shit goes wrong


I have mostly been writing my thesis nonstop for the last two weeks. A draft is due tomorrow. I should be working on it now (and will soon), but I’m stopping by here to share a link to two of my poems in this month’s THRUSH poetry journal.

They are poems from my first full-length manuscript which is currently making the rounds.

At first glance, they might appear to be poems about love gone wrong—Persephone and Hades, you know the story. But when I wrote them they were attempts to reckon with the reality of serious, chronic illness. Illness that was never going away.

More broadly, I was attempting to reckon with the problem of suffering. Suffering, which—as long as there are sentient beings in existence—is never going away.

Shit goes wrong.

Sometimes something dark kidnaps you and takes you underground through a rend in the earth. You’re down there, you’re hungry, you miss your mother.

But after a while it becomes your life. YOUR life. And so, while you wouldn’t choose it, you can’t exactly wish it away either.

Here are the poems, and make sure to read the rest of the issue, too. Thanks for reading.


(Note: The first poem is also an ekphrasis of the painting above, View of the Campagna, 1832 by Friedrich Wasmann; oil on paper mounted on cardboard, Hamburger Kunsthalle. You can find a larger image of it here).

friday roundup with pain au raisin

life savers

life savers

Hello, Reader.

I am here to attest that pain au raisin saves lives.

Or at least it saves Thursdays.

Or at least it saves that portion of a Thursday after the headache eases and before you get home and your front door lock is broken and you have to break in to your own house and then you pick people up from school and go to the middle school where Eldest is playing basketball except his game is actually away not home so you race down to the South Bay in rush hour traffic and your GPS, affectionately known as Marge, fails and you get lost and end up in the hills and then you finally find the school where the game is being played and you arrive to watch the last three minutes of a game they are losing by more than 20 points and because of all this Sister misses ballet.


Let’s talk poetry:

learning again Long-time readers may recall that there are several things about life and poetry that I have learned, re-learned, and re-re-learned. As I’m transitioning away from finishing a Large Project, I am re-re-re-re-learning some things. Here are a few of them:

  • Finishing a Large Project — writing in and around and toward that project — is very different from the act of just writing A Poem.
  • There is no need to try to turn A Poem into the next Large Project. One must let A Poem swim in its own little fishbowl indefinitely until the next Large Project begins to take shape. And one may have to flush many A Poems down the toilet in the meantime.
  • Resistance is futile: You may want to write about the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, but if the Muse says instead to write about the survivors of a 19th-century shipwreck, you’re stuck with the 19th-century shipwreck.
  • Poems (for me at least) come out of playing with language. Exercises and prompts can get you to the page and give you ways to play with language. An exercise or prompt has done its work if there is one phrase in the two pages of writing you did for it that opens the door to a new draft.

on the speaker  I’ve been studying William Carlos Williams this week, and one thing I noticed as I read is that in some of his poems the speaker is nearly (or totally) absent, while in others the speaker is on center stage. I have been busy creating a spectrum of speakers from “speakerless” to “assertive speaker” (in between are variations of the “subtle speaker”).

The speakerless poems strike me as almost a reverse ekphrasis: the poem’s primary impulse is to create a scene, as in “Nantucket.” The poem with an assertive speaker is dependent on that particular speaker to show us a slice of the world through his/her eyes, as in “Danse Russe.” In between are different subtle speakers who enter the poem, but gently and with a light touch.

All this has made me ask questions of my speakers in my poems: Why are you here? Can you leave? If not, why not? Do you really need to come in at line five, or can I show you into the room of this poem at line thirteen? Rather than walk into the room of this poem, would it be better for you to simply peek through the window or maybe send a text? And so on.

Dear Blue,  I’ve also been reading Blue Venus by Lisa Russ Spaar. In terms of voice and language, her work is entirely different that WCW’s. While he writes in a simple (yes, “American”) vernacular, Sparr simply luxuriates in sound and language. I confess, I love it.

Blue Venus explores, amongst other things, insomnia. There is a lot of night in this book, and a lot of the color blue. One of my favorite poems in the collection is a direct address to blue. Here is,


DUSK by Lisa Russ Spaar

Blue, I love your lapis palace,
your stair of melancholy that burns,
but does not consume my heart.

I love the heaven-shot and glinting stares
of all your tall and far-flung windows,
your shadowed sills, your roofless picnic of stars.

I climb your fabled tense of once
and upon a time, your fractured prayer:
that restless hinge: your voice, thick with thorns.


