friday roundup: make the words for me

Michaelangelo_Meucci_-_Songbirds_in_a_tree.jpg

One of *those* weeks. Nothing flowing. Feeling uninspired. Can’t seem to pay attention reading. Can’t seem to string together a coherent thought. There are weeks like that. I’ve learned to chalk them up and just fold the socks. So just a few little snippets today, including something…

…from the archives  I was looking for a particular quote last night, and figuring I’d probably shared it here at some point, I searched my olds posts for it. Didn’t find it, but I came across this gem, which, after the dead-endedness of the week, gives me no small measure of comfort. I give you Mary Ruefle:

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I want to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

Yeeeeessssssssss. From Madness, Rack, and Honey.

on form  I’ve been reading (or trying to read) and thinking (or trying to think) about my critical thesis for my MFA program. In a moment of enthusiasm last spring, I decided I’d write about form in free verse poetry. While I am actually really interested in this topic, right now it feels like a brick wall that I’m hitting my head against. This too shall pass. Meanwhile, I’m collecting little bits of what other writers have said about form. Here are a few that I’m particularly fond of:

“If goals create content / stealth creates form” —Fanny Howe (not sure I agree, btw)

“Something that you feel will find its own form.”—Jack Kerouac (also not sure I agree)

Form is “the organization of experience from the manifold of sensation.” —Alice Fulton quoting Kant (this one I can go in for)

“Love buries these ghost forms within us.”—Frank Bidart (now we’re cookin’)

“[W]hatever is said / in the world, or forgotten / or not said, makes a form.”—Robert Creeley (officially in love)

make the words for me  Amidst my trying to read, it is always a poem that pulls me in, wakes me up, makes me pay attention. Here’s one that did the job this week: Rachel Hadas’ “Codex Minor.”

I love the richness of the language and images, and how they swirl and eddy around and back on each other. I love the rhymes tucked in here and there. I love the way it begins and unfolds in what seems like a deep psychic space, a quiet interior monologue, and then opens out into, perhaps, a memory(?), at any rate a physical place on the earth, and ends in something spoken, a question no less.

And most of all I love this line: “I have no song, bird. Make the words for me.”

Bird, wherever you are, make the words for me, too.

Thanks for reading. I wish you a clear mind, many poems, and a happy weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

balance the day

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

A book I return to again and again is How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. It was published during wartime (1942) ostensibly as a guide to cooking on a shoestring when ingredients, fuel, and time were scarce (time because so many women were entering the workforce **UPDATED to say: a faithful friend and reader points out that it was really only more white women who were entering the workforce — that women of color had always worked. And she is right!). I read it less as a guide to cooking and more as a spiritual tome. It both reinforces my sense that the wolf is ever at the door, pacing and snuffling, and somehow comforts me about it. For one thing, M.F.K. writes with a certain authority, and is all about common sense. Like me, she is a fan of double and freeze — (although I’m not sure there was such a thing as a chest freezer back then?? but it appears she put her icebox to good use). She is willing to stretch what she has and scrape together a meal. Amen (insert solemn bow here). This is why I’m inclined to follow her advice to “balance the day.” M.F.K. points out that everyone from slick magazines to scientists to the federal government have, for ages, been suggesting we serve balanced meals. Balanced as in the four food groups (if you, like me, were born a while ago), or as in the proper selections from the food pyramid (if you were born later), or… I don’t know what rubric there is now because, frankly, I have given up. M.F.K. says “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” She says,

“Breakfast, then, can be toast. It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you.”

Reader, she had me at “toast.” She says,

“For lunch make an enormous salad… or a heartening and ample soup… . That is all you need, if there is enough of it.”

She goes on to make similar suggestions for simple dinners (involving protein and a starch), and says:

“Try it. It’s easy, and simple, and fun, and — perhaps most important — people like it.”

