Hi out there! It has been a long time since I have posted in this blog, although I have much enjoyed reading the blogs of others. I opted to leave the blog behind when a series of events occurred.
We made the ninety mile trip to see my husband’s parents weekly or biweekly for many years, as we were managing their care once they needed it. My husband’s mother then passed away, and we were managing the care for his father, who passed away in 2018, the same year that my mother, who lived in Washington state, had a serious fall and was hospitalized and then had to go into assisted living along with my bonus dad. We made trips to Washington to get them settled and eventually to pack up their home and sell it. We sold our home the next year and worked on getting settled in a new place. We put in new flooring and a patio, as the backyard was just dirt at that time. We each had surgery. The results of all that were good, and just recently, we moved my folks down to be in an assisted living facility just a few minutes from us.
About a year after we moved in, there was a fire. It looks closer than it really was, but it was a scare nonetheless.
My “writing custom” during these past few years has been to jot down ideas, images, and thoughts into a journal (or scraps of paper, whatever was handy), and then expand them into poems or stories when I was able to settle down and focus. My friend, Luanne Castle, over at https://writersite.org has nudged my poetry endeavors, kindly sending books and related materials. I can’t say enough about the value of encouragement!
More of my poems have been published than I expected, and I have really appreciated some of the letters from editors who take the time to mention why they liked a certain poem. It’s great if they just say “vivid” or “nice tone.”
In an earlier post, I mentioned seeing Dana Gioia, editor of many literature anthologies, poet, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and currently the California Poet Laureate. I was inspired by his talk and poetry reading, and later by his book of essays, Can Poetry Matter?
Gioia talks about the value of poetry readings as part of his larger goal of restoring the place of poetry in American culture, instead of hiding (burying it?) in academic zones. He suggests multiple ways that readings can be enlivened to interest general audiences. Poets should recite the work of others when giving public readings, celebrating poetry in general. They should mix poetry with other arts, such as music, visual art, and theatre arts. (18 – 20).
Cindy Rinne’s recent reading in Sierra Madre, California fulfilled Gioia’s goals. I have written about her before in another post. You can find her books, Spider With Wings, Speaking Through Sediment, Quiet Lantern, and Breathe in Daisy, Breathe Out Stones at Amazon. You can also see my review there of Quiet Lantern and Doll God by Luanne Castle.
Rinne’s setting in Sierra Madre, California, at the home of warm and wonderful people, Krishna and Eva Malhotra, was beautiful. The expansive terraced gardens provided an excellent atmosphere for the reading, attended by a host of poets, photographers, and visual artists.
We chatted around the table before the reading, sampling the appetizers, finger sandwiches, fruit, and pastries. The reading area was on a large landing between two staircases leading up to a large patio, and the grounds were part of the allure of the event, having lush greenery, extensive lawns, and a concrete stage area, prompting us to discuss future theatrical events that could be held there.
The dappled light added to the ambience as Cindy read from her several collections. A visual artist, Cindy also displayed her work with textiles, and you can see more of it at her website.
She used props, including three Vietnamese dresses she found at a thrift store; the find prompted her idea for Quiet Lantern, a novel in verse, about a Vietnamese family.
Rinne encouraged audience participation also, having a Spanish-speaking couple sing lullabies in Spanish at the appropriate junctures in specific poems, and passing out gifts of “ghost money,” her own handmade paper crafts; ghost money, as I discovered, is money offered for a good afterlife of a departed loved one or as burnt offerings in many Asian cultures.
Though I tend to get a little nervous, which Rinne does not, I love giving and attending poetry readings. Recently, Tim Greek and I participated in a reading sponsored by the Collaborative Arts Collective in Redlands, California. Instead of each of us reading our work solo, we decided to read one or two and then switch back and forth. We spent time orchestrating the progression of poems based on theme, imagery, and tone. It seemed to work out well.
Typically, though, my own have been the straightforward read-a-poem types of readings. I need to experiment with new things! If you are a poet, where do you do readings? How do you determine what you will read? The setting? Any props? Please comment on your experiences!
Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Graywolf Press, 1992.
Rinne, Cindy. Breathe in Daisy, Breathe Out Stones. Future Cycle Press, 2017.
—. Quiet Lantern. Turning Point Books, 2016.
—. Speaking Through Sediment. (With Michael Cooper) ELJ Editions, 2015.
