30 October 2009

Chicken Stock

Chickens don't get
the sweet respect they earn
every day.

It cannot be easy to give up
all those eggs or
to watch their more robust sisters
become someone's dinner.

Free-range, fresh, fluffed,
raw, cleaned, roasted or fried--
the story of their lives
clucks secret sentences
onto makeshift menus
for The Man:

Feel-good fiction to comfort
the breast of friends.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

29 October 2009

On Beauty and Writing the Body's Story:
I'ma Be Me!

This morning on The Today Show, comedian Wanda Sykes promoted her new late-night talk show scheduled to air next week on Fox, along with her HBO special "I'ma Be Me," with a joke about how the body erodes as it ages: "I used to carry an extra pair of panties in my purse in case I got lucky. Now it's in case I sneeze!."

Beauty--or the pursuit of it--is always before us: on TV and billboards, in magazines, embedded in how we relate to each other and to ourselves. If we aren't as comfortable in our skin as Sykes claims to be--the reason she gave for the "I'ma Be Me" title--we're going to have some trouble adjusting as we age.

If you've met me, you know I'm a big woman. I've been working on my weight for nearly two years (if you don't count all of my life before that), following the guidelines of a nutritionist in a diabetes clinic. I've lost around 60-70 pounds, and I still have a long way to go.

But a big part of why I started trying was for the first time in my life my cholesterol inched into the high zone and my fasting-glucose registered pre-diabetic. I see an endocrinologist for other issues, and she told me if I did nothing I could expect to become diabetic in about a year.

In spite of my slow weight-loss rate, all the components that make up my cholesterol score now register smack-dab in the middle of normal, as does my fasting-glucose, which in the time I've followed the nutrition guidelines has dropped a full 30 points.

If I keep this up, I may never be what our culture calls thin, but I probably won't be diabetic. And that's okay by me. My doctor is thrilled. She's about five-feet tall and 100 pounds soaking wet, and her response to my complaint about losing so slowly was that the slower it comes off, the more I have made it part of my life, and so the less likely I'll be to gain it back. "That's the right way," she added.

I laughed at Sykes' joke this morning. But I felt a little sorry for my body when I did. After all, it's been through a lot, and it's carried it all pretty well considering. When we hide our pain and hurt over events in our life, our body carries it.

The pain doesn't disappear. When we don't express it, it goes somewhere, believe me, and that somewhere is into our thighs and hips and bellies and hearts and breasts and joints and feet. The body holds on to all our bad memories, as well as our joys, and it goes on and on anyway, carrying us through this life.

Of course it wears down because we push too much onto it. All those times we didn't say what we thought, all those times we let someone push us around, all those times we witnessed a violation of life and said nothing. All those silences speak volumes into the cells of our bodies.

If you think I'm making too much of this, listen to this: I know someone who studies voice. Her teacher often touches or presses on certain parts of her body when they're doing vocal exercises. This is not an invasive process but has to do with making the singer aware of her body and putting it to better use in the production of beautiful sound.

She said that sometimes these touches cause memories to well up. Often they are unpleasant memories. Sometimes tears accompany them. This is the body wanting to speak. This is the body wanting to tell us who is there, in all its facets.

This is the body wanting to make something beautiful out of pain. But first the pain has to come up.

I taught a workshop one time on writing about the body. Participants helped each other draw life-size outlines of their bodies on huge sheets of paper we'd cut from a roll and taped to a wall. We read poems and brief stories about the body, then wrote about our own bodies directly onto our outlines.

All-in-all, the logistics made the workshop difficult. We needed more space to roll out our tracings, and people were shy about their bodies. That's understandable. It's not a workshop I'd do again unless by request, but I'm glad I did it once because I see now how the body each of us wears is a unique story. And it is a dear, dear friend who needs our love and focus.

I'm tired of seeing news items about already thin models being made to look emaciated by "beauty" magazines. I'm tired of hearing Fox News rant about whether or not Michelle Obama has the thighs for shorts. I'm tired of strangers staring at me disapprovingly, as if to make me into the fat shadow of their starving soul.

Michelle Obama is beautiful! Heck, I am beautiful! Have you noticed?-- I look like my poem! (see post below)

