Monday, December 22, 2008

Writing Prompt #3--Write an Abecedarian

The poem I posted today is an abecedarian. The abecedarians I see most often anthologized are fairly straightforward, with letters of the alphabet running down the left margin, as the first letter of the words that begin each line.

Of course, you can have lots of fun with this technique. My favorite abecedarians at the moment are the Future of Terror, the Terror of the Future sequences by Matthea Harvey, in her volume Modern Life.

So, here's a holiday challenge for these days when we may feel uninspired: let's use the alphabet to help us jumpstart our creativity.

I always start with the most difficult letters--I grab my dictionary and figure out the line that will start with X, and go from there.

I just heard an NPR interview with Paul McCartney, who participated in a song project: 13 songs in 13 days, one per day. He said he often started by opening the dictionary and looking for beautiful words. If it's good enough for a former Beatle, it can work for us!

A Poem for Travelers

This week is one of the busier travel weeks, so I thought I'd offer this poem. It first appeared in Hurricane Review in 2005.

Traveler’s ABCs

All day I dream of you, as I’m stuck in this airplane,
Baggage above me
Corpse of a happy vacation chained to my calf,
Drugged by the sudden stop of motion midstream,
Egged on by the airlines in my
Fervent wish to see you one more time.
Gasping for air, I awake to coffee-stained light and a
Hole rubbed in my sock from yesterday’s restless pacing.
Island of bliss in my travel nightmares, this dream of your fingers.
Jammed in between two corpulent beasts, but I don’t care.
Kind stewardesses offer me a cloth for my face and a cup of
Lemon tea as I watch thunderstorms recede to
Menace another town, wreck another’s vacation.
Nervously, the plane trundles down the tarmac.
Opiate of travelers everywhere, movement towards take-off!
Point of no return, this rush and hurling skyward,
Queues left behind on the
Runway, the security lines, the endless waiting and
Showing of picture IDs; air
Transportation requires so much more patience, so little room for
Upset and missed connections—some blame the recent
Violence but what did we expect?
We challenge the gods of the clouds every time we prove ourselves to be
Xerophytes, plants blooming in the least likely places,
Yoking ourselves in thin metal tubes and crossing three time
Zones, just to spend one night beside you.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Labyrinths and the Creative Process

I've studied labyrinths for many years, and I've always focused on their spiritual use. But on Friday, as I walked a candlelit labyrinth for Advent, I had a flash of insight about a poem that had been percolating.

Actually, it was about several poems that I'd been working on, all of them giving me fits. On Friday night, my mind said, "Stitch this bit to that bit, and then you've got something interesting." Yesterday was hectic, so I haven't tried it yet, but it's an insight that excites me. I wonder if I would have had that insight if I hadn't been walking the labyrinth.

I've heard of people having similar insights as they solve various problems while walking the labyrinth. What is it about walking that shape that helps the brain in its problem solving mode?

I know that there are many theories, and many of them are similar to the theories that explain why we often solve problems when we're driving a cross-country trip or exercising. The activity gives the brain something to focus upon, which quiets the chatter that often clutters our mind, and that allows solutions to come forward.

There might be fancier neurological explanations, but in the end, who cares? It's a process to add to our toolkits.

And before you say, "Oh no, labyrinths are too New Agey for me," I'd just remind you that actually, they're very medieval. To find out more, go to the Labyrinth Society website.

And to find a labyrinth near you (and you'll likely be surprised at how many exist; lots of school and hospitals have started building them), go to the labyrinth locator. Go to a labyrinth and think about a poem that's presenting you with problems that you don't know how to solve. Maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised at the ideas you have while walking.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Incarnation vs. Creation

In her essay, "'Tis the Season: Holidays, Harvest, and the Psalms," Lynn Domina says, "For me, and I suspect for many writers and other artists, even for those of us enthusiastically identifying with a Trinitarian tradition, the most compelling divine characteristic is not incarnation but creation" (page 117 of Poets on the Psalms).

We're deep in the season of Advent, so I've already been contemplating the mysteries of incarnation. How many other religions have a god who takes on human form and dwells among us? I've always found that aspect of Christianity compelling.

But I've also always identified with the Creator aspect of God. I especially love the earlier Genesis story of creation (the one that doesn't revolve around Adam and Eve and a snake). God creates all sorts of things and declares them good. Sometimes very good. You never see God saying, "What a lousy rough draft. I'll never be able to do anything with this crap I just created." No. God loves all of the creations.

I feel a poem hovering in the background.

And maybe I'll use God as a model as I approach the new year and think about my writing goals. Maybe, instead of being disgusted at how little I get done, maybe I'll show myself the same kind of love as God does (if only I could just switch gears that easily). Maybe, instead of seeing all the ways that my poems fall short, I'll declare them "Good," and leave it at that.

Last Minute Gift Idea: Poets on the Psalms

For those of you who celebrate the season (any variation of it), and you have a reader on your list who is difficult to shop for, here's a last minute gift idea: Poets on the Psalms, a collection of essays by a wide variety of poets, edited by Lynn Domina (Trinity University Press, 2008).

You might expect a collection like this to emphasize heavily Psalm 23, and several essays do. However, this collection manages to shed new light on this Psalm, even though it's probably the most familiar Psalm to readers. Catherine Sasanov tells us that as people came down the stairwells of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, they spontaneously began to recite Psalm 23. Angie Estes writes a substantial essay on the idea of want (one of the key verbs of Psalm 23).

This book offers something for the scholar in us, but in manageable units. There are no ponderously dense, academic essays here, but different authors do give us intellectual insights. Robert A. Ayres uses his knowledge of Hebrew and his seminary education to shed light on the Psalms. Alicia Ostriker presents a fascinating view of the Psalms as gendered. Several essays take one Psalm (or several lines from one Psalm) and give an in-depth analysis.

And because the book is written by poets, it's wonderfully lyrical. I love Lynn Domina's essay that explores the Psalms, the winter holidays (particularly Christmas), other seasons, vegetables, and her love of her land. Jill Alexander Essbaum presents the Psalmist in relationship with God, and uncovers a smoldering sexuality in the Psalms.

