friday roundup: the x-acto knife speaks, turning a poem, and “I woke in grief…”

Reader, gotta make this quick. Papers to write, milk and eggs to buy. I’ve bribed myself into looking forward to these items on my to-do list by promising a trip to a lovely little cafe I’ve discovered in the next town up the Peninsula. Where I will drink my tea from a bowl. With honey. Where I will indulge in a little pastry. We do what we have to do. Onward:

the x-acto knife speaks  Poets&Writers interviewed the x-acto knife of poets, known also as Louise Glück (here, I swoon), in their September/October 2014 issue. My first encounter with Louise Glück was her book Ararat. Which I did not love at all. But I had the good sense to think I ought to learn from what I don’t love, so I bought her First Four Books. And I loved, loved, loved. Now she is one of those poets (and her First Four Books is one of those books) I could never live without. Probably many of you have already read the interview, but I am behind as usual. Here are a few things she said that I thought were interesting and/or heartening:

On tone:

“If you can get the right tone, it will be dense with ideas; you don’t initially know fully what they are, but you want by the end to know fully what they are or you won’t have made an exciting work. For me it’s tone — the way the mind moves as it performs its acts of meditation. That’s what you’re following. It guides you but it also mystifies you because you can’t turn it into conscious principles… . It has to remain mysterious to you. You have to be surprised by what it is capable of unveiling.”

On living your life:

“But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.”

On dry periods:

“I go through two, three years writing nothing. Zero. Not a sentence. Not bad poems I discard, not notes toward poems. Nothing. And you don’t know in those periods that the silence will ever end, that you will ever recover speech. It’s pretty much hell… .”


turning a poem  I’ve been reading the assigned work from my program, reading at breakneck speed — for me, anyway, and for poetry — and discerning topics for the papers I have to write after reading. One thing I’ve been paying close attention to lately is the turn of the poem. Classically called the volta and embodied in the sonnet, a poem’s turn takes us to a place that is both surprising and inevitable (well, ideally anyway). I’m keeping a running list of all the moves I’m noticing in my reading, moves that help the poem make its turn. Here’s my list so far:

  • Ask a question
  • Allow the speaker to enter the poem explicitly (“I…”)
  • Tell a story within the poem (Ellen Bass does it in this poem)
  • Shift to direct address
  • Use dialogue
  • Apostrophe
  • Use of a conditional phrase (If…)

Would it not be handy to have this list around during revision (or, as I often think of it: redrafting)? I have a feeling I’ll be adding to this list as this day and this life go on.

“I woke in grief…” I started my week — at least, I think I did, I think it was Monday — with a beautiful little poem set to music that showed up in my Facebook feed. I love it when two art forms come together — in this case, poetry and song. Here is a link to Kathleen Kirk‘s poem “I woke in grief and beauty” and the song it inspired by Joe Robinson. I hope you enjoy it.

Happy weekend!


friday roundup: S.O.S. post mortem, more on political poems, and ‘someone should mark / the day’

ours came with a really cute pickle on the side of the pickle juice shot; photo from this flickr page

Moooaaaannnnnnn. Groooooaaaaannnnnn. Mommy stayed up too late last night. Mommy was at writing group which, for reasons too complicated to explain, met at the bar in the Four Seasons hotel up in the college town. Not only did we critique each other’s poems, but we also sampled a cocktail known as the pickleback, which involves a shot of whiskey and a chaser of pickle juice. Being Poets of a Certain Age, all six of us shared one shot — yes, we did the pickleback with dainty sips. It was surprisingly good, considering I don’t like whisky. But I digress. I was saying, I was up too late and now I’m behind on everything. On to the roundup:

S.O.S post mortem  My kids are in school, so summer’s over for us. And with it goes the Summer of Submissions. I’ve learned and re-learned and re-re-learned that, really, I’m no good at turning over a new leaf. My process is more like this: Notice a leaf lying on the sidewalk. Watch it for a few days. One day maybe pick up one corner and look underneath. A few days later prop it up with a toothpick. Then maybe after a while a big wind blows through and turns the leaf over (or in other cases, blows the leaf away. But I digress again.). That’s pretty much how the Summer of Submissions went for me: slow, marginal efforts that did not blanket the earth with my poems, but that did create a new habit and result in several acceptances. This time of year poets far and wide are preparing for the fall submissions season, with many journals reopening to submissions in September. I will be plugging along with my goal of two subs per week. If there are weeks when I can do more, I will; if not, not (why am I just now thinking of the song “The Old Gray Mare?” ).

more on political poems In this post I wrote a little bit about the political poem, and I want to follow up this week with some gems I read in an interview with Yehuda Amichai, of blessed memory. If you’ve never read Yehuda Amichai, I highly recommend his work. He somehow writes of the political and the personal incredibly well, and he gets from point A to point Z and back again in a way that makes me walk around the house muttering, “How did he do that?”. Anyway, here’s what Amichai says about political poems:

I try to create a kind of equality between my personal history and the history around me because historical events often occur during times which are metaphorically concentrated. For instance, if I were to say that I remember my father during Passover in 1940… by mentioning Passover I bring into play the whole history of the journey of Israel out of Egypt as well as a particular celebration of Passover in a particular place at a particular time. Whole histories can be included in the language by collapsing content and language itself… .

