Tag Archives: poetry

In Search of a Good Title

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So I wrote a poem for my writing class this summer. I sat down and wrote it without thinking. I didn’t let myself overanalyze, criticize, or edit. I didn’t stress over line breaks or punctuation or even the order of the stanzas. I blocked out the part of me that hates everything I write and forced myself to tell the story that had been brewing.

I wrote it and I passed it in. It came back in a yellow envelope with the rest of my writing for the term, and my professor had written comments. Nix this whole stanza, she wrote, and I agreed because the ducks didn’t fit with the rest of the poem. Her biggest critique? Where’s the title?

That was August, and I’ve been laboring over this poem for months now. My writers’ group critiqued it and Jon solved a huge problem in the last stanza: What if you used a colon to introduce what the narrator is imagining?

Oh my gosh, yes.

We went back and forth over whether a word should be singular or plural, how to say the sun was bright without sounding trite, but the hardest part was the title. I told them I’d keep working on it, that titles are historically hard for me, that it’s nearly impossible for me to find one that isn’t heavy-handed. And every other week or so, I shoot Kate a text: What about this one? Or this? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I feel like I slink away with my head hanging because I should have trusted my gut on that one.

Why is this title so particularly hard?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it. I think it has something to do with the simplicity of the poem. It’s not frilly. There’s no fanfare. It’s straightforward and real. Every title I come up with is not straightforward or real. They drip with sentimentality.

If I didn’t care so much about this poem, I’d probably just slap on some sappy sounding empty phrase and call it a day.

But I do care. It’s one of the few poems that left my head and did the work I wanted it to do. It did that work, but then it did more. It became its own creature. It got up and walked on its own two feet. I refuse to do it the disservice of saddling it with a cheesy label.

So, whatever you’re doing right now, imagine me, sitting cross-legged in a green velour chair, wracking my brain for a title that is honest and clean and simple.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Sunday Haiku

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Mist falls from the sky
all day covering the grass
in tiny droplets.

 

When the dog gets out
we lure him back with butter
and a soft cooing.

 

She poses for a
picture, holding her baby
in front like a shield.

 

“How are the bees?” he
asks. She tells him spring was too
cold for much honey.

 

Driving home from a
party she stops short; a thin
red fox ‘s eyes glow.

Two Months Out

It’s only a hiatus from home, and that’s okay. Living with an old college roommate is even better when you both have a job. There’s a lot of freedom in a paycheck; you can buy as much whole bean coffee as you want, and inviting friends over for dinner goes a lot further than constantly eating out. This time we haven’t encountered any gigantic bugs, and there’s nothing like that first day in a foreign country.

It helps that we learned our rhythms in Austria. I wonder if studying abroad makes you more open.

This was only a short month ago. I tried to focus on the sunset, but really all I saw was the snow.

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We have simple tastes, but they’re good: dark chocolate, red wine, peanut butter, oatmeal, apples, bananas, bacon and eggs.

We sit laughing after dinner because we’re weird and things are funny, but maybe not that funny. We wonder if there can be such giggling with men? When you’re married, do you laugh this much?

On Sunday, we walked in the second day of sunshine. We read a poem in the cemetery and openly told my brother later, just so he would make fun of us. German sounds good in a graveyard, and Rilke’s Elegies leave so much to discover, even if you read them over and over. This one leaves me sad with unnamed darkness.

We made chili with hot sauce and cheddar cheese. I wish I could say I’ve become a serious Betty Crocker.

Not the case.

But I have made a stir fry – jointly and imaginatively – and I have mastered the art of steel cut oats in the morning.

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Last night, after work, I threw on jeans and a hoodie. I needed a book for class (reading Avi for Adolescent Lit…), so I walked to the library. The sun was setting and there was baseball practice on the common. The boys were shouting but the fathers shouted louder. A little girl scootered right up to me (scooter is a verb, right?), and it was my landlord’s daughter. She wore a tank top in honor of the warmish weather, and she, her brother, and the neighbor girl were adorable in their desire to talk.