What color (or colors) could you write a direct-address poem to? Something to try, perhaps.

That’s all for today — happy weekend and thanks for reading.

friday roundup: walking the plank, how to end a poem, and when in doubt, art

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

Dear Reader,

Are you still there? I am still here. I am still juggling, dancing, dashing and dodging, but alas, never balancing. I am still reporting to my desk in its four-foot stretch of wall space with regularity — “as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos… .” And they do. Intermittently. As one of my first teachers of poetry (and a mother of four) used to say: “Life is very lifelike.”

Anyway, onto poetic thoughts and musings….

walking the plank  I am still reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (Wow — just noticed the price on that baby. Hunt around. I found it for much cheaper). I am still finding gems page by page, sometimes a whole essay of treasure. After figurative language, line is probably my very favorite element of poetry — both in reading and writing. I like it best when reading or writing a line of poetry is like walking the plank. Here is Catherine Barnett (who I quoted a few weeks back as saying poetry is “a ruin of prose”) on this march-toward-death quality of the line:

“Poetry gives me endless options, and where and how to end the line is, for me, one of the most energizing possibilities, uncertainties, because it holds within it the possibility of beginning again at the next line, and that little vertical fall is fuel, libido, a little vertigo — and because it holds within it the possibility that the line won’t end, not / this / time. Preserving your options is only a poor man’s strategy for forestalling death. A line-break is the same. Mortality confronts you at every line. Is this it? Is this it? Is / this / it?

Let us give thanks for smart poets who write essays and books on craft so that we can read them. Amen.

how to end a poem  (insert maniacal laughter here). And lo, it is said, “Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.” Yes they are. But I gave a little craft talk on endings at my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and the outcome was a list of strategies for ending a poem. I could kick myself for not making this list ten years ago. Here is the list:

  • Bold claim
  • Shift to the imperative voice
  • Direct address (“Greetings, Earthlings.”)
  • Apostrophe
  • Dialogue / something spoken
  • Make a list
  • Ask (a) question(s) (Personal favorite: Lucille Clifton, “quilting,” “how does this poem end? …”
  • (needless to say) Strong image
  • Explicit entry (or re-entry) of the speaker
  • Big swerve (e.g., description, description, description, statement that seems to have nothing to do with the description but obviously does because it’s in the same poem)
  • Change in perspective (a widening or narrowing of the lens, so to speak)
  • Return to or break from pattern used previously in the poem (formal, syntactical, metrical, etc.)

These strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are not offered as The List, just a list. One that I plan to keep adding to as I study poems and their endings. It will not make endings easy, but now you have a list of things to try when you don’t know how to end a poem (or maybe you already had this list and I am late to the party).

when in doubt, art  Sometimes the world feels heavy and incomprehensible (most times?). Then it feels like whatever tiny lines we can write on a blank page don’t matter. Because tsunami. Because QSIS. Because the plane. Because the girls. Because school shootings. Because starving children. Because midterm elections. Because “surgical strikes.” And the list goes on. When the world feels too heavy to write about, I often turn to art and write an ekphrastic poem. Art, I feel, is reliable. It always has more to give — more beauty, more comfort, more hope, more humanity. And of course, art is of this world, too — so then I feel better about the world in a roundabout way.

Anyway, I read a stellar ekphrastic poem in Blackbird this week, and I’ll leave you with it. It is “An Early Nude by Rothko” by Lindsay Bernal.

Happy weekend!

friday roundup: on finding, primal images, and “a reachable planet”

Hello. It is Friday. All week I have wanted it to be Friday, mostly because on Friday we usually order pizza which means I don’t have to cook. Last night for dinner I served salad and boiled eggs. People complained. I shrugged. I worked out twice this week, so I think I should be done for the year.There either was, or I dreamed, a mountain lion sighting (at first I wrote “citing” — which would also be interesting). At my desk everything clunks and jerks, falls flat on its face and stays there, head folded in its arms. Let’s hope this roundup goes better:

on finding  This week an article by Linda Gregg came to my attention. It’s called “The Art of Finding.” In it, Gregg says: “I believe that poetry at its best is found rather than written.”

She is not talking about found poetry here. She’s talking about the act of discovery — the discovery one makes by writing and/or reading a poem, or as she says, “what is found out about the heart and spirit.” Craft, she says, is only a starting point. Here are her words about “finding” a poem:

“There are two elements in ‘finding’ a poem: discovering the subject matter and locating the concrete details and images out of which the poems are built. In this instance, I do not mean the subject matter to be the ideas or subjects for poems. Instead, I am referring to finding the resonant sources deep inside you that empower those subjects and ideas when they are put in poems.”

