Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Some Poetry Prompts as We Leap into National Poetry Month

Some of us are about to start our April regimen of writing a poem a day. You might be like me, with lots of poetry ideas stored up that you itch to get started writing.

But maybe you're not inspired. So, I offer here a week's worth of poetry prompts. I decided to focus them all on fairy tales, myth, and other types of tales that already exist. That way, some of the work has been done for you.

So, first you must choose a fairy tale, a Bible story, a myth, your favorite novel (or TV show or movie) or some other tale that has a narrative. Then try some of the following:

--Write a poem from the point of view of one of the minor characters. Don't limit yourself to the human characters. For example, what would Cinderella's pumpkin which was turned into a pumpkin and then into a coach and then back into a pumpkin say?

--Write a poem that's a prequel or a sequel. How are Cinderella and the Prince getting along 10 years after the Ball?

--If you're working with an older story, modernize it. For example, think about the big, bad wolf. What would today's big, bad wolf, come to blow down our houses, look like? A predatory lender perhaps?

--Take one of the strong images from the work and incorporate it into a poem that has nothing to do with the original story. Could you use the image of a glass slipper without mentioning fairy stories?

--Take strong images from several works, combine them, and see what happens. For example, take melting wings from mythology, glass slippers, red capes, a baby in a manger, and Oliver Twist's empty porridge bowl--put them all in a poem, and what kind of glorious mess will result?

--Take characters from two (or more) different works and have them collide. What happens when the Prodigal Son meets Cinderella during his travels?

--On a day when you have no time to write, turn the myth or fairy tale into a haiku (you remember haiku--3 lines, 5 syllables in the first and third line and 7 in the second).

Monday, March 30, 2009

How a Poem Happens

I've really been enjoying the blog How a Poem Happens. Each blog posting includes a poem and an interview with the poet--as you might expect, the questions revolve around the creation of the poem.

Unlike at some sites, which have the same questions for each poet, I feel like I learn something new with each interview. With some sites, after a few interviews, I feel like I'm reading the same thing over and over. Not here. In fact, I've been reading it for months now and not realizing that the questions are the same.

The poets are varied, some very famous, some I'd never heard of. Likewise, the poems are varied, but so far, I haven't seen any poems that occupy the far reaches of the poetic spectrum. What I'm really saying with that statement: so far, I haven't read a poem on this site that's incomprehensible to me. You know those poems, the ones by famous people, so you feel like there's something wrong with you because you read the poem 90 times, and still you just don't get it? I used to doubt my own intellect, and then a friend said to me, "C'mon, Kris, you have a Ph.D. You're not a dumb woman. If you can't understand the poem, maybe there's something wrong with the poem, not with you."

I haven't had a chance to use this site with my Creative Writing classes, but it might be useful for students who really hunger to know the process of poem creation.

Now, if we could just have a similar site for the creation of books. I've seen several sites which explore the first book, which is useful. But I'd like a site that focuses on the creation of the book manuscript itself, not the publication/promotion process, which is what many first book sites devote the most attention to.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Latest Poem Publications--and a Return to the Online Publication Question

Three of my poems are up at the online journal Clapboard House. Go here to read them.

This publication reminded me of the posting I wrote considering online journals vs. paper publications. When I went to Clapboard House, I gasped with delight. One of my poems references a statue on the South Carolina State House grounds, and the editors included a picture of that statue with my poems. At least, I think it's the same statue--it's been almost twenty years since I saw it. If nothing else, it's a picture of a statue that works very well with the poem.

A paper journal wouldn't have been able to do that. It would have been too expensive. Paper journals would save whatever art budget they might have for publishing original art, not for including pictures that add to the visual pleasure of a poem.

I love this online journal, which focuses on the American South (my Latin American students have a fit when I use this term, and they've helped sensitize me to the issue). Until we moved to South Florida in 1998, I spent all of my conscious life in the Southeastern states of the U.S., and those experiences still shape some of my creative work. The work that I've found in Clapboard House manages to avoid cliche and sentimentality, which is why I decided to submit.

And in case you're wondering about the poem "Progress," let me just give some background. Until 1989 or so, it was legal in South Carolina for a man to rape his wife. I was part of a campaign to change that law. I remember heading over to the State House after my graduate school classes at USC (an easy walk) and watching the proceedings. I didn't testify, since I wasn't married and had no horrifying stories, but I like to think that the fact that so many women jammed the meeting halls led to the change in that law.

"The Middle Passage of Marriage" is a poem that worries me a bit. I worry that the metaphor is a stretch. I worry that it doesn't pay enough respect to the horrific experiences of slaves being transported from Africa. But I also think that a poem that pulls together disparate images is one that might make people think, and so I didn't file it in my failed poems folder.

I wrote "Lessons of the Rocking Chair" after reading Jane Hirshfield's poem "The Button." The end of Hirshfield's poem has the button remembering a time before it was a button, when it was part of an animal tusk. I spent the whole day looking at objects, thinking about what they were before they were these objects. For example, my rocking chair was once a mighty pine tree. And this poem emerged.

I'm enjoying the work of other writers and artists in this journal. I hope that you will too.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Break from Teaching

Last night I finished my Poetry class--what an interesting quarter it has been.

And next quarter, I'm not teaching. And after that, I'm not sure.

I'm the Assistant Chair of our department, so it's not like I won't have plenty to do. But part of me feels strange. I haven't ever taken a break from teaching (except for school breaks, like Christmas vacation) since I started teaching in 1988.

And I've taught a lot. As soon as I completed my M.A. in 1989, I started teaching as many classes as the community college would give me, while continuing to work as a T.A. while working on my Ph.D. I've never had the luxury of having a summer off.

In the last year, since my job transitioned into a more traditional, 40+ hour a week, office job, I've still taught 1 class a quarter--4 classes a year, a heavier load than some people with tenure.

