Thursday, March 26, 2015

Random Inspirations

--I am always on the lookout for inspirations for future poetry writing and this morning, I came across this blog post with this poem:

DUSK by Lisa Russ Spaar

Blue, I love your lapis palace,
your stair of melancholy that burns,
but does not consume my heart.

I love the heaven-shot and glinting stares
of all your tall and far-flung windows,
your shadowed sills, your roofless picnic of stars.

I climb your fabled tense of once
and upon a time, your fractured prayer:
that restless hinge: your voice, thick with thorns.

Molly Spencer, the writer of the larger blog post, gives this writing suggestion:  What color (or colors) could you write a direct-address poem to? Something to try, perhaps.

--I thought about all the colors I love:  blue and purple and green.  I thought about jewels and peacock feathers.  But I did not write a poem to a color.

--I read these lines written by Luisa Igloria in this blog post/poem:

The sales clerk said, helpfully: Sometimes
the size is different depending on the maker.


--I thought of factory workers and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  I thought of all the ways that workers rebel, the daily resistance, and how it can end in a blaze.  Or maybe it just ends in shirts of slightly different sizes.  I had a vision of factory workers cutting slightly off the pattern, but of course, that process must be mechanized.

--Maybe the machines rebel against the mechanized work, the relentless quest for conformity, the soul-stripping nature of their existence.

--I think of my good friend and her co-existence of a new machine.  She lies awake at night watching it watch her.  I asked if it was noisy, and she said no.  It's just a new presence in the bedroom.

--I think of this machine, and factory machines, and all the tiny machines we keep in our pockets.  How in thrall we are to them!  Yesterday I walked up the stairs with a colleague who could walk up the stairs and text at the same time.   However I was halfway down the hallway before I realized that I had left her behind.  We may be able to text and walk, but few people can text and walk at a quick pace.

--When my parents taught me about resisting peer pressure, we all assumed that I'd be pressured to smoke or take drugs.  Lately, everyone's been telling me how I need to join this century and get a smartphone.  But I already find it hard to be present with humans when I'm surrounded by other machines.  Why would I want to add a little despot of a machine to the menagerie?

--I think of machines and how much music has been mechanized.  I think of how many elements of modern music annoy me:  the drum beat that never changes, the people who sing at full-throated warble, the people who don't sing but mutter, the sinister/thuggish undertones and overtones.  Some days I just want to avoid the gym altogether.

--But then I wouldn't overhear nuggets like this one:  "It should be against the rules to bring baked goods to the gym."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Incubating and Incarnation

Today is the feast day of the Annunciation.  What is that holiday?  Simply put, it celebrates the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary, who would become famous as the mother of Jesus.  He gives her the vision that God has for her; she agrees.

For a more theological reflection, see this post of mine which is up at the Living Lutheran site.

This morning, I was lying in bed reflecting on earlier times when I knew more people who were pregnant, breastfeeding, or adapting to small children.  Twelve years ago, I wrote this line, "The world is awash in breast milk."

Thirteen months ago I was at a creativity retreat at Lutheridge, a church camp, at the same week-end where a camp counselor returned to get married.  All their friends came too.  They all looked so young.  All day on Saturday, I saw young people in their dress-up clothes, adjusting a tie here, a strap there.  I battled a rising sense of panic that once I went to weddings, and now I'll be going to funerals.

This past year has been a year of many types of cancers, none of them mine.  Now when I think of Mary and the period of waiting, of incubating.  I am resisting seeing the similarities to cancers.  Maybe an idea that I resist because it scares me and it feels sacrilegious--maybe I should explore that idea in tomorrow's poetry writing session.

I am far more comfortable with the idea of a long incubation of a creative work that isn't ready for the world yet.  I'm an older woman who has had visions for her creative work that haven't come to fruition yet.  No blockbuster novel that's been made into a hit movie--no, that hasn't happened yet.  I struggle to find time to create while also having time with friends and loved ones while also taking care of my day job responsibilities.

The waiting aspect of the annunciation story gives me the most hope.  God has a vision for the redemption of the world.  But that vision requires lots of waiting.  There's the waiting through the 9 months of pregnancy and then the waiting that it takes to bring a child to adulthood.

But I also know that one can get mired in the waiting.  I need to move into a place where I'm taking more action.

Like an expectant mother, I feel tired and overwhelmed at the thought of taking action.  How can I possibly get the nursery painted and the crib refinished and the baby clothes bought and the quilts made?  But stitch by stitch, the quilts will be made.  If I can't paint the nursery today, perhaps I can get some swatches and decide on colors.

