About Writing, creativity, Poetry, rumination

Poems in hand

A poem sometimes comes, a draft

(a thin breath of air through a faulty window seal? a sip of ale drawn from a cask? a conscription of the unwilling? the distance from waterline to keel?)

and language itself is maybe the first transformation, and already it is wrong, the poem, it can never be right—and the body changes, and the world, and the understanding wrought between them, and I come to the poem a draft from a different direction, I change, I change, the language

is insufficient, a reaching, a lie, and so I change it, and I change it again, and then I change, and so I change it, and it changes me, and I change, I’m conscripted, poised always to dodge, eye on the northern border, and how did war come to the page where I meant nothing of the kind? my mean-ing wages itself, weaponized, against an impervious breeze—

I spent most of January at a very rural, isolated retreat, a place I love and have visited before. I brought with me some printed drafts I’d forced myself to write during three month-long daily “grinds” in 2021. I’d completed my commitments to write a poem or poem-like thing every day for those three months; then, for the most part, wrote nothing in between the three grinds; with a few exceptions I didn’t even glance at those drafts again until I printed them, didn’t give them any kind of deeper look until the retreat.

When I was finished with each printed forced poem draft, finished writing on it, crossing out, circling, adding – after I’d typed it into a word doc or given it up to the unfinished, the forgettable – I found myself folding the paper copies into cranes. My brother taught me how to do this years ago. This didn’t mean I was “finished” working on the poem, only that my work with that particular paper copy was over.

When I was on “work study” at the Vermont Studio Center, a dozen years ago, for a month-long writing residency, my job was to work breakfast and lunch prep – I can’t remember how many days a week, but not all of them. It was a very early morning shift, in the small dining hall/kitchen, and that early dark work shift was a boon that particular July, given the smothering heat wave that had settled over northern Vermont. My job included setting up/making the coffee and hot water for tea, putting out the coffee/tea fixings, topping off and putting out the cereals, setting up the breads at the toasters. The other piece of my job was prepping the salad bar for lunch, which meant that I had to duck into the walk-in cooler, frequently, respite from both heat wave and, as the other morning-duty worker got the hot entrees going, the blazing griddle and burners. I liked also that the work shift got me up and going so early in the day, because even if I had a totally unproductive, stuck, distracted failure of a writing day, I could console myself with the fact that I had helped feed us. I had made something. With my hands, a physical thing.

I spent some of the past pandemic year and a half folding and tearing and gluing and sewing paper. I was taught some new techniques. While I was doing it, it often felt more real or meaningful or grounded than writing poems did. Most of the poems I drafted felt forced because they were forced. But/and, that work sometimes seems all of a piece – the folding and tearing, the writing and even the not-writing. The threads, the glue. Even the forcing.

I made a list, called “options” at the beginning of the January residency. I tacked it to the bulletin board over the desk. I didn’t want to spend time having to think of something new to do or work on when I was tired of doing or working on whatever I was working on. I made a list that included different kinds of things – a handful of revision and writing projects, sure, but also writing letters and postcards, or doing counted cross-stitch, or listening to a podcast, or reading a book or article or literary journal issue I’d brought with me. I didn’t want to get hung up in potentially paralyzing “productivity” imperatives, yet I didn’t want to squander the incredible time and space I had been granted to “do my work.” I think this list was trying to be generous about pace and scope and rhythm and what might constitute work, or conditions that might make work rich, rewarding, surprising, sustaining, sustainable.

After I had folded a lot of paper cranes, I found the feather. The feather from a bird, a real bird, some kind of brazen flicker. Enough feathers spread across a section of the grass near the fenced in garden that it seemed like there might have been a squabble or an attack.

Thread. Revision having to do with picking up threads, or following them, or discarding them. Thread of thinking – like a theme. Here – literal thread – borrowed from spare skeins from the cross stitch amusement that was Not Writing (an other thing, a thing to do with my hands) – links the one work with the other. Or suggests a set of linkages. Like a trail? Like a leash? Like an umbilicus? From the folded words to threads to wings.

My old cigarette-smoking hands, my idle hands, my hands that wanted something more than a poem at hand, wanted a poem in hand, for folding. Some occupation. No more smoke-breaks for this iteration/version/draft of myself. Folding, sewing, reading, listening, staring, taking the cranes out into the landscapes. Re-reading via crane-folds.

