Everything Old

A busy week at work, a stubborn cold, average temperatures below zero, and a committed desire to stick to a fitness regimen have left me (or at least my body) feeling old this week – creaky knees, sore wrists. (Even yoga left me sore – too much utkatasana.)

I watched some old movies this weekend – really old (like Oklahoma!) and just kind of old (like Kill Bill, Vol. 2).  And then there was the announcement of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship season and the realization that I am more than TWENTY YEARS past the age cut-off. Ouch.

And then there was the slow, rolling change I’ve seen in friendships. (It hit home this week for several reasons – nothing dramatic.)  I have always had friends who are younger than I am, people whom I adore.  I used to spend lots of time with them outside of work, but lately they have drifted to more time with those who have more in common in terms of where they are in life – having young kids at home, etc. It’s a natural shift, not a shunning, but it still just makes me feel old, kind of like a band you liked when you were fourteen – still know the songs, but have taken them out of heavy rotation or off your iPod.

But I uncovered one old thing that was wonderful – a 1926 illustrated copy of Anderson’s Fairy Tales on my bookshelves. It has both color and b/w line illustrations and many strange stories that most wouldn’t recognize as famous. (“The Bear Who Stood and Played Soldier”, anyone? “The Elder Tree?”) I have been having fun pulling out phrases from the stories and rearranging them into new poem-tales. (My favorite so far is titled “The Forest Hag Advises the Princess.” Hmmm, wonder which one I am identifying with at the moment?)


We are about ready to make February an old month and move into the lion of March. Hopefully, the appearance of the sun will turn that old feeling back to new. Well, not new. But as close as one can get.

Reading and Watching

Cold. Ice. Snow. Gray and gray and more gray. It has been the type of January that winter that lends itself to couches, blankets, books and movies. We are on our usual Oscar binge  as we like to see all the major nominations before the awards are handed out. I have to say that, although there were many good performances, I found many of them slow and not that interesting. My three choices for most entertaining were The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash, which was by far my favorite. It showed that a movie based on characters can work, and I actually cared about those characters, which didn’t happen in some of the other films.

As for reading, it’s been mostly poetry. Brown Girl, Dreaming, the YA National Book Award winner by Jacqueline Woodson, was a beautiful memoir in verse. My colleagues at work have been encouraging me to explore this popular YA format (novel in verse, etc.), but reading her book made me realize it is quite an undertaking, but one that is intriguing. I have some notes for a project based on a historical event that will take a boatload of research but may be a good summer obsession. (Newberry Research Library, here I come.)

I’ve been trying to keep up with journal reading, both in print and online, but there aren’t enough hours in the day. Between work and trying to work out and be healthier this year, I’m lucky if I read the poems that arrive in my email. But what poems they have been, especially the last two entries in Linebreak. I was so happy when this journal’s demise was  postponed. It is consistently a journal that wows me, and it was one of my happiest publication credits. Do yourself a favor and go read these two fine poems by Brittney Scott and Anna Rose Welch.



Countdown to AWP in Minneapolis: 60 days! I am looking forward to meeting so many of the poets and editors I spend time with on the page or the screen.


A poem by any other name…

…is a completely different poem. I had the pleasure of introducing Walt Whitman to the 8th graders this week at work, and they are now writing poems inspired by his style and ideas. After seeing seven or eight drafts that were titled “Whitman Poem,” we had a discussion about poem titles, how they are so much more than labels, how they can create a context for every other image in the poem. (Of course, they pointed out that most of Whitman’s poems had titles that were first lines or clearly in the poem, so I could not exactly disallow that as a valid title strategy.) The best advice I could give them was to at least do the title last – to wait and see how a title could perhaps enrich the poem instead of just label or explain it.

This is yet another example this week of how I should probably take my own class and listen to my own advice. Today, due to an out-of-town husband and a head full of phlegm, I took a lot of time to work on revisions, including rethinking titles of many poems that have lately been rejected in journal submissions. I especially looked at the new series of “self-portrait” poems I’ve been writing. If they ever do decide to live together as a chapbook, they can’t ALL be called “Self-Portrait as…” – that would be annoying. Or maybe not – all of my pioneer wife poems start with “The Pioneer Wife…” Hmm. You can see why this is so confusing.

I have also received so many conflicting “tricks” for titles over the years that they can be overwhelming to think about. I have used many of them, though – links are to some of my poems that use (or try to use) that particular strategy:

  • Use song lyrics (up to seven words without having to cite) – from a workshop with Lee Abbott .(My favorite book of his, Living After Midnight, uses that strategy.) “Feeling Minnesota” at Freeze Ray Poetry
  • Count 7 lines up from the bottom and pick the best phrase.
  • Use/twist a familiar phrase “Bringing in the Sheaves” at Apple Valley Review and the title of this post
  • Use a specific place name for a poem that doesn’t mention a place (from a workshop with Katie Ford)
  • Make a list of six titles and ask six people which one would make them most want to read the piece
  • The title should be a “portal” to the rest of the poem, an open door that the reader wants to walk through. “Mailing a Snowflake” at Apple Valley Review
  • A good title makes the reader go back to it at the end of the poem and think, “Oh, that’s why the poet called it that.” “XXIX” at Literary Mama
  • A good title lets the reader know what he/she is getting into. “Navigation” at The Literary Bohemian

I’m sure there are many more – I would love to hear your best strategies and tricks for titles in the comments here or on social media. With your help and suggestions and all of the notebooks from all of the workshops and panels I’ve attended over the years, I could probably make this the longest blog post in history. (That would be a good title for a blog post.)

