some notes on process: the writing notebook

Alas, mine do not look so beautiful or romantic... . (wikimedia)

Alas, mine do not look so beautiful or romantic… . (wikimedia)

Last week I wrote a bit about how I use a notebook while reading. Now we get to the heart of the matter: the writing notebook.

Each morning, after I’ve done a little reading, I turn to my writing notebook and spend some time writing. This writing can take many forms:

  • It is often free-writing — wherein one writes for a set period of time on whatever comes along.
  • I’ve found that use of a wordbank during a free-write will sometimes make me reach deeper and results in more interesting figurative language, so I’ll often choose 10 or so words at random from my reading notebook and use those at some point in the free-write.
  • Sometimes I’ll also use a line from another poet’s work, or one that arrives in my mind as a scrap of language, in the free-write, repeating that line if I get stuck.
  • Other times I’ll write according to a prompt or exercise, usually from The Practice of Poetry or Wingbeats.
  • If I’m feeling really stuck, I’ll write a reverse dictionary.
  • Or I’ll write the opposite of another poet’s poem, or according to the map of another poet’s poem.

I’ve found that writing for at least 15 minutes is most fruitful for me — there’s something I break through at about the 10-minute mark, after which the writing is free-er and more imaginative. While free-writing, I don’t censor, edit, or correct things. I often end with a one-word sentence: “Bleh.”

I always log whatever I’ve written in the notebook’s table of contents. I began this practice a few years ago and it has been a life-saver at times. I might remember something I was writing or working on in the future and rather than having to go through every page of a notebook looking for it, I can often narrow my search by the table of contents. To wit:

IMG_4572

But then — and this is the key for my writing process — I go back.

About once a week, I go back through my morning writing and underline or highlight words, progressions, images, metaphors — whatever jumps out at me as the diamonds in the rough (and believe me, it is mostly the rough). Here is what it looks like:

IMG_4557

Then I type these up and put them in a file called Fragments. These fragments often become the seeds of poems as I page through them on drafting days and find words and lines that seem to belong together. Or other times, one of the fragments will be just the line/image/metaphor I need for something I’m drafting or revising.

I do not consider all the things that don’t get pulled into the fragments folder wasted. It is all there somehow. And the only way I got to the diamonds in the rough was to also write the rough.

Other things I write in my notebook: scraps of language, titles that arrive unbidden, ideas for poems, something I’ve heard on the news or read that I want to learn more about, research for poems.

And drafts, of course. I still draft by hand, although occasionally I’ll switch over to my computer mid-draft if the language is flowing faster than my pen keep up with.

And for the record: my notebook is not neat or beautiful; it is not sacred. It is a beat-up, messy, chaotic workhorse of a notebook.

Last week, I quoted Cecilia Woloch saying: “No prompts, no strategies, no tricks. I work and I pray.” 

As you can see, I do use prompts, strategies, and tricks. All of these methods into writing help me get below the conscious process of writing, and into the subconscious river of language where my poems live. I think of it, in the words of Kay Ryan, as “breeding a needle.” In her essay “Specks” Ryan says, “rooting around in a haystack long and fruitlessly enough could conceivably breed a needle.” Yes. Breed, little needles, breed!

But I also work and pray. There is no substitute for working and praying. And especially no substitute for working.

And every writer finds her own process. Sometimes ideas from another person’s process can fold into one’s own writing practice, and sometimes not. The key is to have a writing practice, and to find the place where your poems live and go there often.

some notes on process: the reading notebook

An in-progress page of my reading notebook.

An in-progress page of my reading notebook.

A reader recently asked if I’d consider writing a post about how I use my notebook. Since then, I’ve been paying closer attention to how I use my notebook — or notebooks actually — and the answer is: pathologically.

Because I have too many of them. So I’m going to break this up a bit. Today: my reading notebook (there is also my writing notebook, and notebooks for lists, orphan lines, craft, lexicon, and… some other stuff).

