Of Symbols and Sparrows

Although Portlandia made “put a bird on it” famous, poets are often warned to stay away from using birds in their writing. Yet I have had the good fortune to have new poems appear online over the last two days, and, by strange coincidence, both poems end with an image of sparrows rising.

“Foreclosure Pastoral” in Flyway: A Journal of Writing and Environment ends:  “on a far hillside, a host of sparrows rising.”  

“After the Fires, A Nightmare” in The Dialogist ends: “a column building – a plume of sparrows rises.”

These poems were written at very different times, and believe it or not, the use of the rising sparrows was both specific in intent and meaning for each poem.

In “Foreclosure Pastoral,” a family farm is being lost. Sparrows often nest in the roofs and walls of homes, and they are also considered signs of death in some cultures if they get inside the home. In a poem about deterioration and loss, they seemed like the perfect birds to be harbingers of that loss.

A slightly different take in “After the Fires, A Nightmare.” In Egyptian folklore, sparrows are ferrymen who take the souls of the dead to heaven. This is why sailors often got tattoos of sparrows, in the hope that their souls would be caught and carried to heaven if they were lost at sea. At the end of this poem, the speaker almost cannot bear the thought of any happy thing after a cataclysmic event – the plume of sparrows here is the hope for redemption.

I’m not a big fan of explaining my choices in poems, but since two poems appearing within a day of one another used almost identical ending images, I found myself wanting to discuss those choices somewhere. So there you are. And go ahead and put birds in your poems, poets: wings, feathers, beaks, fragile bones, twitters and flutterings. You know why you’re doing it. That’s all that matters.


Think about swimming at the beach. Your first tentative steps into the surf, feeling the pull and swirl of the tide at your ankles. The first waves unrolling their force against your knees, your torso. You swim out until the water is up to your shoulders, waiting for the predictable pattern of swell and recession, then dive over the peaks, beneath the surf, emerging for breath a shimmering thing. Darkness gives way to light. Infinity to horizon. Gravity to weightlessness, bobbing on the surface as the water cradles you.

This has been how my writing process has been going lately. I wade into something, tentative, unconvinced. I go a little deeper, pummeled by the disillusionment that comes from reading other writers, wondering if I can ever come close to their talent. Those waves recede and I dive back into writing, but it’s a constant battle between drowning in doubt and surfacing into conviction. Buoyed by acceptances, head pushed under by rejections. Up and down. In and out.

But when I hit on something that’s working? Oh, that beautiful weightless feeling of floating free and happy in something bigger than yourself.

The One Where I Have Been Remiss

First, I have not perished, nor have I run away to join the circus. (Too smelly. And clowns. Enough said. ) But it has been over a month since I wrote anything here, and for that I apologize. Life happens, even when it’s not chronicled online.  So, what chaos has ensued that has kept me from you?

1. Kitchen Remodel. Down to studs. Everything gone. Trying to cook in a toaster oven and a microwave crammed into the laundry room. This is not doing wonders for my sanity nor my waistline.

2. New Job Assignment at Work. Creating curriculum week by week for four new classes and faculty coaching. Love, love, love it. But I’m oh, so exhausted when I get home.

3. ‘Tis the Season. Of concerts. In the last four weeks, we have been to four separate shows ( Robyn, Arcade Fire, Linkin Park/30 Seconds to Mars and tomorrow – Kongos) as well as spending all three days last weekend stomping through the rain, cold and mud at RiotFest. Each of these things takes much longer to recover from than it used to. Ah, old age.

4. Mom time! Said Riotfest (mentioned above) brought a week-long visit from my son, who has been living and working in Nashville since graduation. I loved having him home – the house had a whole different energy. We didn’t do anything special, just hung out, but it was a good week.

5. Baby!  My niece and her husband welcomed their first child into the world, a beautiful daughter, and how exciting! The first great-grandchild for my parents, and the first of my nieces and nephews to have a baby. I am looking forward to meeting her in person very soon.