In addition to the photo of that poem, I've illustrated this post with a 1631 etching by Rembrandt called "Woman on a Mound." It is referenced in Zadie Smith's work of fiction On Beauty, which is a modern-day retelling of E. M. Forster's novel, Howard's End. In Smith's book, a fresh-faced college freshman from South Bend, IN, named Katie ponders this etching, and though she is a minor character, her insight is anything but:
Katie has read some famous commentaries on this etching. Everybody finds it technically good but visually disgusting. Many famous men are repulsed. A simple naked woman is apparently much more nauseating than Samson having his eye put out or Ganymede pissing everywhere. Is she really so grotesque? She was a shock, to Katie, at first--like a starkly lit, unforgiving photograph of oneself. But then Katie began to notice all the exterior, human information, not explicitly in the frame but implied by what we see there. Katie is moved by the crenulated marks of absent stockings on her legs, the muscles in her arms suggestive of manual labour. That loose belly that has known many babies, that still fresh face that has lured men in the past and may yet lure more. Katie--a stringbean, physically--can even see her own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt were saying to her, and to all women: 'For you are of the earth, as my nude is, and you will come to this point too, and be blessed if you feel as little shame, as much joy, as she!' This is what a woman is: unadorned, after children and work and age, and experience--these are the marks of living.
I want you to know the supreme joy of letting your body speak in what you write. Ask it what it thinks. Listen for its replies. And tell. Don't be ashamed. Tell and ask and ask and ask and tell some more. You will never run out of things to write. Your body, as always, will carry you through.

What About the Body?

against time!  always there!
belly breast brain
breath blood bone
together   beautiful
skin ablaze with
travel  trips  time
together  time  broken  brilliant!
big  bare  blind  blushed
behaved  bellowed  beat  birthed
born   always there!   beautiful!
asked and answered   ask beauty!
breast  bone  bosom  back
ached  armed  asked
always there!  ask time
burn  boil  bleed  build
beauty yes!  always there!
ask  tell  there! there!
ask  ask  ask

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) I chose lots of "B" words to go with "body."

28 October 2009

The Knife

A friend died today
not in bone but in heart.
I watched steel enter her eyes
days ago, and my idea of her--
which is more about me--

Who are we to one another?
Is that some truth we can never know?
I feel sick and out of step and
but strangely

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

27 October 2009

Along the Listening Path

A few days ago, my husband came home from getting his hair cut with a great 'do but otherwise looking a wee bit haggard. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"The woman who cut my hair never took a breath from the moment I sat down in the chair," he replied. "She was a living, breathing run-on sentence, and I'm exhausted."

Is it just my imagination, or are there more compulsive talkers than ever? We encounter them in practically every walk of life--at the grocery, the hairdresser, in waiting rooms (where one woman talked to me once even though I closed my eyes and fell asleep; I woke when they called my name and she was still talking!).

Not much cause-wise comes up in a Google search on the problem, though you'll find any number of names for it and the thinnest of coping advice. This takes the form of "stay on your toes," which is, of course, for the person being talked at and also works if you want to avoid walking off a cliff or being mauled by bears in the wild.

Imagine, then, how delighted I was to find an essay on listening I'd never heard of before by a writer I had. This Sunday I'll post a review about Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write. In searching the internet for a photo of her to accompany the article, I came across her essay "The Art of Listening." Ueland died in 1985, so the essay was around long before compulsive talking hit my radar screen.

While Ueland tries to entice people into wanting to be better listeners--"because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force....When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life."--she also presents both sides of the problem. "Now, there are brilliant people who cannot listen much. They have no ingoing wires on their apparatus. They are entertaining, but exhausting, too."

She then relates how her father was one of those men, and because he always talked and never listened, she stopped trying to be heard, and so they never connected in his lifetime.

There's a lot of buzz these days about how we get tossed back to us in human relationships what we dish out. That's not completely untrue, but it seems to get pumped up to the point that it morphs into what it criticizes and manages to let everyone off the hook instead of making each of us more accountable.

After all, this way of thinking goes, the offended person must have induced the other's behavior some how. Projection is the word attached to this. And while I don't deny the psychological definition and reality of projection, this other circumstance I'm describing is a bastardization of it.

While I will confess there are times I've contributed to someone else's bad behavior, too many to count in fact, there are also plenty of instances when someone was just plain rude and unconscious, and I had nothing to do with it except as witness. But what I think the people who preach about this sort of thing are trying to say is that sometimes there are things we can do to try to redirect the other person's energy. Staying on our toes, it turns out, is just the beginning:
Recently, a man I had not seen for 20 years wrote me. He was an unusually forceful man and had made a great deal of money. But he had lost his ability to listen. He talked rapidly and told wonderful stories and it was just fascinating to hear them. But when I spoke--restlessness: "Just hand me that, will you?...Where is my pipe?" It was just a habit. He read countless books and was eager to take in ideas, but he just could not listen to people. Well, this is what I did. I was more patient--I did not resist his non-listening talk as I did my father's. I listened and listened to him, not once pressing against him, even in thought, with my own self-assertion. I said to myself: 'He has been under a driving pressure for years....But now, by listening, I will pull it all out of him. He must talk freely and on and on. When he has been really listened to enough, he will grow tranquil. He will begin to want to hear me.
 And he did, Ueland says, after a few days, at which point he began to ask her questions and she neatly worked his listening problem into her answers. Two days of solid listening is no small feat, but Ueland saw the value in sticking with it. By listening, she says, she starts up another's "creative fountain" and that does them good.
Now why does it do them good? I have a kind of mystical notion about this. I think it is only by expressing all that is inside that purer and purer streams come. It is so in writing. You are taught in school to put down on paper only the bright things. Wrong. Pour out the dull things on paper too--you can tear them up afterward--for only then do the bright ones come. If you hold back the dull things, you are certain to hold back what is clear and beautiful and true and lively.
I'm a writer and a writing teacher, so I like how she pulled in the writing analogy. I also encounter compulsive talkers in my writing workshops. It's a natural draw. They come to writing because they want to be heard, finally. The paper or computer screen before them is blank, waiting to be filled, and it doesn't interrupt or talk back or expect them listen to its story. It gives free reign, and these people are more than ready to take hold.