The reading and writing notebooks are the ones I would take if the house were burning down, though I would hate to lose the rest of them. Really hate. Oh… I can’t even think about that.

Longtime readers know that reading is crucial to my generative process. As I read, I circle and underline, check and star, make notes on the poem’s architecture. I jot down words that seem important, complex, or rich in some way, or that are just beautiful. For many years, I wrote lists of words from what I was reading on a sheet of looseleaf, and then dropped it in my file folder called “Wordbanks.” Then the nature of my jottings grew. I began copying down lines that were especially interesting to me maybe because of their syntax, or because of a particularly stunning metaphor. I’d take little notes about themes, elements of craft, signature moves of the poet I was reading. After a while, I’d end up with all these looseleaf pages, and then my clipboard where I kept them while in-progress would disappear (ahem, children), and it all began to feel unwieldy, so I started keeping my jottings in a notebook instead. Thus: the reading notebook.

I still take the same kinds of “notes” — lists of words, lines that I want to pattern on or practice, points of craft, etc. — but now they’re all together. Genius (ha, ha). I use the lists of words for wordbanks — selecting 10 or so randomly and attempting to use them in a poem and/or freewrite. Or, I’ll look for a line that makes my small-lightning-zap-of-poetic-intuition light up, and do a freewrite on that line (more on freewrites in an upcoming post).

The reading notebook is also a resource for revision. Many times, when I need just the right word during revision, I’ll page through lists of words in my reading notebook (and/or the file of wordbanks) and find that word. Or I’ll go back to the jotted-down lines and look for a syntactical pattern that might help unstick a stuck poem.

Sometimes I feel silly writing down lists of words and copying lines. Except that it helps me write poems, so I keep doing it. For me there’s a mysterious power to writing something down on paper. It lodges in me in a way that it can’t if I’m just reading it. It becomes, I think, a seed. And not every seed grows into something, but as Thoreau says, “Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders” (thank you, little calendar I have on my kitchen counter, for the Thoreau quote).

So, that’s how I read poetry and use my reading notebook. Next up — maybe later this week, or maybe next week — the writing notebook. Happy reading and writing to you.

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.

process talk: drafting & revision

Emily Dickinson sends a revision through the hedge to her sister-in-law Sue, asking “Is this frostier?” from the E.D. Online Archive

Reader, remember when we were talking about organdization? Me, too, barely. We last talked about my generative process. So today I thought I’d write about how I organize my drafting and revision process.  But wait, you might be thinking, isn’t drafting a generative process? What’s the difference? All I can say is that the place poems come from, for me, is different than the moment of sitting down and deciding to write a draft, and needs its own space and time for cultivation. So for me, the processes feel separate. But you might rather roll yours in together, which doesn’t mean yours isn’t deep or uncultivated, just that everyone’s process is a little different.

So: drafting, revision. Last time, we talked about how my paper and electronic files reflect the inputs and outputs of the generative process. The same is true for my drafting and revision process. The outputs of the generative process become inputs, and new outputs (and corresponding files) are created.

Here’s what my drafting and revision process look like.

So at the top you see all the inputs to my drafting process (these are the outputs of the generative process). When I sit down to draft, I have all these inputs with me in physical form. I like paper. This does not mean that I haul all 5 folders with me to the library — no, instead I pull out from each of those folders whatever I want to work on that day and put it into a mobile paper folder: “this week – drafts”. (I realize I didn’t put this on the flow chart – sorry).

Next I look through those source materials and make notes about what seem interesting — a word, a phrase, a group of words from a wordbank, etc. If research seems warranted, I do a little light research (y’know, wikipedia, other online sources, or sometimes I actually walk into the stacks at the library and pull a book off the shelf). I paste any source notes into a document which will house the new draft (and, in the future, each revision).