6. Poetry things. I had the pleasure of hearing three incredible poets read at the Poetry Foundation last night: Matthea Harvey, Claudia Rankine, and the fabulous Katie Ford, all Graywolf authors. They were inspiring. I have been making revisions to the second manuscript that was accepted by Sundress earlier this year, and I have finally been drafting some new work.

So, if I don’t lose my mind from having a Rubbermaid container as a pantry and washing dishes in the laundry tub, I promise I will try to get myself back on track here. Not that you miss me. But I kind of missed you.

Use it (but get ready to lose it)

That’s how I feel about August right now. I have been more busy in the past week or so than I have most of the summer, and another busy weekend is on the horizon. So, although I am squeezing all I can into the end of my summer, the beginning of another school year is now a mere 10 days away.

This past week, I had the opportunity to be present at two wonderful readings that made me happy and proud to be a part of the poetry community. Sunday, I was an eager audience member at the latest Woman Made Gallery reading with the theme of Boxes/Containers. Each reader took a different approach to the theme – curator Nina Corwin always chooses a diverse selection of readers. The gallery exhibit upstairs used the Boxes theme, and, downstairs where the reading took place, we were appropriately surrounded by an exhibition on Text. Kathleen Kirk began with readings from her chapbook Interior Sculpture about sculptor Camille Claudel. Then Debra Bernhardt mixed humor, wordplay, pop culture, and intellect in the same box with poems from her two collections Echolalia and Driftology. Virginia Smith Rice wowed us with her centos from her collection When I Wake It Will Be Forever and new work as well. Andrea Witzke Slot’s new poems “contained” images from llamas to water therapy to ghosts of psychiatrists. And Robin Smith Chapman took us through the boxes of moving, of houses, and of relationships. If you ever get a chance to read or attend a reading at Woman Made, make your way there as quickly as you can.


Then, on Monday, the Sundress Poetry Roadshow came to town to stay at my place and prepare for our Ladies of Sundress reading on Tuesday evening at Powell’s in Chicago. What a treat to have not only fantastic writers/publishers Erin Elizabeth Smith and T.A. Noonan as company but also to read with them since they gave me the opportunity to have my first collection out in the world. We were joined by Virginia Smith Rice (mentioned above) and Kristin La Tour, who will have her first collection released by Sundress next year. Since Erin and T.A. are often organizing events, this is the first time I have been able to actually hear them read their work, and it was indeed a pleasure.


This weekend, I will be reading with Larry O. Dean and Richard Fox at Larry’s Excited Utterance series. This unique format has three readers alternating sets – each featured reader does a three short sets so the audience gets to constantly hear different voices, and the readers can switch gears between different types of work. I am looking forward to it! The last throes of summer will be singing with poems.

I’m still here…

Summer, as usual, is flying by, and in trying to cram the most summer into my summer, my voice here has been pretty quiet. But that doesn’t mean I’m not working, folks. I redecorated my son’s bedroom into a guest room/writing room, so now I have my own quiet space in the house, a “room of my own,” so to speak. And I have been writing. And revising. And reading. And reviewing. And submitting. All of those writerly things I’m supposed to be doing.

But I have also been walking my dogs. Lifting weights. Doing yard work. Going to concerts. Getting my hair cut short. Visiting my parents. Watching movies with my husband. Getting ready to entertain friends. Prepping for the impending school year. (Only two weeks away. Yikes.)

And amidst all this, I have been thinking about the whole competitive aspect of the writing world: applying for residencies and grants, book competitions, etc. I wonder if I place too much emphasis on being “accepted” here or there, “winning” something rather than focusing on what those opportunities really bring me: time, community, and an audience. At 52, almost finished with a long public school teaching career, I am not trying to pad a resumé to advance my career. I have no delusions of ever being a “famous” poet, whatever that means. So I need to adjust my thinking.

I did apply for one residency next summer. That will be the only one I do apply for. If I don’t get it, I can spend less money and almost as much time to create my own retreat, perhaps invite a writerly friend along, and find a pretty place to escape from the duties of home and just work. I have two chapbooks that need homes, but rather than continue to spend money to send them to contests, I will be patient and wait for open submission periods from small presses I admire. Submissions to journals are different – I don’t mind “competing” in that market, since that is how our poems find an audience. But I need to be more focused on why I write in the first place – to tell stories, to communicate the world in a way that only I can see it. To be a member of a literary community. To put words together and make meaning.

