Connecting with Other Writers

This blog space has been quiet for awhile, but I have been enjoying contributing to others’ sites over the past couple of months. I hope you’ll check out these pieces at their original homes.  In February, I had a chance to talk about poetry writing and the focus of my Visitations chapbook at my friend Allison’s blog, the Coven Book Club.  I got to talk with two other poets about how we write and what we write about:

For me, poetry is about the musicality of the language, so I tend to assume that the type of person who chooses poetry cares about sounds and rhythms. Someone who chooses poetry has to really love the material they’re working with – in our case, words.

In March, I shared a piece at You Are Here, a blog curated by friends I met at The Glen Workshop in Santa Fe last August. This piece began many years ago as a post on my Lithuania teaching blog, but I reworked and added to it to reflect where I’m at now in my life:

“Of all the things I expected from that coming year, I could not, in the particularly grey autumn of single almost-30, have believed that an apple-honey cake held any hope for sweetness ahead. Hope was running very thin, and after many years of missionary sacrifice and relational disappointments, I suspected that when God commanded that I open wide my mouth, I would be getting bland, dutiful manna, not honey.”

 

An August Poetry Marathon with Tupelo Press’s 30/30 project

Some poet once said that “April is the cruelest month,” but I’m definitely voting for August. Bleary, hung-over, stretched-out-sweatpants-of-a-month August – no major holidays, school resuming, and everyone facing the fact that we didn’t accomplish even half of our pre-summer to-do lists. Unless you’re French and enjoying your yearly government-mandated vacation, August is terrible.

Fortunately there’s something to help get us all through! During the month of August 2014, I am participating in a daily poem writing exercise through the Tupelo Press “30/30″ project. I will write a new poem each day and Tupelo will post it on their website alongside the work of several other writers. I would love for you to follow along. (If contemporary poetry isn’t your thing, see my post below for some friendly advice). For complete information on this project and how to contribute, click on the 30-30 Project link above. Thanks for your support!

 

How I Read Contemporary Poetry

“Is that really a poem?”

When I share contemporary poetry with students or friends, I hear this question more than any other. Many people reading poetry outside of “the academy” will sometimes tell me how they like poems that rhyme and they don’t quite get the stuff contemporary writers are publishing. My foreign students in particular were baffled by non-rhyming, seemingly formless poems that we encountered in our Anthology of American Literature because in their languages, poetry still rhymes, and always has.

I sympathize with these questions because even as someone with two English degrees, I also experience a lot of confusion or even distaste for some (much) of the contemporary poetry I encounter. With this resistance in mind, and in the interest of helping bring new poetry readers into the fold, I thought I would share some things I try to keep in mind when I read poems written by contemporary writers.

1. Recognize your need to SLOW DOWN

I do a lot of reading on the internet these days, like most people.  And no doubt you’ve begun to experience, as I have, the sensation that your mind is racing to the next tweet or Facebook feed entry.  Reading online feels a bit more jittery and caffeinated than is suited to poetry reading.  Nevertheless, this is one of the reasons I think it’s important to read poetry in the first place, and perhaps why it is more important than ever.  We need our habit of scanning and ingesting and regurgitating to be tempered a bit.  These days when I read a poem, I often have to stop myself several lines in and start over.  Sometimes if I’m particularly distracted, I have do this multiple times – it always feels like that moment when you pull off the interstate having been buzzing along at 80 mph and you suddenly have to take the exit at 30.  Reading online makes me speed blind, but poetry asks me to be the careful driver on a scenic rural route.