Whether people like it is actually not the most important thing to my mind. The “easy” and “simple” parts are. <mothering interlude: Sister just walked by, noticed the book on my desk and said, “What!? She knows how to cook a wolf?” Second Son replies, “Not literally, Sister, metaPHORically.”</mothering interlude>. Which leads me to my point: I read the “balance the day” chapter (which is actually titled “How to Be Sage Without Hemlock”) both literally and metaphorically. This summer, I’m trying hard to balance the day, even though balance has never been a natural state for me. I think we should all get to sit down to an enormous plate of toast dripping with butter and honey — we should all get to relax and do something just because we want to every day. Sometimes I have about 5 minutes for that, but I’ve been trying to take those 5 minutes and make something of them. I’m also making sure to find that all important time for writing and other creative pursuits. Yes, this often means trading sleep for art, but I’m willing to do it, and happier and more balanced if I do. However you balance your days, I wish you luck. Remember, the M.F.K. model does  not require that each moment be balanced, or even each hour. I am often inclined to stretch her advice and attempt to balance the week. Sit down to your plate of toast sometime. Serve dinner on a shoestring. And consider these words from M.F.K. Fisher, with which I will close:

“[An unnecessary peptic goad, but a very nice one now and then, is a good soft stinky cheese, a Camembert or Liederkranz, with what is left of the bread, the wine, the hunger.]”

   

“in the changing light of a room” – specks from May Sarton

Vincent's "Bedroom in Arles." Look's pretty cozy to me.

Vincent’s “Bedroom in Arles.” Look’s pretty cozy to me.

Last week I wrote about reading the journals of May Sarton. Have I mentioned that May Sarton had a room in her house called “the cozy room”? I want to live in that room. Until then, I’ll give thanks for my cozy, four-foot stretch of wall and these specks from May Sarton…

First on suffering and creation:

[After quoting from Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu]: “It is only when we can believe that we are creating the soul that life has any meaning, but when we can believe it — and I do and always have — then there is nothing we do that is without meaning and nothing that we suffer that does not hold the seed of creation in it.”

On the person behind the work:

“My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life — all of it — flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity … both as human being and artists, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.”

May Sarton, housekeeper (somehow it’s very comforting to know that even she — who lived alone, unmarried, no children — fought against housework):

“I could spend the whole day housekeeping, but I won’t, as long as total chaos is kept at bay and what my eyes rest on is beauty and order. Only now and then the appalling state of a cupboard disturbs my mind enough so that it is worth tidying–… .”

 

(“As long as total chaos is kept at bay…” — I see May and I have at least that in common.)

May Sarton, wanderer:

“I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything… .  The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.”

 

Sounds good to me, although today is not that day for me. More likely, this month is not that month. Still, at a minimum, I’ll be looking for a few empty moments to wander about in. I hope you find some, too.

friday in-lieu-of-a roundup: on blundering

pick a row and walk (wikimedia)

pick a row and walk (wikimedia)

blunder
(n.) a stupid or careless mistake;
(v.) 1. make a blunder 2. move clumsily or as if unable to see (ding!ding!ding! we have a winner!)

Happy Friday, Reader. Can we talk about blundering? Because I’ve not been much of a poet this week, but I’ve been a submitter, a reader and note-taker, a writing-files-organizer, a pumpkin carver, a pie maker, a candy hander-outer, a birthday cupcake maker (BTW, may I recommend you never have a baby two days after Halloween?), and an errand runner. This week for me, poetry has been a speck here and a speck there. But that’s perfect because I want to talk more about Kay Ryan’s Specks, which I linked to last week, and which I finally finished reading.

And so, yes, we need to talk about blundering — the kind of blundering where one moves clumsily or as if unable to see.

<rural interlude> Where I grew up in rural Michigan, all the kids learn what to do if you ever get lost in a cornfield: you pick a row and walk all the way to the end of it, then try to figure out where you are. You may trip, stumble and fall. You may feel you’re getting more lost, not less lost. You may look up at the sky for clues and there are no clues, just a wide open sky. You may move clumsily or as if unable to see (all those cornstalks slapping your face and arms, all the dirt, the bugs). But you keep going in that one row until you find your way out. </rural interlude>

This is basically the story of my life in poetry, and it’s also one of the specks Kay Ryan writes about. Kay Ryan says:

Blundering doesn’t work, except it does.

She says:

It can’t lead you there, except it’s the only way to get there.

To which I say, YES! YES! YES!