For my own part, I came to writing because it was something I was born to do, which is neither a greater nor a lesser calling; it was just always there. I was the kid who wrote a song when she was 7 and went around the house singing it into a hairbrush. When I was 9 and my fourth-grade teacher cast all the blue-eyed children in the class play, I wrote my own play in retaliation and cast brown-eyed friends. Then in the summer I was 10 I tried to rally the other kids who lived in my neighborhood to put on a play I was writing based on Cinderella.

Little did I know it then, when life gushed out around me on all sides, that one day I would suffer over rather than embrace the blankness of the page before me, unable to fill it, my stomach cramping at its sight. What I went through looked a little different than compulsive talking, but it too came from not being heard.

More precisely, it came from being silenced.

So I understand firsthand what it feels like to not be able to get out what you need to get out. But in a workshop setting, I have a roomful of people who all deserve a share of the airspace, and it's my responsibility to keep everyone engaged.

A person who's been silenced will heal herself as long as she feels safe and there's a space in which she can speak. Talkers, on the other hand, I approach by encouraging them to funnel all that energy onto the paper. Writing is a container. If the glass breaks it soaks the table and your clothes and the floor, and then someone slips and falls--well, you get it. There is energy in story, but too much talk about the story blows it apart.

How to be a good listener and a more focused writer follow along the same path. The stepping-off point for both is listening to yourself--The Little Surround of today's poem (see post below). Find a quiet place at the center where you hear what that person inside wants said....

..and then, of course, write it on that empty page.

It will do you good.

The Little Surround

Listen long and love
the little surround:
leaves laugh--like us!

Storms step through the sky
as if in slippers and
winter steams its cold whisper.

The soul sleeps beneath it all
and wishes
in drizzled dreams.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

26 October 2009

Write a Novel in a Month?
Meet Someone Who Did!

Julianna Thibodeaux won’t be one of the 100,000 or so people powering up their computers come 12:01 a.m. this Sunday when National Novel Writing Month gets under way. But she’s done it twice before, in 2008 and 2007, and recommends the process. 

“There’s nothing like a deadline to keep you working,” she says. “When I first sat down I wasn’t really sure what the novel was going to be about. But the time pressure actually freed me to let my unconscious dictate that.”

National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—commences Nov. 1 and has grown from fewer than two dozen participants in 1999 to more than 119, 000 in 2008. Of course, not everyone who starts out to write a minimum 50,000 words and submit them to the organization’s online counter finishes and gets the completion certificate. A mere six made it the first year, but the numbers neared 22,000 in 2008.

Thibodeaux, who’s a freelance journalist, art critic and aspiring poet and novelist, has taken up residence in both camps. In 2007 she finished her NaNoWriMo novel—working title “The Mother’s Room”—and got the certificate. But the following year she had too much else happening and didn’t make it. She’s still working on both books, though, and continued to polish her ’07 effort as part of graduate studies in interdisciplinary art at Goddard CollegePlainfieldVt.

She says she began the process by figuring out how many words she had to average a day to finish in 30 days. That number is either 1,666 and you come out 20 words short or 1,667 and you come out 10 words over. “Eventually I lagged behind and had to write 2,000 and 3,000 words a day to finish.”

But finish she did, and the product she ended up with wasn’t something she would ever have suspected she’d write. “I was far more playful than I would have been if I’d just sat down to write a novel with clear intentions as far as a plot, which is kind of ironic because of the pressure,” she confesses. “But I didn’t have time to over-think it. Once that plot line emerged it gave me lots of places to go, and who I am as a person and writer funneled into that.”

The way in, though, was unexpected. “A feminist murder mystery? No, I never thought I’d write anything like that,” she laughs. “Murder mysteries aren’t something I typically read either.” And the book she started in 2008 is different still—a young boy whose own gender identity is just emerging as his father’s takes a sudden turn.

Several of Thibodeaux’s graduate advisers and a writer-friend have since given her suggestions about the first novel. “And I’m finding that the revision process is much harder than writing—obviously, since two years later I’m still polishing.” Her next step is to use this polished manuscript to find an agent and then, with an agent’s help, a publisher.

