Weekend Write-In: Poetry by Request

100826-helix-asperaOnce upon a time, I saw a periwinkle making its way back to the ocean as the tide rapidly retreated. I had no idea these creatures left such lovely signatures behind. This is how poems began for me, with an image that would not let me rest.

Then, my students and I started the Poetry Stand (see my blog entry Free Poetry, Really ) for further information, and, for the first time in my career as a writer who teaches writing, I asked these young people to do something I had not done before: to take an order for a poem and to write the poem on the spot. For free.

To be fair, I decided to make myself take the kind of risk I’d asked them to. I started by sending out a few emails to close friends (okay, so maybe I cheated a little) telling them I’d like to write a poem for them and asking them to request something — anything. I widened the circle to other friends, book club people, blog readers, etc. To date, I have written poems about sheep, about dementia, about the fall from innocence and swingsets, about forgiveness and the possibility that, someday, we might be able to have movies made of our dreams and many other topics I would never have chosen myself.

Suddenly, poems did not begin with an image. Instead, they began with research. I found Bible passages on what it means to forgive, specialized words that had to do with what happens in our brains when we dream, photographs of brain cells transformed by Alzheimer’s, and really creepy facts about sheep.

Where previously an image had held me hostage, now research set me free. How fun it was to become a student first, poet second; to wallow around in facts and new words until I found something that felt like a beginning to me.

Sometimes, when we write, we sound too much like ourselves. Again and again, we tap the usual reserves, but other people’s ideas and a commitment to attempting to use them, helped me try things I had never considered.

These days, I do a little of both: my own inspiration from those haunting images, and the requests of people who, in most cases, have never had a poem written exclusively for them. I hope you’ll try it.

 

This is the poem I wrote that began with the image of the periwinkle’s trail.

Plum Island and Back

You come here expecting things in pieces:

the fractured, fleshless shells of mussels,

crab-backs abandoned by soft bellies, a claw.

 

You come expecting flight over dunes, terns

diving, the confetti of aerialists mad for sky, herons

lifting from the marsh, trailing legs, trailing ropes of water.

 

You don’t come expecting poetry, nor love, either,

things you feel you’ve had enough of.  You expect —

no, you hope — for nothing grander than relief.

 

But the periwinkle lays out a path to the sea, a ribbon

in the sand his thin tribute. He has this house to move,

this exaggeration of spine, the only bone he knows.

 

It helps, it must, to have nothing to compare oneself to.

He can’t know the work ahead, but you do. You wish

the tide back in for him, you wish the moon on his side.

 

The second is a link to a poem that was requested by my good friend and fellow writer, Holly Robinson. Holly wanted a poem about Plum Island with an emphasis on the way it’s currently eroding. As a bonus, she published it in her novel, Beach Plum Island. You can read that poem and a preview of Holly’s novel, here.

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Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

The Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA. Our 2012 writing retreat.

“Our Own Little Bubble” Our cabin on the Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA, 2012 writing retreat. The porch is where we gathered every morning to work. (photo by Hudson Rush)

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

What are the chances I’ll receive this? I thought, as I applied for the Provincetown Fine Arts scholarship that would allow me to take a weeklong poetry workshop for free. Pretty good, as it turned out, and then the truly inconceivable thought: how will I leave my 3, 4, and 5 year old daughters to do this?

My friend Miriam, also a mother and a writer, said, “You’ll miss them until you step onto the ferry, and then, in a weird way, you’ll forget all about them.”

That prophecy had a lot of help coming true: my mother signed on to help my husband that week, I found an apartment in an antique Cape directly across from the bay that was quiet and affordable, I chose a workshop with a poet, Jim Moore, who turned out to be the perfect mentor for me. I woke every morning at dawn, wrote for a couple hours, went for a run where I revised in my head, returned to a house exactly as immaculate and silent as I had left it and reworked the new poems. Workshops and readings in the afternoon and evening and days devoted to being solely a writer.

