Monday, December 22, 2008

Inaugural Poems on the Way

There were few things that interrupted the regular schedule of classes while I was in high school. One of them was Bill Clinton's inauguration. I have a very clear memory of sitting in the small school's library, watching Maya Angelou read On the Pulse of Morning. I was 14 years old, and a bit confused as to why this famous poet was there, reading about a rock and a river and a tree. But it was a good confusion, brought on by wonderful things not normally seen in our nation's public life.

Luckily, we'll again have a similar experience, when Elizabeth Alexander reads her inaugural poem. The New York Times quotes her as saying, “Writing an occasional poem has to attend to the moment itself, but what you hope for, as an artist, is to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.” Read the article.

For those of you who are local, the Florence Poets Society is also putting on a poetry reading in celebration of the inauguration. Western MA poets will celebrate Obama's inauguration by reading and listening to original inaugural poems.

Inaugural Poetry Day Celebration
Tuesday, January 20, 7:00pm - 9:00pm
Updated information: Leslea Newman will be hosting the celebration at the Yellow Sofa instead of at Thornes. It is sponsored by Leslea, Florence Poets Society, and the Northampton Arts Council. Please keep working on those inaugural poems!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Private in Public

I recently heard Philip Seymour Hoffman being interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air. He is one of my favorite actors, because he plays the downtrodden guy so frickin’ well, and also because even when he’s not the star of a film, you can tell he’s putting all his energy into his part.

Hoffman said a couple things that I found interesting in particular. He compared acting to being an athlete, saying the performance or the game comes from a similar place, from the ability to be private in public. I thought that really made sense in terms of the boundaries a creative person must set in order to be able to create—whether the creation is a monologue or a physical achievement. I would imagine that Michael Phelps’s headphones helped him be private in public before his races.

One of my writing teachers in college was very demanding, and could be harsh, but he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had because he held high standards and expected us to meet them. While in the classroom, he was on, he was present, he was intense. When he read and wrote comments on my essays, he was focused and insightful. But when he walked around campus, I was no one to him. He didn’t seem to ever look up at anyone—he just walked quickly from one place to another, inviting no interaction. I guess that was his way of being private in public.

I’m still trying to find my own way of being private in public. As Hoffman pointed out, a creative person experiences all sorts of messy highs and lows when working on an intense piece of creation. He talked about working with a certain director and the level of trust necessary in order for him to really work. I have found this level of trust and support in some of my writing groups and workshops. Having a witness to one’s creation can really help with going deep. To me, working alone is scarier—but, of course, still necessary.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Reading Girls / Girls Reading

I've been trying to read Twilight to see what all the hype is about. So far, I'm not really enjoying it but haven't stopped reading because I want to see what happens. I'm doing the skim-until-you-don't-know-what's-happening-then-go-back-and-
see-what-happened thing.

Fascination with fantasy and creatures of other worlds is, to me, explained by this quote, which arrived in my inbox this morning: "Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality." - Jules de Gautier

There's an excellent review of Twilight in this month's Atlantic Monthly that I think is a fabulous description of the pull of reading on certain girls (of which I certainly was one). Here's an excerpt:

"The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading."

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

For Mumbai

candle wax puddles
where blood spattered and pooled
the trains cannot take us away now

raise your hand in prayer
unlike jasmine and marigolds
these memories will not wilt

On Keeping Going

This morning was one of those times when I sat down and scribbled on a blank piece of paper words that seemed to have no purpose or meaning or need for existence. But I kept going anyway because it's the only way to keep the channel open, to keep the pump primed, as they say. Writing is often an experience of delayed gratification, work and work and even boredom before something happens again. I think of it as exercise, meditation, discipline in the wee dawn hours.

Then I got to my office, looked at my Poetry Speaks daily calendar, and came across this quote (it was dated November 28 ... I'm still playing catch up from vacation last week):

"I think that poetry is the voice of the soul, whispering, celebrating, singing even ... poetry is the consciousness which gives rise to voice.... You have to keep writing and writing until the poem emerges from your soul." - Carolyn Forche

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Well, a Google search for "bitextual" turns up several different types of entries, but what I mean by this word is an author who writes in more than one genre. I first heard it used this way by Chris Abani (poet and novelist). I don't know if he coined the phrase, but I think it's a great word and encourage writers to both use it, so that it will become more widely known, and practice it, because we can all benefit from literary cross-training.

