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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

New to Reviewing

. . . And liking it. Today The Pedestal posted my review of Oswald LeWinter's two recent poetry collections, Ages of Chaos and Fury and Atoms of Memory. Reviewing forces you to think analytically and contextually and re-read poetry, which I believe is the only way poetry should be read. If it's not worth a re-read, it either isn't poetry or isn't your kind.

I have another book review I'm marketing, and an offer to do more. I think I will. But only enough to stimulate my own thinking, not enough to get in the way of my work. I really think there are too many distractions for the average poet these days. Used to be a poet would hole up in some garret and bohemiate. Nopw there's blogging, workshopping, reviewing, your own promotional web site, and if you're an academic -- oh, yes, teaching and publishing. There are too many other things connected to poetry besides reading and writing it.

But I do like reviewing.

Have a poetic Christmas, Hannukah, Solstice or revelry of your choice!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Too bogged to blog

Does the holiday season hit everyone this way? Like a speeding wall?

My only salvation this season (and I mean that in a religious sense) is reading poetry. Every morning, a little bit from a favorite book, and a few deep breaths. And then the day goes by in a freeway blur. Here's a poem that made me breathe this morning:

Of Being
-- by Denise Levertov

I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:
this mystery:

Monday, November 07, 2005

blogpoems

Can be made from titles encountered in rambles through the poblogosphere. Especially from misreads:

heart volley
ascension music
shore of that year
etymology feminine sing
non-abysmal
kids cloissone
strips of film
prophetic war
hugging sycamore
genesis of flarf
knitting performance


Help yourself.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Effect of a review

My first book had only one review -- basically trashing it.

My second has had two reviews, both to praise it.

In the five years between, I've learned a little detachment. But the harder of the two to resist is the praise, I find. Odd, that you want to become everything that a reviewer praising you might claim. One of the things I've especially been pondering from Terri Brown-Davidson's laudatory review is the idea of being a "difficult poet." She likens Femme au chapeau to a Frida Kahlo painting (I love that!) and calls the poetry "gorgeously offputting in its metaphoric twists, mesmerizingly complex, startling and horrific in its images, and yet so unique that it lives on in its own terms ... and demands the reader accept them."

I didn't quite realize the poems were complex. I did know the images were sometimes startling and even horrific.

I suppose I could see in retrospect that I set a standard for this book that might be demanding. My goal was to define an intense field of intertwined sound and sense -- a space of heightened senses to push the reader over the edge of quotidian awareness into an expansion. In short, to recreate the intensity of inspiration that began each of these poems. I selected out (I hope) the conversational, relaxed, essayistic or prosily narrative poems of those five years in order to create this compressed experience. I weeded out the themes to the most emotionally packed. I wanted this book to land a punch, in other words.

But I find myself now wondering how to continue at this intensity. I'm finding the syntax breaking up, the music wanting to come even more to the fore. But I'm afraid of that Stevens territory. I have spent time there, and find in the end that the world of Wallace Stevens is too self-referential, too self-invented. A bit Tolkien-ish, like the scholar who invented a world to go with his invented language.

---

In other news . . .

Blogging Poet's 100 Poet Bloggers in 100 Days is here. Blog yourself dizzy.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Prizes & Awards

It's that time of year, when most of us want to hide under a pillow until the announcements of Pushcart Prize nominations are over. Or we want to get badges made to wear even on our pajamas: "Award Nominee" -- though of course some wiseass could quip, "Yeah, they hand those out with Pez dispensers." Sour grapes!

A nomination for any literary award is an occasion for celebration, if only because poetry and literature need all the press they can get. Compared to movies and musical albums, litmags and poetry collections are almost nonexistent, as far as the media is concerned. We might not actually exist in some parts of the country.

But I can't ignore the fact that, happy as I am for the winners and nominees, it makes me feel bad not to win or even be nominated for anything. And that leads me to ask myself why I'm bringing a soccer mentality to the practice of an art form.

I do recognize that I, like all writers, have human frailties. But in the silence of my room, with pen poised above the blank line -- performing a quintessentially non-human act of creating -- why am I much concerend about the world's clamor? Don't I know why I'm writing poetry? Here in this room, I'm not thinking of the Pushcart Prize or the Best American Poetry series. Not in that altered, channeling-the-muse state I court when I do this odd thing of writing poetry.

In a recent interview in Poetry Flash, award-winning poet Kay Ryan discussed the tension and dichotomy between the working poet's outer and inner worlds. It was an interesting interview, as Ryan has been a notorious non-participant in po-biz. She states categorically that her isolation enhances her writing, and that not being recognized early in any way, let alone a prize-winning way, helped her develop as a poet.

I've noticed that many of my favorite writers are noted recluses: Annie Dillard, Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver. Many are women who write in a way that isn't currently fashionable. I guess that tells me something about my own esthetic and best practice. Maybe I need more time away from the outer world's imperatives to truly discover what it is I'm writing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Reviewed!!

I just had the best review I'll probably ever get. No matter what. Because it's the first time anyone has ever said such things about my poetry. The Pedestal just posted a review of Femme au chapeau by Terri Brown-Davidson that makes me want to quit sending out envelopes, stop plugging my book and stay home and write. And work hard. Because she completely connected with what I was hoping I was doing.

It's an experience that will stay with me. It's funny, because my first book had a scathing review -- or I thought it was -- from a poet who's now a good friend. This friend thinks I made great progress between books. It's the sort of critique you believe, coming from someone you used to consider an enemy. (I won't mention the days of pin-sticking-in-doll thing, or the dark curses flung in despair -- kind of like what we watched on Rome.)

When strangers read exactly what you wrote in a poem, how does it make you feel?

Wonderstruck here. Like this magic machine made of words really works, revolves and throws out sparks and beams. Creates a laser line that connects us right through.

Oh yeah. The link to the review.

Should Be Working

... is the sign that could be inscribed over my head today, but instead here I am, blogged down.

I should be working on fundraising, poetry, housecleaning, cooking, dog-walking and various other things. My excuse is, I'm sick. Just the right amount -- not too sick to eat, nor too sick to enjoy being lazy -- and not so well as to feel the shoulds pressing hard on my shoulders.

Oh, that's a nice set of words for a poem: "shoulds pressing hard on my shoulders." The d sounds, the s sounds, the rd and dr sounds. Hmm ...

Readings last weekend at Valencia and Ina Coolbrith Circle were wonderful. Attentive audiences, great fellow poets sharing the podium. I enjoyed Ilya Kaminsky's reading even more this year than last year. His work makes me nostalgic for Russia, and I've never even been there. The people in his poems are archetypal, could be my family. David Alpaugh was, as always, hilarious and witty. Daniel Y. Harris's work was unusual and thought-provoking, though a bit over my head, as I'm not familiar with his terminology.

And of course, the reading organizer, John Amen, was wonderful. His work blends surrealism with heart, quite a stirring combination. John is celebrating the release of his new book, More of Me Disappears. Interesting title. I felt that in his reading Saturday, more of him appeared than in the reading last year. Great new work. I forgot to pick up a copy, but am going to order it. John and The Pedestal are a phenomenon. You should read and submit. The Pedestal is going to be very big. And I'm not just saying that because they gave my book a fabulous review. ... Okay, but I am linking you directly to the review. I mean, anytime you get called A Poet to Watch, you should make sure everyone in earshot hears it, right?

The weekend confirmed the fact that I really like poets. They're so inward and sensitive. You would never see a poet crusading for the gun lobby, would you? And why is it so hard to find conservative-sounding poets? Has the new GOP banned poetry, along with everything else cultural?

If I'm offending anyone, I apologize. I'm not saying poetry makes you liberal, just sort of seems as though conservative poets aren't being heard from much. Like the new formalists.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Change and fallowness

I'm sitting here at the keyboard while vegetables burn in the kitchen and my poems for this weekend's readings are rehearsing themselves upstairs. I found myself feeling oddly disheartened about my poetry this week, at the same time that I was picking and rehearsing the poems from my book to read. I found myself thinking that it has been awhile since I wrote one that I felt about as I feel about these.

Fallow field syndrome, I guess. That and work-work bizzyness. Poetry requires a certain kind of dream-time, maybe something sort of like the aboriginal dream-time, or meditative states, or ... a cave.

