friday roundup: being the cannibal, sensory detail in the brain (and also the heart), and the title for this post has too many words in it



Happy Friday, Reader. Did you know that in some species of insects and arachnids the females eat the males after or during the act of procreation? I have been thinking about this lately, not because I’m eyeing my spouse thinking ‘snack.’ No. Rather, because I’ve been cannibalizing old poems. Let me tell you a little bit about…

being the cannibal  The Manuscript That Will Never Say Die, Or For That Matter, ‘Done’ (as I fondly refer to my manuscript) has been sniffing around my desk asking to be fed and watered. Dear Manuscript, I sometimes feel like saying, I have nothing more to give. Except that I’ve learned again and again when I feel that way it’s time to go back.

By this I mean go back to old poems, old not-quite-poems, and old just-writing-in-my-notebook-not-even-close-to-poems. Because, guess what: the different, fresher, stronger, more resonant images that you think you need for what you’re working on today might be there.

In other words, let your poems be cannibals. Let them go back and eat the pinky finger of the poem you’ve decided is just not crucial enough to work on anymore, but whose seventh line you know is really strong.

And also, friendly reminder: All the poems in the ‘I Abandon’ file? Those, as you page through them, will tell you the story of how you got to the poem you are writing this week. Oh yes, the poem I finally wrote that stuck has twenty-seven failed poem attempts behind it. Nothing is wasted.

Which is not to say you never have to push through to new lines, images, metaphors, etc. It’s just to say: don’t forget what you already have. And, to repeat: Nothing is wasted.

(I can never think of the phrase “to repeat” without thinking of this scene in When Harry Met Sally).

sensory detail and the brain (and also the heart)  So, I’ve been memorizing a new poem this week (the poem’s not new; the me memorizing it is). It’s Jack Gilbert’s “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” and if you glance at it you’ll see that it starts out making an argument, and then moves into a meditation on language. An image-heavy meditation on language. A full-of-sensory detail meditation on language.

And I’ve noticed an interesting thing about memorizing the poem. Usually I go in line order to memorize. But this time, I’ve learned the last half of the poem first — not for want of trying to memorize the lines in order… it’s just that the latter half of the poem has stuck with me in a way that the first half has not (yet).

Which  made me think of a Poets&Writers article I read last summer, “The Heart and the Eye” (sorry, not available online). In it, J.T. Bushnell explains the neuroscience behind the power of sensory detail:

“When we read about an odor (or image or sensation), it engages the exact same part of the brain as actually smelling it (or seeing it or touching it), and those parts of the brain reside in the lower region, alongside our emotional centers.”

This, Bushnell says, is why writing full of images, smells, and other sensations “can take such precise aim at the heart.”

This (I think) is why I’m having a hard time remembering the more rhetorical lines of Gilbert’s poem, but also why when my husband sends a text that he’s at the airport in Singapore getting on a flight to come home, the following line from the poem comes out of my mouth before I realize it, “My joy is the same as twelve / Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.”

And it’s why when the air cools and the ginko trees begin their slow walk from green to gold I can cry out (to the embarrassment of my children), “O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper”!

Note to self.

the title for this post has too many words in it  What can I say, I’m tired. But I’ve been thinking about titles and what they can do for a poem (or how they can sabotage a poem) — pithy titles, mysterious titles, unique titles, boring titles, luxuriant titles, and especially the title of a Jane Hirshfield poem, which is “For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen.”

This poem is in her collection Come, Thief. Both in the table of contents and in the magazine it was first published in, it was titled “For the Lichens.” Space constraints, I’m sure.

But I’m so in love with its long, luxuriant title, which adorns the page above the poem in the book. Say it out loud! It’s amazing! And I like the poem, too — the way it’s a celebration of lichens but also of language and of survival. And, beyond that, of plain old keeping at it.

Here it is in The Atlantic.

May you have a luxuriant weekend. May you always keep at it, whatever ‘it’ is.