In the next day or two, I will send a chapbook manuscript to Finishing Line press.  Everything is ready to go--now all I need to do is the uploading.

Perhaps in 9 months I will be welcoming a new chapbook into the world.

What would you like to see incarnate in 9 months?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Romero, Reagan, and Refugees

Today I have Archbishop Oscar Romero on my mind.  In part, it's because today is the 35th anniversary of his assassination.  In part it's because the economic injustice that he preached against seems ever more pervasive today.

When I was in college in the 1980's first learning about Central American politics, it seemed bizarre to me that so few members of a population could control so much of the country's wealth.  And now it seems that we've seen that situation take over the world.

I'm thinking about U.S. interventions throughout Latin America and the world.  I'm wondering if there's a way to intervene without making the situation worse. 

I'm thinking of all the Central American refugees of the 1980's, many of whom are still here in the U.S., some legally, some not.  I'm thinking of my first years teaching in South Florida and realizing how many of my students were here because of the Central American strife of my college years.  In my college years, I would not have been able to imagine how all our paths would cross.

I've had many encounters with refugees on the run from repression, which makes it hard for me to demonize all the people who are here illegally.  When we discuss proposals to make it easier for people here illegally to come out of the shadows and gain citizenship, the actions of the U.S. government through the years are never far from my mind.

I'm also thinking about Liberation Theology, a movement that many see as closely linked with Romero. In the midst of the geo-political arguments of the 1980's, where Ronald Reagan warned of Communists coming across the Texas border, I also got my first hearing/reading of liberation theology, a pattern of thought that would change my life. Liberation Theology introduced me to a radical Jesus, a Jesus who demanded justice for the poor and the oppressed, a Jesus who was crucified not because of my individual sin but because he challenged the Roman power structure. This Jesus was not one I had met in the suburban, Southern churches of my youth.

Those of us who have a vision of social justice must remember that the world is not set up to reward those of us who call for a more just world. Sure, some of us may get acclaim, but the world tends to reward social justice visionaries with jail or martyrdom. But the vision is important, and it's vital that we demand it. Think of how different the world would be if people like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Romero, Martin Luther King, the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic--if these people had just sat idly by and said, "Well, I have my nice comfortable life. I'm not going to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Let them help themselves."

In later years, graduate students who want to write a dissertation about these influences in my work will have plenty of material from which to choose.  Here's a poem that came to me during the weeks following Ronald Reagan's death, those weeks where I found myself thinking, are we remembering the same president?  It was published in The South Carolina Review:


Lying in State



On the day that Ronald Reagan dies,
in the shadow of the Interstate, I offer
a homeless man a loaf of banana bread
which he grabs, as if afraid
I’ll rescind my offer.

Reagan’s body flies across the continent
to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda,
that branch of government which made policies
he tried to evade.
I report to work, teach English to the children
of families who fled Reagan’s foreign
policies, Cold War containment and interference.

On the day of Reagan’s funeral, I plant
a tree and remember his claim
that creatures of this leafy clan cause pollution.
I think of ICBMs fertilizing far away fields
and Adam dead of AIDS these twenty years,
his bones blending into the earth.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Rearranged Time and the Big Cyprus

Friday afternoon, I wrote this chunk as a Facebook status:

"I have just rearranged my dermatologist app't for a week later than the original Monday appointment, so that I could be in the sun this week-end and have time for my skin to return to a lighter, more dermatologist approved color for an appointment the last week of March. Yes, I will use sunscreen, but I will I reapply it religiously? Past behavior suggests that I will not."

But the week-end did not go exactly as planned. 

I thought that Sunday would be different.  I thought I'd need to spend time grading extra credit essays from my students, but very few of them elected to do it.  I thought I'd need to spend time submitting grades, but the portal was down all week-end.

My spouse had planned to take a motorcycle trip to Marco Island with his brother.  But his brother's bike was still in the shop, so he couldn't go.  My spouse tried to decide whether or not to go on his own.  I suggested that we take a smaller trip together.  We decided to go on the Tamiami Trail to the Big Cypress visitor's center that's halfway across the state.

The last time I went was on a school field trip in mid-September.  I remember the road as being deserted.  It was not deserted yesterday.

I didn't remember all the airboat ride places on the side of the road--hurrah for the Native Americans who have figured out how to give tourists what they want--but it made for a congested feel.