I've enjoyed that, because I've moved away from Composition classes and gotten to teach primarily Creative Writing classes, primarily Poetry classes. I like that I've continued to read alertly, always on the lookout for poems that my classes might enjoy. Often, a class has inspired an idea for a poem that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

And unlike years when I taught 5-8 classes at a time, teaching one class a term doesn't leave me too exhausted to do my own writing. Unfortunately the other demands of my job often do.

So, it's an experiment. I won't return to teaching until July, at the earliest. I expect to miss the interactions with students, and I expect to miss the classes that make me feel like I've inspired people--it's that old drama major in me who loves the thrill of being onstage. I don't expect to miss the aggravation of having copies to make, lesson plans to dream up, grading to do.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What If I Don't Have 10,000 Hours--The Joys of Fifteen Minutes

I spent much of yesterday thinking about the issue of 10,000 hours of practice, and how demoralizing that idea could be to someone who is having trouble finding even one hour a day.

I've also spent the last week being interviewed by Ph.D. students. Several of my colleagues at work are earning Ed.D.s and for one of their class assignments, they have to interview people who have written dissertations. There aren't many of us on campus who have written a dissertation, so that's how I came to have several interviews.

At the end of the interview, I was asked for advice, and I said, "Don't wait until you have huge chunks of time to get the work done. Work for a little bit every day, and you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish."

I've always used this approach with subjects that scare me or work I just couldn't face. When it looked like I might fail Statistics as an undergrad, I made myself study the subject and work on the problems for 15 minutes a day. I can face anything for 15 minutes.

Likewise with my dissertation. The thought of writing a long, scholarly work terrified me. But when I thought of it as 6 or 8 conference papers, I could handle it. The thought of working on it for 2-6 hours a day exhausted me. So I made a deal with myself. If I put in 15 minutes, I didn't have to do any more.

Some days, 15 minutes was all I did. But most days, I sat down and after 15 minutes, I was in a groove, and I kept going.

We can accomplish so much, even if we only have 15 minutes. In 15 minutes we could send a packet of poems to a journal--maybe even 2 packets or 3. In 15 minutes, we could write down ideas for a poem. In 15 minutes, we could do some word play. Many of us could write a poem in 15 minutes. In 15 minutes, we could read some poems which might inspire us. In 15 minutes, we could begin to think about how our poems work together--and after a week of 15 minutes of work each day, we'd likely have a chapbook or a book-length manuscript--or at least, we'd be well on our way towards one.

And many of us have 15 minute chunks of time scattered throughout the day that just evaporate. I cannot tell you how much time I've wasted because I get to meetings early, assuming that the meeting will start on time, even though it rarely does. I could take my poetry notebook and write. At the ear doctor last week, I had to wait for 45 minutes, which shouldn't have been a surprise (except that the last time I was at the ear doctor's, I went right in). If I had brought my notebook, I could have accomplished something. Last month, while stuck on a plane, on a trip where I'd read all the books I brought with me, I understood the appeal of some kind of hand-held device which could store all my computer files and would be so portable--but scraps of paper can also do nicely. What might I have managed to get done if I had forced myself to write, instead of rereading books I had just read on that trip?

For me, the hardest part is the getting started. I want to feel like I have hours and hours of time in which I won't be interrupted. Sadly, if I wait for those days, I won't write very often. My poetry self will get mad or depressed and that's not good for anybody. If I can give myself 15 minutes a day, and some days longer, I can accomplish so much more than if I wait for the perfect circumstances. Perfect circumstances aren't coming my way very often these days. But I can find 15 minute chunks here and there.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

10,000 Hours of Practice--Talent vs. Persistence

Last night, I read much of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. It's not a complicated book, but these days, I find myself profoundly grateful when I can just focus on a book for longer than 15 minutes. Some days, I have so little time, but some days, I just feel distracted and fragmented (do I blame this on my Internet habits? yes, to some extent).

Gladwell claims that what separates the good from the very, very good is practice. He claims that 10,000 hours of practice is what separates the good from the very, very good.

I've had this talent vs. practice argument with students through the years. They claim that they have certain talents, like drawing, and they shouldn't be expected to develop others, like writing. They claim that if you don't have innate talent that practice will get you nowhere--a reason they offer for why they shouldn't be expected to take Math classes.

I disagree, and it's heartening to read Gladwell, who would also disagree. He points out that cultures that we think of as good at math aren't innately good--but the culture rewards hours of hard work and persistence. He points out that when we look at any genius, we tend to believe any variety of narratives (the poor kid pulling himself up from his bootstraps, the young girl who sits down at the piano and creates symphonies, even though she's never played a piano before), but in fact, geniuses have put a lot of time in practicing their craft, be it computer programming, math, music, or quilting (Gladwell doesn't mention quilting, but I couldn't resist).

I've had a similar experience with drawing, which my Art students refuse to acknowledge. I used to claim that I couldn't draw, and then I spent a year trying to draw, training myself to see. I practiced. I got a lot better.

My students believe in their talent. They don't believe that they're talented because they work at it. They discount all the hours they've spent with a pencil in their hand.

This morning, I tried to apply the theory to my poetry. How many hours have I practiced my poetic craft? Would I get better if I worked more hours each day?

I started calculating: an hour a day, 365 days a year--how many years until I'm at 10,000 hours? And how many hours have I already put in? Do those count? Or is it better to have an intense time of practice?

And can the middle-aged brain still improve with more hours of practice? I think so. In the fall of last year, I started writing poems in form and/or rhyme, and rewriting poems into ones that had form and/or rhyme. Why did I do this? I was trying to get enough poems together to have a book to send to Steel Toe Books during their first call for formalist manuscripts; when I first read the call, it was 2 months until the deadline, and I counted up my possible poems, and decided that if I applied myself, I had a shot at having a manuscript ready.