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, saturday edition: the usual scramble, keeping one’s chin up, and “winter should have meaning for you”

snowdrops, wikimedia

snowdrops, wikimedia

Reader, I write amidst the usual scramble — this week’s not-normal normalcy. Husband just asked me if I know where the vacuum maintenance kit is. I confess, until he asked, I wasn’t aware of its existence. We just had a family-wide, house-wide search for my copy of Louise Gluck’s collected poems. How could it just go missing? I just had it. There are only so many places to look in the Wee, Small House. It’s too thick to disappear. Panicked searching — could I have possibly left it at the library? No, I didn’t take it, it’s too heavy. Under stacks, on shelves, in cupboards. Then, Eldest Son: “Wait, wait! I know where it is! I’m using it to flatten out one of my Magic cards.”

Is nothing sacred, Reader? Not even Louise Gluck’s collected?

At any rate, here amidst the usual scramble, I’m still staking a claim for poetry. I’m finding time to write, less than I desire, but some. I’m chipping away at things, remaining open, trying to have realistic expectations and flexible plans. I’ve been working away at prompts and doing some revision. I haven’t submitted anything yet this calendar year; my goal for next week is at least one submission. Sorry about the lack of roundup yesterday, but there were Many Doctor’s Appointments. During our copious amounts of waiting room time, I revisited one of the first poets whose work I first fell in love with: Seamus Heaney. Reading through selections from his North, I came across the line “I step through origins” and noted in the margin: !! explanation of his entire body of work. It’s fun to re-read, to remember the person you were then, to see more deeply into the same poem because of who you’ve become since you last read it. The usual scramble is good for something.

keeping one’s chin up  But I’d be lying if I said I was sailing through the usual scramble unruffled. Has anyone read this month’s Poets&Writers yet? I made the mistake of reading Reagan Upshaw’s “Reality Check” article (sorry, can’t find this online). Allow me to quote:

A friend of mine once studied with an editor who gave interns strict guidelines for reading cover letters: Did the submitting poet have previous publications in prestigious magazines? Where and with whom did she get her MFA? Was the letter addressed to the editor by name, and did an established poet give the submitter that name? And on and on. If the cover letter didn’t pass muster, there was no chance a submission would be given more than a cursory glance.

I also know of someone who worked at a magazine where the readers did not even look at submissions unless (1) the poet was a recognized name, or (2) the poet was a subscriber to the journal.


I’m all for subscribing, but realistically we can’t all subscribe to 50 or more journals every year. I’m all for establishing oneself and building a track record, but how does one establish a track record if, outside of connections and MFAs, submissions aren’t seriously considered? And what can we make of submissions guidelines (“We consider work from emerging and established poets, as well as from fresh new voices”) that aren’t, in fact, genuine or accurate? And of editors, who when asked/interviewed say something along the lines of, “It’s about the work. It’s always about the work. And it’s only about the work.” But then instruct their first readers otherwise?

Part of my struggle is that I’ve been trying to submit to more selective markets lately, but when I read something like this, I wonder if it’s even worth it. So, I confess, this has been a week of me trying to keep my chin up. Of keeping at it despite obstacles and gate-keepers. Which I will, because to not keep at it is not an option.

winter should have meaning for you  As I wrote earlier, I’ve been reading a bit of Louise Gluck this week. I’m a big fan of her early work. I’m mixed on her more recent work (cannot force myself to like Ararat for example). But I had never read Wild Iris (practically sinful, I know). I have to say I really love it, and this week, I’m especially in love with this poem from that collection:


Snowdrops by Louise Gluck

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring —

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.


Happy weekend, Reader. And may you always be crying yes risk joy, even amidst the usual scramble.

S.O.S. week #2 update: the tortoise and the hare edition

public domain – wikimedia

Hello Reader, welcome back to the Summer of Submissions (S.O.S.).

Anyway, after having seen the writing on the wall, and after receiving welcome support and sage advice from friends near and far, I have come ’round right. No, last week’s goal of 5 submissions did not happen. But 2 submissions did. And I learned (well, re-learned, as I often do) some stuff.

Adding to the long and growing list of items learned, re-learned, and re-re-learned we have:

1. Slow but steady wins the race
2. Do the highest priority item first; all the rest is gravy.
3. Sleep when the baby sleeps.

Okay, that last one doesn’t exactly apply anymore (and I am breaking my little rule right now to write this post, but — what can I say? — I’ve missed you!). But seriously, I did need to remind myself that a to-do list a mile long can’t be completed in one hour, or even one day. That, instead of my morning reading and writing — which is usually my highest priority — I can do submissions first a couple mornings a week. And, that if I go to bed shortly after the wee ones do, I can carve out a bit more writing time in the morning before they wake.