Nearly 40 past participants already have published their NaNoWriMo works, according to the website, which puts the odds somewhere around 1 in 2000. And as much as the event has grown in popularity over the years, it has its detractors as well. Back-to-back with a feature promoting the contest last year, National Public Radio carried an interview with an established writer who suggested the world didn’t need anymore bad novels, that most of what gets written in NaNoWriMo should never be written at all and will never—thankfully, he added—see the light of day.

But Thibodeaux disagrees. “Plenty of bad novels get written without NaNoWriMo, that’s for sure. But I don’t think there’s ever anything inherently bad that comes from the creative process at work in a person. People have all kinds of different intentions when they write. Some people are just interested in expressing themselves, while others may only want to be the next best-selling sensation and will do whatever it takes to get there. And, of course, there are many variations. To say some way of writing is destructive and bad is irresponsible.”

Instructions for joining in the ’09 contest can be found at www.nanowrimo.org. Basically it’s 50,000 words uploaded by midnight Monday, Nov. 30, after which, as Thibodeaux attests, the real work has just begun. But how long is 50,000 words? The website says it's equivalent to a short novel, and you can, of course, write more. Maybe trying to put your head around the daily average makes more sense—1,667 words. Well, if this article counted toward my NaNoWriMo quota for the day, I’d be about 47 percent of the way there.

Can you finish? You’ll never know unless you start. Good luck!

25 October 2009

The Book of Questions

by Pablo Neruda 
(William O'Daly, translator)
This is a small book--5 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 3/8 inches and only 70-some pages. You'll likely read it in one sitting, since half its bulk comes from the poems printed as Neruda, a Chilean, wrote them, in Spanish, and half is the English translation. They are simple poems, all questions as the title denotes, yet you'll find yourself reading them again and again--perhaps dreaming up answers. They are fun to read in Spanish, too, even if--like me--you only have a few years of high school instruction to lead you on.

Why is this a book I recommend for writers? Because it has the wonderful effect of making you look at the world in a different way--through Pablo's glasses--and ask the questions of a child. From there, you may go on to write poems with the clear, bright insight of a child. And after that, who knows?

I have selected favorites--so hard to choose!!--from this book on several occasions and used in my workshops for the opening reading, from which we draw our first writing prompt. Always everyone is charmed not only by Neruda's questions, but by the ones they write in response and those of their fellow writers. They leave thinking about the world, and responding to it, in a different way--as if it had life, and cheek, and a sense of humor. They discover a sense of humor in themselves they had forgotten, or lost.

Most of the poems are whimsical and upbeat. For instance, the book opens with:

     Why don't the immense airplanes
     fly around with their children?

     Which yellow bird
     fills its nest with lemons?

     Why don't they train helicopters
     to suck honey from the sunlight?

     Where did the full moon leave
     its sack of flour tonight?

But many are also philosophical, and a few are openly political--for instance the series on Adolf Hitler, which begins with these lines (number LXX):

     What forced labor
     does Hitler do in hell?

The first time I used a smattering of these poems as a workshop prompt, the results were so breathtaking I gathered everyone's offerings together into an illustrated e-book I posted on my website. Reading them I felt like this (number XLIV):

     Where is the child I was,
     still inside me or gone?

     Does he know that I never loved him
     and that he never loved me?

     Why did we spend so much time
     growing up only to separate?

     Why did we both not die
     when my childhood died?

     And why does my skeleton pursue me
     if my world has fallen away?

Why, indeed! This is one of those little books you will cherish--as if there was any other way to feel about Pablo. May he rest in the peace his words conjure.


Our tapenade is full
of oil & olives & capers
& clouds drunk on magic.
Our chowder runs thick
with cream & clams,
dreams & calm and mystery.
Your meals drizzle & dazzle
and I long to drown in
the gift that is dinner--
fevered tomatoes, 
onions loud with moon,
fennel drenched in lust
and wine that lingers lazy & wild in the mouth--
I am a mesclun muse always chanting "More!"
for I know your cooking never lies.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

The Summer I Was Ten

The summer I was ten
I rounded up the neighborhood kids 
to put on a play: 
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney rolled into one.

I wrote the script,
designed the program and sets,
assigned the parts,
directed rehearsals and even
canceled the cookies my mother promised to bake
when everyone grew tired of playing my game.

Sure was a relief for all concerned when
partway through July 
I turned 11.

PROMPT: The summer I was 10, of course. There's a great May Swenson poem called "The Centaur" that is about this same subject. Follow the link to print off a copy and share as a way to introduce the prompt.

24 October 2009

Ask and See

What if every time we felt a whisker
we would speak in whispers?

If work was a longer word
would we play more and talk less?