I don't usually work in form or rhyme. Yet, as I immersed myself, I found that it came easier. When I sat down to write something new, it came out in sonnet form. It was exhilarating. And scary.

Another intriguing point from Gladwell: a lot of the geniuses he talked about had logged their 10,000 hours during adolescence and early adulthood. In my younger years, I used to be able to immerse myself in something for weeks or months. As a bored teenager, I wrote novels for fun in my free time and during down times at school, of which there were many. As a sometimes-frazzled woman in early midlife, I find that my immersion ability comes and goes in cycles, depending on what's going on at work.

And I don't even have children. I have no idea how my artistic cycle would fluctuate with more family responsibility, but I suspect I'd feel that I had even less time for my creative pursuits. My 10,000 hours of practice would get even more spread out.

Or maybe we'd sit around as a family and write poems together.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Stealing Dust"

I've been reading Karen J. Weyant's chapbook, Stealing Dust. I'd been enjoying her blog for many months, and I've discovered that when I like someone's blog, chances are good that I will enjoy their poems. I don't know if the same holds true for fiction writers; I tend to go to the blogs of fiction writers whose work I already know.

I love poems that give a voice to populations that rarely find a voice, and Weyant's poems do that. About half the poems in the book revolve around the lives of factory workers. I particularly enjoyed "Beauty Tips from the Girls on 3rd Shift." By juxtaposing the traditional use of cosmetics with the ways that factory workers use them, we get a more poignant view of their situation. Poems like "Tasting Twilight" and "Why Men in Factories Should Never Write Love Stories" remind us that factory workers give up significant chunks of their private lives in order to have a job, a job that most of us wouldn't want.

And these poems, with their emphasis on dirt and scary machinery and abusive or neglectful management, remind us of exactly why we wouldn't want these jobs. And yet, it's not all bleak. The poems also show a sort of camaraderie, particularly amongst the female workers.

The other poems in the collection remind me of growing up in the 70's, even though I didn't grow up in a factory town, as did the people in these poems. But even if you didn't grow up in the 70's, chances are that some of these poems will speak to you. There's "Canning Season," which recalls those days when people actually put food away (and it talks of the summer of a royal wedding, hearkening back to those days when Charles and Diana seemed like a storybook couple). And "Eating Watermelons" reminded me of childhood rituals that I hadn't thought of in years. "The Girl Who Carved Jesus Into Her Forearm" is the poem I think of most frequently, that pain that finds its relief in the mutilation of flesh.

Of course, the chapbook covers all sorts of territories of pain, and yet Weynant has such a lyricism that it's not unpleasant. In some poems, like "The Girl Who Carved Jesus Into Her Forearm," the pain has already happened offstage. In others, like "The Oldest Woman on 3rd Shift," Weyant shows the recompense for a hard life: strength and ability and the knowledge of past difficulties ("But then, she reminds us all / that she remembers the strike of '82, the big layoffs in '85, the buyout in '91"), which reassures us that present difficulties can be endured.

I've returned to these haunting poems, this chapbook, again and again in the past weeks. And the chapbook itself is such a beautiful artifact. Finishing Line Press knows how to create a thing of beauty. Go here to get a copy of your own.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Getting Ready to Write a Poem A Day--and other ways to celebrate National Poetry Month

Over at her blog, January writes about ways to celebrate National Poetry Month, including writing a poem a day, one poem for each day in April.

I did this for the first time last year, and I found it a remarkable experience. I found myself always on the lookout for poems, and they always came to me, day after day. And I experimented with haiku, since some days, I just didn't have time. And even that experience was powerful--how much I can get done, in how little time.

I tend to think I need hours and hours of uninterrupted time. But really, 15 minutes can be enough. And I can spend my non-writing time doing some prep work: thinking and planning and collecting.

If you get really inspired, Robert Lee Brewer will be publishing an e-book with some of the best poems written and posted during April--you have to sign up to be a participant. Go here for details.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Seeing Marilyn Nelson

Last night my Poetry students and I went to see Marilyn Nelson at Broward College. She was amazing. Some of my students were absolutely enthralled, and I was pleased to notice that not one of them pulled out a cell phone, or otherwise seemed distracted.

She read from several different books, and finished with her heroic crown of sonnets, "A Wreath for Emmett Till." She read all 15 of the poems straight through. It was incredibly effective.

She said when she was writing that work that she got to the point where she was following the poem, rather than directing it. It reminded me of fiction writers who say their characters got out of control. I've had that experience more frequently in fiction writing than in any other kind. Occasionally I feel like a receive a poem whole and complete, but it never feels like something outside of my control.

One of her poems took a line from Thich Nhat Hanh, who said that the most comforting thing to say to a hospice patient is "You are not this body. You are more than this body."

Other lines of hers that struck me enough for me to write them down:

"Some white folks have blind souls."

slaves were "sold to the new world as fuel."

"mute geometry" describing the night sky, the cosmos

It was a wonderful night. My students took notes, even though I didn't require it. They stood in line to get her autograph. A few of them bought books. I did too. I'll blog about the books at some later point.

The only thing that gives me some sadness is knowing that the funding for programs that bring poets and artists to schools is drying up. Barbra Nightingale, the woman who put the program together, is having Molly Peacock come in April (April 20, I think), and then she said that the money had run out, and she wasn't having much luck finding alternate sources.

I know, I know, in a time period when people are losing jobs and industries and nest eggs and college funds, it's absurd to shed a few tears over a poetry program that has to take a hiatus. So, I'll just be an inclusive weeper, and shed tears over the whole sorry state of things right now.

And then, I'll turn my attention back to wonderful poetry, which thankfully, I can still read and find on the Internet and create!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Job is My Toddler

I had a wise yoga teacher once. She observed me watching other people, and she said, "Quit comparing yourself to other people. It won't help." Some months, I'm better at not comparing myself to others, but other months, I'm a real disaster. I never compare myself and feel superior. No, I'm that person who looks at others and sees all the ways I'm lacking.