And while I'm fallow-ish, Poetry and as Megalopoet pointed out, Paris Review, those two lit-pillars, are if not toppling, certainly shuddering. Change is unsettling, and icons should only be disturbed once a decade or so.

Follow the fallowness and it will probably turn over, is my guess. As will Poetry and Paris.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Is it just me?

Or is Poetry skewing its standards to narrow the range of subjects and style of poems it publishes? I want to like what Wiman is doing with it; I want to find freshness and new horizons. I find narrowness in the last few issues, and an increasingly peevish tone to ALL the work. Does some high-profile editor have on his Cranky Pants? Even the Humor issue had the taint of contemptus mundi. It's discouraging. I need an ivory tower Poetry. I need Parisi's unassailable detachment from writing poetry himself. I suspect the current editors of, well, editorializing through their selections.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Mars watching


With so many heads turned upward to the southeast in early evening, to see earth's close encounter with Mars, it's worthwhile to take a look straight ahead at your screen as well. You can find some of the most spectacular images and in-depth information on what we know now about the Red Planet at these sites:

Space.com

NASA - Mars

According to all the planetarium web sites I checked, Mars viewing will be spectacular in late October and early November, when Mars is a mere 43 million miles away -- the closest we'll be to it until 2018. With a small telescope it would be possible to see its polar cap.

In fact, between now and the end of October, Mars will double in brightness!

Take a walk after dinner. Look up. Feel the distances in our universe.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Fourth grade again

I'm reliving anxious days when I had to stand up and read my book review or short story for class. Only this time, I have to choose poetry for upcoming readings. I'm feeling a lot of the same things: the urge to stick with safe stuff, to try to make them laugh rather than put the serious stuff out there, and above all an obsession with what to wear.

As if I ever noticed how any poet reading poetry aloud was dressed.

Okay, I did notice the fellow with a safety pin through his nostril, and the white-haired woman with a little wispy chiffon scarf tied around her neck. But as I plan on neither of those fashion gambits, I'm left wondering more about colors than anything.

And of course -- how many Alzheimer's poems should I read versus "Ode to My Purse"?

But mostly -- what DOES one wear to read in, if one doesn't own cowboy boots or wispy scarves?

Monday, October 03, 2005

Alzheimer's Anthology

I'm happy to have had two poems from my Alzheimer's series accepted for an anthology on this theme, to be edited by Holly Hughes. Some people report being rendered speechless by having a relative diagnosed. For some reason, it's had the opposite effect on me to watch my father progress through this disease. He loses functionality in bits and pieces, like the items he misplaces right under his nose, then after a frantic search looks at and can't recall what they're for. Oddly he's increasingly contented. Maybe he's forgetting how to be an angry, anxious person. Maybe he's enjoying the long blanks where troubled thoughts used to be. I especially relish the phone calls where he says my name as if savoring the fact that he still remembers it, then asks me where I live. Maybe I'll write so many of these poems I'll eventually have a book of them. I hope the cure comes first, though it won't be in time for him.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Reading events: October and Beyond

I'm lined up for several readings, both poetry and prose. If you're in the San Francisco area and feel like dropping by, here's the calendar:

Saturday, October 22 – 7 pm

The Pedestal Magazine
Reading Event
Valencia Street Books
569 Valencia Street (between 16th & 17th),
San Francisco, CA
Readers: Editor John Amen, Ruth Daigon, David Alpaugh, Daniel Y. Harris, Ilya Kaminsky and Rachel Dacus.

Sunday, October 23 – 2 pm
Fellowship Hall, 10 Irwin Way
, Orinda
Ina Coolbrith Circle
Rachel Dacus reading from Femme au chapeau

Saturday, December 3 – 7 pm
Book Passage
Corte Madera
Group reading for Italy, A Love Story


Monday, September 19, 2005

Techphobia

There are days I feel techsavvy and days I feel like Homer Simpson.

Guess which one this is. I just bought a new Blackberry 7100 phone on Saturday. Yes, I can make calls on it -- even receive calls and pick up my voicemail. I even composed a poem on the Notepad. A short poem -- all those button pushes or weird guesses from the software, with no backspace button that doesn't delete.

But can I figure out how to configure my account to receive email on it? Let me put it this way. I was smart enough to configure my husband's so that HE receives my email.

I really do feel like Homer, and not the smart one. If I return it to the store to get the Treo, will it make me feel even dumber?

On the other hand, I LOVE my new iMac. Why do I keep buying non-Apple things?

Friday, September 16, 2005

Rocket Poetry


On a slow night, googling terms that bring together the several concepts of this blog brought me to a wonderful poem on Gumball: Superman. Now that's what I call combining poetry and rockets.

In case you haven't discovered it, Gumball has one of the more creative ways of delivering poetry to the masses: poetry gumball machines. Poems on little slips of paper inside plastic capsules -- a very rockety concept. I have three of my own poetry gumballs sitting on my bookshelf as I type this. They have a cool page that enables you to find a poetry gumball machine near you.

And this, just in (look left).

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Help Is Happening

Just in case you're glued to CNN, as I've been, and suffering from Hurricane report overload/meltdown, read this account of large numbers of people getting real help. Yes, it's the Red Cross, our oldest relief organization. At the bottom of the first link is a link for online donations, if you want to do something quick to make a big difference.

Isn't it good to know some things aren't broken and don't have to be fixed? This organization has been working steadily, often without headlines that acknowledge their remarkable efforts, for more than 150 years. As a fundraiser, I find theirs an awesome track record for a charitable organization, any way you measure it.

We all need some good news for a change, and even CNN isn't going to give us much of that. Journalism's motto remains, "If it bleeds, it leads." Well, I refuse to have my consciousness dominated by that mentality. I invite you to pull back and lLook at a wider picture. Sure, we're all upset over the poor response and people who died as a result of it, but looking at the humane things that are happening makes me feel human again.

I like the motto of the American Red Cross: "Together, we can save a life." I would add, together we can save a lot of them. Maybe even our own.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Books & Friends - A Memory

I lost a friend to lung cancer a couple weeks ago. She was a friend I "walk-talked" with on a weekly basis, an irrepressibly charming travel agent who was an avid reader as well as raconteur. Can you imagine a more entertaining walking companion? She lived with the diagnosis for six years, participating in support groups to help others adjust to their diagnoses. Her endurance surely set some kind of record, but I think her upbeat attitude set an even more important record, and made a great impression on me.

In the last six months, Beverly organized a small (I mean diminutive: three of us) book club, and began to charmingly dominate our selections. Basically, we read Beverly's favorite novels and travel memoirs. And it was wonderful! I wish I had gotten a full list from her of everything she would recommend reading, because her selections never disappointed.

There was the white camel in Towers of Trebizond, who became one of my favorite long-suffering and slightly insane characters in fiction. There was the girl who came of age in I Capture the Castle, writing a journal to stay sane while her insane writer-father holed up for years in the castle's tower and read murder mysteries but did not write a word that would feed his family. There was the Jane Austen Book Club, whose characters began to resemble us as we discussed them.

What was even better than discovering great and often overlooked books through Beverly was discovering their authors. Created by authors of high imagination and skill, these gems were among many worth reading by Dame Rose MacAulay, Dodie Smith (of 100 Dalmatians fame) and the up-and-coming Karen Joy Fowler. So many more hours of excellent reading lie ahead of me this fall.

I'd like to add my own small contribution to our book club's list: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, surely one of the funniest and most lyrical memoirs ever written. Why has no one ever made a movie of this wonderful story of a curious English child running loose in the fields of Cyprus with a magnifying glass, baetted by a truly bizarre assortment of tutors? Makes me want to write protest letters to filmmakers. And of course, there are scores of other books Gerald Durrell wrote, though none quite as good as this one.

It's one thing to discover a great book; it's another to discover a great writer. I have had a satisfying literary year in this regard. I just wish I had more time to read. And more time to read with Beverly.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Poets in hurricane country

If anyone is seeking to get in touch with poets in the hurricane area, there's a blog site keeping track of inquiries and responses. I just saw several names of people I know on the list. This is a wonderful service right now, helping to connect people who have lost touch. One million displaced people was a number I heard on the news recently. It just boggles the mind.