In six days, I wrote at least as many poems, poems that completed my first manuscript. I met writers whose careers I have followed these past ten years. Most importantly, I discovered that getting away to write is essential and (despite the fact that my 3 year old broke her arm mid-week and I wasn’t there when she had it set without morphine), should be guilt-free.

Despite knowing this, when I headed to Bread Loaf three years later, it was for what I thought would be an agonizing eleven day stretch away from my family. This time, I left behind a box of surprises for my girls: one card and one gift for every day I was gone. I tried to leave them something that might amuse them for a few hours: jump ropes, press-on tattoos, a jigsaw puzzle, a few dollars for ice cream. And then I left, teary, forgetting my Provincetown lessons.

In Vermont, I was introduced to writers are various stages of their careers. I spoke with agents, editors, writers whose books I had devoured. I reveled in Scott Russell Sanders’ nonfiction workshop and hurried off to readings several times a day. I danced my fool head off. At the end of every event, I returned to my tiny, shared room at Brandy Brook, and collapsed beside Sarah, Brenda, and Rebecca to share the details of our days. Nights, when I called my children, their voices reminded me of the world I wanted to return to, though it was clear that I did not need to hurry back. They were fine and I? I was being a writer.

Last weekend, I sat with a view of Lake Cayuga. On the loveseat to my left, Sarah worked on the fourth draft of her latest novel. Beside me on the couch, Rebecca drafted a poem in the notebook she bought exclusively for our yearly retreats. On the floor in front of us, Brenda cobbled together notes for a teaching grant. We would break for lunch, return to our separate spheres for a couple hours, then regroup for cocktails, dinner, sharing the day’s successes and difficulties.

In a documentary on her work and her life, Anne Lamott reminds an audience that no one cares if you get to work or not. So, if you want to write, write. She’s right, of course, but sitting alone with that kind of truth can paralyze us. Instead, we can head off to a conference like Bread Loaf or AWP and feel overwhelmed by everyone else who’s writing, trying to do what we want to do.

But once a year, my writing friends and I gather to work side by side. In this context, the conviction that abandons us sometimes when we are alone with our tasks or alone in a mass of strangers, returns. This is the only kind of camaraderie that will sustain us through those long, cold, lonely times when we are alone with certain truths about the writing life.

What about you? What stops you from squirreling away this time for yourself? Or, how do you getaway to write?

Weekend Write-In: What Would Freud Say? Who Cares, So Long as He Read the Thing

Mushrooms pretending to be just mushrooms.

Does it matter that I did not intend to create a character who looked like a penis? That, readers, is today’s question.

My short story collection was published in October. Since then, I have turned promoter, a role I am not comfortable with. I have learned, for example, how difficult it is to have your book reviewed, so I was incredibly grateful when, nine months after the book’s launch, a review appeared on a popular blogsite. Even more thrilling was that the review was positive. The reviewer wrote, “Though the stories vary in tone, theme, and subject, they’re unified by the author’s gift for the incisive one-liner, the wry observation that illuminates the whole.”

That’s the good news. Later on, she says “the overall strength of this fine collection made weaker moments stand out.” Uh-oh. But it’s the final paragraph, and I’m thinking: who reads these things all the way through, anyway? The dread is personal, primal, even, but I’m a writer now. I can take the criticism.

Except, I didn’t quite understand it.

The reviewer notes that, in one story, a school secretary has a “‘large head of gray hair shaped like a mushroom’ and her name, we’re told, is Hedda Horn — a joke that only distracts.” For two days, I wandered around my house wondering what she thought the joke was. Wrong haircut? Too cliche? Overdone alliteration? I had based the character physically on a woman I’d seen in my own school building, her bowl cut and stocky figure leaving her Minion-shaped (though the story was written several years before I might have applied that particular allusion). Then, one day when I was out on my walk, it hit me: the reviewer thinks I deliberately made my character look like a penis.

