About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Grinding Out Poem Drafts

A wordcloud (made with Wordle) of my most commonly used words
in my poem drafts of this most recent Grind month.

In December 2014, six years ago, an old friend, also a writer, invited me to participate in a writing accountability group/experience called “the Grind.” Well, actually, he had invited me months before, invited me more than once, but I resisted — it was a month-long commitment to draft and share a new poem every day, via email, with a confidential group of readers, most of whom I would not know. No feedback, just daily accountability and practice. I don’t remember what finally enabled/forced me to say “yes” for that first December. This year, signing up for my first Grind in two years, it was a long dry spell that finally nudged me into making the commitment, the longest & driest I can remember, not only a not-writing but some kind of not-wanting-to-write, I think.

I just looked back through my emails to examine the archive of my poem drafts from that first experience. I see that I was assigned to a group with a poet whose amazing book (not published yet in 2014) I read and was blown away by in 2020. When I look at the list of participants in my first “welcome to this month’s Grind” email, I see a few familiar names of writer friends of mine who’d been participating already — poets and prose writers.

In December 2014, there were 9 groups (poem-focused groups and “manic mixture” to accommodate genre variations) with 63 participants signed up. This December: 174 signed up in 25 groups including new and revised poetry, new and revised prose, and mixed-genre). Some of the same names from 2014. When I look at the poems I drafted that first time — all new ones — I see that four of them have since been published, in a chapbook and then a full-length collection of poetry, my first. Another poem from that month was revised into the title poem of a forthcoming chapbook (hopefully out in 2021). Another poem from that month was published in an anthology in 2020, and I actually revisited/revised one of those 2014 poem drafts this month in my current Grind (I was in one of the “new and revised” poems groups, so revision was allowed!). I suppose I could look through all my monthly Grinds — I think I’ve done something like eighteen months total over six years — and inventory those “success stories,” poems that found a life outside the Grind. But of course the “success” of the Grind is daily, monthly, and mostly private. The success of the Grind is to show up with your poem, and to be there so others can show up with their poems. (or prose or whatever).

I always complain my way through the Grind. I kind of hate it. Hate having to write a new poem draft every day (I have done almost exclusively “New Poetry” during my time on the Grind), having to send it to people whose drafts always seem so much more finished and interesting than mine. Once I was randomly placed into a group with a VERY WELL-KNOWN writer whose work I have long admired, and with whom I would NOT have been inclined to share my shitty poem drafts (or even, frankly, poems I thought were decent) — it was disconcerting at first, but then just….lovely. Not having to give feedback — indeed, feedback of any kind is not only not required, it’s sort of frowned-upon — turns out to be an important element of doing a Grind.

On very rare occasions there have been folks who (habitually, repeatedly) did not show up daily, and that not showing up sometimes added (disproportionately, for sure) to my Grind grumpiness. You signed up, (I shouted to the empty room) voluntarily, to do ONE THING — to be accountable, alongside others, in this one daily thing — if you can’t do it — that’s OKAY! Just don’t sign up! God, who would even WANT to do this? My anger was mostly blooming and booming from insecurity about the roughness of my own drafts, and was (I cannot emphasize enough) DISPROPORTIONATE to the actual “offenses,” and probably not useful in any way. And for the most part, I have found that those who sign up come through on that commitment, and I am grateful for it, because it is HARD.

Why did I even sign up to do it? Different reasons or combinations of reasons each time, I think. Different contexts, imperatives. Grind founder (The Grindfather?) Ross White articulates so well the “whys” of the Grind in a two-part post (here and here). So many of the reasons he describes resonate with me – again, maybe different ones at different times over the last few years.

I thought briefly about signing up to do January as well, but I didn’t, for a number of reasons. I think I will, without benefit of the Grind’s specific pressure, try to do some revision of a few of these drafts in January. I’ve got a bunch of work stuff looming – specific tasks but also general conditions – that occupies so much of my head and heart recently. I will have to get back to it in January. And I am still not feeling the impulses to write poems that I have historically felt, that I have relied upon, that have been clear and strong enough to see me through other, different, shorter stretches of not writing, or writing struggle.

My December 2020 Grind poem titles are: My Love & Other Things, Pandemic Garden, Strangers, People You May Know, Fathom/Father, Prepared, The Book, Arecibo, 2020, Endearments, Mosh, Wind in Trees, Why I Woke at 3AM, My Mother Doesn’t Miss The Christmas Tree, Binding, Accumulations, Monhegan (revision), The College Bar, Ghazal to Remind the Rain, Dimensions, Conjunction Weather, Conjunctions, 2020, Walk of Shame, Salt, Not Even Now, We Learned, We Learned (revision), Certain Premises, Here, A Year in the Woods Behind the House, Tired, Therapy

I did a revision of “Conjunctions, 2020” and on a lark sent it to Transitions: Poems in the Afterglow, part of an ongoing project of Indolent Books, and they selected and posted it, like, the next day. That was a speedy turnaround. And a little queasy-feeling in the speed of it, from my end. Most of the rest of these drafts will never see the light of day beyond the Grind, and that’s okay – that’s as it has been. But some of them may make it out into the world a bit – that’s also as it has been.