Here's another useful blog related to Hurricane Katrina and the rescue and recovery efforts. About a million people -- and about as many pets and animals -- are in my prayers today.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Radiance

Reading Barbara Crooker's new book and feeling the urge to pull poetry back to sanity. Too much language-bending, cutesy difficult writing out there now. It's refreshing to read poetry with music and purpose that doesn't strain your analytical abilities, but does deepen your feeling of connection to life. Life is difficult enough -- why do poets so often want to make poetry another difficult layer? Not that I don't like linguistic effect and here and there some imagistic ornamentation -- "costume jewelry" I heard Annie Dillard calls it -- but when did literature veer so far in the direction of the daily newspaper that it's only "if it bleeds, it leads" or if it's unintelligible it's marvelous?

Rant over. Take a look for yourself at Barbara's site. Or go over to Wordtech's page for her book, Radiance, and read sample poems. "Some October" is my favorite. I'd stack it up any day against Mary Oliver's "Fall Song." In fact, there's a lot in Barbara's work that reminds me of Oliver's.

I'm in a celebratory, radiant mood. It's Sunday, my day of as much poetry as I want to read, and as little as I can manage to write. One has to have a day off, even of writing. It's also a week in which a friend of mine was just ordained a Bishop in the Catholic Church. The ceremony was in Baltimore, so I wasn't able to attend, but I heard that blessings rained liberally on all and a great party was held afterward. Yay, Denis!

Blogging is my distraction from goal-oriented writing. It's becoming my journaling, though I never want it to veer into the lane of boring to others kind. I can use paper for that. Or my head. I've thrown out years of journals, so why write more? I'd rather read. Once you turn a certain age, the specter of your heirs having to pore through the stuff and decide what to do with it is horrifying. Let all the drafts, dreams, journal pages and half-revised, unfinished pieces of work be burnt! Let the ashes turn into birds of inspiration to fly through someone else's head or simply, beautifully vanish.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Thinking about Walt Whitman and really long lines of verse

I'm working on a poem with long lines and looking at the techniques Whitman used to give them music and structure. He used neither rhyme nor meter to make them work. In the first edition of Leaves of Grass the pages were wide enough to accommodate them. In later editions, designed to fit into a pocket for portability, Whitman changed the page size but not the line breaks.

Long lines give an expansive, rambling feeling that can be dangerous. If it truly sounds rambling, the reader loses interest in wading through all those words. By contrast, look at Whitman's first version of "Song of Myself" published in the first edition (1855) of Leaves:
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooks you round the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
The lines lead off short before launching into a long one. And the dialogue format -- the direct address to the reader -- provides an irresisible element of interest. We all sit up straighter when we're the subject of the conversation. Whitman was clever to bring the reader into his poems in the intimate address he uses, almost of a lover wooing.

But what can you do to make a long line irresistibly poetic if you don't want to woo the reader so obviously? I notice another trick in these and many other Whitman lines: the juxtaposition of the small, intimate details with a vast landscape. He was a master of the "pull-back shot." He was cinematic before cinema was invented.

His other big device is repetition. In the lines above, the repetition is simple: "you" and "I." In other poems, a whole clause or sentence is repeated in a list poem.

This gives me the idea that the way to make long lines really work well is to find sonic devices that bring them back to lyric poetry's beginnings. I'm thinking assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, slant rhyme, repetends. Perhaps even meter, though I find a line doesn't hold well beyond pentameter.

Your thoughts?


Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hungry?

Maybe it's because I've skipped lunch, or after reading a really trendy menu I picked up in the S.F. Ferry Building foor market, but:

Food Poetry

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A Poet's Development

I just had a major brainstorm. I was reading American Primitive, Mary Oliver's early poetry book, and thinking about how these poems differed from her more recent work. I noticed that this book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was different from her later collections. Apparently, you can reach the peak of success and still make radical redirections in your writing.

It occurred to me (duh! am I the last poet on the planet to get this?) that it would be instructive to study a poet's work chronologically, to follow her/his poetic development by noticing what elements they tossed out. In Oliver's case, it was social commentary. Increasingly, the social/political context disappears from her poetry, as do other people. But in American Primitive, these elements occurred often.

I'm going to try this with Marianne Moore, whose oeuvre is large and so, hopefully, will show even more rigorous exercise of choice.

In poetry, the most interesting thing is often what's left out.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Shuttle's safe return

Maybe it's because I have a friend who is slipping away that life seems to tenuous.

Whatever the reason, I find myself preoccupied with the shuttle Discovery and getting it back to earth safely. I mean, all those bitty pieces of fabric they're obsessing over have me worried. The fact that they scrubbed the scheduled landing yesterday is unnerving. The people in charge seem unnerved, despite their jaunty Discovery page at NASA's web site. That's REALLY unnerving. The NY Times printed an article yesterday on why some parents, instead of preparing to watch the landing with their kids are shielding their kids from watching. As NYT said, "a generation of Americans that has lived through two shuttle disasters is growing edgy."

I titled this thread the way I did because I feel like keeping fingers crossed, tossing salt over my shoulder, whatever will help. Am I obsessing here, or displacing? Displacing, I think. It's hard to wake up every day and wonder if.

As a rocket kid, I can't help but think about my friend and those astronauts up there, until we know one way or the other. These are the moments when faith definitely helps. In anything.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

blogdreaming

What does it mean when you're blogging instead of sleeping? Is this the new form of dreaming? Apparently I'm not alone. Over at Culturecat, they're having paranoid blog dreams. I've run across blog dream journals, an interesting concept. (Why would anyone but me and my therapy group be interested in my dreams?) Also blogs about dream jobs, dream thises and thats, in the sense of fantasies, and of course the erotic dream blogs, which I won't give you links to -- we're not that kind of blogger!

Here's a Google search conundrum: look at how different the returns are when you google DREAM BLOG compared to BLOG DREAM. I'm using caps because I didn't google either term in quotes -- that being quite a different kind of search. DREAM BLOG produced the fantasy sort, while BLOG DREAM showed the way to all the dream journals.

No, I'm not posting my latest dream here. It isn't that kind of blog. Just blog-somnia.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Spacewalk

I guess what I wonder about is the idea of sending a manned mission to Mars. This seems to me an insanely unbalanced risk-reward equation. But looking at NASA's pictures of today's spacewalk to repair the shuttle gives me shivers of awe. I wonder what the astronaut who did this would say about whether the risk was worth the reward.

Space is unimportant from one perspective, namely that of the heart. But today's mind wants to be satisfied. Though after watching the program Cosmos by Carl Sagan over the weekend, I wonder what questions about our universe's origins worth asking are left to ask. We'll never penetrate farther back than the Big Bang.

And who cares if there are other human beings out there? I really, really don't. I have my mind full enough trying to imagine what's going to happen with the 64 billion and more that are popping up on this planet.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Happy 100th Birthday, Stanley Kunitz!

And he's probably writing a poem about it. In his garden.

Here's a lovely picture of my favorite Poet Laureate at the podium.

I guess the fact that it's his 100th birthday is why The Writer's Almanac posted that lovely Kunitz poem today:

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

This and That

Discovery docks at the space station but it's not all razmatazz. It's a new era of self-honesty in space. Further shuttle flights have been grounded until they figure out the foam debris problem, even admitting publicly that it could be a lethal problem. We watch this shuttle flight with a heightened suspense and wonder -- part of the wonder being the question, is this level of exploration worth the risk?

My father, the former rocket engineer, believes it's not worth it. His projects were all unmanned missions, and he feels that we can learn enough by sending instruments, not human beings, up there. Gone are the days of the cowboy physicists like my father and his friends, one of whom was space wundkerkind Bob Truax, who was a protege of Goddards, and who later created a rocket-powered motorcycle for Evel Knievel to (almost) jump the Snake River Gorge. Gone are the braggadocio days of the 1960s, when putting a man on the moon meant supremacy on earth. We know better now. We are sobered rocket kids.

I have a friend who's a lawyer at NASA. He reports the mood of optimism for future projects with a quite different glow in his eyes than the fiery look those of those early rocket engineers. He is tempered, as we all are, by a new age and millennium, when possibility blends with practicality, and disasters in space seem an unthinkable price for our curiosity about the stars.