If all paper was story-white
would I write thicker plots?

Which woman's gift to man
created moan?

Does that last stanza make you
as mad as it makes me?
Which goddess have we to thank for d?

Will we someday no the difference
between ask and see?

PROMPT: I chose words from my magnetic tile stash that appealed to me that day (I have lots!). I also was interested in paradox--between similar spellings but divergent meanings, for instance.

23 October 2009

Taking Stock

We are all in this soup together:
Each one with a place at an enormous table. 
Every one with the taste of story tender-
loined on a tongue sick with secrets,
a tongue that talks us. 
It is a kind of death.


Lips long for kisses but get easy flavor. 
Ears want understanding but do not listen. 
Fingers grasp but do not feel.
And for the breath the word the voice
there is no drink.

And so I write the rich sauce of our love
onto the steam of this day.
I savor the thick, smooth salt of
what time there is. I will make my stock of
all that is uncertain.

PROMPT: I chose words from my magnetic tile stash that appealed to me that day (I have lots!). The stanzas of this particular poem neatly emerged on three consecutive days.

20 October 2009

Life Comes in When We Make an Opening

PROMPT: Write about a time the universe opened and spoke to you. Here's what it said to me...

My husband Chris and I like to have weekend lunches at a nearby cafe. A couple months ago while driving the mile or so there, someone cut us off in traffic. Chris is generally a patient man, but drivers who push (or completely flaunt) the rules (and laws!) of how to behave on the road set him off.

We had been discussing the website we planned to create--the one we plan to develop around this blog--and our intention was to continue discussing it over lunch. But the tone of the conversation changed mid-route because of someone else's inconsiderate behavior, which, if you've driven lately, you know is about as routine as leaves falling in autumn. Chris had every right to feel belligerent. He started to speed up, as if to catch up with the other guy--and do what? Shake his fist?

I didn't want this to spoil our day, so I said something like, "He probably did what he did because someone cut him off, and the way he got back was doing it to you." And then I added, "You know, I'm really trying to live in a way that opens up possibilities. If I can let another driver in who seems in a big hurry, then I try to let go of the frustration I feel over his arrogance. Maybe it means someone down the road will open up a space for me next time I need it."

I didn't come by this conversion to more gracious living easily. I've always been an aggressive driver, ready to pounce on any opening and suck it up for myself. But on June 13, 2008 (yes, it was a Friday), I had a really bad accident. Sure there were extenuating circumstances--a broken turn light, too many cars, and the other guy going too fast. But insurance-wise, it was my fault. Both cars were totaled. Thankfully, both drivers walked away without a scratch.

But it shook me up big-time. I could hardly drive at all for close to six months. I still plot routes with right turns only whenever possible. The accident slowed me down. The other driver was a young man of about 20. I hope it slowed him down, too.

That day on the way to lunch with Chris, I didn't want to sound preachy, and he didn't take it that way because I prefaced what I said with "Since my accident..." He knows how close he came to losing me, and he's glad it made me think about driving differently. By the time I finished saying what I had to say, we'd arrived at the restaurant and parked. We approached the vestibule entrance at about the same time as a young mother and her daughter, who appeared to be about 4 years old. Chris held the outer door open for them to go in before us. He does this a lot for people; he's a considerate man. The woman thanked him, which often doesn't happen.

Then when she got to the inner door, she stopped and held it open for us. To top it off, she said to her child, "Now we need to hold the door for them because they were kind enough to hold it for us." The little girl nodded and helped her mom hold the door open. This never happens!!

I scoped out a table. Chris ordered the food and brought the tray over. "Can you believe that?" one of us asked. I can't remember who spoke first because we both were so wowed that the universe had just opened up and spoken to us.

There's a web of energy in this world that connects absolutely everything. I believe that. I can't show it to you or prove scientifically that it exists. But I think about it as a sort of huge dynamo--an engine meant to hum along efficiently instead of clank and clog. When we fine-tune ourselves to work in harmony with it, amazing things happen.

Being at my desk each and every day, expecting a poem to come is one of those amazing things. It's like that opening I make in traffic for another car or the door Chris holds open for another person. Who or what comes in is up to the universe. Whether I make time for it and welcome what happens along is up to me.

I think that's what "Piggyback Poetry" (see post below) was telling me. Just after I wrote it, I thought it was a lot of seeming nonsense held together by too many words that begin with "p." But now I see that it carries a deeper idea--that poetry (the "p" word) evolves out of looking at everyday events in a new way and really taking in what comes. It is a sort of piggyback ride. But the catch is, if I'm not here, open to it, nothing comes at all.

Be at your desk.

Be present in your life.

Watch and wait.

The world opens.

Write it down.