In any case, as grumpy and whiny as I can be in the middle of it, I am grateful to my friend for inviting me to participate in the Grind, grateful to those many writers who showed up for themselves & each other, and grateful to Grindfather (surely I am not the first one to use this phrase??) Ross White for making so much so possible through his community-minded generosity.

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Practice/Versions/Revisions/Rehearsals

I often think of and describe my dad as a “poster child” for a conventional/idealized U.S. middle-to-upper-middle class vision of retirement for his cohort — the “silent generation.” After thirty years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam, unaccompanied deployment with the Seabees, and running the Public Works Center at the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, he was able to retire. He and my mom moved back to Washington State, where he had worked to help build the Bangor Trident Submarine Base on the Hood Canal — we lived there for three years when I was in elementary school. They liked the area, and had retired Navy friends there, and so they made one last cross-country move and landed outside of Poulsbo, right up the Hood Canal from the sub base, on a piece of land where my dad designed and supervised the construction of the last house he’d ever live in, after a life of moving every one to three years, due not only to his own itinerant military career, but also to his father’s thirty years in the Navy.

My dad’s birthday is coming up in early October, and then, the fifth anniversary of his death at the very beginning of November. I have, in my adult life, resisted anniversaries of all kinds, have been skeptical and even cynical about them, not sure why, but a part of me also enjoys certain rituals and traditions. The approaching of the fifth year “mark” of my dad’s sudden and unexpected death is on my mind. I wonder if my urge to commemorate is related to the pandemic, to the way the pandemic has altered — is altering –my relationship to time, to the passing of it, the measuring and marking of it, its role in how I try to live and comprehend my life. Many usual markers — many having to do with work, but also having to do with the rhythms of social and personal life — are radically altered or gone. So maybe how I feel about the role of ritual, of the intentional marking of time, which used to seem to mark itself (?), is changed and changing.

I opened this piece by asserting that my dad was a retirement “poster child” because he was such a good hobbyist. He Kept Busy. He made artful, precise scratch- and kit-built model ships. He took up the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. And he took up watercolor painting. Or, more precisely, in retirement he was able to dedicate himself more fully to even deeper pursuit and practice of these avocations to which he had been called, to varying degrees, before he actually retired.

I am interested in this turn of phrase, to “take” something “up.” I picture a person gathering something into their arms, maybe lifting it a bit? To take something “on” is to “begin to do” something, according to etymonline.com. I can’t find an entry there for “take up” but it feels to me like a step past “taking on.” In this thread, “take on” is described as more “burdensome,” hinting at an obligation, a challenge, or maybe at something adversarial, whereas “take up” is more of a free choice, maybe a chance at pleasure?

Now that I think about it more, I’d say my dad took on “taking up” as a retiree, for sure. As if it was his obligation (his new “job?”) to “pursue interests.” His obligation to enjoy them deeply. To not squander his opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have called it privilege, but it sure seems like privilege, that leisure.

My dad was not a mere dabbler in any of these three major avocations. He took them on and up with a patient seriousness of purpose, such a long-game for learning. He was a faithful practitioner, a “practicer.” My dad believed, I think, in mastery, but also, I think, he was patient about not achieving it. Especially with the painting, he put in the process and practice work. I wonder if this is related at all to the fact that both his sister and his mother were accomplished, “professional” artists. When he died, I already had a framed painting of his — my favorite from among a half-dozen or so from which he asked me to choose — hanging in my house in New Hampshire. (Also on the wall, a painting by my grandmother, and one by my aunt.)

But when my mom asked if I wanted any of the … dozens? hundreds? of stiff sheets of watercolor work he’d left behind, I didn’t look for another finished piece to hang on my wall. I was mostly drawn instead to the artifacts of his process, his practice.

There was even more of this stuff — and I took more than I’ve pictured here. His careful study documented. His practice, his learning, his trying, preserved here in these patches of color, these “tests.” And there were also a few starts or “drafts” I snagged. Though I guess I have no business saying what part of his process they represent or occupy.

Here’s my dad’s finished painting on my wall, the one I chose when he asked me to choose:

img_6981

In the work he left behind, I found two versions — shall I call them sketches? attempts? perhaps rehearsals? — of the same scene. I am fascinated by them. I look and look at them.

It’s like seeing a little bit through his eyes, or so I tell myself, in this moment, trying that notion out in these words, this draft of an idea. A version. Not a commitment, even though putting the words into the white void sometimes can feel like signing a contract. Not so, not so. There are more words, different shades of the same idea, different ideas. Time passes through ideas/ideas pass through time.

Here are the two versions/drafts of the painting:

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I look at these and I think: rehearsal. Practice. Getting to know the materials. Getting to know one’s own vision as enacted by brush strokes, color choices, quantity of water.