Thinking about this made me wonder how many other writers I admire are bitextual. This is the short list I came up with so far:

Margaret Atwood, famous for her novels, also wrote many well done poems that are polished and mythic.

Vikram Seth, author of the epic A Suitable Boy, wrote a novel in verse that I recently picked up at a used book store (but I can't recall the title at the moment).

Jan Clausen, one of my advisors at Goddard, has written extensively in both poetry and fiction, and talked to me about how switching back and forth can feel freeing.

Maya Angelou, of course, has written a library of memoir and also several volumes of poetry.

I'm sure there are others who have been masters of more than one form... feel free to add to this list! Let's get bitextual...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Better When Broken

a fever
the waves
a seed casing
the mold
a pattern
bad habits
new ground
the fast
the seal
wedding glasses

I wrote this list poem after a discussion with my friend Bob led me to think about all the things that we break on purpose, even though "break" usually has a negative connotation. Leave me a comment if you can think of others.

Friday, November 7, 2008


They called it a landslide
but that's such a negative image.
I say it was a huge flock of birds
rising all together
into the morning sky.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yay, Obama! Yay, America!

Oh, I am so happy. So relieved and hopeful and proud.

As Obama said in his speech last night:

This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.

It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.

Read the full text of Obama's inspirational speech here.


Monday, October 20, 2008

My Emily Dickinson Walks

Having a bouncy young dog gets me out of my apartment three times a day for walks around the neighborhood. She's good like that, getting me my exercise. The downside is that I've been going far less often for longer hikes in the surrounding area. A few years ago, I would hike up Mount Norwottuck and Mount Holyoke regularly, in all kinds of weather and every season.

It's funny, though, all the different things I can get used to. I was blessed with a trip to New Zealand five years ago, and when I returned in March I was dismayed at the meager topography and the lack of altitude in Massachusetts. After a while that feeling faded and I became readjusted.

Now am becoming adjusted to the particular landscape of fading industrial town mixed with renewed artistic community, layered among the trees and houses and gardens that all make up Easthampton. I feel like Emily Dickinson, walking in the same small area every day but watching it closely for every change: the fence covered in grape vines progressing from soft spring leaves to fruits hidden beneath yellow foliage to bare vines that still dangle purple berries. Or the way Mount Tom changes color depending on the time of day, just like that cathedral Monet used to paint.

Now that it's still dark at the time of my dog's first walk, I can also watch the sun rise, "a ribbon at a time," just like Emily Dickinson. Even if your world is small-- a town, a block, a room-- there is life and death, and beauty and wonder to observe.

"If you're really listening, if you're awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold ever-more wonders." —Andrew Harvey, The Return of the Mother

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Remember, we are all affecting the world every moment, whether we mean to or not. Our actions and states of mind matter, because we are so deeply interconnected with one another. Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is a supreme creative act."
- Ram Dass, quoted in Rob Brezsny's Astrology Newsletter

Along the same lines, I just found out that this fabulous speech about the importance of making art, which was given at my Goddard MFA graduation by program director Paul Selig, is now available online.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Powerful Article

I encourage you all to read this blog post and consider its implications. I was grateful for the reminder of how far we still have to go as a culture.

This is Your Nation on White Priviledge

Monday, September 22, 2008

Writing Tips from Gregory Maguire

“Like everyone else, I began life in anonymity, as a child.” It sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale. It was the opening line of a talk by Gregory Maguire, given last Tuesday at The Williston Northampton School. After reading from Wicked, Maguire traced the development of his creative passions from fourth grade on using a very entertaining slide show of illustrated stories he wrote as a child. His message to aspiring writers of fiction was, in a nutshell, boredom is the kiss of death. If you are bored with what you’re writing, then your readers will most certainly be bored as well. Inject the unexpected and the quirky as much as possible. Make your spies into a couple of balding old ladies, and have plenty of avalanches and bomb scares to keep people hooked.

Maguire revealed that his process of storytelling was aided greatly by illustrating his own stories. Before theories of right brain vs. left brain were popular, he used drawing as a way to develop plot. “I would draw the picture first,” he said, “and then ask the what, where, how, why? Why is the princess still clutching her handbag as she falls from the tower? What is in the handbag?”

In a more serious tone, Maguire made a great point about the thinking behind his empathetic treatment of the Wicked Witch of the West. It is tied in to a larger vision. Similar to Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Maguire is examining the story of Dorothy Gale from multiple perspectives. “We don’t have enough knowledge if we only have one point of view,” he said. His next book, A Lion among Men, is told from the perspective of the Cowardly Lion.

