Of Endings and Beginnings

Closing in on some endings this week – it’s May, which means another school year is coming to a close, and I just finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my seventh graders. This is bittersweet as I will not be teaching 7th graders anymore next year, which means no more Scout and Atticus and no more Shakespeare, either. (Insert sad face emoji here.) The end of my teaching career is also creeping nearer; two years from now, I’ll be packing up my classroom for good. (Insert excited emoji here.)

Some writing things inched their way toward completion as well. I finally finished a new poetry book review. I love writing reviews, and I have one more chapbook review to get done before I take a break to work only on my own poems this summer. (Insert teeth clenching emoji here.) Which means my “I cannot write anymore and don’t know if I can do this” slump has also reached a natural end. Thank goodness for that.  And that, in a way, is its own beginning. I am writing new poems, even sending them out into the world. Which is a little like stuffing intimate messages into bottles and tossing them into the ocean, hoping someone will discover them and rescue you from the desert island of your own brain. (Insert palm tree emoji here.)

Now I’m beginning to question writing this post. Endings and beginnings are a part of everything, right? Why are they on my mind? Maybe it’s the time of year. As a teacher, late May is both a ending and a beginning for me and has been since I started teaching in 1984. But it’s also the cycle of stressors versus comforts that has harnessed my attention in the last few weeks–  the slow fade of some old friendships versus the lit wick of some new ones; the challenges of care-taking versus a surprise visit from my son for Mother’s Day; the late arrival of lovely spring weather versus the necessity of long-delayed yard work; the apathy and chaos of the workplace versus the slow, sweet comfort of my husband and my home.

I could quote Seneca here, (or the source most people know the line from, Semisonic’s “Closing Time”), the line about how every new start comes from the end of another. But I’ll go deep cuts instead. In one of my favorite old Jimmy Webb love songs (“All I Know”), Art Garfunkel’s pure tenor sings, “it’s a fine line between the darkness and the dawn.” A simple line to be sure. Nothing earth-shattering. But this line works for beginnings and endings. A door has to close to open.  You can’t be happy if you’ve never been sad.  So I suppose this is now the end of this post. But it could be the beginning of something else. It’s a fine line – one never knows.

 

The Quiet & the Chaos

It’s been both a very relaxing and highly chaotic week. I enjoyed a short weekend writer’s retreat run by Lit Literary, a literary community organization run by poet extraordinaire Krista Cox. This inaugural weekend retreat in Harbert, Michigan, was a minute’s walk to the shore of Lake Michigan in a large and comfortable house along with 6 other writers. In addition to beautiful beach time in the sun and the sunset (which has finally arrived in the Midwest), we were treated to three delicious meals a day (cooked by Krista), craft talks, quiet writing time, impromptu readings, a visual art workshop, and good conversation. It was a productive and soothing weekend for me – thanks to Krista for organizing and being such an accommodating leader.

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The chaos has taken many forms related to everything from teaching 12-year-olds in May to personal stressors. During the chaos, as always, I reached for music as a way out. Here are a few of the lyrics that stuck with me this week:

from The Decemberists “Sucker’s Prayer”

And so I got down on my knees
I made a sucker’s prayer
A grim bode of Baudelaire…
Seriously. The sound in “grim bode of Baudelaire” is intoxicating. And nerdy. And it also is the perfect I’m-feeling-sorry-for-myself-and-don’t-care-who-knows-it song. And since the album also contains songs like “Everything is Awful,” it fed my melancholy perfectly this week.
from the chorus of The Wombats “Turn”
I like the way your brain works, I like the way you try
To run with the wolf pack when your legs are tired
I like the way you turn me inside and out
I like the way you turn
This is my new favorite alt-pop song from a band I really like. It also has great lines like “You could give an aspirin the headache of its life…”
from “Blackout” by Frank Turner
“Are you afraid of the darkness?
Well, I’m afraid of the darkness, too.”
A slightly political, we’re-all-in-this-together confection with a catchy chorus. I usually like my Frank Turner with a bit more edge, but this song is growing on me.
Sometimes I am afraid of the darkness, Frank. I do try to run even when my legs are tired, Wombats. And Decemberists, although I sometimes I may feel like “I want to throw myself into the river and drown,” nothing is ever as awful as it seems.