I got my book at the library, walked around town, and down the street that goes over the stream. I threw a stick in the stream, wanted to see a muskrat but didn’t, and then I saw them – three children on various moving toys – barreling towards me. A post-dinner walk with the family and dog, and I loved that for a few moments we could talk reading, soccer, and school.

In a few weeks, I’ll move back home. Spring will be well underway and we’ll put the seedlings in the ground. We’ll have dinner on the porch and play cribbage. I’ll be working towards summer and babysitting and ESL.

But for right now, I’m enjoying this little place and its two twin beds across from each other.

Egrets

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“Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going.”

I don’t really like nature poetry. I’ve tried for years, taking recommendations, trying to more than just acknowledge its worth and actually revel in it. But there are few nature poems (or poets) that get me.

Or should I say: there are few nature poems (or poets) that I get.

And it isn’t for lack of love for nature, either. I’d take a day in the woods over shopping and call it blessed. Still, there’s something.

A friend once told me, “Egrets are auspicious birds.” We were standing by the ocean watching two egrets meander along the marsh. This friend is a reader of signs – a believer in “reasons for things” – and as I watched the egret bend its elegant neck to the marsh grasses, I almost believed her.

Battling through thorns, swatting at mosquitos, the narrator searches for something she doesn’t even know is there. At first, it’s just a clump of reeds shimmering across the shore. Then, suddenly, it bursts into life and white fire, egrets emerging from the reeds.

“Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that made them –
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.”

“By the laws of their faith” – as though even birds have a sense of belonging. I imagined their long un-clumsy legs shifting with grace.

They opened their wings softly and stepped over every dark thing.

I sit on my bed, that last line resonating through the room as though I’d read it aloud.

I read it again, quickly, afraid almost that the words are not true. That I didn’t just read a poem about egrets and water and darkness and light.

But I did, and there it is on page 148. A real-live nature poem that stopped me in my mindless reading and gave words to transcendence.

She’s done it again, Mary Oliver, with her observations and daily life and the shaping of thought into poetry.

Maybe I don’t think I care for nature poetry.

If this is me not caring, then why has the image of egrets rising up out of the reeds, the image of “stepping over every dark thing”, settled so permanently in my mind?

[Photo: Texas Eagle]

My Life’s Sister Ship

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Do you ever wake up and wonder: How the heck did I get here?

As though it weren’t necessarily a series of steps, a string of choices, but rather a falling-into the life you seem to be living.

As though you have had no agency at all and have merely shown up to the party, hoping to get some free chips and maybe a half-decent conversation.

And it doesn’t seem to matter how many good things are in your life, how many moments are beautiful or poignant or meaningful, because still you wonder what if?

I try so hard not to live in a dream world, but that is exactly what I do. I’ve created so many different plot lines to this one little life that they’re hard to keep track of. As each experience, each door (whether opened or closed) occurs, I watch a plot line drop off like an untethered dory, drifting further and further away but somehow, no less dear.

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Like the time I thought I would be a big-shot editor at a publishing house in Boston.

Or the time I thought I would marry a boy down the street (whom I never met but hoped to, someday) and we would buy a house in my hometown and walk the kids to school every day.

Or the time I thought I would teach English in South America, discovering another culture all on my own and overcoming my fear of living far away.

Or the time I was sure I was supposed to move to Europe, maybe get my Master’s in Christianity and the Arts (this one’s still tantalizing, I have to admit), and get some challenging and amazing job that combined everything I loved into some sort of mythical dream.

Or the time I would get paid to write, and somehow the ideas would flow endlessly from me. It was always effortless, as though I were a pool of creativity, knowledge, and wisdom.

Or the time I would teach voice lessons from the comfort of my home, making music with friends, performing in operas and living the life of an artist.

Or, if we go way back, the time when I thought I’d live on a farm with no electricity (yes, no electricity. or running water.).

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The first winter I was out of college, I discovered the Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 2011, he’s what I would call a winter poet: a little narrative, a touch of melancholy, along the lines of Seamus Heaney. The poem that made me buy the book was “The Blue House”, and some wouldn’t even call it a poem. Prose poem is the term, I suppose, since he doesn’t use line breaks, but it does the work.