We never made it to the visitor's center, but we had a nice ride nonetheless.  I always love the vistas of the Everglades, that look of prairies.  We saw a lot of birds, but I didn't see any alligators like my spouse did.  Like last week, we saw a lot of motorcycles on the road.

We turned around because we didn't want to risk running out of gas and because I thought the portal would be up, and I would need to submit grades.  In retrospect, we could have gotten gas and kept going.  Oh well.

We stopped at a place that I thought might be Mexican or Japanese:  it was called Wajiro's, and it had a Mexican hat in neon.  No, it was a Cuban place.  We had great pork dishes, grilled plantains, some boring steamed veggies, some potatoes.  I had the best lemonaid ever, with crushed ice for a slushie-like approach, and the rim of the glass rolled in sugar.

When we filled up with gas before the restaurant, my spouse asked me if I had a credit card.  I said, "I have nothing but a chapstick and my good looks.  That won't get us very far."  But it did get me a lemonaid.

Did the restaurant mean to give us a free lemonaid?  Because of language barriers, we couldn't clarify.  We decided to just accept it for what it was--an unexpected treat, in a day of lots of unexpected treats.

We got home with enough time to relax in the pool.  It's still chilly--78 degrees--but after a hot ride, it was great to unwind there. 

Today I'm taking the day off because some of my friends who are public school teachers have this week off for Spring Break, and we want to get together.  I thought they had Spring Break next week, so I originally took the wrong Monday off.  Luckily, it's easy enough to reverse.

But it's symptomatic of this whole week-end, where plans changed suddenly, and I found myself having to shift gears, which I think takes me longer than other people.  I get an idea fixed in my mind about how a time period will go, and it's hard for me to adapt to changes.

Some of the things I thought I would finish yesterday, I will need to finish today:  grades, posts to my Living Lutheran editor, poem prompts to the Create in Me folks.  Some of the things I thought I might do yesterday turned out to be overly ambitious, like our taxes.  But I did get all the paperwork organized, which is much of the battle.

And there will be time for lunch with friends today, a treat I thought I would have a week from today, but today is actually a better day to take off.  The knowledge of some unstructured time today gave me what I needed to suggest a shorter Sunday trip, a treat of a trip. 

I'm sorry that my spouse missed the longer trip, because he was looking for it, but I'm glad that we had a chance to go together.  I'm glad for rearranged time.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Highlights from a Low-Key Writer's Week

Yesterday I had lunch with a writer friend, who also was once a student of mine.  We met long ago, when I taught upper level British Lit for 2 heavenly years at Florida Atlantic University.  We've stayed in touch, done readings together, supported each other in all sorts of ways.

She's been writing her first novel, and six weeks ago, she sent me a rough draft.  I made some comments and suggestions, and this week, she sent me a revision.

I rarely see revisions that make me believe so much in the revision process.  Most of my students move from rough draft to finished draft without making significant changes.  I, too, am guilty of not pushing myself to see if a draft is really finished.

My friend, however, made significant and revelatory changes.  She got rid of all sorts of scenes that bogged down the forward progress of the plot.  She's writing a historical novel, and there were many scenes in the rough draft that seemed to be there so that the research that she did wouldn't be wasted.

In the revision, those scenes are gone.  In the revision, the plot no longer meanders.  Those characters have something to lose, and the stakes are high.

My week as a writer this week has been a bit more low-key because I've had a lot of other duties to take care of.  But it's important to remember that even in a low-key week, there are many moments of delight.

Even in a week of other duties, one can be thrilled by a friend's revision success.  I also got two manuscripts ready for contest entries.  I got two packets of poems in the mail.  I wrote 2 poems, one of which I didn't like too much but might have potential, and one about Zacchaeus, the tax collector who wants to see Jesus and climbs a tree.  Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus' house for dinner, and Z. is so changed by the encounter that he vows to repay everyone whom he has cheated 4 times over.  We assume this change is permanent, but my poem shows that he goes back to his old ways:  there are financial difficulties and an emergency, and he meant to reform forever, but he couldn't.  I continued to write blog posts, both for my two personal blogs and for the Living Lutheran site.

I'm reminded of this post that appeared on Leslie Pietrzyk's blog, a post which reminds us that doing just one thing to promote and advance our work each day will be fruitful: 

"In the past, I’ve handled Po-Biz randomly, working up a head of steam and then sending out queries or applications in spurts—with long fallow periods between times when I tried to build up the energy to focus on administrative matters once again. This past January, I made a resolution to try a new tactic.

