is a strategy I’d normally feel comfortable with.

Although Daniel Halpern, in his instructions for the 21exercises, says, “I have found that more often than not… (the exercises produce) poems which, with a little revision, manage to become keepers,” I remain skeptical. Perhaps my output is not as stellar as his :). Still, I feel my poem muscles flexing, which is always a good thing.

I hope the landscape of your new year is assembling in beautiful and amazing ways for you. Thanks, as always, for reading.

manic monday: tuesday edition, with antidote for writer’s block

too soon to bloom

too soon to bloom

Happy Monday, Reader. On Tuesday. But it feels like Monday to me because it’s my kids’ first day back to school after the holidays. We had a wonderful, relaxing, low-key break. I confess, I woke this morning in a mix of glee and dread. Glee for a quiet house, more writing time. Dread for the general busy-ness of homework, horn practice, ballet, school newsletters, basketball, and (insert sound clip from Psycho here) Preparing Your Child for Middle School.

Then the peach tree taught me a little lesson. I looked out my window and saw that it’s blooming. Keep in mind, I’m a recovering Michigander, where a peach tree blooming in January is basically Armageddon. Sometimes I forget I’m in California. But even in California, I think a peach tree blooming in January is bad. My first (ridiculous, control-freak) thought was: I have to stop it! Feel free to laugh at me. Lesson #1 today: Control is not the answer. I’m trying to apply that to the general busy-ness of life, too.

Speaking of writer’s block, which we weren’t, and I’m not, but anyway did I just say I need to write less? See Lesson #1 above. I’m trusting the flow and churning out the drafts that come. For the next few weeks, I’m working with some po-friends on “Writer’s Block: An Antidote,” an exercise by Daniel Halpern in The Practice of Poetry (You know this book? If not, it’s a good one). It’s basically a list of 21 exercises; the writer is supposed to do one a day for 21 days, type up the effort, file it away and not revisit it until the 21 days are complete. Says Daniel Halpern: “If these exercises are to work, this procedure must be followed exactly.”

Which is where I bail! Because a procedure in which there is *no* flexibility is not part of my universe. Still, I’m sticking to it for the most part (varying, for example, the texts Halpern’s  exercises draw from, but not the exercises themselves) and today’s effort was to write a poem in the style of another poet.

I followed the rules and chose a poet from one of his two lists: Sylvia Plath. From her Collected (thick book, nice price), I read about 10 pages of poetry, then made a list of what I noticed:

Dark, primal language
Lots of similes
Lots of repetition
Lots of apostrophe
Lots of questions
Lots of eyes

I then wrote two drafts: one called “Poem at the Kitchen Door” and one whose title frightens me too much to share (repeat Psycho audio clip). There were some similes but more metaphors, some repetition, one instance of apostrophe, two questions (one per draft), two eyes (both in the same draft). The drafts do not sound one whit like Sylvia Plath.
I’m taking that as a good thing, since I am not her.

And now it’s off to the Geography Bee! I hope your new year is off to a good start. And I hope your peach tree is not blooming!

friday roundup: going back, snippets of Kay Ryan, and crazy weather

Hurricane Isabel (2003) in the North Atlantic; public domain (NASA)

Reader, there’s a birthday in the house today. And a Frankenfever (yes, still). And a Husband with a day off. I’m sure there’s probably some laundry somewhere, but I’m not going to go looking for it. And the beat goes on. Here’s today’s roundup:

going back  This week was not a big week for writing, but focused (as we all are this week) on gratitude, I was able to take each day for what it was. Yesterday morning I just happened to wake up early so I seized the moment and sat down at my desk. On a whim I decided to page through my notebook, and I found a few lines that caught my eye. An hour later I had two new drafts, “When We Were Houses” and “The Mother” (which is in response to Jane Hirshfield’s poem “The Poet”). So I was reminded of the importance of doing the writing and then going back to it. If I hadn’t paged through my notebook, these two drafts wouldn’t have happened. Hooray for going back.

snippets of Kay Ryan  In this post I linked to a Paris Review interview with Kay Ryan. It’s a long interview, and I’ve finally read all the way through it. Here are some of my favorite bits in case you haven’t had the chance to read it:

But in time the benevolences of metaphor and rhyme sent me down their rabbit holes, in new directions, so that my will–my intention–was sent hither and yon. And in that mix of intention and diversion, I could get a tiny inkling of things far beyond me.

What’s recombinant rhyme? It’s like how they add a snip of the jellyfish’s glow-in-the-dark gene to bunnies and make them glow green; by snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem I found I could get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.

If I’m lucky, I probably write twelve keepers in a year.

Sometimes I have to hold onto something for years before I have an ending.

I always have this rather comforting idea that any one poem contains all the other poems one has written.

Edges are the most powerful parts of the poem. The more edges you have the more power you have. They make the poem more permeable, more exposed.