It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I began to understand what was happening, what the point was of all this description of some imagined house. On and on he goes about joy and death, painting a house without brushes, a child who “too early abandoned the task of being a child.” It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I realized what Transtromer was really experiencing:

Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We don’t really know it, but we sense it: there is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

And there it was, the way I have felt my entire life – all the what-ifs and maybes and if-onlys rolled up into one simple sentence. There is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. You can stand on the deck of your life’s ship and watch as the life you could have led sails away, perhaps less real but all the more provocative.

This path we take (or find ourselves on) is a string of choices. It’s also a matter of opportunities and missed opportunities. It’s luck and blessing and shoot that’s terrible. It’s the real-life route while we still sometimes cling to the ghosts of those other ships.

How many are there?

For me, quite a few, of varying possibility and varying audacity.

The ship I’m on is beautiful and challenging and surprising. But those ghost ships can stay even more magical and enticing for the very fact that they’re unknowable, beckoning to me from the horizon.

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Good Things #39

Spring. Spring. Spring!
It finally seems to be here after weeks of teasing. Proof? The bluebirds are back, we planted onion sets this past weekend, and I rode with the top down twice in the past week. Dad put the nucs (short for ‘nuclear’) in the hives we lost this winter. It was a tough one, and the bees felt it. But now the new bees are buzzing about, and I can’t wait for more honey.

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TV…
So, this isn’t something I usually put on my list (other than Sherlock of course), but my brother finally convinced me to watch House of Cards. I’m only two episodes in, and stylistically, I’m hooked. I love the direct address to the audience, I love Kevin Spacey’s voice, and Princess Buttercup is even more stunning thirty years later. I’ve heard through the grapevine, however, that things get a little racy. We’ll see if I can handle it. It always makes me wonder what kind of person I would be if I’d ended up in Washington or in some other political arena. I’d probably be some ruthless cutthroat with pork-filled bills.

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Celebrating poetry month…in Latin.
My students, while not in English class, are still not immune to National Poetry Month. For three weeks we’ll be memorizing Latin poetry together, and I tried to sell it by using my 105-year-old great-grandmother as an example:

“You know what? My great-grandmother is 105, and sometimes she doesn’t remember who I am. You know what she does remember? What she learned in third grade.”

That got their attention. Yes, Gramma can recite poems and songs she sang as a child. So I told them I was giving them the gift of poetry for when they’re old.

They laughed, because none of us is getting old, please.

One of the poems we’re memorizing is Ecce gratum (See, welcome). Written sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries, it is one of 245 poems in the Carmina Burana. Feel free to memorize it yourself in honor of spring and poetry month!

Ecce gratum
et optatum
Vēr reducit gaudia.
Pupuratum
floret pratum.
Sōl serenat omnia.
Iamiam cedant tristia!
Aestās redit,
nunc recedit
Hiemis saevitia.

 

Iam liquescit
et decrescit
grando, nix et cetera.
Bruma fugit,
et iam sugit
Ver Aestatis ubera.
Illi mens est misera,
quī nec vivit,
nec lascivit
sub Aestatis dextera.

 

Gloriantur
et laetantur
in melle dulcedinis
quī conantur,
ut utantur
praemio Cupidinis.
Simus iussu Cypridis
glorantes et
laetantes
pares esse Paridis.

 

See – welcome
and longed-for
Spring brings back joys.
Purple
flowers the field.
The sun clears everything.
Now let sadness recede.
Summer returns
and retreats
the savagery of Winter.

 

Already melts
and vanishes
hail, snow and the rest.
Winter flies,
and now rises
Spring, the heart of Summer.
His mind is miserable
Who neither lives
nor loves
under the right hand of Summer.

 

May they exult
and be joyous
in the honey of sweetness
who try
to make use of the gift of Cupid.
Let us be by the order of Cypris
exultant and
joyous
to be on par with Paris.

What Breaks Your Heart

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[In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be writing about specific poems and the moments they’ve created in my life.]