I then set boundaries around the draft. I can’t tell you how important this is to my process. I might use a Poem Map to set the boundaries: 3 stanzas, quatrains, ends in the imperative voice. I might draw more words from a wordbank and declare that each line of the poem must contain one of them. I might go looking for a very defined prompt or exercise. My po-friends, C-1 and C-2,  and I have been talking about constraints lately and C-1 noticed that it’s always language-based constraints that enable her to enter a draft. Once she articulated that, I realized it was true for me as well. So language-based constraints would include using wordbanks, copying syntax, using poem maps, noticing parts of speech, and anything else that is focused on the language of a draft.

I should note that I always, always, ALWAYS read other people’s poems before drafting. I mean right before drafting. Sometimes my language-based constraints will come from whatever poems(s) I’ve just read. Sometimes not. But I can’t stress enough the importance of reading others’ work as a way into my own (this is also true during my generative process of “morning reading and writing”).

Ok, so we’ve looked over source materials, read other people’s poems, and set constraints. Now it’s time to draft. Ready, go.

I always draft by hand, or at the very least begin drafting by hand. Sometimes if things are coming too fast, I’ll switch over to my computer mid-draft.

Now there’s a draft, and it’s my strong opinion that every draft should be printed. If I know I want to work on it, I put it right into my “active revision” folder; if I know I don’t want to work on it or I’m not sure, I put it into my “drafts” folder (these folders are both paper and electronic). The reason why I think it’s important to print every draft is this: you might hate the draft today, but 3 months from now you might read it again and think, Gee, it’s not bad. Maybe I should work on it. Or it might contain exactly the line you need to end your newest poem. In my opinion, giving every draft a sheet of paper to live on is a spiritual act. The draft now has it’s place in the world. It’s open for business. It’s an artifact. It might never turn into a poem, but it’s a draft and there’s a place for it in my file cabinet. If nothing else, as the weeks go by into years, I see that folder thickening and feel a sense of accomplishment.

One last thing: In order to go back and read old drafts and/or find the one line you need for your new poem, you do have to, well, go back and read old drafts from time to time. I fold this act into my process, usually on a Sunday when I’m trying to figure out the abnormal week ahead. I don’t do it every week — maybe once a month.

Moving on.

Revision. We talked about it during poetry month, remember? Each week, I choose a few poems out of the “active revision” file (paper and electronic) and put them into the “this week – revision” file (paper only). Again, I’m setting boundaries and preventing myself from feeling overwhelmed by my active revision file, which is literally 6 inches thick. I might not actually revise all the poems in my this week file; maybe I’ll only get to one of them, but I have options (but not too many options) for that week.

And so I revise. Sometimes I revise in waves — a few poems, all the same craft element. Sometimes I do major surgery on one poem. Whatever new version exists, it goes in that poem’s file (electronic; which also contains source notes, the draft, and previous versions) in the “active revision” folder. I used to keep a file for each revision of every poem. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that keeping a separate file for each revision of every poem became very unwieldy. Each revision gets noted with version number and date, and each new version gets printed and stapled onto previous versions (remember, they’re all in the same file, but there’s no need to print out the entire file every time). Again, I see this as a spiritual act: I am giving this version of the poem it’s place in the world.

Rinse and repeat, etc.

Once I think a poem is “done” (laughter), I put a clean copy of the final version into an electronic folder called “clean copies,” and a clean copy (paper) into my submissions binder (more on that forthcoming). The big thick stack of 47 revisions, the draft, and source notes goes into a box called “workpapers,” and I also have a “workpapers” electronic file where the document file goes. That clears it out of the active work file so things feel more manageable.

Are you still with me? I think I’m still here. Oh, I forgot to mention that I have a school-year goal of one revision a week (borrowed from my go-to gal, Sandy Longhorn). Prior to setting that goal, I kind of felt like I had to write a new draft every time I sat down to write, which was bad for two reasons: (1) not reasonable, and (2) not reasonable. Also, it doesn’t leave room for all the other things poets do.

Well, soon I’ll be ditching my poet hat for the mama hat. I hope this look at one person’s drafting and revision process was helpful. Whatever your process is, if you think of it in terms of inputs, process, and outputs you’ll know what files and folders to make. Stay tuned for the submissions process and the unveiling (ha, ha) of my grand (ha, ha) electronic file structure.

friday roundup: false starts, the political poem, and “How I Will Outwit Grief”

Did you know this is the go-kart racing flag for “false start?” Neither did I.