—. Spider With Wings. Jamii Publishing, 2015.
Interested in the habits of other writers, I usually ask those who write about their methods and practices. I like thinking of the many ways that writers practice their craft, the environments they create in which to write, the types of materials they use, and their routines for getting started. I carry the images with me when I sit down to write, and it helps me to realize again how we find our way through the process in so many different ways.
Timothy Greek is a long-time close friend of ours (he and my husband have been friends since their high school years participating in theatre performances), who has had the same writing practice throughout his lifetime. A poet, now in his sixties, he has always carried around several 3 x 5 cards on which he jots down the lines to poems as he thinks of them. I recall him in his twenties, usually carrying a science fiction novel that had 3 x 5 colored index cards tucked away in between the pages. You can imagine how many cards he must have now.
It may take some time before they emerge in typed form on a regular sized page, and when they do, the result is as distinctive as his method. Here is a poem from our reading in Redlands, California with Luanne Castle over at Writer Site after her first collection, Doll God, came out:
The wine of Jesus had legs.
Though in his day,
They would say
It would float on water
Like a healing oil
At that osmotic line
Between heavenly fruit and earthly salt.
Only his feet could crush
The two into one.
You can see that he enjoys word-play. Here’s another:
So far, comme ci, as above
So good, comme ça, so below
Hear the confluence of listening
Sans the clutter of contiguous ubiquity’s froth
Swells clarity’s pulse,
The wealth of the heart that is open.
The rhythm of above and the beat below.
So far, comme ci, as above
So good, comme ça, so below
Choosing swine and judging pearls
Ah the whetting stone, used to guide the edge,
not thrown or hurled.
Intent, unlike the truth-bearing blade, is whole
Undivided by dichotomy.
So far, comme ci, as above
So good, comme ça, so below.
A regular at Starbucks, Tim is an almost daily customer. Even in our twenties, we met at coffee shops to discuss poetry and literature, and if I could recall the “enfoldments,” Emily Dickinson’s term for epiphanies, that we had during our conversations, I would record them in a book. Actually, I remember many of his comments as I used to jot them down. One of them comes to mind now: “It is short, aggression, but creativity is long and beautiful.” Coffee plays a large role in his regular process, though in the main, it is his original mind that perpetuates such interesting poems. Recently retired, he will be writing more frequently now that he has the rich gift of an abundance of time.
Here we are at a party, toasting to poets throughout time! Feel free to post your habits, practices, customs.
So much of my work emerges from an interior place, an inner knowing, a sense that yes, now I should write this story, or yes, right now this poem is forming in my thoughts. No matter how many lists or outlines I make of what I want to write, I find that I cannot keep to them because something else is rumbling within.
I am learning to pay attention to the interior world first. As the new year approached, I somehow knew that this would be the year that I would search for a publisher for my first collection of poetry. I am only now, as spring begins, delving in to the list to see which one might be a good fit for my work (or more importantly which one would accept my work).
On a side note, I have a poem called “The Northern Lights” in the most recent publication of the Schuylkill Valley Journal (I have no idea how to pronounce the name).
In the meantime, Luanne Castle, my office mate in graduate school and still my dear friend twenty-four years later, has published her second collection of poems, a chapbook called Kin Types (Finishing Line Press, 2017), which comes out June 23. She has been generous with encouragement and suggestions, and I am always inspired by her work.
Luanne’s first collection, Doll God, won the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award.
You can read my review of Doll God by clicking here. You can order it by clicking here.
Kin Types is a remarkable collection of works that contains sketches of late family members in both poetry and prose. Luanne’s strong interest in genealogy has enabled her to amass a large collection of stories and photographs of her ancestors. She has told many of their stories in this collection, which is unique in its approach and content. The poems struck me as being “elegaic,” and in the broadest sense, they are elegies for the members of her family represented in the poems.
I already ordered mine! You can order pre-order a copy by clicking here.
Inland Empire writers will know of Cindy Rinne, who is so active in the area that I think she has clones appearing for her in all places at once. Cindy has an eclectic set of talents, as you can see if you visit her website, http://www.fiberverse.com/.
In addition to her recently published novel in verse, Quiet Lantern, published by Turning Point Books, 2016, which you can order by clicking here (see my review here), Rinne has a new chapbook coming out, Listen to the Codex, a remarkable collection of poems that sent me to the edge of my imagination. Listen to the Codex is part of the Native Blossoms Chapbook Series edited by Anne Yale at Yak Press. You can find out more about that series by clicking here.