How do you rehearse for the “final version?” When do you know the final is the final? Is the version on my wall “finished” because it is framed, because it’s displayed? My dad is the one who decreed it finished, who had it framed as a gift for me. Also — he was finished — is forever finished — painting versions of the work. There will be no further work. So, in some literal sense, this is the “final” in a series. But I guess I’m asking, wondering, why even care about “finality?” I’m not sure.

These questions are ones I ask myself from time to time, and which I encourage my writing students to ask themselves and one another. They are sort of unanswerable. I try to talk with students sometimes about the difference between BEING finished WITH something (for now?) and a THING being FINISHED, though is that even a real distinction? And of course for writers I work with in university classes, the constraints of a “semester” which ENDS (and then a new one begins!) influence the pace and timing of composing, reflecting, and revising.

If to begin a thing is to “take it up,” might “finishing” be an act of “putting down?” (Sometimes we describe acts of writing as “putting (something) down” on paper. We also sometimes use the expression, “to write down,” not just “to write.” “Write down these instructions.” What is “up” in that figuring?)

What shall I do with these versions of revision? These versions of my dad’s vision? These transcripts of his trying? These archived attempts? What story of painting, of learning, of testing materials and gestures, do I want them to serve? What story of my father do I want them to serve?

It must be a kind of revision when I write about my dad in certain ways, certain genres, on certain days. Re-vision as I re-member him when he is dead and I am fifty, as opposed to when I was thirty and he was still living. Revision if I make it past the age he was when he died a few years ago to remember him again, remember him differently. I am thinking again, still, of time — how my thinking about my father recently is connected to the time of year, to the passage of time, to the commemorations of “birthday” and “day of death.” To my own aging. And so I think also of how re-vision feels connected to the passages of time, the duration and pace (of the poem, of the world swirling around the poem, of the before-poem and during-poem and after-poem), the shapes and textures we call time, those marks of it we make. Marks like clock numbers, like brush strokes, like words.

I wish he were here to ask; I’m sure he’d have things to say about the flaws of the versions of his painting — their failures, their incompleteness. And yet, the materials and technique — watercolor — he uses in this painting feel so….resistant to completeness. The painting edges up into what feels to me like a kind of minimalism when I imagine practicing what I see as a skilled kind of restraint. What I mean is, the few times I’ve tried seriously to draw or paint, I think my fatal flaw is not stopping soon enough. I was told this once (kindly, I think) by an art teacher. I look at the framed painting and wonder if the reason he framed it, named it finished, and not the others, is his feeling that he stopped painting at just the right moment? I don’t know. Probably if I’d found all three versions in the huge stack of his work, I wouldn’t be so certain which was the “final draft.” Which one I would have chosen to have professionally framed, which two relegate to the closet archives?

For the most part, I save no such archives myself — most of my versions disappear in the wake of revision — my rehearsals in the form of sequences of drafts are mostly ephemeral. There are exceptions, but most of the saved work is printed out and annotated, and is in a folder of “unfinished” stuff I mean to get back to.

Except that some poems I write are of course revisions/versions of poems I’ve already “finished,” or of “a poem” I keep writing and (re) writing and may never finish. And so maybe some poems are rehearsals only I don’t know they are rehearsals.

Or maybe many or maybe all my poems are rehearsals of some kind.

About Writing, COVID-19, Poetry, rumination

The Next Step

I make myself go outside. It is nice outside, not too hot, but sunny and robin’s egg blue sky. A light breeze to keep the bugs off. To have to “make” myself go out into such temperate loveliness is so absurd. I am glassy-eyed and dimwitted from hours, days, weeks of screen work punctuated by the social media work-distractions which also serve as my sole contact with most of my people these days, and it is a nice day and I have a book of poems to finish reading and it is August and I am sad and frustrated and the fall semester of teaching writing (online) is looming, and winter is coming and so out I go.

There’s some windfall from the remnants of tropical storm Isaias. Acorn-studded bouquets thrown down from the skyscraper oak. Last year’s paper wasp nest gust-scrubbed from the skylight frame.

(I have not been writing poems. These words about the nest and the oak have the vague feel of poetry, but don’t pull me into drafting a poem the way they might have in March. That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else. Some place I don’t want to tread.)

All those empty chambers

I sit down to read but want to scoot the potted celery over so I can set down my notebook on the picnic table. As I shove the pot over, I reveal a toad. He is not amused. He was not expecting this turn of events.

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The toad scoots back underneath the pot, where it’s cool and safe, for now.

I think about the metaphors I want to make from the toad. The contemplative distance between my wanting to and my doing it is nearly nonexistent. First I consider the sudden exposure, the moments of disorientation and maybe fear, and then the finding again of that cool, dark space. I think about all the time I have spent inside over the last months. Then I’m thinking about how the few times I go out now, masked and skittish, I feel exposed and worried and strange. E(strange)d. And I am lucky enough to have a long-term partner at home, someone with whom to talk and cry and laugh and eat and be. And maybe I should just let a toad be a toad. I do not have a good history of letting toads be toads, however:

Toad
from my chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (2008, Slapering Hol Press)

I wrote that poem almost 15 years ago. Maybe longer? I was still teaching Introduction to Literature, which I think I only did my first few semesters on the faculty at my university, where I will start my 20th year in a couple of weeks.