****

I was recently in Washington, D.C. and visited The Library of Congress's gorgeous new building. I say "new" because it was built in 1898, and is relatively recent for a capitol building. It's also the most beautiful. They had an exhibit on Walt Whitman up in which I read a curious fact. Whitman lived in Washington during the Civil War, felt he could help the beleaguered President Lincoln by stationing himself where he would see Lincoln ride by in his carriage every day. Whitman made it a point to salute the President, cheer him on, as it were. He felt it helped Lincoln. A selection of Whitman's poems about Lincoln shows the poet's sense of identification with Lincoln.

Today, July 28, is the anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment that made slaves citizens. America has come a long way in 137 years.

****

Reading alert -- for SF Bay Area friends: I'm going to join John Amen, editor/publisher of The Pedestal magazine again for a reading at Valencia Street Books on Saturday, October 22. I'll post a note with details as the date approaches, but if you're in the area and would like to come and say hello, mark your calendars. I'd love to see you.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Vacationed Mind

The Vacationed Mind returns to the blogosphere with new thoughts on blogging. Less is more kind of thoughts. I spent an entire week away from: telephone, cell phone, computer, calendar, job, house and creative projects. I had a blank notebook and a couple of pens. I wrote notes on my travels that were terse and outlined. Ideas for poems came and I relied on my memory to store them for later.

We deluge ourselves with the unimportant and lose sight of the real news of the universe. I saw an exhibit on Walt Whitman at the Library of Congress and saw his handwritten notebooks. There were remarkably few cross-outs on those small pages. First thought, best thought, I'm thinking -- and also that a well-cooked thought emerges in tastier language.

More soon. Your thoughts?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Vacation Mind

So I'm heading off soon on vacation, and wondering how to get my mind to go along with me. With many projects on various burners -- back and front -- I don't even feel like vacationing. Ever have so many things you want to do that you're tempted to make it a writer's retreat instead of a vacation? Having let that happen once, I'm doing everything I can to get my mind to take its vacation, but I have a feeling it's going to have inspiration-lag. This is why I started the Airplane Poem series.

Cool thing happened to me today -- besides bonding in the purse aisle of my store with a total stranger, solving each other's longstanding purse issues -- a friend stopped me on my walk and recited his recent creation. It was an incredible poem -- called something like "What I Throw in the Grave." It was a top-of-head-off poem, beautiful, moving, spare, elegiac yet life-affirming. If I get a copy of it, I'll post it (with his permission).

That's a good day: one in which you hear/read a memorable poem. That's vacation mind.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Call for Submissions

I don't know about you, but I browse Calls for Sub the way a chocoholic browses a Godiva shop window. I just find it so much easier to organize my submitting around other people's ideas, I guess. I have now landed in 3 theme anthologies as a result.

And I keep looking, mostly for anthologies, but also for special issues on magazine web sites. The classifieds in Poets & Writers are my favorites -- the cherry-cream-filled dark chocolate bonbons of anthology requests abound -- and I also find them at

This Call for Submissions that came across my desk, via Ivy Alvarez' blog, is wild. I wish I had a poem to respond with, but maybe you do. This is a call for poems based on the tv series Twin Peaks. As Private Press puts it: "Seeking poems that relive the weirdness and wonder of David Lynch's Twin Peaks for an exciting chapbook anthology, A Slice of Cherry Pie."

Now that's an original theme for an anthology.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Rocket Around the Clock Tonight

While we wait for the actual data to actually emerge from NASA ... (drum roll, please!)

NASA has posted what instantly became my favorite version of the artist's rendition of Deep Impact's hit on the comet. Go to the above link and click on "View this video" under the right hand sidebar "Comets a Smash at JPL". It's a cool musical version of the impact, vocals and instrumentals provided by the ... you guessed it ... The Comets!

The then-and-now of this 1950s rock group (I will point out I was only a tiny child when they were popular) is sobering. But the old geezers can still rock! More than some of us.

Meanwhile, we replay the video and wait to hear some news ...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Great days for a rocket kid

A new space mission has been a smashing -- literally -- success! Stay tuned as they unscramble the fuzzy images at JPL/NASA and bring you the origins of life on earth (perhaps), or at least another installment in the odyssey of a comet through long reaches of nothing.

I find this mission compelling because of its astonishing accuracy and because its aims are so lofty: nothing less than the hope that we might discover how life arrived on earth. Growing up with a scientist father, I was fascinated by the idea that nothing much had been determined about the big questions of life on earth and life elsewhere.

My father read a lot of science fiction, much of it written by rocket and aerospace scientists like himself. Doc Clark (who in an article called "Ignition" recounts the day my father blew up a test lab, to the amusement of all the engineers) and Isaac Asimov (who was still trying to decide whether to be a scientist or a writer) were two of his buddies. Asimov's new books proudly adorned our living room bookshelves. Along with them came fascinating stories about black holes, the new-new things in space theory. I grew up having these concepts explained to me, and having stories read to me by my father from A Space Child's Mother Goose -- a copy of which I still have. Here's a tidbit, a taste of my strange childhood:

Little Bo Peep
Has lost her sheep,
The radar has failed to find them.
They'll all, face to face,
Meet in parallel space,
Preceding their leaders behind them.

It took me awhile to figure out why this was so clever -- about a half hour's explanation of relativity by my dad -- and I never did get parallel space totally, but I finally got the joke. There's more of this in Rocket Lessons. I'll post some more Space Child's Mother Goose excerpts later this week.

Meanwhile, keep your eye on that comet.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

1000 women for peace

Representing the millions around the world who quietly work for peace in the form of education, human rights, justice and economic assistance are being nominated as a group for the Nobel Peace Prize. As someone who has worked my whole career for nonprofit organizations and various causes, I'm aware that most Americans don't know about heroic efforts made in our communities every day to promote peace and wellbeing among those in need.

After September 11, we hailed our "everyday heroes" -- the firefighters and police who courageously aided others, often sacrificing themselves to help. It made me thoughtful of the everyday heroes we don't acknowledge because the devastation they wade into is individual -- they take on catastrophe one person at a time. People who work in food banks and homeless shelters, women in repressive countries who struggle to see that their daughters have a chance to learn to read, healthcare workers who spend their summer vacations flying to the poorest countries to perform eye surgeries and restore sight. Mother Theresas by the millions. At last, a prize for people who are really doing a lot to create peace.

It defies poetry or even reporting. It's a worldwide movement, and like all movements that will prevail, it is silent, populous and determined. It comes from the heart. The Nobel committee finally has a chance to get it right.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Death of Rhubarb

I'm sad to see that Rhubarb Is Susan is suspending new reviews of poems. This site, where reviewer Simon DeDeo provides close readings of individual poems culled from various journals, helps to fill the void of poetry reviewing in a unique way. By dealing with individual poems, the reviewer explored theory, practice and craft in poetry to a depth seldom found in poetry book reviews. Most book reviews seem little more than blurbs, even in the venerable (and still creakily old-fashioned) Poetry, whose reviews continue to be a backslapping fest with a handful of high profile presses and poets.

Poetry book reviewing is all but nonexistent in most poetry magazines, so Rhubarb filled an important need: to offer the opportunity for thinking about the current practice of poetry and contemporary poets in a broader way than simply presenting poems or hyping books. Not that I'm against hyping books -- I have a book I'd be happy for a reviewer to praise! But it's pretty evident, even without Dana Gioia's book, that there's a dearth of poetry critique. Perhaps because of the dearth of serious poetry readers? (We're all too busy cribbing from one another for our next poem to think and write analytically, except for Helen Vendler, who has no new poems to write.)

So who's going to start the next Rhubarb Is Susan?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Ashbery - Oh No, Not Another One!

I wasn't going to take it, I didn't have time, believe in quizzes, couldn't get the link to work, etc. Then someone sent me a link that worked and ... SOB! ...

"You are John Ashbery. People love your work but have no idea why, really. You are respected by all kinds of scholars and poets. Even artists like you."

If you're feeling self-destructive, take the Which Famous Modern Poet Are You quiz at Quizzilla. And weep.

I know it was the Philosophy question that sandbagged me. I should have said No. I should have said, What Is Philosophy? Anything but I Like Philosophy!