Walking on the roof of hell, gazing at the flowers

It was haiku day, thus the paraphrasing of Issa. The poems workshopped today by our youngest class members (both still undergrads) astounded me with their originality and skill. If they are any indication of the future of poetry, then poetry is in very good hands.

I also had my conference today with Arda, and we worked on a new-ish draft of mine that is quite weird but has potential. She is an ardent teacher who gives passionate attention to every possibility in a poem, so although I usually feel like workshopping is not the best use of my time in a class, her insights this week (not just about my own poems) have been instructional and helpful in thinking about possible avenues for revision and about the ways that a poem works.

Tonight I’m feeling a little strange. Headache, which I think is brought on by the muscular discomfort of the horrible bed, has plagued me on and off all day – not debilitating, but annoying enough to necessitate breaks from screen or reading. I also have spent part of the evening packing as I need to check out tomorrow before heading to class, so tonight has been a bit of a wash as far as getting work done, although I have done some online reading and submission research, including following some of the responses to the big Triquarterly editorial faux pas that has left many writers angry. (Link is just one response…check Twitter or Facebook for more of the reaction.) I also dug deeper into Jessica Piazza’s Interrobang (still impressed with the language play and form) and read some of Arda’s book It is Daylight. (Very unique – on the surface, her poems seem simple, but there is a whole created universe in there…)

I do have homework to read which involves Berryman and Harryette Mullen – not exactly the poets to tackle with a tired, headachy brain – so I will keep this short. Oh, and I’m also supposed to write a “who am I” poem using one of the ideas of persona, perspective, or address we have discussed this week. Suffice it to say that I will be up for a while yet. It has been a fruitful week of ideas, but my back, my head, and my heart will be happy to be home tomorrow.


Today’s Soundtrack

  • Walking – The Hazards of Love – Decemberists and Codes and Keys – Death Cab for Cutie (go to comfort bands when I’m feeling out of sorts…)
  • Writing – Coffeeshop music (waiting for my conference) – wasn’t bad. All indie/alternative selections. No Radiohead.
  • Reading – Pandora Meditation Radio and silence.



I’m me, and what the hell can I do about it?

Today’s post title courtesy of “Introducing Álvaro de Campos” by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Edwin Honig) – also a reminder. In a week of reading LOTS of poets and poems, my usual despair kicked in. How did he/she do that? Why is that so incredible? Why can’t I write like that? And today, Pessoa gave me answer: because I’m not (insert other poet’s name here). Because I’m me. And there really isn’t anything I can do about it, and that’s okay.

Of course, reading and borrowing techniques/ideas from other writers has always happened. Hell, even Shakespeare did it. But there’s a difference between learning from other writers and comparing yourself to other writers. The first can be productive – the second is mostly demoralizing.

So, today I have been trying to focus on just writing, my writing, not writing to fill a prompt or to mimic another writer or to try and imitate someone else’s success. So far, so good.

Other highlights of the day:

Zucchini Walnut Bread from an Amish bakery at the Farmer’s Market. Enough said.

One of my Bishop/Lowell poems “The Running Away” is featured on the website of The Labletter. Four of these poems were featured in their 2014 print issue, and it is kind of them to give this poem another life online.

Extract(s): A Daily Dose of Lit has accepted a flash piece of mine that should appear some time this week (perhaps tomorrow).

Lowlight of the day:

Catching the trailer for The Giver. Another book I love that the movies will probably ruin. (See also The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Hours…I could go on…)

Hoping that tonight will be submissions night – I have 6 or 7 planned, but I’d be happy with 3 or 4. Because that’s me.

Today’s Soundtrack:

  • Walking (knees can’t take running three days in a row any more): Tape Deck Heart by Frank Turner
  • About Town: Future Islands – Singles and Manchester Orchestra – Cope
  • Writing – MaybeSheWill – I Was Here For a Moment and Then Was Gone
  • Reading  – Morning Parade – Morning Parade and Morrissey – The Best of Morrissey