I’m not sure which is worse: the fact that she mistook my intentions, or the fact that something I wrote so completely misfired. Believe me, my writing friends think my unintentional phallic symbol is hysterical. Even funnier? That it got pointed out to so many hundreds of readers. But I am plunged back into that part of myself that wants everyone to be happy. That wants everything I write to be perfect. Why didn’t I just give the woman a Dorothy Hamill wedge? A Shirley Partridge shag?

This reminds me of when my first book of poems was published and one of my distant cousins (there are zillions) approached me at a signing. She told me her husband didn’t come with her because he was mad at me. I had never met the man, but I had written a poem about two friends who argued about whose wine tasted better. The argument ended with one friend shooting the other. True story from my mother’s old neighborhood. “He forgives you now,” my cousin several times removed said. “But the guy that died was my husband’s uncle.”

When I told my mother this, worried I’d offended someone, she said, “You’re missing the point.”

“Which is?”

“People are reading your book.”

Oh. That.

What was obvious to my mother, was not so clear to me: that, after years of toiling away in obscurity at my dining room table or propped up with pillows on my bed, people were actually reading what I had to say.

For all I know, readers might imagine my stories populated with a race of penile people. They might see their own stories in whatever I’ve put down on paper. But the key word here is READERS. Those people (like you!) we writers can not live without.

Weekend Write-In: Having to Have Patience Whether You Like it or Not

“You were always so impatient,” my mother tells me regularly. “Even when you were little, if I bought you a coloring book, you sat down and colored every picture immediately. Didn’t stop until it was finished.”

As I writer, I appreciate my mother’s ability to nail down the characterization. This without any lessons in showing vs. telling! But as a very human being who also happens to be a writer, I also think: my god. What happened to me?

My first collection of poetry took me twenty years to finish. My first collection of short stories took me twenty-two. I didn’t set out to write a collection in either of these genres, but when you keep writing, you tend to pile up some stuff and one day, if you’re me, you lay it all out on your bed and wonder if there are enough pages for a book.

A novel is a different beast, however. A novel is something I always wanted to write. Something that I approached deliberately (once I realized the short story I thought I was writing was something else), thinking: I want this to be a book.

My novel started one day when I thought I’d like to write a short story about the summer I visited a carnival with a friend and met a man who ran one of the concessions. He was exceedingly friendly to me, gave me several nights’ worth of free chances and so many plastic poodles to hang on my bedpost that my mother grew suspicious. When she asked me where I got the prizes and I told her, she warned me to be careful, but she did not stop me from going to the carnival again. I was ten.

Perhaps she thought, as I did, that nothing could happen in our small town where everyone was a cousin or married to a cousin or someone my mother went to school with. But that fall, a thirteen year old girl was kidnapped and killed walking home at night just a couple miles away from where the carnival had been set up.

Chapter by chapter, the short story turned into a novel that is and isn’t the story of that summer, that carnival, the fall from innocence we experienced when such a tragedy struck our town. Twelve years later — the speed of light for me — I finally finished it.

What happens next, even after a dozen years revising, re-structuring, wrestling with the beast that is plot, is almost (almost) not important. What is important is that I did it. I waited it out. Powerless to know how to manage the story and all its threads, I had no choice but to slog ahead.

If I had sat down at any time in my writing life and thought: Okay, I’ll write this poem/story/novel etc today and twelve, twenty, twenty-two years from now, I’ll have a book, I would have put down the pen and picked up a paintbrush instead. And by paintbrush, I mean the kind you use to re-do your downstairs bathroom. In a way, I just kept coloring one picture after the next until I could close up shop on one particular work.

This makes me wonder if my mother had it exactly right: maybe patience had nothing to do with finishing that book. Maybe finishing it had everything to do with it, instead.

The Story of the Stories: Part I — Just Because Your Only Friend is Imaginary Doesn’t Mean You’re Lonely

Part I

My father was the world’s most famous dairy farmer. He raised a bull named Osborndale Ivanhoe who changed the character of the Holstein breed. Long before his daughter dreamed of becoming a writer, my father made it into Esquire Magazine. That man and his celebrity bull. That bull and his starlet daughters grazing in pastures before admiring busloads of other farmers, of students of agriculture.

