How, as a writer, do you not read?

This question comes up often on forums (Do you need to read in order to write?). For my own writing life, I come down squarely on the side of “yes” to reading. Often, reading helps get me revved up to write, gets me into the poetry zone.

Week 4 of The Artist’s Way, the week that includes Reading Deprivation, has felt like getting a part of me chopped off. And I cheated–I read for the class I’m taking, I read for work, I read emails–some pertaining to upcoming family events. I had one major slip reading about some books online; I now know I don’t want to buy them, but I could have waited to find that out.

I did not use that extra time to clean out closets or unpack boxes left over from moving out of my office over a year ago (!). Instead, I watched TV with less guilt. I don’t think this is a good trade-off.

But I did become more attentive to what I was reading, or not reading. Do I need two email messages of news headlines when I’m already listening to NPR on the way to work? What do I choose to read? What will feed me?

That said, I now have a terrific backlog of poems to read. Let’s go!

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I am a huge fan of the new beginning–every Monday, every month, and especially the new year. I look at resolutions not as a make or break but as a constant resolving. If I break one, it’s time to recommit. But this year, I’m looking at them a little differently. What are habits–the things I want to do every day or every week? What are goals–the things I want to get done at some point during the year?

The habits look a lot like traditional resolutions, so we’ll see how that goes.

I also decided that for me this is a year of themes. After thinking up a whole bunch of possibilities (the Year of Lists being among them), I came up with five: Be, Choose, Learn, Do, Feel. Sure, there’s some overlap, but the emphasis is on presence, on making choices (that align with the other themes). Maybe this is overcomplicating things, but I feel like I have direction–without feeling pressed. (If I can let go of feeling rushed all the time, that will make this a fabulous year.)

To get a jump on all of this, and inspired by Bethany Reid, last week I again embarked on The Artist’s Way. It’s been a few years, but because I keep feeling like I can’t write a poem, I figured some help is in order.

So far, the morning pages are taking longer than expected. But writing them long-hand, getting away from the computer, has felt like a door opening. Then there’s that Artist Date. In the past, I have struggled with this. It seemed too hard to take time away from my family when I’m already away at work all week. And it is hard to take time away from the writing I want to do (as I stare at the dust motes and often get little done). But I began my journey by creating a vision board on New Year’s Day.

vision board

And I learned that the new issue of Cider Press Review has come out, with my long(ish) poem “Having Made My Beds.” A nice start to the year.

Here’s to 2015, to all our habits, goals, and dreams.

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“The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.”

begins Jack Gilbert’s poem “Searching for Pittsburgh” in his book The Great Fires. The collection includes poems written from 1982 to 1992, so it covers a lot of territory, much grief, much lovemaking, and his great love for Michiko, his great loss after she died. Heartbreak stalks through the pages.

But the poems I loved the best were those that called upon his early years in Pittsburgh, being a boy, and as a man navigating those memories. Poems like “The Spirit and the Soul“:

“…It was the newness of me,
and the newness after that, and newness again.
It was the important love and the serious lust.
It was Pittsburgh that lasted. The iron and fog
and sooty brick houses. Not Aunt Mince and Pearl,
but the black-and-white winters with their girth
and geological length of cold…”

and “Gift Horses“:

“…Shows him
photographs of the beautiful women in old movies
whose luminous faces sixteen feet tall looked out
at the boy in the dark where he grew his heart.
Brings pictures of what they look like now.
Says how lively they are, and brave despite their age.
Taking away everything. For the Devil is commissioned
to harm, to keelhaul us with loss, with knowledge
of how all things splendid are disfigured by small
and small. Yet he allows us to eat roast goat
on the mountain above Parakia…”

and then there’s that fox in “Searching for Pittsburgh,” who

“Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where ewe played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning
the Earth…”

The fox returns, “watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again…”

I first read this poem in a poem-a-day email. I read it again, loving the way that it weaves and moves, thinking that if I could really understand that movement and what this poem is doing on its different levels, I would be able to write a good poem.

This is the last week of the year’s poetry picks. I hope you’ve had a chance to join me in the pleasure of discovering poets who are new to you (and maybe revisiting some old friends).

For 2015, I’m going to move to a monthly format (the last Saturday of the month). That will give me a chance to read some longer collections (Gerald Stern, Mahmoud Darwish, and others). I’m still up in the air about Facebook, whether I’ll stay there when the new anti-privacy policies kick in on Thursday, but I’ll be here, with poetry picks.

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book cover

Today’s poetry pick is Maged Zaher’s collection The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me, a book of reflection and observation.

Imagine arriving just after the revolution–exuberance and uncertainty in the aftermath. These poems provide moments, quick windows, a distilled view of the ordinary and what is not. Details and moods are amplified by juxtaposition. The short sections underscore what is fleeting–look closely, or you might miss it. The cover–barbwire blown up to abstraction–makes a metaphor for the unwavering scrutiny of the poems inside.

Some of the poems take place in Cairo, some in Seattle, or in between. For a sample, here is “Airplane poems, Sept 30 – 2011.”

I look forward to reading more of Mr. Zaher’s work.

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book coverI first learned of Cole Swensen’s The Book of a Hundred Hands when we looked at a few of the poems in a poetry class taught by Sarah Vap. Our exercise: To write a poem that used the word “hand” as many times as possible.*

But this book is not at all like that. Here, in 100 poems, we find a marvel of investigation and invention, close attention spiraling out in widening contexts  has been a delight–a privilege to share in such close attention and widening contexts (Positions of the Hand, Professions of the Hand, American Sign Language, Possible Paintings of Hands). Such range!

What surprised me most was the way images of glass weave through the book–perhaps a precursor to her book The Glass Age.

I want to share one of my favorites, but I offer it with an apology: two of the lines will not fit, so that is why they look odd here.

The Hand as Window

in which the panes infinitesimal. By the thousands, the armies of the ancient world
got older. A sweeping sensation mistaken for wind. You opened the window.
You thought that would do.
This is not so different from certain congenital conditions in which

You open the window. There is more you can see through. For instance, if the body
is 98% water and the window looks out on an ocean
is the hand in all its facets
a latch.

 

*That exercise became the second section of my poem “Signatures.”

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