This idea of calling out to a particular shared history by writing about a moment of personal history makes attempting the political poem seem less daunting to me. Read the whole Amichai interview here.

‘someone should mark / the day’  Some of you have probably already seen Gerald Stern’s poem “Day of Grief,” which came out on poem-a-day this week. For those who haven’t, it’s a stunner. Please go read it now. I’ll wait. I just love the stream of consciousness voice, the appearance of so many disparate elements in one short poem, and the idea of “my other religion.” This is a poem that makes me want to stand out on my front porch and yell: “Yay, Poetry!” But of course I won’t because I’m trying to make a good impression with the neighbors.

Speaking of which (or not), I’m late for the Ritual Opening of the Library Doors at 10:00, so must away. Have a wonderful Friday and a wonderful weekend. As always, thanks for reading.

friday roundup: wide open spaces, the age of the brain, and every blade of grass

who could resist?

Happy Friday, Reader. Here we are again. I have done my bare minimum of housework and the kids are off at school. I’m looking forward to spending the next several hours as a working mother.

wide open spaces  Yesterday I spent the morning at the wee, small house. She’s looking much more herself these days — she lost the tent dress and is all deloused. I brought my writing stuff over and waited for the PG&E guy to come and turn the gas back on (wisely, they turn it off during fumigation). I looked around the empty family/dining/living room (it’s all one room actually) thought of all the boxes I need to pack, etc., etc., etc., when it hit me that I was staring at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So, I sez to myself I sez, “Self, do you see what I see? I see a wide open space. I see the perfect place to lay all your poems out and start putting them into stout little piles that belong together, without having to yell, STOP! DON’T TOUCH THOSE PAPERS! at anyone. I see a chance to physically move through your work, to find new connections, to gain perspective.” Boxes, shmoxes! After I post this, I’m going over there with a huge stack of poems and I’m going to lay ’em all out there and see what happens. Which reminds me of this post that Sandra Beasley (of I Was the Jukebox fame) wrote recently on the visual and physical aspect of ordering poems. Good stuff for anyone who’s putting together a manuscript, or even a grant proposal or a submission strategy — things to think about when you’re ordering poems.

(is it just  me or do we now all have the Dixie Chicks going through our heads?

the age of the brain  Last night at my writing group, we talked a bit about all the fascinating research on the brain that has been published lately. One member of the group declared that we’re now entering “the age of the brain,” and what we’ll learn about how our brains operate will change everything we thought we knew. People made several recommendations for learning more, and I’ll share them now with you. The first is Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. The second is The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The last is a series on the brain by Charlie Rose of PBS. Personally, I’m both curious about what we’ve learned, and hesitant to know too much. Part of what I love about my creative life is the element of mystery at play in how a poem happens. I don’t want my tendency toward over-analysis to devour that mystery. Still this is a fascinating topic, and one that we’re just beginning to crack open.

every blade of grass  Here is one of my all-time favorite poems by Laura Fargas (more about this poet here). I first came across this poem in the anthology Poet’s Choice by Robert Hass, a book compiled from Hass’s syndicated column on poetry during his tenure as Poet Laureate. The title, Kuan Yin, is the name of the Chinese goddess of mercy. We could all use a little mercy every now and then, no?

Kuan Yin

Of the many buddhas I love best the girl
who will not leave the cycle of pain before anyone else.
It is not the captain declining to be saved
on the sinking ship, who may just want to ride his shame
out of sight. She is at the brink of never being hurt again
but pauses to say, All of us. Every blade of grass.
She chooses to live in the tumble of souls through time.
Perhaps she sees spring in every country,
talks quietly with farm women while helping to lay seed.
Our hearts are a storm she trebles at. I picture her
leaning on a tree or humming or joining a volleyball game
on Santa Monica beach. Her skin shines with sweat.
The others may not know how to notice what she does to them.
She is not a fish or a bee; it is not pity or thirst;
she could go, but here she is.

–Laura Fargas

Well, Reader, that’s it for this week. May mercy be upon you all weekend. Thanks for reading.

sunday words: new hymn

New Hymn by James Taylor

Source of all we hope or dread
Sheepdog, jackal, rattler, swan
We hunt your face and long to trust
That your hid mouth will say again, ‘Let there be light’
A clear new day

But when we thirst in this dry night
We drink from hot wells poisoned with the blood of children
And when we strain to hear a steady homing beam
Our ears are blocked by stifled moans
And howls of desolation from the throats of sisters, brother, wild men
Clawing at the gates for bread

Even our own feeble hands
Ache to seize the crown you wear
And work our private havoc through
The known and unknown lands of space

Absolute in flame beyond us
Seed and source of Dark and Day
Maker whom we beg to be
Our mother, father, comrade, mate

Till our few atoms blow to dust
Or form again in wiser lives
Or find your face and hear our name
In your calm voice the end of night
If dark may end
Goal of dark and day,

Be here, be now.