It’s (e)strange to read this poem now, to revisit its long-ago March (or April?), and to think back to this year’s pandemic shut-down right after spring break. Hubris. Being on the lookout. Toad as soothsayer. Spring full of flood, earthquake, astronomical rarities, weather extremes, and my own casual imaginings about what “plague” might descend next. 

*

Later, after reading some poems and pausing to stare at the sky and reading some more poems,  I notice a caterpillar, on the picnic table, making its way somewhere. When I first see it, it is caterpillar-ing confidently forward, like it knows where it’s headed. But when it hits the edge of the picnic table, it seems fully unprepared for the sheer drop, the next steps suddenly gone, suddenly air. It reaches and reaches into the void where the path should be.

If I can’t let a toad be a toad, I also definitely can’t let a caterpillar be a caterpillar. I mean, they transform (!) into moths and butterflies (!!) for crying out loud. They can’t let themselves be caterpillars. They spin cocoons of self-generated silk around their bodies and mutate into a new form, often one dramatically different from their caterpillar embodiment in terms of color and texture.

Out on an errand last week, I wore a face mask as usual, but also happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m pretty sure someone who has known me for 15+ years did not recognize me — they are a brassy, call-to-you-across-the-crowded-restaurant extroverted person who always notices/sees me, says hello/engages in chat when we run into each other. They were oddly standoffish, and it wasn’t until I was back in the car that it occurred to me that maybe this person had not actually known it was me. Had not recognized me.

This didn’t make me mad or upset — instead, it reminded me of when I was new to the area all those years ago, how nobody knew me from Adam, and also about how much I enjoyed, for the first two thirds of my life, the opportunity, given and given again, of being a stranger, being unknown, being anonymous. Being new, and maybe transformed by that newness.

Was I enjoying the notion of (possible) rare anonymity in pretty much the same instant I was mourning spending 95% of my time physically — and emotionally — apart from the world beyond our front door? Was I remembering a more itinerant life, when I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few years? When I was somewhat regularly renewed by…..being new? By being the stranger?

Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 9.44.32 PM
From Etymology Online

What is my current relationship to estrangement, anyhow?

*

I make myself look at the sky. Then I take a photo of the sky. I am documenting and archiving, which feels like a thing I can do to disrupt the strange stillness of just looking at the unmediated sky. Or observing, without recording, a caterpillar.

I have never succeeded at meditation, as far as I know. (I have also perhaps not tried very hard.)

sky

How long was I outside before I was putting all of it to metaphorical purposes? Did I bring the purposes with me out onto the deck, with my book and notebook and iPad, or were they only revealed to me (like a toad!) after I got out here?

I wonder if there can even be an unmediated sky or caterpillar if I am there looking at it, camera or no. Aren’t I just a camera? I’m not even sure I want to let the caterpillar just be a caterpillar, or a toad a toad, or if that’s even an option, given language, given my hungry, narrating gaze.

*

Two ways I think about ending this writing. First way — another video, with my foolish narrating voice calling a melodramatic play-by-play for an inchworm who, in “the end” (of my documenting/narrative framing) succeeds, survives, makes it across the gap, doesn’t get eaten by the toad, etc., etc.:

Second way — I consider how the caterpillar and the inchworm, in their reaching with the whole front ends of their bodies into the empty air, across the gap, remind me of the first card of the major arcana of the standard Tarot deck: The Fool.

On the left, the Rider-Waite (classic, popular tarot deck) rendition of the Fool; in the center, a more contemporary riff on the traditional Fool iconography in the “Light Seers” tarot deck, and on the right, the Fool from my own tarot deck, the Hanson Roberts. The significant common image: the cliff the Fool’s about to step (or fall) off of.

At Tarot.com (the Hanson-Roberts link above), this is part of their description of the Fool:

“Modern decks usually borrow from the Rider-Waite imagery. Most Fool cards copy the bucolic mountainside scene, the butterfly, and the potential misplaced step that will send The Fool tumbling into the unknown. Don’t forget, though, that the earlier versions of this card represented already-fallen humanity, over-identified with the material plane of existence, and beginning a pilgrimage toward self-knowledge and, eventually, wisdom.”

The gap. The fumble and reach. The unknown. Fools of all stripes, neither fully innocent nor irredeemably fallen, poised to take that tumble or leap or step.

That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else.

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Peer Review as an Expression of Hope

royalquietdeluxeportable_3.jpg

I started out this semester with some big plans for my teaching (and my learning around my teaching), but like so many plans, they have been disrupted by the global pandemic and the physical isolation it has necessitated. (In February, my teaching/plans were also disrupted by a definitely unplanned two-week hospital stay. So it’s been….less than ideal in terms of a semester to be launching into this new/revised pedagogy I’d been into.)