In no area of my life have I learned so much exclusively by doing than I have in poetry. You read it all the time: to learn how to write poetry, write poetry. To learn how to read it, read it. Which is supremely unhelpful advice, because: duh. But it’s also the best advice, the only advice.

What the advice-givers usually leave out, however, is the blundering.

We blunder for years writing mostly bad poems and not knowing if they’re just regular bad or really bad. But we keep writing them anyway. Then one day we start to understand the one line that might be working in draft number 1,047. We go on from there.

We blunder through revisions. Actually, first we blunder through what we think are revisions but are really small edits and/or lipstick on a pig. But we keep putting that lipstick on the pig anyway. Then one day we see what we might be able to do with line 7 of draft number 1,147. We carry on.

We blunder through the poems we read. We LOVE IT but we can’t say why. We know it works, but we don’t know how it’s working. We even read the whole collection, but we’re not sure why all these poems are between two covers of the same book. Then one day we pick up that collection after we’ve read 147 intervening collections and we read it again. We LOVE IT even more, and now we can say why. We can say why each poem is working. We totally get why all these poems go together. We even think the poem on page 33 should’ve ended two lines earlier than it did. Onward.

We we wait through many years of blundering, and then we blunder through submissions. We do not understand how to put stout little piles of poems that play well together in stacks on our floor. We aren’t sure if this journal’s aesthetic matches that of our work. In fact, we’re not sure what this journal’s aesthetic is. Then one day, we wake up and pick up a large stack of poems. We do a zombie walk and follow our intuition about which poems should go in each pile. Afterwards, we look through the stout little piles and we can actually articulate why they go together. We keep reading journals and start to get a sense of which ones might be open to the kind of poems we write. Sure, we still sometimes make mistakes, but we carry on.

It’s not only alchemy, but it has alchemy in it. It’s not that we can’t learn about specific craft elements, practice certain techniques, apply a particular revision strategy. It’s that we can’t rush the overall process of developing poetic proficiency.

We can’t get to the end of the row of corn before the end of the row of corn.

In the meantime, we need to be gentle with ourselves. We need to shrug our shoulders, say, Everyone blunders. And, It’s all the work. And we need to understand that there will always be another cornfield that we get lost in, but we know what to do to find our way again.

Kay Ryan says:

I will go so far as to hazard that blundering might be generative, meaning that rooting around in a haystack long and fruitlessly enough could conceivably breed a needle.

Can I get an “Amen!”? And can we agree that this is good stuff to think about vis-a-vis poetry, and also vis-a-vis being human?

I wish you many, many needles bred from all your blunders. Ever onward.

end-of-summer musings with carrot cake

"Gee, Wally, I'd *love* to make you a carrot cake. Let me get right on that."

“Gee, Wally, I’d *love* to make you a carrot cake. Let me get right on that.”

Well, wow, I didn’t really mean to take the summer off writing. Not that I didn’t write at all, but here it is less than two weeks before the kids start school and the truth is I’ve mostly been a mom this summer, and not much of a poet.

As summer winds down (and, conveniently, as the kids are at their one week of camp for the summer this week) my thoughts have turned to re-engaging in my writing life and becoming, once again, a working mother.

(Meanwhile, Husband is on a conference call talking about things like micro-stuffs and nano-thingies, and I wonder, is this how he feels when I say anapest or iambic?)

One thing I’ve noticed this summer, which is probably not a news flash to anyone, is that everyone is a little bit happier when I’m not writing. Everyone, that is, except me.

Why is this? Well, probably because everyone can usually find clean socks and undies, dinner tends to be early-ish instead of late-ish, and I have lots of time to color and go to the park and play Old Lady Dusting (which is what my littlest one calls Old Maid, and I haven’t the heart to correct her). Also, while not perfect, the house tends to be neater and a bit more organized; the cupboard a bit more regularly stocked.

[Dear residents of the Wee, Small House: Prepare ye! For days of deprivation await, and ye shall soon have to dig in the dryer for clean socks and undies. And ye shall wait and wait for a decent meal, and there shall be no homemade desserts not even one. For a voice cries out in the desert, make straight the path to Mom’s writing desk!]

But anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the inner work of scheduling and how to plan my writing life this school year, and also about my word for the year, which is TEND and how I can tend to myself and my poetry. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about.