It’s a short article, but well worth reading as you consider your generative process– find it here.

primal images  I’m still slogging through — as I think of it fondly, in a poor French accent — le Bachelard. Last night I read about primal images — those that speak to something deep and intrinsic in us. He says:

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color.”

This quote sent me back to a Stephen Dobyns essay on figurative language. In it he says the best images are those that contain an element of both knowing and unknowing (I am paraphrasing here). The best images “create the impression that it could give additional meaning each time the reader returns to it” (that was not a paraphrase).

Every time I read stuff like this I think : Yeah, no pressure! But I can only hope that taking this in and mulling it over will work its magic on my poet’s mind.

By the way, the Stephen Dobyns essay is in his book Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry.

lastly  I’ve been reading Open Interval by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. This is not assigned reading. Yes, I stray. It’s what poets do, right? Anyway, I’m a sucker for Icarus poems, and also ekphrastic poems, and she has one that is both in the fine tradition of other ekphrastic Icarus poems (a few of which I’ve linked to in this post). I’ll leave you with it and a wish for a relaxing weekend for everyone:


ICARUS by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

–for Gus Wing who always knew me when I came home

I hold him together now
Though he is dispersed

He was once held
Together by

Matisse imagined

The hot red throb
A reachable planet

At a man’s center and
All else burned

Away so that against
The sky we saw

Outward inward
The same infinite

Those stars near us

Exploding their color
Flared like

The yellow feathers of birds
I learned

To fly I learned
To want to fly

From him when he flew and
He fell

The way night will
Always fall

Blue skies straight through
To black


friday roundup: the Eiffel Tower of poetry, split the page, and mortal moments



Hello Reader, and happy Friday. Since the last roundup there have been FIVE whole days of school for the kids! (well, technically four and a half since every Thursday is a half-day — but still, much more poetry time than last week). I’ve been getting up with the moon, which has been amazing this week in case you haven’t noticed. When the kids were small and went to bed at 7:00, I would go to bed at 8:30 and get up at 4:30 to write. I fell out of that habit as they grew and their bedtimes, and mine, got later. But for the last two weeks I’ve reverted to my old schedule with a slight adjustment of the waking time to 4:45. Say ‘hey’ to the moon, make tea, and I’m at my desk by five. I’ve been a much happier person on this schedule — just knowing that time at my desk is waiting for me each morning, or knowing that, whatever unexpected events the day holds for me, I’ve already put in my time at my desk. I’m adding one pre-dawn hour for reading and writing to my brief list of saving things. Now, on to the roundup:

the Eiffel Tower of poetry  I continue my love-fest with Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. This week I read her essay on theme. I was thrilled to learn, amongst other things, that Mary and I have in common an uneasy relationship with Polartec, and also that she refuses to subscribe to, but secretly reads, the New Yorker (seriously, people, you have to read this book). But about theme she says:

“I am led to believe theme is absolutely meaningless in the long run. But part of me cannot believe I just said that.”

She also says (and this next quote strikes me as particularly important from a craft perspective):

“If you take the theme out of the poem and talk about that theme there should still be some residual being left in the poem that goes on ticking, something like, why not say it, color, something that has an effect on your central nervous system. It is not what a poem says with its mouth, it’s what a poem does with its eyes.”

Ruefle eventually argues that maybe all themes are similar or the same. We’ve heard it before: all poetry is about death. Ruefle doesn’t go quite that far. She says all poetry is about mutability (mutable meaning “liable to change”; from the Latin mutare “to change”). She closes the essay thus:

“I have nothing else to say about theme; the whole subject has begun to depress me, like the classified ads in poetry magazines. As Roland Barthes reminds us, Maupassant often ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower, because it was the only place in Paris from which the Eiffel Tower could not be seen. Where is the Eiffel Tower of poetry, and could we have lunch there?”