Reader, the Olympics are great and fun and all that but they’re killin’ me. Small people wanting to watch “just one more event”; a complicit father; late bedtimes; early mornings (as always); much wailing and gnashing of teeth come late afternoon. Rinse and repeat. Husband tells me they’re over this weekend, for which I am glad. Meanwhile, on to the roundup:

false starts  Speaking of the Olympics, I’ve been trying to have a little poetry olympics here at my desk this week in the form of a draft a day. Today was a day of false starts. Reading, writing, listing, drafting, getting stuck. Rinse and repeat. Several times. There is no draft today, despite trying all my best tricks and old-reliables. I used a prompt called “The Black Sheep” in which the prompt’s author asks us to write a poem about or from the voice of someone who has voluntarily left the family.” I wanted to write about Cassandra, the tragic figure from Greek mythology who could see the future, but was never believed. It just didn’t work — a draft never emerged. The day isn’t over yet, so who knows what might happen later. But for now, I cry uncle. Some days are like that.

the political poem  I find political poems very difficult to write. The issues in our public sphere seem so daunting, and I’m not sure I can say anything fresh or new about them. One of my po-friends shared this tip she learned from a Very Famous Poet regarding political poems. The VFP said that if you’re going to write a political poem, or a poem that inserts the private into the frame of the public, the reader expects the poem’s speaker to emerge transformed. It’s something I’ll keep in mind during my next failed attempt at a political poem :).

“How I Will Outwit Grief”  Go read this stunning poem by Donna Vorreyer. I love the imagined strategy for outwitting grief, the subsequent preservation of the beloved, the “days of / sweet-smelling nothingdark.” And then the poignant ending. If you are the writing type, you could borrow Donna’s title as your working title and tell the world how you’ll outwit grief. Maybe I should try that for Cassandra.

Have a wonderful Friday!

day 4: Self-Designed Part-Time 7-Day From Scratch With a Little Bit of Crazy Mixed In Writing Residency

St. Genevieve, patroness of Paris, fevers, and disasters. From wikimedia.

I’m starting to wonder if I really can do this for 7 days. The early mornings are starting to wear on me, although I’ve always done my best work in the early morning. I shall persevere.

Today’s draft used the “Five Easy Pieces” prompt from The Practice of Poetry (prompt by Richard Jackson). This prompt asks us to invent or remember a person you know well, and then to create a setting in which the poem’s speaker observes this person. In the poem, the poet should:

1. describe the person’s hands
2. describe something s/he is doing with the hands
3. use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place
4. mention what you want to ask the person in the context of 2 and 3 above
5. have the person look up or toward the poem’s speaker and answers in a way that suggests s/he only understands part of what is asked

I decided to imagine my mother’s hands performing some task of care for one of my children, which she did so often when I was too sick to do it myself. I wanted to explore the feeling of helplessness and relief I so often felt during those years of illness and small children. Helplessness at not being able to care for them myself; relief that someone else was there to do it.

The draft, called “Fever,” begins:

“When you re-read this story you’ll skip
the midnight chapter of your mother’s hands
webbed into cradle over the kitchen sink, holding

a baby taut with fever…”

I had to work at this one. It came slowly. I used a wordbank from Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart (I wrote about this book here): plead, blindfold, tremble, taut, brim, geography. The question I wanted to ask (#4) in the poem is: Who is the patron saint of fevers? The answer in the draft is not comforting, but in real life the patron saint of fevers is St. Genevieve, in case you’re wondering.

I’m still finding it hard to resist the temptation of peeking at the four drafts I have so far. Four down, three to go, *hot weather forecasted and a busy weekend coming up. Oh, Poetry, if I didn’t love you so much I’d leave you flat and sleep more :).

See you tomorrow for day 5 of this adventure.