I do the same thing when I compare myself to my self at earlier points of my life. Even when I'm meeting my goals, there's always some part of my brain that remembers earlier times, when my life circumstances were different, and my accomplishments were different. So, even though I'm successful at getting out most days, taking a walk or a run of 2-4 miles, my inner critic is reminding me that once upon a time, I could complete a triathlon. Of course, in those days I was a graduate student, poor in money, but rich in time and resources (ah, the pool at the University of South Carolina--how I miss that!).

Likewise, now, I'm doing a pretty good job of writing something every day and sending out my work. But my brain remembers an earlier time, when I wrote more and mailed more. Of course, my employment situation was different then.

Now, I have a job that demands a lot of my time. I'm trying to think of my job as my toddler. I love it, even when it exhausts me. It demands a lot, but it gives me rewards. And when I have a down period at work (my toddler of a job napping!), I try to be prepared to use that time to my poetry self's advantage.

Some weeks are full of meetings and observations and surveys. I don't write as much or send my writing work into the world (except in the form of blog entries). I scarcely have time to read. But some weeks aren't as hectic, and I have time to think, to write, to assemble manuscripts, and to send out poems to journals.

If I had a literal toddler, I'd be looking forward to the time when that child headed off to first grade, and I had more time to write. Here's where the metaphor breaks down. I don't foresee my job ever becoming a first grader. I imagine it will always retain its cyclical nature.

Here's where I need to return to my lessons from yoga class. I need to focus on the present. What can I do now to further my writing goals? Some weeks, that won't be much. But some weeks, I can get a lot done.

And when my poetry self whines about all we're not getting done, I take a hard look at the facts. Since shifting to my 40+ hours a week job in administration, I've actually gotten a lot more done than I had done in the last few years leading up to that promotion. I've sent more work out, I've written more poems (well, some weeks), and I've thought about manuscripts in a new way. I've started two blogs, which I'm keeping, and enjoying immensely, on a regular basis.

I think I accomplish more precisely because I have less free time. When I worked at a community college in South Carolina, I was never one of those lucky people who could afford to take summers off. When my writer colleagues returned from their summers of leisure, and we compared writing progress, I had always written more.

If you have a broad vista of time, there's no pressure to get things done. If you know that your toddler of a job will awaken soon, and be demanding and petulant, you don't waste the naptimes of your toddler.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Poet Goes to the Audiologist

I've been having problems with my hearing for many years now. My ears produce too much wax--so far, the only genetic trait I could do without; I've been lucky in the health inheritance department (ask me my cholesterol number! I have inherited my mother's family's tendency towards low cholesterol). Last year, I finally broke down and went to a specialist. My problem is more than just excessive wax. We've been doing some follow up work, and the news is good: no nerve damage, no holes where they shouldn't be. Apparently, there's a tiny bone that isn't vibrating like it should. I could have a titanium bone implanted to replace the imperfect bone. Or I could just have a hearing aid. Or I could not do anything. My hearing isn't perfect, but it could be worse.

I worry that if I go for the permanent, surgical fix, I'll start hearing everything I haven't been hearing for years, and that I'll go mad.

I wish there was an implant that would block the bass beats that everyone feels compelled to share these days.

Part of the hour of testing involved putting on headphones and repeating words that the audiologist said. My poet brain immediately started racing, connecting words and making odd associations. It was hard to concentrate on the words, but I reminded myself what was at stake and forced myself to pay attention.

It made me wonder how much of my hearing problem is due to my poet brain. Maybe some part of me is always whirling off towards potential poems, instead of continuing to focus on what I'm hearing.

One of the words the audiologist wanted me to repeat was deaf. Yes, the word deaf during a HEARING TEST!! At least, I think it was the word deaf. What kind of person with what kind of odd sense of humor put this test together?

Can I get in on that market? I'd be very good at word lists.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Some Teaching Ideas for Writing Classrooms, Part 2

A colleague of mine told me about a writing assignment that produced better results than anticipated. It sounds like the kind of assignment that can be used in a variety of classrooms, so I thought I'd mention it here. Composition, Literature, Creative Writing--Enjoy!

She took her class on a field trip to one of the small, funky museums that we have down here in South Florida. She had them choose one of the pieces of art (and I think they were mostly paintings, mostly representative), and then they wrote a story inspired by the art.

She's teaching a Literature class that focuses on the short story, so her students wrote a short story. And they came up with interesting writing. And since the art wasn't widely known, she thinks that there would be few ways to just buy a ready-made paper off of the Internet.

Of course, you may not live in a town with a museum. Or maybe you do, but you just don't realize it! I've lived in some small southern towns, but most of them had some kind of museum or gallery.

Or maybe you're at a school that doesn't allow field trips. There might be some online sources you could use. Or you could print some pictures and bring them in.

It's hard for me to remember that most people don't walk around with narratives in their head, unlike me, who has so many narratives I'll never live long enough to write them all down. But many students can come up with something if we give them some sort of prompt. Many writing teachers will give a prompt that is written. But that kind of prompt doesn't work for some (most?) of our students--they need something more visual.

Bringing art into the classroom, or bringing the classroom to art, stimulates students in all sorts of new ways--and when we're lucky, we see some good writing to come out of it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Some Teaching Ideas for Writing Classrooms, Part 1

I've been reading my students' latest work, and I'm amazed at how they've taken some simple ideas and run with them (or perhaps, blasted off towards other stratospheres).

We began by talking about list poems, and I brought in Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," as an example of a more sophisticated list poem. Our classes meet for 3 hours at a time, so we had also covered the forms of haiku and tanka on the same night. Students made interesting connections between those Asian forms and the Stevens poem.