But. And.

While I do NOT believe the remnants of this semester are going to wind up manifesting some kind of “triumph-over-adversity teaching epiphany” narrative, I do think that much of this experience has me not just scrambling/triaging, but actually re-thinking long-standing assumptions and practices (embedded in assignment language and syllabus language, for instance) in ways that will certainly continue post-pandemic.

(What is “post-pandemic?” I have no idea. Maybe there will be no easily discernible “post.” No after. Only next? I’ll say it again — I have no idea. And yes, that makes me anxious.)

I think my hospital stay “disruption” is also informing my thinking about teaching, learning, and the systems that seek to enable those things but which often do just the opposite.

All of this is to say: I just (re)wrote some language around this week’s assignment for my Creative Writing students at Plymouth State University. And I have been glum around not keeping up with the thinking/posting/sharing I had just barely gotten started with around my teaching earlier this semester.

So I thought I’d share my new iteration of this assignment, which I will send out to my students when I send them their peer’s story drafts. Some of this language already existed, but feels different; some of this language is new/emergent. It would likely benefit from some compassionate and inquisitive feedback. Because like writing, and good writerly feedback, teaching is (or can be) a profoundly optimistic,  hopeful, enabling and always-evolving.

Creative Writing, Spring 2020:
Short Story Peer Review Assignment

You have been sent (attached to this email) the short story draft of one of your classmates.

Your task: to offer your thoughts/questions/ideas about what they are working on, and what they might do next.

Another way of thinking about your task: we are all pretty isolated from one another right now. If we were in class, you’d be in small groups sharing this work face to face, and then we’d be talking together as a larger group about questions/struggles/ideas around writing/revising short fiction. Alas, we don’t have those conditions for our work any more.

I believe that our attentive and generous attention to each other’s work at this particular time may be extra important.

Not because creative writing class and short story draft assignments are especially important right now – but because compassion, connection, and creativity are especially important right now. Your reading and thoughtful, hopeful responding to your peer’s story draft can be an enactment of all these things. I say hopeful because good feedback, I think, often gives the writer a sense of possibility, of next. Good constructive feedback, even if the draft under considerations is a gorgeous, difficult, wandering mess, assumes an optimistic posture.

Remember – as always – your job as a draft-reader is to describe what you notice, wonder (ask questions, speculate) about what you see (and don’t see?), and to help the writer keep going. You aren’t “correcting” or “editing,” though editing/pointing out typos or unclear parts can certainly be helpful. But this draft is too new for you to encounter it as something that needs “fixing.” These drafts are still emerging, so keep that exciting and hopeful newness in mind as you read and respond.

You are a human reader; someone who knows what a story is because you have been telling and hearing them all your life. You are a fellow story-teller, a fellow human practicing ways of telling stories. Be with one another in that. Help each other keep going.

Please write up your feedback in at least 250 words and email it back to the author, cc-ing me (eahl at plymouth dot edu), so you can get credit for the assignment. If you have a way to mark up the draft itself and return the marked-up draft along with the 250 words, I’m sure it would be appreciated, but just do the best you can! If you can’t do the markup, don’t sweat it. (I will, of course, also be responding to all drafts!)

It would be ideal for you to submit at the beginning of next week (April 13), so that writers can get it in time to make good use of it, but as with all deadlines before the end of the semester, there is FLEXIBILITY. Just let me know if you need more time, or tech support, or help getting started, or if there are any other obstacles hanging you up on this work. We’ll find a way.

About Writing, Poetry, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Poetry

Last class we started a conversation about the genre of poetry – what it is, what it isn’t, what our experiences have told/taught us about what makes a poem a poem, or what makes a not-poem not a poem. After generating our own thoughts, we looked at a set of poems and observed how those poems were, by their existence, their formal choices, their shapes and sounds and subject matter, suggesting what a poem does/can do, what a poem is/might be.

The homework was to write a poem and an accompanying author’s note discussing how the poem draft is (trying to be?) a poem, as opposed to a not-poem, what choices or techniques or ideas are at play in the making of a poem or poem-like thing. Students have swapped and are making descriptive comments now about these questions of poem-ness, along with describing the use of concrete, sensory detail. They were even numbered, so I commented on my own draft.

My draft was inspired by an in-class writing exercise we did focusing on a significant place — everyone listed important, meaningful places, then chose one to dig into further. We brainstormed lists of “things” or “stuff” associated with the place, as well as a list of people associated with the place, and then we generated lists for each of the five senses associated with the place. I was inspired mostly by the “things/stuff” portion of the brainstorming, as you can see. Hope to keep working on this draft after a little time away from it.