First, that the most important thing is staying healthy. Long-time readers know that I have a chronic illness that involves arthritis and other unpleasant things that we won’t dwell on now. So I’ve learned the hard way that if you lose your health, nothing else is okay. For me, this means getting enough sleep, healthy food, and some regular exercise. It also means not “over-doing it.” Which means…

…I have to say no. I confess, from the center of my very bones I am dreading the near-constant requests for volunteers at the kids’ schools. The mere thought of it exhausts me, which tells me I need to draw more stringent boundaries about what I commit to. I’m also going to have to say no to the kids — and here’s the thing: sometimes I do it to myself, Reader. Like, somehow I’ve said yes to making a CARROT CAKE today in recognition of excellent table manners five days running. The first day all summer that I have basically open and I say yes to CARROT CAKE!?!? (that scraping sound you hear in the background is me thinking of how long I’ll spend hand-shredding carrots this afternoon). So don’t feel sorry for me. But what I’m hoping is that awareness is half the battle, and since I’m aware of saying ‘yes’ too much I’ll be able to say ‘no’ more often. Stay tuned.

Also in the saying no department is a not-100%-pleasant intuition that I even need to cut back on some of my writerly commitments in order to spend more time heads-down at my desk. This I will hate to do, but I’ve learned over the years to trust my intuition even when it’s telling me something I’m not thrilled about.

Next on the list is what I’ll call my This I Believe statements. I’ve been walking around saying to myself over and over again, I believe that a reasonably well-functioning household is good for the soul, and, I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. So yes, I’m thinking about balance, and my motto 2.0:

IMG_2945

(I swear, Reader, my problem is the whole “rotating basis” thing — it’s much easier to leave everything else up in the air indefinitely, don’t you think?)

And then lastly, I’m thinking about flexibility. Last year, I had my writing life all planned out. I was going to do this, and that, and also this other thing. I blocked off my calendar. I found babysitters when needed. I even said no to some volunteer “opportunities” at school ;). I had a plan. And then, kidney abscess, which I said in this post was “nothing too scary” but actually it was too scary and took a lot of time, energy, babysitters, etc. So, I’m reminding myself: You are a human being. Human beings live interdependently with and amongst other human beings. Sometimes things happen that require one to shift one’s plans.

So, yeah, somewhere around September 15 (and October 15, and November 15, and December 15, and… well, you get the idea), someone remind me:

  • first, health
  • say no early and often
  • cut back–>heads down
  • aim for balance
  • be flexible

Amen.

friday roundup: first day of summer edition

photo from wikimedia

photo from wikimedia

Reader, is it the last day of school or the first day of summer? The kids get out at noon, and sometimes I like to look at things in their most positive light, so let’s call it the first day of summer.

I confess, I’ve not been much of a poet this week. Some weeks require all-mama-all-the-time, and this was one of them. It was comforting to learn (well, to re-learn actually) that even when I’m not trying to balance family life with writing life things pile up: laundry, books, dust, discarded shoes in the front hall (Ha, ha! “front hall…” Here at the Wee, Small House we use the term loosely). All the more reason not to drive oneself crazy trying to keep up. Let there be art!

a net for catching days  Next week I’ll re-commence my efforts at a summer writing schedule. Today on Brain Pickings there’s a great Annie Dillard quote about schedules. Here it is:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

Yes… “a net for catching days,” “a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time.” This is just how a writing schedule feels to me, and it’s why I feel a bit off-balanced and fading around the edges when I’m not writing.

The Act of Creation  Yesterday, through the semi-secret super duper library nerd lending program, I picked up Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation. I’ve just begun reading it, and already I’m hooked (Still, I’m not without a little bit of reader-ly dread: I think a semester-long graduate-level course could be taught on this book. Add it to the syllabus for the Emily Dickinson MFA).

Sometimes I feel like just reading a particular poet’s work helps me get to a new place in my writing. Although I often spend time pulling poems apart, looking at how the poet uses the tools of the trade, it still feels as if getting to a new place can happen without that — that the reading itself has shifted things around inside me and helped me to make a breakthrough. I’ve often been curious about why, and Koestler has something to say about that: “Everybody can ride a bicycle, but nobody knows how it is done. Not even the engineers and bicycle manufacturers know the formula… . The cyclist obeys a code of rules which is specifiable, but which he cannot specify… .” Or, he says, to put it more abstractly:

“The controls of a skilled activity generally function below the level of consciousness on which that activity takes place.”