“This just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said from across the classroom. “I mean, has anyone really ever felt this way?”

It was the worst possible semester to say something like that, and I was probably the worst possible person to say it in front of. It was poetry that prompted it, a poem that – while perhaps heavy-handed – certainly deserved more than just a passing thought.

Funeral Blues

I
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

~ W. H. Auden

Many things had compounded in my life to make me a good reader of mournful poetry. My boyfriend and I had just broken up, and while I wasn’t in this exact state of mourning, I did recognize the echoes of helplessness. It was fall, and despite my love of red leaves and the smell of the fireplace, I was entering my annual melancholy period. It was my senior year of college, and all that lay ahead was frightening and unknown, and I mourned for my soon-to-be-ended college experience.

So I sat across from this girl and my mouth dropped open and words flew out and I leaned over the table in my earnestness.

Have you seriously never felt this way?

You’ve never felt like things were irredeemable?

You’ve never felt darkness more than you felt light?

And I knew the class was staring at me because this was an outburst and I should have been embarrassed. Instead, I felt good. I felt heard. I felt like I had spoken for so many people who’ve lost someone they loved. I’d spoken for people who entered darkness – even for a short period – and for a moment forgot what it meant to have hope.

I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember how the professor brought the class back together and steered the conversation down a tamer road (because the classroom is not the place to really delve deeply into things). Later that evening, though, I had an email from a fellow student. We had only chatted a few times, but she’d written me a message. She thanked me for speaking up, and she said sometimes people just don’t understand experiences outside their own.

Obviously.

So why is it so painful when I’m not understood? Why do I care if someone has never felt despair? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that something I should rejoice over?

It’s not that I want them to have a broken heart. It’s that I can’t stand my experiences or my feelings being disregarded as “unbelievable.” Because that’s what she was saying, even though she didn’t mean to. Has anyone really ever felt this way? is another way of saying, I don’t believe this.

I reread this poem sometimes when I begin to forget the hurting and scared young woman I was. I’ve sent it to friends who were going through surprising and uncontrollable things.

It doesn’t take just a breakup to break your heart.

And yes, as I read it now, I sense more the dramatic, the delusional self. I can see how it is perhaps a poem for an emotionally-wrought college student than a well-seasoned adult who has realized that no, the world does indeed go on.

I just don’t want to disregard the person who hasn’t yet realized this.

I wonder where that girl is now. I wonder if she’s come across Auden’s poem since that day in college. I wonder if she read it any differently, if maybe the clocks stopped for just a moment.

A Blossom in February

IMG_1696You know that moment when you think: This person is going to be good.

My midwestern friend, the one whose marriage we celebrated with dancing last summer, is good. After three years of separation, three years of poetry-writing, slaving over images and words and form, she has become a poet.

Our senior year, as our friendship was forming, I remember wanting desperately to have her gift. Her sensitivity to acknowledging the small, her ability to work within structure. I thought she knew what she was doing then, but now?

Now, I see growth and shimmer where there was only the hope of it before.

~     ~     ~

[I bought two copies of a friend’s book of poetry last week, and they arrived in the standard yellow mailing envelope. Two, thin chapbooks. A Bow from My Shadowit’s called, and my pride over knowing such gifted and hardworking poets makes me give that extra copy away, a gift and an acknowledgement of artistry.]

~     ~     ~

For two years after college, I wrestled with what to do next. I wanted so badly to get my MFA, to write and stay in the world of creativity and critique. Part of me still wants this – still longs for a group of people who will force me to put thoughts on paper and shape those thoughts into something remarkable.

[I go to my writers’ group every other Thursday. I read to them these things I’m hoping are poems, and I eat up their praise and critiques alike. Better writing is happening because of these thoughtful, diligent friends.]

When I listen to my friend talk about her program, I am proud and jealous, happy and wondering.

Did I make the right choice?

[The same friend whose book I just bought said to me: “I write best when it’s not all I do.” And I knew this was true of me, too. I didn’t do my best writing in college, when it was forced from me. Sure, the revising and peer editing helped, but now? I am inspired by so much. When I doubt, this is what I cling to.]