So creativity abounds, and we are all the better for it. Have you put together a collection? What was your method? What governed your decisions? Feel free to post your ideas.
I have been busy with a new online jewelry business at magicbeadstore.com, featuring gemstone jewelry handmade by my artist sister-in-law, Kitty. Here is my brief commercial!
Now that the site is up and running, I have a little more time, and I know a lot more (not enough though) about social media with its many possibilities.
In the meantime, I have had five poems accepted. The first two, “Weather” and “Walking,” appear in the recent issue of The Atlanta Review.
Two more will appear in Alembic sometime soon, and the fifth, which is about my dear eight-year old friend, Eleanore (see her photo below), will be in the Broad River Review later this year. Also, of the many rejection notices, I received a few “redemptive” ones that had compliments or encouragement from the editors (see earlier blog post about redemptive rejections by clicking here.)
I am still thinking about the elegy as a poetic form. Prone to hero worship, I become enamored of writers who articulate things that I feel but have not been able to say. It is not unusual then that I am in love with Roland Barthes, who died in Paris in 1980, and who was gay, so I’m 0 for 2, no chance of reciprocity. But I am in love with the writing persona who engages me with thoughts that provoke and transcend my own. In my youth (college), I was beguiled by James Joyce. When my husband and I were dating, he was interested in Samuel Beckett, to whom Joyce dictated much of Finnegan’s Wake. We stayed up late at his house, sometimes all night, discussing the two of them, though my mother never believed that was what we were really doing. All three of them enchanted me: Joyce, Beckett, and my future husband.
I have been pondering why the ideas of Barthes are illuminated in my imagination, and the answer has something to do with photographs and the elegy.
Photo: Cultural Services of the French Embassy
Photography interests me, though mainly its psychoanalytic components. To be the one photographed provides interesting psychological dilemmas. As Barthes points out regarding the predicament of being photographed, we want the photo to align with our “profound” self, and yet, he says, the opposite is true (12).We feel ourselves being “observed by the lens,” and then “everything changes.” We go into the process of “posing,” and then derive a different identity based on the “caprices” of the resulting photograph (10-11). He writes:
In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, and the one he [the photographer] makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity . . . I then experience a micro-version of death (13-14).
Also, when we view photographs, we face new complications. While photographs offer a “presence,” they at the same time reveal an absence of the same presence. That sunlight no longer falls in just that way on the rose. The face of grandfather when he was young is not the face of the grandfather I knew, and grandfather is altogether gone, both the young one and the older one. The photo of St. Peter’s Square just after the rain reminds me that I am no longer there, and so on. When I view photographs of anything or anyone I have known, I feel an instant grief, even if it is in the background of what I consciously apprehend in the moment.
Of course, the opposite can also be true: the lost presence can be momentarily captured by the photograph, bringing joy, feelings of love, and fond remembrances.
I think most people viewing photos of loved ones try to put those feelings in the prominent interior place. Still, the sense of loss is inescapable, even in those moments, for the awareness of something being re-captured is evident. The photograph manipulates our sense of attachment to the person or place or object.
While photographs produce feelings of grief for me, the elegy brings a sense of relief and resolution. I sometimes feel that nearly all of my poems are elegaic in tone. Those that are deliberate elegies attempt to reconcile the more profound losses in distinct ways. The photographic image creates a wound, partially healed by the elegy. The attempt to capture an essence in words as well as the outcome of the attempt bring the desired resolution, though, of course, not a permanent end to the grieving process.
Poetry is an apt vehicle for thoughts and perspectives about death, and I wrote about this as a guest blogger at writersite.org, writer Luanne Castle’s blog site. You can find it by clicking here.
That post emphasizes the number of poems about death in a commonly used academic anthology of poetry. Perhaps poetry reconciles us to an inner world that we cannot locate easily without it, due to its nuanced expression, its dreamlike quality, its connection to deeper interior places. Poetry gives me the feeling of being at a core place of being and feeling.
For more than these reasons, I connect photographs with the elegy, both conceptually and experientially. If photos remind me of losses, elegies give me hope in their attempt to, as Max Cavitch mentions, “apprehend the ultimate, most unknowable condition . . .” He goes on: “Elegy is a genre that enables fantasies about worlds we cannot yet reach . . .” (1).