We did a bit of pre-writing (yes, even in a Poetry class we use those time-honored techniques from Composition class). I had them do an exercise that led to an interesting poem that a friend of mine wrote years ago: list everything that's in your purse, backpack, or pocket right now. That list could be transformed into an interesting list poem, I said, and the best list poems have some sort of order behind them. We read a Kamiko Hahn poem about her mother's smells (once I get to my office Monday, I'll come back to this post and include the title). We brainstormed some possible titles: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at ________________."

And off they went to write. And they came back with some amazing writing. And the funny thing is that I remember the classroom experience as being a tough night--lots of absences, several students in crisis, several interruptions throughout the night, plus, I just felt weary.

I'm often humbled by my teaching experience. It's always interesting to me how a particular class meeting that I don't see as particularly inspiring might turn out to inspire amazing work after all.

Back in my earlier teaching days, when I was stuck teaching lower level writing in the community college but yearned to teach Creative Writing, which we didn't offer, I would occasionally have students do the kinds of writing that I'd have them do (I imagined) if I was teaching Creative Writing. I was always happily surprised by the way that writing informed and improved their Composition writing. And parts of the above exercise seem to have much to offer the Composition teacher who needs something new to do.

The list poem exercise could lead Composition students to talk about the things we carry (and you could read "The Things They Carried," the short story by Tim O'Brien). What do they signify? How are they different from the things we used to carry, the things we hope to carry? They could choose one significant thing and write about it.

Creative Writing exercises are great ways to talk to Composition students about the importance of detail and how we get that detail. How can we see an everyday object in a way we've never seen it before? I often have my students write about life from the point of view of the object: how does your shoe feel about being on your foot? What does your television remote control know that you don't? Jane Hirshfield's poem, "The Button," is a great example of this. We see through the eyes of a button that loves the caress of your fingers as you dress, and at the end of the poem, Hirshfield reminds us that the button had a life before it was a button (when it was part of a horn of a great beast). I read that poem and looked at many of my belongings differently. My rocking chair was once a mighty pine tree!

Poems remind us of the importance of sensory detail and can lead to important work teaching students to use their five senses to drench their work with specificity. Most students rely on their eyes. Poems remind us that we have other senses too.

Poems are allowed to be subtle in explaining what it all means in a way that Composition students aren't. I wonder what would happen if we gave Composition students a poem, like Hahn's, where the implications of the list are left unstated, and we had them write some paragraphs explaining the implications, making the implicit explicit (and yes, they'd be making stuff up; I don't think I'd turn it into a research project, although I could see how that would be possible). Would that help them in their own writing? I like to think that it would.

I always tried to keep my Composition classes from becoming sheer drudgery: "O.K. class, today we're going to write a descriptive essay. Then next week, it's on to process. Then we'll peer edit, even though none of you has the foggiest idea of what an essay should be. And then we'll research and spend weeks on the minute details of documentation." Creative Writing exercises are a great help.

Friday, March 13, 2009

John Cheever

I'm listening to the Diane Rehm show (via the Internet; go here , scroll down, and you can listen too). I often try to catch up on shows that sound interesting, and at first I thought I would skip this one with Blake Bailey, who has just published a biography of Cheever. Then I read about Bailey and his efforts (in yesterday's Washington Post here), and decided I would listen.

What a treat! Lots of interesting information about Cheever, as well as some interesting things to think about when it comes to literary reputation.

Diane Rehm asked Bailey why we know so much about Updike, who just died, and Cheever seems to have dropped off of everyone's radar screen. Bailey said that Cheever is a writer's writer--writers appreciate Cheever's accomplishments in a way that academics never have.

I'm not sure I knew that. Cheever was so important to me that I just assumed that academics felt the same way. My academic field is 19th century British Lit, with a sub-specialty in 20th century British Lit, so I'm not always up on what literary critics of American Literature deem important.

I read Cheever's "The Swimmer" in an undergraduate Short Story class. It was one of those stories that made me want to write, which I was already doing, and made me aim for more for my writing. In that class, we learned how important he was and what he had done for the short story--or at least, I think we did--it's getting to be a long time ago. His short stories seemed so masterful, much like Chekhov--so perfect and accomplished.

It's interesting that I used to spend so much time reading short stories for school, both when I was a student and when I was teaching, that I didn't read them for pleasure. Now I don't read short stories much, although I'm not opposed to the idea; I'd prefer to lose myself in a novel.

It also makes me wonder about the influence of the short story on poets. I assume that everything we read is important, no matter what we write. But I do try to read a lot of poetry, and if time is short, as it often is these days, the poetry takes priority.

I feel slightly guilty, because I'm not likely to get around to reading this biography. Of course, if I was likely to read the book, I might not be listening to the show. Often, when I read the book of an author who has made the NPR rounds, I feel like I've already read the book. So I'm grateful for these NPR shows, which keep my brain from turning to mush, during these days that I don't have much reading time (sigh!!).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cultural Conditioning, Dust Bunnies, and Poems

Yesterday, I was walking through my house, and I noticed some dust. I am not a yesteryear woman. I ignored that dust, sure that there's plenty more dust where that dust patch came from. I dust, the house makes more. And I'm a woman who works outside the home (this week, long, long hours outside the home).

I can't have everything, and one of the first things I gave up was the idea of a perfectly clean house. You can't eat off of my kitchen floors--we have plates.

Then I thought about how my approach to housework has helped me to decide what is important. I only have so much time in my day, my week, my life--what do I want to accomplish? A dust-free house is not as important as a poem that delights me. If the floors need attention, I'll do a quick sweeping. I'm not a scrub-the-floors kind of gal. I know some women who scrub the floors with a toothbrush to get into the corners. Nope, that's not me. If I don't inspect the floors too closely, they don't disgust me. And as long as I scrub up whatever spill might happen, when it happens, the floors don't really need that much scrubbing. I don't have kids or dogs or other creatures (well, except for my spouse) who track dirt through the house.

