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.

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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.

First Reads: Rocket Fantastic

In the claustrophobic space of a airline seat, I opened a book and was transported to a panoramic world.  Stag & fox, love & desire, tenderness & demand. The major general & the bandleader, the angel & the location, the neck & and the twang. It was an oddly-wonderful place for a first reading of Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic, a collection that I will certainly return to for a much deeper investigation. But even on first read, I was immediately struck by four “practices” or “devices” (for lack of more intelligent terms):

The repetition of not only images and key words/terms, but repetition of exact lines in utterly new contexts. I have read many collections where images cycle, but I don’t recall any in recent memory that have used the same lines.This practice, which happens a few times in the book, worked for me like an echo, bouncing a voice or idea  back to me in a way that was both familiar and disconcerting, like motifs in a symphony where the key has changed from major to minor.

The form-switching throughout the collection. Some poems are structured in “traditional” stanzas, some spread across the page with large and purposeful white space, and some are in prose blocks. Each form seems perfectly suited for its inhabitants and its purpose, choices that I want to learn from in terms of choosing the most organic forms for my own poems.

The symbol that Calvocoressi has chosen to use as a genderless pronoun for one of the inhabitants of the poems (the Bandleader), which I do not know how to recreate on my keyboard, along with the use of “whose” as a substitute for the possessive and object pronouns usually associated with gender. The author describes the symbol as “a confluence of genders in varying degrees […] simultaneously encompassing and fluctuating.” At first I thought the symbol would be troublesome as a reader, but instead it allowed me to experience the poems in my own way instead of just the speaker’s.

The choices of proper titles for some of the inhabitants of the poems – the Bandleader, the Major General, the Dowager. Using these titles rather than names allowed me to bring my own preconceptions  and expectations about those words to the poems and then have them shattered, questioned, or twisted.

And these are just structural/craft matters that I want to explore! The content of the poems is also rich, textured & filled with the joy, pain, & longing of being human in a world that is at turns both beautiful and frightening. I usually know after a first read whether a book is one I will return to again and again. The answer here is definitely a resounding yes.

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You can follow Gabrielle Calvocoressi on Twitter at @rocketfantastic.

Her wonderful interview with Rachel Zucker on Commonplace Podcast can be found here

Purchase Rocket Fantastic here

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First Reads will hopefully be a regular feature here. I often write reviews for other venues which require multiple readings and copious notes, but I think that there is also merit in articulating first impressions as most of us don’t have the time to re-read books unless they speak to us in a way that calls us back.

 

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.