One other thing: I had to remind myself to give myself credit for all that I am accomplishing, instead of focusing on things I was not accomplishing. Last fall I made a list of Things Poets Do. It goes like this (in no particular order):

1. Read and study a wide variety of good writing, especially contemporary poetry
2. Keep up with the news of the po-world
3. Draft poems
4. Do research, legwork, word-work, and notebook work to nourish the drafting process
5. Revise poems
6. Connect with other poets and readers and writers and artists
7. Swap poems for critiques, and critique others’ poems
8. Read Poets&Writers
9. Attend readings
10. Give readings
11. Spread the poems
12. Read a wide variety of literary journals
13. Research places to submit work
14. Submit work
15. Attend arts events to support the local art scene and for cross-pollination purposes
16. Read essays to learn more about specific craft elements; generally, study elements of craft
17. Attend classes, workshops, retreats, etc.
18. Get enough sleep, healthy food, exercise, and recreation (good self-care)
19. Apply for mentorships and grants
20. Errands in support of writing (office supplies, post office, etc.)
21. Get editorial experience, if possible
22. Set goals and track progress toward goals

There you have my list of the many things poets do, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. I often have a hard time giving myself credit for anything other than generating new work and revising. Bzzzt! Wrong answer. Whatever you do in this world, be you a mother or father, a teacher, a doctor, an attorney, a Village President (shout out to my BFF’s little sister, who actually is the Village President of our hometown – holla!), a farmer, a social worker, a designer of delectable shoes — make sure you’re giving yourself credit for all the things you do. It all counts.

I’ll make that number four on my learn, re-learn, re-re-learn list.

Long story longer, for the rest of the Summer of Submissions, I’m going to aim for two submissions a week, and give myself credit for my ongoing efforts to get a solid, long-term submissions process in place (tracking journals, making packets, generally getting more organized and less random).

There, now, much better.

Next time you feel like you’re not getting anything done, set aside the to-do list, and make a “things I do” or even a “done” list. I promise you’ll feel better. A little perspective is everything, no?

sunday words: the wildest thing of all

“… the wildest thing of all is to come to terms with your situation, to come to grips with it, and to trust and accept and to have faith.  — Cheryl Strayed

From an interview in Poets&Writers, March/April 2012.
Learn more about this writer here.
Learn more about her most recent book, Wildhere.

friday roundup: living vicariously, shoebox poems, and total eclipse

This morning I moved all the scary piles off my desk and started fresh. This is not to say I accomplished anything that’s waiting for me in those scary piles, but at least they can no longer taunt me as they’re out of my sight. For now. And it’s Friday, so it’s time for a roundup. Here we go:

Claus W. Vogl; public domain from wikimedia

living vicariously Those of you who swim around in the writing world know that the annual AWP conference was last weekend. I’ve been reading everyone’s AWP posts and updates, living vicariously through their accounts of the conference. If you’d like to live vicariously, too, here are a few links to: Donna Vorreyer’s reflections on AWP, including a lovely poem; Laura E. Davis’ Top Ten Moments of AWP; Sandy Longhorn’s summary of what she learned and what she’s thinking about from AWP; a few updates (you may have to scroll down to find them) from Kathleen Kirk, who packed particularly light (very impressive, Kathleen!); and this list of “overheards” (caution: not to be read with small children looking over one’s shoulder) which includes one very funny question from a cab driver. And here is one of my all-time favorite AWP post-mortems by Kay Ryan. Ah, AWP, I hope to meet you next year in Boston.

shoebox poems  Every week, Poets&Writers posts a poetry prompt (fiction, too, I think), and this week’s prompt really appealed to me. I often use prompts if, for nothing else, to get me to the point of pen on paper. As the words begin flowing, the prompt often goes right out the window, but at that point it doesn’t matter. This prompt is a bit different as it involves collecting snatches of this and that over the course of the week, and making a poem from the collection. I use the word ‘making’ purposely — the word poet comes from the Greek for poiein, “to make or compose.” To say  “I’ve made a poem,” feels different than “I’ve written a poem,” no? Here is the prompt from P&W:

During the next week collect images, photographs, small objects, lines of poetry that you’ve written, passages from other writers’ work, snippets of conversations you overhear. Throughout the week put these things in a shoe box or something similar. At the end of the week, sit down and lay out each thing around you. Use the things you’ve collected as the ingredients for a poem.