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated
by Richard Howard, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981.
Cavitch, Max. American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning From the Puritans to Whitman. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
So, I have been reading Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, again, probably for the seventh time. Also, Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal. A daily glance at the Lutheran Book of Prayer. Usually a few poems by somebody. I have also been looking at a lot of photographs. And I am thinking of the elegy, the poetic form that features mourning and remembrance as its subject.
Our church, St. Mark’s Episcopal Parish, has a Blue Christmas service, designed to bless those who have lost a loved one, a home, a pet, or anything significant in their lives. Essentially, it is a liturgical elegaic event. I first attended the service after my father died in 2009, and it is what helped us to decide upon St. Mark’s as a home church.
The ambivalent feelings we have during the holidays when we are grieving are addressed in the service, which also points us to God’s grace and love. Before we had to undertake new responsibilities due to my husband’s aging parents, I was also enjoying being on the Altar Guild and loved setting up the items for the service.
Though it was not a major loss to have to cease working with the Altar Guild, I did feel great sadness at leaving it. I am pondering these and other kinds of losses.
Underneath our experience of the “daily,” the routines and habits that create the collage of our personal identity, beyond our social personas, and even in our solitary internal musings, we are performing a kind of work, an exertion of unconscious energy related to the losses that are embedded in our existence. We are enjoying things, yes, interacting with people, working, imagining, resting, and planning. We are also grieving, often subliminally. The more solemn losses serve to draw out the lesser known ones, blending them with our experience of mourning. Latent grief emerges uninvited sometimes.
I recently atttended a memorial for my dear cousin, Tina Jane Moad, who passed away on October 2 of this year. We were given, as parting gifts, small packets of seeds to plant in her memory. A lovely gift. The symbolism is inherent in our knowledge of seeds. Death, then a kind of rebirth. But looking at the photos of her as a child, a young woman, a mother, then a grandmother, I felt the reality of her absence. Her family is in the deep grief now, and it is painful. We long for our absent loved ones. We cannot have them back.
I also gave the eulogy at the service for my beloved English teacher, Bobby George Rowell. I have written about him before in another blog post. Thankfully, his wife requested a eulogy in the form of an elegaic poem, and although I didn’t make it through without tears, I was honored to offer it for the man who introduced me to so much poetry when I was just sixteen years old. More about that in a future post.
Back to Barthes. His philosophical treatise about photography brings out what we all know without articulation: every photograph brings about “the return of the dead.” That is to say, what was happening at the time of the photograph, is not happening in the present moment. It calls to mind the fact of death: the death of the person in the photograph, perhaps, but always the death of that moment in which the photograph was taken.
I do not see an escape from this element of mourning that occurs each time I look at photographs. As Barthes points out, it is “Sisyphean labor”: we try to capture the essence of the person, the day, the memory, “straining toward the essence,” and we inevitably confront its absence, so we begin again with the same effort. Because the photo is not the real thing, the real moment or person, we cannot ever capture the essence we seek. The photograph “carries its referent with itself,” giving it a kind of “funereal immobility.”
Enough for today. I end with two things. From Martin Luther’s expositon of John 16:23, written in 1537: “By our prayer we seek and find what we are to receive.” And O’Connor’s prayer: Oh Lord . . . make me a mystic, immediately.”
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (Hill and Wang), 1980. O’Connor, Flannery, A Prayer Journal. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013. Lutheran Book of Prayer. Concordia Publishing House, Revised Edition, 2005.
My friend, Luanne, over at WriterSite has inspired me by writing what she calls a “catchall” post. That’s what this one is. Thanks Luanne!
I’m recovering from what felt like an unusually long sickness, so I’ve had lots of time to think about this and that. Since it is Memorial Day weekend, I am recalling so many of my uncles who fought in WWII, as well as my father, who was in the Coast Guard. My uncle Reuben Peterson was a corporal in the paratroops. Uncle Carlo Peterson, an army veteran, had been on the front lines in Germany. Uncle Art Peterson was a Marine, and Uncle Arvo Peterson was in the Navy. My Uncle Dwight Henderson also served in the Marines. They are all gone now, and their stories with them, aside from the ones we have heard and remembered. My mom is writing a memoir about her life as the youngest of a large family who had all four oldest brothers in the war at the same time. My dad has been gone for almost seven years. I miss him and my uncles and aunts, now gone.