2. You don’t have to like – or even react to – everything

There’s a lot of writing out there, probably more than there has ever been. And a lot of it does not appeal to me, for whatever reason.  That is okay.  I think this is one of the things that has freed me the most in my enjoyment of contemporary poetry.  Going through an English Literature undergrad and a Rhetoric graduate degree, I have read a LOT (Dr. Ritchie hates the word a lot, sorry) of the major names and works, and part of my education was to respond or react to what I read.  This trained me to have a ready opinion or idea about everything that I read, a useful skill when prepping for tests, but not as useful when browsing the bookshop.  It took me awhile to simply allow myself to read something (carefully, giving it slow attention) and then, if I didn’t like it or see something interesting worth digging in to, close the book.  There is no final exam looming, so read what you want!

3. Realize the poet may not be writing for YOU

There is a giant literary world out there that basically exists in the shadowy corner of popular literature and Amazon bestseller lists.  That world is populated by sad creatures like myself, academics scrambling to make a name for themselves however they can, and being published is a primary marker of success in this world.  With fewer and fewer university jobs available, and more and more of us working as marginally-paid, part-time instructors (do NOT get me started on this, it’s a whole ‘nother rant), part of the way writers can telegraph their status is through what they write. In this subculture, there are trendy topics and preoccupations, assumptions about what kind of writing is valuable and what is not.  And when I say valuable, I mean actual, monetary value, in terms of tenure or straight-up employment.  So this academic circus determines much of what gets awards or promotion in the poetry world.  Make of this what you will, but understand that these are the forces which shape the way contemporary poetry looks, what it is about, and who reads it.

4. Know what you’re looking for from poems

The way I deal with #3 – that poets might not envision me as their ideal reader – is to have a clear understanding for myself of what I enjoy and expect from a poem. We no longer live in an era when poets are called upon to pontificate about national events or memorialize queens and presidents.  Poetry’s projects are smaller, and I think that is okay. I have a couple memories of reading and sharing poetry that illustrate what I mean.  One of my favorite memories was when my aunt, uncle and cousin came to visit me in Budapest, Hungary at the end of my first year teaching there.  They took me out to dinner at a cafe down the street from my apartment (a cafe that was constantly changing names and owners, but which seemed to have consistently great food), and as we waited for our dinners, my cousin pulled out Billy Collins’s collection Sailing Alone Around the Room and read us the poem, “Consolation“. It’s a wry little poem about the pleasures of NOT traveling, which struck us all as hilarious given where we were and what we were doing each day. I still remember that moment because of the poem and the way that it reflected our lives back to us, giving us a lot of joy.

Another poem that became significant to me was Mary Oliver’s poem “Praying“, which a college friend sent to me in a letter while I was living in Lithuania, teaching college students.  I put it up on the bulletin board over my desk and looked at it daily, both as a reminder of friends who cared about me from a long way away, and as a reminder of what poetry itself can be.  Oliver suggests that poems don’t have to be “a contest but the doorway / into thanks, and a silence / in which another voice may speak”.

Finally, I think poetry can help us to say things that would otherwise be too heavy to say on our own.  My aunt – the one who visited me in Hungary – passed away last November after several years of struggle with paralysis after an accident.  When we knew she would go soon, my family flew to Minnesota to say our goodbyes.  I brought Jane Kenyon’s collection Otherwise and when I had my chance to talk to her, unresponsive as she was at that point, I read her “Let Evening Come,” which is a elgaic poem about allowing death to come naturally and quietly, but with the understanding that there is ultimate comfort to draw upon.  I could not have come up with meaningful words at that point in time, so poetry helped me to say goodbye in a way that I wanted to, but which would have been hard to achieve on my own.

These are the things I look for poetry to do – to reflect my life back to me so that I can experience it more fully, to help me give thanks and know when to be silent, and allow me to say things that are otherwise unsayable.  These are not academic intentions, and they won’t get me tenure anywhere, but they help me set an agenda for what I choose to read.

I hope these ideas might help you move beyond reading just the “Dead Poet’s Society,” and read living writers, knowing that their poems might not rhyme (or they might), might seem formless (but probably aren’t), or might be about topics you aren’t interested in (but which are probably important in ways you’ve not realized yet).