For the entire month, I did one piece of Po-Biz per day. I never did more than one thing, so it was never overly burdensome, and even small things counted. So one day I might merely send an email to a person who organizes a reading series, and the next day I might take on the larger task of sending a new book manuscript to a competition or applying for a residency at an artists’ colony. By the end of the month, I’d done an extraordinary 31 things."

I do long for huge swaths of time where I can accomplish so much.  But it's good to remember how much I can do even with just a very tiny bit of time.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Poetry Composing Process: "Cassandra Considers the Dust"

Yesterday I wrote about my latest poem publication and a link to the current issue of Southern Women's Review, where my poem "Cassandra Considers the Dust" appears on page 43.  I've loved this poem since I composed it, and I've sent it a variety of places to be considered for publication. 

I've read more than one person who says if your poem gets rejected x amount of times, you should revise it.  But given the vagaries of the publication process, I don't follow that advice. 

This poem was first headed on a different path.  I had been thinking about the kinds of people who keep watch during the night hours:   doctors on duty overnight, monks in the early morning, mothers with sick children, and the monitors in a hospital. 

I had planned to have three speakers in the poem, and I started composing in the voice of the doctor.  I wondered what it would be like to work long hours amongst the sick and dying.  The central image came to me: the doctor as the modern Cassandra, telling her patients the news they don't want.

I thought of the modern climate scientist as Cassandra:  how many Cassandras live in our modern lives!  I almost created a different poem.

On my way out of the door one morning, I noticed a thick coat of dust on a bookshelf.  I thought about dusting, and I thought of the climate maps I had played with:   how little sea level rise it takes to subsume a coastline!

I thought about the fluids flowing through our bodies, the fluids sloshing across the planet.

All these strands eventually came together in the poem that has now been published.  You will see that I abandoned my plan for three speakers; the doctor had enough to say for one poem.

Poets aren't often asked which one of their characters they like best--many of us don't create characters.  I write fiction too, so I consider this question periodically.  As I look back over the characters I've created, I have a fondness for this doctor. 

I have created many characters like her, it occurs to me, and they're often women.  They have lots and lots of duties and responsibilities.  Late at night, they return to a home that's more like a sanctuary than a home.

Home as hospice chaplain--perhaps I shall play with this idea. 

But early this morning, it's time to think about my own day of duties and responsibilities.  I will return to my sanctuary, but I'm luckier than many of my female characters.  I'll return home in the late afternoon, not the late night. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Manuscript Progress, Teaching Progress

It is the week that I knew would come, and today is the day in the week that I knew would come.  All of my online classes have items waiting to be graded and/or other gradebook tasks today.  But just up ahead:  a hole in the calendar, a hole of several months, when I won't be teaching as many online classes.  I'll still be teaching some, but I should have more free time.

My plan is to do the last revisions to my memoir/book of essays during that time.  I have a letter waiting to go to my next choice for an agent for the book.  Even if my work isn't chosen, I'm taking the opportunity to thank her for her part in bringing Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk into the world.

If you had to make a list of 3-10 books that changed your life, what books would be on that list?  The Cloister Walk changed me in so many ways:  it made me want to know more about monasticism, it made me want to go to a monastery, it made my friends want to go to a monastery with me, it showed me a different way of being a Christian, on and on I could go.  And then there are the ways it changed me as a writer.  I was interested in her book as memoir and as a book of essays, and so many of them in such different forms. 

It is the book that led to my current manuscript.

The agent I'm interested in wants to see a Table of Contents, and so I've been creating one.  I wanted a paper copy of the manuscript to put the pages in the TOC, and so, yesterday, I printed one.  As I picked the sheaf of paper, over 300 pages, out of the printer, I thought, take a minute, Kristin, and appreciate what you have done here.  You have combed through hundreds of blog posts to compile this manuscript.  You have revised those blog posts to make them more like essays.  You have figured out where to put the essays that could go at any spot.  You have taken out some material.  You have revised again.

It has all taken longer than I anticipated, which could make me get lost in self-recriminations.   But I've already lost too much time--onwards toward the goal!

Well, in a week or two, I'll move onward.  Today it's back to grading.

But I leave you with a poem--actually a link to the current issue of Southern Women's Review, where my poem "Cassandra Considers the Dust" appears on page 43.  Tomorrow I'll write more about the composition process for that poem.