If you find yourself seriously addicted to personality tests, you might need this book. Meanwhile, I'm off to find out why I have an obsessive need to keep changing my Windows Appearance and Themes. More signs of Ashbery, I fear.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Here Comes Everybody

I have to poetry plug a site I blogrolled awhile back and have just begun to explore. Here Comes Everybody is a series of interviews with poets using the same nine questions:

1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?
2. What is something.someone non-literary you read which may surprise your peets/colleagues? Why do you read it/them?
3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?
4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?
5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?
6. What is something which your peers/colleagues may assume you've read but haven't? Why haven't you?
7. How would you explain what a poem is to my seven-year-old?
8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?
9. Word associations: lemon, chiseled, I, of, form
10. What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?

I think all but the word association question is brilliant (free associations are something best interpreted by the woman behind the couch), and I'd be interested in hearing the answers to any of them from any poet I know. In fact, feel free to answer any of these in the comments space. And take a look at the interviews. They're fascinating.




Saturday, June 11, 2005

Rockets Away

Rockets Away

The First Law of Thermodynamics: Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. Mitch's paraphrase: Y
ou can't get something for nothing – but you can always try.

There was something wrong with my family. I was certain of it. If we were a normal family, why were we on a bumpy road, heading for a week of Christmas vacation on a remote Mexican beach? Had we been bad children? That could not be it; Santa had left plenty of presents. But there was no telling about a father who blew up rockets for a living, and I knew he had it in for Christmas. Our new Hanukkah menorah was huge, while the Christmas tree was reduced to a table-top twig.

This is the opening of my book, Rocket Lessons. It's no wonder I wound up confused about my religious orientation, not to mention about life. As a role model, my father made a good explosives expert. I learned how to demolish a lot of things, and also how to jury-rig my own metaphysics.

I've been thinking about this as I turn from a recently published poetry collection back to prose and wonder what to write next. A dreadful creative pause occurs after the publication of a book -- rather like the ocean withdrawing too far from the shore to be natural. It may be followed by a tidal wave of ideas, or a tidal wave of silence. In my case it's followed by the growing awareness of a drawerful of unfinished projects. An old book on pilgrimage, new essays on India and chapters from Rocket Lessons in the midst of being rehabbed as stories to send out.

The creative tide withdraws; the creative tide storms the beach. Why can't I just watch television? Everywhere I find words that spark other words, and I need a new focus. I need to start another book. I need a new burst of Rockets Away!


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Thoreau's blogging

Don't know if you're a way-back fan as I am, but -- who knew? -- Henry David Thoreau's blogging. Can it be that the author of the simple life has discovered the Internet? As he said in today's post:

My practicalness is not to be trusted to the last. To be sure, I go upon my legs for the most part, being hard-pushed and dogged by a superficial common sense which is bound to near objects by beaten paths, I am off the handle, as the phrase is—I begin to be transcendental and show where my heart is.

Thoreau's heart, apparently, is with the new online frontier. Marca Bradt, on the Utne Reader site: writes, "In a time when insightful pondering and deep reflection seem passe, along comes a visionary blogger posting the daily musings of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau's journal entries will fortify your day, every day of the year, with wisdom that resonates profoundly 150 years later." I'll second that.

Question of the day: if you were a famous diarist, which one would you be? I hate to admit it, but I used to think I'd be Madame de Sevigne. Then I decided Anis Nin. I outgrew that, and Thoreau too -- I thought. Now I want to be Thoreau again, especially the going home at night to have his mother cook for him part. (Did you know that? My kind of naturalist!)

Monday, June 06, 2005

Beyond Trebizond

I'm indebted to my friend Beverly, a retired travel agent, for turning me on to this hilariously serious book. The NY Review of Books summarized the 1956 travel novel this way:

"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." So begins The Towers of Trebizond, the greatest novel by Rose Macaulay, one of the eccentric geniuses of English literature. In this fine and funny adventure set in the backlands of modern Turkey, a group of highly unusual travel companions makes its way from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond, encountering potion-dealing sorcerers, recalcitrant policemen, and Billy Graham on tour with a busload of Southern evangelists.

Read the full review.

I sandwiched it between Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake and the birthday gift book, Helen Vendler's Poets Thinking. Those are both nice books, but Trebizond is something else. Get a copy. Summer is just starting, and you can only stay in the water for so long ...

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Mailing things as Mary Poppins

I had no idea how much of my life Femme au chapeau would consume. Not just the plugging and blogging; there's the order filling and inscribing and carrying around copies in great big handbags that make me look like Mary Poppins. I feel the need for a great big umbrella more and more. Perhaps if I were Mary Poppins, I could rise up into the sky over the city and sprinkle Femme au chapeau in a pleasant cloud of fuchsia-covered volumes that would strike the Golden Gate Bridge, the gardens of the Yerba Buena Center, the Berkeley campanile, Orinda's square, Jack London Square (pigeons off!), the modest, somewhat Tuscan clock tower that overlooks Walnut Creek's Tiffany's, the main streets of Sebastopol, Petaluma and Santa Rosa. If I had a big flying umbrella and a book-filled valise, I could just jet my way over to deliver books in person, ringing the bell with the tip of my umbrella and presenting each person who orders one with a crisp, freshly unwrapped but cleverly inscribed book, faintly smelling like fresh bread, and nod my head civilly, click my heels together -- no, wait, that's someone else! -- and say, "Home, James" to my umbrella. Or whatever Mary Poppins said.

Instead, I'm afraid one of these evenings I'll bubble-wrap myself in my sleep. But even in my sleep I'll have the correct postage, because it's indelibly etched in my brain: three 37-cent stamps and two 23-cent stamps. Three flags and two Georges. And don't forget to tuck in the postmark.

I may open a store if I get really good at this. Or a press. Or a magazine. I could get addicted to mailing things.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Lady With Hat is Traveling

Saw a documentary on the friendship between Matisse and Picasso which showed the turning point in modern art when Matisse painted Femme au chapeau and outraged convention in such a way as to galvanize the young Picasso. Gertrude Stein and her family bought the painting. I wonder who owns it now. The Museum said it's a private owner who chooses to be anonymous.

Lady With Hat (translation) still travels into surprising territory. It was a good choice for the cover of my collection, I'm now convinced, as everyone who sees it has reacted to the image. Femme stands for the leading role I feel women will take in the new millennium -- and the fact that if we are to save the planet, women will have to lead the way into a new human sensibility. She looks appropriately shocked at her new colors. It's a good image for a lot of things I want to get at poetically, as I don't know many other ways to write about this.

I want to go back to the SF Museum of Modern Art and stand before this painting awhile. It's much more shocking in person, much stronger and more psychedelic. For 1908, it was quite a statement. I wish I could find another portrait of a woman to write about, one that inspires me as this one does.

Ekphrastic poetry is getting more play these days. There's a whole journal by that name devoted to it and a number of poets writing ekphrastic poems. My favorite remains Lynne Knight's Snow Effects, based on the traveling exhibit "Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige." It's not only stunning poetry, but the book pairs reproductions of the paintings with the poems. Not to be missed.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Blogging a book

Kay Day is doing something remarkable: creating a book on her blog. She has a story to tell about an incarcerated young man who hasn't been given a fair deal, and she just can't wait for the traditional print publishing process to get it out. Her blog, One Night for Life, tells of 18-year-old Taylor Wells' crime and punishment is double-layered: the story of a young man unfairly sentenced and of a writer, a complete stranger to Taylor, who is compelled to take up his story and his cause.

How many others will elect to self-publish in this immediate way? There's something selfless about the idea, in the same way that political bloggers have changed the face of journalism without even thinking about how/whether they'll be compensated for their labors.

It gets you thinking about the value of writing, and the way as a society we value it. Or don't.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Books arrived

There they were on the doorstep: two small cartons. I couldn't remember having ordered anything, so I opened them later, after taking a walk. Shirts for David, I thought, or a special order of vitamins I had a mental lapse about having requested. Or, could I really have gone that nuts at Amazon as to require two cartons of stuff that I will now regret when the little envelope with my Visa bill arrives?

And then I opened the first one with the scissors -- thank heavens carefully -- and found:

Femme au chapeau

Two stacks of them, covers gleaming with an intense strawberry color the web site reproduction doesn't do justice to. My first thought was: I'm not ready.