So, I started thinking: where does this kind of thinking fall apart? And I thought of how much time I've spent obsessing over my weight. Why can't I take a similar approach to my weight as I do to housework? Why can't I shrug over a few extra pounds and say, "Doesn't matter. I had a great dinner out, fabulous wine, and besides--I wrote 3 poems with potential this week!"

Is it cultural conditioning? But if it is, how did I escape the cultural conditioning about housework and not about obsessive weight watching?

I have no answers, but I do have a conviction that it's important to ask these questions. What do I really want to accomplish with my life? If I knew I would die soon, what would I focus upon? What brings me joy? What activities have important implications for my long-term health and happiness?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Praying, Writing, and Working for Justice Throughout the Day

Yesterday's post made me think of places where silence is savored and maintained: monasteries. It reminded me of a poem I wrote years ago after I first went to Mepkin Abbey, near Charleston, South Carolina.

I also thought it was worth posting, since this has been a month of many prayer requests. Almost everyone I know has someone close to them who is sick, some of them quite severely.

I've heard people scoff at the idea that prayer can do any good. And I've heard people snort at the idea that monks and nuns pray as part of their mission.

When I was younger, I, too, would have been snorting derisively. Get out there and work for social justice, I would have said. Now that I'm older, I'm aware of how many religious orders are out there, working much harder for social justice than I ever have.

I leave you not only with a poem, but with my favorite quote from Kathleen Norris. On page 145 of The Cloister Walk, she writes, "Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems."

Liturgy of the Hours

The monks rise while the rest of the world sleeps.
In the darkness, they pray.

The single mother stares at the clock and calculates
costs. The newspaper carriers start
their rounds. Truckers cross
state lines, and a woman writes poetry by candlelight.

The farmer feeds the animals as sunrise
stains the horizon. Early morning exercisers lace
their shoes and retrace their steps. Parents prepare
breakfast, and the monks pray again.

Students rush from class to class.
The housekeeper starts another load of wash.
Frazzled workers everywhere break
for coffee while the monks celebrate the Eucharist.

At noon the world eats lunch.
The monks pray, and then they eat, and then they pray again.

No one leaves work early these days.
As the dark grows close, everyone sits alone
in their cars watching the pavement
and concrete barriers. The monks pray.

The world watches bad television chosen from a host
of options—hundreds of stations beamed
from satellites, and not one satisfies.
Children chat on phones and stare
at screens. Adults wonder
how they got so far behind. The pets settle
into their sleeping spaces.

The monks gather again in darkness pierced
with candle light. Watched by statues
of Mary and the Crucified Christ, they chant Compline.
The Abbott sprinkles each man with holy water
and sends them to sleep in their cells.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yearning for Silence

I just turned off NPR. Did local stations always interrupt so much? We have all sorts of advertising on our local station, WLRN. Granted, it's an ad for a classier product: various educational programs, visiting writers, arts festivals. Still, there are days I want to scream.

I've pretty much stopped watching TV, unless I've recorded it in advance, because I can't stand all the commercials.

Part of my irritability with noise has to do with where we are in the tourist season down here in South Florida. We've had a busier-than-usual season--or maybe we're just back to what used to be normal, before we had some heavy hurricane activity in 2004 and 2005. We're having lovely weather, so on top of all the tourist-generated noise, everyone has come out of their houses or opened their windows. Lots of stereo noise (that "thumpity-thump music" as my grandmother so accurately described it), television noise, heated argument noise--and I long for a silent retreat.

Long ago, I saw an Oprah show, where she talked about a silent retreat. I seem to recall that she tried a silent dinner at her house and had trouble. At the time, I, too, recoiled in horror at the idea of a week-end of silence.

But now, with my throbbing head, and my poor poetry muse declaring that she cannot work in these conditions, I think a silent retreat might be just the thing.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Are Indie Music Artists and Poets Similar?

Yesterday, I heard the wonderful roots group Alathea. Go to my theology blog posting to read more about the actual concert.

As I was watching them play and listening to them talk about their creative process, I started wishing that I was an indie rock kind of person. I have always had this utopian vision of travelling around the country in a camper, supporting myself with my art, seeing the world, being my own boss.

Of course, that vision doesn't include being too poor to buy groceries or gas. It doesn't include being homesick and wishing that I was anywhere but on the road.

A few years ago, when my chapbook was published, I arranged a series of readings in various places where I had friends who would let me stay for free. I didn't have that rigorous a schedule--I had to keep my full-time teaching job, after all. But I did have about 6 readings in 4 months.

It doesn't sound very draining, does it? But by the end, I thought, I could never do this full-time. Maybe if I did it full-time, if I wasn't trying to juggle being a homeowner, being a teacher, and being a travelling poet, it would have been easier.

But I don't know. A few years ago, my friend and I decided we would go to some local craft shows to see if we could sell some quilts we had made. Again, it was only a few week-ends. But I found it exhausting. The set up, the take down, the waiting all day to see if there would be customers. I thought about my dream of the camper and the tour and thought, why did I ever think I could do that?

I think about modern technology, and I wonder if any of this touring is still necessary. There was an interesting Washington Post article that talked about Do It Yourself (DIY) credibility amongst rockers and whether or not it was possible to replicate that experience with writers (the article seemed to say that touring was, indeed, still required).

These are interesting times that we live in, where technology makes all sorts of things possible and affordable that wouldn't have been so in earlier days. It's also a time of shrinking funding, which means shrinking training for potential artists. Go here for an interesting article by Suzanne Vega, where she contemplates the role of melody and the role of arts education.