I finished my planned cross-stitch project – a bowling towel with The Dude from The Big Lebowski on it – and had a set of small patterns but no big project left, so I experimented a bit with using random “wrong” colors of thread in place of the suggested colors in those small patterns. This made me remember someone I knew — a poet, actually — who did paint-by-numbers but instead of following the instructions, wherein paint #1 would be added to the sections marked #1, he’d use #1 to paint all the #7 sections, and so on. 

Transform, re-form, re-figure the paper, fold, press the creases, then press them against themselves. Fold new lines against the old, printed ones. Fold with the grain, fold against it. Consider and reconsider the materials. Follow part of the pattern, ignore part of the pattern. Recombine. Recycle.

Bring an edge closer, push what’s at the center to an edge, reconsider here, and there, scope and relation and perspective – one window, another window, edge and ledge –

Poetry

Celebrate National Poetry Month with a Great Deal from Hobblebush Books

You have until the end of April to snag this great discount (30% off!) on all poetry from Hobblebush Books, including titles in their Granite State Poetry Series. These beautiful books unite New Hampshire writers with a New Hampshire book designer and publisher, and I’m grateful that Beating the Bounds is in such good company.

If you are looking for more poetry sources to beef up your personal library stacks, these last months I’ve been reading and especially appreciating poetry collections from Milkweed Editions, Graywolf, Sibling Rivalry, and Headmistress Press. Buy directly from the presses, or from your favorite local bookstore, or your other favorite local bookstore, or from Powell’s or Bookshop.org.

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.

Poetry, Readings/Events, teaching

“The Poet’s Dream:” The 2020 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (October 22-November 1)

In October 1986, I was a high school student in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and attended the first Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in the village of Waterloo.

My family lived in Cherry Hill for two years when my dad was stationed at the Naval shipyard in Philadelphia. It was difficult time for teenage me, a time of struggle and growth. I was caught shoplifting. I smoked pot for the first time. We were renting a house in a neighborhood that wasn’t really accustomed to welcoming “new folks,” and for most of my first months of school at Cherry Hill High School East, nobody at the bus stop would talk to me. And I was too shy to talk to them. I was used to living either on a Navy base or in a neighborhood near enough to a large enough Navy base that there were lots of new kids every year, and we just kind of knew how to be with one another.

But eventually, at this supremely well-resourced public school, I found teachers and peers who were “my people.” Miss Beck and Mr. LaVoie, in particular, and the students I met in their English and Creative Writing classes, were, finally, such a source of connection. I also found a weekend program, the New Jersey School of the Arts, hosted at the then Glassboro State College, where I connected pretty intensely with three other young writers.

That first Friday of the Festival was specifically organized for students and teachers, and free to attend — and that access to poetry and its communities has always been a part of the Festival’s ethos and mission. It continues this year — you can get a free all-access pass if you are a student or educator. They are also offering their standard all-access pass as “pay-what-you-can,” and a free version for live-streaming and discussion groups only. I’m hoping to encourage some of the writing students I’m currently working with to register and attend.

Looking at this year’s amazing Festival schedule, I see so many poets whose work I love and admire, I see old friends and acquaintances and teachers from various parts of my poetry life. I see necessary themes and conversations.

Access to programs and events like the Dodge Festival, the NJ School of the Arts, and others really shaped and helped me, especially during certain periods of my life. Now, in 2020, access online to an overwhelming variety of readings and talks has been, for me, another nourishing source of connection and hope and help. I am so grateful the Dodge Festival endures, and if you can, I encourage you to join me in financially supporting this work. If the financial support isn’t an option, consider spreading the word and, of course, participating in the Festival.

If it’s back in person next year for the 35th (contingent upon so many other urgent “ifs”), I might have to head down there, as I can imagine the Festival serving as a good emerging-from-pandemic-isolation (please please please) experience. A poet can dream.

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.

img_7088-1
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.

Poems, Poetry, Publication

New Anthology: Show Us Your Papers

CvrShowPapers_postcardDiscounted pre-orders are now available for Show Us Your Papers, a poetry anthology due out from Main Street Rag press in Fall of 2020. I’m very happy to have a couple of poems included among those of so many poets I’ve long admired.