I had forgotten -- blame the hay fever -- that when they said my book would be published and copies arrive on my doorstep on a certain date, that they were relying on the USPS to ship them -- an organization notoriously date-cavalier. I had been subliminally prepared for the publication date to be stalled once again, but not for the books to arrive early. Naturally, I went into shock and had to sip warm, intoxicating things all evening while trying to figure out if I could keep the secret even from my spouse. They weren't supposed to be here until Thursday.

As if by Thursday I would be magically prepared to be the gracious author of the gracious book, ready to make appearances, send out all the announcements, do the readings (get the readings!), remember exactly how many poems in exactly how many pages and all the charming anecdotes about writing them, as well as the snippets appropriate to personally inscribing them with the kind of flair that makes the book's owner leave it out on the coffee table, hoping someone will open it and see the dazzling personalization ...

No pressure. Just the publisher giving me a number of books that have to sell this year, or they'll drop the book. I didn't even have the nerve to blog about it until now. I needed a whole weekend to find my SuperPoet costume and mask, the cute little Femme au chapeau color-coordinated tote bag in which to now carry them around like Janie Appleseed, or Coleman Barks at a poetry festival.

Publication is what we all long for; publication is wonderfully terrifying. I'm sure by next week I'll have the matching bookmarks and the handy poem-snippets memorized. Email me if you want one (it comes with a book).

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Writing the (sur)Real

Now it's getting a little weird. I dreamed last night of a way to revise my book. Of course it was couched in terms of a conversation -- can't remember with whom, probably some subconscious version of my agent, who's kind of like the Good Mother archetype, even though she's younger than I am. Anyway, I was listening to whoever it was tell me, with some enthusiasm, that I had finally gotten it right. I had understood what it is I have to do as a writer.

Yes, this dream is a little like those in which you awaken in the middle of the night because you've dreamed the meaning of life, and you scribble words furiously on that little notepad you keep next to your bed -- then in the morning it's gibberish. Only this time it wasn't gibberish at all. It was a good, clean concept for revision that I remembered when I woke up. I took notes, put it in the file folder, and still think it's a good idea.

The weird thing is when writing begins to absorb so much of your life that you dream about it. I mean, why aren't I dreaming anymore about being able to fly, or suddenly coming into a great fortune, or those odd dreams I used to have of being at the high point on the Golden Gate Bridge and having the whole bridge tilt? Why am I no longer dreaming ... but editing in my sleep?

It must be a writer's disease of some heretofore undiscovered kind. I should probably buy that book, The Midnight Disease. It tells you why writing really is an aberrant state of mind, hypergraphia in varying degrees -- a pathology. Of course, the ancient Greeks knew that. They thought of the artist as possessed by a madness. Only they thought it was a divine one. Now we give people pills for excessive visits from the Muse.

How far we have come.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Transtromer

Where have I been? I have this little book of Transtromer's translated by Robert Bly. It's been sitting on my shelf for years, and the last time I remember opening it, it was impenetrable and dull, an unforgivable combination. I suppose I was just impenetrable and dull that day, because today I opened it in desperation to read some kind of poetry with something that sparks, and --- top-of-head-blowing-off.

Bly's translations seem a bit breathily effusive, but interesting. Graywolf has a book of his, The Half-Finished Heaven. I'm going to get more by this wonderful poet. His imagery blows the language open, speaks in transformations and interior luminosities. "Mystical and sad," per Publishers Weekly; "Poems that are points of entry upward/into the depths of imagination" said the New York Times.

Where have I been? Has anyone else had this experience of suddenly "discovering" a poet who was right there in plain sight?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Celestial favor

I've been trying to find auspicious things for May 11 online, and came across this blog called The Human Flower Project, thanks to The Bookish Gardener. (The site's title makes me want to write a poem.) Nice to know it's an auspicious day in India, and that according to the Vedas, the day is lit with celestial favor. I count it a celestial favor to see the sun, after days of freakish May rains (freakish for California). Now I'm going to go walk and hope not to get hit by lightning, as I almost did day before yesterday.

May 11 - this day in history

Have you ever googled your birthday and the phrase "this day in history"?

I learned that on May 11, 1949, the day of my birth, Siam changed its name to Thailand. Well, if that doesn't set the tone for a whole life, I don't know what does. Could the name change be the reason I've never found the twin I've always suspected I was separated from at birth.

Should you want to try this experiment, and learn the hidden meaning of your life, you can find out at Infoplease. Better than googling your name.

Which is how I just found out that my new poetry book, Femme au chapeau, is officially available from David Robert Books. The title poem is based on a Matisse portrait of his wife displayed at SFMOMA. The painting stopped me in my tracks and initiated my portrait sonnet sequence, which continues on beyond this collection and into my current manuscript. I like the idea of pairing the similar challenges of capturing an entire person in 14 lines or one frame.

Ordering information on the page isn't yet up, but will be soon. You can contact me by email if you want to purchase a signed copy.

A very nice birthday present, indeed.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Stirring experience

I'm very pleased with the results of my guest editing stint at Stirring. Take a look at the May issue. Erin Elizabeth invited me to join the editorial group for this issue, which involved reading and commenting briefly on about thirty-five poems. After the initial hurdle of trying to come up with pithy things to say about murky responses to many of the submissions, I got into the swing. I'm pleased with the issue and would definitely do it again. I surprised myself with the selections, leaning more toward experimental verse than I would have expected. Good craft wins out over stylistic preference for me everytime. And learning to appreciate something different is the fun of editing, at least in this case.

Friday, May 06, 2005

It's coming!!

I just got word that my poetry book, Femme au chapeau, will be here in three weeks. In an instant I went from lizard-like torpor on the subject to pinwheels behind the eyeballs.

You'll see and hear it here first. I'm going to post an image of the cover just as soon as I get it -- maybe a few days. Announcements and mailings will come later, as will actual copies. But I thought Rocket Kids was the best place to preview it.

Kevin and Lori at WordTech have been wonderful to work with. Professional, clear, and pleasant at every stage of the process. I really appreciated having two sets of proofs -- preliminary and final -- and all the care they took to make the cover right. With a Matisse image on the front, it just had to be right.

So now, the actual, and no longer the fictive book. I'm going to have business cards, bookmarks, fridge magnets and various other celebratory bits of inscription made at Vista Print (all nearly free, except for the ticking away of your expensive daily time when you get on their email list).

Actually, I'm going to celebrate this news with a surreal hour, immersed in The Towers of Trebizond, whose first line is justly famous in literature: "'Take my camel, dear," said my aunt Dot."

I feel somewhat like the camel.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Oliver and excursions into lushness

from "May" by Mary Oliver (American Primitive)

May, and among miles of leafing
blossoms storm out of the darkness --
windflowers and moccasin flowers. The bees
dive into them and I too, to gather
their spiritual honey.

I've been reading Mary Oliver again, marveling at the way she navigates the lushness of nature and poetry without tipping over into sentiment. It's interesting to observe that at an early stage in her career, she decided to leave people out of her poems almost entirely. After the above Pulitzer-winning book (her fourth), the human population thins to a single observer. Animals appear, but no more pets. Nothing and no one appears as an object of attachment, perhaps the better to enable the slimmed-down consciousness of the observer to dispassionately record a brutal beauty amid the lush.

Her dispassion reminds me oddly of Wallace Stevens. Though she is against the verbal pyrothechnics he so lavishly devised -- having reportedly once said you should never use a word in a poem you wouldn't hear in a grocery store, or something like that -- she has the same fascination with the facets of existence, turning them this was and that through her writing. Intense scrutiny and intenser analysis.

On another note, what is this annoying thing that's happening in blogger, which doesn't allow me to select words to format or create links? On top of my current computer melt-down, it makes me feel persecuted by the gods of machinery.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Book is coming ... so they say

The publisher now says 3 weeks from when it goes to press, which it looks like is happening this week. A May birth! Wonder if my book will be a Taurus or a Gemini. I'm hoping for a combination chart.

Helping a friend in real estate look into the idea of blogging, so I have come across some real estate blogs. What a cool way to find a house! Or list one, I suppose. Information about current listings, stuff about mortgages, interest rates -- all the gizmos you need a professional to explain to you if you're in the market or considering jumping in. I think it's a great way to househunt online.