This is not (I repeat IS NOT) to say that we can’t become better writers by studying craft, by tearing a piece of writing apart and looking at how it’s built, by practicing, practicing, practicing. But it does help explain, for me, why the mere fact of having read something seems to bring forth growth in my writing. I’ll share more of Koestler’s insights as I read.

a summer poem  Is there a poem in your life that, for you, just says “Summer?” Share in comments, if you like. For me, it’s this poem by Anne Sexton:

*

I Remember by Anne Sexton

By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color — no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.

*

Whenever your summer begins, I hope you have lots of time to wear your bare feet bare and watch the sun blow out of sight. Happy weekend and thanks for reading!

sing it!

photo here

The sisters… singin’ it like they mean it (photo here)

When I was a freshman in college (yes, we were still fresh*men* back then; the “first-years” came along a few years later) I tried out for one of the campus choirs. I was sooooo nervous, but I love to sing. And even way back then I had the Beckett quote taped to the corner of my desk: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Even back then I believed that it was better to try and fail than to never try.

I went to my audition in the music building, a small ivy-covered thing practically tucked out of view. I sang. The choir director said, “Okay, now sing it again like you’re a foot taller and ten years older.” I could hardly imagine being 28!!! But I tried. I sang it like I was 28. Or what I thought 28 would be like. It was much louder and much more confident. “There you go!” he said. I looked around to see if I’d grown a foot. (I hadn’t, but that’s okay — I made the choir, 2nd sop).

Recently I had a couple of poems accepted, one of the two pending my approval of suggested revisions. The revisions were mainly cuts from the middle of the poem where, the editors felt, the poem lost a bit of its focus. This is a journal I admire, one I’m just thrilled to have an acceptance from. But, although I saw that their cuts strengthened and sharpened the poem (and although I kicked myself for not having cut it a bit more in my own revisions), I thought the cuts went just a bit too far, so that one of the characters in the poem did not have quite enough presence. I also wanted to restore a single word that they suggested replacing with another (admittedly more beautiful) word — but I really felt this poem needed the rougher, uglier word.

I hemmed and hawed. I thought, Maybe I should just go with their revisions. They’re a great journal! They know what they’re doing! Then I thought, But really, I think the husband needs more presence. And I really want the ugly word. Then I thought, What do you know, Molly. You’re probably blind to your own work, and you’re really just a baby poet (Ahem, do we have a little Spiteful Gillian creeping in here? I think so). Then I thought, But really, I think the poem is asking for more husband! For the ugly word!

I let it rest over the weekend.

This morning I knew I had to face it. And the words of the choir director came back to me: Sing it like you’re a foot taller and ten years older. I decided to act like it wasn’t *such* a big deal to me to get an acceptance from this journal (even though it is, it really, really is). I decided to pretend I was old hat at this kind of thing. I decided to act like of course they would want my input and additional suggestions for making this poem as strong as it could be. I wrote a specific and reasoned explanation for a version of the poem I suggested in turn. There were two more lines of husband. There was the ugly word. I asked them to consider my suggestions and get back to me.

They liked my suggestions. They could see my reasoning. (insert happy dance here)

I’m so glad I sang it like I was a foot taller and ten years older. Well, wait a minute, I don’t want to rush things in the years department. But I’m just saying, sometimes we need to act the part. I acted the part of a seasoned poet with strong reasons for her artistic choices. I advocated for my work, risked a “no” because I thought the poem needed more. And it worked. Sing it! Hallelujah!

on the art of giving feedback

...at the crossroads of parenting and poetry... (photo from wikimedia)

…at the crossroads of parenting and poetry… (photo from wikimedia)

Reader, I’ve been thinking about the art of giving feedback. My kids are old enough now that “Not for babies!” and “Stop!” and “That’s a no-no!” will no longer do (BTW, call me old fashioned, but I’m perfectly comfortable saying No to children.). They are at the age where the goal of giving feedback is for them to start figuring things out for themselves, and where if it’s not delivered effectively, the feedback isn’t useful to them.