As for Alathea, their concert had a similar effect on me as any good artistic outing--it made me want to go right home and create. Go to their website to see if they're coming to your town any time soon--or buy some of their CDs (they're having a wonderful sale right now!).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Apocalyptic Laboratories

I read The New York Times online, but only rarely do I find any images I might use in poems. Today, I can't stop thinking about this tidbit from an article by Frederic Morton about the Bankruptcy Ball in Vienna in 1913:

"At the same time, Vienna was incubating in its own streets some of the century’s prime virtuosos of violence. One of them was active close to the imperial palace, Schloss Schönbrunn, where the emperor had received his heir. An elegant building on Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse housed young Josef Stalin, dispatched by Lenin to explore the empire’s explosive nationalities situation. It was during Stalin’s weeks in Vienna that he initiated his lethal feud with young Leon Trotsky, who, a few streetcar stops away, was publishing the original Pravda. All this while on the other side of town young Adolf Hitler was seething obscurely, painting postcards for a living.

What those three did the day after the Bankruptcy Ball history does not record. We do know that the Austrian Parliament voted against appropriating money for the housing bill. We also know that the emperor turned down the archduke’s plea for negotiation rather than confrontation with Serbia. Franz Ferdinand walked out of the palace defeated — to die 16 months later of a Serb nationalist’s bullet, igniting World War I.

His killer, Gavrilo Princip, was not a Muslim, but his buddies in his guerrilla band called him “hadzija,” after the Muslim pilgrims who make the hajj to Mecca. Why? Because the penniless zealot had walked from Sarajevo to Belgrade to receive the military training that would help him discharge his pistol at the archduke.

“Austria,” said Karl Kraus, who was Habsburg Austria’s H. L. Mencken, “is the laboratory for the apocalypse.” What would he say about America today?"

There's lots in this Sunday's Opinion page for your inner Apocalypse Girl/Guy to enjoy. For example, Thomas Friedman muses about what he's calling the Great Disruption, when both our natural world and our economic world are saying, "We can't go on like this" (to use the words of Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot). Go here for the whole article.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Magic Tricks and Interviews

On her blog, Leslie Pietrzyk writes about a trick that kept her writing when she came to a stuck place in her novel writing: "So I told myself to come up with three things that could happen, just really quickly: “You don’t have to use them,” I assured myself. “Just type three things really fast even if they sound ridiculous. Then you can go off to lunch.”

And it worked! Go here to read more.

And Deborah Ager reports here that it's a trick that works for writing poetry too.

While you're at the 32 Poems blogsite, scroll down for a great interview with Mary Biddinger (or go here directly, if you don't like scrolling. I love her discussion of wearing her administrator hat and her poetry hat, hats which struggle to control my own life on a daily basis (I worry I might end up wearing the hat of the nearest insane asylum on some days! oh, it's probably not politically correct to call them that anymore, is it?). She also talks about her ideal writing space, which might involve a wrinkle in the universe. The interview, conducted by Serena Agusto-Cox, is full of gems.

I think I've posted about other interviews conducted on the 32 Poems blogsite, and I suspect my favorites have been done by Serena Agusto-Cox. I've established in earlier blogposts on my site (based on my very unscientific survey of my bookshelves), there are very few book-length collections of interviews with poets, when compared to interviews with other types of artists. If Agusto-Cox ever collects all her interviews that she's conducted into one single volume (or 2 or 3), I hope she'll let me know!

Friday, March 6, 2009

When Poems Are Accessible

Yesterday's post made me dig out a poem I wrote about accessibility and poetry. I wrote it after hearing some sneering comments about the poetry of Billy Collins, whose work I happen to love. And then I got a batch of poems returned to me with a comment on the rejection slip: "Well, your poems certainly are accessible, aren't they?"

This experience reminded me of an earlier experience writing my dissertation, where I was criticized for writing that was too clear and sparkling. One of my committee members suggested that I "muddy up my prose."

It's like I tell my Composition students--you have to know your audience. Some people like poems that are accessible, and others don't. Some people value clear and sparkling writing, and some people want to know that you can write in academic code, which some might call jargon.

This poem was first published in The Xavier Review, in the Spring 2003 volume. It was reprinted in The Worcester Review in 2003.


He says the poems are accessible,
as if it is a bad thing, as if loose
limbed poems spread open their legs
to anyone who gives them a glance.
Those poems don’t even demand drinks
and dinner first. Slutty poems. Ruint.

Perhaps he wants a sulky
poem, one that lets itself be petted, who pretends
to like him, but always holds a part
of itself back while he tortures
himself with evidence of his poem’s infidelities:
other people, plainer than him, who profess
to understand this poem when he cannot.

Perhaps he prefers poems that ignore
laws of accessibility, that barricade themselves behind bars
and up stairs and through perilous mazes.
After tunneling through to the heart
of the poem, he’s so disoriented
that he can’t hold his head upright.

Better yet, poems that speak a language
of their own creation; only a very
few in the world understand how the words
are strung together in this idiom.
Instead of seeing it for the dying language
that it is, he proclaims its linguistic
complexity and pretends to understand.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Iconic Status, Writing Styles, and Suicide

One of my best friends has a daughter who is in high school. My friend grew up in Germany, so occasionally she calls me up to ask me questions, especially when her daughter doesn't understand something that she's studying, and it's out of my German friend's frame of reference.

Yesterday she called to ask about Sylvia Plath, and we had a brief discussion about Plath, Sexton, and Confessional Poetry. She said she couldn't understand Plath's poetry, but she could understand mine. She assumed that meant mine was better.

I said, "Well, many people have said that my poetry is accessible. And they don't always mean that as a compliment."

We also talked about American icons who kill themselves. Is it because they kill themselves that they reach iconic status? I mentioned "the Edgar Allan Poe theory of creativity" (a phrase I first read in one of Julia Cameron's books), which says that you can't really be a good artist unless you're in misery, drug addicted, and eventually, dead in a gutter.

