you’ll never need a writing prompt again: join me for Reading as a Generative Practice


“Magic Word” from Jennifer Richter’s Threshold (plus my reading notes).

On Sunday, May 31, from 2:00-4:30PM, I’ll be teaching an online course through The Writer’s Center on reading as a generative practice, and I invite you to join me.

“Love reading first,” writes Rita Dove, “& the poetry will find its place. Then write, & love the work of writing.” This has been very true in my writing life, and is even more true if I’m reading in a way that’s attentive to how the text in front of me might nudge me toward my own next poem.

This workshop explores the importance of reading for your writing practice, and the ways close reading of a poem can be a generative act. We’ll read poems by contemporary poets, discuss specific methods for finding entry points to our own poems through the work of others, and use one (or more) of the strategies to write something new. Once you’ve learned to read this way, you’ll never need another writing prompt!

It’s a class that’s appropriate for any poet at any level, and I’d love to “see” you there, or, on Zoom, rather. You can find details and registration information at this link.

last missive from the wee, small house


Dear reader, I am up with the birds stealing a few moments at my desk. My desk which I will likely not see again until August. It will be a summer of transience—some time at my parents’, some at my aunt’s and uncle’s, maybe some camping(?)—as we wait to get into our new house, do a bit of necessary work, then finally move in.

The thought of this for a homebody such as myself is a bit overwhelming. But books and blank notebooks have a way of saving us (me), so I have sent some ahead to be kept out of the moving van and storage. Let’s not think now about how I will have to haul them hither and yon all summer as we make our wanderings from place to place.

The books that have been saving me this week are these:


I have always loved early C. D. Wright (Translations..).  The Poet, the Lion &c. is brand new, and I feel it should be required reading for all human beings. You could say it’s a poetic poetics. You could say it’s one, long ars poetica. You could say it’s a road map for how to live.

Here are some lines that have kept me going this week, from “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer”:


That the poems we snatch from the language must bear the habit of our thinking.

That their arrangement strengthens the authority on which each separate line is laid.

That they extend the line into perpetuity.

That they enlarge the circle.

That they awaken the dreamer. That they awaken the schemer.

That they rectify the names.

That they draw not conclusions but further qualify doubt.

That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.

That they clear the air.

That they keep a big-box sense of humor at the ready (like an ax in a glass case).

That they bring the ship nearer to its longing.

That they resensitize the surface of things.

That they will not stand alone.

This is our mind. Our language. Our light. Our word. Our bond.

In the world.

–from The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. 



And now I’m off to gather bed linens and take them to the laundromat for washing (because I cannot even with the thought of used bedsheets of teenaged boys sitting in an un-air-conditioned storage unit all summer).

I don’t know when I’ll be back here, but I’ll check in when I can. Meanwhile, read on, write on. Meanwhile, let’s remember: You can quit anytime. Why quit now?

friday roundup: silences and hands edition

Hello, reader. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about silence.

silence n. 1. complete absence of sound. 2. the fact or state of abstaining from speech > the avoidance of mentioning or discussing something. v. 1. make silent. 2. fit with a silencer.

From the from Latin silentium “a being silent,” from silens, present participle of silere “be quiet or still,” of unknown origin.

I’ve been thinking about two different forms of silence:

silence the first The first is that silence that sometimes descends upon a writer. I’m in the midst of one of these silences now—nothing’s flowing and the stillborn lines are piling up in my notebook.

How fitting, in this case,  that at its deepest root silence is “of unknown origin.”

These silence are always excruciating, and when I’m in the midst of one I always make sure to remind myself that I’m not the only one who has hit quiet patches. Here’s Louise Glück in her essay “Education of the Poet”:

“I have wished, since I was in my early teens, to be a poet; over a period of more than thirty years, I have had to get through extended silences. By silences I mean periods, sometimes two years in duration, during which I have written nothing. Not written badly, written nothing. Nor do such periods feel like fruitful dormancy.”

I also remind myself of the things I do to keep moving forward amidst the silence and stillborn lines:

  • read, and while I’m reading,
  • write down lines grab my attention
  • work in my lexicon
  • copy poems I love into my notebook by hand
  • keep adding to my lists
  • look back in my notebooks (often I will find a line or a fragment that shakes something loose in me)
  • accept the obstacle in the path as the path: rather than write, revise, send out poems, do other writerly things that are not writing
  • write anyway (I have been this time)
  • read a lot of craft essays…

…which brings me to:

silence the second  The other silence I’ve been thinking about is the silence of the unsaid in a poem. My favorite poems are so often those that don’t hand over everything, that use silence as a tool, that suggest rather than declare. Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snowman” ends with this stanza:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The kind of silence I’m thinking about is “the nothing that is.” A silence that makes itself felt in the poem, a bodied silence. Conveniently, Louise Glück also writes about this kind of silence in her essay “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”:

“The unsaid for me exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made from this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.”