The Doubting Hand

Monday, back to school after two weeks of vacation, my middle school students weren’t exactly thrilled about writing. Their hands hurt. (They obviously hadn’t picked up a pen or pencil over break.) They were tired. These are typical complaints after break, so I didn’t worry too much until one class broke into variations of a chorus: “But everything I write is stupid anyway. I always get it wrong. It’s too hard.”

I think they were a bit shocked when I agreed that it was hard. But I wasn’t going to let them get away with calling their writing stupid or wrong, so I pulled out a little trick to share. (I’ve been telling students this for years, so I’m sure I read it somewhere -maybe Natalie Goldberg? I’m just being clear that I don’t think this is a wholly original idea.)

I put my pen in my writing hand. I named that hand the “creative” hand. Then I used my other hand and started smacking my writing hand, saying things like “Why are you writing that? Are you sure that’s how to spell that word? That is horrible.” I named that hand the “doubting” hand. Then I put it behind my back & asked them to put that hand behind their back (or sit on it) when they were hearing that negative self-talk in their heads while writing.

They thought I was a little nuts. But then I noticed them doing it, and I realized that I need to take my own advice. I have let the doubting hand knock me around a bit lately, questioning every choice I make in a draft or a revision, resisting submitting work, avoiding opportunities for feedback, you name it. (Cue Yoda: “The doubting hand is strong with this one.”)

Part of that doubt always comes from reading a lot over break. So many good poems. And all of them (according to my evil left hand) better than anything I am writing. So today, off work/school due to dangerously cold wind chill temps, I read through some work I’ve been drafting lately and told that hand to shut it. And, although I will not say that I am super-confidence-woman regarding these new pieces, at least I shut off the negativity long enough to be more cheerfully productive.

And, if you need a reason to believe in creativity and to remember how poetry can move you, please read this piece by Alex McElroy in Diagram (thanks to T.A. Noonan of Sundress for bringing it to my attention). And then use any hand you want to get a tissue.

The Obligatory Year-End Post

The December weather in Chicago has remained suspiciously fall-like, and I am not complaining. My new position at the middle school is challenging and exhausting and different, and I like it. My son has graduated from college and is living on his own and supporting himself. My husband and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary this summer, and we did some major remodeling on our home. In other words, life is good. Very good.

I haven’t been here regularly, but I am here. I haven’t decided how or if I have a plan for posting more often in 2015 – if I do, it will hopefully be to share more of what I’ve been reading, hearing, and learning, more about process and less about submitting and acceptances and the business of poetry. New years are about starting over, about having a vision for what’s ahead. This year, instead of making lofty resolutions – about this blog, about my fitness, about my writing – I will resolve simply to do my best to do my best.

Happy New Year!

Life Happens

I have not kept my promise of posting here more regularly, but I’m okay with that (and know that you will forgive me). In the past month, I have been living – traveling, working, reading, writing – and I have been doing so without documenting it all here, which has been helpful. Now, I’m no Luddite – I have been posting things online, but I haven’t taken the time to really write a lengthy post, so let’s catch up.

I am finally doing some new writing, moving back and forth between two new sets of poems. One is a series of odd “self-portraits” as different nouns – as laundress, as naturalist, as devotee, as confession. I am pleased to say that two of these recent pieces were accepted by Sugared Water, a beautiful handmade journal that I really enjoy. The other series is a set of formal poems inspired by photographs I have taken of rock musicians. The first, “Triolet for Trent Reznor” will be featured in FreezeRay Press’s music anthology Again I Wait for This to Pull Apartand I have been working on a villanelle inspired by Chris Cornell called “Feeling Minnesota.” I am, like many other writers, waiting for news on residency applications and contests and plain old submissions. I’ll keep you posted on any news.

I got to spend time with people I love over the past two weekends. First, time with family and friends at an annual gathering in New Orleans which includes the Voodoo Music Festival. Family included seeing my son, who was working at the festival but made some time for his parents anyway. (Did my mom heart good, of course.) I also got to see some favorite bands like Foo Fighters up close and personal – I will have some new photos to share once I have time to go through and edit them all. Then, this past weekend, I got to witness my friends Rachel and Donna finally get married after nine years of waiting for their union to be legal. It was an incredibly moving ceremony – outside, intimate, with both the officiant’s speech and the vows probably the best-crafted and thoughtful I have ever heard. Even the readings were from Galway Kinnell and e e cummings –  this must be what happens when two writers get married by another writer!

I have been re-reading Madness, Rack & Honey by Mary Ruefle, and also savoring Blood Lyrics by Katie Ford. I can’t recommend this new book by Katie Ford enough – a stunning book of poems both intensely personal and bitingly political. And Mary Ruefle’s essays are worth returning to again and again – I especially have been savoring her comments on how poems end. I even read some Stephen King while in and out of airports the past two weekends – I forgot how much I enjoyed his prose. Effortless, engaging writing. I need to read more fiction over break – I would love recommendations for my winter vacation. Well-wrtten, but not too intellectual, please. :)

And, since we have gone three months without a kitchen due to major remodeling, I am positively giddy that I am supposed to have appliances by this weekend, even though some other things still need to be finished. Perhaps this weekend will bring, along with the cold weather, some roasted vegetables and something actually cooked on a flame instead of in a toaster oven or a microwave. It’s the little things, people. Life happens.

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.