My mother, in a separate life, ran the lunch counter at Cap’s Cafe. The building still stands on the corner of Tower Street and Granite though now it’s a French bistro with outdoor seating that overlooks the intersection. My mother’s specialities included beef stew and American chop suey, things that, 60 years later, she still can’t prepare for fewer than a hundred people.

My parents met there, my mother the only person willing to wait on someone who smelled like a barnyard. I’m sure my parents, like any other couple, had dreams. I do not think those dreams included having a child who wanted to be a writer.

In our busy house, my mother fed hired hands, lining the counter with grinder rolls, cold cuts, lettuce she shredded into curling ribbons. Outside, my father’s trucks rumbled by full of corn, tractors roared past lugging wagonloads of hay. Milking machines pulsed. Cows bellowed. In summer, flies buzzed everywhere. Black ants dropped from the light over our kitchen table and landed in the sugar bowl. Winters, mice holed up in our cupboards; the dogs slept in mangers full of hay they wouldn’t let the heifers near. Season after season, I hunted down a good pen (nearly impossible to find), a piece of paper — phone book pages worked best, but any old envelope would do — and I scribbled. I loved the feel of ink on a page, the smell of a blue Bic, the loops and curls of letters.

“God damnit,” my mother would say, picking up a bill that hadn’t yet been paid. “How am I supposed to send this to someone when you’ve written all over it?”

But that carbon paper was as silky as my border collie’s ear, the rim of ribbon along the top of the blanket on my sister Jeannie’s bed. Things I also couldn’t resist. Writing felt as good as all the softest things on earth.

When people visited, I shut myself in my room. Read a book. Talked to my imaginary friend. Dr. Robinson told my mother she shouldn’t worry about me. “It’s a sign of an imaginative child,” she said. Tell that to my sister Barbara Ann who opened the Studebaker’s door to let me slide into the back seat. When she closed it behind me, I screamed.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“You closed my friend in the door,” I said, sobbing loud enough for the shoppers passing by on the sidewalk to stop and stare.

We didn’t close the toy box so that my dolls could breathe. Crayons had personalities depending on their colors. Blue was a loyal boy. Yellow a boy nobody liked. Red was very popular, a celebrity color. I believed our house was haunted, woke one night to see a knight in shining armor walk through my bedroom, watched a shadow dance through the hayloft’s open window when the barns should have been empty. When I disappeared into a cornfield (I was three) and ignored my mother’s frantic calls, it was because I sat staring at the way sunlight hit a patch of earth amidst the tall stalks.

“What are we going to do with this kid?” my mother asked.

After another of his endless days at work, I would say to my fahter:“Tell me a story,” I wanted to listen until I fell asleep, feared being the only one awake in our big house, all by itself at the end of a dark lane. “Tell me another story,” I would say to my father, who no doubt wanted to eat his maple walnut ice cream that melted in a bowl beside his chair. He’d want to catch the weather on the 11 o’clock news, maybe return to the barns to check on a sick cow.

When, finally, he got too tired, he would say: Why don’t you tell me a story, now, instead?

Maybe I Learned Something After All in Trigonometry

If you Google yourself, this is what happens: you stumble upon a nameless blogger whose goal it is to read 50 something books a year and review each one and she chooses yours. Initially, this is exciting. Someone bought the book! (Someone who is not related to you; someone who wouldn’t recognize you even if you were the only two in an elevator and you were wearing a Hello My Name Is badge!) Your euphoria is short-lived, however, when you skim paragraph 1 and find the word “suffer” and that your stories have been accused of not having enough “meat on their bones.” “Banal” is another adjective the blogger employs. “Well worn.”

Now, you don’t know if this person is an Ivy League professor-slash-literary-critic or some shut-in fueled by the power of the Internet’s powers of anonymity. But it doesn’t matter. She says, for example, that you fail to understand the intricacies of plot, and you know that’s as true as if some beauty critic had reviewed your face and said, “She boasts an oversized and rather ethnic nose.” State the obvious, people. Put it all into print: everything I hope I’ve been doing my best to hide. Oops. I mean you. That you hope you can hide.