This book has something for everyone, and would make a perfect gift for poets, for spiritual people of all kinds, for anyone who loves a variety of views on a given topic. It's a book that's unlikely to already be on the bookshelves of your favorite readers, but one they'll likely return to many times.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Naming a Chapbook Press

Yesterday, I felt despair over publication, especially book-length (and I also include chapbooks in this category) publication. Then I remembered some do-it-yourself posts written several months ago by Reb Livingston (go to the Aug. 27, 2008 reading during this month's archive, and navigate from there; I particularly liked the cost breakdown post; she also has some interesting followup posts during September 2008), and I read them, and started daydreaming.

Instead of getting right to work on my own project, I started daydreaming about becoming a publisher. I thought of how many friends I know who might have a book-length manuscript. I started thinking about other writers, like Virginia Woolf, who created presses. I decided that a chapbook press would be much more manageable than a full-length book press.

So, I got right to work, creating a business plan and planning a contest to cover my costs, right?

Of course not (so don't send me your manuscripts!). I started thinking about what I'd name my press. I've had Christina Rossetti on the brain lately, so my first thought was Goblin Market Press. I kind of like the sound of it, but I know the poem, and I'm not sure I like the analogy for a press of my own. Would I, as the publisher, be a Goblin Merchant Man? Would I sell people something luscious, but then refuse their later offers to buy? Would writers be Laura, wasting away? Or would my customers be Laura? Hmm. No. Keep thinking.

Rossetti did volunteer work at a shelter for fallen women named Highgate. Highgate Press. I like the sound of it. It reminds me of Hogarth Press, the one founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I like the visual image of a high gate. Not a high fence, but a gate.

Let me google it.

OK, there's a Highgate Press that publishes music. The more I type Highgate, the weirder it looks . . .

Highgate Poetry Press. I like it.

If you started a press, what would you name it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Journals: Paper vs. Electronic

There's an interesting discussion going on over at Diane Lockward's blog. She began the discussion by referencing an editorial by Ron Effen in Free Lunch. Ron Effen asserts that online literary journals can't be as good as the paper kind. Lockward disagrees, and she discusses some of the benefits of online journals, some of them ones that print journals can't provide. The comments section continues the discussion.

Monday's post gives Lockward's ideas of what makes a quality, online literary journal. Anyone who's ever thought of starting an online literary journal should read this entry.

I must confess to only recently coming around to approving of electronic literary journals. I've always had my eye on future jobs, and I tend to see publication through that lens: what will make me a more favorable job candidate? Until recently, online publications wouldn't have been taken as seriously as paper publications. That statement is probably still true at more institutions than I want to think about.

But after having some online publications, I've come to agree with Lockward. Some of those electronic journals do a better job than paper journals, and they have a lot more resources at their disposal to create a beautiful object, since they aren't bound by paper or postage issues.

Plus, in an earlier age, I worried about privacy. I worried that an online presence might lead to unpleasantness (those were the days when cyberstalking was in the news). I worried that future employers/students would discover one of my poems online more easily than a poem that existed in a paper publication, and that somehow, that online poem would cause problems. Now, obviously, I've stopped worrying about that.

These days, I'm thinking about permanence, and I'm wondering how to ensure that my poems exist after I'm gone. In my younger days, getting one of my poems into a Norton anthology seemed like a sure bid towards immortality--or at least, towards having a wide audience. These days, I'm not so sure. I like to think that random readers are more likely to stumble across one of my poems on the Internet--most readers aren't out there buying Norton anthologies, that's for sure (I suspect that most students can't afford those hefty anthologies these days). In my younger days, it seemed that books stayed in print forever, and that the library always kept books in stock. These days, the infinite storage capacity of cloud computing has its appeal.

Diane Lockward promises a post where she'll tell us online journals that she likes. I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Books of Interviews with Poets

I've looked at my bookshelf, and I'm amazed at how few of my books of interviews with writers focus on poets. In fact, I only have 4:

1. Conversations with South Carolina Poets by Gayle R. Swanson and William B. Thesing. 1986.

When I was an undergraduate at Newberry College, one of my favorite professors, Dr. Swanson, put together this book, after having the idea during an on-campus poetry festival several years earlier. That poetry festival happened my freshman year, I think, and I was just in awe of these poets, and I knew that I wanted to be part of that community. When this book came out, there was a follow-up poetry festival on campus. Many of the poets in this book signed my book. Did they have any idea how much it meant to me?

The interviews hold up well, 22 years (gulp!) after the book was published. There are interesting discussions of whether or not Southern poetry is different from poetry written in other parts of the country, questions about race and gender, questions about writing process, questions about art, and how to live as an artist, while not neglecting other responsibilities.

2. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets by Bill Moyers. 1995.

3. Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and their Craft by Bill Moyers. 1999.

I got The Language of Life through some kind of Book-of-the-Month club deal. It's a huge book, by books of interviews standards. Fooling with Words (how I hate that title!) is much smaller, but just as compelling.

I like that the books include complete poems. It would have taken me much longer to discover some of those poets on my own, if I hadn't had these books to help me. The interview questions are thoughtful and the interviews show a depth that's often lacking in interviews that appear in journals and magazines (no need to be concise in terms of the space concerns that so often constrain journalist interviewers).

I think that both books began life as a PBS special. I saw Fooling with Words, and I remember thinking, I can't wait to read the book. It was clear that we were seeing snippets of interviews, which made me want to see what had been left out.

4. The Verse Book of Interviews: 27 Poets on Language, Craft, and Culture edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki. 2005.

Another book that introduced me to many poets I hadn't heard of before. My copy of this book is underlined more than the other three. Lots of great interviewing about the topics covered in the other books (being an artist, making a living, balancing work and art and family life, being affected by nationality, race, gender, and class), plus some interesting discussions about the state of modern poetry and the academy and the future. In addition, this book includes poets of diverse nationalities, so there are some interesting discussions about translation and native languages.

I've just asked the library to get me Fourteen on Form. I fully intended to buy it, but so far, the University Press of Mississippi hasn't put it out in an affordable form; $50 for a book that's 265 pages?!!! Ridiculous.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

December's Hectic Days

I have been having one of those months where I race from appointment to appointment, in between work and sleep. I know that most people spend their December this way, but it's unusual for me.

