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.

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Literary Black Friday?

Every year on Thanksgiving, my mother still insists that we all make Christmas wish lists, even though my brothers and I range from ages 48 to 54 and my youngest niece is 17. There’s something about opening a package instead of an envelope that she is not willing to give up on, and I agree. (Although I refuse to go out and do the whole crazy “Black Friday” shopping thing – I don’t need anything in my life badly enough to warrant fighting crowds.)

I am, quite frankly, the easiest person in the world for whom to purchase a gift. As long as it has something to do with writing, reading, art, poetry, etc., I’m a happy camper.  I share some of my own literary wish list here in case you need to find the perfect gift for the literature lover in your life, or you need some ideas for your own list.

Books/Poetry

Kristy Bowen’s The Shared Properties of Water and Stars (Noctuary Press.) Kristy’s work is always evocative, and I have been waiting to read this collection for a long time.

The New Census: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (Rescue Press). Many names in this anthology who deserve to be collected. And all in one place!

Darling Hands, Darling Tongue by Sally Rosen Kindred (Hyacinth Girl Press) I have written Peter Pan variation poems myself and can’t wait to read this chapbook.

The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go by Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney (Hyacinth Girl Press) Two poets I admire collaborating? Win-win.

First Wife by Laura Madeline Wiseman (Hyacinth Girl Press) A new chapbook from a prolific poet that I also admire. And all three of these by Hyacinth Girl Press.

These are, by all means, not the only books I long for, but this is the short list. I have to save some book-buying for AWP in Seattle. 🙂

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Writing-Related Loveliness

Any of the writing-related art/items on the Etsy site of Obvious State. My favorites are the T.S. Eliot “Do I dare disturb the universe?” teapot and the Virginia Woolf “wild horses” piece. The art is available in poster form, on notebooks, and on t-shirts. Yes, please.

A cutting board that looks like a book? A great addition for any book lover’s kitchen.

Disclaimer: I already own these beautiful Shakespeare pieces (courtesy of my husband, who always chooses perfect gifts for me). I wear them almost daily, so if anyone in your life deserves an extra special gift and also happens to love Shakespeare, you’re welcome for the lead:

Necklace quotes Hamlet – “To thine own self be true.”

Bracelet is Sonnet 116 (my favorite)

And, to end the list, pretty much anything from this website: The Literary Gift Company. Seriously. I dare you to not find SOMETHING you love here. 

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And now, I’m off to surf the web to find perfect, thoughtful selections for family and friends who are a bit more picky than I am. (At least the ones for whom I am buying instead of making gifts…) Wish me luck! 

An Embarrassment of Riches

Nearing the end of another year, I feel extraordinarily blessed in all aspects of my life. My family is healthy and thriving and continues to show their unconditional love and support for my writing through their gifts of time, cheerleading, and even the tools of the trade (Moleskins and small press poetry books made up the bulk of my Christmas gifts). A beach vacation is in my future as well as a celebration of my husband’s 20th consecutive Walt Disney World Marathon, complete with running friends and family.

At work, my students are rewarding and fun, and my colleagues are still the most dedicated and talented people I know, as well as being kind and generous friends. They make me smile every day, even if I must admit I am looking forward to retiring in eight years. 🙂

My writing life has been very rich. In addition to the acceptance of both a fourth chapbook and my first full-length poetry manuscript, another chapbook manuscript is a finalist for publication as we speak, and the Pioneer Wife has been accepted to make her first appearance in Menacing Hedge this Spring. I am currently working on a new series of poems based on lyrics from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and I am looking forward to the Poetry and Prose Getaway this January in New Jersey as well as a two-week residency in June at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska. Add to that a Pushcart Nomination from Apple Valley Review and this has been one lucky year for me.

And through it all, it is always good to know that I have many virtual friends in the poetry community who walk beside me in these endeavors, including some of you who are reading this right now. To you I also say “thank you” – it’s nice to know that I don’t walk this road alone.

My winter break lasts for another week or so. In two days, when my son will drive back to his life at college, the house will be empty and quiet during the day until my husband gets home from work. But I will have all of these blessings with me. I will have words. And that will be just fine.