My doctor’s office has a nice view, one I have seen three times in recent weeks while trying to kick a persistent sickness as well as my first ever case of conjunctivitis, which he tells me was provoked by the sickness. After two rounds of antibiotics, some eye drops, and a few other home remedies, I am finally emerging from what has felt like a dark and lonely place. Thankfully, my husband has completed his academic year and has been home to keep things going. I feel as if I have been in a strong current, I told him, and your hand gripping mine has been keeping me from being swept away. Before I got sick, I was having a great time. We went to Disneyland for the launch of a project that my brother has been working on, an android creation named Jake.
Joel, my creative electrical-engineer brother, is an Imagineer in the Research and Development Department at Disney, and it was a thrill to see what he has been working on during his first year there. Jake emerged for view in the Star Wars Cantina area in Tomorrowland. He is quite adorable. Joel was there to observe the crowd and their reaction. The children followed Jake from place to place and seemed to understand that he was “scanning” things when his lights and the lights in the wall would blink.We spent the entire day there, seeing both parks and then having dinner followed by the World of Color fountain show in the California Adventure area. That was all before the fall. I also got to see my dear Aunt Betty, my late father’s only remaining sibling. It may have been a bad or a good thing that I watched so many murder mysteries on Acorn TV while I was recovering. Saw every episode of Poirot, Miss Marple, and Midsomer Murders. Also Vera, Blue Murder, and a few more. How many accents are there in the UK anyway? Love the countryside vistas and the quaint looking pubs. Have been to a few while in London and Oxford and look forward to going again.
Also before the fall, I went to a meeting to plan our upcoming 2017 high school reunion with some friends. Such a fun group, some of them friends since middle school, or what we then called junior high school.Then came the maelstrom. Sore throat, cough, congestion, doctor visits, Kleenex, eye drops, aspirin, Theraflu, antibiotics. I did enjoy the hot tea, hot soup, and murder mysteries. After getting well, we ordered my father-in-law a new chair to help him get up and down (he is ninety and has a sore back). So far, I think he likes it.Also got to see my pal and sister-in-law, Kitty, which always cheers me up.No writing to speak of during the sickness, but I did manage to get some poems sent out. Got about a dozen rejections this month, but I’m still smiling from the recently published poem by Caveat Lector, and you can listen to me reading it by clicking on the link. Two new poems, also with audio, also appear in the new issue of Vending Machine Press.
So things are looking up. Hope to hear news of your “catchall” experiences. Feel free to post them here!
After seeing Dana Gioia last Monday evening at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, I was pleased that I had not decided to stay home and clean the surfaces (see earlier post, Poetry and a Clean Surface).
Now that I think of it, the week presented several enriching moments, both trivial and significant. We had been at the Bonaventure in Los Angeles during the rain, which provided some wonderful moments, if you are someone who loves watching the weather change. It is always an uplift to be with the impressive and active teachers in the CTA organization (I am just a tag-along with my husband, but I get inspired when I hear some of them talk about their approaches to education — yay, teachers!).
The next day, after making no progress with my filing and paperwork at home, we headed for Pasadena. We had parked the car in a structure near the auditorium and then went in search of a restaurant. Because it was the first one we saw, we went into the Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts restaurant, Technique, on Colorado Boulevard. It was one of those magical nights when delightful surprises appear, unsolicited. We loved the minimalism of the decor, our warm-hearted waitress, a Brazilian student at the school, and the incredible and reasonably priced meal (I had the coq au vin, my husband had steak). We were a few minutes late to the event, and I blame the waitress who gave us a little extra wine, since it was so near the end of the bottle. We got our seats at the back of the auditorium, and though we didn’t have the best view as you can tell from the photo I took, Dana Gioia was a most engaging and spirited speaker.
I had seen his name for years on many of the anthologies I used while teaching American literature and Introduction to Literature courses, and even then I was amazed at how many he had edited (for just a few of them, see anthologies). He has also written books of poetry, was the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts for several years, and now he is the California Poet Laureate, appointed by Governor Brown in December.
The term “laureate” comes from the use of the bay laurel leaf, which was used to make a wreath or a crown for the winner of a competition, and though the tradition of having a national poet laureate dates back to the 14th century when Chaucer was given the designation along with (and you can apprehend my secondary theme here) an annual wine allowance (see citation below for Poets Laureate: A Brief History).