My hectic schedule reminds me of an earlier time in my life, when I drove across 3 counties, from adjunct job to adjunct job. After I taught a session on Julian of Norwich, I sat in the car, yearning for contemplation, and wondering what a modern anchoress would look like. And thus, emerged this poem (which later appeared in my chapbook):

My Habit, My Hairshirt

A modern day anchoress, I commit
myself to my car. In my moving cell,
I sing constantly and pray without ceasing.

I dedicate myself to our modern religion
of hectic pace. I rush from one location to another,
showing my devotion in twelve hour increments.

No time for contemplation, the anathema
to the modern ascetic. I flog
myself with my cell phone and briefcase.

Occasionally, a heretical urge lures
me, a siren song urging me to slow down,
tempting me to tame my frantic schedule.

But no Gnostic visions for me. I race
through another week in the grip of my Daytimer,
my habit, my hairshirt.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My Reading List for 2009

This week at school, I saw my friend Monika, who's reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I assumed that she was re-reading it, but she said she had never read it and always meant to. I remember reading it in high school and thinking it was deeply profound, and then I re-read it in college, and continued to think it was deeply profound. But I was worried about how much of it I had missed, especially the darkness (I had the same experience reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which I thought was a hoot in high school, and when I re-read it my Senior year of college, I was horrified to realize that when I read it the first time, I had completely missed the fact that the main character was going through a breakdown).

When I said that I'd like to re-read the book, Monika and I talked about reading it at the same time. I said, "I've got to get on some kind of reading program." I'm amazed by how much I'm not reading anymore. Even though I'm reading a lot more online, I'm not reading as many books as I used to do.

I could offer excuses, like the fact that my academic job was converted into a 4o-hours-a-week-in-the-office job. But I used to spend gobs of time in high school, and I managed to read a lot (I doubt I would have survived high school without books).

So, in the interest of reading more in 2009, I've decided to make a list of books I will be reading this year. And since I have a journey coming up over Christmas, I'm giving myself a 3 week head start. I'll report back to this blog as I finish each book. We'll see how I do. I've kept the list fairly short. In my youth, I could have finished this list in a month (in a week if I was really bored). But I want to be successful, not just have one more thing that I meant to do, but I didn't do, so that I can beat myself up. I can read them in whatever order I like.

In addition, I'll read one volume of poetry each month. I don't have to understand the volume as a whole or each individual poem (or any of the poems), but I have to read all the poems in the volume.

I started thinking about the books that meant something to me in high school, so my list starts with 3 to revisit:

1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

2. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

3. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

When I looked up A Canticle for Leibowitz on Amazon, I discovered #4. I'm always a sucker for a good tale about the apocalypse--what could be better than a book of short stories? I can dip in and out:

4. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams

There are 3 books by some of my favorite female authors that have come out recently:

5. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

6. Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

7. A Mercy by Toni Morrison

I added a novel that I've always meant to read, but haven't:

8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (maybe my friend Elizabeth--who used to read this book several times a year--will read this at the same time as me and offer encouragement).

I wanted something to make me think about my brain in a different way:

9. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor

And of course, no list would be complete without some theology:

10. Any book by Thomas Merton (I've never read a whole book of his before)

11. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

12. Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers by Eugene Peterson

And some Sociology about Religion (plus, I love this generational stuff!):

13. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of Religion

And another book of essays by a modern master:

14. Citizenship Papers by Wendell Berry

And the last novel, which seems to wrap together many things: my love of theology, my love of poetry, my fascination with cloistered life of all kinds, my Victorian/Modern British Lit background . . .

15. Exiles by Ron Hansen

I am a bit bothered by how many of these books are authored by males. Hmmm. But it will balance out with my poetry book selections, most of which I anticipate will be female-authored.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Interviews with Poets

I've been looking at my bookshelf, looking to see which books of interviews with writers focus exclusively on poets--there aren't many (and in the next few days, I'm still planning on writing about the few that I have).

Luckily, we have more resources on the Internet than most of us will ever be able to have time enough to read. Today, I discovered another great source of interviews with poets here.

If you're a poet, the whole blogsite is a wonderful resource, full of writing prompts and places to submit your work and musings on poetry.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Putting a Poetry Manuscript Together

January O'Neil has a great essay here about putting a manuscript of poems together. It made me think about my own process of putting together a book length work.

What helped me most was putting together chapbooks. Somehow, in a shorter form, it's easier to keep track of the overarching theme and how the poems work together.

It's much like the graduate school process. One gets used to putting together a 10 page paper in undergraduate school, so when I got to grad school and had to write a 20 page paper, I told myself, "It's just a longer 10 page paper." When I had to write my MA thesis, I said, "If you can write a 20 page paper, you can write a 50 page paper." And when I wrote my dissertation (a requirement which had terrified me when I started graduate school), I told myself to think of it as just a series of 20 page essays, which is how I shaped it as I wrote the first draft.

In fact, I've seen several books of poems that don't actually fit as nicely together as one unified work. But each section works on its own--the book is essentially a series of small chapbooks.

For all the thinking that we poets do about putting together a book-length manuscript, there's very little out there that I've discovered that analyzes the process. The only book I've ever seen about it is Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems edited by Susan Grimm (published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 2006). I first read about the book on Kelli Russell Agodon's blog here.

I pulled the book off the shelf, but earlier this year, when I read it, I underlined passages that aren't really about putting a book together. For example, Jeff Gundy talks about his teaching job at a small liberal arts school and says, "I don't mean to complain--this is absorbing, engaging, rewarding work, it pays a living wage, my office is air conditioned, and my students and colleagues are mostly smart and friendly. It is just a lot to stay ahead of, it it's to be done right. Add in the effort to keep some kind of literary life going . . ." (page 14).