Then, as I drove across town for a Lenten Labyrinth service, I heard this story on NPR about David Foster Wallace. There was an interesting discussion about whether or not writers can change their writing style. D. T. Max, who wrote a New Yorker article, says that "style runs so deep, you think you can change how you write. But to change how you write, you really have to change how you think. ... What made [Wallace] an amazing conversationalist, an amazing thinker and a remarkable writer was that his mind was always going so fast."

It made me think about the last time I wrote a novel. When I started it in 2003, I declared, "No love stories. These characters will not fall in love." I had in mind a falling out of love story, which was what I wrote, but a new love interest turned out to be integral to the plot.

In her wonderful book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See says we have about 10-16 characters for life. I would argue that the same is true with plot. Some of us are born to write (or our lives mold us to write) crime novels and some of us are born to write love stories.

And I suspect our poet lives are similar. We have certain subject matter that we gravitate towards and certain styles that are best for us. We can experiment, but I suspect that it's useful primarily as an intellectual exercise. I love to write in rhyming iambic pentameter to prove that I can do it, but I don't think my best poems emerge from these experiments.

I have noticed that my subject interests have emerged as I've grown older. It makes me wonder about Sylvia Plath and what she would have written, had she lived to be an old woman. That's a different type of intellectual game, and I do love to indulge. Still, I felt safe in assuring my German friend that I would not kill myself, even if it would gain me iconic status.

And there's a different question: does killing oneself, when one is a fairly unknown poet, lead to iconic status these days? I suspect not.

I'm lucky, I know. Even during my depressed days, life intrigues me. I want to stick around to see what happens.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Marilyn Nelson reading at Broward College

If you live in the South Florida area, or if you'll be travelling here, you'll want to know about this Marilyn Nelson reading at Broward College (formerly Broward Community College) in two weeks. Broward College is easy to find: take Hollywood Boulevard going west, after you exit from I 95 (don't panic when Hollywood Boulevard turns to Pines Boulevard at Highway 441--just keep going west); in about 7 miles, you'll see the campus on your left. There's plenty of parking, and a great venue.

Broward College and the Hannah Kahn Poetry Foundation
Invite you to an evening of Poetry with
Marilyn Nelson

March 19,
7:30 p.m.
Broward College, South Campus
Building 69, room 133 (across from Art Gallery)

Marilyn Nelson is the Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut and a three-time National Book Award Finalist. She has won the Annisfield-Wolf Award and the 1999 Poets' Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Winship Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Dr. Nelson lives in Storrs, Connecticut.

For more information, please call 954-201-8873.

Co-sponsored by the Broward College Foundation and Phi Theta Kappa.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Writing Conference that Most of Us Missed

This past week-end, there was a conference that sounded interesting at George Mason University. It was a fiction writing conference, but I was most interested in the panel on New Media and Publishing Creative Writing. Go here to see the schedule and presenters and what you missed.

I'm always tempted by these things, because I have family in the area, so I'd have a place to stay. But there's plane fare and the registration fee. And my major fear is that I'll go to all that effort and won't have learned anything new. Or maybe I'm just afraid that I'll feel lonely and out of place and have to really fight my impulse to flee the room--I've occasionally felt that way at academic conferences with a literary criticism focus.

It's interesting to be reading blogs and to find write-ups. Go here, here, or here to read complete reviews. Bernadette Geyer's post was the one that made me zip around to read as much as I could. She mentions "the idea of Twittering novels or poems. Forcing people to focus on a single line at a time. It reminds me of a video installation I saw at a Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt. The video artist, Bill Viola, had taken a home video of a child's birthday party and slowed it down so that each frame was held for a few seconds on a very large screen, with the audio equally slowed, and very loud. I loved that the technique highlighted and emphasized details that would normally be glossed over in "real time". Every millisecond was hyper-emphasized.Slow blogging, slow reading, slow food... there's a global movement afoot to slow things down. I appreciate that. Less is more. Focus on every ... single ... moment" (again, go here for the whole post).

Monday, March 2, 2009

Our 19th Century Evening

No, we weren't snowed in and we didn't lose power. But our Sunday evening felt very 19th century anyway.

My spouse got some new music and wanted to practice his violin. When he's practicing, I find it hard to concentrate on anything that takes much brain power, like reading or writing. So, I got started on a project that doesn't require too much brainpower.

We go to a creativity/spirituality retreat at Lutheridge each year (go here to read more at the Lutheridge website, and here to read more at my theology blog), and this year, we're trying something different with our closing labyrinth ceremony. On strips of cloth, people will write the names of people and events that have been important to them, and we'll braid the strips together. Eventually, we'll have a long braid, which we'll coil into a labyrinth shape.

Someone figured out that we need about 2500 feet of braid, and that we'd need to have some of the braid already created. So, those of us with cloth and time have been invited to braid in advance.

Last night, as my husband played his violin, I cut strips of cloth and braided them into ropes. At the end of the evening, I had about 24 feet. So, yes, we're wise to be working in advance.

It made me think of my younger years, in undergraduate school, where I thought that art should have function. So, I would quilt, because a quilt keeps us warm at night, but I wouldn't paint a canvas, because who needed art for the walls.

I've changed my thinking since then.

At one point, I'd have thought about braiding scraps into coils of rag rugs--how very practical. One of those many projects I never got around to doing. Last night's braiding didn't make me anxious to try it, either. It's a kind of annoying thing. All the strips get tangled, and my arms got sore from trying to keep strips from tangling.

Interestingly, my undergraduate aesthetics did allow for the practice of poetry. I saw poetry as a way to change the world (how very 19th century of me!), and therefore, a functional art form.

As I cut and braided, I thought about how few people create their own art anymore. We download our music, instead of creating it, and we watch television, instead of creating our own dramas on paper or film. We go out to dinner, instead of cooking, and we buy art for the walls, instead of painting a canvas ourselves.

My 19 year old self was wrong in her thinking about creative pursuits, as she was about so many subject areas. Even if we create displeasing art, there's value in doing it, especially in these days when so few people are in touch with their creative sides.