This week I had the pleasure of reading Impossible Lessons, by Jennifer Bullis (MoonPath Press). I first encountered Jennifer’s poems at Cascadia Review, and recently I was fortunate to meet Jennifer in person.

I enjoyed the way these poems deftly work and play with language ((basal and basil in “Basal Cell Carcinoma”), the way they juxtapose ideas (the horse, swallows, and criticism in “Among Swallows and Horses, Working Out My Post-Critical Subjecthood”).

From the very first, “Start What You Finish,” these poems and their impossible lessons walk with one foot in the concrete world of nature and the other in the surreal nature of myths to create an inviting, intriguing tension between what we see, what we think we know, and what stories we must turn to, even in this scientific age to understand the world or our own pasts.

For another link, I will send you to “Crossing the Methow at the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge” on the MoonPath site.


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Recently, Bethany Reid tagged me on the blog tour. Bethany’s post inspired me, and I want to read her novel.

This summer, the challenge has been to write at all. More than once, I’ve thought, “I don’t remember how to write a poem,” although in July I participated in a 10-poem challenge (a way to get myself writing whether I felt like I could or not). Otherwise, I’m still trying to fit things in–can I go to the gym (this morning, I’m skipping the gym) and write and work and learn Italian while I’m stuck in traffic and post the Saturday poetry pick and do all the household chores that mostly I’ve been letting sit undone? Fortunately, none of these questions is about laundry. The writing work or play or exploration goes slowly, and I’m grateful any time I have enough mental space to focus without feeling rushed.

But on to the official questions. I want to say this is a snapshot–I am right here. But that makes me laugh, because most of my photos are so blurred.

What am I working on?

So many things!

The manuscript I’ve been writing since 2010 and sending out for nearly two years. Always revisiting, revising, falling out of and back in love (that’s a lot of falling).

The grief poems.

A new series of poems that started out as investigations into measurement and love and long relationships. I’m trying to let these not be a manuscript, to keep writing until they find their own shape.

The one-off poems that arrive and wedge their feet in the door.

Then there’s what I haven’t been working on–the poems from past poetry months (Chernobyl and Fukushima, Mary Lincoln) and the currently stalled novel.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

It’s tempting to blow that question off by saying my work isn’t any different. But how depressing would that be? I’d love for my poems to be more startling–but that’s a process, so I’ll start with a story (I might have told you before): At a reading in 2003 or 2004, Olena Kalytiak Davis said something to the effect of I wouldn’t want to write the same kind of book again, and I sat in my chair, thunderstruck. What? You can’t write keep writing the same kind of poems–that isn’t a good thing? Then I delved deeper into the post-modern lyric poets, reading more widely, expanding my own understanding of poetry. Into the Rumored Spring was initially inspired by (believe it or not) Brigitte Byrd’s Fence Above the Sea.

In 2010, I took a class from Sarah Vap, which sent me in the direction of breaking up the narrative. In Both Hands has those poems, plus prose poems, plus these more metrical map poems (six-beat line), as well as some more straight-forward poems. The poems from the aforementioned manuscript also work with metrics and emphasize music.

These days, music is what I elevate–music and form (not in the formal verse sense, but in the way that sound and shape work with each other or play against each other). So while I’d like my work to be really different in a good way from everyone else’s, I’m focusing more on making my poems different from what I’ve already done. And sometimes that doesn’t work, or I haven’t figured out how to make it work. I’d like the grief poems to be layered, but they also need to be immediately accessible, which might make them not so different from anything. I guess if they do their job, that’s okay.

Why do I write what I do?

Because the poem is given to me (those rare moments). Or to give the poem to someone. Every autumn I write a poem for a friend, because we’ve both in our pasts suffered losses–abrupt, shocking losses–and this is what I can give her. Into the Rumored Spring was a gift for another friend. The grief poems are the same–as more friends lost their husbands, I wanted to be able to give them something, some way to say that although I can’t possibly know what they are going through, I have been there and I’m here for them.

I also write to understand. Some days I think the measurement poems will never be a completed thing, but I need to write them so that through the writing I can learn something important about myself and the way I live in the world.

And then the past couple of poetry months, I’ve chosen topics outside myself to get myself out of my own head (I worry about navel-gazing).

How does my writing process work?

Oh, I love process–and I love playing with process.

Right now, I read a few poems and then free-write (often in my car in the parking lot before work). If I don’t already have an idea, I start by making a list or I choose words from what I read and use one in each line. If I have time. I’d like to spend 15 or 20 minutes a day, but I suspect I’m down closer to 5.