The main thing I learned from the book is that there are many, many ways to put together a book of poems. And I already knew that. But I often read books that don't tell me much that I didn't already know--it's nice to be reminded of what I know and nice to find solidarity in the voices in the book.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

'Tis the Season for Christmas Pageants

On Sunday, I took part in a different kind of Christmas pageant than the kind that I imagine are currently taking place in chancels across the nation. Since we were hearing about John the Baptist, we did a small drama that portrayed pregnant Mary visiting pregnant Elizabeth. I played the part of Elizabeth. Once again, I'm not Mary (although I had the better lines).

Sunday made me think about my childhood experiences, when I was always an angel, never Mary, who was always the starring, yet silent role. I wrote a poem about it, which was first published in The South Carolina Review and then in my chapbook.

Medieval Christmas Pageants

The Sunday School pageant director embraced
the medieval ideals. Mary would have dark
hair and a pure soul. Joseph, a mousy
man who knew how to fade into the background.
Every angel must be haloed with golden
hair, and I, the greatest girl, the head
angel, standing shoulders above the others.

It could have been worse. Ugly and unruly
children had to slide into the heads and tails
of other creatures, subdued by the weight
of their costumes, while I got to lead
the processional. But I, unworldly foolish,
longed to be Mary. I cursed
my blond hair, my Slavic looks which damned
me to the realm of the angels.

I didn’t see Mary’s role for what it was: bit
player, vessel for the holy, keeper of the cosmic.
I didn’t understand the power of my position.
I could have led an angel uprising, although the history
of angel uprisings suggests that though whole new
worlds emerge, so do new tortures with the triumph.
I could have imparted messages of God’s plan,
spoiled all the surprises. I could just appear,
scaring mere mortals into submission.

Instead, I smoldered, smarting
at the indignities of mother made wings
and long robes to ruin my long legged run.
I internalized the message of the culture
which didn’t offer starring roles for girls,
no head angel power for us.
Instead, the slender, the meek, the submissive
girl got the prize, the spotlight focused
on her kneeling knees, her bowed head.
I tried not to sing too loudly, to shrink
my Teutonic bones into the Mary model.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Interviews with Writers

I just read a great interview with the wonderful poet, Barbara Crooker. It's posted in the latest edition of Umbrella, a great journal.

I got to the interview through the blog of Rachel Dacus, who conducted the interview. In this posting, she talks about the value of interviews with poets.

I'm amazed by how many of my books on writing and creativity are books of interviews. I love discovering how other people write and order their creative lives. The interview is one of my favorite literary forms, I think. I certainly like the interview much better than the scholarly essay. Give me the words of the writer/artist directly.

When I was younger, I was hungry for a road map. How did these other creative people find success? Now I read those interviews in a quest for community. I don't want to spend the money that an MFA would require, but I do envy MFA students their possibility for community. I'm finding that the blogosphere offers a bit of that. Before I had the blogosphere, I had books of interviews.

Speaking of interviews, I also find Kate Greenstreet's first book interviews endlessly fascinating. Go here for the complete list and have fun reading!

The Labyrinth as Metaphor for the Writing Life

The other night, I walked a labyrinth lit only by candles. If you want my thoughts on this experience as spiritual metaphor, go here (if you want to read the Miami Herald story, go here). But as I was writing that post, I thought of how much the labyrinth also works as a metaphor for the writing life.

A labyrinth is not a maze. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has one way in and one way back out. All you need to do is follow the path.

Do you look at your creative life as a maze or as a labyrinth?

In some ways, the idea of a labyrinth doesn't work as a metaphor, if we think about it in terms of publication and acclaim. The lust for publication and acclaim is more like a maze. We might follow the path ahead of us and find ourselves coming to dead ends, in a maze, with manuscripts that we can't publish, canvases that no one wants to show or buy, work that interests no one.

Some artists are led astray by the expectations of the world. They try to produce work with an eye to the market, and even then, they find themselves stymied.

On Friday, I walked a labyrinth lit only by candles, outside, several hours after sunset. It was dark, dark, dark. I understood the basic shape of the labyrinth, but still, I couldn't anticipate the twists and turns. I could only follow the flickering light, put one foot in front of another, and trust that the path would take me where I was supposed to go.

Lately, my writer's life feels like that experience of following a candlelit path. When I was younger, I had it all mapped out. I'd get this degree, that teaching job, produce that kind of work, get this publication by that age, that publication by the next age, boom, boom, boom. Then I'd die and graduate students would study my work, and they'd discover I fit into the canon this way and was ahead of my time in that way.

Now that I am older, I look back over my creative life, and I'm amazed at the twists it has taken, the directions it has gone, in ways that my younger self couldn't have anticipated and couldn't have planned for.

In 1983, when I went off to college, it didn't seem impossible that one could support oneself by one's creative efforts. Now, as the traditional publishing industry seems in danger of complete collapse, one would be crazy not to make a back up plan.

Of course, that's only important if we ignore all the other ways that our work can make it into the world. The Internet offers us many options, as does powerful computing, that an artist in 1983 wouldn't have had.

But perhaps we lose our way when we focus on what happens to the work once we've created it. Perhaps we should focus on the creation more than we do.

As I walked the labyrinth at night, I peered off into the distance, trying to remember the shape. I'd almost trip, and I'd remind myself to focus on the task at hand. As long as I focused on the candles and the path before me, I was OK. It was that incessant grasping for information that wasn't available that made me anxious.

Often, when I'm writing a poem, I'm not even done with the poem before I start trying to figure out how I'm going to revise it, how it will fit with my larger body of work, which journal might be interested, which manuscript I can integrate it into most easily.

Why can't I just be present with my poem, delight in it as it emerges?

It's a pressing question for many of us in many aspects of our lives. If we just lived in the present moment, we'd be much happier. Ah, if only I could live as Zen Kristin all the time.

Writing about this reminds me of a poem, "Golden Retrievals," by Mark Doty. I love the idea of the dog's idea of time, that the dog lives in the current moment in a way that humans cannot.

The labyrinth, too, reminds us to live in the present. The experience of walking it reminds us that we'll get to where we need to go, if we just walk step by step. It's a great metaphor for our creative lives, and for life in general.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Mayhem Poets

On Thursday night, I went to see the Mayhem Poets at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. What a treat! And because I went with a group from my school, we got a reduced rate. When I was young, in grad school, I always assumed that I'd teach English in a small, liberal arts college, where we'd have fascinating people and groups coming to visit. If we can't have that, going places to see fascinating people and groups is the next best thing (and it's a treat to live in a location where fascinating people and groups come through).