*P.S. “Hot” weather here is anything above 80 degrees, so don’t feel too sorry for us.

day 3: Self-Designed Part-Time 7-Day From Scratch With a Little Bit of Crazy Mixed In Writing Residency

public domain from wikimedia as usual

Day 3 and this is where the little bit of crazy gets mixed in. Somehow when I was planning my little non-residency I forgot that parents don’t always get a good night’s sleep (of course this is also true for non-parents). Last night, many wakings. Strange noises setting one child on edge. Discussion of how everything’s a little bit scarier at night. Rubbing of back. Back to bed. Later, strange sensation of someone watching me. Bony little treasure of a girl in my bed. Taking said girl back to bed. Rubbing of back. Etc.

So when my 4:45 alarm went off, no, I did not get up. Still when I did wake up later, I headed straight to my desk with a goal of one draft.

I’m reading Kathleen Flenniken’s Plume right now. It’s a really interesting book that weaves the personal story and the historical facts of life in a town where a nuclear reactor was the main source of jobs and economic development. As I go along, I’m keeping a list of interesting words and poetic strategies, and trying to put them to use in my drafts this week.

Today’s draft was from the “Breaking the Sentence” prompt by Roger Mitchell in The Practice of Poetry. This exercise asks us to break the usual pattern of sentences in order to focus only on the things (objects) present in a poem, noting that “writing will often seem as if it were made by the sentence rather than by a freed imagination.” Mitchell asks us to remember that “the objective world is our best (perhaps only) source of images, and that poems are made of things.” The rule of the prompt is to write a poem of sentences (or fragments) that communicate only objects.

I kind of followed the prompt, focusing mainly on objects/images, but allowing a little bit of connective tissue in. The effort toward images kept my draft from becoming too narrative, which I liked very much. The draft’s title is “Drowning,” in keeping with my thoughts around accidents.

One thing I’ll often do before drafting a poem is look up the etymology of key words. This sometimes leads to lines to include in the poem. In today’s draft, the etymology of the word “drown” opens the poem: “To be swallowed by water taken whole, / but no they say drowning is the worst way // to go… .” Here’s the etymology website I use when I’m too lazy to get up and open my favorite etymology dictionary.

So far, I’ve noticed that the drafts I’ve worked on this week are from the perspective of a mother. Imagine that! Also, I forgot to mention earlier that all the drafts are going straight into the Resting Drawer and I’m not peeking on them until next week. This takes more self-control than I thought it would. I really like to check on new drafts to make sure they’re still there :).

See you back here tomorrow for day 4. I think I’m going to go take a nap.

day 2: Self-Designed Part-Time 7-Day From Scratch With a Little Bit of Crazy Mixed In Writing Residency

Is it just me, or are we all singing R.E.M. in our heads? Photo wikimedia.

It’s 6:20 a.m. Do you know where your children are? Two of mine are still asleep, and one is breaching the prohibition of talking to Mommy before 7 a.m.: Mom this is is an emergency! Can we close the sliding glass door because it’s cold in here. I’m rollin’ with it.

Yesterday I wrote about doing a brief, homegrown writing residency (I use the term loosely) with the goal of generating some new work, some intentional drafts. Prompts are coming from this book, which I recommend enthusiastically. My copy is battered and worn. It’s strung with memories — little notes from the kids, Sister’s first “E” (with several crossways lines), and notes to self (“midrashim – bible stories told from perspective of someone not given voice in the extant scripture”). But I digress.

Yesterday morning, I couldn’t find my copy of The Practice of Poetry, so I borrowed a title, “Another Failed Poem About ___________” (you can fill in the blank for yourself if you’re writing along).

