What’s at stake?

That’s what Lorna Dee Cervantes asked at her LiTFUSE master class in 2008. In that workshop, we looked at music, image, and ideas. (Lorna will be teaching at LiTFUSE again this year.)

The other day I was walking the creek loop at work and thinking about this manuscript I’ve been worrying, and I realized maybe that’s my problem: I’m not sure what’s at stake for this book. Certainly music. And I have themes–relationships, wishing I were an artist, had that kind of vision, place, loss, and time (which is so closely linked to loss), always the underpinning of time and the lack of time. But now when I’m thinking about what’s at stake, I’m asking why.

I wrote Into the Rumored Spring because I wanted to, needed to do something for a friend. It was imperative. I wrote In Both Hands because it was the book I wanted to read (and because I was playing around with some fun forms and processes that were new to me). But why am I writing this book? (Shouldn’t every book be the book you want to read?) I’ve worked with some more made-up forms, getting into metrics (my personal scansion), and now I’ve put in the measurement poems, so it’s all together, but I don’t yet have a purpose, a sense of what this book brings into the world.

It’s a good question for me to unravel, and I imagine it taking years. Then I feel anxious, and I need to get over that. On car trips, I am not a good traveler. I want to get there. But a book is a different journey. I need to stop, look around, check out the roadside attractions, let the itinerary change, switch out the map. Who knows where this will take me? I’ve discarded many of the original poems already, and I’ll probably discard more. Or it will go back to being two separate projects. Maybe I do need to pull out my charcoal and get my fingers dirty for a while (I tried that last fall–so disheartening–but I didn’t try for very long). But I think I need to understand the why before I can figure out how it can come together.

What makes a book of poems a book? Why?

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book coverI first read Frannie Lindsay’s poems in Missouri Review and was smitten, stricken by her startling, searing imagery. I bought all three of her books. When her new volume, Our Vanishing, came out, the good folks at Open Books sent me an email letting me know, asking whether I would like a copy. (Now that’s my kind of personal shopper.)

This new book astonishes softly–the poems often quiet on the surface but just underneath each line, each image, that same breath-stealing intensity. Poems of family, gently wrenching poems for an aging dog, prayer poems, poems of witness, including the devastating poem “The Gathered Stones.”

From the very first page, with

So what say the pink and white petunias,
limp as rinsed lace from the rain
in their earthenware pot. So what

says the yellow and black baby snail
bustling along her homely millimeter
over the concrete step.

And the birds of the early evening
starting their practicing, little prodigies
on public school flues: so what.

These poems rivet. For a sample, read “Cradle Song to One Who Is Afraid of the Dark.”

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Last night I read the Louise Glück interview in Poets & Writers, and felt a little better about struggling with my current manuscript. My latest tactic has been to weave in the newer poems I’ve been writing, which kind of explore the same thing, but from a different angle. I have no idea whether it works, and I feel like I should be able to tell (should)–but I’m too close to it, and have been close to some of these poems for nearly four years. So I have sent it off to a trusted reader (my sister). I’m also considering retitling it (for the third time). As a process geek, I ought to be loving this. Tinker, tinker… push words around on a page.

In the meantime, upcoming events!

Sunday, September 14, I’m reading at The Elliott Bay Book Company with Oliver de la Paz, whose new book Post Subject: A Fable is sizzling off the presses. Yes, I’ve posted this on Facebook and I’ll send out email, too. It’s always a pleasure to go to Elliott Bay, and I’m so excited to hear Oliver’s new poems and pick up a copy of his book. The reading starts at 3:00 p.m. 1521 10th Ave, Seattle, WA.

LiTFUSE is September 26-28. (I just had to throw that in. If you haven’t been, come!)

Monday, September 29, Judith Skillman, Elizabeth Davis, and I will read at Horizon House–and there will be an open mic. I’m hoping to hear many residents read their poems! Thanks go to our moms for putting this together. The reading starts at 7:30 p.m. 900 University Street, Seattle, WA 98101

And then we’re into October! On October 2, I’ll be reading at Phoenix Tea in Burien, at 7:00 p.m. There will also be an open mic, so come on down and bring your poems to share. 902 SW 152nd Street, Burien, WA

Enjoy your August. (Today is a special August day for me: My son turns 24. Thoughts roll back to that summer day, the waiting, and then the arrival, the years ahead.)

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Book coverWhere to start? The poems in Rising, Falling, Hovering by C.D. Wright weave together the personal and political without flinching–trips to Mexico, war beginning in Iraq, the bombs falling, a boy shot in front of a donut store, motherhood. The violence of the world, the violent emotions.

Themes weave through.

And for a form/structure geek, what a pleasure–the title poem split up through the book (it’s long, another pleasure), the poems with two versions (almost the same, but not the same–which gives the comfort of repetition and the invitation of a puzzle), and the “Like” poems.

When I first read Averno, by Louise Gluck, I wanted to read everything she’d written. Same with The Age of Glass, by Cole Swensen. Now it’s the same with C.D. Wright. This book made me want to stretch and write–and write better, more intelligently, more generously.

At the Octopus Magazine site you can read several poems from the book.


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Often people ask how to get unstuck–how to tackle that blank page. I have two tools, reading and making lists, and a third idea: writing like Billy Collins. I don’t think I’ve actually tried this, but I think of it sometimes–like yesterday, when I was going to the dentist and I imagined I could sit in the little waiting room with the magazines and the fish and if the radio wasn’t too insistent, I could start a poem about anticipating all the implements and measurements and the miracle of the chair that leans back as the trees gossip their green outside and to see where that might take me.

But I was in the kitchen, not at the dentist, and I didn’t write any of it down, so I didn’t find out where it would go. (When I arrived early at the dentist, they whisked me on back–which was good for my schedule but not for a poem.)

How often do you let a poem go by? Or do you always stop and write it down? (Bumper sticker: I brake for poetry)

Here is the DLTPGB challenge: For one week, stop whatever you are doing and write the poem, start of a poem, roughed-up draft of a poem wherever you are.

(I am not sure how this will work in the car. Maybe a speech-to-text app on my phone? But if I’m learning Italian, I probably won’t get any poems then anyway.)

Sure, I’ve put pieces of notebook paper, index cards, small notebooks, and pens in my pockets and never needed them. Perhaps the fact of being prepared negates the necessity. Fine in the case of an umbrella, etc., but not so much with poems. But I’m willing to take the chance.

One week. Are you in?

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