In a few days or weeks, I type the free writes that look like they have potential into my computer. I use OneNote to keep drafts together, so I can go back and look at them, pull from earlier versions. I return, revise. Then I might print out a draft and write in the margins, or triple space it and write between the lines. I might combine two poems into one.

When I was working on In Both Hands, I had a great time choosing 5-7 postcards from my big box, writing from those images for a few days, aggregating all of it, sorting it, and then paring it away.

To keep the tour moving, I’m tagging Jeannine Hall Gailey, whose poems question and stretch the boundaries of what’s possible and who writes such helpful posts, and Oliver de la Paz, whose poems always inspire me–and he has a new book out!

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At AWP in February, I heard Benjamin Grossberg talk about–and I’m paraphrasing–how writing could whirl up its own subjects (I remember the image of a whirlwind, although perhaps that was my addition), how, instead of lacking a subject, you could write and the act of writing would create its own subjects, call them forth. (It makes me think of the way a fire can make its own weather.) I was intrigued, and wanted to see what the writing whirled up for him. Recently at Open Books I picked up a copy of Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath. Later, I noticed that it won the 2005 Snyder Prize from the Ashland Poetry Press.

So here’s the disclaimer–these poems are at a nine-year remove from 2014, so they might not (are likely not) representative of the poet’s current explorations of writing and creative weather. However, Mr. Grossberg has helpfully posted more recent poems on his website.

Back to the book at hand, these are expansive love poems: love between Penelope and Odysseus, love between Hero and Leander, love between men–love and relationships in a time of AIDS. (Yes, we are still in a time of AIDS). Many of the poems are long (and I enjoy long poems), and in many of the poems the lines are long. Without a lot of white space, without a lot of stanza breaks–a kind of whirlwind, an urgency underlying the poems, just as the voice might be quiet while the subject is taut. I think of “Barely April,” with its meditative voice talking about a breakup and glass splinters in the soil, things falling and fallen apart, green growth and danger. Other favorites of mine: “Underwater,” “Drowning,” “The Deer,” “A Middle Class Consideration of Lust,” “Amerigo Vespucci, 1506, Contemplates another Sheet of Vellum,” “The Man Who Had His Bone Marrow Irradiated Writes Jeanne Calment.” I had a lot of favorites.

I apologize for not providing a poem here. I had a hard time finding links to poems online, but you can follow the link above to see Benjamin S. Grossberg’s newer poems. Or you can pick up a copy of Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath.

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You’d think it would be a good thing, right? Learning more about language through another language, exploring how the puzzle pieces fit together, reveling in the music (la musica!) of it.

Since I’ve started to learn Italian by listening to learn-Italian CDs in my car on the way to work, I’ve found it harder to write when I pull into a parking space and turn the car off. I generally read some poems first, and that helps sometimes. But later, when I’m walking by the creek, instead of observing the grasses and birds and emptying my mind to receive images, receive poem sparks, I’m rehearsing Italian, conjugating verbs, making up sentences in my head–very simple sentences.

I thought about maybe listening to NPR on the way to work and listening to Italian only on the way home, but I forget to switch to the tuner, and after the voices start asking me questions, I just respond–or I repeat simple words and phrases, which is a kind of comfort.

What ignites your writing? What distracts you from it?

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In June I had the pleasure of hearing Juan Felipe Herrera read at Seattle Arts and Lectures. What an immense presence! What radiance and joy and generosity! This past week, I read his book Love after the Riots, from Curbstone Press.

I couldn’t not think of the Rodney King riots–but, as the title says, this is after the riots, or after and during, and so much is going on. The narrative is fractured–each poem is titled with a time (7:30 pm / Thursday, 12:01 am, 1:03 am / Friday), but I’m not counting on a minute-by-minute chronology–there could be time zones or days (weeks) in between. Are we in L.A. or Paris or Italy or Cuba? People come and go through imagery that makes me think of Neruda. That surprise. All of it bundled in poems that are compact, like notes in brief moments.

Here is a sample poem:

9:20 pm

Back up, Marga talks.
I drive against my best intentions.
Santa Monica, Venice–Albert King on the box.

By the sea & the vices of families
gone asleep in the smoke. 5000 lire
and she does not look at my face.

She says I look like Gregory Peck. The auto
swerves up the alley. She lives alone, now.

Stop for coffee. Read the Times Mirror.
Her skirt, my pants. The wheel stays
alone in the night shade. Silence,
a stone, tiny in her boot heel.

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