Yes, I’ve been thinking about giving effective feedback lately, and there are some things I’ve learned about it that seem equally true in parenting and in poetry. I’ll share them here, and I invite you to share what you’ve learned about giving effective feedback — in parenting, poetry, or both — in comments.

First let’s talk about praise. Praise, meaning: (v) 1. express warm approval of or admiration; 2. express respect and gratitude toward (a deity); (n) 1. the expression of approval or admiration; 2. the expression of respect and gratitude as an act of worship. It’s from the Latin pretiare, which is related to the Latin word for ‘price.’

Child development experts warn parents against the use of empty or overblown praise: “You’re so wonderful!” (what does that mean?) “This is the best drawing of a whale I’ve ever seen!” (you cannot be serious). Etc. The experts tell us to give specific and evaluative praise: “I admire the way you helped your sister without being asked.” “I like that you added the detail of the whale’s spout.” This praise is specific and, perhaps more importantly, actionable: the child knows what went well this time (taking initiative, using detail) and can think about doing it again in the future.

When we’re giving feedback on a fellow poet’s work, the same is true. Although, believe me, I’m all for an introductory gush of praise: “This is great work!” “I love it!” Even more helpful is to follow up with the specifics of why you think it’s great, or why you love it. “I think your use of short, enjambed lines is really working because it keeps the reader a bit on edge.” Or, “All the hard sounds you use give this poem a lot of muscle, which seems just right for this subject.” Or, “There are so many poems about the moon, but your poem really helps me think of the moon in a way I’ve never thought of it before.” Of course, we all want people to love our poems, but if we know why we can learn about what’s working and apply that knowledge again.

Moving on… . As a parent and a poet, I’ve learned (from reading and experience) there are some things you can always say when giving feedback. Here is my list:

You can always say what you see.

  • Parent: I see two kids who want to use the same rollerblades.
  • Poet: I see a point in the poem where the voice shifts

You can always state your experience.

  • Parent: When I hear you saying unkind things to each other, I worry about hurt feelings. (In your head you can say, “Also it drives me x^%&$* NUTS!”)
  • Poet: As reader, I get confused in the third stanza when the speaker says x.

You can always ask helpful questions.

  • Parent: What do you think you could say the next time she calls you a name? What can you do to help yourself remember your homework assignments?
  • Poet: What is your reason for shifting from couplets to tercets after the 3rd stanza? What’s your thinking on the use of repetition in this poem?

(NB: It’s far too easy to ask unhelpful questions: Why can’t you just write things down in your planner as you go through the day? Why even write this poem — it’s only 2 lines!?)

You can always ask if the person would like to hear your ideas.

  • Parent: I used to have trouble remembering my homework, too. Do you want to know what helped me?
  • Poet: I have an idea about the title of this poem. Would you like to hear it?

You can always say, “I’d like to think about this more.” (ding ding ding! we have a winner!)

  • Parent: I’m upset about this, but I’m not sure exactly why. I need to think about it more, and then we can talk again.
  • Poet: I get pulled out of the poem at line 12, but I can’t articulate why. Can I mull it over and get back to you if I have more thoughts?

You can always speak from your intuition (Intuition: the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning).

  • Parent: I have a hunch that something’s bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?
  • Poet: My hunch is that this poem might benefit from more white space. I might try a version with stanza breaks.

Believe me, I am not a perfect giver-of-feedback in parenting or poetry. I often talk too much (insert audio of The Peanuts teacher here). I’m bossy. I’m far too apt to say, “I think you should… .” But I try, Reader, I try! And these guidelines have been helpful to me. I hope they’re helpful to you, too.

P.S. Can I just say how happy I am to live in a world where one can google “audio clip peanuts teacher” and find this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss2hULhXf04?

I was going to…

YOU ARE HERE. Well, kind of. (photo from wikimedia)

(Reader, are you still there? I am still here!)

I was going to read Bruce Snider’s book Paradise, Indiana last night before I went to bed. I really was, because reading is basically writing, right? So I was going to, but then I realized the art book I’d borrowed through the Super Special Library Nerd Lending Program was (horror!) overdue.