The responsibilities of the office include public readings in various state locations as well as a major cultural project. Gioia had already instituted a major poetry program as the NEA Chairman called Poetry Out Loud. In that program, managed by the California Arts Council, students learn poetry, recite it, and compete for prizes.
Gioia’s comments about art and poetry were impassioned and persuasive. He believes that we can change culture by using our gifts, especially our gift of language. You can “help create the society you want to live in,” he said; “Our gifts can change the world.” Art has the “power to awaken us to our own humanity,” he said. Poetry, he pointed out, plays an important role in education as it “educates our emotions.” He wants the vocabularies of students to grow, not diminish into being mainly comprised of trademarks and brand names. Poets show us more about the “subtleties of our existence.” Speaking to a Christian audience at Fuller Seminary, he mentioned sermon literature, the parables and poetry of the Bible, and the importance of having language skills with which to express one’s beliefs, joys, suffering, and experiences.
In 1991, his article, “Can Poetry Matter?” in the Atlantic Monthly became the locus of ongoing discussions about the value of poetry in culture. A lot has happened since then, including success with his other program, “Operation Homecoming,” a series of workshops in writing for returning soldiers. He certainly lives what he believes, and we are so fortunate that he is our state’s poet laureate.A man of many accomplishments, he is worthy of a book just about his own efforts to brighten up our world with his insights, writing, and influence. He mentioned the famous lines from the Keats poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty . . . .” We should work in the cause of truth, he said, and then followed it up with “I believe in beauty.” So here’s to truth, beauty, and also wine, the poet’s nectar. Speaking of wine, here is a photo my brother sent me of the winery known for making the best wine in the world, the Domaine Romanée-Conti in France.
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.
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.Photo 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.
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.
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.
Since he only recently passed away Pat Conroy is now on the minds of a lot of people who enjoyed his books. Pancreatic cancer took his life. He died at his home in Beaufort, South Carolina on March 4, 2016, surrounded by family members. I was gratified to learn that he had reunited with his daughter, Susannah, after a long estrangement (Pat Conroy’s Last Days).
An enthusiastic reader, I have often been asked who my favorite writers are, a question I cannot answer easily for so many reasons. While attending college, I tended to like all the literature for each of the eras I studied with few exceptions, making it challenging to select one concentration for the doctoral program. Finally settling on Early American literature, I still think it sounds strange to tell others that some of my preferred authors are Puritan ministers, or seventeenth-century diarists. I also find it difficult to choose favorite authors because I have no real systematic reading method and no real hierarchy for the authors I like. I keep thinking that I will develop one. (Conroy photograph taken from http://www.chicagonow.com)
Pat Conroy, though, has provided many of my transcendent reading experiences so he is often the first writer whose name occurs to me when asked for a list of favorites. His status as a celebrated author is supremely well-deserved if we rate according to skill, passion, and soul. Now that he has died, I have to abandon the hope that I will attend one of his book-signings. I have heard from others who were privileged to meet him that he was warm, gracious, and humble, plus a few reports that he could be difficult at times. I am not surprised by the mix of qualities. If anyone has pondered and thoughtfully explored the human condition, it is Conroy.
My Reading Life is a gem of a book. In it he writes that “the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever.” He trusts “the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate.” More poignant, now that he is gone, he trusted them:
“. . .to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.”
He credits Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With the Wind, for him becoming a novelist, noting that his mother read the novel to the children often, saw herself in it as the figure of Scarlett O’Hara, and raised him up to be a “Southern” novelist with an emphasis on the word “Southern.” He writes, “I owe a personal debt to this novel that I find almost beyond reckoning” (23).
Sometimes criticized for writing “purple” prose, Conroy’s descriptions are nonetheless beautiful, lyrical, and appealing. If you enjoy the literature of place, Conroy is your man. Here is a description from South of Broad, the first page.
“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I see the ranks of palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of Colonial Lake or hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures known as Charlestonians.” (Photo of Charleston, S.C. from http://www.awesomeplacesonearth.com)
As he says in My Reading Life, he liked being “immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch,” and that was my experience reading South of Broad andBeach Music, as well as his most famous book, The Prince of Tides.