The Mayhem Poets consists of three poets (young, male, hip hop vibe) with an additional guy playing the flute while also creating a percussive beat with his body (foot stamps, mouth noises, that kind of thing). They created amazing rhymes, amazing sounds, amazing theatre.

It's the kind of night that made me think, I'm not challenging myself enough. I don't memorize my poems. I don't write them with an eye to performing them. My poems are fairly short--if I performed them, they'd take all of about 30 seconds.

My rational mind says, "Wait a minute. I'm working in a different area of poetry. And there's space in the world for both of us. We don't all have to be performance poets who go to slam competitions."

And I have a regular job. I have family commitments. I can't travel the country, sleeping on sofas, slamming my way through the poetry circuit.

And frankly, I wouldn't want to. When my chapbook first came out, I set up some poetry readings and some workshops, while continuing to teach. Only a few of my readings required travel. And yet, after that spring of poetry promotion, I found myself exhausted. I can't imagine keeping the schedule that the Mayhem Poets do.

I'm immensely grateful for people like them who can do it. It's a missionary calling, of sorts. They go out and generate enthusiasm for poetry. People who like one kind of poetry are more likely to fall in love with other kinds of poetry. The important thing is to ignite that passion. Thanks to people like the Mayhem Poets, who set the auditorium on fire.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Big Read List

I couldn't resist playing with this list. And I couldn't resist commenting.

Here are the rules (I first found this list in the form of this game here; I first saw the list some time ago, before I was blogging).

1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.

2) Italicize those you intend to read.

3) Reprint this list and leave a comment

And here's what I'm doing too, because I'm interested--I'm listing the books I had as required reading in high school, college, or grad school. I'm a bit startled at how many of these books I would likely not have read, if I hadn't been in school. There are only a few on the list which I read in the last 10 years. Hmm.

And interesting to see how few of these books I plan to read. It would be fun to create alternate lists. Some other day--I've already spent lots of time on this list

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

I read this in high school, when I increased my reading, for fear of being unprepared for college

2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

I read about 50 pages--not my thing

3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

I first attempted this when I was 12, and couldn't get very far. But I loved it in high school, in college, in grad school, when I taught it. I love the main character. I love her commitment to herself.

4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling

I feel like I've read this.

5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

I read this in high school and undergraduate school. I recently reread it--it holds up well.

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

I loved this in college and grad school; when I taught it in 2001 and 2002, I found myself losing patience with all the characters.

8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell

read in high school and grad school--if I reread it now, would it seem that these things we've feared have come true? Big Brother is watching--all sorts of big brothers.

9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott

The first book that made me cry--I read this on a family trip west. I wept through the Rockies as Beth died.

12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

I don't remember all the works. But as I look at my anthology from undergraduate school, I see notes that I made in the margins of all the plays. Did I read them all or just take notes as my professor pontificated?

15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien

The only Tolkien I've ever been able to read.

17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch - George Eliot

I read this in grad school, and required my students to read it in a Victorian Lit class. It's a slog, but after the first 100 pages, I couldn't put it down (only about a quarter of the class I taught agreed with me).

21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

I read this as a teenager, expecting a dirty book because it had been banned--but I found it tame, compared to the bodice ripper romances I was reading.

22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

required in college and high school.

23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens

I've only completed it once (attempted at least twice before I finally finished it--it showed up on a lot of grad school syllabi). I recognize the brilliance of this novel, but my goodness, it's long and involved.

24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

Ah, the Russians--the huge gaping hole in my education. I must read them some day. But first on my list would be Anna Karenina.

25 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

I read this in high school. My whole class came to English class unprepared, with the book unread. My English teacher told us to start reading, because we'd have a test the next day. I read the whole book in one day.

29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahme

31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis

34 Emma - Jane Austen

35 Persuasion - Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - C. S. Lewis

Why repeat this book, when it's included in #33?

37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne

41 Animal Farm - George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

I read half this book and wasn't impressed.

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving

Such a perfect book. I may reread this soon. The Sunday School pageant chapter is perfect for this time of year.

45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

I read this book periodically--ever since its publication, it's always seemed pressingly important, as a tale of what can go wrong, if we're not vigilant. Atwood said that she didn't put anything in the book that wasn't happening somewhere in the world, and unfortunately, she can still say that.

49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding

50 Atonement - Ian McEwan

I read half this book before losing patience.

51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel

52 Dune - Frank Herbert

Ah, the books we read during our Sci Fi geeky phase

53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

I read this one after seeing the 1995 movie; I think it's her best (although Northanger Abbey is great fun, if you've been reading Gothic novels and you're in the mood for a satire of them).

55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz

57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

Not as bleak as her memoir, Lucky

65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding

69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville

required reading in high school. We all complained bitterly, except for a punk rock guy, who claimed it was the best book he'd ever read. And he had read a lot of books.

71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

required in grad school. My favorite Dickens (except, maybe for Hard Times)

72 Dracula - Bram Stoker

I read part of this book, but it's no Frankenstein, which is curiously absent from this list.

73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses - James Joyce

I've read this several times since my grad school class, but not since I finished my M.A. thesis, which focused on Joyce.

76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal - Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray

required for grad school--blhhh

80 Possession - AS Byatt

I read this during the summer when I was fairly strict with my reading--I was studying for PhD Comprehensive exams, and I had told myself that I could only read the books that would fill in the gaps in my knowledge. But I allowed myself this one for a treat. I'm in awe of what Byatt was able to do. When my own Vic Lit students were reading it on their own, and raving about it, I envied them their experience of reading it for the first time.

81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker

I will always love Alice Walker's essays best, but this book led me to those essays, so I'll always be grateful.

84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte's Web - EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I've read some of these tales--could I have read them all?

90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

I read this in grad school and again, as I've taught it--it's short, so Survey of Brit Lit students might read it--and it seems to sum up much of the 20th century, even though it was written early in the century--and the 19th.