Piggyback Poetry

Put a petal pie on page.
Picture puppy paragraphs at play.
Pierce the present pink with purple.
Plot prisoner prawns to power-over 

pasta and pesto and pound polenta 
into porcelain and proud perfume.
Plant peaches with prosciutto and peace 

and poison. Protect all passions 
all prostitutes perhaps but
no parents no puppets 

and above all
no poets. 

That is howl you
piggyback poetry.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) with a focus on "P" words.

19 October 2009

Mistakes Count for More Than You Know

PROMPT: Write about a mistake made that turned out for the best.

I began this blog and the poem-a-day experiment with just the basic set of magnetic word and letter tiles. After only a week I started seeing a lot of the same words show up again and again. The wordie in me longed for greater variety! That's when I pointed my browser to the Magnetic Poetry website and ordered more.

What I meant to order was The Poet's Kit, Writers Remedy, Book Lover, Foodie and Bird Lover. But when the much-anticipated box arrived a few days later, Fatherhood appeared in place of Bird Lover. I dug from my files the receipt I printed at the time I ordered, fully expecting to find the supplier in error. But there it was, plain as day: Fatherhood.

I tried to think back to the day I placed the order. Did I have a last-minute attack of weirdness? I carry a lot of angst in the fatherhood department. I've written about it, but it's hard. It hurts a lot and doesn't seem to accomplish much. It ends up being way too personal and just sounds angry, which is probably because I am still angry over it. Did I think this might help me approach it in a new way? Or did the scroll wheel on my mouse simply change what I ordered when I wasn't paying attention?

Either way, I decided to keep the kit. I've learned mistakes happen sometimes for a reason, but still I unpacked this kit last. Somehow I just wasn't ready to get into those words. And when I did, I spent a couple days obsessing over how sappy they were. Yet each day when I came to my desk to write, I opened the box again and looked at a few more, until today, when I pulled them out and started to arrange and compose with them.

Last week after the new kits arrived, I bought some stuff to help me organize my new wealth of words for easy access. There's a cupcake tin for sorting the bigger words alphabetically and a cake pan with a snap-on lid for storing everything. I also bought a half-dozen or so personal-size pizza pans to separate out the prefixes and suffixes, along with all the "glue" words. I have pans for conjunctions, articles, helping verbs, prepositions--well, you get the idea.

There's also a pan where I tossed glue words I haven't organized yet. Among the words it holds are negatives--no, not and never. As I read the Fatherhood words I thought how they were not what I experienced, and I ended up writing the poem displayed in the post below this one, Not-Father. The process of working with the magnetic words helped me to stand back from my own experience and universalize it in a way that it wasn't just about me anymore. But it still holds the sense of loss I want to convey.

Writers--and people in all walks of life--need to pay close attention to their mistakes. Not because they necessarily need to "make up" for them or correct anything, but because the mistake may be the breadcrumb they follow to a new place. It may be the "new thing" that solves pollution or world hunger. Just think about the origins of post it notes, for goodness sake!

In Tarot--which I admittedly know next-to-nothing about--the Fool card is considered an advantageous one to draw. The image on the card is of a young man blithely walking along, a little dog at his heels, unaware of the cliff he is about to walk over.

Of course, this could be disastrous too. But if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got, right? I say try something new. Shake things up. Make a few really incredible mistakes.

If you get a poem out of it, so much the better.


Not-Father grumps through parenting 
not breathing the smoke he spanks at the girl   
not happy  not funny   not wise   
not watching what he gives her 
to not remember

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) "Not" and what I could pair with it presented itself as a theme early in my selection process.

18 October 2009


The wild onion writes its poetry on the summer breeze--
hair a howl of purple and blue star
heart a blaze of garlic history
prisoner only to the salt
that is fiction and sea

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) But you could also have people select a place to write about and have them draw so many words from a jar, with the understanding they used them to describe the place.

Writing Alone and With Others

by Pat Schneider 
Pat Schneider is the founder of Amherst Writers & Artists, an organization that trains leaders in a particular method of leading writing groups. I found my way to her book through someone I met by chance at another workshop, and reading her book encouraged me to sign up for the training. This book details the methods I use in my workshops, and the week of training I shared with 14 other leaders-to-be and three staff members in an old farmhouse in Connecticut changed my life.

Lots of people have written writing books about a lone journey, and much of what's in the first half of this book--the writing alone part--is on par with it. Schneider's particular genius comes through in the chapter on voice: finding all the parts of your own voice, learning to use them, then learning to try out other voices. She says, "Writers often ask me, 'How do I find my voice?' It is a sad question--as sad as if the question were, 'How do I find my face?' The answer is so clear, so transparent, we can easily miss it altogether. Listen. Listen to yourself. Listen to your own voice telling your own stories to the listener you most trust...You have a voice, just as surely as you have a face, and it is already full of character, passionate and nuanced and beautiful."