Reasons

I have been remiss. Already. And during National Poetry Month, of all months. But…there are reasons. Some positive reasons; some negative; some just…reasons. But I have been writing. I am 18/23 in an attempted 30/30 for April, I have finished two book reviews, and spurred on by a request from a journal I love, finally completed an essay that I have been thinking about writing for months. The poem drafts are stronger than I imagined they would be, assuaging some of my fears about having lost my poetry mojo.

Reading books of poetry has been a big part of my little sabbatical. In no particular order, digging in to these collections has brightened, enriched, and inspired my April.

I am reading aloud a wonderful YA novel in verse called House Arrest to my sixth grade students. They are completely engaged in the short, poetic journal entries that make up Timothy’s story, and it will be a good way to bring us to the end of the school year, which seems ever so near and yet so far away. (Unlike all of my college professor friends, I do NOT finish teaching at the end of the month – June 6 for me. Keep me in your thoughts…)

And this week has brought GPN – good poetry news, for those not in the know. A poem of which I am quite fond is featured in the newest issue of Juxtaprose here. And another poem is in the current issue of Poet Lore, one of the first journals I started to read and aspire to when I came back to writing seriously around 25 years ago. It has been a while since any new work has appeared in print or online for me, so it feels like coming home.

I do have to say it’s a little embarrassing to have other bloggers continuously link back to the post where the Revival Bloggers are listed when I hadn’t posted anything in two weeks. Some ringleader I am.  But this is about writing, right? And I HAVE been doing that.

The Sounds & the Fury…

I’m back. Although I didn’t write HERE on my Spring Break, I did write. And read a LOT. And submit poems to journals, which I haven’t done in quite some time. But after reading the round-up this week on Dave Bonta’s site, I have decided to embark on some sort of poetry endeavor for April.

Although I always fail at 30/30 attempts–this is not hyperbole, I mean ALWAYS–I decided to try something different. I am going to try to write something every day that plays with sound and tone – phrases, wordplay, etc. – and, in this way, I will free myself from the pressure to even make sense!

Somewhere, I truly cannot remember where, I was introduced to an exercise that I have already used both days of April so far. I will share it here in the hopes that it might give you some ideas about playing with sound.

  1. Start with a lengthy word that has a variety of letters. (I have used the words. ventriloquist, paraphernalia, hypersensitive, and inconsequential. You can use any word you choose!)
  2. Spend some time making a word bank of every word you can create from the letters in that long word. Three letters or more. You may only use a letter twice if it actually appears twice in the word.
  3. Once you have a substantial word bank, start to play with creating phrase combinations. Once you have a few that you like, see if you can use words on the list and other words that stay in that sound family to write a lyric or tone poem.

Last night, my husband gave me the word paraphernalia. My favorite phrases were: repel the leperthe bells peal, a panel of liars, the rapier’s rip.  I ended up with a draft that might be going in the direction of a “dark days” type of poem. Today with my students, we brainstormed a list from ventriloquist. My favorite phrase from that list was a quiver in the soil brings violets.

So I have a plan. Which may not come to fruition. But I am enjoying the music, nonetheless.

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If you are looking for prompts for your 30/30, when I first started this blog seven years ago, I posted a prompt a week under the label The Poetry Tow Truck. That archive of 52 prompts can be found here – since it’s been so long, I may go back and try some of them again myself!

Some People Want to Fill the World with Silly Love Songs…

…and what’s wrong with that?

Having finally succumbed to the flu/crud/illness that has been sweeping through my school for the past six weeks, I spent most of the weekend tucked under a blanket trying not to cough all over my computer screen. But I did some drafting and revising this week, engaging with poems that address subjects I’ve been exploring in depth for some time: aging, faith, hope. And love. Rather like I Corinthians 13:13 –  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Writing love poems isn’t popular. I’m not talking about traditional love poems, as in poems addressed specifically to a lover – but still, they are poems that, at their core, are about love. In an age of dystopias and apocalypses, at a time where confessional poems of trauma and violence and loss and illness shine brilliantly in almost every poetry journal, here I sit, trying to explain how something as ubiquitous as love is what saves me, what nourishes me. Writing these poems reminds me how lucky I am that, among all the bad things in the world, I know love.

However, I wonder if I’m writing these poems only for myself. It seems that, although we need more love in the world, that no one is really interested in more love poems.