92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery

I read this while desperately homesick at summer camp. My mom had slipped it in my suitcase. I was only away for a week, but it seemed like the longest week of my 8 year old life. This book helped me through.

93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks

94 Watership Down - Richard Adams

I read this book in high school (but it wasn't required)--it's the first book that sensitized me to animal rights issues.

95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare

Why does this one get a separate entry? It's included in the complete works! I hate this play--so much dithering about, and so little action. I suspect it's because I have had so many Hamlets in my life.

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Thursday, December 4, 2008

More Thinking about Strange Symbols and Nativity Scenes

I thought I'd write more about nativity scenes and strange symbols.

I've had nativity scenes on the brain, since they start to appear right now, and they often inspire controversy: do we allow them in civic spaces? Do we include the baby Jesus before Christmas? Do we allow children to be creative with them?

Through the years, I've heard of unusual additions to home nativity scenes, and I decided to combine all the possibilities I could think of into one poem, which I included in yesterday's post.

My current nativity scene has lost some key figures through the years. We've managed to keep track of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, probably because they're glued into the stable. We're down to one shepherd and a camel--no wise men to go with the camel, no angels in sight. That's probably a poem right there!

We do have a plastic, purple monkey that our friend John put in the nativity scene years ago. It's a tiny, flat monkey with a scooped hand that came from a game where you try to pick up other plastic monkeys to make a chain. I know that some people might see it as disrespectful (and they shouldn't read the poem from yesterday's post!), but now, most of my decorations have some memory of beloved friends and families attached to them, and I like decorating and remembering.

Plus, I think that if the Gospels teach us anything, it's that God will be found in the most unlikely places and attract all sorts of attention. People will follow who you would never expect to find in the company of God. That purple, plastic monkey can be a symbol of the tax collectors/prostitutes/social outcasts that Jesus invited to dinner.

The Strip Bar has been Transformed into a Starbucks!

One of the things that I love about a long car trip is that ideas often bubble up. Of course, I often don't write them down, but I like to think they'll come back to me. I also like seeing different landscapes to the ones that I usually see on a daily basis. And of course, when travelling a road that I've spent some time on, it's interesting to see what's changed.

I've been driving up and down I 95 for much of my adult life. Some time in the mid 90's (I think), an enterprising soul began to open strip bars. The billboards would begin about 50 miles before the exit, enticing people to come in search of good food and pretty women. I loved the sections of highway where the stripper billboards competed with the South of the Border billboards--and I was always glad I didn't have children in the car who would ask interesting questions.

Last week, as I travelled north, I noticed that one of those strip bars has been changed into a Starbucks. My first impulse was to cheer. I've always wondered why Starbucks doesn't build some of their gazillion stores close to Interstate exits.

Then I wondered if there was some symbol lurking in the landscape--something useful for a poem. I tried, and so did my spouse, but all we could do was to create potential country songs. Lots of wordplay with latte and the like. I could also see a punkish country song, something the Violent Femmes might have sung in the 1980's. But no poems, as of yet.

If you're in need of a poetic symbol, or a writing prompt, feel free to use this one!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Poem to Get You in the Christmas Decorating Mode

As we've been decorating the house for Christmas, I've been thinking about how many poems this season has inspired. Here's a poem from my chapbook, to get you in the decorating mood, be it an irreverent mood or a more solemn occasion.

Nativity Scene

Through the years, the stable attracted
the odds and ends of our childhood toys:
a plastic soldier, his rifle chewed and mangled,
migrated from the war zone;
a horse, which once helped herd
plastic animals, now riderless and alone;
a Magic 8 ball with murky
water, the answers to our questions, obscured;
a nutcracker dressed in festive finery, but missing
its lower jaw, its mission in life undone;
lonely Barbie, hair shorn from too many experiments,
now loveless and forlorn;
a matchbox car, once prized, now missing
a wheel and limping along;
a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle doll with other refugees
from popular shows of past years;
a gingerbread boy gamepiece, knowing he belongs elsewhere,
neglecting his duties in Candyland, so compelling
is the baby in the manger.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Getting Back to the Blog

For the past week, I've been away from the computer. We don't have a reliable lap top, and even if we did, we were away in the NC mountains, and finding a WiFi spot would have been a hassle. Besides, I traveled almost a thousand miles to be with my family, not to stare at a computer screen. It's astonishing to realize how much of my life now revolves around that computer screen, both in my free time and my work.

Still, I've been enjoying my new experiments in cyberspace--2 blogs created and a website, all in the month of November--no wonder my brain feels like it may explode. It felt strange to drop out of all that activity for a week.

And now I return to pick up these threads. I used to write novels (but always, I fell apart in the revision and submission to publishers phase). Occasionally, I'd be away from my writing desk, and return to that novel. Trying to pick up the threads of my blog feels like that process--except that my blog is about part of my real life, or so I think. Have I become a character? A character in a work that I'm creating?

How post-modern is all of this? Or did writers and other artists always feel this way? When writing fiction, I was always amused at how many bits and pieces found their way in to my creative work. And blogging is similar--I'm always thinking about my blog, what should go in, what should stay out. I'm always on the lookout for good blog topics.

Still to be determined--will this blogging detract from my other creative efforts?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My poem inspired by Keats' poem

Finding the link for the Keats poem I mentioned in the post below meant reading the Keats poem, to make sure I'd found a good website. That reading, in turn, made me think of an earlier poem I wrote. It's not a Thanksgiving poem, but it's my attempt at an Autumn poem that doesn't use the traditional images.

It's autobiographical--those of you who are old enough to remember will realize that I'm writing about the autumns of 1983, 1984, and 1986.

This poem first appeared in The Powhatan Review Winter 2004-2005.

October Songs

“Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,“
John Keats, “To Autumn”

I know the first thing I must buy, stocking
up on supplies as I return from the outback
of my college campus, where my radio
only receives country twanging and peppy pop songs.
I buy as many record albums as my arms can hold.

The days darken early. I play U2’s War,
and news filters in from Lebanon, soldiers exploding,
terrorists kidnapping tourists, forces invading Grenada.
I worry about violence, nuclear holocaust, and those five
pounds that seem all too comfortable on my frame.