This was the first in Williston’s fall 2008 Writers’ Workshop Series, which includes public readings and lectures by prominent writers followed by a Master Class for students.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Chinese Moon Festival

Thanks to Daphne Burt (Chaplain at the school where I work) for letting me know that today is the Chinese Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival. On this day, families eat dinner under the moon, eat mooncakes, pomeloes, and tell the story of Chang’e, the moon maiden.

Some of you may know that my damselfly tattoo was inspired by a theater experience I had (it was more than just being part of the cast) while at Hampshire College. The play was based on the story of Change'e. So... I feel a connection to this day. My journey from cast member to damselfly is a mystical story, not really fit for this brief blog entry, but I wanted to at least acknowledge that ancient and beautiful Chinese myth here.

Blessings to all this day!

Does anybody know what a pomelo is?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Environmental Writing Contest

I recently received this notice from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

From Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth century to Rachel Carson and E.O. Wilson in the twentieth, writers have played a profound role in drawing attention to our natural environment and inspiring people to protect it. To continue this tradition and inspire action on global warming, the Union of Concerned Scientists has partnered with literary publisher Penguin Classics to encourage the public to submit essays and images about climate change for publication in a new online book, Thoreau’s Legacy: American Stories about Global Warming.

We want to hear from you. To participate, write a 200- to 500-word first-person account of global warming that relates to your life or the world around you. Is there a place that holds a special meaning to you that you want to protect? What people, animals, or activities that you love are at risk from a changing climate? Are you taking steps in your own life to stem the tide of global warming? Tell us your story, or send us a photograph related to topics like these. The best submissions will be included in Thoreau’s Legacy, which will be published online in spring 2009 and in a limited-edition hardcover version.

Two leading scientists and one of the nation’s most respected nature photographers have contributed representative works to the project to serve as examples of the kind of essays and photographs we are seeking. To view them and learn how you can submit your own essay or photograph, visit the UCS website.

It’s time for the writings of a new generation to inspire our country to take on the challenge of global warming and save our natural—and national—heritage. Submit your story or photographs today.

Monday, September 1, 2008

I Survived the 3-day Novel Contest

I return to this blog after running a marathon...a writing marathon, that is. I signed up for the 3-day Novel Contest and chained myself to my desk over Labor Day weekend. I laughed, I cried, I screamed, and I drank a lot of coffee. I conclude the experience 12,809 words richer. I do not have a novel to show for it, not yet anyway...I worked for a while on my main story, and when I hit a wall I worked on a few other short stories. It seems that many participants came away with more words or pages than I, but the point is not to compare...the point is the journey, and I have done it.

I felt at times a bit like I did when I ran the 8-mile race in this picture: completely unprepared. I did not train for the race. I think I finished 10th from last. But I beat my goal in terms of time, and I finished. The same was true this time...I did not practice writing fiction. I have never in my life completed a work of fiction (correct me if I'm wrong, Mom. I may have done something of the sort in middle school). So it was a little crazy to expect myself to draft a novel with no preparation and hardly any planning. Still, I managed to write for a total of 18.5 hours (about 6 hours per day).

Where's the fun in life if you never do anything crazy? Now I hope to go back and actually do some studying of fiction while I work with the new material I generated this weekend. Pat Schneider, in her book Writing Alone and with Others, relates a fairy tale in which the hero finds a wealth of copper but must give it up in order to earn silver, and then must give up the silver in order to earn all he can carry in gold. She says that is a metaphor for writing, that if we keep going, if we are willing to shed things along the way, we will find treasure. I found some treasure, and it surprised me. That's the whole point, right?


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stretch Break

Dragon's Meow is on summer vacation in order for me to be able to garden, travel, and work on projects for Flutter Poetry Journal and the Ecological Landscaping Association.

So go watch the sunset or something.

Oh, by the way, I now have my Master of Fine Arts in Writing. Yipee!

For a great selection of brain food and contemporary poetry, check out Poetry Daily.

Monday, June 23, 2008

In Memoriam

The email this morning
was matter-of-fact. Bad news
travels so easily: quick and clean,
sharp, definite. She died.
Thirty years old, she was riding
her bike. I don't know
the details of helmet or speed
but I do know she was married
holding red flowers with a deep
red sash on an autumn day of leaves
and sun, to my childhood
friend. My question is:
"How can I make sense of this?"
From the Tarot deck, I draw the Magician.
White robe, red sash,
cup and coin and sword and staff,
feminine and masculine, lilies
and roses, the go-between of worlds.
This afternoon a bicyclist
passed my bench. I saw him
bend down, pick up a book -
not sure if he dropped it
or found it. I wonder -
when she fell - who
picked her up?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's true, we are like cicadas...