But I’ll keep writing them. And I’ll let Ewan McGregor try to convince you to join me:

When the Writing Gets Tough…

the tough:

  1. get going
  2. do what they can
  3. give up

Honestly, I can relate to all three of these answers over the past couple of weeks.  Let’s begin with Answer C. I swear that everything I have tried to start over the past week has turned into a steaming page of trash. I came upon a John Dos Passos quote that seemed to speak to how I have been feeling when I try to draft new work:

“Trying to write –God! I have a brain like a peanut… Found a peanut, found a peanut echoes in my head, the insane song.”

Yep. That sounds about right. Peanut brain. Racing in 900 directions, none of them helping with what should be growing into a poem. Anxieties and daily frustrations creeping into every spare thought. So I gave up on trying new work & began focusing on other things.

Which leads us to Answer B. Doing what one can. Which for me were those other things mentioned above – revision, reading, and taking notes for a review. I revised some promising work from late last year, took notes on a new anthology I am hoping to review, and I read. I am teaching Twelfth Night to my 7th graders right now, so I found solace in Shakespeare, which I often do. I am also reading Colin Meloy’s delightful Wildwood aloud to my 6th graders, and his language is just as rich and clever in this YA fantasy as it is in his songwriting for The Decemberists. I read the new issue of Tinderbox Poetry, which is, well, go read it yourself, especially this beauty by Michael Schmeltzer.

Which leads us to Answer A. Get going. Feeling better, I began to prepare some older poems that, after revision, seem ready for submission. I kept to my writing plans for the week, even if the drafts are awful and my notes for the review are not making much sense at this point. I kept moving forward.

And I’m looking ahead – to using my newly-completed home office as a quiet writing space; to an upcoming poetry day scheduled with my good friend and fabulous poet Kristin LaTour; to taking my 7th graders to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for most of them their first live Shakespeare performance; to dinners and quiet nights with my husband; to the snow that is forecast for tomorrow.

I’m eager for whatever words may come in the next few weeks, even if I have to look for them. And I’ll have this Neruda quote (purchased at a visit to his home in Santiago)  over my desk to remember that I am not alone:
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The Ear as Portal

When the pen is stuck, my first inclination is always to read. To crack open a book or journal and roll around in someone else’s words and syntax for a while, let my vision guide me to a key that will unlock something new inside my own lexicon. Being a reader is an important practice for every writer, but I often forget how important it is to use the ear, to listen to the work of others to concentrate the mind and the ear on words that are NOT in front of me, to process them in a purer, more challenging way.  I have been doing this electronically through the wonderful Commonplace Podcast with Rachel Zucker, but I always learn something from hearing poets read live.

I was reminded of this last night at a wonderful reading sponsored by The Poetry Center of Chicago. Their Six Points reading series, at which I have had the pleasure of reading myself, hosted Tarfia Faizullah and Kaveh Akbar sharing their poems and then a conversation about Tarfia’s upcoming book and poetics in general. Having been enraptured by Seam when it debuted four years ago, I was not surprised to be enamored with every poem Tarfia Faizullah shared from her upcoming Graywolf Press book Registers of Illuminated Villages. 

Even in the small number of poems she shared, I could hear the multiple meanings of the word “register” – an official list or record, part of a range of voices or instruments, and the action of detection or recognition. These were poems of witness, of generations, the great melodies of all the small things that register in the heart. Faizullah’s reading style was engaging and strong with no hint of artifice or “poet voice.”  My reaction to Kaveh Akbar’s reading was similar – I was familiar with many of the poems from his chapbook Portrait of An Alcoholichaving reviewed it earlier this year, and those poems were lovely to hear in the air, along with newer poems. All were image-rich and full of turns, his reading style all sway and angle. Both poets held the audience with their voices, registers finely tuned to the instruments of their words.

I had a notebook with me, as I always do, but I took no notes. I was present in that moment, listening, as was the rest of the audience packed into the tiny art gallery, an audience that included many other celebrated young voices in the poetry world. During the conversation portion of the evening, I did write down one thing Tarfia said that I wanted to remember:

“We all write with a particular combination of vision & blindness.”

It is this dichotomy that draws me to poetry, the push/pull of initiating & then following the poem’s path, even if I’m not sure where it came from or where it is going. Tuning into the registers of language that are singing somewhere in the hollows of my brain.