Yes, this is what I want to do with silence in my poems. Not that I know how. Glück also writes:

“All earthly experience is partial.”

If you have favorite poems that employ a felt silence, I hope you’ll share them in comments.

P.S.  Both of the Glück essays referred to are in her book Proofs & Theories.

hands  O, hands. Having a certain, long-standing relationship with inflammatory arthritis (thank you, Lupus), I have a very fraught relationship with hands. Especially my own hands. I will never forget this exchange with one of my doctors years ago:

Him: Do you drop things?
Me: Yes.
Him: Hopefully not the baby!

But recently I read Aracelis Girmay‘s book Kingdom Animalia. This poet has taken hold of hands, and her hands, and all hands. There are so many hands in her poems, that I began to love hands in a whole new way. I love it when a poet takes possession of something like this. Also: read this book. It is so good. Anyway, one of my favorite poems in the book is called “Portrait of the Woman as a Skein.” It’s a long poem in sections, and sadly I’ve not been able to find a version that’s link-to-able online. So I’m going to give you one section of it, and I think you will see why I love this book:



Last night, the dream of you standing
in the doorway like a lighthouse
calling for your hands to come back
home, & from a great distance, them
running towards you, two
children or two dogs. What scared you then,
you also called it beautiful—
the way their breath flew out of them like clouds,
the way they reached the dark yard panting & stood
deciding between the body & the woods.


Between the body and the woods. Oh my goodness.

Have a wonderful weekend, reader, and may all your silences have the power of ruins. Thanks for reading!

friday roundup: new year edition


Snow… outside the village

Hi Reader, and happy new year. We are back from a wonderful trip to Michigan to visit family. There were cousins! There were all sorts of Christmas cookies! There was snow! It was fun, and my joy was doubled seeing how much the kids enjoyed our time with family and the northern Michigan landscape I so dearly love. Now, I seem to be taking my time getting back into a routine (in my defense, the kids weren’t back in school until Wednesday and yesterday was a half-day), but I’m getting there in fits and starts.

I’ve been reading here and there, working on book reviews, and trying to organize my workspace for the new year. I’m not big on resolutions or fresh starts; I’m just showing up at my desk as usual, and here’s what I’m thinking bout this week:

writing as re-vision  In the new Writer’s Chronicle, I came across a reference to Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” Of course I had to read it, and although it was written in the year I was born, I feel much of what it has to say—about writing, about feminism, and about life (and for me, especially the life of a poet-mother)—still applies. Here are two of my favorite snippets:

“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.”


“You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming.”

In her essay, Rich was writing about re-vision as a way of understanding the world and one’s self in the world amidst the feminist movement, and about transforming that experience into art. Without detracting from the importance of Rich’s macro-level ideas, I think it’s also interesting to think of these quotes at a much the micro level: while re-visioning poems.

You can find the whole essay here. Thank you, Interwebs.

soothsaying in reverse  I’ve also been reading Marianne Boruch’s essay “The End Inside It.” Thank you, New England Review. Have you read any of Boruch’s essays? They are amazing things: deeply intelligent, lyrical, somehow also philosophical, syntactically astonishing, often wryly humorous, and then also so very attuned to craft. I don’t know how she does it. She says many thought-provoking things in this essay, and takes a close look at endings in several different poems, but the thing that keeps rising to the top of my mind is this bit:

“One of the simple, great things about poems is that for the most part they are small inventions—a page, two pages. That is, we can be there with them; we can hover, literally over them, a few moments for the eye, an ear to them briefly, and how many breaths from first to line to last? Not that many. Which is to say, in reading—as reader—the finished thing, or in its morphing into the revision if we’re actually the writer-thereof, we can enter it again and again until it all becomes a kind of soothsaying in reverse, to stare at a poem (as reader) or its draft (as writer) and note how the ending in fact comes to be, came to be, or could come to be, bringing its most secret life as both earned thing—fashionable to say that now—and as deep surprise.”