Later, I must severely budget back to school dollars:
running shoes, an oscillating fan, Bruce Springsteen’s Born
in the USA
. Russell and I train for a marathon
to the beat of this music; I miss Carl
with the keening intensity of a train whistle.

As I prepare graduate school applications and fret
about the GRE, Kevin gives me a Suzanne Vega
tape. I listen to these strange songs
as I, too, pare down my life to simpler
lyrics, a spare poetry of simplicity.


And now, I suppose I can procrastinate by blogging no longer--I must go do a bit more Thanksgiving prep.

Writing Prompt #1

I've always enjoyed John Keats' "To Autumn," perhaps the only autumn poem with no leaves that have changed color.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, here's a similar prompt: write a Thanksgiving poem that stays away from the usual cliches. When I was younger, and wrote "Daughterless Women," I probably thought I was doing that. But as I typed it in, some part of me was horrified at the Thanksgiving cliches (see entry below). But a larger part of me felt fondness for my younger poet self, and so the poem gets to stay on this blog.

But as I prepare for Thanksgiving, I'll be thinking about the kind of Thanksgiving poem I'd write now. Can one write a Thanksgiving poem that isn't trite and traditional?

Thanksgiving Poem

Here is a Thanksgiving poem. It appeared in Caprice in 2000, but of course, I wrote it several years before that.

I've often been accused of writing poetry that's "prose-y," and this poem does seem to fall into that category. Still, it's the only Thanksgiving poem I have that's been published, and I want to be careful about putting unpublished work on this blog, since I'd like for poems to appear somewhere else before they appear here (and then, ideally, the best of them would appear later, in a book with a spine--I'm old-fashioned that way).

This poem is so old that I don't even have it typed into my current computer. So, as I type it in, I'm going to resist the urge to revise.

And yes, this poem represents Thanksgiving as I perceived it as a young woman visiting my rural relatives. I wrote it my first Thanksgiving in south Florida, when I was desperately homesick for them.

Anyway, enough prelude. Here it is:

Daughterless Women

Surely, they've all earned a rest.
But they're a daughterless bunch,
so they'll put together the annual feast,
even though the youngest is fifty-eight.

They've already chosen the turkey, slaughtered
and plucked it, plopped it in the fridge
as if it defrosted like a normal grocery
store turkey. They've planned the menu,
delegated the tasks, prepared as much in advance
as possible.

Still, they roll out of bed at 4:30 in the morning,
pad to the cold kitchen, turn on the oven
and burners (something to be thankful
for right there--they all remember
when part of the task involved hauling
kindling and logs to the cast-iron stove).
They set the dough to warm and rise,
roll out rounds of pastry,
keep the bubbling pots controlled.

They meet at Mae Mae's house.
She has the biggest kichen
and two television sets so the men won't argue
about which game to watch. The women reheat,
arrange spectacular presentations,
and set out all necessary utensils.
The family gathers in the dust-free dining
room for the blessing.

The oldest male blesses
the food and just like every year, forgets
to bless the hands that made the meal,
gives thanks for a good growing season
and forgets to give thanks for the growers.

The men, drunk on sweet tea and football hormones,
keep the glasses filled.
Occasionally an outside male--
always younger, always well-intentioned--
tries to help in the kitchen.
Like pecking hens, the women drive him away.

Everyone eats enough to keep a third world child
alive for a year; between all the family appetites,
they consume food that could have kept a whole village
from starvation.

Finally the clean up begins, food wrapped
in plastic, tucked away in corners
of the fridge and freezer, divided
between the families. The heirloom china
and silver receive their ritual washing.
The older children help put the pots and pans
away. The women restore order
to the kitchen.

At halftime, the men creep
back to the kitchen to exchange
tales of the past--the relatives a few generations
back who were so poor
they didn't even have an outhouse,
just did their business in the woods;
the great grandmother who insisted
on clean drawers before going to the emergency
room for her heart attack;
the vegetarian kook who tried to convince
them to switch to soybeans.

Gradually, the meal makes an encore
performance. The family picks and putters
amongst the leftovers as dusk descends
on another holiday,
another reunion,
another burnished bouquet of memories.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Poet's Personality

This week, a colleague at work said, "You're so outgoing and gregarious for a poet." I just smiled and said, "Thank you," even though I really wanted to know more details. Am I outgoing and gregarious for a regular person too? Am I outgoing and gregarious compared to a sullen teenager? It's like when a relative tells you, "I'm so impressed with your ability to carry on a conversation." Have you just been insulted or complimented?

I've been with my current school for almost seven years, and I occasionally get these kind of comments from people who have been there longer than I have. When I first started teaching creative writing classes, one person marvelled that I was so normal, for a writer. Another time, someone told me I was well-adjusted, for a poet. I wonder about creative writers who have been on faculty before I came--what kind of lives did these people lead, that makes my colleagues so incredulous of my ability to be personable?

As an undergraduate, I was a double major, both English and Sociology, so part of me always wants to grill people on what they mean by that word normal. Part of me always feels a bit insulted, like I've had a boring life. Part of me agrees that, yes, I've had a boring life, and contemplates taking up a dangerous habit.

And yet, I've known tempestuous writers (and non-writers) who manufacture drama, because life feels boring without it. And guess what? They don't get much done. They're too hung over or obsessed with an unobtainable love object or avoiding their muse in any number of damaging ways.

Throughout American literary history, we're burdened with the self-destructive writer (and any number of other types of artists). As far back as Edgar Allan Poe, we see people dying early because of their bad habits (those Colonial writers were probably too busy scratching out a living to drink themselves into an early grave). Some scholars might try to tell us that those alcoholic or drug abusing poets accomplished more than they ever would without the drugs and alcohol, but that's a bunch of hooey. Often their lives ended much earlier than they needed to, and I wonder about all the creative works lost to the drugs and alcohol, all the creative works lost when the writer died too young.