I recently signed up for yet another poetry email list, this time from the Poet's Market. I'm not yet sure if it's worth my time, but at least today their message made me think. Today's post from editor Robert Lee Brewer reads, in part, "Lately, there have been a ton of crazy cicadas ... buzzing around without any apparent pattern or thought, which has led to many of them ending up splattered across my windshield (gross!). Anyway, the crazy flight patterns of cicadas remind me of the crazy submission patterns of some poets. For instance, some poets will go long stretches of time without submitting anything. Then, suddenly and without any apparent pattern, they'll begin submitting everywhere they possibly can without any rhyme or reason..."

He is talking about submitting, which, it's true, does require planning and research in order to be successful. However, the actual process of creating poems is much more akin to the life cycle of the cicada. No matter how many wise writing teachers recommend writing every day, practicing and keeping in shape with sonnets and sestinas that no one will ever read, it's still the case that those bright moments of writing something people will actually want to read are few and far between. Yet, unlike the cicada's return, it's unpredictable (though sometimes it does feel like it will be 17 years until it happens again). My advice is: keep going (i.e. breathing, eating, journaling, etc.) but don't beat yourself up when you have to bide your time in the roots of trees before you're ready to grow your wings and keep the neighbors up all night with your incessant buzzing.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dispatches from the Poet in the Conference Room

Sitting through meetings, trying to focus on all the big, conceptual words, I can't help noticing petals wilting on the apple tree, and the slow trickle of artificial rain from the lawn sprinkler. Richard Hugo said it best: "Think small.... If you can't think small, try philosophy or social criticism." The reverse is also true. If you can't think big, if the words of organizational work plans and economic indicators sound like the wind worrying pine trees on a stormy night, then you must be a poet.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Yay, California!

I just love this picture. I found it on Yahoo! news. Let's hope that Californians can stay strong and retain the right for people to marry whomever they love.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

It's Hard to Find the Time...

... to write ...
when "to live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."
-Emily Dickinson

Monday, May 19, 2008

Harvey Karman, developer of a certain soft, flexible tube

There is so much to say around the experiences of women exercising our right to decide and direct what happens to our own bodies after an evening of misjudgement, contraceptive failure, or rape. It's an issue that's close to my heart and the topic of the middle section of my poetry thesis. I think that poetry is the best genre for such discussions because poetry is a such a good form for nuance and ambivalence.

This morning I read an obituary of a psychologist who helped many women out of their difficult situations. I particularly appreciate this article because it paints his activities as humanitarian, which they were. It reads, in part:

"He became interested in abortion when he was conducting research at UCLA on the emotional aspects of therapeutic abortion. During this time a student with an unplanned pregnancy committed suicide and another died from a botched abortion. Karman responded by helping women obtain illegal abortions in Mexico. Unhappy with the high prices and poor care some of the women received, he began performing abortions himself."

Here's a link to the full article.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Nature's observatory

At the end of any creative project comes a gap, a pause, an aimlessness that teeters on an edge between still and stagnant. Having concluded the big project of my MFA thesis, I find myself oddly directionless, trying to stay plugged in, but not sure what I want to be plugging in to. It's nice to watch TV and read novels again. But there are so many more poems waiting to be written, and I want to make sure they know that my brain is still open for business as they're zooming along the highway of the Collective Unconscious.

To that end, I've been reading The Vein of Gold by Julia Cameron for encouragement. She advocates taking a meditative walk every day as a way to stimulate the imagination and induce active, creative dreaming. Lucky for me I have a puppy to walk every morning. This walk is not always the most mellow experience - there are squirrels to be chased and many people to make friends with. But, it's better than not walking, and the moment that we turn onto the Easthampton bike trail and see the pond through the trees is always an uplifting one.

There's something about "nature" (for lack of a better word... and believe me, I spent a couple years debating whether or not there was one that could better reflect the part-of-us-and-yet-still-other-ness of the nonhuman world) that I find immediately relaxing, soothing, and reviving. Silence and solitude, which I try to drown out with the radio when I'm at home or in any sort of urban environment, are welcome because I don't really feel alone. And it's never really silent.

