Wiki Wandering

A couple of weeks ago I spent a busy weekend at Naropa University for their 40th Anniversary conference for the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. A lot of what I heard was theoretical, but one practical tip stood out. In a session titled “Bending the Source: Research, Poiesis, and Document Fluidity,” (The discussion was much more reasonable than the title!) I heard this: Go to Wikipedia, select random article, click through three screens and use something from the final screen as a writing prompt. Crazy? No, it breaks open the thought process and challenges the writer to go new, to go experimental, to go, go, go where she may never have gone before.

My Wiki Wander led me first to a Korean figure skater and my three clicks took me to a list of vocabulary words relating to ballet. I know nothing about ballet, but I do know something about vocabularies. I have several of my own. My first was, of course, conversational standard American English, tinged–some would say tainted–by my grandmother’s Irish flavored English, so it was. Then came the elegant and esoteric language of nursing, which morphed into the specialized lingo of psychiatric nursing. This vocabulary, when written, resembles ancient runes or hieroglyphics to the uninitiated. Over the years I also learned the vocabularies of teaching, writing, harness racing, genealogy and book publishing. There are more that I probably don’t recognize as distinct, because they are all part of me, words, wonderful words, my raw material.

Each of these specialized languages marks me for membership in a special community. I’m in because I speak the native tongue, but no matter how large or strange my word hoard, I have to be precise and flexible at the same time. And as a writer I have to accept the responsibility to translate experience into shared language.

My Novel Lives!

Slide1What a long, long gestation. But it’s almost ripe for delivery. I have only to finish the formatting for Smashwords and with any luck and careful attention, this book will be available to readers next week. But here’s the weird thing about our digital world: now that Accidental Child is about to be seen in public, it feels less real to me. It will be out of my hands and into someone’s e-reader. It won’t be that manuscript draft on gray paper that my editor marked up. It won’t be a file sleeping the days away in the safety of my computer. It won’t be just mine anymore.


Not that I’m complaining, really. But I’ve worried about its leaving home. What if it goes unnoticed in the world, like an adult child who travels far and never calls? My only defense is to raise another one. And hope that all my literary children are hardworking and honorable among the throngs of books crying for attention. I have to let it go and hope that I’ve given it a good start in life, but whatever it does, there it is for all the world to see–or at least a small part of the world. Travel safe, Little One. Write if you get work. Call your mother on her birthday, or yours.



Poets & Readers Need One Another

Sea SaltIn 1991 poet/critic Dana Gioia asked “Can Poetry Matter?” His essay ran in The Atlantic and drew attention by the bucketful. That essay became the title piece for a book by the same name and I am rereading it this week. I was tidying my book shelves and felt the pull of his question. It’s akin to what I spent hours and hours on this past summer, poetry of witness, poetry that connects the poet to the world outside the private writing space. As Gioia points out, American poetry is marginalized and one of several reasons is an intense concentration on the personal lyric, short and hermetic, not something that anyone but another poet values. Yet, yet, I cannot let it go. I want to help return poetry to the public, not by pandering, not by polemic, but by truth telling in the most potent language I can discover. It’s no longer enough to delight in the private epiphany.

Last evening the Boulder Book Store hosted, as it does monthly, a poetry book club. We had read David Mason’s Sea Salt, and David came to talk with us about the book and about his practice and approach to poetry.  He said many useful things. He said that we must at times embed our personal lyric within the context of the national, the societal, the human condition, even though “Our troubles/happened, but were smaller than a country’s” (from “The Fawn”).

The overwhelming presence of personal lyric in our time has done poets some damage, but it’s not too late to rebuild our relationship with readers, whom we desperately need, and who need, whether they know it or not, poems that demonstrate the precision and the music of a shared language, poems that can weave a community out of a disparate, desperate population.