This morning I went back to an old favorite from PofP called the cut-and-shuffle. The idea is to write a short scene (6-10 sentences) that is physically inactive or quiet; then write a physically active or emotionally charged scene. Then, alternating sentences from piece 1 and piece 2, begin to draft a poem.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the things that happen in our lives, perhaps by chance, perhaps not — things that seem accidental, but that can change our lives. Good luck, bad luck, love, illness, injury. You get the idea. My draft is titled “Fire.” The physically inactive scene is of a mother sewing, pricking her finger with a needle, tending to the small wound, and going on with her day. The physically active scene is of a fire that begins and burns unbeknownst to the mother. I used wikipedia to refresh my memory a bit about the chemical process of fire (I wouldn’t recommend wikipedia as the primary source for a graduate level thesis, but it’s pretty helpful for writing poems).

I can tell this draft will need to grow a bit, so that there’s more suspense and more at stake for the mother. Which reminds me of a story my friend told me about her friend, whose kids ran into the kitchen one summer day and yelled, “Mom, where’s the marshmallows?” The mom asked, “What do you need marshmallows for?” Their reply, “For the fire!”

Crazy stuff happens.

Now it’s almost time for me to switch out my Poet hat for my Mom hat. Have a great day, Reader, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow.

greetings from my writing residency

most important writing residency accessory

Reader, I’ve been planning on posting all day, but I’m on a different schedule than usual  because I’m doing a writing residency. Don’t get too excited for me — it’s not one of the big ones — not Yaddo or MacDowell or even Vermont Studio Center. No, it’s what I’m calling the Self-Designed Part-Time 7-Day From Scratch With a Little Bit of Crazy Mixed In Writing Residency.

Yes, that’s right, taking my cue from Sandy Longhorn who did a month-long at-home writing residency this summer, I’m doing a a residency right here at home in the thick of things. Last week I wrote about finding a groove, and I know that’s a few weeks off yet. In the meantime, I felt the need to stake a claim for my creative life in a way that feels manageable. It’s been a while since I’ve drafted intentionally, so I wanted to make new drafts my focus.

I’ve chosen seven prompts from my old favorite book-of-prompts The Practice of Poetry. I’ve set aside two hours every morning (5:00 to 7:00) for reading and studying poetry, free writes, and attempts at new drafts following the prompts. The children have been put on notice: For seven days, they are in charge of their own breakfasts. Including clean-up. They are not to speak to me until 7:00 a.m. Unless there’s a broken bone. I’ve promised to look the other way when they eat cinnamon-sugar toast morning after morning (well, I haven’t promised them that, but I’ve promised myself). The bottom line is that with just a few shifts and a little planning ahead, and knowing that it’s only for 7 days, I think I can do this thing.*

*Parents with children 5 and under, do not try this at home.

Today was day one. Things got off to a rocky start when I couldn’t find my copy of The Practice of Poetry. Minor detail. But I didn’t let it throw me. I did a little thinking and pulled a prompt from the air. I’ve been kind of, well, obsessed with the Annunciation lately. I’ve tried to write poems about it with varying levels of success — none that I’m thrilled about. Taking a cue from Sandra Beasley’s poem “Another Failed Poem About the Greeks,” I decided to draft “Another Failed Poem About the Annunciation.” Just my speed — a title with low expectations. I’m joking a little, but actually the working title did free me up to meet the subject less seriously than I might under another title.

I’d had a line echoing in my head, “By this time, I was old enough to know better,” so I started with that. The draft moved down the page borrowing from biblical language and stories, but also using signposts from modern, everyday life, like the PTA (I’ve been waiting a long time to use the PTA in a poem, and boy did that feel good!). The poem ends with a wish expressed: “Just once I want to see that young girl // raise her eyes to the hills / and run like hell.”

Well reader, bedtime is very strict at this residency so I must away. But first I want to invite you to write along with me this week if you like. No need to get up as early as I am, unless that works for you. I’ll post the prompt I’m using each morning by 8:00 and I’ll follow up with notes later in the day. I’d have given you more notice, but just this morning I realized it was now or never as it appears that Husband might actually be in town all week.

Ok, the house mother just told me it’s lights out right now and she means it (are there house mothers at writing residencies? I would like a house mother, and one that wears muumuus and makes sure you don’t let your feet get cold). Good night!