~     ~     ~

And so, on this gray February Sunday, I watch as my friends blossom into themselves. I read their words with quiet joy and a pen. I write that poem that’s been bouncing around, and I begin the research for my Classroom Management class, because my path is shaped differently than I ever dreamed.

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Athena and Poetry

I bought myself an owl necklace a few days ago. It has a long chain and pearls for eyes. He sits perched on a little swing, his body round and his nose pointy.

I bought it for an Athena costume because the owl is the symbol of wisdom, and Athena is the goddess of all things wise. It’s no coincidence that the goddess of wisdom is also the goddess of the arts: painting, drawing, writing, singing, they all mingle in her power.

I’ve worn it a few times now, always expecting to put on something else – something a little more normal, a little more traditionally me – but each time I reach for this odd gold owl. I like that when I talk, I can hold it, and I like the way it feels in my hand.

~     ~     ~

I taught my first poetry class to a room of adults, and I wondered What am I doing? but instead I said, Here, read this Ted Kooser poem about loss and brokenness, and let me define “imagery” and “diction” and “personification”. And please, pretend you’re in eighth grade and this is all new to you. Thanks.

I tried to present poetry like the mysterious gift that it is. What is imagery? You tell me. What do you see, taste, touch, hear, smell? What do you feel, and how does the poet make you feel that? What does Kooser do that other poets do not? Can you create your own images? Can you reshape this to be yours?

This is the work of poetry. This is the distilling of moments.

~     ~     ~

I slipped the long chain over my head as I got dressed in the dark. My first poetry lesson would be in roughly two hours. My first attempt at teaching this thing I have come to love would be over in roughly two hours and twenty-five minutes.

The owl swung down on its perch, its pearly eyes wide.

[Photo: Farid Fleifel.]

Dubus on Writing

In the cozy light of candles, I picked up “Poets and Writers” hoping to be inspired. It’s been too long since I wrote anything of consequence (and by consequence, I guess I mean fiction, which is a lie of its own kind).

I read of Elizabeth Gilbert’s success after Eat, Pray, Love, and who could imagine such response to a memoir? But it wasn’t there I found it.

It was later, reading about Andre Dubus, III, wondering who this Massachusetts-writer was, the title of his first great success – House of Sand and Fog – like an old friend, even though I’ve never read it. Teaching English at U-Mass Amherst, struggling with who the world thinks he is and who he actually is. And then he says it,

We can’t choose what haunts us.

Six words later and relief washes over me.

I’ve been trying to escape these hauntings my whole life. Over and over in college, my fiction felt stunted and half-baked, the starts of goodness, maybe, but the shortened ends of a truth not fully told. And my greatest fear in fiction? Dani Shapiro said it in her post on writing and being, “Was my subject myself?”

That’s why nonfiction has felt like such a defeat. I write nonfiction because I can’t get myself out of my fiction, so what is left to do? The summer I was twenty-one, I interned at a large publishing house in Boston, and once in a while I got to have lunch with employees gracious enough to interact with my eagerness. I picked their brains, my notebook covered in their scrawling answers. At one of these luncheons, I spoke with a recently published writer. She wrote a YA novel, we shared the same name, and I felt a natural kinship with her for these reasons.

“But, I can’t get myself out of my writing,” I said, hoping she’d have some magic cure.

“You can’t worry about that,” she said brusquely. “You’ll never do it.”

And she’s right.

We can’t choose what haunts us.

I write poems that surprise me. I write essays that shock me. Until I stop viewing nonfiction as second-class, somehow less of an art form, I will never be able to create what needs creating. I root for my friends whose plot lines fill their brains and seem to write themselves; these friends are haunted by characters, stories they’ve never lived, ideas and questions that map themselves out in imagination. From this vantage point, I will never be that writer. This is not to say I’ll never write a lick of fiction again. It is to say that my expectations of myself are changing.

I can’t choose what haunts me, but I can write the hauntings. I guess that’s all I can do.