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: Varsity Line-Up Starting Four

I have taught writing to high school students for twenty years. As public school teachers, we spend a great deal of time writing curriculum according to whatever directives the district and state demand. These change often, driven by the whims of new administrators or politicians. Ideally, according to my evaluators, if you want to teach one of the courses I do, say the senior poetry class, you should be able to read my unit plans on a shared website and, essentially, do what I do.

But whenever a real human being has to teach one of my courses, I begin by recommending one of the following books. Not only do they help me get my students writing and thinking, but they help me get writing and thinking. Best of all, they DEFY proscriptive regulations on how to write curriculum and ask only that real writers describe real lessons that work. Amazing, right?

naming the worldNaming the World. Bret Anthony Johnston, ed. For prose writers and/or teachers of prose writing, I can’t imagine a more helpful book. Johnston (author of Corpus Christi: Stories and Remember Me Like This: A Novel), compiles lessons from Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Packer, Tom Robbins, Elizabeth Strout and Steven Almond, among dozens of others. The lessons are creative, easy to follow, and include both individual and group pursuits. The index includes lists of writing warm-ups to get writers to what Johnston calls, “Ass in the chair time.” Indispensible.

practice of poetryPractice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach, Chase Twichell and Robin Behn, eds. What Naming the World does for prose writers and teachers of prose, this book does for poets and teachers of poetry. Another compilation of lessons by writers for writers that work. This is a dog-eared, well-loved addition to my bookshelf at home and at school.

the discovery of poetryThe Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes. If you want to learn more about what poetry is and how to go about writing it; if you want models both contemporary and classic for the various elements you study; if you want a book whose writer speaks to you, invites you to enjoy both the reading and writing of poetry, you can’t do better than Mayes. I use this book with both my senior poetry class and with my AP English students because Mayes makes poetry accessible. She offers you, especially, many poems to choose from and, in this way, guides you toward learning from those writers whose work you most admire. All textbooks should be written like this: Mayes wants you to love poetry first and foremost and then, if you choose, to write some of your own.

on-writingOn Writing by Stephen King. This book is half memoir, half craft lessons. Unlike the other books I’ve listed here, King doesn’t offer exercises. Instead, he describes his own life as a writer and then he offers tips to fiction writers. Teenagers love this book, and adults understand why King has sold so many books. You can imagine him speaking to you over beer (or, since he doesn’t touch the stuff), strong coffee. His advice is straightforward and far from high-brow. Great read.

These books, for me, get the job done. I especially value hearing from writers who write and teach.

What can you add to this list? What books help you write? Teach? Think?

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.

Weekend Write-In: What to do When You Can’t Write

Some people (like my husband) say I should run every day. Just a mile. Ten minutes! Anyone can do that much! But I can’t. My legs hurt; my lungs explode; the thoughts of the quitter I am derail me.

Sometimes writing is like this. Same advice. Same expectations. Same torment. Same defeat.

So when I can’t write. When I absolutely can’t think of anything, here’s what I do, instead:

  1. I rewrite. Even if it means rewriting stuff I’m not particularly excited about. A day can’t be wasted if you improve something, right?
  2. I add a page to the journal I keep for my daughters (and you can start one anytime for anyone!). What’s great about this is that a) the audience is guaranteed and b) I end up writing something down that I’m thankful I recorded. I suppose letters would work here, too, and everyone loves receiving real mail.
  3. I research possible places to submit my work. When else do people do this tedious stuff? Compiling submission guidelines, website links, etc. when I’m not writing means that, when that urge returns (and it always does no matter how much I despair), I don’t have to stop to do the business of writing.
  4. I look at what I have already and try to decide: what should I do with this? A few years ago, after my agent rejected (in this order) my novel and me, the blues came to stay for a long, dark, lonesome winter. One day, I took out the stories I’d already written and laid them across my bed. Do I have enough pages for a collection? I wondered. I did. Then I researched where to send it. Hmm. AWP Grace Paley Prize. What the hell?
  5. I read other people’s stuff and leave comments of encouragement, blogsites, Goodreads, FB posts. It’s writing, right? And, again, there’s an audience.
  6. I read.
  7. I people watch.
  8. I try not to beat myself up.