John Keats, that wonderful Romantic, describes this feeling exactly as I have experienced it:

O Solitude! If I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,-
Nature's observatory - whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river's crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigil keep
'Mongst boughs pavillion'd, where the deer's swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.

Lucky for those of us who live in "murky buildings" that there are green spaces for us to walk and dream and imagine in.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Dart, a new favorite poem of mine

I read Dart by the British poet Alice Oswald because it is a long-form poem about a river. Supposedly Oswald is Jeanette Winterson's favorite poet, so that was a good recommendation, I thought. I have been interested in river history and ecology since my first job, fresh out of college, as a tour guide at the fish viewing facility on the Connecticut River in Holyoke. Dart did not disappoint; indeed it is now one of my favorite books, one I can imagine reading again and again. Oswald’s playful and expansive uses of language and metaphor, as well as her seamless blending of the mundane and transcendent, bring her characters and the river they speak of vividly to life.

The poem’s form is shaped by its content. The genesis of the poem was interviews that Oswald conducted with people who live and work along the Dart River in England. She wove their first-person voices into distinct characters whose edges blur throughout the section-less poem. Oswald varies the form organically, according to which voice and character are speaking. At one point she alternates between a forester, who speaks in paragraphs, and a water nymph, who speaks in quatrains:

and here I am coop-felling in the valley, felling small sections to give the forest some structure. When the chainsaw cuts out the place starts up again. It’s Spring, you can work in a wood and feel the earth turning

woodman working on your own
knocking the long shadows down
and all day the river’s eyes
peep and pry among the trees (11)

Another formal technique Oswald uses frequently in Dart is the list, with which she creates a feeling of multiplicity, grandeur, and scale. Her lists are often alliterated or assonant, giving them a more sonorous weight, as in this section about a wool mill:

tufting felting hanks tops spindles slubbings
hoppers and rollers and slatted belts
bales of carded wool the colour of limestone
and wool puffs flying through tubes distributed by cyclones

wool in the back of the throat, wool on ledges,
in fields and spinning at 5,000 rotations per minute –
and look how quickly a worker can mend an end
what tentacular fingers moving like a spider,
splicing it invisibly neat look what fingers could be – (19)

Dart is innovative in form, and also in the language that constitutes the poem. Oswald uses lyric description to its fullest, infusing science and social history with metaphors that bring even the driest topics to life. Here, she discusses water purification:

This is the thirst that draws the soul, beginning
at these three boreholes and radial collectors.
Whatever pumps and gravitates and gathers
in town reservoirs secretly can you follow it rushing
under manholes in the straggle of the streets
being gridded and channeled up
even as he taps his screwdriver on a copper pipe
and fills a glass. This is the thirst that streaks
his throat and chips away at his bones between lifting
the glass and contact whatever sands the tongue,
this draws his eyehole to this space among
two thirds weight water and still swallowing. (25)

The poem runs the gamut in terms of topic (mining, industry, fishing, seal-watching, swimming, drowning, myths, dairy production), and it also presents a wide array of characters using journalistic detachment and a poet’s ear for contradiction. At one point, a speaker points out that the legal fisherman by day is probably also a poacher at night:

That’s your legal fisherman, he’s watching and listening,
he’s got a seine net and he hauls out from the shore and
back in a curve, like this.
But more than likely he’s got a legal right hand and a
rogue left hand and when he’s out left-handed,
he just rows a mesh net straight across the river – a bloody wall.
In twenty minutes he’s covered the cost of the net,
in an hour he’s got a celebration coming.
That’s where the crack is, that’s when fishing pays. (38)

The most brilliant moments in Dart come when Oswald describes those people who have some very intimate knowledge of an aspect of the river. The crystal-clear lens of lyric is perfectly suited to these things that can only be approached through direct experience or through metaphor. Of the ferryman and his route, she writes:

I work the car ferry, nudge it over with a pilot boat,
backwards and forwards for twenty three years.