Goldberg’s Quiet Highway

A copy of Natalie Goldberg’s memoir, Long Quiet Highway, is on top of my current stack of books and it will stay there, I suspect, for quite a while. I don’t know how long it’s been since I first read it, but this copy now has many, many underlined passages and marginal notes. I did not want it to end. If you’re not familiar with the book, a quick look: Natalie was a “nerdy” child. She did not write her first poem until she was in her twenties, and discovered by experimentation a writing process that works for her and probably thousands of others. The poet who organized our free writing group in Denver, calls it Goldbergian, a name almost longer than the “rules.” The #1 rule is to accept whatever prompt is offered, set a timer and write non-stop till the bell rings or the phone buzzes, whatever signals that time is up. That’s really the only rule. She suggests keeping a list of topics at the back of the notebook, just to get a kick start when you need it.

What inspired me the most, though, is Natalie’s repeated references to writing just to write, not to publish, not to create new and startling prose or poetry. Just write. And in the process, meet yourself on the page. So I’m practicing by letting go of my old process. For years I have followed Julia Cameron’s morning pages plan, three pages every morning. It has worked pretty well. But three pages is an artificial limit. Today when I went on to page five (my current journal is small), I felt a twinge of guilt. This was too indulgent, I had chores to do, this blog to write, a list of emails to deal with. But I kept writing, just for the pleasure of seeing words appear. And of course, to see what I had to say.

The 3Cs of Writing

I obsess about writing, even about when, where and on what I write. I feel anxious if I leave home without the tools to write at the drop of a thought. For me this means a portable journal–stitched or bound so I don’t lose pages–a fast pen/pencil and a place to sit. I write on my lap. I do keep a few of my oft-touted index cards in my purse, a back-up for those moments when I don’t want to drag the journal into view, like in church. Yes, I take notes and jot ideas or images in church. Shhh–don’t tell Reverend Lydia.

What intrigues me is how often I alter my basic formula. Lately, I’ve been using pencil instead of pen and keeping my list of books read or to read in the back of the journal. Now I write only on the left-hand page, leaving the right for lists, addresses, or quotes! I love quotes from other writers and often use that spare page for these delicious word bonbons. And the secret delight–I fill a journal faster this way and can start a new one. I welcome a new journal like clean sheets or a full tank of gas.

My journal

My Journal

If you don’t already have a good journal process, get one. And consider these three elements: Keep it close, cheap and comfortable. If it’s not portable, you won’t have it when you need it, so keep it close. If it’s too fancy or expensive, you’ll restrict what you do with it, maybe ration how much you write, so keep it cheap. I stock up when the ones I like go on sale. And by all means, keep it comfortable. Pay attention to your posture, your hands, your eyes. If you leave a writing session with a crooked spine, a pain in the neck and cramped fingers, something needs to change. That’s one reason I now use the left page–reaching to the right page puts a slight stress on my shoulder and after a while I feel it.

None of this is terribly exciting or new, but it’s advice I hear myself giving over and over to people who don’t yet write regularly. A daily journal is like a sketch book, piano exercises, or the morning jog of an athlete. Writing is not so much inspiration as dedication and practice. The journal works for us as the barre does for the dancer. So, as the song says, “I hope you’ll dance.”

Martyrs and Worms

A poem for you, recently part of the Boulder Valley UU Fellowship poetry service:



Worms don’t volunteer

to be flooded from home,

to feed the hungry robin.


No cathedral rises in honor of worms,

no beatification of night crawlers.

Saint Worm slays no dragons,

writes no treatise on the meaning

of wriggling toward the divine. No one

reports visions of Mary with a worm.


I avoid stepping on worms

stranded on the sidewalk,

not that I care enough

or I’d lift the worm to safety

in the grass, smuggle it away

from the reach of hard, quick beaks.


I’m tempted to shrug: a worm’s a worm

for all I know. But I don’t know.

Squiggles drying in the sun are

as mysterious as questions of good

and evil, plague, hunger and mayhem.

Worm or human, the wheel turns,

grinds and lets go.