I wish I could write every day. But I’m like most writers I know: I have a job that isn’t writing; I have a family; I get my teeth cleaned; I feed my cats. And so, I console myself with some other writing-related pursuit.

What about you? How do you fill the muse-less hours??

And Finally, Our Last Night at AWP: Doesn’t Play Well With Others

Love is all around, no need to waste it; if you can have the town, why don't you take it? You're gonna make it after all!!

Love is all around, no need to waste it; if you can have the town, why don’t you take it? You’re gonna make it after all!!

I’ve been home from AWP more than a week already. What is taking me so long to wrap up the blog thing on it? Good question. Here goes nothing:

Saturday morning, Rebecca and I facetime Sarah Yaw who would be with us (and whose novel, You Are Free to Go, is with us in the convention hall at the Engine Books table). Sarah is home making microwaved scrambled eggs for her five year old twins who wiggle loose teeth for us and wave bloody swords they received as birthday gifts. It feels a bit Mission Impossible — Sarah checking in to hear what we’ve accomplished so far (Rebecca sampled the local whiskey and survived 48 hours without her suitcase; I had lunch with Pam Houston and didn’t order a glass of wine because the waiter came to me first and I was afraid of committing a faux pas so grossly classless, that I couldn’t even summon the courage to ask for lemonade and, instead, settled for tap water).

“Okay,” Sarah says, infinitely forgiving. “Then your homework tonight is to go to the main hotel bar and shmooze.”

Cue iconic music.

Cut to my blanched face and trembling limbs.

Rebecca says this is a great idea and though the thought of meeting real live writing people terrifies me, we head off to the day’s panel discussions as if this is any other day on the planet. We separate and I listen to writers discuss how uncomfortable it is to promote their books. We’re socially awkward people as it is, they say. (I’m paraphrasing. Or projecting. I forget which.) We’re most comfortable at home with our families and our cats (I’m almost totally freestyling now, but this is what I heard no matter what they actually said.)

Thus fortified, thus reassured I am not the only freak out there, I head back to the bookfair to find Rebecca. I’m feeling good, strong, confident, full of adventure, and then I see Rebecca strolling along an aisle and the familiarity of her inspires me to run towards her and throw my arms around her. “I missed you!” I say. I don’t care who hears me.

7:30: we head to the bar. I deliberately do not fuss with what I’m wearing. Rebecca loaned me some lipstick that never comes off. It’s like a lip tattoo. This is my one attempt at looking good. (that I insist on my own meaningless-slash-invisible protest might seem ridiculous but it gets me the four or five blocks I need to travel).

“One drink,” I say. “And then we’re out of there.”

But we meet a cowboy from North Carolina who works at a university in Kansas. He looks so much like my cousin’s son, I feel almost at ease. We take a selfie with him and send it to my cousin and to Sarah. Doing our homework, we write. The cowboy says he’s relieved to meet us. Relieved. Great word. He even makes Rebecca talk about her book (Charms for Finding, (http://www.hebenon.com/charms.html). This is beginning to seem like that rare phenomenon: a really, really, fun homework assignment.

Two hours later, he leaves for dinner with his colleagues: “If y’all are here when I get back, that’d be great,” he says. We won’t be, of course, but we promise to be Facebook friends.

An editor from Alabama takes the cowboy’s seat. He tells us that a bartender friend of his in New Orleans said that during the AWP conference there, the bars sold more liquor than they did for Mardi Gras.

“You know how it is with writers,” he says. We do! We do! We’re so busy talking to him about pit bulls and publishing and our favorite cocktail nuts, we don’t even notice when the cowboy returns.

“Wow!” I say. “That was a fast dinner.”

“Fast?” he says. “I’ve been gone two hours! I never thought y’all’d still be here.”

So, we nearly close the place and then we leave, happy with our final night in Minneapolis. It’s a beautiful city, pristine and friendly. The weather is spring-like and people gather to play ping pong outside, to sit along the wide streets and watch the bars empty out.

Soon, we and 14,000 others, will return to the kinds of lives we awkward writers live. Tonight, however, I think: The world is full of strangers, and that’s not a bad thing. Some of those strangers have left Minneapolis with my book in their hands. That idea, the few friends we have made this time, and Rebecca’s company for a few more hours, seem like miracles enough for one trip.