About Writing, teaching, Writing Tools & Tips

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Second Assignment in Creative Writing

The second assignment in Creative Writing (aside from an in-class freewrite) invites students to practice using concrete imagery — language of the five senses — as well as imaginative associations / associative play to bring an “abstraction” to life. We discuss “showing” and “telling” — NOT merely how you’re supposed to do one and not the other; rather, how the two are different and have different uses/purposes. This exercise and assignment, though, is definitely about using SHOWING. (For a really important perspective/critique on some not-great implications/limitations of a rigidity that privileges “showing” over “telling,” see THIS amazing piece.

This is another “worksheet” brainstorming activity — it doesn’t have to be a worksheet of course, but I’ve found it handy at times. After a conversation and some terms-defining around imagery, figurative language, “connotation” and “denotation,” the function of the five senses, and the concept of the “abstraction,” we each choose one abstraction to take through the exercise.

We spend a little time in class sharing some of the associations/ideas/images we came up with — privileging the strange and surprising ones. The take-home assignment is to create a piece (any genre, any length), preferably titled with the selected abstraction, which creatively uses concrete/sensory detail (imagery) to bring that abstraction to life. I share some samples with students — I’ll admit nearly all of the samples are poems. I need to work on getting more genre variety in there. Here’s my notebook draft, then my typed-up edit with author’s note.

I am reminded every time I use this exercise of a shy and quiet high school student in a summer poetry workshop I taught years ago. He almost never spoke. When the workshop was doing a version of this exercise as a group that summer, we were coming up together with associations for the abstraction, “love.” We had decided that love drives a vintage baby blue VW bug convertible. We were speculating, I think, about where love would drive — and this young man spoke up quietly. I didn’t hear him at first, and asked him, gently, if he could repeat himself. “Love doesn’t have a driver’s license,” he said, dazzling us into appreciative, companionable silence. Everybody in the room that day agreed that love definitely didn’t have a driver’s license. I have never forgotten that!

About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Language, Translation, Connection, and Everything The Storm Blew In

Driving home through Crawford Notch then through Franconia Notch last night, I had to take my time, take care to pay some extra attention with my aging eyes and slowing reflexes. The wind was gusting up pretty badly, and rain which might not have been so bad had it been left simply to fall was hurled, hissing and rattling, against my Honda. It was dark, and the roads were fairly empty and of course wet, and very foggy in places — so strange to drive up into the White Mountains and not see the White Mountains! Temperatures were also up around sixty-five degrees — a bit out of character for Halloween in Northern New England.

Weather forecast alerts about gusts of fifty miles an hour in the notches were actually what sent me out into the crazy weather — an event I was up north for was ended early due to those warnings, and I live south of the notches.

I was lucky enough to be a participant in an event connected to Poets Bridging Continents IV — a live reading of work in translation (English and Mandarin) by both New Hampshire and visiting Chinese poets. Two of my poems had been translated in advance — and I had English translations of two poems by a visiting poet, Yue Qui.

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When I first saw my poems in Mandarin I was startled. Startled at the visual differences between English and Mandarin, sure, but also I think startled at myself. Startled at how moved I was, looking at those versions of my poems I couldn’t decipher. I actually got a little choked up. As far as I’m aware, none of my poems have been translated into another language before. The act/art of translation felt like such a generous and intimate thing in that moment — so personal! So patient! So enlarging — literally, an enlarging of the potential readership of my two poems but of course, and maybe more importantly, an enlarging of the poems themselves, into new linguistic territories, and maybe, somehow, I could follow my poems there?

Before the reading, our host and organizer Rodger Martin had organized a family-style dinner at the reading venue, the AMC Highland Center. As I arrived, Rodger greeted me by letting me know that “one of your students is here!” I was more than a little surprised — it was, after all, Halloween, and I hadn’t really mentioned this event to my students because I knew they’d be otherwise occupied — and it’s a bit of a haul — an hour’s drive north from the university. Who could it be?

It turned out that Emily, one of the staff helping with our group dinner that night, was my student — an English major from several years back. What a crazy delight to see her! She had taken my Poetry Workshop four years prior,  before graduating and heading off to earn her M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities at Oregon State University. She was just recently back home in New Hampshire after completing some post-grad work in Arizona. She was working, so we didn’t get to catch up properly (it’s in the calendar now!), but we did talk briefly about an assignment for poetry workshop that she remembered.

Each fall, after I’ve had a chance to get to know the work and personalities of my students a bit, I select for each of them a book from my own poetry shelves. I like pulling a chair up to those shelves, scanning the titles and authors, holding each student (as I have come to know them) in my mind, selecting a book I hope will engage that particular student as a reader and a writer, maybe nudge that student further in their own writing, whatever that might mean. The set of assignments (annotation and sharing of a poem, imitation of a poem, paper responding to the book) has been largely successful over the years, as students seem interested and ready to respond to a collection of poems that has been selected, individually, for THEM.