Always interested in the habits of writers, I found his schedule in Paris to be appealing: morning writing, walk, lunch, nap, more writing (I would skip the nap, since they ruin me). He was there for four months and wrote six hundred handwritten pages (210). In general, he had an “ironclad” schedule of writing no matter where he lived, since writing books “does not permit much familiarity with chaos” (108). How I would love to escape my own tendency toward chaos and become more ironclad.
If I could get there, I would attend the exhibit at the University of South Carolina, a Pat Conroy Retrospective, which continues through the month of March. To say that he is an author that I “like” is understating my response to his books, but I wanted to avoid being sappy or overly-sentimental. I should point out that I had strong responses to his books, I LOVED his books, I was exhilarated by passages in his books, and I learned a lot about writing from his books. Rest in peace, Pat Conroy, and thank you for enhancing my appreciation for the reading experience, the writing experience, and for being a human being on earth at this time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was in a great mood all week. “Nice writing.” A compliment from an editor, though not as exciting as an acceptance, is still wonderful. When I do submit to the Tampa Review again (probably in a few months), I will write a note to the editor and perhaps even include a copy of this note as a reminder that I was invited to submit material again. These notices with personal comments are what I think of as redemptive rejections.
Some journal editors send rejection notices that soften the news. I received one a couple of weeks ago that said, “we know that reading rejection letters is never an enjoyable experience, having been the recipients of them ourselves.” Most of them are print-outs that contain no personal signature or note, like this next one (an old one) from The Threepenny Review, and this practice seems efficient as a business practice. I am fine with those ones too as they get the point across quickly. Waiting is over, and I can then send the item to another journal.
Sophy Burnham, in For Writers Only, states that “A writer lives with rejection.” She refreshingly points out that besides the rejection notices, writers often live with self-rejection and routinely face “doubt and loneliness and fear” (155). I suspect that if the self-rejection can be managed, the outside rejections lose some of their kick. This topic could make an entire post, but briefly: How can self-rejection be managed? Lots of ways. One way is to write plenty of things. Another way is to send out plenty of things. That way, rejections will become routine, and you won’t take them so hard. I have been sending out more material and am therefore getting a large number of rejections. A few acceptances. When I open the envelope and read the notice, I don’t feel a dramatic response or even a sense of personal defeat. I might feel disappointed, especially if I had high hopes for a certain journal to accept a poem I thought they might like, but the feeling is like a morning mist that fades with the emerging sun.
Here is another redemptive rejection I received from one of my favorite journals:
The editor “enjoyed it,” which is a high compliment from The Missouri Review. Encouraging. Uplifting. The comment redeemed the rejection for me, and I was thankful each time I thought about it. Many editors take the time to write a brief note, and that also opens the door to creating a stronger professional relationship with them. They can even get to know you a little bit, as Carolyn See says in her delightful book, Making a Literary Life. She writes, “Rejection is a process, not an event” (91). She had a long correspondence with an editor who kept sending her rejections, though eventually he gave her an assignment which then won an award. She suggests sending a thank you note to each editor who sends you a rejection notice. You can thank them for causing you to rethink the piece, or even just for taking the time to read your work. This practice, which she calls writing “charming notes,” can create new relationships.
We have all heard stories about writers who received a number of rejections for now famous works, and over the years, when I hear these stories, I don’t feel encouraged or inspired. I understand the point: the author did not give up and eventually the persistence paid off. Instead, I feel the way that some women might feel who have unsuccessfully tried to conceive a child, and they hear anecdotes about women who experienced the same thing until one day, lo and behold, the long wait is over . . . for the other women. What does make me feel encouraged and inspired are the redemptive rejections.
What are some of your experiences with rejection notices? How do you fight off self-rejection or doubt, loneliness, and fear? What are some of the best rejections you have received?
Of course, we don’t need any encouragement about getting acceptances, and when I got this email, I was of course delighted:
“Thank you for sending us ‘A Clear Horizon.’ We love it and would like to publish it in the next issue of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
I think of Carolyn See again and what she says about getting something published. When you do, not too many people will care aside from your family, friends, and “maybe your editor.” What they will be looking for, though, is “whether or not you’re going to turn into an asshole” (104). I did send her a “charming note” thanking her for the great advice as well as for the fun and laughs I had reading the book, and she sent me back a lovely thank you for the thank you.
Burnham, Sophy. For Writers Only. New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 1994. Print.
See, Carolyn. Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 2002. Print.