This is an interesting passage to me because while it is in the "writing alone" part of the book, the discovery of how the voice sounds needs the help of someone else--a person we trust. The "writing together" part of the book attempts to describe how to create a writing group or workshop where the members, who may not know each other well or at all--can become people we trust. I don't know of any other book that deals at all with the "writing together" portion.

Schneider's plan for a supportive writing community is a democratic one where teacher and pupil are equal and interchangeable. The leader writes along with the group members, reads, and listens as others in the group discuss her work. And the leader learns from that process just as surely as the group members learn from the leader. This I can tell you as someone who has led Amherst-style groups for going on five years.

The other democratic aspect to Schneider's method is she brushes aside all ideas of rank or class. There is no insider/outsider dynamic going on. Writers write; it's as simple as that. If you come to a writing workshop, it must be to write; so go ahead and call yourself a writer. What happens in Amherst groups is that the leader gives the group a creative prompt to write to, sets a time limit, lets everyone know when time is up, then asks for volunteers to read. No one is forced or goaded into reading if they don't want to.

The other principle, which is inviolate in an Amherst group and discussed in great detail in the "writing together" section, is that there can be absolutely no criticism of someone's work during the response portion of the meeting, after the writer has read. People are trying to be brave in what they write, trying to learn to trust, but they won't manage either if they fear they'll be criticized. They will never write in their own voice, or hear it loud and clear when they read, or learn how it affects other people if they're afraid someone's going to tell them what's wrong with it.

And that's just one person's opinion anyway. Pat says so, and I agree.

The book is absolutely full of creative writing prompts. If you've ever been to one (or more) of my workshops, you'll recognize some. But there are plenty more here I've yet to try that you may find fun for your "writing alone" practice. And once you get going on the writing-prompt thing, you start making up many on your own. So I may never get back to ones in this book!

There is a companion DVD to this book which is also excellent. Its central feature is a 20-minute documentary-style film that shows Schneider in action leading the group she is most famous for: the one for low-income women in western Massachusetts' ailing mill towns in the 1980s. Many of these women hadn't finished high school, some were in abusive relationships, one was living in her car with her three children. Writing helped them all change their lives because it gave them a voice. That much is clear. All of them--yes, all--went on to get educations. The one who was living in her car was named Social Worker of the Year in Massachusetts in 2005. Many of these women lead writing groups of their own now.

Also in the DVD--if you can get your hands on it--are interviews with other long-time Amherst leaders discussing the various shapes a writing group can take and what these many people have done with Pat's original model. There's also a terrific one-on-one with Pat that works as a video workshop. She delivers the prompt, then you hit the pause button, and the group (or individual) writes. I've yet to use it with a group, but I think it would work well, particularly, in a class to teach others how to be Amherst leaders.

My Pockets are Full of All Good Things

The adoration of cats and the respect of birds.
Gourmet meals, complex wines and good conversation.
The image of myself in the eyes of one who loves me.
The tag team of wind and sunshine.
Rain on the roof at night.
Snow muffling traffic sounds at dusk.
Missed cabs and voices on a dark train 
and you beside me, sleeping.

PROMPT: What's in your pockets? Literally, this could be a simple list poem that would tell us something about the speaker. Women could substitute "purse" for "pocket," or you could change it to a desk drawer or something similar. Or, do as I did and tell them to choose figurative, imaginative things.

17 October 2009

Love Apples

I love you in tomatoes, honey.
Good times grow when you dig down down in dirt: 

Passion, which is another kind of poetry,
and Respect, which is the seed paragraph 
in the language of Like. 

You are as savory cooked  and laughed over pasta 
as you are raw. 

Here's to my sweet-on-the-tongue hero of the garden epic! 
My ripe red-headed coach of mesclun desire! 
My soul sauce of summer wisdom! 

You are the  sure taste of  the tendered story 
beneath my uncertain voice.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

16 October 2009


The sun whispers into a void of water.

The wind swims through the tongue of ache.

The moon's breast waxes cool and bare
but there is no milk. 

These moments we say are ours 
are storms in a sky of going going     gone.

My fingers cry the shadows.  My hair
sleeps its ways into the forest bed's dream.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

15 October 2009

A Poem a Day? Are You Crazy?

The answers are Yes! and Maybe a little.

Too often I let other things--anything--get in the way of writing. I have lots of ideas, lots of starts, but not so many finishes. So having a commitment to be at my desk every morning, flipping through mounds of magnetic words until a poem starts to take shape gives me a dollop of discipline without dissing the playfulness so important to creativity. Publishing what comes up for me in a blog keeps me honest.

It's like I have a date with Mr. Right, except in this case it's Mr. Write.

Is anybody reading these things? I don't know. Much as I'd like an audience, that's beside the point. Are they any good? I don't know that either and ditto on it's beside the point. How could I say they're good or bad when I don't even know if they're finished?