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To Emily, whose interests in the environment I was aware of at the time, I loaned Charles Goodrich’s A Scripture of Crows. I had met Charles the year before at the Playa Artist Residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon and became a fan of his work. When submitting her paper about this book, Emily wrote: “Thank you so much for sharing his work with me. I don’t know how you knew it, but I think it was a perfect match for me. I will be looking into more of his work.” Emily ended up out in Oregon — meeting and working with Charles. Wild, huh?

That very day, about an hour before I’d headed up north for this dinner and reading, I had just distributed this year’s selected poetry collections to this year’s poetry workshop students. And among them, as it happens, was A Scripture of Crows, which I loaned to a student whose interests/priorities include environmental sustainability and food justice. Coincidence. Connection across the years and miles between three poets — four if you count me, I guess! — a poetry collection doing some serious traveling. How to articulate this circuit of individuals, poems, interests, fellowship? Look at what can happen!

Most of my students’ lives probably aren’t dramatically life-changed by connecting with these books/authors. I do find, though, that most of my students, even some years later, REMEMBER “their” poet’s name and work, and do so fondly. I just met with one student from poetry workshop a couple of years ago who remembered his work with his assigned book by Marcus Wicker as a meaningful reading and writing experience.

Driving home, the wind and rain were certainly at high volume against my car, in my ears. But also — the music and cadence and expression of “my” (?) poems read aloud so well by Yue Qui was still in me, and I wanted to hold on to that reading, that sense of connection and also, a kind of lovely, brief estrangement from my own sense of my own poems? A moving distance. A reintroduction to the strangeness of any language? I am not sure. I am blogging in the rough, people, trying to capture some things before the wind that is STILL raging down here this morning manages to knock the power out.

Here’s one of my two poems from last night — I recited it as the wind was really kicking up around the Highland Center, and the reading of the translation (photo above) was the cut-short evening’s final reading before we scattered in the wake of the threatened nastiness in the notches.

Outage

When the power fails, the room goes dim
in winter’s ashen afternoon. The hum
of the fridge, the sweep of second hand, all pause.
The breathing of the ancient furnace stops
mid-heave. The well-pump won’t draw water
and in each toilet just one flush remains.
The screens that manage our commerce with the world
blink shut. The cordless telephone is mute.
And so we power down ourselves. We slow
our scurry, quieted like the other major appliances
inhabiting this house. We speak rarely
and in dim whispers; move slowly and then
not at all, stalled and sort of thankful for it;
stranded, darkening, waiting to be re-lit.

from Beating the Bounds (Hobblebush Books, 2017)

The power held while we read. Maudelle, one of the other New Hampshire poets translated and featured at the reading, pressed her card into my palm and urged me to give her a call if it seemed too nasty to get through, that I could crash at her place that night. Everybody said rushed goodbyes, photos were taken, cards exchanged. I wish we’d had more time to finish and then to just talk and be together.

But instead we all drove out into the strange, humid, gusty darkness. The poets and translators and others in the group were staying nearby. I drove home, alone, but also full of thoughts of my students, those bookshelves, the generous and strange and impossible art of translation, the music and difficulties of all language — yeah, just a few light thoughts. I drove home down through the invisible mountains I knew were still up there, and poetry was with me.

About Writing, Poems, rumination

Insects, Metaphors, Sonnets

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In the wild, bright colors warn of danger,
shout “stay away,” and warn of a nasty sting,
the consequences of touching a stranger.
A neon yellow frond, a cobalt ring,
the spangles and the spikes I wore as a girl–
I sometimes miss those garish hues of youth:
ornate parades, the glint of carnival,
the ways in which my body told the truth.
Emerging from long darkness, and long work,
I fade to camouflage in middle age:
my common wings match the oak’s dull bark–
a sturdy brown and a powdery dust of sage.
Sometimes I miss the way I caught your eye,
but also, these dull wings are how I fly.

*

The last time I blogged about an insect, it was in 2010, when I was at the Vermont Studio Center and encountered a dobsonfly. Let me tell you, it’s a fly worth blogging about. But also, that post remains my most viewed post EVER. I contemplated that popularity (and other things) in a 2012 post.

We discovered this yellow caterpillar yesterday morning on the closet door opposite the front door, and were wowed by its vividness. A friend & university colleague of mine (also a great friend and colleague of insects, I’m 100% sure she’d approve of the characterization) helped me identify it. It’s got a fabulous name — more fabulous, I’d say, than even dobsonfly. Ready?

This handsome specimen is the definite tussock moth caterpillar. Orgyia definita if you enjoy the Latin.

Tussock is certainly a great word, but it’s “definite” that slays me.

Reading about the definite tussock moth, and being struck by how it starts out so bright and glowy as a caterpillar and ends up sort of nondescript and plain as a moth, and thinking about conversations with a friend recently about the traditions (and subversions) of the sonnet and on the cusp of another semester teaching creative writing and so therefore (and always) thinking a lot about metaphors — I wrote the above poem.