Meanwhile, the book countdown begins ... Ten, nine, eight ... or rather, 21 days, 20, 19 ...

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Books & books to come

Just finished Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. As usual, I seem to be the lone dissenter. This is why I don't read many novels: I can't be happy with great writing as proclaimed by the pundits. I found all the interior monologues of the characters in this book to sound exactly alike. Seems to me a cardinal sin for a novelist to slur characters together. I read novels primarily to read characters. Didn't make it for me. I went back to the Anns and Annies: Patchett, Tyler, Packard, Proulx, Lamott. (So is it an Ann thing? You can't be a really great novelist if your name is, say, Rachel?)

And waiting for my book, Femme au chapeau, to appear. Why won't my publisher give me a pub date? And why did the Matisse Estate take so very long to approve our cover design? All my best laid plans for press releases, etc., have to be redone. I had a release for the locals for National Poetry Month. Tore that one up today, April 28. I'm afraid I'll suddenly get a box of books on my doorstep, and feel like an involuntary adoptive mother ...

Reading Ann Packard's The Dive From Clausen's Pier, which reads like memoir. Waiting to hear from my agent about current responses to Rocket Lessons. And thinking about the value of memoir in a society which prizes American Idol above all other tv programs (or so it seems). My tv producer friends writing a parody of reality shows as we speak ...

It seems to be a day for three-dot journalism ...

HAPPY NATIONAL POETRY MONTH!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Pavements of San Pedro

A comment from Long Beach poet Louise Mathias (hi there, across the water from San Pedro!) reminded me I've been meaning to post some of the poems that generated my memoir, ROCKET LESSONS. The poems ultimately were too distinct from the memoir to be combined. Now I'm considering them as a separate book. Here's the first part of the first poem.

Pavements of San Pedro

I.

Each paving square lies akimbo from its mate,
a stubborn plate that won't lie flat under skates
as I cruise pavements cascading down
our hill-sprawling, port-hugging fishing town.
San Pedro's streets careen from Portuguese Bend's
cliff-hanging country club to Beacon Street, spanned
a geography as whichway and zigzag
as my ride down teeth-rattling sidewalk slag.
Our pavers lollop and roll
through suburbs growing more bold
and numerous. Streets spring up from dirt
like creeping weeds ascending the hilltop, pert
new streets, their black rivers
weaving through grass. In slivers
between sidewalk and curb, in cracks
sprout tiny sand dune flowers, taking back
their beach wilderness. For years I race
twilight downhill. On skates I chase
the wind. I paint the stones with blood
and kneecap skin, leaving with each thud
my subtle imprint on the town,
making San Pedro my skin-and-bone own.

Accessibility -- the spectrum rages on

Why do people love dichotomies? You'd think we're all programmed like software, yes/no, black/white switches clicking in our brains, cataloguing every impression and experience good/bad, hell/heaven ... Wait a minute -- we are!

So any discussion of accessibility and difficulty in poetry, in any kind of writing, must invariably be preceded by the word "versus," as though it weren't a continuum, a spectrum of colors. Most painters I know appreciate a big palette and a broad spectrum from which to choose when working. Most academics love the word "versus" or even better "in contradistinction to" (how inaccessible is that?).

I could rest my case right there by implying that all creative activity considers the spectrum view of life, while all analytical activity views the versus. (And those of us with alliterative disorder can't resist speaking merely for the pleasure of its sound.) I could stop here, and let you come to your own conclusion, but what's the fun in that? Let's jump into what some are discussing on this topic, hopefully without indulging much in the Poet-Laureate-bashing urge that seems to afflict many poets at this season. Though I defy any of you to find a discussion of accessibility that doesn't have his name in it, as a year or so ago, any such discussion inevitably mentioned Billy Collins. (And what's so accessible about Zen humor?)

Here's Emily Lloyd with a fascinating argument, not for greater accessibility in poetry, but more visibility. Michael Whalen has a beautiful essay on the topic, addressing mostly accessibility of subject, on Slant, Issue 6. He makes a good case for the subtle dimensions in the spectrum of accessibility that are unique to poetry, as apart from other kinds of writing. He points out poetry's layers of meaning in his comment that what is foregrounded and what is obscured has a meaning of its own. We read poetry not only for what it says and means, but for how it does so.

I venture my own modest generalization here. We read poetry because it is more difficult, and layered, than other forms of writing. We prize its obscurities, as long as we can barely keep up with them. We value the how as a continuum of the what.


Monday, April 04, 2005

Poets' & Writers' Conferences

So what is it really like to go to one of these things. Being incredibly averse to traveling, I've never attended one. I already have an agent -- don't need to hobnob for one of those. Already have a publisher for my poetry book -- and does anyone want to see the proposal for ROCKET LESSONS, still available to an interested memoir publisher, as they say?

Why would I then go to a conference? To meet the other writers, of course. Since I can't this year (a) afford it or (b) get time off to go in the summer, I'm conferencing the cyber way -- by visiting the blogs of other poets and writers who go and report. Kelli Russell Agodon has a great blog series on AWP, which just concluded in Vancouver. I heard about it well in advance on a listserv, and have been envious since February of others who got to attend.

Another report on AWP suggests that it has gotten too big, too repetitious, and also, that Canadians are the politest people on earth. I like this report because (a) it makes me feel better about not having gone and (b) I agree, Canadians are the politest people on earth, which is probably secretly what Americans have against Canada.

My favorite report from AWP so far is that Molly Peacock giggles. Somehow, from reading her work, I can imagine this and like her poetry better for it.

I still have fantasies about making it to the Napa Valley Writers' Conference, which I imagine I could commute to, and make it home every night to sleep in my own bed. But seriously, why would I want to go? Really. When there's a poetry reading every night in the San Francisco Bay Area. And a stack of unread books next to my own bed, which I've already paid the mortgage company to occupy. If anyone can give me a compelling reason to plunk down $600 - $1500 to go to one of these shindigs, I'm willing to consider it.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Sonnets?

Found these amazing sonnets by Jim Behrle at canwehaveourballback.com. Changed my thinking about what a sonnet can be. Takes the old IP and spins it a new visual/aural way, with breath patterning things differently. At least, that's what I make of it.

Take a look. Think about it. Write me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Geniality, pusillanimosity and the Internet

Well, I should check before I pass The Stick to make sure it sticks.

Apparently, two people I passed it to were sort of ineligible. See, I really am the last person online to hear about things. It's a distinction (since the ego craves distinction above all else, and will take what it can get). Kelli already had The Stick just a few days before, if only I had checked. And Carmi can't take any comments because he's had the journalist-plague: hate mail. I know how this feels, as I have received a few discussion board slams of a pusillanimous nature. I apply the adjective because I think attacking people online for their comments on, or posting of a poem betrays a cowardly nature. A kind of going home and kicking the dog spirit. Something's eating such a person, but they wormhole their anger through the time-space continuum and it warps out on your poem, or article, or comment on a poem.

In much the same way as do bad reviews seem to betray an agenda that started long before the book in question came around. Having served as target practice myself, I have a lot of sympathy for those who suffer these abuses. My feeling is that civil discourse begins at home. A larger view of such motives among people who slam, defame, harshly critique and otherwise abuse the general genialiality of Internet discussion forums, blogs and listservs only reinforce the fact that we are engaged in building community here. Those who don't honor that overall goal stick out like sore thumbs. Or, as the adjective implies, sore losers.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Stuck with The Stick -- Here, Catch!

Okay, I am clearly the last person who ever hears anything on the Internet. The other day I was passed The Stick. Here it is -- and watch out, it may be coming your way (scroll to the bottom to see if your name appears):

The Stick

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?
God Speaks

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Well, who wouldn't have on Mr. Darcy, given a female incarnation and any sort of education. Right after that came Dylan Thomas, who is sort of a fictional character of his own making, which was probably what got him.


The last book you bought is:
Patron Saint of Liars - Ann Patchett

The last book you read
:
Bel Canto - Ann Patchett (you see where I'm going with this?) +

What are you currently reading?

Autobiography of Alan Jay Lerner (I'm learning how to write musicals. Don't ask.)