No pressure. But how about that: “soothsaying in reverse”!? Let us all be soothsayers.

irrevocable  This poem will be a repeat for those who saw it on Facebook. Sorry, but 1). I cut off a line-end in the photo on Facebook and thus need to right my wrong on the Interwebs and 2). It merits re-reading and has, over the last few days, become for me an utterly irrevocable poem, one that I’ll live with until the end of my days. Irrevocable, as in not able to be reversed or called (Latin vocare) back (Latin re-):



I told no one, but the snows came, anyway.
They weren’t even serious about it, at first.
Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,
Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.

The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening.
And there, through a thin dress once, I touched
A body so alive & eager I thought it must be
Someone else’s soul. And though I was mistaken,

And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows
In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,
Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks

From now, I will wake alone. My fate, I will think,
Will be to have no fate. I will feel suddenly hungry.

The morning will be be bright, & wrong.


This is from Levis’ posthumous collection The Darkening Trapeze edited by David St. John. I could write pages about Larry Levis, about how he is the poet laureate of oblivion, about his poem “Rhododendrons,” about his lines, his elegies, and the sad fact of his short life. But… but… all this reading? None of it was assigned. And thus I must turn my attention to things assigned and due next week.

Happy weekend and thanks for reading.




friday roundup with Ishmael, stress, and “Song After Sadness”


Hello and happy Friday. Known also as the last day the children will be in school until January 6th. So yes, I’m at my desk trying to get as much bang for my buck as I can, while I can. Here’s this week’s roundup:

Dear Ishmaelyou had me at Call me Ishmael. But I had forgotten how deeply I love you. These last two weeks I’ve been reading your story again. The one about which people in my house keep asking “Have they seen any whales yet?”; the one about which I keep saying, “No. This book is not about hunting whales.”

Ishmael, I’ve read your story so many times, but every time I fall in love again. That you named the Huzza Porpoise the Huzza Porpoise (The name is of my own bestowal… . I call him thus, because he always swims in hilarious shoals, which upon the broad sea keep tossing themselves to heaven…) . That you spend a whole chapter on cetology (Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored harborless immensities…) and then another whole chapter on the whiteness of the whale (But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness… .).

This time, Ishmael, it’s on page 128 where I fall hard. Do you mind if I take this for a prayer?

“God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience.”

Ever yours,


stress  I’m remarkably unstressed this year regarding the holidays. I attribute this mostly to a continual lowering of my own and others’ expectations. But in case you need a friendly reminder about stress and a possible remedy:

“Nothing is that important. Just lie down.” –Natalie Goldberg

Sounds good to me.

Song After Sadness  This week, I’ve been reading Katie Ford‘s Blood Lyrics. I so admire how she manages to conjure the universal from the everyday, and how she addresses enormous subjects (death, war, despair) from her own, concrete place of being (“If we are at war let the orchards show it, / let the pear and fig fall prior to their time” — from “Our Long War”).

I’ve spent a lot of time reading and admiring “Song of Sadness” in particular. It seems apropos to this particular moment on earth.

Here’s the poem at the Academy of American Poets website.


I’ll be taking a little blog break over the holidays. See you back here in 2016. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: hospital books, to weave a needed rope, and the perennial Halloween poem

V0024194 Rope-making: details of various parts of a rope-making machi Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Rope-making: details of various parts of a rope-making machine. Engraving by G. Daws. after: G. DawsPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Rope-making (wikimedia)


And sorry for the radio silence. There have been things happening involving the bodies of offspring. Everyone is fine now.

Nonetheless I have added to my list of hospital books. These are the books I’ve lived with at various points of my life while frequenting hospitals.

They include (but are not limited to):

  • From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Cultural Life  by Jaques Barzun
  • The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
  • And Her Soul Out of Nothing by Olena Kalytiak Davis
  • The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt
  • The Forest of Sure Things by Megan Snyder-Camp
  • Paradise, Indiana by Bruce Snider
  • The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Glück
  • How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher

These are not books I took with me to hospitals because of something intrinsic to the books, but are just what I was reading at the time, what I grabbed on the way out the door, and what crossed over the threshold with me to that strange, time-warped world of hospitals. These books have some fairly interesting marginalia, like:

“IV antibiotics and/or surgical drainage” and “PICC line insertion on Tues. a.m.” and “varying line lengths increases speed of poem down the page” and “Here is where I part company with (insert name of author here).” List of medications, times administered, ideas for revision (bare bleak), snatches of news caught on the drive to/from: “taking a break from your career is like hang-gliding with your child’s future.” (Well, God help us all, then).

Anyway, all this is just to say I’ve been thinking about how books are more than just books. They become companions. When I pull these books back out I say, Hello, old friend. I remember things forgotten (and instructions from doctors) as I page through. I feel known by them somehow.