Always on the way over – to and fro –
and feeling inward for a certain sliding feeling
that loosens the solidity of the earth,
he makes himself a membrane through which everyone passes into elsewhere
like a breath flutters its ghost across glass. (43)

And of the whitewater kayaker to the current:

We can’t hear except the booming of our thinking in the cockpit hollow and the river’s been so beautiful we can’t concentrate.

they walk strong in wetsuits,
their faces shine,
their well-being wants to burst out

In the water it’s another matter, we’re just shells and arms, keeping ourselves in a fluid relation with the danger. (14)

Oswald blends the mundane with the transcendent, cramming in as many contradictions as possible without judgment. She touches on arguments between polluters and conservationists, poachers and bailiffs, commercial fishermen and seal-watchers. Woolen thread that is spun in a plant near the river and dyed using the river’s water becomes a metaphor for the river itself and all of its stories: “We stretch and wind it on a spinning frame – a ring and travel arrangement twists it in the opposite direction and we end up with two-ply, a balanced twist, like the river” (20).

Dart is a wonderful synthesis of disciplines, a living organism, an interdisciplinary course in history, science, geography, myth, and poetry.

Oswald, Alice. Dart. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2002.

ps- I found my copy on UK Amazon

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Shove and Tumble

Happy National Poetry Month!

Last week I got my first-ever dog: Rosie, a golden retriever, rescued from Tennessee. Since I married a dog person, I knew this would happen eventually, but I was unprepared for the magnetic love in this creature's eyes, or for the energy it requires to walk her enough so that she'll go to sleep at night!

Mark Doty has been writing about dogs for decades, so he does it better than I. Here is an excerpt from a wonderful poem that I heard him read at Smith College. The entire poem appears at


They shove and tumble around us
on the concrete floor, the little ones,
just as they must have crowded
around the gates of this world,

eager to live. So much
to be licked, on earth,
what work! All mouth,
sure of their reception,

they've hurried to a realm
they know will feed them,
and they open their new faces
to us, tongues and teeth

apprehending our sweetness and pity,
smells and salts. This is here,
the minds register, yes,
and this, and this is good....

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Poets Should Give Encores

I think that as poets and consumers of poetry we can be entirely too sedate. Thus, I want to propose a new aspect to poetry readings: encores. Even at quieter readings of "page" poems (as opposed to "spoken word" poems), when there is a good connection between reader and audience, that energy should be recognized and honored with an encore. Musicians give encores. The whole idea of an encore is for the audience to let the performer know how much they loved the performance and don't want it to end. When Mark Doty read at Smith College a couple weeks ago, he said, as he neared the end, "Ok, I think we have time for three more poems." Someone in the audience yelled, "Could you make it four?" When Doty was done reading, we clapped and clapped and clapped and he did stand up again and take a bow, but it would have been so much more gratifying if he had given an encore.

The other thing I think we should embrace more is applause, which is another great way for the audience to interact with the reader. Normally at poetry readings, the audience behaves like concert-goers listening to sonatas: remaining silent through everything, no matter how moving. All the emotion stays inside the individual listeners. Sometimes, this is appropriate. The poems are more quiet, or they require some pondering before they sink in. However, certain audiences tend to break into applause more easily at poetry readings. This gives the evening more of the lively feel of a jazz show, in which audiences applaud throughout in appreciation of the artists' virtuosity. When Sharon Olds read at Smith College last week, people applauded after every poem. The part of me that was raised going to Classical music concerts with my family thought, "How uncouth!" but the part of me that loves spontaneous expression thought, "How wonderful!"

Monday, April 7, 2008

Reviews in Brief

Notes on a few of the good books in my library:

Elizabeth Bishop. The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983. The long periods of time Bishop spent crafting her poems is evident in their careful construction. She creates subtle rhymes and meters within both traditional and invented forms. The poems tackle subjects such as loss, disconnection, and foreignness in a controlled, perceptive voice.

John Cage. Silence: Lectures and Writings. These lectures are not called poems, yet they have much to teach the poet about how the arrangement of words on a page can be seen as a performance of the work. Cage, a composer, describes the “chance methods” through which he creates work based on his Zen beliefs. The result is a bizarre beauty.

Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1999. Carson transforms narrative into lyric with her consistent use of rich and unusual figurative language. The ebb and flow of the lines evokes the inconstancy Geryon experiences as a depressive artist and particularly as a lover of the elusive Herakles. The standard plot provides a sturdy structure for Carson’s quirky, memorable characters and her bold revision of an ancient myth.

Lucille Clifton. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2000. Clifton’s poems are admirable for their brevity and taut potency. Simply constructed and easy to read, they convey brave and unabashed messages about life’s essential duality of creation and destruction. Clifton does not shrink from ambivalence; rather she sees it everywhere and renders it affectingly, without gratuitous explication.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Robert Creeley

Creeley is one of those fabulously unclassifiable poets. I have heard him compared to other poets, even seen him labeled and placed in a "school," but I still think his work is in a class of its own. Some of it is clear and simple, some of it is obscure. Much of it is heartfelt, much of it is reserved. Even the more opaque of his verses seems to contain their own logic, like a painting that is well made but whose meaning is a mystery.