PRE-ORDER online here

Order Form (if you prefer to mail a check)

From the Introduction:

“Show Us Your Papers speaks to a crisis of identity and belonging, to an increasing sense of vulnerability amid rapid changes in the USA. While corporations wait to assign us a number, here are 81 poets who demand full identities, richer than those allowed by documents of every sort. Here are poems of immigration and concentration camps, of refugees and wills, marriage and divorce, of lost correspondence and found parents, of identity theft and medical charts. In an era where the databases multiply, where politicians and tech companies sort us into endless categories, identifying documents serve as thumbtacks. They freeze the dancing, lurching, rising and falling experience of our lives. The disconnect between our documents and our identities is inherent, reductive, frustrating, and, too often, dangerous. Yet we cannot live without them. In this anthology 81 poets offer a richer sense of our lives and histories—richer than any “official paper” allows. These lyric and narrative forms demand that readers recognize our full identities: personal, familial, national, and historical.”

You can read the full introduction, as well as some sample poems (including one of mine!), and see a complete list of poets included in the anthology HERE.

 

 

COVID-19, Poetry, Uncategorized

Ice Out

                  Lake Winnipesaukee, NH, April 2020

They declared “ice out” this morning,
made it official, having observed from the air
mostly clear waters; yesterday’s
waning bergs in Meredith Bay
and Center Harbor broken up overnight
and swallowed back into the dark fathoms.

So now, the M/S Mount Washington
can navigate the massive lake
to all five of her ports –
but pandemic has promised
she’ll stay moored at shore,
her decks and cabin remain
empty, their former life gone
not like the gradual departure
of winter ice, but suddenly –
an abduction, a shock, a rupture –
like when the earliest ice beckons
but is actually still so thin
you could break right through
and into the frigid lake – fall
victim to the shock of exposure –
you and your optimistic bob house,
maybe even your reckless snowmobile.

*

At deepest winter’s turn into this year,
we waited for the other call—ice thick
and sewn up solid enough on Squam
that the harvest could safely commence –
the cutting and hauling and packing
into sawdust of massive frozen slabs,
ice cakes stowed away through spring
to cool the storied lakeside camp’s
July iceboxes. It came in late January
in the nick of time, ice in,
and the saws and pike poles and winches
did their usual work over two days
of frigid glimmer.

*

In March, while ice still held the big lake
in winter’s loosening fist,
our small town campus’ hockey arena
was thawed and drained, swept and scrubbed,
and cots, oxygen, privacy screens, bedding,
brought in to set up for overflow
from the modest 25-bed hospital,
to prepare for the surge, which I visualize
as a flood, remembering how this very arena
has been flooded by the surging, sudden sprawl
of spring’s unbound river, loosed
in the abrupt letting-go of an upstream ice dam.

*

Oh, April. Cruel. Just as the green started
to reveal itself, another wet dump of snow.
We hunker down, and when we creep out
for essentials – toilet paper, food, medicine,
breeze and sunlight – we try to smile
through hand-sewn masks.

The harvested ice waits, stacked
to the rafters of the dark ice houses,
quarantined in layers of sawdust.
The vintage iceboxes wait to be filled
with the particular cold of those
slices of preserved January.
The loyal ghost ship is now able
to cruise her seasonal circuit
across the unlocked lake, but must wait
for now as we must: tied to the dock
but also unmoored by uncertainties.

The empty cots wait on the dry, swept surface
of the transformed hockey arena,
organized in taped-off rows,
simultaneously reassuring and foreboding,
so still and quiet in their competent anticipation
where once my students blazed past,
Andreas and Victor and Mike and Grant and Maddie,
chasing the puck, careening in a blur of joy,
riding that long-gone ice on the keenest blades.

 

 

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.

Poetry, rumination, teaching, Uncategorized

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Getting Started in Creative Writing

It is my habit to start each semester’s (UG sophomore-level) Creative Writing class with a writing exercise/assignment using objects — some common, some strange — distributed at random among students. There’s a multi-step, in-class generative phase, and then at home, students are to draft a piece somehow connected to/inspired by the object. Here are some photos documenting my own brainstorming and drafting — my object was a “T” token.

Step one — the in-class brainstorming part. I keep veering back and forth between just “talking” students through the steps and giving them a handout, which is good for encouraging students to move at their own pace.

I took my “worksheet” home and pounded out this really long, probably needlessly-wordy poem draft (essay draft?). Then, next class, we did a round of feedback, with multiple folks commenting on drafts. My readers were really helpful, and good at describing to me what they noticed and appreciated. And this is only the second day of class!

I’ve already started very minimally tinkering/editing…I’ll probably revisit this draft when we spend a class focusing on “radical” editing and revision skills. We’ll do exercises meant to really “mess up” our drafts, in order to “see them anew.” Until then, I might keep tinkering here and there:

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.