I wish for you very, very few hospital books, but many, many companion books that know you somehow.

to weave a needed rope Last week, I brought not a book (well, I brought a book, too) but an interview I’d printed out from the Writer’s Almanac. It was an interview with Jane Hirshfield, and here’s the best part:

“To write a poem, for me, is to weave a needed rope out of thin air, often in desperation, while falling.”

(*raises hand)

There are  many other good parts, and you can read the whole interview here.

the perennial Halloween poem  I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself. I’m sure I’ve shared this poem before. And I’m a little wounded regarding this poem right now, because my daughter came home from school this week and said, “Mom! You can help me! I have to bring in a Halloween poem!” She was so excited that there was something tangible I could help her with (typically, my poetry background is considered more liability than asset when it comes to helping with school). “I know the perfect poem!” I said, and referred her to the perennial Halloween poem. She read it. “No way, Mom,” she said. Which I probably could’ve predicted, but I live in hope that someday one of my children will appreciate a poem I recommend (other recent losers include “I Feel Just Fine in My Pants” by Yehuda Amichai, which I was inspired to read aloud when we recently (finally!) had a day that was cool enough for pants, and I felt just fine in mine; and the last three stanzas of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” — I mean, who can resist a passage that begins, “Darkling, I listen…”?).

Well, anyway, here is the perennial Halloween poem, Louise Glück’s “All Hallows” which I will never tire of, which I will forever recommend to anyone who will listen.

So that’s a wrap for today. I’m hoping to get back to some more posts on submissions sometime soon. Until then, Happy Halloween!

friday roundup: back to the drawing board edition

Vincent's Still Life with Drawing Board, Pipe, Onions and Sealing-Wax (wikimedia)

Vincent’s Still Life with Drawing Board, Pipe, Onions and Sealing-Wax (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday. I am nearly one week through a two-week period of half-days of school for the children (insert forced smile here). I’d like to say that poems are dying all over the place because of this, but most of what I’ve attempted this week has been stillborn anyway. Sometimes I think writing actually gets harder as one goes along because one knows more. The more one knows, the higher one’s standards for one’s own work, etc.

Well anyway, what choice do we have but to keep at it? I’ve tried abandoning poetry and it refuses to be abandoned. So every morning, it’s back to the drawing board. Even when it’s painful,

even when every effort is stillborn. Which made me think of this section of Eliot’s Four Quartets:


So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.


Please, to repeat: FOR US, THERE IS ONLY THE TRYING. THE REST IS NOT OUR BUSINESS. I suppose if Eliot felt this way, the rest of us are entitled to as well.

reading, that eternal font  Sometimes I feel the same about reading: that my efforts at it are stillborn. That although I can see the obvious craft in a text, I can think of nothing insightful to say about it. I can read it over and over again, and still have nothing insightful to say about it. I can even LOVE IT, and have nothing insightful to say about it.

(Real-time digression: I’ve many times had the experience of reading a book of poems, having nothing insightful to say about it, but having it somehow get inside me and push my writing into a new space. Although I don’t understand how this works, I am always grateful for it. Perhaps this dynamic is more valuable than having something insightful to say.).

I was reading Seamus Heaney’s essays again this week, and he writes about learning from Eliot (Coincidence? I think not.). He writes about reading Eliot, but “finding it difficult to retain any impression unified and whole in my mind.” I suppose if Seamus felt this way, the rest of us are entitled to as well.

He writes about different ways of making sense of a text. When we couldn’t make sense of Eliot intellectually, he found a way of making sense of the sound of Eliot’s poems.

And he writes of eventually getting it:

“(F)irst encountered as a strange fact of culture, poetry is internalized over the years until it becomes, as they say, second nature. Poetry that was originally beyond you, generating the need to understand and overcome its strangeness, becomes in the end a familiar path within you, a grain along which your imagination opens pleasurably backwards towards an origin and seclusion.”

He says that reading Eliot taught gave him

“..the confidence to affirm that there is a reality to poetry which is unspeakable, and for that very reason all the more piercing… .”

I don’t know about you, but I am taking notes.

And if a day is left to me…  Here is a poem I came across this week that I LOVE, and I could probably even think of something insightful to say about, but won’t, since sometimes I think it’s nice to just let a poem wash over one’s mind and one’s body, and then to sigh pleasurably, and just say, Wow. This is “And If a Day is Left to Me Before I’m Old” as featured at the Missouri Review Poem-of-the-Week.

Happy weekend and thanks for reading.