As writers, we need to take care of ourselves and attend to our communities, while at the same time making sure that we take time for our art. It's a delicate balancing act, to be sure. Being a tempestuous may make our lives seem more interesting, to the outsider at least, but it's unlikely to lead to art that's more interesting. I saw a quote recently (and I'll try to find it again, so I can give the famous, dead author credit): "Be well ordered in your life so that your art can be wild."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Reproachful Bookcase

Yesterday's post made me think about my grad school days, and then, later, as I sat at work, I looked at my bookcase, as I often do, when I'm between tasks. Each shelf holds books that I haven't read since graduate school, and let's be honest--I don't expect to ever read them again. I spent many years in grad school reading Victorian novels, most of them over 500 pages. It was hard to find time to read them then.

I moved those books to my office for several reasons. It's not that I expected to need them as I teach or help run our department. We have trouble getting our students to read short articles. I can't imagine how they'd react if I said we were reading Bleak House. Actually, I can imagine it. They simply wouldn't read it.

No, I moved them because I needed to free up shelves on my home bookcases. And I thought that the sight of them might be a comfort.

Instead, I find the sight of them distressing. They remind me of all the good ideas I ever had for academic papers and books, and they reproach me as I think about work I haven't yet done. I even have books from my undergraduate years in the office. Those books cause real distress. They remind me of my younger self who first discovered these poets and writers, my younger self who wandered through the days, dizzy with the joy of language and literature.

Yesterday, I took a slim volume of poems that I have on my desk and put it on the shelf in front of my school books. It fit! Now I have a vision: I can put rows of poetry volumes in front of those books that cause me grief. I'll gaze on those books and remind myself of the rich vastness of today's poetry world. When I need a break, I'll pull a volume of poems off the shelf and read. I buy all these books and rarely take time to read them. Poems are perfect for that slot of time between meetings, time that's too short to get any administrative work or grading done, but a chunk of time nonetheless. I almost always find the reading of poems to be inspiring--just the thing to encourage me to return to my own poems. Having those books collected in one place (a place where I spend so many hours a week) will hopefully help me make better use of my down time.

My poetry writing has always been more important to me than my academic writing. Having those poetry volumes there in my office will remind me of my higher calling.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Writing Process and our Various Writerly Selves

On her blog, The Word Cage, Mary Biddinger writes about a student who's exploring the intersection between creative writing and academic writing--but they haven't been able to find much research on the subject or source material.

For years, I've been collecting books where authors talk about their writing process, so I thought that surely I would have something. I found lots of books on my shelves of interviews with writers--no surprise, since that's one of my favorite formats. I found many books of essays, where authors wrestle with what it is they mean to do in their creative writing. I even found an essay or two where authors wrestle with which genre is the most natural for them, for example, how to integrate their poet self with their novelist self.

I didn't find anything which talked about writers who feel torn between academic writing and creative writing, much less anything that explored authors who work in both worlds.

When I think back to my own graduate school days in the late 80's and early 90's, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The MFA world was fairly separate from the PhD world. The MFA folks had to take one class in theory, and they complained bitterly. The theorists would say, "Creative writing is the dirt from which theory flowers." Those of us who went to graduate school because we love poetry, both the writing of it and the reading of it, felt a bit lost.

And the academic job world still seems stratified in this way. If I want a job where I teach British Literature of the 19th Century, I really need to have some articles, preferably a book, analyzing the work of those writers. If I publish my own book of elegiac poems that find a model in Tennyson's "In Memoriam A.H.H.," that's unlikely to win me a teaching job where I can talk about Tennyson--unless I have a PhD and some academic articles that analyze the work of Tennyson.

I've spent much of my creative life writing poems, because they're more portable (I started dabbling with the novel form long before laptops were lightweight and affordable). I decided not to focus on research and academic writing once I finally finished my dissertation and could write whatever I wanted. But occasionally, I wonder if I should beef up my CV, in case I ever want a job elsewhere, and I return to academic writing.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford for a book of essays about narratives of community in linked short stories written by women. It went through several revisions, and I thought, oh yes, I remember why I didn't want to do this. But when I held the final book in my hand, I felt such a rush, and I thought, why don't I do this more often?

I know I'm not the only writer who wrestles with various writing identities and wonders how much time to devote to each. I find it interesting that those of us who write in a variety of genres (such as feminist criticism or theology or cookbook writing) outside of the standard Creative Writing genres of Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction, don't write more about that part of the writing process.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Of Literary Journals, Poem Publications, and Reading Responsibilities

A few days ago, my contributor copies of The South Carolina Review arrived. I've had a few poems published in there before, and I'm always impressed with that journal.

As I was reading it and enjoying the creative works, the book reviews, and the interviews, I wondered if I should subscribe. I believe in supporting literary journals and small presses with my money, not with just my creative offerings.

But I'm also always aware of the stacks of books that I haven't read yet and the stacks of journals that I'm beginning to suspect I will never read. I tell myself that I could try a new approach: I could take a quick look through each journal as it arrives in the mail. I'd read whatever grabbed me in that brief opportunity, and then pass the journal along. Would I still feel guilty over unread material if I had sent the journal on to someone else?

I suspect that I'll continue to wrestle with this issue for much of the rest of my life--unless the publishing industry collapses completely in the face of electronic challenges.

In the meantime, here's my poem that appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of 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, November 17, 2008

First Posting

I've been interested in blogs for a long time, but I've hesitated to start one. I've had the usual worries: one more account/password in my life, sounding stupid, attracting unwanted attention, ruining my future.

But I've noticed that many blogs help their writers to be part of a wider community. And I know that some bloggers have opportunities they'd have never gotten if they didn't keep a blog.

Still, I've read enough blogs to know what I do and don't like. I like a blog that's organized around a theme. This blog will document my life as a poet, and as someone with other creative interests that wrestles with how to fit all my creative pursuits into a life that's already crammed full of other commitments.

I teach English and Creative Writing at a local college, and I also serve as the Assistant Chair of my department. Since so many creative writers face a similar employment situation, I want to talk about work and its impact on my creative life. But I'll try to talk about it in a general way, so as not to jeopardize future employment potential or to risk being fired.

In addition to talking about me, I'll review books that have been useful and/or inspiring, as well as noting useful websites or blog postings.