I was going to read, but then I had to flog myself for being such a bad person that I end up with an overdue library book in my possession. And that took a little while.

And then I was going to have transcribed into my notebook all the 542 post-it notes flagged throughout the book with scraps of language and image jotted on them before the book was due. So you can see what kind of a fix I was in there.

Yes, I was going to read, but then I ended up having to transcribe the post-it notes. No complaints there, really. I’m glad I did it.

I was going to return the library book first thing this morning.

I was also going to get up early this morning and work on my fellowship application — which I actually did. Then I was going to write a blog post about… something. But then a child woke up — yes, you guessed it, Said Child woke up — and his chest felt uncomfortable. I was going to blog, but instead I referred to the PICC line paperwork, which said: For chest discomfort call 9-1-1.

I was so not going to do that. This child was not doubled over in pain, unable to talk, in respiratory distress, or looking in any way like he needed an ambulance. But I did call the PICC line nurse.

I was going to write a blog post, but she said, Go to the ER. I was also going to shower. But, y’know.

So I was going to return the library book second thing this morning, but then we were in the ER most of the day. Xrays were taken. Said Child’s PICC line had become dislodged. It needed to be re-lodged (new word). Xrays were taken again. Et cetera. Everyone was fine so I was going to drop off the book on the way home but the home instruction teacher was on the way to the house and there wasn’t time.

And then lord knows what I was going to do but there was homework to supervise and, well, my mom made dinner so I can’t use that excuse. I know! — I was going to make brownies for dessert. I really was. But I didn’t.

I was not going to cry when my mom and dad left to go back to the Homeland. I really wasn’t. But then I did, and it was the catchy kind of crying, so then a bunch of us flopped on the bed and had a crying festival.

I was going to take the library book back as soon as Husband came home, but it was right in the middle of the crying festival.

Finally, after baths and bedtime for the younger two-thirds, I was going to go to the library. Oldest one-third asked if he could come along. I was going to say Yes. Then I thought, Hell no! (I was going to be a selfless mother…… but I’ve given up on that).

I was going to pay my fines. And I did. And it was like a little jubilee for my psyche. I’m all clean again!

On the way home, I was going to stop at the store — just for some milk, and my tea, which I’m almost out of. I was not going to buy anything else. But then I did. I bought a dark chocolate bar with carmelized hazelnuts. I also bought dark chocolate squares with caramel.

I was going to stay away long enough so that all the kids would be asleep and the dishes done. Alas, I did not stay away long enough for that.

I was going to go to bed early every night this week so I could get up and work on my fellowship application. I remembered this during the dark chocolate. I groaned. I was just about to bag it. The application I mean. Who needs the stress? Why scramble for something I’m very unlikely to win?

I was seriously considering bagging it. Then I got an e-mail out of nowhere from a friend. It said, You have already done the work; you’ve been doing it for years. It said, You are as ready to send it out today as you will be on the deadline. It said, Give yourself a big hug.

That e-mail made me realize all this “I was going to” crap (well, it is) was and is unproductive. It made me realize I need one of those big red arrows that you see on maps: YOU ARE HERE. I want one to hang up over my writing desk. Because, I was going to so what!? You, my friend (I say to myself), are HERE. This is the ONLY place you are. Yes, there’s kid with a PICC line and a couple without but who still need you. Yes, an overdue library book and a general and persistent shortage of milk. Yes, it’s hard to get to bed early when early means 9:00. But YOU ARE HERE and that’s not going to change until death. So, I sez to myself I sez: You are here. And you can either do what you do here and now, despite the chaos and the crazyquilt landscape of life, or you can bag it.

[I pause here to say: Thank heaven for po-friends who give you a kick in the pants when you need one. A loving kick in the pants, of course].

So, Reader, I’m going to try to strike “I was going to” from my vocabulary (Wait, wait! I just need to do two more: 1). I was going to have my birthday thank you notes done long, long before now. 2). I was going to write my Aunt Anne a letter. In July.). I’m going to look for or make a YOU ARE HERE sign. I’m going to do what I do. I’m not bagging the fellowship application.

Whatever you were going to do, I hope you did it :). Thanks for reading.

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.