Who was it who said, "A poem should not mean, but be"?

Here is the Robert Creeley poem that showed up yesterday on my Poetry Daily desk calendar:


Tunneling through the earth
this way, I didn't know

the surface was where
I had come from. Dreams.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quotes of the Month

"Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle, cracked ice crunching in pails, the night that numbs the leaf, the duel of two nightingales, the sweet pea that has run wild, Creation's tears in shoulder blades."
- Boris Pasternak

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?" - Emily Dickinson

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Poetry Videos

Ok, so even though I'm a blogger, I'm not the most tech-savy poet around. I hardly ever visit YouTube, except when my partner has me watch rap videos from the 90s. So, excuse me if this is late-breaking news, but I recently discovered the coolest thing. Poets are making videos of their poems. The written word is coming alive in yet another new way: portable, transmittable, and off the page.

According to Patricia Smith, "Words - in particular, words laid down in hopeful, lyrical lines - don't even begin to approach their potential until they reach the open air. There, anyone can snag them, dream on them, memorize them, twist them to fit their own lives."

There must be dozens, hundreds of websites out there featuring video poetry. I'd love to hear of more. For now, check out my friend Cara Benson on The Continental Review, as well as several famous page and slam poets at Open Door Poetry.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wonders of the Babelfish

Who remembers the Babelfish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which translates every language when inserted into a person's ear? Today's circuitous route of wordplay began when I logged into and read a story about an exchange student who became malnourished while overseas. The boy's father suspected Stockholm syndrom. I didn't know what this was, so I looked it up online. I found a block of text where the content was emotional but the tone very dry and clinical. I wondered about the text's potential for transformation.

When I was in high school, I was friends with a couple of exchange students from Germany and France. I loved listening to them speak because their near fluency caused them to use English words in uncustomary ways that made literal sense but were not colloquial. They seemed to refresh the language.

Juliana Spahr used the Altavista Bablefish while composing her chapbook about Hawaii, things of each possible relation hashing against one another. She wrote poems in English, then translated them into other languages and back into English. Since the translations are literal, word order gets mixed up. Syntax is skewed. Some nuances are lost and others created.

This is a way of using chance to refresh language, one of the many ways a writer can mitigate her tired language assumptions. What I did, after translating my block of text into Russian and then back again, was to pick out the best, most surprising lines and arrange them into a poem. Maybe I didn't completely "write" it, but I did make artisitic decisions in arranging it.

strategies for to remain living

They focus on kindness’s captors. As a result,
victims know much about captors, less about themselves.
An honest reaction to the destructive working,
victims are encouraged to begin
psychological characteristics pleasing to captors.
Both feel the fear also as love in these high anxiety acts.
Victims from the existing versions
know the impossibility to act, decide, think, etc.
Perceiving their victimizers as omnipotent,
victims fasten psychologically to captors.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"my own unnecessariness"

I direct you today to the website of the Poetry Center at Smith College, which provides many opportunities to hear poets read in the Northampton area. Next week, Tony Hoagland will be reading. I was unaware of his work until today, and I've really enjoyed reading the poems provided, written as they are in a plain, unadorned style that conveys sincere emotion and humility. My favorite of the three poems is Mistaken Identity, which begins, "I thought I saw my mother / in the lesbian bar..."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What Language Can Do

Note: An updated version of this essay appears at

There’s quite an amazing installation on display now at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA. Jenny Holzer’s “Projections” casts the text of poems by Nobel laureate poet Wisława Szymborska across a bare, darkened room the length of a football field. Walking through these projected poems is at first like half-listening: you catch fragments of words but can’t put them all together. Then, if you take the time to stand at either end of the hall, you can read each poem clearly as it appears. The lines arrive more slowly than the time it takes to read them. Having a poem gradually fed to you allows for each line to really register.

Reading a few poems in this unconventional way is one thing—but that’s only part of the exhibit. Walk to the far end of the hall and you’ll find another room, smaller and more like a regular art gallery. Here, Holzer has displayed huge canvas reproductions of declassified documents detailing plans for the invasion of Iraq. The simplicity of the words— protect, isolate, detain, free, destroy— contrasts with the mess that’s actually happening in Iraq. What’s also shocking is how the writers of the presentation seemed to genuinely believe that 1) there were WMDs to be found, and 2) that a successful new government could be in place within a mere 135 days.