I’m going to try this exercise this week, and next Friday I’ll let you know how it goes. If you want to try it, too, please join in and let us know how it went for you. And, to a certain high school English teacher in the readership, you’re welcome for your next lesson plan.

total eclipse This week I re-read one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing: “Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard, from her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. No review or summary can do justice to this piece — it’s precision, its tension, the descriptions of the earth under the eclipse, the inner and psychological spaces the eclipse takes us down into. Do yourself a favor and go read this piece here, or check it out of your library, or order it here, or ask for it at your friendly, neighborhood, independent bookseller’s. And did you know that the next total eclipse of the sun viewable in the U.S. will occur on August 17, 2017, in an area near Hopkinsville, Kentucky? Might have to road trip.

Reader, that’s it for this week’s roundup. Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful weekend, and thanks for reading. And, P.S., if you know of other AWP reports circulating the web that I should read, let me know in comments!

of saints, rabbit holes, and literary genuflection

WWII poster by H. Coffin; public domain from Nat'l Archives

The children went back to school last Wednesday, and on Friday I finally had a wide-open morning to spend near my favorite sunny window in the library. I keep a file called “the blotter,” which is just a long list of poem-seeds — ideas for titles or first lines; begged-borrowed-or-stolen phrases; questions that maybe, just maybe, could be answered by a poem. I was planning on drafting toward the latest title dictated to me by the Mail Order Bride: The Mail Order Bride Takes to Her Sickbed (for more info on how the Mail Order Bride came into being, you can read this post and this post on my old blog).

As I was packing up my desk to head out, I glanced at the headlines at The New York Times website. The task master in my brain scolded me for getting distracted — “don’t get sucked in by the Internet!” — but the curious soul in me saw a link to an article about Joan of Arc.

Who isn’t fascinated by Joan of Arc? Of course I had to follow that link.

Even as I read, I thought of an article in this month’s Poets&Writers about the downsides of our online world and the distractions it can cause for writers (and everyone else). The article spoke of writers who work on Internet-disabled computers, and one writer who moved his family to the woods of New Hampshire, away from the wired world, to write his book.

I get that, but the curious soul in me resists the idea of writing in an Internet blackout. So many of my poems were born of ventures down an Internet rabbit hole, just such as the one I followed last Friday that led me to my latest draft.

I followed that link, printed the article, and took it with me to the library. Once there, I dove in via Google and found a bazillion fascinating facts and stories about this girl saint. Before long, my curiosity had gone beyond what Google could dish up, and I found myself on my knees in the stacks with the reference librarian (I pause here to thank the Universe for reference librarians) paging through art bibliographies for references to paintings of Joan of Arc. On my knees in the stacks of the library is one of my favorite places to be.

So, now I had a bazillion facts and stories, the titles of several paintings, and a small word bank from a poem by Sally Rosen Kindred from her book No Eden. I also had the verb “to halve” echoing in my ears, so I let that be my starting place:

“I’m halved by what’s asked of me, / too. I’ve sheared my hair and tied myself /up in ill-fitting clothes…”

The draft goes on as the speaker of the poem talks to Joan casually, as one would talk to a friend in the kitchen, putting dinner together. But when the friend is Joan of Arc, “the saints’ urgings simmer / over our shoulders” and eventually a parting of ways must ensue. The draft ends: “And Joan, this is where / we part, you and I, at the crossroads / of faith inking itself on your every limb / your mouth ruptured by a sudden current of doves, while I / chew and swallow, turn back to the stove, reach / for the only things I can believe in tonight: // Salt, this spoon, / and stirring.

So, we’ll see where Joanie and I go from here. Meanwhile, I’m voting for following those Internet rabbit holes (within reason, of course) — you never know where they’ll lead you.

You just might end up making dinner with a saint.

P.S. WordPress is giving me fits about couplets — there’s an automatic feature that creates a double space between lines if the text isn’t wrapped at the end, so until I figure out how to turn that off, the linebreaks of poems will have to be noted by ‘/’ and stanza breaks by ‘//’.