Yes, Mary. Let’s.

split the page  Every time I hear the word “split” I say in my head “the lark and you’ll find the music.” This phrase occurred to me this morning, somehow, as I was turning to my notebook and I thought I wonder what would happen if I split the page? Would I find music? I tried it. Literally. I folded the page down the middle, then did a freewrite in the left hand column. Next a free-write in the right hand column, encouraging but not forcing, the lines to weave together where they met in the middle. To wit:


A new trick for getting to unexpected language and image! The results, while not mind-blowing, were at least interesting and will be good inputs for drafting days. I thought I’d share this trick with you — another way to cut and shuffle language — in case it appeals to you to try it.

mortal moments  Many in the world are marking Good Friday today, and so it seemed a good day to turn to Denise Levertov (known affectionately on this blog as D-Lev) whose heritage was Jewish, upbringing was Anglican, and who converted to Catholicism later in life. Here’s an ekphrastic poem, which I think draws on Rembrandt’s heads of Christ paintings (the Google seems to think so, and the poem mentions “those small heads”). One thing I love about this poem is that the poet considers what’s NOT in the painting (add it to your methods for ekphrasis). It’s also pleasingly (to me) post-modern: the Christ is humanized and maybe even flawed. Here is:


Salvator Mundi: Via Cruces by Denise Levertov

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (as I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone wh has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, not to be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.


Mortal moments. Mutability. Lunch at the Eiffel Tower with Mary Ruefle. I wish it all for you. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: composting, to follow the wrong star, and Monet refuses

Not the north star. Betelgeuse (also known as Orion's shoulder). From wikimedia.

Not the north star. Betelgeuse (also known as Orion’s shoulder). From wikimedia.

Happy Friday, Reader! Before we begin today’s roundup, I must own up to an error in yesterday’s post. Somehow, despite the fact that his book was sitting 4 inches away from me as I typed, I got John Hollander’s name wrong. Really wrong. He is the guy who talks about stance vis-a-vis ekphrastic poetry. Mea culpa. I’ve updated the post to correct my error. As I often say to my children: Ah, I’m so imperfect but I keep trying to get things right. Now, on to the roundup:

composting  This week I’ve been thinking about the importance of composting. I’m not talking about throwing your vegetable peelings into a heap in the backyard, although I’m all in favor of that, too. I’m talking about all the ways to feed your writing life — all the scraps you read and write, all the unmarked paths you follow, sometimes to dead ends — when you’re not certain what, if anything, will come of it. I’ll give you an example: A couple years ago I was big into re-reading the Grimm fairy tales, and I was particularly taken with The Robber Bridegroom. I read and re-read that tale. I wrote in and out of its lines and phrases in my notebook. I wanted a Robber Bridegroom poem. None came. I gave it more time. Still, none came. I sighed, I lamented: I can’t believe I’m not going to get a poem out of this. After several months, I gave up trying to write a Robber Bridegroom poem.

Then, a couple weeks ago I was trying to write a poem about my wedding day (BTW, aren’t wedding days so wierd!?). It was cardboard on the page for quite some time, so I fell back onto one of my old tricks, which is to combine my own lines with lines/phrases from another text. And guess what text I used: The Robber Bridegroom. Long after I’d given up hope that the time spent reading and writing around that tale would give life to a poem, it did. So, I’m here to tell you: in poetry and in life, keep composting — those scraps you thought were going to end up as so much dirt may surprise you in the end.

to follow the wrong star  Speaking of which, you simply must go read this post by Sage Cohen, who writes today about being willing to follow the wrong star. This is a heartening story about following one’s intuition, without having rational reasons for why. I think Cohen’s post is rich with wisdom for life, but can also be applied at the micro level to art-making, or even to an individual poem. Don’t ask why your poem feels the need to feed that stray cat — just feed it, and be open to what happens.

Monet refuses  Here’s another way into ekphrasis (or almost-ekphrasis) — taking a slice of the artists life, seen through the lens of her/his work, and making a poem of it. Lisel Meuller did that in her poem, “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Apparently, the back story is that Monet had cataracts in both eyes and his doctor recommended surgery to correct the cataracts, but Monet opted not to have the surgery. It is a lovely poem that borrows from Monet’s artistic style, his way of seeing (literally) the world. Here it is.

That’s it for this week, Reader. I hope you have a great Friday and a great weekend. Now I’m off to post this on Facebook in the hopes that someday FB will realize that I post mainly about poetry and family life, and they should stop displaying ads for Executive M.B.A. programs on my page #algorithmfail.

a method for ekphrasis


Thetis at Hephaestos’ forge waiting to receive Achilles’ new weapons (Naples National Archeological Museum), public domain from wikimedia

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on ekphrastic poetry — that is, poems that are written in response to another work of art. The work ekphrasis comes from the Greek: ek meaning “out” and phrazein meaning “speak.” So, in ekphrastic poetry, the poem speaks out of (or for?) another work of art.

