Poetry and a Clean Surface

Wistful, melancholy, looking off into the distance. All I want, I tell my husband, is a clean surface in the middle of a clean world. I say this because while I abhor clutter, I often have much of it on the surfaces I use to write. My desk in the study, the dining room table, a wooden card table I sometimes set up just to be out in the living room. Piles of files. Mail. Envelopes. Photos. Labels. Folders. Books. Computer cords. Notebooks. The photos, especially, seem to have multiplied supernaturally. I was just looking for one or two, and now they are heaped upon the table like mounds of leaves.

I did find the one I was after. I took it while my mom and I were in Boston. We decided to visit Amherst to tour the home of Emily Dickinson (because who doesn’t like her?). We took the bus during a snowstorm, and when we got to Amherst, the town seemed hushed, like a scene on a Christmas card. Here is what the Dickinson property looked like that day.

DickinsonHouse

We were part of a small group touring the Dickinson grounds and home. I could almost believe in ghosts when we saw her bedroom with her small writing table where she wrote close to a thousand poems, only found by her sister, Lavinia, after Emily’s death.DickinsonroomPhoto taken from http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org

Back to the clean surface. The line comes from a favorite poem by Billy Collins, included in his collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001). The poem is called, “Advice to Writers”:

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.

When I chatted with Billy Collins after his reading at Azusa Pacific University a few years back, I told him it was my favorite poem as he signed my book, and I think he understood my conflicts intuitively. My friend, Holle, another Collins fan, was with me, and here is a photo of them both.

CollinsHolle

It is National Poetry Month, the 20th anniversary celebration, started by The Academy of American Poets, and on their site you can find ways to join in. If you enjoy poetry, it might be fun to take a few moments and peruse their website, perhaps lingering over a poem or two by one of your favorite poets. I belong to the organization, and I enthusiastically support them for their efforts to permeate culture with poetry.

They suggest memorizing a poem. I must mention here our Aunt Pat, who at nearly ninety years old can recite many of the poems she memorized as a child. She recited Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life,” at the funeral of her sister (my husband’s mother) in December, as that poem was a family favorite. Their grandfather had been a “recitator” in the pubs of Ireland, an elocutionist, who read to them as they sat around the fire in the evenings, most often reading poetry, the Bible, or a Shakespeare play. Here is Aunt Pat, enjoying her vacation after reciting Robert W. Service’s poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee.

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It is also the month of NaPoWriMo, in which participants write a poem a day. They were inspired by NaNoWriMo, where participants write a novel during the month of November every year. Lots of poets are contributing to NaPoWriMo, so if you are interested in reading their poems, visit the blogs of James Rovira and Jennifer Barricklow. Tim (a close friend) and I celebrated early, writing a poem a day in the month of February, although I only made it to day 7, and I think he has caught up in April with an additional dozen or so poems. I have to catch up to that by tomorrow morning when we meet to do Tai Chi and review the last week’s writing, and I can only get started at about 11 pm when we get home from seeing Dana Gioia, another poet, who is speaking tonight in Pasadena. So no time now to clean the surfaces.

 

 

 

Bright, Lucid, and Clear

When I was at the Los Angeles Public Library earlier this year, I photographed the step fountains on the way up to the entrance coming in from Flower Street, and was drawn in by their names:  Bright, Lucid, and Clear. Designed by Bertram Goodhue, the building’s architect, they are meant to support the library’s theme, “The Light of Learning.” http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/history-printed-word-step-step. For me, they represent states of being that I find sublime and elusive, that I am perpetually seeking and only occasionally finding.Bright

For a couple of weeks, I have felt the opposite: dim, vague, and clouded. I was sick, my husband was sick, and we were sorting stacks of receipts for taxes. Some projects and deadlines were only haphazardly accomplished and met. I thought about what Elizabeth Berg says about deadlines and writing in her book, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True:  “I believe it’s critically important to try for a certain church and state-like separation” (131). Nonetheless, I was glad to meet at least one deadline. We had a series of events scheduled, but only made it to about half of them, the house got cluttered, and the mail piled up. I had the ongoing feeling I was spinning my wheels in the mud.

On the upside, friends from Virginia have been visiting, and I spent time with them along with other close friends, which was entirely enlivening, and I felt bright and present. The poetry reading on February 21 (last week’s post) was a high point. Somehow, preparing the poems and reading them was galvanizing and uplifting. On that day, I was lucid for at least an hour. LucidCold remedies and medications have prevented me from feeling clear, but I did have a few moments of recognizing what I need to do for the continuing path I am following. Perhaps the clearest moment was one of appreciating the beauty of a beach sunset.ClearBeachsunset

Copies of the most recent issue of Westview arrived, a literary journal published by Southwestern Oklahoma State University, featuring three of my poems. They included visuals with all of them, which was a pleasant surprise to me. One of the poems was an elegy for my father who passed away in 2009. I am gratified that it found a home. I also managed to get some new poems written and hope to send them out this week. Continue, stay on the path, seek illumination, I tell myself.

Westview1

What conditions assist you with your tasks and projects? Or what beliefs and approaches? Here’s wishing all of you the experience of feeling bright, lucid, and clear!

Berg, Elizabeth. Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True.  New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

A Time to Gather Stones Together

I am gathering the notes, files, and pages of projects I have started, forsaken, and misplaced. After teaching for more than twenty-five years, many of my boxes and file cabinets contain syllabi, assignment handouts, and old student essays. Now that my focus has moved from teaching to writing, I am unearthing the beginnings of creative works that are scattered throughout the study: files of poems, portions of stories, scenes for multiple screenplays, pages with a line or two, or a paragraph, descriptions of places and people, boxes of mementos. In the garage, photos await my examination, an emotional journey I both desire and dread, but one that will produce more ideas, more writing.

Stonesonwall2

I have multiple undertakings. I suppose I am experimenting with shifting the stones, making different configurations. Some days I work only on poetry, and other days a screenplay. I suspect that I may, in the next few months, immerse myself in a longer project, find a boulder in the desert and camp next to it for a long time. The options are many, and for that I am thankful, overjoyed, elated. You writers will understand, and many of you are there already, making steady progress on a novel, a play, or a collection of poems.

A thematic lamentation my friends often hear from me is the trouble I have organizing my papers. I collect books, articles, travel brochures, magazines, newsletters, chapbooks, pamphlets, mail. It piles up. The stacks grow. I sort, almost daily, feeling like Sisyphus.

My thoughts roam. I visualize a scene. Someone knocks at the door. It is the personal assistant I have wanted. She has a magical filing system and is able to organize all my papers, books, and writing paraphernalia in just a few minutes. Now I can find things.

1stone

On my own, I am nonetheless finding a way. Some days it is one thing only. A single stone, a steady focus, a piece of flash fiction, one poem. At the same time, I am learning Tai Chi from a friend, and he tells me that each time I practice, it is like writing a page. If I practice every day, I will have a substantial book at the end of the year.

I love river stones, and well, really, all kinds of stones, partly because they convey simplicity. I give myself simple messages:  exercise, write, organize. It doesn’t sound so all-fired difficult.

Files

I may never have the pristine study that I imagine, but I can gather, arrange, and rearrange the materials until I gain focus and clarity. Stone by stone, I can create something.

I would love to hear how some of you organize your work.

My other dream, beyond the magical personal assistant, is one described in a passage from Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life:

“I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet” (46).

Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.