Upstairs from this gallery is the third part of the exhibit that serves as the very visceral and disturbing punch line. Again, reproduced in macro scale, Holzer has hung an email exchange in which two American soldiers debate the uses of torture, and beside this is a “Wish List” of aggressive interrogation techniques.

What’s amazing to me about this exhibit are the juxtapositions Holzer has created. The second and third galleries show the use of language that is institutional, political, and abstract—it has clearly led to widespread and, in many cases, futile human suffering. In the first gallery, where you are bathed in the light of a poet’s words, language is something very different—it is particular and personal, and while it can’t make sense of suffering, it documents it determinedly and with heart-wrenching beauty.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Think Positively

How beautiful! The following quote appeared in my inbox this morning, in Rob Bresney's Astrology & Pronoia Newsletter. (If you're not familiar with his Free Will Astrology, you should check it out.) Diane Ackerman is one of those authors whom, even though I haven't actually read an entire book of hers, I like because of the places where she is mentioned or quoted, the titles of her books, and the topics she embraces. It's like she's a friend of a friend. Here's the quote:

"I guess it shouldn't surprise us to find ourselves linked with the stars. Every atom of gold or silver jewelry was created in supernovas. The water we drink, the air we breathe, the ground we walk, the complicated pouch of fluids and salts and minerals and bones we are -- all forged in some early chaos of our sun. I think it was the astrophysicist John Wheeler who remarked that we are the sun's way of thinking about itself."

-Diane Ackerman, A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

So Much for Objectivity

Today's Writer's Almanac quotes former New Yorker poetry editor Howard Moss as saying a good poem is "one I like." Although I would disagree with him on quite a few of those poems (I rarely like the poems printed in the New Yorker), I have to admire such a bald statement on the impossibility of objectivity.

True, one can strive towards objectivity - like my current MFA advisor, who recommended I read and learn from Jean Valentine's work even though she doesn't like it. (We'll see what she thinks of what I do when inspired by a poet she doesn't care for!)

It's also true that one's opinion will carry more weight when it's backed by the experience and breadth of knowledge that comes from years of work and study, as one would presume in the case of Howard Moss - but the fact remains that value judgements are always subjective, and there's no objective criteria for evaluating art.

I'm aware that this is a philosophical position and that some may disagree. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years the so-called "objective" standards for evaluating art have gradually evolved, but usually come down to the consensus of a large enough group of influential people.

An article published by the Poetry Foundation about high school students' reactions to canonical poems gives a refreshing take on the old standards. "Herbert sucks. Donne is a pimp." The high school students did trash my beloved Elizabeth Bishop, but at least they did it in an entertaining way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Revising

The time has come. I’m in the final semester of my MFA program, which means that by mid April I need to complete my book-length poetry manuscript. I have to send in the latest draft of it on January 31st. Hopefully this will be the first time of many that I have a book due (the poetry world doesn’t often work that way, but I will be publishing in many genres, and poetry contests have due dates). In any case, there’s nothing like a deadline for motivation. I have a list of the poems that need work and a schedule for doing the rewrites. One poem per day, and about three a day on Saturday and Sunday.

During my latest Goddard residency, I attended a workshop by Bhanu Kapil called “The Art of Failure,” in which she gave three methods for revising (in essence – 1, rewrite your piece by starting over on a blank page – 2, rewrite your piece by taking one image or word and using that as a seed, or – 3, find a site in the work that seems blank & ready to be transformed and rewrite it as its opposite). I am summarizing here because I don’t want to steal all her brilliant ideas and I could never recreate her inspired words anyway.

The particular quote that she spoke and I wrote down word for word (it’s now posted above my desk) is this: “In revision, make a decision and then fearlessly commit to that decision. This does not have to be comfortable.”

Chris Abani, our amazing visiting writer, reminded us students that writing is 20% writing and 80% rewriting. He recommended approaching rewriting on a blank sheet of paper. “Often what you like in the piece may be what’s holding you back,” he said. Thank you, Chris.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


Right now I am experiencing the magic of my MFA residency at Goddard College, an intensive week of workshops, readings, and seminars. I'll be in touch soon. For now, I leave you with this:

"For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences."
—Rainer Maria Rilke