The oft-cited first example of ekphrastic poetry is Homer’s Shield of Achilles from The Iliad. Other frequently cited works are Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn and Auden’s Musee de Beaux Arts. There are many, many other famous and not-famous ekphrastic poems that are worth your time and attention — poetry and painting seem to belong together as Aristotle once pointed out — but I mention these because they appear to be the holy trinity of ekphrastic poems.

My reading has taken me through long, labyrinthine halls of art theory and literary theory and the intersection of the two. There is a mountain of material out there if theory is what you want. What I’ve been trying to find are craft essays on ekphrasis. So far, I’ve struck out. I’m beginning to think that the reason is: craft-shmaft — whatever makes for a good poem also makes for a good ekphrastic poem. So instead of focusing on ekphrastic theory or ekphrastic craft, I’ve moved toward focusing on process.

Here’s a process that has worked well for me. For the most part, I came to it intuitively but it’s also informed by “A Question of Attraction: Ekphrasis” by Madelyn Garner and Andrea L. Watson in Wingbeats, and by a workshop on ekphrastic art I took from Sally Ashton. If you’re interested in ekphrastic poetry, I hope it will be helpful to you, too.:

First, let some art choose you. That’s right, I said let the *art* choose *you* (or perhaps you’ve already been chosen by some art). Instead of setting out to write a poem about a particular work of art, I’ve followed inner nudges toward art that then began to speak to me. I stumbled upon this book* (where? No idea.) and then borrowed it through the semi-secret library nerd borrowing program. Twice. I remembered someone saying once that Bonnard had painted his wife over and over again, and that felt interesting to me — so I went to the library and checked out a book of Bonnard’s paintings. Also twice. Of course, going to a museum is also a perfectly valid option; and many, many museums have portions of their collections online — so there are many, easily accessible resources for ekphrasis at your disposal. One last tip: I’ve found that used bookstores are a really good place to get art books at affordable prices.

Page (or walk or click) through and listen. Next I page through the books of art and listen for any words that announce themselves for a given work of art, and I jot them down in my notebook. The risk here is that no words appear. If not, no worries. Just note the works of art that speak to you somehow, so you can return to them later.

Choose one piece of art, and freewrite about it. This is as simple as it sounds. Write whatever comes to mind and try to keep your inner critic from talking you out of anything (use duct tape if needed). I like to listen for words that arrive as I consider the work of art, but I also try to channel the physical attributes of the piece: colors, perspective, textures, etc. This is also a good time to write down the details of the work — title, artist, year, media, museum (if applicable).

Do some research about the work of art. Write what you learn in your notebook; keep a list of sources. For me it’s important to do this step *after* the freewrite — because it’s far too easy to let the art critic and your inner critic start collaborating against your artistic impulses. But I’ve also found that doing research about a work of art can deepen my understanding of it, and in fact, has often introduced interesting layers to what I’ve already intuited while freewriting.

Decide who or what your poem will speak for. Will your poem give voice the subject of the art, the artist herself, the bowl of fruit spilled out on the table in the lower left corner of the painting? Will your poem speak to the work of art directly? If yes, who is the observer/speaker? Will your poem be an attempt to interpret the work of art, to say what it means or communicates? Will your poem say what happened just before the moment captured in the painting, or will it say what happens next? John Hollander**, one of the many ekphrastic theorists, calls this determining your stance — what is the poet’s relationship with the work of art?

Whatever you do when you draft poems, do it. Draft away. Pull in elements from your freewrite and your research, as well as from the work of art itself. You may wish to let the visual aspects of the piece inform your formal choices (or you may wish to put off formal decisions until the next step). At any rate: Poet, do your thing.

(this is going to come as a shocker, but) Revise, revise, revise.  And here I’d like to say, don’t be afraid to let your poem depart from the work of art if that’s what it wants to do. The work of art is a starting point, and any ekphrastic poem worth it’s salt needs to go beyond the work of art itself — it needs to bring something new to the conversation between the work of art and the world. If your poem ends up being only distantly connected to the work of art, that’s okay.

And that’s my process. Again, I hope it’s helpful for you if you’re interested in writing ekphrastic poetry. I invite you to share any tips or methods you’ve used to write ekphrastic poems, as well as names (and links to, if possible) your favorite ekphrastic poems, in comments.

*I normally avoid linking Amazon, but couldn’t find a link to this anywhere else.