Anyway, this reminds me of Algebra II and Trigonometry and sophomore year in a high school that insisted on tracking kids, which meant that if you chose to take honors English (where I found success despite not being able to master the intricacies of plot), you also had to take honors math. You being me, the person slouching in the seat farthest away from the instructor and praying, three decades before Harry Potter, for an invisibility cloak.

We called Mr. Chaffee Effach. His name (kind of) spelled backwards. His acne scarred skin, his overbite, his thinning hair and pot belly, these were not his fault (Well, the pot belly perhaps, but no one had ever heard of a core in 1978.). A homely kid myself, I would have forgiven him his own physical failings. However, he paired his unattractiveness, with more cruelty than comic book villains. During tests, he stood over my shoulder tsking as I scribbled my answers, terrified of his looming presence, of the ticking clock, and of earning my first and only failing grade of high school. Okay, so I got a D, but in Mr. Chaffee’s class, that meant that I received a deficiency. He could have placed it on my desk and walked away to leave me to my own shame, but, instead, he began class by announcing, “And now I would like to see the following people so that they may sign for their deficiencies.” The seat in the back row, farthest from the front of the room, didn’t seem like such a bargain anymore.

When my locker partner broke her leg and needed to leave class two minutes early, I accompanied her one blissful afternoon. The next day when she stood up near the door and I rose in my corner, Mr. Chaffee asked to see her pass. I had already moved too far away from my seat to gracefully sit back down. Instead, I stood as he said: “Read this part for me, will you?” He narrowed his eyes (I forgot those — reptilian. Their lids closed sideways across his eyeballs). Mary was a sweet person, totally devoid of malice. She got an A in math, but never gloated. When she glanced my way apologetically, I cringed. “The student may leave early with assistance at the teacher’s discretion.” Mr. Chaffee sucked his teeth and grinned. He tapped the toe of his shoe, a toe that curled up, elfin like over his hooves. “At the teacher’s discretion?” (I also forgot to mention his hiss, I mean, his lisp) Mary grimaced, began to assert that actually, despite her cast, crutches, and a pile of books, she could manage by herself. But Eefach had what he needed. “Well, if it is at my discretion, I think there are plenty more people in here you could take with you. Carla, of all people, cannot afford to lose even two minutes of class time.”

I would like to note too, here, that the sweet boy who sat beside me, also an A student, perhaps a doctor now he was so smart and so compassionate then, pretended he didn’t notice when I slid back into the seat beside him (Maybe kids like him and Mary are the reason I love teenagers so much that I’ve spent my professional life with them).

And so the year dragged by. Even now, some Sunday nights, I wake in a cold sweat and worry that tomorrow I will have to walk back into that classroom, powerless and stripped of pride.

On the final day of class, Eefach explained his inhumanity (he called it his philosophy): if we were angry with him, then we would be inspired to prove him wrong. Instead of failing miserably, we would fight back, learn a subject that, despite the most persuasive arguments of math teachers I respect, has no use in most of our lives. If I used the f-word then, I would have explained a bit about my own philosophy. In 1979 I had no intention of being a teacher, but even so I had an idea this was not an acceptable tool for motivating students.

I have no idea what happened to Eefach. I wish I could say I have forgiven him and wish him well, but an ache in each of the 32 teeth in his head, a pain unrelenting and untreatable by even the strongest and most debilitating painkillers, would not be enough to satisfy me.

I don’t know how to craft a plot that satisfies some critics and I don’t — and never will — know how to solve any algebraic functions. Both of these things are affirmations of a sort. They are, at the very least, not surprises. The blogger gave me a B and never attacked me personally. So there’s that.

And then there’s this: say all those rotten teeth I wish for Eefach fell out. Well then, there’s such a thing as phantom pain.