 

 

How to be a writer and the mother of a toddler

Answer: I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

My son is asleep now, in the middle of his morning nap that usually lasts about an hour and a half. As soon as I laid him in his crib, my internal clock started: unload/reload dishwasher, check. Make bed, check. Quick shower, skip hair washing, check. Move laundry from washer to dryer otherwise the cloth diaper covers won’t be clean when the baby wakes up, check.

Aaand… 45 minutes are gone.  Should I even bother to sit down and write anything? I’ll get a couple paragraphs at most, and I should probably be doing more to firm-up this post-baby belly, so maybe I’ll just hit the treadmill for a few minutes … but I haven’t blogged in months. But, but…. Every mom recognizes this internal struggle. Moms of kids who’ve dropped to one nap envy those whose kids take two, moms of multiples envy those of us who’ve only got one. Note to self: conditions now are as good as they’re going to get!

Writing advice like, “get up earlier,” cracks me up because my little one regularly gets us up before 5 (stupid teething).  “Write after they go to bed,” is similarly hilarious because mustering energy for creative thought past 8 p.m. just does not happen.

I’m discovering I’m not as good a writer as I used to be when I lived abroad and I could assume that my daily routines were tinged with the novel and exotic. Also, years of teaching academic writing has subtly shaped my writing so that I tend to want to pontificate, or craft a fully formed essay (I’ve got a great one languishing in my “drafts” folder), or ramble on way past the 800-words that most blogging experts suggest is the tolerance level of the average surfer. Plus, every time I sit down to work on “the book” I have rumbling around in my head, I end up writing poems instead.

Thanks goodness for poetry. I might be negligent at blogging, but I’m having some fulfillment in the poetry realm.  I don’t have official information to share yet (believe me, I will be drumming up readers every way I can once I do), but good news is that I have had a chapbook accepted for publication AND I will likely be a participating poet in an online “poetry marathon” project in either August or September.  (For the uninitiated, I describe chapbooks as the “EP” of the publishing world – more than a single, less than a full album).

I hope there are still a few of you out there reading because I’m excited to share these writing projects with you! Knowing you’re listening is helping me learn how to BE the person who is both mom and writer.

Look at that – a blog post! Baby’s still sleeping, less than 800 words, check.

Ego and Engagement

Last night, I went to a reading and workshop given by Colorado Poet Laureate, David Mason, at the Longmont Library.  I’ve heard him speak twice now and have been impressed by his approachability and warmth.  Both times he began his talk by having the group responsively recite an old Mother Goose poem, which nicely demystifies poetry as a primary impulse, and creates a sense of camaraderie in the room.

I go to these kind of lectures and writing workshops as a tune-up, opportunities to think about the task of writing for a few minutes or hours, and maybe come home with enough of a spark in my belly to write something new.  Usually, I don’t say much at lectures, don’t want to tell my story or draw attention, but Mason said some things last night that encouraged me to raise my hand and interact, to share the hastily scribbled free-write that we all produced in the workshop.  He talked about the way that our Ego gets in the way of words making it on to the page.  Both the feeling of “wow, this is so great, I can’t believe I’m this awesome,” and the feeling of, “I’m terrible, who would want to listen to what I have to say?” are detrimental.  They prevent us from attending to the words themselves or steer us off track.

So I spoke up. Asked a few questions. Engaged.

Engaging with writing, with words, has been difficult for me in recent years.  In the age of Twitter and social media, it no longer seems permissible to go quietly along in my corner blogging away or writing without participating in a larger community of writers.  I do think this a good thing – it brings us closer to the original communal purposes of rhetoric and poetry. But it takes so much energy and time to be a good reader, a good commenter, an attentive follower, and it has been easier to just intake passively than join my voice to all the noise.

I’m realizing this is fear.  And ego.  At best, it’s cowardly. At worst, it’s neglecting my call, my way of being in the world and prayer itself. So, I’m going to try to be better at engaging, which is why this blog is here.