Look at each one like it's an entry in my journal. The Ecuadoran poet Claribel Alegria says she carries a little notebook with her everywhere and writes down words, lines and other ideas that enter her consciousness, then she pulls from them later and makes them into something else. She calls this notebook her seed book.

Call this my seed book.

William Stafford is known among poets for how he established a daily practice of writing a new poem. James Dickey called him one of those poets "who pours out rivers of ink, all on good poems."  A former poet laureate, Stafford kept a journal for more than 50 years and wrote nearly 22,000 poems! Though a college teacher and the author of a memoir, he never published his poetry until later in life. Yet by the time he died in 1993 at the age of 79, he'd published about 3,000 poems.

Call these my William Stafford wannabe daily poems.

Am I comparing myself to Stafford? Absolutely not. Each writer is a voice unto herself (or himself, as the case may be). What they all have in common is a need to write. And if a writer writes everyday, she (or he) will get better, just like an athlete or a musician who practices. She will become more Herself, on paper.

I want to get as good as I can get, so I plan to practice right here, every day. Because now I have a date with YOU, whoever you are, if you are. Write back, if you like, and let me know what you think. No criticism--these are little poetry babies, too new to pick on! Just tell me what you like, or what you find memorable. Or don't write anything; just click one of the "reaction" boxes.

And if you have something you've written that you want to share, follow the link to my Forum. There are lots of fun prompts to try, along with a place for you to post whatever you're working on and hear what other writers liked.

I hope to read you there.

Purple is the Egg

It incubates the diamond
   beneath my garden
      my place in any moment
a knife panting meaning into a tongue
essential want
   delirious recall
      crush of vision
eternity   drunk on its gift.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

14 October 2009

Beneath the Garden of Death

We two swim through whispered forests
to the lake of sleeping friends.
I have no language to tell these dreams.
You have no tongue.
This place never lies.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

13 October 2009

To Write Is To...

Language is power--
A mad moment
An urge cooked.
A lust lathered.
A moan read.
It's white hot and then
a raw boil of bitter rust.
Frantic pink & blood black & easy red
and after always only
some think
some one

PROMPT: The title, of course. However, I chose my words from my magnetic tile stash, by going in search of striking and unusual associations. You could also go around the room and have each writer contribute a word or words, perhaps by writing them on slips of paper for the leader to read. Everyone would then have the same set of words to include. If you do this in a group, announce the topic after you collect the words..

12 October 2009


Who was it behind
the elaborate apparatus 
of bitter milk? 

The moments of will drive me like an ache 
and a thousand togethers sit there
like a road trip in winter
white & raw & slow.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

11 October 2009

Words of Warning

To you who would be my friend:
The iron in me runs
beneath your pleases
a boiling garden of rust.
I may sing sweet petals
some but I am
no pink rose at the road stop.
I smell out the storm
under the rain and sit
lazy on my egg of bitter springs.
Can you worship my blackest dreams?
Sleep, scream, or go away!

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) However, this poem also classifies as a rant. Have people choose someone to "tell off."

Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographic Writing by Virginia Woolf

edited by Jeanne Schulkind
Virginia Woolf is one of those writers whose fiction I struggle to get through, but I am always glad when I make it to the end that I persevered. Her nonfiction--quite oddly, I think--affects me just the opposite. I am in her pocket from the first word, captive until the last, and always left hungry for more. This seems even stranger when you know that I am someone who prefers fiction and thinks most nonfiction too dry.

I so love how Woolf writes about the life of the writer. Reading her nonfiction helps me understand how her fiction emerged and what she was trying to accomplish. This particular collection includes heretofore unpublished writing about her life--some done at a nephew's request ("A Sketch of the Past") and some done for a writers' group she belonged to called "The Memoir Club." Members included the novelist E. M. Forster, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the art critic Roger Fry, in addition to Virginia and her husband Leonard and Virginia's sister and brother-in-law, Vanessa and Clive Bell. It represented a regrouping of the Old Bloomsbury group, following World War I, and all were sworn to "utter frankness" in the manuscripts they chose to contribute.

So in this book we experience Virginia Woolf writing matter-of-factly about everything from her early memories of flowers in her mother's dress to her half-brother's sexual abuse of both her and her sister. Schulkind points in the introduction to Woolf's interest in conveying "two levels of being--the surface and the spreading depths." Later Woolf herself elucidates, "for when you examine feelings with the intense microscope that sorrow lends, it is amazing how they stretch, like the finest goldbeater's skin, over immense tracts of substance." I then see deeper into her experiments with story.

"I often wonder," she writes in one of the pieces in this collection, "that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence?" And when she concludes, "Strong emotion must leave its trace," I begin to know what Orlando and To the Lighthouse were really aiming at. And so I think I may regather my courage, add The Waves to my reading list, and if that turns out okay, try Mrs. Dalloway, again.