Five books you would take to a deserted island:
1. My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell
2. Pride and Prejudice
3. Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
4. God Speaks
5. The Mathnawi - Rumi (yes, the whole thing -- you didn't specify # of volumes)

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Kelli Russell Agodon - for being poet pals and to find out what she's been reading
Carmi - see above
Paula Grenside - see above

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Technorati - am I the last one?

To discover this amazing resource? Why does it give me an odd, voyeuristic thrill to keyword-search "poetry" and find out what's been written in the 44,000+ plus blog entries in the last hour that mention the word?

It wasn't actually an individual blog that struck me, though. I came across this item, which is worth repeating, in case your local newspaper didn't carry it.

U.S. Poet Laureate to Offer Free Newspaper Column


The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports the U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry project is offering a free weekly column to newspapers, beginning this month. The column will feature a poem by a living American and a brief introduction, written by Kooser. "I want to show that poetry need not be intimidating, or impossibly difficult," Kooser told the Post-Intelligencer. Kooser said that the idea came to him after reading a highly-regarded literary journal and realizing that he couldn't find one poem that would appeal to the average reader. Kudos to Mr. Kooser for his grassroots effort to bring poetry back into the spotlight.

Posted on March 15, 2005

Kudos indeed. Poetry for the masses. Of course, I live in the San Francisco area, and we've been well broken in on the shock of occasionally seeing poetry in our newsprint. I've been thinking lately a lot about why we don't see it in more places, why poetry is -- let's say it -- so unpopular.

After listening in on a long, strenuous discussion of what was dubbed "That Kind Of Poetry" (TKOP), I have concluded that poetry is committing a long, slow ritual act of cultural hari-kiri. It is self-marginalized, eschewing the wider audience on principle.

I grew up reading poets that didn't eschew (gezundheit!) and are now non-canonical (makes them sound like someone took away their cardinal hats): Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Shelley -- sloppily mooshy poets, overly lavish and straightforward. But I also doted on difficult poets: H.D. and Wallace Stevens, and middle-of-the-roaders like Eliot. I learned from the breadth of that reading that straightforward and accessible doesn't necessarily mean shallow. I learn from today's reading of increasingly difficult contemporary poetry that difficult doesn't necessarily mean lasting and significant. Or even revolutionary. Sometimes it means overly cute, lazy or vague -- just as can happen in the straightforward kind of poetry. I hesitate to name the names of living poets, but you may imagine for yourself who fits that description.

So rock on, Ted Kooser, and write to the people. We may just pick up some converts to poetry. I can only hope Jorie and Charles don't scare them away again.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Ring-ring! for 129 years today

Today is the 129th anniversary of this event:

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson had a breakthrough. The men were in separate rooms in the house where they had been working on a remote communication device. Bell spilled battery acid on his pants and said into the device, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you." Watson, listening to the receiving device, heard Bell's words and rushed down the hall. This event marked the birth of the telephone.

In 1920 Watson envisioned telephone conversations across the Atlantic Ocean as "only the beginning of modern development in this method of communication." Six years later he predicted that in the future "man will speak to man by mental telepathy."

American innovation isn't always celebrated as loudly as it should be. It's hard to imagine the world before that day's occurrence -- without the ubiquitous device we now mostly refer to as our "cell." Hard to imagine a world without computers, rockets, electricity -- yet that's the world in which these two men revolutionized the world.

So happy anniversary, Bell and Watson! We plan to keep talking.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Scent of Home

Scent of Home

The air is like no other. As I reach the edge of San Pedro after years away, a perfume yet to be named thrills my nose, an eclectic brew of aluminum and salt, tar and eucalyptus. My response is automatic, layers of memory connecting with a long-gone day, making me want to grab my books and charge through the door of Seventh Street School. Any moment now, the air raid siren will shrill and we will line up on the playground, inhaling hot tar and practicing futile drills for nuclear disaster.

I drive a little farther into town. My nose shrieks, " Spearmint gum baking on the dashboard! Seaweed on sand, split loquats, potato pancakes, anchovy pizza, gasoline fumes at Chuck's Shell Station!" Sense-syllables rattle through my nose and come out a hole in time, pulling me backward with a force as powerful as any atom bomb. I have read that the salmon's spine encases a magnetic homing device that turns him into this river and that stream, until he reaches the place of his origin. Humans must have a similar sense that operates through the nose, bringing us back to first things.

Have you had the experience of scent-homing? An exile is required, staying away from your hometown for a long enough stretch that scent- and sense-memories become an almost tactile assault.

Of course, the San Pedro of my youth is gone. Every town moves on, faster and faster these days. The tar they use on the streets, the whole tuna fishing industry, even the ocean has changed in those forty years. In a sense – in my senses -- the San Pedro I know lives only in me.

This is what San Pedro used to smell like:

A salt tang dominates. The town sits on a thumb of land pointing into the Pacific Ocean southwest of Los Angeles. In the 1950s, when I was growing up there, the town was redolent of maritime industry. It was impossible to live here and avoid the smell of the ocean. Over the new streets that rickracked up the hill, over Pacific Avenue, where cholos rode in their low-slung Chevys, drifted the smell of brine and tuna.

Our block, Fourth Street, was halfway up San Pedro Hill. Perched at the breast of a hill that was once an island, we were sheltered from the northwest gales, yet our breezes were still salted. The wind had traveled from the ocean over the hill and down Palos Verdes Drive, past hundred-year-old eucalyptus trees and yards full of bougainvillea, jasmine and juniper.

When the air reached Fourth Street, it had grazed on affluent estates and horse paddocks. It rushed down the terraced hill and acquired a patina of frying tortillas. Down on Harbor Boulevard the wind picked up sardines, a whiff of bait tanks and the jazzy smell of oil. San Pedro's scent was unique and complex.

I grew up with ocean-buffeted senses, in a California now paved under, beside a sea now depleted, among hard-laboring, tradition-loving immigrants. Our family and town gave me the gift of living with contradictions. In San Pedro scents' I sense the path that grew me up and out of San Pedro, a Hungarian goulash whose main ingredients are to lead with the heart, follow your nose and trust the inspiration that comes.

[More from Rocket Lessons next week. ]


Monday, February 28, 2005

Literary Radio

I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle today by Benny Evangelista that convinced me I don't want to try podcasting myself. I remain, however, fascinated by podcasting's potential for transmitting literature. I think what may happen is that podcasters with time and talent will create Internet radio sites for poetry and literature that will develop vigorous -- even paying -- audiences, much as popular blog sites have turned into a vigorous new form of journalism. Watch out -- here it comes -- literary radio.

One site I'm watching carefully -- and hopefully -- is Safe Digression, a podcast web site out of Boston. Listen, for example, to a podcast on SD of Marianne Moore's "Baseball and Writing" or Maxine Kumin's "In the Park." Podcaster-host Georgy is, presumably, the reader on all. What I hope to hear as a result of today's Safe Digression call for submissions, is a diversity of voices reading many different poems. Yes, I know I can hear all the famous people intoning their famous poems at the Academy of American Poets. But you know, it's a little like reading last month's newspapers. I want to hear today's poems by today-poets. And not all the famous are exactly today. (So shoot me for saying it.) What we need is Poetry Daily X 100 in spoken word, a 24/7 poemcast that's as unpredictable as Bob Holman's wonderful film, The United States of Poetry, now online and available through streaming video.

There's a concept -- web poetry tv. Okay, maybe a different decade for that one. But for a really avante garde marriage of web technology and poetry, take a look at Poems That Go.

But I don't want to be the one to have to figure out how to configure and upload and moderate all that stuff. I don't want to be a producer; I can hardly figure out how to stop my microphone from popping. Please, let the motivated and tech-able people be the producers and podcasters. I just want to be one of many readers, writers and listeners.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Helping

"No amount of prayer or meditation can do what helping others can do." -- Meher Baba, born February 25, 1894.

One of the things a blog can do is help other poets and writers along their paths. Providing inspiration, ideas, links and simply the camaraderie of knowing that there are others out here, working hard at the craft, suffering the difficulties and enjoying the scant rewards of writing -- all these are the help provided by reading the daily meditations of others.

So maybe there is a way meditation and helping combine, here online.

My goal for today's writing: ask myself how what I'm working on can help someone.