Encountering and then learning a little about the moth kindled these thoughts about being younger versus being older — paying attention to the world, being awake to it and interested in what it has to offer. It was the visual detail of the moth, contrasted with the visual detail of the caterpillar, that made me want to further compare their qualities, comparison being both at the core of metaphor AND a common sonnet convention.

I daydream about how I might, some day, with my distinguished, insect-loving colleague, teach a class about insects, metaphors, observation, comparison.

The poem doesn’t have a title yet. I might have called it Orgyia definita (I do enjoy the Latin) but decided I shouldn’t name the specific species that inspired me because (please feel free to enjoy this detail like I enjoy Latin) the adult female definite tussock moth IS WINGLESS. Which temporarily wrecked my metaphor, but then I realized that this poem’s metaphors, while they came from this specific, actual place, are not consigned there forever. The poem has already … taken a step away from its origins. Like the moth, it has undergone transformation into … the next thing. Lucky for me, there are plenty of girl moths who grow up to be lady moths that have wings. (There are of course, other “solutions” to this “problem.” I’ll enjoy figuring it all out.)

For now, though, a new poem draft, just hatched, and some thoughts at the beginning of a new semester.

About Writing

Holiday Shopping and Beyond

IMG_6371This summer, I spent four weeks working on my own poetry at the Playa artist residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon. While there, I met many talented & hardworking artists and writers. One in particular, poet Charles Goodrich, had brought some of his books with him to share via the common building’s little lending library. I devoured them all, and of course had to buy copies. I bought an extra copy of his most recent poetry collection, A Scripture of Crows, for a former student who I thought of when reading it. Another of Charles’ books, Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden, made me think immediately of my friend Tabitha, a master gardener, and so I bought her a copy, too.

I loved giving them these books, especially since it was not particularly likely that either Dan or Tabitha would stumble upon them otherwise. I felt like I had found treasure to share.

For me, writing and reading poetry is largely about making connections. Sure, there’s a ton of solitude at the core of being a writer, but for me, if there’s no community at some point, I start to wonder what the point of making art is. I’m definitely more of a Whitman than a Dickinson. (I love me some Emily, though; don’t get the wrong idea!) My writing wants a reader. My reading wants a conversation. I love the communities that can spring up around the making and sharing of stories and poems. As New Hampshire Writers’ Week draws to a close, I’d like to emphasize the importance of reading and sharing and gifting books.

As this item from the New Hampshire Writers’ Project suggests, an important way to support writers is to buy their books. And at this time of year, many people are shopping for gifts for others. No-brainer, right?  Below, I’ve listed just a few Granite State authors you may or may not have heard of before, along with information about their books. Add your own NH authors with books for sale in the comments! And, here’s what I really want you to do:

1. Buy one or more of these books by New Hampshire authors as a gift for a reader in your life. Yes, you may gift yourself.

2. Consider buying aforementioned books at (or ordering them through) an independent New Hampshire bookseller.

3. Consider requesting that your local/town library order copies of these books, so that many readers — especially those who might not be able to buy books — can enjoy the work of New Hampshire writers.

Happy reading!

Katie Umans, Flock Book (poems)

Pat Fargnoli, Winter (poems)

S Stephanie, So This Is What It Has Come To (poems)

Jennifer Militello, Body Thesaurus (poems)

Lisa Rogak, One Big Happy Family: Heartwarming Stories of Animals Caring for One Another and Angry Optimist: The Life & Times of Jon Stewart  (nonfiction)

Kathy Solomon, Transit of Venus (poems)

Jessica Purdy, Learning the Names (poems)

Kristin Waterfield Duisberg, After (novel)

Martha Carlson-Bradley, Sea Called Fruitfulness (poetry)

Ivy Page, Any Other Branch (poetry) and Creative Writing Workshop: A Guidebook for the Creative Writer (edited with Lisa Sisler)

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About Writing, Poetry, Publication

Poems or Poem-like Things

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The glorious Grolier’s Poetry Bookshop shall inspire me…

I am thinking about my writing today. No particular New Year’s Resolutions (I am not a fan), but some general resolve, buttressed by the support of a couple of good friends who are also poets AND who know the kinds of shots in the arms to give me.

I have not been writing much poetry at all these last months. This is sort of par for the course, given how much of that energy is devoted (rightly so!) to the students in my creative writing courses. I have mostly made my peace with getting the significant writing and editing done during summer. But I also feel so much better when I am writing at least a little bit.

I had a good run of 750 words, but am not yet ready to climb back on. I don’t need to write that many words every day. I need to make a poem (or poem-like thing) every day. It is already 3:45PM, and I have written neither a poem nor a poem-like thing yet today, but I guess now I have to, otherwise the three people who read this blog will give me what for.

Perhaps / if i break / this post / into / lines?

What keeps you going, poets? Any new tips or tricks other than the tested and true “sit your lazy ass down and write?”

I am pleased that this year will bring some new publications — I’ve got a couple of poems coming out in Measure, one in String Poet, and several in the forthcoming OVS. I will also have two poems in This Assignment is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, which you can pre-order HERE!