An artist friend of mine once gave me a great pencil sketch of a sink. She said it only took her about half an hour to draw. But it took years for everything to combine into that half hour.

That last one is my favorite.

crazy weather  How could we not have a weather poem this week, after the storm on the East Coast? One of my po-friends sent John Ashbery’s “Crazy Weather” to me earlier this week, but the only place I could find the poem online is here. I keep thinking about “the rare / Uninteresting specimen” putting out its shoots. And do you notice how powerful the last four words of this poem, “for all we know,” are? Ending on the shoots would’ve been pretty darn good, but ending on “for all we know” introduces a dangerous sense of uncertainty, an almost complicit ignorance (if ignorance can be complicit), that brings the poem to the next level. I guess that’s why John Ashbery is a Very Famous Poet.

Must run! Must come up with a cake! Must take a temperature! Must try to tame some of the piles of books around here before Husband starts doing it and messes up my system! 🙂  But don’t worry, I’m not going to go check on the laundry. I have my limits.

Here’s sending all best wishes to anyone affected by the storm. Thanks, everyone, for reading, and have a great weekend.

what would Laura Kasischke do?

This is one of my handy-dandy revising tools. I got the idea from my po-friend C-1. I do not know if Laura Kasischke would use one, but I find it a great tool for focusing the eye and mind on each and every line of a draft.

Reader, yesterday was pure bliss — cool and rainy, and a wide-open day for writing, the first in a few weeks.

My plan was to draft, which I did, and was astounded and mildly unnerved by the Mail Order Bride showing her face again (okay, scratch that “pure” before bliss above).

Apparently, she would like to explain herself to her children. Apparently, she would like them to know,

I am bent toward broken. Am roof, the cure
for heavy weather, the fastened

layers of limb and skin shingling
above your heads in the gabled slant

of prayer.

Sigh. I kind of thought the  Mail Order Bride and I were done. We’ll see. I’m not convinced this draft is necessary, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve lost my drafting mojo a little bit — or maybe I’m in that lull-time between an old process and the emergence of a new one. More on this as it unfolds.

After the MOB finished with me (and her shingles, and Andromeda, also Andromeda’s chains, clinking, and also the dentist’s office for heaven’s sake — she covered a lot of ground in that draft) I moved on to revision.

[I pause here to remind myself  that I used to be able to draft like mad and couldn’t revise worth a whit. I pause to remind myself that now I’m ever so comfortable in a revision stage, which is a sign of progress. I urge you to pause here and think of all the progress you’ve made in your life and/or your writing life — sometimes it’s way too easy to gloss over all the ground we’ve gained along the way.]

I’ve been working on these poems that I call Nocturnes. Only because they seem to hold the language that arrives at night in the liminal stages between sleep and waking — a barely-language, with mixed up clauses and unfinished thoughts.

Anyway, I worked on revising them yesterday, and as I worked I kept asking myself: What would Laura Kasischke do (I wrote in this post about reading her book Space, in Chains)? So I thought I’d tell you what Laura Kasischke would do, in case her awesome moves might help you in your own work.

Ahem. What Laura Kasischke Would Do by Molly Spencer:

  • She would dare to write a whole book about death (But I wouldn’t).
  • She would write in riddles. And title all the riddle poems “Riddle.”
  • She would set her awesome transitions off with white space.
  • Which reminds me, she would be brave enough not to rely on form or even line lengths for safety (I confess, I often hide in couplets. Because they are so beautiful. And they feel so safe). She would make a little room of words (okay, okay, a stanza) for every group of words that needed its own little room. Couplets be damned.
  • She would embrace the irregular use of punctuation and rely on line and white space to pace her poems. She would only use punctuation if she really needed it. She would not care if some people said, “You either have to use it or not use it — none of this both/and crap.”
  • She would let the reader into her mind, show the reader how her mind works.
  • She would use incomplete clauses with impunity.
  • She would often wait until very late in the poem to bring in the speaker and/or other actors. They would have a very light touch.
  • She would not be afraid to use very disparate images in the same poem, e.g., the sun, tongues, flames, foxes, the hangman, a doorstep, “cents and dollars” (all from her poem, “Rain”).

So I guess what I’m saying is that Laura Kasischke would be gutsy, which she can afford to be because she does it so well. Maybe she would encourage all of us to be gutsy — in poetry and in life — and to do it well.

I’m thinking of making a little sign to hang above my desk amidst all the other little signs hanging above my desk: “What would Laura Kasischke do?”. I think it would help me to take more risks, and gently remind me that you can do almost anything if you do it well enough.

And now — it’s minumum day. I know, I know, again!, I can’t believe it either. Any minute now, my kids will come through the door asking why I didn’t meet them at school for dismissal, everyone else’s mom does. I’ll just tell them I was working. They seem to accept that as a legitimate reason, which helps me accept it, too :).

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you back here tomorrow for the roundup!